Ranch owners look to creative solutions to address water shortages

The good news is that currently nearly every Colorado ski area is reveling in above-average snow. And the U.S. Drought Monitor report of Jan. 19 shows 40% of Colorado is drought-free, an enormous improvement over last year at the same time, when virtually all of the state was experiencing drought.

Meteorologist Chris Bianchi of 9News in Denver confirmed the significance of the snowpack in an interview with the Colorado Sun. “We’re not looking at just a blip in terms of drought impact. This is a substantial improvement.”

Fair enough. But the rest of the region is not doing as well. And after several years of subpar snow seasons in the Rockies, everyone in the West remains focused on efficient water use and collaborative planning to ensure adequate water to go around.

Innovative Work by Colorado Ranchers

Certainly, current ranch owners and prospective investors can learn from the innovative work of Paul Bruchez, a Colorado rancher who shared with a Politico that much of what he has learned about water has come from hard experience. Armed with that real-world education, the Grand County resident told the reporter he now knows that “ranchers and farmers are likely to lose if they don’t find a way to make themselves part of the solution.”

The story highlighted how seriously, and creatively, Bruchez approaches problem-solving, spearheading a series of water efficiency projects along the Colorado River in and near his property. Those ideas come from a variety of perspectives. One notion, he told Politico, came as he thought about how “riffles” positively impact flyfishing. The story explained: “Piles of rocks that sit high on shallow spots in the river, riffles … (improve flyfishing) but also have the effect of narrowing the river channel and raising the water level behind the stones.”

Which led Bruchez to wonder: Could using riffles help improve irrigation on ranches? Turns out they could. The story continued: A rancher who had been struggling to pump water to his 400-acre ranch invested “roughly $200,000 in a pair of riffles and bank stabilization” that in turn helped “push water across his field faster … (getting) all the water he needed for an irrigation cycle in just three or four days instead of the two weeks it used to take.”

That idea and other smaller programs are a good start, but hardly enough to stem the bigger shortages looming at Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and other reservoirs along the Colorado River. In fact, ranchers are already talking with each other and their state governments about how to respond to a potential “compact call,” a mechanism included in the 1922 Colorado River Compact that governs water use.

The ‘call’ comes into play, writes Douglas Beeman for the Water Education Foundation, when downstream states like California, Nevada and Arizona fall short of water promised under the Compact. In that event, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) would have to cut their own water use to meet their obligation to the Lower Basin states.

One idea to combat a “call” is the creation of a “demand management” program. The idea’s simple: water users along the river would be paid to cut back on their use for a short period of time to help meet the region’s needs. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) took a leadership role in the creation of a demand management plan, according to the Colorado Sun, after the concept was included in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans agreed upon by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin.

Unfortunately, the Sun reported in 2022 that the CWCB had taken a “hard pause” on the project until the other Upper Basin states caught up to Colorado’s work on the concept. “We have to let the other states catch up with their concerns and the issues they see,” CWCB Chair Jaclyn Brown told the Sun.

Clients Find Creative Solutions

Example 1: Porcupine Ridge Ranch

Still, innovative ranch owners can utilize state and federal programs to help. In 2018 the owners of Porcupine Ridge Ranch, whose sale we managed, benefitted from an Upper Colorado River Commission program. By voluntarily reducing consumptive use of its water rights and fallowing nearly 2,000 acres (20% of their Routt County ranch) for one season, they received compensation of more than $400,000. 

Example 2: The Cottonwood

Another client, Fred Botur, also participated in the Colorado River program on his Cottonwood Ranch in Wyoming. And he also placed conservation easements on portions of the ranch and received funding to install pipelines, replace antiquated headgates, fix ditches and create large wetlands and ponds.

Example 3: Silver Spring Ranch

The owners of Silver Spring Ranch in Idaho, another client, did significant work on their own to preserve the rare high-desert cold-spring ecosystem. The ranch maximized surface water inflow, minimized irrigation from groundwater, and reduced consumptive water use through the management of crop choices, harvesting times, soil moisture management, and other actions. They did use some outside funding in the creation of a wetland, funded in part by Ducks Unlimited, to capture additional surface water, recharge the water table, and, of course, enhance waterfowl habitat.

Organizations Find a Way

Meanwhile, work continues on other rivers by other organizations. One example can be found in northwest Colorado. The Yampa River Fund supported by the Nature Conservancy, for example, seeks to “increase the amount of water flowing in the river through water leases and improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure and management,” among other goals.  And the Walton Family Foundation is working on a variety of fronts to help solve water supply in the Colorado River Basin.

While these regional issues are critical to understand for anyone considering an investment in a ranch, there are other important basics closer to home that should be remembered as well, including:

As always, the team at Mirr Ranch Grip stands ready to walk you through all these issues, and the myriad other issues surrounding ranch real estate in the West.

The Farm on the Colorado - Colorado Ranches - Mountains and Farms

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