#ColoradoRiver District plan offers ideas for spending on #water projects after tax passage — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The district plans to use 14 percent of the new revenues to shore up its finances, funding existing staff positions and business expenses after financial difficulties in recent years. The rest is to be used to partner with others on projects focused on agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.

District spokesman Jim Pokrandt said the district board will be discussing the project spending at a Dec. 10 meeting where it will be looking to revise its 2021 budget now that the tax has passed.

He said it’s too early to call out any specific project that might be funded at this point, as more analysis and board approval will be required. However, in its July resolution to put the tax measure on the ballot, the district board also adopted a fiscal implementation plan elaborating on how it intends to spend the funds. That plan included specific examples of possible projects the money could help pay for. The district didn’t commit to pursuing those specific projects should the tax pass, noting in its plan “uncertainties associated with most projects related to permitting, litigation, additional funding and other third party actions.” Rather, the projects are representative of the types of projects it intended to pursue, and also are ones that have been endorsed by basin roundtable organizations in the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa/White/Green basins.

“Those projects listed in the plan are illustrative of the kind of work that we want to do, and indeed some of them could come to fruition in the next year or two,” Pokrandt said.

In the Colorado River Basin, the examples the district gave include rehabilitation of the Grand Valley Roller Dam, which was built in 1913 and is the point of diversion for several large senior irrigation rights in the Grand Valley, and maintaining flows secured by the senior Shoshone hydroelectric plant water right in Glenwood Canyon.

That plant is owned by Xcel Energy and is more than 100 years old, and questions about its longterm viability have the district and others looking for solutions for maintaining the plant’s nonconsumptive right, which is crucial to maintaining river flows through Glenwood Canyon and all the way to Grand Junction.

Among several possible projects in the Gunnison Basin are the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association Westside Valley infrastructure improvement project, which would modernize and improve water diversion, delivery and other infrastructure; and the Paonia Reservoir and Fire Mountain Canal rehabilitation, which would involve implementing a sediment control system.

Among possible Yampa/White/Green river basin projects are addressing an algae problem on the White River, and assisting with efforts to build a possible new water storage project in the lower White River basin. The state is challenging a proposed White River reservoir project in water court, questioning the need for the amount of water the reservoir would supply, according to recent reporting by the nonprofit aspenjournalism.org website.

Pokrandt said that while it’s helpful to projects’ chances for them to be on the district’s implementation plan list, funding could go for things that aren’t listed, and that the district may not even know about now.

Voters overwhelmingly pass #ColoradoRiver District tax hike — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

A boater paddles the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale May 16, 2020. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Western Slope voters have overwhelmingly passed a proposal by the Colorado River Water Conservation District to raise property taxes across its 15-county region.

According to preliminary results as of 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, encompassing about 246,245 ballots, about 72% of voters said yes to the measure. Saguache County was the lone county to vote against the measure.

Pitkin County voters passed ballot question 7A with 80% in favor, despite three of five county commissioners and Pitkin County’s representative to the River District board John Ely opposing the measure. Nearly 69% of voters in Mesa County, which has the largest population base in the district, supported the measure.

The River District announced that the measure had received voter approval in a news release at 7:55 p.m. Tuesday, saying the organization is ready to get to work implementing water projects across the district.

River District general manager Andy Mueller said the results prove that water is the one issue that can unite voters in western Colorado.

“It was the one issue that’s not partisan, that was about uniting a very politically diverse region,” he said. “Everybody is so sick of the nasty, divisive, partisan politics. People with (Donald) Trump signs and (Joe) Biden signs voted for the same thing.”

Ballot measure 7A raises property taxes by a half-mill, or an extra $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value. The measure will raise nearly an additional $5 million annually for the River District, which says it will use the money for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water for Western Slope communities, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy will increase to $40.28 from $18.93 annually for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district. In Eagle County, where the median home value is $660,979, the mill levy will increase to $23.63 from $11.11 annually.

Property owners can expect to see the mill-levy increase on their 2021 tax bill.

The proposal received wide support among county commissioners, agricultural organizations and environmental groups.

Eagle County Commissioner and River District board member Kathy Chandler-Henry, who also served as vice-chair of the political action committee Yes on 7A, said it would have been nearly impossible for the River District to protect Western Slope water without the tax increase.

“I’m glad people throughout the district saw the value in that, even though it’s a tough time to be asking for a tax increase,” she said. “I think that’s a huge win and a huge vote of confidence in the work the River District’s been doing.”

The River District, based in Glenwood Springs and created by the state legislature in 1937 to develop and protect water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.

The River District’s fiscal implementation plan for the revenue that would be raised by the tax hike says 86% would go toward funding water projects backed by roundtables and local communities. Those projects would fall into five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.

This story ran in The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Steamboat Pilot and Today and the Sky-Hi News.

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

#ColoradoRiver District Issue 7A: Voters overwhelmingly pass River District tax hike — The #Aspen Times #COriver #aridification

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

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett) via The Aspen Times:

According to preliminary results as of 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, encompassing about 246,245 ballots, about 72% of voters said yes to the measure. Saguache County was the lone county to vote against the measure.

Pitkin County voters passed ballot question 7A with 80% in favor, despite three of five county commissioners and Pitkin County’s representative to the River District board John Ely opposing the measure. Nearly 69% of voters in Mesa County, which has the largest population base in the district, supported the measure.

River District general manager Andy Mueller said the results prove that water is the one issue that can unite voters in western Colorado. [ed. emphasis mine]

“It was the one issue that’s not partisan, that was about uniting a very politically diverse region,” he said. “Everybody is so sick of the nasty, divisive, partisan politics. People with (Donald) Trump signs and (Joe) Biden signs voted for the same thing.”

Ballot measure 7A raises property taxes by a half-mill, or an extra $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value. The measure will raise nearly an additional $5 million annually for the River District, which says it will use the money for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water for Western Slope communities, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy will increase to $40.28 from $18.93 annually for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district. In Eagle County, where the median home value is $660,979, the mill levy will increase to $23.63 from $11.11 annually.

Property owners can expect to see the mill-levy increase on their 2021 tax bill.

The proposal received wide support among county commissioners, agricultural organizations and environmental groups…

The River District’s fiscal implementation plan for the revenue that would be raised by the tax hike says 86% would go toward funding water projects backed by roundtables and local communities. Those projects would fall into five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.

The October 2020 newsletter is hot off the presses from the #ColoradoRiver District #COriver #aridification

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado River District works across • The Lower Gunnison Project near Montrose,
the West Slope to improve infrastructure and restore rivers as part of its work to protect water supplies for all stakeholders.

During the District’s Annual Water Seminar: Zooming in on West Slope Water on Sept. 22, speakers highlighted three projects that with the help of many partners, advance the District’s mission to protect Western Colorado’s water security.

• The Elkhead Reservoir expansion near Hayden and Craig, completed in 2006, provides water for irrigators and the power industry while ensuring water is available to maintain river flow for endangered fish in the lower Yampa River.

• The Lower Gunnison Project near Montrose Delta and Hotchkiss, is a multi-benefit project spearheaded by the District to modernize irrigation delivery systems.

• The Windy Gap Bypass Channel Project in Grand County, still on the drawing board, will modify Windy Gap Reservoir to re- create a Colorado River channel and nearby flood plain.

A recording of the webinar and presentation slides can be found at http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/annual-seminars/

The Upper #GunnisonRiver Water Conservancy District unanimously passed a Resolution in Support of Ballot Measure 7A

From the Gunnison River Basin News:

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District unanimously passed a Resolution in Support of Ballot Measure 7A. This measure from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, asks voters to approve a mill levy increase to continue it’s vital work protecting Colorado’s westslope water resources.

“We recognize the value of the River District as a voice for western Colorado water issues of importance to the Upper Gunnison River basin,” stated Sonja Chavez, General Manager, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

Resolution

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

Secondary economic benefits of fallowing could offset secondary impacts, study finds — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Rancher and fly fishing guide Paul Bruchez’s daughter and nephew sit in a hay field at the family ranch near Kremmling. Bruchez is helping spearhead a study among local ranchers, which could inform a potential statewide demand management program. Photo credit: Paul Bruchez via Aspen Journalism

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The secondary economic impacts of paying western Colorado farmers to temporarily fallow fields in times of drought could be similar to the secondary benefits resulting from the spending of those payments, a new study has found.

But BBC Research and Consulting says the dollars from payment spending would flow to different businesses, potentially shifting from smaller, agriculturally focused communities to larger towns and cities.

In addition, the payments would only benefit the regional economy if they come from outside western Colorado, because payments originating on the Western Slope would only result in shifting money around within the region as opposed to creating a new economic benefit, the study says.

The research was commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup, which consists of the Colorado River District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

It’s intended to help gauge the impact on local agricultural economies should Western Slope farmers participate in voluntary, temporary, compensated fallowing as part of a demand management program involving Upper Colorado River Basin states including Colorado.

Such a program is being considered as a means for the states to be able to store extra water in Lake Powell so they can continue meeting their water delivery obligations to downstream states in times of drought, and head off potential mandatory curtailment of water uses under an interstate compact…

FARMING IMPACTS
The study looks at fallowing grass hay, alfalfa and corn. It estimates that regionally it would cost an average of $236 per acre-foot of water involved, or about $470 per fallowed acre, to get farmers to participate. It says producers also may require payments covering direct fallowing costs, such as weed and pest control, and payments also may have to be made to irrigation companies for lost revenues and added management costs.

The study evaluates a moderate, 12,700-acre hypothetical fallowing program involving 25,000 acre-feet of water a year for five years across western Colorado, and a more aggressive, 52,100-acre program that would involve 25,000 acre-feet a year for five years within each of four major Western Slope river basins.

The study finds that the moderate approach would result in a minimum of a $5.7 million annual reduction in crop production, and the aggressive approach, at least a $23.2 million reduction.

Those reductions would result in an estimated loss of at least 64 or 260 on-farm jobs, respectively, although most of those would involve the farmers themselves who are being compensated.

The study estimates that when comparing that compensation to their lost farm income, farmers collectively would come out at least $2.2 million ahead each year in the moderate scenario and $8.6 million ahead in the aggressive approach.

SECONDARY CONCERNS
The bigger focus of the study is what secondary effects would result from the fallowing due to impacts on businesses such as farm and ranch suppliers, and businesses providing household goods and services to affected workers.

In the moderate scenario, the study estimates at least 55 secondary jobs would be lost to reduced crop production, while there would be an increase of at least 27 jobs resulting from spending of fallowing payments.

Under the aggressive scenario, at least 236 secondary jobs could be lost from reduced production, compared to at least 109 new jobs being supported related to payment spending.

But the study says there could be a net annual gain of $546,000 in secondary income from the fallowing under the moderate scenario, and $2.4 million under the aggressive one.

Doug Jeavons, managing director at BBC Research and Consulting, said that despite the net job loss, the new jobs that would be created could tend to be in banking and finance, and those could pay more than the lost farm-related jobs.

The fallowing would mean fewer sales of seed, fertilizer, hauling services and labor, but could boost spending in areas such as purchase of vehicles and farm machinery, with some of the fallowing payments also being used for household consumption and reducing debt…

The study also says annual net secondary income also could fall with fallowing, by as much as $393,000 under the moderate scenario and as much as about $1.46 million under the aggressive one.

This could happen if farmers spend less of their fallowing money locally. It also accounts for the possibility that reduced forage production from fallowing could affect the livestock industry, driving up hay prices and causing ranchers to reduce herd sizes.

It says that based on what has been historically seen when it comes to hay production declines in the region, the moderate fallowing approach could result in just over a 0.5% drop in livestock production and a $3 million drop in annual livestock sales, and the aggressive approach, a possible 2.2% production drop and $13.4 million annual revenue loss.

GATHERING DATA
The Colorado River District said in its news release that its board hasn’t weighed whether a fallowing program is good for the Western Slope, but is gathering data through efforts such as the study to determine if it would have negative impacts, and if so, at what scale.

It also said if a demand management program is created in Colorado, Western Slope agriculture would only be part of the solution and Colorado River users in all parts of the state must contribute water to the program. This would include Front Range cities that divert that water across the Continental Divide…

Speaking on a river district webinar Thursday on the study, Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, said any Western Slope fallowing program won’t be one-size-fits-all, and would have to be structured to address local concerns such as soil impacts…

One concern in her district is that parts of it may have such shallow soils that they could take three to five years to recover from fallowing.

Another consideration is that some western Colorado basins export substantial amounts of hay to other states, and even other countries.

If fallowing primarily reduced exports, effects on local livestock production might be minimal.

But BBC Research and Consulting’s report notes that hay exporters may be resistant to jeopardize customer relationships by fallowing fields…

BBC Research and Consulting says measures such as split-season versus full-season fallowing could reduce economic impacts from fallowing, and ensuring that participation is spread widely across and within various river basins could spread out the impacts.

Chavez likes the general idea of widely distributing fallowing, but says that could increase costs for monitoring such a program, evaluating results and ensuring that conserved water makes it downstream to be stored rather than being used elsewhere.

The new study may be found at http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/supply-planning/studies-reports-2/.

The webinar can be watched at http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/annual-seminars.

#ColoradoRiver District releases new study examining impacts of a possible Demand Management program on West Slope communities #COriver #aridification

A hayfield near Grand Junction, irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Under demand management pilot programs, the state could pay irrigators to fallow fields in an effort to leave more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from the Colorado River District (Alesha Frederick):

Study found demand management could result in fewer agricultural support jobs and reduce livestock production on the West Slope

The Colorado River Basin is in the 21st year of drought, and major reservoirs on the river are sitting at less than half full. There is growing concern that agricultural economies on the West Slope might be harmed if Colorado and other Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) are unable to meet their obligations under the Colorado River Compact. With these concerns in mind, the state of Colorado is looking at ways to prevent such a crisis from occurring. One of the ideas Upper Basin states are discussing is paying water users to consume less water. The water saved would then be banked in Lake Powell. The states are calling it demand management.

