Trout Unlimited Supports System Conservation Pilot Program Site Visits in Utah

In late summer 2023, Trout Unlimited assisted Colorado River Authority of Utah (CRAU) staff with dozens of site visits to farms in the Uinta Basin and Price and Green river watersheds. The farms were all participants in the Upper Colorado River Basin’s 2023 System Conservation Pilot Program or SCPP. The SCPP enables Utah and its Upper Basin neighbors – Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming – to explore ways to manage declining water supplies in the Colorado River Basin following more than two decades of warmer and drier conditions driven by climate change. The primary goal of the SCPP is to understand the aspects and impacts of a voluntary, temporary, and compensated program that reduces Colorado River water use and ensures the Upper Basin states meet their Colorado River Compact obligations to the Lower Basin states and Mexico. 

A farm that participated in the 2023 System Conservation Pilot Program.

As one of the most arid states in the country, Utah has a lot to gain from providing water users, from large municipalities to small family farms, with flexible tools to help them save water and improve how it is managed in the state. It’s why, since 2015, Trout Unlimited has been working closely with agricultural water users throughout Utah to incentivize reductions in consumptive use via forward-thinking policies and programs like the SCPP.

The SCPP enables agricultural producers to use strategies such as fallowing and crop switching to temporarily reduce their water use while maintaining their water rights and getting compensated for the water they save. The water left unused is either stored in a nearby reservoir or released back into nearby rivers and streams. For the site visits Trout Unlimited helped facilitate in summer 2023, almost all of the participants fallowed a portion of their land for an entire growing season. 

The benefits of these SCPP projects in Utah are manifold, and they promote healthier watersheds on a number of levels: 

  • First, for water users who maintained their water in a reservoir, the SCPP projects have helped keep reservoirs at higher levels and made it easier to manage that water. Additionally, the program is providing lessons learned around how to hold water in reservoirs through this type of program and potentially release it at another point in the year when it can be shepherded downstream and deliver maximum benefits. 
  • Second, for water users releasing saved water back into rivers, the SCPP is benefitting stream flows and river systems. In a state that experiences low flows late in the summer season, every extra drop of water counts and supports healthier riverine ecosystems.
  • Third, as a multi-year program, the SCPP is helping participants and proponents learn how to manage water rights in a way that supports a healthier Colorado River Basin and enables agricultural producers to see themselves as part of the solution. Farmers throughout the Colorado River Basin have extensive knowledge about the river, and the SCPP is helping to build a community of growers who are invested in and able to help ensure the watershed is healthy for current and future generations.
  • Fourth, many rivers in Utah, such as the Price and Green rivers, are home to threatened and endangered species. The SCPP provides the potential to support these rivers and the fish and wildlife that rely on them by boosting stream flows at certain times throughout the year.
A farm that participated in the 2023 System Conservation Pilot Program.

Importantly, the SCPP is contributing to real water savings in Utah and throughout the Colorado River Basin. According to the CRAU’s 2022-2023 Annual Report, 20 projects were implemented in Utah in 2023, conserving more than 15,000 acre feet of water. Across the entire Upper Basin in 2023, 64 projects resulted in nearly 38,000 acre feet of conserved water.

Through Trout Unlimited’s ongoing work alongside agricultural producers to secure reductions in water use, a few things have become abundantly clear: Water users throughout Utah and in river basins like the Price and Green are on the leading edge of innovative efforts to conserve water. They want to be part of the solution to continue their way of life in Utah, and we need them to do so. 

Looking forward, Trout Unlimited will continue to support policies and programs like the SCPP that enable water users in Utah and Basin-wide to meet their needs while supporting a healthier Colorado River. 

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