An update was given on Wilson Water Group’s (WWG) efforts in completing a water use and water demand analysis for the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) and completing a water availability analysis for the West Fork reservoir and canal water rights during a regular meeting on Monday.
WWG was hired by the SJWCD via a board decision at a Sept. 21 meeting for a cost of $19,050 and will complete the efforts by the end of 2020.
Currently, WWG has been working on its first task, which is to develop a water demand analysis strategy, Project Engineer Brenna Mefford noted, adding that the first task would be completed in the next week or so.
The next task, to complete a current water use and water demand analysis, will be completed soon after, Mefford explained.
Task three, which is to complete a water availability analysis, will be started in December, Mefford added…
If the SJWCD were to go through with diligence on the West Fork water rights, it would have to show it has a potential demand for the water and that the district needs it, Mefford explained, adding that the SJWCD needs to show water availability.
“Finally, you have to show that you have the means to develop that water and put it to that use that you had identified earlier,” she said…
“We’ve talked to most of the people we planned to try and fig- ure out how we’re going to lay out this analysis and now we’re going to move into task two, where we’re actually going to do the current water use and water demand analysis. For this task there are a few more people that we need to reach out to and have talks with about water demand,” Mefford said, adding that WWG will need to talk to PAWSD, for example.
From the Colorado Ag Alliance (Phil Brink, Greg Peterson) via The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:
Every 10 years, the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ (DWR) publishes its water right abandonment list. The list — released on July 1, 2020 — represents water rights that each division engineer is recommending for abandonment based on real or perceived non-use over the last 10 years. A water right may be placed on the abandonment list if the amount of water diverted over the past 10 years is less than the decreed amount.
The DWR defines abandonment as “the termination of an absolute water right in whole or in part as a result of the intent of the owner to permanently discontinue the use of the water under that water right.” It is rare that an agricultural water right holder actually intends to abandon their water right.
“There can be several reasons why the decreed amount is not diverted in a given year or for multiple years” says water attorney David Kueter of Holsinger Law in Denver. The water source may be dry, or the water right may not be in priority at times when the field needs to be irrigated. Timely precipitation may reduce the need for irrigation. Repair or replacement of irrigation infrastructure — from headgates to ditches to land application equipment — may temporarily prevent diversion of water. Economic, health or legal obstacles can all stymie intentions to fully utilize a water right. Sediment and debris flows can block diversion structures and river and stream hydrology can change, rendering a diversion structure semi-functional or even non-functional. New property owners may not be aware of their water rights.
Management changes can also impact use. A few years ago, Mike Camblin, rancher and manager of the Maybell Ditch, took over irrigation of some fields that had not been fertilized previously. The addition of fertilizer increased grass production three-fold, which also increased the field’s consumptive use of water.
Increased consumptive use may also result from warmer summers, which are predicted by climate models. CSU research has found that evapotranspiration comprises more than 99 percent of plant water use. Increased temperatures drive forage and crop consumptive use higher. Cutting ag water rights down to their current consumptive use will permanently hurt growers’ ability to adapt to a warmer climate.
Water users who wish to challenge termination of their water right due to abandonment should file a written statement of objection with the Division 6 Engineer. An objection statement is needed for each water right. The deadline for filing is July 1, 2021, but Kueter recommends getting started now as it may take time to pull together supporting evidence. “Usually there are no silver bullets,” says Kueter, “it’s more the totality of the circumstances that caused the water right to be under-utilized.”
A water right is removed from the abandonment list if the Division Engineer agrees with the supporting evidence provided. A revised abandonment list will be published by Jan. 31, 2022. Protests to the revised list must be filed with division Water Court by June 30, 2022. The Water Court will begin considering protests in October 2022.
The Colorado Ag Water Alliance will be hosting a workshop on this and other issues on Dec. 7 in Craig.
Phil Brink is the Consulting Coordinator of Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water NetWORK. Greg Peterson is the Executive Director of Colorado Ag Water Alliance.
Ralph Parshall squats next to the flume he designed at the Bellevue Hydrology Lab using water from the Cache la Poudre River. 1946. Photo Credit: Water Resource Archive, Colorado State University, via Legacy Water News.
Men viewing vortex tube sand trap in Jackson Ditch at Bellvue Hydraulic Laboratory, 1948. Photograph from Irrigation Research Papers, Water Resources Archive.
This recently installed Parshall flume in the Yampa River basin replaced the old, rusty device in the background. Division 6 engineer Erin Light is granting extensions to water users who work with her office to meet a requirement for measuring devices. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Heather Sackett
Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
Colorado’s anti-speculation water laws are considered some of the toughest in the West. Still, state lawmakers worry those laws may not go far enough. That’s why an 18-member work group is exploring ways to strengthen the rules. Recommendations for proposed changes are due by August 2021.
“In my mind, I think speculation is going on,” says Sen. Don Coram, a Republican who represents several Western Colorado counties and who co-sponsored SB20-048, which directed Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources to form the work group. “There are situations that are just not meeting the smell test for me. We need to look under the tent and see what’s going on.”
With water demand and prices soaring, lawmakers worry about loopholes in Colorado’s anti-speculation laws, pointing to recent investment group purchases of farmland and their senior water rights on the West Slope and in the San Luis Valley. So far, the investors are using the water for irrigation, a legally beneficial use, but lawmakers worry they’re making a speculative play, banking on a massive increase in the value of those rights with the intention to profit from them in the future. Irrigation may just be an interim placeholder that’s part of a larger investment strategy.
So, how will the work group’s members make recommendations for improvement? They’ll likely start with a thorough history lesson and a deep dive into existing anti-speculation law, says Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer. Rein leads the group alongside Scott Steinbrecher, a Colorado assistant deputy attorney general. Other participants include water engineers, attorneys, members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, farmers and ranchers, representatives of environmental nonprofits, and water managers. Given the diversity of group members and knowledge, the group is well-poised to tackle the challenge at hand, Rein says.
But some work group members are already contemplating how changes to Colorado water law could hurt landowners. Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in northeastern Colorado, plans to participate in the work group with an open mind but has questions: How will the changes impact an irrigator’s ability to sell their water and land? Will the value of their land or water suffer because of these changes?
“There’s this tension here, especially in our basin, but also statewide, of a high demand for water, which inflates the value of it—it’s hard to blame farmers for wanting to sell their water because of all different kinds of circumstances,” Frank says. “We would prefer them to keep their water and stay in agriculture because that’s the economic base for our area. But you can’t just go say, ‘We’re going to put a stop to it.’ Now you’re impacting somebody’s property rights.”
Frank said he also has some questions about the constitutionality of any changes the group may propose.
“I do have some reservations about whether this will actually solve a problem without causing another one,” he says. “You don’t want to cause unintended consequences here.”
Sarah Kuta, a Nebraska native and graduate of Northwestern University, is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colo.
High Plains A&M LLC filed two almost identical applications for changes of water rights in late 2002 and early 2003. The Water Court consolidated the two cases. In its Applications, High Plains claimed to own or control of about 30% of the shares in one of the largest irrigation systems in Colorado. High Plains asked the Water Court to approve changes to its water rights from irrigation and other decreed uses in the lower Arkansas River Valley to any beneficial use, including over fifty identified potential uses, in any location within twenty-eight Colorado counties. High Plains’ applications did not identify any end users of the water besides the farmers who currently use the water. In High Plains A&M, LLC v. Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, 120 P.3d 710 (Colo. 2005), Burns, Figa & Will, P.C., on behalf of our client, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, successfully argued that High Plains’ application for a change of water right was properly dismissed because the application did not state with specificity the use or location of use of the changed water rights, thus violating Colorado’s anti-speculation doctrine.
Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in the pond on her family’s Old Snowmass property, which they purchased in 1985.
Every summer, the pond off Little Elk Creek Avenue in Old Snowmass, became the neighborhood hangout as Milvich and her siblings and friends swam and paddled a canoe. Still today, the pond, which is filled by a ditch branching off Little Elk Creek, brings the family joy as they admire the ducks, fish and muskrats that live there.
“Those are the passions that are wrapped around it,” Milvich said. “It’s very personal. It’s something that has enhanced our quality of life a thousandfold. Our ability to have a water feature has changed our lives for the better, for sure.”
But on Sept. 22, the Milvich family received a cease-and-desist order from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that said they had to stop filling their pond because of a downstream call on the Colorado River, in which water users junior to the Grand Valley irrigators’ water rights had to be shut off.
It turned out the Milvich family did not have a legal water right for their pond, making them one of the most junior water users on the Colorado River system and one of the first to be curtailed.
“We were from Southern California and we missed having the beach,” Milvich said. “And my dad was excited to purchase an actual piece of property that had water on it, totally not knowing that we were in some ways for these last 35 years breaking some rules and regulations. We had absolutely no idea.”
The Milvich family’s pond is not the only one in the area lacking a water right. DWR officials say undecreed ponds throughout the region are depleting the Colorado River system in a time when a climate change-fueled drought makes it more important than ever to account for every last drop of water.
The Glenwood Springs-based Division 5 engineer’s office issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights this season in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. And officials say there are many more ponds like these out there. Some of them are recently built for fire protection.
The main concern with these ponds is water loss to the Colorado River system through evaporation. The bigger the surface area, the more water that is lost.
“A lot of the depletions are pretty small, but it’s death by a thousand cuts,” Division 5 Engineer Alan Martellaro said. “When you have these all over the place, they add up at some point.”
According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.
“It’s a good idea because it protects your standing,” Martellaro said. “It protects your priority. That’s the whole point of a water right.”
That means ponds without a decree are last in line and are the first to be shut off when there’s a downstream call from irrigators in the Grand Valley, which have much older water rights — one from 1912 and one from 1934. Known as the “Cameo Call,” these irrigators can control all junior water rights upstream of their diversion at the roller dam in DeBeque Canyon.
Most summers, Grand Valley irrigators “call” for their water when streamflows begin to drop. In general, the drier the year, the earlier the call comes on. This year, the Cameo Call first came July 30 and went off at the end of irrigation season Oct. 26.
As long as the call is on, junior upstream water rights must be shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream irrigators can get the full amount of water to which they are legally entitled. It is up to the division engineer’s office to decide exactly how to administer the call and which junior water rights to curtail, but undecreed water use is generally the first to go.
“When the call is on, they are stealing somebody else’s water if they don’t have a water right,” said Bill Blakeslee, water commissioner for District 38, which encompasses the Roaring Fork River watershed.
Blakeslee said he doesn’t like to issue cease-and-desist orders, and his goal is to educate people about the Colorado River system.
“We don’t like to do our business this way, but this is one of the tools we use to help people understand we don’t have as much water as we used to and we all need to take steps to preserve as much as we can,” he said. “It makes a statement to the general public that we are in a drought situation, so let’s not do things that continue to contribute to further loss of water.”
Even though the ponds are causing water loss to the river system at all times, Blakeslee said he can apply the pressure of the law only when there is a call.
“I can’t enforce the rules until the call goes on the system,” he said.
The Milviches were supposed to have stopped diverting water out of priority within 10 days of receiving the order or else face enforcement actions such as having to pay the state’s costs and legal fees. But Martellaro said his office so far has not fined the owners of any of the five ponds and won’t as long as they are working toward a solution. And since the Grand Valley call is now off the river, the issue is less urgent — for the moment.
Colorado is entering a period of tighter accountability for some water users as Lake Powell’s levels continue to drop and the threat of a compact call looms larger in a warming West.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by the Colorado River Compact, a nearly century-old binding agreement. Upper-basin water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario.
“I guess you could say one of the elephants in the room is the interstate compact situation,” Blakeslee said.
So what are the Milviches’ options to remedy the situation? In order to be allowed to keep using water for the pond when a call is on, they must replace that water to the system. One possibility is getting a contract for an augmentation plan with a local water-conservancy district to release water from Ruedi Reservoir to make up for depletions from the pond. The Milviches have met with an engineer to assess their options.
Whatever they decide, securing a water right through water court can be a lengthy, expensive process.
“We are definitely terrified about that reality,” Milvich said.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative journalism organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 2 edition of The Aspen Times.
If nothing else, [Wes] McKinley’s crusade has brought attention to the profound disconnect between the emerging water crisis in eastern Colorado and a state policy that encourages total depletion of the resource. The surface water in virtually all of the state’s major river basins, from the Colorado, Arkansas and Rio Grande rivers to the humblest creeks, has been over-appropriated for decades. The major source of non-tributary water in the Far Quarter is the High Plains Aquifer, also known as the Ogallala Aquifer. Farms and ranches have been draining the aquifer, a vast underground reservoir of fresh water stretching across eight states, at an accelerating rate, despite warnings that the overpumping is likely to have catastrophic effects on fish habitat, interstate compact agreements and the sustainability of the aquifer itself, which requires centuries to recharge.
The warnings have been trickling through Baca County for more than fifty years. A 1966 study of groundwater in the area of the Cimarron River, which cuts across the southeast corner of Colorado and then vacillates between Kansas and Oklahoma, concluded that “the most serious problem in the Cimarron Basin appears to be the extreme decline of water levels from pumping.” A 2001 report prepared for the Southern High Plains Groundwater Management District noted that groundwater levels in the district had dropped a hundred feet in the past half-century; the report recommended a moratorium on all new and replacement wells in the High Plains Aquifer, except for domestic wells with a modest pumping rate of 15 gallons per minute.
Yet no moratorium was ever put in place. Instead, the Colorado Ground Water Commission has continued to issue large-capacity well permits like they were gimme caps. Data provided by the Colorado Division of Water Resources indicates that the commission granted 64 permits for new wells in the Southern High Plains in the last 21 months — a rate that’s more than triple the average number for the previous five years.
“Colorado does not have a statutory directive that impact to an aquifer needs to be considered when issuing a well permit,” says Kevin Rein, the state engineer, who also serves as executive director of the groundwater commission.
Long-range studies about climate change and dwindling aquifers don’t figure in the permitting process, which is preoccupied with mundane questions of how many other wells are operating within half a mile of the new well and whether an immediate neighbor would suffer “material damage” from additional pumping. McKinley contends that the rules as currently written don’t adequately protect the resource and shift the burden of proof to the opponents, who have to show that their own water rights would be adversely impacted by a new well. But Rein points out that some groundwater management districts have successfully petitioned the commission for a declaration that their area is over-appropriated, a finding that prevents the issuance of new well permits.
“That has happened in many of the basins, but it hasn’t happened in the Southern High Plains,” Rein observes. It isn’t the commission’s place to get involved in promoting such prohibitions or seeking changes in the law that would protect the High Plains Aquifer from more wells, he adds: “As the state engineer, I don’t have the charge to bring that sort of policy discussion.”
Water attorney Curtis estimates that McKinley’s objections cost his clients $200,000 in legal expenses and delays. McKinley’s time would have been better spent, he suggests, gathering the required technical data to petition the commission to close the district to new wells.
“Water rights are vested property rights, and you can’t strip someone of those rights without a proper basis,” Curtis says. “He knows the process. Either he doesn’t have the energy to do it the right way or he doesn’t care. But he never presented a single piece of relevant evidence to support his position.”
A major factor in the recent surge of permits in Baca County is a ramping up of irrigation wells on the Cimarron Valley Ranch, a 45,000-acre cattle ranch that stretches along 22 miles of the Cimarron River in Oklahoma and Colorado. Owned by Georgia-based LGS Holding Group, the property is for sale for $39,900,000, reduced from $45 million. An online real estate listing touts “some of the best hunting in the country,” including the ranch’s resident elk herd, as well as “incredible diversity in regard to terrain, wildlife, livestock grazing, income opportunities and more.” Also prominently mentioned is the ranch’s ample water supply and new well permits, which will allow the operation to double its number of irrigation pivots.
The mega-ranch’s wells account for nearly half of the permits the commission has issued in the Southern High Plains over the past two years. That rankles local rancher Dan Caldwell, a longtime friend of McKinley’s, whose property lies just across the state line from the Oklahoma stretch of the Cimarron Valley Ranch. Caldwell says that he, too, filed an objection to the LGS permits, but was told he hadn’t proved material damage — and that he could be liable for legal fees if he persisted. He knew his objection wasn’t going anywhere, he says, when he learned a representative of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office was joining the case —representing the groundwater commission, not the citizens of Baca County.
“We have no recourse,” Caldwell says. “We are nothing to them. There’s no reason to give our water away so freely, but they’re doing it.”
The Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District also protested the LGS applications, on the grounds that new pumping along the Cimarron River was bound to diminish supplies downstream. A few years ago, Kansas won a long-running lawsuit concerning Colorado’s excessive water use under the Arkansas River Compact, but no such compact exists regarding the Cimarron.
“Colorado has a presumption that there’s water available for any application unless there’s a hearing,” notes Mark Rude, executive director of the district. “We had to become an opposer of the application in order to be involved in the hearing process. We’ve since discovered that Colorado works to not have a hearing process.”
Like Caldwell and McKinley, Rude was told there wouldn’t be a hearing because he lacked the legal standing to object. Southwest Kansas no longer permits new wells that would draw upon the High Plains Aquifer out of concern over the falling water table. But neither Colorado nor Oklahoma has followed suit.
“We have tools in Kansas to propose reductions in allocations, just to make the water last a little longer,” Rude says. “But it’s hard to have those conversations locally when people say, ‘Well, it’s unrestricted in Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle.’”
Rein calls the recent spike in permits in Baca County “anomalous” and doesn’t see any particular cause for concern in the recent water enhancements at a 45,000-acre ranch. “Certainly, some people in the basin are alarmed,” he says. “Is the commission alarmed? I don’t think we’ve had open discussion about that.”
McKinley doesn’t know what his objections might have accomplished, but he hopes more people will ask questions about where the water is going. “You don’t know what works and what don’t,” he says. “I’ve always thought there’s nothing wasted; it’s an experience gained. Sometimes, though, you pay a lot of tuition and wonder what you’ve learned.”
The only public access to the dinosaur tracks in Picketwire Canyon is by way of the Withers Canyon trailhead, an eleven-mile round trip. With the guided four-wheel tours suspended, you have three choices for mode of transport: mountain bike, horseback or on foot.
Bikers might think twice, after watching a few cautionary YouTube videos about the many, many goat’s head stickers and opportunities for flat tires. The horse option has some drawbacks, too; although most of the path is a level stroll along the canyon floor, the steep descent into the canyon on a rock-strewn trail and the purgatorial ascent at the end may not be something you want to do on top of a thousand-pound animal.
