Colorado’s water engineer discusses wasting of state’s ‘precious resource’

Water from the Meeker Ditch being turned out into Sulphur Creek on July 11, 2016.
Water from the Meeker Ditch being turned out into Sulphur Creek on July 11, 2016.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

MONTROSE — Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s state water engineer, told a group of irrigators here last week that it’s illegal for someone to take more water than they need because they are speculating on the future potential value of their water rights.

Wolfe was one of several guest speakers at the Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum, which was held on Sept. 1 at the Montrose County Fairgrounds.

Ken Lipton, president of the Shavano Conservation District board of supervisors, introduced Wolfe.

“He’s going to talk about probably one of the most misunderstood parts of Colorado water law, and that is ‘use it or lose it,’” Lipton said.

Wolfe, who has been state engineer since 2007, began by saying that some people who own a water right can have a “misunderstanding” of what it means to “own and operate that water right in the context of ‘lose it or use it.’”

“They are really thinking in their minds, ‘I better divert it or I’m going to lose it,’” Wolfe said. “So oftentimes the context of ‘use it or lose it’ is ‘divert it or lose it.’”

But that thinking should actually “be framed as ‘beneficially use it or lose it,’” Wolfe said. “Because really the true measure of your water right is based on the beneficial consumptive use of that water right. Not how much you diverted, but how much you beneficially used it.”

Wolfe also said that when you go to change a water right in water court, “the measure of your water right is not based on how much you divert, but how much you consume of that. That’s how much you can take and transfer into the future. That’s what values that water right.”

He said it was easy for short adages to roll off one’s tongue, but when it comes to water rights in Colorado, the phrase “use it or lose it” should really be a mouthful, as in “establish and maintain a pattern of beneficially using it, for its decreed beneficial use, over a representative period of time, while in priority, without waste, or lose it.”

Or, in short, “beneficially use or lose it.”

“The essence of a water right is the application to a beneficial use without waste,” said Wolfe, the official responsible for enforcing compliance with Colorado water law. “In Colorado there are laws — specific provisions and statutes — that prevent someone from wasting water.”

(Please also see “Don’t take more than you need: wrangling wasted water on the Western Slope,” by Aspen Journalism.)

Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its headgate than it used to.
Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its headgate than it used to.

The ‘use it or lose it’ report

Wolfe said given the misperceptions about “use it lose it,” he began participating two years go with a group of stakeholders to help the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University issue a special report on the subject.

The report, released in February, is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right,” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”

“It was engineers, attorneys, environmentalists, people from the cattleman’s association, corn growers,” Wolfe said of the group. “We thought we had a very wide range of stakeholders in this.”

He said the resulting 11-page document, which is in a question-and-answer format, is a helpful document that has been “very valuable in our administration efforts.”

“Administration” refers to managing the almost 180,000 decreed water rights in Colorado, which give people the right to use water from the state’s rivers and aquifers, but do so in priority based on the date of their water rights.

“We recognize that even some of our own staff had misunderstandings, misperceptions, of this ‘use it or lose it,’” Wolfe said. “So as water users come into contact with [our staff], we’ve got to make sure we are sending a consistent message on what it means when we talk about ‘use it or lose it.’”

A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.
A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.

Still applies in some cases

Wolfe described several ways in which some aspects of “use it or lose it” can still shape a water right, which is why the phrase has such staying power.

One is when you have a conditional water right.

Every six years in Colorado “you either have to demonstrate that you are maintaining diligence or that you’ve put it to use to make it absolute,” Wolfe said of such rights. “If you have an inability to put that water to beneficial use, there is a potential to lose that through [the] diligence process.”

Another area where “use it or lose it” can apply is to absolute water rights, where water has been physically put to beneficial use.

But Wolfe said that “as long as you’re operating within the decreed conditions of that decree, you’re not going lose it.” And, he added, it is only in “very rare situations where an issue would come up with an absolute water right.”

Wolfe explained that every 10 years, regional division engineers prepare an “abandonment list” of water rights that have not been used consecutively in the last 10 years.

But once put on such a list, the holders of the water rights can usually explain that they never intended to abandon their water right.

Wolfe said it’s “pretty easy” for a water rights owner to get off the list, and “they can continue to move forward until we go to the next abandonment process 10 years later.”

Another area where “use it or lose it” comes up is in a change case in water court. If someone goes to sell a water right, they can’t sell the portion they’ve never put to beneficial use, Wolfe explained.

He then walked the audience through an example.

A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. The division engineer for Div. 6 said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.
A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. The division engineer for Division 6 said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.

Farmer X

Say a farmer has a paper right to divert 150 cubic feet per second from the river, but they only divert 100 cfs.

“This could be because over time, maybe they’ve put in a sprinkler irrigation system, something that made them more efficient, so that they are only needing to divert 100 cfs,” Wolfe said.

