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Paid not to farm? An expanded Colorado River conservation program divides agriculture community

Farmer Greg Vlaming is leading a local effort to promote the program in the region. He lives in Lewis, Colorado.
Chris Clements
Farmer Greg Vlaming is leading a local effort to promote the program in the region. He lives in Lewis, Colorado.

Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at record lows. The nation’s largest reservoirs sit on the drought-stricken Colorado River. To keep them from declining further, federal officials are ready to spend tens of millions of dollars to incentivize farmers and other water users to conserve in 2023.

A rebooted System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) in the river’s Upper Basin states – Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – has been taking funding applications from interested parties this winter in preparation for the upcoming growing season.

But the program’s premise, of paying farmers not to farm on some of their fields this year and leave some of their irrigation water in streams, has left some growers conflicted about their role in balancing the region’s water supplies and demands.

Farmer Greg Vlaming lives in Lewis, in southwest Colorado. On a snowy morning he stood at his metal diversion box, through which water flows to irrigate his fields.

“There's been a lot of conservation done in this area over the years to deliver and use the water as efficiently as possible,” he said.

Those ongoing conservation efforts are getting a significant expansion this year in the form of the rebooted SCPP. Vlaming is trying to convince other farmers in the region that the program is a good idea.

“I think conservation is something that we're obligated to do, given our weather situation and our and our shortage of water,” he said.

The SCPP passed Congress in December and draws on $125 million in federal funds. That money would pay farmers like Vlaming to use less water and leave some of their fields unplanted this growing season.

Here's how the program works: Farmers and other water users throughout Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah can apply for federal payments, and in exchange, they promise to use less water from the Colorado River and its tributaries. The water they would have used to grow their crops stays in the river, possibly boosting the levels at the river’s flagging reservoirs.

The program was initially tested for four years starting in 2015 with smaller projects scattered across the river’s Upper Basin. The Upper Colorado River Commission, the agency tasked with implementing the expanded program, set the base price for water in the expanded 2023 program at $150 per acre-foot of water conserved, though water users could propose a higher price with justification.

“We've been in a 20-plus year drought here and we're trying to make the most of what little water we have,” Vlaming said.

But while some farmers see the program as a common sense reaction to dwindling supplies, others see it as a slippery slope.

“I'm not planning on applying,’ said Jeremy Redshaw, a farmer who lives just down the road from Vlaming in Dove Creek. “I feel like it's too close to demand management.”

Demand management is a concept proposed in the 2019 drought contingency plan, with some similarities to system conservation, with a few key differences. Under demand management the conserved water would be accounted for in Lake Powell and set aside to ensure the Upper Basin states met downstream obligations to California, Nevada and Arizona. System conservation makes no such promises. Upper Basin states have studied the feasibility of demand management but haven’t stood up those programs.

These types of conservation programs that pay farmers not to farm for temporary periods of time are polarizing. Redshaw said he’s concerned if farmers start reducing their water use, it could have ripple effects throughout the local economy.

“I want to keep farming, I want my kids to keep farming,” he said.

Elizabeth Koebele studies water policy at the University of Nevada-Reno, and says farmers might be wary of a program like the SCPP because they see it as a dangerous precedent – a small program that could someday result in the widespread drying of agricultural land.

“It could lead to – or I should say, longer term drying of land, which then has impacts like negative ecological outcomes,” Koebele said. “So I think those things are kind of on the top of people's heads with this.”

She also says the amount of money the program is initially offering this year, $150 per-acre-foot of water, could be too low to entice them to participate.

“If people know that we really need this water, then maybe they want to be paid a higher price for it. Maybe they're concerned about whether this compensation actually accounts for potential negative impacts to their field,” Koebele said.

It’s also difficult to prove the conserved water is actually ending up in Lake Powell, where it’s desperately needed, Koebele said. There is no guarantee that farmers’ sacrifices, and the federal funds to incentivize them, will actually help boost the reservoir’s levels.

To Chuck Cullom that’s a valid concern.

“So there is some risk that not all the water will make it to Lake Powell. That's a – that's a fair characterization,” said Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The SCPP is ultimately focused on making the Upper Basin more resilient to drying conditions, Cullom said.

“And so we will continually be evaluating the effectiveness of the actions based on the entirety of what's happening both in the Lower Basin and Upper Basin,” Cullom said.

But Cullom declined to give any specifics about how many water users have applied to the program so far, only offering that there was and continues to be significant interest.

The deadline for water users to apply to the SCPP was recently extended to March 1.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KSJD, distributed by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.