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Utah, other upper basin states, green light plan to pay Colorado River water users for conservation efforts

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Lake Powell’s “bathtub ring,” a light-colored coating of mineral deposits, is seen on canyon walls on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

Lake Powell’s “bathtub ring,” a light-colored coating of mineral deposits left during periods of higher water on the reservoir, is seen on canyon walls on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022 near Bullfrog.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico revived a program this week aimed at keeping water in the dwindling Colorado River by paying users who take conservation measures.

Starting in April 2023, the System Conservation Pilot Program will pay users $150 per acre-foot of water they conserve.

The plan is an attempt to keep more high elevation snowmelt flowing to lakes Mead and Powell, the largest reservoirs in the country, which are at historically low levels. The lion’s share of Colorado River water allocated for human consumption goes toward agriculture, and farmers and other users with a claim to the river will soon be able to submit a project proposal, then receive payment for what they conserve.

The payments will come from a $125 million chunk of the Inflation Reduction Act, stemming from a $4 billion provision to fight drought in the Colorado River Basin.

Participants could be paid more than the $150 per acre-foot rate if they submit a more detailed proposal.

What’s in an acre-foot?

At 326,000 gallons, an acre-foot is defined as enough water to fill an entire acre of land to a depth of one foot. It’s roughly the annual indoor and outdoor water needs of two households, according to most estimates.

For reference, the upper Colorado River Basin is obligated to allow 7.5 million acre-feet to flow to the lower basin at Lees Ferry near the Utah-Arizona state line. Lake Powell is currently at about 5.5 million acre-feet — at it’s maximum capacity, the reservoir can hold roughly 26 million acre-feet, according to bureau estimates.

According to a California Department of Water Resources analysis, pasture grasses like clover or bermuda, almonds, alfalfa and citrus — some of the most water-intensive crops — use between three to four acre-feet of water per acre, annually.

Irrigating an acre of fruit, like apples, apricots, cherries and peaches, requires about 3.7 acre-feet of water each year, while onions and potatoes use just under 3 acre-feet.

The upper basin’s five-point plan to combat drought

Representatives from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, which constitute the upper Colorado River Basin, unveiled the program at the annual Colorado River Water User’s Association conference hosted in Las Vegas.

The System Conservation Pilot Program is the first step in a five-point plan that the upper basin rolled out this summer in response to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s drastic announcement demanding states conserve at least 2 million acre-feet of water.

The upper basin’s plan also includes a drought response plan that would potentially release water from upstream holdings to keep the Glen Canyon Dam operational; consider an “Upper Basin Demand Management program as interstate and intrastate investigations are completed”; use funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law to “accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting infrastructure to improve water management tools”; and “continue strict water management and administration within the available annual water supply.”

The System Conservation Pilot Program was first rolled out between 2015 to 2018, and according to bureau documents, kept an additional 47,200-plus acre-feet in the river and paid users over $8.5 million. During the last year of the program, water users in Utah submitted 12 conservation project applications, six of which were implemented.

“It is vital to the health of our communities and our agricultural industry that the River District have a decision-making role in this program, consistent with past implementation of a previously-authorized System Conservation Pilot Program,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller in a statement.