In the Colorado River Basin, TU has brought together years of relationship-building with ranchers, water policy innovation, and deft project implementation to help build — from scratch — a basin-wide and landscape-scale drought response program: the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP).
The program was a pilot to gauge agricultural producer interest in building long-term voluntary and compensated approaches to reducing water demands. This conserved water would then be used to maintain reservoir levels and maintain critical system reliability.
Leveraging years of building trust in rural communities, TU worked with ranchers and farmers to design flexible approaches for using less water; facilitated innovative funding partnerships between federal agencies and municipal water users; and built political support for multiyear program authorization.
From 2015 to 2018, TU took the lead in enrolling ranchers from Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah in the program. Most of the projects conserved water
through temporary, split- or late-season fallowing; that is, ranchers and farmers received compensation for irrigating during only a part of the potential irrigation and production season.
In Utah, six members of the Carbon Canal Company agreed to SCPP projects that conserved nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water and helped ensure healthier flows in the Price River. “Farming in the high desert in Eastern Utah means we need to be smart with how we use our water,” says Kevin Cotner, president of Carbon Canal and a TU partner. “The program gave producers a tool to add flexibility in our water management.”
The program benefits to producers and local native trout fisheries in the Upper Green River in Wyoming were especially remarkable because 28 ranches (about 15,000 acres of ranchland) and almost 14,000 acre-feet of water were enrolled in the program in 2018.
Multigenerational Wyoming rancher Chad Espenscheid says, “I look at my ranch operation every year, and demand management options in the Upper Colorado River Basin provide some much-needed flexibility for my water and cattle operations.”
The pilot effort has been paying off, and TU is preparing to buckle up. We are working to make the demand management concepts embodied in the SCPP central features of the multi-year Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan in the Upper and Lower Basins. As the river faces a potentially drier future, with the prospect of further declining levels in Lake Powell, this program underscores the enormous potential of innovative, market-driven solutions to water challenges.
TU is working to ensure that the Colorado River continues to meet the needs of diverse water users. Our near-term goal is to demonstrate the potential to reduce water demand and ensure flows can be shepherded across state lines, upstream to downstream, and to address river basin-scale water scarcity while improving streamflows for important trout fisheries.