An ongoing water case in Colorado’s Division Five water court in Glenwood Springs could impact a vital source of water for users across the Western Slope. The case developed from a dispute between the Snake River Water District in Summit County and the state’s Division 5 Engineers regarding administration of Green Mountain Reservoir’s Historic User Pool. The case could affect thousands of water users in Colorado’s portion of the Colorado River Basin, including many in the Roaring Fork Valley, who rely on releases from Green Mountain Reservoir. Snake River and the Division 5 Engineers of the Colorado Division of Water Resources disagree on whether Snake River can benefit from water in Green Mountain’s Historic User Pool. Snake River relies on water from the HUP to replace the water it removes from the Snake River system with several wells…
The HUP was created to compensate Western Slope users for water transferred out of the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range. While the HUP itself was only created in 1983, Western Slope water users have been relying on water from Green Mountain since the 1950s. The HUP, along with other allotments of water in the reservoir, were legally designated in order to ensure that Green Mountain would continue as a critical resource for the Western Slope. Snake River is one of thousands of Western Slope water users who rely on the HUP to replace water diverted from the Colorado River and its tributaries.
The Division 5 Engineers challenge Snake River’s ability to benefit from the HUP because Snake River also receives replacement water through an augmentation plan. Augmentation plans are court-approved plans that also replace water diverted by users, but they are not necessarily linked to Green Mountain, and using them is not free. Because Snake River can already replace its diversions during a call with augmentation water, the engineers say it cannot benefit from HUP coverage…Snake River sued the engineers in Colorado’s Division 5 water court in hopes of retaining its HUP benefits. If it loses its HUP coverage, Snake River claims it could cost $800,000 to rely exclusively on its augmentation plan. Snake River argues that coverage from an augmentation plan does not legally disqualify a water user from also being covered by the HUP.
From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:
The new year likely will bring a new amended Plan of Water Management for irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The subdistrict’s board of managers in December approved a new amended plan that ties the allowable groundwater pumped to the natural surface of water of the property. This is a huge change that values snowpack, and if there isn’t any, irrigators can expect to pay a handsome fee to get surface water from a neighbor. The plan will get a hearing and vote before the Rio Grande Water Conservation District on Jan. 17. If approved there, as is likely, the amended Plan of Water Management then gets filed with Colorado Division of Water Resources for its blessing, or not.
We frequently note the activity of farmers in Subdistrict 1 because it is the subdistrict that pulls from the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and is under state watch to reduce its groundwater pumping to recover water flows in the unconfined aquifer. It’s also the Valley’s most lucrative corridor for irrigated agriculture, and as such, the bellwether for farming in the Valley. The amended Plan of Water Management is a way for farmers in the subdistrict to try to stay in business while making gains in recovering the unconfined aquifer. More to come in 2023.
The Citizen’s 2022 Year in Water compilation will help you see more of the big picture – both with the unconfined aquifer and the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s important to see the fuller landscape, and we think the 2022 year in review does the trick. We would also direct you to our most recent podcast with state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who talks both about the upcoming 2023 legislative session and the critical time we’re in when it comes to water and irrigated ag in the San Luis Valley.
On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.
The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.
I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.
This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.
In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.
What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.
You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”
He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.
All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.
The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.
By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.
In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.
Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.
As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”
On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.
Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.
“Yes,” Touton responded.
For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.
Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.
For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.
All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.
It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”
In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.
I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.
Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.
What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”
Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.
The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.
Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.
If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.
Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.
A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.
In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”
This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.
What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.
The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.
As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*
The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”
The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry.
Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”
Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”
Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.
“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”
In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. The Compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona, 2.8 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf Compact requirement. At a meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.
As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21.
Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year.
In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf. Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.
* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Rio Blanco County Commissioners and staff discussed the nuance and minutiae of water administration in the White River Valley during a special work session Tuesday. “It will be tough for sure” said Commissioner Ginny Love, noting that residents will have to adjust to using less water, or even having water shutoff at certain times of year.
“There’s not much we can do about it, it’s more of how to learn to live with it,” said Colorado River District water commissioner Betty Kracht. She visited with the board to share background info about Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s (RBWCD) call on the river and answer questions about how water administration will affect residents of Rio Blanco County.
RBWCD placed a “standing call” on the river using multiple water rights, beginning with a 1966 decree for 620 cubic feet per second (CFS). Kracht explained that once the first right is met, another call (from another junior water right) would then kick in. Whenever the call is in-effect, water rights holders junior to RBWCD’s 1966 decree will be subject to shutoff/curtailment. According to Kracht, about one-third of rights in the drainage are junior to 1966. Senior water rights holders can still use their allocated amount during the call, though Kracht warned they’ll still be affected by administration if they’re not in compliance with state water regulations. “With this call, anyone who wants to irrigate must have a headgate, must have a measuring device,” said Kracht, noting the measurement rules affect the entire county, not just people upstream from the Taylor Draw Dam. Kracht further detailed results of water administration, which will include stricter enforcement of water use. For example, water decreed for irrigation can’t be used for livestock watering, or vice-versa.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources staff in Steamboat Springs reminds landowners with existing unpermitted wells, and ponds fed by ground water, to file permits for those water structures by Dec. 31 to be evaluated without the well impacts treated as injurious, or harmful to water rights.
The state water engineer designated the middle Yampa River basin from west Steamboat Springs to the confluence with the Little Snake River west of Maybell, including all of its tributaries, as over-appropriated on March 1. Through the end of 2022, owners of existing unpermitted wells in that area can obtain a well permit without negative impacts if the well owner can demonstrate the well and its uses existed prior to March 1. The wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere.
Water resources officials estimate hundreds of unpermitted wells exist in that area. A map of over-appropriated areas is available online at dwr.colorado.gov/division-offices/division-6-office, and click on the link “Report Designating Yampa River as Over-Appropriated.”
For applications for existing unpermitted wells filed on or after Jan. 1, Division of Water Resources staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells when evaluating applications, which may result in a permit issued that considerably limits the use of water from the well. For questions, call the state’s well information desk at 303-866-3587. Permitting information is available online at Dwr.colorado.gov/services/well-permitting.
A water conservancy district has put a call on the White River, an action that has the potential to alter the system for other water users.
On Dec. 1, the Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District placed a call for its water right of 620 cubic feet per second at the Taylor Draw Dam hydroelectric plant, which the district owns and operates. It is only the second-ever call on the White River. A call occurs when a water rights holder isn’t getting the full amount of water to which they are entitled and upstream water users are shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream user can get their full amount.
“I think maybe it’s a little strong to say it’s going to be life-changing, but it’s going to be significant, especially if we start seeing a call year-round,” said Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 Engineer Erin Light. “I think it could really change the regime that everyone in that basin is accustomed to. I think there’s not much question that the basin would become overappropriated.”
DWR designated the nearby Yampa River basin as overappropriated earlier this year, which means that there’s more water on paper than real water in the system at certain times of year and new well users will have to get a water-replacement plan, known as an augmentation plan.
Under Colorado water law, older water rights get first use of the river. In this case, water users junior to the district’s 1966 water right are being shut off. This time of year, that mostly means some industrial users and those who pull water from the river to water their livestock but who don’t have a water right for that specific use, Light said.
Under Colorado water law, watering livestock from ditches during irrigation season is included under an irrigation water right. But in the winter, when fields are not being irrigated, ranchers need a separate decree specifically for livestock watering if they want to continue using their ditches to water the animals.
Reduced hydropower revenues
According to a news release from the district, the ongoing drought has significantly reduced seasonal inflows into Kenney Reservoir, which has reduced power production at the dam. According to the district, electricity production has been reduced by 35%, which has reduced the district’s revenues.
District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink said in an email that the district’s full water right was not being met several months out of the year and that the call will remain on until the full water right or capacity of the turbine is met. The district also has a 1982 water right for 125 cfs.
The news release said the district is sensitive to the hardships that the call may have on other water users and is working to create a White River augmentation plan, with a backup water supply for junior users.
Light said her office has curtailed about 10 ditches and two industrial water users since the call came Dec. 1, but assuming the call will be on whenever the river flows at less than 620 cfs, there will be more water rights and water usage curtailed in the summer and fall. During the irrigation season, there will be about 500 ditches and pumps that water commissioners will have to visit to see how much water they are using and whether they are using it legally, she said.
The U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge on the White River above Rangely is currently ice-affected and not giving a reading, but Light said she is certain that the 620-cfs water right at the dam is still not being met, even with curtailing upstream junior users. The river is probably running at about 300 cfs going into Kenney Reservoir, she said. Stream gauge data over the last half dozen years show that outside of seasonal peak flows, the White River near Rangely normally runs below 620 cfs.
The White River flows from the Flat Tops west through Meeker and Rangely to its confluence with the Green River in Utah. This sparsely populated basin has seen little regulatory oversight from the state, and water users could generally take as much water as they needed. But that is changing. For the past few years, Division 6 staffers have been pushing water users to install measuring devices on their ditches and canals.
“In Division 6, our basin that has the most number of structures by far without measuring devices is the White River,” Light said. “Unfortunately, probably at the onset of this call in the summer, we will be shutting people off without measuring devices.”
Will Myers is an engineer and rancher on the Williams Fork, a tributary of the Yampa River, and he also serves as the agriculture representative on the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable. Getting a water court decree for stock watering is the best way for agricultural producers to protect their practices, he said, especially in an area not used to strict administration by state officials because there has historically been enough water to go around.
“Any time you have something like this happen, it’s kind of a wake-up call for those in the ag community,” Myers said. “Just because you’ve always done something doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible to an actual legit administrative call.”
Ongoing drought and the impacts of a warming climate are at least partially fueling a trend in never-before-seen calls in parts of western Colorado. In 2018, the Yampa River saw its first-ever call, and the Crystal River saw its first-ever senior irrigation call.