That leaves the third option, a six-hour hike in rugged and largely exposed country. Since temperatures in the canyon can be intense from late spring until early fall, reaching as high as 110 degrees in July and August, the Forest Service advises visitors to carry “at least” a gallon of water per person. (In 2017, two summer hikers died in separate heat-related incidents.) But on a temperate fall day, the startling, shifting environment of the canyon — from juniper-and-piñon prairie to meadows lined with cottonwoods to bright fields of yarrow and cacti in bloom — can make you forget you’re wandering through the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.
For most visitors, the highlight of the journey is crossing the Purgatoire to arrive at a vast limestone plain, the stamping ground of monsters. The giant paw prints embedded in the ancient lake shore, back when the canyon was a lush, steamy tropical retreat, tell a story about lumbering, plant-eating apatosauruses traveling in gregarious herds, and the three-toed carnivores who stalked them. This quarter-mile stretch of the river is the most extensive set of dinosaur tracks in North America, yet it’s just a small portion of the Jurassic riches in the area; numerous fossils have been painstakingly unearthed by volunteers under the supervision of a Forest Service paleontologist.
The bones and tracks may be the main draw, but they’re hardly the only one. In 1988, a University of Wisconsin student on a field trip headed down from the west rim of the canyon to check out the dinosaur tracks. On the way down, he came across a petroglyph panel in a shallow alcove and snapped a picture of it. He assumed the panel was already well known to researchers. It wasn’t. According to Loendorf’s account in his book Thunder & Herds: Rock Art of the High Plains, when a wildlife biologist familiar with the canyon saw the photo, “he realized that he was looking at a significant and previously unknown site.”
The panel features a single human figure in the center, surrounded by three dozen quadrupeds — some with elaborate antlers, some suggestive of bison and sheep. The central figure holds an object in its right hand, possibly a net or snare, indicating a form of control over the animals. Loendorf regards the Zookeeper, as the panel has become known, as one of several key rock-art sites in the area that provide glimpses into the hunter-gatherer culture that once flourished there. He believes a climatic event more than 600 years ago, one that ruined crops and drove the game away, may have been responsible for its abrupt disappearance.
“You have these obvious hunt scenes, driving animals — antelope, probably — into nets, and then it just ends,” he notes. “It pretty much suggests that the Apishapa were affected, like all of the Southwest, by drought. I personally think at least some of the Apishapa people were seasonal and pulled back to the mountains in the wintertime. And the drought period ended that; then they stayed close to the mountains year-round. Then came the Apache and the Comanche. They weren’t dependent on trying to grow corn.”
From email from the Arkansas River Compact Administration (Kevin Salter):
This is the preliminary notice for the upcoming Arkansas River Compact Administration Annual and Committee Meetings. The meeting specifics and draft agendas will be provided at a later date.
Please note that the meeting dates were changed at the ARCA Annual Meeting held in December 2019. And the location was changed at the ARCA Special Meeting held earlier this month (October 2020) to allow for virtual meetings.
The 2020 Annual Meeting of the Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) will be held on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. The Engineering, Operations, and Administrative/Legal Committees of ARCA will meet on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Consideration is being given to having the committee meetings start on the morning of December 8th. All meetings will be held on a virtual meeting platform. At this time, which virtual platform to be used has not been determined. Specific information on accessing the meetings will be provided along with the draft agendas later.
Meetings of ARCA are operated in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. If you need a special accommodation as a result of a disability please contact Stephanie Gonzales at (719) 688-0799 at least three days before the meeting.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday held the first meeting of the Anti-Speculation Law Work Group. The task force was established as a result of passage of a bill this year to consider ways to strengthen the current anti-speculation law and recommend any changes to a legislative committee by Aug. 15 .
The bill was sponsored by state Reps. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon and Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose. It was inspired by a growing number purchases of agricultural land and associated water rights by investment firms, including wide-scale purchases in the Grand Valley by Water Asset Management, which is based in New York.
Current state law prohibits water speculation by requiring water to be used for a beneficial purpose. An 18-member work group made up of state agency staff, water lawyers and others will be considering how the law might be tightened.
None of the bill sponsors participated in Wednesday’s meeting. But Scott Steinbrecher, an assistant deputy attorney general co-chairing the task force, said a clear purpose of the bill is to examine how the law should be strengthened to prevent situations where water rights are bought and leased back to farmers though the intent is to use the water like an investment.
Alex Funk, a task force member who is an agricultural water resource specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, voiced concern about approaches that might limit the value of assets to agricultural producers.
“There is certainly a tension here where land and water assets are extremely valuable to producers. In some cases these are sort of their only asset,” he said…Task force member Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, which has been watching some of the area water-related acquisitions by investment firms with concern, said agricultural producers looking to sell their assets are entitled to do that.
“I assume we don’t want to prevent that from happening,” he said.
He said what’s important under even the current law is the intent of the buyer of water rights. He said they can profit from the water’s use but their end goal in buying rights can’t be the pure value of the water, and he’s interested in looking at ways to determine intent.
Daris Jutten, a rancher in the Uncompahgre Valley, said his interest in serving on the task force is considering impacts on property rights.
“I want to keep the land value prices where they are but I also don’t want to see buy and dry,” he said.
He was referring to situations in which transactions result in water no longer being used to irrigate agricultural land and instead going for other uses such as by municipal utilities.
Task force member Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, said the district sees entities buying up water there with the intent to dry up land in the future.
“In addition to that we do have those who want to sell, so water is a property right. … It’s a dilemma, but we don’t want to impact people’s property rights,” he said.
A water court case is headed toward trial because the state of Colorado and a water conservancy district still cannot agree on whether the district actually needs the amount of water it claims it does for a large dam and reservoir project in the northwest corner of the state.
Expert reports from an engineering firm, an aquatic ecologist and an economics firm outline how they say the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District can and will put its water storage rights to beneficial use. But even after Rio Blanco reduced the amount of water it’s asking for by more than 23,000 acre-feet, a report from Colorado’s top water engineers indicates the district still largely has a project in search of a need.
In their expert report submitted Aug. 31, Deputy State Engineer Tracy Kosloff and Division 6 Engineer Erin Light outline 11 instances where they say Rio Blanco has not met the requirements of state law by showing it has a specific plan and intent for the water it says it needs.
According to the report, Rio Blanco has not shown a need for water above its current supply in the categories of irrigation, municipal use, recreation, maintenance and recovery of endangered species or a back-up water supply to protect against a compact call. State engineers are asking that part or all of the water claimed for these uses be removed from the court’s final decree and deducted from the total water rights claim.
A pre-trial readiness conference is scheduled for Nov. 13. The case is scheduled to go to a 10-day trial starting Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs, but the parties could still reach a settlement before then.
In 2014 Rio Blanco applied for a 90,000 acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River and proposed a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The district has now reduced that claim to either 66,720 acre-feet for an off-channel reservoir or 72,720 acre-feet for an on-channel reservoir.
There are two proposed versions of the project: one that would construct a dam and reservoir on the White River (the scale of this project is now rare in Colorado) or an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, in the arid sagebrush hills just north of the river.
The conservancy district would prefer to build the off-channel option: a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir, with a dam that is 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. An off-channel reservoir would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.
Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.
Disputed amounts and uses
Rio Blanco says the project should store 7,000 acre-feet annually for irrigation. But Light and Kosloff’s report says according to the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan, the irrigated acres in the White River Basin are projected to decrease in the future, and that this storage project, because it is situated low in the basin, cannot serve the majority of the irrigated lands anyway, which are concentrated upstream along the mainstem of the White River near Meeker and along tributaries like Piceance Creek.
“Per the proposed decree, the applicant is once again requesting the court award irrigation use,” the engineer’s expert report reads. “The engineers continue to contend there is no evidence to suggest that there is a future water need for this purpose.”
Rio Blanco says some of the water would also be used in a future augmentation plan to replace depletions within the district that are out of priority due to a Colorado River Compact curtailment.
Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance in case of a compact call. According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.
By releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations, it would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.
But state engineers say compact compliance is a problem to be tackled by the state and not individual water users. And since no one knows exactly how compact compliance would unfold (that’s still to be decided by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer) it’s not possible for Rio Blanco to have a plan in place for this augmentation water.
Light and Kosloff’s report says there is no recognized beneficial use that allows a water right “to provide water to users outside of Colorado for the purpose of allowing ongoing diversions of water rights within Colorado.”
Rio Blanco claims it needs three years-worth of drought contingency storage for uses within the basin. But state engineers say that there has never been a call on the White River below the town of Meeker, even in the driest years, and the likelihood of the reservoir being able to fill during the runoff season every year is extremely high. Light and Kosloff point out that not even Denver Water or Aurora Water have three times their annual demand in reserve.
The state also says Rio Blanco has overestimated the amount of water the town of Rangely will need, and that the need for the full amount claimed for recreation water is unsubstantiated, as is the need for water for the recovery of endangered fish species.
No comment from engineers, district officials
State engineers declined to talk to Aspen Journalism about their expert report.
Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink also declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
But another roundtable member says the project doesn’t hold water. Deirdre Macnab owns 4M Ranch, which is adjacent to the proposed project site, and was until recently the sole remaining opposer in the case. She recently pulled out of the formal water court process, citing mounting legal costs, but still opposes the project.
“Families living in western Rio Blanco County should be aware that a project that the professionals say doesn’t show any justification would put them in debt for years, and not just paying for the hundreds of millions in construction costs, but also almost a million dollars every year in electricity costs to pump the water up and over the dam,” Macnab said in a written statement. “Do Rio Blanco citizens really think this is in our economic best interests?”
Despite the state opposing the current project proposal, since 2013 it has also given roughly $850,000 to Rio Blanco in the form of Colorado Water Conservation Board grants to study the project. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 to investigate the feasibility of the project.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the multi-purpose water uses outlined in the project is the way water projects should be put together.
“Identifying the right-size project for the White River is still very important,” he said. “The specifics about the White River storage project as it’s currently proposed I think are things that still need to be worked out.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Oct. 6 edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Here’s the release from Aurora Water (Greg Baker):
Reservoir release being made in cooperation with State Engineers Office
Beginning Wednesday, September 23, 2020, the Homestake Partners, which is comprised of Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, will make a one-time release of approximately 1,800 acre feet of water from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County. The objective of this reservoir release is to determine the effectiveness of current administrative practices in shepherding released water from Homestake Reservoir, located south of Minturn, CO, downstream to the Colorado State Line.
This pilot project was developed by the Front Range Water Council and utilizes water contributed by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, as well as by the Pueblo Board of Water Works. This water will be released from Homestake Reservoir into Homestake Creek, which is tributary to the Eagle River and the Colorado River.
The pilot release protocols were developed cooperatively with the Colorado State Engineer’s Office, with the release expected to provide the State and Division Engineers, as well as water users on the West Slope and East Slope, with valuable information related to compliance with the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Compact. The project will test important aspects of administration practice. It will also provide data on hydrologic influences that would affect the timing and amount of the arrival of the released water at the state line.
“For municipalities that rely either wholly or partially on the Colorado River for their drinking water, it’s critical to understand all of the potential aspects a compact curtailment could have on our supplies,” said Pat Wells, General Manager for Water Resources and Demand Management for Colorado Springs Utilities. “Gathering this data before we get to that point will help us all plan for the future.”
As the water is released into Homestake Creek and travels downstream to the Eagle River and the Colorado River, the State Division of Water Resources will “shepherd” or facilitate the released water to the state line. The release of 1,800 AF represents contributions of 600 AF each by Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo Board of Water Works, and Aurora Water. This will not put any of the entities’ storage at risk; for example, 600 AF represents less than 0.3% of current system-wide storage in Colorado Springs Utilities’ raw water system and less than 0.4% of Aurora’s storage.
“The timing is perfect for this sort of investigation,” stated Alexandra Davis, Deputy Director for Water Resources for Aurora Water “Our reservoirs are well positioned at this time, even with the current drought conditions, and the lower flows in the rivers mean we will generate valuable information regarding protocols and practices currently in place for releasing stored water.”
The release is scheduled to occur Sept 23 – Sept. 30 and will produce flows of less than 175 cfs (cubic feet/second). These flows are higher than normal for this time of year in Homestake Creek and Eagle River, but within normal spring/summer runoff levels. There is no inundation concern for property adjacent to the tributaries.
The project also has the support by Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.
“We are pleased these Front Range communities are taking a proactive step to address questions about conserving municipal water and shepherding saved water downstream,” Laura Belanger, senior water resources engineer and policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates said. ”This test release will help us understand potential benefits for water security and streams and demonstrates that all Colorado communities have an important role to play in ensuring a sustainable water future for Colorado.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources:
The Department of Natural Resources released the names of a 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group (Work Group) whose objective is to explore ways to strengthen current Colorado water anti-speculation law. The Work Group arose out of passage of Senate Bill 20-048 sponsored by Senators Donovan and Coram and Representatives Roberts and Catlin and signed by Governor Polis on March 11, 2021.
“I’m encouraged by the participation in the Work Group, which represents diverse stakeholders from all across the state,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, who appointed the Work Group members. “Our goal is to have a transparent and thoughtful process over the next year.”
Senate Bill 20-048 requires the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to convene a work group to explore ways to strengthen current anti-speculation law and to report to the water resources review committee by August 15, 2021, regarding any recommended changes. Colorado water law prohibits speculation by requiring water to be used for a beneficial purpose.
The Work Group will be co-chaired by Kevin Rein, State Engineer, and Scott Steinbrecher, Assistant Deputy Attorney General. Meetings will be noticed to the public via the Colorado Water Conservation Board website and will be open to the public. Meeting summaries will be posted publicly, and opportunities will be available for the public to review and comment on the recommendations of the Work Group before the written report is finalized.
The Work Group membership consists of:
Kevin Rein (Co-Chair), State Engineer, Division of Water Resources
Scott Steinbrecher (Co-Chair), Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Attorney General’s Office
Tracy Kosloff, Deputy State Engineer, Division of Water Resources
Erin Light, Division 6 Engineer, Division of Water Resources
Lauren Ris, Deputy Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Amy Ostdiek, Deputy Section Chief, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Alex Funk, Agricultural Water Resource Specialist, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr., Colorado Supreme Court Justice (ret.)
Joe Bernal, Bernal Farms
Daris Jutten, Lazy K Bar Land and Cattle Co.
Joe Frank, General Manager, Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District
Larry Clever, General Manager, Ute Water Conservancy District
Alex Davis, Water Resources Division Manager, Aurora Water
Peggy Montaño, Trout Raley
Peter Fleming, General Counsel to the Colorado River District
Adam Reeves, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel LLP
Drew Peternell, Colorado Director, Trout Unlimited
Kate Ryan, Senior Attorney, Colorado Water Trust
The first meeting of the Work Group will be held virtually this fall.
The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted [August 3, 2020] morning after a trio of water providers announced the release of up to 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to support irrigators in the Yampa River Valley and endangered fish.
The latest call was placed on the Yampa River on Aug. 25. The first call was in the late summer of 2018, also after an uncommonly hot, dry summer. The release of the water has ended the immediate need for water administration, allowing irrigators who had been legally prevented from taking water to resume diversions.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has begun releasing 500 acre-feet of its water, and the Colorado River District is releasing another 750 acre-feet of water that it controls from the reservoir near Hayden.
A third organization, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, will use money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to support the upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s contract for additional water in Elkhead in 2020. The Colorado Water Trust also has raised private funds to support a potential release of 250 acre-feet of water to provide in-channel flows for endangered fish species in the Yampa.
Water will continue to be released from Elkhead Reservoir, as necessary, through September. Rain, snow and cloud cover could suppress demand.
Irrigators, fish feeling the heat
A statement from the River District and Tri-State emphasized the intention of helping irrigators.
“Agriculture producers in the western U.S. currently are being hit with the triple threat of drought, low prices and pandemic restrictions, so anything we can do to ease the burden of farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley is something we are willing and honored to do,” said Duane Highley, CEO at Tri-State, the operator of coal-fired power plants near Craig.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the River District, echoed that theme.
“We hope these actions help alleviate the depth and severity of ranchers being curtailed and allow some of them to turn their pumps back on to grow more forage before winter,” he said.
“It was a crazy hot and dry summer,” said Andy Schultheiss, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “There was just nothing left in the river — or, at least, very, very little.”
Schultheiss said the trust was interested in preserving habitat for fish and other species in the river, including fish in the lower reaches of the Yampa that are on the endangered species list. In August, the organization also contracted to release 500 acre-feet of water from the Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, to ensure flows through Steamboat Springs.
Impact of the releases was reflected Thursday afternoon at stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. The river above the confluence of Elkhead Creek was running 102 cubic feet per second. Bolstered by the reservoir releases, however, it was running 125 cfs downstream at Maybell. It was 95 cfs at Deer Lodge, located 115 river miles downstream from Elkhead Reservoir at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, below several agricultural diversions.
A warming climate of recent decades and the weather of the past year probably both played a role in 2020’s second-ever Yampa call.
“August likely will end in the top 10 hottest and driest on record in the Yampa basin,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said during an Aug. 25 webinar. “You see warmer-than-average temperatures everywhere except a couple of pockets in North Park.”
Many areas were 4 to 6 degrees above average, and some pockets were even hotter. Fall and winter temperatures are more variable, which summer’s are much less so, said Schumacher. “Having 5 or 6 to 8 degrees above average in summer is quite remarkable,” he said.
The River District’s Mueller nodded to this broader context.
“As drought and low flows promise to persist, today’s cooperative actions could help us learn and plan for an uncertain water future,” he said.
Regulation is new reality
What sets the Yampa River apart from other rivers in Colorado is its storied tradition: a river without administration. The contrast may be most stark with the South Platte, which drains the heavily populated towns and cities and still abundant farms on the northern Front Range. There, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that every drop is measured, ensuring that diverters are taking only as much water as to which they have rights.
The Yampa has typically met the needs of all diverters, including those of irrigators, who are responsible for nearly all the water consumed in the Yampa River basin on an annual basis. Diverters were on an honor system to take no more than their allocated share of water.
Putting a call on a river requires the sorting out of water rights under Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right hierarchy. Those with mostly older — and, therefore, senior rights — have first dibs but only to the amount they are allocated.
