#WhiteRiver State of the River, June 15, 2021 #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The White River, in the vicinity of the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Join the Colorado River District for the White River State of the River webinar on Tuesday, June 15 at 6 p.m.! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on the issues that affect your water supply throughout the White River Basin.

Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water level forecasts as we enter another drought year. Hear updates on management plans to provide water for endangered fish species and learn about current efforts to study the impact of algae blooms in the river.

If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording to watch later!

Agenda:

Welcome – Colorado River District Staff

The Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Colorado River District, Director of Strategic Partnerships

Water Supply and Drought in the White River Basin – Becky Bolinger, Colorado Assistant State Climatologist

Measurement and Abandonment on the White River – Erin Light, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Division 6 Engineer

Water Management Planning in the White River Basin – Callie Hendrickson, Executive Director, White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts

Algae Issues on the White – Natalie Day, Biologist, Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District Update – Alden Vanden Brink, Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, District Manager

Fish Tales: The White River Basin and the Endangered Fish Recovery Program – Jojo La, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Endangered Species Policy Specialist

Jun 15, 2021 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

White River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69281367

Webinar: Gunnison State of the River meeting, June 10, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gunnison River in Colorado. Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation

Click here for all the inside skinny and register:

Join the Colorado River District for the Gunnison State of the River webinar on Thursday, June 10 at 6 pm! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on river forecasts, landmark accomplishments, project opportunities, and the impacts of and on recreation for the Gunnison.

One of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, your Gunnison River provides the life force for local West Slope communities. Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water supply as we enter another drought year, celebrate a Lower Gunnison victory that’s been years in the making, and hear from David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly, about the West Slope recreation economy and its impacts.

You’ll also receive information on exciting new funding for Gunnison River Basin water projects and plans to sustain flows throughout the basin as conditions shift to hotter, drier seasons.

If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording for later viewing!

Agenda:

Welcome – Marielle Cowdin & Zane Kessler, Director of Public Relations and Director of Government Relations, Colorado River District (CRD)

Your Gunnison River, a Water Supply Update – Bob Hurford, Division 4 Engineer, Colorado Department of Natural Resources

The Lower Gunnison Project: Modernization in Action – Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, CRD

A Victory for the Lower Gunnison – Raquel Flinker, Sr. Water Resources Engineer/Project Manager, CRD and Ken Leib, Office Chief of the Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Rivers on the Fly, Recreation Economy and Impacts – David Dragoo, Founder of Mayfly

Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships, CRD

Gunnison River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

#BlueRiver Watershed Group presents annual update and #drought predictions — The Summit Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map of the Blue River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69327693

From The Summit Daily (Lindsey Toomer):

Experts from different organizations presented updates specific to their work, all focusing on water rights, drought outlooks and river basin updates.

Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, went through the recent history of the ongoing drought in the state. He said throughout the past few months, eastern Colorado has seen decent drought improvement, but western Colorado has remained about the same.

Schumacher presented a chart showing average temperatures and precipitation from April through September, which showed that 2020 was somewhat of an outlier.

“It was the driest April through September on record and one of the few hottest on record, and that is a recipe for a drought that develops quickly,” Schumacher said…

Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, provided an overview of the goals and accomplishments from phase one of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. The first objective of the plan, which Van Gytenbeek said the group has spent most of its time on, is to understand potential causes for declining fish populations between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how the decline can be mitigated…

The second objective is what Van Gytenbeek called a “literature search,” which aims to compile information regarding physical and biological aspects of the Blue River Basin’s water resources. This would then formulate objectives and goals for future phases of the plan.

Van Gytenbeek said the phase one report is currently being finalized, and they intend to submit it to an advisory committee in the middle of June. He said he expects the report to be made public in July or early August.

Once the report is completed the second phase of the project will continue, with hopes of having the final phase two report ready for the public by March 2022. Van Gytenbeek said he thinks integrated water management plan organizations like the Blue River Watershed Group should get some support to keep the dialogue going past the life of phase two of the project.

Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District, talked about supply issues within the Colorado River Compact…

Nathan Elder and Jason Finehout of Denver Water said there is a low likelihood of filling the Dillon Reservoir this year, predicting an inflow of about 50-60% of normal. Finehout went on to explain that many of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules are the same as many jurisdictions’ stage one drought restrictions…

Swan River restoration Reach A gravel removal. Photo credit: Summit County

Brian Lorch, trails director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, provided an update on the Swan River Restoration Project, which aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley impacted by historical dredge mining.

Lorch said this summer, Reach B of the project will start to take shape, as contractors will create about another mile of stream channel.

#ColoradoRiver Basin Hydrology Forecasts Paint Grim Picture — #Colorado River District #COriver #aridification

Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Monitor map April 27, 2021.

From the Colorado River District:

Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer, and Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer, provided a disheartening update to the Colorado River District Board of Directors on the continuing drought and dire water supply outlook in 2021. Unfortunately, conditions have only worsened since January.

For most of the last two years, monthly precipitation amounts have been below average within the Colorado River District. As of April 30, the snow water equivalent is well below average across the Western Slope with the Colorado basin at 72% of average, the Gunnison at 62% and the Yampa & White at 72%.

In addition to the below-average seasonal snowpack, the temperature and precipitation model forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center are predicting a hot and dry summer with above-average temperatures across most of the southwest. Forecasters also predict below-average precipitation, particularly in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Most of the Colorado River Basin is currently in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

Adding insult to injury, low soil moisture will adversely impact runoff. Models from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center suggest the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin has such low soil moisture that it will require up to 12 inches of water to reach saturation. This means that most of the snowpack is absorbing into the soils and not turning into runoff. With the sizable reservoir drawdowns from last year, very few reservoirs are likely to fill in the upcoming water year. This soil moisture deficit presents a significant challenge to refilling the Colorado River storage system, especially the lower, larger facilities, like Lakes Powell and Mead.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-term modeling forecasts project this water year to be below average, with inflow into Lake Powell at about 5.13 million acre-feet, less than 47% of the long-term average. Furthermore, Reclamation projects that Lake Powell will end the water year near 3,557.03 feet elevation, holding about 8.10 million acre-feet in storage, which is 33% of its capacity.

With these projections for Lake Powell, combined with similarly low projections for Lake Mead, Drought Contingency Plan operations will continue to be in effect for the Lower Basin in 2021 with lowered deliveries to the Central Arizona Project, Southern Nevada and Mexico. Should these projections continue to play out, the Lower Basin will enter a higher tier of shortage in 2022, prompting mandatory cutbacks under the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

If the level of Lake Powell is projected to fall below 3,535 feet in elevation by October 2022 — which is currently within the worst-case scenario forecast — it would activate the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan. This would trigger coordinated releases into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and other upstream reservoirs to protect reservoir levels and maintain power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.

There is still time for conditions to improve, but the outlook is not good.

Ritschard Dam in Grand County is showing an increasing risk of failure, prompting a new engineering study: “A crack causing internal erosion is the primary driver of the risk of dam failure” — @AspenJournalism #ColoraadoRiver #COriver

A truck drives out to Ritschard Dam, which forms Wolford Reservoir, on July 13, 2016. The River District will spend $323,840 to study potential cracking and erosion at the dam after a study found it is at greater risk of failure than previously thought.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board of directors has approved a contract with an engineering firm to address problems with a dam that are turning out to be worse than previously thought.

