Colorado River Water Conservation Pilot Program Wraps Up

Jun 11, 2019

As part of the pilot program run by the Upper Colorado River Authority, ranchers turned off irrigation gates like this one when they were finished haying in late summer.
Credit Eric Barnes

For the last four years, Green River and Little Snake River basin ranchers have been getting paid not to irrigate in late summer to conserve Colorado River water. But the pilot phase of the program is now over. The next step is developing the technology to measure how much water is actually saved.

Big Piney Rancher and water engineer Chad Espenscheid said the key to making sure the program succeeds is proving the water was really making it down to the Colorado River.

"There needs to be more data collection as far as determining if what we did actually sent more water to the river or not," Espenscheid said.

As part of a new drought contingency agreement, Upper Basin states like Wyoming will now be able to store as much as 500,000 acre feet of conserved water to fill lower basin demands. But that's only if they figure out how to quantify the saved water.

Espenscheid said the program is definitely worth keeping. He said it made it worth his while to participate, paying him enough to expand his cattle herd.

But as for quantifying how much water he really conserved?

"How much? Who knows," he said. "But for sure there was water going down the creek that we probably would have used."

Espenscheid said he plans to work on possible methods to answer that question, like developing computer models or creating measuring devices to install in streams.

Wyoming's Trout Unlimited Director Cory Toye says the test run was popular with ranchers and translated to real benefits for native trout.

"More water in the stream towards the late summer leads to improved habitat," said Toye.

He said the only way real water conservation will work is to offer win-win solutions like this one.

"The landowners were compensated to leave that water in the stream, so during that time of year they were able to pencil it out that that water could be worth more to them in stream than out."

Toye said with more droughts expected around the West, conservation efforts like this one can make or break Colorado River management.