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Ray Grass, Deseret News
FILE — People enjoy a variety of activities at Lake Powell Tuesday, August 27, 2013, despite the low water levels. A pilot program will offer cash to Utah users of the Colorado River system if they conserve water destined for Lake Powell. Nearly $1.5 million is being made available to Colorado River Upper Basin states, including multiple basins in Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — Protracted drought over the last four years and nagging uncertainty over how Lake Powell will fare in 2016 are prompting a cash-for-conservation program to test how much water can be saved in the Colorado River.

Utah users, as well as those in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — the Upper Basin states — are eligible to tap into nearly $1.5 million being offered in a pilot program.

"This is why it is a pilot project, to see what is possible," said Robert King, the Utah Division of Water Resources' interstate streams engineer. "This is to see what may or may not work."

The Upper Colorado River Commission is hopeful voluntary conservation projects initiated in 2016 will have an impact on the amount of water sent downstream into Lake Powell.

"The idea is to distribute water conservation cash and see if it results in benefits to the Colorado River system with benefits to the levels of Lake Powell," King said.

Under a complex Colorado River water agreement, the Upper Basin states are required to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Nevada, California and Arizona.

Lake Powell is just barely a little over half full and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation notes that 2000 to 2014 was the driest period for water flowing into Glen Canyon Dam since it was completed in 1963. Only three of the years were above average.

Managers along the Colorado River system are trying to keep as much water as possible in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the primary storage reservoirs along the 1,450-mile river, which is the primary source of water for 40 million people in the arid Southwest.

The conservation projects, which King notes are limited only by the amount of funding that is available, targets all users — municipal, industrial and agricultural. In Utah, the commission will accept proposals from basin regions that include all or portions of Wasatch, Duchesne, Uintah, Carbon, Grand, Emery, Wayne, Garfield, San Juan and Kane counties.

To be considered for funding under a request for proposals format, pre-proposals should be received by Nov. 1. Those interested in submitting a proposal can learn more at www.water.utah.gov

Projects could include temporary fallowing, deficit irrigation of crops, reuse of industrial water, recycling of municipal water that reduces consumptive use and reductions in municipal landscape irrigation.

King said the commission is anticipating robust interest in the program.

Last year, four major western utilities created the Colorado River Conservation Partnership, paying users to cut consumption and multiple lower basin states are also participating in cash-for-conservation programs.

Utah finished the water year, which officially ended Thursday, at a statewide precipitation average of 85 percent.

The latest Water Supply and Climate report released by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service noted that many streams and rivers throughout the state are flowing at below normal or much below normal.

Utah reservoirs, on average, are about half full, down from this time last year.

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