Mandatory curtailment of water rights in #Colorado raised as possibility — @AspenJournalism @CWCB_DNR #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Water experts say that if the ongoing drought persists, Lake Powell could be empty within three years, and call could be placed on the upper basin to curtail water rights. To avoid the chaos such an unprecedented call might bring, state officials are discussing how a more orderly, but still mandatory curtailment of water uses, might need to be implemented. A wall bleached, and stained, in Lake Powell. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith @AspenJournalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A state-imposed mandatory curtailment of water in the Colorado River Basin within Colorado was discussed as a looming possibility during a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board on September 19 in Steamboat Springs.

Representatives from the Western Slope told the statewide water-planning board that while they favor creating a new legally protected pool of water in Lake Powell and other upstream federal reservoirs to help prevent a compact call on the river, they have significant concerns about the pool being filled outside of a program that is “voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

However, Front Range water users told the board that a voluntary program may not get the job done and that a mandatory curtailment program, based on either the prior appropriation doctrine or some method yet to be articulated, may be necessary to keep Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam functioning so Colorado, Utah and Wyoming can deliver enough water to California, Arizona and Nevada to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“With the repeat of historic hydrology beginning in the year 2000, Lake Powell will be dry, and when I say dry I mean empty, within about three years,” Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water told the CWCB board.

Lochhead said that while a voluntary demand management program might help bolster water levels in Lake Powell, “it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”

“So we may need — I know we don’t want to implement — but we may need other mechanisms to accelerate the creation of water into Lake Powell in the event of an emergency,” Lochhead said. “This is not something that Denver Water wants, or is asking for. What we are asking for is that the contingency plans be put into place. We need to have those plans in place before the system collapses.”

On Wednesday, Brent Newman, the chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal, & Water Information Section emphasized that neither they, nor the state attorney general’s office, is at this point “assessing, pursuing or recommending to the CWCB board any type of involuntary or ‘anticipatory’ curtailment scenario.”

And yet, such scenarios are on a lot of people’s minds.

(Please see related memo, slides and audio from the meeting. The audio is via YouTube, as provided by CWCB. The file opens well into the discussion, so click back to the beginning of the file, which opens just after the agenda item began, with brief introductory comments from CWCB Director Becky Mitchell. It’s well worth listening to. Also please see related story from Sept.18.).

The looming possibility of mandatory curtailment of water use has raised concerns among Western Slope water managers, who feel that such cuts could harm Western Slope agricultural, such as this hay filed in the Yampa River basin. However, as water levels continue to drop to record lows in Lake Powell, mandatory curltailments are being discussed as a real possibility, especially by Front Range water managers. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

At hand

Lochhead said Denver Water wants to see a voluntary, temporary and compensated program created as a “first priority,” but also said “I also don’t think that by not talking about mandatory curtailment we can pretend the problem will go away. We need to be thinking about it, and we need to be thinking about it proactively.”

However, Western Slope water interests as represented by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are concerned that if a new storage pool is created in Lake Powell, and a mandatory curtailment program is used to fill it, it could have dire consequences for agriculture on the Western Slope.

NPR panel discussion of The Future of Water at CSU May 24, 2016. L to R: Patty Limerick, Roger Frugua, Melissa Mays, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kathleen Curry, and host Michel Martin.

“This is our livelihood,” Kathleen Curry, a rancher in Gunnison who serves on the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, told the CWCB. “This water is what we depend on. If we move in the direction of mandatory curtailment, and it isn’t equitable, you are going to have significant impacts to the water users in the state of Colorado, especially on the Western Slope.”

The two regional Western Slope water conservation districts had drafted a resolution they wanted the CWCB to adopt Wednesday, which did not happen, as the CWCB declined to vote on it.

The resolution stated that any mandatory curtailment program would be developed on a “consensus basis” with the two districts at the table, and not just be a directive of the state.

However, Bennett Raley, the general counsel for the Northern Water Conservancy District, which provides water to nearly a million people in northeastern Colorado, said the state, as a sovereign entity, should not be constrained by consensus.

