Aspen Journalism: Water managers vote to continue conservation program, with tweaks, in 2024

Users in upper basin can again get paid to conserve

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism
These sprinkler guns irrigate fields outside of Carbondale. The Upper Colorado River Commissioners voted on Thursday to continue a federally funded program in 2024 that pays water users to cut back.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Colorado River managers on Thursday decided to continue a water conservation program designed to protect critical elevations in the nation’s two largest reservoirs. 

The Upper Colorado River Commission decided unanimously to continue the federally funded System Conservation Program in 2024 — but with a narrower scope that explores demand management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis. This was the third of three options that commissioners had regarding SCP and whether they would continue it next year. The other options, which commissioners rejected, were to not do a program in 2024 or to maximize the program, with a focus on increasing the amount of water conserved.

Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner to the UCRC, said she could support doing system conservation again since it will now be focused on water security and innovative conservation for upper basin water users.

“We have an opportunity to do better this time around and learn from last year’s experience and do it in a way that’s responsive to the input that we heard across the upper basin,” Mitchell said. “Option 3 has modified the program in a way that with that prioritization of projects that support innovation of water conservation and development of drought-resiliency tools, it’s something that I can support.”

The System Conservation Program is paying water users in the four upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — to voluntarily cut back with $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act. According to UCRC officials, nearly $16.1 million was spent on system conservation in 2023. Nearly $1 million of that went to 22 project participants in Colorado, resulting in a water savings of about 2,517 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can supply one or two families a year).

Project participants in Colorado are being paid an average of about $394 for every acre-foot of water they conserve in 2023. Officials say the average price per acre-foot across the upper basin is $422. Although water users from all sectors can participate, all of the projects in Colorado this year involved agricultural water users on the Western Slope. 

System conservation was first tried in the upper basin from 2015 to 2018 and saved an estimated 47,000 acre-feet, at a cost of about $8.6 million. Last year, the UCRC announced it would restart a system conservation program as part of its 5-Point Plan, aimed at protecting critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have fallen to record-low levels in recent years because of overuse, drought and climate change.

The program for 2024 is being rolled out sooner than the one for 2023 was, giving irrigators more time to plan for next season, which could lead to more interest and enrollment. UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom gave commissioners a timeline proposal: an announcement of the 2024 program Oct. 2; request for proposals issued Oct. 20; project applications due Dec. 11, followed by a nearly two-month review period of applications by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the upper basin states and UCRC’s consultant. Contracts are slated to be executed by March 15.

“We believe that this draft timeline would significantly address the shortcomings that we had identified in the lessons learned report and provide the improvements in the application and review process for a more successful program in 2024,” Cullom said. 

The 2024 program’s focus on studying demand management addresses an often-heard criticism of SCP: Any water conserved in a system conservation program is not guaranteed to make it to Lake Powell and could just be picked up by the next downstream user. Conceptually, system conservation and demand management are the same: paying irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to conserve water. 

But there’s an important legal difference. If water conservation is done under the umbrella of an official demand management program, that water can be “shepherded” to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell. 

Missouri Heights resident Cassie Cerise pets her dog Dinah on her ranch outside of Carbondale. Cerise enrolled the field behind her in the Upper Colorado River Commission’s System Conservation Program in 2023, getting paid to not irrigate it.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan created the possibility of this demand management pool for the upper basin states to protect against a compact call. Although Colorado studied the issue extensively from 2019 to 2021, including with nine workgroups, the upper basin states have so far not implemented a demand management program to take advantage of this pool in Lake Powell. 

Cullom said the third option will also implement recommendations for improvements that came from interviews with program participants, nongovernmental organizations, tribes and water managers across the upper basin. These include a more transparent and upfront pricing process; more education and outreach to water users; and more information about project applications in Colorado and opportunity to provide comment.

Local concerns

During the 2023 project approval process, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District — whose mission is to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of water on the Western Slope — and the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District voiced concerns about a lack of transparency. 

Mitchell had also promised the districts that they could participate in the review and approval process for applications, thereby securing a measure of local control. But she later walked back that commitment, saying the UCRC had sole authority in the approval process.

Information about project specifics is still scant, with much of the information about the exact location of projects, how much participants are being paid, names of participating ditches, and information about water rights such as priority dates and decreed amounts of water in the contracts blacked out. 

Mitchell has publicly stated that this second round of the SCP reboot would be more transparent, at least in Colorado, but has not said exactly how.

Paying water users to irrigate less continues to be controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. Water managers have repeatedly said that large amounts of water cannot be saved through system conservation in the upper basin and that cuts are needed from the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — to bring the Colorado River system back into balance. 

At an August meeting of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee of the Colorado legislature, Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat whose District 8 spans several Western Slope counties, including Routt, Garfield, Eagle and Summit, asked Mitchell and Cullom if Colorado would engage in system conservation prior to the lower basin implementing substantial and permanent reductions in water use. 

Mitchell replied that system conservation is done with the goal of learning what lessons can be gleaned about Colorado’s water resilience and to offer flexible tools for irrigators, not to enable continued overuse in the lower basin. 

“We need to ask ourselves: Is it good for Colorado?” she said. “We realized that there was only so much we could do. People wanted to do something, but they wanted it for Colorado.”

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