The newest Colorado River management widget: the “System Conservation Program” — John Fleck

October 12, 2014
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

From JFleck at Inkstain:

The Colorado River Pilot System Water Conservation Program crept forward last week, in the process demonstrating an endearing quirk of Colorado River Basin water governance – no one is in charge. This no-one’s-in-chargeness is one of the central themes of my book. With the System Conservation Program, the folks not in charge are handing me an easy story line.

The news was the announcement Wednesday (press release here, scroll to the bottom of this post for the full solicitation document) of a “Funding Opportunity for Voluntary Participation in a Pilot System Water Conservation Program.” It’s a modest effort among basin water agencies to pool some cash to “conserve Colorado River System water for storage in Lakes Powell and Mead.” The $11 million involved is not nearly enough to fill the empty reservoirs, and no one expects that it should. Rather, it is an experiment in the construction of a new kind of water management widget aimed at staving off a particular kind of disaster – a tragedy of the commons among the nine states (seven in the U.S., two in Mexico) trying to figure out how to share the shrinking river.

When I say “no one is in charge,” I’m not describing a state of either anarchy or chaos. It’s actually a pretty orderly system. Rather, the system operates via a set of emergent properties based on existing rules and institutions, developed collectively, and people who know one another and are trying to figure out how to solve problems together by collectively developing new widgets. As opposed to, say, Secretary of the Interior Jean-Luc Picard just saying, “Make it so.”

Here’s how the newest widget would work. The big municipal water agencies representing the basin’s four largest metro areas – Southern California, Phoenix-Tucson, Las Vegas and Denver – pool money in a fund to pay farmers or cities to do something (the request for proposals doesn’t specify what) to “develop short-term pilot projects that keep water in Lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and compensated mechanisms.” In other words, we’ll pay you to cut your water use and leave the water in the river, so it can get to the reservoirs. (The proposal letter says the water could come from cities or farms, but who are we kidding? The water’s gonna come from farms. I promise to correct this post if I turn out to be wrong on this.)

It is being done this way because everyone knows there are problems (chiefly not enough water), but no one has the authority to impose solutions, to mandate that water users use less in a way that’s binding across the basin, leaving any individual user with the classic “tragedy of the commons” dilemma – if Phoenix gets real and slashes its use, that would just leave more surpluses for L.A. The two alternatives, therefore, are to continue draining the reservoirs, with confusion and uncertainty about who would bear the brunt of shortages once the shit gets real, or some sort of collective action where everyone gets together and agrees on a plan to avoid said shortages. But wow, that’s sure hard to do.

If you look at the history of basin management widget invention over the last 15 years, the major innovations have emerged from fuzzy collective negotiations that are difficult for outsiders like myself to fully understand. The 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines, which led to a significant reduction in California’s overuse of surplus water, grew out of seven-state/federal negotiations that dragged on for a painful decade. (See Jim Lochhead’s remarkable history for a great picture of how that deal went down). The 2007 shortage sharing agreement, similarly, was a seven-state/federal affair, with the tent expanded in important ways to include environmental interests in the discussion. I don’t think that story has been written yet. (Buy my book! As soon as I finish writing it!)

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


The Western Slope, however, can’t afford to be blinded by parochial interests — John Harold #ColoradoRiver #COWaterPlan

October 5, 2014


From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Western Slope agriculture should have the same heft in water discussions as diverters to the east and populous states to the south, the head of a Grand Valley water agency said Friday.

“Western Slope agriculture and Western Slope water cannot be considered as a simple, easy-to-go-to solution to the water-supply concerns of others,” Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users’ Association, told about 300 people at the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar at Two Rivers Convention Center.

The Western Slope, however, can’t afford to be blinded by parochial interests, John Harold of Tuxedo Farms in Olathe said.

“If we ever have a vote, there are 40 million people who would just run us over in a flash,” Harold said.

Harris and Harold were among several speakers who were asked how to deal with the water quandaries that now confront water users.

Those problems range from increased demands for water from the Front Range to insistence from the southwest that Colorado is running dangerously close to falling short of meeting its requirements under the 1922 compact that governs the use of the Colorado River.

Participants were asked whether Gov. John Hickenlooper’s comment that “Every conversation about water should begin with conservation” might understate the value of efficient use of water.

The terms are virtually interchangeable in common usage, said Dr. Perry Cabot, a research scientist and extension specialist at Colorado State University.

On a more technical level, however, conservation “is about doing less with less,” Cabot said, while efficiency improvements are aimed at “doing the same with less” water.

An experiment comparing yields of traditional furrow irrigation against sprinkler irrigation and drip irrigation on onions showed that drip irrigation was twice as efficient as furrow irrigation.

Sprinkler irrigation was in between.

Efficiency is likely to become more significant in coming years as demand for food grows, Cabot said.

“There hasn’t been enough emphasis on efficiency,” said Aaron Citron, project manager and attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project in Boulder.