He also said that mandatory curtailment may well be necessary in Colorado.

“If the drought continues, there are two paths,” he told the CWCB board. “If there is an infinite source of money, then voluntary works. Great, we’re all happy. If the drought continues and there is not an infinite source of money, then the state will go to mandatory. The Supreme Court will ensure that, sooner or later, it’s not a question.”

Part of the fear of such a mandatory program is that hardly anyone, outside of perhaps the state engineer, knows what it would look like.

“Ultimately it’s a state decision, it’s a decision of the state engineer as to how water rights would be curtailed to meet the state’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact,” said Lochhead, when asked after the meeting how mandatory curtailment would work. “The short answer is, I don’t know. There are a lot of questions and viewpoints.”

Lochhead did say Denver Water is willing to “work with the state and with the West Slope to ensure that any curtailment doesn’t disproportionally impact any region of the state, whether it’s on the West Slope or the Front Range, and that essentially the same rules apply to everybody.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and other newspapers in the Swift Communications group in Colorado on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, September 20, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Sept. 20, as did the Vail Daily.

Western Rivers Conservancy Land Donation Establishes San Luis Valley Conservation Area in #Colorado — USFWS

The landscape photo is of the New 13 acre easement, photo by Simi Batra/USFWS.

Here’s the release USFWS:

[Friday, September 14, 2018], the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted a 12.82-acre conservation easement donation in Colorado’s San Luis Valley from Western Rivers Conservancy. With the donation, the San Luis Valley Conservation Area becomes the 567th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, an unparalleled network of public lands and waters dedicated to the conservation of native wildlife and their habitats.

Western Rivers Conservancy has worked in partnership with the Service, state and local governments, as well as other conservation organizations to connect people and communities to this diverse ecosystem. Their donation of a conservation easement is yet another step in local efforts to conserve important fish and wildlife habitat and increase opportunities for public access. It will ultimately support increased biodiversity and recreational opportunities such as birding and hunting on nearby public and private lands.

“We are very pleased to partner with the Service to help create the San Luis Valley Conservation Area,” said Dieter Erdmann, Western River Conservancy Interior West Program Director. “The Rio Grande and its tributaries are the lifeblood of the San Luis Valley and we are committed to supporting voluntary conservation efforts that will benefit fish, wildlife and people alike.”

“By working collaboratively with our conservation partners and local communities to establish the San Luis Valley Conservation Area, we are helping ensure that the San Luis Valley continues to support some of the state’s most important fish and wildlife resources, as well as the people who live here, for generations to come,” said the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh.

In 2015, the Service approved the San Luis Valley Conservation Area Land Protection Plan, which clarified and guided the Service’s intent to continue working with partners and private landowners to establish voluntary conservation easements in this priority landscape. Easements allow landowners to retain their property rights and continue traditional activities such as livestock grazing and haying within the easement, while prohibiting commercial development. Under the plan, the Service could protect up to 530,000 acres with conservation easements donated or purchased from willing sellers.

The Conservation Area plan is designed to protect wildlife and wetland habitat in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Its limit is defined by the headwaters of the legendary Rio Grande, which begins its nearly 1,900-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains that surround the San Luis Valley. Runoff from mountain snowpack creates wetlands and riparian areas in the midst of what otherwise is a high-mountain desert, providing important habitat for plants and migratory birds such as greater sandhill cranes, waterfowl and other sensitive or imperiled species. As the Conservation Area expands over time, the Service intends to protect wildlife habitat and maintain wildlife corridors between protected blocks of habitat on public and private conservation lands.

The new Conservation Area is the fifth unit of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the ninth national wildlife refuge in the state of Colorado.

The Service’s Refuge System now encompasses 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetlands management districts across 150 million acres. Refuges are critical to the local communities that surround them, serving as centers for recreation, economic growth, and landscape health and resiliency. Each state and U.S. territory has at least one national wildlife refuge, and there is a refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

Learn more about the National Wildlife Refuge System or the San Luis Valley Conservation Area.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit Connect with our Facebook page at, follow our tweets at, watch our YouTube Channel at and download photos from our Flickr page at

Shortage on the Colorado River is Imminent, but a Catastrophic One is Not — Jennifer Pitt

Lake Mead December 2017. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

From Audubon (Jennifer Pitt):

Parties in Arizona must keep pushing to leave more water in Lake Mead.

