Listen to farmers, ranchers on stream planning

By Richard Van Gytenbeek

In 2015, Colorado finalized its first-ever statewide water plan, a thoughtful blueprint for improving water management in our state. Of particular interest to many Coloradans is the Colorado Water Plan’s goal of improving the environment and recreational opportunities on Colorado’s rivers and streams. The Colorado Water Plan recommends that local communities consider development of stream management plans (SMP’s) to advance environmental and recreational water uses.

TU strongly supports SMPs. We recognize, however, that stream planning will be most successful when diverse interests are at the table, most notably irrigated agriculture.

Since irrigated agriculture accounts for 86 percent of all the water that is diverted from Colorado’s rivers and streams (most of which returns to the main channels to be used by others downstream), realistic solutions that can help Colorado’s rivers and streams must begin with involving and meeting the needs of our farmers and ranchers and this important economic sector.

So, where to start? The Colorado Water Conservation Board has a grant program available to communities interested in pursuing an SMP. The grant guidance document provides a list of necessary steps for the development of a stream management plan. Step number one is a “Gathering of stakeholders to participate in plan development.” In response to the SMP objective to improve flows, proponents may be initially tempted to gather just the stakeholders needed to measure and define the “flow gaps” at the expense of a more diverse user group. Although gathering this baseline information is essential, actually improving and sustaining river flows will be difficult without help from irrigated agriculture.

After all, they are the ones who own much of the water rights and control the diversions.

In the upper Gunnison, agriculture is taking a central role in stream management planning by assessing irrigation infrastructure to determine whether upgrades can help producers and the environment. By taking the lead role, agriculture can determine whether room for improvement exists and ensure that their water rights and the operations that rely on those rights are protected. In turn, those assurances and information on irrigation infrastructure, local agricultural methods, etc., provide the basis for exploring the possibility of reducing or changing the timing of diversions and improving flows.

In the upper Colorado River basin, another agriculturally led effort to help the local producers and the environment is playing out. While not an SMP per se, the Irrigated Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) project is a good example of the kind of mutually beneficial projects that can result from a stream management planning effort. In the ILVK, Trout Unlimited and American Rivers are working with local ranchers on the Colorado River to build structures that improve fish habitat and raised the level of the river to restore irrigation to local cattle ranchers. See the new Trout Unlimited/American Rivers film, "A River's Reckoning," about that effort here

As these examples show, any collaborative process must provide enough potential benefit for the diverse stakeholders to participate. While each community must define a successful water plan for itself, here are some suggested steps for meeting the needs of agricultural producers within the stream management process.

  1. Proponents of SMPs should engage our local agricultural leaders by reaching out to local conservation districts, water conservancy and irrigation districts, and other organizations, with a focus on understanding their agricultural needs and challenges.
  2. As a next step, the parties involved in an SMP process should take an inventory of not just environmental and recreational water needs, but also of irrigation infrastructure and needs.
  3. Once the inventory is complete, parties can identify opportunities for mutually-beneficial projects and management changes and how to fund them through grants, low-interest loans and other mechanisms.

Colorado’s rivers, agricultural industry, and communities stand to gain immensely from stream management planning. However, we should recognize that water planning cannot be a zero-sum game. Changes to water management will be contingent on having the approval and cooperation of those who control the water rights. To be successful, SMPs must involve all water users, including agriculture producers.

Richard Van Gytenbeek is Trout Unlimited’s Colorado River Basin coordinator.

TU works with other organizations that are committed to promoting SMP’s across Colorado. “A River’s Reckoning” is a film collaboration between Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, with additional funding support from River Network. All three organizations are promoting Stream Management Plans for Colorado river basins.

For further information on Stream Management Plans, contact TU’s Richard Van Gytenbeek,, American Rivers’ Matt Rice,, or River Network’s Nicole Seltzer,


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