“We need to take Denver’s concerns seriously” — Colby Pellegrino #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

After four states and Denver’s municipal water agency wrote letters accusing Arizona’s largest water provider of manipulating the Colorado River system to advantage itself, a former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority lashed Arizona as a “bad actor.” An official at the water authority said this week that the utility was taking the concerns seriously.

Pat Mulroy, the water authority’s former general manager, offered a sharp critique of the Arizona utility — the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) — in an interview with The Nevada Independent. She said the utility’s actions had made it a “bad actor” on the river, adding that she believed the claims that CAWCD was manipulating the system to the detriment of other users. She said the fight plays into the internal power struggle within Arizona.

“They are willing to let the entire Colorado River system crash in order to win this parochial battle against the state,” Mulroy said. “It’s illogical… But that’s where they’re headed.”

In a letter Monday, Denver Water said it would end funding for a conservation program in 2019 if CAWCD did not alter its actions. The Southern Nevada agency, which manages water throughout Clark County, also funds the program.

No decision has been made about whether it will pull funding too. A spokesman said that the authority will take a “wait and see” approach to evaluate whether to fund the program next year. Colby Pellegrino, who manages the authority’s Colorado River supply, said the Denver Water letter was significant. Through Lake Mead, Southern Nevada gets about 90 percent of its drinking water from the river.

“We need to take Denver’s concerns seriously,” she said in an interview.

The funding in question is for a pilot program designed to conserve water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, an attempt to prop up the elevation of the two major interconnected reservoirs in the Colorado River system. The Colorado River is split into two basins, an Upper Basin and a Lower Basin. The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada pull their water from Lake Mead. Both basins have an interest in keeping their respective reservoirs above critical elevations that trigger losses in hydropower production and shortages in their water deliveries.

The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are concerned that the CAWCD is manipulating supply and demand, to take more water from their reservoir, Lake Powell, than is appropriate for a system that is over-stressed and runs through an increasingly arid region. Even Arizona state officials have spoken out against CAWCD, which is locked in an internal battle with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, an arm of the governor’s office.

Mulroy applauded the Upper Basin for writing its letter, saying she hoped it would put pressure on Arizona water managers to settle their fighting, one of the factors holding up a drought plan.

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

Denver Water raised concerns in an April 16 letter over perceived “manipulation of water demands” by the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District, which manages the Central Arizona Project. CAP’s system of canals feeds Colorado River Water to Arizona farms and the cities of Phoenix and Tucson.

In the letter, Denver Water CEO/manager Jim Lochhead called into question recent CAP statements about a so-called “sweet spot” in Lake Mead. CAP water managers are publicly discussing keeping measurement levels within a specific range in the lower Colorado River Basin reservoir so more water will come from Lake Powell upstream.

Lochhead said those actions jeopardize millions spent by his agency to conserve Colorado River water upstream. Denver Water gets about half of what it needs from the river, and has invested in recent years in the Colorado River Conservation Program, which pays state farmers and ranchers to conserve Colorado River water as the entire basin struggles to manage the effects of an 18-year drought.

Denver Water is prepared to terminate our funding of the program after we meet our obligations in 2018…unless the [Central Arizona Water Conservancy District] is able to verifiably establish it has ceased all actions to manipulate demands and is fully participating in aggressive conservation measures along with other entities in Arizona,” the letter said.

In an interview, Lochhead said actions by Arizona water managers “undermines both the investment that Denver Water has made in this program and it undermines the conservation efforts that are being made by water users in the upper basin including in Western Colorado.”

For its part, the Arizona district said it will contact Denver Water officials and can’t comment now.

More Unusual Steps

Denver Water’s missive isn’t the first warning received by the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District. Just three days before Denver’s communique, the Upper Colorado River Commission sent its own strongly worded dispatch to Arizona Department of Water Resources chief Tom Buschatzke.

“[The Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s] goal appears to be to delay agreement on drought plans in order to take advantage of what it terms the ‘sweet spot’ by drawing ‘bonus water’ from Lake Powell… characterizations indicate that CAWCD intends to disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all other basin states,” the commission wrote.

Detailed Colorado River Basin map via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Upper Colorado River Commissioner James Eklund signed the letter along with representatives from New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. He said it was “an unusual step to see language like this in a letter from one state to another. That said, we feel like it was timely and the situation warranted the letter.”

For Eklund, the crux of the issue is one water district in Arizona “maximizing one interest over the interest of the entire basin.”

“We assumed good faith dealing and when we saw something that suggested a contrary message or policy being adopted by the district in Arizona,” Eklund continued. “That’s when we decided we have to bring them back into the fold, into the herd, and get them back at the negotiating table.”

At a deeper level, there’s an internal dispute between Arizona water leaders. The Arizona Department of Water Resources has criticized these management practices by the Central Arizona Project.

“It raises important questions about actions taken by Central Arizona Water Conservation District that threaten to blow up the collaborative effort that we have been enjoying on the Colorado River for the last 20 years,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told KJZZ in Phoenix.

From KJZZ.com (Bret Jaspers):

Commissioners for the Upper Colorado River sent a letter late last week to Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. In the letter, they specifically criticized a water management strategy of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD).

Here’s what the upper basin doesn’t like: the CAWCD aims to keep Lake Mead at a so-called “sweet spot.” If the level of the lake stays in that range, then under current agreements, more water comes down from Lake Powell.

The Commissioners’ letter expressed deep concern that CAWCD “intends to disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all other basin states.” Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said bluntly in an interview. “That kind of manipulation is unacceptable to the Upper Basin.”

The letter echoed an argument long made by Buschatzke.

