NRCS funding will deliver benefits for ranch and farm operations, fisheries

Trout Unlimited today praised USDA Secretary Vilsack’s announcement that the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has chosen its first batch of projects funded by the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)—including one TU project in Colorado that improves farm and ranch operations while enhancing river and fisheries health in the lower Gunnison River basin. Over the past decade, aided by its grassroots local chapters and volunteer members, TU has worked with agricultural partners throughout the upper Colorado River Basin to develop projects that upgrade irrigation systems and restore important fish habitat. These pragmatic partnerships improve ranch and farm operations, restore watersheds and improve fishing and recreation opportunities.

“The ultimate objective is simple: provide win-win solutions that safeguard water resources for fish and irrigators,” said Cary Denison, Gunnison River Basin project coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

Drought conditions threaten many agricultural producers for whom water supplies are already under intense pressure. Aging irrigation infrastructure has reached epidemic levels throughout the West, and the cost of retrofitting this infrastructure often exceeds the capacity of individual operators or even organized irrigation districts.

The RCPP program offers an exciting new model to meet these challenges. Despite their many benefits, Farm Bill conservation projects have sometimes been too scattered and limited in scope to provide substantial long-term benefits on a larger watershed or basin scale. The RCPP program encourages a landscape-scale, collaborative approach, with local partners working together to coordinate funding, resources and expertise on priority projects that enhance important fish habitat.

“It helps put the larger pieces of the conservation puzzle together,” said Denison.

TU was delighted to have four of its projects in the West selected for RCPP funding, including the Lower Gunnison Project.

The LGP will address aging infrastructure, modernize irrigation systems, and address water quality concerns in four irrigation water districts located in Montrose and Delta including the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, North Fork Water Conservancy District, Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District and Crawford Water Conservancy District.

One of TU’s project partners, No Chico Brush, is a local collaborative ad-hoc farmer led group whose goal is to make the best use of water as possible for the benefit of all users. The group understands that improving delivery systems including water measurement and control and linking those improvements to on farm irrigation improvement including soil health initiatives can lead to water security for farmers, address down-river demands and local stream health issues.

The No Chico Brush group and its partners, including Colorado State University, are beginning its second year of on-farm water studies examining the benefits to both farm operations and fish and wildlife habitat related to modernized irrigation practices such as sprinkler, drip, and other technologies.

Trout Unlimited sees these improvements to irrigation control and measurement as a necessary first step in addressing water shortages for all users—and the upgrades can also improve fisheries health through the basin.

“TU salutes the agriculture and conservancy district leaders for their leadership and partnership in this RCPP funding process,” said Denison. “The No Chico Brush group in particular played an important role in providing the momentum for the funding being made available to the Colorado River Basin and having the ‘grand vision’ of connecting irrigation system and on-farm irrigation improvements to water supply needs and the health of our fisheries, rivers and streams. We’re eager to get to work on these projects, and thanks to the NRCS, we’re going to hit the ground running.”

---Cary Denison, Project Coordinator, Colorado Water Project, and Randy Scholfield, Communications Director, Southwest Region