The Rancher Trying to Solve the West’s Water Crisis

The Rancher Trying to Solve the West’s Water CrisisDecember 4, 2020

Paul Bruchez’s family has ranched cattle in Colorado for five generations. And twice in his lifetime, his generation has nearly become the last.

The first time, it was the city of Denver that squeezed them out. By the 1990s, when Bruchez was still in high school, the city’s fast-growing suburbs had swept north and totally surrounded their roughly 2,000 acres in Westminster. Bruchez’s father had taken dirt roads to get to school, but by the time Bruchez was a teenager development had engulfed the family homestead so completely that at one point the city needed to send a police escort to help move their harvest equipment safely between fields on what were by then city roads. Running a full-scale farm operation in the middle of a city soon became untenable and the family opted to cut a land deal with the city and start fresh on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

The second time, it was a drought. Their new land near Kremmling, a small ranching community 100 miles to the west, had one particularly appealing feature for a family that needed hay to feed its cattle: the Colorado River literally ran through it. The ice-cold mountain runoff from the river’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park would feed their land through a network of ditches, offering plentiful water to grow 2,000 acres of hay. And for a family of fly fishermen, it had another attraction. The lush cottonwood trees lining the main stem of the river promised cool water and insects, a spot where trout would bite.

They had one good year before the ditches went dry.

The drought hit while Bruchez was in college and his father was facing a battle with cancer, and it nearly bankrupted the family. It marked the beginning of Bruchez’s mission to secure the future of not just his family’s operation, but the very West that made cowboys like him.

Family ranching operations have been disappearing from the Colorado landscape for decades, victims of the compounding trends of high land prices, low cattle prices and fierce international competition. But for Bruchez’s generation, all of those challenges pale before the biggest threat to their way of life: dwindling access to water. The river flows that once irrigated the dry West and fed its cities are increasingly strained by suburban development and reduced by the vagaries of climate change.

Technically, families like Bruchez’s have the upper hand in water disputes. The whole Western water system is built on a roughly 150-year-old legal regime that gives priority access to whoever put the water to use first. Farmers and ranchers led the settlement of the West, giving them the most “senior” rights and ensuring that they get their water before newer users like sprawling suburbs. Some 70 percent of the Colorado River’s flow is consumed by agriculture.

But as climate change keeps squeezing the water supply, the ranchers’ position is growing more precarious. They are far less powerful and wealthy than the cities that need water, which have often swooped in and bought out farms for their water rights. It is inevitable, now, that large amounts of water will have to leave agriculture in order to sustain cities and suburbs in the far-drier future; the question is simply whether it can be done in a way that keeps agriculture on the landscape.

Over the past century, Denver, Boulder and other cities on Colorado’s dry Front Range have steadily bought up farmers’ water rights on the wet, western slope of the Rockies and built massive, transmountain tunnels to ship the water to thirsty city dwellers. Today, roughly 65 percent of the water that would naturally flow into Grand County, where Kremmling sits, is diverted elsewhere. Many farm and ranch families nurse a grudge to this day, holding tight to the old Mark Twain adage that “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.”

But Bruchez’s twin near-disasters and his path to recovering from them led him to a different conclusion: that in the long term, financial and climatic forces are aligned against agriculture, and ranchers and farmers are likely to lose if they don’t find a way to make themselves part of the solution.

Instead of seeing agriculture and new suburbanites as locked in a zero-sum struggle over who gets the West’s diminishing water, Bruchez has spent the past two decades hatching a series of projects to help ranchers by making common cause with sportsmen, environmental groups and even some big city water officials and lawyers.

Now, Bruchez has emerged as a leading voice for agriculture in Colorado as the state explores a controversial new scheme to manage its own, internal water usage—almost certainly by paying farmers to forgo using their water—in a bid to avoid a nightmare scenario in which river flows dip so low that the terms of a 1922 river compact force junior users like cities to be abruptly cut off. It’s an idea that has been knocking around water policy circles across the West for years without action, but that could be called into place quickly if the river’s flows continue to shrink rapidly.

Bruchez, 39, is as comfortable on a Zoom conference call with state water managers as he is riding horseback with a neighbor to steer cattle away from a quickly spreading forest fire, and in between he steals quiet moments to cast a line into the nearby river, in search of a rainbow or brown trout. What drives him is not just a desire to protect his family’s way of life, but to prove that farmers and ranchers aren’t just part of a mythical Western past but can be a part of the solution to weathering climate change and preserving the environment for the future.