“It raises important questions about actions taken by Central Arizona Water Conservation District that threaten to blow up the collaborative effort that we have been enjoying on the Colorado River for the last 20 years,” he said.

A statement from the CAWCD, in part, said, “We are surprised and disappointed to have received a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission questioning CAWCD’s intentions in leaving water in Lake Mead. We have been reaching out to our partners in the Upper Basin, hoping to clarify apparent misunderstandings, and to facilitate in-person, collaborative discussions aimed at finding solutions that will benefit the communities and environment served by this mighty river.”

CAWCD also reminded people of the water the agency has conserved on behalf of Lake Mead, “at a significant cost to CAP water users in terms of water and water rates.” CAWCD runs the Central Arizona Project canal system, which delivers water to the Phoenix and Tuscon areas.

The Upper Colorado River Commissioners also urged Arizona to get its internal house in order so all seven states and Mexico can plan for long-term drought.

“The seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico are connected at the hip in this river,” Ostler said. “And what is going on with regards to one state, its failure to make progress, is having an effect on all seven states.”

Buschatzke and Gov. Doug Ducey are trying to get big-ticket water legislation through the state Capitol this year. But time is running out on the legislative session.

From the Colorado River District (Martha Moore):

“It’s unfortunate that what we view as their internal dysfunction within Arizona has cause frankly damage within the water community on the Colorado River,” Mueller said.

Mueller wants to see Interior review whether the CAP’s water diversions are in compliance with Colorado River water law.

“It deserves looking at and will require some federal action probably,” he said, adding that the Arizona water district’s actions go beyond a “friendly water dispute.” — Andy Mueller

The Central Arizona Aqueduct delivers water from the Colorado River to underground aquifers in southern Arizona. UT researcher Bridget Scanlon recommends more water storage projects like the aqueduct to help protect against variability in the river’s water supply. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

From The Arizona Republic (Brandon Loomis):

Central Arizona water managers, facing backlash from other Colorado River users for allegedly undercutting regional conservation efforts, will visit Utah later this month aiming to smooth relations across a region struggling to agree on a way to save a key water supply…

CAP General Manager Ted Cooke initially shot back that his agency was following the rules and manipulating nothing. But as the week progressed, CAP asked for an audience and planned an April 30 meeting with the Upper Colorado Basin Commission in Salt Lake City.

“We reached out to (commissioners) individually, and they said, ‘How about we hear you all at once?’” CAP spokeswoman Crystal Thompson said.

An official with the commission representing Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico water interests confirmed they are scheduling a private meeting to discuss the conflict…

The Arizona Department of Water Resources and Gov. Doug Ducey have sought but so far failed to secure legislative authority to hold back some of the water the CAP delivers from Lake Mead as part of the state’s offering for a regional conservation agreement. That water would come from Arizona tribes and other users who would willingly store it in the Southwest’s largest reservoir rather than taking their full legal share each year.

CAP, which traditionally has sold excess water to users or groundwater storage projects, objected and argued that keeping too much water in Lake Mead could hurt the state. That’s because federal rules for balancing the levels of Lake Mead and its upstream counterpart, Lake Powell, call for releasing more water from Powell if Mead hovers near a level that would trigger a shortage and mandate cutbacks in use.

Under a formula set by the state and the U.S. Interior Department, Lake Powell will send 9 million acre-feet to Lake Mead this year to prevent shortage, rather than the 8.23 million acre-feet it would send under normal river conditions. Each acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons and is enough to serve about two households for a year.

Conserving enough to prevent a shortage but not so much as to slow the flow from Lake Powell represents a “sweet spot,” CAP argued, in language that has now alarmed upstream water officials.

A CAP graphic circulated among water managers set off the criticism. It depicted Lake Mead’s “sweet spot” as being around elevation 1,080 to 1,085 feet above sea level, or 5 to10 feet above the level that would trigger mandated cutbacks for Arizona water users.

CAP’s “manipulation of demands in order to take advantage of the supposed ‘sweet spot’ in Lake Powell water releases undermines (regional conservation), and is unacceptable,” Denver Water CEO James Lochhead wrote.

He said his agency would cease funding conservation measures by farms and other users if CAP doesn’t embrace “aggressive conservation measures along with other entities in Arizona.”

CAP has participated in Colorado River conservation, and has argued that without its actions in recent years Lake Mead would already be in shortage mode. Critics have argued it’s not enough, and that another dry winter like the last one could end the “bonus” that Lake Powell is sending downstream.

Current projections for this spring’s runoff suggest Lake Powell will drop 30 feet this year and end up just 7 feet above the level that would mandate reductions from normal releases into Lake Mead and start a cycle of shortage.

If that happens, the reduced flows could leave Lake Mead vulnerable to declines that would impose steeper reductions on Arizona consumption.

Buschatzke worried that the letters from upstream interests might signal a lawsuit that could upend years of efforts at working across state lines to protect reservoir levels. The shortage triggers and reservoir operating plans are based largely on a 2007 agreement negotiated among the seven river states.

“For the last 10 years we’ve been on the collaborative path,” he said. “This threatens to send us back down the parochial path.”

He called on CAP to heed the message and negotiate a way to keep more water in Lake Mead. That would require an interim, interagency agreement about some of the authority the state has sought from the Legislature, until the governor can get a bill passed this year or next.

Arizona faces more severe cutbacks if it ignores interstate collaboration and lets the reservoir keep dropping. Those cuts would initially affect central Arizona farmers and groundwater banking efforts in the next two years, but urban users and developers could suffer if the depletion gets worse.

