An ongoing water case in Colorado’s Division Five water court in Glenwood Springs could impact a vital source of water for users across the Western Slope. The case developed from a dispute between the Snake River Water District in Summit County and the state’s Division 5 Engineers regarding administration of Green Mountain Reservoir’s Historic User Pool. The case could affect thousands of water users in Colorado’s portion of the Colorado River Basin, including many in the Roaring Fork Valley, who rely on releases from Green Mountain Reservoir. Snake River and the Division 5 Engineers of the Colorado Division of Water Resources disagree on whether Snake River can benefit from water in Green Mountain’s Historic User Pool. Snake River relies on water from the HUP to replace the water it removes from the Snake River system with several wells…
The HUP was created to compensate Western Slope users for water transferred out of the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range. While the HUP itself was only created in 1983, Western Slope water users have been relying on water from Green Mountain since the 1950s. The HUP, along with other allotments of water in the reservoir, were legally designated in order to ensure that Green Mountain would continue as a critical resource for the Western Slope. Snake River is one of thousands of Western Slope water users who rely on the HUP to replace water diverted from the Colorado River and its tributaries.
The Division 5 Engineers challenge Snake River’s ability to benefit from the HUP because Snake River also receives replacement water through an augmentation plan. Augmentation plans are court-approved plans that also replace water diverted by users, but they are not necessarily linked to Green Mountain, and using them is not free. Because Snake River can already replace its diversions during a call with augmentation water, the engineers say it cannot benefit from HUP coverage…Snake River sued the engineers in Colorado’s Division 5 water court in hopes of retaining its HUP benefits. If it loses its HUP coverage, Snake River claims it could cost $800,000 to rely exclusively on its augmentation plan. Snake River argues that coverage from an augmentation plan does not legally disqualify a water user from also being covered by the HUP.
A Western Slope water conservation district has released a draft of the rules it plans to use to guide a program paying water users to cut back.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Directors discussed the policy at its quarterly meeting this week. In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled details of a rebooted water conservation program, which originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water.
Along with state officials, it will be up to the River District to approve or deny applications for the restarted program within its 15-county boundary, with the aim of preventing speculation and permanent damage to the Western Slope’s agricultural communities.
“While we didn’t come up with the idea of system conservation and certainly didn’t ever endorse the idea that $125 million should be made available for this particular system conservation program, we recognize that we need to act to protect our communities and our water supply here,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the River District.
According to the River District’s criteria, an applicant must prove saving water will not injure other water users. In a given year, no more than 30% of the land owned by a single person or entity can be dried up and no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any sub-basin can be dried up.
The policy says that Front Range water providers — which in total take about 500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across the Continental Divide to growing cities and for agriculture — must also contribute their fair share of water. The River District will only approve contracts so long as there are no new transmountain diversion projects or expansion of an existing TMD project — at all.
“We are not going to ask our water users to cut back when what that means is essentially making room for new transbasin diversions,” Mueller said.
The policy also recommends that if the farm operator is not the owner of the land, that 40% of the federal payments go to the operator.
“Should all the funds go to landowners and not the farm operators, we may see families leave the area or be forced to switch professions,” Mueller said. “That’s a real potential negative of a program like this.”
The restarted System Conservation Pilot Program — which the River District is referring to as just the System Conservation Program, dropping the “pilot” since it’s no longer new — will pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water. It will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. The deadline to submit applications is Feb. 1 and the UCRC expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.
The goal of the SCP is to reduce Colorado River water use in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) to lessen the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs. The program is one arm of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydro-electric power at the dams. Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada) to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.
River District board members will provide feedback on the policy and could approve a final draft at a meeting in two weeks.
The original SCPP saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over four years. UCRC officials have repeatedly said they cannot put a number on how much water they expect to be conserved in the new iteration of the program.
The UCRC held a webinar on Wednesday [January 15, 2022] to provide additional information to applicants and walk through the review process and timeline. According to UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom, the webinar had more than 120 participants.
Cullom said the UCRC, which has just three employees, will be looking to contractors and state leaders to get the program up and running.
“In order to engage in something as regionally diverse as system conservation requires a team,” he said. “So we are engaging with a consultant who will provide technical and administrative support work as well as the leadership and work from each of the four states.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
Water managers in the Colorado River basin are gaining a better understanding that what happens in the weeks after peak snowpack — not just how much snow accumulated over the winter — can have an outsize influence on the year’s water supply.
Water year 2021 was historically bad, with an upper basin snowpack that peaked around 90% of average but translated to only 36% of average runoff into Lake Powell, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It was the second-worst runoff on record after 2002. One of the culprits was exceptionally thirsty soils from 2020’s hot and dry summer and fall, which soaked up snowmelt before runoff made it to streams. But those dry soils are only part of the story.
A new paper from the Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit science arm of the Nevada university system, found that heat waves in April 2021 drove record snowmelt rates at about 25% of snow-telemetry (SNOTEL) sites looked at across the West. SNOTEL is a network of remote sensing stations throughout the West’s mountainous watersheds that collect weather and snowpack information.
A heat wave that was concentrated over the Rocky Mountains on April 1-7 contributed to record snowmelt at 74 stations, including areas that feed the Colorado River.
A few different agencies release monthly water-supply forecasts for April through July, including the National Resource Conservation Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. The April forecast is the first prediction of how streamflows will shape up for the year.
But according to the paper, in 2021, “rates of snowmelt throughout April were alarming and quickly worsened summer runoff outlooks which underscores that 1 April may no longer be a reliable benchmark for western water supply.”
The paper did not quantify what exactly the record melt speed meant for water supply, but paper author and associate research professor of climatology Dan McEvoy said it definitely contributed to the poor inflow into the nation’s second-largest reservoir in 2021. It also shows there are many more factors relevant to predicting the water supply than just how much water is in the snowpack, a metric known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is measured by SNOTEL sites.
“There was a combination of things that was contributing to this really low runoff in places like the Colorado River basin,” McEvoy said.
Some of these other factors include very little April precipitation and warm nighttime temperatures, which didn’t allow the snowpack to get into the daily freeze-thaw cycle that’s common in the spring. Persistent high pressure kept skies clear and sunny, which meant that more of the snowpack sublimated, evaporating instead of turning into liquid.
“When it’s sunnier and warmer, you can lose some of that water directly to the atmosphere,” McEvoy said. “It doesn’t even get to melt and go into the runoff.”
These rapid melting events could also help set up prime conditions for wildfires, he said, something he wants to continue studying.
“When you have the snow disappear earlier there’s more time with the ground exposed, which contributes to drying out the vegetation in the spring and summer and an earlier onset to wildfire season,” McEvoy said.
After peak snowpack
Climatologists at Colorado State University are working on a similar study that looks at how factors such as precipitation after peak snowpack affect spring runoff. Their findings underscore how important the conditions of the six to eight weeks after peak snowpack are for predicting streamflows.
“One of the things we found that was crystal clear from the study was that one of the major sources of water-supply forecast error is what happens after peak snowpack,” said Peter Bennett Goble, a climatologist at CSU who is working on the study. “Just knowing how much uncertainty is still out there on April 1 or even April 15 probably allows water managers to be a little more cautious, maybe hold a little bit more back, especially if it looks like it’s going to be an early runoff.”
Predicting whether reservoirs will fill — and therefore how much water to release to make room for the inflow — can be tricky. Some municipal water providers use the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement Program — with its lidar-equipped planes — to more accurately measure snowpack. For example, Denver Water has used CASM to see how much snow is in the headwaters of the Blue River basin, which feeds Dillon Reservoir, its largest storage bucket.
But aside from this technology, which is expensive and not yet available everywhere, water managers rely heavily on data from the SNOTEL sites to make streamflow forecasts. This method has limitations, providing just a snapshot of conditions at one location.
These limitations can be seen in recent years’ forecasts for Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Initial forecasts in April 2021 projected Ruedi could probably fill to its entire 102,373-acre-foot capacity, but the reservoir ended up only about 80% full that year. In 2020, each of the three main forecasting agencies also overpredicted Ruedi inflow for the months of April, May and June. (An acre-foot covers 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot.)
Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who manages operations at Ruedi, said his models predicted a 2021 Ruedi inflow of 111,000 acre-feet, but only 77,000 acre-feet actually flowed in. That the models are based on historical SNOTEL data from past decades is a drawback as climate change progresses, but it’s the best we have, Miller said.
“It makes the assumption that what we have seen in the past is what we will see in the future, which is a really poor assumption when you’re in the middle of a change in the climate,” Miller said. “We will probably see events like we haven’t seen in the future and we are using what we’ve seen to predict them.”
Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, said people often look for a single explanation when streamflows don’t match predictions. The River District owns and operates Wolford Mountain Reservoir, near Kremmling, and stores water in Ruedi Reservoir. But there is often a whole host of compounding factors that water managers will have to begin weighing more heavily as the climate warms.
“It’s not just about soil moisture, it’s not just about solar radiation, it’s not just about temperatures, it’s not just about the winds — it’s everything,” Kanzer said. “In some cases, like 2021, you get what some people like to call the perfect storm.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
Upper Colorado River basin officials seemed to inch closer to implementing a demand management program, the heart of which involves paying agricultural water users to use less, at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference this week.
At the annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas — which sold out for the first time ever with over 1,300 attendees — the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) released more details of a rebooted “system conservation pilot program” (SCPP). It originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water.
The restarted program comes with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, with the goal of reducing Colorado River use and mitigating the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs.
