#ColoradoRiver: “What we wanted to do was get the water to Lake Powell” — Larry Clever

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Ute Water manager lauded for leadership: Endangered fish will benefit from efforts to improve water levels

The head of the Ute Water Conservancy District is being honored by a Colorado nonprofit agency for his leadership in leasing association water to benefit endangered fish.

Larry Clever, Ute Water’s general manager, is receiving the David Getches Flowing Waters Award from the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to using market-based transactions to restore and protect flows on Colorado’s rivers. He will receive the award in Denver on June 14 at RiverBank, the nonprofit group’s annual fundraising event.

The honor derives from Ute Water’s decision last year to lease water from Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to benefit endangered fish in what’s known as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River upstream of its confluence with the Gunnison River. The board ended up using 9,000 acre-feet under the deal.

The entities have agreed to renew the lease this year. The deal involves water that serves as a backup supply for Ute Water and a source to meet potential new demand.

Clever described the lease as “kind of a joint idea” between him, assistant manager Steve Ryken and Ute Water attorney Mark Hermundstad. It involves water that Ute Water contracted for in 2013 from the Bureau of Reclamation reservoir.

“What we wanted to do was get the water to Lake Powell so we could increase the water level in Lake Powell. This was a mechanism to get it there,” Clever said of the deal with the water conservation board.

Ute Water is concerned about the potential for levels in Powell to fall low enough to threaten hydroelectric power generation at the reservoir or to jeopardize the ability of upstream states in the Colorado River Basin to meet water delivery obligations to downstream states. Either situation could result in restrictions on Upper Basin water use.

“We had this water sitting in Ruedi and the idea was to get it into Lake Powell just so we could raise the water level a little higher,” Clever said.

It’s not very much water compared to Powell’s size, he conceded.

“But it’s better than not putting anything in it, and the fish definitely benefit,” he said.

The 15-mile reach is critical habitat for four endangered fish — the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail. Low flows in late summer can stress the fish.

The award Clever is receiving is named for a man who helped found the water trust, served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, advised the Interior secretary during the Clinton administration, and served as dean of the University of Colorado School of Law.

“If people for whatever motivations want to put more water back in rivers, that is close to sort of David’s vision for Colorado and ours as well,” said Zach Smith, staff attorney for the trust.

He said the deal involving Ute Water, making use of water in upstream reservoirs that isn’t needed in a particular year, is the kind the trust would like to see more of.

Hannah Holm, coordinator of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, said that Ute’s action “demonstrates a proactive, creative approach to providing long-term water security for Ute customers while also taking tangible steps to address regional water challenges.”

#Colorado water law doesn’t discourage efficiency — Hannah Holm

Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov
Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

The “use it or lose it” feature of Colorado water law is often blamed for discouraging farmers and ranchers from taking efficiency and conservation measures that could benefit the environment or ease the supply/demand imbalance on the Colorado River. However, a report released in February by the Colorado Water Institute argues that misinterpretations of the law are a bigger disincentive than the law itself.

The report was developed as a result of in-depth discussions by a panel of stakeholders and experts that included Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe, who directs the office that administers water rights. Wolfe presented the report at a forum on the future of irrigated agriculture in Delta on May 3, and Colorado River District Counsel Peter Fleming presented the report at the Mesa County State of the River meeting in Grand Junction on May 13.

The report concludes that diverting more water from a stream than crops actually use does not expand a water right. In addition, the report explains that recent laws allow irrigators to cut their water consumption without diminishing their water rights if they are participating in certain water conservation, fallowing and leasing programs.

Maximizing diversions doesn’t maximize the value of a water right.

The report notes that while an agricultural water right may be written in terms of a certain quantity of water that can be diverted from a stream in order to irrigate a particular parcel of land, the actual value of the water right is based on how much water is consumed by crops. A farmer who sells a water right to a city can only sell the right to use the amount that has historically been consumed by crops.

Rights to use quantities of water that historically leaked from a ditch or otherwise seeped back into the stream can’t be sold, because others downstream may rely on that water. Efficiency improvements, like lining ditches or switching from flood to sprinkler irrigation, which allow the same acreage to be irrigated with a smaller diversion from the stream, therefore should not diminish the transferable value of a water right.

Protecting water rights from abandonment

The Colorado Division of Water Resources can put water rights on the abandonment list for termination if the rights haven’t been used for 10 years, but the water right holders can avoid termination of the rights by showing that they don’t intend to abandon them. The report states that using measuring devices and keeping good records of water diversions and use, as well as “special circumstances” such as damaged infrastructure or participation in a conservation program, are more effective ways to protect a water right than maximizing diversions.

Conservation and leasing programs allow use cuts without diminishing rights

Recent laws protect water right holders from having the value of their water rights diminished as a result of cuts in use through certain leasing, conservation and fallowing programs. These include Senate Bill 13-019, which decrees that for water rights in the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa/ White basins, decreases in use as a result of participating in federal land conservation programs or approved water conservation, land fallowing and water banking programs for up to five years in a 10-year period won’t decrease the value of the water right. Rotational crop management programs and loaning or leasing water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to enhance stream flows also allow for reductions in water use without reductions in the value of a water right.

Hannah Holm is coordinator at the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs