How the #Colorado Water Trust uses market-based agreements to benefit rivers and irrigators — Irrigation Leader Magazine

Yampa River below Oakton Ditch 6-1-22. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Click the link to read the interview on the Irrigation Leader website. Here’s an excerpt:

Irrigation Leader: Does that mean you acquire these rights [with water rights owners willing to cut deals] and then deliver them to the Colorado Water Conservation Board? 

Andy Schultheiss: While that was the original intention, we don’t always deliver the rights to the board. Sometimes, we just cut deals with water users to allow more water to stay in rivers. However, we usually go through the board, because it is the only entity that is legally allowed to hold the water for environmental use. 

Irrigation Leader: Where do you get the funds to purchase those rights? 

Andy Schultheiss: The money comes from a variety of sources, including corporations, private donors, and the Water Conservation Board itself. Our staffing and various other operational costs are covered by funds from private donors and foundations. 

Irrigation Leader: How do instream flow rights differ from other water rights? 

Andy Schultheiss: Instream flow rights keep water in rivers and streams rather than taking it out for some consumptive use. They typically apply to a few miles of a river and are designated for sections of rivers where Colorado Parks and Wildlife determines that extra flow will be valuable for the fish and other wildlife that rely on it. The beauty of these rights is that they don’t differ from other water rights: They are regular water rights that were created by an act of the Colorado legislature in the early 1970s. Water rights for consumptive uses have existed since the 19th century, so instream flow rates came late to the scene. That means they’re junior rights, and when there isn’t enough water, which is often the case, they don’t get satisfied. That’s where the acquisition and repurposing of older rights comes in. 

Irrigation Leader: Do similar instream flow rights exist in other states? 

Andy Schultheiss: Colorado’s water rights system is more advanced and legally developed than those of other mountain West states. One other western state that has a highly developed system like Colorado’s is California. 

Irrigation Leader: Is the mechanism you use to acquire these rights as simple as going out to the market, finding a right, and buying it? 

Andy Schultheiss: We almost never buy a right in fee simple. For example, there was recently a ranch for sale for around $8 million near Rocky Mountain National Park, and more than half the property’s value was water. Buying that water outright, especially a senior right like that one, is beyond most people’s capacity. For a nonprofit like ours, a purchase like that is usually not in the cards, so we often lease a water right instead. Essentially, we buy the use of that senior right to use for one season or perhaps for half a season, or we cut deals with irrigators and ask them to not irrigate for a month or two during the year and compensate them for that. There’s often a framework and agreement that lasts more than 1 year, but the decision to run a project in any given year is always up to the water right owner. 

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