Water Lines: $8 million grant to fund Colorado irrigation improvements | PostIndependent.com

Water Lines: $8 million grant to fund Colorado irrigation improvements

Hannah Holm
Free Press Weekly Columnist

Concern about environmental and water supply conditions in the Colorado River Basin helped a group of farmers and their partners in the lower Gunnison River Basin net an $8 million grant from the federal government to line and pipe open canal systems and to convert fields from flood irrigation to more efficient sprinkler, micro spray and drip systems.

The irrigation improvements will enable farmers to maintain or improve production with smaller diversions from rivers and streams. Reductions in the amount of water that soaks through the ground and back into tributaries of the Gunnison River as a result of flood irrigation and unlined canals will also improve water quality by reducing the amount of salt and selenium leaching out of soils and into the river. High salt levels in the river harm the productivity of downstream farms, while high selenium levels harm sensitive fish and bird species.

Projects funded by the grant will be implemented in partnership with four irrigation entities in different parts of the lower Gunnison Basin: the Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District southeast of Montrose; the Crawford Water Conservancy District near Crawford; the North Fork Water Conservancy District near Paonia and Hotchkiss; and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, located primarily between Montrose and Delta.

In a statement from the Colorado River District, the lead partner on the project, Colorado River District Senior Water Engineer Dave Kanzer, said: “This grant is a big ‘win-win-win’ for agricultural, economic and environmental sustainability.”

“It will really help our agricultural producers implement new conservation practices that not only produce more ‘crop per drop’ of water, but significantly reduce their environmental footprint,” Kanzer continued.

This project builds on previous similar initiatives, but is distinguished from them by its scale, the fact that it is part of an integrated, basin-wide strategy and the leadership role taken by farmers. Participating farmers have organized themselves and partner organizations into a group called “No Chico Brush.” Chico Brush, also known as greasewood, would likely dominate the valleys of the lower Gunnison Basin if irrigated agriculture were to disappear.

The Colorado River District expects the $8 million federal grant to leverage additional funding from other sources for a total of around $50 million. The federal funds were allocated through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, an element of the 2015 Farm Bill. The competitiveness of the Gunnison Basin proposal benefited from the fact that the Gunnison River lies within the Colorado River Basin, which the program identified as a “critical conservation area.”

The critical conservation area designation for the Colorado River Basin is due to a persistent regional drought that is exacerbating water supply and demand imbalances, as well as degradation of soil quality, water quality, and wildlife habitat. Agricultural irrigation is the largest consumer of water in the basin.

To learn more about the lower Gunnison irrigation improvement project, contact Kanzer at dkanzer@crwcd.org.

To learn more about the Regional Conservation Partnership Project, visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/farmbill/rcpp.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

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