“If that’s indeed true — that we are going to continue to see a drying climate — we are going to continue to see senior water rights not being met,” Light said. “I think that’s become clearly evident in the last four years.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
When the 75-foot dam for Stillwater Reservoir was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps for the former Yampa Reservoirs Public Irrigation District, it was well constructed to meet engineering standards at the time. But by today’s standards, the dam’s abutments would be addressed differently, said Dana Miller, dam safety engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Steamboat Springs. As a result, the aging dam infrastructure needs expensive upgrades to bring the structure up to current safety standards, Miller said. Since it was constructed, the dam at approximately 10,300 feet elevation has experienced consistent seepage issues where the sides of the dam abut the hillsides. If not addressed, the seepage could eventually lead to a failure of the dam, Miller explained. Although the seepage has been worked on through the years with minimal results, lasting improvements could cost millions, according to the owner Bear River Reservoir Co. The reservoir water is owned by 18 agricultural shareholders and the town of Yampa, and those southern Routt County hay growers have been affected financially due to lower water storage allowances, plus years of drought.
The Stillwater Reservoir was placed on a fill restriction by the state in June 2019 and currently is limited to approximately 80% capacity, which the water storage level may reach during wetter years. The structure is classified as a high-hazard dam, which is not based on its condition but because “loss of life and significant damage is expected downstream if the dam were to fail,” Miller explained. The 129-acre reservoir, which is also known for the trailhead to popular Devil’s Causeway hike, was drained to a small dead pool in August 2021 for inspections of the upstream side of the reservoir outlet gates. The reservoir was drained again in October for work on the hydraulic operating system, said Andi Schaffner, secretary for Bear River Reservoir Co. Yampa resident Schaffner said the owners of the private, nonprofit reservoir company have contributed more than $100,000 to help with dam issues in the past 11 years, and total upgrades to the hydraulics are predicted to cost $300,000.
Observed temperature This summer has been the 6th warmest summer on record, and the 2nd warmest summer on record for Colorado in terms of average low temperatures due to consistent warm nights. While warm nights indicate more humidity and less evaporative demand, they put stress on people and livestock. September continued the trend of above average temperatures.
Observed precipitation and drought conditions September precipitation was normal to above normal in all but the northern part of the state due to the early onset of the monsoon, particularly in southern Colorado. This summer was the 34th wettest summer on record, and the first above average summer since 2015. However much of this precipitation occurred in the southern part of the state, while the Northeast was very dry.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of Colorado experienced drought condition improvement with parts of central Colorado moving out of drought altogether. About 45% of the state remains in drought conditions (D1 and above), and 15% of the state has no level of drought. Persistent drought conditions still continue in the northeast portion of the state, whereas conditions have improved along the Continental Divide and in southern CO. Water year to date precipitation statewide is just above the median, picking up in mid-June after a dry spring. Most basins are near the long term average for the water year, though the northeast corner and Baca county remain dry. Portions of Phillips and Sedgwick Counties are now in exceptional drought. Summer of 2022 was warm and wet, with above average precipitation in most of the state and temperature 1.5 degrees warmer than average. According to the Drought Monitor, Weld and Yuma counties have been in D3 for 13 consecutive weeks, Yuma for 11 weeks, Phillips and Sedgwick have been in D4 for 7 weeks, and Montezuma County was in D3/D4 for 122 consecutive weeks.
Observed streamflows Even though higher than normal precipitation in the southern part of the state slightly improved streamflows, below normal streamflows were observed across most of the state for the April-July time period.
Snowpack and reservoir storage Reservoir storage remains below normal in most of the state as a result of lower than expected stream flows attributable to dry soils, as well as warm, dry conditions over several years. The statewide average sits at 78% of normal. The Rio Grande and South Platte basins have the most plentiful storage at 103 and 97 percent, respectively. Reservoir storage is especially low in the Gunnison basin, due predominantly to releases from Blue Mesa, and in the southwest part of the state.
Seasonal outlook La Niña looks likely to continue through fall and into the winter, and the Climate Prediction Center indicates Colorado is more likely to experience warmer than average conditions through the end of the calendar year. While precipitation outlook is less certain, the outlook leans toward drier than average conditions.
State officials are working to address a tension that has arisen alongside the growing popularity of stream restoration projects that aim to keep water on the landscape by mimicking beaver activity.
There’s no doubt that North America’s largest rodent is good for riparian ecosystems. By building dams that pool water, beavers can transform channelized streams into sprawling, soggy floodplains that recharge groundwater, improve water quality and create areas resistant to wildfires and climate change. Beavers create natural storage ponds in the headwaters which slows the rate that water is released and can help boost late-summer base flows and prevent downstream flash flooding. Basically, beavers rehydrate a dry sponge.
The engineers of the forest are so good at what they do that environmental groups sometimes copy beaver activity in stream restoration projects, building what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.
These types of low-tech, process-based restoration projects have been growing more popular in recent years in part because they are relatively cheap and because beavers — which were once hunted almost to extinction — are having a moment as more people recognize their many benefits to an ecosystem. But there is a growing concern that these projects, which often take place on small, headwaters streams, could negatively impact downstream irrigators.
Under Colorado water law, older water rights have first use of the river, and if these stream restoration projects prevent them from getting their full amount, it could be problematic. Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, which could negatively affect downstream water users.
According to Kelly Romero-Heaney, assistant director of water policy for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, some water rights holders are concerned that projects that mimic beaver activity could be considered an out-of-priority diversion of water.
“If that’s a diversion, then it would potentially need a water right or a plan of augmentation,” Romero-Heaney said. “I would say both the water rights community and river health community are collectively unsettled over the issue.”
This concept, taken to its logical extreme, raises the question: Could beavers need a water right?
Reducing barriers, protecting water rights
The issue cropped up at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs in August during the meeting of the Interim Water Resources Committee, part of the Colorado state legislature. Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, presented an overview of the issue to lawmakers. His district is home to a pilot project that aims to explore the risks of these stream restoration efforts to water rights holders.
“One of the big concerns is that in these types of stream restoration projects, as important as they are to the habitat and so forth, they can still cause impacts to water rights that are negative and actually depleting water to downstream users,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Bridges, who represents Arapahoe County, called the presentation strange and surreal.
“Who are we taking to water court in these cases if beavers move in?” he asked. “It seems to me beavers would probably have the most senior water rights of anyone in the state.”
DNR is currently working on a solution — which could take the form of legislation — to address the issue. The goal would be to reduce barriers to stream restoration projects while still being protective of water rights. If project proponents were required to spend years in water court securing a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions caused by the project, it could have a major chilling effect on projects that nearly everyone agrees are beneficial to the environment.
“I think DNR’s concern is that if stream restoration projects end up routinely needing a plan of augmentation, that could be an insurmountable barrier, particularly for the low budget, low tech projects that are high in the watershed far from diversions downstream,” Romero-Heaney said.
Under current guidelines from the state Department of Water Resources, division engineers could issue orders to discontinue a diversion, release water that has been stored or clear streams of dams that restrict the flow of water if a project is causing injury to water rights.
No measurable harm
Jackie Corday, a natural resources consultant and former head of water resources for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, has been working on a study to engage West Slope agriculture in headwaters restoration. The study, commissioned by environmental group American Rivers, was funded in 2021 by a Colorado Water Conservation Board Water Plan grant.
According to a draft of a white paper Corday wrote as part of the study, her research did not find any documented cases where process-based restoration projects resulted in measurable harm to water rights from increased evaporation or riparian vegetation sucking up the water.
The goal of process-based restoration projects is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.
There are ways to ensure a project is done right and won’t harm downstream water users, Corday said. These include using aerial photography to make sure a project stays within the floodplain’s historic footprint and doesn’t create new wetlands; doing projects only on the upper reaches of small tributaries; making sure the structures are porous and will allow water to still flow through them; and creating transparency around the project by including local stakeholders and addressing their concerns.
“All indications thus far are that if properly done and in the right location, with the right design, no it does not decrease the streamflow to a degree that you could measure it at the stream gauge downstream of the project,” Corday said.
For now, DNR staff is continuing to gather information from stakeholders who have expressed interest in the topic, like environmental groups and Front Range cities, and deciding how to move forward. It’s very unlikely Colorado will see a beaver in water court. But there is a sense of urgency to resolve the issue, Romero-Heaney said.
Water managers are starting to see worsening impacts of climate change and wildfires on watersheds and water supplies, and how restoration projects can lessen those impacts. The western U.S. is also poised to receive money dedicated to headwaters restoration work from the federal infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“That funding won’t be around forever,” Romero-Heaney said. “That’s where we have that sense of urgency of managing the barriers to stream restoration work in Colorado.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
THE water attorney Douglas County hired to advise it on the proposed San Luis Valley water exportation project by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his Renewable Water Resources group said “many hurdles” remain and that his legal concerns are unchanged.
Stephen Leonhardt, Douglas County’s lead water attorney consultant, made his concerns known in a Sept. 13 closed-door meeting with the three Douglas County commissioners. An executive summary of that meeting was made available to Alamosa Citizen on Friday following a Colorado Open Records request.
Leonhardt, engineer Bruce Lytle and water attorney Glenn Porzak – all Douglas County consultants – met with John Kim of Renewable Water Resources on July 26, according to the memo, as a follow up to an outline of issues and concerns Leonhardt earlier presented to Douglas County following a “deep dive” into the RWR proposal.
“While it was a good meeting, the discussion did not alter my initial analysis and conclusions and there remain many hurdles to a successful project, which are not resolved at this time,” Leonhardt wrote in a Sept. 28 executive summary released to The Citizen. “The legal concerns with the project remain unchanged.”
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas has been pushing her fellow commissioners, Abe Laydon and George Teal, to release more details from their executive session meetings with Leonhardt. She said Friday on Twitter, “I remain OPPOSED for @douglascounty continuing to spend time and resources on taking water from the San Luis Valley when none of the water providers in Dougco are interested in participation with the concept.”
Laydon is facing re-election against challenger Kari Solberg in November. For Douglas County to continue showing interest in the Owens-led plan, RWR needs Laydon to earn a second term in the commissioners’ chambers.
But even then, the RWR water exportation concept faces major barriers, not the least of which is complying with state groundwater pumping rules that govern water in the San Luis Valley and the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa is already gearing up to knock back any legislative push Renewable Water Resources attempts to make in an effort to amend state rules governing groundwater pumping. He said RWR has lobbyists in place, and he expects the group to begin a lobbying process.
