How a high-elevation irrigation study in Kremmling could help Colorado avoid future water shortages
The Colorado River begins high in the Rocky Mountains of northern Colorado at Poudre Pass before flowing south and then west into Grand County, through the town of Kremmling, a small ranching community of just over 1,400 people.
It’s a hard place to have a ranch. The soils are sandy, and at over 7,000 feet, the growing season is short. But the real challenge is water. Powerful Front Range water utilities such as Denver Water own many of the senior water rights in Grand County, leaving many ranchers fearful of the day when the city might need the water they rely on to irrigate.
Paul Bruchez, a fifth-generation rancher and fly-fishing guide who raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling, knows firsthand the hardship caused by water shortages. In 2000, his father sold the family’s original homestead on the Front Range and bought two new ranches in Grand County, hoping for a fresh start away from the rapidly encroaching city. One of the property’s water rights was owned by Denver Water, which had agreed to lease it for 50 years — so long as the city could use the water in times of extreme drought. That time came just two years after Bruchez’s father bought the ranch, in 2002, leaving the family without enough water to irrigate. Forced to fallow half their fields, Bruchez’s family struggled to pay their mortgage.
The crisis prompted Bruchez to get involved in state-level water negotiations so he could help figure out creative solutions to the kind of problem his family faced. In 2015, he became an agriculture representative to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, where the concept of “demand management” began dominating conversations last year. At the heart of a demand-management program is paying irrigators on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis to leave more water in the river in an effort to bolster levels in Lake Powell and help the state meet its downstream obligations.
Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the three other Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) must send 7.5 million acre-feet to Lake Powell every year for the three Lower Basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada). Failing to meet those obligations triggers a so-called “compact call,” where junior water rights holders throughout the Upper Basin would see their water cut off — a disastrous situation that water managers are desperate to avoid.
To address that threat, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the agency charged with managing the state’s water resources, voted last year to begin studying the feasibility of a demand-management program. But there was a problem: Although the fields in a potential demand-management program would be at various altitudes, scientists do not have much data on the impacts of reducing irrigation water on higher elevation pastures. Bruchez saw an opportunity to help those efforts by recruiting his ranching neighbors to participate in a study that would help fill the current data gap on fields such as those in the Kremmling area.
“This is our opportunity to participate in the process,” Bruchez told them. Ranchers were receptive, but they had questions. A lot of questions. How, for instance, would they get enough hay to feed their cattle if some of their fields were out of production? How would one rancher’s curtailing of water on his fields affect his neighbors’ fields? How much water savings do you achieve and what happens to the lands themselves? How quickly do they recover?
Bruchez knew that the answers to those questions could be crucial determiners for Colorado’s demand-management investigation.
“If we do this project, it could equally indicate the lack of viability or it could indicate that this is a really great opportunity,” he said. “But at least we’ll be making those decisions based on science rather than emotions or policy without real data.”
Bruchez, 36, is somewhat of a guru for the ranching community in the Colorado water world, participating in numerous river-restoration projects and various water focus groups in addition to his role on the Colorado Basin Roundtable, one of nine groups representing each of Colorado’s main river basins (as well as the Denver area) composed of various stakeholders working to address the state’s water challenges.
In 2012, he helped create a partnership among local ranchers called the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) to secure grant funding for river-restoration initiatives such as stabilizing riverbanks and reviving irrigation channels across a 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River.
Late last fall, Bruchez began discussing the idea of a water-saving study with the ILVK, and by February he had five volunteers (with the potential for two more). Among them, they had 1,200 to 1,500 acres ranging in elevation from 7,300 to 8,300 feet in which to study the ecological and economic impacts of full- and partial-season irrigation curtailment on hayfields.
In March, the CWCB awarded Bruchez’s project a $500,000 grant under its Alternative Agriculture Water Transfer Method program, which supports proposals that offer ways to boost water supplies without relying on traditional “buy and dry” transactions. The remaining funding for the $900,000 project is coming from American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and private donors.
Some of the ranchers will irrigate their participating fields as normal for half a season — until June 15 — before cutting off their water, while others will not irrigate at all. For the split-season irrigation, ranchers will be compensated at $225 per acre with an additional $56 per acre of risk-mitigation payment (to pay for general upkeep and other unanticipated damages that might result from the lack of irrigation). For full-season curtailment, ranchers will receive $414 per acre with an additional $207 per acre for risk mitigation.
For Bruchez’s neighbors such as Bill and Wendy Thompson, the study is an opportunity not only to help the state potentially avoid a major water crisis but to answer some of their own questions. The Thompsons ranch on 400 acres along the Colorado River a mile south of Kremmling with views of Longs Peak and Gore Range. After Bruchez broached the idea of studying the potential for an irrigation-reduction program on high-altitude pastures, the Thompsons volunteer two of their fields — one for a partial-season curtailment and the other as a “control” field, which they will irrigate as normal.
“We don’t know enough about our own consumptive use on these meadows,” Bill Thompson said. “Maybe we’ll discover a new species of grass that’ll actually grow in this sandy soil.”
Conway Farrell, another Kremmling rancher whom Bruchez recruited, hopes the study will help yield the scientific research that water managers can use to create a demand-management program that will help agriculture in the long run.
“Everyone’s been talking about this for years,” Farrell said. “It’s time to finally do something.”
Colorado State University researchers led by Dr. Perry Cabot, a water-resources specialist, will use remote sensing to determine how much water plants consume on the ranchers’ pastures and how much they save by not irrigating on select fields. The researchers also will look at the recovery patterns and risks associated with subjecting pastures to different levels of irrigation curtailment.
Joe Brummer, the forage specialist for the state of Colorado and an associate professor at CSU, has conducted one of the few studies into the effects of partial- and full-season hay fallowing at different elevations in western Colorado. His findings, though limited in scope, are encouraging: While there are short-term losses, the fields recovered after a few seasons to within 10% of full production.
“Plants are resilient,” he said.
As Bruchez ironed out the details of his initiative last winter with ranchers, researchers and the other NGO partners, he had to tread carefully.
Amy Ostdiek, the deputy chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section, emphasized that since the state is still in the initial stages of studying the feasibility of demand management, it’s too early to know how Bruchez’s initiative will play into those efforts. The other three Upper Basin states are in the middle of similar processes as part of the Drought Contingency Planning agreement that all seven Colorado River basin states signed last May.
“We can’t do anything until all Upper Basin states agree that demand management is feasible in their states,” Ostdiek said. “If other states agree that it is, then we get to the hard work of what that program would look like.”
Almost two decades ago, Bruchez’s family overcame their own water crisis by negotiating with Denver Water so that both the utility and Grand County’s agriculture community and environment could get the water they all need. For Bruchez, the experience was a lesson in the value of simple awareness and better management when it comes to solving seemingly intractable water issues.
Speaking from his ranch a couple of weeks ago via Zoom — an online video conferencing app used due to restrictions on in-person meetings because of the COVID-19 crisis — Bruchez felt more than ever the need to be proactive about a future water crisis.
“If people in Phoenix or Denver can’t drink water, what’re we going to do about it?” Bruchez said, adding that it’s no secret that agricultural water rights would be in jeopardy. “Trying to get ahead of this is super important.”
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