At its second quarterly meeting, held in April, the River District board agreed to pay $323,840 to HDR Engineering to further study the movement and potential cracking at the district-owned Ritschard Dam. The dam forms the 66,000-acre-foot Wolford Mountain Reservoir across Muddy Creek, about 5 miles north of Kremmling in Grand County. Muddy Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River.

River District staff, aware since 2008 that the dam is settling and moving more than expected, have been monitoring the situation. However, a 2020 Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation prepared in December by HDR Engineering for the state’s Dam Safety section of the Division of Water Resources found that the risk of internal erosion of the dam due to cracking had increased from a 2016 evaluation. That year’s evaluation estimated the chances of a dam failure at 1 in a billion in any given year; the 2020 report found a 1.5-in-10,000 chance of a dam failure.

A crack causing internal erosion is the primary driver of the risk of dam failure.

“It is currently expected that the core will crack at some point, if it has not already done so,” the report reads. “Although a deep crack through the core would represent a severe defect and a serious dam safety incident that significantly compromises the dam’s ability to store water, formation of a crack does not necessarily mean the dam would breach.”

Ritschard Dam has an impermeable clay core that is covered on the upstream and downstream sides with rockfill. Because the rock-fill is poorly compacted, the dam’s outer shells are still moving, especially on the downstream side. The 122-foot-tall dam was built for the River District in 1995 by D.H. Blattner and Sons of Minnesota. The cost was $42 million.

According to the report, normal reservoir operations that involve cycles of drawdown and refill appear to have a detrimental effect on the deformations. Even if the dam does not breach, there could still be very serious incidents that necessitate emergency actions and downstream evacuations or a reservoir restriction.

“The probability of a serious dam safety incident will only increase over time as deformations continue, and therefore there is urgency in taking actions,” the report reads.

The report said risk of dam failure at Ritschard is about the same as the historical failure rate for dams built prior to modern dam safety. Generally, a dam designed and constructed in the 1990s should have a much lower risk of failure than the historical rate.

The River District has been monitoring the dam with instruments, but HDR Engineering will help identify areas that could benefit from additional inclinometers, which measure slope angle, and piezometers, which measure underground water pressure.

“First and foremost, the River District puts public health and safety as our number one priority always, and every action we take is with public safety in mind,” said River District chief of operations Audrey Turner, who is acting as spokesperson on Ritschard Dam matters. “The River District has and will continue to increase our monitoring and emergency preparedness at the dam as recommended by the report.”

The River District also will use a LiDAR survey program — which utilizes lasers for remote sensing — to track and visualize dam deformation, stockpile emergency materials onsite such as gravel and riprap and is planning an exercise for the fall that will improve the community’s emergency preparedness.

It’s still unclear whether or when the dam will need to be rehabilitated; that’s what adding more monitoring instruments may help the district figure out.

“There are still some other areas of exploration and additional information before any decision is made toward the rehabilitation of the dam,” Turner said.

A view of the upstream side of the dam that forms Wolford Reservoir, on Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, above Kremmling. A recent dam safety evaluation found that the dam is at greater risk of cracking and internal erosion than previously thought.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH / ASPEN JOURNALISM

Runoff season operations

The dam deformation won’t stop the reservoir from filling this runoff season. The plan is to still fill the reservoir, as long as the drought conditions allow. Turner said the River District also will still be able to fulfill all of its contract demands for water later in the summer.

Dam Safety has signed off on the district’s operation plan, which calls for letting Denver Water make releases from Wolford instead of from other Western Slope reservoirs in order to get the reservoir level down to 10 feet below the crest as soon as possible after it fills with runoff.

“The plan looks well thought out, and we appreciate the proactive steps taken to continue to monitor conditions and toward emergency preparedness,” Bill McCormick, chief of Colorado’s Dam Safety Branch, said in an email to the River District.

Denver Water leases 40% of the water in Wolford. After 2020, the Front Range water provider was supposed to have become the owner of that water. But the deal is off, at least temporarily, while the dam’s problems are studied.

“The River District and Denver Water have temporarily postponed that transfer of ownership to allow the parties to conduct further study related to the risk-assessment recommendations,” Turner said.

Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the two entities mutually decided to extend the lease temporarily while they determine the next steps.

“We were supportive of the 2020 risk assessment and shared some costs of that process along with the expertise and guidance of our engineering team,” Hartman said in an email. “We’ve continued to consult on the path ahead and will remain engaged in helping to develop and guide the upcoming engineering study.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 3 edition of The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and Steamboat Pilot & Today.

#ColoradoRiver District provides funds for #BlueRiver basin project — Summit Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A fly fisherman on the Blue River in Silverthorne on Nov. 28, 2020, which is designated a “gold medal” status based on the size and abundance of trout. Photo credit: John Herrick/Aspen Journalism

From The Summit Daily (Taylor Sienkiewicz):

The Colorado River District has approved funding for several projects across the Western Slope, including Phase 2 of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan in Summit County. The district allocated $25,000 to the project. The Blue River plan was created by the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited in 2019.

The goal of the plan is to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem. The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.

Phase 2 of the plan involves gathering data and analyzing certain areas of the Blue River basin identified as needing further analysis in Phase 1.

Compromise Will Bring Conclusion to Federal Lawsuit on Chimney Hollow Reservoir — @Northern_Water

This graphic, provided by Northern Water, depicts Chimney Hollow Reservoir, located southwest of Loveland, after it is built.

Here’s the release from Northern Water:

The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict has voted to approve a settlement of a federal lawsuit over Chimney Hollow Reservoir.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 to authorize its participation in the settlement.

The settlement means construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin this summer and the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in Grand County next year. In return, the Municipal Subdistrict will contribute $15 million to a foundation to pay for projects that enhance the Colorado River and its many watersheds in Grand County.

“This settlement shows there is an alternative to costly litigation that can provide benefits both to the environment in Grand County and the Colorado River, as well as acknowledging the need for water storage,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.

The compromise will bring to a close a lawsuit in federal court filed by Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club in October 2017. The suit challenged the permit issued by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir. On Dec. 19, 2020, the federal court ruled against the environmental organizations. The ruling was then appealed in February, and as part of the appeals process, both sides were required to engage in court-ordered mediation, which resulted in this settlement.

Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the key component to the Windy Gap Firming Project, will bring a reliable water supply to the 12 municipalities, water providers and utilities paying for its construction as well as provide a much-needed recreation area to be managed by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will be located in a dry valley just west of Carter Lake in southwest Larimer County and will store 90,000 acre-feet of water from the Windy Gap Project for use by 12 participants, including Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and the Central Weld County Water District. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will make the Windy Gap water supply serving those participants more reliable and meet a portion of their long-term water supply needs. Each participant will also enact a water conservation plan to comply with state law and permit requirements.

The compromise will also move forward other environmental measures related to the Project, including the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a newly proposed channel around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir to reconnect the Colorado River above and below the reservoir. The channel will restore the ability for fish, macroinvertebrates, nutrients and sediment in the river to bypass the reservoir. Many other environmental protections are included, such as improving streamflow and aquatic habitat in the Colorado River, addressing water quality issues, providing West Slope water supplies and more.

The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict negotiated with Colorado River stakeholders to develop this package of environmental protections and received a permit from Grand County and approvals from others, including Trout Unlimited and the State of Colorado, to move forward with the Project.

Water storage such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir was specifically identified in the Colorado Water Plan as a necessary component for Colorado’s long-term water future. It joins conservation, land use planning and other solutions to meet future water needs in the state. To learn more about the project, go to http://www.chimneyhollow.org.