Indeed, Bruchez says, ranchers know that cities and environmentalists eye their water rights greedily, and some of them question whether such a precious resource should be used at all to support livestock and crops. Bruchez and other ranchers increasingly recognize that they will survive only if they can find a way to negotiate with interests they’ve traditionally seen as the enemy.

“Water is our lifeblood in agriculture, but water is our lifeblood of the entire Southwest,” said Bruchez. “With agriculture using most of the water, I think it’s our job to be part of the solution. It is all of our future.”

Efforts to confront the high-stakes water challenges in the West are emerging as a test for the problem the whole country will soon face as the effects of climate change take hold: How American politics and laws can be renegotiated to share a landscape that no longer offers the limitless resources its original occupants thought they would enjoy. And Bruchez is offering a new way to think about it, from the ground up. If there’s a solution to divvying up the Colorado River that can work for both the booming Denver suburbs and the ranchers who endow the region with its character and politics, it won’t be a top-down edict from Washington. It will need to come from compromises and new schemes for the water hashed out by the people who use it.

At the heart of Bruchez’s work is the belief that the only lasting solutions for the river are ones that work for every person—and creature—who relies on it. One set of interests can’t be served at the expense of another. It’s a shift in thinking that has slowly taken root among the major players on the Colorado River over the past two decades, and one that the incoming Biden administration is showing signs it will embrace. But translating that philosophy to on-the-ground practice has never before been tested at scale.

In that light, the work underway in Colorado is an important test of whether competing interests can make cooperation, shared sacrifice and environmental restoration economically viable on a river that supports 40 million people—or if they will retreat to their corners and risk letting the entire system fall into political and economic chaos.

The Colorado River is one of the wonders of the West, a confluence of crystalline mountain streams and muddy rivers that stretches 1,450 miles from Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of miles above its most famous stretch in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado’s fast-moving rapids shoot through winding canyons, turn lazily through the green valleys between mountains, and bring plentiful water to the parched high plains, spring after spring. The workhorse waterway supports 15 percent of American agriculture, 11 national parks and $1 trillion in economic activity each year.

But the drought of 2002 that brought Bruchez to this work shriveled the mighty river’s flow to a trickle. That year, the Rocky Mountain snowpack which feeds the river reached just half of its average depth, and warm temperatures caused it to melt off months earlier than usual.

Normally, the stretch of Colorado on Bruchez’s land swells high and fast enough that it’s impossible to cross on foot. That year, at what was meant to be the peak of runoff, Bruchez could stand in the center of the river to cast a line without the water reaching his knees. But there wasn’t much point in fishing: trout floated down the river belly up, victims of the river’s warm temperatures and stagnant flow. Even ranchers whose families went back three or four generations in Kremmling had never seen things so bad.

The Bruchezes’ problem wasn’t just the weak snowpack. It was Denver. The water right for one of the properties the family had purchased had been sold to Denver Water in 1963, when the utility was looking to ensure flow into its new Williams Fork reservoir just downstream.

Paul’s father knew about that deal when he bought the land but didn’t pay it much mind. Under the terms of the purchase, Denver had agreed to “lease back” the water in all but the driest years. Over the past 25 years, the previous owner told him, Denver had needed the water only once, and that year there’d been plenty of rain to feed the crop, so it hadn’t made much of a difference.

But the 2002 drought triggered terms of the deal that required the family to curtail its use, so that the water they would have used for irrigation could flow downstream to the reservoir. It was just their second year on the 10,000-acre ranch, and the Bruchezes suddenly realized they had a problem. The $500-$700 an acre they could typically get for their hay was what they planned to use to pay the new mortgage. They’d be lucky to get a quarter of their expected harvest that year.

“We moved into a water hot spot without knowing it,” Bruchez said.

They also didn’t know they were still in the early years of a megadrought on the Colorado. Over the past 20 years, average annual flows have been nearly 20 percent lower than they were the century before. The extended drought has laid bare the system’s fundamental problem: farmers, cities, and industries use more water each year than flows down the river. That deficit had been managed for decades through the two main reservoirs on the river—Lake Mead, just outside of Las Vegas, and Lake Powell, at the border of Utah and Arizona—which store water from good years to help carry the system through the bad.

But that method stops working when virtually all the years are bad. And climate scientists expect the situation to get far worse.