Buschatzke cautioned Arizonans against getting defensive about criticism from upstream states. Doing so and refusing to conserve more could leave the state in a bad spot, he said.

“I hope it doesn’t result in some folks in Arizona saying, ‘Man, they’re ganging up on us, we better hunker down,’” he said.

CAP officials will decline further comment to avoid undermining the planned Salt Lake City talks, Thompson said.

Lake Mead viewed from Arizona.

Steamboat “State of the River” meeting recap

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

“The key with Lake Powell is that it is our river savings account,” Andy Mueller told a gathering of more than 200 people who packed into the Steamboat Springs Community Center Tuesday night for the Steamboat State of the River meeting, less than 50 feet from the banks of the Yampa River…

Less understood, Mueller said, is the Colorado River District’s stake in power generation at Glen Canyon Dam, where water levels are coming perilously close to dropping below the intakes for the power plant.

“It really starts with power generation at Lake Powell,” Mueller said. “That dam is a cash register for those of us on the river. It pays for the Colorado Endangered Fish Program, which allows all of us in Colorado to continue to divert water while the endangered fish are being protected.”

[…]

Mueller told his Steamboat audience that agricultural water rights continue to be of preeminent importance in the district.

“On the Western Slope, try to picture what it would look like without ag. It is a very different world if we don’t have irrigated agricultural land,” he said. “That’s where the water is. Eighty percent of the water consumed on the Western Slope is in ag. We have to protect this agriculture, and a lot of that has to do with agricultural water rights.”

[…]

The district represents about 28 percent of the physical land mass in Colorado but is home to just 500,000 of the 5 million people in the state. And 57 percent of the water produced statewide comes from the Colorado River District…

Lake Powell, backed up by Glen Canyon Dam, just above the Grand Canyon, is where the Rocky Mountain states, including Utah, Wyoming and the northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico store water to ensure they can meet their obligations to send water to the lower basins states including California, Nevada and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

As of 1999 the reservoir was almost full. But subsequent drought years, notably 2002, drew the reservoir down. It took until 2012 to slowly re-build storage in the vast reservoir, but snowpacks in the Colorado Basin have not been generous since.

As winters have grown milder, river flows are sapped and extended growing seasons are also resulting in plants absorbing more of the available water.

“We’re working on cloud seeding, but you have to have storm events in order to hit them with the silver iodide,” Mueller said.

Steamboat State of the River Forum, Tuesday, March 20

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

From Steamboat Today:

A Steamboat State of the River Forum will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 20 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. A free chili supper will be served at 5:30 p.m. and the program will begin at 6 p.m.

Retired state climatologist Nolan Doesken will discuss how this winter unfolded and talk about the weather patterns that have created a low snow year on par with the record drought year of 2002.

Also speaking will be Andy Mueller, new general manager of the Colorado River District. Mueller will highlight river district priorities surrounding irrigated agriculture and Lake Powell, as well as talk about operations of Wolford Mountain and Elkhead reservoirs.

Other presenters include the following:

  • Kevin McBride, manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, who will talk about snowpack and reservoir operations.
  • Zack Smith of the Colorado Water Trust, who will discuss the Yampa River water leasing program.
  • Erin Light, Division 6 engineer, who will address water administration.
  • Jackie Brown, chair of the Yampa-White –Green River Roundtable, who will give an update on water resources planning and actions.
  • The meeting is sponsored by the Community Agriculture Alliance, the Colorado River District, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green River Roundtable.

    Investment firms buy ag land within the boundaries of the #ColoradoRiver District

    Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    The [Colorado River District], which includes Mesa County and 14 other counties and focuses on the protection, conservation, use and development of Colorado River water in western Colorado, long has been concerned about protecting the region’s agricultural sector. Now district staff are worried about a potential new threat to it, from investment companies buying water rights possibly as a speculative investment, and looking to profit later in deals that could lead to some local agricultural land no longer being irrigated and reverting to desert.

    For the river district, the concern is keeping the Western Slope from eventually seeing the kind of widespread drying up of agricultural lands and withering of local farming and ranching economies that has occurred in areas of eastern Colorado over the decades as municipalities have bought up water rights.

    District general counsel Peter Fleming addressed some of the acquisitions and their potentially speculative nature in a January memo to the board of the river district.

    “For example, a New York hedge fund called Water Asset Management (through one of its many subsidiaries) acquired a 330-acre farm within the Grand Valley Project in mid-September 2017. While not a huge farm, that size is among the larger-sized parcels within the Grand Valley Project,” Fleming wrote in his memo, referring to the local Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project.

    He told the board the farm’s associated historical consumption depends on numerous factors but could be about 840 acre-feet a year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

    That New York City company paid $3.83 million to Gary and Christi Flynn to acquire the farm located along 18 Road, well-known as the main access road to popular mountain bike trails on nearby federal lands.

    In his memo, Fleming also cited a purchase by Boulder-based real estate investment and management company Conscience Bay Co. of western Colorado, including the 1,450-acre Harts Basin Ranch near Cedaredge in Delta County.

    “To our knowledge, the properties continue to be operated as they have historically and there are no current plans to change the associated water rights or move the water off the land,” Fleming wrote. “However, it is clear that increasing water demands, reduced supply, and the potential risk of compact curtailment have put a more direct focus on West Slope irrigated agriculture. Stated another way, reality has caught up with our historical paranoia about the acquisition and potential dry-up of West Slope agricultural rights for speculative purposes.”

    […]

    “While speculation in land and water rights is nothing new, the recent acquisitions appear to be keyed-in on acquisition of pre-compact water rights to hold for the present time but sell to the highest bidder during compact-curtailment/administration,” Fleming wrote.