The question is, if farmers and ranchers are paid to voluntarily fallow their fields, how would it change West Slope communities where agricultural businesses employ people, pay taxes and buy equipment? The recently released Upper Basin Demand Management Economic Study in Western Colorado sought to determine the secondary economic impacts that might occur if West Slope agricultural producers participate in a demand management program.

Consistent with its charge to represent and protect the Western Slope’s water interests, the Colorado River District has been actively engaged in statewide conversations about a potential Demand Management program. Through its participation in the Water Bank Workgroup , the District led the call for additional economic analysis that would help to inform the state’s decision whether or not to move forward with such a program.

“Our job is to protect West Slope water users. Studying the potential negative impacts of a new program such as demand management is vital to this work,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This secondary economic impact study ensures that agricultural producers on the West Slope have the information they need to make decisions about their farms and ranches. It’s part of the River District’s ongoing efforts to ensure water security for our farms, ranches, and rural communities.”

The Colorado River District’s Board of Directors has not weighed in on whether such a program is good for the West Slope. However, the Board is gathering data from efforts like this study to determine if such a program will have negative impacts, and if so, what the scale of those impacts is likely to be.

While the study examined the impacts of fallowing West Slope agriculture if a demand management program is created in Colorado, Western Colorado agriculture will only be one piece of the solution. If such a program is implemented, all types of Colorado River water users in all regions of the state must contribute water to the program. This study is not an endorsement of demand management but a study of its potential impacts.

The study examined two scenarios, a moderate and aggressive demand management program. The moderate demand management scenario considered a 25,000 acre-feet per year reduction in consumptive use by Western Colorado agricultural users for five years, while the aggressive scenario considered 25,000 acre-feet per year within each Western Slope river basin over a 5-year timeframe.

These are some of the key findings of the study:

* To pay producers at a level that they would incentivize participation in such a program, annual payments to irrigators are projected to range from an average of $194 per acre-foot under the moderate scenario to $263 per acre-foot under the aggressive scenario.
* For compensation payments and spending of those payments to benefit the regional economy, funding for those payments must come from outside of Western Colorado. If all that money was raised in Western Colorado, the payments would shift money around within the region, but it would not create a new economic benefit to offset the impacts.
* Growers producing forage crops including grass hay, alfalfa and corn are most likely to take part in such a program compared to fruit growers and small grain producers.
* Reduced production of forage crops, mostly hay, would require fewer purchases of items such as seed, fertilizer, labor, hauling and other services. This in turn could lead to a loss of an estimated 55 agricultural support jobs under a moderate scenario and 236 jobs under the aggressive scenario. Jobs supported by demand management payments could look very different from the jobs currently supported by hay production.
* Under an aggressive demand management scenario, a demand management program could increase local hay prices by about 6% and decrease the regional livestock inventory by about 2%. The potential price and livestock impact under the moderate demand management scenario would be much smaller.

To read the study, visit: http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/supply-planning/studies-reports-2/

You can watch a webinar about this study, as well as earlier webinars shown during the Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar, here: http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/annual-seminars

The study was completed by BBC Research and Consulting and commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup made up of the Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

Grand County backs #ColoradoRiver District Ballot Question 7A #COriver #aridification

From The Sky-Hi News (Amy Golden):

The Grand County Commissioners voiced their support on Tuesday for a ballot measure that would finance water projects on the Western Slope.

Voters of the 15 counties on the Colorado River Basin, including Grand, will be asked in November to approve ballot question 7A for a mill levy increase of 0.248 mills for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. This would bring the total mill levy for the district up to 0.5 mills, equaling a yearly tax increase of $1.90 per $100,000 in assessed value for homes.

Mike Ritschard, the Grand County representative on the Colorado River District board, explained Tuesday that the district collected $169,388 from Grand in 2019. If passed, the measure would roughly double that amount and pump almost $5 million more per year into the entire district.

The district has not asked for a mill levy increase since it was created. Ritschard explained that reduced tax revenue from the energy industry and the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, combined with the reduction in assessment rates from the Gallagher Amendment, has led to financial challenges for the district.

Of the $5 million that could be raised, Ritschard said that 86% would go toward projects identified as priorities by local communities and basin round tables. The remaining 14% would fix the district’s financial deficit, but absolutely none of the funds would go toward creating staff positions.

While these funds cannot be committed to certain projects, they would go toward at least one of five categories: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency. Ritschard highlighted the Windy Gap bypass as an example of such a project…

Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the district, added that the fiscal implementation plan for the funds would ensure they are distributed equitably across the geographic region based on need, not just population…

While the commissioners expressed support for the ballot measure, Grand County makes up only a small portion of voters for it. The river district includes all the counties in the Colorado River Basin with the largest of the population being in Mesa County with Grand Junction…

The commissioners unanimously approved a resolution in favor of the ballot measure, joining Delta, Eagle, Garfield and Summit counties.

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

Pitkin County’s opposition to tax follows pattern of ‘misalignment’ with #ColoradoRiver District — @Aspen Journalism #COriver #aridification

Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s proposed tax increase. The River District has said the tax revenue would be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, but commissioners said the ballot language was too ambiguous. The headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, near Independence Pass, are shown here. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

In a reflection of long-simmering mistrust of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County is opposing the organization’s proposed tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Pitkin County commissioners in a special meeting Tuesday passed a resolution that said that without an identified use for the revenue, a tax increase is irresponsible and not in the best interests of county citizens.

The ballot question tells voters in the 15-county district that the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation. But commissioners said the language was flawed and too ambiguous.

“It’s not that we don’t support the efforts of the water district, it’s not that we don’t support protecting water on the Western Slope,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “It’s just that I would like more clarification, more specification in the ballot language as to the benefits to the Pitkin County taxpayers.”

The resolution opposing the River District tax hike passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child voting against it. Both said they would like to hear from members of the public and the River District before making a decision.

River District general manager Andy Mueller wasn’t happy with the way the meeting was noticed or that the draft resolution wasn’t included in the packet materials for the public to see. In a last-minute request to postpone Tuesday’s vote, Mueller asked commissioners in a Monday night email for an opportunity to engage in direct communications with Pitkin’s five-member Board of County Commissioners about the ballot measure.

The BOCC did not take any public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. In order to vote on the resolution, the BOCC came out of Tuesday’s work session and went into a “special meeting.”

“The fact that they refused to allow public comment and input, and that they held it during a really strangely noticed meeting is really disturbing,” said Mueller, who learned Monday about the county’s resolution to oppose the tax measure. “The public in Pitkin County deserves a hell of a lot better.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said the BOCC discussed in August all the different questions on the ballot this year and whether the elected officials should bring in presenters both pro and con.

“The board decided at that time that we didn’t think it was necessary and there was enough information out there for us to make a decision rather than put time on the schedule, which we frankly don’t have, to allow these groups to come in and present,” McNicholas Kury said. “I know the River District would have liked the opportunity to present. (Pitkin County Attorney) John Ely sits on that board, and he’s given us the accurate picture. He’s been fair in his summaries.”

In July, the River District decided to move ahead with Ballot Issue 7A, which will ask voters to raise its property taxes from a quarter mill to a half mill. That works out to an increase of $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value, and will raise nearly $5 million annually.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy for Pitkin County’s median home value would increase from $18.93 per year to $40.28. Pitkin County’s median home value, at $1.13 million, is the highest in the 15-county district. The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which was created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.

Ely, the Pitkin County representative on the River District board, was the lone “no” vote against the ballot measure in July, saying that the district’s fiscal implementation plan — where it outlines how the tax money could be allocated — is not directly tied to the ballot language, so there’s no commitment on how exactly the money will be spent.

On Tuesday, Ely told the BOCC that environmentally minded Pitkin County has been a proponent of enhancing streamflows and improving riparian ecosystems, while the River District has been more “traditional” in seeking ways to develop the Western Slope’s water, meaning dam and reservoir projects.

“The district has not been aligned with many Pitkin County directives,” he said.

After learning of Tuesday afternoon’s impending vote on the resolution, environmental groups American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, which support 7A, scrambled to rally their members in an attempt to stop, or at least postpone, the vote.

“Pitkin County representatives need to understand that this issue is bigger than them,” Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, wrote in an email. “The most progressive communities and the most conservative communities, conservation organizations, agricultural associations, ranchers, water providers, business leadership, etc. are putting their differences aside and coming together to do what needs to be done for the Colorado River. None of us are getting everything we want nor are we going to agree on everything in the future — but we know we have to do something now.”

Other counties, including Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Delta, have passed resolutions supporting the River District’s ballot measure.

Water from the Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley Irrigation Company’s canal near Palisade, shown in a file photo. Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s proposed tax increase. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Historic mistrust

Pitkin County’s opposition to a River District tax increase is just the latest in the historically antagonistic relationship between the two entities, a dynamic that Poschman noted Tuesday.

“I know maybe there’s a necessary and justified amount of suspicion and mistrust that the money could be spent against our interests, because we do have a misalignment with Pitkin County and the River District,” he said.

Some of that mistrust can be traced to a River District-led project that included conditional water rights for 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River. The water rights for what is known as the West Divide Project were tied to three dams and reservoirs, including a dam just downstream from Redstone, which would have created the 129,000-acre-foot Osgood Reservoir.

The River District abandoned these conditional water rights in 2011 after being sued in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory is still raw for some.

“The timescale is still fresh in the minds of those people up the Crystal,” said Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar.

The River District and Pitkin County have also been on opposing sides of designating the upper Crystal as “Wild & Scenic.” The River District has opposed the federal designation, saying it would end water-development opportunities in the valley, but Pitkin County still supports the move.

The narrows on the Crystal River just below Placita where a dam big enough to store 62,009 acre-feet of water was once planned by the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The Pitkin County BOCC passed a resolution opposing the River District’s proposed tax increase. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Competing water studies

The county is also going its own way on an analysis of water needs in the Crystal Valley. It recently hired hydrologist Kristina Wynne of Englewood-based water consultants Bishop-Brogden Associates to study backup water-supply options for Crystal River water users instead of relying on a study already underway by the River District and Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District.

2018’s summer drought revealed a water shortage on the Crystal that may not leave enough for both agricultural users and residential subdivisions. Irrigators south of Carbondale placed a call on the river, meaning that upstream junior water rights holders — including some homes that use wells — would have to stop using water so the downstream senior irrigators could get their full amount.

The River District, which often advocates for the interests of agricultural water users, was awarded state grant money to study the issue.

Mueller maintains that his organization is no longer the dam builders of yore and emphasizes his desire for collaboration. Last week, he told members of the Crystal River Caucus that the River District will commit to not damming the mainstem of the Crystal and will emphasize solutions to the water shortage other than storage.

“I recognize our district has a lot of trust-building to do in the valley,” he said. “I think, frankly, the River District has evolved and realized that damming anything on the Crystal is not a good idea.”

But it’s a hard sell for some in Pitkin County.

“It’s pretty alarming we didn’t get a heads up from the River District,” said Kury, the county commissioner, regarding the district’s Crystal River study. “We’ve had to fight the River District before. We were taken off guard by the outreach to our constituents about shutting off their wells. I have some hesitancy in that relationship.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A growing coalition is getting behind a Colorado River District tax-hike proposal intended to bolster its struggling balance sheet and strengthen its role in advocating for Western Slope water interests and helping fund projects.

However, opposition to the measure also emerged this week from Pitkin County commissioners, after their representative on the district board also was the only board member to have voted against the tax proposal. And while some other counties in the district have been formally endorsing the measure, so far there’s no indication that Mesa County commissioners will follow suit.

Pitkin County traditionally has been one of the largest sources of tax revenues within the 15-county district because of its high property values. As for Mesa County, it has by far the largest population and largest number of voters that will help decide the fate of the proposal.

The district board has placed a measure on the November ballot to boost the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The district’s levy is now capped at 0.252 mills and its effective current rate is 0.235 mills.

The move would raise the district’s annual revenue by an estimated $4.9 million and cost an additional $1.90 per $100,000 in residential property value. For business property, it would cost another $7.70 per $100,000 in assessed valuation…

The river district measure also proposes relieving the district from TABOR’s limits on how much revenue it can collect and spend in any year. The district still would have to go to voters for any further hike in its tax rate.

It is proposing to use just 14% of the new revenues the tax measure would raise to address its financial troubles. It plans to use the rest to partner with others on projects focused on agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, conservation and efficiency.

BACKERS LAUNCH CAMPAIGN

This week, supporters of the measure launched their campaign to support the district proposal, Question 7A.

“Water access is non-negotiable in the West,” Kathy Hall, chair for the Friends of the Colorado River District campaign group, said in a news release. “Nothing is as central to our area as water. Question 7A will ensure that Western Slope water gets used on the Western Slope instead of being diverted to the Front Range or the West Coast states.”

[…]

Among others stepping up to support the measure are Club 20, local peach farmer Bruce Talbott, local rancher Carlyle Currier, Moffat County rancher and former river district board member T. Wright Dickinson, and groups ranging from American Rivers to Business for Water Stewardship.

Matt Rice with American Rivers said during a Zoom meeting of supporters of the measure that the Colorado River is at risk due to factors such as drought and demand from cities outside the river basin and Lower Colorado River Basin states…

He said the tax proposal is critically important, as evidenced by the diversity of support.

“We have conservationists standing next to ranchers standing next to water providers to get this done. It’s never ever been more important,” he said…

COUNTY SUPPORT SOUGHT

Some county commissions within the river district — among them Garfield, Delta and Summit counties — have endorsed the tax measure, and supporters are continuing to pursue endorsements from other counties.

Steve Acquafresca, who serves on the river district board as the Mesa commissioners’ appointee to it, said he and the district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, recently visited with Mesa commissioners. He said he didn’t specifically ask for an endorsement of the measure, but asked them to speak out on it individually if they favor it…

The tax measure’s ballot language includes a clause Acquafresca requested, saying Mesa commissioners had said they wouldn’t consider backing the measure without it. The language commits the district not to use any of the new tax revenue to pay for fallowing of agricultural fields. Temporary, voluntary, compensated fallowing is being considered as one means of Colorado cutting its water demand to bolster water storage by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell during drought, to help ensure they can meet their delivery obligations to downstream states and Mexico…

Acquafresca said with Mesa County being particularly politically conservative, a lot of local residents are tax-averse and probably a fairly constant number of people are going to vote against any tax proposal. But he thinks some Mesa County residents are listening to the river district’s concerns about the greater competition for and threats to water resources at a time when the river district’s revenues and staff are shrinking.

