Friend of Coyote Gulch, Greg Hobbs, sat down with John Ingold of the Colorado Sun to talk water history and the future of the Colorado River Basin. Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado’s system governing water use predates the state itself — the oldest water rights in Colorado date to the 1850s. And it is so closely linked to the state that, even when it is used elsewhere, it is often called the “Colorado Doctrine.”
But can it survive perhaps the greatest challenge in its history — a double-whammy of drought and population growth?
To answer that question, The Colorado Sun sat down with retired state Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, one of Colorado’s foremost minds on water law. Hobbs has 45 years of experience practicing water law in Colorado, and he continues to serve as a senior water judge and mediator.
First, some background: This spring, an influential water think tank, the Colorado River Research Group, released a report calling on water wonks to stop using the term “drought” to describe what is happening in the West. Drought implies something temporary, the report argued. But these changes show no sign of being temporary.
“For that, perhaps the best available term is aridification, which describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment,” the group stated in its report.
Meanwhile, the Colorado State Demography Office projects that Colorado will add 3 million people by 2050, bringing the population above 8 million.
This is a worrying prospect for water in Colorado — party to nine interstate water compacts and home to thousands of individual water rights, each meticulously ordered in priority from oldest to youngest. And the strain may already be starting to show.
The fiscal year that ended in June 2017 — the most recent for which data is available — had the most claims and filings in state water court since the similarly parched year of 2012, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. Thornton and Fort Collins are currently locked in a testy battle over how to move water that Thornton has the rights to out of the Poudre River, lifeblood of Fort Collins. And, according to reporting by Water Education Colorado, a New York hedge fund has spent millions buying up senior water rights on Colorado’s Western Slope — apparently betting on future shortages.
Does Hobbs think the Colorado Doctrine is built to withstand this kind of stress? The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity, readability and brevity. At one point, Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch who helped arrange the interview and sat in on it, also chimes in.
Hobbs talks about complicated water compacts and delivery systems as casually as discussing high school memories with an old friend, and it can be hard to keep up. So there are a few Colorado Water 101 explainers sprinkled in to help out.
Gregory Hobbs: The (Colorado River) Compact has really been tested in recent years with sustained drought. But it’s working.
Colorado Sun: At what point does it break?
GH: It doesn’t.
CS: It can’t?
GH: No. Not unless one of the states convinces the other six to renegotiate the compact; it’s perpetual. … Congress could try to override it. But I just don’t see it happening because Congress agreed to the compact.
So this is the essence of state-federal sovereignty, these nine interstate compacts that Colorado is a part of. The alternative is litigating in the U.S. Supreme Court for an allocation. It’s an amazing thing that in this 16-year drought, the target release of 8.25 (million acre-feet per year) out of (Lake) Powell has been met or exceeded.
From The High Country News (Karen Knudsen):
President Donald Trump has unveiled a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, including the pipes and treatment plants that keep clean water flowing from our taps. But if you read the fine print, his plan offers just $200 billion in federal funds; the remaining $1.3 trillion is expected to come from other sources, including private investors.
Private investment in water systems might look like a good deal to those who want to limit federal spending; it certainly appeals to cash-strapped cities and towns. And the need is great: The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our nation’s drinking water facilities a “D” grade, and says $1 trillion will be needed to fix them over the next 25 years.
But private investment comes at a cost. Fundamentally, it means handing over our most essential resource to those who put profits before the public interest. That’s what we learned here in Missoula, Montana, where we recently wrested control of our water system away from a multinational corporation.
Missoula is unusual in that our water system was privately owned since the town’s founding in the 1870s. Our first water entrepreneur was “One-Eyed Riley,” whose delivery method involved a yoke and two buckets. Since then, the system passed through many hands, but was never well managed. Compared to neighboring towns with public utilities, Missoulians endured high rates and poor service. Necessary capital improvements were not made, and the system steadily deteriorated.
When the Carlyle Group purchased our water system in 2011, we hoped the situation would improve. But we soon realized the fundamental tension that lay between Carlyle’s goal of generating a short-term profit and Missoulians’ need for safe, clean water over the long haul. After a four-year court battle, we purchased our water system from Carlyle for $84 million. Now, for the first time in our town’s history, ownership of our water system — its pipes, pumps, wells, water rights, wilderness lakes and dams — has landed where it belongs, in the hands of the people, where it can be managed for the public good, for all time.
Unfortunately, other cities seem headed the other way, seeking private financing as the answer to their water woes. Many will be disappointed: Private investors require high rates of return, so they are unlikely to support projects that won’t pay off sufficiently.
If there is money to be made from water, look out. Population, pollution and climate change are squeezing global drinking water supplies, so investors — including commercial bottling plants — are rushing in. There are disturbing accounts of bottling plants targeting a town’s good water source, only to deplete local water wells, dry up wetlands and drain streams.
Some people assume that private management means greater efficiency and lower rates. Yet the reverse is often true. The New York Times analyzed three communities where private equity firms manage water or sewer services. In all three places — Bayonne, New Jersey, and Rialto and Santa Paula in California — rates rose more quickly than in comparable towns. In Bayonne, the price of water skyrocketed by nearly 28 percent after the private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts took charge of the city’s system.
That’s why some cities that had gone private — from Ojai, California to Fort Wayne, Indiana — have seized their water systems back from private ownership.