    Fleming said in an interview that in Colorado, senior, primarily agricultural water rights would have priority in the case of curtailment. That makes those water rights attractive to water users with junior rights, such as Front Range municipalities, which might be able to continue diversions under junior rights under a compact curtailment while sending water associated with a senior right downstream to make up for it.

    Another concern for the river district is the prospect of financial agreements being made where the water isn’t used for irrigation but instead flows out of state, perhaps to be stored in Lake Powell and held in a buyer’s account should something such as a drought or compact curtailment occur.

    DISTRICT, COMPANIES TALKING

    Perhaps contributing to the river district’s concern is the fact that Water Asset Management’s website indicates that the investment vehicle it used in the Fruita acquisition primarily acquires water resources at agricultural value, with the intention of later reselling those resources to higher-value municipal, industrial and environmental consumers.

    Water Asset Management didn’t return calls for comment for this story, and the Flynns declined to comment.

    Conscience Bay representatives plan to meet with river district officials this month.

    “I do think that we will be able to satisfy them that we’re not a threat. In fact, we’re going to be a partner with them in trying to help solve water problems,” said Eli Feldman, the company’s president.

    Conscience Bay paid nearly $8 million last year to acquire not just the 1,450-acre ranch Fleming referred to in Fleming’s memo, but also adjacent acreage that resulted in a ranch 3,200 acres in size. Conscience Bay also has owned a 600-acre ranch in the Steamboat Springs area for about a decade, besides having commercial property investments.

    “We’ve never sold any water to anybody,” Feldman said. “We’ve never done any (water) transfers of any nature, really.”

    He said water is only a secondary interest for the company’s agricultural investments.

    “Our primary interest in these ranches is their agricultural value and long-term food production,” he said.

    He said the people at Conscience Bay are long-term investors, and the long-term appreciation of ranchland and farmland combined with the return on investment from ranching makes it a competitive investment compared to other options out there.

    The river district’s new general manager, Andy Mueller, said the district is looking forward to its upcoming meeting with Conscience Bay representatives. He said district officials recently “had a good discussion” with representatives of Water Asset Management.

    “I can say that they are actively acquiring properties in the Grand Valley,” Mueller said. “They also say they are primarily interested in them as working agricultural assets.”

    He said the company expressed interest in participating in a voluntary, compensated temporary fallowing program.

    Feldman said Conscience Bay likewise is interested in exploring things such as temporary fallowing that could free up some water for municipal, fishery, environmental or other uses. He believes such programs would provide agricultural operators some valuable income, especially in dry years when farming might be that much tougher. In times when agricultural commodity prices are low, it could help preserve ag land that might otherwise be subject to buying and drying to meet municipal needs.

    “If you can add a new source of revenue for that (agricultural) community I think it would be fantastic and allow them to really hold out for the long haul,” Feldman said.

    Fleming said it’s important that any such approach occur in a limited, measured way that protects collateral local economic interests such as sellers of fertilizer, trucks and farm implements, and that lands aren’t taken out of production for good.

    For now, Mueller noted, while fallowing programs are being explored, none is in place on a permanent basis in the region.

    “We want to make sure that (investment companies) have the information that indicates that the legal structure to engage in those kinds of behaviors does not exist today and it may not exist in the future, but it’s being studied,” he said.

    He said the river district hopes to continue to be engaged with companies like Water Asset Management and Conscience Bay and emphasize the priority the district places on Western Slope agriculture.

    “Frankly, we would like to study their financial models and their methods of operation to verify that the goal is really the long-term preservation of our agricultural communities,” he said.

    He said the district is hoping to understand what makes the properties being acquired appear to be good investments from a water standpoint. He said a concern is that “investors who are not agricultural producers themselves may drive an economic model that would require a higher or faster return than a very limited fallowing program that may exist.”

    WATER TIED TO LAND

    Meanwhile, there’s a question as to what degree water investors could engage in activities such as being paid to let their water head downstream. Physically, Grand Valley water not consumed could flow across the state line, Mueller said.

    “The question is, legally, does that model work? There are lots of reasons why it probably does not. That’s something that we’re looking at very closely,” he said.

    Lots of considerations come into play, from local ditch company rules to state water law, under which not using the water could lead to potential abandonment of water rights, something the river district also doesn’t want to see happen, Mueller said.

    Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said that if the buyers of the Flynn farm want to try to sell the water for use somewhere else, they face the fact that Grand Valley Project water rights stay with the land and can’t be sold separately.

    “I don’t know that they did their homework,” Justman said.

    Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates part of the Grand Valley Project, said that while Grand Valley Project water rights can’t be sold apart from the land, the river district is nevertheless raising fair questions about things such as what latitude people might have to make deals involving not using water and letting it run downstream.

    “We’re encouraged and are pleased that the river district is looking at this issue,” he said.

    The users association has been involved with the river district and other entities in a pilot program to evaluate temporary, voluntary, financially compensated fallowing by farmers as a means of helping bank water in reservoirs in case of drought. Proponents want to ensure that if such an approach is pursued on a longer term, other forms of water conservation also are pursued that target other water users besides agriculture.

    Harris said the users association is “certainly interested, in the face of increasing drought, in the pressure that’s going to be put on agricultural water throughout the West.”

    He said any consideration of water demand management in an agricultural environment is something to which the association has to pay attention.

    “People are trying to think about the future, knowing that it’s not going to look like the past and that some of the solutions we’ve looked at in the past aren’t going to fix the future,” Harris said.

