Utah is plunging ahead on developing pilot projects for water banking, looking to shore up supplies in times of drought but preserve users’ water rights that aren’t being exercised.
The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Wednesday endorsed a draft resolution by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, that encourages the continued study of water banking and the development of pilot projects.
Iwamoto has been part of a working group of about 50 members who for the last 18 months have been examining implementing the strategy in Utah as a way to allow greater flexibility of water use and water savings while still preserving water rights…
Water banking, however, is a practice used widely in other states in recognition that an individual supply of water may not be needed by that particular user at a particular time, but it could benefit someone else or another cause…
“Eighty percent of existing water rights are held in the agricultural community, but we, unlike other states, don’t want to see the buy and dry approach prevail,” in which farms are fallowed for the benefit of some other user, [Steve Clyde] said…
Water banking allows an irrigation company, for example, to refrain from using an alloted share of water in favor of putting that water in a bank to use somewhere else…
The Idaho Department of Water Resources coordinates a water banking system in which water right holders can offer unused water rights to the “bank.”
From there, the water can be “rented” to people who do not have adequate water supplies to meet their needs.
The Arizona Legislature established a water bank in 1996 as a savings account to preserve Colorado River water supplies in times of shortage.
A year later, more than a half-dozen irrigation companies in that state inked contracts to have a portion of their water put in the ground for future use…
Because of the complexity of water banking, Clyde said it is likely legislation will be necessary to provide state funding, institute direct oversight of the program and reform the process of water rights change applications so it is expedited.
Multiple basins have been identified as likely areas for pilot projects, including the Price, Weber, Sevier and Bear river regions.
Releases of water from Ruedi Reservoir into the lower Fryingpan River are getting more complicated and requiring greater coordination among agencies and stakeholders in both the river and the reservoir.
Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, discussed “the difficulty of meeting everyone’s needs to their satisfaction” at a meeting in Basalt earlier this month.
According to a summary of the meeting prepared by the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, Miller said the competing interests “include the Fryingpan fishery, hydro plant operations, refill of the reservoir, meeting minimum streamflows, providing for endangered fish and following the dictates of the Fryingpan Arkansas Project operation principles.”
The Nov. 8 meeting summary said that “these various interests, some of which are incompatible, means that interested parties will not have all of their concerns fully addressed.”
A ready example of the need for coordination can be seen today on the river.
The current release of less than 50 cubic feet per second of water from Ruedi, due to the year’s low flows and relatively high releases, is making it harder to maintain operations in the hydropower plant at the base of the big dam on the Fryingpan. [ed. emphasis mine]
But, a recently amended lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water between the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River District could bolster the low flows. But that lease does not start until Jan. 1.
Once it does start, however, that same lease of water could also provide higher flows through the rest of the year for the benefit of endangered fish in the Colorado River, which is a good thing.
Ironically, those higher releases in late summer and early fall may not be a good thing for anglers below the reservoir struggling to wade in higher water, or a good thing for sailors at the Aspen Yacht Club, struggling to reach their docks as reservoir levels fall.
It’s all part of the new flavor of sauce bubbling up on the Fryingpan as the water in Ruedi, which holds 102,000 acre-feet, is now being used more often by more parties for more reasons.
And low water this year is presenting fresh challenges.
Fish and contract water
In addition to the regular releases from Ruedi of “fish water,” which are designed to benefit endangered fish in the Colorado River near Grand Junction, a lot of water was sent out of Ruedi this year from other pools of water held in the reservoir under varying contracts.
In 2018, there were 19,496 acre-feet of “fish water” releases, and another 11,608 acre-feet of “regular contract releases” from Ruedi, according Reclamation.
That totals 31,105 acre-feet of water released from those two categories, which is well above the 21-year-average of 19,167 acre-feet.
Now the low flows of 2018 have forced Reclamation to reduce releases from Ruedi so the agency can meet its goal of filling the reservoir again by July 1.
On Friday, the Fryingpan below the dam was flowing at 41 cfs, and the river has not been above 50 cfs since Oct. 19.
