From the Colorado to the Yampa
California’s drought grabbed headlines this year, helping to raise awareness of the plight of the entire region’s lifeline—the Colorado River.
Demand for the Colorado River’s water—for agriculture, cities and industry—is intense in the seven states and two countries that rely on it. In fact, demand currently outstrips supply, leaving little water for the environment. Meanwhile, the region is experiencing its 15th straight year of one of the worst droughts in the past 1,500 years.
The result? The river’s flow dropped to as little as 25 percent of normal levels in recent years, resulting in record low water levels in the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The Yampa River, which runs through the Carpenter Ranch, is suffering too, running below normal levels this year.
If water levels fall too far in Lake Powell, its dam may be unable to continue generating electricity. Environmental programs that depend on revenue from hydropower generation, including efforts to help endangered fish, would also suffer. If the decline continues, Denver and other Front Range cities could be forced to restrict water use to meet the requirements of the Colorado River Compact, an agreement signed in 1922 that divvies up the Colorado River’s water among the seven states.
Testing a Solution
One solution to avoid or minimize these impacts is to reduce withdrawals from the river voluntarily, including for agricultural and municipal use, allowing the water to flow downstream into Lake Powell and benefiting the environment along the way. These reductions would be temporary and water would be withdrawn for agriculture again after a short time.
To test this solution, the Carpenter Ranch joined four other pilot sites in Colorado and five in Wyoming to make up the Colorado River System Conservation Program. The $11-million program to conserve water is being funded by municipal water providers serving Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles; the Central Arizona Water Conservation District; and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Ranching and Conservation Go Hand in Hand
The Carpenter Ranch, located near Steamboat Springs, is a great site for a pilot project. The ranch is owned by the Conservancy but leased to a rancher who grows hay and raises cattle. The four fields participating in the pilot, totaling 197 acres, were irrigated for only the first half of the irrigation season last summer.
Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project director, says that the Conservancy has a long history of combining ranching and conservation and finding creative solutions. “This pilot is an exploratory project to understand the impacts of temporary fallowing on the ranch, the Yampa River and the overall Colorado River system,” he says. “There’s a lot of common interest to find solutions that work for our communities, farms and rivers.”
“Colorado’s Front Range receives about 50% of its water from the Colorado River,” adds Taylor Hawes, the Conservancy’s Colorado River program director. “If a crisis does hit—an even more severe or prolonged drought—the information from projects like this one can be used to design a fair way of sharing the water. It benefits all of us to figure out an equitable path forward.”
Although the short-term consequence of reducing irrigation may be a smaller hay yield and fewer cattle on the Carpenter Ranch this fall, finding ways to share water will ultimately help all who depend on the Colorado River for survival.