As the drought in the West continues, we are all being forced to reckon with unsustainable water use of the past. If nothing changes in the Colorado River basin, for example, demand for water is projected to exceed supply by 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. That deficit is more than the annual share of Colorado River water earmarked for Arizona and Nevada combined. Decision makers are looking for proactive solutions to future water crises, and sportsmen can help, especially by calling on decision makers to prioritize and refine effective water conservation programs that benefit fish and wildlife. Here’s what you need to know.
Better Use Costs Less
Simply conserving water—in other words, using what we have more efficiently—is the quickest, cheapest, and easiest solution to our water supply problems. A 2012 study of the Colorado River basin found that proposed conservation measures would cost one-quarter of what would need to be spent on other possible solutions, like desalination, reuse, or new, large water diversions, and the region would see comparable water savings in half the time.
A Smart Program Exists
Since 2010, the Bureau of Reclamation has been seeding local water-efficiency solutions and encouraging collaborative watershed partnerships through grants from the WaterSMART Program. In the past five years, the bureau has awarded 240 of these grants totaling $113 million for local water-efficiency projects, like irrigation districts lining canals to cut down on water loss or municipalities installing more efficient water control technology. And because recipients of these grants have to bring their own matching funds to the table, WaterSMART grants have cumulatively leveraged an additional $331 million in non-federal funds for water efficiency.
Bonus: Fish and Wildlife Benefit
In our recent Snapshots of Success report, the TRCP profiled a prime example of a successful WaterSMART-funded project: Montana’s Fort Shaw Irrigation District used two WaterSMART grants to rebuild irrigation systems and send 10,000 acre-feet of conserved irrigation water to improve stream flows for wild trout in the Sun River.
The Sun River example is a positive one for sportsmen, but it is important to recognize that most applicants for WaterSMART grants never receive funding: Historically, less than 20 percent of applicants received a grant (Table 1), and unfunded projects represent a significant amount of unmet water savings potential.
The Montana example is also extraordinary because of the project sponsors’ commitment to using conserved water to improve instream flows, helping trout on the chronically dewatered Sun River. Even though nearly all WaterSMART projects conserve water, very few of them produce habitat benefits. So, where does the saved water go? Frequently to firming up existing water supplies, so users can more regularly get their full allocation of existing water rights. It rarely stays in the river to benefit fish, wildlife, or habitat.
The reason for the lack of habitat benefits from WaterSMART projects is not obvious. One of the explicit purposes of the program is to protect endangered species, and the 2016 evaluation criteria allow for applicants to earn up to 12 percent of their overall score by demonstrating that a project will benefit endangered species (Figure 1). And the law that created the grants allows them to be used for any water supply project that “increases ecological resiliency to the impacts of climate change” or is used “to prevent any water-related crisis or conflict.” Surely combatting threats to fish and wildlife from lack of water fits the bill.
Room for Improvement
It may be that irrigation districts working with sportsmen or watershed groups to create conservation benefits are not rewarded appropriately for their efforts in the grant application. We’re calling for the Bureau of Reclamation to give higher rankings to projects that demonstrate dual benefits: a more secure water supply and instream flows with habitat benefits for fish and wildlife. This would help guarantee that limited WaterSMART dollars create the most benefit possible.
WaterSMART grants could also produce more conservation benefits if sportsmen’s organizations and watershed groups were eligible to apply, but currently the grants are restricted to entities “with water or power delivery authority” and, therefore, go primarily to irrigation districts or municipal governments. Sportsmen can partner with eligible applicants on a project, as Trout Unlimited did on the Sun River, but the eligibility restriction may be weeding out strong projects that can help fish, wildlife, and watersheds.
What You Can Do
Sportsmen’s groups have made supporting and refining WaterSMART Grants a priority, but it will require action from Congress and the Bureau of Reclamation for the program to reach its full potential for fish and wildlife. Here’s where you can help: Tell the Bureau of Reclamation that you support its WaterSMART efforts—but you want to see water conservation benefit fish and wildlife, too.