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

Northern Water will begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer.

complex Front Range dam-building project that includes transferring water from the Colorado River will move forward this summer after Northern Water agreed to a settlement putting $15 million in trust for waterway improvements in Grand County.

Environmental opponents begrudgingly accepted the mediated settlement of their lawsuit against Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which involves a menu of waterworks construction including Chimney Hollow dam near Loveland and rerouting the Colorado River around Windy Gap Dam near Granby.

The settlement resolves litigation in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Northern Water said it now can begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer. The dam will plug the northern end of a dry valley northwest of Carter Lake. It will eventually be filled using Colorado River rights purchased by municipalities that are members of Northern Water. The Northern Water rights can be tapped only when Grand County is wet enough to supply other, higher priorities first…

An alliance of environmental groups opposing the project wants to stop any more transfers of Western Slope water, which would ordinarily flow west in the Colorado River, to Front Range reservoirs that supply growing Colorado cities and suburbs.

In the case of Chimney Hollow and Windy Gap, the environmentalists say damage has already been done to the Colorado River in Grand County, and the settlement can help them reverse some of the hurt…

An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 Wednesday to participate in the settlement. A federal district court had rejected the environmental groups’ challenge of permits for the Windy Gap and Chimney Hollow projects issued by Army Corps of Engineers, and mediation was required as part of the appeal.

Chimney Hollow water will be used by 12 of Northern Water’s members: Central Weld County Water District, Little Thompson Water District and the Platte River Power Authority, and the cities of Broomfield, Erie, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland and Superior. The members say they need more water storage to accommodate future growth in homes, industry and agriculture.

This graphic from Northern Water shows the lay out of the Windy Gap Firming Project. The River District has voted to spend $1 million on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, an aspect of the project meant to mitigate impacts from the dam and reservoir.

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, Save the Colorado, Save The Poudre, Sierra Club, Living Rivers, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Oct. 2017 challenging the project’s federal permits. A federal judge in Dec. 2020 ruled against the environmental groups.

In a settlement reached with Northern Water — the agency pursuing Windy Gap on behalf of a municipal subdistrict of Front Range water providers — the environmental coalition agreed to withdraw their lawsuit, while securing $15 million for projects aimed at improving water quality, river health and fish habitat. The Grand Foundation in Grand County, Colo. will be the recipient of those funds. An advisory panel will be made up of representatives appointed by Northern Water and the environmental groups, and will decide how the money is spent. The funds will be issued in installments as the project is built…

The additional environmental mitigation joins other projects already negotiated between Grand County, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water, among other partners…

That previously agreed to package of environmental mitigation includes the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which is to be constructed around the existing Windy Gap dam and reservoir, and is designed to reconnect a portion of the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River. The channel is meant to allow for more natural conditions to return, like allowing sediment to move downstream and providing more habitat for fish and aquatic insects. Monitoring programs and riparian restoration were also a part of the deal negotiated among those parties.

The connectivity channel was a recent recipient of a $1 million grant from the Colorado River District, becoming the first project to receive funds generated from ballot question 7A which appeared on the Nov. 2020 ballot in the district’s boundaries…

Despite the additional funding, representatives from the environmental coalition that sued to halt construction remained alarmed about the project’s legal success, and said the $15 million is a drop in the bucket…

Northern Water plans to begin construction on the Chimney Hollow dam this summer and on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in 2022.

Opinion: On this one thing, 9 #Colorado water managers agree — The Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From top left, Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick. (Provided photos via The Colorado Sun)

From The Colorado Sun (Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, CEO, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson III, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick):

We may not always agree on the particulars of water policy and water use in the Centennial State, but we all recognize the importance of the Colorado River to our statewide economy and our Colorado way of life. The Colorado River is arguably the single most important natural resource to the State of Colorado. It powers economies on both sides of the Continental Divide. It provides food and fiber to the nation and the world from both sides of the Divide. And its fate will determine our own.

Colorado’s constitution and our state’s laws have long recognized one simple truth: The waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public. The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation. Long excluded from the list of beneficial uses of water is holding water for speculation. Our state supreme court has ruled unconstitutional any scheme that “would encourage those with vast monetary resources to monopolize, for personal profit rather than for beneficial use…”

Recently we have seen a series of articles and opinion pieces discussing and even advocating for the potential influx of financial capital from out of state investment funds to buy water from Colorado’s vibrant farms and ranches with the apparent aim of “solving” Colorado’s drought problems.

This is not the first time we have seen venture capital eyeing our state’s water resources. This time around, however, the investors and their representatives are posturing to portray themselves as the only solution to a climate change driven reduction in the flows of our rivers. We have come together to set the record straight on this misguided concept.

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

Our organizations and the water users we represent are working collaboratively with the State of Colorado to examine solutions to the threat of water shortages brought on by a changing climate and prolonged overuse of the River’s water by downstream states. Together, we are exploring a multi-faceted effort to secure our state’s water supply and protect irrigation for food product, our thriving communities and the environment that depend on this water. Among these approaches is the feasibility of a proposed “demand management” program to temporarily compensate water users in Colorado and other Upper Basin states to reduce their use of water to assure that we are able to meet our obligations under the Colorado River Compact.

Demand management is complex. It is controversial. But we are approaching these conversations in good faith because we recognize that we must work together to protect the economies and livelihoods supported by the Colorado River throughout the entire state. Since solutions to our water challenges must be undertaken for the benefit of the state as a whole, these efforts must be led by the state. The Colorado Water Conservation Board articulated a set of guiding principles for this process in November 2018, principles with which we agree.

One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process. Moreover, private sector entities do not have the legal ability or authority to manage water across state lines or through federally owned reservoirs. This can be done only by the states and the federal government. Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.

The introduction of private investors in our statewide water planning efforts will only serve to further exacerbate the water divisions that exist between our urban areas and our irrigated agricultural communities on both sides of the Continental Divide. Our state must stand strong together to protect our Colorado way of life.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District

Bob Wolff, president, Southwestern Water Conservation District

Jim Lochhead, CEO, Denver Water

Brad Wind, general manager, Northern Water

Marshall Brown, general manager, Aurora Water

Earl Wilkinson III, chief water services officer, Colorado Springs Utilities

Seth Clayton, executive director, Pueblo Water

Kevin Lusk, president, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

James Broderick, executive director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on an issue not new to officials in the water world: private interests or hedge funds purchasing water rights from agricultural communities and diverting that water to cities.

An open letter from almost 10 water officials from across the state, including the local Southwestern Water Conservation District, lashes out against the practice, saying, “waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public.”

“The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation,” the letter, sent Thursday, says.

The open letter is largely in response to a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times called “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” which says private investors may become more of a force in the political water world.

The article cites several examples of private investors purchasing water rights from ranches, and then diverting it to cities to feed new developments or subdivisions in drought-strapped places.

Several private equity owners argue the practice could be one of the solutions to curb the impacts of climate change that has resulted in drought and less available water throughout the West.

In one stance, Greenstone, a private investment firm, bought most of the water rights in Cibola, Arizona, and then sold the rights to a suburb of Phoenix known as Queen Creek, 175 miles away.

“One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight,” Grady Gammage, a spokesman for Greenstone, said in the article…

The practice has been more common in urban areas along the Front Range or near Phoenix, and the issue hasn’t reared its head quite yet in Southwest Colorado, according to several water officials interviewed for this story.

Robert Genualdi, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 7 engineer, which covers Durango, said there are several key distinctions why the hedge funds of Wall Street haven’t set their sights on local waterways.

