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Conservation Principles at Work in Colorado

August 17, 2017
Mike Connor
On the state’s arid western slope, a pilot ‘water bank’ pays growers to reduce water use

In February, after serving eight years in the Obama Administration at the U.S. Department of the Interior, I began a fellowship with the environment program at the Walton Family Foundation. One of the fellowship’s objectives was to apply my experience in water and other natural resource issues to help the foundation advance its conservation and sustainability goals related to rivers and oceans, particularly the Colorado River. With my fellowship coming to an end, it’s clear to me that whatever contributions I made during my tenure, they were returned in full by the benefit of witnessing conservation successes from a new perspective.

The experience reaffirmed some basic principles, fundamental to the foundation, that are key to building successful conservation initiatives:

  1. A strong recognition that conservation solutions that make economic sense are the ones that stand the test of time; and
  2. While it’s vitally important to find solutions at the national or international level, the most critical actions and collaboration happen at the local level.

The foundation’s environment program brings together conservation, business and community interests with the goal of working on long-term solutions that protect and sustain natural resources while addressing the needs of local economies. The objectives are clear, but making progress is obviously complex. It requires actions that establish strong relationships with different stakeholders, who often have different priorities.

In the Colorado River basin, the foundation is supporting locally-led efforts to address a specific and growing set of challenges to healthy rivers and sustainable local economies, particularly those that are agricultural-based. A very good example is taking place on Colorado’s western slope, where a systematic effort is underway to test and evaluate a new approach to address increasing risks to agriculture, the environment and water users throughout the river’s upper basin.

"...there is a strong recognition of the need for ongoing improvement and refinement in how we use our finite and limited natural resources, particularly water."

Despite a relatively good water year in 2017, the last 16 years have been characterized by extreme drought. No one there has forgotten those dry years.

Reservoir levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead have plummeted – the result of both a lack of precipitation and climate-change induced higher temperatures. The risk of declared shortages in the basin has been steadily increasing. This poses an array of risks to water users and other economic interests.

Rather than passively waiting for the inevitable, Colorado’s west-slope water users, a few years ago, began considering the concept of a water bank in the river’s upper basin. The idea of a water bank is to use a market-based approach to compensate water users for temporarily reducing water diversions to avoid regional shortages, thereby improving water supply reliability by deploying tools that help manage risks. In addition, the bank can be operated in a manner that improves watershed health. To appropriately evaluate the concept, western slope interests initiated a working group to consider various issues and broadened the dialogue to include environmental and front range groups.

Collectively, this collaborative effort provided an opportunity for growers within the Grand Valley Water Users Association around Grand Junction, Colorado, to participate in a system conservation pilot project sponsored by the Bureau of Reclamation, basin states and local water districts.

The pilot project, initiated in 2015, is paying growers to reduce water use on specific parcels while enabling local water officials to thoroughly evaluate the impacts of temporary fallowing. Local officials and growers are also assessing the potential benefits to farmers and ranchers of a program that provides value for their water rights.

To be sure, there are a number of issues that need to be worked through – on both a local and regional basis – before the water bank concept can be implemented for the upper basin as a whole. Starting on a voluntary basis with the actual water users themselves is the best and only workable approach to designing a program that might gain acceptance from the water user community and be scaled up to address basin needs. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in July with people involved in the pilot project. It was incredibly encouraging to hear them describe the progress made so far – and to join the candid discussions they were having about how to work through the issues.

This approach is at the core of the American ingenuity and collaboration that have been our long-held recipe for a continuously improving quality of life.

The bottom line is that there is a strong recognition of the need for ongoing improvement and refinement in how we use our finite and limited natural resources, particularly water. That’s not only my perspective – it’s also what I heard from folks during our tour of the western slope. While opinions differ, there is a growing recognition that Colorado’s water resources are under increasing pressures due to many factors, including climate change, population increases, economic competition and, ultimately, political pressures internal and external to the State.

But far from panic, there is optimism about the potential to work across diverse interests. There is real desire to seize opportunities to develop new tools and build support for increased investments that maintain and improve economic opportunities, while also improving environmental conditions.

This approach is at the core of the American ingenuity and collaboration that have been our long-held recipe for a continuously improving quality of life. In August 1962, President Kennedy traveled to the San Luis Valley in California to celebrate a joint federal-state water project, the construction of San Luis Reservoir. In addressing the gathered guests, the President specifically addressed the nature of collaboration:

“Progress represents the combined will of the American people. And [it is] only when they are joined together for action instead of standing still and thinking that everything that had to be done has been done . . . that this country moves ahead and that we prepare the way for those that come after us.”

The principles guiding the foundation’s philanthropic efforts in the Colorado River basin support the ideas of collaboration, action and progress. They are as important now as they were when President Kennedy articulated them 55 years ago. Fortunately, these principles are alive and well on Colorado’s western slope and will hopefully lead to results that prepare the way for those that follow.

Mike Connor is an Environment Program Fellow with the Walton Family Foundation and the former Deputy Secretary of the Interior and Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

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