The Latest on the Colorado River’s System Conservation Pilot Program

Audubon is urging Congress to extend the program which supports people and birds in the arid West.

Nineteen years into an extended drought in the Colorado River Basin, we are beginning to face the possibility that drier conditions are here to stay. There are implications for everyone: if you bathe in Phoenix or Denver, if you grow cattle or cotton in the Southwest, if you eat hamburgers or enjoy salads anywhere, if you love rivers and the Yellow-billed cuckoos and hundreds of other species that depend on them, the drying of the Colorado River affects you. But rather than hand-wringing or fighting, the U.S. Congress and the seven Colorado River basin states have stepped up with a program to help.

The System Conservation Pilot Program over the past four years has offered anyone with Colorado River water rights the opportunity to receive a cash payment in exchange for conserved water that stays in our rivers and reservoirs. The response to this win-win program has been tremendous, with projects implemented across all seven states. Most of the voluntary projects have been based on what’s known as split-season fallowing, where ranchers run their operations normally through the spring and summer, and in early fall reduce their water use. In some cases these ranchers are putting the funds right back into their operations, modernizing the infrastructure they rely on for water delivery. These efforts reduce the risk of shortages for all Colorado River water users, including those least able to withstand them.

Funding for the System Conservation Pilot was initially contributed by four urban water agencies, in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Nevada that depend on Colorado River water. Those four states were joined by New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, who embraced projects within their borders. Soon after, a bipartisan coalition of federal legislators supported federal funding for System Conservation Pilots.

Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) and Senator Cortez Masto (D-NV) both filed amendments to the FY 19 Senate Energy and Water Appropriations bill to extend authority for the program by four years to 2022, and increase funding from $450 million to $480 million. These funds will help mitigate the undesired impacts of dry times in the Colorado River Basin, and support water users who volunteer to modify their operations. Audubon and conservation partners have made the extension of this program a top priority as Congress continues work on this funding bill and other legislation.

Passage of this bill would help sustain the Colorado River, its habitats, and the birds and people that depend on it. Audubon’s members appreciate the collaborative spirit embodied in the System Conservation Pilot Program, and the support that has emerged from both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C. Water management remains challenging, but the System Conservation Pilot Program helps greatly.