“We ought to be able to figure out a way to get some water into #LakePowell without doing harm to anyone” — Patti Wells @AspenJournalism @cwcbbecky #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Looking upriver at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in late September, one of the driest years on record for the Colorado River system. Water managers in both the upper and lower basins are working to get more water to this point in order to bolster the low level of Lake Powell, which is not far downstream.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The state of Colorado is now officially on board with a regional water strategy designed to keep enough water in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam to avoid violating the Colorado River Compact and keep generating hydropower at the dam.

At a meeting Thursday in Golden, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board unanimously adopted a state policy giving its “full support” to proposed drought-contingency plans and agreements now being reviewed in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins.

“I think we’ve really done something important for the state today,” Russ George, a CWCB director from Rifle who represents the Colorado River basin within Colorado, told a meeting room filled with water managers, water users and water attorneys from around the state.

The new policy means Colorado, along with the other upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, can declare its support for the drought-contingency plans (DCP) and agreements at a mid-December meeting in Las Vegas of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

The lower basin states of California and Nevada also are in support of the agreements, but water managers in Arizona are still working through a series of contentious, complicated issues and have yet to reach consensus.

If consensus in both basins can be reached by mid-December, legislation may be introduced during the current lame-duck session of Congress.

A sense of urgency to do something about the falling water levels in Lake Powell has been growing, and was heightened in Colorado in 2018 by the hot and dry conditions.

Lake Powell on Friday, November 15 was at 44 percent full and at an elevation of 3,588 feet above sea level on the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam. That’s 98 feet above the “minimum power pool” level of 3,490 feet.

The reservoir level has dropped by 38 feet in the last year, and water officials are concerned if dry conditions persist, the reservoir could reach the minimum power pool level within three years.

Operations, and reservoir levels, in Lake Powell are tied by regulatory guidelines with levels in Lake Mead, which is 38 percent full today. The new DCP storage pool in Lake Powell would be exempt from the operating guidelines, however, and would serve as a secure, and separate, savings account within Lake Powell for the upper basin states.

A graphic showing the 38-foot-drop in the surface level of Lake Powell over the last year, from the website, lakepowell.water-data.com. Regional water managers want to keep the reservoir above minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet.

Bridging the divide

The new Colorado state policy adopted Thursday was crafted by staff members at the CWCB, a state agency within the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the attorney general’s office to bridge the latest chasm that had emerged between water managers on the Western Slope and the Front Range.

Water officials on both sides of the Continental Divide want to store water in Lake Powell in a regulatory pool controlled by the upper basin, with the goals of first, keeping the reservoir levels high enough to keep producing hydropower at the dam, and second, high enough to continue to release enough water from the dam to meet the upper basin’s downstream obligations under the Colorado River compact.

But exactly how water that is now being consumed by farmers and ranchers and city dwellers will be conserved and sent downstream to fill the new pool in Lake Powell is uncertain, and a key issue is whether the state might require mandatory cuts in water use to fill the new pool to avoid a compact call.

The Western Slope, lead by the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, also wanted the state to help ensure that the creation of the new pool of water didn’t lead to a buy-and-dry of irrigated agriculture on the Western Slope.

And they wanted assurances that the state would use a public process to devise any new rules or laws requiring mandatory cutbacks in water use, should low water conditions persist.

Meanwhile, Front Range water interests wanted to make sure that the state didn’t tie its own hands and restrict its abilities to take steps to avoid a compact.

The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, in September 2018. Most of the water that flows into Lake Powell each year flows past this remote spot in Canyonlands National Park.

Responsive to concerns

The state’s new policy says it will use an open public process to create a “demand management,” or water-use reduction, program that incentivizes water users — primarily irrigators — to temporarily cut back on their consumptive use of water, in exchange for monetary compensation.

And if mandatory cutbacks in water use are ever necessary, “any alternative measures or rules for compact compliance administration” will be developed after “timely and extensive public outreach” and with “the goal, but not the requirement, of achieving general consensus within the state,” the policy says.

