In the past year, Greeley officials purchased about 1,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields covered in a foot of water. Adam Jokerst, deputy director of water resources for the city, said it’s more water than city had acquired in the past 10 years. Jokerst, who manages the water acquisition program, said the program has about a $9 million budget this year…
What is a water right?
Colorado’s waters are owned by the state and all its citizens, but water rights dictate the right to use the water. Water decrees, issued by water courts, confirm water users’ rights to that water.
Older water decrees were simple, Jokerst said, giving the example of a decree for the city’s senior direct rights, meaning the city has priority to divert water for direct application to beneficial use. Throughout the year, the city can use 12.5 cubic feet per second. That’s about it, he said.
Newer decrees can range from dozens to hundreds of pages, detailing how the water is to be diverted, measured and accounted for.
“Greeley owns a portfolio made up of many different water rights,” Jokerst said. “Some of those water rights are direct diversions from the Poudre River. Some are ownership in irrigation companies.”
Irrigation companies that historically provided irrigation water to farmers can issue shares of stock, basically selling a piece of the water rights held by those companies. The city converts that water from agricultural to municipal use to change the water right, though the city does rent some water rights to agricultural users, maintaining the historic use.
The city also owns water through the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects, as well as water diverted from the Laramie River. With a lot of variability across these different sources, the city’s water experts always plan for the worst case scenario: How much water could we provide to our customers in a drought situation?
Through the current plan, the city can provide about 40,000 acre-feet per year to its customers, well above the roughly 25,000 acre-feet of demand the city sees in a typical year. In a wet year, the city could potentially deliver up to 70,000 acre-feet, to give an idea of the impact of the planned drought.
When the city can, it rents a lot of that water to agricultural partners, renting about 20,000 acre-feet in the past year. In addition to maintaining historic use, this provides a source of revenue and supports Greeley’s agricultural economy, Jokerst said.
Jokerst said he’d consider the city’s “Big Three” sources to be:
Senior direct rights from the Poudre River
Ownership in the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation Company, which feeds the city’s Boyd Lake System
Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) and Windy Gap projects
Jen Petrzelka, water resources operations manager, added the direct and C-BT water is available year round, whereas a lot of the ditch directs only come in during irrigation season, which typically starts about now to early May and runs through the end of September or into October.
Accounting for the city’s diverse portfolio
The city must account for its water on a daily basis, submitting a monthly report to the state. Petrzelka said they manage about 10 different spreadsheets for all the city’s water right decrees…
Petrzelka keeps an eye on the city’s water supply to help prevent the need for watering restrictions. In all, the city has four engineers and scientists who manage the various decrees and operations, plus three workers out in the field, according to Jokerst.
The state ensures water users aren’t causing injury to other users’ water rights, with local river commissioners dedicated throughout the state. Jokerst compared the commissioners to a referee in a sports game.
“Any time we change the way we’re operating, whether that be our releases or operating an exchange, we have to get their approval,” Petrzelka said.
When agricultural water rights are changed, Jokerst said, some water is owed back to the river, just as the water historically returned to the river and groundwater after agricultural use.
“A lot of what we do is add water back to the river to compensate for those irrigation rights that we changed,” he said.
In addition to enforcement by river commissioners, everybody watches their neighbors, keeping track of what other users are doing on a day-to-day basis. Part of that monitoring happens in water court, where decisions about decrees are settled…
Greeley has a steady stream of water court cases the city must defend in court, according to Jokerst, as well as cases involving other entities in which the city enters opposition to protect its water rights. As of this past week, the city was involved in 32 water court cases.
“Water court cases are really just a structured negotiation where the applicant and the opposers reach agreement on whatever it is the applicant is trying to do,” Jokerst said. “All the parties involved negotiate an outcome that protects all their water and gets the applicant what they need.”
Petrzelka and Jokerst estimated the city’s water court costs at about $500,000 this year, mostly covering the costs of outside attorneys and engineers. Internal legal counsel also helps guide the department, Jokerst said.