USDA expands investment in water conservation and improvement in [Ogallala] aquifer

Here’s the release from the US Department of Agriculture (Justin Fritscher):

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced USDA will invest about $8 million in the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative in Fiscal Year 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve billions of gallons of water annually while strengthening agricultural operations. The eight-state Ogallala Aquifer has suffered in recent years from increased periods of drought and declining water resources.

“USDA’s Ogallala Aquifer Initiative helps landowners build resilience in their farms and ranches and better manage water use in this thirsty region,” said Vilsack. “Since 2011, USDA has invested $74 million in helping more than 1,600 agricultural producers conserve water on 341,000 acres through this initiative.”

The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the U.S. and includes nearly all of Nebraska and large sections of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. It is the primary water source for the High Plains region. Covering nearly 174,000 square miles, it supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle produced in the U.S. and supplies 30 percent of all water used for irrigation in the U.S.

Water levels in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate, making targeted conservation even more important. From 2011 to 2013, the aquifer’s overall water level dropped by 36 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) supports targeted, local efforts to conserve the quality and quantity of water in nine targeted focus areas through the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI), adding two new focus areas for fiscal year 2016, while continuing support for seven ongoing projects. These projects include building soil health by using cover crops and no-till, which allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.

The new focus areas include:

Middle Republican Natural Resource District in Nebraska: The project addresses groundwater quantity and quality concerns. The focus will be in areas where groundwater pumping contributes to high levels of stream flow depletion. Priority will be given to areas where groundwater pumping contributes to more than 48 percent of the overall aquifer depletion rate. The project will enable participants to voluntarily implement practices to conserve irrigation water and improve groundwater quality.

Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: This project will help landowners implement conservation practices that decrease water use. It includes an educational component that will educate citizens about water conservation and conservation systems. These systems include converting from irrigated to dryland farming and conservation practices that improve irrigation water management; crop residue and tillage management; nutrient and pesticide management; grazing systems; and playa wetland restorations. The targeted area includes places where great amounts of water are consumed. Focal areas will be heavily-populated municipalities in the aquifer region.

See the full list of OAI areas.

NRCS analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre-feet, or 489 billion gallons of water, from 2009 through 2013 and an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gallons of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation.

With the growing demand for water and drought conditions plaguing the West, NRCS is working with farmers and ranchers to help them implement proven conservation solutions on targeted landscapes to improve the quality of water and soil, increase water supplies, increase the infiltration of water into the ground, and make lands more resilient to drought.

This investment in the Ogallala region expands on USDA’s substantial efforts to help producers address water scarcity and water quality issues on agricultural lands. Between 2012 and 2014, across the United States, NRCS invested more than $1.5 billion in financial and technical assistance to help producers implement conservation practices that improve water use efficiency and build long-term health of working crop, pasture, and range lands. These practices include building soil health by using cover crops and no-till, which allow soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.

Snowpack news: South Platte Basin = 110% (best in state), Statewide = 100%

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Water rights stakeholders able to reach settlement in Animas-La Plata Project — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A collective sigh of relief was let out in 6th Judicial District Court on Monday after a settlement was reached by several local agencies with a stake in the water rights of the Animas-La Plata Project stored in Lake Nighthorse.

Chief District Judge Gregory Lyman will review the details of the settlement in the coming weeks, and the court will reconvene 1:30 p.m. Dec. 10 to hear his ruling.

The case stems from a decades-long debate over water rights to the Animas River. In June 2011, Lake Nighthorse was filled with 1,500 surface acres by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for Native American tribes, cities and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico.

However, the Southwestern Water Conservation District has used the water for irrigation, through a temporary permit. Recently, the water district applied to continue its conditional water rights, but it was met with a flurry of opposition from various agencies, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Animas Conservancy District, San Juan Water Commission, among others.

“It is an extremely complicated case, with complex claims and complex objections,” Lyman told The Durango Herald after the hearing.

Lyman praised the various stakeholders for coming to an agreement among themselves, rather than taking the case through a lengthy, heated trial.