“The CWCB was very responsive to our request that they display state leadership in establishing a policy that going forward provides some security for the Western Slope and other regions of the state, and that no one region is going to suffer the brunt of a demand-management program,” said Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, after the meeting.

Mueller also said the CWCB “clearly separated demand management from some form of involuntary curtailment. It was very important to do that, as they are two different things.”

Both Mueller and Bruce Whitehead, the general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, thanked the CWCB board for listening to their concerns, and drafting a policy that attempted to address them.

“This was a hot topic,” said Whitehead.

Between the two, the Colorado River District and the Southwestern District represent all of the Western Slope. Both Mueller and Whitehead said they will recommend to their boards that they formally endorse the state’s policy at their upcoming board meetings.

The Front Range Water Council, an ad hoc group that includes the major municipal water providers between Fort Collins and Pueblo, sent the CWCB a letter of support for the DCP policy, urging adoption “without any changes.”

“Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of public input on this topic of critical importance to Colorado, and for developing a policy that will allow Colorado to engage in further processes that will protect our collective interests in the Colorado River and Upper Colorado River compacts,” said the letter, which was signed by Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the head of the Front Range Water Council.

Patti Wells, who represents the Denver metro area on the CWCB, said it was important that Colorado not be split by differences between the east and west slopes.

“There clearly is more that unites us in the ability for Colorado not to be subject to a compact call, then there is in the details of how we might avoid that,” she said.

She also challenged water managers to come up with a demand-management program that “makes everyone better off.”

“We ought to be able to figure out a way to get some water into Lake Powell without doing harm to anyone, and really making it a program that will benefit all the participants to the extent that we can,” said Wells, who recently retired as the general counsel for Denver Water. “I see no reason why we can’t approach this in that way, because we are Coloradans for God’s sake, and we are not anyone else.”

Still in drought, Colorado sees snowy, cold start to 2019 water year — @AspenJournalism @DWR_CO @CWCB_DNR

US Drought Monitor November 13, 2018.

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

Colorado closed out its second-driest water year on record Sept. 30, with 72 percent of the state in some level of drought.

The water year, which started October 1 of 2017, was marked by abnormally high temperatures, low precipitation and some of the largest fires in Colorado history, but state climate scientists and hydrologists say the 2019 water year, which began Oct. 1, is off to a much better start.

“We are trending towards the path of a good or near-average water year,” Becky Bolinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said at a statewide water-availability task force meeting Tuesday in Denver.

Colorado Drought Monitor November 13, 2018.

Still dry

October and the first half of November saw above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures in most of the state. While much of this precipitation along the Front Range will have little bearing on the water year as a whole, the heavy snowfall in the mountains near Grand Junction, on the Western Slope, will probably stick around until spring.

Despite a good start to the 2019 water year, water managers warn that a few early snowstorms will do little to lift Colorado from its water problems. The state has been in water-shortage conditions for almost two decades.

“I continue to be skeptical,” Russ George, a board member representing the Colorado River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said during the board’s meeting Thursday. “We know — and we need to keep telling the public — that this moisture doesn’t solve the Lake Powell problem.”

Lake Powell, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, has dropped more than 94 feet since the year 2000 and is now 44-percent full.

If the reservoir falls much further, it will be below “minimum power pool,” and water will not be able to flow through the penstocks in the upstream face of the dam down to turbines near the base of the dam.

And if water levels drop even further, the surface of the reservoir will be below the level of the outlet pipes in the dam, and not enough water will be sent downstream to meet the legal obligations of the upper basin states as required by the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

The threat of El Niño has also tempered water managers’ celebration about recent snowfall.

Climate models show an 80 to 90 percent chance for a winter El Niño. The weather phenomenon typically causes drier weather in the northern part of North America and wetter weather in the south.

Since Colorado falls in the middle of the continent, El Niño weather patterns are hard to predict for the state, but past El Niños have left most of the mountains on the Western Slope drier than normal and sent large amounts of snow to the state’s southeastern corner.

Although an El Niño could be bad news for Western Slope ski resorts and limit the mountain snowpack that feeds the rest of the state, it could help alleviate drought conditions in the Four Corners region.