And that’s causing problems for the City of Aspen’s hydropower plant, which sits at the bottom of the dam.
Water for hydropower
At the Nov. 8 meeting in Basalt, two city officials, Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager, and Rob Covington, a water resources and hydroelectric supervisor, brought up their concerns.
“The plant is operational at 50 cfs or more but once flows go below that level the plant loses efficiency and could be damaged because the turbine is not designed to operate at such low flow levels,” the meeting summary said. “The operators will be monitoring plant operations closely as flows drop to monitor performance and possibly shut the plant down if problems develop.”
Linda Bassi, the chief of the CWCB’s stream and lake protection section, told the directors of the CWCB last week about the various concerns voiced at the Basalt meeting.
“They really stressed the need for coordination on the releases because they are worried about low flows,” Bassi said of the roughly 20 people in attendance. “There are a lot of competing interests. And a lot of the people who live along the river are very interested and really care about what’s happening on the river.”
She also told the CWCB board that as result of the meeting a new more flexible standard would be used regarding target flows in the lower Fryingpan, which have previously been set at 300 cfs to 350 cfs in an effort to maintain optimum “wadeability” in the river for anglers.
“So the bottom line from this meeting is that rather than say that we will limit releases to 300 cfs, instead I think it’s better to commit to coordinating,” Bassi said. “The Roaring Fork Conservancy is in direct communication with the angling community so we can get perspective in a more organized fashion. And then of course we’ll coordinate with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, because they are monitoring the status of the fishery on the Fryingpan.”
And she noted, the state will also be coordinating with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado River District on the releases.
Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications publications. The Times published this story on Saturday, Nov. 24 in its print edition and Nov. 23 online.
The Drought Contingency Plan proposal approved by the Central Arizona Project board last week is a less-ambitious, less-expensive and shorter-term blueprint than those proposed earlier by water agencies and the Gila River Indian Community.
It would help farmers pay for new wells and more water efficiency, and provide more water for tribes than they’d get under the drought plan’s earlier versions.
“It’s a bridge, a place to start. This plan is only for three years and does not rely on firm funding from the state and from the Bureau of Reclamation,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke told a packed house at the board meeting Thursday.
“We want to come up with a plan that this board by itself can approve — a plan we believe would work.”
Coming as some officials are raising alarms about the lack of progress toward a plan, this proposal was opposed by the same parties that opposed earlier plans — tribes and cities. It was supported by farmers and their allies, who have also supported some of the earlier plans.
At the same time, representatives of city water agencies and Indian tribes who oppose this plan said they’re pleased that CAP officials and other backers are open to further negotiations and don’t seem as hardened in their positions…
Here are specifics of the latest proposal, approved unanimously by the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. The board governs the CAP, the 50-year-old, $4 billion canal project that brings Colorado River water to Central and Southern Arizona:
Pinal County farmers would get what they see as “full mitigation” of previously proposed cuts: 595,000 acre-feet of water over seven years through 2026. The original drought plan would have given them no water once shortages began.
The proposal also would provide some relief to cuts planned during early shortages to the Gila River tribal community and to many Phoenix-area cities. Their class of water users would get 88,000 acre-feet a year of mitigation, about three-fourths of what was going to be cut.
The CAP would spend up to $60 million to buy up to 250,000 acre-feet for mitigation.
Project officials didn’t spell out where they’d buy the water. One likely source is the Colorado River Indian Tribes, based in Parker along the river. The tribes on Nov. 9 wrote a letter offering to provide the state and CAP 150,000 acre-feet over three years starting in 2020, at a cost of $250 an acre-foot. That’s far more than what cities and other CAP users are paying today for the river water.
The CAP will support programs to build wells and other groundwater infrastructure and to improve irrigation efficiency for Pinal County farms.
The drought plan steering committee will get the plan for additional negotiations.
“It’s not the only plan that can work. It’s not a take-it-or-leave-it plan,” CAP’s Cooke said. “However, we need to be judicious as to what features we have and what time we add to the process.”