“In the next 50 years, we’re going to have to produce as much food as we ever have in history,” Cabot said.

And that will be against the backdrop of increased competition from improved agricultural practices worldwide, Harris said.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


Colorado’s river economy worth $9 billion — High Country News #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver

October 3, 2014


From the High Country News (Sarah Tory):

When Governor Hickenlooper issued his executive order last year to create a state Water Plan, he charged the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the task and they, in turn, looked to the Basin Roundtables for their ideas about what the overall plan should include. The goal said, James Eklund, the Board’s Director, was to tackle Colorado’s water problems “as one unit.”

That’s the theory at least. But with the Roundtables dominated by municipal and agricultural interests, other groups are struggling to make their voices heard.

On September 10, a group of Colorado business leaders made their case for the “river-based economy” at the Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting in Glenwood Springs, where members of the public could comment on draft sections of the plan.

The setting was fitting: nearby, the rugged Glenwood Canyon runs alongside the busy I-70 corridor. A good portion of the town’s economy revolves around people coming to fish and raft on the Colorado River which carves through the canyon walls, but that river, like so many on the West Slope – where the majority of Colorado’s water lies – is shrinking. Every year, 180 billion gallons of water are sucked from rivers flowing west of the Continental Divide through a vast system of tunnels and pipes to thirsty farms and cities along the dry Front Range.

Now, faced with a growing gap between water supply and demand, they need more. In their draft plans, released in July, East Slope Basins like the South Platte emphasize the need “to consider new Colorado River supply options to meet future water demands” – which means keeping open the possibility of pulling more water from west to east through new transmountain diversions. But those plans, say members of Colorado’s outdoor recreation, real estate, and tourism industries, jeopardize a $9 billion dollar economy that hinges on healthy rivers – and supports more than 80,000 jobs in the state.

Graphic via the High Country News

Graphic via the High Country News

A report commissioned by Protect The Flows found that if the Colorado River was a company, it would rank 155th on the 2011 Fortune 500 list (those numbers are based just off of the revenue and jobs provided by the outdoor recreation industry), ahead of General Mills and US airways. It would also be the 19th biggest employer on the list.

“It’s really pure economics for us,” says Dennis Saffell, a realtor from Grand County. Factoring in all the indirect beneficiaries of Colorado’s rivers means the true economic value is likely much greater, he added, citing a recent report that found declining river flows across the Southwest could significantly hurt home prices…

Protect Our Flows wants the statewide plan to place more emphasis on smart water management and remove the option of building new transmountain diversions. The group is pressing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to set concrete statewide conservation goals in the Water Plan, especially for towns and cities – something most other Western states have, but Colorado is lacking.

Both Mackey and Saffell noted that although most of the Basin Roundtables recognize the economic value of healthy rivers, far fewer have actually quantified those benefits – or included specific language to protect stream flows. Since each Basin’s recommendations lay the foundation for the statewide plan, it’s essential that all of them include concrete standards.

But the river advocates are up against some strong, well-entrenched political forces. They pointed to the big agriculture and municipal interests that drive a large chunk of Colorado’s economy – and hold much of the power at the Basin Roundtables.

In comparison, the recreation economy is “the new kid on the block,”, says Mackey, who grew up skiing on wood skis and cable bindings. “I’m a sixty year old man and Patagonia, The North Face, the Vail Ski Resort – these companies grew up in my lifetime,” he added. “So we really need to push our way into the conversation.”

And there’s another challenge: Colorado’s water laws. Most were written in the late 1800’s and though a few modifications have occurred over the years, the laws still reinforce a “use it or lose it” mentality, which makes it difficult to implement conservation strategies. Thanks to those laws, says Saffell, farmers and cities have a legal right to keep using more water.

Think of it this way, he added: if we had the same traffic laws as we did 150 years ago when the water laws were written, it would be utter chaos. Most laws change to accommodate new realities, says Saffell, “but for some reason our water laws are untouchable.”

Instead, “we need to get away from this concept that any water left in the river is wasted water because it’s not being put to beneficial use,” he said.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


One Farm at a Time, USDA Helps Landowners Conserve Water in Ogallala Region

September 26, 2014

Here’s the blog post from the US Department of Agriculture:

James Pike has tackled an important and thorny issue in Laramie County, Wyoming – water conservation. More specifically, this district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has diligently worked to encourage farmers and ranchers in the region that is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer to use water wisely.

Stretching from western Texas to South Dakota, the Ogallala Aquifer supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States. Underlying about 225,000 square miles of the Great Plains, water from the aquifer is vital to agricultural, cities and industry, making up 30 percent of all groundwater used for irrigation in America.

NRCS’ Ogallala Aquifer Initiative aims to reduce aquifer water use, improve water quality and enhance the economic viability of croplands and rangelands in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Too many wells combined with inefficient irrigation have made water conservation a volatile topic in Wyoming.

The result of Pike’s hard work for Wyoming so far: 1 trillion gallons of water saved annually or 3,000-acre feet. To put acre feet into perspective, in the United States, one acre foot of water is used by a suburban family of five each year.

