Stream Management Plans & Agriculture

Colorado farmers and ranchers are proud to produce the food, fiber, and scenic landscapes enjoyed by the public. As Colorado’s second largest economic sector, farms and ranches provide employment for 173,000 Coloradans and contribute $40 billion to the economy. With average annual precipitation at 15 inches, much of Colorado’s agriculture is dependent upon irrigation. To produce that food and fiber, agriculture is the largest user of Colorado’s water, diverting more than 86% of the state’s surface water.

For these reasons, Colorado farmers and ranchers are a critical player. Their collective land and water management actions are often the single most important factor that influences the health of a river or stream. Colorado’s Water Plan recognizes the stewardship role of agricultural producers by supporting locally driven solutions to meet their water management needs while also protecting and improving the health of the rivers they depend upon.

Stream or Integrated Water Management Plans (SMP/IWMP) are an effective way for agriculture to engage with other community members to assess the health of their waterways and identify actions to restore or protect those resources for future generations.

Benefits to Agriculture

In agricultural landscapes, farmers and ranchers must be a part of SMP/IWMPs to ensure that their voices and values are heard and incorporated into these plans. There are many benefits of SMP/IWMPs, including many specific to agriculture.

A lot of our diversions and structures were built in the 1940s. Over the years you end up taking straw bales, canvas tarps and posts to establish some pressure by putting anything in the river to back up that water. The river needed help, and we needed to make sure we did that right.

Greg Higel, Centennial Irrigating Ditch Company Superintendent, Rio Grande River

Many SMP/IWMPs are incorporating infrastructure evaluations into their river health assessments , including the Middle Colorado and Yampa Basins. Those who have completed ditch assessments find they are a good step toward understanding the condition of agricultural infrastructure and developing projects to improve that infrastructure while also improving river health. Assessments that factor into stream management plans can be a good first step to larger partnerships and projects, and bigger funding pots to support them. For participating agricultural producers, these assessments have proven to be a source of funding for irrigation infrastructure improvements that lead to reduced maintenance and improved performance.

One of the projects that I was involved in was the Rio Grande #2 structure. There’s only 4 cubic feet per second in there, but the water covers 400 acres of ground that is right along the river corridor, and when that river got low, there would be many days, where you didn’t have water in the ditch. Now with this wonderful new diversion structure placed with the curvature of the river, it keeps the water clear, and we are able to get water out for irrigation even on a low year.

Rick Davie, rancher and Rio Grande #2 Ditch shareholder

SMPs have the potential to reduce wasteway or tailwater operations and annual maintenance, address water flow and quality issues, and stabilize riverbanks and channels resulting in less erosion and sedimentation. Irrigators along the Rio Grande River experienced erosion problems that affected the water quality as well as the habitat for fish and wildlife. To address these problems, the Five Ditches Project, led by Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, a non-profit group working in the San Luis Valley to improve the health of the river for all water users, enabled irrigators to install diversion structures that function effectively and efficiently while also improving the health of the river. The Five Ditches Project addressed issues of aging and inefficient diversion infrastructure, channel instability and sedimentation. By improving the diversion structures and streambanks irrigators have seen improved diversion efficiency and reduced maintenance, enhanced water quality by reduced erosion, improved wildlife habitat, and enhanced recreation and safety by ensuring the diversions are passable by fish and boats where appropriate.

This is a community where agriculture is very important, so I am glad to see that we have a diverse cross-section of irrigators represented on the planning advisory committee. Farmers and ranchers want healthy rivers and more efficient diversion structures.

Stu Massey, a Rangely rancher and member of the White River Initiative Planning Advisory Committee

SMPs create the opportunity for dialog between agriculture and other water stakeholders within the community that may not have happened otherwise. In Rio Blanco County, the White River Integrated Water Initiative aims to assess community needs from all water users in order to identify actions that promote a healthy river and ensure a vibrant agricultural community. Goals of the project also include maintaining healthy fisheries, protecting water rights, and respecting local customs, cultures and property rights.

How to be Involved

SMP/IWMPs benefit when all stakeholders are involved , including agriculture. SMP/IWMP leads across the state make the effort to involve agriculture in the planning process to ensure their voice  is reflected. There are many roles that agricultural producers can have in SMP/IWMPs, including defining issues of concern, identifying water-related needs, setting goals, assisting in assessments, and community outreach.

By getting involved in community-wide water planning, farmers and ranchers have an opportunity to educate environmentalists, municipalities, recreational users, and others who sit at the water planning tables. If you’re interested in learning more or being involved in your local SMP/IWMP, you can find the contact information for each SMP/IWMP here.

For more resources on funding for agricultural water infrastructure improvements and to learn more about a variety of ag-water topics, visit Colorado Cattleman’s Association AgWater Network, Colorado Agriculture Water Alliance, and Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance.


  1. View the fall 2020 workshop on approaches taken throughout the state to conduct diversion assessments here. Presenters include Phil Brink, Ag Water NetWORK, Gretchen Rank, Mancos Conservation District, and Nicole Seltzer, River Network. The October 2020 Peer Workshop provides an overview of various approaches and goals for diversion assessments that SMP/IWMPs have taken across the state.

  2. Colorado Ag Water Alliance resources include videos on successful multi-benefit projects and provides an overview of SMP processes and benefits with an agricultural audience in mind.

  3. The Colorado Cattleman’s Ag Water NetWORK hosts meetings and webinars about various topics throughout the year.

Colorado SMP Library