For one, in most places along the Front Range where it is happening, the waterways are over-appropriated and there is not enough water to go around to serve new developments or subdivisions.

As a result, entities looking for water for urban areas seek out farm and ranch owners who may be interested in selling their rights. Then, the developers use that water for their projects and let the farms go fallow, known as “buy and dry.”

On the other hand, most waterways in the region, like the Animas River, are not over-allocated, meaning water rights can still be bought, Genualdi said.

“In our corner of the state, it’s probably not as prevalent as it might be in other parts of the state because of the water availability down here,” he said.

Also, Genualdi pointed out that much of the water is stored in Bureau of Reclamation projects – like Vallecito, Lake Nighthorse and McPhee reservoirs – which bring some level of federal protections against the practice.

“Those projects were built for specific things, so it’s more of a task to get water use changed,” he said. “You’d have to go to Congress for a change.”

While not currently an issue in Southwest Colorado, efforts should be made to prepare for private interests in water, said Amy Huff, a water attorney recently appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation Board…

Mike Preston, former manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said several water districts in the region have set up restrictions for people to sell off to private companies.

“They’ve done what they can to protect themselves,” he said. “That water is all tied up to the land.”

Ed Tolen, general manager of the La Plata Archuleta Water District, said his water right holders shouldn’t have to worry because it’s all domestic water use, not for irrigation.

But still, he said there is concern among the agricultural community that some ranchers and farmers may have to send their water to lower basin states to meet water compacts…

“One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process,” the open letter said. “Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.”

#Colorado’s ornery, independent #water guardians finally agree on one thing: #WallStreet can look elsewhere — The #ColoradoSun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water from the Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley Irrigation Company’s canal near Palisade, shown in a file photo. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The calls came in shortly after the story in The New York Times announced Wall Street was on the prowl for “billions in the Colorado’s water.”

“Can you help us? How do we get started?” wondered the New York financiers, pals of Andy Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“My response was really that if you want to invest in Colorado, you might want to look at something other than water,” Mueller said. “There is nothing to see here.”

The national story raised hackles across Colorado. It defined agriculture as a “wrong” use of Colorado River water and detailed a growing swarm of investors eager to inject Wall Street’s strategies into the West’s century-old water laws. The idea of private investment in public water has galvanized the state’s factious water guardians…

Population growth and persistent drought exacerbated by climate change are stressing the Colorado River, which supports 40 million people in seven states and Mexico and irrigates some 5.5 million acres of crop land. Now, the increasingly parched communities along the 1,450-mile river can add an additional threat: speculation.

It’s rare to see Front Range water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water joining counterparts on the Western Slope. Heck, neighbors on the Western Slope don’t often agree over agricultural, municipal, recreation and tourism-based uses of water. But everyone involved in the perpetual tug-of-war over Colorado water is ready to fight Wall Street investors eyeing “billions” in the state’s most precious resource.

“We have different interests and we have different things we use water for on the Western Slope,” Martha Whitmore, the Ouray County board member on the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board, said during the board’s quarterly meeting last week. “but the one thing we are really unified on … is we don’t want this to be a New York hedge fund’s new thing.”

Water law requires beneficial use

Colorado has some of the toughest laws to prevent profiteering on water in the West, anchored in a nearly 160-year-old state water law that requires users to put their rights to beneficial use. That definition has expanded from irrigation and home taps to include snowmaking, protecting wildlife and even kayaking in a whitewater park. Beneficial use does not include making money.

Even with the state’s strict law preventing a gold rush on water, an 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group created by Colorado lawmakers last year is studying how to give the law preventing water profiteering even more teeth.

A view of the popular Pumphouse campground, boat put-in and the upper Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Jim Lochhead, the head of Denver Water, agrees with water managers around the state that institutionalized private investment in water “is inherently a problem for the entire state of Colorado.”

[…]

The Law of the River could be upended by Wall Street investors buying up and fallowing farmland for water rights, or even worse, buying agricultural water and holding it unused until it makes them rich, like some kind of water-logged bitcoin bros. (Which, by the way, is illegal under Colorado law that doesn’t really allow the sale of actual water as much as the right to use water for beneficial use.)

But, in a way, that buy-and-dry scenario is already part of Colorado’s water landscape. Cities like Aurora and Pueblo often buy water rights to support growth. And more of that is coming. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — part of a historic water management agreement inked in 2019 by federal officials and leaders in seven states — aims to cut water use, by, in part, paying farmers and ranchers and other water users to temporarily suspend their water rights.

Details on the controversial “demand management” element of the drought contingency plan are still being hammered out. But the prospect of water speculation has led to calls for all types of safeguards of public water in a demand-management market.

There is a big difference between investors who likely would be moving water from farms to cities willing to pay big and water districts trying to temporarily secure water rights to bolster supplies, said Taylor Hawes, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.

Demand management is about conserving water and “creating water security, which is a public good,” said Hawes, who earlier this month published a letter in Western Slope Colorado newspapers along with the the national Family Farm Alliance and Trout Unlimited urging partnerships among often-contentious Colorado River users “to find durable solutions that make economic sense for water users and rural communities, as well as cities.”

“Demand management should be more of a guided market not a free market,” Hawes said in an interview. “It needs to have sideboards and restrictions, and one of those restrictions needs to be that it is serving the public good, to make sure we have water security for the future and that we can adapt to the changing climate.”

[…]

Mueller, with the Colorado River District, led a spirited discussion last week with his board, detailing specific issues with the increasing call for private investment in water. He warned that eroding trust in government institutions could sway more people toward a revamp of Colorado laws that would increase the role of market forces.

“The demand-management market needs to focus on rules and regulations and structures that protect our communities and if it can’t be done, the program should go away,” Mueller said.

Mueller, who has many issues with the New York Times article, says the article may “help make our case” as a launching point to rally not just water managers, but state residents, around the need to protect water.

Private, profit-driven investment in Colorado River water might not respect agricultural roots of communities that exist because of the river. But the eye of Wall Street might help champion the case for drought management and it’s share-the-pain plan to spread potential cuts. Mueller said the threat of speculators moving into Colorado’s water market could help convince residents about the need for big, climate-adapting changes in how water is conserved and protected in the state…

Most of the angst over Wall Street is coming from a group called Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million over the past few years buying more than 2,000 acres of farmland in the Grand Valley. The company is the largest landowner in the influential Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the 55-mile Government Highline Canal and 150 miles of irrigation pipe and ditches that water more than 23,000 acres of farmland.

It’s safe to say that Water Asset Management has succeeded where all others have failed: The fund has found a way to get Front Range and Western Slope water users in quick and easy agreement.

And advising the investment firm is James Eklund, the former director of the state’s top water protector, the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Eklund spent years as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, helping to draw up the drought contingency plan that, among many things, creates a pool of water for Upper Basin states inside Lake Powell that serves as the upper state’s own bank within the larger bank.

Eklund bristles at the notion that the WAM group is angling to take over that bank of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell.

“You can’t do that now and you could not do that before the Drought Contingency Plan and you can’t do it in the future. Because the Law of the River forbids it,” he said. “If we allow private accounts in Lake Powell, we will undo the benefits of the bargain of the 1922 compact.”

Water Asset Management buys farms, pays for upgrades that increase the efficiency of water used in irrigating crops and then leases the property back to the farmer, Eklund said.

The firm’s investment fund “develops and markets the water assets while our farming operators manage the farming operations of the properties, mitigating agriculture risk,” reads the firm’s website details of its Water Property Investor Fund.

