TU project wins over ranchers

Wyoming rancher Jackson Ramsay leaning against headgate improved with help from Trout Unlimited. (Photo credit: Jim Paussa/Aspen Journalism)

by Randy Scholfield

Conventional wisdom held that there would always be deep-seated hostility and endless conflict between agriculture producers and conservation groups in the West, especially over a resource as valuable and contentious as water.

But things are quietly changing in the West these days, as a recent High Country News article showed. Conservationists and ranchers are talking to—not past—each other, and finding projects that serve both conservation and bottom lines.

As the article highlights, TU is leading the way in persuading ranchers and farmers in the Upper Colorado River to lease their water on a temporary basis to earn income while improving stream flows and fish habitat.

For several years, TU’s Western Water and Habitat staff have been driving the back roads of ranch country in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, enrolling ag producers in the “System Conservation Pilot Program,” which pays them to conserve water—typically by adopting split-season fallowing, in which they agree to stop irrigating after a certain date.

In the big picture, the SCPP, funded by municipal utilities and the Bureau of Reclamation, is aimed at shoring up water supplies in Lakes Mead and Powell as the region faces a hotter, drier West. This “system conservation” approach is important not only for securing water supplies but also for improving flows and fish and wildlife habitat in the Upper Colorado River.

For many ranchers, water leasing also makes sense on their home places, from both an economic and stewardship perspective. David Harold, who grows corn and other vegetables near Montrose, Colorado, says the program helped him earn money while he transitioned to drip irrigation.

While ranchers naturally worry about anything involving their vital water resources, they’re finding that the SCPP deals are lucrative—they’re voluntary, temporary and don’t affect their water rights.

"I had learned a lot about water rights and didn't feel threatened," Harold told reporter Sarah Tory.

So far, the program’s water savings have been modest—about 21,590 acre-feet in the Upper Basin—but SCPP has firmly established that there is a robust water-leasing market among ranchers and farmers waiting to be tapped.

That’s a huge and hopeful finding--one that suggests the future of water in the West might be shaped by cooperation, not conflict.

It's also a vindication of TU's collaborative approach to conservation, which tries to meet partners in the “pragmatic center" to sustain our rural communities, river flows and fisheries.

TU is quietly getting things done in ranch country. Check out the article and find out why TU is one of the most effective conservation groups in the West.

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


Add Content