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Cooperation Essential to Protect Agriculture in the Upper Colorado River Basin

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Cory Toye, Trout Unlimited Wyoming Water Project Director

Against the backdrop of the brutal drought in California and dwindling water supplies across the arid West, management of water supply and demand is getting increasingly precarious everywhere in the Colorado River Basin, including here in Wyoming.

The Upper Colorado River Basin supports diverse agricultural production, which is a cornerstone supporting rural western communities, as well as the fish and wildlife habitats we all treasure. Together, these elements comprise a major share of our region’s economy.

We can’t afford to do damage to these incredibly important assets.

We have seen our potential water future – and it’s not pretty. Years of sustained drought and warmer temperatures, combined with a rigid regulatory framework, are making water management increasingly difficult and driving severe water shortages in California and elsewhere in the arid West. Sharp cutbacks in California have already been imposed on producers in one of the nation’s largest food-producing regions. This year, much of California’s irrigated farmland will lose more than 80 percent of its surface water allocation. Over 3 million acres of California’s irrigated farmland will see deep cuts to normal water deliveries, and an estimated 1 million acres of land will lie fallow and unproductive.

All water users must work together to protect our shared future in Wyoming and throughout the Colorado River Basin. We need to be vigilant to ensure that agricultural, conservation and recreational values are not caught in the middle of a no-win tug-of-war.

On this point, farm and ranch interests agree.

“This is no time to argue. Municipal, conservation and agricultural interests must work together to find solutions to our water challenges,” Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, wrote recently. “Cooperative action and shared investments are needed now.”

The mounting challenges of balancing supply and demand continue to push Colorado River Basin water resources to the limit. Runoff projections are below 50 percent in the upper Colorado River Basin, foreshadowing another year of well below-average runoff. 

Although some fear this may be the “new normal” for water supply conditions, there is some good news on the horizon. As Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, recently said, “I am cautiously hopeful that we can meet the water challenges in the Upper Colorado River Basin but only if we seize upon the opportunities right now. We need to develop and implement new and flexible water management tools for water providers. Together with the states and federal agencies, we must build resilience and flexibility into our water systems as we face the future.”

What would that resilience and flexibility look like? Kuhn pointed to cooperatively funded investments with agriculture to improve critical infrastructure. Alternative cropping, deficit irrigation and water banking are examples of innovative tools that deserve more funding and support.

For years, Trout Unlimited (TU) has partnered with farmers and ranchers throughout the West to achieve pragmatic, win-win results for fish and ag operations. We’re committed to working with agricultural producers – for them, finding solutions is a way of life. TU is working with agriculture producers on several projects in western Colorado and Wyoming, including upgrading irrigation systems to improve water delivery while enhancing river habitat and fisheries.

There are a lot of win-win opportunities out there, ready to be seized.

That said, there are no “silver bullets” – the water challenges ahead will require sustained action on multiple fronts. All stakeholders in the Upper Colorado Basin must be part of the solution. From municipalities to farms and from recreational communities to industrial centers, all water users must consider new systems and be prepared to change.

“Solutions-oriented partnerships are what the Upper Colorado Basin’s water future must look like, with cooperation, not conflict, as the guiding principle,” noted Keppen. “We don’t have to face a diminished future. We can still have productive farms, healthy rivers and thriving communities, even in dry times. We can still meet all of our diverse water needs – but only if we work together.”

That’s the challenge ahead.

Cory Toye is director of Trout Unlimited’s Wyoming Water Project. For more information, contact Toye at 307-399-4623 or

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