A request for proposals released Wednesday set a price of $150 per acre foot of conservation. But applicants could be paid more if they can justify a higher price for their conservation project. The UCRC expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.
The UCRC has also been studying the feasibility of a demand management program, which would also pay water users on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water.
Discussion of the two water conservation programs comes at a moment when the nation’s two biggest reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, are at historically low levels. Their combined storage is at just 26% of capacity, according to numbers provided Thursday by Bureau of Reclamation officials.
The annual gathering has traditionally included finger-pointing among different water use sectors, but federal appointee and chair of the UCRC Anne Castle cast the real villain as climate change in her opening remarks at Wednesday’s board meeting.
“The real enemy here is not the other basin, it’s not another state, it’s not alfalfa, it’s not golf courses,” she said. “The common cause we have to address is climate-change-induced lower flows and that’s what we have to work on together.”
SCPP versus demand management
Conceptually, the SCPP and demand management are the same: paying water users — mostly agricultural water users who are the biggest water users in the basin by far — to cut back.
The major difference between the two is that water saved from a demand management program would be legally set aside in a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell to protect the upper basin against a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
As climate change continues to rob the Colorado River basin of streamflows, the threat of a compact call becomes increasingly likely. The framework for a demand management program was set out in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.
Any water conserved through the SCPP would simply flow downstream, becoming “system” water to be picked up by water users in the lower basin.
“If we are going to do it, I would much rather see it done in a demand management program where we can save the water, bank the water in our storage account in Blue Mesa, Lake Powell, Navajo and Flaming Gorge,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller. “It’s much more in our interest in western Colorado that we keep that water to protect our interests and obligations under the compact.”
Officials said on Thursday that the SCPP program could eventually be rolled into a demand management program.
“We believe (the SCPP) can easily be transitioned into demand management as we learn about that,” Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and commissioner to the UCRC, said in a Thursday CRWUA conference panel. “There are steps being taken to move toward (demand management), one of which is the SCPP.”
The state of Colorado conducted an in-depth study of demand management feasibility, convening nine workgroups to investigate different aspects of a potential program like impacts to the environment and agriculture and how to monitor and verify water savings. Earlier this year the CWCB placed it on the back burner to focus on a “drought resiliency toolkit” while officials waited for the report from the UCRC’s interstate demand management feasibility investigation, which was released Wednesday.
A summary of the 63-page report says that next steps will include a committee drafting a program concept to present at the June 2023 UCRC regular meeting. Commissioners could consider approval of a demand management program at this June meeting.
“I think if a demand management program is approved, then we will definitely use the lessons learned from the pilot program,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and commissioner to the UCRC. “The difference from this pilot program versus the last one is the funding. We’ve never had this kind of funding before.”
The original SCPP saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water in the upper basin at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.
River District involvement
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers 15 counties on the Western Slope, will play a key role in approval of projects enrolled in the renewed SCPP. Both the CWCB and River District will have to sign off on projects within the district’s boundaries. Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District will also be involved in the approval of projects in its district, according to general manager Steve Wolff.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller has long said that a demand management program could pose risks to Western Slope communities and should have sideboards to mitigate any negative impacts. Mueller said he did not yet know what exactly the River District project approval process would look like.
Along with the state of Colorado, the River District has been a leader in looking into a demand management program. The district developed its own conceptual framework for a program and was one of several entities that commissioned a study on the potential secondary economic impacts of a program. It showed a small number of jobs would be lost if some water users were paid to fallow fields.
Upper basin officials say they will scrutinize project proposals for evidence of those trying to unfairly profit from the sale of water. Third-party agents will be a red flag, UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said.
“One of the clues to speculation is compensation to a third party to help you,” Cullom said. “The other thing is the compensation relative to the activity. So if you have a corn operation and you’re asking $1,000 an acre-foot, that seems like that’s out of sync with a reasonable return on your typical corn crop.”
But preventing speculation may be easier said than done. The state of Colorado convened a workgroup to explore how to do that, but the group did not come up with any recommendations because members couldn’t reach consensus. State lawmakers also gave up on an effort to enact anti-speculation legislation after it was met with resistance from agricultural water users. An amendment to the draft legislation floated by the River District also failed to gain traction.
Upper basin officials have consistently pushed back on questions of how much water can be saved through conservation programs, saying there are too many uncertainties to offer a number or make guarantees. Mitchell said she would rather under-promise and over-deliver.
“It’s hard to predict what we can do next year, because the predictions have consistently failed,” Mitchell said. “We have planned on a river that is not there so for us to make a commitment… is not a gamble I would take.”
From email from the Colorado Water Trust (Kate Ryan, Rick Lofaro, Brendon Langenhuizen, and Rob Viehl):
Colorado Water Trust and Roaring Fork Conservancy have teamed up with the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Colorado River District) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to purchase and release water from Ruedi Reservoir to mitigate the impacts of anchor ice on the Fryingpan River. On Friday, December 16, the first release of water from Ruedi Reservoir will begin. The project aims to release 1.26 billion gallons of water (or 3,866 acre-feet) between December 16, 2022, and March 1, 2023, to the Fryingpan River, maintaining flows around 65 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) in order to diminish ice buildup.
Anchor ice is a natural occurrence, but can have serious consequences on the hydrology of the river and the health of the ecosystem within. When there are low flows in the river during the cold winter months, large amounts of anchor ice can form on the bottom of the river, negatively impacting fish and macroinvertebrate function and diversity. Maintaining minimum winter flows between 60 to 70 cfs increases ecological resilience in the river through mitigating the formation of the anchor ice, and improving recovery from previous anchor ice impacts.
The partners will monitor the flow levels in the Fryingpan River, water temperature, air temperature, and anchor ice presence, from December through March. Anchor ice survey results will be compared to previous two years to continue to observe trends and build a long- term data set. “Roaring Fork Conservancy’s unique anchor ice monitoring program will allow us to objectively document anchor ice over time. This allows us to continue to promote management of Ruedi Reservoir with local benefits in mind” says Rick Lofaro, Executive Director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.
At this morning’s [December 14, 2022] Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) meeting held in concert with the Colorado River Water User’s Association (CRWUA) Conference, the Commission formally released a Request for Proposal re-initiating a System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) beginning spring 2023. The Program aims to reduce consumptive use through temporary, voluntary, and compensated measures across the Upper Division States and allocates up to $125 million for the re-initiation with the potential to increase in scale. This action implements the first element of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan released in July 2022.
Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller responded that a program of this scale and speed poses as much risk and opportunity as a Demand Management program, therefore it is critical how the program is implemented.
“It is vital to the health of our communities and our agricultural industry that the River District have a decision-making role in this program, consistent with past implementation of a previously-authorized System Conservation Pilot Program, and we want to thank Commissioner Mitchell for her commitment to recognize the River District’s role in that effort,” Mueller said.
Commissioner Mitchell provided a written commitment stating that “in the event the source of the water and the place of beneficial use of a prospective applicant’s SCPP project is located within the boundaries of the District, enrollment in the SCPP will be subject to approval of the application by both the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the District.”
In Commissioner Mitchell’s own release today, she stated, “We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”
A study of a water replacement plan on the Crystal River is looking at nature-based solutions, but experts say some type of storage will also probably need to be built to solve shortages in dry years.
Wendy Ryan, an engineer with Colorado River Engineering who is heading up an analysis of a basin-wide backup water-supply plan, gave a progress update at the Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting this week. The study was funded largely by a state grant and undertaken by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District.
“We have a couple landowners near Marble we are working with to see if we can put storage supplies on their properties,” Ryan said in response to a question asking her what solutions she had found. “We don’t have any shovel-ready projects. We did a lot of work upfront, and now it’s simply trying to find what we can build.”
During the hot, dry summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which pulls water from the Crystal River and irrigates hayfields south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time. That means the Ella Ditch wasn’t getting the full amount to which it is entitled and upstream junior water users had to stop taking water so that the Ella could get its full amount.
The Ella Ditch has water rights that date to 1902, and any water rights younger than that — including those held by the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company and several residential subdivisions along the Crystal River — were technically supposed to be shut off under a strict administration of the river by the state Division of Water Resources. Under Colorado’s system of water law known as prior appropriation, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
Most junior water rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which allows them to continue using water during a call by releasing water from a backup source, such as a nearby reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several of these residential subdivisions don’t have an augmentation plan.
Engineers from Division 5 of the Colorado Division of Water Resources have said that if water users work together to find solutions and come up with an augmentation plan, they won’t shut off indoor residential water use if the call happens again. Outdoor watering could still be shut off.
The first phase of the study, which River District representatives presented to Pitkin County commissioners in June 2021, was a demand quantification, which put numbers on the amount of water needed at different times of year.
Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These structures deliver water to 197 homes; 80 service connections in Marble; about 23 irrigated acres; Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble; 16,925 square-feet of commercial space; and livestock.
In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet in the Crystal River per year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can typically meet the annual needs of one or two families.) The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.
Wild & Scenic jeopardized?
Ryan and staff from the River District have said they are not considering storage on the mainstem of the Crystal River, which could jeopardize a federal Wild & Scenic designation, a long-sought-after goal of Pitkin County, local environmental groups and some residents. A Wild & Scenic standing would mean no dams or out-of-basin diversions.
“We were never going to consider any mainstem storage on the Crystal River,” Ryan said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that potential designation on the Crystal, and what we are looking at shouldn’t.”
But Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said it’s hard to see how upstream storage and a Wild & Scenic designation won’t conflict.
