On the water bus in the Gunnison basin

By Cary Denison Collaboration in water conservation got a shot in the arm last week thanks to the Colorado Foundation for Water Education Gunnison Basin tour. A bus tour can sometimes be an exercise in uncomfortable conversations and car sickness. But the CFWE tour, which started and ended in Gunnison, proved to be a valuable vehicle for removing barriers between water stakeholders and encouraging them to create solutions through compromise and cooperation.

The day and a half long tour introduced participants, who ranged from interested citizenry to the most serious of water wonks, to the natural water wonders and innovative water infrastructure that keeps the fields green, the rivers flowing and the Gunnison Basin breathtaking.

Each tour stop brought a new twist on how agricultural water uses are addressing their unique water supply needs in ways that reduce the impact on other water users and the environment. Trout Unlimited has been partnering on many of these collaborative projects because better management of water means healthier flows for river recreation and trout habitat.

The tour showed that modernizing water systems on the ranch or farm has the potential to make our farms and rivers more sustainable and healthy in the face of drought, rising temperatures and other pressures threatening the larger Colorado River Basin.

Randy Meaker, a farmer near Montrose, welcomed the group and displayed a “big-gun” irrigation system that allows him to more efficiently irrigate his feed crops. Nearby in Olathe, farmer David Harold demonstrated a drip system he is installing on a field that is currently included in the System Conservation Pilot Project, a program that will compensate him and other Colorado River Basin users for conserved water. At a brief stop at Rogers Mesa Fruits, the group heard from local conservancy district president, Tom Alvey, about a new Stream Management Plan sponsored by the district, TU and local conservation groups that will help all water users plan for a more secure water future.  Near Hotchkiss we heard from farmer Tom Kay, who explained how using technology like soil moisture sensors and automated sprinklers are helping him grow crops with less water delivered. Tom   told us that market-based approaches to water sharing could work as a water conservation tool that protects and compensates farmers. On the road to the small town of Crawford, we heard from Patrice Alonzo, water manager, who discussed how funds provided by the NRCS through partnerships with Trout Unlimited and others will be used to improve irrigation infrastructure, resulting in water savings.

On the second day of the tour we visited Jesse Kruthaupt, TU’s Gunnison Basin Project Specialist, on his family’s ranch on Tomichi Creek, where he explained how they are using a creative lease from the CWCB Instream Flow program to address periods of low flow and compensate for production losses. We wrapped up the tour with a visit to the Trampe Ranch north of Gunnison. Here Bill Trampe and Perry Cabot from the CSU Water Center described how flood irrigation works and how they and partners, including Trout Unlimited, are working toward improving irrigation practices in a manner that works for the producers and conserves water.

And in case you haven’t noticed yet, Trout Unlimited is helping coordinate resources and funding for many of these projects in the Basin.

While it is unlikely that any tour participant went home with a silver-bullet solution for our complex water issues in the Gunnison Basin, it’s safe to say they went home with a better understanding of the water challenges we face—and likely a sense that Trout Unlimited is going to be there to help craft the solutions.

Cary Denison is Gunnison Basin Coordinator for Trout Unlimited.