Cooperation key to protecting Upper Colorado water interests
Against the backdrop of the brutal drought in California and dwindling water supplies across the arid West, management of supply and demand for the Colorado River is getting increasingly precarious. Complex management challenges have brought together a diverse set of stakeholders to address innovative solutions designed to meet growing municipal, agricultural, environmental and recreational demands in the face of dwindling supplies.
“We all recognize that shortages have already been incredibly damaging to water users including our environment,” said Russ Schnitzer, agriculture policy adviser for Trout Unlimited. “The Upper Colorado River Basin supports diverse agricultural production, which is a cornerstone supporting rural Western Slope communities, as well as the fish and wildlife habitats we all treasure. Together, these elements comprise a major share of Colorado’s economy. We can’t afford to do damage to these incredibly important assets.”
We have seen our potential water future — and it’s not pretty. Years of sustained drought and warmer temperatures, combined with a rigid regulatory framework, are making water management increasingly difficult and driving severe water shortages in California and elsewhere in the arid West. Sharp cutbacks in California have already been imposed on producers in one of the nation’s largest food-producing regions. This year, much of California’s irrigated farmland will lose more than 80 percent of its surface water allocation. Over 3 million acres of California’s irrigated farmland will see deep cuts to normal water deliveries, and an estimated 1 million acres of land will lie fallow and unproductive.
“All water users must work together to protect our shared future in the Colorado River Basin,” Schnitzer added. “We need to be vigilant to ensure that agricultural, conservation and recreational values are not caught in the middle of a no-win tug-of-war.”
Farm and ranch interests agree.
“This is no time to argue. It is time for all of us to bring collaborative solutions to the next level, something befitting of the Colorado Basin’s legacy of resource stewardship. Municipal, conservation and agricultural interests must work together to find solutions to our water challenges,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance. “Cooperative action and shared investments are needed now.”
“Collaboration is needed today to keep us ahead of our significant water challenges, before they spiral into a crisis that pits one water use sector against another,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
The State of Colorado has successfully weathered 15 years of record-setting drought conditions, yet the mounting challenges of balancing supply and demand continue to push Colorado River water resources to the limit. Runoff projections are below 50 percent in the upper Colorado River Basin, foreshadowing another year of well below-average runoff.
Although some fear this may be the “new normal” for water supply conditions, there is some good news on the horizon.
“I am cautiously hopeful that we can meet the water challenges in the Upper Colorado River Basin, but only if we seize upon the opportunities right now,” Kuhn said. “We need to develop and implement new and flexible water management tools for water providers. Together with the states and federal agencies, we must build resilience and flexibility into our water systems as we face the future.”
“For example, right now we are managing a series of cooperatively-funded investments with agriculture to improve critical infrastructure designed to stretch our water resources while protecting our agricultural heritage,” he said. He pointed to alternative cropping, deficit irrigation and water banking as innovative tools that deserve more funding and support.
For years, Trout Unlimited has partnered with farmers and ranchers throughout the West to achieve pragmatic, win-win results for fish and ag operations. “We’re committed to working with agricultural producers — for them, finding solutions is a way of life,” noted Schnitzer.
TU is working with agriculture producers on several projects in western Colorado, upgrading irrigation systems to improve water delivery while enhancing river habitat and fisheries.
Water managers and conservation groups stress that there are no “silver bullets” — the water challenges ahead will require sustained action on multiple fronts. All stakeholders in the Upper Colorado Basin must be part of the solution. From municipalities to farms and from recreational communities to industrial centers, all water users must consider new systems and to be prepared to change.
“Solutions-oriented partnerships are what the Upper Colorado Basin’s water future must look like, with cooperation, not conflict, as the guiding principle,” said Keppen. “We don’t have to face a diminished future — we can still have productive farms, healthy rivers and thriving communities, even in dry times. We can still meet all of our diverse water needs — but only if we work together.
Randy Scholfield is director of communications for Trout Unlimited, Southwest region.
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