The current drought has been driven by substantially warmer temperatures in the sprawling Colorado River basin. In just the past two decades, they have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or slightly more than 1 degree Celsius—likely the warmest they have been in the past 2,000 years. All that heat has been a disaster for a river system dependent on hefty winter snowpack that melts throughout the spring and summer. Instead of massive winter storms, more precipitation is falling as rain, and the snowpack that does accumulate is melting earlier in the season, leaving meek flows during the height of the summer, when they’re needed most. The warmer temperatures have also caused more water to be lost to evaporation.

The situation has led to a reckoning among the cities, farmers, tribes, industries and environmental interests that rely on the Colorado River, who now uniformly recognize that they are going to have to find ways to stretch and share the dwindling supplies.

Last year, the seven states along the river and the country of Mexico sealed a deal aimed at beginning to rein in the overuse in hopes of keeping reservoir levels from dropping precipitously. Now, the same parties are preparing for negotiations on a new set of guidelines that would govern water sharing on the river beginning in 2026.

The deals amount to one of the most significant climate adaptation efforts in the country. But making any of them actually work will hinge in large part on persuading farmers to forgo water that their families have been irrigating with for generations. That’s where Bruchez’s work with the state of Colorado on a program to dial down water usage comes in.

Bruchez was still in college when he realized his family’s ranch needed more than a good location and a fighting spirit to survive.

In 2002, Bruchez’s father was diagnosed with a progressive form of lymphoma just as the drought set in, and it fell to Bruchez, then a junior at the University of Denver studying business, to save the family operation from foreclosure.

“I was 20 years old and I sat in a board room of 10 bankers and some of their board members explaining that we couldn’t pay our note and basically begged them not to foreclose on us, that it wouldn’t be in their interest or ours,” said Bruchez.

Even then, he was someone who could bring people to see things his way, and Bruchez managed to persuade the bank to let the family defer a few payments. With time and creativity, the family was able to dig themselves out. Among the changes they made: Bruchez opened a fly-fishing business, bringing paying anglers to the same stretch of river that first caught his parents’ eye.

The near-disaster that catapulted him into the role as leader of the family business has also shaped Bruchez’s thinking about what he’ll have to do to ensure the ranch can be passed down to his kids. What began as Bruchez’s desperate effort to save the ranch has become one of the most important efforts to keep productive agriculture on the landscape in the American West.

“The water is everything,” he said. “Water for irrigation to grow crops and a healthy river to take people fishing is really how we’re going to survive.”

Under Western water law, a farmer with a senior water right who is growing cotton in the Arizona desert must be assured access to his full amount of water before the city of Phoenix can take a drop. Outdated as that system may seem, water rights are considered private property rights in the West, and a labyrinthine legal establishment has grown up around it.

Cities have adapted to it, too. Knowing that the day a homeowner turns the tap to find no water flowing is the day the local economy implodes, cities and towns across the West have moved to shore up supplies, buying out farmers’ senior water rights. Sometimes the utilities agree to lease back the water under deals like the one Denver Water set up on Bruchez’s ranch. Other times they fallow the lands altogether, a process dubbed “buy and dry.”

Letting agricultural land go “back to nature” might seem like a good idea, but Colorado has found out the hard way that nature doesn’t work like that. Instead, they’ve found that the land turns into mini-dust bowls that can’t support wildlife and wreak havoc on local ecosystems. What’s more, the economic impact can be devastating to local economies: Once enough agricultural operations have been bought out, the infrastructure of supply shops, mills and rail becomes uneconomical. Diverting water away can also leave rivers so meager and slow-moving that the remaining farmers literally can’t reach what they have a right to. Often, those who didn’t sell end up going out of business anyway.

“There is a very real risk of permanent dry up of agricultural land,” said Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “When we see the market pull, water is so valuable you’ll find the market is driving those decisions before policy and politics can catch up.”

It was Bruchez’s fly fishing expertise that made him wonder: Could what was good for the fish also be good for the farmer?

The Colorado used to flow through Kremmling at 6,000 cubic feet per second—so much water that the raging river would regularly overflow its banks and do the irrigation work for the farmers in the area. Today, it’s lucky to flow at 1,000 cubic feet per second, spread out over the broad channel of the river that once was.

By the 1940s and ’50s, Denver and other Front Range cities were diverting so much water that the natural flooding came to an end and the irrigators persuaded the Bureau of Reclamation to compensate by installing pumps to give them easier access to the Colorado’s water. This worked for a while, but by the early 2000s, the river began to run below the level that the pumps could reach. Fixed in concrete, the pumps couldn’t chase the water level as it dropped and in some cases, it settled as much as a foot below the intakes. For a while the old timers got creative, running chicken wire across the river and throwing in hay to try and back the flow up in front of their pumps. But it never held for long.

