You might think of the Grand Canyon as one of the wildest places in the U.S. But the fact is, the Colorado River that runs through that canyon is not wild at all. Here’s a quote from Cadillac Desert, a documentary on water in the West.
"This river, the Colorado, can be turned on and turned off down to the last drop on orders from the Interior Secretary of the United States," a voiceover tells us. "This was the first river on earth to come under complete human control."
But where it starts in Wyoming as the Green River out of the Wind River Range, it is still wild, flowing down to feed an elaborate canyon ecosystem, not to mention several thirsty states.
But the question is, what’s the responsibility of headwater states like Wyoming to keep that river ecology healthy as the climate gets hotter and dryer?
Rancher Eric Barnes and his family live on Fontanelle Creek near Kemmerer in southwest Wyoming. It's a ranch his father built in the 1950's.
"It's a really beautiful place because it's kind of in the foothills of the desert."
And it backs onto the mountains where the creek flows down to join the Green River in Fontanelle Reservoir. While droughts have devastated crops in the southwest over the last few years, Barnes was having the opposite problem.
"I had been needing to rebuild all my diversions because they'd been blowed out, just from high water in the last few years," he says. "And I didn't know how I was going to afford to do all these projects because all the diversions needed worked on."
And those flood-damaged irrigation gates were expensive to replace. So he turned to Trout Unlimited who helped him turn his surplus irrigation water into a money maker. They helped him apply for a new multi-state pilot program through the Upper Colorado River Commission that pays water rights holders like Barnes not to irrigate.
Wyoming Trout Unlimited water and habitat director Cory Toye says while more flow in the stream will help droughts downstream, it’ll also help Wyoming’s wildlife that have suffered from the last 15-years of drought.
"There are tributaries where we've seen extended low flows over the last couple of years," Toye says. "If there's low conditions or tough habitat conditions in particular areas, the more we can do for trout to move around and find better habitat, the better we do."
Toye says, sure, Wyoming hasn't been hit by drought as hard as lower states, but it has still hurt some fish populations, and ranchers are in a perfect position to help.
In Wyoming, agriculture and cold water fisheries overlay each other extensively and, in fact, some of our most important fisheries are on private land.
Low flows are threatening the extinction of several native fish species downstream. Toye says high mountain ranchers can help conserve the Colorado River for such species. He says in late summer after they’ve cut their hay, ranchers have water to spare.
"These landowners that participated were able to increase the value of their private water right last season," he says. "There was a value associated with leaving it in the stream that the Upper Colorado River Commission compensated them for."
And they compensated them well. Rancher Eric Barnes wouldn’t say exactly how much he was paid not to irrigate, but the two-year program was funded at $2.7 million dollars to go to a few lucky ranchers in the four Upper Basin States. Barnes was one of only five in Wyoming.
Colorado River Conservation director Steve Wolff at the Wyoming State Engineer's Office says it’s not a new concept.
"This type of program—system conservation fallowing—has been ongoing in Lower Basin states for a long time. They do it, basically, every year. They're very efficient at it. We've never really tried it in the Upper Basin states."
But river ecologist Ellen Wohl at Colorado State University says paying ranchers for their water won’t protect the river’s ecology forever.
"I think it's a great idea to pay farmers not to use as much water or not to farm marginal lands," she says. "It's just a little bit vulnerable to economic fluctuations."
Like when the price of beef goes up and ranchers are less motivated to sell their water.
But she says the bigger threat to water conservation comes from states themselves. Governor Matt Mead plans to stockpile Wyoming’s share of water by building ten new water storage projects in the next ten years. And the state of Colorado means to build more dams too.
That approach seems schizophrenic to ecologist Wohl.
"If you view the Colorado River as an ecosystem, that ecosystem has to have a certain amount of water if it’s going to persist. So you can’t take all the water in the Upper Basin and basically have nothing get into the Lower Basin."
Wohl votes for removing dams, not building more, since they block the movement of organisms and sediment. She says it’s time to let the Colorado River return to its former shape with more flood plains, pools and curves.
Rancher Eric Barnes says many of his neighbors consider this crazy talk.
"A lot of people are skeptical because it's dealing with your water rights," he says. "And you can't blame anybody for being skeptical because water's life."
He says, personally, he hopes the Upper Colorado River Commission decides to adopt the water conservation program permanently. He appreciates the fact that his hay still gets the water it needs and puts cash in his pocket.