    More about Conscience Bay Co. from Dennis Webb writing in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

    The company last year bought the 1,450-acre Harts Basin Ranch south of Cedaredge, prompting the river district to wonder whether the purchase’s purpose was speculative, with the possible motive of looking to later profit on the ranch’s water rights in a manner that could mean drying up of agricultural land.

    Feldman says the district need not be concerned (see main story) and that the principal reason for the investment is ranching.

    Conscience Bay also bought additional adjacent acreage, resulting in a combined ranch size of 3,200 acres. Feldman said the ranch includes about 1,000 cows, and the company also has federal grazing permits in Colorado and Utah. Some six to 10 people run the ranch, which also includes a haying operation. Mark and Poly Hill, who have a ranching background in Grand County, are in charge of the ranch.

    Conscience Bay is interested in joining in the discussion with the river district and others about concepts such as temporary fallowing to make water available for other needs in times such as droughts while keeping agricultural land from being permanently dried up. Feldman said his company has a strong conservation ethic. He now serves on the board of directors of the Western Resource Advocates conservation group, where he once worked, and he also enjoys outdoor activities like fishing and backcountry skiing.

    Mike Higuera, who oversees the company’s investments in agricultural lands and its conservation work, previously was involved in land acquisition and conservation easement transactions for the Nature Conservancy.

    The company is a Certified B Corporation, a certification that Higuera said is for companies that work to do good things for society beyond making a profit. The certification focuses on things such as how companies treat employees and give back to the community in ways such as charitable contributions.

    The company is inviting the public to a meet-and-greet lunch at its recently acquired ranchland on March 17 in conjunction with Eckert Crane Days at Fruit Growers Reservoir, which is adjacent to the ranch. Directions to the ranch will be provided at the Black Canyon Audubon Society table at the festival.

    Interview: Andy Mueller General Manager of the #ColoradoRiver District #COriver

    Andy Mueller photo credit MountainLawFirm.com.

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    Coming from water-abundant Ohio, Andy Mueller used to have trouble explaining his line of work to relatives on trips back east.

    “When I used to say ‘I’m in water law,’ they’re like, what, are you a sewer lawyer?

    “I think that’s one of the unique characteristics about the West, is the scarcity of water is what drives our communities and the value of a reliable water supply is so critical to vibrancy of a community on the Western Slope,” Mueller said.

    These days, Mueller is in water policy, as the new general manager for the Colorado River District, a taxpayer-funded, 15-county entity based in Glenwood Springs. Such work is a little easier to explain back east, and even among western Coloradans, describing what the river district does can be difficult. But Mueller says that at its core, the district advocates for water users on the Western Slope.

    While historically, water has been depicted as something that has driven a wedge between communities, “I think it should be something that ties our communities together,” Mueller said. “We all need it, we all depend on it, we all want it in one way or the other. If we can work together (on water) we’re much stronger.”

    Mueller was an undergraduate student pursuing his history degree at Kenyon College in Ohio when he took a class on history in the American West and became intrigued about the region.

    “I remember thinking, I wanted to get involved in that,” he said.

    Mueller, 49, moved out west to get his law degree at the University of Colorado, having been attracted to the school because of its reputation for natural resources law. Almost immediately after becoming an attorney he was able to take over a practice in Ouray in which he focused heavily in areas such as water and hard-rock mining, working with clients across western Colorado including farmers and ranchers, Ouray County, developers, logging companies and others.

    “I really learned from my clients what it meant to live on the Western Slope and it was a really good experience,” he said.

    In 2006 he was appointed as Ouray County’s director on the Colorado River District board, eventually serving nine years on the board, including two as president. One of the key accomplishments during his board years was the cooperative Colorado River agreement reached between the district and other Western Slope entities and Denver Water. After decades of expensive legal battles, the agreement provided a path for Denver Water to develop water while addressing Western Slope concerns such as the need for river restoration.

    “We were able to really get some significant commitments from Denver to participate in very important projects for our headwaters communities in terms of the health of our river systems,” Mueller said.

    He eventually relocated his law practice to Glenwood Springs, joining a firm there. Meanwhile, longtime river district general manager Eric Kuhn made the decision to retire.

    Mueller said he was pretty upfront when he applied to replace Kuhn that he couldn’t fill Kuhn’s shoes.

    “He’s really a giant in the intellectual world of water policy but I have other skills and talents I think will serve the district well,” Mueller said.

    Mueller said the district has two charges — to protect the Western Slope and Colorado’s share of the river.

    “That’s a very significant charge for a little government agency like ours,” he said, noting that there are other well-funded water entities out there looking after the interests of millions of people the river serves in places including Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California.

    For Mueller, a major issue facing the district is the increasing variability of climate and the changes that result. Growing seasons are lengthening, which can benefit agriculture, but also mean more water consumption. At the same time, recent droughts have meant decreased flows into Lake Powell, which Upper Basin states rely on for meeting obligations to downstream states that already use more water than they’re entitled to under an interstate compact.

    “The biggest issue we have as a river district is helping the basin as a whole try to bring the system into balance,” he said.

    Mueller said it’s important to do drought-contingency planning and look to conservation while keeping in mind how to accommodate projected growth and development.

    The district has been involved in initiatives such as analyzing pilot projects for limited rotational fallowing of agricultural land for farmers who are compensated in return. The goal is to explore alternatives to buying and permanent drying of agricultural lands to meet municipal water needs should drought lead to a water supply crisis. But Mueller said it’s important that agriculture be protected and that Eastern Slope cities and farmers also do their part to head off shortages.

    “If our agricultural community is going to step up and contribute, so should everyone who depends on Colorado River water,” he said.