The call placed on the river Aug. 25 was triggered by agriculture users lower on the river, at Lilly Park near Dinosaur National Monument. They were failing to get the river’s native flows to which they were entitled within their priority of 1963.
To honor the seniority of those water rights, Erin Light, the division engineer, initiated a call on the river to ensure that the more senior right would get delivery of the water.
Those affected were all water users upstream, even to the headwaters, with junior or more recent allocations. Junior water users are cut off to the amount necessary to satisfy the call, which could be partially or completely, as per the needs of the downstream user with the senior but unsatisfied allocation.
Light last year announced that all water diverters must install headgates and measuring devices, to allow withdrawals to be controlled and measured. Some have done so, others have been given extensions and some others have failed to comply, she said. Those without headgates and measuring devices — even if they have a more senior water right — risk being cut off entirely when a call occurs.
This push to measure diversions began at least a decade ago, after Light arrived in the Yampa Valley. One of those she persuaded was Jay Fetcher, who ranches along the Elk River, northwest of Steamboat Springs. He remembers some grumbling. The informal method had always worked. Now he’s glad he can prove he’s taking his allocated water — and no more.
“Once we changed, we realized that it was a real plus,” Fetcher said. “We knew what we were doing with our water, and we could justify (our diversions), not only to ourselves, but to Erin and the state.”
Jim Pokrandt, the director of community affairs for the River District, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest,” Pokrandt said, “to foster a solution that recognizes the reality, that doesn’t put agriculture out of business, while we are on the pathway to better water administration.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 7 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Brush News-Tribune:
How to survive in hotter, drier world a focus as 93% of state bakes in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought
The sun beat down, baking Colorado’s bone-dry, cracking San Luis Valley, where farmers for eight years have been trying to save their depleted underground water but are falling behind.
They’re fighting to survive at an epicenter of the West’s worsening water squeeze amid a 20-year shift to aridity. Federal data this past week placed 93% of Colorado in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought .
And Gov. Jared Polis was listening now, as a group of farmers sat around a patio shaking their heads, frowning, frustration etched on their faces — down by 150,000 acre-feet of water below their aquifer-pumping target as the driest months begin.
“We’re about as lean as we possibly can be. We’ve re-nozzled our sprinklers. Our pumping is as efficient as it possibly can be. We’re trying different crops,” said Tyler Mitchell, who had cut his water use by 30% after installing soil moisture sensors and shifting from barley to quinoa. “But, at the end of the day, we have too many businesses that are trying to stay in business. I don’t know how we can reduce pumping more than we already have.”
How to adapt to a hotter, drier world is emerging as a do-or-die mission for people living around the arid West. Polis was in the San Luis Valley on Tuesday, embarking on a potentially groundbreaking statewide effort to explore solutions amid increasingly harsh impacts of climate warming, including wildfires burning more than 300 square miles of western Colorado.
Average temperatures will keep rising for decades, federal climate scientists say, based on the thickening global atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, now around 412 parts per million, the highest in human history. Heat is depleting water across the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, where more than 50 million people live.
Nowhere have climate warming impacts exacerbated local difficulties more than here in the Massachusetts-sized, predominantly Hispanic, low-income San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains of southern Colorado…
This year, the winter mountain snowpack that determines surface water flow in the Rio Grande River measured 33% of normal in spring. Rainfall so far, 2.7 inches, lags at around 38% of average.
And the Rio Grande barely trickles, at 7 cubic feet per second, leaving Colorado toward New Mexico and Texas. Those similarly drought-stricken states count on shares of surface water in the river under a 1938 interstate legal agreement.
Colorado farmers’ fallback habit of pumping more from the aquifers connected to the river — water use that is restricted under a locally-run, state-ordered conservation plan — has obliterated water savings painstakingly gained since 2012.
The 150,000 acre-feet draw-down this year hurled farmers practically back to their starting point. And a state-enforced deadline of 2030 for restoring the aquifer to a healthy level looms. If not met, state authorities could take control over wells.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager Cleave Simpson said recovery now requires a snow-dependent gain of 680,000 acre-feet — 4.5 times this year’s draw-down…
“A drier and hotter world”
Polis looked out the windows of a black utility vehicle and saw devastation spreading as climate warming impacts hit home. Hot wind churned dust around farms now abandoned and rented to newcomers struggling to get by. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food.
He saw farm crews toiling, coaxing the most from their heavy machinery, after flows from some wells had diminished and even reportedly pulled up just air.
He said he sees different dimensions of problems around climate warming.
On one hand, human emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases “are going up,” Polis said. “But, then, here in this world, it is about adapting to what is happening. I mean, the global effort needs to succeed. Climate change needs to slow down. Colorado is just a teeny piece of that — a fundamental issue affecting the entire world. America never should have pulled out of the Paris accords. I hope we return, and have a concerted international effort.
“But it is also a reality for how these farmers put food on their plate, for how their communities thrive in a drier and hotter world. … The same crops we have been growing, with one water and warm temperature profile, don’t work with the way things are now.”
Colorado agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said state leaders also will hear from producers enduring dry times on the Eastern Plains, where wheat harvests are expected to suffer. Agriculture statewide “is hurting” and the San Luis Valley stands out as “ground zero” in a water squeeze due to low snow, shrinking aquifers, drought and competing demands from inside and outside the valley. Legal obligations to leave water for New Mexico and Texas compel cuts that complicate solutions, Greenberg said…
Few of the farmers on the patio meeting with the governor saw much that state governments can do in the face of a possible environmental collapse.
Many have concluded that, as Jim Erlich said, “we’re going to be farming less here.” Some anticipated an agricultural landscape looking more like western Kansas…
Polis called climate warming “the new normal.” He asked the farmers: “Where does it lead? Do you see a way forward?” State projections show conditions for at lest 15 years will be “likely hotter and drier… What does that mean in terms of crop mix? What does it mean in terms of sustainability? What does it mean in communities?”
The farmers, about a dozen, said they’ll push ahead in the “sub-districts” they’ve formed to encourage saving groundwater — as an alternative to state engineer authorities controlling wells. They now pay fees for pumping and pooled funds can be used to pay farmers for leaving fields fallow…
An entrepreneurial businessman, Polis pushed toward what might be done to create better markets for crops, such as “Colorado quinoa” that use less water, giving a global perspective. “I mean, agriculture does occur in dry parts of the world. It has to work from a water perspective…
At another farm, Brendon and Sheldon Rockey showed Polis around. They’ve reduced their use of water from wells by 50% and prospered, growing 25 types of potatoes, shifting off water-intensive crops such as barley and planting more “Colorado Quinoa” along with a half dozen other growers.
Fallow fields fertilized with cows and planted with restorative “cover crops” help boost productivity by improving soil, Brendon Rockey told the governor. “I don’t have a mono-culture anywhere on this farm.”
As president of the potato producers’ council and leader of a water-saving sub-district, Sheldon Rockey is encouraging other farmers — optimistically despite increased stress around the depletion of aquifers. “We can still make it back,” he said, “if we have snow.”
Polis also suggested a relaxed state approach to the 2030 deadline for replenishing the shrinking aquifer. “It is about the long-term trends. … whether goals are being met. There’s nothing that would ever be done based on one bad year.”
The farmers were hanging on that.
“He is genuinely interested in providing what support the state can to help with our water balance challenges,” Simpson concluded following this first meeting.
But “farmers are frustrated,” he said, emphasizing that aquifer recovery can happen only “if mother nature brings snow.”
And Polis left with a more detailed sense of the stakes.
“What we want here is sustainability. That’s why I oppose trans-basin water diversions,” he said. “But we have to make sure that farmers here today don’t live at the expense of farmers here tomorrow and the next decade. This valley is about agriculture. If the water is sold off, or the water is used up, it will become a dust bowl.”
Nearly one year after the state ordered Yampa River water users to begin measuring their diversions from the iconic river, local community groups have raised more than $200,000 to help cash-strapped ranchers and others install the devices needed to comply with the law.
According to Erin LIght, the top water regulator in the region, roughly 60 percent of diversion structures, about 1,760 in total, remain out of compliance in what is known as Colorado’s Water Division 6, which includes the Yampa, North Platte, White and Green river basins.
Under state law, water users who do not measure their diversions can be subject to prosecution and have access to their water rights suspended, something the state has threatened to do but has not yet implemented.
Local groups, including the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, have stepped up to help, creating a $200,000 grant fund to ensure those who are trying to comply can afford to do so.
“Everyone is interested in getting the best infrastructure we can into the river,” said Holly Kirkpatrick, who is overseeing the grant program for the conservancy district. “A lot of different organizations are working very hard on this.”
The Yampa River Fund, spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, also plans to step in with funding should the need arise.
“I envision that there will be a request for funding,” said fund manager Andy Baur, “and we are here to help.”
This remote region in the northwest corner of the state for decades has had so much water that regulators rarely had to step in to ensure the rivers’ supplies were being properly distributed in accordance with state water law, something it does routinely in Colorado’s other major river basins. But as water shortages loom in the state, the Yampa is coming under increasing scrutiny.
“People need to understand that if we find ourselves in another administrative situation [where the Yampa runs dry as it did in 2018], people need to know they will be shut off,” said Light, who oversees the region for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
The picture is much different than even 20 years ago, when Yampa Valley ranchers and other water users with water rights were often able to divert as much as they wanted whenever they wanted because the river had huge flows and relatively few demands.
Light, who oversees the Yampa and North Platte basins, as well as the Green and White river sub-basins, said the White River region has the most work to do to comply with the state’s order, with 83 percent, or 596, of its diversion structures taking water that is not being measured.
On the Yampa River, 50 percent of diversion structures, or 900, remain unmeasured, Light said. In the North Platte, 34 percent, or 190, lack measuring devices, while in the Green 74, or 69 percent, of devices remain unmeasured, Light said.
Because the White and Green sub-basins are so remote, and installing measuring devices can cost thousands of dollars, Light said she is giving water users there another year to comply with the order.
At the same time, she said she has granted more than 100 extensions to water users who are trying to comply to give them more time to find funds and get the work done.
Light said she is hopeful ranchers and others will begin to understand that measuring is no longer optional, and that those who begin recording their water use will have new opportunities as the entire Colorado River system, to which the Yampa, White and Green rivers are tributary, moves into a water-short future.
Under at least one scenario now being studied, a large, statewide conservation program called demand management would pay ranchers and others to voluntarily forego their water diversions for a period of time. Options to receive payment for suspending use would only be available to those who have diversion records that demonstrate how much water they’ve historically used.
“If someday we have an opportunity to [temporarily] dry up lands under a demand management program, their [actual water] use will be greatly in question because they have not measured their water. As demands get higher in the Colorado River, it’s going to behoove them to measure,” Light said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
From email from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Erin Light via Scott Hummer):
Right in step with the unprecedented year of 2020, the Yampa River is going on call for the second time in three years. And once again, the structures located at the bottom of the system do not have enough natural flow to meet their diversion demands.
We, the Division of Water Resources, are currently protecting reservoir water released from Elkhead Creek Reservoir for the protection of the endangered fish species. The amount of reservoir water currently being released for the Endangered Fish Recovery Program is 75 cfs. This in turn requires that there is 61 cfs at the Yampa River at Deerlodge Park gage station. The flow this morning is hovering around 50 cfs which means reservoir water is being diverted by water users upstream.
The entire Yampa River system is under administration for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that if the reservoir water was not in the system the structures at the bottom of the system would have no water and we would be instituting what one might consider a standard or more typical call that would encompass the entire Yampa River and its tributaries. Additionally, the water users on the mainstem of the Yampa River between Elkhead Creek and its confluence with the Green River should not have to bear the brunt of the entire Yampa River being short of water simply because their structure is located within the Critical Habitat Reach (the protected reach for the Endangered Fish).
Actions have already been put in place to institute the call and as of 12:00 PM today, the Yampa River and all of its tributaries are considered under administration. The Calling Priority right (or most junior water right that may divert at this time) is located at the Craig Station Power Plant with an administration number of 37149.00000 (this water right has an adjudication date 9/1/1960 and an appropriation date of 9/17/1951). This Calling Priority may change as the call progresses. In order to follow the call you may visit the following website: https://dwr.state.co.us/Tools/AdministrativeCalls/Active?submitButton=Submit&SelectedWaterDivisionId=6
If you have a water right junior to the above listed priority and you are diverting water, please cease your diversions unless your diversion can operate under a decreed augmentation plan or substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer. Also, if you are the owner of a pond, you are required to bypass all out of priority inflows.
If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me or your water commissioner.
Erin Light, P.E.
Division Engineer, Water Division 6
State regulators in the Yampa River basin say most water users are now willingly complying with an order to measure how much water they are taking — an order once greeted with suspicion and reluctance. But challenges to compliance remain, including the cost of installing equipment.
Last fall, the Colorado Division of Water Resources ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use. Nearly a year later, most of those water users are embracing the requirement, according to water commissioner Scott Hummer.
“I am fully confident that over 90% of the people who have orders pending have either complied, are in the process of complying or have asked for an extension,” Hummer said. “So we are getting the cooperation and buy-in that we are requesting from our water users. They are understanding why we are doing it, at least in my area.”
Hummer is the water commissioner for Water District 58, which spans 400 square miles and includes all the water rights above Stagecoach Reservoir. He oversees between 350 and 400 diversion structures.
Measuring water use is the norm in other river basins, especially where demand outpaces supply. But the tightening of regulations is new to the Yampa River basin, and the order was initially met with resistance from some ranchers.
John Raftopoulos, whose family ranches along the Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa in Moffat County, said he thinks most irrigators are complying. His cattle ranch has about 15 measuring devices, and he has to install a few more to be completely compliant.
“I know (the state) has to use them. There’s no other way they can control the water; they’ve got to have the measuring device,” Raftopoulos said. “You just got to bite the bullet and install them.”
State law requires water users to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches, but this rule was not enforced in Division 6 — consisting of the Yampa, White, Green and North Platte river basins — because historically there was plenty of water to go around in the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state. Long seen as the last frontier of the free river, there has been little regulatory oversight from the state when it came to irrigators using as much water as they needed. But that changed in 2018 with the first-ever call on the river.
A call is prompted when streamflows are low and a senior water rights holder isn’t receiving their full amount. They ask the state to place a call, which means upstream junior water rights holders must stop or reduce diversions to ensure that the senior water right gets its full amount.
Although the order for a measuring device comes with a deadline and the threat of fines, Division 6 engineer Erin Light has been lenient with water users and willing to give them extra time to get into compliance. The process to request an extension is simple: A water user can simply email Light.
“If a water user is working with our office, we are not going to go shut their headgate off,” she said. “We are going to work with them.”
Light doesn’t have an exact count on how many water users have complied so far — water commissioners are working in the field this summer and haven’t had time to enter the most current information into the division’s database yet — but as of January, the Yampa had 49% compliance.
“I am not hearing anything (from water commissioners) about concerns of noncompliance. If there were problems, they would let me know,” Light said. “I have a fair amount of confidence that things are going well in all my areas as to compliance.”
Still, some worry that the cost of installing the devices — which in most cases are Parshall flumes — is too big a financial burden for some water users. The devices, which channel diverted water and measure the flow below the headgate, can cost thousands of dollars, which adds up for water users who need to install multiple devices.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable have teamed up in recent months to create a $200,000 grant program to help water users with infrastructure-improvement expenses. According to Holly Kirkpatrick, the communications manager for the conservancy district, water users so far have completed about $3,500 worth of work. That money will be reimbursed through the grant program.
“We expect to see a huge influx of applications as the season comes to an end,” she said.
In March, Light issued notices to water users in the other Division 6 river basins — White and Green — but decided to delay sending orders after talking with some who had concerns over the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a June letter to Light, signed by four water conservancy districts — White River, Rio Blanco, Yellow Jacket and Douglas Creek — representatives said they would be interested in seeking opportunities for financial assistance for their water users. Under the best-case scenario, it would take until spring to secure grant money and begin installing devices, the letter said.
“This year is a tough year to try and ask people to do anything above and beyond what they already have to do,” said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts. “I know (Light is) willing to give extensions, but right now, our folks don’t need that additional financial or emotional stress.”
Colorado River Compact influence
Some water users have questioned why, after years of not enforcing requirements for measuring devices in Division 6, the state is now doing so. One answer is that more and better data about water use is becoming increasingly necessary as drought and climate change reduce streamflows, create water shortages and threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.
Division 6 has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as state regulators saw with the 2018 call, that dynamic is no longer guaranteed every year. As the threat of a compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A major unknown is what would happen in the event of a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
State engineer Kevin Rein said that without knowing how much water is being used, it’s a blind guess as to which junior water users would have to cut back.
“We could see the (cubic feet per second) amount that the water right is decreed for, but we don’t know how much is really being diverted and we don’t know how much is really being consumed, so we don’t know what effect it’s going to have on meeting our compact obligations,” Rein told Aspen Journalism last week.
It’s a similar scenario with a potential demand-management program. At the heart of such a program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send as much as 500,000 additional acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to help the upper basin meet its compact obligations. Agricultural water users could get paid to take part in the temporary, voluntary program to fallow fields and leave more water in the river.
But before they could participate in a demand-management program, the state needs to know how much water that an irrigator has been using.
“The first thing we need is diversion records,” Rein said. “If there’s no measuring device, no record of diversions and somebody wants to participate, they are simply not going to have the data to demonstrate their consumptive use.”
Since nearly everyone is making progress, Hummer said he doubts that enforcement will reach a point where he has to fine someone for not measuring their water use. Still, the transition is a tough one for an area not accustomed to state government oversight of their ditches.
“We are just dealing with difficult circumstances within the whole Colorado River basin system that dictates change, and folks don’t like change, especially in rural areas,” Hummer said. “But it’s here and it’s not going away. The demand for measurement will become more stringent in the future, not less.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, along with other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 15 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Aug. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.
The race against time continues for farmers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, with the state’s top water regulator warning that a decision on whether hundreds of farm wells will be shut off to help save the Rio Grande River could come much sooner than expected.
July 28, at a virtual symposium on the Rio Grande River, the state warned growers that they were running out of time to correct the situation.
“We’ll see in the next couple of years if we can turn around this trick,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein. “If we’re not turning it around, we need to start having that more difficult conversation.”
