Colorado exploring program to pay farmers to temporarily stop using water

The Yampa River flows through Steamboat Springs near Rich Weiss Park.
Eleanor C. Hasenbeck

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the West faces more demand for water and less water available to meet that demand, decision makers are working to figure out how Colorado could implement recently signed agreements to reduce water use in the Colorado River basin, which includes the Yampa River.

The collective group of agreements is called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.

It aims to raise the unprecedented low water levels in the largest reservoirs on the Colorado River system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, to enable them to continue to deliver water and produce hydropower.

In Colorado, it calls for three possible actions:

  • Creating a bank of stored water in federally owned reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. This water would be released into Lake Powell in order to make sure Colorado continues to meet obligations to deliver a certain amount of water to downstream states under the Colorado River Compact.
  • Increasing cloud seeding and removing deep-rooted, invasive plants that take up a lot of water, such as tamarisk.
  • Creating a voluntary program that would temporarily pay agricultural water users to fallow their land and send water they have a right to downstream. This is called demand management.

Of the options on the table, demand management — the option that would pay farmers not to use their water — is the one most likely to impact Routt County.

“Demand management is a temporary, voluntary and compensated water banking effort,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa, White and Green River basins at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

She said without a federal reservoir in the Yampa Valley, local water managers will monitor the additional storage in federal reservoirs, “but it’s not something that’s going to directly impact Routt County citizens.”

Brown added that it’s unlikely increased cloud seeding would occur at a level that would be meaningful to the Yampa Valley.

Demand management is still only a hypothetical, so the Yampa River Basin could opt out of a program if it doesn’t work for the area.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled workgroups on topics related to demand management. These groups are now meeting behind closed doors to develop preliminary reports outlining how the program might work.

Brown said once these reports are completed and released to the public, there will be opportunities for community members to provide input on the idea. She said there will be the “opportunity for a real, thoughtful conversation, especially in the Yampa and White (river) basins.”

“We’ll be able to react to those as citizens of the county and of the basin, as water users,” she said. “After that, it will be ‘Does this program look like a good idea?’ If it looks like a good idea, then great. What does implementation look like for the Yampa (River) basin? If it doesn’t look like a good idea, then we move on to hopefully preparing for an unknown future.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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