Mr. Cotner goes to Washington

Utah farmer Kevin Cotner and his wife Kayleen in front of the Capitol building. 

By Randy Scholfield

It’s no secret that ranchers and conservationists haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.

“We don’t usually sit down at the table with these folks,” said Kevin Cotner, a tall, mustachioed Utah farmer who initially was skeptical of working with conservation groups like Trout Unlimited.

But times have changed: For over a decade, Trout Unlimited has worked with farmers and ranchers like Cotner on win-win, innovative solutions that improve farm and ranch operations and water delivery while boosting healthy river flows and habitat for fish.

That’s why Cotner, his wife Kayleen, and several TU staff recently travelled to Washington, D.C., where they barnstormed Capitol Hill to deliver a timely message: agriculture producers and conservationists are working together to secure the West’s water future—and they’d like Congress to get on board.

Cotner is president of Carbon Canal Company, the largest irrigation company on Utah's Price River. After TU helped Carbon Canal secure funds for irrigation upgrades, six members of the company agreed to take part in the System Conservation Pilot Project, an innovative program that pays ranchers and farmers to voluntarily and temporarily fallow their pastures or fields, typically during part of the growing season, with the goal of improving river flows and shoring up water supplies in the larger Colorado River Basin.

The Carbon Canal farmers who enrolled in the SCPP program conserved nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water that helped ensure healthy flows in the Price River. “That’s real water,” said Scott Yates, director of TU’s Western Water and Habitat program, of the 2,000 AF of Price River water. “And these kind of projects, scaled up across the basin, could make all the difference for system reliability."

“We’re basically growing alfalfa,” Kevin Cotner said during one sit-down with congressional staffers. “It’s a high water-use crop. So if we can switch crops or fallow, we can kick a lot of water back into the river.”

He added, “But the long-term availability of the program is important. The more stability, the better we can plan.”

Ranchers and farmers like that the program is voluntary, temporary and market-driven—giving producers a new way to stay viable while demonstrating a promising new market for their water “crop.”

“Farming in the high desert of eastern Utah means we need to be smart about how we use our water,” Cotner said. “System conservation gives producers a tool to add flexibility in our water management.”

The goal of SCPP—funded by Denver Water and other large municipal water providers and the Bureau of Reclamation--is to conserve 200,000 acre feet and enhance water supply in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Yates noted that Wyoming alone submitted applications for 20,000 AF of water conservation deals last year. But SCPP had only a fraction of the money needed to close the deals—a lot of producers were left hanging.

Moreover, SCPP is only authorized through September 2018, giving some ranchers pause as to whether the program will be there when they need it.

“The ranchers are really coming to the table,” Yates said. “The demand is there. But they need consistency and certainty to make the program work for them.”

That’s the message the group took on their whirlwind round of meetings with congressional and agency staff last week. In a D.C. worn down by bitter partisanship and gridlock, the group’s positive message of cooperation and pragmatic results struck a chord with congressional staff on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s refreshing to have people coming here with solutions,” said one.

Yes, there is hope for bipartisan solutions. D.C. leaders could pick some low-hanging fruit by reauthorizing and fully funding this smart, market-driven water conservation program.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s communications director for the Southwest.




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