Colorado River

Q&A: Aaron Derwingson

A “collaborative conservationist” builds relationships with farmers and ranchers along the Colorado River.

The math is simple. Each year, we take out more water from the Colorado River than the waterway can provide.

Agriculture uses approximately 80% of the Colorado River’s water, yet cities and towns need secure water and food supplies as their populations grow. Competing demands for water may lead to contentious struggles over a limited resource.

Aaron Derwingson, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River agricultural outreach coordinator, sees it differently.

He’s building relationships with the agricultural community and working together to find innovative strategies that save water for people and nature.

How much of the Colorado River’s water is used for agriculture and where does it go?


The Colorado River irrigates 3.2 million acres within the Colorado River Basin itself and 2.5 million acres outside of the basin in places like California’s Imperial Valley.

So if you’re eating carrots or lettuce in the winter, chances are the Colorado River irrigated these crops.

What are some of the challenges saving the Colorado River’s water?


For one thing, many water irrigation systems along the Colorado River are more than 100 years old.

Also, western water law often encourages users to keep channeling water away from rivers. It’s the “use it or lose it” principle.

So we’re looking at how to adjust our water policies to protect water users who keep water in the Colorado River.

Is it possible to have enough water for agriculture and rivers?


We have new technologies and a better understanding of crop science and are testing innovative water-saving strategies across the Colorado River basin.

These technologies allow users to provide enough water to crops while sustaining healthy river flows.

For instance, automated headgates can change according to water demand—and also pay irrigation districts for water left in the river at end of each season.

What are some of the new ways farmers are saving water on the Colorado River?


We’re partnering to design a Colorado Water Bank where willing water rights holders get paid to forgo water on a temporary basis and “bank” that water for use at other times and in other places.

Also, in Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley, which irrigates about 75,000 acres, we’re part of a team improving water delivery mechanisms like automating headgates, something that’s been very successful on Arizona’s Verde River.

And near Colorado’s Yampa River, we’re finding ways agricultural producers can lease excess water to other producers—and create important benefits for streams and creeks that need more water.

What values does the agricultural community share with the river conservation community?


I general, I think agricultural producers care just as much or more about our water resources than anyone else—they want to be good stewards and their livelihoods depend on it.

We all want to make sure the Colorado River is there for future generations and want to be good stewards.

You can help! Donate today to make a difference for nature and people on the Colorado River.