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Colo. River pilot program sees success

Written by Saige

On March 5, the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) released a report on their System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), noting that farmers and ranchers throughout the system were open to voluntary, temporary water leasing deals to ease water supply concerns.

Cory Toye, Wyoming Trout Unlimited’s Water and Habitat Program director, says, “UCRC took an objective look and – especially in Wyoming – the demand for SCPP is beyond expectations.” 

Project origins

Originally launched in 2015, SCPP was developed in response to concern over water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

“Diminishing water supply brought Lower Basin states, including Arizona, California and Nevada, together to ask if there was a tool or multiple tools to create more water in system,” Toye explains. “The idea of a voluntary, non-regulatory program with an incentive was created.” 

SCPP was developed to answer the question of whether landowners would be interested in entering into voluntary compensated agreements to reduce the amount of water they use throughout the irrigation season.

SCPP was a three-year pilot project launched by municipal water utilities in Denver, Colo., California, Arizona and the Nevada Water Authority, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation. 

UCRC says, “The report found SCPP was successful in proving a market exists for water transactions designed to reduce agricultural and other uses of water to boost water levels in Lake Powell and increase overall system reliability.”

“The first couple of years, we saw interest in SCPP from Wyoming landowners, and that interest has only continued to increase,” Toye says. 

In its first year, because of Trout Unlimited’s work on the Upper Green River, Toye reached out to their partners to see if they would be interested in being involved in the program.

“In the first year, we had five people who signed up,” he says. “This year, in the fourth year of the program, we have 29 applicants who were all approved.” 

Inside the lease agreements

Agreements to temporarily reduce water use come in several forms, temporary, split- or late-season fallowing. 

Toye explains the majority of Wyoming’s lease agreements have been in the form of split-season fallowing.

“Water users in different parts of the Upper Green River Drainage have irrigated as they traditionally would until they turn off water to put their hay crop up,” he says. “Then, they’re compensated to leave the water off for the rest of the summer.”

Toye continues, “Producers get their first cutting of hay and leave fields dry in July, August and September, instead of taking a second and third cutting of hay. They are compensated for that.” 

Then, the State of Wyoming is able to determine, based on historical practices and aerial photography, how many acre-feet of water are conserved. Ranchers are compensated for each acre-foot.

Benefits

Maintaining water levels for Lake Powell and Lake Mead impact water users in Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin States in several ways. 

“First, the Colorado River Compact is triggered by certain lake elevations, so there is a possibility the state of Wyoming could become regulated under a Compact call,” Toye explains. 

A call on the Colorado River would regulate all post-1922 water rights, as well as subjecting excess and surplus water code rights, which double the amount of water available to use per acre, to a call, as well. 

“The other thing is, this program provides a new value for private property water rights holders,” Toye comments. “Every time landowners are able to make a choice and determine what is best for their operation and their water rights is good. Some landowners may see that reducing water use is a good option.”

“We have landowners who are continuing this program into their third and fourth years,” he adds. 

Non-regulatory action

Because SCPP agreements are non-regulatory, Toye says the program has also encouraged cooperation along tributaries among landowners. 

“Cooperation is required, so conserved water can be delivered to Fontenelle Reservoir or the mainstream Green River in non-regulatory ways,” he explains. “If more people along a tributary participate, they are able to deliver more water, which improves the value received as a result of the water.” 

Additionally, Toye notes the program doesn’t impact water rights negatively because the water is being used beneficially every year through split-season leasing. 

“We also have collaboration among landowners on tributaries, and they work together to conserve water,” he explains.

Inside the numbers

Between 2015 and 2017, SCPP funded 45 projects, reducing water use by approximately 22,116 acre-feet at a total cost of just over $4.5 million. 

“There was significant interest and program participation in the Upper Basin,” says UCRC. 

They continue, “In addition to demonstrating significant Upper Basin water user interest, SCPP was also successful in demonstrating and accomplishing the administrative requirements for such a program.”

Moving forward

Based on success in its first three years, SCPP is continuing into its fourth year to continue studying the feasibility of water leasing in the Upper Colorado River Basin. 

While the three-year pilot continues into its fourth year with a new set of projects, Toye comments, “UCRC is still trying to figure out what a long-term program might look like.” 

“It has been encouraging to see how SCPP can benefit producers and help reduce water supply risks in the Upper Colorado River while enhancing river health and fisheries,” said Scott Yates, director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat Program. “As the basin faces a potentially dry year, with the prospect of further declining levels in Lake Powell, this report underscores the enormous potential of innovative, market-driven solutions to our water challenges.  Working together, we can ensure that the Colorado River continues to meet the needs of diverse water users.”

“Municipal water conservation, smart water growth, infrastructure improvements and improved reservoir management are also key components in addressing future water shortage issues,” adds UCRC.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..