Rio Blanco County producers enthusiastic about local water initiative
Farmers and ranchers in Rio Blanco County are starting off the new year optimistic about their involvement in the White River Integrated Water Initiative, which is aimed at assessing community needs from all water users in order to identify actions that promote a healthy river and ensure a vibrant agricultural community. Goals of the project also include maintaining healthy fisheries, protecting water rights — both quantity and quality — and respecting local customs, cultures and property rights.
The planning process was initiated by the board of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts to help meet Colorado’s Water Plan, which sets a goal that 80 percent of all watersheds will have a completed stream management plan by 2030. The White River initiative will reflect the priorities of local residents and is one of almost 25 others in Colorado that are creating stream and integrated water management plans.
“It is far better for us to initiate grassroots involvement and input into a water plan than to have a plan or regulations imposed upon us by an entity that is not familiar with our community,” said Callie Hendrickson, the districts’ executive director. “Landowners who irrigate pastures or crops are a key piece of this initiative.”
Over the last two years, the White River initiative successfully completed Phase I to capture initial community input and form a 16-person planning advisory committee that represents agriculture, environmental, recreation, municipal and industry concerns. Goals emerging from the Phase I community assessment work include:
Protect and preserve existing water rights and other beneficial water uses
Protect and enhance water quantity and quality through promoting best management practices of forests, riparian areas, rangeland and stream flows
Identify opportunities for creation or improvement of infrastructure to support efficient consumptive and non-consumptive uses
Support development/maintenance of long-term water storage solutions
The committee has submitted a grant to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to fund Phase II of the project, which will include assessments of agricultural irrigation diversion structures and riverside (riparian) habitat, as well as set future priorities for the initiative.
“This is a community where agriculture is very important, so I am glad to see that we have a diverse cross-section of irrigators represented on the planning advisory committee,” said Stu Massey, a Rangely rancher and member of the White River initiative Planning Advisory Committee. “Farmers and ranchers want healthy rivers and more efficient diversion structures.”
Massey said he sees the White River initiative as a double win with potential gains for agriculture and the environment as well as improvements beneficial to other stakeholders. “We’re all about what this community wants, even if our plan ends up not looking like other plans.”
Hendrickson said Phase II of the project will enable the community to “put meat on the bones.” The plan is to assess 20 diversion structures and riparian areas. Once the assessments are completed, recommendations for improvements can be made.
She also notes they will use locally based citizens and experts to do the riparian and irrigation diversion structure assessments. This will include tapping into expertise of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado’s Department of Parks and Wildlife, landowners, River’s Edge West and Trout Unlimited. Phase III will be implementation of the final recommendations.
“It’s a big project we’re undertaking, but we have broad community support including (support) from ag producers,” said Chris Collins, a Meeker rancher and member of the White River initiative Planning Advisory Committee. “The districts did a good job of recruiting a broad group of individuals representing all segments on our planning committee. We all want the White River to be vibrant and healthy.”
Like Massey, Collins agrees that ag producers must be involved in stream management planning. “It is important to be heard, and I think there is an opportunity to improve efficiency and profitability on our ranches. We hope to identify and implement ditch diversion improvements so they will be more efficient while improving the health of the river which will be a win for everyone.”
To learn more about the White River Integrated Water Initiative, visit: https://www.whiterivercd.com/newsletters.html.
For more resources on funding for agricultural water infrastructure improvements, contact Greg Peterson with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about grants to help fund stream management planning, including irrigation infrastructure, by contacting Alyssa Clarida with the Colorado Department of Agriculture State Conservation Board at email@example.com For stream management planning information visit https://www.coloradosmp.org/.
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