Farmers and Conservationists Working Together in the Colorado River Basin


Irrigation in Cortez, CO. © Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand


Irrigation of crops – our food – is one of the most important uses of the water from rivers in the Colorado River Basin.  From the hay and alfalfa grown for cattle high in the headwaters of Wyoming and Colorado, to sprawling lettuce fields in Southern Arizona, agriculture uses more than 80 percent of the basin’s water.

Irrigated agriculture is a vital part of the culture, economy, and landscape of rural communities throughout the region. But with increasing population pressure, the looming threats of deeper, longer droughts, and aging infrastructure, irrigated agriculture faces an uncertain future.

Now, as Colorado River Basin stakeholders contemplate possible solutions to long-term shortfalls in the balance between water supply and demand, a group of agricultural and conservation organizations have joined efforts in a ground-breaking new coalition.  The Western Agriculture and Conservation Coalition’s goal is to advocate for balanced management of resources, including water, in the rural West.

The coalition has asked Congress to reauthorize the Farm Bill this year to provide maximum possible funding for a number of conservation programs, including those related to water.  Members of the coalition include the California Farm Bureau Federation, Trout Unlimited, Wyoming Stock Growers Association, The Nature Conservancy, Arizona Public Lands Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Family Farm Alliance, Public Lands Council, and the Irrigation Association.

Throughout the West, Farm Bill conservation programs have helped modernize irrigation operations, often in ways that improve river health.  We are beginning to see these types of projects in the Colorado River Basin:  in Colorado, the Mancos Conservation District is using Farm Bill conservation funding to leverage other local and state funds to replace aging diversion structures and restore instream habitat on the Mancos River.

Another example is the work of ranchers on the Yampa and Gunnison Rivers in Colorado who, working with Trout Unlimited and Farm Bill conservation program funding, are installing new head gates and gated pipe, as well as adding fish passage structures.  These projects improve both crop productivity and instream and riparian habitat.

There is considerable potential for additional projects of this type throughout the Colorado River Basin.  The Farm Bill’s Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) was intended to fund watershed-wide irrigation improvements on farms, such as conversions from flood irrigation to sprinklers and drip systems, resulting in more efficient deliveries of water that can help farmers increase profits.

Despite its potential benefits, the AWEP program has not been used in the Colorado River Basin to date.  The coalition plans to seek adjustments to make AWEP funding easier to use at the scale of an irrigation district or watershed unit.

The future of the Colorado River Basin can only benefit from cooperation between agricultural and conservation interests and Farm Bill funding can play a vital role in helping support that cooperation.  The new coalition is a fantastic step towards that brighter future.


Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund.




Meet the Author
Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.