    Mueller and his wife, Kara, are raising two high-school-age girls in Glenwood Springs. Mueller enjoys water recreationally as a rafter and fly-fisherman, and also hunts elk, mountain bikes and skis. He said it was hard giving up his law career, but it was worth doing so to get to work with a talented staff at the river district. He sees his new job as a logical progression after 23 years of advocating for Western Slope families as an attorney.

    “Now I get to (advocate) for the entire Western Slope and that’s why I’m excited about this job,” he said.

    “It isn’t the #drought draining #LakePowell as much as it is the overuse” — Andrew Mueller #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

    From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Less water in the stream means less comes into large and critical impoundments such as Lake Powell, which Mueller said is already being “equalized” with Lake Mead. The latter is being drawn down by overuse, not just drought.

    “They’ve been draining the savings account at Lake Mead for them (users), and, the way it works, they’ve also been draining Lake Powell,” Mueller said. “ … It isn’t the drought draining Lake Powell as much as it is the overuse and the lower supply of water going in.”

    Colorado must be aware of that because of its requirements under the Colorado River Compact to deliver a set amount of water right below Glen Canyon Dam.

    “There’s accounting that goes on. Every year, we know exactly how much water is delivered. At a point in time … we can see very clearly, we have a significant risk of not being able to deliver that water,” Mueller said. “When we can’t deliver that water, we will get a call, or a curtailment, coming up the river.”

    He said it appeared as though most of those present Jan. 19 have pre-compact water, or senior rights, that are not obligated to be called out. Most municipalities have rights junior to the compact — but they also have the right of condemnation through an involuntarily “buy and dry” process.

    “Those (municipal) fire hydrants and those faucets, my guess is, are going to get water in the time of curtailment. That’s the municipal preference in our state constitution,” Mueller said.

    To-date, the state hasn’t actually had to determine how this consideration would be applied — in fact, mum’s the word at the state level, Mueller added.

    “The reality is, many of the Front Range providers would have rights junior to the compact,” Mueller said. These providers divert about 650,000 acre-feet a year to the Front Range out of the Colorado River Basin, including, at times, the Upper Gunnison.

    The Front Range is constantly on the lookout for additional supply, but that’s not the only thing to keep in mind, Mueller said. Front Range providers will continue to supply current municipal needs in that populous part of the state.

    The question becomes: What happens in the event of a curtailment when municipalities have the right of condemnation?

    “They have the right to come over and buy ag rights. They don’t even have to build a pump. They can just run the water down the stream into Lake Powell. They can dry up the agricultural — buy and dry involuntarily,” Mueller said.

    Locals under the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association are not necessarily safe from condemnation just because the association is under a right held by the federal government, he said.

    Although municipalities cannot condemn against federal property, it’s not certain whether the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would ultimately be comfortable with not delivering water to the lower basin, where the greater population provides a congressional delegation many times the size of the Western Slope’s, Mueller explained.

    “The question really is, how do we prevent that from happening?” he said.

    “We don’t have the answer yet, but we are studying a number of different mechanisms where we can use voluntary efforts by our agricultural producers on the Western Slope, combined with voluntary efforts of ag users who depend on transmountain diversions on the Eastern Slope; industrial providers on the East Slope, and municipal providers on the East and West Slope, to voluntarily curtail their uses ahead of time and bank that water somewhere and then be able to prevent a curtailment from ever occurring.”

    These, Mueller explained, are “thoughts,” not absolutes.

    Detailed Colorado River Basin map via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

    Some Colorado River District constituents challenge hiring of Zane Kessler

    A map showing the boundaries of the Colorado River District, and its 15 member counties.

    By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

    GRAND JUNCTION – The Colorado River District says it stands behind the recent hiring of Zane Kessler as communications director, despite concerns from some of the more-conservative counties in the district about his past political activities regarding oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area.

    Scott McInnis, a Mesa County commissioner and Glenwood Springs native, represented the Western Slope and Colorado’s 3rd District as a Republican in Congress from 1993-2005.

    He said at a special river district meeting in Grand Junction last week that he wants to ensure Kessler is “riding for the River District brand,” and not that of his former employer, the Thompson Divide Coalition.

    “It’s important that we all ride for the same brand,” McInnis said. “But sometimes its hard to change brands.”

    Kessler was executive director for the TDC from 2012 until earlier this year when he took the communications job as part of the river district’s external affairs team.

    In his previous role, Kessler championed the TDC’s efforts to either buy out leaseholders or have the Bureau of Land Management cancel several oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale.

    Late last year, the BLM, following an extensive review, did in fact cancel 25 undeveloped leases in the divide.

    Most of the canceled leases were on lands within Garfield and Pitkin counties, but three leases were partially in Mesa County, covering about 3,800 acres.

    A broader BLM review of 65 leases in the region resulted in other leases outside the Thompson Divide in Mesa County near De Beque being modified with new restrictions. Other leases were reaffirmed in full.

    In addition to lobbying for the leases to be canceled, the coalition also advocated for the White River National Forest to close off the Thompson Divide area to new leasing as part of its 20-year oil and gas leasing management plan approved in 2014.

    McInnis said the efforts by the Thompson Divide Coalition lead to restrictions on oil and gas development throughout the whole White River National Forest.

    “What happened is, their efforts then expanded to the new White River National Forest policy and [now] they are not going to allow any more drilling,” McInnis said in a phone interview. “That’s a huge forest.”

    A special Colorado River District meeting underway on Dec. 6, 2017, in a ballroom at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. The meeting was sparked by opposition from some of the 15-member counties in the river district to the hiring of Zane Kessler as its new communications director and lobbyist.