“I’ve always said they’ll be at the legislature at some point, going, ‘This is so important to the state we shouldn’t have to follow the same rules and regs,’” Simpson said.
He said he’s heard recently that RWR might approach the legislature with this plan in the 2023 session, which would align with RWR telling Leonhardt that it was developing a “legislative strategy” when he first outlined the problems.
“Why would they do that? They have zero chance of being successful, but that’s why they’ve hired lobbyists,” Simpson said.
“They don’t need a lobbyist if they’re just going to follow the rules as written,” Simpson said, alluding to RWR’s own statements in its proposal.
Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, said, “The last line of the memo says it all. The Douglas County Commissioners should take the extensive review provided by their independent water counsel to heart and move on from RWR. The legal issues with RWR’s proposal are insurmountable. In my opinion, any continued discussions or study of the RWR proposal is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The plan Douglas County has been reviewing would pump 22,000-acre feet a year from the northern end of the Valley in Saguache County and Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
One monumental task RWR faces is getting a state water court-approved augmentation plan in place that would demonstrate to the court that RWR has a portfolio of replacement water on the injured streams under a worst-case scenario.
Leonhardt has raised the required augmentation plan as a major barrier. “In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” he wrote in his bulleted May memorandum to Douglas County Commissioners.
“This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have decided to increase the opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on a controversial reservoir project in northwest Colorado with an additional round of public engagement.
Members of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council last week expressed support for early public engagement on the Wolf Creek reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely in Rio Blanco County. This will be an extra opportunity for interested people to get involved, in addition to the scoping, public comment and protest periods of the normal National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
Some pointed out that the Wolf Creek project is sure to get lots of scrutiny and, perhaps, national attention, especially with the current spotlight on the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River system. RAC member Jeff Comstock, who represents the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, said he is very much in support of additional public sessions.
“Moffat, myself, most of your collaborators … have always been requesting public involvement prior to Notice of Intent,” Comstock told BLM staffers at the Thursday meeting in Glenwood Springs. “I am a big supporter of having those meetings.”
The project applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River. In January 2021, the district secured a water right for 66,720 acre-feet, which can be used for municipal purposes in the downstream town of Rangely, for mitigation of environmental impacts, for recreation, for fish and for wildlife habitat.
The BLM is overseeing the NEPA process because the federal agency would need to amend its resource management plan and grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land. The formal NEPA process is on a tight timeline, and once the BLM issues the Notice of Intent, it has two years to enter a Record of Decision on whether to allow the right of way. The additional public engagement may delay the start of this timeline, but it is unclear by how long.
[Two] people who oppose and have concerns about the reservoir project spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Matt Rice, Southwest regional director at environmental group American Rivers, encouraged BLM staff to focus on as much public participation as possible.
“We have grave concerns about this project,” Rice said. “As everybody is aware, the Colorado River is in crisis. … This project is going to be extremely controversial.”
Deirdre Macnab, whose 4M Ranch is adjacent to the reservoir site, also spoke and gave her reasons for opposing the project. She said a new reservoir in the proposed location would lead to water loss through evaporation.
“Now is not the time to facilitate new reservoirs in hot, dry, desert areas,” she told RAC members. “Consider the ramifications of this proposal for future generations and just say no.”
Securing the water right for the project took longer than the conservancy district expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right was eventually granted after years of back and forth in water court, and the decree came after an 11th-hour negotiation right before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The water right gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but it does not allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted, including for irrigation or Colorado River Compact compliance.
What the additional public engagement will look like remains unclear. BLM staff will now refer the project to their Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution Program to figure out the best strategy.
“One thing we want to avoid is just doing what we typically do for scoping twice,” said Heather Sauls, BLM project manager and planning and environment coordinator. “Whether we would have public meetings or workshops to talk about focused topics, I don’t know the answers to that yet.”
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink was unavailable for comment.
The BLM plans to create a webpage about the project. Those who want to join the mailing list and get alerts about future public-engagement opportunities can email BLM_CO_Reservoir@blm.gov.
The Maybell Ditch is the largest diversion on the Yampa River and irrigates about 2,500 acres of grass and alfalfa in northwest Colorado. But the remote and antiquated headgate, along with a hazardous diversion structure and 18 miles of nearly flat canal, create problems for irrigators, boaters and endangered fish alike.
Now the Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and modernize the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all the water users on this stretch of river. So far, TNC has secured about $3.5 million in funds for the project, which it hopes can begin next summer.
The Yampa River flows from the Flat Tops Wilderness, through the city of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and eventually joins with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way it turns the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of green, irrigated meadows.
In recent years the Yampa has started experiencing issues that have long been a part of other river basins like over-appropriation, calls and water shortages.
“That reach has seen declines in water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that rose to the surface where we could hopefully work with the water users to have a greater impact in that basin … . That whole reach is really special, and it warrants more water if it’s available, especially during the low flow periods.”
Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish
Maybell Irrigation District manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full amount of water unless the ditch, which was constructed in the 1890s, was running full blast.
“We had one field where if the ditch wasn’t full, they couldn’t get it wet because there wasn’t enough elevation to it,” he said. “It was too flat.”
That meant more water was being sent through the ditch as “push water” to make sure flows make it to dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the approximately 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much tailwater, that can mean a ditch is taking more out of the river than it is able to use, a no-no according to the state Division of Water Resources.
A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. Those measures only partially addressed the issues.
The project that is now being proposed is much more extensive and involves reconstructing the diversion and modernizing the headgate, which controls the flow of water from the river into the ditch. By fixing a grade control structure — essentially arranging boulders in mid-stream that push up the water in the river upstream of the headgate — it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move water into the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also smooth out a passage for both fish and boats.
The twin, circular, century-old headgates are rusted and hard to operate.
“There’s no way those things are easy to adjust,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer at the state Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he or she could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.”
The remote location of the headgate — a three-mile round trip hike down the rugged Juniper Canyon off an already-remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headgates on the ditch are opening and closing according to the differing schedules and water needs of the irrigators, it can be hard to coordinate the manual operation of the main headgate. The new headgate will be automated and controlled remotely.
“That’s a four- or five-hour deal by the time you drive up there, walk up there, adjust it and drive home,” Camblin said. “The automation on that will be huge. As far as management, it will be our biggest tool.”
But construction won’t be easy. Heavy equipment can’t make it down to the river along the ditch and will have to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM considers the ditch a cultural resource and project proponents will have to be careful to avoid impacts to it.
Western Colorado Area Manager for JUB Engineers Luke Gingerich explained the complexities of the project on a site visit in July.
“They are going to have to create a couple miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It will be a large disturbance and we’ve got to come back and make sure we return this as close as we can to the condition it was in before.”
According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that first pushed the district to take a look at where it could manage its water better. That stretch of river is designated critical habitat for species of endangered fish. Water is released out of the upstream Elkhead Reservoir for the fish, and the new automated headgate will allow the Maybell Ditch to more easily let that water flow past it, to get to where it’s needed.
Boon for boaters
The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. River advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Yampa said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell Diversion is the most significant barrier for safe, passable recreation along a 200-mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to get out to portage the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of boatable river.
At July’s site visit, recreation and education coordinator for Friends of the Yampa Kent Vertrees said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the agriculture, recreation and environmental water users.
“As a recreation person, I’ve said all along we get the dregs of all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there’s water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.”
But that partnership was a bit of a hard sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical about a project spearheaded by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes run high between irrigators, who take water out of rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and TNC to assure water users their water rights or how they manage their ranch wouldn’t be threatened.
“One of our goals we talked about when we started this was, we wanted to show people the agriculture community can work with groups they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We are hoping other ag communities say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff is possible. I might have to reach across the table to make it work but this will be a beneficial project to so many people.’”
The headgate and diversion reconstruction could come with a hefty price tag and TNC is still fundraising for what could end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain interruptions and inflation. The project has secured almost $3.5 million so far, nearly $2 million of which comes from a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will give $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the irrigation district is also contributing money and in-kind resources. However, the total final price tag remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what’s already been secured. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resources Conservation Service.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.
‘Innovative thought and hard work’ have helped with sustainability
State Engineer Kevin Rein said his current description of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is “actually quite good” and acknowledged in a recent interview with the Alamosa Citizen the efforts of San Luis Valley farmers to restore sustainability to the river system.
Rein also recognized in an email QA the ongoing challenges in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and with the unconfined aquifer. The Valley has two aquifers, the confined and unconfined, and Rein had characterizations of both based on the state’s rules and regulations governing the Upper Rio Grande.
The State Engineer will curtail water wells as part of the Colorado Division of Water of Resources’ daily administration of surface water and groundwater in the Valley. His views then of the Upper Rio Grande Basin carry significant weight with water users up and down the Rio Grande.
“My description of the current state of the Upper Rio Grande Basin (that portion of the basin within Colorado) is actually quite good. The water users have responded to the implementation of the Groundwater Rules, which brings about balance to the use of the water sources in the Basin.” said Rein.
He said he expects the $30 million earmarked for the Valley through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa will help Subdistrict 1, in particular, with efforts to retire more irrigated acres.
San Luis Valley farmers will talk until the cows come home about the critical work they’ve done to help restore the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Rein, director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, acknowledges as much.
“It has taken a lot of innovative thought and hard work from a lot of people in the Basin to achieve that,” he said. “These administration tools allow us to manage our water in good water years and bad water years. Add to that, we are in compliance with our interstate compact on the Rio Grande with Texas and New Mexico.”
To be clear, the Upper Rio Grande is far from being called a healthy river – particularly the unconfined aquifer, which runs west from the Alamosa and Saguache county lines in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, and provides water to the lush potato and alfalfa fields that largely drive the Valley’s agricultural economy.
In a Q&A exchange with Alamosa Citizen, Rein gave further context to how efforts from the Valley’s farming and ranching community are paying dividends, but with a lot more work and sacrifice to come.
SLV WATER: Find more coverage of Valley water issues HERE
Too many groundwater wells permitted by the state and two-plus decades of drought have taken a toll.
