2020 November election: #ColoradoRiver District Board to consider property tax ballot measure — the Watch #COriver #aridification

Ridgway Reservoir during winter

From the Watch (Tanya Ishikawa):

Property owners in 15 Western Slope counties could be asked to pay an average of $7.65 more in annual property taxes to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, if its board votes to place the question on the November ballot. District general manager Andy Mueller has proposed the property tax increase to make up for declining funding and create a new pot of money for water supply projects developed by local partners in each county.

“The money would help us with structural deficits caused by Gallagher, TABOR and the decline of the fossil fuel industry in the district,” Mueller said…

To address declining funding, the district eliminated a grant program for small projects and reduced expenses by cutting staff by 16 percent, which was four employees. Thevehicle fleet was also cut by 25 percent and the travel budget by 20 percent…

Mueller is recommending the district ask for an increase in property taxes from the current 0.252 mills to 0.500 mills, as well as exempting the spending limits from the TABOR law. The district’s property tax revenues, which were $4.1 million in 2018, would increase to approximately $9 million if voters passed the ballot measure.

The median home value would see an annual district property tax increase from $6.03 to $11.96. For homes valued at $300,000, district taxes would go from about $5 to $10 per year.

Marti Whitmore, who is Ouray County’s representative on the district’s board, said, “I tend to believe that this is a very reasonable proposal. On my house, it would result in a tax increase of less than $11 per year. I think it is important for the river district to be able to have funds to assist Western Slope communities in developing and ensuring adequate water supplies for all uses—agriculture, municipal, commercial/industrial — as well as non-consumptive uses such as recreation, fishing, boating or rafting, and so on. We will benefit from this increased support from the river district in Ouray County.”

Mueller is recommending that 20 percent of the property tax increase go toward remedying budget shortfalls for staffing and operations. His proposal is for the other 80 percent to fund projects through partnerships primarily with local governments and water users groups that manage agricultural irrigation supplies.

“We are looking for projects where we can partner with multiple sectors of the community; agricultural, municipal, recreation and others to find projects that work well for all of them,” he explained. “We have identified projects that have those types of attributes in all 15 of our counties to help the communities become more resilient in times of change.”

He said one good use of the new project fund would be a water storage or augmentation plan in Ouray County, which proposes building the Ram’s Horn Reservoir in the Uncompahgre National Forest in the Cimarron Mountains and a pipeline from Cow Creek to Ridgway Reservoir. The project would take much more than the estimated $80,000 per year in property taxes that would come from Ouray County if the ballot measure passes…

The district board, which is made up of one appointed representative from each of its 15 counties, heard the property tax proposal at its January meeting but took no action. The board asked staff to bring more information to its next quarterly meeting on April 21-22, where the board is likely to vote on whether to put the question on this November’s ballot. The meeting will be at the Colorado River District building at 201 Centennial St. in Glenwood Springs, and is open to the public.

2020 #COleg: #Colorado bill to expand loan of water to the environment has wide support — @AspenJournalism

Little Cimarron reach downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure. The Little Cimarron River near the McKinley Ditch gets a boost in flows because of the state’s instream flow water loan program, which lets agricultural water users leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. House Bill 20-1157, which aims to expand the program, is making its way through the state legislature with broad support. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A bill aimed at expanding Colorado’s instream-flow loan program is moving through the state legislature and has support from agricultural water users, Front Range water providers and environmental organizations, in contrast to last year when the bill ran into opposition.

House Bill 1157 [Loaned Water For Instream Flows To Improve Environment], which last week passed the House in a unanimous 60-0 vote, would allow water-rights holders to temporarily loan their water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s instream-flow program with the goal of improving the natural environment.

The bill expands the number of years from three to five (but for no more than three consecutive years) that a loan may be exercised within a 10-year period. The loan also may be renewed for two additional 10-year periods, meaning that holders of agricultural water rights could theoretically loan their water for the benefit of the environment for 15 of 30 years.

Environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Sierra Club and Conservation Colorado, support the legislation, and so do water-user organizations, including the Colorado Water Congress, Denver Water, Northern Water, and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

HB 1157 is sponsored by Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) and District 26 Rep. Dylan Roberts (D-Avon), both of whom floated a similar bill last year. This year’s iteration gained the sponsorship of District 57 Rep. Perry Will (R-New Castle).

