WHILE Colorado remains largely an observer in the ongoing federal court case over the Rio Grande Compact, the issues that could increase its involvement have become clearer since Texas filed its initial complaint eight years ago.
Texas originally made no claims against Colorado as its arguments focused on New Mexico’s delivery obligations and the use of groundwater below Elephant Butte Reservoir. Colorado was named a party to the initial complaint simply because it is a signatory to the 1938 compact. But the state’s role in the proceedings could change, depending on whether the case impacts Colorado’s ability to manage Platoro Reservoir, the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s largest post-compact reservoir, and the debits the state is allowed to accrue under the compact. Likewise, court decisions might change how federal water compacts are interpreted, which could also spur greater involvement by Colorado.
In August, Special Master Michael J. Melloy ordered Texas to file a supplemental complaint with the U.S. Supreme Court because it raised issues distinct from the original complaint and had the potential to greatly expand the scope of the lawsuit. That supplemental complaint claimed, among other issues, that New Mexico violated the compact by not keeping a pool of water equal to the delivery debits it is allowed to accrue in reservoir storage.
While Colorado was not named directly in the complaint, Colorado sees that claim as an attack on how the state manages its reservoirs and the 100,000 acre-feet of debits it is allowed to accrue against its downstream delivery obligation. “It is a bigger concern because it directly affects us,” Division Engineer Craig Cotten said earlier this month.
Water users in Colorado’s section of the Rio Grande have also informed Attorney General Phil Weiser that they would seek amicus status to join the case should Texas prevail with its claim. “If Texas were to prevail on its claimed interpretation of Arts. VI-VIII, Platoro Reservoir would be rendered effectively useless to the Conejos District because it would be the only reservoir where Colorado could store debit water,” stated the memorandum signed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Water Users Association.
Platoro Reservoir has a storage capacity of only 53,571 acre-feet, which would put Colorado in the position of losing roughly half of its allowable debits under the compact. Those debits, as the memorandum noted, were intended to recognize that variations in stream flow would impact Colorado’s ability to strictly adhere to the delivery obligations laid out by the compact.
Colorado is also leery of the proceedings giving the Rio Grande Project, which is made up mainly of Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs in New Mexico, an authority not called for by the compact. Both the United States, which operates the reservoirs under the Bureau of Reclamation, and New Mexico have argued that the project and its contracts with downstream irrigation districts are silently incorporated into the compact. “They’re really trying to add a lot to the compact,” Cotten said. A brief by Colorado has asked the special master to rule as a matter of law that the Rio Grande Project is not incorporated into the compact and does not impose obligations to the states under the compact. The issue of obligations under those contracts should be addressed outside the compact, Colorado argued.
Virtual testimony in the case began last week, with in-person testimony coming later in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both Cotten and Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan are expected to testify as fact witnesses, although they may not take the stand until a second phase of the trial in spring.
The 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.
This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”
The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.
Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.
These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.
First-ever drought accord
Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.
Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.
But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.
“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.
As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.
Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.
But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.
“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”
Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”
Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.
Still no decisions have been made.
A call to act
Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.
Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.
“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”
One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.
A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.
But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.
Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.
In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.
The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.
Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.
Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.
Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.
“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”
Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.
Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.
But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.
“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”
Checking the averages
As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.
Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.
Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.
Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.
The big dry out
Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.
“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”
Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.
And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.
“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
OCTOBER 1 is a date virtually every farmer in the San Luis Valley’s ag-rich Subdistrict 1 has circled on their calendar. It’s when farm managers across Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will go to their center pivot sprinkler and read their flow meter, and then record that number with the subdistrict’s program manager, Marisa Fricke.
The reading will tell the farm operator how many acre-feet of water they’ve used this irrigation season, and the total of all the meter readings that Fricke records will determine the next steps in the urgent efforts to replenish the shallowest aquifer in the Valley, the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict 1.
“It’s the ‘hold your breath’ couple of months,” said Fricke, as she navigates her SUV through the subdistrict on a recent fall morning and gives lessons on the state of the Rio Grande. “Everything is riding on it.”
The number she’s looking for is 240,000-acre-feet of water or less. Remember that figure.
The Valley’s Most Lucrative Corridor
Subdistrict 1 came into being in 2006 to “take action to help restore a balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.” Remember, the unconfined aquifer had lost an estimated 1 million acre-feet of water to the changing climate from 2002 to 2004, and now efforts to replenish it have become vital to the Valley’s way of life, its $340 million annual ag economy, its growing tourist economy, and the quality of life, particularly in Alamosa, Saguache and Rio Grande counties where the boundaries of Subdistrict 1 largely lie.
It’s the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley, with 3,000 water wells. When you think about Subdistrict 1, think of Coors and barley. Think about the Valley as the fifth-largest producer of potatoes in America. Think about lucrative ag contracts with Walmart and Safeway. Collectively the cash crops in the subdistrict are valued at approximately $400 million, said Fricke. Think about the farming communities of Center and Sargent and Mosca. Think about the Gator Farm, and the hot springs at the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool in Hooper. All of these attributes of the Valley reside in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 1, and collectively they show what a devastating blow it would be to the Valley if the state of Colorado were to ever shut down wells in the subdistrict.
The state hinted at such a drastic step as recently as 2018 and 2019, when State Engineer Kevin Rein sounded the alarms about the importance of reducing groundwater withdrawals during a drought season and concerns about bringing the aquifer to sustainable levels by 2031. That’s what’s been agreed upon and what a state court-approved water plan calls for.
ENTER Marisa Fricke. After she receives the October flow meter readings from approximately 310 farms in Subdistrict 1, she will analyze the figures and draft a report to the State Engineer and Colorado Water Resources Division on the status of the unconfined aquifer. Her report will tell the state the total amount of groundwater pumped out and the amount of surface water diverted and re-charged through ponds and irrigation ditches.
She’ll get around 1,800 meter readings in October, and she’ll then calculate how much groundwater was pumped, minus the amount of surface water that was diverted in. The net balance will reveal the amount of water that was truly over pumped from the aquifer.
She will also convey that it’s been yet another dry year in 2021 for the San Luis Valley, compounding an even drier 2020. Without consistent snowpack and summer monsoon seasons, the surest way the unconfined aquifer gets restored is through voluntary conservation efforts put in place by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Those efforts include:
A Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that pays producers to not use their well for 15 years.
Paying farmers not to plant a field.
Purchasing acres of farmland and retiring the water wells on that land.
Creating water credits so farmers who return more water to the aquifer than they took out can sell credits to other farmers who need more water for their fields.
All of these items will show up in Fricke’s report. “We are trying everything,” she said.
The odd thing is the unconfined aquifer, because of its unique hydrology and recharge decree, adds little injury to the Rio Grande Basin itself. The change in climate, though, means the aquifer struggles to restore itself naturally and farmers then must shoulder more of the burden.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen the climate changes,” said Fricke, an Alamosa High and Adams State graduate. She was raised in Alamosa county, knows farming, understands the agricultural life of the San Luis Valley, and worries about what’s to come.
“Everyone is very concerned,” she said.
Nine years left to 2031
The subdistrict basically has nine years left to recover 864,000 acre-feet of water, maybe. If Rein determines that it has become evident that the goal to return the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level by 2031 can’t be met, then the state could take action sooner.
Now you understand the importance of October 1. In 2020, 247,000 acre-feet of water was pulled out of the aquifer. While this year hasn’t been as dry, 2021 certainly has not been a good year for precipitation in the San Luis Valley, and the forecast for October, November and December shows a probability of more of the same – dry and little moisture, which likely translates into an earlier spring runoff in 2022 if snow arrives late in the winter.
This is how the changing climate affects the situation, and why the conservation efforts in Subdistrict 1 are critical to the Valley’s ag and farming industry. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has purchased another 11 wells this year in an effort to retire groundwater and will offer the same program again in 2022.
Fricke will litter her report to the state with these types of facts to show all the work being done to preserve the aquifer. She describes the next few months as “the worst stress ever.” But then she smiles and flexes her determination to prove to the state that the water plan is working.
Asked what would be a good figure for 2021, she paused, gave it some thought, and said 240,000 acre-feet or less would signal some relief.
Asked when she’ll know, she turned and said, “December we’ll know the numbers.”
FromColoradoPolitics.com (Marianned Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The summer monsoons brought good moisture to the Western slope, relieving some of the two-year drought that has plagued areas west of the Continental Divide.
But higher than average demand for water, spurred by growth in some parts of the state, means some reservoirs are at their lowest levels, approaching the records set in 2002 and 2018. And one particular river basin is in pretty bad shape, according to Thursday’s reports.
The reports came out during the monthly meeting of the state Water Availability Task Force, a collection of state water officials, climatologists, municipal water providers and federal water watchers.
According to Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger of the Colorado Climate Center, the Yampa/White River basin, primarily in Routt and Moffat counties, has seen the worst of it this year, with below average precipitation and, even more concerning, below average stream flows. Based on the most recent reports from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the Yampa basin is in the most severe drought level, known as D4 for exceptional drought, since the first monitoring of drought levels started in 2000, and that level has persisted for almost 52 straight weeks, also a record.
It’s meant that the large sections of the Yampa have been closed to fishing for virtually the entire summer, according to the state division of parks and wildlife.
Bolinger said the 2021 summer was the fourth warmest on record, going back 127 years. There was only one month — February — where temperatures were below average for the entire water year that runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
Monsoons, however, kept the state from setting records for dry conditions, Bolinger indicated. There was above average rainfall in Western Colorado, particularly for the Colorado River basin, but not enough to overcome drought conditions in northwestern Colorado counties such as Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt.
And drought conditions are starting to rise on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. Bolinger noted that Washington County had the driest summer on record. About 41% of the state is in some form of drought, although that’s better than it was in January, when the entire state was in drought…
Bolinger said there is a high likelihood that Colorado will experience a weak “La Niña” winter, meaning a wet pattern that may provide more snowfall over the northern mountains but drier conditions and less snowfall in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado and the Eastern Plains.
Karl Wetlaufer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tracks reservoir levels and precipitation by river basins. Wetlaufer said the Yampa got a bit of a reprieve with precipitation in August and above average rainfall in September. His biggest concern was for declining reservoir storage in almost every basin except for the South Platte, where reservoir levels have been well above average. The South Platte was the only basin where reservoir levels actually increased in 2021…
In the Gunnison River basin, where the Bureau of Reclamation is tapping Blue Mesa Reservoir to keep electrical generation going at Lake Powell, reservoir levels are almost at the lowest in history, Wetlaufer said. Statewide, reservoir storage is at about 80% of average, down from 85% a year ago, and at 48% of capacity…
Stream flows are also well below normal, Wetlaufer explained, even in areas of the state that had good snowpack. The effect of very dry soils from the winter months, combined with a warm and dry summer, meant some parts of the state, like the Yampa, saw their stream flows drop to 32% of normal flows…
Colorado snowpack April 1, 2021 via the NRCS.
Colorado streamflow April 1, 2021 through August 31, 2021 via the NRCS.
The impact of this year’s precipitation has meant struggles for farmers planting millet and winter wheat, according to Joel Schneekloth, a regional water resources specialist at Colorado State University. He explained that for some farmers, the rainfall has been so spotty that they’re checking fields to see which ones caught rain and then immediately move to plant wheat in those fields. The good news seems to be that while fields have been drier than average, crops don’t seem to be using as much water, which he theorized could be due to higher humidity levels.
Trying to recommend ways to improve on Colorado’s anti-water speculation law is a tough job, primarily because the state’s constitution, statutes and legal precedence already do a good job of it.
It doesn’t take much to set off alarms in Colorado’s water community, and in 2019 there were purchases of irrigated land by entities not normally associated with water use. According to water journalist Allen Best, “large, water-rich ranches in the Grand Valley on the West Slope by investment banks” tripped all kinds of alarms across the state. Of all the nightmares that keep Colorado water interests awake at night, water speculation is among the spookiest.
During the 2020 legislative session, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 20-048, which directed the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to convene a working group to recommend ways to shore up the state’s protections against water speculation.
Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, was named to the 22-member working group, which submitted its final report, titled “Report of the Work Group to Explore Ways to Strengthen Current Water Anti-Speculation Law,” last month on Aug. 13, just two days short of the deadline.
