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Curtailment versus demand management in the Colorado River Basin discussed

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“The water in the Colorado River Basin is a big deal,” states Dr. Kristiana Hansen, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wyoming (UW) during a Western Water Systems Update webinar hosted on Feb. 3. 

            With this said, Hansen explains there are seven U.S. states and two Mexican states currently receiving water from the Colorado River Basin, which covers nearly 25,000 square miles including 5.5 million acres of irrigated land. Additionally, the basin supplies water to 40 million people. 

            “The system has remarkable storage capacity and the associated hydropower brings power to millions of people,” Hansen notes. “The Colorado River Basin also supplies revenue to habitat recovery efforts for a number of threatened and endangered species throughout the basin, so it is remarkably interconnected and productive.”

The issue

            Despite the success the Colorado River Basin has seen, it has also been experiencing drought conditions for the past two decades, according to Hansen.

            “We have seen an increase in water use over time, and forecasted water demands are expected to exceed projected supplies,” states Hansen. “Therefore, if the dry hydrology of the Colorado River Basin persists, the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming will face a higher risk of curtailment.”

            Hansen explains under curtailment, these four states would be required to turn off their post-1922 compact rights to some extent in order to reduce their consumptive water use and help them meet their obligations under the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

            She further explains upper basin states would be required to meet this obligation by regulating off water rights in reverse priority, starting with the most junior water rights and working backward to priority gates until obligations under the compact are met.

The regional response

            Therefore, Hansen says a large regional response has been taking place.

            “In 2013, following the two driest consecutive years in the basin since 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation and seven Colorado River Basin states began to draft a contingency plan to figure out how to deal with these projected shortfalls of water availability,” she explains.

            Under this drought contingency plan, Hansen says the four upper basin states would be given an opportunity to explore a demand management program, in which they would conserve and store water that has historically been put to beneficial use to help them comply with the 1922 compact.

            “This demand management plan is in contrast to curtailment,” notes Hansen. “Curtailment is mandatory and uncompensated, but participation in the demand management program would be voluntary, temporary and compensated for.”


            In order to explore the idea of demand management, Hansen says the upper basin states conducted a voluntary System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) from 2015 through 2018.

            “The focus of the program was to see if water users in the upper basin states were at all interested in participating to help reduce the risk of curtailment,” Hansen says.

            “The program really gained momentum over the course of four years in terms of enrolled acreage and consumptive use reductions,” she notes. “In the final year of the program, there were 19 projects across the upper basin, all of which were agricultural water users. Most of the agricultural participation was on split season fallow and alfalfa fields.” 

            She explains within the program, producers would simply flood irrigate their fields at the start of the season, turn off the water and harvest their first cutting of hay in late July.  Then, they would receive compensation to not turn their water back on.

            Over the course of the program’s four years, nearly $5 million was spent, and in 2018, $158 was paid per acre foot of estimated consumptive use savings, with 25,097 acre foot of estimated consumptive use reductions generated.

Follow-up surveys

            Because the SCPP was so popular, Hansen and a few of her UW colleagues conducted surveys among SCPP participants and all other Colorado River Basin producers to understand the issues and benefits of the SCPP as well as how to move forward with the program in the future.

            According to Hansen, the first survey asked the 23 producers involved with SCPP about their reaction to the program.

            “Overall, survey respondents reported being very satisfied with the program, stating both they and their communities were better off as a result of the program,” says Hansen. “They also spoke positively of the benefits of the program.”

            However, Hansen notes participants also pointed out some negatives. These included early drying up of hayfields, negative yield impacts in the following year and concern about the long-term impacts of participation on water rights.

            “The program was well received, but it also raised a lot of questions about the impacts of a larger demand management program, temporary reductions in water use and consumptive water use reductions from agriculture versus other sectors of the economy,” says Hansen. 

            Therefore, Hansen and her colleagues conducted another survey asking all producers in the Colorado River Basin what types of practices they would be interested in implementing. 

            “Of the respondents, 39 percent said they would be interested in a split season fallow similar to the SCPP. However the problem is a split season fallow doesn’t sit within the framework of the demand management program,” explains Hansen. 

“A full-season, no-irrigation program fits the framework better, but it is much less popular,” she continues. “This really highlights the challenges of having demand management based consumptive use and finding a program to fit the perspective of policy makers and to keep the upper basin states compliant with the compact.”

Participation considerations

Lastly, Hansen notes there are a few important considerations for those who might be interested in demand management to consider. 

“First, if someone is thinking about whether or not to participate in the program, they should consider their mix of junior and senior priority rights,” she explains. “If they rely more on their junior storage rights, they will be inclined to prefer demand management since it reduces the risk of curtailment.” 

“Secondly, an individual may find the idea of temporary leasing opportunities to be appealing,” she adds.

The third consideration Hansen brings up is land and soil characteristics.

“Depending on an operation’s yields, soil type and late-season aftermath grazing as part of their livestock operation, compensation through the demand management program may more than cover the private cost of participating in the program,” Hansen says.

She continues, “One of the biggest farm-level considerations is the management practices that will ultimately be made available through the demand management program. If it is simply a full-season, no-irrigation program, it is much less appealing. But, we may be able to figure out what a split season fallow would look like.” 

Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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