The valley is home to the nation’s second-largest potato economy and growers there have been working voluntarily for more than a decade to wean themselves from unsustainable groundwater use and restore flows in the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of land have been dried up with farmers paying a fee for the water they pump in order to compensate producers who agree to fallow land.
The San Luis Valley, which receives less precipitation than nearly any other region in Colorado, is supplied by the Rio Grande, but under the river lies a vast aquifer system that is linked to the river. It once had so much water that artesian springs flowed freely on the valley floor.
As modern-day farmers began putting powerful deep wells into the aquifer, aquifer levels declined, and flows in the river declined too as a result, hurting the state’s ability to deliver Rio Grande water downstream to New Mexico and Texas, as it is legally required to do.
Between July 2019 and July 2020 the valley’s unconfined aquifer, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, dropped by 112,600 acre-feet. All told the aquifer has lost around 1 million acre-feet of water since the drought of 2002.
Through a plan written by growers in the valley and approved by the state in 2011, farmers had 20 years, from 2011 to 2031, to restore the aquifer. But multiple droughts in the past 19 years have made clear that the region can’t rely on big snow years to replenish the valley’s water supplies because there are fewer of them, thanks to climate change.
“So what is the future, the short-term future, if we can’t count on climate? And let’s admit we can’t,” Rein said. “If climate’s not cooperating the only thing that can be done is consuming less water.”
Adding to pressure on the region is a proposal by Denver developers to buy thousands of acres of the valley’s farm land, leaving some of the associated water rights behind to replenish the aquifer, while piping thousands of acre-feet of water northeast to the metro area.
Rein said drastic steps, like drying up more fields and sharply limiting how much growers can pump, are needed. But this could result in bankruptcies and could cripple the valley’s $370 million agriculture economy, which employs the majority of workers in the region. Worse still, though, would be the shutdown of all wells in the region, which is what could occur if farmers aren’t able to make progress toward aquifer sustainability.
While the deadline to restore the aquifer is set for 2031, if it becomes clear before then that growers aren’t able to restore groundwater levels, Rein will be forced to take action early by turning off all wells.
Rein said his decision likely won’t come as early as next year. But, he said, “Do we wait until 2031, the deadline? Probably not.”
The groundwater challenges and associated deadline stem from Colorado’s historic 2002 drought which led to more groundwater pumping than ever before and resulted in a falling water table, decreases in water pressure, and failing wells.
Groundwater declines have been so severe that they’ve affected surface water levels in parts of the valley. In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state to begin regulating the aquifer to make it more sustainable.
Landowners within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) responded by forming a groundwater management district known as Subdistrict 1—that was just the first of what will soon be seven approved subdistricts.
Subdistrict 1 set goals and developed a plan of water management in late 2011 that spelled out how to reduce groundwater depletions and recharge the aquifer.
In 2012 they began paying a fee for every acre-foot of water used. That revenue helps pay irrigators who elect to participate in voluntary fallowing programs and other efforts to replenish the river and reduce stress on the aquifer.
And by 2017, irrigators had restored 350,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer, halfway to their goal. But drought and disaster struck in 2018. With less surface water available and high temperatures, irrigators pumped heavily to maintain their crops. And by September 2018, farmers had lost about 70 percent of the groundwater gains they had worked so hard to recover.
“2018 was extremely frustrating,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the RGWCD who is also a fourth-generation grower. ”It really kind of set us back to where we were when we started this in 2012.”
It’s not over yet. Some of that groundwater lost in 2018 has been recovered and this year participation in the fallowing program is higher than ever, with more than 13,000 acres enrolled, according to Amber Pacheco who manages the RGWCD’s subdistrict programs—that’s in addition to the 8,800 acres fallowed through the conservation programs that have been running since 2012.
Simpson and others, faced with another severe drought year, are deeply worried about the success of their conservation efforts, but dire times are also boosting motivation to solve the problem, Simpson said.
“There’s a sense of urgency from the board of managers that we’ve got to keep doing more,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to get back what we lost.”
Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paonia, a small town in western Colorado with a handful of mesas rising above it, wouldn’t green-up without water diverted from a river or mountain springs. The lively water travels through irrigation ditches for miles to gardens and small farms below. But this summer, irrigation ditches were going dry, and one, the Minnesota Canal and Reservoir Company, stopped sending water down to its 100-plus customers as early as July 13.
Drought was hitting the state and much of the West hard, but a local cause was surprising: Water theft.
Longtime residents who gather inside Paonia’s hub of information trading, Reedy’s Service Station, have a fund of stories about water theft. It’s not unusual, they say, that a rock just happens to dam a ditch, steering water toward a homeowner’s field. Sometimes, says farmer Jim Gillespie, 89, that rock even develops feet and crosses a road.
But this is comparatively minor stuff, says North Fork Water Commissioner Luke Reschke, as stealing ditchwater is a civil offense. Stealing water from a natural waterway, however, is a crime that can bring fines of $500 per day and jail time. That’s why what was happening to people who depend on the Minnesota Canal company for their fields or gardens was serious: Water was being taken from Minnesota Creek before it could be legally diverted for irrigation to paying customers.
Once the ditch company “called” for its water as of June 8, only holders of patented water rights could legally touch the creek. Yet during three trips to the creek’s beginning, starting in mid-June, and then in mid-July, I noticed that two ranches – without water rights — were harvesting bumper crops of hay. How could that have happened unless they’d illegally diverted water to their fields?
At first, no one would talk about the early-drying ditch except to hint broadly that it wasn’t normal. Then one man stepped up: Dick Kendall, a longtime board member of the Minnesota canal company, and manager of its reservoir. “On July 5,” he told me, “I saw water diverted from the creek onto one of the rancher’s land. And I wasn’t quiet about it.”
Kendall reported what he saw to Commissioner Luke Reschke, who oversees the area’s 600 springs, ditches and canals. Reschke dismissed it, he told me, because “The rumor mill is something else on Minnesota Creek. The only people who give me trouble are the new people who don’t know how the system works.” But locals say that four years back, Reschke’s predecessor, Steve Tuck, investigated when locals complained.
Though it may not be neighborly, stopping any illegal diversion is important, said Bob Reedy, owner of Reedy’s Station: “Without water, you’ve got nothing around here.” Annual rainfall is just 15 inches per year, and without water flowing into irrigation canals from the 10,000-foot mountains around town, much of the land would look like the high desert it truly is.
But it’s not just a couple of high-elevation ranchers dipping into the creek. The West Elk Coal Mine runs large pumps that supply water for its methane drilling and venting operations in the Minnesota Creek watershed.
Mine spokesperson Kathy Welt, said the diversion is legal, and that they only take early-season water when the creek water isn’t on call. That early water, however, is what begins to fill the Minnesota ditch’s reservoir.
In other ways, the mine has damaged the watershed by building a sprawling network of roads in the Sunset Roadless Area (Threats at West Elk Mine). A cease and desist order from the State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety on June 10, sought by environmental groups, halted the building of an additional 1.6 miles of new roads this spring (Colorado Sun). Satellite images of the road network resemble a vast KOA Campground: Where trees once held back water and shaded snowpack from early melting, their replacement — gravel roads –- shed water and add to early runoff.
For all of Minnesota Ditch’s challenges, warming temperatures brought about by climate change could be the real challenge. Kendall said that this spring, when he plowed out the Minnesota Reservoir road, dust covered the parched ground beneath the snow.
Water — so precious to grow grapes, hay, organic vegetables and grass-fed beef, and to keep the desert at bay — had vanished early on Lamborn Mesa above Paonia. Farmer Gillespie summed it up, “there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back.”
David Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (writersontherange.com), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives part-time in Colorado.
From email from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (James Heath):
This is a notification that the Shoshone Power Plant is going down to one unit and their call will be released from the stream. The Shoshone Outage Protocol will not operate due to the target flow of 1250 cfs being insufficient to maintain flows in the Grand Valley to prevent a call from the irrigation water rights. Therefore, the call will be placed tomorrow morning at Cameo under a junior swing or bypass right.
Starting at 8:00 am on Thursday, July 30, 2020 the calling location will be the Grand Valley Canal (WDID 7200645), with the Con-Hoosier Tunnel water right (Admin Number 35927.00000).
The vast Ogallala Aquifer has been on the minds of growers in many states but it certainly has been on the minds of growers in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska who share the crucial resource with differing regulations. We all share a common bond to try to preserve it for future generations.
Timothy Pautler became involved with water conservation district matters with the settlement of the Arkansas River Compact dispute between Colorado and Kansas. The state of Colorado was in litigation with Kansas and Nebraska on the Republican River Compact. The state decided to approach the defense of this conflict differently than the Arkansas River Compact, so through legislation, Colorado created an entity to assist the state in achieving compact compliance and in August 2004 the Republican River Water Conservation District was formed.
The board members represented, at the time, seven counties, seven Ground Water Management Districts and one member from the Colorado Ground Water Commission. Pautler was appointed by the Kit Carson County Commission.
“My understanding of what was happening to the Ogallala Aquifer in my area of the basin was the driving force behind my desire to participate in the decision to assist the state,” he said. “The economy that was created by the state, in its determination to allow the mining of the Aquifer, and the resulting decline, was a concern.”
In 2019, the boundary for the RRWCD was expanded, to include all the irrigated acres that are actually contributing to the compact issue. This change affected folks in the southeast part of Kit Carson County and the northern part of Cheyenne County and in the East Cheyenne Ground Water Management District. This change created two more board member positions, representing those two new entities. This expansion added approximately 45,000 new irrigated acres to the RRWCD fee assessment.
The RRWCD assists the state in reaching compact compliance on the Republican River Compact that was signed in 1942. In the beginning, the state told growers that if they retired 30,000 acres from irrigation the state would be in compliance. To fund the required budget that was going to be needed, the RRWCD assessed all irrigated acres a fee of $5.50 per irrigated acre. At that point in time, the basin did not have meters on any of the wells, so a per acre charge was really the only option and was easy to do, using county assessors’ records. The RRWCD worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency, to create programs that would financially compensate producers for voluntarily retiring some of their irrigated lands.
Over time the district has been actively involved with purchasing surface water rights on the Arikaree and the North and South Forks of the Republican. It was involved with the Pioneer and Laird ditch rights. When they were purchased by the Yuma County Water Authority, the RRWCD leased those rights from the YCWA for $5 million for 20 years. This transaction leaves water in the North Fork of the Republican, and is accounted for at the gauging station located just east of Wray, Colorado
“We are continually working with surface water folks, in order to acquire their rights, this practice is ongoing,” he said. “Because of the way surface water irrigation is accounted for under the compact the retirement of these water rights is very helpful in achieving compliance.
He noted the 15-member board showed tremendous leadership in helping stakeholders understand what was at stake.
“As we moved through time, the collective efforts started to bring results for the basin. We were well on our way to retiring the 30,000 acres of irrigated land. The programs were working rather smoothly, and the process was a success,” Paulter said. “But then our general manager, Stan Murphy, and our engineer, Jim Slattery, started to look at the numbers and realized that the retirement of acres alone, was not going to get us where we needed to be, in order to be in compliance.”
The acreage retirements were coming so far from the three streams—the North Fork, the Arikaree, and the South Fork—to achieve the goal. The retirements were still a good concept and leaving water in the hole is always a positive, the producer and board member said. But the lagged depletion effect that existed in the aquifer was not allowing the impact of acreage retirement to result in immediate stream flow. The lagged depletion, describes the impacts that distant well pumping has on stream flow. As a result of the lag effect, the impact of present day pumping will have negative effects for 30 to 50 years, according to the engineers, even though a well has been retired. The effects that those distant retired wells created, prior to retirement, continued to haunt the long-term goals of the RRWCD.
In 2002, the Republican River settlement had been signed. The final settlement stipulation agreed that Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado would not fight about water use that was in the past, but only work toward achieving future compliance with the compact that allocates how much water each state is entitled to use, he said. As part of the stipulation between the states, the accounting for all three states started at zero, it also allowed that any one of the states could use a pipeline to get additional water to the river in order to get into compliance.
So that became the next challenge for the board. Where do we get enough water to make a difference?
“We started looking at an exhausting list of possibilities, including The Dakota formation below the Ogallala, areas of the basin that were under appropriated, and imports from the South Platte at the time we left no stone unturned. Every idea had issues that came along with it,” Pautler said.
The Dakota was going to be too salty and too costly to bring to the surface and not enough water. The unappropriated area was going to require too many easements and a pipeline of extreme length. The South Platte was too expensive.
“In the end we were able to make a deal with one family. Their water rights were located northeast of Wray. This area of the basin has absolutely the greatest amount of saturated thickness.”
It was far enough away from the North Fork to minimize effect on stream flow, but yet close enough that the pipeline length was a doable deal, approximately 13 miles, he said. About 13,500 acre feet of historical consumptive use, from 62 permits, were acquired.
The Colorado Ground Water Commission then approved the RRWCD application, allowing it to consolidate the 62 existing wells into 15 wells to be used for compact compliance, without any injury to surrounding water rights. Along with the water purchase, the district negotiated easements from the landowners for the pipeline route. The cost of the water and easements was $50 million. The engineers designed a pipeline system that cost $20 million.
Informational meetings were key because a $70 million project was not an easy sell, especially when budgets were compiled. The $5.50 per acre assessment needed to go to $14.50. This created a budget of $7 million. A loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for the $60 million, at an interest rate of 2% was secured and the 20-year note will be paid off in 2028. “The public acceptance of the concept, came with a lot of questions,” Pautler said. “As their understanding of the entire compact issue increased, so did their support.”
Not so fast
Even with the pipeline it did not mean going back to old practices, Paulter said. Wells in every county and management district that once pumped 800 to 1,000 gallons per minute had diminished to 200 to 500 gpm.
When the pipeline was completed and functioning, the board started to hear comments like, “now we can pump it till it is dry.”
“The pipeline did give us all a false sense of security that nothing else has to change; the perception was the economies of the communities can now continue as always; the threat of shut downs is taken care of,” he said. “But in reality, our small communities are changing so slow we don’t even see it happening, especially in areas of the basin that never did have sufficient saturate thickness, to expect life to go on as usual, or forever.”
A safe statement would be, “most wells in the basin, do not have the yield they originally had.” Conservation has always been an underlying effort, but the urgency to get into compact compliance was paramount and trumped conservation.
The fee assessment has been a problem for the basin, in terms of conservation. For $14.50 per acre, a producer can pump all he wants, up to his permitted amount. Paulter said a per acre foot charge would have been better formula to achieve conservation. The meters did not come into existence until about 2010. Meters alone will not create conservation, although the irrigators, today, do pay more attention to the amount pumped. They are required to stay within their annual appropriation.
What has worked
Conservation has been attained in the areas where irrigated acres were retired. That unused volume assures more water for domestic and livestock use. That is vital for those areas long term. Travel west of the RRWCD boundary and there are large ranches with very limited water resources. Pipelines have been installed with USDA cost share dollars to move the water for miles. And now, even those pipelines are in jeopardy of not having enough water for livestock numbers to adequately make an economic enterprise work.
When the pipeline was completed, the RRWCD’s Conservation Committee started looking at ways to encourage meaningful conservation. They formed a subcommittee made up of members from all the Ground Water Management Districts.
The basin is very different north to south and east to west. Saturated thicknesses vary from having very little left to those areas that still have a 40-year supply left. Soil types very vastly as well.
“We have good heavy soils that will support dry land farming, to sugar sand that without water becomes rangeland. It is a classic case of the ‘haves and the have nots,’ depending on where you are located,” Pautler said. “We are all human, and no one wants to limit their neighbor’s ability to have an economic gain. Admittedly, a tough issue to struggle with.”
Another problem is the fact that the RRWCD has no statutory authority to impose water use restrictions on the basin. That is under the authority of the GWMD. By design, when the RRWCD was given statutory authority to help the state get into compact compliance, GWMDs were very outspoken and insisted that the RRWCD should not be allowed to take over the authority that the management districts already had. These are some of the challenges in trying to achieve meaningful and measureable conservation.
“I would hope that we in the Republican basin can come up with a fair and equitable solution that fits the needs of all water users in the basin. The list of water users has to include discussion with the municipalities, domestic users, commercial interests, and livestock folks. Finding agreement affects everyone, not just the ag irrigators,” he said. “We all have economic interests that are effected by the discussions moving forward. The emotional part of the discussion, kind of stems from the fact that, if we do nothing, ever so slowly, the water passes by our neighbors and we don’t care until it is our turn. A restriction that imposes conservation on all water users happens immediately. The economic impact is immediate.”
This was edited by Dave Bergmeier who can be reached at 620-227-1822 or email@example.com.
Funding is available to Routt County ranchers and farmers to install water-measuring infrastructure to better gauge how much water they are diverting…
The [Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District] has about $200,000 worth of funding to help farmers and ranchers afford the measuring devices thanks to a $100,000 match from the Yampa-White-Green Roundtable, according to Holly Kirkpatrick, communications manager for the conservancy district.
Her office will reimburse 50% of costs associated with the devices, Kirkpatrick said, up to $5,000. The district is taking application through 2021.
“We are seeing a huge uptick in interest for grant funds with people completing their projects,” Kirkpatrick said. “Folks are really interested in how they go about this process and getting projects completed before the end of year.”
For more information on the measuring devices and available funding, contact Kirkpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Topic: Yampa Valley State of the River
Whether it’s for clean water from your kitchen tap, water for hay or livestock or flows to paddle or play on, we all rely on the Yampa River and its tributaries.
Learn about current Yampa Basin water issues, ongoing drought and challenges facing West Slope water users at the virtual Yampa Valley State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District, the Community Agriculture Alliance and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
If you’re busy for the live event, register to receive a recording of the webinar by email to watch later.
• Protecting West Slope Water in Times of Uncertainty – Jim Pokrandt, Director of Community Affairs at the Colorado River District
• Snowpack and Runoff updates in the Yampa River Basin – Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District
• Recreation in the Yampa River Basin – Lindsey Marlow, Program Manager at Friends of the Yampa and Josh Veenstra, owner of Good Vibes River Gear
• How you can participate in Yampa River planning and the Integrated Water Management Plan – Marsha Daughenbaugh, Rocking C Bar Ranch and Nicole Seltzer, Science & Policy Manager at River Network
• Conversation with the Division Engineer – Erin Light, Division 6 Engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources and Jackie Brown, Natural Resource Policy Advisor, Tri-State Generation and Transmission
Time: Jul 29, 2020 06:30 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
Here’s a guest column from Kent Holsinger and David Kueter that’s running in The Valley Courier:
Once every ten years a comet is visible in the night sky, the census counts every person living in the United States, and your water rights are at risk of abandonment in Colorado. Water is Colorado’s most precious natural resource. Colorado’s proposed decennial abandonment lists were published online on July 1st. Over four thousand water rights were listed, including over 630 rights in Division 3. This is a marked increase from decades past.