    Root of the issue

    At the Dec. 6 meeting, McInnis and a posse of other county commissioners from Mesa, Moffatt, Rio Blanco, and Hinsdale counties, called Kessler’s allegiances into question.

    Their concerns track to a comment Kessler made in a Sept. 6 Glenwood Springs Post Independent article about his departure from the TDC that he may continue to volunteer for the organization, if the opportunity arose.

    In the article, Kessler was quoted by Post Independent reporter John Stroud as saying, “I will continue to be active with the coalition in a volunteer capacity.”

    McInnis then called Stroud to confirm that the quote was accurate, and Stroud assured him it was, according to both Stroud and McInnis.

    McInnis said at the Dec. 6 meeting that Mesa County had “deep differences” with the TDC. And he said he’s worried that the coalition might next turn its attention to the Colorado River and that he was upset no one had called Mesa County to ask about Kessler.

    Kessler started as communications director for the River District on Sept. 5. He reports to Chris Treese, the district’s external affairs manager. Like Treese, Kessler is a registered lobbyist for the river district, which was formed in 1937 to protect and develop Western Slope water interests.

    The district’s board is made up of representatives from 15 Western Slope counties, appointed by the commissioners in the member counties for three-year terms. Member counties include Delta, Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Moffat, Montrose, Ouray, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Saguache, and Summit counties.

    Zane Kessler, on one of the trips he made on horseback through the Thompson Divide area. Kessler grew up in Oklahoma and spent time on a family member’s ranch in east Texas.

    GM backs decision

    Outgoing Colorado River District General Manager Eric Kuhn, who is in the process of handing duties over to new GM, Andy Mueller, assured McInnis and the others that he was comfortable with the hiring process and the ultimate decision to hire Kessler.

    Kuhn acknowledged in a Sept. 8 memo to river district board members that he had received a call from a “very concerned county commissioner” about the Kessler hiring, in apparent reference to McInnis, who later said he called both Kuhn and Treese.

    “Both Chris [Treese] and I have confirmed that Zane has severed his ties with Thompson Divide and works exclusively for the River District under Chris,” Kuhn wrote in that memo.

    He said the district received 25 applications for the position. Eight candidates were interviewed by a committee of five district employees, and Kessler was the unanimous choice, he said in the memo.

    “”I was quite emphatic 1n my defense of our hiring process,” Kuhn told his board. “It was competitive. It was not arbitrary. There are no political litmus tests. We don’t ask what political party they belong to or who they voted for, or anything else of that nature. Where we had concerns, we vetted those issues.”

    McInnis was perturbed by Kuhn’s reference to a “political litmus test.”

    “This has nothing to do with partisan politics,” McInnis said in a phone interview after the meeting last week. “I don’t care whether he is a Democrat, a Republican, unaffiliated. I care about who he led. He was the four-star general for the Thompson Divide, and we had a rough history with them, coming into Mesa County, uninvited,” McInnis said.

    Kessler, in a Sept. 12 letter to the editor of the Post Independent sought to assure his critics.

    “While I am no longer working for the coalition, I look forward to continuing to work with diverse, Western Slope interests to protect western Colorado water for the welfare of the entire district.”

    Contacted after the river district meeting last week, Kessler declined to talk on the record, but offered in a follow-up statement via email: “I have one job nowadays: to advocate on behalf of the Western Slope’s water interests and the water interests of every county in the district.”

    According to Thomas Divide Coalition board member Chuck Ogilby, the coalition is in a quiet mode, and there are no plans to expand their mission beyond preserving the Thompson Divide area.

    “Our mission was solely based on the Roaring Fork valley and the environments right around the Thompson Divide lands,” Ogilby said. “It was a very singular mission and continues to be.”

    But McInnis thinks otherwise.

    “My understanding is that discussions have taken place, and that the Thompson Divide intends to remain a coalition to take on other causes,” McInnis said in an interview. “And it seems to me the most logical cause they’re going to take on, not today, but they’ll be there, is the Colorado River.”

    And he noted, “If there is anything that is sacrosanct over here on the Western Slope, it’s water, and that Colorado River.”

    One of several large irrigation canals in Mesa County that divert water from the Colorado River.

    Pressing the issue

    The same day that Kessler’s letter appeared, on Sept. 12, McInnis and fellow Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese sent a letter to about 50 people, including all of the river district’s board members, according to McInnis.

    “Mr. Kessler, as an anti-oil and gas activist, has led the effort, for many years, to cancel oil and gas leases on public lands, including retroactive action to existing leases,” McInnis and Pugliese wrote. “These cancellations will have a broad and far reaching detrimental impact on energy related needs and jobs on the Western Slope.”

    They said Kessler’s prior positions on behalf of the coalition “conflict with many of the River District’s goals and positions, and are harmful to the critical water rights the River District is charged with protecting for the multi-use concepts of energy, development, agriculture, to name a few.”

    During the ensuing weeks, letters critical of the hiring decision were also sent from commissioners in Moffat, Rio Blanco and Hinsdale counties.

    The three commissioners in Rio Blanco County advised the river district in a Sept. 25 letter, “If your decision to hire Mr. Kessler was made based upon a change in direction and philosophy by the CRD Board, we are even more concerned. A biased anti-energy, pro-environmentalist approach to public lands decisions would have a significant detrimental effect on the citizens of Rio Blanco County. It is our hope that the hiring of Mr. Kessler is not an indication of a change in direction or philosophy by the CRD Board. If it is, we are extremely concerned.”

    On Oct. 3, Kuhn responded to the Rio Blanco commissioners in a letter, saying, “None who interviewed Zane and none who have had the opportunity to work with him had any question that he is a consummate professional who understands what it means to be an advocate for his employer.”

