Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s two large reservoirs, are currently below 25 percent of capacity and new federal cuts in water usage are coming as the states have failed to reach agreement on a deadline to apportion 15 percent cuts across the region. The river and the reservoirs serve 40 million people in seven southwestern states and parts of Mexico. They also serve the region’s $15 billion agriculture industry. All users will be hit hard by the reductions that are coming.
Clearly the water management and allocation policies of the past cannot meet the needs of today let alone tomorrow. The time has passed for siloed, top-down approaches to water storage and use which often pitch one community of water users against another. We need a new way forward, one that incorporates long- and short-term strategies forged by multi-stakeholder collaboration.
Fortunately, the $4 billion earmarked in the Inflation Reduction Act for Colorado River drought response measures provides new resources to support this type of collaboration. But we also need to be open to exploring new and novel solutions, one of which should be to use sustainably managed public and private headland grazing lands and forests to store water.
Healthy forests and grasslands act as a sponge, incorporating and then slowly releasing the winter’s snowfall in spring runoff. Dead and dying forests do not absorb water. Flash thunderstorms and early thaws, due to a warming climate, accelerate runoff where the water is gone before it can soak into the ground.
As the climate continues to change and becomes increasingly variable, ranchers can play a vital role in scaling up pragmatic climate smart agriculture systems and practices that benefit them and downstream water users. Drought management and climate smart strategies for conserving this unique landscape, home of the Sage Grouse, the Mountain Bluebird, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, the Evening Grosbeak and a wide variety of plant and animal communities are needed now more than ever. Managing this complex forest-grassland region of private and public grazing lands under variable local weather and a changing climate is no easy task and an urgent priority. For this reason, USDA and the Departments of Interior should ensure that a significant amount of the new federal climate change resources are allocated to forest restoration, afforestation and sustainable grazing projects across the west.
SfL also believes there is a need to better integrate ranch scale and landscape scale decision making and adaptive management using a system-wide, cross-boundary approach that accounts for vegetation, temperature and precipitation seasonality across rangeland elevations, and livestock nutritional needs and physiological cycles, while simultaneously conserving and protecting against wildfire, restoring mountain forest-grassland ecosystems post-wildfire, and sustaining watershed functionality.
Towards this end we have committed to form and facilitate rancher-led cross-boundary private-public partnerships that will design large landscape initiatives that enable stakeholders to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate efforts to develop and put climate smart, sustainable strategies to work.
Farmers and ranchers don’t have the only strategies to manage ecosystems and ensure water for a large portion of the population. But any plans to simply relocate agricultural water resources to support growth or keep agriculture interests out of the planning process are doomed to not only fall short of environmental and climate goals, but also to potentially limit food supplies and further diminish the high value ecosystem services farmers, ranchers and forest landowners provide.