Put another way, the lists prepared by the Division Engineers at the Colorado Division of Water Resources could result in a significant number of water rights being declared abandoned throughout the state. The Rio Grande Basin has been over appropriated since the 1890’s with groundwater resources depleted throughout much of the basin. The Colorado Water Plan projects the basin will need an additional 180,000 acre feet (AF) by 2050. As a result, protecting existing rights is more important than ever. Water right owners should check the lists online at http://water.state.co.us to determine whether their rights are at risk. The lists will also be published in the local papers of record throughout the state in July and August.
While the agency is required to notify the “last known owner or claimant” of a water right included on the list by July 31st, the State’s ownership records are not always up-to-date. In an arid climate like Colorado, water rights are highly coveted and highly valued. Losing a water right to abandonment can be catastrophic. It can also directly impact the bottom line and the market value of your property. Water right owners have multiple opportunities to protest inclusion of a right on the abandonment lists. Under Colorado water laws, abandonment requires both an overt act (typically non-use) and intent. Good record-keeping, personal knowledge and extrinsic evidence like Google Earth imagery can help protect valued water rights. Lands protected by conservation easements may have other good arguments to employ.
Fortunately, the deadline for written objections to be submitted to the appropriate Division Engineer (along with a $10.00 fee for each water right) is July 1, 2021. In the meantime, water right owners would be wise to start collecting records and consulting with legal counsel. By December 31, 2021, after considering any filed objections, the Division Engineers will file the final proposed abandonment lists with the Water Court. Water right owners can then formally protest the inclusion on the list by June 30, 2022, which protests will be heard by the Water Judge beginning in October 2022. This article does not constitute legal advice nor the creation of an attorneyclient relationship. Kent Holsinger and David Kueter are attorneys at Holsinger Law, LLC and can be contacted at: http://www.holsingerlaw.com.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the Executive Summary:
The Upper Division States of the Colorado River Basin are currently investigating the feasibility of a potential Demand Management program. Demand Management is defined as temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in consumptive use. The Demand Management Storage Agreement, one element of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) finalized by the Colorado River Basin States in 2019, provides the authorization for the Upper Division States to store water created pursuant to a Demand Management program in Lake Powell. The water would only be used for Compact compliance purposes at the direction of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Whether a program is set up and how such a program would operate are still open questions. Each Upper Division State must make an initial determination that Demand Management is feasible before moving forward with creating a potential program.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is Colorado’s agency charged with setting the State’s water policy, and is therefore the agency with authority to determine whether Demand Management is feasible for Colorado. Following adoption of the DCP in March 2019, the CWCB Board adopted the 2019 Work Plan to help guide the initial stage of this feasibility investigation, to take place in Fiscal Year 2019-2020. The Work Plan had three primary components: (1) establish workgroups comprised of subject-matter experts and key Colorado River stakeholders, which were directed to meet publicly at least four times in Fiscal Year 2019-20, and to identify key threshold issues for board consideration; (2) regional workshops designed to facilitate the public discussion around Demand Management and provide opportunities for CWCB staff updates on the feasibility investigation; and (3) continued education and outreach. In addition, the Board directed staff to facilitate a literature review, currently underway by consultants hired following a Request for Proposal process.
The purpose of this Report is to provide an update of work done pursuant to the 2019 Work Plan. This report will assist the CWCB Board in considering the key threshold issues associated with a potential Demand Management program. The purpose of the report is not to provide guidance on next steps of the feasibility investigation. However, it may help shape the discussions and decision-making about the next phases of Colorado’s feasibility investigation. While the complete report provides a full summary of workgroup discussions and other work, below is a summary of each workgroup’s main discussion points.
To encourage agricultural participation, a potential program must be viewed as equitable and proportional while remaining voluntary; furthermore, it must be adequately communicated that the potential program is necessary to achieve the objectives set out in the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan and will serve as an insurance policy against mandatory curtailment.
In designing a potential program, care must be given to program design to minimize and mitigate on-farm and off- farm agronomic impacts such as reductions in crop yield and soil erosion, including the provision of technical assistance and information; furthermore, the program should account for secondary economic impacts and evaluate potential benefits.
Non-injury to water right holders and non-participants is critical and can be achieved through the possible consideration of utilizing existing change of water use approval processes and providing additional mitigation expenses to agricultural water providers to account for potential operational impacts.
Structuring the potential program application, review, and the contracting process should consider alignment with the timing of when producers make critical operational decisions and allow for some operational flexibility; furthermore, payments should consider all potential impacts including both agronomic and operational changes.
In considering the design of a potential Demand Management program, current programs in place similar to a potential Demand Management program, such as the Federal Conservation Reserve Program and Colorado Fallow-Leasing Pilot Program should be further analyzed; furthermore, pilot and demonstration projects could be useful in better understanding potential impacts and effects of temporary irrigation reductions and should be explored with an effort to capture the potential diversity of projects.
Economic Impacts and Local Government
Any potential Demand Management program will be voluntary; those who do not wish to participate should not do so.
In designing any potential Demand Management program, the initial goal should be to “do no harm,” meaning to minimize and mitigate any adverse impacts to communities. A number of factors should be considered in analyzing this question, including but not limited to the type of water use, the duration of the Demand Management program, the length of individual project participation, and the geographic location and concentration of projects.
Any potential program should create benefits for individuals, the community, and the economy wherever possible. Potential benefits may include avoidance of Compact administration actions, increased revenue to local economies, environmental benefits, and opportunities to improve long-term management of water and land.
A number of process considerations should be taken into account when considering how to assure no harm is done to communities where possible, or mitigated if there is harm.
In operating a potential Demand Management program, the process should be transparent and collaborative.
Education and Outreach
Workgroup members identified many challenges in helping the State explore threshold questions related to communication, education, and outreach needs around a potential Demand Management program.
In lieu of assisting with a communication plan for the active “investigation” process or a future program, the workgroup focused their expertise around priority considerations should the CWCB elect to continue with feasibility, project pilots, or full program development.
While it is essential to develop a communications plan well before a Demand Management program is enacted, content substance is needed to proceed in which common terms are defined across workgroups and state partners, clear frames are developed to help unite messaging across stakeholder groups, and essential content from FY19- 20 workgroups are considered by CWCB and incorporated into an agreement on a Demand Management program’s general (initial/draft) shape.
At this stage, there is a branding problem, as different stakeholders have different ideas of what a program may look like, how it can be explained, and how often communication is carried to individuals’ direct communities.
This workgroup recommends immediate messaging discussions to identify shared priority framing. Several guiding examples are presented in the workgroup’s final deliverable.
Throughout the investigation, workgroup members identified the need to help stabilize communication chains, the need for extra transparency, and the need to maintain an open line for all users to communicate concerns and ideas to/from CWCB and to/from one another.
A Demand Management program could provide opportunities for projects with net environmental benefits that would not be available under potential Compact administration.
A Demand Management program should not harm the environment, should build in considerations to minimize adverse environmental effects, and should incentivize projects that provide net environmental benefits.
A Demand Management program should use the suggestions in the Environmental Considerations document to evaluate project environmental benefits and impacts without creating an unnecessarily burdensome process for applicants. The suggestions should also be used as part of the criteria to prioritize projects. Potential environmental benefits are location and project specific and would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
A Demand Management program should identify project impacts and benefits to environmental resources including changes to flow regimes, instream flows, water quality standards, critical habitat, management/planning documents, and conservation needs and strategies if evaluation tools are readily available and applicable (for a more detailed list of potential resources impacted, see Environmental Considerations document).
Research and data gaps exist for evaluating environmental benefits and impacts, such as information on changes to hydrology, return flows, and wetlands. Streamlined approaches and methods are needed to make these assessments.
The funding workgroup initially identified a number of questions to help frame the conversation around funding a potential Demand Management program, including how much funding would such a program require.
To help quantify potential funding needs, workgroup members discussed factors that could affect a Demand Management program and built scenarios around them.
The factors included: volume of water needed, cost of potential program (i.e. $/acre-foot), percent of water savings expected from a Demand Management program (versus funded investments in infrastructure), acute or chronic need, year by which water is needed, and reservoir storage options.
Workgroup members came up with a preliminary list of funding ideas noting that not one concept, but rather a portfolio (potentially paired with a reverse auction model) would be beneficial: statewide tax (income, sales, property), regional tax, statewide fee, Bureau of Reclamation contribution, hydropower user fee, export user fee (i.e. Front Range water user rate increase).
Even with a diverse portfolio, COIVD-19 fundamentally changed the calculus and workgroup members expect we will likely see transformations in many water use sectors and the larger economies of the Western US if hydrology continues to deteriorate and Compact Administration becomes necessary.
Law and Policy
There are several open legal and policy questions relating to a potential Demand Management program, and the conclusions drawn could impact how a program operates and whether it works within existing law. These key legal and policy issues include, but are not limited to:
Would participation in a potential program be considered a beneficial use under Colorado law? What is the definition of Compact compliance?
How is program eligibility determined?
How is conserved consumptive use defined for purposes of participation in a potential program?
What is the appropriate definition of “temporary” in the context of a potential Demand Management program?
What is the appropriate procedure for project review and approval?
Monitoring and Verification
Quantification, measurement, monitoring, and verification must be honest, accurate, and defensible.
Participation and monitoring and verification must be protective of other water users.
Participation must result in added water to the system.
Participation and monitoring and verification must be as simple, easy, and flexible as possible while still meeting the first three principles.
Water Rights Administration and Accounting
Any potential program should take into consideration the appropriate process for changing the use of a water right from its current use to Demand Management.
The question of whether Demand Management is a beneficial use of water should be considered before a potential program is established.
Changes in administration and accounting for storage should be considered in establishing a potential program.
Appropriate scrutiny for any program should be balanced against the need for ease and flexibility.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) released the Decennial Abandonment List of water rights [July 1, 2020], an important process of Colorado water law and Colorado’s system of administering our state’s water rights.
Every 10 years the Colorado Division of Water Resources is required by Colorado law to present a list of water rights that each Division Engineer has determined to meet the criteria of abandonment to the water court. “Abandonment” is defined as the termination of an absolute water right in whole or in part as a result of the intent of the owner to permanently discontinue the use of the water under that water right.
“The Decennial Abandonment is an important feature of Colorado water law that is beneficial to water users by providing more certainty,” said Kevin Rein, State Engineer and Director, Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Canceling these rights means that the water users did not use them for a sustained period of time and cannot begin using them again, which provides administrative stability on the stream to the benefit of active water rights.”
The abandonment list is carefully crafted every 10 years by the Division Engineers, who administer water rights in 7 different water basins throughout the state. The list is created by reviewing records of water diversions, conducting site visits, and completing other fact-based research.
After the abandonment list is published, notices are placed in local news outlets and a certified letter is sent to the last-known owner of the water right.
Any person wishing to object to the inclusion of a water right on the initial list may file a statement of objection in writing with the division engineer by July 1, 2021. An objection form is available on DWR’s website.
By December 31, 2021, the Division Engineer will file a revised abandonment list with the water court. Written protests may be submitted to the water court by June 30, 2022. The list of water rights to be abandoned will be finalized by the water court.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Gunnison State of the River
Learn about current Gunnison Basin water conditions, drought, and water planning at the virtual Gunnison State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District.
•Bob Hurford, Division 4 (Gunnison Basin) engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, will talk about the weak winter snowpack, the dry spring and how these factors are affecting streamflows, reservoir storage and water rights administration.
•Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, will address the “Protection of West Slope water as we face an uncertain future.”
• Molly Mugglestone, director of communications and Colorado policy for Business for Water Stewardship, will present on a study that found Colorado’s rivers are major economic drivers producing nearly $19 billion in output annually from people recreating on or near rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs and waterways.
• Tom Alvey, head of the projects committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District, will discuss hot water topics in the basin including drought, fruit freezes, an update of the roundtable’s water plan for the region, how the new crops of hemp and hops are working and the River District’s Lower Gunnison Project.
Jun 24, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
From email from Scott Hummer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources:
Bear River Water Users,
Effective at 9:00 am, tomorrow, May 24, 2020: The Bear River will go on Call and under Administration.
The Swing Right (most junior right partially in priority) will be Yamcolo Reservoir, Admin #41329.00000…the dry up point is the Nickell Ditch.
All current diversions “junior” to Admin #41329.00000…Must be curtailed.
Water will be released from Yamcolo tomorrow morning in order to meet the demand by Senior rights at the bottom end of the system.
There is currently not a need for any water users Senior to Yamcolo Reservoir to place an order for the delivery of contracted/stored water.
The Call situation will be subject to change dependent upon a variety of circumstances, I’ll keep you posted as to any changes in a timely manner.
UYWCD is currently planning to calibrate the new measuring equipment in the Five Pine Ditch on Tuesday the 26th…and there may be some fluctuation in river flows during the task.
Please contact me with any further questions or comments.
From the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):
In western drought reporting, an average water year is cause for celebration. While average statewide snowpack and reservoir levels provide many water managers with above-average relief, our dry southern peaks and windy eastern plains are of notable drought concern. Statewide snowpack peaked at 104% of normal on April 8th, yet melt-out rates may be dramatic across the southern basins. North Central Colorado benefited from repeated snow events throughout late March and April, with the Boulder station breaking the 1908-09 snowfall record on April 16th. Drought Task Force members convened remotely on April 23rd for an annual review of roles and procedure should the State’s Drought Plan be activated. The purpose of the Drought Task Force is to direct early implementation of water conservation programs and other drought response measures intended to minimize the state’s vulnerabilities to localized drought impacts.
● The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) (from Jan. 1 to Apr. 18) shows below average moisture for the SW and SE and above average for the central and north mountain regions.
● The U.S. Drought Monitor, released April 23, shows gradual worsening conditions across all of southern CO compared to preceding months. D0 (abnormally dry) conditions cover 13% of the state; D1 (moderate) covers 25%; D2 (severe) drought covers 29% of the southern edge (up from 3% in March); 33% of the state (north-central) remains drought free.
● ENSO forecasts are still trending toward neutral conditions for spring and summer 2020, with a few model traces pointed toward La Nina.
● NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center three month outlook maps show increased probability for warmer than average temperatures May through July for much of the state and favorable, slightly higher than average, precipitation outlooks for the Eastern Plains.
● Reservoir storage remains above average for all major basins except the Rio Grande (83%) and Arkansas (93%). Statewide, reservoirs are at 107% of average and 61% capacity.
● Long-term trends confirm our summers are getting hotter. The current seasonal forecast is a reflection of this.
● Water providers and water users did not report any unusual impacts or concerns at this time.
A bill that cleared the Colorado legislature with bipartisan support March 4 seeks to resolve an eight-year debate over how ranchers and other water users can maintain their historical water use when dry conditions trigger cutbacks to protect streamflows.
HB20-1159 [State Engineer Confirm Existing Use Instream Flow], which passed the House with a unanimous 63-0 vote and the Senate with a 31-1 vote, authorizes state water officials to confirm historical usages, such as water used for livestock, whether or not it’s held in an official water right. This allows ranchers’ uses to stay first in line for water ahead of the stream protections, known as instream-flow rights.
“It’s really a belt-and-suspenders clarification of existing authority,” said Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which drafted the language for the bill. “I think it’s a good example of when we sit down and pore over these issues, it’s not hard to come up with a fix that protects West Slope water users and provides the state engineer the authority he needs to continue administering them.”
Instream-flow rights, which are held exclusively by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, exist for the sole purpose of preserving the natural environment of streams and lakes “to a reasonable degree.” Most of these date to the 1970s and are junior to most agricultural-water rights under Colorado’s prior appropriation system of “first in time, first in right.” To date, instream-flow rights protect roughly 9,700 miles of stream in Colorado.
The debate over historical uses has turned on whether a water user must go to water court to make their pre-existing use official in a decree.
A 2012 drought brought the question to a head when state officials cut off water users on the Elk River in northwestern Colorado in favor of instream-flow rights. Although many ranchers in the area have water rights for irrigation that are senior to the 1977 instream-flow rights and have historically used that water also for their cattle, the state Division of Water Resources determined that livestock watering wasn’t implicit in irrigation rights.
Those without specific rights for stockwatering were left high and dry once the summer irrigation season was deemed over, even though they had used the water for livestock for generations.
“My grandparents bought this piece of land in 1946,” said Krista Monger, a cattle rancher on the Elk River. “We have the records to show we’ve been using (our water) for livestock.”
Stockwatering and irrigation often go hand in hand. During the irrigation season, if a rancher’s livestock drink from the ditches used to irrigate their fields, the use is considered incidental to irrigation. But once the growing season is over and a rancher keeps the water flowing through the ditch for the exclusive purpose of watering their livestock, the use is not covered under irrigation-water rights.
The amount of water typically used for exclusive stockwatering is a fraction of what is used for irrigating, around 80% to 90% less. Some ranchers also use stock ponds, which require a water-storage right.
More than 90,000 irrigation-water rights are held across the state, of which 29,000 specifically name both irrigation and livestock uses. That means the new law could potentially apply to 61,000 water rights, although not all of these are held by ranchers raising livestock. An additional nearly 32,000 water rights are held exclusively for livestock purposes but not irrigation.
The Monger family holds both irrigation- and livestock-water rights to grow hay and to water their 300 cattle. Her family’s rights and diligent record-keeping meant their ditches kept flowing while their neighbors’ ditches were shut down in 2012, highlighting the need for better record-keeping among the region’s irrigators.
But the incident prompted a statewide debate over the meaning of Colorado statute C.R.S. 37-92-102(3)(b), which states that instream-flow rights are subject to pre-existing uses of water, “whether or not previously confirmed by court order or decree.”
The state Department of Natural Resources, home to both the Division of Water Resources and CWCB, argued that when the instream-flow protections were created, lawmakers intended for water users to make their existing use official in a decree. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District argued that the statute clearly precludes the need for a court decree and sought to protect ranchers’ historical usage without requiring them to go to water court.
