Utah needs farmers to lease water to solve its alarming shortages. Here’s what it’s doing to convince them to sign up.

Booming growth is driving more demand for water, but climate change, aridification and an over-allocated system ensure a short supply.

State lawmakers have looked to farmers to solve Utah’s mounting water issues, hoping they’ll lease water to save the Colorado River and Great Salt Lake.

So far, almost no irrigators have signed up. Their reasons vary, but a pilot program on central Utah’s Price River shows farmers are willing to sell their water if it makes economic sense and if they trust the process. And the state has a lot of hurdles to overcome before water leasing makes a measurable difference.

“If we can generate the revenue we need with water versus putting something in the ground, it works,” said Kevin Cotner, a hay farmer near Price. “It’s yet another cash crop.”

Cotner just wrapped up his third season participating in the Upper Colorado Basin Commission’s water leasing project, called the System Conservation Pilot Program. He irrigated 450 acres this year and left 530 acres fallow. He got paid up to $650 per acre-foot left instream.

But Cotner’s participation in the pilot water leasing plan isn’t purely based on economics.

“This is a hard ag area to make a living. Things are pretty severe,” he said. “We’re transforming the desert. Water is one of the big issues.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Cotner, a farmer along the Price River, hops in his truck during a tour of the Carbon Canal that serves 238 shareholders along a 24-mile stretch on Aug. 16, 2023.

Cotner serves as the president of the Carbon Canal Co., and policing use is part of his daily life.

“I’m the bad cop,” he said. “I’m the water guy.”

Even after Utah saw record-breaking snowpack and runoff last winter, Cotner said drought is becoming the norm rather than an exception. Last year, his canal company could only deliver shareholders 38% of the water they’re entitled to on paper.

“That was a hard summer,” he said. “A lot of unhappy people.”

Why farmers will play a crucial role in solving the Colorado River crisis

Booming growth in the West is driving more demand for water, but human-fueled climate change, aridification and an over-allocated system have ensured it remains in short supply.

The water leasing pilot is one strategy Upper Basin states identified to get demand back in sync with reality in the Colorado River system.

All the water Cotner conserved by fallowing his fields stayed in the Carbon Canal, making its way back to the Price River, eventually flowing to the Colorado River and Lake Powell reservoir. It will then flow to thirsty Lower Basin states like Arizona and California, helping the Upper Basin fulfill its obligations under the century-old Colorado River Compact.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. As of now, Utah and other Upper Basin states don’t have the ability to track where the saved water goes, or ensure another irrigator downstream doesn’t divert it away.

“We want to get there,” said Lily Bosworth, a staff engineer with the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “That’s our goal.”

Utah had 20 irrigators complete Colorado River water leasing projects this year, mostly in the Price watershed, up from six participants the last time the Upper Colorado Commission ran the pilot program in 2018. Leases conserved an estimated 15,090 acre-feet in 2023, Bosworth said. An acre-foot is about enough water to supply two households for a year.

It’s just a blip in the context of the Colorado River’s needs. Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called on the seven states that rely on the basin’s water — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California — to figure out how to conserve up to 4 million acre-feet. They have so far failed to figure out a long-term plan.

It’s clear, however, that farmers will play a big role. Agriculture uses nearly 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and the majority of that is used to grow alfalfa and feed for beef.

Bosworth said it’s possible to persuade enough irrigators to lease their water and make a difference.

“Folks like Kevin, who are willing to try it and have a lot of connections in the community, that’s the best way,” she said. “Because I can’t come in and tell people what to do.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Cotner, right, a farmer on the Price River, and Colorado River Authority engineer Lily Bosworth discuss the perks and challenges of leasing irrigation water in the over-tapped arid West on Aug. 16, 2023.

Jordan Nielson, Trout Unlimited Utah’s water and habitat program director, helps farmers wade through the paperwork so they can participate in the program. Farmers understand adapting to the demands and limitations of their environment, he said, like converting flood irrigation to more efficient pivot watering.

“In an ideal world,” he said, “we create a program where the ag community is using water [leasing] as part of their crop rotation.”

But the success of the water leasing program, he added, “depends on how well the states and the Upper Colorado River Commission develop a relationship with the ag community.”

Program participants ran into a frustrating situation this year, when the Bureau of Reclamation initially said it would cap payments at $650 per acre-foot, then later revised it down to $595 for farmers like Cotner who raise alfalfa to sell, and $621 for those who grow alfalfa to feed their own cattle herds.

“The state of Utah stepped up and covered that gap,” Nielson said. “That says they were serious about a relationship with the ag community.”

The Colorado River Authority of Utah chipped in $105,000 to cover the difference, Bosworth confirmed. All said, Utah farmers received $5.4 million in state and federal funds to fallow fields and lease water in 2023.

“It was painful and messy,” Bosworth said, “but we learned a lot.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge in persuading farmers to lease water is coming up with the right compensation.

“One big lesson from that process of looking at pricing is that there are these micro-economies and microclimates,” Bosworth said. “And so [prices] can vary even within the state.”

The biggest challenge in benefiting the Colorado River system as a whole is making sure the water ends up where it’s supposed to go.

For the pilot, officials like Bosworth currently verify crop fallowing happens and the irrigation gates are turned off. But getting conserved water to places like Lake Powell takes all kinds of paperwork and change applications filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights. The Utah Legislature recently gave the state engineer authority to shepherd and distribute saved water downstream.

“Long term, for us to get credit for water savings,” Bosworth said, “we’ll have to be able to track it.”

Most of Utah’s water rights also aren’t held by individual farmers. They’re owned by the hundreds of canal companies across the state, who issue shares to irrigators and have their own unique policies and procedures. Some of those companies refuse to let a single drop diverted go to any other purpose but farming, Bosworth said.

“Those companies just won’t talk to us,” she said.

As one of the first farmers in the entire Colorado River basin to take a chance on the water leasing pilot, however, Cotner said he’s seeing things change, little by little.

“People have to see somebody else put their toe in the water and see if they get bit, or what’s gonna happen,” he said. “The more you do this, the more interest comes in.”

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