“This should have been a three-week trial,” Lyman said. “They all worked hard. Like I told them, ‘I’m sure they addressed their issues better than I could of.’”

Bruce Whitehead, executive director for SWCD, emphasized those complexities.

“There were lots of parts in play,” Whitehead said. “There was a difference of opinion on how much water was needed for the (A-LP). The incentive for us (to settle) was to get some closure on the A-LP project itself.”[…]

Scott McElroy, an attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said the Tribal Council passed a resolution Monday approving the settlement.

“Sometimes the A-LP engenders strong feelings,” he said, provoking some light laughter in the courtroom. “It was a little bit of a family feud for a while. It’s nice to put everything together and come up with a settlement.”

#COWaterPlan: “I think we’ve made some major improvements and reached a better understanding throughout the state” — Karn Stiegelmeier

From The Summit Daily News (Elise Reuter):

“I think we’ve made some major improvements and reached a better understanding throughout the state. But we still have a long way to go,” Summit County commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said of the water plan.

The final draft of the plan will go to Hickenlooper on or before Dec. 10. In the meantime, each individual basin has drafted a set of local initiatives, as well statewide goals to help address the growing water supply gap that Colorado faces…

“Prioritizing the environment in that planning process, it’s exciting,” Theresa Conley, a water advocate for Conservation Colorado said. “The governor has repeatedly said since the executive order, every conversation about water needs to start with conservation. I think the plan advances that.”[…]

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey
Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey


The Colorado Basin, consisting of Summit, Eagle, Mesa, Grand, Routt and Garfield counties, has set its own implementation plan to be carried out under the Colorado Water Plan.

“For us in this part of the state, our economy is absolutely integrated with our water,” Stiegelmeier said. “That is also the economy of the whole state. The Front Range is very much tied to our economy.”

She noted that on the Western Slope alone, the water recreation industry brings in $9 billion.

To promote recreation and healthier rivers, the Colorado Basin has led state discussions on stream management, with a plan to assess streams that are crucial to the basin and are in need of improvement. The first step of the plan is to assess water flows and predict the impact of current usage as well as unused water rights on fish, the surrounding riparian habitat, water flows and several other factors.

“We don’t know what the real on-the-ground, in-the-stream impact is until we do a really complete stream management plan,” Stiegelmeier said.

Pennsylvania Mine Upper Peru Creek Basin
Pennsylvania Mine Upper Peru Creek Basin

Take the example of Peru Creek — a stream that runs through the former Pennsylvania Mine, picking up waste from toxic metals unearthed during the mining era. Summit County is working on a collaborative effort to redirect the water away from the toxic metals, to allow more aquatic life in the Snake River downstream.

“We think it will take at least a year to see what that does to the stream by moving clean water out of the mines,” Stiegelmeier added.

This concept trickles up to the state level, where $1 million will be allocated per year for stream management planning, according to the current draft of Colorado’s Water Plan…


A key feature of the plan is to set a statewide conservation goal, to be implemented at the discretion of local water departments…

“We have stated over and over and over that there needs to be better land-use connection,” Stiegelmeier said. “You have your Kentucky bluegrass with every house, and that doesn’t make sense in a desert.”

A few proposed solutions are to leave native vegetation as open space and cluster buildings together. She pointed to Breckenridge as an example, with a tiered water-rate system encouraging conservation.

The state is also looking to improve water efficiency for agricultural uses. In the Kremmling area, part of the effort is to work on hay fields, where more efficient irrigation could benefit both farms and streams to an extent…

“When you have two years of low snowpack, you don’t have the luxury of having a conversation about conservation,” [Jim Pokrandt] said. “If things went to hell in a hand basket here in Colorado, you’d see the conversation getting sharper.”[…]

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office


The most contentious piece of the water plan concerns the creation of new trans-mountain diversions, such as Lake Dillon Reservoir, that direct flows across the Continental Divide. The framework does not take a stance so much as create a series of requirements a new project must reach before getting started…

“Is it a radical shift? No. But it gets people on the same page,” Conley said. “In terms of guiding our water future, it’s a big step forward.”