“I can’t downplay the frequency of the ‘bad water years’ and the fact that persistent drought has impacted both surface water users and groundwater users; that impact is felt across the Basin,” Rein said.
“It’s in the context of this climatic trend of reduced water supplies that the struggle to achieve sustainability in the unconfined aquifer is an acute issue,” he said. “Subdistrict No. 1 has a standard, as required by state statute and articulated in their current Plan of Water Management, that is very specific in terms of an aquifer storage level and the need to achieve that level within a specified time.
“While the Subdistrict has taken steps to meet that goal during the last decade, the current drought and the associated reduction in available surface water has impacted the Subdistrict’s ability to recover the aquifer. This is not new information for the members of the Subdistrict and I believe that meeting the current goal within the specified time would require measures more drastic than the Subdistrict anticipated 11 years ago.”
The unconfined aquifer is specific to Subdistrict 1, and it’s the farmers and ranchers in that area of the Valley who have asked Rein and the state Division and Water Resources for more time to meet the state’s sustainability requirements. Subdistrict 1 board of managers recently submitted an amended plan of water management that would see farm operators pumping only the amount of their natural surface water. For farms that have no natural surface water, they would be forced to purchase surface-water credits from a neighboring farm with excess surface water or potentially watch their fields dry up.
“The published data showing levels of aquifer storage in the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict #1 indicates that the aquifer is not at the level that must be met by 2031 according to Subdistrict No. 1’s current Plan of Water Management,” Rein said. “The Division of Water Resources is in discussion with Subdistrict No. 1 regarding their efforts to achieve sustainability and a revised POWM (Plan of Water Management). To allow for a fair and constructive discussion with the Subdistrict, I will limit my comments at this time to just say that we are developing feedback for their consideration.”
The only other unconfined subdistrict in the Rio Grande Basin is the Trinchera Subdistrict, and “it too is having difficulty with sustainability of the aquifer in its area,” Rein said. “Currently the Trinchera Subdistrict is significantly curtailing the production of wells in order to build the aquifer level back up to a point where full production will again be allowed.”
As for the confined aquifer, Rein said artesian pressures associated with the confined aquifer are currently at levels consistent with the state’s Groundwater Rules for all of the confined aquifer subdistricts except Subdistrict 4, the San Luis Creek subdistrict. Subdistrict 4, he said, is taking steps to reach sustainability by limiting pumping in that area.
“Therefore, at this time, almost all subdistricts are operating in a sustainable environment in regard to the confined aquifer,” he said.
Simpson, who is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, took that to mean “we’re not pumping any more today than we pumped in 1978 to 2000.” The state’s definition for sustainability of the confined aquifer is “allow the pressures in the confined aquifer to exist as they did 1978 to 2000.”
Through the signing of SB22-028, the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by Simpson in the state Senate, another $30 million will be made available to help the Rio Grande Water Conservation District purchase and retire additional groundwater wells to reduce the number of irrigated acres even more. Rein expects Subdistrict 1 to benefit.
“Funding and authorization from SB22-028 is available to help the Subdistrict retire more irrigated acreage that currently relies on groundwater from the unconfined aquifer and the Subdistrict is also considering an amended Plan of Water Management to set a standard and put processes in place to achieve true sustainability. With these positive steps, I’m optimistic that the Subdistrict can successfully address their challenges.”
Click the link to read the article on the CNN website (Stephanie Elam and Jason Kravarik). Here’s an excerpt:
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts in April signed legislation that, within the terms of the compact, would allow Nebraska to build a canal in Colorado to siphon water off the South Platte River. In response, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis described the plan as a “costly and misguided political stunt.”
But it’s a conflict climatologists say could play out more often as drought expands in the West and Central US, draining water supplies and exacerbating strains between urban growth and agriculture.
“We go through droughts every 20 years or so, but nothing of this magnitude,” said Tom Cech, former co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “We are in for a wave of water rights battles through the West. This is the driest it has been in 1,200 years.”
“Without this compact and our ability to enforce our rights, we will see the dramatic impact upon our state,” Ricketts said in an April press conference, pointing to Colorado’s ever-growing population and its estimate of nearly $10 billion for 282 new projects along the South Platte. “Should all the long-term goals be affected, they would reduce the amount of water flows coming to the state of Nebraska by 90%.”
That rationale raised eyebrows in Colorado. “The fact is, many of those projects are not necessarily going to come to fruition,” Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, told CNN, noting that the state curtails usage based on water-rights seniority to ensure that Nebraska still gets the water it has the right to…
The South Platte River Compact allows Nebraska 500 cubic feet of water per second — with some conditions — in the fall and winter between October 15 and April 1. However, during the irrigation season in the spring and summer, from April 1 and October 15, Nebraska’s allotment drops to 120 cubic feet per second. Critically, though, the compact permits Nebraska to build a canal on Colorado land to divert water from the South Platte “for irrigation of lands in Nebraska” and “grants Nebraska and its citizens the right to acquire by purchase, prescription, or the exercise of eminent domain” any land necessary to build and maintain the canal.
As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.
“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”
Paonia Reservoir. Photo credit: The College of New Jersey
Rifle Gap Reservoir via the Applegate Group
Taylor Park Reservoir
Ridgway Dam via the USBR
Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs
There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.
In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.
“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”
Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin.
But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties.
No answers from officials
At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck.
Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal.
“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”
Rein did not know the answer.
“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.
Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.
“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”
River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river.
The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones — from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries.
“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.”
Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin.
“At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said.
Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs.
Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.
If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said.
“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”
This story ran in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sky-Hi News.
Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)
September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:
State engineer Kevin Rein oversees the state’s water rights system. In a meeting with the Colorado River District board on Jul. 19, Rein assured members he would not be mandating conservation among their municipal, industrial and agricultural users. The district covers 15 counties in Western Colorado.
“There is nothing telling me to curtail water rights. There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said…
Colorado officials have argued the blame for the river’s supply-demand imbalance rests with California, Arizona and Nevada. Some doubt the federal government’s authority to demand the states use less water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, a document that inflated available water within the entire basin, apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the river’s Upper and Lower Basins, respectively. In recent decades Lower Basin uses have exceeded that amount, while Upper Basin uses have remained below the apportionment.
“We’re way under our allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet a year,” Rein said. “So what does that mean? ‘We need to conserve.’ To me, that means that we don’t change our administration at the state engineer’s office.”
Rein said he has mandated water use reductions in other Colorado watersheds under the compact administration legal process. But the Colorado River has avoided that fate so far, he said. Without a solid legal basis, Rein said his hands are tied.
“If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to water and the right is physically and legally available, then I would encourage people to use your water right. It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of your livelihood,” Rein said.
“Somebody might tell me I’m wrong someday, but right now, I don’t see a legal basis for asking people to curtail,” Rein said…
Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said he wanted to know how the federal government was planning to tighten how it accounts for water use in the Lower Basin, including evaporation from reservoirs, a longtime complaint of Upper Basin leaders.
“It is extremely frustrating to see system water utilized for the benefit of the three Lower Basin states and us taking a hit for it. And now we are for the first time, frankly, about to be injured by it,” Mueller said.
Upper Basin leaders have resisted calls for specific amounts of conservation on the Colorado River. In a plan released last week, the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — instead call for the reinstatement of a conservation program that paid farmers to forgo water supplies, first tested in 2014.
Several key pieces of the rules that govern the Colorado River Basin are set to expire in 2026, including guidelines for dealing with drought and water shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked for the public’s input on what should come next. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the opportunity to shape the Southwest’s future with University of New Mexico water policy expert John Fleck.
Who is at the table for these negotiations?
That’s actually such a great question, because it’s not entirely clear. The states—the appointed representatives that each governor appoints on behalf of each of the seven Colorado River Basin states—and then representations of the federal government …. But, there is a strong desire, on the part of a lot of people, and I count myself among those groups, to recognize the fact that tribal communities are sovereign nations [within] the basin that have been traditionally excluded from these processes…and then as a practical matter, major water users within the states also participate either formally at the negotiating table, or if you can imagine a metaphorical meeting room, standing round the back whispering in the ears of the people sitting at the table.
What questions should we be asking about what comes next?
Someone, somewhere is going to be using less water than they are now, a lot less water…But the question is, how do we apportion those cutbacks? Do the states in the Lowe Basin which have been using by far the most water, and arguably overusing, like folks in Arizona, do they have to cutback more deeply?…Do the states in the Upper Basin agree, we need to share the pain and cut back as well?…So there’s really a lot of tension. And then the most interesting tension is broad and spans the entire basin, which is, to what extent are the cutbacks going to be felt in agricultural irrigation communities?…There’s no way around there’s going to be less irrigated agriculture going forward as a result of climate change and drought and the reality that we’ve pretty much drained the reservoirs as far as we can, but the question of how you apportion those cuts and who takes bigger cuts, and who gets compensated for giving up water, perhaps, those are the kinds of questions that are going to be on the table…
Comments can be submitted until September 1 by emailing CRBemail@example.com. More information can be found in the Federal Register.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources:
The Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) passed a resolution on July 1, 2022 establishing a 20,000-acre feet multi-purpose storage account in John Martin Reservoir. This new account is intended to benefit water users in Colorado and Kansas and promote commonly held interests not directly related to the Kansas-Colorado Arkansas River Compact such as water quality improvements.
This is a pilot project to determine how a multi-purpose storage account could operate, document benefits, and determine if there are any adverse impacts from such an account. The account will be operated in accordance with an operating plan agreed to by the states and will terminate on March 31, 2028, unless extended by ARCA. This account is in addition to other accounts that are present in John Martin Reservoir.
The need for a multi-purpose storage account was recognized by municipalities, well augmentation and surface irrigation improvement replacement groups, water conservancy districts, and other water users within the Arkansas River Basin in Colorado. The concept of a multi-purpose account was brought to ARCA in 2013. The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District with funding support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board helped further develop this account for the states to consider. Kansas and Colorado worked through issues and negotiated for much of the past decade to agree upon establishing this account in John Martin Reservoir as a pilot project through March 2028.
