WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Colorado River basin is being listed as a critical conservation area under a new multi-billion dollar program that will fund conservation and soil-protection efforts, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday.
The new measure, called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, facilitates public-private partnerships – a structure in which nonprofits, universities and local and tribal governments, among others, can apply for grant money to work with producers like the agricultural sector in implementing innovative environmental protection plans.
The Department of Agriculture will invest $1.2 billion over the five-year length of the farm bill, while participants will match those funds. With an expected $400 million in funding available during the first year, 35 percent of the total funding will go to eight critical areas, including the Colorado River basin, that covers parts of seven “basin” states and provides water for 30 million people.
That means the Animas River, a tributary of the San Juan River and part of the Colorado River basin, could see funding under the designation efforts.
“We have more and more pressure on the water supply,” said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango. “We’re hoping this will provide incentives for people to implement some conservation practices that will help meet the demands on Colorado River basin.”
With Colorado’s growing population coupled with drought, the river basin has been strapped to meet agricultural and recreational demands.
In early May, Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and Rep. Scott Tipton pushed for the river basin to be designated a critical conservation area.
Sharon Pettee, executive director of the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts, says after more than a decade of drought and less-than-desirable snowmelt, the interstate compacts that allocate a certain amount of the water to downstream states such as Nevada and Utah have been hard on the agricultural community.
“When we don’t have adequate snowfall throughout the state and there isn’t enough water in the river, Colorado still has to abide by those state compacts down river,” Pettee said. “So, Colorado suffers as much, if not more.”
The new program will highlight co-investing in innovative conservation startups focused on helping communities, said Jason Weller chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in a YouTube video.
A 2013 executive order from Gov. John Hickenlooper designated that the state create a water plan to combat the state’s water challenges by December 2014. The Colorado River supports an estimated $26 billion in economic activity, much of it supporting recreational and industrial uses.
Whitehead said, “We hope building these partnerships between different interest groups will help everyone use our water wisely in the future.”
The partnerships could help the state in another way, he said. “This also ties in nicely with the Colorado water plan that’s being worked on,” he said.
The Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for the grant program through Sept. 26.
Mary Bowerman is graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.