While the price tag can be daunting, public investment is the better option. State and local governments already provide the lion’s share of money for water infrastructure, and federal funding is available through the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (though those funds are flat-lined in the president’s proposed 2019 budget). There are also collateral benefits from public investment. The Economic Policy Institute found that spending $188.4 billion on water infrastructure would yield $265 billion in economic activity and create 1.9 million jobs.
In Missoula, we are reaping the benefits from public ownership of our priceless water assets. Decisions about our water are made right here in town, not in a distant boardroom. Instead of short-term profits, our priority is long-term water security, a critical concern in the era of climate change. We don’t have to worry about rates going up to fatten investors’ wallets, and there are less tangible benefits, including a more intimate connection to the resource on which all life depends.
So here’s our advice: If your community hopes Trump’s infrastructure bill will fix your water system, be sure to read the fine print. And if you’re lucky enough to control your own water, never give it up without a fight.
Karen Knudsen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is the director of the Clark Coalition, based in Missoula, Montana.
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Colorado’s hardworking rivers provide economic and environmental bounty. The value of West Slope water reaches all four corners of Colorado and flows beyond the Stateline. As we close out an extremely dry water year and look toward a new water year, water users in the Colorado River Basin grapple with how to react to looming shortages and meeting demands.
However, collaborative work is underway aimed at reducing the risk of shortage while supporting Colorado’s flowing rivers and working lands.
We all play a role in Colorado’s sustainable water solution. Join Audubon Rockies, Black Canyon Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, the Business for Water Stewardship, Mayfly Outdoors, and the Colorado River District for an evening of community, food and discussion about charting Colorado’s water future.
Metropolitan water association recognizes our commitment to the environment, our ratepayers and public health.
From The Greeley Tribune (Sara Knuth):
The district, which has boundaries that stretch through parts of Weld, Adam and Morgan counties, serves about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells. As part of the ballot question, proposed through Central’s Groundwater Management Subdistrict, the district is planning for long-term projects officials said would give farmers and ranchers a reliable source of water, even during drought conditions.
According to the district, taxpayers living in a $500,000 home would pay $1.90 per month or $22.80 per year.
If approved, the money would go three places:
Construction of 5,000 acre-feet of additional reservoir storage near Fort Lupton, Greeley and Kersey. Purchasing additional senior water rights, including those currently leased by the district. Construction of the Robert W. Walker Recharge project in Wiggins, near the Weld and Morgan county line.
In September, executive director Randy Ray said the recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim $15 million of the funding to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said the storage would increase drought resiliency for the district’s water users.
From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
In 2007, years into a record-breaking drought throughout the southwestern U.S., officials along the Colorado River finally came to an agreement on how they’d deal with future water shortages — and then quietly hoped that wet weather would return.
But it didn’t.
Those states are now back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people in seven Western states…
The canyon beyond the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt says, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and its sister reservoir — Lake Mead further downstream — continue to drop. Both are less than half full.
Pitt says without changes to how the two human-made lakes are managed, they could plummet to levels where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”
“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy, for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River, and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well,” Pitt says…
It’s not about blame
That dystopian future of shuttered farms, dried up streams and water-stressed cities is one water managers, like the Upper Colorado River Commission’s James Eklund, are attempting to avoid.
“Take Lake Mead,” Eklund says. “More is being taken out than comes into it. Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive — fifth largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents — then that’s significant.”
They’re attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.
Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better managing existing reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.
The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for water users like farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.
“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multi-year drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” says Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, a Glenwood Springs, Colorado-based water agency.
When the current guidelines for river management were written back in 2007, he says people were feeling optimistic.
“Historically we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn says. “And that’s the easy way out.”
After just finishing one of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism is gone.
Kuhn says Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement due to intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin — like Colorado — have had issues, too.
Like with the concept of demand management.
“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn says. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”
Climate change is just one factor to get these deals done quickly. Another is pressure from the federal government. Officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior have given states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in and do it for them.
“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river especially in the Upper Basin,” says Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”
Gimbel says the fate of the entire region hangs in the balance.
Back at Glen Canyon Dam, the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt says it’s more than just the fates of people and economies tied up in river politics. An entire ecosystem is at stake.
“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” she says. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsized importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
From The Summit Daily News (Deepan Dutta):
In order to avoid that shortage, which has never been declared before, the Bureau asked the seven basin states to come together in 2018 to form drought contingency plans that will avoid triggering shortages. This past Wednesday, the Bureau released a draft plan formed by the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states.
The draft contingency plan would see Lower Basin states agree to conserve more water and curtail use and keep more water in storage if Lake Mead reaches the critical level. The Upper Basin states agreed to keep Lake Powell at least 30 feet above the 3,525 feet trigger level and gain the ability to keep a certain amount of excess water in storage, instead of losing it to Lower Basin states.
In a joint statement, the Bureau’s Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp and Upper Colorado Regional Director Brent Rhees lauded the landmark draft agreements.
“The seven Colorado River Basin States have taken an important step forward by releasing draft drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins,” the statement read. “The Bureau of Reclamation commends the work of the many partners in the Basin. We are encouraged by their progress in responding to ongoing drought conditions that continue to threaten reservoir elevations at an unprecedented rate.”
The statement goes on to say that the Bureau hopes the draft agreements will be finalized and adopted by the end of 2018. However, states will need to have a framework for how to distribute water cuts, which may require dealing with painful realities while tightening belts.