“It troubles me to hear the engineers say it’s hard to envision a solution that doesn’t involve storage,” she said. “So that’s just a red flag. It’s always been a red flag for Pitkin County.”
McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted in 2019 against funding the study unless storage was off the table.
A parallel study, undertaken by the River District and environmental-and-recreation advocacy group American Rivers, is looking at nature-based solutions. The idea is that by keeping water on the landscape higher in the basin, it could recharge aquifers and boost river flows in late summer.
“We have been analyzing whether the reconnection of floodplains can assist with aquifer recharge and natural water storage while also improving the resilience of watersheds and potentially contributing to later-season flows,” said Fay Hartman, American Rivers conservation director for the Southwest region.
According to Zane Kessler, the River District’s director of government relations, there are four potential areas for nature-based projects: the Coal Basin area; Avalanche Creek upstream of its confluence with the Crystal; the Janeway area, downstream of the confluence of Avalanche Creek and the Crystal; and the confluence of Thompson Creek and the Crystal. But none of the sites are perfect, Kessler said.
“The River District and American Rivers are partners in this effort investigating whether turning back the clock on past alterations that have degraded the Crystal River can help recapture some of the climate resilience we have lost,” he said. “Improving the storage in floodplains and wetlands I think we see as an innovative and lower-impact approach to meeting late-season water needs than dams or storage in the headwaters.”
Findings and recommendations from the nature-based solutions analysis are expected by the end of the month. But Ryan said some kind of storage is still needed because nature-based solutions will still not be enough to meet the supply-demand gap in dry years, according to her analysis.
“It might meet a portion of our demands, but it’s not going to meet all our demands,” she said.
Project 7 Water Authority scored another grant to help it add critical infrastructure. The Colorado River District’s Accelerator Grant program awarded Project 7 $46,600, to be used in developing a competitive federal funding application.
Project 7 provides drinking water for about 60,000 people in the Uncompahgre River Valley and is in the process of developing a backup treatment facility to deliver treated water from Ridgway Reservoir. Currently, Montrose, Delta and Ouray counties’ drinking water comes from a single treatment plant, using water from Blue Mesa Reservoir that is delivered via the Gunnison Tunnel.
The Colorado River District funding will help pay for a feasibility study and a grant application to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for funding to treat hard water with high levels of minerals in Ridgway Reservoir. This study and application will include the results of a pilot project that tested out different means of softening and filtration so that when the backup plant is built, the water it treats will be of the same quality as the current treatment plant. Once the study is accepted by BuRec, Project 7’s Regional Water Supply & Resiliency Program is eligible to apply for federal funding through the bureau’s Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse grant opportunity. Earlier this year, Project 7 secured $612,059 from BuRec’s Desalination and Water Purification Research Program, which paid for the pilot project (with a funding match from Project 7).
The push for a second treatment facility is on, because the current, single source puts the region’s drinking water supply at greater risks from wildfire, drought and infrastructure failure. Having a second treatment plant will provide another source of drinking water (from Ridgway Reservoir) and provide a backup option in the event of infrastructure failure at the current plant.
In early November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought by the Navajo Nation that could have far-reaching impacts on tribal water rights in the Colorado River Basin. In its suit, the Navajo Nation argues that the Department of Interior has a responsibility, grounded in treaty law, to protect future access to water from the Colorado River. Several states and water districts have filed petitions opposing the tribe, stating that the river is “already fully allocated.”
The case highlights a growing tension in the region: As water levels fall and states face cuts amid a two-decade-long megadrought, tribes are working to ensure their water rights are fully recognized and accessible.
On average, 15 million acre-feet of water used to flow through the Colorado River every year. For scale, one acre-foot of water could supply one to three households annually. A century ago, states reached an agreement to divide that water among themselves. But in recent decades, the river has supplied closer to 12 million acre-feet. Scientists say water managers in the basin need to plan for closer to 9 million acre-feet per year, a 40 percent decrease in a water source that supports 40 million people, due to climate change and aridification.
No states have made plans to accommodate this drop. Meanwhile, tribal nations are legally entitled to between 3.2 and 3.8 million acre-feet of ground and surface water from the Colorado River system.
There are 30 federally recognized tribes in the river’s basin, and 12 of them, including Navajo Nation, still have at least some “unresolved” rights, meaning the extent of their rightful claims to water have yet to be agreed upon.
Ultimately, Indigenous nations in the Colorado River Basin could be serious power brokers in crucial water negotiations to come — but they face historical, legal and practical obstacles. The Navajo Nation, for example, has rights to almost 700,000 acre-feet of water annually across New Mexico and Utah, along with unresolved claims in Arizona. But, because of a lack of infrastructure, up to 40 percent of Navajo households don’t have running water. For the Navajo Nation and other tribes with allocations in the basin, building and improving infrastructure means providing citizens with access to a fundamental human right: water.
But tribal water use is taken out of state allocations, meaning the more water tribes use, the less states have. It also means that states have less incentive to work with tribal leaders or recognize pending water rights claims. This conflict is not new. It has been built into a century of policies that have excluded and divested from Indigenous nations. Read Next
Tribes often hold senior water rights, meaning their allocations are the last to be cut in a shortage, and states in the basin are beginning to reckon with this fact. A fundamental shift in how the river is governed — to a system that acknowledges tribes’ sovereignty and gives them greater say — will be key to sustainably and equitably distributing water in the years to come.
Tribes “need to be included in every one of those conversations and considered just like a state or the federal government,” Southern Ute Tribal Council Member Lorelei Cloud said at the annual Colorado River District Seminar in September. “You cannot discount us.”
One barrier to equitable distribution is a glaring information gap: There is no definitive source of data on water usage among tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Historically, federal surveys have ignored tribal water use, and though tribal-led studies have begun to fill these gaps, the lack of data makes planning for a future river with shrinking flows impossible.
“If you know how much water everyone has or is allocated, then you can come up with a comprehensive solution — not just management of the river but responses to climate change,” Heather Tanana (Diné), a professor of law at the University of Utah, said in an interview.
In Arizona, for example, nearly 70 percent of the state’s water allocation belongs to tribes, and nearly all the tribal nations with unresolved water rights in the basin have at least some territory in the state. According to a joint study by tribal nations and the federal government, 10 tribes in the basin, which hold the bulk of the recognized tribal water rights, are diverting just over half of what they’re entitled to — most of which is used for agriculture. It’s unclear what water availability would look like if these tribes had basic infrastructure to get water to their citizens, or if all tribes with unresolved rights settled their cases.
“My experience of negotiating water rights settlements in Arizona is that the state of Arizona very much approaches them as a zero-sum game,” said Jay Weiner, water counsel for the Quechan Indian Tribe and the Tonto Apache Tribe, which has been in settlement negotiations since at least 2014. That combative approach, he said, has persisted regardless of governor or political party. “It is something that seems to be deeply embedded in the fabric of Arizona and how it approaches Indian water rights settlements.”
In February, the federal government announced $1.7 billion for tribes to use for water settlements. That means more tribal citizens and communities could have access to water. It also means that states will have to work with tribes to plan for the future and adapt to climate change. Read Next
In some places, tribes and communities have already been moving in that direction, working together to find place-based solutions that use the resources and infrastructure at hand. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the city of Tucson, Arizona, have an intergovernmental agreement for Tucson to store and deliver potable water for the tribe, which doesn’t have the infrastructure to do so on its own. Such partnerships will only become more essential as drought and aridification continue to stress the region.
“If folks work together and partner together, the opportunity to solve the problem, I think, is enhanced,” said Robyn Interpreter, an attorney who represents the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Yavapai-Apache Nation in their water rights claims.
The federal Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which is building $123 million in infrastructure, is another promising example. The goal of the project is to construct water plants and a system of pipes and pumps that will deliver water to the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the city of Gallup, New Mexico. Crystal Tulley-Cordova, a principal hydrologist for the water management branch of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, said in an interview there is a new willingness to collaborate, owing to both the severity of the situation and non-tribal water users’ realization that they must work with tribes. “Now there’s a greater desire to be able to work together. So I’m encouraged by that,” she said.
Meanwhile, tribal nations are also making progress in securing their access to water. In May, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act was finalized, granting the Navajo Nation 81,500 acre-feet of water in Utah and authorized $220 million in federal funds for water infrastructure projects. “Our families celebrate this moment in history after decades of fighting for the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Charlaine Tso said in a statement at the time. “It is clear drought conditions are affecting water levels across the country. Many of our elders haul drinking water from miles away while we work to get proper water infrastructure projects completed. This settlement allows us to begin connecting our water lines to the most rural areas.”
However, tribes still have no direct means of governance over the river, and, as seen in the Navajo water rights case headed to the Supreme Court, states continue to fight tribal communities seeking access to water.
Last fall, more than 20 tribes signed a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in which they pressed for direct, sustained involvement in re-negotiating the guidelines that manage the river, which are set to expire in 2026. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, last March, Haaland and Bureau of Reclamation leadership met with tribal leaders and “committed to transparency and inclusivity for the Tribes when work begins on the post-2026 operational rules,” according to a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior.
“It’s the job of political imagination to see what’s possible,” Andrew Curley (Diné), an assistant professor of geography at University of Arizona, said in an interview. “That’s something that we collectively, not just Native nations but led by Native nations, can start to articulate. What is a different vision of the river than what has been put into law and these congressional acts and Supreme Court decisions over the years?”
Staff and board members from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, along with other water managers from across western Colorado, this month visited the lower basin states — Nevada, Arizona and California — on what they called a fact-finding trip.
