What would a water market for western Colorado and California look like? #ColoradoRiver

West Drought Monitor April 21, 2015
West Drought Monitor April 21, 2015

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Even before California declared mandatory water restrictions last week, water purveyors in the Golden State were paying top dollar for water already in the state. That suggests the price of water from upstream might fetch even more money — something that hasn’t gone without notice in the water-wealthy (relatively) and cash-poor (absolutely) places like the Western Slope of Colorado.

There is no way now to sell or lease water outside Colorado’s borders, but that so far hasn’t impeded people giving it some thought. [ed. emphasis mine]

“Are there feelers out there about creating a water market, quote unquote?” said Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users’ Association. “Obviously yes, and people are interested, on both sides of the table.”

Colorado is involved in talks aimed at circumventing a call on the Colorado River by downstream states, especially California, the nation’s most-populous state that is now in its driest condition ever.

“We’re certainly sympathetic with California’s condition,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, in an email. “As the headwaters of a major system they depend on (the Colorado River), we know how devastating 6 percent snowpack would be. This makes the contingency planning talks we’re in the middle of all the more important and urgent.”

California’s woes could very well become Colorado’s, so the Colorado River Water Conservation District is looking well ahead to find ways to make water peace before water wars break out.

“We’re trying to avoid the worst-case scenario,” River District spokesman Chris Treese said. “We know we have to answer (how to manage the river in extreme drought) even though it is too early.”

The effort to avoid that worst-case scenario includes the discussions among the basin states, an emphasis on conservation and the possibility that agreements could be arranged among water-rights holders and willing buyers.

The River District last month organized a trip to Southern California, where Western Slope residents and others saw some of the efforts that are well underway in the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys, both irrigated by Colorado River Water.

In the Palo Verde Valley, farmers have agreed to fallow portions of their lands. Los Angeles gets the water that would otherwise irrigate those fields.

The farmers whose fields lie fallow “are getting paid handsomely,” said Steve Acquafresca, the former Mesa County commissioner and Grand Junction peach grower who has “stayed immersed, pun not intended, in water.”

Those farmers seem more pleased than those in the Imperial Valley, who have a similar arrangement with San Diego, Acquafresca said.

Both cases, though, are temporary, highly managed buy-and-dry schemes.

They’re not the only ones.

The Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles is offering rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley $700 per acre foot of water, the most it has ever offered.

Given Southern California’s drier straits, “I don’t think it’s unrealistic” to think that a water-rights holder in Colorado could demand and get $1,000 an acre foot, said Larry Clever, general manager of the Ute Water Conservancy District.

No arrangements between Western Slope sellers and Southern California buyers are in the offing, though, because there is no way to assure delivery as the water passes through Utah, Arizona and Nevada before reaching California, Clever noted.

The River District is considering ways that it might be able to broker deals between willing buyers and sellers, Treese said.

“We hope not to do it on an individual farmer-by-farmer basis,” Treese said.

Sellers might get a signing bonus, possibly an annual payment and downstream buyers would have to plan ahead.

“This is an insurance policy,” Treese said. “You’re not going to be able to take one out once the fire starts.”

Participants in the California trip will meet on Tuesday to consider what they heard and what to do next.

For Acquafresca, the two key elements of any program are that participation is voluntary and temporary.

“This is not going to be new supply for growing metropolitan areas,” Acquafresca said.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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