Fish and farms: every drop counts


By Jesse Kruthaupt

I don’t know how many people out there have tried to persuade a farmer or rancher to turn off his irrigation water and lived to tell about it. I have—and I can tell you it’s really not an easy conversation. Nevertheless, these conversations are happening more and more across the West, and it’s not only irrigators who are engaged. For over a decade, Trout Unlimited has been working on projects that help irrigators reduce diversions in order to improve stream flows and fish habitat. Thanks to the Colorado System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), over the last two years TU has facilitated over 22 projects that resulted in the conservation of more than 7,500 acre feet of water in the Colorado River Basin. The SCPP, coordinated by the Upper Colorado River Commission, has moved this conversation about water conservation forward in a way that is unprecedented.

I’m at the headwaters of the Gunnison River, a major tributary to the Colorado River. Up here it’s easy to forget that we are part a river system that is under extreme pressure and is experiencing historical shortages lower in the basin. Locally, we face the challenge of maintaining summer stream flows for trout habitat, irrigation, and recreation on many of these snow melt-driven headwater streams.

These challenges, on the local and system-wide levels, also bring opportunities for collaboration and innovation. During the summer of 2016, two producers in my area agreed to enroll in the SCPP conservation program and shut their irrigation off July 1—about 20 days earlier than usual. They were compensated for the conserved water that was not diverted from the stream after that date. By July 7,  flows in both streams plummeted. In one case, the channel would have been completely dried up if the irrigators had not participated in the SCPP program. Both of these examples were good for the fishery, good for the producer, and good for folks downstream in need of water.

One of the participating irrigators saw this conservation program as a chance to make much-needed irrigation infrastructure improvements. They have partnered with TU and leveraged the funds from SCPP to get other grants necessary to pay for infrastructure upgrades, which will improve water management and stream flows in future years. This would not have been possible without the opportunity and operational flexibility provided by SCPP.

Of course, since we’re talking about water in the Southwest, it’s not always that simple. The primary purpose of this pilot program is to test if this simple concept of voluntary compensated water conservation could address water shortages in a very complex system. The SCPP program will also help answer long-standing localized questions such as: How will the crop respond the year following fallowing? How will the change in irrigation timing effect base flows in the stream? And most importantly, what is a rancher going to do with the spare time when he’s not irrigating? These are all important questions, and the SCPP provides a perfect opportunity to answer them. 

Supply and demand is always a tough balance to maintain. In the West, this balancing act centers on the rivers and streams that sustain us. Mother Nature makes the call on how much water will be available from year to year, and it’s up to us to balance uses to ensure cold, clean, fishable water for our communities. Tools that encourage good water management and allow flexibility to water users will provide a broader foundation to balance on and make those tough water conversations so much easier. 

Check out this new video highlighting ranchers talking about collaborative water projects in the Upper Gunnison: 


Jesse Kruthaupt is a Gunnison Basin project specialist for Trout Unlimited.



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