The group is not trying to flip water. If it was, it would have already sold the water rights it has, Eklund said. The group wants to invest in agriculture in the Western United States, he said…

Across Colorado, water managers agree with at least of one of Eklund’s ideas: It is time to work together. But not necessarily with his group. A host of water managers across the state have been meeting, amiably, to discuss how best they can form a united front to stop Wall Street speculation on public water.

“The coming together of all these different interests is a recognition that the challenges we face on the Colorado River are already complex enough. So, so complex,” said Hawes with the Nature Conservancy. “The last thing we need is Wall Street getting in the middle of this as we try to work out the solutions which are going to be really really difficult to do.”

First #ColoradoRiver District project spending from tax to tackle #GrandCounty project — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The Colorado River District will spend the first $1 million in partner project funds made possible from a recent tax approval to help pay for a Grand County effort to address environmental impacts from a reservoir.

The district board last week approved the contribution to a $23.5 million project for a channel to reconnect the Colorado River where the Windy Gap Reservoir blocks its flow.

The decision means nearly a quarter of the annual amount that the tax approval will generate for such projects will be spent in just one of the 15 counties in the river district. But district General Manager Andy Mueller believes it’s a good place to start. And a district policy newly approved by the board aims to ensure that over the long run, funding is allocated fairly and broadly around the district…

In November, voters, including in Mesa County, approved roughly doubling the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The measure is expected to boost its revenues by nearly $5 million in the first year. Some of the annual revenues from the new tax will help the district address operating budget needs, but most of it — about $4.2 million this year — is to go toward partnering on projects addressing agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.

Under the board’s new policy to implement the program, it is seeking over time to spread funds among those categories and among counties and river basins in the district, while also considering factors such as the relative populations of counties and basins, and the district’s strategic goals.

The district also plans to use funds to help lobby for contributions of funds from other sources, rather than paying for projects by itself…

Mueller told the board the Windy Gap project is the kind of funding partnership he had in mind, in that “it really brings together all of these folks to fix something.”

Among those who already have committed to the project are the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (about $5.67 million), the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District and related entities ($5 million), the Colorado Water Conservation Board (more than $3.2 million) and Grand County ($1 million).

With the river district commitment, the project remains more than $6.3 million short of full funding, but Mueller plans to use the district’s commitment to push for further funding from a variety of sources, including by pressuring the Northern Colorado Water to chip in more…

The bypass project partly involves reconfiguring the reservoir through construction of a redesigned dam, and building a roughly mile-long natural channel around the reservoir to reconnect the river upstream and downstream of it.

The project is expected to improve Gold Medal trout habitat and improve water quality for downstream irrigators…

Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the river district board, told fellow board members that the project is necessary…

He said it provides a lesson to the current generation of the water community about the need to “really pay attention to what you’re doing” to avoid unintended consequences…

As for other projects that the new river district tax revenue could someday fund, the district more locally has pointed to possibilities such as helping rehabilitate the Grand Valley Roller Dam in Mesa County, and working to maintain for the long term Colorado River flows secured by the senior water right associated with the aging Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.

Outflow from the dam across the Colorado River that forms Windy Gap Reservoir. Taken during a field trip the reservoir in September, 2017.

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

“This one was right up there, one of those the district thought was really qualified to be the initial (recipient),” said Catlin, of Montrose, who also represents State House District 58 in the Colorado Legislature. “Hopefully, it gets started right away, but all the communities will be able to apply for funding for projects across the district.”

Montrose and the 14 other counties that make up the Colorado River District voted in November to increase the district’s mill levy to 0.5. The same ballot measure eliminated spending and revenue caps under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not the tax-rate cap, and allows the district to keep and spend state and local grant funds.

The mill levy increase was projected to generate about $5 million in 2021, with the bulk going to partnerships for priority water projects.

Applications may be made for the awarding of partnership funds, which are to be direct to priority projects; the money can also serve to leverage other funds from state, federal or private sources.

“The projects supported by the Partnership Project Funding Program will protect and sustain West Slope water for all of us who rely on it,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, in a provide statement announcing the Windy Gap funding.

“In launching this program and funding our first project, we’re fulfilling our promise to the voters who make our work possible. This and future projects will help build a brighter water future for Western Colorado.”

Under the Partnership Project Funding framework, the river district has created a line item in its general fund budget, identifying the moneys available for such funding.

Staff analyze requests for funding and forward those that match up with several criteria to the board for further consideration. Under those criteria, the proposed project must fit with the mission of the district and language of the 2020 ballot measure.

Risk analysis is part of consideration and applicants need buy-in from their respective local governments. Mostly, the river district will offer partial financial support, although some projects may also receive technical, legal or administrative advocacy.

District funds are not intended to be the sole funding source for any project.

Projects may involve improvements related to agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health/water quality, conservation and efficiency. The framework calls for geographic equity in awarding the funds.

“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today” (Dave Kanzer) — The #Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gunnison River Basin snowpack January 25, 2021 via the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey.

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.

The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.

A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.

“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.

The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.

Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.

The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…

The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.

Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…

But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”

[…]

Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.

“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.

#Drought-stricken #ColoradoRiver Basin could see additional 20% drop in #water flow by 2050 — Yale Climate Connections #COriver #aridification

The white bathtub ring along Lake Mead reflects the effects of years of drought in the Colorado River Basin. Source: Water Education Foundation

From Yale Climate Connections (Jan Ellen Spiegel):

The region is transitioning to a more arid climate, challenging longstanding practices of water-sharing in the basin.

Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won’t change the trajectory.

This is what climate change has brought.

Brad Udall: Here’s the 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

“Aridification” is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.

Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. “Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures,” the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.

Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.

“I always say climate change is water change,” says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”

In Colorado it’s all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. “I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It’s all part of the same change,” Udall says.

It’s forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It’s climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.

The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.

But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.

In 1922, Federal and State representatives met for the Colorado River Compact Commission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among the attendees were Arthur P. Davis, Director of Reclamation Service, and Herbert Hoover, who at the time, was the Secretary of Commerce. Photo taken November 24, 1922. USBR photo.

The Colorado River Compact

The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.

Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.

A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.

River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region’s population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.

That’s because it’s climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: “Yup. Yup. Yup.” He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn’t expected to see until 2050.

“I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”

The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.

Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don’t regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.

Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.

Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.

Big ideas in place

“This is not your average variability,” says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. “Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers,” he says.

Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.

Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”

The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.

Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.

“We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don’t have financial impacts in the future,” Holcomb says.

Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.

Signing ceremony for the Colorado River upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans. Back Row Left to Right: James Eklund (CO), John D’Antonio (NM), Pat Tyrell (WY), Eric Melis (UT), Tom Buschatzke (AZ), Peter Nelson (CA), John Entsminger (NV), Front Row: Brenda Burman (US), and from DOI – Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

In search of more equitable sharing of water

She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It’s pointed in the right direction, she says. “At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient,” Castle says.

Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.

“I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there’s flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated,” says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.

The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.

“From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they’re whole,” Udall says. “There are actually a lot of things where they don’t get whole. They potentially lose a market that they’ve established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back.”

In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. “I would disabuse people of the idea that you’re going to get more water,” Udall says. “I think it’s pretty clear you’re going to have less water.” So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: “It’s not at all clear to me that that works.”

But less conventional strategies just might.

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Beaver dams to the rescue?

Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.

But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.

“We think there’s a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around,” Pitt says.

