Ranchers and farmers across the Colorado River Basin, who control roughly 80% of the drought-strapped river’s flows, are reluctant to sign up for voluntary, government-funded water conservation programs for a variety of reasons identified in a new report.
Chief among them are a fear of losing their water rights, seeing their water use reduced, and engaging with far-off bureaucracies that they believe aren’t qualified to help.
“Agricultural Water Users’ Preferences for Addressing Water Shortages in the Colorado River Basin” is a study conducted by the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) in partnership with the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Released late last month, it includes survey responses from more than 1,000 ranchers and farmers in six Colorado River Basin states, as well as interviews with producers. The WLA represents landowners and agricultural producers across the West.
The WLA launched the research effort to better understand how agricultural water users in the region view different water conservation efforts and what it would take to convince them to participate. Hallie Mahowald, a co-author of the report and chief programs officer at the WLA, said in a webinar in September that the landowners will be key to finding solutions to the growing shortages on the river because they control so much of its water.
“We feel it is critical to understand landowner perspective and to solicit landowner input if we are going to develop successful strategies to address Western water shortages,” she said.
The report comes as the river basin remains mired in a long-running drought that has come close to crippling lakes Powell and Mead and experiences ongoing shortages as climate change continues to sap its flows.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is being made available to help the Colorado River Basin states better manage the river, reduce water use, and develop programs to sustain the basin’s cities and farms as the region continues to warm.
Drew Bennett, MacMillan Professor of Practice in Private Lands Stewardship at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, said the survey results show a disconnect between ranchers and farmers and the agencies who are charged with overseeing Colorado River Basin water management. In fact, more than 85% of those surveyed said they did not trust the water agencies that help manage the giant river system.
“We need to build additional trust…it will be absolutely critical moving forward,” Bennett said.
And while more than 50% of those surveyed are engaging in at least limited conservation practices, they are not interested in doing more if their water rights aren’t strongly protected, if they are not adequately compensated, and if the programs aren’t administered locally.
This lack of trust, the report says, “may create a barrier to gaining buy-in for new water management strategies, even if they are supported by significant funding from state and federal government agencies.”
The river basin spans seven states. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin includes Arizona, California and Nevada.
Researchers broke out survey responses based on which basin a grower operates in. Key findings of the report include:
- 97% of Upper Basin growers (Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) and 96% of Lower Basin growers (Arizona, California and Nevada) are worried about coming shortage-related changes in water policy and new constraints on their water use.
- Just 14% of Upper Basin growers and 13% of Lower Basin growers believe that existing water policies and management practices are adequate to address coming shortages.
- 69% of Upper Basin and 74% of Lower Basin growers have implemented at least one water conservation practice, largely in response to local water shortages.
- 56% of growers in both basins would engage in programs to improve their water delivery systems if funding is provided.
- Just 8% of Upper Basin and 18% of Lower Basin growers would participate in programs that would fallow, or cease production, on the same field for multiple years.
- And just 13% of Upper Basin and 14% of Lower Basin growers said there was a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies.
In Colorado, the Colorado Ag Water Alliance has been working to help producers use water more efficiently to prepare for future droughts and manage with less water. But CAWA’s Executive Director Greg Peterson said it’s a difficult task.
“Our goal is to help these people survive. People [who don’t farm] don’t actually understand that there are few opportunities to reduce water use in an agricultural setting,” Peterson said. “You might be able to reduce water use by 5% or maybe 10% without reducing yields. But it’s not easy to do.”
Wyoming and other basin states have begun installing sophisticated new technologies that help determine how much water crops consume, known as consumptive use, and how much water runs off and returns to the river or natural environment after a field has been irrigated. This is a critical measurement because it is only the consumptive use portion of irrigation water that can be administratively “saved” as water left in the river system.
Jeff Cowley is administrator for interstate streams in the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, the top water regulator in the state. Cowley is implementing new conservation technologies and working with growers who are already participating in one of the new federal programs known as the System Conservation Pilot Program.
Homing in on how much water is saved and left in the river is a complicated question whose answer differs from field to field and crop to crop. When water was plentiful, before the drought and climate change, there was enough water that this kind of precision wasn’t required. But that is no longer the case.
Cowley said this new level of precision is another critical factor in working with skeptical farmers and ranchers because it provides some certainty on what impact programs could have on their water supplies.
“Folks are attached to their water,” Cowley said. “They are willing to try new things, but not on their own dime.”
And any given year, he said, “there is not a lot of room for mistakes.”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.