The new Lake Mead forecast is out… and it isn’t pretty. The Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) now predicts a 57% likelihood that Lake Mead will drop below 1,075 feet in 2020. The risk has grown an additional 5% since the last update.

This means there is nearly a 3 in 5 chance there will be mandatory reductions in Colorado River water for farmers in Central Arizona, and less water for the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), which uses “excess” water, when available, to offset groundwater pumping for specific housing developments. Stated a different way, this could affect Arizona’s economy. Elsewhere in the Lower Colorado River Basin, specifically in Mexico, other water users will have less water to use as well. But because of deals and compromises that Arizona negotiated in the past, water users in California and Nevada won’t feel the impact of the shortages to the same degree.

As the Steering Committee charged with securing Arizona’s commitment a new statewide deal to reduce Colorado River water use slogs on despite imminent shortage, Arizona faces incredible risk. Under current rules Arizona is exposed to bearing the brunt of Colorado River shortages, which could be catastrophic. In the event of extended drought, central Arizona could lose its entire Colorado River water supply in the next 5 years.

The solution on the table, the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), would engage California and Nevada to share the pain of reducing water use along with Arizona, and would trigger an agreement already in place with Mexico to conserve even more. (It’s important to remember that the U.S. – Mexico agreement adopted in 2017 that commits Mexico to more water conservation also commits the two countries to habitat restoration in the Colorado River Delta.) Moreover, under the DCP’s rules water users would conserve water more frequently, but in smaller volumes. The DCP is effectively an insurance policy that engages many to make relatively small cuts in water use so it’s less likely anyone (read: Arizona) is hit with catastrophic cuts.

We understand these can sound like fighting words to water users asked to sign on to a new deal for something that may not appear, on the surface, to bring immediate relief from water shortages. Indeed, the DCP cannot create new water. But it does establish a broader base to share in reducing water use. And by starting water conservation requirements earlier than is currently required, it reduces the probability of Lake Mead sinking so low that no water can be released at all. If Arizona stakeholders can rally themselves to agreement, the DCP will buy the state some time and engage Mexico, California, and Nevada in their commitments to leave more water in Lake Mead. We need them.

It is up to Arizona’s Colorado River water stakeholders—tribes, cities, farmers, homebuilders, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and residents—to keep pushing each other towards consensus on the deals within Arizona that make using less Colorado River palatable (we didn’t say enjoyable) to water users.

That means:

  • Reasonable mitigation for Central Arizona Project agriculture in return for their commitment to use less Colorado River water
  • Permission for Arizona’s tribes to leave more water in Lake Mead on a voluntary basis
  • Recognition of the limits of Colorado River water supplies to support future growth in Central Arizona
  • Coordination among parties to sustainably manage Arizona’s Colorado River supplies
  • Maintaining Arizona’s legacy of groundwater management statewide, ensuring the reliability of regulations already in place
  • The problem is clear, and one significant step toward a solution, the DCP, is teed up for Arizona to embrace. People, birds, and Arizona’s sustainability depend on it.

    Haley Paul contributed to this article.

    #Drought news: Grand Junction rate payers are saving water under mandatory restrictions

    Outdoor watering accounts for more than 50 percent of municipal water use in Colorado on average. Photo by Eric Sonstroem.

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Katie Langford):

    Grand Junction residents saved nearly 18.5 million gallons of water since mandatory outdoor water restrictions started in August, according to city officials.

    The savings are based on water use estimates for last year, said city Water Services Manager Mark Ritterbush.

    An average day of water use in August was 8.1 million gallons in 2017, and that’s decreased by about 14 to 15 percent since water restrictions went into place on Aug. 22, saving approximately 1.2 million gallons a day…

    The biggest drop in water use came immediately after the restrictions went into effect, which also happened to be the day that Grand Junction saw a massive rainstorm.