#ColoradoRiver District Annual Water Seminar September 21, 22, 23, and 24, 2020 #COriver #aridification

Click here to register and for all the inside skinny:

Topic: Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar: Zooming in on West Slope Water

Description

Monday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “West Slope Water 101.” This session will cover how water rights are deployed in irrigation, drinking water and recreation. Transmountain diversions will be described as will be the importance of water rights associated with irrigation in the Grand Valley and the Shoshone Hydropower Plant.

Tuesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Water Works: the Colorado River District in Action.” Learn how the Colorado River District overcomes challenges with its partners and constituents to protect the water security of western Colorado while promoting better water use and protection of the environment with projects across the district.

Wednesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Heating Up the Talk About Why River Flows are Down.” Rising temperatures are robbing the Colorado River system of flows. Drought, aridification of the West and reduced river flows are driving down Lakes Powell and Mead while impacting local water use at the same time. A panel of speakers will review the current science, the on-the-ground impacts and how two major water providers are planning for a new normal

Thursday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Of Primary Importance: The Secondary Economic Impacts of Demand Management.” The River District and its partners in the Water Bank Workgroup commissioned a study of how demand management of water, meaning not using it and sending it to Lake Powell, would impact communities if water were to become a “cash crop.” Spending patterns could change. How would demand management impact our mainstreet economies? How would it change spending at rural businesses such as local diners and mechanics?

@CWCB_DNR: Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Rob Viehl):

Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use on the Fryingpan River and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River

The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be considering an offer from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acting through its Colorado River Water Projects Enterprise (“District”) of a short-term lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water that the District holds in Ruedi Reservoir for instream flow (“ISF”) use. The proposal is to use the released water to supplement winter flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from January 1, 2021 – March 31, 2021; and from April 1 – December 31, 2021, to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. The Board will consider this proposal at its September 16-17, 2020 virtual meeting. The agenda for this Board meeting can be found at:

https://cwcb.colorado.gov/virtual-board-meeting-september-16-17-2020

Consideration of this proposal initiates the 120-day period for Board review pursuant to Rule 6b. of the Board’s Rules Concerning the Colorado Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program (“ISF Rules”), which became effective on March 2, 2009. No formal Board action will be taken at this time.

Information concerning the ISF Rules and water acquisitions can be found here.

The following information concerning the proposed lease of water is provided pursuant to ISF
Rule 6m.(1):

Subject Water Right:
RUEDI RESERVOIR
Source: Fryingpan River
Decree: CA4613
Priority No.: 718
Appropriation Date: 7/29/1957
Adjudication Date: 6/20/1958
Decreed Amount: 140,697.3 Acre Feet

Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 Acre Feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 079D6C0106
Contract Use: Supplement winter instream flows in the Fryingpan River
Contract Amount: 5,000 Acre Feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet

The following information concerning the proposed additional use of leased water remaining after March 31, 2021 is provided pursuant to ISF Rule 6m.(1):

Subject Water Right:
RUEDI RESERVOIR
Source: Fryingpan River
Decree: CA4613
Priority No.: 718
Appropriation Date: 7/29/1957
Adjudication Date: 6/20/1958
Decreed Amount: 140,697.3 Acre Feet

Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 acre-feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 139D6C0101
Contract Use: Municipal use in Colorado River Basin; includes “use of water by . . . piscatorial users, including delivery of water to supplement streamflow. . . .”
Contract Amount: 4,683.5 acre-feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet.

Proposed Reach of Stream:
Fryingpan River: From the confluence with Rocky Ford Creek, adjacent to the outlet of Ruedi Reservoir, downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River, a distance of approximately 14.4 miles.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River: From the confluence with the headgate of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company (lat 39 06 06N long 108 20 48W) downstream to its confluence with the Gunnison River.

Purpose of the Acquisition and Proposed Season of Use:
The leased water would be used to supplement the existing 39 cfs ISF water right in the Fryingpan River to preserve the natural environment, and used at rates up to 70 cfs to meet the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife flow recommendations to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The leased water would be used to also supplement the existing ISF water rights in the 15-Mile Reach to preserve the natural environment from July 1 – September 30, 2019, and to provide water at rates above the existing decreed ISF rates to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in that reach to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree from April 1 –December 31, 2019.

Water stored in Ruedi Reservoir will be released to the Fryingpan River during the winter time period. The existing instream flow water right is decreed for 39 cfs from November 1 – April 30. The objective of the lease would be to maintain Fryingpan River flows at a rate of 70 cfs to prevent the formation of anchor ice at times when temperatures and low flows could otherwise combine to create anchor ice, which adversely impacts aquatic macroinvertebrates and trout fry.

The 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River provides critical habitat for two species of endangered fish: the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. This reach is sensitive to water depletions because of its location downstream of several large diversions. It provides spawning habitat for these endangered fish species as well as high-quality habitat for adult fish. Due to development on the Colorado River, this reach has experienced declining flows and significant dewatering during the late summer months, and at times, there are shortages in the springtime. As a result, the USFWS has issued flow recommendations for the 15-Mile Reach since 1989 to protect instream habitat for the endangered fish.

Supporting Data:
Available information concerning the purpose of the acquisition and the degree of preservation and improvement of the natural environment, and available scientific data is available at:

https://dnrweblink.state.co.us/cwcb/0/edoc/213103/6.pdf?searchid=2484c28a-57b0-4eb7-8831-b8085c8ffa2b

Linda Bassi
Stream and Lake Protection Section
Colorado Water Conservation Board
1313 Sherman Street, Room 721
Denver, CO 80203
linda.bassi@state.co.us
303-866-3441 x3204

Kaylea White
Stream and Lake Protection Section
Colorado Water Conservation Board
1313 Sherman Street, Room 721
Denver, CO 80203
kaylea.white@state.co.us
303-866-3441 x3240

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Concerns rise over #GrizzlyCreekFire’s impact on #ColoradoRiver’s endangered fish downstream — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River divides Glenwood Canyon slurry on the ridge from the Grizzly Creek Fire on Monday, August 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via Aspen Journalism)

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon has many people praying for rain. But the very thing that could douse the blaze, which has burned 32,000 acres as of Tuesday, has some experts concerned it also could create problems for downstream endangered fish.

A heavy rain could wash dirt — no longer held in place by charred vegetation — and ash from the steep canyons and gullies of the burn area into the Colorado River. Scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of the flood. And the heavy sediment load in the runoff could suffocate fish. A similar scenario played out in 2018 when thousands of fish were killed by ash and dirt that washed into the Animas River from the 416 Fire burn area.

Downstream from the Grizzly Creek Fire, beginning in DeBeque Canyon, is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and razorback sucker.

“Yes, we are very concerned about a fire in that kind of terrain that close to critical habitat. There’s just no question,” said Tom Chart, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “There’s a probability we could have an effect all the way down into the 15-mile reach.”

The Colorado River’s so-called 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction, is home to those four species of fish. This stretch often has less water than is recommended for these fish by Fish & Wildlife mainly because of two large irrigation diversions that pull water from the river to irrigate Grand Valley farms: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, which takes water from the river at a structure known as the Roller Dam, and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, which takes water from the river near Palisade.

Between these diversions and the confluence of the Gunnison River is a problem spot where water managers constantly work to bolster water levels through upstream reservoir releases. According to Chart, there is currently a total of about 250 cubic feet per second being released from Ruedi, Wolford and Granby reservoirs for the benefit of fish in the 15-mile reach.

With hot, dry weather, a weak monsoon season and the ongoing diversions for irrigation season, which continue into the fall, current river conditions are already stressful for the fish, Chart said. Water managers say they have seen fish using fish ladders to swim upstream and downstream of the 15-mile reach in search of deeper, cooler water.

“As far as concern about the ecological health of the 15-mile reach right now, we are very concerned about conditions there right now,” Chart said. “Native fish do move out of those dewatered stretches in search of better conditions.”

A debris flow on top of these already-challenging conditions could be devastating for fish populations.

“The potential with the Grizzly Creek Fire could be as bad as it gets if we get a rainstorm on top of a low baseflow,” Chart said. “You pray for rain, but at the same time this would be a tough time to get a flow of ash and retardant off the burned area.”

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

Burned area assessment begins

The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has done a preliminary assessment of the severity of the soil burns to determine where debris flows would most likely occur, according to Lisa Stoeffler, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.

Areas of concern include Dead Horse Creek, Cinnamon Creek and No Name Creek, among others. More than an inch of rain in an hour — or a quarter-inch in 15 minutes, as occurs in a fast-moving thunderstorm — could trigger a debris flow, the BAER team found.

But this initial assessment, Stoeffler said, is mostly focused on potential impacts to Interstate 70, and water and power infrastructure, not on impacts to the aquatic environment.

“We may look at environment later on, once we have a final footprint of the fire,” she said. “The BAER process is really looking at things that we would need to address because it would cause an emergency-type situation.”

When the Grizzly Creek Fire first broke out, the city of Glenwood Springs switched its municipal water source from Grizzly and No Name creeks, which are near the burned area, to the Roaring Fork River.

“We are concerned about the ash and debris entering the water system and the costs we are going to incur because of this,” said Hannah Klausman, public information officer for Glenwood Springs.

The 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near 19 Road in Grand Junction is home to four species of endangered fish. The Colorado River Water Conservation District is discussing releasing water from upstream reservoirs to help dilute any ash and sediment flows from the Grizzly Creek Fire. Photo © Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Solution is dilution

Since preventing the dirty runoff from reaching the river would be difficult, if not impossible, in the steep, rocky terrain, the best bet, Chart said, would be tapping into upstream reservoir water to flush sediment and ash.

In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.

The Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, also would help dilute the ash and sediment before it got to the 15-mile reach. Some of it would probably settle out before it got there anyway. But that would do little to help native fish populations closer to the burn area. Although not listed as endangered, other species such as flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub also could be impacted.

“We get concerned about the endangered fish the most, but it’s really the entire native fish community we need to be paying attention to,” Chart said.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has some water in Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs that could potentially be used for a flushing flow. But it would take careful coordination between reservoir operators. And it could be a complicated juggling act to figure out how to accommodate all the different demands for that limited water supply, said River District chief engineer John Currier.

“I think we stand ready to try and figure out how to do something,” Currier said. “It will be a topic of discussion sooner rather than later.”

Managing the impacts of the burned landscape on the fish will be ongoing long after the fire is extinguished.

“I think this is going to be an issue for years to come,” Chart said. “That landscape is going to take a long time to heal.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.

#ColoradoRiver District “State of the River” meeting video recordings now online #COriver #aridification

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

Click here to watch the video recordings:

Every year, the Colorado River District works with its partners to host educational meetings about water issues in each river basin in the 15-county district.

Learn more about the water we all rely on…Local experts present on how much water we expect to see in local rivers, ditches and reservoirs as well as up to date information about regional, statewide and local water issues.

Colorado River, St. Vrain districts asking voters for millions in new tax revenue — @WaterEdCO

From Water Education Colorado (Sarah Kuta):

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and with a recession looming, two Colorado water districts will ask voters this November to approve property tax increases for millions of dollars in new funding for water education, water quality improvement, infrastructure and water use management.

The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, made up primarily of Boulder County, is asking voters for more money for the first time in 50 years. Similarly, the 15-county Colorado River Water Conservation District in western Colorado is also going to the polls to ask for more funding.

Historically, funding for water has been hard to come by in Colorado, with voters reluctant to help pay for a statewide water program. But these two districts are hoping for more success at the local level, where voters can more easily see and feel the direct impact of their dollars on local watersheds.

“Whether your relationship with water is limited to water that comes out of your kitchen faucet, or you’re a rafter or kayaker, or a farmer or rancher, or somebody who works in mining and energy production, we all need a secure water supply,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “These efforts that we’re talking about are vitally important to securing that water supply for the next 50 years. And if we don’t do this, our kids will not have the same quality of life.”

Both districts are grappling with a confluence of social and economic pressures: the ongoing drought in Colorado and the West, a rapidly growing population, increased demand for water, declining oil and gas revenue, and declining property tax levels under the state’s Gallagher Amendment.

Both are also hoping to leverage the new property tax revenue to access additional state, federal and private money for water projects.

“It allows us a driver’s seat at the table rather than a passenger seat,” said Mueller.

Local water, local use

The Colorado River District will ask voters to increase the mill levy from 0.252 mills to 0.5 mills, which would generate an additional $4.9 million per year starting in 2021. Under the proposal, the district’s taxpayer-funded budget would more than double from its current $4.5 million level.

The district, home to some 500,000 residents in an area that covers 28 percent of the state, encompasses the Colorado River and its major tributaries, including the Yampa, the White, the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre rivers.

The proposal translates to a median residential property tax increase of $7.03 per year for residents in Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Delta, Ouray, Gunnison and parts of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties.

The district, which has 22 employees, plans to use the extra money to help fund projects and initiatives within its top priority areas: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency. No new staff positions will be created if voters approve the increase.

Already, the district has tightened its expenses as much as possible, Mueller said, but projections show cuts alone won’t be enough. The district’s board members, who have varied political leanings, thought long and hard before deciding to move forward with the ballot question.

“This is essentially government closest to the people,” said Dave Merritt, the district’s board president. “This protects western Colorado water, for use in western Colorado, and gives us the ability to bring some money to bear or some water to bear when we need to solve problems.”

Historic ask

The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, which spans roughly 500 square miles along the St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks, will ask voters to increase the mill levy from the current 0.156 mills to 1.25 mills for the next 10 years, according to Sean Cronin, the district’s executive director.

