Fallowing is another tool in the toolbox for managing the #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Lake Powell April 12, 2017. Photo credit Patti Weeks via Earth Science Picture of the day.

Click here to read the final report from the Upper Colorado River Commission. Here’s the executive summary:

The following report is intended to summarize the outcomes and lessons learned from the three-year Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) as implemented in the Upper Colorado River Basin (Upper Basin) beginning in 2015.1 The Upper Basin SCPP is part of a larger, basin-wide program that was funded by four Colorado River municipal water users–the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), and Denver Water– partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation (collectively, the Funding Agencies). In 2017, the Walton Family Foundation also contributed to the Upper Basin SCPP through Denver Water.

The overall goals of the SCPP were to, among other things, help explore, learn from and determine whether a voluntary, temporary and compensated reduction in consumptive use in the Upper Basin is a feasible method to partially mitigate the decline of or to raise water levels in Lake Powell and thereby serve as a useful tool for the drought contingency planning processes in the Upper Basin. Thus, the primary objective of the pilot program was not to test whether conserved water actually reaches Lake Powell, but rather to assess the feasibility of system conservation as a future means of increasing storage at the reservoir. From 2015-2017, the Upper Basin SCPP funded 45 projects, for a consumptive use reduction of approximately 22,116 acre-feet at a total cost of $4,555,747. There was significant interest and program participation in the Upper Basin. With assistance from the four Upper Colorado River Division States (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) as well as facilitation by key non- governmental organizations (NGOs), the Upper Basin SCPP received 93 applications from 2015 through 2017. Information about the SCPP was collected that will inform the future of the program, or a similar demand management effort, including recommendations for potential improvements.

In addition to demonstrating significant Upper Basin water user interest, the SCPP was also successful in demonstrating and accomplishing the administrative requirements for such a program. These included solicitation of proposals from water users; review, ranking and selection of projects; contracting; field verification of consumptive use savings; payment management and processing; and, management and coordination of activities among multiple funding agencies.

The SCPP successfully demonstrated water user interest, administrative capabilities and requirements, as well as greatly advanced learning – all of which have contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought Among the broader-based observations involved in implementing this program, the following have emerged:

1. The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) gained an understanding of the requirements to administer, contract, and pay for conservation activities;
2. It is valuable to have key stakeholders and NGOs participate in program outreach;
3. There can be multiple benefits of conservation, including fuller target reservoirs, in-channel benefits, and benefits to agricultural production through soil “resting”;
4. Sufficient resources for program administration must be provided;
5. Additional groups may be interested in providing potential funding – including public water
providers, NGOs, and the federal government;
6. Improved methods of estimating conservation, such as remote sensing, may be useful;
7. The desire to generate publicity about program participation varies among selected applicants;
8. Involvement by trusted local and state representatives is critical in attracting agricultural water
user participation;
9. The availability of historical crop and water use data and information on a proposed site is
beneficial to understanding potential conservation benefits;
10. The SCPP served as a valuable tool for educating local water managers, administrators, and
water users about the Colorado River System; and
11. Conservation may be a tool to improve reservoir conditions provided legal, technical and policy
issues can be resolved.

The underlying goal of the SCPP was to learn about the logistics and challenges associated with implementing this type of program. The operation of the pilot program showed: 1) there is participation interest within the Upper Basin; 2) it is possible to contract and verify conservation measures; and, 3) competitive pricing can support conservation efforts. Because of the learning successes of the pilot program between 2015 and 2017, the SCPP has been extended into 2018. See footnote 1. Additionally, the information garnered in the first three years of the pilot program has helped clarify remaining questions that need to be answered to support a long-term management program. The following questions should be addressed in conjunction with the lessons learned detailed in this Report:

1. What is the role and objective of a more permanent System Conservation Program? For example, is it an intermittent tool used only when Lake Powell hits critical elevations for large- scale demand management; or, is it vehicle to implement more local water banking options to benefit Upper Basin water users?
2. What can be done to ensure that conserved water gets to Lake Powell?
3. What can be done to improve the ability to measure conserved water volumes?
4. Can projects generate the amount of conserved water that modeling conducted by the Upper
Basin suggests may be required to have measurable impacts; and,
5. What are the direct and indirect benefits and impacts to local areas from a significant level of
6. What would be the source of financial support for measurable demand management volumes,
recognizing current unit costs? For example, is it feasible to secure roughly $40 million to
conserve approximately 200,000 acre-feet based on the 2017 SCPP unit costs?
7. How do we manage risk and determine an appropriate level of conservation given hydrologic
variability? For example, how do we minimize large investments in conservation rendered unnecessary by a wet year—are there opportunities for using surplus conserved water in the Upper Basin (e.g., water banking)?
8. How do we preserve the widespread interest, support, and momentum that the SCPP has generated; will a short-term break in implementation have long-term impacts in interest?
9. What are the possible options and the best vehicle to administer a system conservation program? For example, some of the options being considered by a UCRC/Upper Basin workgroup include administration by Reclamation or other government agencies, continued administration by the UCRC, or administration by an NGO.
10. How does a future system conservation program respond to the goals, objectives, timing, mandates, and priorities of the Upper Basin states and the UCRC?