As an angler, Bruchez knew that the oversize channel wasn’t good for the river, either. The shallow depth caused water temperatures to rise into the mid-70s, causing frequent die-offs among cold-loving trout. Insects—the base of the food chain for fish and waterfowl—were scarce.

He got to thinking about the riffles that he sought out when flyfishing. Piles of rocks that sit high on shallow spots in the river, riffles are where the water runs fast and stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies thrive. They can also have the effect of narrowing the river channel and raising the water level behind the stones. Conservation groups had built artificial riffles before as a way of improving river habitat. Bruchez wondered if they could also be used to help solve the irrigators’ problem by creating deeper spots in front of the farmers’ pumps.

By the time this idea began kicking around his head, Bruchez had become a regular at public meetings focused on local water issues, and at one he floated it to a staffer for the conservation group Trout Unlimited, who saw the idea’s potential for restoring the river’s fish and agreed to partner up. To help win state funding for his idea, he began working to bring his neighbors around. Most thought he was crazy or suspected the agenda of the conservationists; one even threatened to throw him off his ranch if he said the name “Trout Unlimited” one more time. But Bruchez is not the sort to give up, and eventually he got them all to sign on and agree to kick in a combined $50,000 for their half of a proposed study to see if the scheme would work.

The study confirmed the idea that artificial riffles, along with nature-mimicking bank stabilization efforts, could help both irrigators and habitat.

Bill Thompson, the rancher who’d threatened to run Bruchez off his property, agreed to be the first to give it a go. After struggling for years to pump water to his 400-acre ranch, he decided to invest roughly $200,000 of his own money in a pair of riffles and bank stabilization work.

“Everybody’s going, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of, why would they do that?’ But somebody’s got to do something,” Thompson said.

The project worked so beautifully that pretty soon the neighbors were asking for Bruchez to come work on their stretch of the river.

One reason is that it turned out that riffles don’t just deepen the river’s flow, they also help lift the water table. Thompson, like all the ranchers in the region, relies on flood irrigation, and since the riffles were built, he is able to push water across his field faster instead of losing it all to the sponge below. That means he’s able to get all the water he needs for an irrigation cycle in just three or four days instead of the two weeks it used to take him.

And the project had another benefit that was more than physical. In 2014, when Bruchez won the initial state grant, it was a watershed moment for the embattled ranchers who were still suspicious of the city folks who’d been besting them in court since the 1970s. This project was the first sign the ranchers saw that something might change.

“When I came down to tell the neighbors we got a unanimous vote yes … two of the different landowners that had been here for multiple generations actually teared and cried,” Bruchez recalled. “That was the first time in their families’ history of living here that some of their challenges had been addressed.”

Even as Bruchez’s river restoration work has expanded to further stretches of the river, a bigger problem is looming.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming—together, the four “upper basin states”—must deliver an average of 7.5 million acre-feet downstream out of Lake Powell to the “lower basin states” of California, Arizona and Nevada each year. At the time the compact was signed, negotiators thought that would leave the upper basin with half of the U.S. share of water.

But it turns out they were working off measurements taken during an unusually wet period in the river’s history. Even before the massive drought, the Colorado’s annual flow was roughly 1.2 million acre-feet less than compact negotiators had thought—a difference that, by law, must come out of the upper basin states’ allocation. If upper basin states’ average deliveries to their downstream counterparts dip below 7.5 million acre-feet, California, Arizona and Nevada can formally demand their water.

This is known as a “compact call,” and it’s water managers’ nightmare scenario. No one knows exactly how it would play out, since it’s never happened, but it would have massive economic and political consequences. Any water rights issued after 1922 would likely be in jeopardy, meaning cities and suburbs, the junior users on the system, could abruptly see their water spigots turned off. Even the threat of a compact call would likely spark political and legal warfare and cause severe economic hardship.

Searching for an insurance plan against a compact call, upper basin power players have homed in on the idea of a “demand management program,” in which water users would be paid to temporarily cut back on their use in order to help the region meet its required reductions. Colorado is the state furthest along in trying to figure out how such a program could work.

Although it would be voluntary to participate, the idea remains intensely controversial among farmers and ranchers, who would almost certainly be the ones asked to stop using water under such a program. Cities and suburbs can’t simply turn off the water to residents once they’ve moved in, but farmers can choose to fallow their fields for a season. Water managers see them as slack in the system.