The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.

A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. “There’s all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream,” she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.

Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.

Johnny Appleseed. By Unknown author – http://fortamanda1812.blogspot.com/search?q=Johnny+Appleseed+, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94733925

More people, less water, and a touch of Johnny Appleseed

More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. “Variability is the name of the game in Colorado,” says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. “And that variability’s going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you’re not sure what’s coming around the corner.”

The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.

Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.

Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.

Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.

Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA’s impaired waterbody list.

“That was a call to action,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager.

The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.

“What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time,” she says. “The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change.”

They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.

“That work also increases resilience to future changes,” says Michelle Stewart, the council’s executive director. “We’re really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience.”

ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. “We’re using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness,” she says.

It’s too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.

“This is a Johnny Appleseed project,” says Romero-Heaney. “We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it.”

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65868008

#Climate’s toll on the #ColoradoRiver: ‘We can weather maybe a couple of years’ — AZCentral #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.

Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.

The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.

The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.

As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…

Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.

Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.

“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”

Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…

People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.

Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…

The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.

Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.

What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…

Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat

Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.

[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…

With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…

In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…

“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”

And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.

The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”

In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.

The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.

In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.

Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.

In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.

When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”

The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.

Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”

Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling. Bruchez has taken an active role in Colorado River issues ever since his family suffered from a critical water shortage during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Russ Schnitzer via Aspen Journalism

A rancher looks to adapt

Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…

Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.

The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.

“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”

Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…

The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.

For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”

[…]

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

‘It affects everybody’

One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.

The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.

Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.

Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.

Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.

“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…

In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.

While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.

Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.

“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”

Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…

Ranchers, farmers consider using less

One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.

His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.

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,

Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…

‘We need to set the terms’

In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.

One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…

Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.

In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…

Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.

Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.

“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”

He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…

‘Are we doing enough?’

At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”

In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.

Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.

Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.

“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…

Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.

“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”

[…]

“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”

Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at ian.james@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.

Bill Trampe is retiring from the #ColoradoRiver District Board #COriver #GunnisonRiver

Bill Trampe via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

After 20 years as a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors, prominent local rancher Bill Trampe has announced he will retire from the position in 2021. The vacancy has drawn interest from three candidates within Gunnison County, one of whom will be appointed to the position on January 12 by the Gunnison County commissioners. Commissioners conducted interviews with the candidates on Tuesday, December 29, including an interview with county commissioner Jonathan Houck himself…

The vacancy drew interest from Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, serving all of Gunnison County and portions of Saguache and Hinsdale counties. It also drew the interest of Kathleen Curry, who serves as chairperson of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, runs an active cattle and hay operation in the Tomichi Creek drainage and works as a lobbyist on behalf of two major water providers in Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

The third candidate who applied is chairperson of the Gunnison County commissioners Jonathan Houck. Houck made his interest known publicly on the last day of the application process…

Before conducting interviews, county attorney David Baumgarten offered his professional opinion on how to conduct the appointment process, considering one of the commissioners was also an applicant. He reviewed the relevant state statute, CO 37-36-104, which identifies who may be on the River District board of directors. “There are 15. One should be from each of the respective counties, and shall be selected by the board of county commissioners,” he reviewed. “So the threshold question is, can you apply? Yes, you can. The statute is silent on how you make that decision,” said Baumgarten of Houck’s participation.

Baumgarten suggested that Houck participate in the interviews, and that he recuse himself from voting initially on the appointee, unless there is a tie between candidates.

Houck proceeded according to Baumgarten’s direction, participating in each interview before being interviewed himself by the other two commissioners…

Commissioners Roland Mason and Liz Smith will make their decision on January 12 in advance of the next River District quarterly board meeting on January 19.

Silver lining: Lining canals to cut for salinity also boosts efficiency — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ActOnClimate #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Winter may be the offseason when it comes to a lot of construction work, but for ongoing efforts to line local irrigation canals, it’s the only practical time for further pursuing multi-year efforts to line them.

Doing so locally helps address salinity problems throughout the Colorado River Basin, meaning that irrigation entities can tap federal funds to pay for much of the work. But it also provides the side benefit of making canals able to deliver water more efficiently, in higher volumes, multiplying the payback for the millions of dollars that get invested in such work.

In September, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that it will distribute $33.7 million for salinity control projects in western Colorado over the next three to five years. This includes nearly $4.7 million for the Grand Valley Water Users Association for continued lining of the Government Highline Canal, and about $1.23 million to the Grand Valley Irrigation Company for a fifth phase of lining it has been doing over the past decade or so thanks to Bureau of Reclamation salinity control funding.

Lining canals limits seepage of water into the ground, where that water can pick up salt before eventually reaching the Colorado River, which is relied upon by downstream states and Mexico. High salinity in the river reduces crop yields downstream for farmers reliant on the river water, and can increase water treatment costs and corrode things such as household appliances, reducing their useful life.

In Colorado, salinity control efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation also include the operation of a deep injection well for salty groundwater in Montrose County’s Paradox Valley. While that project has been highly effective in salt removal, it is increasingly causing earthquakes and the future of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Paradox desalination program is uncertain as the well nears the end of its serviceable life.

23,426 TONS OF SALT A YEAR

In the Grand Junction area, groundwater reaching the river percolates through Mancos shale associated with an inland sea that left salt deposits behind tens of millions of years ago. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that a total of $37.2 million it will distribute to 11 projects in western Colorado and Wyoming over the next few years will keep about 23,426 tons a year from entering the Colorado River.

The last lining work the Grand Valley Water Users Association did on the Government Highline Canal was finished last year and ended at 36-3/10 Road in the Palisade area. The work being undertaken now will pick up from there and run to 35 3/10 Road, covering some 6,100 feet of canal length, said Mark Harris, the association’s general manager.

The canal is operated by the association and owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project the new funding will cover most of will take place over three winters, and Grand Valley Water Users Association is covering about 10% of the cost through cash and in-kind contributions.

The funding the Grand Valley Irrigation Company is getting will be used for work on close to a mile of the Grand Valley Canal over multiple years, on stretches running by Bookcliff Gardens and the Crown Point Cemetery area. Phil Bertrand with the Grand Valley Irrigation Company said the hope is to get about 300 or 400 feet lined in the first phase of that work this year.

Grand Valley Irrigation’s project involves a little more than $149,000 in matching funding, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Harris said the work on the Government Highline Canal will include restoring its shape where needed. A fuzzy geotextile layer will be laid down to help protect the water-sealing PVC liner that’s put on top of it from the underlying earth and rocks. The PVC liner is covered with another fabric liner, and then three inches of concrete are added on top to help protect the canal from abrasion from sand and silt flowing through the canal.

A drainage system also is being installed below the canal to help control the accumulation of underlying groundwater that can damage the canal lining when it is drained due to pressure exerted on it. The water in the canal when full otherwise counters that pressure…

Canal lining also reduces seepage that can impact adjacent private property. In addition, it can reduce the amount of selenium that also leaches along with salt into the river. High selenium levels in soil are particularly a concern in the Gunnison River Valley, and high levels in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers can threaten wildlife including endangered fish…

Harris said some sections along the Government Highline Canal cause more salt loading in the river than others. Localized levels of salt underground, the underground geological structure in an area and how much water that seeps from the canal actually makes it to the river all can play roles in salt loading, and areas of the canal with a lot of seeping aren’t necessarily where lining results in the most reduction of salt…

GUNNISON PROJECTS

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association got more than $5 million in funding, and Grandview Canal & Irrigation Co. in the Crawford area received more than $6.3 million. Needle/Rock Ditch Company, also in the Crawford area, is receiving about $4.24 million, and Pilot Rock Ditch Company in eastern Delta County is getting more than $940,000. The Turner Ditch Company near Paonia will receive about $6.15 million.