Critics immediately denounced the report, saying it has little value because it doesn’t actually make any recommendations to the Legislature. In an interview with Best, Frank said there’s still work to be done before any new laws can be written.
Talking last week with the Journal-Advocate, Frank said it’s going to be difficult to figure out ways to strengthen something that’s already quite strong.
“We took it upon ourselves to define two types of water speculation,” Frank said. “There’s traditional speculation, which is already pretty well addressed. And then we defined what we call ‘investment water speculation,’ and that’s harder to get your hands around.”
Under Colorado water law the water in Colorado is a public resource for beneficial use by public agencies, private persons and entities. A water right, which is owned, is created to use a portion of the public’s water resources, and is subject to water availability and under the terms specified by a water court. Those specifications — date of priority, physical location, and the amount that can be used by the water right – appear in what is called a decree.
Cities own water rights and the infrastructure to deliver such rights, so people are purchasing water from the city even though water in Colorado is a public resource. Water rights are real property rights and can be sold and traded as long as it is continued to be put to beneficial use…
According to Frank, about the only way to prevent “investment water speculation” is to define actions that prove intent, and that raises the specter of yet another agrarian nightmare; trampling on a property owner’s right to sell his property.
“Is it the intent to come in and profit from the increased value of water?” Frank asked. “It has to do with point of sale and real property. But can you pass a law that says you can interfere with the market?”
In other words, in order to prove intent, it would be necessary to examine and have some legal control over the sale of land and water rights. In theory, an investor from Manhattan could buy several irrigated farms, allow the water to be used for crops for a period of time while the dollar value of those shares increases, and then sell those shares to, say, a growing Denver suburb and pocket the profit.
State Sen. Don Coram, who wrote SB 20-048, has gone on record saying he doesn’t want the state to get involved in curtailing property rights.
Frank said there may be no easy way to write anti-speculation legislation, but rather it may take a series of smaller actions.
“The over-arching issue that we have to solve is supply and demand,” Frank said. “When there’s more demand than supply, that drives up the price of water. Conservation and efficiency only go so far, and nobody is creating any more water.”
Hannah Holm, the director of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University co-wrote a Colorado River study in collaboration with Kelsea MacIlroy and The Nature Conservancy
As a headwaters state, Colorado has many interstate compacts that set rules for how the state must share the rivers that originate within its borders with downstream states. On several of these rivers, water users have had to modify their water use to meet compact requirements. That day may be coming for the Colorado River. A new report explores what Colorado River water users can learn from experiences with compact administration on other rivers.
Interviewees warned against relying on courts to rule in Colorado’s favor in compact cases or on optimistic estimates of water availability. They also described how communities have developed their own, proactive measures to promote compact compliance and address other water supply challenges in ways that have fewer negative impacts than externally imposed mandates. Necessary conditions for doing so include an ability to work well together, precise water-use measurement and initiating action well in advance of a court order. On a more technical front, interviewees emphasized how accurate measurement of all water use was necessary for enhanced water management, as well as making the Colorado’s case for its own water use in discussions with other states.
This study was conducted by Kelsea MacIlroy, co-written by Hannah Holm and funded by The Nature Conservancy. MacIlroy is a PhD candidate in sociology from Colorado State University and the principal of MacIlroy Research and Consulting, LLC. Hannah Holm directs the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.
The report was presented at the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference in Steamboat Springs on August 24, 2021, and will be presented at the September Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting.
“Across Colorado and the West, communities are experiencing greater frequency and extent of drought leading to increased variability in streamflows. As water managers grapple with the consequences of changing water supplies, there is great value in looking toward neighboring communities for lessons learned,” Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Basin’s representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board said. “The report detailing “Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration” relies on voices of water users and administrators to detail personal and regional experiences including what has gone well and where they would do things differently if given the chance. While the focus of the report is on compact administration, the lessons learned touch on broader water management topics and highlight how communities are better off when stakeholders are working toward a common goal. Therefore, I feel this report is a must read for all Coloradoans that care about our collective water future.”
Alex Funk, agriculture and rural resiliency policy specialist for the Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section at the Colorado Water Conservation Board also commented on the recent report.
“The stories shared in this report highlight the value of proactive dialogue and actions on water management challenges ranging from climate change to compact compliance.,” Funk said. “Collaborative, proactive actions and solutions give local communities and water users more agency and opportunities to adapt to changing conditions in ways that provide long-term benefits for all water users.”
On the question of water measurement, John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District said, “A valuable takeaway from the report is recognizing the importance of accurate measurement. That is a good lesson for Colorado River water users as the State Engineer commences measurement rule making.”
Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others.
The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).
The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.
The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.
Goal to prevent a call
The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.
When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.
“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel.
Potential impacts to fish, instream flows
But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.
Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality.
“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads.
While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers.
“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.”
“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads.
Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built.
The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.
“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.”
Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use.
“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.”
The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.
“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s Part 1 of the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before
THEY all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.
South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm.
North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor.
Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table.
Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58 percent of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.
Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.
Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom.
The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years.
A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range.
And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30 percent, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan.
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before.
Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.
“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”
It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18 percent of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture.
The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the tates of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.)
In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000.
But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.
“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop.
This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year.
By contrast, the Denver Water Department needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries.
In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy.
Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions.
After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.
In the crosshairs is one of the oldest agricultural traditions and cultures in Colorado.
The first surface water right in Colorado, appropriated in 1852, is the People’s Ditch near San Luis. With a series of community irrigation canals called acequias, Hispanic settlers soon started growing food in the high desert with water from the Conejos, Rio Grande, Alamosa, Culebra, San Luis, Saguache, Carnero, and Trinchera, among other rivers and creeks.
By the 1870s, as much as 50,000 acres in the San Luis Valley was irrigated. After the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, that number soared to 400,000 acres by the 1880s. By 1900, demand for water in several valley streams already outstripped the natural supply.
Farmers responded by building reservoirs, and, especially, digging wells. By the time of World War I, the San Luis Valley was home to at least 5,000 groundwater wells. The rush was on. Underground supplies seemed endless.
Until they weren’t. In 1972, Colorado water officials ordered a moratorium on construction of new wells in most of the valley, and then ended new appropriations of groundwater in the rest of the valley in 1981, which was one of the worst snowpack years on record, with just 11 percent of normal on May 1.
Luckily, that one terrible year of drought in 1981 was followed by six successive years of some of the best snowpacks in the recorded history of the Rio Grande Basin. From 1982-1987, few worried much about groundwater because the rivers were flooding.
Another run of giant snowpacks in the mid-1990s helped to keep the pressure off groundwater pumping – while helping to build the memories of valley residents like Ronda Lobato, Sheldon Rockey, and Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember the snowbanks being bigger than me – the winters were so long and cold,” said Lobato, whose aunt and uncle lived along San Francisco Creek. “When the runoff came, we had to fill sandbags to protect against flooding. Today there is no water in San Francisco Creek. It doesn’t run at all.”
Farming is never easy, but water shortages make it even tougher, said Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember as a kid being able to dig with a shovel to find water. Now I might have to go 30 feet to find it,” said Mitchell, whose family runs 18 center pivot irrigation rigs. “The ditch water used to go all summer long. Now we’re lucky to get one month, and some ditches do only a few weeks. We don’t have enough surface water to grow cash-value crops every year.”
The mid-1990s were the heyday of San Luis Valley agriculture, said potato grower Sheldon Rockey, and that era changed the way of thinking for a generation of farmers.
“I remember when the river flooded three years in a row. I got the tractor stuck in the mud,” Rockey said. “There was a lot of money made without worrying much about water. The issue with the older crowd of farmers is that they were so successful for so long. Now that we’re in drought, it’s hard to change your thinking.”
The bountiful water years of the 1980s and 1990s in the San Luis Valley have flipped the typical generational divide in farming. Because they lived through the wettest times, the older farmers tend to have a brighter view than the younger farmers, local agricultural officials say.
“Farming is an optimistic profession,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “People my father’s age have seen farming here at its best, when we had giant years for water. But the data and science don’t give me many reasons to think those days will come back around.
“If the big water years do come back, that would be tremendous. But I don’t want us to ignore the freight train coming at us right now.”
That train began blasting its horn about 20 years ago.
State water engineers long had been concerned about well-pumping by valley irrigators, but the connection between groundwater and surface water was not clearly understood. Starting in January 1976, engineers began monitoring the level of valley aquifers. Groundwater declined steadily but gradually, which led to the state moratoriums on drilling.
However, 2002 was the driest on record for the Rio Grande Basin, with a May snowpack of just 6 percent. With little available surface water, valley irrigators turned underground for supplies.
The result: In just one year, engineers recorded a 400,000 acre foot drop in Vvalley aquifers. That is a huge amount of water – a single acre-foot is enough to support two families of four people for a year.
In response to the vast agricultural overpumping came a flurry of laws, regulations, and court actions.
For the past decade, valley irrigators have been under a court order to maintain a sustainable aquifer system. That means restoring at least 400,000 acre feet to underground supplies, officials say. (Engineering studies say the unconfined aquifer actually has been drained by as much as 1 million acre feet since 1976.)
Little progress has been made to return that water in the past 10 years. Now irrigators face a 2031 deadline to repay the water debt.
Still, 5,000 irrigation wells continue to pump in the valley, including 3,000 in the key Subdistrict 1 north of Monte Vista and west of Hooper.
The $426,000 state Rio Grande Implementation Plan was blunt: “Because the sustained and lingering drought since 2002 has not been matched with a decline in agricultural consumptive use, use of the aquifers is unsustainable.”
What local water officials now fear is a replay in the San Luis Valley of what happened to irrigators on the South Platte River, where years of over-pumping by farmers, combined with a resulting state court order, led to the 2006 shutdown of 440 wells and the pumping curtailment of hundreds of others.
In the San Luis Valley, the clock is ticking. A reckoning awaits.
“Shutting down wells – there are people here who can’t survive that,” said Simpson, the state senator. “We are 10 years into this plan to create and maintain a sustainable aquifer system, but we are not yet back to where we started. There are no easy solutions.”
Scientists say it won’t get any easier. Because of climate change, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts even more challenges for water users in the Upper Rio Grande Basin:
Flows will decrease by 33 percent by 2100 at the Rio Grande near Del Norte, Conejos River near Mogote, Los Pinos River near Ortiz, and San Antonio River at Ortiz. Flows will decrease by 50 percent at the Rio Grande near Lobatos.
Peak river flows will come earlier, shifting from June to May.
Fewer water rights will be served. From 1950 to 1999, the average junior-most water right to be served in June on the Rio Grande was a 1910 priority, but by 2100 it will be an 1890 priority.
“We are an incredible agricultural community, but we don’t have the water supply we used to,” said Dutton, the Rio Grande representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There are more people who want water than there is water available. We are facing scarcity.”
Here’s Part 2 in the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
Plan to pipe water to Front Range has big backers, few specifics
THE Front Range executives who want to export water from the San Luis Valley to sell elsewhere are clear about a few things:
They have money. They are backed by former Gov. Bill Owens. And they think their plan will benefit the Valley.
Beyond that, however, details remain sketchy.
Where exactly would the Renewable Water Resources project be built? Who are the investors? How much would it cost? What’s the project timetable? Who are the local supporters? Where are the customers?
Also: If this project will truly help the San Luis Valley, then why are the political, water, and farm leaders of the Valley overwhelmingly against it?
“We know San Luis Valley citizens are looking forward to jobs and an uptick in the local economy as a result of our project moving forward,” said Renewable Water Resources executives in a prepared statement. “Citizens responded favorably to the more than $50 million community fund – run by the community – that would be created to address critical issues which could include public education, economic diversity, senior assistance programs, conservation efforts, law enforcement, mental health services, and more.
“We have asked the unelected Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board the following question, ‘What are you for?’ This question has been met with silence other than falling back on the status quo which means higher taxes and more regulation for the valley’s struggling farms and ranches.”
Local officials say Renewable Water Resources is not to be trusted.
“They continue to use false information to describe and promote their project,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “I don’t think people will fall for a bunch of falsehoods.”