“The statute says… prior uses would be honored. But they’re saying the statute doesn’t say what the statute says,” said Mike Hogue, former president of the cattlemen’s group.
After years of negotiations, stakeholders agreed on a simple piece of legislation to clarify the state water engineer’s authority “to confirm a claim of an existing use (if it) has not been previously confirmed by court order or decree,” according to the bill summary. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Kerry Donovan, D-Vail.
“I do think this is very helpful legislation,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein, who is with the Division of Water Resources. “We had what I’d call an honest disagreement about what the statute meant. My position is if they change the law and give me a place to hang my hat on, that solves the problem.”
However, what the legislation doesn’t resolve — and what is perhaps a bigger Pandora’s box opened by the 2012 incident — is the decision that state water officials made that irrigation rights do not include stockwatering rights. In practice, irrigators around the state, many of whom hold water rights dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, have used irrigation- or agricultural-water rights not to just irrigate their hayfields, but also to water their livestock.
The new distinction means that ranchers with irrigation rights must apply for livestock water rights if they want to protect their usage into the future. Although the new legislation protects a rancher’s stockwatering use from being shut off specifically by an instream-flow right , their stockwater use could still be cut off if another water user makes a call on the river to fulfill a formal water right.
“We all thought that was part of our ag water rights,” said Doug Monger, a Routt County commissioner and a cattle rancher on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, and also uncle to Krista Monger. “It’s a wakeup call for all of us.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press, Steamboat Pilot and Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 16 edition of the Craig Press.
Click here to read the update (Megan Holcomb/Tracy Kosloff):
This year’s spring and summer drought outlook may be tough to predict, but currently the state’s northern mountains and Front Range look strong. There are increasing concerns of dry conditions along the Eastern Plains, in the southwest and San Juans where we are seeing slightly below average snowpacks and reservoir levels. There are reports of extremely dry subsoils on the Eastern Plains. Precipitation averages statewide have slipped from 95 to 90% of average statewide since mid-February. Statewide snowpack has decreased from 110% to 104% since mid-February. Streamflow forecasts are already showing the implications of dry autumn precipitation with forecasts ranging from 54% (Surface Creek near Cedaredge) to 132% (Spinney Reservoir Inflow) of median streamflow values.
● The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) (from Dec 18 to Mar 17) shows below average moisture for the SW and NE and distributed average or slightly above for the central and north mountain regions.
● The U.S. Drought Monitor, released March 19, shows worsening conditions in NE Colorado. D0 (abnormally dry) conditions cover 25% of the state; D1 (moderate) covers 42%; D2 (severe) drought covers 3% of the SE and SW corners; and 30% of the state (north-central) remains drought free.
● ENSO forecasts are still trending toward neutral conditions for spring and summer 2020.
● NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center three month outlook maps show increased probability for warmer than average temperatures March through May for much of the state, and equal chances of near, above, or below average precipitation outlooks.
● Reservoir storage remains near to above normal: 84% to 123% of average in all major basins and 107% of average statewide. Last March 2019, statewide reservoirs were at 83% of average.
● SNOTEL Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) sites show statewide snowpack at 104% of record median (as of Mar 19).
● Water providers and water users did not report any unusual impacts or concerns at this time.
From the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Megan Holcomb/Tracy Kosloff):
2019 Calendar Year in Review: 2019 followed one of Colorado’s warmest, driest years on record with a severe drought in southwest Colorado. This drought (of 2018) was followed by a cold, wet 2019 spring and 150% of normal snowpack that helped clear the state of drought by June 2019. The 2019 monsoon season, however, was nearly absent and September 2019 was the hottest September on record. The dry 2019 October set much of the state below normal for the 2020 Water Year. These early deficits can still be made up, particularly with snowpack running slightly above normal to date. This, however, does not guarantee an above average runoff given our dry soils.
The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) from October 22 – January 19 shows geographically distributed average and slightly below average precipitation statewide.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, released January 15, D0 (abnormally dry), D1 (moderate drought), and D2 (severe drought) collectively cover 53% of Colorado. 35% of the state is under D3 (extreme) and D4 (exceptional) drought.
The long term ENSO forecasts are trending toward neutral conditions remaining for spring and summer 2020, while losing El Niño conditions. This could mean reduced odds of SW Colorado spring moisture.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows warmer than average temperature outlooks February through April for the SW half of the state, and normal precipitation outlooks for the entirety of the state.
Reservoir storage remains near to above normal (86 to 124% of average) in all major basins and is 109% of average statewide. This time last year reservoirs were 81% of average statewide.
Water providers and water users did not report any unusual impacts or concerns at this time.
After years of their questions and concerns not being met, Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to formally oppose the water rights associated with a proposed reservoir project in northwest Colorado.
In November, the Colorado Division of Water Resources filed a motion to intervene in the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s application for a 90,000-acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River. The state DWR is now waiting for a judge to determine whether it will be allowed to file a statement of opposition in the case.
For more than 4½ years, state engineers have expressed concerns that the conservancy district has not proven there is a need for the water, which would be stored in the proposed White River reservoir and dam project between Rangely and Meeker. The issue is whether Rio Blanco has shown that it can and will put to beneficial use the water rights it applied for in 2014. It remains unclear whether the town of Rangely needs the water.
“And throughout this case, the Engineers have consistently maintained that RBWCD must demonstrate that its claimed water right is not speculative,” the motion reads. “Although RBWCD has addressed some of the Engineers’ concerns in the past six months, the Engineers maintain that RBWCD has not met its burden.”
State Engineer Kevin Rein said his office had been trying to resolve its concerns with Rio Blanco’s claims to water informally and doesn’t take filing a motion to intervene lightly.
“We are very aware of the influence we can have on the process and costs and delays, so we don’t just frivolously file a statement of opposition every time we have some issue with a case,” Rein said. “We believe there are issues that need to be fixed in this water-court application in order for it to go forward.”
Rio Blanco declines comment
The White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, would store anywhere from 44,000 to 2.92 million acre-feet of water. The water would be stored either in a reservoir formed by a dam across the main stem of the White River — this scale of project proposal is now rare in Colorado — or in an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, just north of the river. Water would have to be pumped from the river uphill and into the off-channel reservoir.
Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.
Rio Blanco says Kenney Reservoir is silting in at a rate of 300 acre-feet per year, threatening the future of Rangely’s water supply and flatwater recreation, and a new off-channel reservoir on the White River could help solve this problem.
If a water-court judge grants the motion to intervene, the state will become the second opposer in the case. Currently, the only other remaining opposer is 4M Ranch, owned by Deirdre Macnab.
Tucked between rolling hills of arid, sagebrush-covered rangeland, the proposed reservoir and dam site abut her 13,000-acre property along the White River.
Macnab, who bought the beef and hay operation nearly five years ago, is on the board of the conservation group White River Alliance, as well as the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable. Macnab said the main reason she opposes the reservoir project is because of the state’s concerns.
“If we felt that there was a clear purpose and need that would benefit the public, then we would, in fact, be supportive of this,” Macnab said. “But the fact that the experts are saying there does not appear to be a clear purpose and need means that this would be a real travesty and waste of taxpayer money. It’s something we will continue to oppose until that changes.”
State engineers are also concerned about the vagueness of the revised amounts of water for various uses that Rio Blanco says it needs.
In a 2018 report, Division 6 engineer Erin Light questioned Rio Blanco’s claims that it needed water for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale and irrigation uses. In response, Rio Blanco dropped those claims but almost doubled the need for municipal and industrial use for the town of Rangely and added a new demand for recreation.
The conservancy district also set the amount of water for environmental needs for threatened and endangered species at between 3,000 and 42,000 acre-feet despite its acknowledgement that the actual amount needed for this use was unknown. Rio Blanco then added a new demand for a sediment pool of 3,000 to 24,000 acre-feet and an insurance pool of up to 3,000 acre-feet but did not describe either of these uses.
“Thus, despite removing its claims for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale, which originally accounted for over half the demand for the claimed water right, the total demands for water identified by RBWCD actually increased to 24,000-100,000 acre-feet,” the motion to intervene reads.
Since 2013, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has given roughly $850,000 in grant money to Rio Blanco to study the White River storage project, including a $350,000 Colorado Water Plan grant in 2018. According to CWCB communications director Sara Leonard, Rio Blanco has so far spent about 60% of these most recent grant funds.
Leonard said that DWR’s motion to intervene was not a surprise to the CWCB, that the two state agencies with seemingly differing views on the project have met and that the CWCB is aware of the state engineers’ concerns.
“The grants that have been awarded to the applicant to date have all been with the intention of helping the District with the evaluation process,” Leonard wrote in an email. “In other words, the motion has not changed the scope of the ongoing work in the grant.”
The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 toward investigating the feasibility of the storage project.
“We are not advocates and we are not opposers,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of River District community affairs and chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “It’s a regional question that our constituents need to figure out.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of The Craig Daily Press.
Irrigators in Northwest Colorado are facing a sea change in how they use their water, and many ranchers are greeting such a shift with reluctance and suspicion.
The final frontier of the free river, irrigators in the Yampa River region have long used what they need when the water is flowing with little regulatory oversight. Water commissioners have been encouraging better record keeping in recent years, but a first-ever call on the system during the 2018 drought led state officials to begin enforcing requirements to measure and record water use.
State law requires all irrigators to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches. Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said such devices are widely used in other river basins throughout Colorado, where bigger populations and more demand for water have already led to stricter regulation of the resource. The Yampa River Basin is the last region to get into compliance, Rein said.
“The basin went under call for the first time in 2018,” he said. “I would not call that a driving force; I would call that affirmation of why it’s been important … to do this for so many years.”
Nearly 500 Yampa River Basin water users were ordered this fall to install a device by Nov. 30, although irrigators don’t need to comply until spring 2020, when irrigation water begins to run. Those without devices won’t be allowed to use their water and could be fined $500 daily if they do.
The new enforcement is being met begrudgingly by irrigators, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation ranchers and whose families have never measured and recorded water use in more than 100 years.
“Ever since the 1880s, there has never been a call on the Yampa River,” said Craig cattle rancher Dave Seely. “If there wasn’t any water, (ranchers) accepted the fact, so it’s unusual that suddenly we have all this coming down on us now.”
A call on the river occurs when someone with senior water rights isn’t receiving their full allotted amount, and the state places a “call” for users with junior rights to send more water downstream or stop diverting altogether. The move triggers administration of the river by state water commissioners, who make site visits to monitor how much water is flowing through each ditch.
An air of the Wild West still lingers in this sparsely populated corner of the state, where many ranchers would rather accept a shortfall than invite the government into their affairs by making a call for their water.
“They just took it on the chin and dry farmed,” Seely said.
State officials have seen this resistance to change before and accept it as a matter of course.
“It’s a rough, rocky road at first, but after a while, I think a lot of people will be glad they have a device there,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer with the Division of Water Resources.
Light and her colleagues reminded irrigators at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable meeting in November that keeping accurate records helps protect their water right, since rights are considered abandoned if not used, although the state rarely enforces this.
“Your water right has a value, a value to water your livestock or your crops, but it also has a dollar value for your heirs,” Scott Hummer, a Division 6 water commissioner, said at the meeting. “The only way they have to sell the water or get a price for the water is if the engineers know how much water is consumed by your crop.”
But many irrigators feel mistrustful of state government having more oversight of their water and are worried that outside entities may have designs on the region’s largely unallocated resource. Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions over the past 20 years, and growing populations have increased the demand for water — both in the Colorado River Basin and along the Front Range.
“It just raises the question of what’s the drive behind it,” said third-generation Yampa cattle rancher Philip Rossi. “It’s hard to have an opinion when you don’t fully understand the long game.
“They’re trying to put a monetary value on water,” Rossi said. “Are they trying to get a better understanding of exactly how much water there is … so they can put a value on it if they want to sell it? Are we helping ourselves, are we hurting ourselves, are we helping them? There’s so many of us that are not interested in selling our water.”
Other ranchers are concerned that increased oversight could mean new restrictions even when water is plentiful. Many are in the habit of using as much water on their fields as they need, regardless of their decreed right.
“When the water’s high, we want to get it across our fields quickly, so we take more water than (our allotted right),” said John Raftopoulos, a third-generation cattle rancher in western Moffat County. “The fear is that, even with high water, they’re going to cut you down to the maximum you can take … that they’ll regulate you to the strict letter of the law.”
Rein said users could continue using more than their allotted right when the river is a free river — in other words, not under a call — as long as they are not wasting it.
“There’s a statutory term called waste; you can’t divert more water than you can beneficially use,” Rein said.
He also said keeping accurate records would only protect the water user as demand increases statewide and across the West.
Measuring devices cost from $800 to $1,500, so installation can get expensive for the many ranchers who have more than one ditch. Rossi has three more devices to install. Raftopoulos has about five others, for a total of 15 on ditches irrigating roughly 2,500 acres of grass hay and alfalfa.
Light estimated 100 irrigation structures had requested extensions — which she is granting in many cases until either July 31 or Oct. 31 — but she won’t have an accurate count on how many ditches are in compliance with the orders until May or June.
“It’s something that was going to happen sooner or later because of water shortages. That’s the system, that’s the law,” Raftopoulos said. “It’s a burden right now, it’s expensive and it’s going to put more government in our ditches. There’s going to be more people watching what comes out.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Steamboat Pilot and Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Steamboat Pilot and Today.
Steamboat Springs: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.
Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.
“I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”
No one responded.
“We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.
On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.
The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.
Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.
“We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.
The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.
And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.
But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.
These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.
But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.
Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.
“What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.
Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.
Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.
“I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.
Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.
“Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”
The start of Water Year 2020 (WY2020) saw dramatic temperature swings statewide: from the warmest September on record (Sep. 2019) to the 4th coldest October on record (Oct. 2019), marking one of the largest rank jumps on record and one of the state’s biggest changes in monthly average temperature. Grand Junction experienced the coolest Oct. on record while Alamosa and Pueblo experienced the 2nd coolest Oct. on record.
The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) from August 26 – November 23 shows notable precipitation deficits in the western half of the state.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, released November 21, D0 (abnormally dry), D1 (moderate drought), and D2 (severe drought) collectively cover 75% of Colorado. Compared to the start of the Water Year 2020 (Oct. 1) the drought monitor shows degregations of 1-2 classes in the southern and western quadrants of the state.
The long term ENSO forecasts are trending toward neutral conditions remaining into the summer (entirety of WY2020). With no El Niño or La Niña forecast to dominate large-scale patterns, the outlook remains a bit more uncertain for the winter.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows warmer than average temperature outlooks December through February, and near-normal precipitation outlooks for the majority of the state. Northern basins may lean toward slightly above average precipitation these next three months.
Reservoir storage remains near to above normal (95 to 126% of average) in all major basins and is 109% of average statewide.
Water providers and water users did not report any unusual impacts or concerns at this time.
Two dozen aging dams in Colorado were in unsatisfactory condition and are located in places where their failure would likely kill at least one person, according to an Associated Press investigation that found at least 1,688 such dams nationwide.
The 24 Colorado dams range in age from 41 to 127 years old and are used for irrigation, recreation and drinking water supply, according to public records obtained by the AP during the more than two year investigation. They are spread among 16 counties, with El Paso having four, Jefferson three and Mesa and Park counties having two each.
Records show the dams are up-to-date with their inspections, and all have emergency action plans in case of a failure. In addition, work is underway or planned for some of the dams, and at least one in El Paso County, South Lake dam, has been repaired, said Bill McCormick, chief of Colorado Dam Safety at the state Division of Water Resources.
Twenty-one of the 24 Colorado dams are privately owned or owned by local governments, and the decision to fix a dam is the owner’s, McCormick said. State regulators can order a reservoir’s water level lowered to a safe level if a dam is in unsatisfactory condition or drain the reservoir if there is no safe level.
“If owners can live with less than full storage, they may not have the incentive to fix their dam,” he said in an email to the AP. “We try to incentivize owners to fix their dams, but the decision is theirs.”
In September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Colorado over $260,000 to conduct risk assessments and repair high-hazard dams, the term used to describe a structure whose failure would likely result in at least one death…
Since 1950, there have been six major dam failures in Colorado, according to a 2018 Colorado State Hazard Mitigation Plan. They include the 1982 Lawn Lake Dam failure in Larimer County that killed four people and caused $31 million in property damage.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
The Legislature’s Water Resources Review Committee approved introducing four bills on [October 24, 2019], two of which are aimed at protecting and improving the state’s water supply.
“We have an incredible opportunity to pilot and deploy new technologies that could revolutionize and improve how we manage and consume Colorado’s most essential natural resource,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, vice chairman of the 10-member committee, which also includes Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose.
The water speculation measure, which Donovan and Coram are to introduce in the Senate, calls on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to convene a special work group to study the extent of water speculation in the state, and report back to the committee by 2021…
The new technology measure, which Donovan also is to help introduce, calls on the University of Colorado and the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University to conduct feasibility studies on such things as using sensors to monitor surface and groundwater use and quality, and using aerial and satellite technologies to help monitor water supplies.
The other two measures call on the Colorado Water Conservation Board to broaden its public comment rules for its water resources demand management program, and requiring the Colorado Division of Water Resources to hire more well inspectors.
The Water Resources Review Committee advanced Bill 5, which would set a minimum number of six well inspectors during the next fiscal year. The price tag is estimated at $279,000 in the first year, with the original bill tentatively tying funding to whether voters pass Proposition DD in November. The initiative would legalize sports betting, with tax money going to the state’s water plan.
If DD were to fail, the legislature would have to raise well permit fees by 45%. However, the committee approved an amendment to remove the funding alternatives from the legislation until further consideration. The bill would also prioritize high-risk wells for inspection.
Currently, there are two full-time inspectors and a chief inspector who has duties other than inspections…
Earlier this year, the Colorado Office of the State Auditor found that 4,000 wells were constructed in fiscal year 2018. However, only 310 were inspected—and fewer than 10% of the high-risk wells…
Bill 6 would require the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources to recommend changes to the state’s water anti-speculation law. A spokesperson for the House Democrats said that committee members have heard about people purchasing Western Slope water rights, holding them while the price appreciates, and then selling the rights for a profit.