The farmer’s corn crop consumes 60 cfs of the 100 cfs that has been diverted, and so 40 cfs returns to the river, either on the surface or underground.

So when the farmer goes to sell their water right to a city, they can sell the 60 cfs that was historically consumed by the crop. But they can’t sell the 40 cfs that returned to the river — in order to make sure that downstream users still get the same amount of water as before the sale.

“That’s the measure of your water right, how much you’ve historically consumed,” Wolfe said.

But if the farmer was overly worried about “use it or lose it,” they might instead divert 150 cfs — the full decreed amount of water in their right, he said.

“When someone is thinking about ‘use it or lose it,’ they oftentimes think about, in this example, ‘I’ve got 150 cfs water right, I’m only diverting 100 cfs, so boy, if I’m concerned about maybe selling that someday, and I might lose some of my water right, I better divert that entire 150 cfs,’” Wolfe said. “This can lead to a practice of diverting more water than someone needs.”

Wolfe said the state of Colorado has the right to reduce the amount of water someone diverts from the river, if they are taking more than they need to get the job done.

“If we determine in that process that there is waste occurring, then we can curtail that water right back to what we think is a representative duty of water,” Wolfe said. “Remember, in the state constitution, the water belongs to the public. It’s the public resource, and there are a lot of laws written trying to protect this precious resource we have.

“We have this duty to only use what you beneficially need without waste, because there is all these other people and other uses that rely on that public resource.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016.

#ColoradoRiver: The latest e-Newsletter from the Hutchins Water Center is hot off the presses #COriver

Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com
Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

Click here to read the latest newsletter from the Hutchins Water Center at CMU (Hannah Holm).

Agriculture plays key role in #COWaterPlan — Montrose Daily Press

Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference
Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

The state’s population is growing. Its water supply is not.

This reality is the driving force behind the Colorado Water Plan, which aims to conserve what we have against a 560,000 acre-feet gap between supply and demand projected by 2030.

“That’s water that has to come from somewhere else,” John Stulp, director of the Inter Basin Compact Commission, said Thursday. “ … most likely, from agriculture and the Western Slope. We’re trying to avoid that.”

Stulp, who is also a special advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper and a rancher, was in Montrose for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum, hosted by the Shavano Conservation District.

Stulp addressed how agriculture fits into the Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture “has the preponderance” of first use of water in the state — about 80 percent of Colorado water use begins in agriculture, he said.

The plan’s measurable outcomes address the projected supply-demand gap by 2030, plus the conservation goal of 400,00 acre-feet per year by 2050. Colorado is expected to add 5 million people in the coming decades, a number that includes native-born residents.

Conservation must be done on all levels, not just in agriculture, Stulp said, but also industrial and municipal.

“That, in itself, can provide a lot of water,” he said. Denver Water, for example, is using the same amount of water as it did 30 years ago, despite serving 350,000 more people now.

Storage is another factor. “That’s what made the West,” Stulp said. “We need more storage as we have more people coming.”

Agricultural objectives include the need to keep pace with national and global demand for food in the face of declining agricultural land worldwide, as well as finding alternatives to “buy and dry.”

Buy and dry refers to the selling or transfer of agricultural land and the water rights that may come with it, which can take both the land and the water out of ag. production.

The state has already lost between 500,000 and 700,000 irrigated acres to buy and dry, which the Colorado Water Plan does not prevent.

The state must guard against dry years by developing alternatives, Stulp said, citing both the 2012 drought in Colorado and the recent, crippling drought in California.

The former resulted in a $700 million loss; the latter loss is estimated at $9 billion.

“Drought can be devastating,” Stulp said.

Rotational fallowing, interruptive supply, deficit irrigation, water cooperatives and water conservation easements have all been presented as alternatives to buy and dry, as have alternate transfer methods.

Pilot projects are taking place in the state and elsewhere, along with discussions about irrigation technology needs.

“Alternate transfer methods are designed to be able to transfer water from agriculture to municipal (use) on a temporary basis,” Stulp said.

That can be mutually beneficial, and also contributes to resiliency. In times of drought, farmers “need to be able to squeeze every drop,” Stulp said.

The concept of water banking also ties into conserving water, but the challenge lies in making it happen basin-wide, said Montrose County Water Rights Development Coordinator Marc Catlin.

Catlin also sits on the Colorado River Water Conservation Board and the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

Water banking would also encourage some fallowing of ground on a rotational basis.

“Right now, we’re studying water banking,” Catlin said. Water banking would depend in part on the ability to move unused irrigation water to places where it is needed, past diversion structures.

This could require adjustments to the Colorado River Compact.

The 1922 compact is a multi-state agreement for the use of Colorado River water. It requires 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year to be transferred to upper basin states.

With Mexico’s interests factored in, 8.2 million acre-feet of water flows across Lee’s Ferry each year to meet the compact requirements, a feat made possible by Lake Powell — “our insurance policy,” Catlin said.