Valley native Ken Salazar – the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, U.S. senator, state Attorney General, and current U.S. ambassador to Mexico – said the project would proceed “over my dead body.”
Local opponents of the plan formed a group, Protect Our Water, that lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. It lists statements of opposition to the RWR proposal from eight separate local governments, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the city of Alamosa, and Mineral and Rio Grande counties.
The group says it is organized around a main principle: “There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.” It has a web page dedicated to correcting what it says are RWR’s numerous misstatements about the project.
RWR executives say they can’t be specific about project locations, timetables, or costs because they are focused on winning Valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, RWR says it wants to build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass, to some uncertain location.
Though a few Front Range cities such as Aurora and Colorado Springs draw some water from the Arkansas River basin, most metro Denver utilities rely on the South Platte River, a more distant location that would require a much longer pipeline and additional pumping costs for RWR.
RWR says it has no identified customers for its proposed project. Executives have been pitching it to utilities on the Front Range.
The financial incentives for RWR: Wholesale water prices are five to 10 times higher on the populated Front Range than in the agricultural San Luis Valley.
In the San Luis Valley, RWR proposes to drill nearly a half-mile into the Valley’s deep aquifer to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year. At the same time, RWR says it will buy and retire 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
The company says it is “investing $68 million to pay local farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above market rate.”
In addition to the purchase of those water rights, RWR said it will donate $50 million to a locally controlled community fund. The company expects that fund to generate $3 million to $4 million per year in contributions for local causes.
RWR also has agreed to donate a 3,000-acre ranch for use as elk habitat near the Baca National Wildlife Refuge south of Crestone.
“To give the above numbers some context,” RWR said in a statement, “the poverty rate of the San Luis Valley is greater than 35 percent and the average median household income is under $26,000. We do believe our commitments to the community will better the valley.”
However, many questions remain unanswered. RWR declined to make available any project executives, including Owens, governor of Colorado from 1999-2007, for an interview for this story, insisting instead that all questions be written and answered via email.
After years of water overuse, Valley irrigators now are operating under state orders to reduce consumption by hundreds of thousands of acre feet. Local water officials remain dubious that RWR can legally remove more water from a system already facing significant cutbacks.
On top of the existing legal challenges, local engineers are girding for hydrologic changes caused by climate change. One state study estimated streamflows in the upper Rio Grande basin will plunge by a third in the next 80 years because of climate change.
Project opponents now must toe a fine line politically. Though they want to highlight the current water shortages because of court rulings, continuing drought, and climate change, they don’t want farmers to give up hope and sell to RWR.
In a Valley dominated by agricultural business, exporting water for other uses will throttle the future economy of the San Luis Valley, RWR opponents say. They point to the example of Crowley County in the lower Arkansas River Valley, where irrigators sold their supplies to Front Range cities, allowing a few farmers to reap big paydays at the expense of the rest of the southeastern Colorado economy.
An irrigator who drops out of a local ditch makes it harder economically for remaining farmers to continue to operate and maintain the ditch.
Many local farmers say buy-and-dry policies threaten the future of agriculture in the Valley.
“Our community is centered on water and farming, and I hope the community sticks together,” said potato farmer Tyler Mitchell. “But in the grand scheme of life, money talks. If the price is right, you might see people sell. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mitchell and other farmers are heartened by the Valley’s history of defeating other water export proposals.
In the 1980s, former Gov. Dick Lamm and American Water Development Inc. sought to develop and export as much as 200,000 acre-feet per year from the Valley’s confined aquifer. After five years of litigation and a lengthy trial, AWDI lost in court.
In the 1990s, Stockman’s Water, led by Monte Vista native Gary Boyce, purchased the Baca Ranch and proposed to export 150,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Valley. Boyce lost two statewide votes and struggled in water court. The Nature Conservancy bought the Baca Ranch in 2002.
Most political leaders in the Valley supported a drive to convert the Great Sand Dunes into a national park partly to help prevent water exports from the Valley. In 2008, the state granted a water right to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve for the groundwater beneath its boundaries.
According to the state’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan, it was the first nonconsumptive water right issued by the state of Colorado. “The water right precludes any withdrawal of water from the aquifers that would cause injury to the park’s environments, which are dependent on the groundwater,” the state plan says.
The Valley’s extensive wetlands and river habitats support at least 13 threatened and endangered species and more than 260 species of birds, including a major spring and fall flight of sandhill cranes and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.
Still, Sean Tonner, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Bill Owens, led a drive to buy 11,500 acres of the Rancho Rosado from the former holdings of Boyce, who died in 2016.
The result is the current RWR project proposal, led by Tonner and backed by Owens and other former members of his gubernatorial administration.
(A detailed explanation of the history of San Luis Valley water export proposals, conducted by the University of Colorado Law School, is here.)
“Because of our project offerings – with this proposal – we can enrich the local economy, bring more jobs to the area, support essential non-profits and community groups, and improve the health of the area’s aquatic habits and wildlife,” RWR said in a statement.
The Protect Our Water coalition strongly disagrees.
“A plan being proposed by Renewable Water Resources will remove water from the Valley and permanently dry up at least 10,000 acres of farmland,” the group says. “It could also negatively impact the environment, including streams, rivers, The Great Sand Dunes National Park, refuges, wetlands, fish and wildlife. Water sustains our economy and lifestyle.
“There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Responding to challenges posed by drought, greater demand from a growing population and potential interstate Colorado River compact issues, a state water agency is looking to phase in rules in western Colorado that would require the use of measurement devices when exercising surface and groundwater rights.
State law already requires that owners of irrigation ditches and reservoirs install headgates with measurement devices where necessary, but while the Division of Water Resources can order installation of measurement devices, it never has adopted surface water measurement rules.
Groundwater measurement rules already are in place in several river basins east of the Continental Divide, in some cases as a result of court orders.
“Those have been largely in response to the need to administer groundwater rights within our (seniority-based) prior appropriations system along with surface water rights,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein, director of the Division of Water Resources.
He said surface water in basins such as the South Platte, Rio Grande and Arkansas also long has been overappropriated in terms of water rights, and water rights holders are accustomed to measuring their diversions closely, so surface water measurement rules in those places are not an immediate concern of the state, unlike the Western Slope…
[Mike Sullivan] said that in areas of high demand, many structures already have adequate controls and measurement devices, but some may need repairs to work properly, which is something the new rules can address.
Sullivan said growth in the state and more frequent drought years are contributing to calls for administration of water by DWR under the priority system and helping drive the consideration of the measurement rules…
The division sees measurement as important should Colorado ever face curtailment of water uses under a 1922 interstate compact if it and other Upper Basin states are no longer able to meet a compact provision regarding the amount of river water that flows to Lower Basin states on a 10-year average.
[Kevin] Rein thinks an Upper Basin failure to comply with that provision isn’t likely to happen until at least 2026, and says it’s easy to oversimplify the compact’s possible resulting ramifications.
But he thinks measurement would be important to determine how much water Colorado has been using and how much water would be taken from it in the case of curtailment.
The Division of Water Resources plans to make all the data gathered through measurement publicly available, as it involves diversions of what are waters of the state, administered through a system involving ownership not of water but of water rights…
The Division of Water Resources is looking to phase in new rules on the West Slope region by region, likely starting with the Yampa/White/North Platte river basins, DRW’S Division 6…
Rein said DWR may want to successfully work through rulemakings in a couple of its divisions between getting to Division 5, which covers the Colorado River Basin, as the basin is so large, with a lot of water volume and diversion points.
He thinks that Division 5 and Division 4, covering the Gunnison River Basin, have a lot more measurement devices than elsewhere in western Colorado, but said the devices aren’t as prevalent in some of the Colorado and Gunnison sub-basins.
Surface water measurement can be done using systems such as flumes, weirs, radar and current meters, while groundwater use is measured with meters or other devices. State officials say they don’t plan to impose one-size-fits-all rules.
They will takeinto account things such as the size of a diversion and a desire to require devices no more costly than what is needed to properly measure a diversion.
Colorado officials plan to measure use more precisely and pay farmers to send more to Lake Powell
As federal authorities impose the first-ever mandatory cuts in how much water Arizona, Nevada and Mexico take from the Colorado River, the states higher up the river face rising pressure to divert less.
That has Colorado officials embarking on an effort to install measuring devices across the Western Slope to precisely account for just how much farmers, ranchers and cities siphon out. The state is also developing a program to pay farmers, cities and industries to use less of their allotted shares of river water so that more could be banked in Lake Powell to meet the state’s legal downriver obligations to California, Arizona and Nevada.
All of this comes after the summer’s emergency draw-down of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and other federal reservoirs to leave more water in the 1,450-mile river.
Monday’s [August 16, 2021] declaration by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation orders Arizona to cut the water it draws from Lake Mead by 18% (512,000 acre-feet), Nevada by 7% (21,000 acre-feet) and Mexico by 5% (80,000 acre feet). The cuts must begin next year.
The feds also declared that Colorado and its upper basin neighbors (Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) will be allowed to deliver a little less water next year to Lake Powell, reducing the amount measured at the top of the Grand Canyon from 8.23 million acre-feet to 7.43 million acre-feet. That’s because shrinking mountain snow, drought and heat are depleting headwaters, authorities said.
Still, average annual flows of water in the Colorado River Basin have decreased by 19% since 2000, federal records show. And water levels in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead have been falling steadily for years as 40 million people tap the river. This year’s record low levels (both about a third full) triggered the declaration.
New projections unveiled by federal hydrologists that the river basin will dry out faster than previously expected may trigger additional cuts before 2025 based on states’ agreed-on operating procedures.
“It’s all connected, one river system, and we’re just in different points of pain,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy.
Colorado Division of Water Resources director Kevin Rein met with ranchers and farmers around western Colorado last month seeking guidance on how best to install flumes and other devices to measure how much water they divert…
Meanwhile, Colorado Water Conservation Board officials have scheduled a working session this month to consider expansion of pilot program efforts to pay farmers, cities and industries to use less water, which analysts have said could cost the state hundreds of millions.
Board director Rebecca Mitchell, who also represents Colorado in negotiating with other states over the river’s water, said headwaters users “understand the risks and vulnerabilities we face due to severe drought and a potentially hotter and drier future.”
After nearly a year’s worth of meetings, a work group has not reached a consensus about what Colorado should do to prevent investors from profiting off of speculating on the state’s water.
A report released last week by a group of water managers, policy experts and users — who were convened to explore ways to strengthen current anti-speculation law — lays out a list of concepts but does not give clear direction to state legislators about which concepts to pursue.
“Due in part to the drawbacks that the Work Group identified for each of the brainstormed concepts in Section 5, and a lack of consensus, the Work Group does not recommend any of the concepts for implementation,” the report reads.
The work group was made up of representatives from across water sectors, including Front Range municipal-water providers, Western Slope agricultural-water users, nonprofit organizations and others. At the direction of state lawmakers, the work group looked into how legislation could be enacted or amended to crack down on investment water speculation. The group defined investment water speculation as the purchase of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from the increased value of the water in a future sale.
The lack of consensus or recommendations underscores how difficult it is to answer the thorny question at the heart of the issue: How can the government balance protecting a public resource from profit-seeking investors without infringing on private-property rights?
“The lack of consensus is informative in and of itself,” said state engineer Kevin Rein, who co-chaired the work group. “That tells the (Water Resources Review) Committee a lot right there.”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning they must use the water for what it was decreed, such as irrigating crops. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights and change what the water is allowed to be used for by getting the approval of the water court.
This system creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A New York City-based private equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water from the Colorado River to the farmland of Fruita, Mack and Loma. Concern about WAM’s activity in the Grand Valley was a main reason that legislators convened the anti-speculation work group through 2020’s Senate Bill 48.
Of the 19 concepts presented in the report, eight were identified as having the potential to reduce investment water speculation on a large scale. These include taxing profits from the sale of water rights; eliminating agriculture tax benefits when water is removed from the land; encouraging local governments to police speculation through their 1041 powers; and creating a right of first refusal for a public entity to purchase water rights for long-term irrigation use for public benefit.