The state of Colorado is still in the early stages of studying the idea of demand management, deploying a dizzying array of work groups and roundtables to trying to figure out whether it’s technically and financially feasible, let alone politically palatable. Bruchez, who won an appointment to the Colorado Basin Roundtable in 2015, has been deeply involved with the talks.

The idea of using less water and keeping it in the river to flow downstream sounds simple. But for a demand management program to even have a shot at working, authorities would have to know exactly how much water an irrigator didn’t consume in order to award credit. What’s more, the credit an irrigator got for fallowing his fields couldn’t simply be the amount of forgone river flow, since much of the water they divert through their irrigation ditches and over their fields ends up right back in the river. So how much would they really be giving up?

Something a Colorado State University researcher said during one of the work group’s meetings stuck in Bruchez’s head: Scientists really don’t know how much water is consumed by the hay that he grows. There are baseline figures for alfalfa that can be adjusted for temperature, but scientists aren’t at all sure what happens to the plants when they’re grown at higher altitudes like those in Kremmling. Even the range of possible estimates is controversial, but the gap between them could represent as much as 140,000 gallons of water per acre of crop.

That’s a huge data gap, considering that 80 percent of Colorado’s irrigated land is being used for high altitude alfalfa and other pasture grasses. That means that even if ranchers agreed to forgo irrigation one season, the amount of water they thought they had saved could be way off.

“It’s kind of hard to move on from that conversation once you know that gap exists,” Bruchez said.

So figuring out how much water high-altitude hay consumes turned out to be a crucial piece of information the state would need before it could move forward with a demand management program. Bruchez’s work group asked whether he would work on that with Perry Cabot, the Colorado State University scientist who first flagged the data gap, and soon the team had gathered nearly $1 million in funding from the state and conservation organizations.

Their study seeks to determine exactly how much river flow is conserved when high-altitude meadows are left unirrigated or irrigated for only half a season. By March, Bruchez had recruited nine ranchers to participate, some who agreed to forgo irrigation all year and others who would turn off their irrigation pumps on June 15 to test split-season irrigation.

Cabot was shocked by the scale of participation. Usually landowners are reluctant to sign up for water conservation studies, fearing that forgoing water could jeopardize their water rights and skeptical that promised payments will actually come through. But nearly all of the ranchers who signed on had been part of Bruchez’s river restoration project and had seen promises fulfilled by Trout Unlimited, the state and other players. So they decided to take a chance on the CSU study.

Thompson, the neighbor who built the first set of riffles, was one of the first to agree to join. In addition to running his ranch, he spent more than 40 years as a water commissioner policing water rights in Grand County. Five years ago, Bruchez would’ve been sure Thompson would pull a gun on him if he’d proposed a water conservation project.

“I am blown away. I’ve never seen anything like this in 10 years of doing this kind of work. I’ve just never seen anyone able to rally people together this way,” said Cabot.

On a steamy day in mid-June, when the mosquitoes had just hatched and were biting something awful, Cabot’s team installed a 25-foot tower filled with sensitive scientific instruments on a farmer’s property 6 miles north of Kremmling, just off a tributary of the Colorado. Those instruments will monitor wind speed and fluctuations in the air’s water vapor density, data that researchers can use to estimate the amount of water being lost to the air through evaporation off the plants.

Cabot’s team will also run parallel calculations using satellite images from NASA’s Landsat program. Scientists can use the spectral signature from those images—essentially the intensity of how green or how brown the fields are every week or so—to estimate the amount of water coming off the plants. If the results from the two different approaches line up, scientists and water managers will know that satellite imagery can give them a reliable read on how much water agricultural conservation is providing to the system.

Most of the ranchers participating are equally interested in another aspect of the study: seeing how their fields recover the year after being fallowed. Meadow grasses are perennial plants, and ranchers are wondering whether the fields will bounce back at full capacity in the first year or require several years to recover. The answer could affect their financial calculations and greatly alter their appetite for participating in fallowing programs.

As interested as he is in getting the science behind it, Bruchez isn’t convinced that fallowing programs will be the best option for agricultural producers. He’s hoping the study might shed light on an alternative that ranchers increasingly favor: finding other hay grasses that are palatable to cattle but use far less water. Little studied so far, the idea, known as crop-switching, could offer a way to reduce water use while keeping more land in hay production.

At the same time, conservation groups are rolling environmental monitoring into the study. Valley bottoms, like the one where the Kremmling ranchers flood their fields, are home to some of the most important wetlands habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Land in agriculture may not look like it did before settlers arrived, but it’s still more hospitable to wildlife than a dried-out pasture or suburban lawn.

