Hell or High Water
Finding solutions to the Colorado River's diminishing flows and over-appropriated water rights
The Colorado River may not be the largest river in the U.S., but it is a crucial resource supplying water to approximately 40 million people and irrigating close to 4 million acres of farm and ranch land each year.
Because of its importance, in 1922, seven states within the Colorado River Basin and the federal government reached an agreement that currently governs the allocation of the water rights among the states connected. Dubbed the Colorado River Compact, the agreement divides the river basin into two areas: The Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) where the water originates and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) where water demands were developing at the time. The year 1922 is significant as water rights adjudicated after this date have a lower priority under the Compact.
The legal right to use every drop is owned or claimed by someone and vastly exceeds its actual flow making it dangerously over-appropriated and the most heavily litigated river in the country.
Under the Compact, the Upper Basin States are obligated to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water downstream to the thirsty Lower Basin states.
Unfortunately, this requirement was derived from faulty baseline data as the rainfall patterns that occurred in years prior were abnormally high and the flows were vastly overestimated. Delivery of this water will be further impacted by warming climate projections that indicate the region will become drier in the long-term, and we may be in an era of steadily declining river flows along the Colorado. To make matters worse, demand in all of the basin states like Colorado is increasing as populations continue to grow, further stressing the already over-allocated river.
These devastating impacts are evident in the water storage levels within the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, measured in order to determine if the Compact obligations are being met. Recently the reservoir levels have dropped to their lowest levels since 1937 and have shrunk to less than half their capacity. Until now, the system has worked, but if the Upper Basin states fail to deliver the mandatory volume of water to the reservoirs then the Lower Basin states could make a “Compact call” forcing the Upper Basin to curtail use of post-1922 water rights from the Colorado. That means Colorado’s growing population, amid a warming and drier climate, will be forced to use less water so Lower Basin states can receive their legally obligated share.
To address diminishing flows and greater demand for the water, agricultural producers in Colorado’s West Slope are participating in a voluntary pilot program that compensates them for temporarily fallowing their crops and letting the water run down the river.
In 2014, facing declining levels in lakes Mead and Powell, the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), the Bureau of Reclamation and four water providers piloted a program in the Upper Basin to test water conservation strategies that could be part of a drought contingency plan.
The goal of the Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) was to demonstrate the viability of proactive, cooperative and voluntary compensated means to reduce the risk of reaching critical reservoir levels needed to protect Compact entitlements. The program allows farmer and ranchers to voluntarily and temporarily let water run down the river and forego the use of their water to irrigate fields in exchange for compensation. The SCPP also reduces “buy and dry” scenarios where struggling farmers are bought out so developers can have access to their water for neighborhoods or transfer their water to municipalities.
A shining example is the 9,177-acre Porcupine Ridge Ranch in Routt County and the latest to take advantage of the UCRC’s program by voluntarily reducing consumptive use of its water rights and fallowing 1,941 acres of their irrigated hay fields, or nearly 20 percent of their ranch. In exchange, the ranch will receive up to $421,650, in addition to the current cattle and hunting leases that remain operative alongside the water fallowing. This is one of the largest awards given to a single property in Colorado and outlines a model of what’s to come, if ranchers and farmers take advantage of the opportunity while they can.
As the Compact nears its 100th birthday, policymakers and landowners alike need to take an honest and accurate view at rainfall rates amidst a warming and migrating population to rebalance water needs and who gets what (and why.) The SCPP is a start in the right direction as it addresses water supply shortages and provides a possible hedge against potential future Compact calls. It also benefits agricultural producers by creating a potential income source by funding voluntary conservation measures while also avoiding buy and dry measures that separate their water from the land.
Ken Mirr is broker/owner of Mirr Ranch Group LLC and has been active in western land issues for the past 25 years. He is currently a board member of Western Landowners Alliance and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust.