System Conservation Pilot, water markets, and demand management #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Hay fields under Meeker Ditch 2. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Time (Lucas Isakowitz):

…scarcity is the mother of invention, and western states are coming up with innovative ways to save water. One was a pilot program which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid farmers—including [Paul] Kehmeier—about $200 for every acre-foot of water that they had the right to but did not use…

Over the course of four years, the pilot program sponsored 64 projects, conserving an estimated 46,000 acre-feet of water. There was so much interest in some districts that participants had to be selected via a lottery system. Participating farmers closed off some of their irrigation canals, allowing water that would normally go to their fields to flow downstream; at the same time, water administrative agencies and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited helped monitor flow rates.

The pilot cost about $8.5 million, with funding coming almost entirely from the major municipalities that rely on the Colorado River, including Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Now the states in the upper Colorado River basin are exploring how to scale it up. Colorado has formed a series of working groups, set to meet for the first time in September, which will tackle questions like who will foot the bill for a large-scale program (which could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars), how to ensure participating farmers are legally allowed to lease out their water rights, and what sort of mechanisms can safeguard conserved water as it makes its way to reservoirs…

Not everyone is thrilled about the possibility of a water market in the upper Colorado River. “Let’s be honest about what it is that we’re doing here: paying farmers not to farm, and drying up land to buy water,” says David Harold, a sweet-corn farmer from Olathe, Colorado, who participated in the pilot program for one year. “This is ‘buy-and-dry’ with another name,” he says, referring to the practice of cities buying land purely for the water rights tied to them, leaving rural communities parched and jobless…

Harold isn’t the only skeptic. “Every single person I interviewed mentioned ‘buy-and-dry,’” says Kelsea MacIlroy, a PhD student at Colorado State University who interviewed 34 irrigators and water experts in western Colorado to understand local perceptions of a demand management program, which is a technical name for a water market where farmers can lease out their water. “People said ‘maybe it’s not exactly the same thing, but we’re afraid that demand management could lead to ‘buy and dry.’’’

[…]

Some, like Harold, see a water market as putting their counties on the road towards becoming another Crowley. But others view a demand management program as a way to avoid the fate of Crowley County. As the pressure mounts along the Colorado River, something’s got to give, and a water market—in which farmers choose to lease their water out for a set period, regaining it again when the program times out—is a more palatable option than selling their water entitlements outright. “Demand management is different than ‘buy and dry’ because it leaves the water in the hands of the farmer,” says Kehmeier…

For a demand management program to significantly reduce water security risks along the Colorado River, it will need to attract a lot of farmers and funding. Policymakers are envisioning a scaled-up version of the pilot that could lease out as much as half a million acre-feet of water by 2026, costing around $100 million. But even that won’t keep the Colorado River from over allocation. That’s why, MacIlroy says, some of the irrigators she spoke with felt demand management “was a Band-Aid and that there’s no point in continuing that conversation unless there are efforts being made to address the larger issues in the Colorado River.”

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