After the bill faltered in last year’s legislative session, Roberts knew he had some work to do before he brought it back to lawmakers, so he spent the summer and fall talking with the many interested parties about how to improve it.

“I represent Eagle and Routt counties, which are home to four major river systems, and I know how vital it is to the Roaring Fork Valley, the Eagle River Valley and the Yampa River Valley to have a really strong flowing river,” he said.

The Eagle, Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers flow through Eagle County, and the Yampa River flows through Routt County.

“Instream-flow loans allow people to loan the water back and help the river, while not losing their water rights,” Roberts said.

n the new bill, lawmakers added more protections for water-rights holders by increasing the window for people to appeal a loan. The legislation quadruples the comment period from 15 to 60 days so that those who feel they could be harmed by a loan of water have sufficient time to raise their concerns with the state engineer

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, middle, speaks at the legislative session at Colorado Water Congress in January. Donovan and Rep. Dylan Roberts, right, along with Rep. Perry Will (not pictured) are sponsors of House Bill 20-1157, which would expand the state’s instream flow water loan program and allow agricultural water users to leave more water in the river to the benefit of the environment. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Instream flow program

Colorado’s instream-flow program gives the CWCB the ability to hold water rights specifically for preserving the natural environment “to a reasonable degree” by keeping water flowing in the river. Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream-flow rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments, covering more than 9,700 stream miles.

Instream water rights are administered under Colorado’s prior appropriation system. And, given that none of the instream rights were in place before 1973, most of them are junior to senior agricultural water rights. Those rights, which can date to the 1860s in Colorado, have a higher priority under the “first in time, first in right” doctrine.

Senior ag rights divert significant amounts of water from the state’s rivers and streams and can even dry up some reaches in drought years. However, the state’s instream-flow program does allow owners of such senior water rights not to use their rights for irrigation and instead leave their irrigation water in the river, on a temporary basis, to bolster low flows. And the new legislation expands that option.

The temporary loan program — where water-rights owners offer, in exchange for payment, to contribute their water to one of these segments with an existing instream-flow right — has only been used seven times since its creation in 2003. In Division 5, temporary water loans have occurred on Deep Creek, the Fraser River and the Colorado River.

CWCB officials estimate an additional two to four loans under the program over the next few years.

In past deals, irrigators have been paid for the loan of their water by the state, Trout Unlimited or the Colorado Water Trust.

According to CWCB Stream and Lake Protection section chief Linda Bassi, the loan program can help boost streams in late summer when flows are low, temperatures are high and fish are stressed.

“It’s a really helpful tool for instream flows that fall short,” she said. “It’s always good to have more tools to help preserve the environment.”

Stagecoach Reservoir on the Yampa River, was part of a temporary water loan under the CWCB instream flow program. House Bill 20-1157, which aims to expand the program, is making its way through the legislature with broad support via the Applegate Group

River District support

The bill has garnered the support of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which helped shape the revamped 2020 bill with its input. The River District board voted unanimously to support the measure, according to Zane Kessler, director of government relations.

“Rep. Roberts went above and beyond to make sure the bill addressed the River District’s needs and provides meaningful protections to our constituents on the West Slope and agricultural water users across the state,” Kessler said.

Also, the legislation requires the CWCB to give preference to loans of water stored in reservoirs, when available, over agricultural and other water rights diverted directly from rivers and streams. This provision was included at the request of the River District.

Kirsten Kurath, attorney for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said lawmakers worked with the association over the past year to improve the bill from 2019.

“I think, in general, that the bill is much more protective now of other water-rights users on the stream,” Kurath said.

The bill is now under consideration by the state Senate.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Feb. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.

New Study Projects Severe Water Shortages in the #ColoradoRiver Basin — Inside Climate News #COriver #aridification #snowpack #runoff #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):

The loss of the reflective snowpack drives evaporation and reduces the flow of water, the study found.

In 2018, snowpack in the Rocky Mountains was much lower than usual. Credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

The 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water need to prepare for a drier future.

Global warming is shrinking the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the river and flows are declining at a rate of about 9.3 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature, according to a new study that “identifies a growing potential for severe water shortages in this major basin.”

