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Upper Colorado River officials release details of water savings program

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism
Lake Powell at Wahweap Marina as seen in December 2021. The Upper Colorado River Commission’s 5-Point Plan is aimed at protecting Colorado Storage Project infrastructure like Lake Powell, where low water levels are threatening hydropower production.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Upper Colorado River basin officials have released details of a conservation program that would pay water users to reduce their use of Colorado River water, with the goal of implementing it as soon as this summer. 

In July, the Upper Colorado River Commission released its 5-Point Plan, designed to protect critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The first action listed in that plan was to restart the System Conservation Pilot Program, which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to cut back. 

The reboot comes with $125 million of federal funding through 2026 but no target for an amount of water to be saved through the temporary and voluntary program. The money comes from the $4 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funding for Colorado River projects.



The goal would be to reduce Colorado River use and mitigate the impacts of long-term drought and depleted storage — not to guarantee a certain amount of water makes it to any particular reservoir, said Upper Colorado River Commission Executive Director Chuck Cullom.

“Anyone who is proposing or providing any sort of estimate about what this program might yield is engaging in wild speculation given the water stress that all the Colorado River water users are suffering in the upper basin,” Cullom said. “Even though we have a significant financial resource available, it’s unclear to me how many people will be able to subscribe to the program.”




The pilot program is open to Colorado River water users in the four upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — who can demonstrate they have a project that can reduce their water use. That could include farmers, ranchers, cities, tribes, irrigation districts, or industrial users. 

The commission will unveil a request for proposals at its meeting at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas on Dec. 14. Proposals will be reviewed by the commission and upper basin states, and the commission plans to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season. The commission posted a template for a program implementation agreement to its website on Friday.

It’s not yet clear how much the program would pay per acre-foot; Cullom said that information would be in the request for proposals. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. One acre-foot can supply one to two families per year.

Glen Canyon dam backs up the Colorado River to form Lake Powell, seen here in December 2021. Upper Colorado River basin officials are restarting the System Conservation Pilot Program, which could mean more water ends up in Lake Powell where stored water has fallen to critically low levels.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The commission will set a minimum price, but applicants can propose a higher rate if they believe they should be compensated more, Cullom said. Officials will also be on the lookout for those hoping to unfairly profit from the program, which has been a longtime concern of these types of water savings programs.

“If you propose more, we are going to scrutinize,” Cullom said. “We don’t intend to overpay for the resource, and we will look very carefully at proposals that are clearly speculative.”

The 5-Point Plan is the upper basin’s response to a call from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of conservation. Climate change and a two-decade mega-drought continue to rob the Colorado River and its tributaries of streamflows. Reservoirs Powell and Mead are at historically low levels, threatening the dams’ ability to produce hydroelectric power. As of this week, Lake Powell was only about 24% full. 

Upper basin water managers have been quick to point out that water use is much higher in the lower basin — California, Arizona and Nevada — and, therefore, that’s where the majority of water savings should come from. 

“We are not at fault for the situation the river is in, but we can be part of the solution,” said Rebecca Mitchell, Colorado commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission. “We have tried to move as expeditiously as possible.” 

Program concerns

Steve Wolf, general manager of the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, said he had concerns about the program. He said he has been talking with state officials about having more local oversight of projects that apply to participate in the System Conservation Pilot Program. Ideally, his districts and others like it, such as the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, would get to veto projects or at least review and comment on them, he said.

“We are hoping to get a few more protections for West Slope water users wrapped into the program before it actually is activated,” Wolf said. “I am fully supportive of an individual being able to do what they want with their water rights, but, from where I sit, I need to make sure that action does not impact other water users, so I want some sort of oversight rule.”

One of the largest water users in western Colorado, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, participated in the original pilot program. The valley has also been the site of many of the recent speculation concerns by Colorado lawmakers and others. 

The renewed program is different from an upper basin demand management program, something the Upper Colorado River Commission is studying and to which the state of Colorado devoted more than two years and nine work groups as part of its feasibility investigation. The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan created the framework for a demand management program: a 500,000 acre-foot pool in Lake Powell in which the upper basin states could store water saved as part of a voluntary, temporary, and compensated program that pays water users to cut back with the aim of meeting water delivery obligations to the lower basin. 

This irrigated field in the Grand Valley is made green with Colorado River water. Upper Colorado River basin officials are restarting a program that could pay irrigators to conserve water.
Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The results of the commission’s study on demand management is on the agenda for its Dec. 14 meeting. 

Cullom said a measure of success for the re-instated SCPP is not how much water is conserved. The original program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.

“My measure of success is that we have an open, transparent process,” he said. “I would like to see broad participation in terms of sectors — agriculture, municipal, industrial, tribal — and that, at the end, the participants are satisfied with how the program went. The volumes (of water) are going to sort themselves out.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org