Rising Colorado water leaders meet with Colorado River District board

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

The Government Highline Canal is managed by the Grand Valley Water Users Association, and serves as a major source of irrigation water in the Grand Valley.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A group of water leaders in Colorado, most new to their posts, appeared before the board of the Colorado River District on Tuesday in Glenwood Springs.

Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Kevin Rein, state hydraulic engineer for Colorado, both of whom took their current positions in July, introduced themselves to the river district board, which includes representatives of 15 Western Slope counties.

Mitchell said it was important for the state to develop a long-term source of funding for new water projects in both the Denver metro area and the Western Slope, but she said the various river-basin plans in the state needed to be prioritized before a funding question is put to voters.

“We don’t want to take some ballot measure up that won’t pass,” said Mitchell, who was promoted to her new position at CWCB after working on the 2015 state water plan. “We want to make sure we get everything prepared so we have the most chance for success, because this is such an important issue.”

Rein, who serves as the state’s water-law enforcer, said he intends to continue the policies and practices of his predecessor, Dick Wolfe, and that he hopes to administer water rights and respond to water court applications with consistency and transparency.

“It all comes down to balance for me,” Rein said, in trying to administer water rights against competing demands.

Jayla Poppleton, who has been the executive director of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education since January, also went before the river district board Tuesday, describing her organization’s new brand positioning.

Created by the state Legislature in 2002 to inform citizens about water, the organization is changing its name to Water Education Colorado, and its new logo is based on the layout of the state’s eight river basins.

The logo for Water Education Colorado seeks to convey a conversation about the eight river basins in Colorado as defined by the state’s basin roundtables, which are represented in the logo in clockwise fashion, and include, from the top left, the Yampa/White, North Platte, South Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Gunnison, Southwest/San Juan/Dolores, and Colorado basins.

Andrew Mueller, who starts as new general manager of the river district on Dec. 1, was also at the meeting.

An attorney at a law firm in Glenwood Springs, Mueller once lived in Ouray and represented Ouray County on the Colorado River District’s board from 2006-2015. He was hired in September upon unanimous consent by the river district’s board.

At the district’s next quarterly board meeting in January, Mueller will officially replace Eric Kuhn, the district’s current general manager, who is retiring after 37 years.

Kuhn has a deep understanding of Colorado River issues, and he and John Carron, an engineer with Hydros Consulting Inc., presented to the board the latest findings of an ongoing “risk study” focusing on ways to keep enough water in Lake Powell in the face of another sharp drought.

Also presenting at Tuesday’s meeting was Mark Harris, the general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which diverts water out of the Colorado River in De Beque Canyon, at the red-roofed roller dam.

Harris was before the river district’s board seeking financial support for the second year of an experimental program that pays irrigators to fallow fields or crops, lower their consumptive use, and leave water in the river to help keep Lake Powell operational.

The association is one of the big three diverters in the Grand Valley, and provides water to 25,000 irrigated acres on the north side of the valley from Palisade to Mack via the 55-mile-long Government Highline Canal.

In 2017, the association compensated 10 large irrigators, whose names have not been disclosed, to fallow a total of 1,252 acres of irrigated land on parcels ranging from 60 acres to 240 acres.

A map showing, in red, the participants in the Grand Valley Water User’s Association program in 2017 to conserve consumptive use in the Grand Valley near Grand Junction.
An irrigated hayfield in the Grand Valley irrigated by the Government Highline Canal. Summer, 2017.

The 2017 program, which concludes this month, will result in 3,200 acre-feet of water not being used for irrigation.

The association funded the program with $1,039,000. Of that, it put $145,000 in an infrastructure fund, used $169,000 for program management, and paid $725,000 to irrigators. (That works out to about $225 per acre-foot of “conserved consumptive use” to the irrgators.)

Major funding sources for the program included The Nature Conservancy, the state of Colorado, and Denver Water. The association intends to run the program again in 2018.

Harris said the association continues to learn about how such a fallowing program in the Grand Valley might work in the face of a drought or other challenge to complying with the Colorado River compact, which requires Colorado and other states in the upper Colorado River basin to provide a set amount of water to California, Arizona, and Nevada, even in dry years.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on the coverage or rivers and water.

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