ARCA administers provisions of the Compact, including operations of the John Martin Reservoir. Colorado has three representatives who serve on ARCA: Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Lane Malone, Holly, Colorado; and Scott Brazil, Vineland, Colorado. Kansas has three representatives who serve on ARCA: Earl Lewis, chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources; Randy Hayzlett, Lakin, Kansas; and Troy Dumler, Garden City, Kansas. Jim Rizzuto, Swink, Colorado, serves as the federal chair.
AS you come into Saguache, about a half-mile out and to the west, you’ll find the start of the Hazard ranch and owners of the number one water right on Saguache Creek.
The Hazards have been ranching in Saguache forever, back to the 1870s, as everyone in the town and the county will tell you, which is why it comes as somewhat of a shock to the ranching and farming community that the Hazard family has sold the ranch to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The transaction very likely could save the rest of what’s remaining of ranching and farming in Subdistrict 5 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Without the purchase of the Hazard ranch, neighboring farm and ranch operations were facing ongoing curtailment of wells from the state Division of Water Resources because the subdistrict was unable to offset the injury depletions to Saguache Creek.
n this particular instance,” said George Whitten, vice president of Subdistrict No. 5 Board of Managers, “had we not been able to secure that water and we weren’t able to actually establish an annual replacement that satisfies the state, then there would have been about 8,000 acres of meadow land that would have been lost.”
So now you understand the importance of the acquisition and how the Hazard family, a symbol of historical and cultural pioneering in Saguache, came to save the day.
“What Perry (Hazard) told me is that as a family they decided the thing to do was sell it to the subdistrict and that way a lot of people around here could benefit from that water rather than selling it to a developer or something like that,” Whitten said.
The sale was for $2.8 million. But really it’s the symbolism and meaning of the sale by one of the Valley’s oldest ranching families, a generational family that saw the end of the line and gave life to the other farms and ranches still trying to make it.
Nightmarish well curtailment
It’s been a rollercoaster 15 months for Subdistrict 5, with irrigators losing critical production time the last two irrigation seasons – 2021 and 2022 – after the state first shut down 230 or so wells in the subdistrict on April 1, 2021.
The subdistrict, like the others in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is required to file an Annual Replacement Plan with the state Division of Water Resources that shows precisely how farm operators are returning water to the Upper Rio Grande Basin tied to the amount of well pumping that occurs.
The state rejected the 2021 Subdistrict 5 Annual Replacement Plan because it didn’t have a source of water to remedy its depletions on Saguache Creek. When that happened the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict had their worst fears come true.
The state initially had wells shut down from April 1 to June 22, 2021, before a challenge by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was successful and wells were turned on again. By that time, though, operators like North Star Farm, a hay provider for large dairy operations in California that runs 28 circles in Subdistrict 5, lost critical time in their growing season.
he subdistrict also still did not have a remedy to its depletions on Saguache Creek when the 2021 appeal went through and had to figure that out in time to file its 2022 Annual Replacement Plan.
The state has a period of May 1 to April 30 of the following year as the annual replacement plan year for Valley irrigators.
The transaction on the Hazard ranch wasn’t finalized until May, and so at the start of May the state curtailed water wells in Subdistrict 5 for the second year in a row until it reviewed and approved the 2022 Annual Replacement Plan and the sale of the ranch.
“We get credit for the water that that property is not going to consume for the rest of the year, and we use that water and leave it in the stream to remedy the injury caused by the wells,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 5.
The subdistrict has been letting the ranch dry up the past 40 days or so since it’s owned the property, Ivers said.
“The location of this water right and this property, it helps us tremendously because that stretch of the stream historically has always been wet,” Ivers said. “So we can have this water in place for dry years, and then in wetter years the stream goes farther so we can have sources of remedy down lower on the stream that can come to play in those years.”
The expectation is that the sale of the Hazard ranch will go a long way toward keeping that stretch of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the confined aquifer sustainable, and help other cattle ranchers and hay farmers stay in business.
The sale also means there will be fewer cattle being raised in the Valley. It’s what the Hazard family did and had done for decades, but now it’s given up its farm and the water rights and others will carry on.
“It’s an incredibly fortunate thing for us to be able to require that water right. You couldn’t pick a better one,” Whitten said.
“We will need this water going into the future. It’s part of the long term plan,” said Ivers.
From email from the Division of Water Resources Division 5 (James Heath):
Professional Engineer I (Glenwood Springs) – State of Colorado, Division of Water Resources is now accepting applications for our full time Professional Engineer I (Glenwood Springs). This position exists to provide management to the Division 5 operations group responsible for Water Court activities.
The Water Court related duties include to assist the public through the Water Court process; prepare expert witness reports; consult with the Water Court regarding Water Court applications; negotiate or provide expert engineering support / testimony to litigate any conditions necessary to protect existing water rights; and be the work lead for administrative staff.
This position will also assist the Augmentation Plan group by providing engineering expertise and analysis necessary for the adjudication and administration of plans for augmentation; support water rights administration by developing methodologies to collect and analyze water diversion and delivery data to verify augmentation plan operators are operating in compliance with all applicable court decrees, statutes, rules and regulations; and provide assistance to the public in understanding Colorado water law.
Applicant must possess a current, valid license as a Professional Engineer from the Colorado State Board of Licensure for Architects, Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. Must be willing and able to possess and maintain a State of Colorado Driver’s License.
Click here to apply online. State of Colorado is an Equal Opportunity Employer. Application deadline is 11:59 pm on 7/11/2022.
Two of Colorado’s fastest-growing towns are suing the state over rules used to manage vast quantities of water that lie underground, saying that if the state moves forward with a new permitting requirement it could sharply limit their future water supplies.
Experts say the lawsuit, filed 14 months ago by Parker Water and Sanitation District and joined by Castle Rock, could dramatically change the way underground aquifers containing millions of acre-feet of water are managed and could also impact future water supplies for dozens of Front Range communities.
At issue is whether a 1985 state law regulates only the rate at which wells are pumped or whether the state can also limit the total volume of water pumped. Under what’s known as the 100-year rule, well owners in the Denver Basin aquifers, which underlie much of the Front Range and Eastern Plains, can pump 1% of the water estimated to be under their land annually for 100 years. The law applies to aquifers known as “non-tributary,” meaning they do not receive any natural recharge from snow and rain and are also not connected in any way to rivers.
Last March, as part of what it describes as an administrative effort to ensure wells across the state are regulated in a uniform way, the Colorado Division of Water Resources also began including the total amount of water a Denver Basin aquifer well permit holder was entitled to pump during the lifetime of the well permit.
“Not only is there an annual maximum, but we also interpreted the law to mean that you are limited to the total amount of water under your property,” said Tracy Kosloff, deputy state engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Parker Water and Sanitation District objected, saying that placing a lifetime limit on the total volume of water available to withdraw would improperly limit their water supplies, violating their property rights.
At the same time Greeley and Aurora have also joined the legal battle, saying they support the state’s effort to more closely manage underground supplies by including a specific volume on permits because it will better protect everyone over the long run.
Parker and other Douglas County entities declined to comment on the suit, but in its court filing Parker described the state’s efforts as “arbitrary and capricious.”
The Denver Basin aquifers once served as a plentiful, pure and inexpensive water source for fast-growing Douglas County communities and others. Instead of buying expensive water rights in nearby rivers and streams, and building dams and reservoirs to store that water, developers could simply obtain a permit and drill a well.
For years the aquifers had been accessed largely by individual homeowners and ranchers. But as growth took off in the 1970s, Parker, Castle Rock and others began drilling new high-powered wells, capable of pumping 1,000 gallons a minute, deep into the aquifers.
Water in aquifers is often under intense pressure and when wells are drilled, pressure is released, allowing the water to rise quickly to the surface. But eventually, the pressure subsides and the water no longer rises naturally, meaning electricity has to be used to draw the water to the surface. And as the water is pumped, because there is no natural recharge, the water table gets lower and lower, requiring that expensive new wells be drilled deeper to maintain water supplies.
By the 1980s it was clear the aquifers were in decline, and in 1985 the state imposed the 100-year rule and began monitoring aquifer levels and calculating how much was contained in the four geographic formations that comprise the Denver Basin. But back then there was little money to do the detailed, widespread mapping and hydrological studies needed to pinpoint how much water lay under each entity’s land holdings.
Since then more wells have been drilled, and the aquifers are being used heavily not just for water supply, but also for water storage. Cities such as Highlands Ranch, Parker and others have implemented sophisticated programs that put surface water back into the aquifer, using it like a savings account which can be accessed in drought years.
It is this banked water that the state, and Greeley and others, want to protect.
And that’s not an easy task, because these non-tributary aquifers have widely different geologic formations including sand, silt and bedrock, which allow water to freely move from one place to another, making it difficult to track.
“The water in the Denver Basin aquifers isn’t static, like an ice cube in a tray. It’s a leaky ice cube tray,” said Kosloff.
More science, please
Sean Chambers, director of the Greeley Water and Sewer Department, said his concern is that allowing Parker and Castle Rock to pump without an overall volume limit could mean that water he and other cities are injecting into the ground is unknowingly extracted, harming their own supplies. Greeley has begun an ambitious groundwater supply program with its purchase last year of the Terry Ranch. Chambers said it is critical that the aquifers are closely monitored and managed to ensure everyone’s water supplies are protected.
“You shouldn’t be allowed to pump water from someone else’s property,” Chambers said.
Ralf Topper is a groundwater expert who formerly oversaw the state’s groundwater programs at the Division of Water Resources. Though Parker, Castle Rock and other communities have done a good job of regulating their non-renewable aquifer supplies and slowing the aquifers’ declines, interference between wells in urban areas is becoming more of an issue, Topper said.
Topper and other experts say the issue will only be resolved when more sophisticated aquifer management tools are implemented, including thousands of new site-specific water studies, underground mapping, and public processes to ensure other water users aren’t injured by over-pumping.
“Our fundamental concern is that we want science-based, data-driven analysis of all non-tributary aquifer determinations. Lastly, we want to be sure if an aquifer is deemed non-tributary it is deemed as such by a scientific analysis that is subject to a public hearing and appeals process,” he said.
