Water corner: Grand County projects explore drought resilience strategies

Hannah Holm
American Rivers
The upper Colorado River flows through a green valley.
Russ Schnitzer/Courtesy photo

Thanks to abundant snowfall this past winter, the Colorado River near Kremmling is currently (as of May 15) running at 2,700 cubic feet per second, about the equivalent of 2,700 basketballs full of water passing by each second. That’s about three times the flow at the same place and time last year, which was 936 cfs.

The abundant moisture is a welcome respite from several years of dry conditions affecting the Kremmling area and the rest of the Colorado River Basin that stressed ranchers and rivers, which led to unprecedented media coverage of plummeting water levels downstream at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But given that other recent wet years, 2011 and 2019, were followed closely by very dry years, ranchers haven’t stopped worrying about how to stay in business when Mother Nature is less generous.

Sustaining agriculture is one of the key themes of the basin plan developed by the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a group of water managers and stakeholders responsible for “bottom up” water planning
and allocating grant funding to address water needs. Planning for uncertain water supplies is one of the plan’s key strategies, and the difference between river flows last year and this year demonstrates why.The Colorado River has always been highly variable and in recent decades the low flows have been coming more frequently and intensely than the high flows.

As water supplies in the Colorado River have dwindled, various strategies have been discussed for how to balance supply and demand, including paying water users to use less. For agriculture, that could mean paying an irrigator to pause irrigation for a season or part of a season. In the Kremmling area and other high-elevation ranching areas, there has been significant concern about how the perennial grasses raised for hay and grazing would respond to a period without water over the long term. Would they bounce back quickly, or would the fertility of the fields take a long-term hit?

In response to these questions, Kremmling area rancher and Colorado Basin Roundtable member Paul
Bruchez rallied his neighbors, Colorado State University researchers and others to develop a research project to find the answers. With funding provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on the
roundtable’s recommendation, several ranchers agreed to stop watering some of their fields for part or all of the 2020 irrigation season. The ranchers were compensated financially to make up for lost revenues from the dried-up fields.

The project, which is still underway, has already yielded interesting results and new questions to
investigate further. In the first year of normal irrigation following the dry-up period, some fields recovered to near-normal productivity or even better, while others significantly underperformed. The reasons for the differences aren’t entirely clear, anecdotal observations indicate that different plant species may be playing a role. This has led to another research project that is just getting underway – with Colorado Basin Roundtable support – to test whether different forage species may be able to flourish and hold up better under dry conditions.

The original research project included several other elements as well, including testing different methods of estimating water consumption by fields, economic impacts and implications for streamflows and bird habitat. While the project is still ongoing, it does appear that remote sensing of water use with satellite imagery holds promise as an economical substitute for expensive field instrumentation. The economic impacts of accepting payments for curtailing irrigation depend in part on whether hay is being raised primarily for sale or to support a ranch’s own cattle. Streamflow impacts have been hard to observe, and bird detections appear to go down when fields are dry but then recover when irrigation resumes.

This research on how high elevation fields respond to dry conditions, and whether different plant species can make a difference in their resilience, will provide important information to ranchers on what options they have to sustain their operations during this historically dry period. Better information on how their fields are likely to respond to dry conditions, whether those conditions are brought on by a choice to withhold irrigation water or a stingy snowpack, will enable them to make more informed decisions about how to manage their operations for long-term resilience.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado River Roundtable offers numerous grants to water providers and other entities statewide for a variety of water-related projects, studies, planning documents, awareness campaigns and other activities. For a complete overview of funding opportunities go to

For additional ways to support waterways in the Colorado River basin, consider getting involved with the programs of the Public Education, Participation and Outreach Committee of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. The roundtable is a group of water managers and stakeholders who work to solve water-related issues within the Colorado River Basin in the state of Colorado from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Utah state line. Their goals are to protect, conserve and develop
water supplies within the Colorado Basin and the Western Slope of Colorado for future needs.

American Rivers, Colorado State University, Utah State University, Kremmling ranchers, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited were partners in the study mentioned in this article. For more information visit

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