The tour took participants by bus from Las Vegas though the green alfalfa fields of the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation, past the big diversions serving the Central Arizona Project and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and to the hot, below-sea-level agricultural expanse of the biggest water user on the river: the Imperial Irrigation District. Among the about 50 participants on the three-day tour were Kathy Chandler-Henry and Steve Beckley, River District board representatives from Eagle and Garfield counties. Pitkin County representative John Ely did not attend.
The River District’s mission is to protect, conserve, use and develop the waters within its 15-county area of western Colorado and to safeguard the water to which the state is entitled.
With the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which store Colorado River water — at record-low levels that threaten hydropower production, and calls for conservation coming from the federal government, it’s more important than ever for western Colorado residents to understand how water is used in the lower basin, said River District general manager Andy Mueller.
“We have to be able to understand (lower basin) interests and their needs so that we can find ways to meet their interests while protecting our own,” he said. “There’s a system at risk of collapse, and we are an integral part of that.”
One in 17 people
An often-repeated fact about the Colorado River is that it provides water to 40 million people in the Southwest. But perhaps an even more salient statistic is that 1 in 17 people in the U.S. — about 19 million — get their water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. About half of that comes from the Colorado River.
Since 1941, MWD’s Whitsett Pumping Plant has taken water from Lake Havasu and pumped it into the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it then travels 242 miles to urban Southern California. The water district spans 26 municipalities and six counties.
The future of providing enough water to all these urban customers may be something called direct potable reuse — MWD calls it raw-water augmentation — which would allow them to recycle wastewater into drinking water instead of discharging it into the ocean. MWD is testing this concept with its Pure Water Southern California demonstration facility, located in Carson, Calif., which was the last stop on the tour.
Direct potable reuse takes sewage, treats it using sophisticated — and expensive — filtering and disinfection techniques and returns it to taps as drinking water without first diluting it in a larger body of water. Last month, Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission gave preliminary approval to regulate direct potable reuse.
MWD is working toward using the recycled water for industrial purposes and groundwater recharge, and it eventually hopes to deliver it to residents’ taps. The water provider could have a preliminary portion of the project online by 2028. This new supply of recycled water could meet about 10% of MWD’s demands, according to Rupam Soni, MWD’s community-relations team manager.
“It provides us with so much operational flexibility and water reliability because this supply is available to us rain or shine, it’s climate resilient, and that’s really important to us right now, with climate change and the challenges it’s imposed on our imported supplies,” Soni said.
Forage crops are No. 1
Although it’s true that much of the country’s winter produce, especially lettuce, comes from lower basin farmers, the No. 1 thing grown with Colorado River water is forage crops: alfalfa and different types of grasses to feed livestock.
The Imperial Irrigation District uses 3.1 million acre-feet a year of Colorado River water. By comparison, the entire upper basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) uses between 3.5 and 4.5 million acre-feet per year from the Colorado River. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot and is enough to supply one or two families for a year.
IID’s No. 1 crop is alfalfa and represents almost 31% of the acres grown. Bermuda grass and Sudan grass are second and third, respectively. These top three crops account for about 56% of the acres grown in IID.
Forage crops comprise the majority of what is grown in the upper basin, too. But growers in Colorado’s high-elevation valleys can expect about two cuttings a year, while much of the lower basin grows hay year-round, getting seven to nine cuttings. That means switching to less-thirsty forage crops in the lower basin could have a greater impact on the amount of water used.
In Colorado, some irrigators are experimenting with growing forage crops that use less water in an effort to adapt to a hotter, drier future.
Kremmling rancher Paul Bruchez, a representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is trying out test plots on his family’s ranch. He’s growing sainfoin, a legume with a nutritional value similar to that of alfalfa. Bruchez, a participant on the tour, said some lower basin water managers and growers have expressed interest in meeting with him to learn more about growing less-thirsty crops.
Bruchez stressed that switching forage crops in the upper basin is not about propping up Powell and Mead with water saved from agriculture, especially since there isn’t currently a demand-management program in place to account for that water savings. It’s about survival.
“People just don’t have enough water to irrigate the way they used to irrigate,” he said. “They are just trying to make a living and stretch their water to go further.”
Upper basin bears brunt of climate-change impacts on streamflows
Over the past two decades, the Colorado River has lost nearly 20% of its flows. Part of that is because of the ongoing drought, the worst in 1,200 years, which means less precipitation. But according to researchers, about one-third of that loss can be attributed to hotter temperatures driven by climate change. Decreased river flows mean that less water ends up in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
These reduced streamflows in the upper basin mean water users may have to adapt their operations because less water is available to them. If there’s less water in the stream, junior users may get cut off and senior users may not be able to take their full amount. Streamflows can be particularly inadequate during the late-summer and early-fall irrigation season and some water users are at the mercy of dry local conditions.
Upper basin water managers like to point out that this isn’t the case in the lower basin. Although western Colorado has thousands of small-scale water users diverting from dwindling rivers, the lower basin has just a handful of large-scale water users who have the benefit of two huge upstream storage buckets that release the water exactly when it’s needed.
“Our farmers in particular live within that hydrology in flux and we have learned how to adapt to climate change,” Mueller said. “In the lower basin, their agriculture and outdoor landscaping are absorbing more water because of the hotter temperatures, so they just call for more from the reservoirs.”
Evaporation loss not accounted for in lower basin
The thing about building giant reservoirs in the desert is that a portion of the water evaporates into the hot, dry air. In the upper basin, these evaporative losses from the reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project are accounted for and charged as part of the consumptive use to each state depending on their allocation of water.
For example, as laid out in the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact, Colorado’s allocation of upper basin water is 51.75%. Therefore, the state takes 51.75% of the evaporative losses for Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell. Such is not the case in the lower basin, where evaporative losses in reservoirs remain unaccounted for.
Upper basin water managers have long said this accounting is unfair and enables overuse in the lower basin.
“We are asking for (the lower basin) to be treated the same way we are so the system and the playing field is even,” Mueller said. “Once we are on an even playing table, then we can address the way we work in the future, but it’s really hard to do that when the rules they play by down here enable so much more water use than what we have in the upper basin.”
The upper basin may finally be making progress on this point, for at least one lower basin water provider has taken up the rallying cry. In an August letter to federal officials, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s John Entsminger recommended that each lower basin contractor be charged for evaporation losses so that “the lower basin can reduce its reliance upon excess water from the upper basin to balance reservoirs.”
A subsequent study by SNWA found about 1.5 million acre-feet in evaporation and transit losses each year downstream of Lee Ferry, the dividing line between the upper and lower basins that is just downstream of Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“We divorced the water use in the lower basin from the hydrology,” Mueller said. “When you have 50 years of reliable water supply, you don’t think about the fragility of the natural system that’s providing that water.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
What we need now is your help; I invite you to join us for the West Slope Water Summit on Nov. 10 at the Montrose County Event Center. Even though we are a small community on the western slope, arming our community members with knowledge, encouraging conservation, and researching potential solutions is a role that we all play in the Colorado River system. In its fourth year, the West Slope Water Summit’s theme is “troubled waters” featuring an impressive number of prominent water and conservation experts.
The program begins with Andy Mueller, Executive Director of the Colorado River District, who will address adapting the 1922 Compact to today’s reality. Next, Don Day, Meteorologist Day Weather Inc., is presenting on the State of the Weather: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Before the free lunch, our local Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association Manager Steve Pope will provide an update to the Colorado River Basin Drought Response as part of a panel of water user board members.
Spots are still available — we recently moved from the conference room to the arena to accommodate a larger crowd. Register at westslopewatersummit.com
During the Fourth Quarterly General and Enterprise Meeting of 2022, the Board of Directors approved $195,293 for four new Community Funding Partnership projects. In less than two years of operation, the Community Funding Partnership has supported over 60 projects and awarded over $5.6 million to benefit West Slope water, according to Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships.
Two of the most recent board-approved projects represent critical steps forward in accurately forecasting water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.
The Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) Snow Mapping in the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Watersheds, and the Roaring Fork Basin – Evaluation of Soil Moisture for Water Planning will increase the precision, reliability, and understanding of snowpack and soil moisture measurements, respectively.
According to the project summary provided by the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) in its application, “In the Colorado River Headwaters Basin in 2021, a March snowpack of around 91% of average translated into only 54% of average streamflow by end of June (data from NRCS), contributing to severe deficits in the water supply and creating challenges for water managers.”
Devices such as SNOTel (snow telemetry) sites have been used for decades to measure snowpack levels. The data gathered from SNOTEL sites combined with 30-year climate averages predict how much water will likely end up in the river after the snow melts. While the sites accurately reflect snow conditions in a localized area, they are limited in scope and struggle to account for variability between drainages within the same river basin. Soil moisture measurement stations are even more sporadic across the River District’s fifteen counties. The data and analyses gathered by ASO and AGCI will create a more comprehensive picture of the overall health of the snowpack and its transition to streamflow by leveraging new technology and real time measurements.
A large part mission of the Colorado River District is to ensure that policymakers and water managers have accurate and up-to-date data and modeling. Over 65% of the Colorado River’s natural flow originates within the District’s fifteen counties making decision-support tools a critical need for water managers across the West.