This section of the state experienced its worst drought this year since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. To meet summer demand, the region drew down its reservoir storage to record levels and will need a wet winter to recoup those reserves.

“There’s a lot of winter to come, but that’s an encouraging start,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map November 14, 2018 via the NRCS.

Governor Hickenlooper’s proposed budget include $30 million for implementation of the #COWaterPlan

Gov. John Hickenlooper touts his water plan as pioneering. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

from The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta):

On Thursday, several Colorado conservation and river advocacy groups praised Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposal to add a record $30 million to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and help the state prevent water shortages as the state continues to experience an extended drought.

In his budget request for fiscal year 2019-2020, the governor proposes to invest $30 million over the next three years from the general fund, on top of funds already earmarked for water projects that benefit river health and our communities across the state.

The groups – Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Environmental Defense Fund, Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Colorado, American Rivers and Audubon ­­— called the proposal a “smart investment in healthy rivers that will have ripple effects across Colorado.”

“This budget request is a recognition of the importance of water to Colorado families, of water challenges that Colorado could face, and the imperative that Colorado secures its water future,” the groups said. “This is a tremendous step forward, and a sustainable water future for Colorado families will require continued investments. We look forward to working with the next governor and the legislature on longer-term commitments that will ensure the state has the resources to fully implement the Colorado Water Plan.”

Western Slope wants limits on water sent to #LakePowell in response to #drought — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A big beach during sunset in Cataract Canyon, above Lake Powell, on Oct. 1, 2018. Low flows in the Green and Colorado rivers have left Lake Powell less than half full and left big beaches along the rivers above the falling reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Western Slope water managers have doubled down on their position that they will oppose federal legislation creating a new regulated pool of water to boost the falling level of Lake Powell unless Colorado adopts a policy that the pool should be filled only on a voluntary basis.

At a well-attended water meeting last week, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that without a new state policy putting limits on how water can be stored in the big reservoir, “You will find that our district, the Southwest District and hopefully others will be, frankly, opposing the federal legislation.”

Mueller said his district and the Southwestern Water Conservancy District “have to have those guidelines” in order to protect agriculture on the Western Slope, a stance first expressed by both districts in September.

In response to the Western Slope’s concerns, a policy on how to fill a new “demand management storage” pool in Lake Powell is being drafted by the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for review by the agency’s directors Nov. 15.

“I can’t say with certainty, but I believe that policy will be established and will allay the concerns that we’ve heard,” Steve Anderson, a CWCB board member representing the Gunnison River Basin, said Tuesday at the meeting.

But there may be still be a gap between the protections the Western Slope wants and the Front Range’s stance, which is that it may be necessary to fill the proposed pool of water in Lake Powell through mandatory cutbacks in water use if voluntary efforts are not enough.

Water managers from Southern California to Wyoming are watching the ongoing debate because if Colorado can’t reach a consensus, an ongoing effort to establish a “drought contingency planning” program could falter.

Draft “DCP” agreements are now under review in seven states. They would change the way water is stored in Lake Mead, which primarily affects the lower Colorado River Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

In the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the DCP agreements would set up a process to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, if necessary.

The agreements also would create a pool of water in Lake Powell that would be shielded from current regulations that balance water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Regional water officials are working hard to gain widespread consensus by Dec. 14 for the DCP agreements in both the upper and lower basins, and given how slow water policy usually moves, it’s a tight timeline.

The necessary federal legislation to implement the program may be introduced during the coming lame-duck session in Congress, and any significant opposition to the legislation, such as that from the Colorado River district, could derail the effort.

And the differing views between Western Slope and Front Range water managers now appear to be the largest obstacle to gaining consensus in the four upper-basin states.

“I’m not aware of any other issue that has risen to the top like this,” said Amy Haas, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which is coordinating the upper basin’s drought contingency efforts. “I know that some discussions have been difficult in other states, but not to this degree.”

Officials on both the Western Slope and the Front Range do agree on many aspects of demand management storage in Lake Powell, which is designed to keep Glen Canyon Dam both producing hydropower and releasing enough water to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

They agree that such a program should include equitable reductions in the use of water from both sides of the Continental Divide.