The decline is “mainly driven by snow loss and consequent decrease of reflection of solar radiation,” a pair of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey wrote in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science. The study helps resolve a “longstanding disagreement in previous estimates of the river’s sensitivity to rising temperatures.”

The study links dwindling flow of water with the loss of albedo, a measure of the snowpack’s reflective quality. Like ice in the Arctic, white snow reflects solar radiation back to space. But as the snowpack in the Colorado River declines, the ground and, crucially, the air directly above the ground, warm up. Water from the melting snow or from rain evaporates from the soil, rather than trickling into the streams that feed the Colorado River.

The scientists found the link by measuring the relationship between the amount of water in the snow, the amount of the sun’s incoming radiation and how much of that was reflected back by the snowpack’s albedo, showing that, as the snowpack dwindled, the river’s flow declined.

Brad Udall: “…latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck

Brad Udall, a climate scientist with the Colorado River Research Group, said the study “adds another brick in the wall of evidence that it’s very likely we’re going to see significant declines in Colorado River flows.

“Scientists have been trying to figure out how sensitive the river is to global warming,” he said, “and these numbers put the sensitivity at the upper end of what’s possible.”

The research divided the Colorado River Basin into 960 sub-areas and broke down the data, including satellite measurements of albedo, month by month. That enabled the scientists to see that the effect was dominant in the late spring and early summer, when the snowpack was being depleted, said Chris Milly, the senior U.S. Geological Survey researcher who led the new research. Previous studies on the Colorado River’s climate sensitivity focused primarily on precipitation and temperatures, without considering the radiation balance, he added.

“Before our study there was a huge range of estimates of how sensitive Colorado River flows are to warming, from 2 percent to 15 percent for every 1 degree Celsius of warming. We really wanted to try and understand and narrow that uncertainty,” Milly said.

It’s not just a Colorado problem. “Many water-stressed regions around the world depend on runoff from seasonally snow-covered mountains,” the authors wrote in the journal report, “and more than one sixth of the global population relies on seasonal snow and glaciers for water supply.”

The findings suggest that the snow cover offers a “protective shield” that limits evaporation from this natural reservoir, the scientists wrote in the study. As the shield shrinks, it will crimp water availability in snow-fed regions that are already stressed, including the Colorado River Basin…

Unending Stream Flow Decline

University of Michigan climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck said the new study is valuable because it details the mechanism “by which regional human-caused warming is reducing flows in the Colorado River.”

Continued warming, he said, “will lead to significant and unending reductions in river flows. Until global warming is stopped, the Colorado and other key rivers of the Southwest will continue to provide less and less water to the region.”

[…]

Colorado River Basin. Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

Research since then has confirmed that global warming is affecting water supplies in the West in several different ways. As early as 2013, U.S. Geological Survey research showed that warmer spring temperatures since 1980 have cut the Rocky Mountain snowpack by 20 percent.

A 2016 study in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains showed how the snowfall line is speeding uphill. At lower elevations where the mountains aren’t so steep, tens of thousands of square miles that used to be white all winter now stay brown and heat up, and the moisture in the soil evaporates.

In 2017, Overpeck, along with Udall, showed a clear relationship between warming temperatures and less water in the Colorado River Basin, as they studied the Colorado River’s 21st century “hot drought.”

Extremes

The new study doesn’t take into account extreme events like the crippling 2012 drought that sent Colorado River flows to record lows while reservoir storage plummeted.

By the end of May that year, 100 percent of Colorado was in some stage of drought, including the mountains that supply more than three-quarters of the Colorado’s total flow. It would end up being Colorado’s hottest year on record, as well as one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons, burning a quarter million acres and causing temporary evacuations of 35,000 people.

But so-called Black Swan climate events like megadroughts lasting several decades have happened regularly in the last few thousand years, and are increasingly likely in a world that’s cooking in a thickening stew of greenhouse gases.

In May 2019, the Colorado River Research Group published a warning about “unexpected shocks from Black Swan events.” That includes megadroughts or extreme floods, as well as “socioeconomic events that might stress the existing legal/management framework beyond any known circumstance,” the report said.

Because of global warming, the chances of such events are increasing at the same time that reservoir storage and groundwater reserves are being depleted, a disconcerting situation “given the role of multiple megadroughts in undermining past civilizations in the region,” the river researchers wrote.