Airborne Snow Observatory Snow Mapping in the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Watersheds – Water Year 2023
Project Applicant: Airborne Snow Observatory, Inc. Approved Amount: $75,000 Location: Eagle, Pitkin Counties
Initially a program within NASA, Airborne Snow Observatory, Inc. (ASO) is a Colorado Public Benefit Corporation that combines state-of-the-art remote sensing tools with snowpack modeling and fast data processing to deliver snow measurements of high accuracy, high resolution, and full-watershed coverage. The proposed project will support ASO snow mapping flights during winter/spring 2023 in the Upper Fryingpan and Roaring Fork watersheds. This project will provide an unparalleled inventory of the mountain snowpack that supplies the majority of runoff in the Roaring Fork River system.
Roaring Fork Basin – Evaluation of Soil Moisture for Water Planning
Project Applicant: Aspen Global Change Institute Approved Amount: $60,293 Location: Garfield, Pitkin Counties
The Aspen Global Change Institute manages the Roaring Fork Observation Network (also known as iRON) to collect and share data on soil moisture, climate, and ecology in the Colorado River headwaters basin. The iRON program centers around data collected by ten stations at different elevations and ecosystem types across the Roaring Fork Watershed. This project responds to a community need to better understand how soil moisture data can be effectively leveraged to better understand the relationship between snowpack, soil moisture, and streamflow in Western Colorado and beyond.
GVIC ML 260 Lateral Piping Project
Project Applicant: Grand Valley Irrigation Company Approved Amount: $40,000 Location: Mesa County
The Grand Valley Irrigation Company owns and operates the ML 260 lateral, which includes a 3,540-foot stretch that remains an open, trapezoidal ditch comprised of aging concrete. The project will pipe the remaining portion of the lateral resulting in a completely enclosed system. Piping will greatly reduce maintenance, such as monthly silt and root removal and concrete work to patch the ditch, while improving flows by eliminating silt deposition. Additionally, piping will prevent approximately 153 tons of salt from entering the Colorado River and reduce seepage losses that are currently estimated at 45 AF per year.
Increased pressure on the Fryingpan River due to growing population, recreation, and climate change has led to the need for strategic management of Ruedi Reservoir to ensure long-term ecological health and viability of the fishery. Maintaining minimum winter flows at 60-70 cfs increases ecological resiliency through mitigating the formation of anchor ice, which can negatively impact macroinvertebrate community function and diversity. Roaring Fork Conservancy, along with Colorado Water Trust, will partner with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and local entities to fund the release of 25 cfs from Ruedi Reservoir to supplement winter flows on the Fryingpan River. The Fryingpan River, a Gold Medal Stream, hosts thousands of anglers a year. Based on a 2015 Economic Impact study, the river accounts for over $3 million in economic output.
Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for western Colorado’s Colorado River District, told the district’s board at its recent meeting that the recently concluded water year was an average one overall, but was punctuated by dry and wet months, with monsoonal moisture in July and August helping the state to get through a difficult year.
“But it didn’t take care of our water supply issues, which are still very dire,” he said.
The immediate future doesn’t look all that promising either, heading into what is expected to be a third winter in a row of La Niña climate conditions, something Kanzer called a “triple-dip.”
La Niñas are associated with cooler surface water conditions in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. They tend to bring less winter moisture to the Southwest and more in the Northwest.
While there’s a lot of uncertainty about what to expect in the case of a rare “triple-dip” La Niña, federal Climate Prediction Center forecasts point to above-average odds of southern Colorado being in for below-normal precipitation through January, and odds leaning toward below-normal moisture for all of the state but northwestern Colorado between February and April. It’s looking like temperatures may be above normal in the state this fall and winter, too…According to a Natural Resources Conservation Service presentation prepared in September for the state Water Availability Task Force, the state’s precipitation was much improved thanks to the summer rains, but “the bulk of streamflow annual volume comes from seasonal mountain snowmelt, which was poor this year. Improvements from the monsoon this year (were) still only a smaller few drops in the bucket when considered as a total of the entire water year budget.”
The general manager of the West Slope’s Colorado River District says proposed cuts by California entities in river water use are much less than is needed from that state, and their implication that other states need to step up with similar reductions fails to account for uncompensated, naturally occurring cuts that already impact users in the river’s Upper Basin…He was reacting to an Oct. 5 letter by officials with California water entities using Colorado River water, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Imperial Irrigation District, proposing to conserve up to an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead annually from 2023-36…
Mueller said in his memo, “California continues to take the position that it will do so only on a voluntary, temporary, compensated basis and that their participation is contingent upon the federal government paying their water users an acceptable level of compensation and the implementation of additional conservation measures from the other Basin States (including Colorado)…
Mueller and some other Colorado and Upper Basin water officials contend that while Lower Basin water users have been able to rely on water storage in Mead and Powell, Upper Basin water users are subject to varying hydrology that in some years results in users coping with cuts in use. In some years, such as 2014, water users in Colorado reduced consumption by a million acre-feet, or about 28%, Mueller says…
He says the California entities also don’t want the Bureau of Reclamation to start accounting for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Reclamation has committed to address that, but Mueller thinks it is afraid to do so out of fear of litigation from Lower Basin states. At a recent river district water seminar in Grand Junction, he contended that while everyone in the basin needs to come up with solutions for reducing usage, the evaporation/transit losses must be addressed first.
As the first installment of the Summit County government’s new County 101 series, community members gathered to hear from local water leaders about the state of the Colorado River drought and how it affects local headwaters. Representatives from the Colorado District, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Blue River Watershed Group and High Country Conservation Center gave presentations about local waters and how community members can understand recent reporting about drought across the river basin…
On Oct. 12, the Biden administration designated at least $500 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to go toward the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes Colorado, for “investments in conservation and long-term system efficiency,” according to a release from the White House.
“(Drought and climate change are) something here in the headwaters we live with — our hydrology. We see it happening. We see less snow. We see the dry soils that are absorbing what runoff we do have,” said Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District. “For every 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature, stream flow is reduced between 3% to 9%, with most studies actually leaning toward that 9%.”
Like other parts of the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Blue River has faced changes in the past decade as a result of climate. This includes less snowpack for spring runoff, drier soils and warmer summer temperatures.
“It’s my belief that these bigger-picture issues that are brought up and that we’re all facing, they’re coming down the pike,” Troy Wineland, water commissioner for Summit County, said. “And believe me, they’re coming. We’ve got two of the largest reservoirs in the country sitting about 24% capacity. If that’s not the kind of writing on the walls, I don’t know what it is. So outreach and education to me is critical.”
The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?
On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.
Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.
Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”
The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.
They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.
Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.
“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”
By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.
To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.
Alarm has been sounded but…
Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.
The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?
A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.
At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.
“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”
Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.
“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.
That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.
After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.
By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.
At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.
At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.
Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.
They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.
Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.
Renegotiate the compact?
The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned
7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.
Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.
About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.
“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”
Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).
“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”
The feds need to step up
Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.
First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.
“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.
Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”
The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.
Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.
More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.
But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.
That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.
Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.
But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.
Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.
We really would rather be getting news about another Super Bowl triumph or the end of the 55-year drought in Denver Nuggets championships. But the Colorado River is rapidly nearing total disfunction. It is the story du jour.
Rivers and streams on Colorado’s Western Slope chattered excitedly with runoff during mid-September after several days of rain, softening landscapes that had turned sullen after another hot summer.
The water was a blink of good news for a Colorado River that needs something more. It needs a long, sloppy kiss of wetness.
Hard, difficult decisions have almost entirely lagged what has been needed during the last 20 years of declining reservoir levels and rapidly rising temperatures. Hope has lingered stubbornly. After all, every batter has slumps. And maybe next winter and spring it will snow hard and long in Colorado, source of 60% of the river’s water, instead of getting unseemly warm come April and May, as has mostly been the case.
This glass half-full hopefulness has left the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, at roughly 25% of capacity. To prevent worse, the smaller savings accounts near the headwaters – Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border – have been pilfered. Little remains to be tapped.
Even threats from the Bureau of Reclamation this year failed to spur definitive action. “We can’t keep doing this,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, a major water policy agency for the Western Slope.
Recently at the River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for recovery this coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation comes up as something less. Yampa River Valley snowpack last winter was 84% of average; runoff lagged at 76%. The Gunnison River watershed figures were even worse; snowpack of 87% yielding runoff of 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last 12 months have been among the six warmest years in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuisen, a water rights engineer. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to agree on cuts that would match demand with supply.
It’s tempting to accuse the states of being caught up in century-old thinking. After all, they nominally operate under provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They have taken steps but they insufficiently acknowledge the shifting hydrologic reality. Instead of delivering an average 20.5 million acre-feet, as the compact assumed, the river has delivered 13 million acre-feet in the 21st century. In the last few years, it’s been worse yet, about 12 million acre-feet.
How low can it go? Mueller talked about learning to live within 9 million acre-feet, as some climate scientists have warned may be necessary. Climate scientists have built up some credibility as their forecasts have been, if anything, a tad conservative.
A scientist I talked with in Grand Junction suggested potential for an even starker future. What if the river delivers just 7 million acre-feet a year for the next two or three years?
One of my acquaintances, a county official on the Western Slope, recently confided weariness with the now familiar narrative of “drought, dust, and dystopia” on the Colorado River. Understood. We all want to see the Broncos and Avs win. More instructive may be the Denver Nuggets, who are now in a 55-year championship drought.
Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, likens the situation on the Colorado River to a bank account that has been drawn down. “And we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit,” he said this week at the Colorado Water Center conference in Fort Collins.
What is needed? From a perspective in Colorado, Lochhead argues for a stronger, more assertive federal role. Lochhead was for many years a lawyer based in Glenwood Springs who represented Colorado in river issues.
Everybody that depends upon Colorado River water from northeastern Colorado to Los Angeles and San Diego will have a role, he says. Denver for example, wants to crowd out grass from medians and incentivize turf removal.
