Commentary: A new way of doing business on water

This year has given us a glimpse of our potential water future in the Colorado River Basin — and it’s not pretty. So far this winter, much of the Intermountain West is seeing below average snowpack in the mountains, where most of our water in the Upper Basin originates.

Even if we end up with a good snow year, the long-term trend is clear: drier and hotter and less predictable.

Left unaddressed, these trends could pose a perfect storm for both municipalities and agricultural producers who depend on healthy flows in our rivers. That’s why a few years ago, the Bureau of Reclamation, municipal utilities, conservationists and other river stakeholders banded together to launch an innovative, market-based program, called the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP).

The goal of the pilot program was to answer this question: Would ranchers and farmers, landowners and other water users in the Upper Colorado Basin be willing to be paid for voluntary, temporary reductions in water use — and, by doing so, help shore up water supplies in Lakes Powell and Mead while providing side benefits like increased flows for fisheries?

We are happy to report that the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Trout Unlimited has a long track record in the West of working with the farm and ranch community on water and habitat projects. We found strong interest among agriculture producers for leasing their water on a voluntary, short-term basis to boost healthy river flows and water supply levels.

Typically, these deals involve split- or late-season fallowing — ranchers and farmers agree to irrigate for only part of their irrigation season. Season-long fallowing is also an option. The conserved water is left in the stream, undiverted, and producers receive payments for the temporary conservation use of that water.

Here in Utah, for example, six members of the Carbon Canal Company on the Price River agreed to SCPP projects that have conserved nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water and helped keep healthy flows in the Price River. The SCPP payments have created a positive buzz among other farmers and ranchers in the area. They’re seeing this as an exciting new way to use their water “crop.”

For agricultural producers, income from these temporary water transactions can boost their bottom lines and help spur investment in upgraded and more efficient irrigation systems. At the same time, these water deals send more water downstream, enhancing local fisheries, shoring up municipal water supplies and protecting hydropower capacity.

Everybody wins. Moreover, innovative tools like SCPP reduce the risk that states will fight over allocations and see every drop of water that crosses a state’s border as an economic loss.

SCPP has launched an exciting new water market for the agriculture community in the Colorado River Basin. But these new approaches will require smart, sustained investment if they’re to take root and grow.

SCPP is funded (by the Bureau of Reclamation, municipalities and others) through 2018, but beyond that, its future is uncertain — despite the popularity and proven water savings of the program.

Our organization, and our broad array of partners in the Colorado River Basin, call on our state and national lawmakers to step up and help secure long-term, sustainable funding for commonsense programs like SCPP — or this promising idea could wither on the vine.

Many river stakeholders have realized that we’ve entered a new water era that calls for cooperation, not conflict, if we want to meet our diverse water needs, such as preserving a vibrant and viable agricultural lifestyle while meeting water demands from growing cities and sustaining healthy rivers.

SCPP shows that farm and ranch country can be a collaborative part of the solution. Working together, we can keep the Colorado River and its tributaries flowing, and our farm and ranch communities healthy and productive.

Scott Yates

Scott Yates is director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat Program.