And they agree that the effort should start with a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” approach, with the goal of incentivizing irrigators to fallow fields and send the conserved water downriver to Lake Powell.

But where they differ is the potential use of mandatory reductions in water use if voluntary measures are not enough to keep Glen Canyon Dam operating as usual.

In a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River and the Southwestern districts said the state must declare that “Colorado’s contributions to the demand management program will be generated exclusively through voluntary, temporary and compensated contributions of water.”

The key word there is “exclusively.”

The two districts also said they were concerned “that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted.”

Meanwhile, the Front Range Water Council, which includes the biggest water providers from Pueblo to Fort Collins, told the CWCB in a Sept. 13 letter that if there is not enough water generated through a voluntary program, the state “may wish to pursue alternative measures to ensure continued compliance with the Colorado River Compact.”

To Western Slope officials, “alternative measures” sounds like mandatory “anticipatory curtailment,” where water rights are cut back by the state to avoid a compact call.

State officials continue to stress that the state is not developing a mandatory curtailment program and is only focusing on a voluntary program.

However, the Colorado River District’s Mueller has been telling Western Slope water managers that the Front Range, which uses large amounts of water from the Colorado River, is eager for mandatory curtailment.

“There are major water users, major interests in this state on the Front Range, who are talking about that,” Mueller said Tuesday at the water meeting, which was attended by about 200 Western Slope water managers and users. “Because they either don’t think we are going to get the money for a voluntary program or maybe they see advantages to be had in mandatory curtailment.”

But Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the president of the Front Range Water Council, on Friday rejected Mueller’s assertions that it was pushing for mandatory curtailment.

“That’s not our preference, that’s not our hope, that’s not what we want to see — it’s just reality,” Lochhead said. “It may happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But it’s not something we’re rolling out, and the first priority should be voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

But he also said, “At the end of the day, if we’re in trouble from a compact standpoint, the state is going to have to exercise its authority.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Oct. 29. The Summit Daily News published the story in its print edition on Oct. 30.

PARCHED: #ClimateChange and growth are pushing #Colorado toward a water crisis — @COindependent #COWaterPlan

From The Colorado Independent (Susan Greene):

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water plan has been big on collaboration, but short on action. He’ll leave the toughest decisions to his successor.

Russian thistle in dry former Lake Powell along the Colorado River in Hite, October 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado had plenty of reasons to worry about water by the time it elected John Hickenlooper in 2010.

The state was in its 11th year of drought. The health of its rivers was waning. And early projections of a statewide shortfall had cities and suburbs starting to stress out.

More urgent concerns have surfaced over Hickenlooper’s two terms as governor.

The drought has now lasted 19 years. Low precipitation and hotter temperatures have cut river flows by nearly 20 percent, with no end in sight. And the Colorado River, the state’s main source of water, is over-tapped to the point of possible federal intervention.

Colorado’s population, in the meantime, has skyrocketed with help from Hickenlooper’s pro-growth agenda, while its main source of water funding has proven unreliable. Ranchers are auctioning their cattle early because vegetation is so dry. Trout this past summer were too hot and sluggish to put up a fair fight. And nearly all Coloradans could smell the smoky urgency as wildfires burned our parched forests.

The “dry heat” that used to seem like a plus in Colorado has started, increasingly, to seem like a minus.

Hickenlooper has touted his administration’s 567-page water manifesto as the answer to a looming shortfall in which the state’s water demands are expected to exceed its supply. “Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms and incomparable environment,” he said when releasing it in 2015.

“We are not at a crisis,” he told The Colorado Independent earlier this month. “I don’t think (Coloradans) should be hysterical, but I think it’s a necessary concern for everyone.”

Factors both in and out of Hickenlooper’s control, however, have cast doubts about Colorado’s ability to avert a water shortage. Though the governor with the glass-half-full outlook has raised awareness about the state’s water supply problems, he’ll leave office in January without a strategy on how, specifically, to solve them. A growing chorus of experts says his failure to put forth lasting solutions has left Colorado in hot water.