Lower-basin states use about twice as much as the upper basin states, and there the cuts must be more radical. Lochhead wants to see the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, more assertively force the lower-basin states to make those hard decisions. Federal authority over water entering Lake Mead has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he points out, and he suggests the agency may use that power after the November election.
The broad theme will be reducing water used for low-value grasses. That takes in suburban lawns but also the water-greedy grasses grown for livestock, including corn and alfalfa. Hard choices, but they must be made. What more warning do we need?
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have decided to increase the opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on a controversial reservoir project in northwest Colorado with an additional round of public engagement.
Members of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council last week expressed support for early public engagement on the Wolf Creek reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely in Rio Blanco County. This will be an extra opportunity for interested people to get involved, in addition to the scoping, public comment and protest periods of the normal National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
Some pointed out that the Wolf Creek project is sure to get lots of scrutiny and, perhaps, national attention, especially with the current spotlight on the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River system. RAC member Jeff Comstock, who represents the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, said he is very much in support of additional public sessions.
“Moffat, myself, most of your collaborators … have always been requesting public involvement prior to Notice of Intent,” Comstock told BLM staffers at the Thursday meeting in Glenwood Springs. “I am a big supporter of having those meetings.”
The project applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River. In January 2021, the district secured a water right for 66,720 acre-feet, which can be used for municipal purposes in the downstream town of Rangely, for mitigation of environmental impacts, for recreation, for fish and for wildlife habitat.
The BLM is overseeing the NEPA process because the federal agency would need to amend its resource management plan and grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land. The formal NEPA process is on a tight timeline, and once the BLM issues the Notice of Intent, it has two years to enter a Record of Decision on whether to allow the right of way. The additional public engagement may delay the start of this timeline, but it is unclear by how long.
[Two] people who oppose and have concerns about the reservoir project spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Matt Rice, Southwest regional director at environmental group American Rivers, encouraged BLM staff to focus on as much public participation as possible.
“We have grave concerns about this project,” Rice said. “As everybody is aware, the Colorado River is in crisis. … This project is going to be extremely controversial.”
Deirdre Macnab, whose 4M Ranch is adjacent to the reservoir site, also spoke and gave her reasons for opposing the project. She said a new reservoir in the proposed location would lead to water loss through evaporation.
“Now is not the time to facilitate new reservoirs in hot, dry, desert areas,” she told RAC members. “Consider the ramifications of this proposal for future generations and just say no.”
Securing the water right for the project took longer than the conservancy district expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right was eventually granted after years of back and forth in water court, and the decree came after an 11th-hour negotiation right before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The water right gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but it does not allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted, including for irrigation or Colorado River Compact compliance.
What the additional public engagement will look like remains unclear. BLM staff will now refer the project to their Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution Program to figure out the best strategy.
“One thing we want to avoid is just doing what we typically do for scoping twice,” said Heather Sauls, BLM project manager and planning and environment coordinator. “Whether we would have public meetings or workshops to talk about focused topics, I don’t know the answers to that yet.”
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink was unavailable for comment.
The BLM plans to create a webpage about the project. Those who want to join the mailing list and get alerts about future public-engagement opportunities can email BLM_CO_Reservoir@blm.gov.
Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.
The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.
The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.
“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.
The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.
The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.
For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.
Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.
Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.
Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.
For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”
During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.
Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.
Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.
Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.
“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use.
While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.
“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved.
The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.
The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…
Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.
Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.
“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.
He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.
Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.
The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…
Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”
Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.
As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.
“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”
Paonia Reservoir. Photo credit: The College of New Jersey
Rifle Gap Reservoir via the Applegate Group
Taylor Park Reservoir
Ridgway Dam via the USBR
Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs
There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.
In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.
“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”
Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin.
But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties.
No answers from officials
At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck.
Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal.
“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”
Rein did not know the answer.
“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.
Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.
“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”
River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river.
The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones — from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries.
“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.”
Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin.
“At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said.
Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs.
Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.
If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said.
“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”
This story ran in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sky-Hi News.
Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)
September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:
State engineer Kevin Rein oversees the state’s water rights system. In a meeting with the Colorado River District board on Jul. 19, Rein assured members he would not be mandating conservation among their municipal, industrial and agricultural users. The district covers 15 counties in Western Colorado.
“There is nothing telling me to curtail water rights. There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said…
Colorado officials have argued the blame for the river’s supply-demand imbalance rests with California, Arizona and Nevada. Some doubt the federal government’s authority to demand the states use less water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, a document that inflated available water within the entire basin, apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the river’s Upper and Lower Basins, respectively. In recent decades Lower Basin uses have exceeded that amount, while Upper Basin uses have remained below the apportionment.
“We’re way under our allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet a year,” Rein said. “So what does that mean? ‘We need to conserve.’ To me, that means that we don’t change our administration at the state engineer’s office.”
Rein said he has mandated water use reductions in other Colorado watersheds under the compact administration legal process. But the Colorado River has avoided that fate so far, he said. Without a solid legal basis, Rein said his hands are tied.
“If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to water and the right is physically and legally available, then I would encourage people to use your water right. It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of your livelihood,” Rein said.
“Somebody might tell me I’m wrong someday, but right now, I don’t see a legal basis for asking people to curtail,” Rein said…
Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said he wanted to know how the federal government was planning to tighten how it accounts for water use in the Lower Basin, including evaporation from reservoirs, a longtime complaint of Upper Basin leaders.
“It is extremely frustrating to see system water utilized for the benefit of the three Lower Basin states and us taking a hit for it. And now we are for the first time, frankly, about to be injured by it,” Mueller said.
Upper Basin leaders have resisted calls for specific amounts of conservation on the Colorado River. In a plan released last week, the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — instead call for the reinstatement of a conservation program that paid farmers to forgo water supplies, first tested in 2014.
Don Meyer, Sr. Water Resource Specialist, and Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, gave a thorough hydrological report to the Board on July 20th. Their report focused on the current, productive monsoon cycle, storage in local reservoirs, and the low flows and high water temperatures observed in the Upper Colorado River headwaters.
“We’ve been enjoying some moisture from this monsoonal flume,” said Meyer. “It seems almost weekly.”
These frequent, often fast-moving bouts of moisture have improved soil moisture across the District and helped farmers and ranchers by also providing cloud cover which decreases evaporation and soil temperature.
“Is it helping with the overall drought conditions?” Kanzer asked. “Well, the answer is sort of. It’s not doing much for the Colorado River Basin system as a whole, but those afternoon rain showers have done wonders for our local water users.”
Wet and cool conditions in April sustained the snowpack which also helped local reservoirs with water storage.
“The longer runoff is delayed, the more water ends up in the system,” Meyer said. “However, we are still below average.”
Water managers across the West Slope depend on higher flows during the spring runoff to fill reservoirs for release during hotter, drier months later in the summer. Healthy river ecosystems depend on high flows to flush sediment, however, so often larger amounts of water are passed during the natural runoff window to support fish health. Choosing how much and when to fill a reservoir of any size involves accounting for myriad variables. Accurate predictions and streamflow forecasts are an essential part of getting this balancing act right.
Meyer shared how Elkhead Reservoir, one of the two reservoirs managed by the River District, was a study in this complex process this summer. “Elkhead fill was a bit of a nail-biter this year.” Meyer said. “We were operating to reduce downstream erosion. To do this we try to store peak flows and release a lower, steadier amount of water, but we had some issue with the forecasts. In early May, we realized that we weren’t going to get those big, forecasted peaks, so we had to quickly reduce releases. Incorrect forecasts were really detrimental.”
No forecasts for streamflow or storage on the West Slope are above 80% for this summer.
“We often talk about the importance of accurate science and forecasts,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the River District. “Not having accurate data does have major impacts for the health of streamflow and the human communities.”
Director Kathleen Curry from Gunnison County shared the dire conditions facing Blue Mesa Reservoir which is barely half full after last year’s Drought Operations release to Lake Powell and this year’s unimpressive runoff.
“The whole system is really stressed.” Curry said. “Blue Mesa is filled with algae, and the river above that is warm and bright green. The fish from the 15-mile reach are so stressed, they are coming up the Gunnison to just below the Redlands Canal. It’s become very difficult for the system to meet all the needs.”
The 15-mile reach is a section of the Colorado River where streamflow in the summer is reduced by more than half due to agriculture and municipal diversions in Grand Valley.
High Water Temperatures
“This is a tale of two years,” said Meyer “In 2021, we had some really hot, unusual temperatures. Last year it was in June, and this year, they were just as bad, but came later in July.”
In mid-July, temperatures in the Colorado River between Kremmling and Catamount (two USGS gages which provide data on streamflow, water temperature, dissolved oxygen and particulate matter) indicated that the water temperature was well outside a healthy range for fish. In response to the spiking temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued multiple voluntary fishing closures not only for stretches of the Upper Colorado River, but also for sections of the Eagle, Roaring Fork, Fraser, and Yampa Rivers to protect already-stressed, cold-water fish like trout.
Anticipating these conditions, the Colorado River District chose to release approximately 200 acre-feet of water from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The low streamflow conditions are due in part to climate change and earlier, hotter summer temperatures, inaccurate streamflow forecasts, and trans-basin diverters who continue to fill their reservoirs regardless of the hydrological conditions on the Western Slope.
“The issue is not our ag producers,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the River District. “The issue is that Front Range diverters continue to take their water no matter what the snowpack looks like. Streamflow drops, raising the temperature of the river and damaging the fish health and the economy of the West Slope.”
