Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):
Ranchers and farmers across the Colorado River Basin, who control roughly 80% of the drought-strapped river’s flows, are reluctant to sign up for voluntary, government-funded water conservation programs for a variety of reasons identified in a new report.
Chief among them are a fear of losing their water rights, seeing their water use reduced, and engaging with far-off bureaucracies that they believe aren’t qualified to help.
“Agricultural Water Users’ Preferences for Addressing Water Shortages in the Colorado River Basin” is a study conducted by the Western Lands Alliance (WLA) in partnership with the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Released late last month, it includes survey responses from more than 1,000 ranchers and farmers in six Colorado River Basin states, as well as interviews with producers. The WLA represents landowners and agricultural producers across the West.
The WLA launched the research effort to better understand how agricultural water users in the region view different water conservation efforts and what it would take to convince them to participate. Hallie Mahowald, a co-author of the report and chief programs officer at the WLA, said in a webinar in September that the landowners will be key to finding solutions to the growing shortages on the river because they control so much of its water.
“We feel it is critical to understand landowner perspective and to solicit landowner input if we are going to develop successful strategies to address Western water shortages,” she said.
The report comes as the river basin remains mired in a long-running drought that has come close to crippling lakes Powell and Mead and experiences ongoing shortages as climate change continues to sap its flows.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is being made available to help the Colorado River Basin states better manage the river, reduce water use, and develop programs to sustain the basin’s cities and farms as the region continues to warm.
Drew Bennett, MacMillan Professor of Practice in Private Lands Stewardship at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, said the survey results show a disconnect between ranchers and farmers and the agencies who are charged with overseeing Colorado River Basin water management. In fact, more than 85% of those surveyed said they did not trust the water agencies that help manage the giant river system.
“We need to build additional trust…it will be absolutely critical moving forward,” Bennett said.
And while more than 50% of those surveyed are engaging in at least limited conservation practices, they are not interested in doing more if their water rights aren’t strongly protected, if they are not adequately compensated, and if the programs aren’t administered locally.
This lack of trust, the report says, “may create a barrier to gaining buy-in for new water management strategies, even if they are supported by significant funding from state and federal government agencies.”
The river basin spans seven states. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin includes Arizona, California and Nevada.
Researchers broke out survey responses based on which basin a grower operates in. Key findings of the report include:
- 97% of Upper Basin growers (Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) and 96% of Lower Basin growers (Arizona, California and Nevada) are worried about coming shortage-related changes in water policy and new constraints on their water use.
- Just 14% of Upper Basin growers and 13% of Lower Basin growers believe that existing water policies and management practices are adequate to address coming shortages.
- 69% of Upper Basin and 74% of Lower Basin growers have implemented at least one water conservation practice, largely in response to local water shortages.
- 56% of growers in both basins would engage in programs to improve their water delivery systems if funding is provided.
- Just 8% of Upper Basin and 18% of Lower Basin growers would participate in programs that would fallow, or cease production, on the same field for multiple years.
- And just 13% of Upper Basin and 14% of Lower Basin growers said there was a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies.
In Colorado, the Colorado Ag Water Alliance has been working to help producers use water more efficiently to prepare for future droughts and manage with less water. But CAWA’s Executive Director Greg Peterson said it’s a difficult task.
“Our goal is to help these people survive. People [who don’t farm] don’t actually understand that there are few opportunities to reduce water use in an agricultural setting,” Peterson said. “You might be able to reduce water use by 5% or maybe 10% without reducing yields. But it’s not easy to do.”
Wyoming and other basin states have begun installing sophisticated new technologies that help determine how much water crops consume, known as consumptive use, and how much water runs off and returns to the river or natural environment after a field has been irrigated. This is a critical measurement because it is only the consumptive use portion of irrigation water that can be administratively “saved” as water left in the river system.
Jeff Cowley is administrator for interstate streams in the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, the top water regulator in the state. Cowley is implementing new conservation technologies and working with growers who are already participating in one of the new federal programs known as the System Conservation Pilot Program.