They said planning scenarios should be based on water records that stretch back longer than the last century, and should take into account that “the abnormally wet period of the early 20th century … might be better viewed as a highly unlikely hydrologic event that cannot be assumed to be part of the future.”

The paleoclimate record clearly shows that the first 100 years of the European settlement era in the Colorado River Basin was an unusually stable period of abundant water, and that there were sudden extreme swings between drought and floods during past geologic eras of rapid climate change.

One of most severe drought periods on record in the Colorado River Basin was between the years 900 to 1300, when regional temperatures close to today’s triggered “a period of extensive and persistent aridity over western North America,” according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…

Overpeck said, “The good news is that we understand what is happening to the Colorado River and why. This means we can have confidence on the solution, which is putting a rapid stop to climate change, mainly by ending the burning of fossil fuels.”

He added, “Simply put, the more oil and gas we burn, the less water will be available to the American Southwest.”

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation, a new study finds. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Using hydrologic models, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey, found that the Colorado River basin is extremely sensitive to slight changes in temperature. In their new paper in the journal Science, they show for each degree Celsius temperatures rise, flows in the river are likely to decline more than 9%.

That decline is likely to cause severe water shortages in the Colorado River basin, where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the river itself. Warmer temperatures diminish snowpack, lessening the amount of water available…

The reductions might sound small, Milly said, but they will be felt throughout the basin.

“There’s not a lot of slack in the system,” Milly said. “In the long-term communities, states will be making adjustments to how they allocate water.”

[…]

The finding comes as water managers throughout the watershed are gearing up for negotiations over a long-term plan for the river’s management. The Colorado River’s current operating guidelines expire at the end of 2026, and the states that make up the watershed are required to start negotiating new ones by the end of this year.

“The new rules must consider how to manage the river with unprecedented low flows in the 21st century,” Udall said. “The science is crystal clear — we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. We now have the technologies, the policies and favorable economics to accomplish greenhouse gas reductions. What we lack is the will.”

Click here to get access to the paper.

Roaring Springs Waterfall along North Kaibab Trail. Photo by Whit Richardson via MyGrandCanyonPark.com

From The Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney):

Up to half of the drop in the Colorado’s average annual flow since 2000 has been driven by warmer temperatures, four recent studies found. Now, two U.S. Geological Survey researchers have concluded that much of this climate-induced decline — amounting to 1.5 billion tons of missing water, equal to the annual water consumption of 10 million Americans — comes from the fact that the region’s snowpack is shrinking and melting earlier. Less snow means less heat is reflected from the sun, creating a feedback loop known as the albedo effect, they say.

“The Colorado River Basin loses progressively more water to evaporation, as its sunlight-reflecting snow mantle disappears,” write the authors, USGS senior resource scientist Chris Milly and physical scientist Krista A. Dunne…

Milly and Dunne, who analyzed 960 different areas in the Upper Colorado River Basin to determine how disappearing snowpack influenced the river’s average annual flow, determined that the flow has dipped 9.3 percent for each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The average annual temperature for the area they surveyed has risen 1.4 degrees C (2.5 degrees F) in the past century, Milly said in a phone interview.

The region is poised to warm even more in the years ahead, Milly said, and it isn’t “likely” that precipitation can compensate for these hotter and drier conditions. Comparing the Colorado River’s historic flow between 1913 and 2017 to future conditions, he added: “That flow, we estimate, due to the warming alone would be reduced anywhere from 14 to 31 percent by 2050.”

Colorado State University senior scientist Brad Udall, who has written two papers attributing half of the Colorado River’s lower flows to warming temperatures, said in a phone interview that researchers now “have multiple lines of evidence pointing to a very similar number.”
“And this number is worrying,” Udall said of the new study. “I would say eye-popping.”

[…]

Andrew Mueller, general manager for the Colorado River District, said in an email that the new findings provide “confirmation of significantly grim indicators about future flow in the Colorado River.”

The amount of water that would disappear with another 1 degree C temperature rise, he added, is nearly five times what Las Vegas uses each year. “A decline in flows of this magnitude will present a significant challenge to all inhabitants in the Colorado River Basin.”

The current operating rules for the river expire at the end of 2026, and negotiations over how to share the water going forward start this year.