The most ambitious of the concepts, Concept J, is creating a statewide process to identify and prohibit investment water speculation. State Rep. Dylan Roberts, who represents Eagle and Routt counties and sits on the Water Resources Review Committee, said this concept has a lot of merit.
“I think it’s clear there are a lot of ways people could slip through the cracks of our current system if they did want to speculate in water,” he said. “If we created a statewide process, we might get a better handle on some of this activity that’s happening and find ways to work on a case-by-case basis to prevent it.”
All of the concepts had major drawbacks, the most common of which were high implementation costs and potential impacts to all water users, even those who are not speculative investors. According to the report, the drawbacks also include potentially reducing the sale price of water rights and, therefore, their value as property, which presents a risk to the current owners of irrigation water rights.
“The Work Group wants to stress to the Committee the complexity and nuance of the problem identified in SB 20-048 and the fact that any concept that would be effective in reducing or preventing Investment Water Speculation also comes with significant drawbacks,” the report reads.
Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the work group, said one reason the group couldn’t come to a consensus was because some members were uncomfortable with concepts that peered too closely at water-rights transactions between willing buyers and sellers.
“I do think the (concepts) that are most likely to be met with the least amount of opposition from existing water rights holders might be those that don’t penalize the private-property transaction itself,” Fleming said. “Don’t focus on the transaction. Focus on how the water is used or not used to figure out if there is speculation going on. Even then, it’s not an easy task.”
Although the work group couldn’t find consensus, Fleming and Rein said that doesn’t mean they were unsuccessful. The 66-page report presents a lot of information and the group now leaves the issue in the hands of the Water Resources Review Committee. The report is on the committee’s agenda for discussion at the Colorado Water Congress summer convention next week in Steamboat Springs.
“I think the simple fact that there aren’t consensus recommendations doesn’t mean the report doesn’t contain good information; I think it does,” Fleming said. “It’s up to the legislature at this point whether they want to pick anything up.”
Roberts said the committee should carefully consider all eight of the concepts that have the potential to reduce investment water speculation on a large scale. He called the report comprehensive and said he was not surprised that the work group could not come to a unanimous agreement, especially when members represented so many varied and sometimes conflicting interests.
“I commend them for giving us everything that they considered even if they didn’t reach consensus,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s not their job to formally propose changes in law; that’s the job of us at the legislature now. I’m glad we have this resource.”
This story ran in the Aug. 18 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Tax disincentives, requiring water rights to remain tied to irrigated agricultural land, and penalizing or prohibiting owners of water rights from being paid to not divert and use water are among concepts a water anti-speculation task force has forwarded for consideration by the state Legislature.
The task force’s report focuses on eight conceptual changes in law that the group says could reduce investment water speculation on a large scale, but the 22-member group was unable to come to a consensus on any recommendation.
A state law, Senate Bill 20-048, directed the state Department of Natural Resources to form the work group to explore ways to strengthen current water anti-speculation law…
The task force delivered its 66-page report to the state Water Resources Review Committee [August 13, 2021]. The task force included representation from the legal, nonprofit, municipal and agricultural communities and from a variety of water basins, along with several state-level officials.
Ultimately, group members couldn’t all see eye- to-eye on how to address the challenge.
“The Work Group wants to stress to the Committee the complexity and nuance of the problem identified in SB 20-048 and the fact that any concept that would be effective in reducing or preventing Investment Water Speculation also comes with significant drawbacks,” the report says.
It said the group is diverse, with varied and sometimes conflicting interests, and some of its members found that any concept, “even if further developed to minimize drawbacks, is unacceptable.”
Common drawbacks of the concepts included the high cost of implementation, the time and cost impacts of water transactions for all water users, and the potential reduction in the sale price of water rights and thus their value as property, which presents “a risk to the current owners of irrigation water rights,” the report says.
According to the report, investment water speculation “violates the intent of Colorado’s anti-speculation doctrine because the investor’s primary goal is profit from the water value rather than beneficial use of the water (and the profit that comes from the use).”
PROFITING OFF WATER RIGHTS
Speculation concerns center around things such as water brokers buying water rights and quickly flipping them to a third party for profit, or investors continuing to use water rights for their historical use with the primary goal of later profiting from the increased value of water through a sale, lease or payment for nondiversion of water for the benefit of a downstream user. Another concern is investors cornering a water market, driving up the price for others in need of water…
Other concepts include:
eliminating or reducing the agricultural tax benefit for lands from which water is removed, to reduce the benefit for lands converted from irrigated uses;
requiring water to be tied to the land unless irrigated land is going to be changed to a new land use;
funding and/or creating a right of first refusal before water rights are sold, which would allow for the purchase of the rights by the state or another public entity for long-term irrigation use for public benefit;
creating a statewide process, such as through water courts or a state agency, to identify and prohibit investment water speculation;
encouraging local governments to police investment water speculation through their “1041” powers, which get their name from a law that already lets counties require permits for things like reservoirs;
taxing the profit from sale or lease of water previously bought for investment water speculation purposes;
establishing a maximum rate of water right price increase and imposing higher taxes when exceeded.
One concept [Peter Fleming] was interested in but wasn’t seen as ultimately likely to have a large-scale impact on speculation would be modifying the state’s land conservation easement statute as incentive to tying water rights to their place of historical use.
Fleming said it’s unfortunate there are no recommendations, but even if there were, it would have been a long road to any change in law.
The Division of Water Resources is holding a webinar on a number of West Slope water issues and water issues of concern to all Coloradans, including upcoming measurement rules and consideration of establishing the Yampa River Basin in certain select areas as over-appropriated.
The webinar will discuss the phases and timing of measurement rulemaking and how the public and interested parties can provide comments or participate in upcoming stakeholder events. Also to be discussed are explanations of short-term and medium-term activities and plans to prepare for potential rulemaking for Compact Administration Rules. Time will be left towards the end of the webinar for questions and answers from participants.
WHO: State Engineer, Kevin Rein and Deputy State Engineer, Mike Sullivan, Colorado Division of Water Resources
WHAT: Webinar on Upcoming West Slope Measurement Rules and other water issues WHEN: Thursday, August 19, 2021, 6 PM to 7 PM
A working group submitted a report on Friday that includes several “concepts” that it says the Colorado Water Resources Review Committee should consider when exploring how to bolster the state’s anti-speculation law.
The 22-member group, which includes members from the legal, nonprofit, municipal, and agricultural sectors, convened due to the passage of Senate Bill 20-048. The group submitted a total of 19 “concepts” organized into five categories that the committee will consider when making future regulations.
Some of the recommendations include modifying current legal proceedings to give water courts a more active role in anti-speculation cases, encouraging local governments and state police to invest in water speculation, and establishing a maximum water rate increase with corresponding tax penalties for those who overcharge.
In its final report, the working group said it does not recommend any of the concepts for implementation due in part to the drawbacks members identified during their sessions and a lack of consensus among the group.
Instead, it recommended that lawmakers “gather additional feedback from multiple and diverse stakeholders within Colorado for any change in law considered.”
Water speculation – defined as obtaining a water right without a plan to put the water to beneficial use – is a foundational issue for the state of Colorado.
The state’s constitution expressly provides that water is “declared to be the property of the public, and the same is dedicated to the use of the people of the state.” This means that no one in the state can horde water without a legitimate need.
The approach has become known colloquially as the “Colorado Doctrine” in the water court system, according to the working group’s report.
Anti-speculation laws are also gaining more public attention as drought conditions are causing issues for some Colorado ranchers.
Gov. Jared Polis recently visited with the local agricultural communities in Craig and Steamboat Springs and declared that the recent “historic” water plan won’t be enough to help ease the conditions. The plan will spend $50 million to increase conservation and address the gap between supply and demand.
“This is an important part of who we were, who we are and who we will be now in the future,” Polis told the Craig Daily Press.
John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.
“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.
Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.
All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.
Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.
Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.
Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.
“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.
The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.
Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.
Will it work?
“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.
“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.
Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.
On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.
Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.
“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. That target elevation provides a 35-vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.
Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.
The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.
Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.
If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.
If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.
“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.
“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.
Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.
“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.
Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.
Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.
Contingency v. reality
Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.
The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.
“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”
Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.
“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”
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.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Hotter temperatures and the long-running drought have dried soils and reduced runoff across the Western Slope, but certain river basins have taken harder hits. Last Thursday, July 29, the Colorado Division of Water Resources placed a call on the Yampa River, restricting water use for junior water rights holders.
“This is only the third time the Yampa has ever been on call,” said Hunter Causey, Director of Asset Management and Chief Engineer at the Colorado River District. “The previous call was last year, but this year’s is almost a month earlier, which highlights what an extraordinary drought we are in.”
The following weekend’s monsoonal rains, however, brought some relief and added opportunity; the call was taken off the Yampa at 11 a.m. on Monday, August 2. Working cooperatively with engineers at the Division of Water Resources, the Colorado River District will help to keep the call off the river to aid downstream farmers and ranchers with releases from Elkhead Reservoir. The 1,500 acre-feet designated for this effort will serve to postpone another call but is unlikely to do so indefinitely.
The Elkhead releases are part of the 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, a collaborative effort to better understand the need for additional water supplies in the Yampa River Basin for historical water users while enhancing river flows for endangered fish and recreational users. The Pilot Project was funded earlier this year by the River District’s Community Funding Partnership, a result of the voter-approved 7A ballot question last November.
“This demonstrates the positive and immediate impacts of the River District’s Community Funding Partnership, the funding program made possible by 7A,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the River District. “We worked quickly with multiple partners to secure these releases. This is how we are navigating extraordinary times and connecting with all our water users.”
Alongside these Pilot Project releases, a study is currently underway in partnership with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. The Yampa Storage Modelling project is exploring options to more fully utilize water releases from reservoirs in the Yampa Basin to benefit agricultural water users.
Additionally, the Colorado River District is currently working on additional efforts to provide relief for farmers and ranchers at the end of the summer season.
“These partnerships highlight the importance of cooperative efforts to keep water flowing as we face an uncertain future regarding water supply,” said River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “The Colorado River District will continue to be an active voice for West Slope water users and the health of our rivers.”
State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.
State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.
“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”
Yampa/White/Green river basin
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.
In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.
“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.
Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.
“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”
In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.
Water shortages drive measurement push
The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.
“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.
A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.
As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.
“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.
The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.
“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.
Low interest in grant funding
One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.
“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”
The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.
“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.
As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.
“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”
Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the state’s climate center.
And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.
“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”
Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the state’s climate center.
And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.
“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”
But by the turn of the 20th century, the Rio Grande was considered over-appropriated. Demand outpaced supply.
“So we’ve always lived in this area where there was this level of stress,” said Heather Dutton, manager of San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and fifth-generation native.
The difference, she said, is this century’s more dire circumstances.
A multi-agency report last year found average annual streamflows to be steadily declining since the 1930s, with drops worsening in the 2000s. Citing climate change, the report warned of that long trusted snowpack in the mountains becoming less dependable.
Where Simpson’s and Dutton’s grandfathers and fathers didn’t have the Rio Grande to count on, they had groundwater. They joined drilling and pumping that ramped up in the ’30s. The shallow and “unconfined” aquifer and deeper “confined” aquifer, both remnants of an ancient lake, represented turning points for farming.
“But it was also a turning point for what my generation is now grappling with,” Dutton said, “where now we have too many wells, we have too much pumping, and we’re taking more out of the aquifer than we’re putting back in.”
The decades saw agreements for taking and giving back — for digging a hole, filling it with water and thus recharging the unconfined aquifer in hopes of making up for Mother Nature.
“By far, that’s where most of the groundwater withdrawals occur in the valley,” Simpson said. “The potatoes are grown and raised above that unconfined aquifer. Most of the intense irrigation is above that unconfined aquifer.”
Simpson manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which has tracked the aquifer’s storage since 1976. From the mid-’80s to today, charts show a staggering drop: A change amounting to about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.
The severe drought of 2002 started the steep trend of decline. Since then, there have been year-to-year gains of storage — eight years totaling 746,791 acre-feet. But there have been more years of drops, 10 totaling more than 1.7 million acre-feet. Lows this year are on par with record lows following the 2012 drought, data show.
