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This coverage of Western water issues is a collaboration with Source New Mexico and is part of a series made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Water Desk at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Colorado River growers say they’re ready to save water, but need to build trust with states and feds

John Hawk watches farmworkers pick vegetables in California's Imperial Valley on June 20, 2023. Researchers say growers' perspectives will be an important part of solutions to the Colorado River crisis. Agriculture uses about 80% of the river's water.
Alex Hager
John Hawk watches farmworkers pick vegetables in California's Imperial Valley on June 20, 2023. Researchers say growers' perspectives will be an important part of solutions to the Colorado River crisis. Agriculture uses about 80% of the river's water.

The Colorado River is in trouble, and farmers and ranchers are on the front lines of the crisis.

A new report surveyed more than 1,020 irrigators across six of the seven states that use the river’s water: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. About 70% said they are already responding to water shortages but many identified a trust gap with state and federal agencies that are trying to incentivize further water savings.

The report, from the Western Landowners Alliance and the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute, sheds light on attitudes in an industry that has an outsized role in the fate of the Colorado River. Farming and ranching uses about 80% of the river’s water, and policymakers negotiating its future walk a tightrope — balancing the need to cut back on water demand and the political and economic risks of taking that water from communities that depend on agriculture.

Programs that pay farmers to reduce their water use have been a major part of short-term water conservation deals in recent years, but they have polarized growers and spent millions to conserve relatively small amounts of water. The role of such programs in long-term water saving agreements has yet to be decided. The seven states that use the Colorado River are caught in a standoff ahead of a 2026 deadline to draw up new rules for how water is shared.

The Western Landowners Alliance report found that a majority of survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal “demand management” or “system conservation” programs to address water shortages. Those terms define how conserved water is used, and mean that saved water might be used by other states downstream.

The Western Landowners Alliance receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds a portion of KUNC's Colorado River coverage.

If demand management strategies were deployed, 74% of survey respondents said they’d prefer to have a local agency manage the program, as opposed to a state or federal agency. This speaks to a larger trend in the findings, where growers trust local agencies significantly more than state and federal ones.

Only about 14% of growers said there is a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies in their states. The same number said their state’s planning process was adequate for dealing with water supply issues.

State agencies tend to have the most impact on water policy in the arid West. Their appointed water managers handle everything from high-level interstate talks about the future of the Colorado River to nitty-gritty policies and funding decisions that help farmers modernize irrigation systems.

The report’s authors highlighted one data point in particular — the amount of growers already employing some form of water conservation. The farmers and ranchers who have done so, about 70% of those polled, said they were mostly driven by water shortages on their property or the anticipation that water shortages would be coming to their property.

“They recognize that the status quo is not sufficient going forward,” said Drew Bennett, a private lands researcher at the University of Wyoming who co-authored the study. “Encouragingly, I think we also see that among the states and from the Upper Colorado River Commission as well, adapting their programs and tailoring them to improve them going forward.”

Even though a majority of irrigators reported existing water saving work, a strikingly small number of them were doing so with the help of highly-touted state payment programs.

The “System Conservation Pilot Program,” which was recently extended into 2024, allows growers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to receive payouts in exchange for water conservation. The Upper Colorado River Commission often points to that program as a major water-saving effort, but very few of those polled even know it exists.

Only 12% of Upper Basin respondents said they were of the System Conservation Pilot Program, or SCPP. 18% of respondents in the Lower Basin, who aren’t even eligible for the program, were aware of it.

That program has been expensive and yielded relatively limited water savings. In 2023, it spent $16.1 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act on water conservation. That resulted in water savings of about 37,800 acre-feet, according to estimates from the Upper Colorado River Commission. The four states that agreed to the conservation program are allotted a total of 7.5 million acre-feet each year.

“If we have an increase of awareness, that might lead to greater participation and an opportunity for solutions in the Basin,” Bennett said.

Another one of the studies authors, Hallie Mahowald, said that lack of awareness is a point of improvement for incentive programs like the SCPP.

“Oftentimes there are tight timelines and there can be confusing information,” said Mahowald, chief programs officer at Western Landowners Alliance. “If landowners are getting mixed information, I think that can increase that lack of trust or desire to engage in the programs.”

Bennett was candid about one notable limitation of the study — it polled far more growers in the Upper Basin (893) than the Lower Basin (160). Meanwhile, many of the Colorado River’s biggest water users are farm districts in the Lower Basin states of California and Arizona. Over the summer, KUNC spoke with some of the California growers who comprise the Colorado River’s single largest water user.

The Western Landowners Alliance survey identified a few other notable data points. Respondents in both parts of the basin were generally opposed to water transfers, in which water rights are temporarily or permanently switched from one agricultural user to a city or other agricultural district.

Farmers and ranchers were, however, interested in upgrading their infrastructure to be more water efficient — such as switching from flood irrigation to center pivot or drip irrigation and lining canals with concrete.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced and distributed by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Alex Hager graduated from Elon University in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He'll join Aspen Public Radio from KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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