Marc Catlin, Director from Montrose County shared his perspective as well. “There is no one at this table who is doing as well as they are. They divert 100% of their right now matter what, no matter what the snowpack.”
According to Brendan Langenhuizen, Director of Technical Advocacy, local anglers and residents of Grand County were deeply appreciative of the District’s efforts to lower water temperatures. “I’ve received several voicemails. One was from an angler in the Vail Valley. He talked about the real economic impacts due to high water temperatures. Once the fishing closures go into place, they can’t run their business.”
District calls on Front Range diverters to assist in prevention of further fish kills, economic impairment.
Low flows and high water temperatures are creating critical conditions on the Upper Colorado for the second consecutive year, triggering fishing closures amidst reports of struggling and dying fish. Anticipating these conditions, the Colorado River District chose to release water from an already-reduced Wolford Mountain Reservoir last weekend. This voluntary release generated approximately 200 acre-feet of water to protect the health of the river – and by extension, local economies and downstream water users. District staff, however, says further action is needed.
“Our constituents are seeing fish floating by belly-up and struggling to survive current hot temperatures,” said Brendon Langenhuizen, the River District’s Director of Technical Advocacy. “We’ve also received reports of dead fish along the riverbanks. Since the beginning of July, these new-normal conditions are having major impacts on the Upper Colorado River ecosystem. Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s fishing closures are symptomatic of a larger issue that needs the attention of all water users. Our District has and will continue to do our part with voluntary releases when water is available from our limited resources at Wolford Mountain Reservoir.”
Recent monsoonal rains are bringing some relief, but soil moisture issues and hot, dry conditions forecasted for early next week have prompted a need for direct action. In response, the River District began releasing an additional 50 cubic feet-per-second (cfs) Friday morning, July 15, and will continue through Sunday, July 17, providing another 300 acre-feet of water for the river by Monday morning. Limited West Slope water supplies will inhibit the River District’s ability to fully address temperature and flow issues, however.
“We can’t fix this situation alone,” Langenhuizen stated. “Our constituents are asking for help to address the river’s unhealthy conditions causing fish kills. They’re wondering why large Front Range providers are not reducing their transmountain diversions to join the River District in aiding Colorado’s namesake river and the livelihoods it supports.”
The River District urges these water providers to act in partnership with West Slope water users to protect the health of the Upper Colorado River.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June 14 remarks to the U.S. Senate said the ongoing drought has put the Colorado River Basin at “the tipping point.” According to published reports, she also called on the basin states to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre feet over the next 18 months and told the states to come up with a plan to do so in the next 60 days…
State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Colorado River District board member, is alarmed by the timeline — 60 days from Touton’s request is in mid-August.
“Historically, we haven’t been able to decide the shape of the table in 60 days,” Catlin said of talks between the basin states. “I really think what we’re looking at is more of what the water plan will be in water year 2023.”
BuRec is attempting, under drought response actions announced May 3, to boost storage in Powell by about 1 million af by next April. Flaming Gorge Reservoir will release 500,000 af, as called for by the drought contingency plan. Additionally, BuRec is reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume from 7.48 million af to 7 million af.
The tax-funded West Slope entity has launched a special round of “Accelerator Grant” opportunities aimed at providing support for grant-writing, feasibility evaluation, design, preliminary environmental review, benefits analysis, and engineering to support applications for federal funding made available by the law. The district will consider paying for up to 85% of the funding needed by an applicant to pursue the federal funds. It also is planning a free online webinar June 29 to help Western Slope water users navigate the funding opportunities provided by the law and discuss the Accelerator Grant program. District staff will discuss federal funding categories for water projects, how to put together a successful federal grant application, and how to leverage other grant opportunities to maximize funding and project impacts…
The financial aid the river district is offering to help entities apply for federal funding is made possible by a tax measure that voters in its 15 counties approved in 2020. Some of the tax revenues go toward the district’s operations, but most of it, more than $4 million a year, goes to support entities on a range of water-related projects.
The deadline to apply for Accelerator Grants is Aug. 1. More information may be found by visiting https://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/ and clicking on the Community Funding Partnership link.
Community Funding Partnership’s accelerator grants are designed to help Western Slope water users build a competitive application for federal funding. This includes support in grant-writing, feasibility, design, preliminary environmental review, benefits analysis and engineering. The Colorado River District will consider supporting up to 85% of funding needs for this limited funding opportunity.
Grant deliverables must include a timely application to a federal funding opportunity that must be submitted by Dec. 31, 2023 and in no cases later than Dec. 31, 2024. Priority will be given to applications targeting a 2023 federal funding round. For more information, visit http://ColoradoRiverDistrict.org.
Applications for the Community Funding Partnership grants are due Aug. 1.
Click the link to read the article on Sopris Sun website (James Steindler). Here’s an excerpt:
Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist at the Colorado State University Climate Center, was the first presenter. She explained that snowpack determines the rivers’ flows. “Even though we’re doing okay with snowpack, we really needed above average snowpack to get the inflows back to where they need to be,” she stated.
“We are still struggling through this long-term drought situation,” Bolinger stressed. “The summer heat is a big concern and what the precipitation does is also going to be a big concern.”
[Linsay DeFrates] further stated that with every 1% rise in temperature, streamflow is reduced by 3-9%. “Last year, we ended at 89% snowpack, but we only had 32% inflow into Lake Powell,” DeFrates explained. She referred back to Bolinger’s presentation, stating that “thirsty soils are going to drink the snowmelt first, before it becomes streamflow.”
She continued, “As we go forward, it’s going to take organization nights like this where voices are brought to the table who might not have been there before. … It’s going to take recognizing that we can’t just wish away our reality anymore.”
But with the 2022 legislative session ending on May 11, there is probably neither time nor the desire from lawmakers to push the bill through, meaning that, to all appearances, the legislation is dead. The Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee would now have to take the measure back up and move it along to the full Senate and then to the House in order for it to go back to the interim committee.
Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Eagle County, who initially proposed the back-to-interim-committee amendment and is a sponsor of the bill, were the two votes against sending the issue back to the interim committee. It’s unclear why Donovan, who did not return a call for clarification as of presstime, voted against her own amendment.
“We gave it a heck of a college try,” said Donovan, the twice-elected representative for Senate District 5, which includes Pitkin County, who will be stepping down at the end of the year due to term limits. “And I think we continued an important conversation. Water always takes a long time to figure out and I was certainly hopeful that by having a bill we would force conversation.”
Senate Bill 29, with Western Slope sponsors Donovan and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, was an attempt to stop out-of-state investors in agricultural water from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.
Many say investment water speculation is a threat, but few agree on what should be done about it. A legislative fix, despite several attempts at tweaks with amendments throughout the session, failed to gain support from the constituency the bill aimed to protect: agricultural water users. Although some agricultural water rights holders recognize there could be negative impacts to their communities if water is sold to investors, they don’t want the state making the process of selling their ranch harder, placing restrictions on who they can sell to or limiting their ability to make a profit.
The original bill would have given the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and fine a purchaser of water rights up to $10,000 if they determine speculation is occurring.
That version failed to gain traction, as did a handful of proposed “strike-below” or “strike-through” amendments, including one put forth by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which would have addressed speculation using the abandonment principle by saying that if someone was getting paid to not use their water, they could be punished by losing their water right.
Donovan then floated the most recent amendment that would have sent the issue back to the interim Water Resources Committee for further study and input from water users, a move Coram said was kicking the can down the road.
Lawmakers scolded some in the water community for what they said was a lack of cooperation and communication around developing legislation aimed at preventing speculation.
“We have an ineffective water group that won’t have a conversation with lawmakers anymore,” Sonnenberg said. “When we have a bill they just take a position and quit working with people.”
At Thursday’s hearing, several people testified in opposition to the bill. Colorado Water Congress, Colorado Farm Bureau, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, as well as three Grand Valley water providers, among others, were opposed to the bill.
Former state representative from Gunnison County Kathleen Curry works as a lobbyist on behalf of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Ute Water Conservancy District, organizations that provide agricultural and domestic water to the Grand Valley. She said her clients would support taking more time to consult with experts and stakeholders.
“My folks have two major concerns regarding the legislation as it was introduced and as it’s been contemplated so far,” she said. “One has to do with the additional time needed to obtain feedback from the affected parties and water rights owners and secondly, they are still a bit unclear about the need for legislation, and the scope of potential impacts to water rights owners remains a concern.”
The Grand Valley has been the center of investment water speculation concerns, where New York City-based private-equity firm Water Asset Management has been acquiring irrigated farmland. WAM is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association. But as long as WAM keeps putting the water to beneficial use and keeps the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.
Still, the threat from out-of-state, urban interests loomed large at Thursday’s hearing.
“We were hearing across our districts and state about a new type of player in the water world,” Donovan said. “And that player was custom suits and shiny shoes that call big cities home. … There was concern from many in the water world that probably an investment firm was not going to be the best partner moving forward.”
In an attempt to address the issue in 2020, legislators convened a workgroup, made up of water managers and policy experts across sectors to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation laws. Saddled with the incredibly complex task of figuring out how to protect Colorado’s water from profit-seeking investors without infringing on private property rights, an August 2021 report from the workgroup did not give recommendations to lawmakers because they could not come to a consensus about which concepts to implement. The group’s report did, however, lay out potential avenues new regulations to prevent investment water speculation could take.
For Loma rancher, workgroup member and President of GVWUA Joe Bernal, the lack of consensus meant that lawmakers should not move forward with any legislation.
