University of Wyoming

09/25/2023 | Press release | Archived content

UW and WLA Release Report on Survey of Colorado River Basin Irrigators

An in-depth survey of more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers in the Colorado River Basin has some startling implications for how water conservation in the drought-stricken region could come about.

The survey data and report were released today (Monday) by Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) and the University of Wyoming. The report indicates that, while the vast majority of agricultural water users in the basin are concerned about water shortages and have already adopted some water conservation measures, recent federal efforts to fund conservation in the basin need to be targeted better to be effective.

WLA and UW's Ruckelshaus Institute published the survey titled "Agricultural Water Users' Preferences for Addressing Water Shortages in the Colorado River Basin." To download the survey, go to An interactive data dashboard that allows users to dig into the data by water user demographics also is available.

"Our findings point to a trust gap between producers and federal and state agencies," says study co-author Hallie Mahowald, chief programs officer for WLA. "People overwhelmingly wanted water conservation and management programs to be collaborative and implemented by familiar local organizations."

The survey, conducted between October 2022 and March 2023, also found a stark lack of awareness of federal and state funding options to support water conservation practices among farmers and ranchers. Nearly 80 percent of respondents, for example, say they were unaware of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's WaterSMART program, which received a major boost in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021. The law is designed to deliver funding to irrigation districts or other entities that deliver water to improve infrastructure.

Almost 90 percent of the survey's respondents say they were unaware or had not heard of the Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP or the System Conservation Program) -- a flagship drought-response effort of the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), representing Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico -- to temporarily reduce water consumption and help refill Lake Powell.

Drew Bennett, the MacMillan Professor of Practice in Private Lands Stewardship in UW's Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, led the survey.

"These programs are complicated, and the UCRC's own analysis suggested the rollout of the SCPP was rushed and water users need more clarity and transparency about the details of the program," Bennett says. "Our data show a major need to provide farmers and ranchers with more information about these programs by working through trusted sources."

Most survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal demand management or system conservation programs to address water shortages and were generally opposed to water transfers as a solution to shortages. Only temporary transfers from agricultural water users to other agricultural water users had less than 50 percent opposition.

"Farmers and ranchers are concerned about the future of the communities they live in and the land they care for," says Lesli Allison, WLA CEO. "These survey results are in line with those concerns. But they also lay out a pathway to better aligning supply and demand in the basin -- one that starts by working with landowners through trusted partners on win-win solutions."

The study's authors will present findings and key takeaways in a webinar, open to the public, Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 11 a.m. To register, go here.

For more information, email Louis Wertz, WLA director of communications, at [email protected] or Bennett at [email protected].

About UW's Ruckelshaus Institute

The Ruckelshaus Institute, a division of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at UW, advances the understanding and resolution of complex environmental and natural resources challenges in the Mountain West.

About Western Landowners Alliance

WLA advances policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species.