If voters agree to the proposed property tax increase, they’ll send an extra $3.3 million to the district each year starting in 2021. For comparison, the current mill levy generates $416,000 annually. (The district’s budget also includes an enterprise fund that generates between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, Cronin said.) The tax would add $9 to the annual property tax bill for a $100,000 home.

The tax increase would be used for projects that support the district’s five main goals, which were outlined in a strategic plan the board approved in January: the protection of water quality and water supply, infrastructure for agricultural water use, water education, creek improvement facilities and conservation.

It’s a historic decision to ask voters for more money: The district has not asked for a property tax increase since its founding in 1971, nearly 50 years ago.

“It’s been an evolution, this isn’t a sudden thing,” said Dennis Yanchunas, the district’s board president. “We believe [the strategic plan] is what our citizens are looking for from the district, and we can provide that leadership. In order to do that, you also have to have the kind of financial base that puts you in a position to do projects and make significant contributions.”

The district’s board members initially discussed asking voters for an even larger tax increase to 1.5 mills, but ultimately decided on the more conservative proposal. The board also added a 10-year sunset clause to help make the idea more palatable.

“There was very much a concern and a discussion around, ‘What’s the potential economic climate in November?’” said Cronin.

Indeed, the board considered the appropriateness of asking voters for a tax increase at all. Ultimately, however, they decided there’s no time like the present.

“I’m not sure that there is ever a good time to ask somebody for more money,” said Yanchunas. “There’s an awful lot of stuff we just have to set aside and say, ‘We have the right plan, we have a mission we believe in and we think the citizens believe in.’”

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

#ColoradoRiver District will ask voters for tax increase — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

A boater paddles the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale in May. The Colorado River Water Conservation District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, will ask voters for a tax increase in November. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Colorado River Water Conservation District will ask voters this November to approve a property-tax increase that would double its budget, from about $4 million to $8 million.

After a lengthy discussion at Tuesday’s regular quarterly meeting, River District board members voted to move ahead with a ballot question asking voters to raise its property taxes from a quarter-mill to a half-mill. That works out to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. One mill is the equivalent of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy would increase per year to $40.28 from $18.93 for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district.

The district in April had put off making a decision on moving forward with a ballot question until July due to concerns about asking voters for more money during the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Officials were comfortable moving forward, however, after recent polling showed continued support for the measure.

According to the resolution approving the ballot language, the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope; protecting adequate water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers; protecting sustainable drinking-water supplies; and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation by maintaining river levels and water quality.

“This is one of the most consequential decisions the district has made in some time,” said board president Dave Merritt, who represents Garfield County. “This is going to be really important to the future of the River District to take us into the next era.”

The district has seen its revenue stream decline in recent years due to shrinking tax revenue from the fossil-fuel industry and lower residential assessments as a result of the state’s Gallagher and Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendments. As a result, the district has reduced its staff by four positions, suspended a grant program and reduced its vehicle fleet.

The district got more specific in the spring about what it would do with the money in a fiscal implementation plan. About 86% would go toward water projects backed by local communities and basin roundtables. Examples could include environmentally focused projects such as forest restoration on the Yampa River, infrastructure projects such as rehabilitation for the Grand Valley Roller Dam, and dam and reservoir projects such as the White River Storage Project. The district would not use the money to create new staff positions.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which was created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans 15 counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache.

Pitkin County’s representative, County Attorney John Ely, was the lone “no” vote for the ballot measure. He said the fiscal implementation plan should include a promise that the River District will work with local elected officials on water projects, especially since River District board members would be the ones allocating project funding — and they are not elected to their positions.

“Having that type of commitment in the plan, I think that would go a long way in allaying that type of a concern,” Ely said.

The River District added the language Ely requested to the fiscal implementation plan.

At the suggestion of some agriculture-dependent counties, including Mesa County, River District General Manager Andy Mueller added language to the ballot question that says the district will not utilize the additional funds for paying to fallow irrigated agriculture. Montrose County representative Marc Catlin pushed to go a step further, suggesting that the definition of fallowing include permanent programs, as well as voluntary, temporary and compensated programs. The state of Colorado is currently looking into a program that could pay irrigators on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis to fallow fields in order to leave more water in the river.

“I think we ought to tie it to this ballot because 10 years from now, somebody might have a completely different idea of what fallowing might mean,” Catlin said.

But other directors cautioned against getting too wordy in the question, which could confuse voters, especially since a recent survey found strong support for a more simply stated proposal.

“I would just be happier if we kept this closer to what was polled and simpler,” said Martha Whitmore, who represents Ouray County.

The Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley near Grand Junction. The Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors voted Tuesday to ask voters for a mill levy increase in November. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Survey finds support

The River District hired Lori Weigel from Arvada-based consultant New Bridge Strategy for another round of voter polling, which surveyed 600 district residents between June 25 and July 2. If the election were held tomorrow, 63% of those surveyed said they would definitely vote in favor of a tax increase.

“That 63% is really the critical number there,” Weigel said. “It’s pretty rare that we see support levels this high.”

The district had previously found similarly high levels of support — 65% — when Weigel surveyed voters in mid-March. Some board members worried that because the survey coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the results would no longer be valid. But survey results this time around showed continued support for a tax increase.

“I think we can have a great deal of confidence in this data,” Weigel said. “(Support) has not shifted significantly. Water is something that is important to people. Water is sort of a constant.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the July 22 edition of The Aspen Times.

Voters to face #ColoradoRiver District tax question — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Voters in 15 counties this fall will be asked if they’re willing to lighten their wallets a little for the sake of supporting Western Slope water interests.

The Colorado River District board on Tuesday voted almost unanimously to put a proposal on the November ballot to boost its property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The move would raise its annual revenue by an estimated $4.9 million and cost an additional $1.90 per $100,000 in residential property value. The district’s levy is now capped at 0.252 mills and its effective current rate is 0.235 mills.

The district is seeking to address a growing financial crisis and strengthen its ability to play a role in addressing the water issues that challenge the region amid a continuing trend toward longterm drought…

The river district measure includes a provision that would relieve the district from TABOR’s limits on how much revenue it can collect and spend in any year, though it would continue to have to go to voters for any further hike in its tax rate.

The district already has cut staff and other expenses. Absent a tax hike, it is expecting a possible $425,000 reduction in general fund revenues based on the latest projection for how Gallagher will affect collections of taxes from residential properties next year.

If the measure passes, the district says it will spend only 14% of the new revenues to address its financial structural deficit, with the remainder to focus on projects partnering with others and focused on agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, conservation and efficiency…

Polling the district did in March and again a few weeks ago suggest that a majority of voters (about 63% in the latest poll) would support the tax measure today, even amidst a pandemic and its economic impacts. That polling suggests 60% support in Mesa County, which will be pivotal to the measure’s chances because Mesa has the largest population of any district county and also is largely conservative when it comes to tax and other issues.

Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the district board, is supporting the tax proposal.

Acquafresca had agreed to support the measure after ballot language was added that commits the district not to use any of the new tax revenue to pay for fallowing of agricultural fields. He said Mesa County commissioners also were unanimous on insisting on that clause being included before they would even consider supporting the tax measure.

Webinar: “Gunnison State of the River” — The Colorado River District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Gunnison State of the River

Description
Learn about current Gunnison Basin water conditions, drought, and water planning at the virtual Gunnison State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District.

Agenda

•Bob Hurford, Division 4 (Gunnison Basin) engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, will talk about the weak winter snowpack, the dry spring and how these factors are affecting streamflows, reservoir storage and water rights administration.

•Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, will address the “Protection of West Slope water as we face an uncertain future.”

• Molly Mugglestone, director of communications and Colorado policy for Business for Water Stewardship, will present on a study that found Colorado’s rivers are major economic drivers producing nearly $19 billion in output annually from people recreating on or near rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs and waterways.

• Tom Alvey, head of the projects committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District, will discuss hot water topics in the basin including drought, fruit freezes, an update of the roundtable’s water plan for the region, how the new crops of hemp and hops are working and the River District’s Lower Gunnison Project.

Time
Jun 24, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

Dry April And May Hurt Western #Colorado #Runoff Forecasts — The Colorado River District #drought #aridification #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From The Colorado River Conservation District:

After a winter of near-average snowfall, Mother Nature put the brakes on Western Colorado’s snowpack beginning in mid-March. As a result, the snowpack withered prematurely and West Slope runoff has suffered, a fact compounded by the lack of subsequent spring moisture. The Gunnison River peaked in mid-May and the Colorado River peak is expected this week.

According to the Colorado River District, Western Colorado’s hot and dry summer and fall of 2019 set a poor stage for whatever snow was to come, especially in the Gunnison and San Juan basins. Dry soils absorb snowmelt before streams benefit. Lack of precipitation and high winds at the end of this past winter further decimated the conversion of snow to water supply.

“We are now in year 20 of an extended dry period that we should start accepting as the new normal,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Warmer temperatures, dry soils and disappointing spring and summer moisture are defining how we look at future policies to determine how best to protect Western Colorado water security.”

This precipitation map created by NOAA depicts precipitation as a percent of normal across the
west. Looking at Colorado, it clearly shows how dry southwestern Colorado has been since Oct. 1,
2019 to May 31, 2020. In contrast, nortwestern Colorado has been a bright spot.

The bright spots for West Slope water supply continue to be in Grand and Summit counties, where the best snowpack peaked above average in mid-April and continues to be above-average for this time of the year, feeding the Upper Colorado River reservoirs such as Dillon, Green Mountain, Wolford Mountain and Granby.

The situation is much different to the west and the south with below normal snowpack and seasonal runoff forecasts that approached half of what is normally expected in the Grand Mesa zone above the Grand Valley and lower Delta County. The same holds for the greater Gunnison, Uncompahgre and San Juan river basins.

The Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, reported that a “very dry” April in Utah and southern Colorado spurred snowmelt, while northern Colorado benefited from near- average precipitation and near- to below-average temperatures. Summer temperatures are expected to be well above average with near-average precipitation, although important seasonal monsoonal rain activity is difficult to predict.

Western Colorado contributes about 70% of inflows into Lake Powell, where the total April to July runoff forecast has now fallen to 56% of normal at 4 million acre-feet. Contributions from the Green River through Utah and Wyoming are not anticipated to be enough to offset Western Colorado’s dryness. San Juan Basin runoff is expected to be less than 50% of normal.

The accumulation of snowfall and associated runoff records over time inform water planners about drought or wet trends. Unfortunately, with fifty-six percent of normal runoff into Powell, the drought that started in 2000 continues through 2020. Lake Powell was last full in 1999. It’s just about half full currently.

Here are some reservoir outlooks throughout the Colorado River District:
− On the Colorado mainstem, Granby and Green Mountain reservoirs are expected to fill. Wolford Mountain, owned and operated by the Colorado River District, is already full.
− Ruedi Reservoir is projected to fill.
− Elkhead Reservoir and Stagecoach Reservoir in the Yampa Basin will fill.
− Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Gunnison Basin will hit 75% full due to inflows that are 54% of normal.
− Ridgway Reservoir and Taylor Park reservoirs will reach 90% capacity, with forecasted seasonal inflows of 54% and 70%, respectively.

River peaks are another data point of interest to many:
− The Gunnison River peaked on May 19 at about 5,000 cubic feet a second at the Whitewater gauge near Grand Junction.
− The Colorado River will peak this week at Cameo at about 12,900 cubic feet a second, with flows aided by upstream reservoir releases to support endangered fish habitat.
− The Yampa River near Deer lodge Park may already have seen its peak at about 13,400 cubic feet a second in early May.

“Man, you guys did a nice job of coordinating as well as you possibly could with the water you had available” — Don Anderson #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Humpback chub are one of four federally endangered fish species that rely on habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. Humpback chub photo credit US Fish and Wildlife Service.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Recent abundant flows of Colorado River water between Palisade and the Gunnison River confluence during another spring runoff season weren’t entirely the work of Mother Nature.

They also were the product of a coordinated, voluntary effort by operators of upstream reservoirs to coordinate releases of water into the river to bolster peak flows in that stretch of river and aid in the recovery of endangered fish.

This was the 12th coordinated release since the first one occurred in 1997, and the fifth one in the last six years. The coordinated releases occur as conditions warrant and allow each year, to flush out fine sediment in gravel beds that serve as spawning habitat for rare fish. They also improve habitat for insects and other macroinvertebrates that fish feed on…

The upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are home to four endangered fish. Don Anderson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who serves as the instream flow coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a public-private partnership, said that what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the Gunnison River confluence is primarily used by two of the endangered fish, the razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. But a third endangered species, the bonytail, sometimes makes use of the stretch. And a fourth, the humpback chub, which favors deep, rocky, fast-flowing stretches in places such as Westwater Canyon downstream, also indirectly benefits from water releases primarily aimed at bolstering flows in the 15-Mile Reach.

The 15-Mile Reach experiences less of a spring runoff peak than some other parts of the Colorado River because of Grand Valley irrigation diversions just upstream. The goal of this year’s coordinated releases was to achieve daily flows averaging at least 12,900 cubic feet per second upstream at Cameo, an amount that was nearly achieved on some days last week. At times during a couple of days flows exceeded 13,000 cfs, Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told entities involved in the coordinated release program in a conference call Wednesday. She said the effort was a success, and Anderson agreed. He told participants that without getting hung up on exact numbers, flows at that level, which meant peak flows of about 12,000 cfs in the 15-Mile Reach, do good work for the endangered fish and their habitat.

The effort involved in part coordinated releases by the Bureau of Reclamation from Green Mountain Reservoir, Denver Water from Williams Fork Reservoir, and the Colorado River District from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District also was a participant.

“Man, you guys did a nice job of coordinating as well as you possibly could with the water you had available,” Anderson told reservoir operators…

The coordinated releases can have benefits far beyond the 15-Mile Reach. Anderson said this year’s coordinated releases helped downstream in the Moab area by topping off flows into a wetland that is a potentially valuable razorback sucker nursery. Also, Utah state wildlife officials have reported concerns about seeing smallmouth bass, which prey on endangered fish, possibly spawning for the first time below Westwater Canyon. The coordinated releases may have helped combat that due to the higher and faster flows, cooler water temperatures and increased water turbidity.