“I don’t think a hedge fund invests in anything without an expectation of making money off of it. Do we know if that’s speculation? We don’t,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail. “Do we have the needed laws in place to prosecute what could be water speculation under the expectation of demand management? That’s some of what we need to look at.”
The committee also advanced Bill 2, which clarifies public comment procedures for any changes to a program for demand management, as well as Bill 3, which directs the University of Colorado and other state agencies to study the feasibility of new water management and monitoring technologies. These include sensors, aerial observation platforms and satellite-based remote sensors.
One day in mid-July , Colorado state engineer Kevin Rein stood before a packed room of farmers and ranchers and admitted that he might be forced to ruin their lives. Rein, a middle-aged man with wavy gray hair, spoke in the measured tones of a technocrat, but his message was dire: If the valley’s residents cannot figure out how to sustainably manage their water use, the state would do it for them. And though he stressed, time and again, his office’s dedication to working with them, and though he praised their efforts, his goodwill fell flat in the hot, poorly ventilated room, where more than 120 people were crammed, worried about their future.
For most of the 20th century, water use in this southern Colorado basin outstripped water supply. The people of the valley came up with an uncommon solution to this not-uncommon problem: an experiment in communal water management. And what they’ve found is that self-governance is hard. Rein not only has the authority, but a legal mandate, to end this experiment if its failure becomes assured. If or when it becomes clear that the San Luis Valley’s water system cannot reach a sustainable level by the year 2031, then, yes, he said, his office would shut off irrigation for a substantial part of the area. That would mean no water for many fields, which could mean foreclosures, bankruptcies and family farms sold.
The stifling room went silent for a full 10 seconds. When the questions resumed, they came without outrage. Rein was not the villain. Most people present must have known that, in the end, they themselves represented both the cause of the problem and its only possible solution.
THE SAN LUIS VALLEY is a high-mountain desert ringed by the Southern Rockies and blessed with unusual water resources. From its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains, the Rio Grande traces southeast down to the valley floor, beneath which lie two enormous stores of water, one just belowground, the other deeper and enclosed by clay. The river and these aquifers sustain more than 1,500 farms and ranches — and the towns that rely on them — in harsh conditions generally inhospitable to agriculture. Center, a small town with a predictable location relative to the rest of the valley, registers some of Colorado’s coldest temperatures and lowest rainfall. Farming at almost 8,000 feet means long winters and a three-month growing season, accompanied by regular dry spells and occasional July killing frosts. But the sandy soil and near-constant sun are great for potatoes, making the valley the nation’s second-largest producer of “fresh” spuds — as in produce found in a store, not French fries. Other crops include barley, which often goes to the Coors Brewing Company, and alfalfa.
When morning comes to the valley, the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains earn their name, burning blood-red as the sun summits the sawtooth peaks. On high, snowpack endures for most of the year, watched daily by the farmers below, whose yearly water supply depends on the runoff. A drought that began in 2002 and continues today — recent rainfall notwithstanding — made the valley’s water deficit even more acute. In response to this new aridity, the people of the valley sought authority to regulate their own water use, which the state granted in 2004. In 2012, local governing bodies made up of water users across the valley began to tax commercial irrigation, replace water removed from rivers and streams, and pay farmers to fallow their land.
Western water wonks mostly view this attempt at self-management with hope, as a possible model for other communities facing water crises. But on the ground in the valley, the situation is grim. Last year, the snowpack was low and little rain fell; the Rio Grande’s flow in 2018 was one of the lowest ever recorded. The U.S. Department of Agriculture designated the valley a drought disaster area. With little surface water, farmers had to rely on water pumped from belowground, wiping out years of steady accretion to the shallower, or unconfined, aquifer. Last year’s dry spell put the valley back where it started: about 800,000 acre-feet below the aquifer’s legally mandated recovery level. Seven years gone and no net gains. In December, Rein sent the valley a warning letter. If, he wrote, it is “undeniable that the sustainability goals” will not be met by the 2031 deadline, irrigation shutdowns would follow. Rein would repeat this message in July. This threat now haunts thousands of water users, an ever-present doom on the horizon.
DROUGHTS BELONG TO THE CHAOTIC FORCES OF CLIMATE, and markets to invisible hands. But the San Luis Valley’s experiment in self-governance means that its agricultural producers control their own fate. Among them is Kyler Brown, who farms barley and potatoes a few miles north of Monte Vista. On a windy, warm day, Brown drove me through his family fields. The farm belongs to his father-in-law; Brown married into the valley. He is 36, tall and sturdy, and sports a black beard and a wide-brimmed hat. Brown laughs often in loud bursts and treats the valley’s struggles to moderate water use with a black humor. To him, the valley is suffering from old habits that die hard.
“It hasn’t led to violence yet,” he said with a grin, as the truck bounced down a two-wheel dirt track. The San Luis Valley is occasionally called “the Kumbaya basin” for its collaborative spirit, but Brown dislikes this description. For decades, the locals lived beyond nature’s limits. Now, water is scarce.
It was late March, and the snow still sat heavy on the surrounding peaks. The irrigation ditch adjoining the fields was overgrown with weeds. Soon, the scrub would be burned clean, the gates connecting Brown’s fields to the Rio Grande Canal open, and his water allotment flowing. Brown steered with one square tanned hand and gestured with the other. If the valley’s farms and ranches, its towns and economies, are to survive, he said, their relationship to water must change, and yet Brown does not think the local governance system, as it stands now, is up to the challenge. “People thought the (water management system) was the miracle, that was the amazing thing,” he said. But implementing the system, forming committees and boards, that’s the easy part, Brown went on. Changing how people act, that’s the real work.
This is especially true when water suddenly appears plentiful, as it did this spring. As if in response to Rein’s letter, southwestern Colorado had one of its snowiest winters in decades. In the mountains above the valley, the season-to-date snowpack average stayed above 300% for most of the spring. The Rio Grande, snow-fed, ran fast and full across the heart of the valley. Grazing meadows flooded in places. Ditches and canals, the vascular system that carries the lifeblood of the valley, filled.
This, then, was the challenge the valley faced, after the disastrous drought and Rein’s letter: 2019’s abundant water, set against 2018’s drought, offered yet another test of the farmers’ habits. Could they use the welcome, unexpected snowpack to refill the aquifers? This is a hard ask: Last year’s drought strained farmers financially. This year, the resource is plentiful.
Brown wants to take on this clash between individual and communal interest. Over the winter, he proposed a “consensus-building” plan to the local water management authority — something that would bring farmers, ranchers and community members together to build agreement on a few key conservation points. As Brown sees it, the people of the valley need to accept that the problem is not principally, or only, water scarcity. People’s water habits, the crops they grow, the decisions they make on the farm: All of these need to be held up and examined under the new arid realities.
“Everyone needs to think every time they turn on a pump,” he said.
Brown took me to a small meadow near the Rio Grande, where he runs a few dozen cattle on the cottonwood flats. The river was full to its banks, running dark and cold. Seeing so much water makes scarcity hard to imagine. It’s easy to think that way when the river is full.
Perhaps that’s been the problem all along. The valley’s system of water rights dates back to the 1850s, following the Mexican-American War. The Rio Grande supported the area’s early farms and ranches. Acequias, community water channels, shared the resource at the valley’s southern end. Founded in 1852, the San Luis People’s Ditch in Culebra Creek is the oldest continuously used water right in the state. These waterways created thousands of acres of marshy terrain in the low country, grown over with stands of cottonwood and willow that shaded native wildflowers. By 1900, the entire flow of the Rio Grande was allocated via surface water rights.
After World War II, electrification enabled farmers to pump water from wells tapped deep into the aquifers. By the second half of the 20th century, surface-water users had to curb irrigation, thanks to river compacts formed with downstream states. Well users faced no such restrictions. They pumped away, which impacted stream flows, since ground- and surface water interact. For a time, this was not a problem; there was enough water to go around for both surface and groundwater users. (In fact, the water table was so high that valley houses built in the early 20th century don’t have basements.)
The development of center-pivot sprinklers in the 1970s brought big changes, expanding agricultural capacity by allowing more efficient irrigation, no matter what the river was doing. Water use and farm size increased. Before this pumping technology, fields were flooded from the irrigation ditches, and the runoff helped replenish groundwater. But now, the combination of pumps and sprinklers drained the groundwater without replenishing it. Few questioned what this technology allowed. The water table dropped, and the rivers and creeks thinned. The pheasants that once thrived in the thickets and woodlands disappeared.
TODAY, MORE THAN 14,000 PERMITTED WELLS puncture the valley floor. On a map, they appear as a tightly packed confederation of crop circles, laid out like thousands of green sundials set against the dusty waste of the desert. Many of these wells pump within the valley’s first water management “subdistrict,” which began the experiment in self-governance eight years ago. Two more subdistricts became active this year, on May 1. If all goes according to plan, there will be seven of these, distinguished by differences in geography and hydrology.
The actual work of shared governance takes place through the taxpayer-funded Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which includes the subdistricts. In practice, this involves committee meetings, lots of them. Each subdistrict’s board is made up of water users — farmers and ranchers. (Board members are mostly, but not uniformly, older, white and male. The valley is not — about half the population is Hispanic or Latino.) The meetings take place in a drab, reddish stucco building outside Alamosa. Committee members show up in stiff jeans, flannel shirts and seed caps that are removed for the Pledge of Allegiance, which begins each meeting, revealing pale foreheads above weather-beaten faces. The audience resembles the boards. Most people seem to know each other. Before an April session, I heard a farmer in a hat that proclaimed “compost done right” confide to the man next to him that “we’re going to be doing more quinoa this year, for sure.”
The meetings themselves tend to be dry affairs. In April, Subdistrict 2 board members went page-by-page through the annual water plan, discussed a few water leases, and solemnly approved a $78.22 refund to a ranch for a water fee overcharge. Someone cracked a joke about “counting every penny.” But these sessions, however mundane, are where the water management work gets done, amid a patchwork of interests, values and preoccupations.
Cattle ranchers sit next to barley and alfalfa producers. Big operators who own thousands of acres farmed with the newest in GPS-driven tractor technology rub shoulders with smallholders who supplement their agricultural income with a second job in one of the scattered towns. Some have water wells and some have river rights, and many have both. There are disagreements and digressions, punishingly long budget sessions, personal gripes, and episodic displays of resourcefulness and democratic good sense. In the middle of all this is Cleave Simpson, the water district manager, a fourth-generation farmer who tends about 800 acres of hay. Tall, thick-shouldered with sun-narrowed eyes, Simpson has a remarkable ability to explain water policy minutiae in clear, everyday language. People remark on his steady presence and decent conduct in an uncertain time. Even people who disagree with him tell me this.
Simpson believes that the valley can fix its water imbalance, but he admits the difficulty. Cutting water use is unpleasant, he told me, “but we can either wait on Mother Nature — or we can give it a shot ourselves.”
For eight years, the first subdistrict has given it a shot, and the results are uneven. Farmers within its borders must comply with the subdistrict’s water plan or get their own through state water court. Some early resistance aside, most chose the first option. Subdistrict 1 has several tools at hand to curb pumping. The primary one is a fee on pumped water; the current rate is $90 per acre-foot. Those with excess water can sell it to those who want more, via a credit system. There is also a program that pays farmers to take land out of production. About 10,000 acres of farmland have been retired this way, only about a quarter of the expected figure by this point.
Though the system is complicated, the aquifer is not. The aquifer responds to two things: recharge from the surface and reduced pumping. The effects are so obvious that locals sometimes refer to the aquifer as “the bathtub.” The amount of surface recharge each year is limited, so replenishing the aquifer effectively means less groundwater pumping for irrigation. That’s the hard part.
Subdistrict 1 sits atop the unconfined aquifer, so in many ways it is the most important. Many of the largest and most lucrative farms are here, in the heart of the valley. The subdistrict stops just before the Rio Grande to the south and stretches into the valley’s northern reaches, where smaller farms and ranches sit amid the sage and chico brush. Most of the farmers here grow barley, alfalfa or potatoes. Almost all of them rely on wells that pump from the aquifer. When Rein threatened a pumping shut-off, he was referring to Subdistrict 1’s more than 3,000 wells.
Rein’s letter woke people up, said Erin Nissen, who plants potatoes and barley with her father, Lyle, outside the small town of Mosca. At a special meeting after the letter ran in the local paper, several dozen people were expected to show. Hundreds came, filling the room and spilling out the door. “The letter was good,” she told me over the phone. “Scary, but good. There was talk from the beginning: ‘Oh, it’s fine, they won’t come and shut off the wells.’ ”
People are realizing now that the state might, indeed, shut off the wells. Part of the problem, according to Nissen, is an inability to require water-use cutbacks. When the subdistrict system was formed after the 2002 drought — the mention of which still makes valley farmers shiver — the architects thought market mechanisms would be enough, given commodity prices, and the hydraulic and climactic data available.
While sound at the time, this model could not account for the realities of a changing climate, and the subdistrict has proven unable to discourage enough farmers from pumping. “There’s a really sad mindset of, ‘I can pay for it, so it’s my neighbor’s problem,’ ” Nissen said.
IN PRACTICE, THE SUBDISTRICT’S POLICIES cannot account for the valley’s unequal water distribution. Farmers with good surface water rights take what they need from the river and sell the extra as credits, while wealthier farmers and operations owned by corporations and other outside entities pay the pumping fee and buy up credits. In both cases, there is no behavior change. Hiking the pumping fee will eventually hurt large water users, but it would also devastate small, poorer farms and ranches. It doesn’t take much to break them. For some, the cost is already too high.
That was the case for Dale Bartee’s neighbors, in the northern part of Subdistrict 1 near Center. In the past few years, he said, three locally owned farms nearby sold, in part due to the ever-rising pumping fee, with most of the land going to out-of-state investment firms.
“We used to see all our neighbors on the road, and we’d stop and visit with them,” he said. “Not anymore; now, it’s just haul by and never see them.
“It’s really hurt this area,” he added, sitting at his kitchen table in mid-August. He and his 8-year-old son, Kolby, had been out in the fields, and Bartee made sure Kolby washed his hands and arms before sitting down to talk. A laconic man with a horseshoe mustache, Bartee is the fourth generation of his family to work the farm and hopes to make it five. He runs a cow-calf herd, puts up hay and grows small grains. Kolby and his brother run a herd of 57 sheep. Bartee’s operation has middling surface rights, so he does all he can to limit pumping costs.
All summer, farmers discussed a pumping fee increase as if it were a certainty. They were right. At a budget meeting in late August, Subdistrict 1’s board confirmed a $150-acre-foot rate for next year’s irrigation season. In the public comment period, many argued that the fee would drive farmers from the land. Others said an increase was the only choice, given the aquifer’s level. Several board members spoke about the rate hike as a grim necessity. To Bartee, the new fee means that “the big guys and the ones with the surface credits are just going to get bigger.”
The other subdistricts seem to have learned a few things. LeRoy Salazar, the president of Subdistrict 3 near the Conejos River, which flows wide and shallow down from the San Juan Mountains and east across the valley’s southern end, said that his board can mandate water use restrictions during a dry spell. Simpson agrees, but obtaining this capacity for Subdistrict 1 would require an arduous return to water court. A small farmer himself, Simpson said that a $150-acre-foot fee could make his operation untenable.
Without enforcement authority, Subdistrict 1 has minimal tools besides higher taxes to restrain pumping or manage competition between members. As Brown sees it, this sustains incentive structures that are geared toward use, not conservation and replenishment. “I have a decreed right to that water on paper, and I’m going to pump as much as I can, for as long as I can.”
The instinct is understandable. Most farmers operate on tight financial margins and will pump all they can to bring their crops to market. But when it comes to creating a sustainable system for the valley as a whole, these private instincts run afoul of public considerations.
By April, as snowmelt accelerated on the peaks and farmers prepared to plant potatoes, Brown was already souring on the prospects for his consensus-building plan, proposed to address the public-private push-and-pull. The response, he said at the time, had been pretty quiet. At an April presentation of the proposal by one of Brown’s friends, the skepticism was tangible. Brown said he understands public hesitation. The community has already tightened its belt, but it has not been enough. He likened the water challenge to a family budget.
“Every family has a hard time living within its means,” he said. “Not because there aren’t externalities, like going to the emergency room or no Christmas bonus. But it’s about behavior.”
IF THE VALLEY IS TO MEET WATER DEMANDS, inherited habits from wetter times will need to change. Right now, for example, many farmers pump to their legal limit, whether or not the crops need water. In a year like 2018, when the rivers and ditches ran low, heavy well pumping is the only option for many. And in a wet year, the economics of farming and the demands of thirsty crops like alfalfa and wheat prevail. If the water is there, alfalfa will keep drinking. Of the crops that grow in the valley, alfalfa uses the most water per acre. It is also extremely lucrative: The valley exports bales by the truckload to dairies and stockyards all over the West, and in a good year like this one, a farmer can get three cuttings.
In Subdistrict 1, it falls to the ranchers and farmers themselves to break these inherited habits. On the ground, this looks something like what Erin Nissen is up to. Nissen, who is in her late 20s, grew up on her family’s farm. She has a calm demeanor, a direct gaze and innovative ideas on how to manage water use.
Her family operation consists of 11 fields, with each 120-acre section divided into 40-acre plots. Each plot is farmed independently, with crops that rotate each year. They currently grow 240 acres of potatoes and 60 acres of barley. Other fields are planted with cover crops, which are chopped up and turned back into the soil. Also in the rotation are fields of sorghum-sudangrass that are grazed by cattle, fertilizing the fields and thereby reducing the need for chemical inputs. All of this is done with an eye towards building up organic material and promoting healthier, more resilient soil, which acts as a sponge and better retains water. Once rare in the valley, crop rotation has become more common, its benefits for the soil now widely recognized.
For irrigation, Nissen uses evaporation models to predict the precise amount of water her crops will need. If the afternoon turns cloudy, for instance, she’ll reduce irrigation by a few percent. Even the sprinklers have been modified — anything to shave water use down to the minimum. Newly installed nozzles spray water in droplets, like rain. Older models distribute a mist that is more likely to blow away. Nissen has also reduced the total number of acres she cultivates and voluntarily limits her pumping.
Many farmers use some of these techniques, but few use them all. It can be hard to introduce crop rotations, let alone a full switch to less thirsty crops like quinoa and hemp. Habits are durable things, especially successful ones. Barley and potatoes, planted on the same fields every year — and irrigated in the same ways — have made and sustained many livelihoods in the valley.