Topper and others have questioned whether existing state law gives water regulators the authority to make this change and that is something the court is examining now.
Parker, Castle Rock and other water districts in Douglas and Arapahoe counties have dramatically reduced their use of groundwater and they intend to continue weaning themselves off the aquifers. But they still want to protect their rights to the ground water because the aquifers are the best tool they have to protect against future droughts.
“The imposition of this condition … is a denial of a statutory right, is contrary to a constitutional right, and is a clearly unwarranted exercise [of the state engineer’s] discretion,” Parker said in its court filing.
How quickly the court will decide the case isn’t clear yet. Still, said Deputy Engineer Kosloff, “It’s good for us to understand sooner rather than later so we can all plan for that.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
The Division of Water Resources, Division 1 Office in Greeley, CO is hiring for the Deputy Water Commissioner for Water Districts 6 & 7 – Engineering/Physical Sciences Tech I position. The purpose of this position is to ascertain the available surface water supply and distribute, control and regulate the surface and groundwater tributary to the South Platte River in the Boulder Creek and Clear Creek basins on a daily basis pursuant to water decrees, substitute water supply plans and state statutes, and may assist in adjacent water districts with water administration. Anyone interested in learning more about the position or seeking to apply can access the following link to the job announcement on the State of Colorado Job Opportunities website:
The state has closed a heavily fished stretch of the Yampa River south of Steamboat Springs in an emergency move to protect the river’s health and fish from low streamflows. The mandatory closure, once rare, has become more common in recent years as decades of climate change-fueled drought continues to plague the West and the Colorado River Basin. The Yampa River feeds the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people across the West. The fishing closure covers about a half-mile section of the Yampa River downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir. In 2021, the same stretch of the river was closed from late May until November. Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Billy Atkinson said the section has cool, clear water released from the lake that attracts a lot of fishing.
Atkinson said water releases from Stagecoach would drop to 15 percent of what’s normal for this time of year because of how little water is flowing into the reservoir. He said Stagecoach was down about 12 feet going into the winter of 2021, which he said is about three times lower than normal. Not enough snow collected in the Yampa River Basin to greatly improve streamflows or water supplies this year. Snowpack numbers climbed to above-average in early January but dropped and stayed below average through May. Recent snowstorms improved snowpack conditions, but Atkinson said years of intense drought has dried out the soil. As the snow melts, the soil takes much of the water before it reaches streams and reservoirs.
[Don] Schneider and [Steve] Hanson find themselves on opposite sides of a looming, politically-fraught dispute over water resembling the kind that until now has been reserved for the parched U.S. states along the Colorado River Basin. As climate change-fueled megadrought edges eastward, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled Legislature this year voted to move forward with a plan that stunned Colorado state leaders. The Cornhusker State wants to divert water in Colorado by invoking an obscure, 99-year-old compact between the states that allows Nebraska to seize Colorado land along the South Platte River to build a canal. Nebraska’s plan underscores an increasing appetite throughout the West to preemptively secure water as winter snows and year-round rainfall diminish, forcing states to reallocate increasingly scarce flows in basins such as the South Platte and its better-known cousin, the Colorado River…
Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, gave precious few details in calling for $500 million in cash reserves and one-time federal pandemic funds to be spent on the project, other than to say it will benefit agriculture, power generation and municipal drinking water. Ricketts decried proposals in Colorado to either siphon or store more South Platte water, especially in the rapidly-growing Denver metro area, saying they threaten Nebraska’s water rights hundreds of miles downstream. The announcement sent Colorado officials scrambling to dust off the 1923 compact, which both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on and still stands as the law of the land. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis vowed to “aggressively assert” Colorado’s water rights, and state lawmakers lambasted the proposal. GOP Rep. Richard Holtorf, an area cattleman, declared: “You give Nebraska what they’re due but you don’t give them much else.”
For now, Colorado is not going to legally challenge Nebraska’s right to a canal under the compact, said Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “The other side of that coin is that we’ll make every effort that their operation is in compliance with the compact” and protects Colorado’s rights, Rein said.
MOTHER Nature will determine how much groundwater pumping occurs in ag-rich Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District under a new plan of water management making its way to the state for approval.
The subdistrict and its parent Rio Grande Water Conservation District have been under pressure to bring the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin to a sustainable level or face curtailment of wells. The San Luis Valley has two aquifers – one unconfined and one confined.
In the draft of its new plan, which is the fourth amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management, Subdistrict 1 members spell out the situation with the unconfined aquifer:
“Although the Subdistrict successfully remedied injurious depletions to senior surface water rights caused by groundwater withdrawals from Subdistrict Wells, it has not been successful in achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer. This Plan is intended to address the now-apparent deficiencies of the previous Amended Plans of Water Management and adopts new means needed to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer.
“The Subdistrict realizes that if more restrictive steps are not taken to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer, the State Engineer will, at some point, be unable to approve a future Annual Replacement Plan, resulting in the curtailment of Subdistrict Wells. State Engineer denial of an Annual Replacement Plan could result in the curtailment of all Subdistrict Wells, causing severe negative impact on the agricultural economy of the Subdistrict and the San Luis Valley as a whole.”
The board of managers for Subdistrict 1 gave final approval to the plan on Tuesday. It now goes to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board for consideration. If approved there, it would be submitted to the Colorado Department of Water Resources and State Engineer Kevin Rein for review and approval.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this from everyone involved,” said Subdistrict 1 Board President Brian Brownell. “It’s been a struggle. Overall this is the best plan we could come up with.”
The amended plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits.
The subdistrict is asking the state for 20 years to make the plan successful in recovering the aquifer, with a goal to restore 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year over that 20-year period to bring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level.
TO get there the plan calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds.
“Our pumping will be adjusted to whatever climate brings us,” said ex-officio board member Mike Kruse.
If the Valley experiences wet periods, groundwater pumping in Subdistrict 1 can match it. If the Valley continues with the persistent drought it has experienced over the past 20 years, groundwater pumping in the subdistrict will reflect the dryness.
“This plan takes into account the climate. That’s the beauty of it,” Kruse said
The predicament of the depleted unconfined aquifer is the result of the state granting too many well permits for groundwater pumping decades ago, now coupled with decades of drought going back to 2002.
“The state has to bear some responsibility,” said Subdistrict 1 board member James Cooley. “It isn’t all our fault.”
Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke said the subdistrict had been making progress toward meeting the state’s goals with the unconfined aquifer up until 2018, when a particularly dry year hit the Valley. A wet 2019 brought some relief to the aquifer, but the subdistrict lost the progress it made after back-to-back dry years in 2020 and 2021, and now so far 2022.
The change in climate, said Brownell, has been the biggest factor in working to restore the unconfined aquifer. “It’s nothing anybody could have foreseen and that is why we’re addressing it.”
“This concept we have is probably the only way we can address climate,” said Subdistrict 1 Board Member Jake Burris. “With this plan we’re living within our means.”
Based on modeling conducted by Willem Schreuder, president of Principia Mathematica in Denver, there is a high level of confidence among farm operators that the new plan will succeed in meeting the state’s requirement of a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The earliest the amended plan would take effect is for the 2023 irrigation season.
Some farm operators in Subdistrict 1 are filing their own augmentation plans with the state Division 3 Water Court in lieu of joining a new amended plan by the conservation district.
Renewable Water Resources, in its discussions with Douglas County, has tried to use the unconfined aquifer condition in Subdistrict 1 to further its case by approaching farmers with buyouts for their water rights. The RWR water exportation proposal is not in Subdistrict 1, but that hasn’t stopped RWR from trying to leverage the situation to their advantage, telling Douglas County that farmers in the Valley are facing imminent widespread water well curtailments, which isn’t the case.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon made it a point in his recent visit to the San Luis Valley to bring up well shut downs as a reason why Douglas County could help the Valley by investing in Renewable Water Resources and buying out farmers and establishing a Valley-wide community fund.
A state Senate bill offered by Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also works as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, would help address the strategy of retiring groundwater pumping wells in all the Valley’s subdistricts. If adopted – the proposed legislation has cleared major committee hurdles – the Compact Compliance Fund would make available at least $30 million to the Rio Grande Basin to help with groundwater sustainability measurements and would offer the Rio Grande Water Conservation District another pot of money to execute its strategies.
Colorado’s drought situation is a little better than it was a year ago, but warm temperatures, windy conditions in April and almost no precipitation in parts of the state means the snowpack is melting a couple of weeks sooner than most water watchers would prefer. The state’s Water Availability Task Force met on April 19 to look at the most recent numbers from the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
From October to March — the first six months of a water year that started Oct. 1 — it’s been much drier than average in southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley and Rio Grande River basin, and on the Eastern Plains, but wetter than normal in northwestern Colorado, Peter Goble said. April ends the wet season for the mountains and begins the wet season for the Eastern Plains. But the moisture has stayed away from the Eastern Plains, Goble said…
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which reports drought conditions weekly, while the entire state is in some level of drought, compared to a year ago Colorado is not seeing the worst levels, known as exceptional drought. That’s particularly true for the Western Slope, with snowpack in better shape now than a year ago, Goble said. The next six weeks will be critical for the Eastern Plains, he added…
NRCS hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer offered slightly better news when it comes to the state’s water supply, including for reservoir storage. While not a drought buster, water storage is substantially better than it’s been the last couple of years, he said. The expectation is that snowmelt is ramping up and unfortunately sooner than hoped for, he said…
The state’s trouble spots are in the Upper Rio Grande and in the lower Arkansas, according to Wetlaufer’s data. The Rio Grande is already seeing substantially earlier snowmelt, he said. It’s unlikely there will be enough precipitation to gain even average streamflows in the river, he said. That’s going to be a problem for the streamflow in areas like the southern Sangre de Cristos, and that in turn will affect compacts tied to the lower Rio Grande, which flows into New Mexico.