    The storm dropped .91 inches of rain on Grand Junction over the span of just a few hours on the evening of Aug. 21, according to the National Weather Service.

    City water use dropped from 8.1 million gallons on Aug. 21 to approximately 5.1 million on Aug. 23.

    Ritterbush said it’s typical to see a significant drop in water use after a rainstorm.

    Grand Junction City Councilor Chris Kennedy said he’s pleased with the savings and has not heard any pushback from residents over the restrictions…

    Current restrictions mean city water customers are limited to twice-weekly outdoor watering through September, which drops to once-a-week outdoor watering in October.

    #Colorado water officials stepping up ‘demand management’ efforts — @AspenJournalism #cwcvail2018 #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Low flows on the Colorado River near the Colorado-Utah state line, lead to falling water levels at Lake Powell, and Colorado and regional water managers are ramping up their efforts to develop a “drought contingency plan” in response. At the heart of such a program are payments to irrigators to willingly reduce their water use by fallowing fields. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

    From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

    Water managers from around the state gathered for a three-day meeting of the Colorado Water Congress this week and were told it was time to develop a plan to cut back on water use in Colorado in order to prevent a compact call on the Colorado River.

    At the heart of such a plan is a reduction in the use of water by agriculture — on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis — in order to send more water downriver to bolster levels in Lake Powell.

    If the giant reservoir, which is now 49 percent full, drops much lower, then Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, will not be able to produce electricity or release enough water to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which requires Colorado, Wyoming and Utah to send water to California, Arizona and Nevada.

    Colorado state officials are now taking steps to put together a “demand management” plan to bolster reservoir levels but are also careful to say the plan may still not be necessary, depending on how much snow falls in coming winters.

    The Government Highline Canal, in Palisade. The Government Highline Canal near Grand Junction. The Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the canal, has been experimenting with a program that pays water users to fallow fields and reduce their consumptive use of water. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Demand management

    During a panel on the topic on Friday, Aug. 24, Lain Leoniak, an attorney in the Colorado attorney general’s office, said state and regional water managers were now engaged in what amounts to “emergency response planning.”

    “The goal is to identify methods to provide additional security to the entire Colorado River system to address this unprecedented hydrology that we’re experiencing, and have been since 2000,” Leoniak said.

    There are three main elements of a such a regional drought contingency plan: short-term releases of water from the big reservoirs above Lake Powell, including Flaming Gorge, Navajo and Blue Mesa reservoirs; cloud-seeding to produce a deeper snowpack; and “demand management.”

    “Demand management is defined as the temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions of diversions to conserve water that would otherwise be consumptively used, when and if it is needed,” Leonick told the crowd at the Water Congress meeting.

    State water officials, led by staff at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, have been reaching out to water managers and users around the state over the past few months, trying to figure out how such a plan might work. And this year’s hot drought has added urgency, and relevance, to their work.

    One such regional demand management effort, known as the System Conservation Pilot Program, has been underway over the past four years and has been paying willing ranchers and farmers about $200 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use.

    A chart used to illustrate concerns about low inflows into Lake Powell. 2018 is expected to be among the lowest years in the history of the reservoir.

    ‘Reduction in use’

    But the program has also identified the need for a way to track, or shepherd, the saved water as it makes its way downstream to Lake Powell.

    It’s also shown a need for a new legally identified pool of water in the big federal reservoir so that the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah can get credit for their water-saving efforts.

    During the Friday discussion of demand management at the Water Congress meeting, Bruce Whitehead, the general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, based in Durango, sought to put such an effort into plain terms.

    “This is a reduction in use,” Whitehead said.

    Whitehead also pointed out that “there are statewide usages of Colorado River water” and voluntary reductions of use of Colorado River water now diverted under the Continental Divide to the Front Range are going to have to be part of the solution.

    “In tough times like this, we have to learn to work together,” he said.

    Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, seconded the theme.

    “Our fear is that we’re not working cooperatively, and openly, in a very informed manner as a state, and we’re going to end up putting the West Slope agriculture as the sacrificial lamb on the alter of the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “And our belief is that will, in the short term, hurt the West Slope. In the long term, it will hurt the state.”

