Eric Kuhn: I’ve always been concerned that our reliable water supply is a lot less than what we’ve been suggesting

A picture named cotransmountaindiversions.jpg

Here’s a look at Eric Kuhn, the Colorado River District and the future of the Colorado River, from Matt Jenkins writing for the High Country News. From the article:

Kuhn has lately become obsessed with one of the bigger riddles hanging over Colorado’s future, and his quest for answers has challenged some of the fundamental tenets of the state’s water orthodoxy.

“I’ve always been concerned that our reliable water supply is a lot less than what we’ve been suggesting,” he says. “I think there’s a lot less available than we thought there was.”

More than 3 million people in Colorado — roughly two-thirds of the state’s population — rely on water from the Colorado River. The river sustains alfalfa, apples and pears, Olathe sweet corn, and ski and ranch towns across the Western Slope. Yet its water may be even more important to the

Front Range — Denver and its cluster of urban and suburban satellites that lie hard against the eastern foothills of the Rockies.

More than a dozen tunnels channel water underneath the Continental Divide to roughly 2.5 million people on the Front Range. Moreover, the state is expected to grow by 2.9 million people over the next 25 years, and the Colorado River has long been seen as the only real source of water for the future.

So it’s not surprising that water managers have, for years, privately asked: How much more of the Colorado River can the state use?

More Coyote Gulch coverage here, here and here (Shameless plug).

Colorado cities looking for sustainable supplies

A picture named measuringwithweir.jpg

Here’s an update on Colorado cities’ quest for sustainable water supplies, from Chris Woodka writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

While Colorado cities have always grown over nearby ditches as they expanded, they also have looked far and wide for new water sources. Puebloans can observe this in their own backyard as the Pueblo Board of Water Works pursues a quest to buy shares in the Bessemer Ditch. The move is being financed in part by the sale of a faraway mountain ditch purchased in an earlier time as a hedge against water shortage…

In Northern Colorado, the state’s most productive agricultural land has been caught in the cross-hairs of growth, Sean Cronin, water resources manager for Greeley, told the Ditch and Reservoir Co. alliance last week at its annual meeting at the Pueblo Convention Center. “Buy-and-dry is ultimately going to happen, but leases buy us time,” Cronin told the irrigators…

In 2003, Greeley embarked on a water acquisition plan that included buying more shares in nearby ditches, as it had in the early 1990s as a response to raids on ditches by Thornton, Cronin said. The city was successful in obtaining some shares – fewer than it wanted at a higher price. From knocking on the doors of farmers, it also learned two things: Not every farmer wants to sell water, even at more than twice the going rate for ag water. Other cities are knocking on the same doors…

Thornton already had bought shares in area ditches, so Greeley set out to buy shares in the Greeley Loveland Irrigation Co. These would be added to a water system that already included high mountain reservoirs, transmountain water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, direct flow rights, 100-year-old conservation plans and shares in local ditches. “It turns out Thornton wasn’t interested in buying the ditch, but we protected the land, and we protected the water,” Cronin said. Greeley paid twice the price for ag shares, spending about $12 million, and increased ownership on the ditch by 30 percent. Greeley now owns about half of the ditch. Since Greeley did not need the water right away, the shares were offered for guaranteed lease back to farmers for 15 years. “Every one of them took it,” Cronin said. Farmers were also given the opportunity to change their minds and buy back the shares. Only one irrigator took that offer, Cronin said. Now, three years after the lease-back option expired, farmers are still able to lease water year-by-year. Most of the money from the leases was plowed back into the local farm economy. People stayed, continued farming and even made improvements to the land. “The sales provided seed money for development,” Cronin said. “In the economic cycle, the money came back to the local economy and the Northern Colorado economy.” Although Greeley didn’t plan it, most of the purchases happened to be at the end of the ditch, so the sales didn’t have a great effect on the operation of the ditch…

In the new round of sales enacted in 2003 – at a time when Greeley was among the fastest-growing urban areas in the nation – the city set out to buy shares in several area ditches. The offer was to be $6,000 per acre-foot, about twice the going rate for ag water. No one was interested in selling at that price. “We had a successful model to replicate,” Cronin said. But things had changed. Using a series of overlay maps in his presentation, Cronin explained how the water available to Greeley had diminished by sales to other Northern Colorado communities, acreage that had become part of conservation reserves or water that could not be easily moved into the city’s water system. “There was not that much to go around,” Cronin said. “What would have sold for $6,000 an acre-foot was being sold for $50,000.” Still, Greeley was able to buy some water for about $7,000 per acre-foot. Like the earlier purchase, it is being leased back. The lease-back period is important because it gives farmers time to ponder their future and the city time to chart its course.

