Preparing For Climate Change, Colorado Farmers Fallow Their Fields To Create ‘Water Bank’

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Photo: Water managers on the Colorado River water banking
Mark Harris, head of the Grand Valley Water Users' Association (right), with his farm business partner Alan Ferris (second from left) and other water managers along a canal diverted from the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

Ten farmers in the Grand Valley won't plant some of their fields this summer as part of an experiment that could help them -- and other users along the Colorado River -- prepare for future water shortages.

Grand Valley water manager Mark Harris is leading the water banking pilot program. He says current forecasts about the effects that population growth and climate change could have on the Colorado River require him and others to prepare for "what if" scenarios, like extreme or prolonged drought.

Participating Grand Valley farmers will fallow fields that otherwise would have grown corn, wheat, alfalfa and other grains. Together, they expect to keep about 3,500 acre-feet of water in the Colorado River and Lake Powell. That amount of water supplies about 7,000 households each year. Farmers will be compensated with money raised from the state, organizations like The Nature Conservancy, and water providers like Harris' group.

Harris cautions that even if the 2017-18 program is successful, it would take a lot more work to scale it up to achieve the kinds of water savings the area may need in the future. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel.

Photo: Water banking corn field Western Slope
Rows of corn in Western Colorado. When it's not used to irrigate nearby fields, the water in this canal is returned to the Colorado River via a natural wash downstream.