Water conservation

States are considering paying people to keep their water in the Colorado River. Some don’t think they can afford it

More than 40 million people depend on the Colorado River in the West, and every drop of it is used. But with climate change, there is now less water to circulate. In an attempt to avoid a legal battle between several states over this precious resource, Colorado and other states are considering pay people to keep more water in the river.

In southwest Gunnison County, farmers and ranchers rely on water that would otherwise end up in the Colorado River. Drought has plagued the region for over 20 years, so the resource is now more precious than ever.

Instead of using that water to irrigate his fields, farmer Bill Parker is paid by a nonprofit environmental association to send his water rights downstream.

Parker stands beside a stream that feeds the Colorado River. He operates the small metal gate of a barrier that is in the stream, cutting off the flow to his pastures. Now that it’s closed, Parker’s water will stay in the river.

“If they pay us more than what we think is the value of the production, it’s a no-brainer to do it,” Parker said.

Some see this concept, known as demand management, as a potential solution to a huge problem. The Colorado River has less water than a century ago for many different reasons, including climate change. But this river has yet to provide water to millions of people in several states and in Mexico.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas / CPR News
Breeder Bill Parker checks the measurement of the amount of water he is holding in the river, July 1, 2021.

Parker thinks a voluntary state program that pays people to use less water is a good idea.

“To me, it’s kind of like the borderline of how we’re going to make this work,” Parker said. As the manager of a ranch, he said his goal was to find a way to send more water into the river while still getting the same amount of production from his ranch that he was used to. from his pasture-raised beef and lamb farm.

Parker’s agreement with Trout Unlimited paid him $ 15,000 to keep the water in the creek to ensure conditions can support fish and a healthy ecosystem. The question for state water planners: Could a tool like this be scaled up to work in multiple states with millions of people and help keep enough water in the Colorado River and prevent states from suing each other?

This is what Colorado water officials are trying to figure out. If the state could buy water from people like Parker, that might help. But Parker said some ranchers don’t like the idea because they need water to stay in business.

“If this is in danger, of course they’re going to be nervous about it,” Parker said.

Why Does Colorado State Need More Water?

Michael Elizabeth Sakas / CPR News
Two men descend the Gunnison River on July 1, 2021.

Under a 100-year-old water-sharing agreement called the Colorado River Pact, Colorado must keep a certain amount of water in the river for other states to use. Climate change, prolonged drought and overfishing have eroded river levels, making it harder for Colorado and other upper basin states to meet their end of the deal.

Colorado is fulfilling its part of the deal by sending water downstream, where it is stored in Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Bad news? Powell has just hit its lowest level on record.

“Unless we have some kind of hydrological miracle, we’re going to have problems pretty quickly,” said John McClow, district general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy.

“We have to hurry, there is no doubt about it,” he said.

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