Solving Water shortages Through Lease


Booming growth is driving more demand for water, but climate change, aridification and an over-allocated system ensure a short supply.

Lily Bosworth. Banner Photo Credit: US National Park Service


State lawmakers have looked to farmers to solve Utah’s mounting water issues, hoping they’ll lease water to save the Colorado River and Great Salt Lake.

So far, almost no irrigators have signed up. Their reasons vary, but a pilot program on central Utah’s Price River shows farmers are willing to lease their water if it makes economic sense and if they trust the process. And the state has a lot of hurdles to overcome before water leasing makes a measurable difference.

“If we can generate the revenue we need with water versus putting something in the ground, it works,” said Kevin Cotner, a hay farmer near Price. “It’s yet another cash crop.”

Cotner just wrapped up his third season participating in the Upper Colorado Basin Commission’s water leasing project, called the System Conservation Pilot Program. He irrigated 450 acres this year and left 530 acres fallow. He got paid up to $650 per acre-foot left in-stream.

But Cotner’s participation in the pilot water leasing plan isn’t purely based on economics.

“This is a hard ag area to make a living. Things are pretty severe,” he said. “We’re transforming the desert. Water is one of the big issues.”

Cotner serves as the president of the Carbon Canal Co., and policing use is part of his daily life.

“I’m the bad cop,” he said. “I’m the water guy.”

Even after Utah saw record-breaking snowpack and runoff last winter, Cotner said drought is becoming the norm rather than an exception. Last year, his canal company could only deliver shareholders 38% of the water they’re entitled to on paper.

“That was a hard summer,” he said. “A lot of unhappy people.”

Booming growth in the West is driving more demand for water, but human-fueled climate change, aridification and an over-allocated system have ensured it remains in short supply.

The water leasing pilot is one strategy Upper Basin states identified to get demand back in sync with reality in the Colorado River system.

All the water Cotner conserved by fallowing his fields stayed in the Carbon Canal, making its way back to the Price River, eventually flowing to the Colorado River and Lake Powell reservoir. It will then flow to thirsty Lower Basin states like Arizona and California, helping the Upper Basin fulfill its obligations under the century-old Colorado River Compact.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. As of now, Utah and other Upper Basin states don’t have the ability to track where the saved water goes, or ensure another irrigator downstream doesn’t divert it away.

“We want to get there,” said Lily Bosworth, a U alumna from geology & geophysics and now a staff engineer with the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “That’s our goal.”

Read the full article in the Salt Lake Tribune (subscription required). 


More about Lily Bosworth BSG, HGE, '20

Bosworth is a Staff Engineer for the Colorado River Authority of Utah. Born and raised in Ogden, Utah, Lily has observed Utah's dynamic water systems throughout her life and developed an interest in water systems that combine natural and engineered elements with supporting water quality and quantity for all stakeholders. Lily completed bachelor's degrees in Honors Geological Engineering and Environmental Geoscience at the University of Utah, with a thesis on changes in hydrology when beaver dam analogs are installed during the riparian restoration. Lily also completed a master's degree in Hydrologic Science and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, with a thesis focusing on water treatment with engineered wetlands. Outside of work, Lily loves to mix and match birding, backpacking, water coloring, yoga, trail running, hiking, biking, and ballet with friends and family.