Money-for-water experiment gaining steam in Colorado River basin

Sarah Tory / Aspen Journalism

PINEDALE, Wyoming — When Freddie Botur, 45, whose ranch spans 72,000 acres outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, first heard about a program that paid ranchers not to irrigate, he was skeptical. But Nick Walrath, a project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, assured him he’d receive about $200 for every acre-foot of water that he allowed to just run down the river.

For Botur, that would mean over $240,000 for fallowing roughly 1,700 acres of hayfields for the latter half of the summer of 2015, letting 1,202 acre-feet of water flow past his headgate on Cottonwood and Muddy creeks, tributaries of the Green River, instead of to his fields.

“Oh, my God,” he thought. “This is insane.”

Botur, talkative and athletic, was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a cowboy hat when we met in June on his family’s Cottonwood Ranch at the foot of the Wyoming Range. For Wyoming ranchers, he explained, that kind of money could amount to as much as a third of their annual revenue.

Some local ranchers, however, suspected that the program was actually a secret plot to take away water rights. When Dennis Schroeder, who ranches on 355 acres of high-desert land outside Pinedale, decided to participate, some people tried to discourage him. “Once you do that, you’ll never get it back,” one rancher warned him.

Schroeder understood there was a trade-off — turning off his irrigation water early meant he’d lose out on some hay production — but once he did the math, the deal made sense. He participated for the first two years, receiving almost $15,000 each year for turning off his irrigation water in mid-July on 81 acres, letting 74 acre-feet of water remain in Pine Creek, a tributary of the Green River, which flows into the Colorado.

The money-for-water program was an experiment, launched in 2014 by the four largest municipal water providers in the Colorado River Basin along with the Bureau of Reclamation. The goal: Find out whether it was feasible to pay ranchers to use less water on their fields, so that more water could flow down the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the Colorado River system’s two biggest storage buckets.

After three years, the initiative, known as the “System Conservation Pilot Program,” proved popular even with skeptical ranchers. After some initial uncertainty about whether the program would continue, in September, water officials announced that it would run at least through 2018 while they look for ways to create a permanent version of the program.


The year 2014 marked a new level of urgency for water managers along the Colorado. In July, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, dipped to its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. Upstream, Lake Powell was also in bad shape. Climate models indicated that the drought was a harbinger of a future marked by rising temperatures — a future in which city water providers could no longer depend on the Colorado River to meet their needs.

For water officials in the Upper Colorado Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — the ongoing drought posed an additional threat. According to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which governs the allocation of the river’s water, the Upper Basin has to deliver a required volume of water to Lake Mead from Lake Powell. If they fail to do so, the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California could make a so-called “compact call.” That would force the Upper Basin states to stop diverting all post-1922 water rights from the Colorado River until the Lower Basin got its share.

“The cutbacks would go very deep,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

And yet, water officials had barely discussed how to avoid such a scenario, said James Eklund, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and now an attorney in Denver. As the drought worsened, officials came to an uncomfortable conclusion. Said Eklund: “If it gets really bad, we had no plan.”

The severity of the drought encouraged a new spirit of collaboration among the Colorado River’s competing factions. Water officials, environmentalists and irrigators began meeting in conferences, on river trips, in hotel bars and coffee shops, choosing negotiation and trust over potential court battles.

During a 2013 brainstorming session in Hermosa Beach, California, John Enstminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and the other big municipal water managers who rely on the Colorado River came up with what would become the System Conservation Pilot Program — a way to strike a balance between their need to avoid a catastrophic water shortage and farmers’ reluctance to sell off their water rights.

They brought the idea to officials from the Upper Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation. Together, they created a $15 million fund to compensate people in the Colorado River Basin for using less water. The program targeted ranchers and farmers — who own the vast majority of water rights on the river — but municipalities could apply, too.

It would be temporary and voluntary — and every gallon of water saved would go directly back to the river. “No one had done that before,” Entsminger said. “You’re investing money, and no one’s name is on it.”

The pilot program worked by soliciting proposals from people who volunteered to leave a portion of their water rights unused. Applicants submitted proposals describing their intended conservation activities, which were then reviewed to ensure that they would actually leave more water in the Colorado River system.


The four municipal water providers contributed $8 million to the program, with an additional $3 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. The fund was spread among projects in all seven Colorado River Basin states, and by this fall, according to Michelle Garrison, who managed the program’s contracts for the Upper Colorado River Commission, an expected 21,590 acre-feet will have been left in the Upper Basin (and almost 98,000 acre-feet in the Lower Basin by 2025).

True, that’s just a drop in the bucket for Lake Powell, which stores water from the Upper Basin of the Colorado River and had 14.65 million acre-feet in it as of Oct. 5. But it was the principle, and the experience, behind the System Conservation Program, that may prove most important.

“Nobody really knew how (the program) would go,” said Cory Toye, the Wyoming water project director for Trout Unlimited.

There was a lot of doubt over whether the farmers and ranchers would even consent to participate. For many of them — wary of the legacy of big-city “water grabs” — accepting money from Las Vegas or Denver seemed like a form of betrayal. Entsminger knew they had to tread carefully; convincing Western ranchers and farmers that Las Vegas was “here to help” would not be easy.

The program’s architects agreed that it would not look good if Lower Basin water managers were seen as paying for Upper Basin water, so the two basins used the funding separately. The Bureau of Reclamation would fund projects in both basins, but money from Denver Water would fund only Upper Basin projects, while funding from the other municipalities was reserved for the Lower Basin.

Water law, in some states, poses another hurdle. If farmers use less water than their allotment, they risk losing some of their water rights. In the future, Garrison hopes to see other states adopt legislation similar to Colorado’s, where enrollment in approved conservation programs means changes in water use cannot cause a farmer to lose a portion of his water right.

This year, heavy snows in the Rocky Mountains helped offset persistent drought throughout the Colorado River Basin. Just how much climate change will reduce the Colorado’s flow remains uncertain, but the pilot program at least made one thing clear: Ranchers and farmers proved surprisingly open to accepting money from metropolitan water providers in exchange for leaving some water in the river.

Last May, Botur traveled from his ranch in Pinedale to Washington, D.C., with Trout Unlimited’s Toye and several other ranchers who participated in the pilot program, to help secure more federal funding and support for the program’s future. In two years, Botur had gone from skeptic to lobbyist. It was better, he believed, to have a voluntary program that rewards people for doing what you need rather than using regulations to force them to do your bidding.

Botur shut off his water even earlier than his contract required, and he knows other ranchers who did so, too. Saving water was part of it, but Botur also believes the program helps promote other goals, as well — conservation of wildlife habitat, fisheries and overall watershed health. Not to mention the value of avoiding future conflicts that will likely arise from population pressure and climate change.

“It’s more than just money,” he said.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on coverage of water and rivers. More at

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