The hope of Simpson and Dutton is to locally regulate before higher powers enforce harsher demands. The state has called on the valley to bring water back up to pre-2000 levels, or else face possible consequences of widespread shutdowns in 2030…
Farmers are taxing themselves to pump, with that money going to other farmers to pump less. Simpson and Dutton have been encouraging creativity, such as less water-needy crops like hemp and quinoa.
But they fear more drastic measures.
“There is a need to physically take land out of production,” Dutton said. “And it’s not like it’s just one person owns everything and we can just say, ‘Hey, can you cut back your farm by 30%?’ There are hundreds of families that farm and ranch here.
“And this is how they make their living, it’s in their blood, they want to do it, they’re proud of it. So trying to get people to cut back or stop farming altogether, it’s a study in psychology and human behavior. It’s really hard.”
And there are broader ramifications to consider when farms close, Simpson said. The well-being of his hometown is at stake when that happens, he said — Alamosa’s school, hospital and small businesses.
Cross Mountain Ranch, a sprawling cattle, guest and hunting operation near Maybell and the Yampa’s confluence with the Little Snake River, needed water to flood meadows for sheep and other livestock.
But there was nothing left to divert into the ranch’s ditch at Lily Park. A state official’s snapshot from the time shows no Yampa there at all — just a gravel bar with a stagnant puddle at the base.
The ranch may be far down river, but it’s high in priority. Under Colorado water law, that means the ranch long ago secured water rights that are vastly senior to many other users on the river. So if the ranch needs it, the state water engineer has to put a “call” on the Yampa and tell junior holders upriver to stop using, letting their water flow on toward Cross Mountain and the Utah border.
Yampa division engineer Erin Light did just that for the first time ever in 2018. She has an 80-page list of descending water rights holders on the Yampa. The ranch is on page one.
The easiest way to find enough water to meet the ranch’s rights was to call Craig Generating Station, a massive coal-fired electricity plant holding a variety of river rights and reservoir shares in the Yampa basin. The power station, managed by Tri-State Generation and owned by a variety of Western utilities, has been cooperative on water issues, Light said, and quickly sent more water downstream.
Then it happened again in 2020. Drought. A nearly dry river by the time the Yampa neared Dinosaur National Monument. And an official state call.
This year, the Yampa is looking severely troubled again. It’s no longer a fluke, but a trend. And so Light has asked her boss, state engineer Kevin Rein, to approve her 15-page memorandum and request declaring the Yampa officially “over appropriated.”
Too many users have divided up the river’s dwindling water too many ways, and future ditch diggers and well drillers need to be warned. Dozens of new water rights applications hit the water court for Yampa claims every year, she added…
Yampa not alone under drought pressure
The Yampa isn’t the first Colorado river to suffer the indignity of an official declaration of over appropriation. In fact, most of the major rivers were divided too many ways decades ago and therefore need to be managed down to the drop, from the South Platte on the Front Range, to the Arkansas and the Poudre.
But the fact it’s happening to the Yampa, long running relatively wild and free through the thinly-populated open range of northwest Colorado, is a clear danger sign, according to state officials and conservation groups. Drought in the short term and climate change in the long term are overlaid by relentless economic growth throughout Colorado, turning debates over water use from a distant worry into a current event…
Light’s detailed memo justifying the over appropriation declaration for the Yampa noted that water volume delivered by the river has fallen in recent decades from a norm of 1.5 million acre-feet a year to 1.1 million acre-feet. At the U.S. Geological Survey’s Maybell gauge on the Yampa on Friday, the river flowed at about 340 cubic feet per second, less than 16% of the median figure for that day in 105 years of recordkeeping…
So what would state approval of the over appropriation designation mean in practical terms for northwestern Colorado counties? Developers seeking to drill a new well in the Yampa Basin will see new state scrutiny of their plans to make sure they are not drawing down river water already owned by a senior rights holder. If Light thinks there would be damage, she can require the developer to augment the loss with a different supply, such as stored reservoir water or a pond capturing water during higher runoff periods…
Anyone with an improperly permitted well will also face new reviews, and demands for augmentation. Because of the way Colorado’s rivers and water tables behave, state engineers consider wells to be drawing down river water just as if they were taking it from the river’s surface.
People could still apply for new surface rights from the Yampa, but they will be warned, Light said, that their supply is likely to run out by August or September when senior rights holders put in their call to protect what they need.
Colorado Water Court for the Arkansas River Basin (Division 2) has issued a decree expanding the area within which the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District can provide augmentation water. The expansion includes parts of Custer and Fremont counties.
Attorney Kendall Burgemeister reported the news at the June meeting of the Upper Ark District board of directors. The decree is the culmination of a 3-year legal process that required the District to demonstrate its ability to provide replacement water and protect local water rights within the expanded boundary.
District General Manager Terry Scanga said the decree has already spurred several requests for water to replace evaporation from ponds within the new augmentation boundary, or “blue line.”
The Division 2 Engineer’s Office, Colorado Division of Water Resources, recently began evaluating ponds in the Arkansas River Basin for evaporative losses, identifying more than 10,000 ponds with no legal right to divert or store water.
An agency fact sheet describing the new pond management effort states, “For every acre of pond surface area, up to 1 million gallons of water is lost to evaporation each year.”
Under Colorado water law, water lost to evaporation from the ponds in question is injuring water rights owners by depriving them of water to which they are legally entitled.
The significance of these cumulative water losses prompted Division 2 Engineer Bill Tyner to implement the pond management initiative.
Tyner told Aspen Journalism, “Once we put the data together and we could look at the images of ponds and get a count of the number and relative sizes on average of those ponds, it did make us just very sure that this was a problem that could have some very negative consequences for the basin if we didn’t get more aggressive about the way that we took it on.”
Property owners within the new blue line are now seeking augmentation water from the Upper Ark District to avoid having to drain their ponds.
Scanga said the District’s agreements for pond augmentation are “curtailable.” During drought years, the district will stop augmenting ponds, and the pond owners will have to release water, which essentially provides a backup water supply.
Scanga said almost 50 parties filed statements of opposition in the case but that most opposers did not remain active in the case, including Custer County, prompting the judge to dismiss those filings “for lack of participation.”
Once stipulations were agreed upon with the handful of opposers did participate, the blue line decree was issued without the need for a trial.
WHEREAS, the State is in Phase 3 activation of the State Drought Plan for twenty-one (21) Colorado counties; and
WHEREAS, Phase 3 of the State Drought Plan advises a “Drought Emergency” be declared by Proclamation of the Governor; and
WHEREAS, the State received a summary of heightened concerns emerging from county commissioners, local emergency managers, and consistent, critical input from the Water Availability, Agriculture Impact, and Municipal Impact Task Forces; and
WHEREAS, the Department of Natural Resource and State Drought Task Force jointly sent a memorandum to the Governor recommending entering a drought emergency for western Colorado counties experiencing impacts from extensive severe (D2), extreme (D3), and exceptional (D4) drought conditions, including Moffat, Routt, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Grand, Garfield, Eagle, Summit, Mesa, Delta, Pitkin, Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan, Hinsdale, Dolores, Montezuma, La Plata, and Archuleta; and
WHEREAS, counties impacted along the continental divide in abnormally dry (D0) conditions and moderate (D1) drought will continue to be closely monitored and added to a drought emergency proclamation as appropriate; and
WHEREAS, the severe drought conditions and associated impacts in Colorado constitute a drought emergency;
THEREFORE, I, Jared Polis, Governor of the State of Colorado, do hereby proclaim a drought emergency in Colorado for the following twenty-one (21) western counties: Moffat, Routt, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Grand, Garfield, Eagle, Summit, Mesa, Delta, Pitkin, Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan, Hinsdale, Dolores, Montezuma, La Plata, and Archuleta; and
THEREFORE, I further direct the following measures:
The Drought Task Force will continue to meet and monitor evolving conditions;
Unmet and urgent needs from communities and regional liaisons will be reported to the Drought Task Force chairs;
The Agricultural Impact Task Force and Municipal Water Task Force will continue to meet monthly or as needed to recommend opportunities for incident mitigation to minimize potential impacts; and
The need for additional task forces, such as energy or wildlife response teams, will continue to be evaluated as conditions evolve through identified agency representatives.
in the State of Colorado.
GIVEN under my hand and the Executive Seal of the State of Colorado, this thirtieth day of June, 2021 — Jared Polis
FromHeart of the Rockies Radio (Danny “Dan R” Ridenour):
Governor Jared Polis has formally declared a drought emergency for western Colorado by Proclamation of the Governor as counties continue to face evolving impacts and water shortages from a multi-year, severe drought episode affecting industries and citizens.
On June 22, 2020, Phase 2 of the State’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan was activated for 40 counties and expanded to all 64 counties by September. As extreme drought and record setting fires expanded across the state, drought response moved into Phase 3 (the highest level of activation) of the State Drought Plan. Spring 2021 precipitation resulted in the stark contrast between significant drought relief for counties east of the continental divide and deepening drought and fire danger for the entire west slope…
While Colorado can face a range of shortages across the state every year, the cumulative impacts of drought stress our landscapes, reservoir storage, wildfire risks, and capacity of many water-dependent economies to rebound from previous year impacts and debts. We continue to work with our neighboring states to implement interstate agreements and consider additional potential solutions.
To stay informed on Colorado drought issues, sign up for the State’s Drought Updates or visit the Colorado Water Conservation Board website.
Officials say back-up water supply plan will not affect Wild & Scenic designation
Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.
Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a back-up water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners [June 22, 2021]. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure like aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.
Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.
River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t affect the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.
River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said the River District is working with environmental groups like American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.
“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”
The River District, along with Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District, undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.
“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.
That August, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basin-wide augmentation plan.
Most junior water rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, like releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Until water users come up with a permanent solution, DWR has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.
River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.
Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, nearly 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, plus some water for livestock.
In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.
Some commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.
“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”
River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.
“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.
Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education, coordinating with water managers and eventually developing a basin-wide augmentation strategy.
“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”
To prevent waste and avoid sparking an interstate legal battle, Colorado has started cracking down on what may seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket — illegal ponds.
Martin Mendine recently found himself in the state’s crosshairs. His family ranch is a wide, grassy expanse near southern Colorado’s Spanish Peaks. A fork of the Purgatory River meanders through the land which supports about a hundred cattle, and herds of elk. Migratory sandhill cranes pass through each year…
It’s wet enough to support all this life in part because of a cascade of five small ponds, held in place by dams made of dirt. The ponds are more than 80 years old, Mendine said. They were built when his grandfather tended the ranch.
“So we’ve been running this water now for, you know, damn near (a) century and they’re telling me I can’t use it,” Mendine said…
He got a notice in the mail recently telling him the ponds have been identified as potentially illegal. It said the storage rights needed to create and sustain the ponds don’t exist. To be compliant, he either needs to drain them or come up with a state-approved plan to fill them from a different water source or replace any losses from evaporation…
“Our basin has been over-appropriated for a long period of time,” said Bill Tyner, Colorado’s division engineer for the Arkansas River basin, where Mendine’s ranch is located. The Purgatory River is a tributary to the Arkansas, and runs across an arid stretch of southeastern Colorado…
Using satellite imagery to build an inventory of human-made ponds in the basin, and then cross-referencing with water rights on the books, the state has identified about 10,000 illegal ponds just in the Arkansas basin, Tyner said. He likens it to a string of pearls. Each individual pearl isn’t that costly or consequential on its own. But when pulled together in a line, it’s highly valuable…
His office is now in the midst of a systematic review of all ponds in the Arkansas basin. Using the satellite data, water commissioners, the people who enforce water law on the ground, have been following up with pond owners, letting them know they’ve ended up on a list of potentially illegal ponds, and laying out their options to make them legal…
The ponds in question encompass everything from pools for livestock watering to decorative fountains in business parks to duck ponds scattered across the grounds of a mountainous mansion.
It’s not just the Arkansas basin that’s seeing increased enforcement. State officials have pursued illegal ponds in the upper reaches of the Colorado River basin as well.