If the compact provisions are not met, the upper basin states can place a call for curtailment; Lake Powell makes it possible to make sure the required amount of water is always going to be available. Drought is currently affecting the lake and hydropower generation from it.

Catlin said he has concerns with water banking, among these, “urban cousins” selling permanent water taps based on a temporary water supply.

“It’s going to take everybody” to decide what conservation looks like, Catlin said. “It’s a limited supply.”

Said Stulp: “The water plan is going to be as good as we implement it.”

Michigan Ditch tunnel bore slows, new cutters for boring machine on order

Michigan Ditch photo via AllTrails.com
Michigan Ditch photo via AllTrails.com

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Kevin Duggan):

A stretch of unusually hard rock inside a mountain near Cameron Pass has slowed a tunneling project aimed at shoring up Fort Collins’ water supply.

Progress on a 760-foot tunnel that will carry Michigan Ditch water to the city-owned Joe Wright Reservoir was stopped as of Thursday.

Crews are waiting for the arrival of replacement parts for the cutting head of a tunnel boring machine, or TBM, that was custom built for the project, said Owen Randall, chief engineer for Fort Collins Utilities.

Bearings on cutting disks on the rotating head have repeatedly burned out while dealing with a wall of pegmatite, a type of granite that can have various minerals and be exceptionally hard, Randall said.

Project managers are “literally looking around the world” for replacement disks, he said. When some will arrive at the work site is not known.

Rock conditions have varied tremendously during the course of the tunneling, which began in late June. Some layers of rock have been fractured and relatively easy to cut through, he said. Others have been difficult.

“We went 300 feet on the first set of disks,” Randall said. “We used up two sets going the next 8 feet. It’s just been very variable.”

Before the TBM was shut down, the cutting wheel was grinding out clouds of powder rather than chunks of rock, he said.

The machine was 482 feet into the mountain as of Thursday. Time and weather are becoming concerns as crews want to have the TBM off the mountain before heavy snow comes.

Randall said crews still expect to finish the project this fall.

Once the tunnel is cut, a 60-inch pipe made of fiberglasslike material will be put in place to carry Michigan Ditch. Randall said he wants to have water flowing through the pipe before the onset of winter.

“We are going to get through,” he said. “But safety will dictate how long we keep people working up here.”

Crews have been working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That will increase to 24 hours a day Sept. 12. About 1,000 feet of pipe is expected to be delivered that week, Randall said.

The project is in response to a slow-moving landslide that has been affecting the ditch for several years. Damage was especially severe in 2015.

@CWCB_DNR: Next Water Availability Task Force, September 16 #drought

The Roaring Fork River bounding down the Grottos on Thursday, June 16, 2016, after the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith (Aspen Journalism).
The Roaring Fork River bounding down the Grottos on Thursday, June 16, 2016, after the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith (Aspen Journalism).

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):

The next Water Availability Task Force meeting will be held on Friday, September 16, 2016 from 9-11:00am at the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Headquarters, 6060 Broadway, Denver in the Red Fox Room.

An agenda will be posted at the CWCB website. In the event you are unable to attend the meeting in person, please email Ben Wade (ben.wade@state.co.us) for call in & web conference information.

The tunnel (next to the tunnel) that no one knows

Mile High Water Talk

One brings trains through the Rockies. The other has been delivering much-needed water for 80 years. 

By Kim Unger

My Facebook feed has a tendency to run rampant with advertisements and click-bait articles, but one piece making the rounds was worth the read.

The story, posted on a blog called Only in Your State, was about the Moffat Tunnel, a marvel of early 20th century engineering that appears to be a bit of secret.

Many people know about the Eisenhower Tunnel, the highest point in the Interstate Highway System. The Moffat Tunnel is lesser known, but just as important, the author writes.

From concept to total completion, it took 30 years to construct a railway to chug right under the Continental Divide, connecting travelers from Denver to Winter Park, Colorado, and beyond to Salt Lake City.

The Moffat water tunnel, partially lined with steel, can deliver up to…

View original post 430 more words

Water line construction starting up in Cortez — The Cortez Journal

Water infrastructure as sidewalk art
Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

From The Cortez Journal (Jacob Klopfenstein):

Water line construction and drainage improvement work will begin in Cortez after the Labor Day weekend, Public Works director Phil Johnson said Thursday.

About 3,900 feet of 6- and 8-inch waterline will be installed, as well as 245 feet of 12-inch storm drain line, valves, fire hydrants and other infrastructure items. Construction will start this week and is expected to continue until the end of October.

The affected areas are Henry Street from Main Street to Montezuma Avenue, Montezuma Avenue from Henry Street to Sligo Street and S. Market Street from Seventh Street to 10 Street. Storm drain work along Edith Street also will begin.

At their meeting Aug. 9, Cortez City Council members awarded a $496,774 contract for the project to D&L Construction of Cortez, which had the lowest of five bids, according to city documents.