Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Alyson Meyer Gould, Bill Fales and Marj Perry):
On the 13th of September, 2022, Cold Mountain Ranch, with compensation from Colorado Water Trust, is boosting streamflows in the Crystal River, which is suffering from low flows during this hot and dry summer. This is the first year of implementation in a second pilot program with Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch to add flow to the River during dry years. The agreement compensates the Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for leaving their irrigation water in the Crystal River when it needs it most.
The Crystal River drops out of the Elk Mountains near Marble and flows north to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. The river supports a number of traditional ranching operations as well as towns, recreationalists, and fish populations. Cold Mountain Ranch relies on the Crystal River to irrigate grass meadows that support its cow-calf operation. Under the agreement, the Water Trust monitors flows in the river. When flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) in August and September, the ranch may voluntarily decide to cease diversion from the Crystal River in August through October. Colorado Water Trust determines the amount of water left in the natural stream and then pays the ranch $250 per cfs per day for up to 20 days each year. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs in the River (based on a 3-day rolling average), payments cease, but should flow again drop below 55 cfs, diversions can stop again and compensation resume. The pilot agreement can restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal River.
In 2018, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch signed a similar three-year pilot agreement that ended in 2020. Unfortunately, within this initial three-year period, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch were unable to run the project. In 2018, the Crystal River’s flows were too low to implement the agreement – there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream. In 2019, the river was high enough to avoid triggering the agreement during the timeframe of the agreement. Although it flirted with the low flow trigger in the late fall, the timing was out of range for the agreement. And in 2020, because of dry and hot conditions and impacts to their hay crop, Colorado Water Trust’s partners at Cold Mountain Ranch needed to use as much water as possible to maximize their late season production and keep their ranching operation sustainable.
Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch’s initial three-year pilot agreement was the first crack at a highly customized, market-based solution that works for agriculture and rivers on the Crystal River, and offered lessons for the renewal and re-tooling of that initial agreement. In this new contract, the partners tried to account for drier years and changing climatic conditions, as well as the economic needs of the Ranch. The changes include a $5,000 signing bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.
“Although we certainly wish conditions were wetter, we are excited for a chance to run the program. On one hand it enables an active, family-owned ranching operation to use its water rights portfolio in a new and flexible way. On the other hand, it keeps water in the river when it is most in need. It checks the boxes for the definition of a win-win solution,” Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney, Colorado Water Trust.
The legal and technical framework created by Colorado Water Trust and informed by local interests and support from Lotic Hydrological, has the potential, if successful, to have far-reaching implications. In the end, it brings environmental benefits to the river without affecting enrolled ranches’ long-term sustainability. Thus, the project will support both people and the environment.
The Water Trust would like to thank Cold Mountain Ranch, Public Counsel of the Rockies, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Lotic Hydrological, WestWater Research, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Aspen Skiing Company Environment Foundation, Catena Foundation, and the stakeholders of the Crystal River Management Plan for making this project possible.