All of those projects entail installing pressurized pipe. Some involve matching funds and others are being completely paid for by the Bureau of Reclamation.

A local initiative called the Lower Gunnison Project tries to take advantage of salinity-control funds and leverage them with other funding sources to make projects go further, Kanzer said. That project’s goals are wide-ranging, from reducing salt and selenium loading in the Gunnison River, to pursuing more efficient delivery and on-farm application of irrigation water, to improving soil health and boosting agricultural productivity…

WETLANDS MITIGATION

Canal-lining projects also can have wetlands projects associated with them. Where wetland habitat is destroyed as a result of the work, it has to be replaced elsewhere, Harris said. In the case of the Grand Valley Water Users Association project, crews will be creating new wetlands at the Colorado River Island State Wildlife Area south of D Road. Harris said the project will involve some 1,500 plantings and will result in creation of habitat far superior to what is being replaced…

The Grand Valley Water Users Association’s canal project is occurring as the association also is in the middle of work to replace electrical and operating equipment at the Grand Valley Diversion Dam, the roller dam in De Beque Canyon. Harris said such projects “all kind of fit together” in improving water delivery in the Grand Valley, but are expensive. It’s hard for the association to pay for something like the current lining project internally through assessments, he said.

Colorado River District lays out framework for new taxpayer-funded grant program — @AspenJournalism

The dam at Windy Gap Reservoir. The dam that forms Windy Gap Reservoir on the Colorado River, just below its confluence with the Fraser River in Grand County. A project to build a connectivity channel for the Colorado River is included in the River District’s fiscal implementation plan and could be on the short list for funding through the organization’s new Partnership Project Funding Program. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Colorado River Water Conservation District officials have laid out a framework for how they will spend their new tax revenue with an emphasis on equity across water sectors and gaining the support of local government.

At a Dec. 3 board meeting, River District General Manager Andy Mueller presented a framework for the organization’s new Partnership Project Funding Program, which creates a system for how entities can apply for funding and how River District staff and board members will evaluate those applications.

In November, an overwhelming 72% of voters approved ballot measure 7A, which raises property taxes across the district and will add about $5 million annually to the River District’s coffers. Eighty-six percent, or $4.2 million, of that will go toward funding water projects.

The new program is designed to be more nimble and responsive than other federal or state grant programs, with the River District board considering projects on a rolling basis throughout the year. It also gives Mueller the power to approve smaller amounts of project funds without the board’s involvement.

The River District plans to doll out funding for projects in five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.

Each of these categories will receive roughly equal funding on a five-year running average. The project money also will be distributed as evenly as possible across the district’s 15-county region. River District staff will evaluate project applications and decide which ones to bring to the board for approval.

Mueller said he wants “to memorialize within this program our commitments that we made to the voters with respect to how we are going to spend the money. … I think it’s really critical going forward that future board members, future staff members, members of the public can turn to a document and find what it is we have committed to and what are the guiding principles of our program.”

Water travels through a roller dam, generating power, then continues downstream. Roller Dam near Palisade. The Grand Valley Diversion Dam in DeBeque Canyon sends water from the Colorado River into the Grand Valley Project Canal. Rehabilitation of the structure could be one of the projects funded by the River District’s new Partnership Project Funding Program. Photo credit: Hutchinson Water Center

Local support requirement

The River District also is making good on a commitment laid out in the ballot measure’s fiscal implementation plan: that it funds projects that have the backing of local elected officials.

According to the framework, project proponents should get buy-in from local governments in the form of a letter of support from the board of county commissioners in the county in which the project is located. If proponents can’t get a letter of support, they must explain why not.

Mueller said the requirement does not amount to veto power for local governments, but whether a project has the backing of local officials could be a deciding factor in the River District’s choice to fund that project.

“We want to make sure our projects are aligning with the priorities of our local communities,” he said in a separate interview.

Mueller’s initial framework proposed that he, as general manager, be allowed to greenlight projects of as much as $25,000 with an annual cap of $250,000 without board approval. But directors at last week’s meeting said they wanted to up those numbers.

“I think it should be increased to $50,000,” said board president and Garfield County representative Dave Merritt. “We have the criteria laid out here, and if the board is going to get down into the weeds, we will never get through what we need to get through as a board. We’ve got a lot of money that needs to get expended with these partnership programs.”

The board is scheduled to adopt the framework at its January meeting, at which time Mueller said it also will consider the first projects for funding.

According to Jim Pokrandt, the River District’s director of community affairs, no entities have officially applied for grants yet and the grant application is still being developed. Examples of projects that could get funding as laid out in the fiscal implementation plan include forest restoration on the Yampa River, rehabilitation for the Grand Valley Roller Dam, and the Windy Gap Reservoir Connectivity Channel project, which would reconnect the Colorado River through the reservoir.

Mueller said he is excited that the infusion of tax money will allow the River District to remain fully staffed and thrive as an organization. But he acknowledged the new grant program still won’t solve the biggest problem on the Colorado River.

“All the money in the world is not going to solve the diminishing flows in the river caused by our warming temperatures and by climate change,” he said. “We can mitigate, we can adapt, we can make our communities more resilient, but it’s a daunting challenge we are all going to face in the next 20 years.”

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 Dec. 10 edition of The Aspen Times.

#ColoradoRiver District webinar to provide a look ahead at snow, water supply and impacts of winter weather on West Slope economy, December 16, 2020

Here’s the release from the Colorado River District:

Our snow is our water. The snow that we ski and ride becomes the water that quenches crops and communities. As winter begins, we’re all wondering what our water future holds and how will it impact us.

Join the Colorado River District at noon, Wednesday, Dec. 16, for Water With Your Lunch: Our Snow and Our Water, where we’ll hear forecasts for snowpack and water supply and discuss the economic impact of snow and water on the West Slope. Presenters will also address long-term changes that are becoming visible in Colorado’s mountain snowpack. Understanding how snowfall, water and our livelihoods are connected is vital to understanding actions we can take to protect our West Slope water and sustain our West Slope economies.

Registration is required and can be completed here: https://crwcd-org.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ruTZQLUMQM6IAVKYOm0tOQ. If you cannot tune in to the webinar live, register to receive a recording of it in your email inbox.

Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist at Open Snow, will present how he makes forecasts and the possible impacts of a La Nina weather pattern, which can give us an idea of what the pattern of snowfall in Colorado will likely be this winter. Paul Miller, a service coordination hydrologist at the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, will talk about how his agency translates snowpack measurements into water supply forecasts and how factors like soil moisture influence the water we get from snow.

Then we’ll learn more about the impact that snow – or lack of it – has on the Western Slope economy. From powder days at ski areas to flowing water for agricultural irrigation, snow and water power jobs on the West Slope. We’ll learn more about the economic value of snow in West Slope agriculture and recreation from two speakers: Todd Hagenbuch, a Colorado State Extension Agent in Routt County, and Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.

#GunnisonRiver, with elevated selenium levels, faces review for reclassification — @AspenJournalism

This portion of the 58-mile mainstem of the Gunnison River just south of Whitewater has been designated as critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, which are two species of endangered fish. Programs aimed at reducing salt and selenium in the waterway are showing signs of success. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

State water-quality officials will soon evaluate whether two water-improvement programs in the Gunnison River basin have successfully reduced a chemical that is toxic to endangered fish.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division is analyzing five years of data on selenium levels in the Gunnison, where heightened selenium and salinity have harmed Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.