Here’s the release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy laud report findings and urge expanded agricultural water conservation in Upper Colorado River Basin

The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) released a report today, finding that Upper Colorado River farmers and ranchers were open to voluntary, temporary water leasing deals that hold potential for easing drought impacts and water supply concerns in the Colorado River Basin.

The report found that the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP)—a three-year pilot program launched by four municipal water utilities and the Bureau of Reclamation—was successful in proving that a market exists for water transactions designed to reduce agricultural and other uses of water to boost water levels in Lake Powell and increase overall system reliability.

From 2015-2017, the Upper Basin SCPP received 93 applications from agricultural producers to participate in the program and funded 45 projects. These projects resulted in the reduction of consumptive use by approximately 22,000 acre-feet, at a total cost of $4.5 million. According to the report, “The SCPP successfully demonstrated water user interest, administrative capabilities and requirements, as well as greatly advanced learning—all of which have contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought.”

Most of the projects conserved water through temporary, split- or late-season fallowing—ranchers and farmers received compensation for irrigating for only part of the potential irrigation/production season. For example, in Utah, six members of the Carbon Canal Company agreed to SCPP projects that conserved nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water and helped ensure healthier flows in the Price River.

“Farming in the high desert in Eastern Utah means we need to be smart with how we use our water,” said Kevin Cotner, president of Carbon Canal. “System conservation gives producers a tool to add flexibility in our water management.”

Two conservation organizations involved in the SCPP, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, called the report findings encouraging:

“It has been encouraging to see how the SCPP program can benefit producers and help reduce water supply risks in the Upper Colorado River, while enhancing river health and fisheries,” said Scott Yates, director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat Program. “As the basin faces a potentially dry year, with the prospect of further declining levels in Lake Powell, this report underscores the enormous potential of innovative, market-driven solutions to our water challenges. Working together, we can ensure that the Colorado River continues to meet the needs of diverse water users.”

“The current dry conditions in the Basin show that the threats to our water supply are not going away any time soon,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for the Nature Conservancy. “This report clearly demonstrates the interest in, and potential benefits of, a voluntary, market-based program that compensates water users for temporary reductions in water use.”

Hawes added, “The challenge now will be to take these findings and examine how this type of program might be developed and implemented in the long term and in a way that works for agriculture.”

Based on the success of the first three years of the pilot program, the Upper Colorado River Commission in August 2017 agreed to extend the SCPP through 2018 to further study the feasibility of water leasing in the Upper Basin. The SCPP is one tool, noted Hawes, in meeting Colorado River Basin water challenges. Municipal water conservation, smart water growth, infrastructure improvements and improved reservoir management are also key components in addressing future water shortage issues.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The program, implemented by the Upper Colorado River Commission interstate water agency in places including the Grand Valley, didn’t test whether conserved water reached the reservoir. Instead, it assessed the feasibility of systemwide conservation within the basin “as a future means of increasing storage at the reservoir,” says the commission’s new report.

Among its findings: “Conservation may be a tool to improve reservoir conditions provided legal, technical and policy issues can be resolved.”

The upper-basin project was part of an $11 million System Conservation Pilot Program funded by four major Colorado River municipal water users, including Denver Water, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The project came in response to low water levels in Powell and Lake Mead due to drought and increasing demands. Water managers are exploring the idea of “banking” water to fend off a crisis.

The report says the program “contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought.”[…]

The report concludes that through 2017, the upper-basin program provided $4.55 million to conserve 22,116 acre-feet of water, based on historical estimates of the amount of water that otherwise would have been used. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

One question the report raises is where funding might come from to ramp up such a program to a point where it would provide measurable benefits. As an example, the report asks, is it feasible to secure roughly $40 million to conserve about 200,000 acre-feet of water, based on current cost estimates?

Altogether, the pilot program received 93 applications and implemented 45 over the first three years. Colorado accounted for 35 of the applications and 15 of the implemented projects.

While two of the 45 projects involved limiting municipal use, the rest were all agricultural. In some cases fields were fallowed an entire season. In others, they were irrigated just part of a season, or irrigation was cut back and an alternative crop grown.

The report says the pilot program helped the Upper Colorado River Commission gain “an understanding of the requirements to administer, contract, and pay for conservation activities.” It says the first three years of the program showed it’s possible to contract for conservation measures and verify that conservation occurred, and also showed that “competitive pricing can support conservation efforts.”

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