Homing in on how much water is saved and left in the river is a complicated question whose answer differs from field to field and crop to crop. When water was plentiful, before the drought and climate change, there was enough water that this kind of precision wasn’t required. But that is no longer the case.
Cowley said this new level of precision is another critical factor in working with skeptical farmers and ranchers because it provides some certainty on what impact programs could have on their water supplies.
“Folks are attached to their water,” Cowley said. “They are willing to try new things, but not on their own dime.”
And any given year, he said, “there is not a lot of room for mistakes.”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
More by Jerd Smith Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Click here to download the report. (Bennett, D., Lewis, M., Mahowald, H., Collins, M., Brammer, T., Byerly Flint, H., Thorsness, L., Eaton, W., Hansen, K., Burbach, M., and Koebele, E. 2023.). Here’s the executive summary:
The Colorado River Basin is in crisis. There is no longer enough water for all of those who depend on it. The agricultural sector is the largest water user in the Colorado River Basin, meaning that farmers and ranchers are central to both the impacts of and solutions to water shortages. Their involvement will be key to developing effective policy solutions to today’s water crisis.
We surveyed 1,020 agricultural water users throughout six states in the Colorado River Basin to understand their perspectives on the present crisis, their current water conservation practices, and their preferences for strategies to address water shortages going forward. Agricultural water users were primarily concerned about how the current situation could impact water policy, constrain irrigators’ own water use, and constrain other agricultural water users. We also conducted qualitative research to capture preferences for local approaches to managing water and provide additional context on dynamics in the Colorado River Basin, including interviews with 12 agricultural producers and water experts and a focus group with 10 agricultural water users in Colorado.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found agricultural water users are already responding to water shortages. Roughly 70% of surveyed agricultural water users have already adopted one or more water conservation practices or adaptation strategies. Importantly, many would consider adopting additional practices. Despite this, few respondents participated in or were aware of formal programs to support water conservation. One exception, however, was the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). A third of respondents currently or previously participated in EQIP and an additional 37% were aware of the program. Information gathered from interviews and the focus group identified multiple burdens to participation in EQIP and similar programs, and several participants thought the benefits were not worth the effort. These insights suggest an opportunity for revisiting how formal programs meant to incentivize water conservation connect with water users.
Most survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal demand management or system conservation programs to address water shortages. Only one of eight practices included in the survey – enhancing water delivery systems – had a majority of respondents state that they were likely to adopt the practice. The remaining seven practices had a considerably lower likelihood of adoption. Respondents were also generally opposed to water transfers as a solution to shortages. Opposition was strongest to permanent transfers broadly, as well as to temporary transfers from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Only temporary transfers from agricultural water users to other agricultural water users had less than 50% opposition. Major barriers to supporting water transfers included concerns about losing water rights, even in temporary transfer arrangements, as well as insufficient financial compensation. Addressing these concerns will be critical to increase participation of
agricultural water users in demand management or system conservation. Still, although support for temporary water transfers and demand management practices was low, even equivalently low participation (e.g., 10% to 20%) could help address water shortages as part of a portfolio of strategies for the Colorado River Basin.
We also documented an overwhelming preference for local approaches to managing water shortages and a trust gap with non-local agencies. This was evidenced by respondents’ preference for the local management of formal programs, such as some of the demand management and system conservation programs under consideration, as well as for the administration of funding for water conservation and other programs. Qualitative research participants communicated that strategies to address water shortages must account for the diversity of local contexts across the Colorado River Basin. These strategies could therefore be best implemented at the local level through existing delivery infrastructure and by managers with track records of success. State and federal water managers and agencies involved in program delivery should emphasize building trust with agricultural water users and gaining knowledge about unique features of local contexts. Simply providing additional funding for formal water conservation programs may be inadequate to meet the diversity of challenges across an area of 246,000 square miles. Developing opportunities for dialogue and listening can help foster relationships and improve trust among key stakeholders.
Given the importance of agriculture as the primary water user in the Colorado River Basin, proactively engaging agricultural communities will be critical to successfully managing water shortages. Understanding the perspectives and preferences of agricultural water users, as documented in this report, can help guide the development of solutions that work for producers and other users in the Basin.