Assessing the Economic and Technical Potential of Irrigation Curtailment Practices to Jointly-Sustain Livestock Production and Water Conservation in the Upper Colorado River Basin

Project Overview

The Colorado River Basin currently stands amidst unprecedented challenges (Udall and Overpeck, 2017). In particular, declining water supplies due to ongoing drought hold important implications for the river’s water users, especially within the agricultural sector of Upper Basin states. In response to the water crisis, these states have begun investigating water sharing arrangements, and policymakers have pledged millions of dollars towards this effort (Booth, 2023). Water conservation programs seek to use temporary, voluntary, and compensated practices like irrigation curtailment on an as-needed basis to meet hydroelectric power production requirements, uphold Colorado River compact entitlements, and sustain other societal water uses (Upper Colorado River Commission, 2022). Widespread water conservation programs have yet to be implemented on Colorado’s Western Slope, however, resulting in a limited body of research on the technical compatibility, economic feasibility, and social acceptability of irrigation conservation practices relative to irrigated producers’ current crop and livestock activity portfolios.he practices are most likely to be adopted.

Multi Stakeholder Partnership

Assessing the impact of reduced irrigation on livestock operations and pasture conditions during and after periods of curtailment is a critical area of research, given that these lands account for a large portion of consumptive water use in the Upper Colorado River Basin (MWH Americas, Inc., 2012). Season-long fallowing is currently the most widely-used irrigation curtailment practice in the Upper Colorado Basin due to its ease of implementation and verification (Upper Colorado River Commission, 2018); however, this practice also restricts or severely limits producers from jointly pursuing production activities like haying or livestock grazing on affected pastures. Partial-season irrigation practices that avoids the need for season-long fallowing, in contrast, could allow for limited hay production and livestock grazing while jointly contributing to system water conservation. Yet, practices that are complex to implement and difficult to verify, or under-compensated relative to the value of forgone revenue from diminished agricultural production, are unlikely to be adopted on a voluntary basis (Cabot, 2018; Mooney et al. 2022; Marston, 2023). Therefore, additional information on the environmental and socio-economic performance of these practices can inform producers, policy makers, and other stakeholders about their potential viability.

Through a multi-stakeholder research partnership with the Conscience Bay Research Foundation, scientists at Colorado State University and Lotic Hydrological will implement a project that examines the system water conservation potential of irrigation curtailment practices. The suite of practices to be considered holds significant potential for the Upper Colorado River Basin because they could allow for continued hay and livestock production on irrigated pastures and avoid the need for season-season fallowing. In this sense, they could be more compatible with producers’ desire to balance contributing to systemwide water conservation efforts with managing their ongoing production activities, and that is what this project seeks to assess.

The project findings will provide new information on the feasibility of irrigation curtailment practices to jointly-sustain livestock production and water conservation through the completion of four objectives:

  1. Evaluating the water conservation potential of a spectrum of irrigation curtailment practices integrated with livestock operations
  2. Identifying the management complexities related to the implementation of different irrigation curtailment practices
  3. Improving the understanding of compensation levels needed to incentivize hay and livestock producers to adopt these practices
  4. Assessing the characteristics of farms and ranches where the practices are most likely to be adopted


  • Colorado State University
  • Principal Investigator, Daniel F. Mooney, Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
  • Co-Principal Investigator, Dana L.K. Hoag, Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
  • Co-Principal Investigator, Perry E. Cabot, Extension Professor, Colorado Water Center, CSU Extension, and CSU Agricultural Experiment Station
  • Project Collaborator, Eli Feldman, President, Conscience Bay Company LLC
  • Project Collaborator, Matt Lappé, Executive Director, Conscience Bay Research
  • Project Collaborator, Michael H. Higuera, Conscience Bay Company LLC
  • Project Collaborator, Jim Howell, Grasslands, LLC
  • Project Collaborator, Seth Mason, Principal, Lotic Hydrological
  • Project Collaborator, Kelsea McIlroy, JUB Engineering