If the lake does drop lower than 3,490 feet, it is uncertain how much water, if any, will be delivered to the communities that rely on it. Lake Powell doesn’t only supply water to millions of Americans, it also provides power through turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam. Below 3,490 feet, the dam will not be able to provide hydropower. All Colorado Basin states receive power from the dam. Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, explained that the emergency at Lake Powell may seem far removed from Grand County, but it’s closely connected. Forty million people, from Wyoming to Mexico, rely on water from the Colorado River, including every Grand County resident. When someone turns on the tap here, they are getting the same water that will eventually get sent down to Lake Powell for a California (or other regional) resident…
Klancke feels the Lower Basin is demanding too much water from Lake Powell, and this may decrease the water supply of Upper Basin states like Colorado.
“My concern for Grand County is that our water rights will be cut into to make up the difference,” he said. “I worry they might go after our agricultural rights first … and (agriculture) makes up a huge part of our economy.”
Rio Grande and Republican River would use funds to meet state groundwater sustainability, interstate compact compliance targets
COLORADO is moving toward putting $60 million into a new groundwater compact compliance fund for the Rio Grande and Republican River basins created and funded through a state senate bill drafted and championed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa.
The bill, Senate Bill 22-028, creates the Compact Compliance Fund that would be administered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and would receive an appropriation of $60 million from Colorado’s share of federal COVID relief money from American Rescue Plan funding.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, originally only established the fund, and then an amendment unanimously adopted Thursday by the Colorado House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee added $60 million into it. The bill next will be heard by the House Appropriations Committee.
“Given the unanimous votes every step of the way, so far, I am hopeful the bill with the appropriation will become law in the next week or two,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen. “The timing of the availability of federal dollars and the growing sense of urgency in both basins created a unique opportunity that will serve both of these communities well. Still some work to do, but things look very promising for both of these Colorado communities.
If the Compact Compliance Fund is adopted by the Colorado Legislature it would pay for efforts to meet groundwater sustainability targets in the Rio Grande Basin and interstate compact requirements for the Republican River Basin. Each basin would get an earmark of $30 million to pay for efforts like retiring groundwater wells and other conservation and water sustainability measures. The goal would be to spend all $60 million within the time constraints put on federal COVID dollars, whether it’s a 50-50 split or not.
The threat to livelihood for farmers and ranchers and economic disaster for the regions tied to irrigated agriculture in the Rio Grande and Republican River basins was made loud and clear in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee.
“These farmers and ranchers have done everything they possibly can,” said Marisa Fricke, one of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s program managers. “They grow produce for us and hay for our cattle.”
Farmers and ranchers in both basins have levied property taxes on themselves through the water conservation districts to pay for their efforts to help the Rio Grande and Republican River meet groundwater sustainability and interstate compact compliance goals set by the state. It has meant fallowing of crop fields, permanently retiring irrigated acreage, taking groundwater wells off line either temporarily or permanently, and compensating farmers and ranchers for their efforts to help offset loss from less irrigated acres.
State Reps. Marc Catlin and Dylan Roberts made impassioned pleas for including $60 million of the ARPA money into the compact compliance fund during their presentation of the bill in the House Ag committee. Both are House sponsors of the bill.
“This is an opportunity with these funds to say, ‘We’re with you,’” said Catlin of the risk farmers and ranchers take their sacrifices to address compact and sustainability issues on the Republican River.
“This is a great bill for the San Luis Valley and Republican River Basin,” said Heather Dutton, district manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado through COVID relief bills provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in our communities. The imbalance between water use and supply is a critical issue facing Colorado and especially the basins highlighted in this legislation.”
Farmers in the San Luis Valley are looking to take even more drastic steps in their efforts to meet state targets on groundwater pumping and recharging of the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s unconfined aquifer. In Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, farmers are facing a new proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management that would tie the level of groundwater pumping allowed to the natural surface water of the property. Some farms in the subdistrict do not have natural surface water, in which case they would have to purchase water credits from a neighboring farm or pay an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot.
This concept keeps the system in balance by replenishing what has been withdrawn from the aquifer with surface water and allows the community within Subdistrict No.1 to work together through the exchange and sale of credits. In the event that more groundwater is withdrawn from the aquifer and not replenished an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot would be assessed, according to the proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s water management plan. Money collected by the conservation district from an over pumping charge would come back to the Subdistrict 1 community in the form of payments towards enrolling in water conservation programs, according to Fricke.
“For over a decade farmers and ranchers have worked to meet sustainability levels and have taxed themselves assessments for waters taken out of the aquifer,” Fricke told House ag committee members.
Eventually the water conservation districts would establish guidelines and the state Division of Water Resources would administer drawdowns of the fund. In the unlikely chance Rio Grande and Republican River water managers didn’t spend all $60 million, the money would revert to the division of water resources.
Future state appropriations to Compact Compliance Fund would hinge on executive and legislative budget priorities.
It’s a commonly known spot off County Road 17 between Del Norte and South Fork. Driving in you might see a blue heron standing off in the marsh and river rafters looking to get onto the Rio Grande at the very spot Colorado has been measuring the river since the summer of 1889 – June 1, 1889, to be precise.
This time of year, with any ice on the river gone and the weather warming, Jessie Jaminet comes every two weeks to the stream gaging station operated by Colorado Division of Water Resources to make sure everything is functioning for measurements that are closely watched by water managers up and down the Rio Grande. He was there this past week to get an early spring reading and when prompted for a prediction on this year’s flows said, “I think we’re probably going to be slightly below average from what I’ve seen.”
Average over the past decade has been 491,000 acre-feet of water; historically going back to 1889 the Rio Grande has an average measurement of 639,000 acre-feet, according to figures maintained by the state.
Jaminet, lead hydrographer for state water resources division 3, cautions that the river “changes daily right now.”
“Any storm that hits right now is a huge benefit for the whole system. People watch the snowpack numbers, but it really depends on what happens this time of year. Wet spring storms really benefit the system,” he said.
The Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte is the highest profile gage station in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. That’s because it’s the gaging station the state uses to help determine how much water from the Rio Grande is available and will be delivered downstream into New Mexico and Texas as part of the three-state Rio Grande Compact.
Besides measuring lower-average acre-feet the past decade, another phenomenon has been occurring: an earlier peak to the river flow and then a quick dropoff, which means less water and shorter irrigation seasons downstream for New Mexico and Texas.
“Historically the river would peak and we would maintain those flows for a while before we would fall into base flow conditions,” Jaminet said. Peak flow used to hit mid- to late-June and the Rio Grande would maintain itself through the summer. Now the state is seeing peak Rio Grande flows as early as late May and then drastic drop offs to the height of the river. It’s attributable to the aridification of the Valley floor from persistent drought and climate change.
Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact is another aspect to the management of the upper basin of the river that water managers, irrigators, and outdoor recreationalists have to factor in when planning their own water usage.
“This is what we base pretty much all of our numbers on, this upper index here. Anything that passes this gage here we have to deliver a percentage of it downstream. This is why this is an important gage here,” said Jaminet.
He’s been working the measurements the past 15 years as part of his job with Colorado Division of Water Resources to operate and maintain the gaging stations along the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s not what he planned on doing for a career when he graduated from Mountain Valley High School in Saguache in 2001 and then the University of Wyoming, where he majored in rangeland geology and watershed management. But he’s learned and come to understand the importance of taking the river’s measurement, and the fact he grew up in the San Luis Valley makes him appreciate the work he does even more.
“This is a continuous record that we produce here,” he said of the Del Norte gaging station, pointing to the readings from 1890 through 2021. One of the most eye-popping historical figures is Oct. 5, 1911, when the Rio Grande was flowing at 18,000 cubic feet per second. The day Jaminet was at the gage station the river was moving at 519 cfs.
Most of the big diversions to the Rio Grande happen a bit farther downstream in Rio Grande and Alamosa counties, making the gaging station near Del Norte a natural location to determine the depth and velocity of the river.
In the 1890s and early decades of the 1900s the state division of water resources would take a measurement of the Rio Grande twice a day and then daily as it kept improving the system. It eventually installed a continuous reader in 1983, and then in the summer of 1984 a satellite monitoring system was installed.
Now the gaging station takes a reading every 15 minutes and logs and transmits the data every hour to the Colorado Division of Water Resources website, where it’s tracked and followed by the three states party of the Rio Grande Compact. Fishermen and rafters will also monitor the web site to help them determine the best times to fish and float the river.
One of Jaminet’s responsibilities is to make sure the gaging station is calibrated and reading accurately. A float sitting in a stilling well reads the height of the river and then a rating table unique to the gaging station is applied to give an accurate measurement. In the winter months, with ice on the river, the measurements are more estimates.
Coming off a dry 2021, in January the Rio Grande was at its lowest point to start a year since Colorado began taking measurements 132 years ago. A cooler March and April have helped, but without significant summer rain, the Rio Grande will run dry again early in the summer irrigation season.
“If you go into the fall really dry, even if you get these big spring storms it seems like it just goes into the ground,” Jaminet said. “A lot of it is not making it to the river anymore.”
The measurements at the Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte tell the story.
The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017…Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.
This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said…Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by…
The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year. Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week. Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.
In short, the kind of clouds that create snowstorms contain massive amounts of super-chilled water vapor, Rickert said. Left alone, those clouds can release some snow and retain the rest of their water vapor. Cloud seeders look to agitate those super-chilled water particles, causing them to freeze inside the cloud. From there they form snowflakes and fall to the ground, Rickert said. Seeders can agitate those particles by plane or from machines on the ground, both processes typically use a silver iodide compound. Airplanes will “pretty much fly right through the cloud,” spraying the compound across a flame, and spreading it throughout the air, sparking the chemical reaction, Rickert said. Ground generators do the same except they use wind drafts to carry the compound into the clouds, he said. he end result? Up to a 12% increase in snowfall for a particular storm, [Andrew] Rickert said…
Seeding efforts in central Colorado are working well too, according to Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Colorado River District, which helps manage the program in Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties. Water from the extra snowfall eventually melts, flowing down Colorado’s rivers and streams and eventually out of state, Rickert noted, so downstream states like Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico all chip in to the state’s $1.5 million budget. But there’s a catch, Kanzer added. Cloud seeding can’t create snow storms out of nowhere. They can only enhance existing storms…
“It’s the only option for physically augmenting snowpack,” Rickert said. “And the only way to actually create and add water to the system.”