Coordinated runoff flows are just one water-delivery effort targeting the 15-Mile Reach. Each year releases of dedicated endangered fish water are made to boost low flows in the reach later in the summer. Also, releases sometimes are made around early April to supplement flows in the reach after irrigation diversions have begun but before the river levels gain from spring runoff. This year was the first year such releases occurred after stored water was specifically held over from last year with the primary goal of possibly serving that purpose.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says various recovery efforts appear to be working, with scientific analysis showing the razorback sucker and humpback chub could be reclassified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map credit: CWCB

Western #Colorado #water purchases stir up worries about the future of farming — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Water Asset Management has been buying up properties irrigated by the water in this canal. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett/Luke Runyon). Click through to play the recording and for the great photo gallery showing farms purchased by Water Asset Management:

For five years, Zay Lopez tended vegetables, hayfields and cornfields, chickens, and a small flock of sheep here on the western edge of Colorado’s Grand Valley — farming made possible by water from the Colorado River.

Lopez has a passion for agriculture, and for a while, he carved out a niche with his business, The Produce Peddler, trucking veggies seven hours away to a farmers market in Pinedale, Wyoming.

Lopez also moonlights as a Realtor, with his finger on the pulse of the local real estate market. A few years ago, he noticed a strange new phenomenon. Much of the irrigated agricultural land sold in the valley — such as parcels just down the road from his farm — wasn’t being bought by another farmer. Instead, his new neighbor was Water Asset Management, a New York City-based hedge fund with deep pockets.

When Lopez and his wife Leah grew tired of trying to make ends meet, they decided to pack up and move to southern Colorado to grow hemp. They, too, sold their 26-acre farm to WAM.

“It was hard to make the mortgage payment plus all of our other payments, and I didn’t see — with our current model of what we were doing — how we could get out of that hole,” he said. “Selling the farm wasn’t really a choice. We had to do it.”

Lopez’s recent sale is the continuation of a trend that has made some in the agricultural communities west of Grand Junction nervous; has created a buzz among water managers; and has led state lawmakers to pass a bill looking at strengthening Colorado’s anti-water-speculation law.

WAM is buying irrigated land as an investment in the future potential value of the water. Although the company isn’t doing anything illegal, its actions have rekindled deep-seated and long-held fears about water in the West — that it could hasten the death of agricultural communities’ way of life and create an unregulated market for water that would drive up prices and drive out family farms.

Because of these sensitive issues, many people in the Grand Valley are reluctant to talk about WAM and what it is doing. Meetings have erupted in anger, some who have sold have become social pariahs, and top water officials from the valley’s canal companies refuse to talk to reporters on the record. For a while, a local rancher was actively updating a website “wall of shame” for people involved in Grand Valley water deals.

“They are the same concerns that have existed since the 1930s,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center. “The east slope municipal diverters or an investment firm — it doesn’t matter who it is — are going to be able to offer more money for water than you could derive from farming or ranching. The concern is that if that becomes a trend, then the whole economy of the Western Slope changes and the agriculture economy will be very different and smaller than it is now.”

The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to KUNC and partial funding for Castle’s work. A member of the Walton family currently provides funding to Aspen Journalism via the Catena Foundation.

Farmer Zay Lopez ran his small market farm in the Grand Valley’s far west end for five years, using water from the Colorado River to grow vegetables. In December 2019 he sold his 26-acre farm to Water Asset Management. Photo credit: Luke Runyon/KUNC

Water Asset Management

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Since 2017, WAM has spent $16.6 million buying up 2,222 acres of irrigated agricultural land in the communities of Fruita, Loma and Mack, west of Grand Junction. The company is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the nonprofit canal company that delivers water to many Grand Valley irrigators.

WAM now owns 1,659 acres in the GVWUA delivery area, which according to its website has 23,341 irrigated acres. That means the hedge fund owns about 7% of the land irrigated by the Government Highline Canal.

WAM, whose headquarters is on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, says it “seeks to be a leader in managing global water investments that solve water quality and availability issues,” according to its website. WAM is run by co-founder and principal Disque Deane Jr., while Matthew Ketellapper has been doing much of the “boots on the ground” work in the Grand Valley as the company’s Colorado asset manager.

Deane has been involved in water markets in the West for years, buying water and land tied to water rights. He doesn’t give many interviews, but according to a 2016 ProPublica article, “debt, death and divorce” has become his sort of motto, because those circumstances drive people to sell.

WAM are cash buyers — a rare offer in this rural area. In many cases, WAM makes improvements to irrigation infrastructure, such as adding center pivots and lining ditches, and leases the land back to farmers to keep it in agricultural production.

Grand Valley’s farmland is expansive, with views stretching west to Utah, north to the Book Cliffs and south to Colorado National Monument. It is also exceedingly dry. The area where Lopez’s former farm is located was once a community of homesteaders known as New Liberty, who eked out a living by dryland farming before the construction of irrigation infrastructure, a notion at which Lopez marvels.

Not much would grow here without the region’s two main irrigation canals, which draw water from the Colorado River: Government Highline Canal and Grand Valley Irrigation Canal. The bigger of the two, the 55-mile-long Government Highline, snakes through the northern part of the valley and is managed by GVWUA. One hundred and fifty miles of ditches known as laterals bring water from the main canal to individual farms.

In mid-March, before the water began flowing in the canals and bringing the annual green return of irrigated agriculture to this valley, the air was thick with smoke as farmers burned their ditches and the earth was dusty, brown and parched.

What leaves people scratching their heads is this: How does a New York City investment firm plan to make money from marginal desert land in western Colorado?

“Everyone is very cautious about what these guys from New York are doing out here buying up our ground,” Lopez said. “I mean, honestly, it’s still kind of a mystery what their overall vision is.”

The Government Highline Canal flows past Highline State Park. WAM, a New York City-based hedge fund, has been buying up parcels of land that have water rights to the canal. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

‘Temporary, voluntary, compensated’

The key to WAM’s overall vision may lie in demand management, a state program still in the investigation and feasibility stage.

At the heart of such a program envisioned by state officials — and designed to be “temporary, voluntary and compensated” — is the concept of paying irrigators to use less water by fallowing fields. By doing so, there will be more water in the Colorado River flowing downstream to be stored in Lake Powell in an effort to bolster reservoir levels and help Colorado meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.

The future of the demand management feasibility investigation is unclear because the state on May 1 cut its budget by $750,000 due to the COVID-19-caused state financial crisis.

The thing many water managers and users in Colorado fear most is what’s known as a compact call. Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are required to deliver 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). If the Upper Basin can’t deliver because of drought, climate change or any other reason, it could lead to a compact call, triggering involuntary cutbacks and an interstate legal quagmire that could drag on for decades.

A new demand management program would allow Colorado to send water to a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell that would act as a modest insurance policy to help protect the Upper Basin against a compact call.

The Grand Valley, which takes its name from the “Grand River,” the historical name for the Colorado River, is well-positioned for a demand management program. Water left in the river at this location is almost certain to reach Lake Powell because there are few major diversions between here and the giant reservoir.

And entities in the Grand Valley have rights to a lot of water. With 1912 adjudication dates, Grand Valley irrigation districts are some of the most-senior water rights on the Colorado River and can call about 2,200 cubic feet per second down through the river system.

There is some precedent that a demand management program would work in the Grand Valley, as some irrigators here have participated in two different experimental pay-to-fallow programs undertaken by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the GVWUA. These types of programs have intense interest from many sectors, including municipalities, which often see transferring water from agriculture as a viable way to increase their supplies, as well as from environmental organizations that would like to see more water stay in the river.

Water Asset Management bought this 57-acre parcel as part of a $6 million deal in January. The land is irrigated with water from the Grand Valley Irrigation Company Canal. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Returns on water

Since 2017, WAM has made investments in Grand Valley agriculture, choosing to make purchases of parcels in batches every few months. But in the past six months, the hedge fund has taken one step that signals what could be a renewed effort to sway Western water rules in its favor.

WAM recently brought onto its team a heavy hitter in the world of Colorado River politicking: Denver-based attorney James Eklund.

Eklund is the former director of the state’s top water policy agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and served as the state’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, another powerful policymaking agency on the river. He was one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, the document that made the case for a demand management program throughout the Upper Basin. Soon after he left these public posts, he began representing WAM as counsel.

Eklund, who comes from a Western Slope ranching family, says WAM’s strategy is to buy irrigated land and then pump money into cutting-edge technology and practices, thereby increasing irrigation efficiency and crop yield. The leftover water could be, in exchange for payment, sent downstream under a demand management program.

“I definitely think that if there’s a program that pays farmers, (WAM is) interested in it — and for good reason,” Eklund said. “They want to make sure their investment is generating the types of returns that their investors expect.”

That strategy doesn’t sit well with Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. His organization’s mission is to protect water interests on the Western Slope, which often means protecting agricultural interests. He worries that WAM’s land buys are being done with the intent to separate the water from the land and that the private equity fund does not have the community’s best interest at heart.

“I think a charitable view would be that they are engaging in the acquisition of private property in a capitalistic society, and they have the right to do that,” Mueller said. “And that might be as charitable as I could get with them.”

So far, WAM has been keeping the land in agricultural production, much the same as it had been with previous owners. According to Colorado water law, to retain its agricultural water rights, the company must continue to put the water to “beneficial use,” or, in other words, utilize the water to keep growing crops.

And Mueller’s fear of separating water from land isn’t currently possible under the rules of GVWUA, where three-quarters of the land purchased by WAM sits. Under that organization’s rules, the water cannot be sold separately from the land; you must own the land to get the associated water.

Without access to GVWUA records, it is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out exactly how much water WAM has the rights to. Class 1 land irrigated by GVWUA comes with 4 acre-feet of water per acre each irrigation season.

There is not a way to tell from publicly available property records how much of the land WAM has purchased is irrigated Class 1 land. But if all the land WAM has purchased is Class 1, then it would have at least 6,636 acre-feet of water.

Eklund said the amount of water held by WAM is akin to financial information, which the hedge fund, per its policy, won’t disclose. GVWUA director Mark Harris and the organization’s counsel, Kirsten Kurath have both repeatedly declined to be interviewed on the record for this story. However, Kurath, said in an email that GVWUA is aware of and monitoring activities within its district.

Another lingering, hard-to-answer question is how much WAM’s water is worth. Under the System Conservation Pilot Program, run by the Upper Colorado River Commission, Grand Valley farmers were paid $200 for every acre-foot of water they left in the river. Using this number as a benchmark, WAM’s 6,636 acre-feet of water could currently be worth more than $1.3 million. But that price the program paid to farmers was to lease it for only one year, which could bring the true value of the transferred water to tens of millions of dollars, experts say. How much it could be worth in a hotter, drier future is unknown.

“A lot of the crops we grow are not very profitable, so I think they are projecting, hey, this water is going to be more valuable than even the crops they are growing with it,” Lopez said.

Mark Harris, General Manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, checks on the entrance to Tunnel 3, where water in the Government Highline Canal goes through the mountain to Palisade, continuing to Grand County. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Preventing speculation

WAM’s land buys have not escaped the attention of Colorado lawmakers, who say what the company is doing is legally dubious. State Sen. Kerry Donovan is a rancher who represents District 5, a stretch of rural mountains, agricultural valleys and ski towns on the Western Slope.

In the 2020 legislative session, before the coronavirus pandemic slowed legislative activity, she sponsored Senate Bill 48, which Gov. Jared Polis recently signed into law. The new legislation directs Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources to convene a workgroup to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law.

“I also hope (this bill) sends a message to people that might be looking to Colorado to make a quick buck that we’re not interested in that type of behavior in our state,” Donovan said. “If you’re just coming up here to buy up water to turn into a profit in the years to come for your clients, like, ‘No, thank you.’”

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.

“(WAM’s) goal is to buy assets, to make money — and as much money as they can,” Donovan said. “I don’t want that type of player in the prior appropriation system, just full stop.”

WAM attorney Eklund says the investment firm’s directors are not speculators; they are farmers.

“The characterization of any farming or ranching operation that is putting water to a beneficial use as a speculator, that’s just plain-and-simple wrong,” he said. “In light of Colorado water law, this is not accurate as a description that they’re speculating here.”

Eklund sees a bigger role for WAM and other similar players in a potential future water market. He would like to see Colorado fill up that insurance pool in Lake Powell as quickly as possible and said WAM can help the state do that.

“(WAM is) looking at how they can move water down to Lake Powell to avert a crisis,” Eklund said. “And they’re trying to make sure that we’re becoming more resilient in the agricultural economy in the Grand Valley by strategically planning for how that water gets into the account in Lake Powell.”

Since 2017 Water Asset Management has bought 1,659 acres of land in the delivery area of the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Their most recent purchase was of land irrigated by the Grand Valley Irrigation Company Canal. Credit: Kaitlin Ketel w/Mesa County parcel data via Aspen Journalism

A shift?

The type of land purchase that WAM usually pursues has recently shifted. All of the Grand Valley land that the company bought up until this year had been irrigated with water from the Government Highline Canal, where the right to water depends on how much irrigated acreage someone has and where water is tied to the land.

But WAM’s most recent purchase in January was a $6 million deal on 541 acres in Fruita and irrigated by the Grand Valley Irrigation Company Canal, the other big player in Grand Valley agriculture. In its delivery system, shares of water can be bought and sold, and the amount of water is not tied to the land. It marks a departure from the company’s previous purchases, even as Eklund maintains it’s not a change in WAM’s strategy.

“I would say it’s very significant,” Mueller said. “Land that is irrigated under a private water right like the GVIC, that becomes more challenging and more threatening from a permanent-dry-up perspective.”

But even as suspicion and skepticism run high, some Grand Valley farmers, including Lopez, say WAM has been a good neighbor so far.

“Absolutely, they are committed to the future of agriculture in the Grand Valley. They are fronting a lot of money to do these irrigation projects and leasing the ground back to the farmers who had farmed it already,” Lopez said. “Now, is that just to look good to the community and their investors? I have no idea.”