The problem with ponds, Tyner said, is evaporation. Water in a shallow pond evaporates more than when it’s flowing through a narrow stream. The state views evaporated water as wasted water…
Without money or access to new water supplies, a landowner’s options to make their ponds legal are limited. There are some exceptions for ponds used for erosion control or livestock watering, but they’re limited in scope. And because the Arkansas basin is one of the most over-appropriated in the state, there’s very little excess water to tap into…
A recent dispute over ponds went to the Colorado Supreme Court last year, where the state prevailed. The ponds in question aren’t allowed to be filled, and the owner was ordered to pay $92,000 in civil penalties, plus attorney’s fees. Machado’s takeaway from that ruling?
“Once the state finds an illegal pond and says you need to drain it, you better do it,” he said.
Click here for all the inside skinny and register:
Join the Colorado River District for the Gunnison State of the River webinar on Thursday, June 10 at 6 pm! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on river forecasts, landmark accomplishments, project opportunities, and the impacts of and on recreation for the Gunnison.
One of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, your Gunnison River provides the life force for local West Slope communities. Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water supply as we enter another drought year, celebrate a Lower Gunnison victory that’s been years in the making, and hear from David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly, about the West Slope recreation economy and its impacts.
You’ll also receive information on exciting new funding for Gunnison River Basin water projects and plans to sustain flows throughout the basin as conditions shift to hotter, drier seasons.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording for later viewing!
Welcome – Marielle Cowdin & Zane Kessler, Director of Public Relations and Director of Government Relations, Colorado River District (CRD)
Your Gunnison River, a Water Supply Update – Bob Hurford, Division 4 Engineer, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
The Lower Gunnison Project: Modernization in Action – Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, CRD
A Victory for the Lower Gunnison – Raquel Flinker, Sr. Water Resources Engineer/Project Manager, CRD and Ken Leib, Office Chief of the Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
Rivers on the Fly, Recreation Economy and Impacts – David Dragoo, Founder of Mayfly
Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships, CRD
With drought and climate change continuing to dry the American West, the state of Colorado is moving to declare one of its last, mostly free-flowing rivers, the Yampa, over-appropriated.
The action, initiated in March, is emblematic of the water situation across Colorado and the West: growing demand, shrinking supplies.
“It’s a sign of the times, that is, it’s happening in the context of lower flows and increased demand — and we’re seeing that all over the West,” said Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “The majority of the problem in the Yampa is created by a decrease in flows, although there has been some increase in demand.”
According to a recent analysis by the state, the Yampa’s flows have dropped roughly 25 percent over the past 100 years, from 1.5 million acre-feet to 1.12 million acre-feet annually, a change attributed to sustained drought and climate change.
“The combination of continued adjudication of new water rights and the potential for a hotter, drier climate will likely cause the trend of declining streamflows to continue,” wrote Erin Light, the top water regulator in the region, in her report detailing why she’s recommending the over-appropriation designation.
The river is important not just because of its key role in Northwestern Colorado, but also because it is one of the largest tributaries to the drought-stressed seven-state Colorado River system.
Kevin Rein, the state engineer and Colorado Division of Water Resources director, is still considering Light’s March 17 recommendation, which encompasses the Yampa River and all of its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River to the town of Steamboat Springs. If approved, the designation will affect 2,321 total square miles, which includes 148 miles of the Yampa itself.
At a virtual meeting in March, some Yampa-area stakeholders expressed concerns about the quick pace of the process and the lack of in-person conversations. They also asked for more information and more time to understand the implications and potential ripple effects of the designation.
Before he makes his decision, Rein said he wants to be able to meet in person with the basin’s residents, something the COVID-19 pandemic has so far prevented. He said he did not yet have an anticipated timeline.
“I’m not confident that people understand some of the nuances, and so I want people to be believers in why we’re doing this,” Rein said. “I want to be out there meeting with people in person, answering all the hard questions before we make a decision that sets things in motion.”
The state uses the over-appropriation designation when it has determined that there’s not enough water in a stream system, some or all of the time, for all of the people and organizations who hold water rights in the system.
Over-appropriation is the norm in Colorado — other portions of the Yampa system are already designated as over-appropriated, as are the majority of other stream systems in the state.
Still, the recommendation to designate this new section of the basin as over-appropriated is a major change to the status quo in this region, where water has historically been so abundant and demand so low that a majority of water users never measured what they took from the stream.
To more accurately glean the full water picture in the Yampa Basin, the state ordered water users there to install measuring devices in September 2019. Though installation was initially slow-going, the state and several local community groups have been working with water users in the intervening months, which has brought the proportion of water users with measuring devices up to 58 percent as of April 2021, according to state officials.
“It’s normal for people to want to be able to continue the water use they’ve enjoyed in the past, but the hydrology is changing,” Castle said. “The overall balance of the system is different and that means that the way we do business in terms of administering water has to change as well. It’s quite understandable that people may not be welcoming this kind of additional state regulatory overlay that they are used to doing without.”
For divvying up the state’s water, Colorado uses a “first in time, first in right” system known as prior appropriation. This means that the people or organizations with the oldest decreed water rights, known as senior water rights, get priority over later-decreed, or junior, water rights.
When there isn’t enough water to satisfy those senior water rights, the state can stop or slow the flow for junior water rights, a measure known as a call or a curtailment.
This temporary action, taken to ensure that senior water rights holders can get all of the water they’re legally entitled to, is becoming more and more common in the Yampa River Basin. State officials have implemented calls in two of the last three years — in 2018 and 2020.
There would likely have been additional calls in the basin, but the community avoided them by sharing water, getting by with less, and releasing stored water from reservoirs into the river and allowing it to remain there rather than diverting it for irrigation or drinking water, according to Light.
“We have many stream systems where water rights are not fully met but owners opt to not request our office to place a call,” Light wrote in her recommendation. “While their cooperative approach to ‘make do’ with water they have and/or share it among their neighbors is admirable, it is yet one more indicator that, more and more frequently, the water supply of the Yampa River Basin cannot support the … demand.”
Groundwater vs. surface water
The overarching goal of the over-appropriation designation is to protect the rights of senior water rights holders moving forward, Light said.
If the designation is applied, people will still be able to obtain new surface water rights, for instance to take water from streams and rivers for approved uses like irrigation, but they should be aware that there may not be enough water available to satisfy those rights, Light said.
The over-appropriation designation would also affect groundwater rights, or water pumped up from below ground. More specifically, the designation will affect residents’ ability to drill new wells and bring into compliance existing wells with unpermitted uses.
Under the designation, landowners who want permission to drill a new well would need to meet stricter criteria and might need to be prepared to replenish that well water to the river, a process known as augmentation.
The reason for the distinction between surface and groundwater? Groundwater diversions like wells have a delayed impact on rivers and streams, whereas surface water diversions like ditches have a more immediate impact.
When water is in short supply, state officials can simply stop the flow to junior ditches to ensure there’s enough water for senior water rights holders. They can’t do that as easily with wells, which is where plans for augmentation come into play.
For some landowners in the proposed over-appropriation region, creating an augmentation plan will be a difficult process, one requiring lawyers, court filings and engineers. For others, it will be as simple as reaching out to a nearby reservoir manager and paying for stored water to meet the augmentation needs.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, for example, has a blanket augmentation plan that covers some of the proposed over-appropriation area. Landowners within the plan’s boundaries can apply to the district for augmentation water, which costs from $212.54 to $248 per acre-foot, according to district spokesperson Holly Kirkpatrick.
Meanwhile, augmentation is less straightforward for water users who live outside of those bounds.
“The community really has a choice of whether to continue with the status quo where people have to have their individual augmentation plans … or come together and implement some sort of blanket augmentation plan to remove that barrier to water development,” said Hunter Causey, senior water resources engineer for the Colorado River District, during the 2021 Yampa Valley State of the River meeting in May.
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):
There are two spots on Mount Werner that Erin Light looks at each spring to get a rough estimate about when the Yampa River may see peak stream flow.
“A lot of times, it is very close. When those two spots come together, it is probably within a day or two that it will peak,” said Light, the regional division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Looking at the Steamboat (stream flow) gauge, I would say we are probably done.”
Stream flows for the Elk and Yampa rivers likely have already peaked, Light said, pointing to high flow marks Friday and Sunday. It is possible this isn’t the peak, as a spring storm could bolster water levels, but Light said it seems unlikely that is the case this year…
…ranchers in the county are preparing for the worst, irrigating earlier than normal and contemplating taking measures like bringing livestock water in tanks and even selling off part of their herd, because they don’t have enough pasture land with water flowing through it to raise them all…
There is more water flowing out of Stagecoach right now than going in, which happens every year but rarely this early. There are already calls on various ditches in the Yampa Valley, and Light said she expects more.
Light is relatively confident there will be a call on the Elk River, which has happened almost every year since 2012. As for the Yampa, it could be different, as the Colorado River District has a $50,000 grant for strategic releases to hopefully avoid a call on the river. Without that, a call would almost be certain, Light said…
The upper basin is particularly tough right now, said Hagenbuch, who is the director and agricultural agent for the Routt County CSU Extension Office. He said he hopes return flows from irrigation will boost water levels in the coming weeks, but he doesn’t have an optimistic outlook…
[Kelly] Romero-Heaney said there is enough water to support municipal customers in town, but the more they use, the less there is in Fish Creek, which is an important spawning stream for mountain whitefish. She said she hopes Steamboat residents minimize outdoor watering to take some pressure off the resource.
Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday…
Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.
“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.
If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.
“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”
This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.
Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.
“You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks…
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.
Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture
Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
Potential risks and solutions
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.
Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”
Suspicion of outsiders
For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.
“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.
Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.
“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”
And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”
And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.
“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”
Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.
Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.
“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”
This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
From email from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (Phil Brink):
Topics and Presenters:
1) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding for ditch and irrigation companies: For the first time, ditch and irrigation companies can now apply for USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding. What types of improvements are eligible for funding, and what are the payment rates and eligibility requirements?
2) Mountain Meadow Deficit Irrigation (early) Results: During the summer of 2021, irrigated meadows in the Kremmling area were deficit irrigated to learn more about the effects of deficit irrigation on forage production, soils, and the amount of water that could be conserved.
Presenter: Dr. Perry Cabot, Irrigation and Water Resources Leader, CSU Western Colorado Research Center, Fruita, CO.
3) How to Secure your Water Right and Navigate Division of Water Resources (DWR) Records for Information: Water rights are valuable. You will learn how to access information about your water rights via the DWR HydroBase online resource AND the steps needed to help secure your water rights.
Presenters: John Rodgers, P.E., Colorado DWR HydroBase Coordinator and
The U.S. Drought Monitor from April 20th showed slight improvements in areas near Larimer and Boulder counties. Similar to last month, exceptional (D4) drought currently covers 15% of the state; extreme (D3) drought covers 17%; severe (D2) drought covers 28%; moderate (D1) drought covers 29%; and recent precipitation resulted in patches of abnormally dry (D0) areas in 10% of the state.
The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) values from Jan. 11 to Apr. 11 highlight continued dry conditions on the western slope. North eastern Colorado’s SPI data points reflect areas of above average precipitation after January and March snowstorms. The 12-month SPI map depicts the long-term drought conditions due to precipitation deficits in 2020 across the state, especially in the west.
The NOAA Climate Prediction Center three month outlook indicates increased chance of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation are in the upcoming months. These forecasts are consistent with long-term temperature trends, and a strong signal in seasonal models of inordinate high pressure ridging over the West. Monsoon season remains uncertain. The current La Niña pattern continues to weaken and is expected to revert to neutral conditions in the summer. This is typical; ENSO signals are often dampened in summer. Development of a 2nd La Niña year is anticipated this fall through winter. The last two 2nd year La Niña events were water years 2012 and 2018. Both were drought years.
Water providers across the state report average to slightly below average storage levels and near normal demands. Drought management planning and potential restrictions are being discussed through multiple coordination groups. Stakeholders can follow along with state drought response actions and activities through public engagement pages for the Municipal Water Task Force and Agricultural Impact Task Force.
Colorado Public Safety presented an overview of the wildfire outlook for the coming year to the Water Availability Task Force. Many factors contribute to the extremity of a fire season including humidity, lightning or human created ignitions, rainfall during monsoon season, and winds. In the past, Colorado’s fire season began in late May through June into late August and September. More recently, this pattern has changed around the state and fires can occur during any month. The number of fires has been decreasing across the nation, but the number of acres covered by fires has increased. In 2020, 4 of the 20 largest fires in Colorado occurred, including the first, second and third largest fires in the state’s history.