If selenium levels stay at or below the state standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in any of the segments of river that are analyzed by division staff, those segments will be reclassified from a water body that threatens aquatic life to one that meets state water-quality standards, said Skip Feeney, assessment workgroup leader for the Water Quality Control Division.

After analyzing selenium data, the division will submit a proposal after the first of the year to the CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission recommending a status change if necessary, Feeney said.

“Our goal is to provide an accurate, defensible proposal to the commission and let the commission make an informed decision,” Feeney said. In an October interview, he said he didn’t yet know “what the water-quality status is looking like.” He added: “That’s just part of the process — we’re just getting started.”

Reclassifying the river has been a goal since the establishment nearly a dozen years ago of the Selenium Management Program, a collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

Observers have found elevated selenium levels throughout the basin, but a key river segment of focus is the main stretch of the lower Gunnison that winds for 58 miles from Delta to the confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction. This section, which begins at the confluence with the Uncompahgre River, was designated in 1994 as essential to pikeminnow and razorback survival by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A map showing the main segment of the Gunnison River, between Delta and its confluence with the Colorado River, which has been designated as essential habitat for two endangered fish species. Map via Aspen Journalism

Historically, this segment, which runs through the basin’s most populated and developed corridor, has contained selenium levels toxic to the two species of fish, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the Selenium Management Program.

During the last regulation cycle, which used data gathered from multiple different entities from 2010 to 2015, the calculated level for selenium in the mainstem of the Gunnison was 6.7 micrograms per liter, a level that is 2.1 micrograms above the state standard, according to MaryAnn Nason, the communications and special-projects unit manager at CDPHE.

Yet, the past five years of U.S. Geological Survey data show that selenium levels have stayed below 4.6 micrograms. Each yearly average was below 4.6, with the average for all five years sitting at 3.2, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.

Kanzer cautioned that the calculation using only USGS data was “not directly applicable to the CDPHE listing methodology” — because it doesn’t take into account all available data — but he said “it does tell a good story.”

To calculate the final selenium load for each segment in the Gunnison River, CDPHE is analyzing data from the past five years from the USGS; Colorado River Watch, an environmental advocacy organization; the state; and United Companies, a Grand Junction-based construction company that is required by the state to monitor selenium levels near the gravel pits that the company operates.

These are hills of exposed Mancos shale in Delta County. Selenium is a natural element found in the soil type that is common in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

Selenium’s origins and pathway to the rivers

Selenium is a natural element found in Mancos shale, a soil common throughout the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys in the Gunnison River basin. When irrigators transport water to and through their farms in open canals, selenium dissolves in the water and either percolates into groundwater or gets carried into drainage ditches that discharge into the Gunnison.

“Where we have good flows of water, (selenium) concentrations are not an issue because of dilution,” Kanzer said. “But smaller tributaries, smaller water areas or backwater areas where you don’t have good circulation, you get selenium that can accumulate in the ecosystem, really in the sediment and in the food web.”

Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker exist only in the Colorado River basin, said Travis Schmidt, a research ecologist for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. The species are able to swim between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers with the aid of a fish passage at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the lower Gunnison, accumulating selenium and transferring the element to their offspring.

Selenium gathers in fish tissues when females ingest algae or smaller fish. It then is transferred to offspring during the egg-laying process, Schmidt said.

“Selenium replaces sulfur in protein bonds, so anything that lays an egg can transfer a lot of selenium to its progeny,” he said.

Once transferred to fish eggs, the element causes neurological, reproductive and other physiological deformities in a significant proportion of both species of fish, Schmidt said. A study that analyzed fish-tissue samples collected by federal and state agencies from 1962 to 2011 found that 63% of Colorado pikeminnows and 35% of razorback suckers exceeded healthy selenium tissue concentrations in the upper Colorado River basin.

Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier kneels by gated pipes in his family’s alfalfa field. He received funding to replace an unlined canal with the pipes in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Piping unlined canals, which is one of the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, is critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Aspinall Unit

’A happy, fringe benefit of salinity control’

Selenium was first addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 in a document written for the Bureau of Reclamation. The document analyzed the effects of the Aspinall Unit — a series of three dams on the upper Gunnison River — on Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker recovery. In the document, the service concluded that in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation had to increase spring flows downstream of the Aspinall Unit and initiate a management program to reduce selenium in the Gunnison. As a result, the Selenium Management Program was founded in 2009.

“It’s a two-prong type of plan,” Kanzer said of the program’s goals.

The first objective is to meet the state standard for dissolved selenium throughout the Gunnison River basin, particularly for the 58-mile main segment, Kanzer said. The second goal is to help transition the pikeminnow and razorback sucker from endangered populations to self-sustaining populations, Kanzer said.

Program members help irrigators obtain funding from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture, said Lesley McWhirter, the environmental and planning group chief for the bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office. Individual farmers can apply for funding for on-farm irrigation projects through the Department of Agriculture, and ditch companies can apply for funding projects that deliver water to farms through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salinity Control Program.

The goal of the salinity program, which was started in 1974, is to reduce salt loading into the Colorado River basin. The program awards grants to ditch companies every two to three years. In the last grant cycle, in 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded 11 ditch companies a combined $37 million to line irrigation systems. Of the 11 companies, eight are located in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties, where the Gunnison River runs, according to McWhirter.

Mancos shale is rich in salt and selenium. So, when farmers receive funding to reduce salt loads, selenium often decreases as well. This is exemplified by a USGS analysis that found selenium loads had decreased by 43% from 1986 to 2017 and by 6,600 pounds annually from 1995 to 2017.

“The selenium control is a happy, fringe benefit of salinity control,” said Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier.

Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier stands atop a diversion structure that was built as part of a project to improve irrigation infrastructure completed between 2014 and 2019. Kehmeier served as manager for the ditch-improvement project, which was 90% funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and serves 10 Delta County farms with water diverted from Surface Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Lining and piping ditches, the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, are critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

CDPHE plans to submit proposal in January

CDPHE plans to submit its proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission in early January, Nason said.

If the main segment of the Gunnison River is found to have selenium levels below the state standard, it would mean the Selenium Management Program is closer to obtaining the dual goals of fish protection and selenium reduction, Kanzer said.

Even if the main segment of the Gunnison is reclassified, the Selenium Management Program will continue efforts to reduce selenium in the Gunnison basin, Kanzer said. These efforts include data gathering and analysis and facilitating meetings among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker depend on the entire Gunnison basin, so other segments containing toxic selenium levels require reduction efforts. If any new research shows that fish are harmed by selenium at levels lower than 4.6 micrograms per liter, the state could lower the selenium standard, reclassifying segments of the Gunnison as a danger to aquatic life, Kanzer said.

“The jury’s still out — we’re still trying to understand what levels are acceptable and not acceptable,” he said. “There’s always room for refinement of that standard, and that dialogue is ongoing.”

After the division submits its proposal to the commission, the proposal will be released to stakeholders and anyone who has applied to receive hearing notices or track Colorado’s regulations. The public can submit their own proposals or comments by emailing the commission. In May, the commission will review all proposals and comments to make a decision on the river segment’s 2020 status, Feeney said.

This story ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Aspen Times.

#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