The former Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, or AWEP, provides farmers like Mike Poelma, who grows wheat on 125 acres, with financial incentives to not use underground water source for crops – only rainwater.

Poelma hopes his one irrigation well and two smaller wells will eventually recharge with water. But he knows it’s not an easy fix and will take some time.

Additionally, AWEP also provides financial assistance for practices for better efficient water use. The program has helped save energy that would have gone to growing marginal crops. From 2010 to 2014, NRCS invested about $2 million through the program in Laramie County.

The 2014 Farm Bill has many other programs are available to landowners who want to help conserve water, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is the program that now funds NRCS’ Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.

This initiative in the eight states saved enough water during fiscal 2010 and 2011 to provide water for over 53,000 families or 265,000 people.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.


Coloradans want Congress to eye conservation — the Colorado Springs Independent

September 14, 2014

George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South

George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South


From the Colorado Springs Post Independent (Matthew Schniper):

…The Wilderness Society notes a new poll of 11 Western states that “shows strong support for taking action on legislation that would reinvest a portion of rents and royalties from renewable energy development on public lands to conservation activities.”

That legislation is the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act (H.R. 596/S. 279), being pushed for a vote this fall.

More conservation coverage here.


Denver: @ColoradoWaterWise 6th Annual #WaterConservation Summit, October 24

September 9, 2014

“The goal is to work together to find methods for conserving the precious lifeblood of our basin” — Deb Daniel

September 9, 2014

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

Following a regional trend, Colorado’s water board is likely to approve a $US 160,000 grant on Friday that will help farmers in the state’s northeastern plains reckon with a water-scarce future.

Researchers at Colorado State University will use the state funds to answer a simple but profound question that is blowing across the American Great Plains like a stiff wind: What does water conservation mean for farming families, their towns, and their livelihoods?

Requested by the Water Preservation Partnership, a coalition of a farm group and all of the region’s water management districts, the two-year academic study reflects an important development in the nation’s grain belt…

“There is concern now over the rate of pumping,” Chris Goemans, an agricultural economist at Colorado State and one of the study leaders, told Circle of Blue. “The question is, what do we do and what happens if we do that?”

If current practices continue, wells in some counties will be dry within a decade, with disastrous economic and social consequences for rural communities. Faced with this prospect, the people of the plains, from Nebraska to Texas and now Colorado, are beginning to tighten the spigot and embrace, sometimes grudgingly, water conservation…

The Water Preservation Partnership, which recently marked its first anniversary, was created to find a local solution to the problem of groundwater depletion. It takes as a model a similar grassroots success story in northwest Kansas.

“The goal is to work together to find methods for conserving the precious lifeblood of our basin,” Deb Daniel told Circle of Blue. Daniel is general manager of the Republican River Water Conservation District, one of 10 members of the partnership.

Eight of the partners are groundwater management districts. Farmers in these districts account for 80 percent of the water used in northeastern Colorado and half of regional economic output. Altogether, the nine-county region withdraws nearly twice as much water each year as filters back into the aquifer, according to recent research. The annual deficit is 488 million cubic meters (396,000 acre-feet), roughly twice what Denver uses in a year.

The members see the writing on the wall for the aquifer if current behaviors continue, and they support a reduction in water use. Doing so will keep water in the ground longer, but not forever. The demands of irrigation are far too great. Still, the farmers want a clearer idea of the changes that conservation might bring.

“The WPP believes we must follow the lead of groups in Kansas, Texas and elsewhere who have developed grassroots, self-governing policies, by imposing pumping policies upon ourselves,” the members wrote in their application for state funding. “The challenge is determining what the policies should be, taking into consideration their economic feasibility for our agricultural producers and rural communities as well as their regional support.”[...]

Researchers at Colorado State University, which will contribute $US 48,000 to the project, will develop four products. First, they will use computer models to analyze the relationship between water use and agricultural production over the next 100 years. Several levels of conservation will be assessed, showing a range of possible outcomes.

Farmers in northwest Kansas, for example, are in the second year of a five-year plan to reduce water use by 20 percent. Their economic performance under the restrictions is being assessed by Kansas State University in a separate, ongoing study.

Next, the Colorado State University researchers will fan out into the community to educate farmers about the results of the modeling.

Then farmers will take a survey that asks what types of policies they prefer for achieving the reductions in water use. Goemans, the economist, said that policies will fall into one of two categories: those that put a price on water and those that put a cap on how much farmers use.

Lastly, the researchers will combine the modeling results and the survey preferences in a set of recommended policies…

The Colorado State University study has the conditional support of the state water board, said Rebecca Mitchell, head of the water supply planning section.

Mitchell told Circle of Blue that approval of the grant on Friday is “likely” though the state wants to see a few more letters of support to ensure the project has wide appeal. The board itself is interested, viewing the study as a template for analyzing water conservation policies in other areas of the state.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.


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