A group of Valley farmers announced in a press release that they have come together to create the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), an alternative to Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1.
“It is no secret that we are at a critical moment for the future of the San Luis Valley, as drought deepens, climate change intensifies, and the unconfined aquifer’s water level continues to drop at a dangerous rate. Decisive action is required now before the aquifer runs dry and the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force is threatened,” the release stated.
The San Luis Valley has a mostly unconfined aquifer and is subject to many variables including drought. A confined aquifer is surrounded by rock and clay pieces which confine it to an area and make it less at risk for loss, but an unconfined aquifer is exposed and can be impacted more severely by outside factors. A confined aquifer is found deep beneath the ground, while an unconfined aquifer is just below the ground level…
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1 covers much of the San Luis Valley area. According to the Subdistrict 1 Plan of Water Management, “The goals of the Subdistrict are to cause groundwater levels in the Unconfined Aquifer of the Closed Basin to recover, and then to maintain a sustainable irrigation water supply in the Unconfined Aquifer with due regard for the daily, seasonal and longer-term demands on the aquifer and to protect senior surface water rights and avoid interference with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. To achieve these goals, reducing and managing overall groundwater consumption is essential.” The group of farmers behind SWAG disputes the effectiveness of the plans in place and proposed by Subdistrict 1.
“Despite making little progress towards sustainability with the fee-based model, Subdistrict No. 1’s Board of Managers is now poised to vote on raising the over-pumping fee from $150 to $500 per acre-foot. That’s a 233% increase on top of a 386% increase over the past decade. While this plan may work for some producers, it is not a viable option for the members of SWAG who have paid these ever-increasing fees only to see reduced yields and declining water levels in the aquifer. It is clear the status quo is unsustainable for the farmers of the Valley, nor the aquifer that we rely on for our water. We simply do not have the time to double down on a one-size-fits-all fee-based approach,” SWAG stated in the release.
The SWAG press release included an answer to the ongoing water crisis in the Valley.
“SWAG has entered into an agreement to purchase and retire approximately 4,500 acres, irrigated by wells, that have historically consumed an average of 5,678 acre-feet per year from the unconfined aquifer at a cost of over $35 million. If real progress towards sustainability is not made, the sad truth is that SWAG members’ wells are subject to the very real threat of forced curtailment; whether by the State of Colorado if the subdistrict cannot prove its plan for sustainability will work; or by the Subdistrict itself through ever-increasing fees for pumping which would punish those water users who rely on their decreed water rights for their wells, or the absence of water at their wellheads due to the overuse of the unconfined aquifer. The only way to solve this threat and ensure the future vitality of the Valley is to work together to find solutions which work for everyone. We need more options to promote conservation, not less. SWAG’s augmentation plan is one of those options, and we hope that other members of the community make your voices heard before it is too late,” SWAG concluded.
ERIC Harmon is the type of person Douglas County says it wants to listen to.
He’s a hydrogeologist with expertise on the San Luis Valley aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. In fact, his team completed the groundwater component of the Rio Grande Decision Support System, which is generally described in state water court documents as “an interactive computer-based system that utilizes data and computer models to help decision makers solve unstructured problems.” The RGDSS is what the state relies on to determine the impact of groundwater pumping.
Harmon is also retired and hasn’t been part of any of the presentations that the three Douglas County commissioners have heard on Renewable Water Resources and its pitch to Douglas County to partner on exporting from the San Luis Valley.
What does Harmon’s experience and expertise say about the RWR proposal? He wrote a letter to the Douglas County commissioners outlining his concerns and recommendation that Douglas County reject the RWR proposal. He has yet to hear back from the commissioners. Alamosa Citizen also asked Douglas County for a response to Harmon’s letter.
“The Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposal to Douglas County to use ARPA funds should be rejected in favor of less risky projects,” Harmon told the commissioners. “RWR’s project would place undue risks on San Luis Valley (SLV) water users and ratepayers (water customers) in Douglas County. Why? For that, we need to get down into the weeds on the SLV aquifers.”
Harmon said he has given expert testimony in the Division 3 Water Court (San Luis Valley) in the AWDI case (1991), the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules case (2006), the Great Sand Dunes In-Place Groundwater Right case (2008) and the Groundwater Rules case (2018).
“Confined aquifer tests in the SLV by my testing team were done as part of Colorado’s Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS) in the early 2000s,” he said to the commissioners. “Our tests showed repeatedly that pumping impacts move outward from a confined aquifer well very rapidly, often causing drawdown (water level decline) up to ½ mile away within one day of pump startup. At several locations, pumping a deep well caused measurable drawdown in layers much shallower than the pumping zone. This is how confined aquifers work: drawdown spreads out very far, very fast. The SLV confined aquifer is ‘leaky.’”
After he sent along his letter to AlamosaCitizen.com for publishing, we asked him a few additional questions. The exchange is below:
AC: What concerns or thoughts, if any, can you share on the drought the San Luis Valley has been experiencing going back to 2002?
EH: Conditions are never static in hydrology. The dynamic nature of water, weather patterns, and the hydrologic cycle means that conditions are always changing. But where there is a long-term drought, the job of scientists and engineers becomes harder. It means that any predictions we are asked to make may be less reliable than we would like, because we don’t always have similar historic conditions we can look back on to compare to.
AC: The streamflow measurements documented by Davis Engineering for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District demonstrate troubling patterns. Have you recently looked at those streamflow measurements? In your view what type of impact is drought, climate change having on the basin and should that be a concern with the RWR proposal?
EH: I have tried to keep up with the general hydrologic trends in the Valley, including snowpack and streamflow. I have also kept up with the trends of Unconfined Aquifer storage change that Davis Engineering has done for RGWCD for many years. It is clear that even after a number of years of self-imposed pumping reductions in the Subdistricts, there is still too little water available to meet the irrigation demand, and to replenish the groundwater storage deficit in the Unconfined Aquifer in the Closed Basin. If drought or climate change persist in the future, as appears likely, then these impacts should be of concern in any new appropriation of water, whether by RWR or anyone else.
AC: Would the change in conditions, drought persistence, declining snow melt, particularly along the Sangre de Cristo range factor into a water court proceeding?
EH: Declining snowpack, earlier and faster runoff, and drought persistence certainly are of concern in the Sangre de Cristos, as they are in the San Juans. Valley-wide, the water supply from the Sangres is considerably less than it is from the San Juans. Smaller drainage areas, the “rain shadow” effect of the San Juans before the snowstorms get to the Sangres, and differences in topography and geology between the two ranges all are factors. If asked, I would advise the water court to look very hard at all of these factors. If groundwater recharge is less in the future than is predicted, it would almost certainly have an impact on the question of injury.
AC: Commissioner Teal said at the last meeting (March 8) that Douglas County has heard repeatedly that there is a “million acre feet” of water in the SLV aquifer. How does one address that notion?
EH: I can’t find any reference to a “million acre feet” in RWR’s proposal or in the presentations to Douglas County. RWR has stated that 22,000 acre-feet per year, the amount they intend to pump, is 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge. So RWR’s number for annual recharge is 880,000 acre-feet. I do not know if this is what Commissioner Teal is referring to. The important thing, however, is not the annual groundwater recharge or the volume of groundwater in storage in the aquifer. The important thing is that the Valley’s water resources are over-appropriated. As Colorado Division of Water Resources officials have pointed out, this means there is no water available for appropriation and full (“1 for 1”) replacement is required under the Rules.
Northern Colorado rancher Jay Fetcher looked out over the snowy fields of his family’s sprawling ranch 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
Cows grazed on hay on a bright, frigid February morning in the tiny settlement of Clark. Fetcher has been ranching the 1,400 acres of hay meadows and pastures in view of the Mountain Zirkel Wilderness for most of his life.
Fetcher’s late father, John, was a legend in the Steamboat area, who moved there to ranch in 1949. A founder of the Steamboat Ski Resort, he was also on the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“He was crazy passionate about water,” Fetcher said.
One of his legacies was putting the family ranch under a conservation easement, meaning the land would never be developed.
“If we chose to develop it, we could put 70 homesites, but now, it will stay open space forever,” Fetcher said. “It feels good knowing there won’t be golf courses out here.”
The land also has ample water rights. The ranch is flood-irrigated by a system of ditches that pull water from Sand Creek, McPhee Creek, Cottonwood Creek and the Elk River. But Fetcher is facing a complicated situation regarding one of the smaller, more junior rights in the portfolio that state officials believe has been “abandoned.”
Abandonment is the official term for one of Colorado’s best-known water adages and concepts: “use it or lose it.” Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If they don’t see evidence of use, they could place the water right on the abandonment list and a water court could make it official.
Abandonment means the right to use the water is essentially canceled and ceases to exist. The water right goes back to the stream where another user can file an application to claim it and put it to beneficial use.
Fetcher’s water right that is in jeopardy is 2.5 cubic feet per second from the Hoover Jacques Ditch that dates to 1972. This ditch pulls water from the Elk River and flood-irrigates a pasture. In a letter to Fetcher, officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say that aerial imagery and their data suggest that the land has not been irrigated in quite some time.
Fetcher admits that it has been challenging to get water from the diversion point to the pasture five miles away through an unlined ditch, and the 40-acre pasture that it irrigates doesn’t produce much hay anyway. Fetcher often couldn’t take his full amount because the water just wasn’t available, but he hesitated to place a call because it didn’t seem worth it, he said.
Water users who aren’t receiving their total share can place what’s known as a call, which forces upstream junior users to cut back so the senior water right can get its full amount. Older water rights get first use of the river.
“It was really hard to get water through all our neighbors to actually use it,” he said. “By the time water gets there, it’s a trickle. And we just didn’t have time to run up there and irrigate a little bit of pasture.”
The Fetcher property has eight different ditches, and a huge amount of work is necessary to maintain them, he said.
“We want to make sure we don’t fall on the abandonment list with these other ditches,” he said. “We try to limit the labor on the ranch to make it profitable, so how does someone taking care of 800 cows have time to run around and make all of them work?”