Pat O’Toole

Pat O’Toole is a rancher in Wyoming and Colorado and writes on behalf of Family Farm Alliance and Partners for Conservation.

Drought is a natural disaster, albeit a slow moving one. As we experience ongoing drought conditions in the Colorado River basin it has never been clearer that, like other natural disasters, we are all in this together.

The announcement on June 23 that closer collaboration between drought resiliency programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior would be coming to the Colorado River basin was welcomed by those that depend on the river and viewed by many as an opportunity for innovative, collaborative approaches. 

An opportunity for increased partnerships between government, producers, recreational interests and conservation groups in our shared struggle to sustain the river in the face of a relentless drought and an increasing urban population with the associated demand from municipal water providers.  

To be sure, having endured 16 years of drought and counting, much of the Colorado River basin is in need of this attention. The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Southwest and is often called the hardest working river in the West. 

These challenges to the “mighty Colorado” pose serious risks to everyone and everything that depends on the river – from agriculture to our cities to fish and wildlife to our businesses.

The welcome collaboration partners the Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART program and Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program in the Colorado River Basin.  

Reclamation will work with irrigation districts, helping to upgrade infrastructure and improve overall efficiency in delivering water to farmers, while NRCS works with individual farming and ranching operations to make more efficient use of the water delivered. 

Many Western water users employ WaterSMART grants and EQIP funds to address water quantity and quality challenges, and we appreciate the improved coordination that this Administration is employing to make those programs work better. 

In fact, the renewed commitment to coordination between NRCS and Reclamation advances the philosophy embodied in the Bush-era “Bridging the Headgates” memorandum of understanding that emphasized technical support from these same federal agencies in a comprehensive manner. 

This is a fine example of how good ideas can transcend politics, and it underscores that the only solutions lasting beyond the latest and greatest funding program are those that are collaborative in nature, that rise from the bottom-up, with input and support from those most directly impacted.  

The federal government certainly cannot change the hydrology of the West, but there is a role it can play to support family farmers and ranchers. There is no single, “silver bullet” solution to Western water resources challenges. 

Rather, a successful water shortage strategy must include a “portfolio” of water supply enhancements and improvements, such as water reuse, recycling, conservation, water-sensitive land use planning, and water system improvements. 

New infrastructure and technologies can help stretch water for all uses. State water laws, compacts and decrees must be the foundation for dealing with shortages.

Coordinated programs like EQIP and WaterSMART can help stretch water supplies, but water conservation alone has its limits in certain situations. Developing strategic new water storage is necessary insurance against shortages. 

And, urban growth expansion – the elephant in the room – should be contingent upon sustainable water supplies. Using Western irrigated agricultural water as the “reservoir” of water for municipal growth is not sustainable in the long run and can damage rural agricultural communities. 

This portfolio of activities for smart, effective management of Western water resources can help decision-makers deal with the harsh realities of current and future water shortages due to drought and over-allocation of water to growing, predominantly environmental and municipal, demands.

Make no mistake; USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell have provided an example of how interests can collaborate in pursuit of a drought resilient future for a basin that is an economic engine for the entire country.  

However, this coordination between Reclamation and NRCS is just one of many critical steps required to develop lasting solutions that will sustain our rural economies, natural resources, communities, and families across Colorado and the West. 

Load comments