This story is part of a series on water investment in the West, produced by KUNC in Greeley, KJZZ in Arizona, The Nevada Independent 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.

“We are now in year 20 of an extended dry period that we should start accepting as the new normal” — Andy Mueller #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, speaking at the district’s annual seminar on the Colorado RIver, on Sept. 14, 2018 in Grand Junction. Muller expressed concerns about how the state of Colorado might deal with falling water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Via the Sky-Hi Daily News:

While a dry April and May hurt western Colorado runoff forecasts, Grand County’s remains above average for this time of year.

According to the Colorado River District, a winter of near-average snowfall withered prematurely and West Slope runoff has suffered.

The hot, dry summer and fall of 2019 set a poor stage for whatever snow was to come because of the dry soil that absorbs snowmelt before the streams can benefit.

“We are now in year 20 of an extended dry period that we should start accepting as the new normal,” Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said in a news release. “Warmer temperatures, dry soils and disappointing spring and summer moisture are defining how we look at future policies to determine how best to protect Western Colorado water security.”

The Colorado River District did mention that Grand and Summit counties continue to be bright spots for the West Slope water supply.

Snowpack peaked in Grand at above average in mid-April and continues to be above average for this time of year. This is good news as the county’s water feeds the Upper Colorado River and important reservoirs.

The Colorado River is expected to peak this week at Cameo at 12,900 cubic feet per second, aided by upstream reservoir releases to support endangered fish habitat.

Granby and Green Mountain reservoirs are expected to fill, the river district said, while Wolford Mountain Reservoir is already full.

The situation is much different to the west and the south, which have below normal snowpack and seasonal runoff forecasts at half of what is normally expected. Western Colorado contributes about 70% of inflows to Lake Powell, where the runoff forecast has now fallen to 56% of normal.

The river district expects the drought that began in 2000 to continue through 2020.

Opinion: Don’t hurt farmers to save the #ColoradoRiver — Explore Big Sky #COriver #aridification #DCP

A large irrigation canal in the Grand Valley, which relies on water from the Colorado River to irrigate fields. The state is exploring how a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan, known as demand management, might work. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Explore Big Sky (Andy Mueller):

No one denies it: Overconsumption of water and extreme drought caused by climate change are realities driving the Colorado River into crisis. But some solutions are better than others.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested recently in a Writer’s on the Range column that “retiring” 10 percent—some 300,000 acres—of irrigated agriculture would save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River. Secretary Babbitt wants the federal government to pay farmers in both the Lower and Upper Colorado River basins to dry up their cropland.

The imbalance on the Colorado River needs to be addressed, and agriculture, as the biggest water user in the basin, needs to be part of a fair solution. But drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool. It will damage our local food supply chains and bring decline to rural communities that have developed around irrigated agriculture.

Let’s look at the river’s problems. First, Secretary Babbitt minimizes the challenge as the overuse of the river’s system is even greater than 1 million acre-feet. The flow is so diminished that the end of the line, the Colorado River Delta, hardly receives any water.

The three states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin—including the former Secretary’s home state of Arizona—have in recent years consumed at least 1.2 million acre-feet more per year than the 8.5 million acre-feet allotted to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

This overuse has been perpetuated because the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation fail to account for the losses caused by evaporation from reservoirs and the transit losses during water deliveries. The first step in fixing the imbalance must be elimination of the Lower Basin’s overuse.

Through the Drought Contingency Plan, the Lower Basin is actively reducing its water consumption when Lake Mead hits critically low levels. But while this is a good start, more must be done.

Climate change is a major cause in reducing Colorado River flows, with recent studies putting the reduction between 3-5.2 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Important water-producing parts of our basin, such as Western Colorado, have already seen temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees since 1895, and predictions for a 2- to 5-degree increase in the foreseeable future will compound the trend.

It might be surprising to learn that the Upper Basin’s annual consumption of Colorado River water—less than 4.5 million acre-feet—is far below the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But this is hardly the time to increase diversions. To sustain the communities and the ecosystems that depend upon the Colorado River, all water users—both Upper and Lower Basin states—will need to consume less water.

The Colorado River District has taken a stand against “buy-and-dry” practices because we recognize the environmental and economic harm of drying up agricultural lands. If the health of the river is balanced solely on the back of agriculture, the 10 percent suggested by Secretary Babbitt today will almost certainly lead to 20 percent tomorrow.

In Western Colorado, most of our agriculture is family owned and operated. These family farms provide a local food supply, form the backbone of our rural communities, and they are already under economic stress. So what can be done to both help the river and keep rural life intact?

Initiatives must be aimed at reducing consumptive losses due to inefficient irrigation systems. At the same time we need to incentivize selective retirement of marginal land, all while providing technical support and funding for growers to switch to higher-value crops. The Lower Basin must reduce the cultivation of highly water consumptive crops in the increasingly hot desert, such as cotton and alfalfa raised solely for export.

Increased funding is better directed to off-farm and on-farm irrigation improvements and growing alternative crops. An example of that kind of effort is the Lower Gunnison Project in Western Colorado, a partnership between agricultural producers, the Colorado River District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project improves diversion structures by piping delivery ditches and modernizing irrigation technology on farms. The producers are also experimenting with new crops such as hemp and hops.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Lower Basin has to reduce its 1.2 million acre-feet in overuse. That’s a big start. But in both basins, agriculture must improve the way it uses scarce water taken from the river. We have no time to lose.

Andy Mueller is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is general manager of the Colorado River District and spends his time protecting the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries in Western Colorado.

Survey finds support for #ColoradoRiver District ballot measure — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

The lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir. The Colorado River District owns water in Ruedi Reservoir and plays a role in the flows in the Fryingpan, which is heavily diverted to the eastern slope at its headwaters. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The results of a survey to gauge voters’ attitudes about the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Western Slope water returned some good news for the district. But due to concerns about the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, River District officials are still mulling whether to push ahead with a plan to ask voters to restore part of its original mill levy.

River District general manager Andy Mueller said the overall results of the survey, which found that 65% of respondents would support a mill levy increase, were a ray of good news in an otherwise dark time. But at the board’s April quarterly meeting, Mueller recommended that it postpone making a decision about whether to move forward on a ballot initiative until at least its July meeting.

“Given the economic devastation that is occurring throughout the district, the question we have to ask ourselves in July is: Is it appropriate to go to the voters to ask for additional funding at this time when they are suffering such great economic hardship?” Mueller said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

The River District board is considering whether to ask voters to raise its property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from about $4 million to $8 million. That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. One mill is the equivalent of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.

According to numbers provided by the River District, for the median home value in Pitkin County — the highest in the district at $1.13 million — the mill levy would increase from $18.93 to $40.28 per year.

For several days in mid-March, River District consultant Arvada-based New Bridge Strategy surveyed about 600 residents and voters via email and phone to assess the feasibility of a ballot question. The survey results found that residents trust that the River District manages taxpayer funds wisely, and three out of five people said they would support a tax increase if it were on the ballot measure in November.

“I think, overall, this is positive,” said Lori Weigel, principal of New Bridge Strategy. “It’s pretty rare to see something testing at 60 percent or higher in Colorado these days. It speaks to the primacy of water and people’s concern about water in this part of the state.”

Survey-takers said protecting western Colorado water for agriculture and preserving clean drinking water were the most compelling reasons to vote yes on a tax increase. Eighty-eight percent found these reasons convincing. The River District is not a direct provider of drinking water, but part of the organization’s mission is to keep water on the Western slope.

Women older than 55 years old made up the backbone of support for a tax measure — 73% said they would back it. Residents across the political spectrum supported a tax increase, but it found the most support from Democrats, with 75% saying they would vote “yes.” Fifty-six percent of Republicans were supportive.

The Roaring Fork River just above Carbondale, and Mt. Sopris, on May 3, 2020. The Colorado River District works to keep water on the Western Slope, including in the Roaring Fork. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Mesa County

The Glenwood Springs-based River District, created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans 15 counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache. The survey found broad geographic support overall, but the numbers were lowest in one key, populous county: Mesa. Only 59% of survey respondents there said they would support a tax increase.

“What it means to me is that we need to do better and make sure that if there are places that others perceive we are not speaking and advocating well for agriculture, then we need to do it more uniformly,” Mueller said.

Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County on the River District board, said probably only a small percentage of voters know what the River District does, and although the River District has ramped up its outreach to Western Slope communities this year, more is needed. Those efforts, however, have been sidelined by the pandemic. The River District had scheduled a series of State of the River meetings this spring, which were canceled.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Acquafresca said. “That’s a huge disadvantage of going forward with a question in 2020 if we can’t get out and do the campaigning.”

He also pointed out that the results of the survey may no longer be valid because of its timing.

“Although some of the results look pretty good, all of that was done before the pandemic really impacted our Western Slope communities,” Acquafresca said. “Nobody had any concept of the economic consequences of this pandemic on big cities and small towns alike.”

For the median home value in Mesa County, at $218,601, the mill levy would increase from $3.67 to $7.81 per year.

A view of the White River between Meeker and Rangely. The Colorado River Water Conservation District includes the White River basin, and the district is supporting an investigation into a new storage project on the White. Photo credit: Brent Garndner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Projects plan

River District staffers also have unveiled a fiscal implementation plan for how that additional funding could be spent should voters pass a ballot measure. Of the projected $4.9 million in additional revenue, $4.2 million of that would be spent on projects identified as priorities by local communities and basin roundtables in five categories: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality.

Some representative projects that River District revenue could help fund are the White River Storage Project, maintaining flows secured by the Shoshone call and the Windy Gap Reservoir connectivity channel.

The state engineer is opposing the water rights tied to the White River Storage Project in water court over concerns that the project is speculative and that the applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, has not proven there is a need for the water. The project would include a 90,000-acre-foot conditional storage right, and a dam and reservoir on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. But Mueller said it’s too early to know what specific projects the River District’s tax money might fund.

“We can’t say we would fund any one of those in particular; those are examples,” Mueller said. “We are not making a commitment to funding any of those that are listed.”

Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, supported by its donors and funders, that covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 8 edition of The Aspen Times and the May 12 edition of the Vail Daily.

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.

Virtual Mesa State of the River, May 20, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click here for all the inside skinny.

The #Colorado River District is moving all of their “State of the River” meetings online #ColoradoRiver #COriver @ColoradoWater

Click here to read the May 2020 newsletter from the Colorado River District:

As the snow melts, reservoirs clear of ice and ditches and rivers swell with runoff, Colorado River District staff normally look forward to our State of the River meetings, which provide local updates on important water issues in throughout the District.

Few events have gone as planned this spring. In light of COVID-19, the District will hold some State of the River events virtually as webinars. Presentations will include the same information the West Slope has come to expect: updates on runoff and hydrology, the latest on local water issues and information about how our water fits into the larger Colorado River basin.

We’ve got two virtual State of the River events planned so far.

The Summit State of the River will be 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 14 on Zoom. You can complete the required registration for the event and find an agenda here: bit.ly/SummitSOR. This event is hosted by the Colorado River District and the Blue River Watershed Group. A recording of the webinar will be emailed to registrants after the event.

The Mesa State of the River webinar will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 20. You can complete the required registration for the event and find an agenda here: bit.ly/MesaSOR. This event is hosted by the Colorado River District and the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. A recording of the webinar will be emailed to registrants after the event.

The Colorado River District will hold a public forum to provide important updates on the River District, West Slope water and big river issues featuring Colorado River District Manager Andy Mueller and Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher. The event will be noon Wednesday, June 10. More information about the event will be available soon at http://www.ColoradoRiverDistrict.org.

#ColoradoRiver keeps flowing — so do concerns about its future — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification #COWaterPlan

Palisade is just east of Grand Junction and lies in a fertile valley between the Colorado River and Mt. Garfield which is the formation in the picture. They’ve grown wonderful peaches here for many years and have recently added grape vineyards such as the one in the picture. By inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/15301560980/, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Here’s a guest column from Hannah Holm that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

It seems like the pandemic has soaked up most of the newsprint lately, but even now, when so much has come to a standstill, our rivers keep flowing. As Jim Pokrandt pointed out in a recent op-ed, our canals have started flowing, too, as Grand Valley farmers begin the annual ritual of putting water on the land to reap a harvest, and an income, later in the year.

Another annual ritual, monitoring the forecasts for how much spring snowmelt will flow down the rivers, has also begun. This year, we have an above-average snowpack in the mountains that feed the Colorado River, but below-average runoff into Lake Powell is expected. Parched soils from last year’s dry summer are expected to soak up much of the water before it can make it into the river.

If that forecast proves accurate, it will mark the 15th time in 20 years in which runoff into Lake Powell has been below average. This is one more piece of data to support the conclusion that the Colorado River is shrinking. Coming to terms with this fact is the central challenge facing all who depend on the Colorado River — about 40 million people throughout the Southwest.

A shrinking river is a particularly hard to adapt to when it is already being completely used up — the Colorado River rarely reaches the sea any more, and its major reservoirs are less than half full. So how, and what, are we doing? Here’s a rundown of a few things that are happening.

Downstream, California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to a detailed schedule of water delivery cuts triggered by different water levels in Lake Mead. This is the first year they are taking reduced deliveries.

Here in Colorado, along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, water leaders are continuing to study “demand management:” paying water users to temporarily leave some of the water they are entitled to in the river. State-sponsored work groups on demand management are hashing out technical details on financing, legal issues, how to measure saved water, and the potential economic and environmental impacts of different approaches. You can learn more about these discussions here: https://cwcb.colorado.gov/demand-management.

In related efforts, scientists and ranchers are about to start working together in Grand County to figure out what happens to high-elevation hay fields if you take a pause on irrigating them. This will help ranchers determine whether they might want to participate in demand management or not. Other studies are also looking at the potential impacts on communities of reductions in irrigated agriculture.

