Western Leaders Consider Water Sharing Recommendations

The Colorado Water Institute has studied what has been working in water transfers and offered some ground rules.

The Western States Water Council, the water policy arm of the 18 Western Governors, will consider recommendations from diverse Western water leaders representing agricultural, environmental, and urban interests this week.

Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute facilitated the meetings and produced a report, "Agricultural/Urban/Environmental Water Sharing: Innovative Strategies for the Colorado River Basin and the West,” as a response to a 2008 challenge by the Western governor to identify ways water transfers can be made without damaging economies and the environment. The project report, which was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, is the result of convening representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Family Farm Alliance, Western Urban Water Coalition, and two dozen others who set aside long-held positions and built new alliances for creative water sharing strategies for mutual benefit.

Some strategies detailed in the report include:

  • Farmers and cities in Arizona trading use of surface water and groundwater to the advantage of both;
  • Ranchers in Oregon paid by environmentalists to forego a third cutting of hay to leave water in the stream for late summer fish flows;
  • A ditch company in New Mexico willing to sell shares of water to New Mexico Audubon for bird habitat on the same terms offered to a new farmer to grow cantaloupe;
  • A California flood control and water supply project creatively managed to meet multiple goals of restoring groundwater, maintaining instream flows for wild salmon and steelhead, and providing water for cities and farms;
  • Seven ditch companies cooperating in Colorado in a “Super Ditch” scheme to pool part of their water through rotational fallowing, for lease to cities, while maintaining agricultural ownership of the water rights.

“While these strategies sound like good common sense, they all face sizable obstacles,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute. “If we want to share water for the benefit of all, we need a lot more flexibility, all members of the group agreed.”

The group’s recommendations to the Western Governors were developed to provide that flexibility, Waskom said.

The recommendations call for robust processes for planning, a flexible watershed-based approach, and criteria and thresholds for protecting agriculture, the environment and third parties.

In coming months, group members will meet with environmental, agricultural, and urban groups throughout the Colorado River Basin and the West to encourage further dialogue.

Source: Colorado Water Institute

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