A message from Wyoming to D.C.

The Barnes family--Eric, April and Timber--in front of the nation's Capitol. 

By Cory Toye

Last week, TU staffers, including myself and Scott Yates, director of our Western Water and Habitat Program, accompanied a group of Wyoming and Utah ranchers to the mean streets of D.C. to talk to our nation's leaders about looming drought in the West and how to survive it.

Eric Barnes and his wife April and son Timber joined us to tell the story about how their ranch has benefited from programs to conserve water and improve trout habitat. Eric has lived on the ranch his entire life and wants to ensure that his son can do the same thing. His story is like other partners we have in the Upper Green River: Making a living on the ranch is tough, commodity prices and weather can make or break you every year, and with a couple of bad breaks, the entire operation can be in jeopardy. Eric and his family have endured this and continue to persevere with grit and a willingness to pursue opportunities for diversifying revenues to create financial stability.

For the last four years, water conservation has been giving the Barnes family some financial certainty.

Eric is all Wyoming. He is a great family man, works hard and maintains a positive attitude with a laugh that is infectious. And he is a big dude. A fist on Eric looks like a milk jug and the straw hat made him look a foot taller than anyone else in D.C. In fact, while killing a little time on a bench in one of the Smithsonians, a couple of 8th graders were startled when Eric moved while they were taking a picture of him. “He’s real!” they screamed.

We were honored that Eric and his family could take some time away from the ranch to discuss an issue that is important to him, his ranch and all water users in Wyoming.

There was no good news to share about the water situation in the Colorado River Basin: snowpack is rapidly melting away and stream flows into storage reservoirs are well below average. This month, the Bureau of Reclamation announced projections that showed increased risk of water shortages due to the ongoing drought. Over the past decade, the risk of reservoir supplies declining to critical levels has approximately tripled.

Our message: A basin-wide collaboration among water users to find solutions has never been more necessary or urgent.

Message to D.C. (from left): TU's Sara Tucker, Cory Toye, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Eric Barnes, Timber Barnes, April Barnes, TU's Scott Yates.

We also wanted to tell them about a solution that works: the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), funded by Denver Water and other municipal utilities and the Bureau of Reclamation, pays farmers and ranchers to leave some of their water in the river to boost storage levels in Lake Powell.

For the last few years, TU has helped enroll ranchers and farmers in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah in the SCPP. We’ve found a lot of enthusiasm for the program in ranch country, and we’ve helped prove that there’s a robust water market for “demand management” leasing programs that pay ag producers for voluntary and temporary use of their water.

In the face of the West’s huge water challenges, that’s encouraging news. But the program needs a sustainable source of long-term funding to take root and really have an impact on a larger scale in the Upper Colorado Basin.

So we spent a couple of whirlwind days talking to lawmakers and agency folks, letting them know that this program works and is a wise investment in our region’s water future. Don’t let it die on the vine.

Eric and April told several lawmakers how the program had benefited them. In 2014, they came to Trout Unlimited with a problem: their irrigation diversion system was a pain in the butt. And it was killing fish.

Each spring, Eric had to wrestle large wooden telephone poles and tarps in place to construct a makeshift diversion in Fontenelle Creek. This involved Eric swimming in the creek with early spring water temperatures just above freezing—April would build a fire on the bank so he could warm up during breaks.

TU's Cory Toye, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Timber Barnes, April Barnes

This annual ritual of turning on the irrigation diversions was time-consuming and dangerous—moreover, each dam created a fish barrier, fragmenting the Fontenelle Creek trout population and stranding many of them in the ranch ditches.

TU takes pride in coming up with win-win solutions for landowners that improve both ranch operations and fisheries. TU staff visited the ranch and worked closely with the Barnes on a plan to upgrade their diversions in a way that worked for their water delivery and enhanced fish passage, too.

Around that time, TU was working with landowners and the State of Wyoming regarding this new water program—the System Conservation Pilot Program—to address long-term drought, create more “system water” and make sure there’s enough water to float everyone’s boat, from agriculture to communities to fisheries.

The Barnes family made the program pencil out and submitted one of the original five SCPP applications. They were excited to find another way to benefit from their water rights.

As Eric told me, “The most important thing to me is to keep the ranch intact and productive so my son can live and work here. The SCPP has helped us maintain productivity and create additional ranch revenue that keeps us in business.”

In fact, because SCPP has worked so well for them, the Barnes took the lead in recruiting other landowners in the Fontenelle watershed to ensure that the conserved water is passed downstream to Fontenelle Reservoir, accounted for and eventually shepherded down to Lake Powell.

He added, “The reason we have encouraged our neighbors to participate in this program is because it is completely negotiated and on our own terms. Nobody is telling you how to use your water, but if you can find a way to conserve some water for a few months during the irrigation season, you can improve your bottom line and maintain production.”

This is one ranch’s story on one tributary of the mighty Colorado—but multiply the Barnes’ story across the other tributaries and basin and region, and you have the potential to make a big difference in our water future.

TU’s partnership with April and Eric Barnes shows how collaboration and innovation are helping address the water supply challenges facing the Upper Colorado Basin.

By working together, we’re getting things done. Based on our meetings here, that seems like a message D.C. wants to hear.

Cory Toye is director of TU’s Wyoming Water and Habitat Program.


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