Getting water to state line would be key in compact call
In September, Front Range water providers released some water downstream — which they were storing in Homestake Reservoir — to test how they could get it to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact call.
But accurately tracking and measuring that water — from the high mountain reservoir in the Eagle River watershed all the way through the Colorado River at the end of the Grand Valley — turned out to be tricky, according to a recently released report from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
From Sept. 23 through Sept. 29, Colorado Springs Utilities, Aurora Water and Pueblo Board of Water Works released a total of 1,667 acre-feet of water, which would have otherwise been diverted to the Front Range, from the reservoir into Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River. The release gradually ramped up from about 25 cubic feet per second to 175 cfs and then gradually back down over the seven days.
But officials were unable to put a number on how much of that water made it to the state line.
In their attempt to quantify the actual amount of reservoir release delivered to the state line, state engineers ran into challenges that caused uncertainty, they said in an email.
Although they couldn’t measure how many acre-feet officially made it, State Engineer Kevin Rein said that the exercise was still a success and that all the water, minus transit losses, crossed into Utah.
“We have heard this is a failure because not everything worked perfectly, but in my mind, this was an opportunity under non-stress conditions to find out what we need to do to ensure that things will work,” Rein said.
A goal of this project, known as the State Line Delivery Pilot Reservoir Release, was to see if the water could be “shepherded” downstream without senior water-rights holders diverting the extra water. This required Division 5 water commissioners to actively administer some headgates, especially on Homestake Creek and the Eagle River.
According to the report, the water took about 2½ days to make the journey from the reservoir to the gage on the Colorado River near Cameo — about 16 hours longer than predicted by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Along the way, about 10% of the water either evaporated or was soaked up by thirsty streamside soils and vegetation — processes known collectively as transit loss.
Making sure water could get to the state line would be essential in the case of a compact call.
This scenario, the chances of which increase as climate change continues to reduce river flows, could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement.
A compact call could be especially problematic for Front Range water providers since most of their rights that let them divert water over the Continental Divide from the Western Slope date to after the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means mandatory cutbacks in water use could fall more heavily on the post-compact water rights of Front Range water providers.
Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water, operating together as Homestake Partners, said the problem was that the rate of release was too low. It was more a matter of flow volume than administration. Even in a dry year, a release of 175 cfs was not high enough to reliably track the water, especially when it reaches the Colorado River, which has a much higher volume of water than Homestake Creek or the Eagle River, and the reservoir release is a smaller fraction of its overall flow.
In an email to Aspen Journalism, Homestake Partners said: “A bigger pulse of water would overcome some of the issues that DWR had in tracking the release. This sort of result is exactly what we wanted to explore — it tells us that if we, or anyone else in the state, chooses to make a state line release in the future, a higher volume of water will probably need to be released to be reliably tracked.”
State engineers also had to deal with a river that was constantly in flux. Upstream reservoir releases and changes to irrigation diversions made for additional challenges.
State officials said it was hard to separate the reservoir release from the rest of the Colorado River’s flow at the state line because of numerous ungaged streams and return flows from irrigation that enter the river between Palisade and the state line.
“The ungaged inflows could not be subtracted from the total flow in the river, therefore the separated flows were too large and did not allow for the initial waves of the reservoir release to be identified,” officials said in an email.
The total flows at the state line at the time of the reservoir release’s arrival were around 2,500 cfs, according to DWR.
River District concerns
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which protects Western Slope water interests, had several concerns about the reservoir release.
“I think it’s important that the public and the state recognize that they released 1,600 acre-feet of water during an incredibly dry period and they couldn’t actually track it to the state line,” said River District general manager Andy Mueller.
But Mueller’s concerns go beyond the trouble with tracking. He said the state engineer did not reach out to Western Slope water users who had the potential to be injured by the release. He also doesn’t trust that the cities won’t just refill the hole created by the release with more Western Slope water.
The River District’s main concern is that in a water-collection system as complex as Homestake Partners — with several different transmountain diversions bringing water from the Western Slope to the Front Range — it’s hard for the state to make sure they won’t take more water to replace the pool they released.
“From our perspective, it’s very difficult for the state to verify that they haven’t just brought the water over from a different part of their diversion system,” Mueller said. “So it leaves us with a lot of skepticism, and we voiced that in several discussions.”
To address some of these concerns, the cities are required to submit a verification plan to the state to prove three things: that they had enough space available in reservoirs on the east side of the divide to store the water, and they weren’t just releasing water downstream they couldn’t use anyway; that they actually decreased water taken through the Homestake Tunnel by the same amount as the pilot release; and that they didn’t create additional space in Homestake Reservoir to allow for greater storage this year.
“In essence, we brought the ‘hole’ we created in our storage in Homestake Reservoir through to the East Slope when we operated the tunnel in February and March,” the Homestake Partners’ email reads. “This was accomplished by not drawing down Homestake Reservoir quite as much as we otherwise could have this winter in preparation for spring runoff.”
The reservoir release also could have implications for a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently investigating. At the heart of a demand- management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir — which spans Utah and Arizona — and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.
Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river. Front Range water providers could participate by releasing water stored in Western Slope reservoirs.
Rein was careful to say that the Homestake pilot release was in no way connected to demand management. Still, the experiment may have revealed potential problem areas should a demand-management program become reality.
“The ability to track water that is conserved consumptive use all the way to the state line is really critical for the success of that program,” Mueller said. “And if you can’t track a slug of 1,600 acre-feet of water to the state line, how are you going to track the voluntary reduction in use of a small ditch on the West Slope that maybe they are saving 15 acre-feet?”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 16 edition of the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.
In 2018, Erin Light did something that had never before been done on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. She placed a call.
As district water engineer, Light was responsible for administering Colorado’s complex matrix of water rights. Rights are ranked by date and volume, from earliest decreed and hence most senior to most recent and hence junior. A senior water-rights holder on the Yampa River at Lily Park, near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, had called to say he was not getting the water decreed to that property for irrigation of the hay meadows.
The call she placed that summer lasted 21 days, causing the most junior of users upstream to cease diversions until that senior right was met. Then came another hot and dry summer in 2020, and she placed another call, this one lasting 9 days. It was a paradigm shift for the Yampa, a river that through the 20th century always had had enough water for anybody who wanted to dip a straw into it.
If foreign to the Yampa River, such calls have long been commonplace on Colorado rivers. The premise is water scarcity, the idea that there just isn’t enough water for all who want it, at least all the time.
Colorado’s hierarchy of seniors and juniors, older and younger, is commonly traced to the development of irrigation agriculture in the Poudre Valley between Fort Collins and Greeley. The Greeley irrigators were first, but then came new irrigators upstream near Fort Collins. In a drought year, their new diversions had an effect on what was available downstream. Within a decade, soon after Colorado became a state, the first calls were placed on that river.
It took little time for scarcity to be understood on all of Colorado’s rivers east of the Continental Divide. Scarcity was slower to be understood on the Western Slope, where there was more water and, even in the days of feverish gold- and silver-mining, fewer people. Yet over the decades, the Colorado and other rivers came to be fully appropriated.
The Yampa, though, stood alone among major rivers in Colorado in its relative plentitude. It routinely delivered water to all who wanted it. Even its reservoirs, modest in size, came relatively late in the 20th century, to help moderate flows.
The Yampa’s relative isolation played a role in this. It’s two mountain ranges distant from the Front Range, two significant fences to hop for Front Range cities and Great Plains farmers.
Climate also played a role. You can’t grow corn in the Yampa Valley with any reliability. You can grow hay, but the geography makes even that problematic.
Now that climate is shifting. Not enough to grow corn but enough to cause the Yampa to be marginally less robust and, as the 21st century has shown in 2018 and 2020, but also in other years before that, unable to deliver.
This has led to Light recommending that the Yampa be designated as “over-appropriated.” It’s a legal phrase that suggests something more odious than is actually the case. It sounds like the theater has been oversold and some people will be escorted from their seats to stand outside.
Over-appropriated doesn’t mean that. It does have implications for those wanting to drill large-capacity wells along the river. They must show the ability to deliver augmentation water, which is commonly purchased from an upstream reservoir. Most of Colorado’s rivers long ago were designated as over-appropriated.
Light wasn’t the district engineer in 2002, and only recently did the downstream irrigator near Dinosaur explain why he hadn’t demanded his water that summer and fall. He just didn’t have the heart to cause so much pain upstream in that year of scorching temperatures, forest fires, and meager winter snows eviscerated by spring winds.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Light were these statistics, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey gaging station at Maybell, located along the Yampa River (and Highway 40), between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. A century ago, the gauging station recorded an average annual 1.5 million acre-feet. That has declined to 1.1 million in the 21st century. And, of course, some years are worse, including one year in the last decade of 500,000 acre-feet.
At a recent meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, a representative of Boulder County mentioned drought caused by climate change in support of regulations to control methane emissions. One of the AQCC commissioners, Randy Ahrens, of Broomfield, wanted to know why, if the ski areas could talk about what wonderful record-breaking snows we had, we could still be in drought.
In that question I think I heard some skepticism, perhaps a wondering whether enviros were just a little too chicken-littlish. It was a legitimate question, though.
I saw the answer during my three trips to the Yampa Valley in 2020. In early March I visited Steamboat and then Craig, seeing evidence of a big snow year, reminiscent of the winter and spring I had spent there in 1979. I got skilled that winter at chaining up my Ford Pinto in the dark during a snowstorm while crossing Rabbit Ears Pass.
But those heavy snows I saw in March 2020 soon disappeared in a warm, dry spring.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resources manager for Steamboat Springs, laid it out for me. The snow-water equivalent—a measure of the snowpack—showed 116% of median on March 1. It was down to 69% by June 1.
Then came summer, hot and dry, a record in both categories during August against 130 years of measurements.
That heat and lack of precipitation, Romero-Heaney told me, drove a measure called the SPEI, or Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index. “The combination
of heat and lack of precipitation drove an SPEI figure that far exceeded drought years, such as 2002, 2012, and 2018,” she said.
Last August, when I returned again to explore the Little Snake River, it felt like an oven. Stopping for a sandwich in Steamboat on the return to the Front Range, it felt Denver hot. That afternoon I continued eastward across Cameron Pass then drove past Long Draw Reservoir and toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. A week later, it was afire.
That Cameron Peak Fire was still in advancing in early October when we returned to Craig a third time. It was a smoky time there—and everywhere.
On that October trip I drove up the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs to see Jay Fetcher. His ranch a few miles from Steamboat Lake had been his parents’ ranch when they arrived from Philadelphia in 1949 and he was a toddler. His parents had kept a record through their years of when the last snow disappeared from the meadow. His father died just a few years ago, a legend in Steamboat and beyond, partly because he was a co-founder of the ski area, but also because of his work in water.
Jay has continued the work of his parents, charting the withering of the winter snowpack. And the chart he gave me showed a clear progression toward earlier springs, particularly during the 21st century. There’ still great variability, but now more so. The “snow off meadow” date arrives an average one day earlier every five years. That means longer summers.
The story here is that last year was emblematic of what has been happening in the Yampa River. There’s no longer enough water for everybody who wants it all the time. It’s not because of additional new diversions, although there are some. But that does not tell the story. The longer, hotter summers may cause ranchers to divert more water to irrigate. That could be part of the story.
The largest story is of the warming weather, the shifting climate.
Light has submitted her proposal for over-appropriation to her boss, Kevin Rein, the state water engineer. In an interview, he had also chosen his words about climate change carefully. Approving this, he said, would not be a prediction of a climate to come, only a recognition that the hydrological balance has shifted.
Fair enough. But there’s the weight of evidence, almost crushing, that climate change has started playing a heavy hand in the Colorado River. There are the studies by Udall, et al, that point to the “hot drought” as the story, with roughly half the recorded declines due to temperature and not precipitation. There are, of course, the enduring images of the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. And there are the models that predict much more warmth is yet to come.
Climate change is not just the future. It’s here, it’s now. And from all available evidence, the climate scientists were too conservative in their predictions.
