High above the fertile fields of Colorado’s Grand Valley, a century-old dam stretches almost 550-feet across the mighty Colorado River.
For 100 years, the water stored behind the gates of this iconic ‘roller’ dam – an early 20th century engineering marvel built by the US Bureau of Reclamation – has been diverted down dozens of canals and pipeline to irrigate 33,000 acres of farmland on the state’s western slope.
Water is why agriculture remains the engine of the economy in Grand Valley. Its reliable supply is the only reason peach orchards and corn and vineyards can thrive in this arid desert landscape at all.
Mark Harris intends to keep it that way.
As general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association – the largest irrigation provider in the region – Mark’s job is to make sure he delivers the water his member farmers need to grow their crops.
As population growth in the West fuels higher demand for water, and a changing climate increases scarcity, Mark and the GVWUA are embracing creative conservation measures – such as water banks –designed to keep the Colorado River flowing and western farms and ranches in business.
“If you have two dry years here on the Colorado River, your toes are sticking out over the edge of the abyss from a water supply perspective,” says Mark. “We have good water here. We have a high percentage of very senior water rights. But that doesn’t make any difference if there isn’t any water in the river.”
Concerns about water have grown steadily over the past 18 years as the West suffered through one of the most prolonged droughts in history.
In the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, farmers and ranchers began to think the unthinkable: Would they ever be forced to curtail water use, or pressured to sell water rights, because of shortages in major cities like Denver, Phoenix or Los Angeles.
“If we’ve got 40 million people down the river from us, looking up the river at our water, we definitely have a target on our back as far as being a potential place to look for water,” Mark says. “We wanted to get ahead of this curve a little bit. We needed to be thinking about how we protect our interests.”
Seeking to avoid the potential chaos created by a shortage, the GVWUA is working closely with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), federal and state agencies and private funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, to test the viability of water banks as a way to prevent future crises.
This market-based approach to conservation pays willing ranchers and farmers to temporarily limit their water use, giving them the opportunity to lease their water without selling their rights.
In 2017, 10 Grand Valley farmers who enrolled in the Conserved Consumptive Use Pilot Project withdrew 1,250 acres of land from agricultural production, saving water they would have otherwise used to irrigate crops.
The conserved water – about 1 billion gallons, or 3,200 acre feet – was not sent in the ditch to irrigate farms. Instead it was sent through a different ditch to the association’s hydropower plant, and returned back to the Colorado River just upstream of critical habitat for threatened native fish species. The conserved water benefited hydropower revenues and endangered fish, and bolstered storage at Lake Powell, the main reservoir in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin.
“We are attempting to create conservation benefit that’s economically sustainable. The farmer is made whole. They receive income in lieu of his crop that he would have grown,” says Mark.
“Instead of growing corn, or wheat, or alfalfa, on those acres, they're actually creating available water. That's the yield.”
In addition to compensating farmers, the Grand Valley Water Users Association received payments to fund irrigation infrastructure improvements that will increase efficiency and keep even more water in the river.
The $2 million program was conceived and developed over several years by the Colorado Water Bank Work Group, which brought together water users and conservationists, groups often at odds with each other.
Taylor Hawes, director of TNC’s Colorado River Program, says farmers are willing to explore ways to protect the river because they can protect themselves in the process.
“The one thing all water users want is certainty. Farmers and ranchers understand that if a crisis occurs on the Colorado River, they will be some of the first impacted,” she says. “They are interested in crafting a solution proactively rather than having a solution imposed on them.”