Meanwhile, here’s an update on the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company and its efforts to keep water in the valley and on crops, from Chris Woodka writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

A board member and the attorney for the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch shared their insights last week at the annual meeting of the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance, held at the Pueblo Convention Center. Although more than 80 percent of the water in the Arkansas Valley still goes to fields rather than toilets and showers, about 70,000 acres of farm ground has been dried up by water sales in the last 30 years. Another 70,000 acres could be dried up in the next 25 years if business as usual continues…

…shareholders from six of the large canals below Pueblo signed on last year to incorporate the Super Ditch. The ditch has not yet signed a contract to provide water to anyone, but has talked with several potential customers. It faces legal questions, technical obstacles and potential political friction. But a framework has been built by irrigators with a common purpose: getting a fair price for water. “The cities are going to need more and more water. You know they are going to come,” said Mauch, who was president of the Fort Lyon Canal when speculators bought 20,000 acres of farms several years ago. “How are you going to keep farmers in the area? If you take the irrigating water out of Lamar, you take the people out of Lamar.”

The Super Ditch concept is to pool the multitude of water rights of farmers on different ditch systems, allow those who choose to participate to dry up some of their ground on a temporary basis and lease that water to cities, the state or others with a need…

Leases, as opposed to sales, would keep the water in the Arkansas Valley long-term. Several members of the ditch alliance questioned what would would happen to the water at the end of a long-term lease after the cities had come to depend on the supply. “At the end of the lease, you still own the water rights,” Super Ditch attorney Peter Nichols explained. “You don’t have to re-lease it. At the end of the time period, the water goes back to the land.” Nichols said cities do have the power to try to condemn water rights if they choose, but the only case on record, an attempt by Thornton, failed and was politically messy.

Mauch said the Super Ditch gave him a new “crop.” “I’m not looking to sell,” said Mauch, who became interested in finding an alternative use for water after the High Plains buy on the Fort Lyon. “I may not even decide to lease. But leasing is a crop. If you could sell water every year, why would you sell the water right?”[…]

The Super Ditch also has to work with ditch company boards to approve transfers. So far, only two ditches in the valley, the Fort Lyon and the High Line Canal, allow water to be used outside ditch boundaries. The High Line is the only ditch company that actually has completed a lease to cities, with its 2004-05 contract with Aurora and Colorado Springs. At least half of the shareholders on the seven ditches studied by the Lower Ark – Bessemer, Fort Lyon, High Line, Oxford, Otero, Holbrook and Catlin – are interested in becoming a part of Super Ditch, according to a survey late last year, Nichols said. While no one on the Bessemer Ditch signed on when the Super Ditch incorporated last year, Mauch said some shareholders have contacted him during the Board of Water Works current attempt to buy shares on the Bessemer…

More Coyote Gulch coverage here.

Wild and scenic designation for Colorado River and Deep Creek?

A picture named coloradorivereaglecounty.jpg

Here’s an update on efforts to manage stretches of the Colorado River and Deep Creek as Wild and Scenic without seeking the formal designation and all the red tape that would entail, from David Frey writing for the Aspen Daily News. From the article:

A diverse group, which includes Front Range municipalities that want water for their taps and environmental and recreation groups that want it for fish and kayaking, has been working together to try to hammer out their own agreement that could protect the Colorado River without a federal designation. “There are times when I think we’re making progress. There are times when everyone wants to throw up their hands,” said Steve Smith, of The Wilderness Society, who represents a coalition of environmental organizations on the working group. “I don’t know if we can pull this off or not.”[…]

Like wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers can be recommended by land agencies, but they must be dedicated by Congress to protect key waterways. The designation comes with land protections alongside the river in addition to protecting the flow. While Colorado has lots of wilderness areas, though, it has only one wild and scenic river, the Cache la Poudre, which runs through Fort Collins. Both Deep Creek and the Colorado River come with controversies, but the working group, which met Friday in Summit County, is focusing on the Colorado. It carries age-old rights by farmers and municipalities that tap into the waters. Among those most concerned is the Glenwood-based Colorado Water River Conservation District, which convened the group. “We feel that a locally run river is better than a federally run stretch of river,” said Mike Eytel, water resource specialist for the district…

Eytel said the district is mostly concerned about a federal water right that could stand in the way of water diversions and other projects along the Western Slope. Other water users, including Denver Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, Colorado Springs and Aurora, also have concerns. Joining them at the table are groups like Trout Unlimited, American Whitewater and commercial rafters who want to keep water in the river…

In a two-step process, these rivers have been found to be eligible for the designation, but the agencies are in the midst of determining if they’re “suitable.” A draft suitability determination by a contractor working on the project was due out this week, but is being kept under wraps until the BLM releases an overall draft land-use plan revision this fall…

The Colorado river district has some concerns about Deep Creek’s designation. It has conditional water rights on the creek, Eytel said. But most of its concerns revolve around the Colorado, including what it might mean for future hydroelectric projects and the river district’s Wolford Mountain Reservoir in Grand County. Unlike Deep Creek, the Colorado is well on the beaten track. Interstate 70 curves above it. Kayakers, rafters and anglers play in it. Farmers, ranchers and municipalities take water from it…

Smith said The Wilderness Society would like to see protections in place for Glenwood Canyon, but it hasn’t taken a position on wild and scenic designation yet, and in the meantime, it’s giving the working group a chance to find a consensus that could bring together a variety of interests. “You know you’ll have fewer fights in the future if what is chosen has strong buy-in,” he said. The group plans to present its findings to the BLM and Forest Service as an alternative to federal designation. “We just think the Colorado River within Colorado should be managed by Colorado folks, not federally controlled,” Eytel said.