“Our group found it very important that more information be gathered from landowners and stakeholders,” he told the committee Thursday. “I find it very concerning that bill sponsors moved forward with the crafting of an anti-speculation bill when there seems to be very little support from the people and the citizens it seems the sponsors are trying to protect.”
Threats to agriculture
The concern at the heart of the speculation issue is not that investors could profit off of Colorado’s water. Underneath, there is a broader fear about the loss of agricultural land and with it, a way of life and a part of Colorado’s history, culture and identity. The work group identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators.
For Bernal, the bigger threat to Colorado agriculture comes from developers who would subdivide the land for houses and ranchettes and take it out of agricultural production. The acres that were sold to WAM, which are still being farmed, could have been sold instead to developers, an outcome he doesn’t want to see.
“I think it could be studied further, but at this point we don’t have a problem yet,” Bernal said. “I’m not saying I’m glad WAM is here, but it seems to be the lesser of two evils. Given the choice of having the land developed, it’s a better option.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 23 edition of The Aspen Times.
In short, the kind of clouds that create snowstorms contain massive amounts of super-chilled water vapor, Rickert said. Left alone, those clouds can release some snow and retain the rest of their water vapor. Cloud seeders look to agitate those super-chilled water particles, causing them to freeze inside the cloud. From there they form snowflakes and fall to the ground, Rickert said. Seeders can agitate those particles by plane or from machines on the ground, both processes typically use a silver iodide compound. Airplanes will “pretty much fly right through the cloud,” spraying the compound across a flame, and spreading it throughout the air, sparking the chemical reaction, Rickert said. Ground generators do the same except they use wind drafts to carry the compound into the clouds, he said. he end result? Up to a 12% increase in snowfall for a particular storm, [Andrew] Rickert said…
Seeding efforts in central Colorado are working well too, according to Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Colorado River District, which helps manage the program in Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties. Water from the extra snowfall eventually melts, flowing down Colorado’s rivers and streams and eventually out of state, Rickert noted, so downstream states like Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico all chip in to the state’s $1.5 million budget. But there’s a catch, Kanzer added. Cloud seeding can’t create snow storms out of nowhere. They can only enhance existing storms…
“It’s the only option for physically augmenting snowpack,” Rickert said. “And the only way to actually create and add water to the system.”
After two years of virtual and hybrid gatherings, the Colorado River District will once again host in-person State of the River events across the West Slope throughout spring 2022. Twelve events across the 15-county River District will bring District staff, local partners, hydrologists, and water users together to discuss and address the most pressing water issues facing West Slope communities today.
Each State of the River event is hosted in partnership with a local organization, with each agenda designed to address local challenges and the regional issues affecting all Western Coloradoans. Cornerstone presentations will include river basin hydrology and water forecasts from state and federal experts, local water-related efforts by partner organizations, and opportunities for funding multi-benefit projects.
“Whether you’re an irrigator, angler, boater, skier, energy provider, or simply a West Slope resident, we all have a vested interest in water – it’s the common thread that binds us all,” said Marielle Cowdin, Director of Public Relations at the River District. “State of the River events not only bring water experts to your doorstep, they also bring the ear of the River District. Our staff wants to hear from you and understand your needs and concerns. Together, we can find innovative solutions for a hotter, drier future. We hope you’ll join us.”
The passing of ballot measure 7A continues to pay dividends to communities across the fifteen counties of the Colorado River District through the Community Funding Partnership (CFP). The Community Funding Partnership program closed its inaugural year with nearly $3 million distributed to 23 multi-benefit water projects, six of which were fully completed within a year after funding.
“We continue to be humbled by the creativity and resilience of our West Slope water users as they move ideas into action and confront the realities of a hotter and drier future,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the River District.
Community Funding Partnership grants have also aided recipients in leveraging over $40 million from other funding sources. With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in late 2021, even more federal funding will be available for projects which prioritize infrastructure upgrades and water quality. Given these new opportunities and the Community Funding Partnership’s increased notoriety across the District, staff anticipates increased demands and applications in 2022.
“I am glad to see that awareness of this program is growing throughout our district,” said Moyer. “We are looking forward to working with new partners on projects of all scopes in this upcoming year.”
At the recent Special Joint Board meeting on February 9, Moyer presented four new projects to the Board of Directors for funding approval. The approved projects total over $1 million in new grants to start off the CFP program’s second year. A fifth project, which did not require board action, was approved shortly thereafter.
Minturn Storage Tank Project, Town of Minturn
$250,000 awarded, Eagle County
At 25 –years-old, the Town of Minturn’s existing water tank is deteriorating and experiencing active water leaks. This project seeks to upgrade the Town of Minturn’s water infrastructure to address existing water loss rates, increased wildfire risk in the area, and preparations to meet the community’s development demands.
Fruitgrowers Dam Outlet Gates Improvement Project, Orchard City Irrigation District
$225,000 awarded, Delta County
The Orchard City Irrigation District (OCID) has partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owners of the Fruitgrowers Reservoir, to plan for upgrades to the reservoir’s control gates. The project modernizes an irrigation dam and reservoir that has been used continuously since 1937, while allowing for more accurate flow monitoring and water releases.
Maybell Diversion and Headgate Modernization Project, The Nature Conservancy
$500,000 awarded, Moffat County
This proposed project involves reconstructing the historic Maybell diversion and modernizing the headgate in the lower Yampa River. The project will improve drought resilience and habitat connectivity in at least 20 miles of the Yampa River, while supporting the recovery of endangered fish and meeting water users’ long-term irrigation needs.
West Slope Growing Water Smart Projects, The Sonoran Institute
$102,000 awarded, District-wide
This project will deliver a Growing Water Smart training and assistance program for five to seven West Slope communities in the fall of 2023. The program aims to catalyze implementation of water conservation measures and the wise use of our water assets through land use planning. The project focuses on strengthening local land-use policies that influence water demand and to support communities as they manage their water resources into the future.
Silt Preserve Water Rights and Pond Delivery, Middle Colorado Watershed Council
$8,250 awarded, Garfield County
In 2008, the Aspen Valley Land Trust worked with the Town of Silt and other community partners to purchase and permanently conserve the 132-acre Silt River Preserve. Once heavily grazed and later part of a proposed 2,000‐unit development, this land has the restoration potential to become a natural, riverside park that incorporates innovative agricultural projects. Funds will support restoration opportunities to re-establish high-quality riparian and transitional upland areas.
Lake Powell could soon see its level drop below the critical elevation where the Glen Canyon Dam stops being able to generate power.
In the weeks since, however, snowfall throughout the watershed has been at a record or near-record low. Lake Powell, which is filled to just over a quarter of its capacity, could soon see its level drop below the critical elevation where the Glen Canyon Dam stops being able to generate power, even after this week’s storms…
Snowpack in the upper Colorado River basin was above average after big December storms, but an exceptionally dry January and February has water managers worried about levels in Lake Powell and other reservoirs…
Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operations at Lake Powell, compared the snow season to a yo-yo or a roller coaster that has required forecasts to be repeatedly revised.
The latest projections, Patno told a Glen Canyon Dam working group earlier this month, predicted runoff into the Colorado River will be around 76% of average, and, unless more storms arrive soon, that could drop to 59% of average…
The low range of probable forecasts, Patno said, show that hydropower generation at the dam may become impossible before the end of 2022, marking an uncertain new reality for the 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water between Denver and Tijuana…
In a letter sent to Reclamation last month, John Weisheit and Robin Silver, co-founders of Living Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity respectively, wrote that demand for water in the basin has outpaced supply for over two decades as the Southwest has been locked in a cycle of megadrought.
The ultimate goal of water managers, according to Weisheit and Silver, should be to “balance the water budget” by immediately reducing consumptive water use in the basin by 20%. Temporarily tweaking release schedules from Lake Powell, the letter said, will not solve the underlying issue that the basin states are using more water than is actually available in the river.
Click the link to read the article on The Craig Press (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:
As industries across the Western Slope continue to watch snow and water levels as the days until summer close in, the Colorado River District hosted water experts Tuesday to discuss what certain data points mean and how they reflect the current state of Colorado’s water levels…
Before Monday, snow in 2022 had been sparse for the northwest corner of the state. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the White and Yampa River Basin is currently at 86% of the median snowpack level since 1991. To get this median, the NRCS takes all of the snow patterns over the past 30 years and finds the middle of all of the peaks and snowpack levels. This median is often used as a standard to measure how dry a year is…
This winter, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels for the White-Yampa Basin are currently at 13.4 inches as of Tuesday (the latest available data). SWE is a commonly used measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.
The SWE median for that same date is 15.5 inches, and this year is slightly behind last winter’s levels, which was at 14.4 inches. The median peak of these levels (meaning the highest amount of SWE levels before they dip) usually happens around April 8. During the most recent drought, this peak has happened earlier in the year, and it sometimes does not reach that average peak, either. In 2021, the peak of snowpack happened during the last week of March, topping at 18 inches. The median peak is 23.1 inches…
“One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of normal numbers based on the SNOTEL network and snow course measurements are used for runoff prediction,” [Jeffrey] Deems said. “They are not a SWE volume measure. And so they’re used in a statistical forecasting method by the NRCS to project April through July runoff.”
Across the entire western part of the United States, the trend of a multi-decadal drought is continuing. Gov. Jared Polis visited Craig last summer to speak with local ranchers about the drought’s impact on the Yampa Valley. Currently, agriculture workers in different facets of the industry are looking to see if 2022 might provide some relief.