Udall said that in light of current projections, policymakers need to consider crafting an agreement where all the major players in the West will use less water than they do now.
“These projections are dire, but we’re looking at a glass that’s 70 percent full, not half full,” he said. “It could be grimmer.”

Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who brokered a drought contingency plan among seven states and Mexico last year, said that they are continuing to monitor the way climate change is affecting the river.

“Reclamation works closely with ​leading scientists at the state and federal level, as well as universities to understand the potential impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” said bureau spokesman Marlon Duke. “We will continue to use the best available science to manage the river to sustain reliable water far into the future.”

The #ColoradoRiver Water Conservation District may move to put a mill levy increase on the November 2020 ballot #COriver #aridification #KeepItInTheGround #ActOnClimate

Oil and gas well sites near the Roan Plateau

From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (Thomas Phippen):

River district Director Andy Mueller presented the commission with the possibility of asking taxpayers to double the existing mill levy for Garfield and 14 other counties. Currently, the River district levies about a quarter mill on properties, which has been enough since about 1992.

Under the 2019 assessment rate, the river district’s current quarter-mill levy comes out to $1.79 on a $100,000 home. If increased, the half-mill would cost the same home $3.58 in property taxes.

But with cost increases, decreasing revenues from oil and gas development, and several crises looming over the Western Slope’s water, the current tax is simply not enough, Mueller said…

Mueller said the river district has cut costs in recent years, but sustaining current operations requires an increase.

And the district wants to support important projects that are currently unfunded, like identifying and developing small high-mountain reservoirs.

Those reservoirs could play a role in keeping streams flowing, and supplementing water for agriculture and municipalities “during times of severe hot, dry summers that we’re having more and more of,” Mueller said.

“We can’t do it with the current revenue stream,” he added, which is why he again asked the district’s board to look into placing the tax increase on the November 2020 ballot.

The Garfield County commissioners expressed support for the mill levy ballot language…

If the river district’s board approves the ballot language, and voters approve the property tax in November, it would bring in an additional $4.9 million to the district.

Mueller suggests using most of that for the special water projects. One example is the Windy Gap bypass, which would reconstruct a channel around the reservoir to preserve fish habitats and river flows.

The river district’s mission is “to make sure we have water for all of our industries and economic activity, everything from recreation to agriculture,” Mueller said, but that’s impossible without sufficient funding.

Webinar: “Know Your Snow,” February 19, 2020 @ColoradoWater #snowpack #runoff

From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via The Aspen Daily News:

The Colorado River District will present an online seminar next week delving into the details of snowpack’s effect on water supply in an age of climate change.

The webinar, titled “Know Your Snow” and taking place at noon on Feb. 19, will feature presentations from Colorado River District Deputy Chief Engineer Dave Kanzer and Dr. Jeffrey Deems, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The presentation will highlight the latest research in snow science and the connections between snowpack and water supplies on Colorado’s Western Slope. Webinar participants will have a better understanding of our snow hydrology and its impact upon our water supplies in the face of our warming climate. They’ll also hear updates on current snowpack and snow monitoring on the Western Slope.

Over the last 20 years, snow scientists like Kanzer and Deems have noted that things are changing, causing water managers to grow concerned. Already, the Colorado River District is studying the risks to our snowpack and water supply to plan for an uncertain future.

“Snowfall and snowmelt patterns are less predictable,” Kanzer said. “Our water supply systems were designed and built in response to historical patterns, and they may also need to adapt and change. We’re seeing shorter snow accumulation seasons, more precipitation falling as rain and snow accumulating in smaller ranges on the mountainside. With these changes, we need to change our approaches to managing our water supply.”

“Know Your Snow” will explore these changes and how we might adapt. The event is free to attend, though you must register online.

A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above the reservoir on a June 24 flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

#ColoradoRiver District revisiting mill levy increase — @AspenJournalism @ColoradoWater #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River Water Conservation District spans 15 Western Slope counties. River District directors are considering asking voters this fall to raise the mill levy.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District are revisiting a recommendation to ask voters to restore part of the district’s original mill levy.

River District General Manager Andy Mueller recommended at the district’s quarterly board meeting this week asking voters in the November 2020 election to raise the district’s property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from roughly $4 million to $8 million.