“We’re not goring oxes any more.”

Colorado’s governors typically have acted as referees rather than visionaries on water policy, if they’ve acted at all. Hickenlooper set out to make a difference in 2013 when he ordered the first statewide water plan to stave off what at that point was projected to be a shortfall in 2050.

By most accounts, he didn’t engage in the specifics. But he saw to it that planners invited input from farmers and ranchers, anglers, rafters and kayakers, environmentalists, and industrial users and municipal users, meaning those of us who hope to keep washing our dishes and showering. All told, his administration likes to note, some 30,000 Coloradans commented on the plan as it was being drafted.

It fell to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a division of the state Natural Resources Department, to write a plan that reflected the state’s diverse water interests and put them in the broader context of 19th century water laws and 20th century legal obligations to keep the Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Colorado rivers flowing to neighboring states.

Released in November 2015, the plan calls for gleaning 500,000 acre-feet of additional water a year – or enough to supply nearly a million people – to avoid the projected shortfall. It seeks to achieve 80 percent of that through conservation, 10 percent through storing more water in aquifers or reservoirs created by new dams, and 10 percent through temporary water transfers from agriculture.

An unusable dock at Green Mountain Reservoir, October 2018. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Environmentalists, though unhappy with the prospect of more dams, applauded the plan for acknowledging the effects climate change is having on water supplies. (Utah’s water plan avoids that subject altogether.) They, along with members of Colorado’s $28-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry, saw it as a victory that the plan seeks to keep as much water as possible flowing in rivers.

Farmers and ranchers, though fearful that those environmental goals might threaten their water rights, embraced the plan’s commitment to preserving agriculture at a time when massive swaths of farmland and the water rights tied to them are being sold off to cities. That practice, known as “buy and dry,” has, along with urban sprawl, caused Colorado to lose about 1 percent of its agricultural acreage a year since the turn of the century.

For the officials who run municipal water districts, the plan didn’t much affect their efforts to keep water flowing from the faucets, toilets and sprinkler systems of the 90 percent of Coloradans who live in cities and suburbs. Though most of those districts were already managing their limited supplies, they embraced the spirit of statewide collaboration with agriculture and environmentalists that Hickenlooper says is needed to work out solutions.

That spirit, that ethos that “we’re joined at the hip,” as the governor puts it, has earned his water plan props in a state that is said to have coined the term “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” Those who’ve worked around water policy long enough to remember the bitter, two decade-long fight over the proposed Two Forks Dam see the kinder, gentler approach as the only path forward.

“Colorado’s water world badly needed a new construct,” said Melinda Kassen, a Colorado-based water policy expert with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “What the water plan does is make a shift in who needs to be at the table, and insist that there be a table instead of just litigation in the first place.

“We’re not about goring oxes any more.”

“Because this administration opened lines of communication about water,” added CWCB Director Becky Mitchell, “we’re in a better place than before Gov. Hickenlooper took office.”

Where the plan falls short

For all its big ideas about collaboration, the state water plan lacks specifics.

Its broad-brush, aspirational goals have left water users in all sectors wondering about details. Some are asking how, for example, the state will be able to preserve its farming and ranching heritage while also quenching the needs of population growth, which long has been slurping up agricultural water supplies. Others wonder how, especially in a prolonged drought, the state will manage to store more water in aquifers and reservoirs while simultaneously keeping more water flowing in rivers.

“There are a lot of ideas in that plan that seem, to me at least, mutually exclusive,” said Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. “If you ask me, it’s all feel-good words with nothing concrete coming out of it. I mean, they’re not even working with current numbers.”

Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

By numbers, Schmidt means data projecting water demands and supplies. CWCB’s last comprehensive set of projections, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), was released in 2011 but was based on 2008 data that didn’t factor in climate change. Those were the numbers upon which the projected 2050 water shortfall was based.