Scientists are also working hard to refine their tools for understanding and forecasting water supplies. A new report from Western Water Assessment at CU-Boulder synthesizes information from nearly 800 studies and reports on Colorado River Basin science and hydrology. If you are interested, you can check it out at https://wwa.colorado.edu/.

So far, we’re mostly studying different options for cutting back our water use from the Colorado River, without many people actually having to do it yet. But if current trends continue, which long-term projections indicate that they will, that day will come.

Any change is hard, and abrupt change is especially hard. Abrupt change without data is terrifying, as we’ve recently learned. The good thing about the troubling situation on the Colorado River is that we don’t have to suffer the terror of change without data. The bad thing about the situation on the Colorado River is that we can’t study our way out of actually having to do something about it — sooner or later. [ed. emphasis mine]

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows

Water and Resource Monitoring Digital Workshop June 11th, 2020 — Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Join us to discuss water issues and opportunities, and range management!

About this Event

Join us as https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88971288008

“Grants and Opportunities to Fund Infrastructure Projects”

Greg Peterson, Executive Director, Colorado Ag Water Alliance

“Middle Colorado Watershed Ditch Inventory”

Wendy Ryan, Project Manager, Colorado River Engineering

“Protecting West Slope Water Users in Times of Uncertainty”

Zane Kessler, Director of Government Relations, & Jim Pokrandt, Director of Community Affairs, Colorado River Water Conservation District

Presentation on Watershed Planning

Phil Brink, Consulting Coordinator, Ag Water NetWORK

“Range Monitoring: Strategies for Making it Happen”

Retta Bruegger, Regional Extension Specialist, CSU Extension

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

Facing a drier future, water managers turn to science — The Rio Blanco Herald-Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

From the Colorado River District via The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:

A growing body of research shows that the Upper Colorado River Basin is growing warmer on average. In fact, the national hot spot centers on Western Colorado and much of the Southwest.

A result: a significant reduction in the snowpack that makes up the Southwest’s main water supply.

In the Colorado River District’s “Know Your Snow” webinar, Deputy Chief Engineer Dave Kanzer and National Snow and Ice Data Center researcher Jeff Deems explored how water managers and snow scientists are studying and adapting to the changes to our snowpack and water supply.

The “Know Your Snow” webinar is available online at http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/events-directory/webinars/ (scan the Zapcode on the photo to the right with your Zappar smartphone app for a direct link.)

About three-quarters of the snowmelt that forms the Colorado River’s flow falls as snow at elevations above 8,500 feet in the mountains of the Upper Colorado Basin, Kanzer explained. Deems pointed out that the 15 Western Slope counties that make up the Colorado River District have warmed at a rate from about 2 degrees Fahrenheit in Summit County to more than 4 degrees in Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and Rio Blanco counties since about the early 1900s, according to data developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’re seeing changes on the order of 4 or 5 degrees in parts of the District,” Deems said. “This is just a slice out of this big, warming bullseye that is hitting the Upper Colorado (River) Basin over that time period. This is a problem for us because we rely on the snowpack, and that’s because warming reduces stream flow through a number of different mechanisms in this snowmelt-dominated basin.”

That reduction comes from several factors: more snow falling as rain, earlier spring snowmelt, more snow directly evaporating into the atmosphere instead of melting into streams and a longer growing season that has plants taking up more water.

Deems explained that for every 1 degree of warming, there is an estimated 3 to 4% decline in annual runoff. That’s about double the amount of water Las Vegas uses in one year, and 18 months of water supply for the city of Los Angeles, Deems said.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that a decline in flow due to warming is even greater than earlier studies have shown, with statistics suggesting that average annual flow decreases by 9.3% for every 1.8 degrees of warming.

All of this poses a threat to drinking water, irrigation to grow our food and water to maintain healthy wildlife habitats. The Colorado River District is not only studying the water-supply risks posed by warming temperatures but also implementing solutions such as cloud seeding to make sure West Slope communities are prepared for future challenges.

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

Cloud seeding to increase snowpack

As part of an effort to boost snowpack, Kanzer coordinates the Colorado River District’s cloud seeding program. Increasingly, water managers are turning to cloud seeding, a practice that can increase how much snow winter storms produce.

“We’re trying to figure out how to mitigate and adapt to a changing world,” Kanzer said. “We’re doing this through cloud seeding, and (we’re) implementing these programs throughout Western Colorado. In fact, this is going on throughout the West and throughout the world.”

Cloud seeding requires a specific set of conditions to be successful, Kanzer explained. A cloud must contain super-cooled water. Water vapor in these clouds is cold enough to form ice crystals, around 5 to 23 degrees Fahrenheit, but it needs something on which to crystalize. When conditions in a storm system are right, with favorable winds with proper uplift, cloud seeding generators send tiny particles of silver iodide into the moisture-laden clouds, typically using propane-fired burners on the ground.

Silver iodide has been proven to be safe for the environment, Kanzer said, adding that it is effective because and it naturally has a similar crystal structure to the ice crystals that form snowflakes.

The super-cooled liquid water more efficiently freezes on to these introduced tiny particles of silver iodide, building small ice crystals that grow into snowflakes.

Kanzer said cloud seeding could increase snow on the ground by up to 15%, boosting what might have been a 10-inch snowstorm by 1.5 inches. After a successful season of cloud seeding, this might, in turn, lead to as much as a 5% increase in streamflow in watersheds where cloud seeding occurred. This increases recreation opportunities for skiers in the winter and boaters in the warmer months, he added.

“And it helps us with our water supplies, of course, and that’s what we’re really focused on here at the Colorado River District,” Kanzer said.

This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Improving predictions with better data

While Kanzer’s work focuses on increasing the amount of snowpack, Deems’ research seeks to better understand what snow we have.

He explained that water supply forecasts are traditionally generated by comparing the current amount of snow on the ground at fixed locations to historical streamflow records. With the changes we are experiencing, Deems said these methods of comparing the present to the past are no longer accurate.

Additionally, snowpack is measured by a network of weather stations widely spread out across the mountain landscape where Colorado’s snowfall accumulates. While these stations provide accurate measurements in very specific locations, they don’t indicate how much snow, and how much water, might be stored high in the mountains, above the elevations where these stations are located.

Deems’ company, the Airborne Snow Observatory, uses a system called light detection and ranging — LIDAR for short — to measure snow across the entire landscape. From a plane, Deems’ team sends pulses of scanning laser light toward the earth, which reflect off the snow. Researchers can then use information in the reflection to build a three-dimensional picture of the snowscape.

This technology gives snow scientists and water planners landscape-based information about how much snow, and water, is present. This technology is detailed enough to reveal the deep pockets of snow below bare slopes where avalanches occurred or even areas where snowmaking was used to make terrain parks on a ski run.

This more comprehensive of the snowpack significantly improves water supply forecasts critical to water managers in making decisions.

Together with cloud seeding, this technology is helping water managers turn the corner from historical practices to prepare for and adapt to a changing world in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

For more information, visit ColoradoRiverDistrict.org. The “Know Your Snow” webinar is available online at http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/events-directory/webinars/.

Column: Canals are filling in the Grand Valley: “Water makes the Grand Valley grand” — Grand Junction Daily Sentinel @ColoradoWater

Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com
Here’s a guest column from Jim Pokrandt that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

April is a good time to celebrate the Grand Valley’s relationship with the Colorado River. The great canals and laterals of the valley’s turn-of-the-last-century irrigation infrastructure are filling with water, an annual rite of spring. Irrigation season is upon us and that matters to every soul in the valley.

Water makes the Grand Valley grand. It makes it green. It makes the desert livable. It makes the economy go ’round.

Look north of the Government-Highline Canal and what do you see: a dry, scrub landscape. It’s beautiful in its own right, good for livestock grazing and in today’s world, an attraction for mountain bikes and dirt bikes.

The Grand Valley would look like the desert it really is but for three things: the good soils, a long growing season and the introduction of irrigation water, the ultimate catalyst that makes the formula work for agriculture and our urban landscapes.

More than that, it matters to folks from the headwaters counties along the Continental Divide all the way down the mainstem of the river to the Grand Valley. And it’s not because everybody loves a Palisade peach or a bottle of Grand Valley-produced wine, although they should. It’s not because people like me prize the unsung, delicious tomatoes grown in the valley or the locally produced beef that finds its way into restaurants.

Here’s why: the very senior water rights held by the irrigation companies command the river, controlling the natural east-to-west flow of water. That natural direction of water could otherwise be intercepted by big tunnels through the Continental Divide that move water to eastern Colorado. Some 500,000 acre-feet already go to the east, and it has defined the Front Range as we know it with vibrant cities, universities, culture, agriculture (the primary reason water was first moved) and an economy that benefits us all. Use it well, we say here in western Colorado. But if you want more, that’s a problem. That is a story, though, for another time.

Grand Valley folks are water savvy, in my experience. They understand the role their water rights play in the well-being of western Colorado. Likewise, the headwaters counties of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield know the value of your Grand Valley water rights. Your irrigation rights pull water downstream and that underpins the economies, the environment and recreation in each of these upstream locales. They don’t want your water. They want you to maintain a thriving water rights system so their communities can thrive, too.

Water travels through a roller dam, generating power, then continues downstream. Roller Dam near Palisade. Photo credit: Hutchinson Water Center

The linchpin of the Grand Valley water rights system is the Roller Dam in De Beque Canyon, just upstream from where Plateau Creek enters the mainstem of the Colorado River. It is more than 100 years old. It diverts water for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the Palisade Irrigation District and the Mesa County Irrigation District. It’s not just about agriculture anymore. Many residential homes receive raw irrigation water from this infrastructure. Valley residents should know that the Grand Valley Water Users Association, operators of the Roller Dam, is working its way through a master plan to keep it in repair. It’s not inexpensive work.

The Grand Valley Irrigation Company is the last canal to divert. Its infrastructure is at Palisade. It, too, is working to maintain and improve its system. This month it finished the latest canal-lining segment. In fact, it has lined 10.63 miles in the last 11 years at a cost of about $14 million. This work is part of a long-running effort across the valley to keep salts out of the river.

Green Mountain Reservoir, on the Blue River between Kremmling and and Silverthorne, was built for Western Slope interests. Photo/Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District via The Mountain Town News.

One of the most important pieces of the Grand Valley’s water mosaic is located many miles away in Summit County. It’s Green Mountain Reservoir. Green Mountain stores water that comes into play for the Grand Valley and other users as snowmelt winds down through summer and streamflows diminish, part of the natural cycle. Releases are then stepped up to bolster river flows.

Green Mountain was negotiated as a western Colorado benefit back in the 1930s when the big transmountain diversion, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, was proposed to take Colorado River water out of Grand County and send it to northern Colorado. That raised alarms in Mesa County and all along the river. The negotiators became the founders of the Colorado River District in 1937, so there could be a taxpayer-supported entity to watchdog regional water interests as the Front Range grew. Some of those founders were from Mesa County. Yes, back then, folks realized the importance of water supply and river flows to the Grand Valley.

Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism

Not to be overlooked in this ode to the Colorado River is the importance of the Shoshone Hydro Plant in Glenwood Canyon. It also commands the river, not just in the irrigation season, but in all 12 months. The Daily Sentinel recently reported on how reservoir operators and Grand Valley irrigation entities cooperate to mimic Shoshone water rights in the river when the plan is down and cannot call for water. The benefits of Shoshone, whether its operating or its flows are mimicked, are the same generated by the Grand Valley water rights. Plus, they improve the environment for endangered fish.

So, while we cope with orders to stay at home in order to avoid getting or spreading the coronavirus and wonder how we can restart the economy, we can take solace in the bedrock fact that water is flowing in the Grand Valley and springtime will soon be in full bloom.

Palisade peach orchard

Jim Pokrandt is the community affairs director for the Colorado River District. Mesa County is one of his favorite places in western Colorado.

Shoshone agreement keeps water flowing down #ColoradoRiver while hydro plant is inoperable — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

The penstocks and main building at the Shoshone hydropower plant, which uses water diverted from the Colorado River to produce electricity. The Shoshone Outage Protocol keeps water flowing down the Colorado River when the hydro plant is inoperable. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon has been down since at least Feb. 14 and could be down until June, but a 2016 safety-net agreement has kept water flowing down the Colorado River.

The Shoshone Generating Station, owned by Xcel Energy, is the keeper of one of the largest water rights on the main stem of the Colorado River. In February, ice jams on the spillway caused water to flood the plant and damaged equipment inside, according to Xcel media-relations representative Michelle Aguayo.

Xcel said the COVID-19 crisis is complicating repair plans.

“Given the current circumstances, it’s more challenging to get contractors to repair equipment, but even so, we expect to be back in June,” Aguayo said in a prepared statement.

Xcel said service to electric customers will not be impacted by the outage.

The inoperable plant would be a major concern to water users on the Western Slope, except for the 2016 Shoshone Outage Protocol, which mimics conditions as if the plant were still operating and using its full amount of water.

When the plant is operating, a senior water right from 1902 draws 1,250 cubic feet per second of water downstream to meet the plant’s needs. That means that upstream junior water-right holders must leave enough water in the river for Shoshone to receive its full amount. It also means that the 1,250 cfs is available for other downstream users on the Western Slope.

The water used by the Shoshone plant is diverted at a low riverwide dam about two miles above the plant near the Hanging Lake exit on Interstate 70. The water is then sent through pipes along the cliffs to penstocks that send it down to the plant, where it spins turbines. All of the water is then released back into the river via a spillway at the top of what’s called the “Shoshone” section of the Colorado River, which is about five miles east of Glenwood Springs and is popular with kayakers and rafters.

This water is crucial for endangered fish in the often-dry, 15-mile reach near Grand Junction; for boaters and rafters near Glenwood; and for Grand Valley irrigators, who have begun filling their canals for the start of irrigation season, which began Wednesday.

In the past, if the hydropower plant was not operating, the water right tied to it is not being put to beneficial use and cannot be used. The 1,250 cfs could have been lost — either diverted to the Front Range or kept locked in reservoirs. But the Shoshone Outage Protocol took effect March 1 to keep water flowing in the river.

