Breath of Clarity

Comment on Evaluating Water Funds as Conservation Tools

Original Post by Bridget Clayton:

Until significant CO2 reductions are truly leveled out, hopefully as soon as 2050 with the Paris Climate Agreement’s net-zero carbon goals, the water funds can help to mitigate Colorado’s water supply issues. Both the Colorado River System Conservation Program and the Yampa River Fund are collaborative investments between various stakeholders who serve to gain significantly from steadier water supplies. Both programs aim to mitigate water levels now in order to avoid addressing disaster later after significant damage has been done to the river system.

The Colorado River System Conservation Program “fund would pay for voluntary reductions of water use – whether by fallowing farm fields, installing more efficient irrigation systems, recycling industrial supplies, or other means” (Postel 2014). The fund is significant in that it gives stakeholders the autonomy to choose the most economically viable and sound decision for their particular situation, rather than submitting to a mandated, blanket-approach authoritative measure. The director of Phoenix’s water supply, Kathryn Sorenson, states that the program could “significantly improve the long-term reliability of the Colorado River water supplies” (Postel 2014).

Similarly, the Yampa River Fund is a collaborative, “endowed fund that will be used to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply and boost river flow in dry years” (Hasenbeck 2019). The three main goals of the fund are to lease water to support the river in dry years, take restoration actions, and to make infrastructure improvements (Hasenbeck 2019). Potential restoration activities could include invasive species management, planting native species to cool the Yampa River, and improving upon diversion structures (Hasenbeck 2019).

I believe that the water funds can be partially effective conservation tools, but they cannot be the final answer to solve Colorado’s near water crises. As the effects of climate change are ever-increasing, we start to see changes in a range of environmental systems, including its effects on the water cycle. Part of the challenge in addressing the Colorado River’s water supply issues is to recognize what the base problem is, and that is humans and their currently unsustainable impacts on Earth’s ecosystems. Northwest Colorado in particular “is experiencing an earlier snowmelt and more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, [and] both of these contribute to an early peak flow on the river,” depleting the water supplies in the summer when demand is at its highest (Hasenbeck 2019). In order to truly fix the situation, global CO2 levels must come down in order for the water cycle to return to its natural state.

Hasenbeck, Eleanor. 2019. “Yampa River Fund launches this week, aims to keep the river flowing from the Flat Tops to Dinosaur.” Steamboat Pilot & Today, September 27, 2019. Accessed March 3, 2021.

Postel, Sara. 2014. “An Innovative Conservation Fund for the Colorado River.” National Geographic Society, May 6, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2021.

My Comment:

Hi Bridget,

Excellent overview of the two water funds! The reliance on participation being voluntary in the Colorado River System Conservation Program is interesting. I found a great paper by Thomas Christensen emphasizing that voluntary characteristic of the water conservation mechanisms is impactful as the author highlighted gains can still be achieved without enforcing mandatory cooperation (Christensen 2012). According to Christensen (2012), targeting enhances the effectiveness and efficiency of conservation systems. It requires continued outreach and education to farmers to ensure they are aware of the opportunities and assistance available, and must provide consistent and readily available technical assistance from qualified, trusted sources to aid farmer decision-making with on-farm conservation planning, implementation, and adaptive management (Christensen 2012). Targeting is further supported by the engagement of many partner organizations, including government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and business entities (Christensen 2012). These partners bring additional expertise and resources to the effort, and work with farmers to promote their active involvement (Christensen 2012).

Also, full treatment of the most vulnerable acres will require suites of conservation practices because no single practice is a universal solution (Christensen 2012). These practices are grouped into the categories of “avoiding,” “controlling,” and “trapping” for ease in understanding their water quality effect (Christensen 2012). Examples of conservation practices by category are 1. avoiding: nutrient management, cover crops, and conservation crop rotation; 2. controlling: residue and tillage management, contouring, grassed waterways, drainage water management, strip-cropping, and terracing; and 3. trapping: contour buffer strips, riparian herbaceous cover, filter strips, constructed wetland, wetland restoration, and denitrifying bioreactors for tile drainage water (Christensen 2012). I was particularly impressed that Christensen (2012) suggested that a farm-specific conservation plan developed by the farmer with supporting technical assistance is the vehicle to bring these practices together into a conservation system. A key strength of the author’s point of view is his reverence for empowering the farmer to develop the plan.


Christensen, Thomas. 2012. “Voluntary Conservation Works, and Further Water Quality Gains Can Be Achieved.” Water and Food. 14(6): 10-14.