That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

According to a memo from Mueller, the River District has taken steps over the last year to reduce expenses — which have climbed at a rate of 3% per year — such as putting a grant program on hold, instituting an early retirement program to reduce the number of full time employees and reducing its fleet of vehicles by two. These efforts, however, are not a long-term fix to what Mueller called a structural deficit.

Mueller’s recommendation seeks to remedy a dwindling general fund caused by the bane of many Colorado taxing districts: the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and Gallagher Amendment, which restrain the growth of government by placing limits on the amount of taxes allowed to be collected. The River District gets 97% of its revenue from property taxes.

“It’s not with lack of thought that I’m recommending this board consider asking the voters, appropriately under TABOR, to support a tax increase,” Mueller told River District directors. “We want to see that money going to partners on the West Slope and projects that span the scope of our water improvement needs.”

Some directors said they supported the measure, which was first publicly discussed at a February 2019 meeting.

“I think it’s obvious this is a necessary step forward,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, who represents Summit County.

Others agreed about the need to increase the River District’s revenue but expressed doubt a tax measure could pass in western Colorado’s more conservative counties, such as Mesa, Montrose and Delta, especially in a presidential election year with high turnout.

“I think we face a really difficult battle,” said Tom Alvey, who represents Delta County. “There are a number of tax-averse areas on the Western Slope.”

14 of the 15 directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, gathered for their January 19 meeting. The directors are appointed by county commissioners in 15 Western Slope counties. Back row, L to R, Alden Vanden Brink, Rio Blanco County, Karn Stiegelmeirer, Summit, Doug Monger, Routt, Marc Catlin, Montrose, John Ely, Pitkin, Steve Acquafresca, Mesa, Bill Trampe, Gunnison, Stan Whinnery, Hinsdale. Front row, L to R, Mike Ritschard, Grand, Kathy Chandler-Henry, Eagle, Dave Merritt, Garfield, Martha Whitmore, Ouray, Tom Alvey, Delta, Rebie Hazard, Saguache. Not shown, Bill Gray, Moffat County. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Building awareness

The River District was created by the state Legislature in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in 15 Western Slope counties, including Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle. County commissioners appoint its directors to three-year terms. The Glenwood Springs-based organization works to shape Colorado water policy and advocates for keeping water on the Western Slope.

Even though the River District plays an important role in Colorado water planning, its financial might has lagged behind its political clout. A revenue increase would help remedy that, Mueller said.

“What we are trying to do is respond to the public’s concerns about (a secure water future) and be the leader at the table and not just with our skilled staff and political influence, but also with money,” he said.

But before the tax money can start rolling in, voters have to know what the River District is and what it does. To that end, staff has undertaken a rebranding of the River District to help voters connect what it does with its name. Staff has stepped up efforts with social media, a newsletter and video featuring Mueller and West Slope water users, and is also planning a series of webinars and workshops around the 15 counties.

“We are trying to help people realize there is an agency charged with protecting two-thirds of the West Slope and assist in the long-range planning for water supply and helping them realize while we may not touch their daily lives, how important that work is,” Mueller said.

In addition to Mueller, the River District employs attorneys, engineers, hydrologists, legislative lobbyists and communications specialists to protect the West Slope’s water interests.

Directors did not make a decision at this week’s meeting on whether to put the tax question on this year’s ballot. Instead, they agreed to continue to research the issue and discuss it with their constituents.

“I would need some time before I say yay or nay,” said Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County. “I need some time to talk to people and consider the issue.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Jan. 24 edition of the Post-Independent, The Aspen Times and The Vail Daily.

State looking to oppose White River storage project in water court — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The view looking downstream at the proposed site for the reservoir and dam on the White River. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to oppose the project in water court because of their concerns that it is speculative. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

After years of their questions and concerns not being met, Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to formally oppose the water rights associated with a proposed reservoir project in northwest Colorado.

In November, the Colorado Division of Water Resources filed a motion to intervene in the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s application for a 90,000-acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River. The state DWR is now waiting for a judge to determine whether it will be allowed to file a statement of opposition in the case.

For more than 4½ years, state engineers have expressed concerns that the conservancy district has not proven there is a need for the water, which would be stored in the proposed White River reservoir and dam project between Rangely and Meeker. The issue is whether Rio Blanco has shown that it can and will put to beneficial use the water rights it applied for in 2014. It remains unclear whether the town of Rangely needs the water.