“We are very happy that the outage protocol exists,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s to make sure the water keeps flowing this way. It’s really about the fish as well as bringing the water to the Grand Valley.”

Formalized in 2016, the agreement is signed by many Colorado River water users, water providers and government agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Denver Water, the River District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

Between Feb. 14 and March 1, flows were kept up by a winter maintenance outage agreement, according to Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Lee said that about 1,400 acre-feet of water from Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County has been released so far to meet the Shoshone Outage Protocol requirements. He said the protocol will probably be relaxed in the next week or two because spring runoff will begin to naturally boost river flows.

The Shoshone plant and its big water right have long been a concern for the River District, especially since outages have increased in recent years, including a penstock rupture in 2007. Since about 2018, River District officials have been in talks with Xcel about ways to preserve the Shoshone water right for the Western Slope.

“Those efforts are ongoing,” Mueller said. “We still view that as a significant priority for western Colorado.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers.

Number of days the Shoshone outage protocol, or ShOP, was in effect, and stages of the agreement.

With Shoshone hydroelectric plant down 2016 agreement kicks in

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A 2016 agreement is helping protect Colorado River flows downstream of Glenwood Canyon despite ice jams from the Colorado River shutting down the Shoshone Hydropower Plant in the canyon.

Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, a tax-funded agency serving counties within the river basin in western Colorado, said the problem at the plant occurred around March 1. Xcel Energy, the plant’s owner, says it won’t be using Colorado River water at the plant until it is repaired.

The plant’s operations are watched closely by the water community because it has one of the oldest water rights on the river in western Colorado — a 1902 right to 1,250 cubic feet of water per second.

That right has limited the ability of Front Range water users with more junior rights to divert Colorado River water. It helps keep water flowing down-river not just to the plant, but further downstream because the plant’s water use is nonconsumptive, benefiting municipal and agricultural water users, recreational river users and the environment.

However, the river district and regional water users have worried about the potential impacts on the river and water users whenever the aging plant is out of service and not calling for water under its senior right, such as when it requires maintenance.

To address that concern, reservoir operators including the river district, Denver Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed in 2016 to cooperate to maintain river flows at levels mimicking Shoshone’s normal operation, with certain exceptions.

Modified reservoir operations to mimic those flows are now in effect, and will remain so until snowmelt runoff causes the river flow to exceed the current outage protocol target of 1,250 cubic feet per second.

Pokrandt said that among the benefits of protecting flows, more water in the river means lower concentrations of total dissolved solids in the river due to dilution, reducing the need for water treatment by municipal water providers that rely on the river.

Kirsten Kurath, an attorney who represents the Grand Valley Water Users Association, a party to the 2016 agreement, said a big benefit of the Shoshone flows is maintaining flows in what’s known as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in Mesa County. Efforts to protect endangered fish in the river focus in part on maintaining adequate flows in that stretch of the river, upstream of the Gunnison River confluence…

While Grand Valley irrigators also have senior water rights on the river, Kurath said the Shoshone water smoothes out the river’s flows, making it easier for irrigators to plan and making water diversions more efficient than when flows are lower. “Everybody downstream always benefits as you keep water in the river,” she said.

The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Irrigation Co. are among other parties to the 2016 deal. As of late Monday afternoon, Xcel hasn’t yet said how long the power plant may be out of commission. According to the river district, Xcel has said that the COVID-19 outbreak is complicating repair plans…

The current outage agreement is in effect for 40 years. The river district says it and its West Slope partners are exploring ways to permanently protect the river flows.

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.

The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the #EagleRiver Watershed Council

Photo credit: Eagle River Watershed Council

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Cloud Seeding Discussion with Colorado River District

A big thank you to our presenters, Dave Kanzer with the Colorado River District and Eric Hjermstad with Western Weather Consultants for a great community discussion. We had about 50 folks join us at Loaded Joe’s to learn about the weather modification tool being implemented locally.

Missed it? You can watch a recorded version here thanks to High Five Access Media and the underwriting of Eagle River Water & Sanitation District!

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

Colorado River District working to protect West Slope water users — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

A large irrigation canal in the Grand Valley, which relies on water from the Colorado River to irrigate fields. The state is exploring how a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan, known as demand management, might work. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Here’s a guest column from Andy Mueller that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

At the Colorado River District, we are working to ensure that whatever the future holds, there’s water on the West Slope to support our way of life.

Whether you grow food, rely on clean water from your kitchen tap, or recreate on our rivers, the River District is working to develop every tool possible to ensure that West Slope water users are represented and protected.

In fact, the District recently received a $315,000 “WaterSMART” grant, which we will use to analyze many of the risks that we face on the West Slope in an uncertain water future.

Despite the optimism from recent snowfall, Colorado is still amid a prolonged decline of flows in the Colorado River — and facing more variable weather conditions and snowpack with each passing year. When you combine that with growing population in the Colorado River basin, both in Colorado and downstream, we’re looking at an uncertain water supply.

Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are required to keep a certain amount of water flowing to states in the Lower Basin. But declining flows have signaled a risk to that obligation. And continued drought could mean water users in the Centennial State might have to reduce water use in the future without compensation in order to meet this compact commitment.

As part of a multi-state plan to avoid that, Colorado is exploring the feasibility of a program called demand management, which would pay farmers, industry and cities to voluntarily and temporarily reduce water use in order to bank it in reservoirs for use in preventing an uncompensated call. At the Colorado River District, we have concerns about whether such a program is advisable or necessary, but even as we seek answers to those concerns, others are looking at how such a program will be structured.

Right now, there are a lot of questions. As Colorado decides if and how demand management would be implemented, we want to advocate for rules that are the best possible for West Slope water users. We are studying the hypotheticals and talking to a broad set of water users to understand what might work in western Colorado.

The Colorado River District received its $315,000 WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a federal water planning program. We will be working with the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, The Nature Conservancy, Basin Roundtables, the state of Colorado and others to study risks to our water supply. Leveraging these federal funds and partnerships allows us to do more to protect West Slope water users.

Agricultural producers play a critical role in our local economies, whether it’s equipment repairs at a local mechanic or a ranch hand buying a burger at the local diner. Our main street businesses could see changes if farmers, even temporarily, aren’t farming.

To understand how our local economies might be affected by demand management, the River District is sponsoring a study of the potential secondary economic impacts that such a program could have on the businesses and communities that West Slope agriculture supports.

The grant will also fund the next phase of a multi-year study to understand the risk to Colorado’s water users if a call under the Colorado River Compact requires that we use less water. This study is designed to give us all an idea of what water rights might be curtailed by a compact call, giving water users across the West Slope a better idea of what could happen to their water.

Finally, the WaterSMART grant will help us bring West Slope water users together to understand how to create a program that makes sense for them. While we can’t get the thousands of water users in the Colorado River District in a room to decide what demand management should look like, we’ll be working with a broad cross-section of water users from different industries and communities in the district to do just that. We want to be sure that if demand management is implemented, it works for ranchers, towns, and rivers in western Colorado.

All these studies and conversations will give West Slope water users the information and tools they need to decide if they should take part in demand management. They will also better allow the Colorado River District to advocate for those users and protect water on the West Slope in an uncertain future.

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

Who should pay for water conservation in the West? Water managers wade into discussion — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #DCP #CRWUA2019

Seen from the air, Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Water managers from throughout the Colorado River Basin took the stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference earlier this month to talk about conserving water in the face of the twin threats to the river: increasing demand and climate change.

The state of Colorado is currently exploring a water-use-reduction program that is largely designed to pay farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope to voluntarily conserve water. While there’s still debate whether such a program should be implemented, the first question many ask is how to pay for such a program. In recent months, some water managers have come up with innovative ways to fund the controversial water-use-reduction plan — known as demand management — that wouldn’t rely entirely on taxpayers.

The drought contingency plan, which water leaders inked at last year’s annual CRWUA meeting, set up a reserve account of 500,000 acre-feet of water that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — could use to store water in Lake Powell as an insurance policy against dwindling reservoir levels.

In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition DD, which is projected to funnel roughly $16 million a year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB, by taxing sports betting. Demand management is one of the two things money from Proposition DD could fund (the other is Water Plan grants).

However, it’s widely accepted that $16 million is not enough to fund either of those things in their entirety. Demand management needs other sources of money.

Although the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District still isn’t convinced that a demand-management program is the right approach for the Western Slope, general manager Andy Mueller told the Las Vegas crowd that the Upper Basin has to reduce its water consumption — and explore creative solutions to accomplish that.

“I often talk about the Lower Basin overuse and how that’s driving the problem, and I will say they in the Lower Basin need to fix that problem,” Mueller said. “I will also say we in the Upper Basin … need to reduce our use. The science is pretty clear. Water we all thought was there even 15 years ago is not going be there. You can’t have water for the environment and the people if we are not reducing consumptive use throughout the basin.”

General Manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District Andy Mueller speaks at the district’s annual seminar in 2018. Mueller told the audience the Upper Basin needs to reduce its consumptive use at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who should pay?

So, if nearly all water users on the Colorado River, including those in the Lower Basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — would stand to benefit from a demand-management program, who should pay for it?

Not Colorado taxpayers, Mueller said, at least not entirely.

“Eighty million (dollars) a year would need to be out there in payments to get the appropriate amount of water in Lake Powell,” he said. “That cost to taxpayers is too high. So you turn to: Who else benefits from us creating a storage account in Lake Powell?”

One answer: power providers in both the Upper and Lower Basin states, who all need Lake Powell to remain above 3,525 feet, the minimum level required to continue generating hydropower. Some Upper Basin power cooperatives such as Western Area Power Administration, which sell power to local communities, including Aspen and Glenwood Springs, purchase hydropower generated at Lake Powell. Adding a small demand-management surcharge to customers’ bills is something that should be explored, Mueller said.

“Power customers should share in the costs of us storing for demand management,” Mueller said.

Another potential source of funds could be nonprofit environmental groups, since sending more water downstream to Lake Powell would also benefit stream health. The federal government, whose Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, also has a role to play, Mueller said.

But no matter where the money comes from, Mueller said it must be channeled through the CWCB in a heavily regulated market to prevent speculation by private buyers.

“We have been very clear it needs to be a guided market if it’s going to happen, with lots of thoughtful, proactive rules to prevent lots of serious consequences,” he said.

This field in lower Woody Creek is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state of Colorado is exploring how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

State-led exploration

The CWCB currently has a workgroup devoted to exploring how to fund demand management. The group has met twice so far, but CWCB facilitator Anna Mauss said the two biggest questions the group is grappling with are these: how much water is needed and what would the cost be. The workgroup, she said, will dive deeper into funding strategies at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.

“We are baby-stepping into this, trying to be diligent,” Mauss said. “It’s really just looking at scenarios at this point.”

The state is also encouraging innovative ideas from the private sector. The CWCB recently awarded $72,000 to 10.10.10, a Colorado Nonprofit Development Center project that aims to tackle “wicked problems” in water and climate. Under the program, 10 entrepreneurs will, over 10 days, attempt to tackle 10 systemic issues that are not adequately addressed by government, organizations or institutions.

“Yes, we are looking at demand management, and it could be one of the wicked problems we address,” said Jeffrey Nathanson, president of 10.10.10.

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farmland in the Grand Valley. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Platform for payment?

While some people work on finding sources of funding, others are already creating a platform to pay irrigators once the money is in place. Southwest Colorado water managers Steven Ruddell and David Stiller think a reverse auction to compensate water users for using less is the best way to go.

A reverse auction, which features many sellers (farmers and ranchers) and one buyer (the state of Colorado through the CWCB), would allow water-rights holders to set the lowest price they are willing to accept to voluntarily send their water downstream. According to Ruddell and Stiller’s paper on the subject, a reverse auction would remove paying for demand management from a political process and move it into a market-based process that lets water-rights holders bid the fair-market value of their water. It would also keep costs down for the CWCB.

Ruddell and Stiller presented their reverse-auction idea at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University last month.

“We’ve tried to bite off a small piece of demand management by suggesting we use an auction that people are familiar with,” Ruddell said. “It’s used to determine the value of something, especially in the ag world.”

There are still many questions surrounding how a demand-management program might be paid for.

“There are all sorts of options,” Mueller said. “We shouldn’t just focus on raising taxes in our state.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Dec. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

Click here to view the Twitter hashtag #CRWUA2019 from the conference.

Colorado Basin Roundtable OKs grant to study Crystal River backup water supply — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District gave up their conditional water rights in 2011 that could have allowed for a reservoir on the Crystal River at Placita. A proposed back-up water supply study has some groups worried that the idea of dams on the Crystal could be resurrected. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.

On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.

The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.

But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.

“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”

McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.

The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.

But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.

“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”

The Sweet Jessup Canal’s diversion structure is on the Crystal River about two miles downstream from Avalanche Creek. Pitkin County wants any storage on the Crystal that an augmentation study might recommend to be located below the Sweet Jessup to keep open the possibility that the upper portion of the Crystal can one day qualify as Wild and Scenic. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

No backup supply

During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.

Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.

“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”

The Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the Crystal River for the first time ever in 2018. Water managers are seeking solutions in the form of a basin-wide augmentation study, which the Colorado River Basin Roundtable recommended for grant money. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious history

To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.

In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River District abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.

To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.

“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.

In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.

“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”

The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.

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

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Study: #ColoradoRiver water crisis could dry out Front Range, West Slope cities and farms — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.

Among the study’s key findings:

+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.

+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.

+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.

“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.

Palisade peach orchard

“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.

The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.

Scare tactics

Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.

Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.

“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.

Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.

If drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows, and a legal crisis erupts with downstream states, six of the state’s eight major river basins could be forced to give up water. The Front Range and Eastern Plains are most vulnerable if shortages hit the river downstream and could lose as much as 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies. Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

West meets east

Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.

Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.

“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.

The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.

But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.

The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.

“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Saving more water?

The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.

Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.

“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”

In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.

Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)

“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?

“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”

McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.

With insurance, or without?

Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.

Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.

Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.

“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

This graphic shows the transmountain diversions in Colorado.