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Colorado salinity control more than halfway to goal, BOR experts report

This late season photo of a secondary sprinkling system at work at a farm in the Wellington area is an example of the salinity program at work. This photo was taken as an unexpectedly early cold snap struck one night in 2005, turning the field into a mass of crystal. Systems generally run from April until through October, depending on the weather and water availability.

Sun Advocate publisher

Editors note: This is the second of two articles concerning salt control in the Colorado River Basin.

The Colorado River Basin is a big and complicated place, even without geological features that complicate habitation.

It encompasses 246,000 square miles over seven states.

Water for 31 million people comes from the basin drainage, and the impact of that water is felt across the world due to the food and industry that water gives life blood to.

More than four million acres of that land is irrigated.

Before man began irrigating in places like Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, the water that flowed down stream toward Arizona, Nevada and California had a naturally occurring salt content of between 300 and 400 parts per million. But with man's settlement in the upper basin that changed. The water doubled in salinity, causing problems for those down stream in terms of crop choice and survival, industrial corrosion and damage to home plumbing systems.

The dividing point between the upper and lower Colorado Basin is considered Lee's Ferry and each year nine million tons of salt is transported past that point. Over half (53 percent) is caused by human activities in the upper basin.

The salt in the soil can be heavy in many places, thus when over watered the salt is taken from the soil and eventually makes its way to the Colorado River. Some places have three or four pounds per acre; the Price area has a heavy concentration at five pounds. For those in the upper basin that salt is often invisible. When they irrigate they don't see the salt pass from the soil into the ground water and on down the line. For those below it is devastating. Higher salt content in water produces lower crop yields, limits what crops can be grown and all crops that are raised on such water need more of it. Not a good set of circumstances in the water starved west.

"It is not only a problem from a crop point of view, but there is damage to industry infrastructure and to residential buildings as well," said Kib Jacobson of the Bureau of Reclamation. "Municipalities must pay more to treat their water too."

In the last 30 many government agencies have been working on how to stop and reverse the trend of saltier and saltier water flowing down the basin. Because the majority of that salt comes from irrigation, organizations such as the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) (which replaced the old Soil Conservation Service), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Utah Division of Agriculture and Foods (UDAF) have been working to improved the salt levels. Because so much of it was caused by irrigation, that is where the biggest push has been.

Since the early 1990s Carbon County water entities have been involved in federal projects to get excess water from irrigation out of the mode of taking salt downriver. Many canals and laterals have been piped and a large group of agricultural and residential irrigation water users have begun using sprinkling systems and drip irrigation as opposed to flood irrigation. This has proved to be successful in areas in which it has been used.

A lot of the the work on this area has been done by the NRCS. The environmental incentives program they have worked on has included technical assistance to improve irrigation efficiency and financial support for agriculture to improve their irrigation systems and practices. That is where many of the sprinkling systems that run during the growing season have come from. However, there is a cost share between the government and the farmers with most getting a 75 percent reimbursement for installing the systems. But the level of compensation can also be higher under certain circumstances.

The funding for projects are based on a cost analysis and available money to do projects. Usually projects not only include the water entity (canal company, water district, etc.) but also include the individual users. Lined or piped canals can stop some of the problem, but it takes the users getting on board to cut salinity problems across the board.

Overall there have been or are 18 projects going on in the Price/San Rafael area. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 also affected funding. The Huntington Cleveland Irrigation Company was granted $2,902,538 to do a project this past year. Others getting money from that act included water entities in Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties, as well as in Wyoming and Colorado.

The Bureau of Land Management has also worked on public lands to reduce salt going into the rivers. New processes in rangeland management (grazing and other uses) and point source control have been important. In some places around the upper basin natural springs that bring salty water to the top of the ground and into streams is a problem. But even more than that, over the years many exploratory wells have been drilled for various reasons and many of those have brought salty water up from underground formations. The BLM has been plugging many of those.

Travis James, of the Colorado Salinity Board says that the program has "accomplished 65 percent" of the goals set originally for desalting the basin's down flow. As of 2008 the programs have controlled various amounts of salt. The BOR programs have eliminated 600,000 tons, the NRCS programs 460,000 tons and the BLM 100,000 tons. The target is to control 1,900,000 tons per year by 2025.

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