I asked Nissen why she has introduced so many changes, and her first answer was: necessity. The family has lower-priority surface water rights, so they depend on taxed water that is pumped from belowground. Cutbacks save money, and healthier soil means higher crop yields. But Nissen also called it an ethical move. Like so many young people who grow up on farms, she went away for college, graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in agricultural and applied economics. After graduating, she returned, the fourth generation of her family on the farm. It’s not just any future she wants for the valley, but this one, where family farms of moderate size endure, where children work the same land their parents and grandparents tilled. Attaining that future, though, Nissen said, demands that she change her farm’s water habits. “It’s important that farmers cut back for the good of the valley,” she said.
THIS COMMUNAL VIEW was what Brown wanted to encourage with the consensus-building plan, breaking away from the system that brought on the current water crisis. In early June, the Subdistrict 1 board gave the proposal a muted response. For now, the idea has little life.
Like Nissen, Brown’s ultimate hope is for people to face up to the conditions at hand and then consider what sort of future they want for the valley, before it’s too late. For both of them, the point of the subdistrict system, this experiment in self-governance, is not simply to guarantee the valley’s economic future, but, crucially, to sustain a certain sort of life on the land and the communities this life supports. “If we want as many people, as many families, working the land as possible, that’s a value we need to be working towards,” Brown said.
Even while family farms and smaller operations endure in the San Luis Valley, many people describe a trend towards consolidation — larger farms growing at the expense of smaller operations, while outside dollars buy up land as investments or tax write-offs. Department of Agriculture census records show an increase in the number of large, rich farms in recent decades.
Some of the valley’s larger operations, such as North Star Farm, which is owned by a California-based trust, and Natural Prairie from Texas, are backed by outside money, as are many of the new hemp operations. Without the strong community ties and commitment to family farms that have inspired Nissen to overhaul her farming practices and conserve water, these deep-pocketed operations have little reason to limit their water use beyond the legal mandate.
The San Luis Valley depends on agriculture. Along any of the valley’s highways, most of the storefronts and signs advertise this dependence, from engine shops and welders, to potato warehouses and irrigation engineers, to the shiny new combines that crouch in waiting along the bar ditch. People, too, rely on agriculture. Farm dollars fund a public school system and several hospitals. Monte Vista has more than a dozen churches. Alamosa boasts a small university, Adams State, which offers an agriculture degree tailored to local students.
There is a divide between the valley’s majority-Hispanic towns and the farms that surround them, according Flora Archuleta, director of the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center. “The people in control are white, the farmers,” she said. “They own the land.” Even so, she went on, Alamosa, Monte Vista and Center would likely not exist without agriculture. The resource center sits on a storefront strip down a gravel side street in Alamosa. Across the street, passenger train cars sit humped and rusting in an old railyard. The office is constantly busy — something different every day. In May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) invaded a nearby Mexican restaurant, taking five people. Decades ago, more than 10,000 migrant workers staffed the farms each year. Some farmworkers, mainly Mexican and Guatemalan, still come up through New Mexico and Arizona for planting season, but fewer now, Archuleta said, due to the ever-increasing mechanization of industrial agriculture and tightening immigration policies over the past decade. “The valley is a farming community,” she said, “and that’s what people rely on.”
As Heather Dutton, a fifth-generation valley resident and manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, put it, even Alamosa’s mountain-bike stores — in a town of fewer than 10,000 people — exist because there are enough people with enough money to ride on weekends. “There’s this huge chain of people who are all able to live here because of farming in one way or another,” she said, sitting in a craft beer and coffee shop in Alamosa. When we got up to leave, Dutton stopped to say hello to several diners she knew. Like her, all of them rely in some way on the success of those farms for a livelihood.
A major downturn in agriculture — whether it happens over time, due to climate change and consolidating market forces, or immediately, should the state order well closures — would hurt Alamosa and the other towns. And the valley is already struggling, despite the presence of so many large, wealthy farms. Commodity prices have not been healthy in more than a decade, and the six counties that constitute the valley are among Colorado’s poorest. Shuttered storefronts dot Alamosa’s main street. A recent casualty is a J.C. Penney, which anchored the block for more than a century. Locals took this closure particularly hard, even petitioning the company to keep the store open. Explaining the closure in a statement, the company said it is shutting locations that do not meet financial targets.
Archuleta’s family has lived in the area since before it was part of the U.S. If farming collapses, she predicts, “the valley would become a ghost town.”
IN FEBRUARY, MANY PEOPLE SPECULATED that, with a large river and some luck with snowmelt, the valley could regain what was lost last year and maybe substantially more. The first part came to pass: The Rio Grande is projected to have its highest annual flow in more than two decades. The second part did not. As of September, the aquifer had gained about 140,000 acre-feet, less than what had been lost in 2018 and not even the largest yearly recharge since 2002. The water level by summer’s end tends to be the replenishment for the year. It is enough to stay the threat of well shutdowns for now, but next year is as likely to return to drought as it is to resemble 2019. Rein’s warning endures. Did the valley take advantage of this year’s snowpack? As with most things, the result is mixed — not exactly a failure, but not all it could have been.
The valley’s people know that the subdistrict system may well fail, yet many continue to act on behalf of a project that asks them to place their trust in each other. Simpson was born here, left for the Colorado School of Mines, and spent more than a decade working as an engineer before coming back and buying a farm with his wife, Cathy, who is also a local. This tracks a pattern in Simpson’s family history; his great-grandfather was the first in the family to arrive in the valley. His grandfather left for a time, then came back, as did his father. His son, Jared, left for college. Now 27, he works the farm with his father. Simpson told me he does the often-thankless task of running the valley’s water governance system for his son. “I love agriculture,” he said. “My son loves agriculture. He has a college degree, he doesn’t have to do this. I do wonder why we keep beating our heads against the wall. But this is home.”
And if it fails, this experiment in self-governance, why should people outside the valley, beyond these homes, care? I put this question to Brown in March. We were driving out along the dirt track through the low country that cradles the river. Snow was visible high above, and spring was coming on. He thought about this for a moment. The valley’s inhabitants produce food, and their livelihood depends upon a thriving agricultural economy, he said. Most of the country does not live this way. And failure to address the water crisis would threaten this way of life, another instance of the decades-long economic abandonment of rural America. But then, after a pause, he added something more. Here in the Colorado mountains, there exists a community, one with a past full of mistakes and a future dark with uncertainty — yet a community all the same. “People who live here aren’t any more special than people anywhere else,” he said, “but they also aren’t any less special than anyone else.”
Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at email@example.com.
Erin Light is the division engineer for the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the state agency that manages water rights. Light said she’s sent orders requiring 575 water users to install headgates and measuring devices as required by Colorado law. Most of these orders went to users in the Yampa River basin, though Light estimated about 100 of them went to users in the North Platte River basin in North Park.
In March, water rights holders received notice that they would be required to install headgates and measuring devices. Light estimated fewer than 25% of the users who received notices actually installed the required infrastructure.
Now, those water rights owners have been sent an order to install these devices by Nov. 30. After that date, they’ll be required to either have devices in place or stop using their water.
“If you choose to not divert water and say ‘Fine, I only have a headgate, I’m shutting it. Again, I’m shutting it. I’m not going to put a measuring device in.’ That’s fine, as long as you don’t divert water,” Light said. “But if you have a headgate, no measuring device and choose to divert water contrary to that order after Nov. 30, next spring, May or whenever you turn on (your water), and we see that, we’re going to shut the headgate, and if necessary, we’ll lock the headgate.”
If users break the lock or open the gate, the division could pursue enforcement actions with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Light said.
Without a headgate, users and engineers can’t shut off water. For users who divert water without a headgate, Light said the fine for diverting water contrary to the order is $500 each day water is flowing.
Colorado water rights are a “use-it or lose-it” commodity. If a person is not using all of their water right, they can lose part or all of their water right through the abandonment process. Every 10 years, division engineers are required to provide the water court with a list of water rights they believe are abandoned partially or entirely. Light’s office is working through this process now. A preliminary list will be published on July 1, 2020.
“We’re talking to people about the fact that their water right is being considered for abandonment, because we do have an initial list that we’ve developed,” Light said. “Our water commissioners are inspecting structures with water rights on the list and talking to water users, and there’s a lot of frustration (from users) about ‘How could my water right be on the abandonment list?’”
Light said some users don’t realize they can lose part of their water right, but statute says water rights can be abandoned “in whole or in part.”
Keeping accurate records can help. Light encourages water rights owners to track the water they’re using as her office works through the abandonment process. Light said water users should keep note when and at what flow they turn their diversions on or off, any time they adjust flows or anytime water levels in streams and ditches significantly fluctuate.
“Maybe they did divert their water right, but we never got a record of it,” she said. “We observe something less because we weren’t out there at peak flow, and if water users would provide us accurate records of their water use, it’s possible that some of these water rights wouldn’t be included on the list. … It’s really critical that people start taking on that responsibility to protect their water right and keep records. It’s critical in many instances, but one of them is abandonment.”
Here’s the September 2019 Drought Update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Division of Water Resources (Ben Wade, Tracy Kosloff):
August and September to date have both been warm, although the water year as a whole is the coldest since 2010. Above normal temperatures are predicted to continue in October. Recent months have also been dry although for the water year as a whole, precipitation ranges from average to above average statewide. The North American monsoon season was disappointing in Colorado and other parts of the Southwestern U.S. The monsoon season sometimes results in beneficial rainfall for Colorado, particularly in the southern portion of the state.
The map of Snotel precipitation for the last 90 days (June 27- September 24) compared to the average for that time period shows how dry the summer has been in Colorado’s mountain areas.
● The weak El Niño has officially ended in favor of neutral conditions. The long term ENSO forecasts are trending toward neutral conditions remaining through the winter.
● Reservoir storage across the state (as of the end of August) is 116% of average and 70% of capacity. At this time last year, statewide reservoir storage was at 82% of average.
● According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, released September 24, D0, abnormally dry, and D1, moderate drought, now cover 66 percent of Colorado.
● Water providers reported their systems are in good shape but water demand was high in August and September and they hope for beneficial moisture over the winter to avoid high demand next spring before runoff has refilled storage supplies.
Dangling money, the developers at Renewable Water Resources — which counts former Gov. Bill Owens as a principal — contend that because the urban Front Range is the richest part of the state, it has the potential to give the most to the poorest.
They envision pumping 22,000 acre-feet per year from 14 wells drilled 2,000 feet deep at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, building a pipeline costing $250 million to $600 million, and then pumping water at least 40 miles northward over Poncha Pass toward Front Range cities.
“We need between 300,000 acre-feet and 500,000 acre-feet of new water for the Front Range. The question is: Where’s that going to come from?” said Sean Tonner, managing partner of Renewable Water Resources.
“We can take it out of the Colorado River, but we know what the stresses are there. The Poudre River? The Arkansas? The South Platte is already the most over-appropriated river. Folks are looking at moving water from the Mississippi River back to Colorado,” he said. “These are the lengths people are looking to for adding water.”
Exporting San Luis Valley water would be “fairly easy” compared with other options, Tonner said…
The San Luis Valley retort? “There is no win-win,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and a farmer, who has been traveling statewide to make the case against this trans-basin diversion of water…
The intensifying water battle here reflects the rising tensions and inequities across the arid western United States, where water and control over water looms as a primary factor of power. Thirsty Castle Rock, Parker, Castle Pines and other south metro Denver suburbs, where household incomes top $110,000 and development has depleted the groundwater, can marshal assets that dwarf those of farmers in the San Luis Valley, where families’ average income is less than $35,000…
State officials in Denver say they will study Renewable Water Resources’ proposal once the developers file it at the state water court in Alamosa.
“We’ll have to have a perspective of being open to anything,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, declining to take a position…
A Renewable Water Resources diagram provided to The Denver Post presented details of a water-siphon project that would begin near Moffat on a company-owned ranch with 14 wells spaced 1 mile apart. A pipeline, 24 inches to 32 inches in diameter, would convey no more than 22,000 acre-feet of water per year northward at least 40 miles over Poncha Pass to Salida, and also to a point west of Fairplay, Tonner said.
San Luis Valley water then could be diverted into the Arkansas River, the Eleven Mile Reservoir used by Colorado Springs and the upper South Platte River that flows into a series of Denver Water reservoirs, he said.
The exported valley water purchased by south Denver suburbs ultimately would be stored in the newly enlarged Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver and Parker’s Rueter-Hess Reservoir, still barely half full. Suburban water users would pay the cost of the pipelines, Tonner said, and Renewable Water Resources would use $68 million raised from investors to purchase water rights in the valley — rights to pump 32,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation. But the developers would export no more than 22,000 acre-feet a year. The difference would mean a net gain for the aquifer…
At least 40 farmers have inquired about selling water rights, some of them meeting with former Gov. Owens and other Renewable Water Resources officials. Tonner also declined to identify those farmers…
The ethics of siphoning water away from low-income areas toward the richest parts of the state would have to be considered as part of the state’s water project planning process, said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“That is definitely something that has to be looked at. Is that the way we want to grow as a state? Is that what the value structure is?” Mitchell said. “There are cases where those (trans-basin diversions) can be win-win. But without the buy-in of the local community, there are going to be struggles.”
In recent months, Renewable Water Resources’ principals have been working quietly in the valley, meeting with farmers and proposing the creation of a $50 million “community fund” and possibly other payments. Just the annual interest income from such a fund could exceed Saguache County’s current budget, Tonner said.
By paying farmers for a portion of their water rights, Renewable Water Resources could help them stay on their land, perhaps growing different crops that require less water such as hemp, and infuse the valley with the $50 million and possibly other payments while also retiring wells to ensure a net gain of water in the aquifer.
…scarcity is the mother of invention, and western states are coming up with innovative ways to save water. One was a pilot program which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid farmers—including [Paul] Kehmeier—about $200 for every acre-foot of water that they had the right to but did not use…
Over the course of four years, the pilot program sponsored 64 projects, conserving an estimated 46,000 acre-feet of water. There was so much interest in some districts that participants had to be selected via a lottery system. Participating farmers closed off some of their irrigation canals, allowing water that would normally go to their fields to flow downstream; at the same time, water administrative agencies and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited helped monitor flow rates.
The pilot cost about $8.5 million, with funding coming almost entirely from the major municipalities that rely on the Colorado River, including Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Now the states in the upper Colorado River basin are exploring how to scale it up. Colorado has formed a series of working groups, set to meet for the first time in September, which will tackle questions like who will foot the bill for a large-scale program (which could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars), how to ensure participating farmers are legally allowed to lease out their water rights, and what sort of mechanisms can safeguard conserved water as it makes its way to reservoirs…
Not everyone is thrilled about the possibility of a water market in the upper Colorado River. “Let’s be honest about what it is that we’re doing here: paying farmers not to farm, and drying up land to buy water,” says David Harold, a sweet-corn farmer from Olathe, Colorado, who participated in the pilot program for one year. “This is ‘buy-and-dry’ with another name,” he says, referring to the practice of cities buying land purely for the water rights tied to them, leaving rural communities parched and jobless…
Harold isn’t the only skeptic. “Every single person I interviewed mentioned ‘buy-and-dry,’” says Kelsea MacIlroy, a PhD student at Colorado State University who interviewed 34 irrigators and water experts in western Colorado to understand local perceptions of a demand management program, which is a technical name for a water market where farmers can lease out their water. “People said ‘maybe it’s not exactly the same thing, but we’re afraid that demand management could lead to ‘buy and dry.’’’
Some, like Harold, see a water market as putting their counties on the road towards becoming another Crowley. But others view a demand management program as a way to avoid the fate of Crowley County. As the pressure mounts along the Colorado River, something’s got to give, and a water market—in which farmers choose to lease their water out for a set period, regaining it again when the program times out—is a more palatable option than selling their water entitlements outright. “Demand management is different than ‘buy and dry’ because it leaves the water in the hands of the farmer,” says Kehmeier…
For a demand management program to significantly reduce water security risks along the Colorado River, it will need to attract a lot of farmers and funding. Policymakers are envisioning a scaled-up version of the pilot that could lease out as much as half a million acre-feet of water by 2026, costing around $100 million. But even that won’t keep the Colorado River from over allocation. That’s why, MacIlroy says, some of the irrigators she spoke with felt demand management “was a Band-Aid and that there’s no point in continuing that conversation unless there are efforts being made to address the larger issues in the Colorado River.”
Click here to read the update (Ben Wade, Tracy Kosloff):
August has been warmer than average across the majority of the state and each basin, except for the Republican basin, has experienced below average precipitation. The North American monsoon season has been disappointing in Colorado and other parts of the Southwestern U.S. The monsoon season sometimes results in beneficial moisture for south central Colorado and the eastern half of the state. Despite not receiving monsoon moisture, statewide precipitation for the Water Year, at mountain SNOTEL sites, is at 114% of average. After being the last state to experience a drought free U.S. Drought Monitor Map, which lasted eight weeks from late May through mid July, D0 has been introduced in various parts of the state (see map below). A portion of southwestern Colorado was downgraded to D1, moderate drought conditions. Reservoir storage across the state continues to be a bright spot at 116% of average.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, released August 29, D0, abnormally dry has been introduced in the central mountains and has expanded in the southwest part of the state. D0 has shown up in pockets in Las Animas, El Paso & Larimer counties. D1, moderate drought, has been introduced back in La Plata & Montezuma counties.
The weak El Niño has officially ended in favor of neutral conditions. The long term ENSO forecasts are trending toward neutral conditions remaining through the winter.
Statewide monthly precipitation as of August 26 at mountain SNOTEL sites has been 56% of average. For the Water Year, statewide precipitation is 114% of average. The Climate Prediction Center’s one month outlook is predicting above average precipitation and temperature for most of the state for September.
Reservoir storage across the state (as of the end of July) is 116% of average and 78% of capacity. At this time last year, statewide reservoir storage was at 86% of average. The Gunnison basin has seen significant recovery after storage was depleted last year. The South Platte basin reservoirs are in the best shape since the late 1990s.
Water providers in attendance report their systems are in decent shape but water demand has increased due to above average temperatures in the past several weeks.
Some agricultural producers are reporting that corn is behind schedule due to a late start to the season. They are hopeful that frost will not occur before the crops reach maturity.