Colorado River

Protecting Water for Nature and People

“Many of the systems in place are more than 50 years old... Replacing these with modern, more efficient devices can provide huge savings in terms of time, labor, and most importantly, water,” — Aaron Derwingson, the Conservancy’s agricultural outreach coordinator in Colorado.

The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West, sustaining 36 million people, 5 million acres of irrigated land, 11 national parks and an immense variety of wildlife along its 1,450-mile route. But demand for water, spurred by historic drought conditions and a rising population, is intense. With so many claims on the river, it’s vital to make every drop go as far as possible.

Since nearly 80 percent of the river’s water is used for agriculture, The Nature Conservancy is building alliances with farmers and ranchers to find solutions that benefit agriculture and the river. One focus for the Conservancy is to help farmers find the funds to update their irrigation systems, a win–win proposition for the farmers and the river.

“Many of the systems in place are more than 50 years old,” explains Aaron Derwingson, the Conservancy’s agricultural outreach coordinator in Colorado. “They include water-intensive flood irrigation and labor-intensive gated pipe systems. Replacing these with modern, more efficient devices such as overhead sprinklers, drip irrigation and automated headgates can provide huge savings in terms of time, labor, and most importantly, water.”

Modern systems more closely match the amount of water that is diverted from the river to crop demand. The goal is to deliver the right amount of water just when a crop needs it and leave more water in the river for fish and wildlife and for recreation.

The vast majority of irrigation systems in the Colorado River basin need new equipment. Upgrades aren’t cheap, but Derwingson hopes a new program under the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will help farmers keep pace with changes. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), announced last May, helps farmers in the most critical watersheds pay for improvements using public funds which help leverage private funds and vice versa.

With support from the Conservancy, Olathe, Colorado farmer John Harold campaigned successfully to get the Colorado River basin designated as one of eight Critical Conservation Areas, qualifying the basin’s farmers to receive special funding under the RCPP. “The Conservancy has been hugely supportive,” says Harold. “They are good partners.”

“There are a lot of pressures on this water,” Harold adds. “But we’re going to be proactive about modernizing. I think people will come around and realize what needs to be done.” Derwingson is also working on the big picture by reaching out to the companies that deliver water. “In some places, there are 600 miles of canals and ditches delivering water,” he explains. “Improving that infrastructure can also make a big difference.”

In addition, the Conservancy is pushing for innovative policies and programs, such as a state water bank that would pay the holders of water rights to temporarily reduce water use.
For his part, Harold has noticed that there’s a growing sense of partnership between farmers in the region and conservation-minded groups, including the Conservancy. “The only way we’re going to survive is to work together,” he comments.

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