Difficulties arise in efforts to save water for Powell

Hannah Holm
Hutchins Water Center, Colorado Mesa University
2016 water year inflows into Lake Powell were forecast to be 83 percent of average.
Associated Press |

A recent Bureau of Reclamation report projects that Western river basins, including the Colorado Basin, are likely to experience a 7-27 percent decline in spring streamflows during this century.

The bureau’s 2016 SECURE Water Act Report to Congress, which can be found at, is just the latest to warn of reduced streamflows in our region as temperatures climb.

The Colorado River Basin has already experienced more than a decade in which more water has been pulled out of rivers and streams for farms and cities than has come back in through rain and snow. As a result, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell have begun to approach critical levels. For Mead, that means dropping too low to reliably meet demands. For Powell, that means dropping too low to generate hydropower and meet downstream obligations.

One of the efforts to head off this looming crisis is the System Conservation Pilot Program, which pays for voluntary, temporary water use reductions. This program, funded by major cities and other water suppliers that rely on Colorado River Basin water, was initiated in 2014 to test the feasibility of voluntary, compensated measures to curtail water use in order to prop up water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. Details on the program can be found at

Farmers and ranchers in western Colorado are among those who have participated and are considering participating in the program. Agricultural approaches tried so far include foregoing irrigation for part of a season, fallowing ground, leasing water and converting to lower water use crops. Some of these farmers recently met with program funders, researchers and supporters to discuss how the program is working.

The group included representatives of Denver Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Colorado River District, Colorado State University and Colorado Mesa University.

On the positive side, being paid to temporarily fallow land or reduce water use can provide money and time to upgrade aging head gates or other irrigation infrastructure, improve soil health or explore alternative crops.

Some farmers are hoping to use the program to receive income while transitioning ground from conventional to certified organic production, a three-year process that can lead to long-term economic benefits for the farmer. Farmers also like the opportunity to take the lead in figuring out how they could get by with less water, since there is concern that they may have to do so in the future. State law provides that participants in approved conservation programs will not have their water rights diminished as a result.

On the other hand, the first year of the pilot revealed many logistical hurdles to increasing flows into Lake Powell by paying farmers and ranchers to use less water. One major problem is how to ensure that saved water makes it to Lake Powell without being picked up by another water user that was previously short.

A related issue has so far hobbled attempts to lease water under the program. How can you lease water to an undefined recipient for an undefined use? According to some interpretations, this doesn’t square well with Colorado water law.

How to recognize the full value of agricultural water was also discussed. In addition to the need to compensate producers for forgone crop sales, concern was expressed about the impact of reduced production on farmworkers, implement dealers and the community at large. And how can you make sure that temporary water use reductions to get through a crisis really stay temporary, and don’t just permanently transfer that use elsewhere, from farms to cities? The fact that some cities are also participating in the program by reducing their water withdrawals or treating and returning wastewater helps address this concern, but doesn’t eliminate it.

The amount of water saved through the system conservation program so far is miniscule in relation to the amount needed to significantly reduce the risk of the reservoirs hitting critical lows. With all the issues involved with implementing the program and the growing demand for water, a major concern is whether this mechanism will ever be able to move enough water to really make a difference. Meeting participants noted that resolving the legal and logistical challenges, as well as building community understanding and acceptance of the program, are preconditions for scaling it up.

Avoiding critically low levels in Lakes Mead and Powell will require either significantly more action to reduce water demands or a lot more snow in the mountains. As of March 1, the 2016 water year inflows into Lake Powell were forecast to be 83 percent of average. That’s not terrible year, but it’s also not good enough to take the pressure off water users to control demand.

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