    He also noted that the river district’s two attorneys once both worked for Front Range water interests, and that had not kept them from loyally serving the district.

    “The River District has never hired nor failed to hire because of a candidate’s past associations, and I hope we never will,” Kuhn wrote. “Our two attorneys both represented and were closely associated with major Front Range municipalities immediately before joining the Colorado River District.”

    But the issue did not die down. In fact, it morphed to include other concerns about the river district.

    On Nov. 9, Kuhn sent a memo to the board informing them that Mesa Commissioner Pugliese was asking about the size of the district’s staff of 25 people, their salaries and benefits, and the district’s offices.

    “I have to share with you that, to me, the most troubling implication of these questions and this controversy is the suggestion that the River District Board is not properly executing its fiduciary responsibilities,” Kuhn told his board.

    On Nov. 13, the three Mesa County commissioners sent a letter to Tom Alvey, the president of the river district board, assuring him it was not a political issue and that they thought the river district staff was now using the suggestion of a “political litmus test” to “spin” the situation and “avoid answering the legitimate inquiries” made by Mesa County.

    Then, on Nov. 22, Pugliese raised the issue of whether Mesa County should even stay in the river district.

    “I am still trying to determine if it is beneficial for Mesa County to stay in the River District, and if staff is really representing the interests of our Mesa County constituents,” she wrote.

    All that led to the Dec. 6 special meeting in Grand Junction, where McInnis reiterated his concerns to river district board members and staff, including incoming GM Mueller.

    “If we don’t have the toughest, smartest, shrewdest voice in that state capitol, we are going to find an internal rift, and we’re going to find we’re losing a lot of ground,” McInnis said.

    Mueller responded by saying he took McInnis’ comments to heart.

    “We will be examining all of our staff members and expecting that they will all be the best,” Mueller said. “And I do mean the best team for everybody in the room. We will be reviewing our personnel hiring process.”

    He added, “I do think that getting input from our constituents is important when we’re engaging in critical hiring.”

    A mule deer browses near one of the Willsource Enterprise wells in the headwaters area of West Divide Creek, in the Mesa County corner of the Thompson Divide.

    “Vendetta meeting”

    Kessler did get some support at the meeting from other constituent county commissioners.

    Rachel Richards of Pitkin County said she considered it “a vendetta meeting,” and warned the other commissioners about “wrongful interference” with the district’s employment practices.

    “It seems like an attack on all the citizens of the Crystal River Valley, the ranchers, agriculturalists, the outfitters, the fishermen, everyone who came together to become the Thompson Divide Coalition,” Richards said. “Zane Kessler might seem like a figurehead to that group, but I’ve never seen as much unanimous support by a huge diverse community as I saw behind the Thompson Divide Coalition.”

    Merritt Linke, a commissioner from Grand County, added, “He is obviously good at what he does. … Maybe we can accept that someone on this staff knew what they were doing, and he is going to be able to ride for the brand.”

    Even McInnis said during the post-meeting phone interview that he had respect for Kessler’s professional abilities and the job he did for the Thompson Divide Coalition.

    “It mushroomed into this large, very well-politically connected, very well-financed, strong organization under the leadership of Zane,” McInnis said. “I’ve never questioned Zane’s ability to organize something. He did a good job with them — it’s just the wrong goals — but anyway, he did a good job.”

    He also said he was satisfied with the outcome of the special meeting.

    “The river district is going to take a close look at their personnel policies in January, and if they need tightening up, tighten them up,” McInnis said.

    Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis, in white shirt, talking with officials from the Colorado River District at a meeting in Grand Junction on Dec. 6, 2017.

    Timeline and links to public documents

    Below are links to public documents provided by the Colorado River District in response to requests from Aspen Journalism. The documents are listed by date.

    (Note: “CRWCD” is short for Colorado River Water Conservation District, the organization’s full name).

    5.1.17: CRWCD posts a job description for the new position of communications director.

    9.5.17: Zane Kessler starts his new job as communications director at CRWCD.

    9.6.17: Glenwood Springs Post Independent article, “Kessler leaving Thompson Divide Coalition for Colorado River District job.”

    9.8.17: memo from Kuhn at CRWCD to board on the hiring of Kessler.

    9.12.17: letter to editor from Zane Kessler, published in GSPI.

    9.12.17: letter from Mesa County to CRWCD board members and others.

    9.13/14.17: CRWCD meeting minutes from meeting GJ w/ Kessler in attendance and Kuhn discussing hire practices.

    9.19.17 CRWCD names Andy Mueller as next GM.

    9.25.17: letter from Rio Blanco County to CRWCD re Kessler.

    9.27.17: letter from Hinsdale County to CRWCD re Kessler.

    10.3.17: letter from CRWCD to Rio Blanco BOCC re Kessler.

    10.10.17: letter from White River and Douglas Creek districts to CRWCD.

    10.17.17: letter from Moffat County to CRWCD re Kessler.

    11.6.17: letter from CRWCD board president to county commissioners.

    11.9.17: Kuhn sends a memo to CRWCD board on “budget issues” raised by Commissioner Pugliese.

    11.10.17: letter from CRWCD to Rose Pugliese from CRWCD.

    11.13.17: letter from Mesa County to CRWCD board.

    11.15.17: various emails sent to CRWCD on pending 12.6.17 meeting.

    11.22/24.17: emails sent from various county commissioners on upcoming CRWCD meeting.

    12.6.17: CRWCD district meeting attendance sheet.

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The Post Independent published a version of this story on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.