    Lee Miller, an attorney for the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, which is based in Pueblo and imports water from the Colorado River basin, said it will be important to develop a demand management plan that has flexibility built into it, especially in the early years.

    “The key part of this is that we have to have a framework that is flexible, one that allows us to make changes,” Miller said. “When we start making demands, and start making bright lines, ‘no this, no that,’ we put ourselves in a very difficult position to adjust in uncertain times.”

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering the Colorado River basin in collaboration with the Vail Daily, The Aspen Times, and other news organizations. The Vail Daily published this story on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018.

    Congress Must Act Now to Preserve the Land and Water Conservation Fund — Westword

    Roxborough State Park photo via Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    From Westword (Paul Lopez):

    Enacted into law in 1964, LWCF provides funding for the acquisition and management of federal, state and local public lands nationwide so that all Americans can enjoy access to the outdoors — and in a wonderful compensation improving local economies and community well-being. It is the only federal program devoted to the continued conservation of our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness, Civil War battlefields and developing state and local parks.

    Remarkably, LWCF does not cost taxpayers one dollar — it is funded using a small portion of the royalties paid by oil and gas companies to drill offshore. The fund is authorized for $900 million annually, but that has occurred only once since its inception.

    Ensuring access to the outdoors for everyone is more than just a concept; it’s our Colorado way of life. It’s a value that every community, people and culture hold dear. As a Mexican American and native Coloradan, I believe the conservation of our land is a central value of our heritage for generations. In fact, recent results of a poll from the respected Colorado College Conservation in the West bear that out in six western states, showing that 75 percent of Latino voters support continued funding of the Land and Water Conservation. Simply put, protecting our land preserves our nation’s history.

    In our home state of Colorado, LWCF has been a huge benefactor over the past five decades, contributing approximately $268 million to places like the Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes national parks and hundreds of state and local park projects, including acquisitions at Golden Gate Canyon and Roxborough State Parks — investments that have helped to shape Colorado’s impressive $28 billion annual outdoor recreation economy.

    The City and County of Denver alone has received nearly $4 million in LWCF grants that have supported over 75 projects; $1.2 million of LWCF money was invested along the South Platte River, which began a renewal of Denver’s downtown that continues today. If you’ve ever visited Confluence Park or Denver’s popular Washington Park, then you have enjoyed the benefits provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

    These city parks and others provide a wonderful place to gather with the extended family, eat and enjoy recreation together. Physical activity for our children is critical and, as such, the protection of parks, enabled by LWCF, should be a high priority for all people — no matter the zip code.

    We are all fortunate in Colorado to have both senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner fully on board with permanently authorizing LWCF. With only weeks remaining before the expiration date, now is the “do or die” time for the rest of Congress to get on board and keep the bipartisan promise made to protect America’s public lands, water resources and cultural heritage. Without the certainty of LWCF renewal, Americans everywhere will be deprived of current and future opportunities to enjoy our Great Outdoors, whether that is a wildlife preserve or a community ballpark.

    At zero cost to taxpayers, why would any member of Congress want that to happen?

    Born and raised in Denver’s westside, Paul D. Lopez has been a Denver city councilman for District 3 since 2007.

    Brewing Beer Takes Lots Of Water. That’s Why This Brewery Donates To Conservation Causes — Colorado Public Radio

    From Colorado Public Radio (Nancy Lofholm). Click through to listen to the program:

    Drink beer, help rivers. That’s the mission behind Many Rivers Brewing, a Western Slope craft beer operation that doubles as a conservation project. Many Rivers brews an amber ale and IPA, and 100 percent of the profits from those two beers goes to river improvement projects. The brewery has donated the boozy benefits to the Colorado Riverfront Commission, Mesa Land Trust, Roaring Fork Conservancy and others.

    Tim Carlson, Many Rivers’ beer brewer and board president, talked to Colorado Matters about founding the eco-friendly brewery. Before picking up the pint glass, Carlson was an environmental engineer who spent more than 40 years cleaning up rivers.