BIG PINEY — Even for a novice observer, the difference was noticeable. One side of the fence was lush and green, the other side dry and brown.
Big Piney rancher George Kahrl bumped along in a side-by-side on a tour through his fields to show the contrast. One field had been irrigated recently, the other hadn’t.
He stopped at a few headgates – the infrastructure used to allow water through for irrigation or hold it back. Kahrl needed to show his passengers he hadn’t been using water.
But the August 2018 visit wasn’t from the state engineer, it was with a check by the Upper Colorado Commission. They were running final observations as part of a pilot program initiated by a handful of states south of Wyoming.
Kahrl is one of nearly 30 ranchers in the Big Piney area to participate in a program some thought would never work: Paying ranchers at the headwaters of the Colorado River not to irrigate late in the summer to save water for downstream users.
He wouldn’t have watered there anyway at that time of year, but that wasn’t the point. The program was a test case, an experiment to gauge the appetite of water users in the area.
What Kahrl and others found, is that as thirst across the West increases, and water supplies decrease, there is an interest for programs like this one. The implication is even greater today for Wyoming, water and the West than it was years ago when the program began.
Entire college courses are taught on how water has been parceled, fought over and litigated in the West.
But the most important part for southwestern Wyoming is that the Colorado River Basin is divided essentially into two water sections, the lower basin and upper basin states. Lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada – use water sent from upper basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Since Arizona and Nevada use much more water than their states produce, they depend on drainages in all four upper basin states including Wyoming’s Green River for everything from drinking water to electricity produced by turbines at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
So in 1922, the states agreed that the lower basin states will receive a certain amount from the upper basin. The agreement also ensured the upper basin could increase its usage over time. In good water years, it’s not a problem. But it’s possible during a prolonged drought or overall changing of climate that the upper basin states could no longer meet the 1922 obligation. If that happens, upper basin states could have to cut back their usage of water rights that date after 1922.
While no one is talking about a call on water right now, the past couple decades of drought and dropping water levels in lakes Powell and Mead have made upper and lower basin state water users nervous.
Enter experiments like the System Conservation Pilot Program and landowners like Kahrl. Initiated in 2015, it was intended to see if Wyoming irrigators would be interested in being paid by large municipalities downstream to not irrigate a second time.
The Wyoming State Engineer’s office helped sort through applications and Trout Unlimited led the program on the ground. Trout Unlimited project managers Nick and Hillary Walrath have spent their careers building relationships with landowners in the area. And while the program was not conceived to keep water in streams for fish — wild and native trout would certainly benefit late in the season.
No one really knew if it would be successful, if ranchers would agree to temporarily lease their water. But what started with five participants in 2015 ended with 28.
“We thought it was a good opportunity to learn a few things,” said Steve Wolff, the administrator for the interstate streams division for the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. “We wanted to make sure it was a temporary thing, which it was, and any irrigator who participated, it had to be on a voluntary and compensated basis.”
The first hurdle was to see if anyone wanted to participate. The second was to see if all water users on a drainage would join. Wyoming water law gives priority to the oldest water rights, but if all the water from an old right isn’t used, a newer water right holder downstream can pull it out.
By 2018, all water users on a handful of upper Green tributaries joined the program, meaning theoretically that extra water heads into Flaming Gorge Reservoir and then downstream.
“We have pictures of Middle Piney and South Piney creeks reaching the Green River in August and July,” Nick Walrath said. “According to the private land owner, that never happens. That’s anecdotal evidence saying two tributaries reached the Green that typically don’t. As for fisheries, that’s a win.”
Wolff, Kahrl and the Walraths are all clear that the program succeeded in showing interest in a cash-for-water system, but the pilot program was far from perfect.
For it to succeed, the upper basin states need a water savings account of sorts – a way to note how much water was not used and thus saved for when it’s needed. A Colorado River drought contingency plan, signed in April by President Donald Trump, provides the framework for such an account.
It also needs a better way of measuring and keeping track of water used. As the program stood, participants simply turned off their water to a field instead of irrigating the second time.
The program has its skeptics. Wyoming state Rep. Albert Sommers, a rancher outside of Pinedale, is one of them.
“The System Conservation Program is a turning-water-off and drying-up-ag-land program,” Sommers said. “We set a bad precedent that we don’t need the water. [It says], obviously if you can shut the water off, you don’t need the water, so maybe we will just take the water. I worry this is the camel’s nose under the tent to Wyoming starting to dry up.”
A lot more work needs to be done before something like this could even be contemplated, he said.
Kahrl agrees that more work needs to be done, but he doesn’t see this as an attempt to dry up agricultural land. Many ranchers could reduce their water consumption through efficiencies by 10 percent and still grow crops. The extra money from the leased water also helps ranchers diversify their operations to ultimately help keep ranchers in business on the landscape.
No matter what, as drought continues, programs like this may well be part of Wyoming and other upper basin states’ futures, Wolff said.
“There’s a lot of technical and legal things to sort through, but long term, absolutely it’s a possibility,” he said. “It’s important to ask the water users in the basin what’s important to them, and we will be doing that over the next year.”