This was published in the March 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced the commencement of a public comment process today on a proposed plan to designate the main stem of the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado as “over-appropriated.” An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system.
Colorado water law is driven by a system of “prior-appropriation” or a first in time, first in right water right system. The system is designed for Colorado’s semi-arid climate to fairly and efficiently distribute the state’s limited water supply for the beneficial use of Coloradans. If a river system, such as the Yampa River, at times has insufficient supply to provide water to all decreed uses, then additional measures to protect those decree uses are necessary.
“The Yampa River is an incredibly important resource for Northwest Coloradans. It sustains our communities, farms, ranches, wildlife, outdoor recreation and power supplies,” said Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, Colorado Division of Water Resources. “However, the combination of continued diversions by senior water rights and recent appropriations, along with recent climatic conditions, such as sustained drought, indicates a strong potential that the mainstem of the Yampa River meets the criteria of being “over-appropriated” and requires more careful administration to ensure senior water right holders are able to properly use their legal water rights. We want to make sure our water users and community are knowledgeable on this change in the river and are educated on the potential changes that may occur as water is developed in the Yampa River valley.”
The effect of this designation is the requirement that new well permits in the affected area will require an evaluation of their potential to cause injury to surface water rights and in many cases will need to secure a replacement supply of water to mitigate the impacts of their pumping through an “augmentation plan” before being issued a well permit by the Division of Water Resources.
“We understand this new well permitting process will be a change for water users and those looking to develop water in Yampa Valley,” Light added. “I want to assure community members that my office and our Division is here to assist you in these new measures as we all work towards equitably managing our scarce but critical water resources.”
Following the formal notice of this recommendation, which involves notifying members of the Division 6 Substitute Water Supply Plans (SWSP) Notification List and additional community input, the State Engineer and Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, will work with Erin Light to determine next steps, which may include additional public outreach. Rein will not make a final determination on the proposed “over-appropriated” designation until he is satisfied that the water users fully understand the effect of the designation.
Having a river system designated as “over-appropriated” is not a new concept in Colorado. In fact, only a small minority of river systems in Colorado are not considered to be over-appropriated. The South Platte, Rio Grande, and Arkansas River systems with their heavy agricultural and municipal and industrial water users have long been considered “over-appropriated.”
To submit comments on or any questions about the proposed plan please contact Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-879-0272 Ext. 3.
From the Water Education Colorado Blog (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):
This is the second blog post in a series on diversity, equity and inclusion in Colorado agricultural water planning. Find the first post here.
As discussed in our previous post, Colorado has an exciting opportunity to create a truly sustainable future for residents by making its water plan update process more inclusive. There are at least three groups that have been historically excluded from Colorado statewide agricultural water planning: the Colorado Ute tribes, those who operate under acequia management systems, and urban agriculture producers. While these groups have been included at an interstate level and at the local level through the Basin Roundtables, intrastate coordination and statewide inclusion of these folks is in need of improvement.
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) acknowledges federally recognized tribes within Colorado and their federally reserved water rights, these important topics are only covered at a high level without in-depth examination of more local nuances. Additionally, the term acequia is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP, in a footnote of a farmer profile.
Colorado should thoughtfully integrate more explicit inclusion for these groups not only in the Colorado Water Plan 2022 update, but also within the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Colorado Water Congress, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The CWCB has made efforts to initiate more inclusion in the CWP update process through the newly announced Equity Committee. This Committee will constitute two representatives from each of the nine river basins, plus one representative from each of the two Colorado Ute tribes. The true purposes and outcomes from this committee, however, remain to be seen. To create a more thoughtful and equitable Colorado water planning process, the equity committee must focus on creating robust measures for water justice in each element of the Colorado Water Plan Update.
This post will focus particularly on agricultural stakeholders who have been excluded from Colorado water planning. The following sections will provide background and discussion for the three groups identified. While these groups are related in that they were not adequately included in the 2015 CWP, each community is quite distinct. Both acequia water management systems and tribal water users have a rich history in Colorado that must not be ignored in planning discussions. Separately, urban agriculture, while not entirely novel, is a rapidly emerging practice in Colorado’s cities and may serve as an important tool not only to preserve agricultural viability but also to facilitate water stewardship and education. These three communities each have uniquely valuable and important perspectives on regional water issues in the state and should be given specific consideration in the planning process.
Acequias in Colorado
For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. The philosophy revolves around loyalty to the community and a common understanding that water is both a shared resource and a shared responsibility. This ideology has shaped relationships between humans and the environment for centuries in Colorado, creating a resilient natural and cultural system that supports families, communities, and the food system.
Acequia water management systems have been largely excluded in Colorado’s state water planning process, despite the fact that there are thousands of acres of acequias between Colorado’s Rio Grande and Arkansas River Basins. Among the Statewide Water Supply Initiatives, the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, the 2017 Technical Update, and the 2019 Ripple Effects Report, the word acequia is mentioned only once一in a footnote in the 2015 Plan. Acequias are briefly discussed in the 2015 Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan, and they are not mentioned in the 2015 Arkansas Basin Implementation Plan.
Acequia stakeholders are often absent from statewide planning process meetings and forums. The newly established Colorado Water Equity Task Force does not include any representation for acequia stakeholders. Excluding acequias from the Colorado water planning process shuns an entire population of Coloradans一primarily farmers of color一from statewide water planning and funding. Farmers and others who operate under acequia management must be recognized and included in the statewide planning process for the 2022 CWP update.
Colorado water planners may look to acequia management in New Mexico to model pathways for inclusion. Despite the similarities in culture and natural resource demands in the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s and New Mexico’s governance approaches to acequias are starkly different. Acequia recognition has been written into New Mexico law since the mid-19th century. Furthermore, throughout New Mexico’s statewide water plan, almost every time that agriculture or irrigation is discussed, so are acequias. For example, as mentioned above, the culture of shared scarcity that underlies acequias is crucial to farmers in times of drought. New Mexico’s Water Plan explicitly acknowledges this strength, illustrating that this type of water sharing should be encouraged to support holistic agricultural viability. Colorado water planning could benefit from a similar outlook on the resilience of acequias.
Though the 2009 Colorado Acequia Recognition Statute codified that acequias hold unique powers and rights under Colorado water law, the statute only allows acequias with written bylaws to have the special powers and unique rights recognized under Colorado law. This can be a barrier for acequia communities, as some producers may not have the means to hire a lawyer to draft legally acceptable bylaws. New Mexico’s Water Plan also discusses how the state supports acequia bylaw creation. Such programs are absent in Colorado, where acequia users rely on non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, such as the Getches-Wilkinson Center Acequia Assistance Project and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, rather than on funds directly from the state.
Colorado water planners should consult with stakeholders within Colorado’s acequia communities on how to best include planning and funding for acequias in statewide water management. Historically, the relationship between acequia managers in the San Luis Valley and in the Arkansas Basin with the Colorado Water Conservation Board has not been the strongest. CWCB should be inclined to add another seat to the equity committee specifically for acequia representation to try to remedy this historic exclusion.
Colorado Ute Tribes
The Ute peoples are the oldest continuous inhabitants of the land now called Colorado. They have been intimately tied to the waters of the region for many centuries, long before incursion by European colonizers and settlers. However, beginning in the mid-19th century, the United States federal and Colorado state governments began systematically dispossessing the Ute people of their land and separating them from their sources of water.
By the end of the 19th century, the only three bands of Ute peoples remaining in the state had been relegated to its southwest corner, in what are now the Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute reservations. Although the Ute people had been gradually pressured to adopt a settled agricultural lifestyle, they were removed to some of the least suitable lands for agriculture in the state.
Despite these setbacks, both tribes have fostered successful agricultural communities on their reservations; the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise, for instance, has been repeatedly recognized at both state and national levels for its products.
Much has been done in the last 30 years to address some of the historical inequities created by the separation of the Colorado Ute Tribes from their ancestral lands and traditional water sources. The 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act and subsequent 2000 Amendments clarified and quantified the Tribes’ reserved rights and authorized a reduced Animas-La Plata Project as well as deliveries from McPhee Reservoir to provide a reliable source of water to the tribes. Both tribes are active members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable and are represented on the Colorado Water Equity Task Force, and the importance of Tribal reserved rights is addressed in the 2015 Water Plan.
Both tribes, however, still face significant supply and infrastructure challenges, as detailed in the 2018 Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study. Some of these infrastructure projects, such as the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, are nominally maintained by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, although that agency’s budget and staffing challenges make adequate upkeep difficult.
As holders of federal reserved water rights, the Southern Ute Indian and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes are invaluable partners to the State of Colorado and the Southwest Basin in addressing water management challenges, particularly issues of interstate compact compliance. Much of the groundwork for this partnership has been laid in the Ten Tribes Partnership Study, which provides detailed data on the challenges faced by the Colorado Ute Tribes, as well as opportunities that working closely with the tribes can provide state and regional water planners. The study provides an excellent starting point for addressing the challenges faced by the tribes and highlights their importance in addressing the water challenges faced by the State and the region.
Given the challenges and opportunities posed by the tribes’ unique water rights and the long history of oppression and exclusion of Indigenous peoples by both the federal and state governments, particular considerations of equity and justice must be extended to the Colorado Ute Tribes in regards to water issues. This is particularly important because tribes’ vital cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial uses are often not adequately addressed in Western legal and economic structures.
Careful, intentional, and respectful consultation with the tribes一as well as inclusion in statewide deliberative water planning processes一is essential to developing a robust understanding of their needs, as well as the cultural significance and intended uses of water.
Urban agriculture (UA) is most simply defined as “all forms of agricultural production occurring within or around cities.” In any given urban area, this may include quite a variety of operations and projects, including ground-based outdoor gardens and farms, indoor hydroponic or aquaponic growing, rooftop gardens and farms, landscaping and nurseries, urban livestock, and more. The sector is growing as cities become home to more UA-focused organizations, citizens get more creative with urban landscapes, and policies incentivize green infrastructure. Such programs or policies are often intended to promote public health, economic development, and enhance socio-ecological relationships.
Over time, UA has taken on a new form and meaning. With connections now to social justice and environmental sustainability, urban farming has taken root in countless large and small city centers across the nation, oftentimes appearing in the form of community gardens, rooftop gardens, and greenhouses. UA is not recognized in the Colorado Water Plan, or many other western state water plans, despite its growing popularity across the nation. UA offers a multitude of exciting opportunities to foster resilience within western water planning and our food systems.
Regardless of the form it takes, all UA operations require water. Water resources may be utilized on a wide spectrum of UA irrigation tactics一from traditional flood irrigation in peri-urban fields to precision application in a vertical farm. The increasing prevalence of UA operations in Colorado cities requires more attention from water planners, especially as food production technology advances and local food becomes more popular among citizens. The CWP update should not only provide support for both existing operations, but also recognize the potential water-efficient food production in the future of UA. This will be especially important as Colorado could see a shifting food system in the face of climate change and urbanization. The current trajectory of UA could provide a significant contribution to water resilience planning and food production for Colorado.
Though this growth may represent an exciting shift in the food system, it is crucial to recognize UA’s capacity for exacerbating environmental injustices. Often, initiatives led by non-residents may be detrimental to local communities. This is especially prevalent when mostly young, white non-residents have led initiatives in predominantly Black and/or Latinx neighborhoods, “unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts.” Furthermore, residents of lower-income communities and/or people of color are more likely to experience difficulty accessing land, funding, and political support for UA projects than white and middle class individuals or organizations. Therefore, in order to avoid perpetuating injustice, UA implementation must be nuanced and place-based. A successful and anti-racist CWP update will recognize possible inequities and provide support for urban residents to facilitate UA projects within their own neighborhoods.
This overview intends to provide the background and ethics necessary to integrate the Colorado Ute Tribes, acequias, and urban agriculture considerations into the Colorado Water Plan update. In an effort to begin the process of elevating voices of underrepresented communities, this research team hosted a virtual listening session and working meeting for water planning professionals and UA stakeholders. This event was meant to serve as a platform for stakeholder and administrator collaboration with the goal of creating a more equitable and inclusive CWP update. Our next post will detail the process and results of this meeting.