The National Audubon Society is conducting bird counts during the study, looking to see if wildlife declines when fields are fallowed. The hope is to be able to identify the most important ecological areas so that a demand management program could be designed to enable irrigation to continue where it supports ecological health, said Jennifer Pitt, who leads Colorado River work for Audubon.

But even if the complicated details of a demand management program can be worked out, the states need to solve an even bigger problem: Who should pay the bill for what amounts to an insurance policy meant to protect the region from an economic and political meltdown?

All indications are that it will not be cheap.

A test program in 2014 designed to see whether farmers and ranchers would even be willing to participate in conservation programs found that they were—but in some cases it took nearly twice as much money to pay farmers not to use their water than it would for cities to just buy up the water rights themselves or cut other, similar deals.

As broad-minded as urban utilities like Denver Water have become about the importance of sustaining healthy agricultural regions while shoring up their supplies, asking them to pay twice as much for water that doesn’t actually belong to them is a hard ask. And the federal government, whose largess through the Bureau of Reclamation first made the West hospitable for farmers, cities and industries a century ago, is hardly expected to swoop in to the rescue.

Instead, major players on the Colorado River increasingly think projects like Bruchez’s river restoration work may hold the key.

His riffles and channel reshaping solved two problems—farmers’ inability to pump for irrigation, and the river’s declining ecological health—with one, nimble solution that was less expensive and longer-lasting than traditional efforts to tackle each problem separately would have been.

Ted Kowalski, who runs the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River work, argues these types of flexible, locally driven projects represent the only sustainable path to solving the river’s problems. The family foundation is a behemoth funder of work on the river, with the Walmart founder’s grandson, Samuel Rawlings Walton, taking a special interest in environmental philanthropy. It has poured more than $20 million each year into everything from clinching a key component of a 2019 drought deal in Arizona to supporting the work of environmental groups like Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and the Environmental Defense Fund. It is also a major funder behind the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign, whose staffer Tanya Trujillo was named to President-elect Joe Biden’s Interior Department transition team in November and is seen as a leading contender to run the Bureau of Reclamation.

Kowalski points to a success story 150 miles downstream from the Bruchez ranch in the Grand Valley along the Colorado-Utah border, as an example of how an approach that aims to sustain everyone who uses the river could also bring in multiple revenue streams that could be used to compensate farmers. During the pilot program six years ago, irrigators there were compensated for fallowing their fields or switching their crops, and the region’s irrigation system was upgraded to make it more efficient, helping all of the area farmers and keeping more water in the river.

The water that was saved then flowed downstream into the system’s hydropower plant where it generated electricity before flowing into the Colorado River just upstream from crucial habitat for four endangered fish species. From there, the extra water fed popular river rafting rapids before flowing into Lake Powell, where it provided water managers certainty by bolstering reservoir levels. Finally, it was sent through Glen Canyon dam, generating electricity for seven states across the West on its way to the lower basin.

The hope is to find a way, through user fees or other means, to monetize all of those benefits the extra water brings to downstream users and send the funding back upstream to compensate the farmers who saved the water in the first place.

“Somewhere therein lies the answer,” Kowalski argues. “You look at all those potential beneficiaries, and if you can find a funding model that sort of prevents free-riders, you can have a sustainable funding model to support these types of solutions.”

In this vision of the future, farmers and ranchers continue going about their daily work, growing crops by irrigating the land with water that slowly makes its way back to the river, but with occasional interruptions when that supply is needed elsewhere. The compensation they get for forgoing during dry years would keep them in operation—and ensure that the benefits they bring not just to Americans’ dinner tables, but also to the ecosystems—remain in place.

It’s a vision that makes farmers not just the producers of America’s food and fiber, but the essential buffer in the system that prevents the whole of Western society from tearing apart when the inevitable dry years come. And it’s also a potentially powerful model of the kind of win-win environmental policy solution that will need to be replicated in regions and industries across the country if the United States is going to adapt to the challenges caused by climate change.

Bruchez recognizes that change is coming to Western agriculture one way or another. He just wants to make sure farmers and ranchers are drivers of that change, not victims of it.

“We’ve seen our low-flow river. We’ve seen when we can’t irrigate. We’ve dealt with the big water utilities. We know what kind of challenges and fights are potentially down the road,” he said.

It’s a generational challenge, but he’s determined to meet it: “We want to be leading the conversation about how we can be proactive in this process so that my kids can still catch fish in this river and still have a productive agriculture business in this basin.”

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