Cooperating on drought in the West


By Scott Yates

Tens of millions of people in the West depend on the Colorado River. But as we head into another drought year, the Colorado is facing a host of pressures, from drought and warming temperatures to population growth—a perfect storm that threatens our local communities, fish and wildlife habitat, and growing recreation economy in the West.

In the face of this “new normal” of growing water demand and diminishing supply, how do we make our rivers and streams more resilient and healthy in years to come?

It’s about partnerships and collaboration. More and more, you’re seeing water users and conservation groups in the West getting beyond old mistrust and narrow self-interest to realize we’re all in this together on water.

Trout Unlimited is committed to being part of this solution—and it’s happening now. In Colorado, we’ve been working for the past several years with farmers and ranchers in the Gunnison River Basin on innovative irrigation system upgrades that improve water delivery while benefiting habitat and flows for fish and wildlife.

As we bring more of these projects on line, the potential is to keep millions of gallons of water every year in the Colorado, where it can benefit fish and wildlife and downstream users.

This is the sweet spot for TU’s work – pragmatic, collaborative, locally driven projects that deliver benefits for diverse users.

But it’s also true that the federal conservation programs can give a major boost to these local projects with funding and support that’s timely and coordinated for maximum impact.

That’s why the USDA/DOI announcement this week is so important. Secretary Vilsack of the USDA and Secretary Jewell of the Department of Interior—with support from Gov. Hickenlooper and Sen. Bennet of Colorado—announced a new effort to better coordinate two major conservation programs, DOI’s WaterSMART grant program and USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). The former helps fund improvements in community and system-wide infrastructure, while the latter funds on-farm water conservation practices and upgrades.

Working together, they’ll be even more effective in directing dollars and resources to priority projects, where we have the opportunity to “scale up” work on a landscape basis and maximize the impact of our projects and ensure multi-sector benefits.

We’re excited about the many opportunities to restore fisheries and build river resilience in years to come—there’s a lot of exciting work to be done.  Kudos to the USDA and DOI for listening to stakeholders and taking this critical collaborative step.   

Scott Yates is director of TU’s Western Water and Habitat Program. 


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