The Rancher Trying to Solve the #West’s #Water Crisis — Politico #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling. Bruchez has taken an active role in Colorado River issues ever since his family suffered from a critical water shortage during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Russ Schnitzer via Aspen Journalism

Politico (Annie Snider) takes a deep dive featuring Paul Bruchez and the efforts to keep water in the Colorado River. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

The power politics of the Colorado River have long pitted families like Paul Bruchez’s against big cities. Under pressure from climate change, they might be finding a path out.

Paul Bruchez’s family has ranched cattle in Colorado for five generations. And twice in his lifetime, his generation has nearly become the last.

The first time, it was the city of Denver that squeezed them out. By the 1990s, when Bruchez was still in high school, the city’s fast-growing suburbs had swept north and totally surrounded their roughly 2,000 acres in Westminster. Bruchez’s father had taken dirt roads to get to school, but by the time Bruchez was a teenager development had engulfed the family homestead so completely that at one point the city needed to send a police escort to help move their harvest equipment safely between fields on what were by then city roads. Running a full-scale farm operation in the middle of a city soon became untenable and the family opted to cut a land deal with the city and start fresh on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

The second time, it was a drought. Their new land near Kremmling, a small ranching community 100 miles to the west, had one particularly appealing feature for a family that needed hay to feed its cattle: the Colorado River literally ran through it. The ice-cold mountain runoff from the river’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park would feed their land through a network of ditches, offering plentiful water to grow 2,000 acres of hay. And for a family of fly fishermen, it had another attraction. The lush cottonwood trees lining the main stem of the river promised cool water and insects, a spot where trout would bite.

They had one good year before the ditches went dry.

The drought hit while Bruchez was in college and his father was facing a battle with cancer, and it nearly bankrupted the family. It marked the beginning of Bruchez’s mission to secure the future of not just his family’s operation, but the very West that made cowboys like him…

Technically, families like Bruchez’s have the upper hand in water disputes. The whole Western water system is built on a roughly 150-year-old legal regime that gives priority access to whoever put the water to use first. Farmers and ranchers led the settlement of the West, giving them the most “senior” rights and ensuring that they get their water before newer users like sprawling suburbs. Some 70 percent of the Colorado River’s flow is consumed by agriculture.

But as climate change keeps squeezing the water supply, the ranchers’ position is growing more precarious. They are far less powerful and wealthy than the cities that need water, which have often swooped in and bought out farms for their water rights. It is inevitable, now, that large amounts of water will have to leave agriculture in order to sustain cities and suburbs in the far-drier future; the question is simply whether it can be done in a way that keeps agriculture on the landscape.

Over the past century, Denver, Boulder and other cities on Colorado’s dry Front Range have steadily bought up farmers’ water rights on the wet, western slope of the Rockies and built massive, transmountain tunnels to ship the water to thirsty city dwellers. Today, roughly 65 percent of the water that would naturally flow into Grand County, where Kremmling sits, is diverted elsewhere. Many farm and ranch families nurse a grudge to this day, holding tight to the old Mark Twain adage that “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.”

But Bruchez’s twin near-disasters and his path to recovering from them led him to a different conclusion: that in the long term, financial and climatic forces are aligned against agriculture, and ranchers and farmers are likely to lose if they don’t find a way to make themselves part of the solution.

Instead of seeing agriculture and new suburbanites as locked in a zero-sum struggle over who gets the West’s diminishing water, Bruchez has spent the past two decades hatching a series of projects to help ranchers by making common cause with sportsmen, environmental groups and even some big city water officials and lawyers.

Now, Bruchez has emerged as a leading voice for agriculture in Colorado as the state explores a controversial new scheme to manage its own, internal water usage—almost certainly by paying farmers to forgo using their water—in a bid to avoid a nightmare scenario in which river flows dip so low that the terms of a 1922 river compact force junior users like cities to be abruptly cut off. It’s an idea that has been knocking around water policy circles across the West for years without action, but that could be called into place quickly if the river’s flows continue to shrink rapidly.

Bruchez, 39, is as comfortable on a Zoom conference call with state water managers as he is riding horseback with a neighbor to steer cattle away from a quickly spreading forest fire, and in between he steals quiet moments to cast a line into the nearby river, in search of a rainbow or brown trout. What drives him is not just a desire to protect his family’s way of life, but to prove that farmers and ranchers aren’t just part of a mythical Western past but can be a part of the solution to weathering climate change and preserving the environment for the future.

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