“And throughout this case, the Engineers have consistently maintained that RBWCD must demonstrate that its claimed water right is not speculative,” the motion reads. “Although RBWCD has addressed some of the Engineers’ concerns in the past six months, the Engineers maintain that RBWCD has not met its burden.”

State Engineer Kevin Rein said his office had been trying to resolve its concerns with Rio Blanco’s claims to water informally and doesn’t take filing a motion to intervene lightly.

“We are very aware of the influence we can have on the process and costs and delays, so we don’t just frivolously file a statement of opposition every time we have some issue with a case,” Rein said. “We believe there are issues that need to be fixed in this water-court application in order for it to go forward.”

One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Rio Blanco declines comment

The White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, would store anywhere from 44,000 to 2.92 million acre-feet of water. The water would be stored either in a reservoir formed by a dam across the main stem of the White River — this scale of project proposal is now rare in Colorado — or in an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, just north of the river. Water would have to be pumped from the river uphill and into the off-channel reservoir.

Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.

Rio Blanco says Kenney Reservoir is silting in at a rate of 300 acre-feet per year, threatening the future of Rangely’s water supply and flatwater recreation, and a new off-channel reservoir on the White River could help solve this problem.

Deirdre Macnab, seen here on her 13,000-acre 4M Ranch between Rangely and Meeker, is the current sole opposer in the water court case for the White River storage project. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to intervene in the case because they say the project applicant has not proven there is a need for the water. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Opposition

If a water-court judge grants the motion to intervene, the state will become the second opposer in the case. Currently, the only other remaining opposer is 4M Ranch, owned by Deirdre Macnab.

Tucked between rolling hills of arid, sagebrush-covered rangeland, the proposed reservoir and dam site abut her 13,000-acre property along the White River.

Macnab, who bought the beef and hay operation nearly five years ago, is on the board of the conservation group White River Alliance, as well as the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable. Macnab said the main reason she opposes the reservoir project is because of the state’s concerns.

“If we felt that there was a clear purpose and need that would benefit the public, then we would, in fact, be supportive of this,” Macnab said. “But the fact that the experts are saying there does not appear to be a clear purpose and need means that this would be a real travesty and waste of taxpayer money. It’s something we will continue to oppose until that changes.”

The site of the potential off-channel Wolf Creek Reservoir on the White River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Additional concerns

State engineers are also concerned about the vagueness of the revised amounts of water for various uses that Rio Blanco says it needs.

In a 2018 report, Division 6 engineer Erin Light questioned Rio Blanco’s claims that it needed water for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale and irrigation uses. In response, Rio Blanco dropped those claims but almost doubled the need for municipal and industrial use for the town of Rangely and added a new demand for recreation.

The conservancy district also set the amount of water for environmental needs for threatened and endangered species at between 3,000 and 42,000 acre-feet despite its acknowledgement that the actual amount needed for this use was unknown. Rio Blanco then added a new demand for a sediment pool of 3,000 to 24,000 acre-feet and an insurance pool of up to 3,000 acre-feet but did not describe either of these uses.

“Thus, despite removing its claims for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale, which originally accounted for over half the demand for the claimed water right, the total demands for water identified by RBWCD actually increased to 24,000-100,000 acre-feet,” the motion to intervene reads.

Grant money

Since 2013, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has given roughly $850,000 in grant money to Rio Blanco to study the White River storage project, including a $350,000 Colorado Water Plan grant in 2018. According to CWCB communications director Sara Leonard, Rio Blanco has so far spent about 60% of these most recent grant funds.

Leonard said that DWR’s motion to intervene was not a surprise to the CWCB, that the two state agencies with seemingly differing views on the project have met and that the CWCB is aware of the state engineers’ concerns.

“The grants that have been awarded to the applicant to date have all been with the intention of helping the District with the evaluation process,” Leonard wrote in an email. “In other words, the motion has not changed the scope of the ongoing work in the grant.”

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 toward investigating the feasibility of the storage project.

“We are not advocates and we are not opposers,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of River District community affairs and chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “It’s a regional question that our constituents need to figure out.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of The Craig Daily Press.