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Some water users could be paid to conserve as Upper Colorado River Basin program gets planned reboot

Sara Tymczyszyn plants seeds at Highwater Farm in Silt. Although measuring soil moisture is relatively new for environmental scientists, it’s a practice that has a long history in the world of agriculture.
Alex Hager, Aspen Public Radio
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Sara Tymczyszyn plants seeds at Highwater Farm in Silt. Although measuring soil moisture is relatively new for environmental scientists, it’s a practice that has a long history in the world of agriculture.

The Upper Colorado River Commission – comprised of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – is set to announce details of an extended “System Conservation Pilot Program” through which water users could be paid to cut back on their use.

As climate change continues to shrink the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs, a group of four states that use its water are set to lay out plans to reboot a conservation program. The Upper Colorado River Commission – comprised of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – plans to announce details of an extended “System Conservation Pilot Program” through which water users could be paid to cut back on their use.

The soon-to-be-launched program aims to use a pool of $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for payouts to “mitigate the impacts of long-term drought and depleted storage,” according to presentation slides obtained by KUNC.

Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, is at record low levels. It is primarily filled with high-altitude snowmelt that flows south from the Rocky Mountains. Water managers in the Upper Basin are under pressure to conserve water and prop up Powell in order to keep hydropower generators running at the Glen Canyon Dam.

The new program is an extension of a previous effort. An earlier pilot program ran from 2015 through 2018. Designed to serve as a proof of concept, the UCRC distributed more than $8.5 million as a part of that program and conserved an estimated 47,207 acre-feet of water.

Lake Powell currently holds about 5.6 million acre-feet, just under a quarter of its total capacity. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.

The 2023 program would allocate considerably more money than the prior iteration if the UCRC gets approval from Congress to extend the program. The proposed Colorado River Conservation Act authorizes the program to continue until 2026. The Bureau of Reclamation would also need to sign off on the use of $125 million in federal funds. The money will come out of $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act that was set aside for Colorado River projects.

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said his agency is still sorting out how much money it will offer water users on a per-acre-foot basis in exchange for cuts, and does not have a target for a total amount of conservation.

“Speculating on how many people, how much water or how much things are going to cost for system conservation in 2023 – If people are doing that, it is wild and unfettered speculation,” Cullom said. “We don't have a number in mind for volumes.”

Water managers in the Upper Colorado River Basin have faced increasing pressure to cut back on the region's water use. Water levels at the Upper Basin's largest reservoir, Lake Powell, are at record lows. Recent water conservation efforts have aimed to prop up the reservoir and avert the shutdown of hydropower generators within.
Alex Hager
/
KUNC
Water managers in the Upper Colorado River Basin have faced increasing pressure to cut back on the region's water use. Water levels at the Upper Basin's largest reservoir, Lake Powell, are at record lows. Recent water conservation efforts have aimed to prop up the reservoir and avert the shutdown of hydropower generators within.

The Upper Colorado River Commission is slated to release its first request for proposals on December 14, with a deadline in February. Then each participating state, and the UCRC will be able to review each water-saving proposal, setting higher payout values on a case-by-case basis. Cullom said the intent of such a review is to discourage profiteering, a nagging concern of programs that pay water users to cut back.

Studies of the 2015 pilot program found that lingering uncertainties still surround programs that pay farmers for temporarily fallowing their fields to conserve water. Questions about pricing, soil health, monitoring and ensuring that conserved water reaches the beleaguered Colorado River reservoirs remain unanswered.

In October, Reclamation said it would use a chunk of Inflation Reduction Act money for similar payouts to farmers in the Lower Basin. Under that program, the federal government will pay $330 per acre-foot for a one-year agreement with a grower, $365 per acre-foot for two years, and $400 for a three year commitment. The agency has yet to release any data about buy-in to that program.

Cullom said the Upper Colorado River Commission expects to make a formal announcement about 2023 system conservation plans in Las Vegas. The commission will hold a meeting during the Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference, a yearly meeting of policymakers, scientists and water users that has been under increasing scrutiny as the region’s supply-demand imbalance teeters towards crisis levels.

Water managers have announced water conservation plans at the conference in the past, holding press conferences to unveil plans that haven’t been enough to bridge the region’s growing gap between water supply and demand. Recent conservation deals have amounted to a patchwork of band-aid measures designed to stave off catastrophe – such as the shutoff of hydroelectric generators that supply 5 million people – but have not substantively corrected the imbalance fueled by drying conditions.

Upper Basin leaders, in particular, have come under particular pressure to commit to specific volumes of conservation in their states. Basinwide discussions grew contentious this summer. Upper Basin water managers were quick to assert that they rely on unpredictable winter snowfall for their water supplies, while their Lower Basin counterparts rely on a legally-mandated annual water delivery from upstream. Water use in the Lower Basin is much higher than in the Upper Basin. Because of that, Upper Basin policymakers have been resistant to commit to additional conservation measures.

Alex Funk, director of water resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the 2015 pilot program showed that there was enthusiasm for system conservation work. The program mainly saw proposals from farmers and ranchers. The agriculture sector makes up 62% of all water use in the Upper Basin. Some of Funk’s work receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“I think it's a value-add for producers, their ability to diversify their bottom line, and look at ways to remain viable in an industry that can be tough at times,” said Funk, who previously worked on agriculture programs for the Colorado Water Conservation Boardo’s state water agency. “Overall, there was certainly some perceived interest and opportunity that there is a lot of potential demand for participation in this moving forward.”

Funk called the revamped pilot program a “very positive step,” and said it could be a harbinger for a more permanent effort down the road, potentially beginning in 2024.

“I feel like the System Conservation Pilot Program certainly is playing that role in terms of bridging the gap between now and then,” he said. “If anything, it can serve as another opportunity to test run a longer-term, more durable program, work out any kinks, continue to gauge interest in the program and continue to refine the monitoring and verification of these projects.”

KUNC’s Luke Runyon contributed reporting.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Alex Hager