James Eklund, who ran the Colorado Water Conservation Board while the plan was being written, told The Colorado Independent in 2015 that a new SWSI would be ready in 2016. Months later, he pushed that date to early 2017. That deadline came and went as Eklund quit for a job as a private water lawyer. Mitchell, the state water planner who replaced him at CWCB’s helm, said the agency had been having problems coming up with roughly $2 million to pay for the study, which is now expected for completion in July 2019, three years behind schedule.

“We were overly optimistic about when we could get it out,” said Greg Johnson, the state’s chief of water supply planning.

Some experts question the wisdom of having released a water plan based on such outdated numbers. Tying the plan to more accurate supply and demand projections, they say, would have offered a clearer picture of Colorado’s water realities and conveyed to policy makers a more pressing sense of urgency.

That urgency stems not just from the fact that 19 years of drought have dropped significantly less snow in Colorado’s high country, but also from research showing hotter temperatures are causing what water there is to evaporate or be absorbed by plants at alarming rates. A study by Colorado State University shows that from 2000 to 2014, flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below those recorded the previous 93 years. Similar shifts could be seen this past summer when the state had to set unprecedented use restrictions on the Yampa and Crystal rivers to keep them from running dry.

Hydrologists note that so much has changed in their projections that they are no longer referring to the 19-year dry spell as a drought because that term implies a return to 20th century snowpack levels, which they say is not going to happen. If temperature and precipitation trends continue, as they are expected to, CSU’s data shows Colorado’s water supplies would diminish another 15 percent more by 2050 in addition to the 19 percent decrease that already has taken place.

“That 34 percent turns this drought from a serious challenge to a disaster,” said CSU hydrologist Brad Udall, co-author of the CSU study (and former member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors). “Policy makers need to be paying attention, close attention, to this data.”

Map courtesy of Colorado State University

Aside from updated data, the water plan also lacks specifics on strategy. The planners assigned to write it struggled for more than a year with the last section, Chapter 10, which promised to lay out “measurable objectives, goals, and critical actions,” and was meant to be the plan part of the plan.

But a close read of that chapter shows very few measurable goals for which the administration can be held to account. The plan underscores the importance of “instream flows” – keeping more water in rivers to protect their ecological balance – for example, but avoids setting levels for what those flows should be. Without those kind of specifics, critics say it’s toothless.

“I found that incredibly frustrating,” said Amy Beatie, former executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that buys and leases water so it can be returned to rivers. “We need more than conceptual agreement. We need specific expectations and goals before we’ll see any real progress.”

The administration’s reluctance to commit to specific strategies is perhaps most apparent in the way it has structured decision-making. Under the plan, nine “roundtable” groups – representing Colorado’s eight river basins plus metro Denver water users – are free to choose which water projects should receive state funding.

“You’d think that if they’re spending the state’s money, there would be a clear articulation by the state of the objectives for that spending,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, Colorado’s biggest municipal water district. “Instead, what you get with that type of bottoms-up approach is a grab bag, a something-for-everyone dynamic that’s not particularly effective in advancing a statewide vision.”

Lochhead is a former state Department of Natural Resources director who served as Colorado’s lead water negotiator under three governors. Although he has described Hickenlooper’s willingness to create a water plan as an “act of political courage,” he has been saying for three years that the end product is not a plan at all, but rather a “compendium of ideas and platitudes.”

He is especially critical that Hickenlooper has not done more to address the impact urban sprawl is having on water supplies. He says the administration should have made more progress helping to establish water markets to allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights without losing them long term. And he cites what he calls the state’s “failure” to not eliminate regulatory impediments to water reuse and recycling projects and to not speed up permitting processes that, for example, have delayed Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir for almost 20 years.

“A commitment to collaboration is all well and good, but it’s not going to get us there,” Lochhead said. “Somebody needs be more aggressive in making some real decisions on where we’re going to come up with enormous amounts of water. But that’s not going to happen, at least under this administration.”

More than a dozen municipal and state water officials interviewed over the past year have echoed Lochhead’s frustrations, but would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs or jeopardizing their agencies’ working relationships. Almost all said the water plan lacks clear strategic goals. And several felt that the public engagement aspect took on absurd proportions. Though they laud efforts to seek public comments while the plan was being drafted, they say the administration’s insistence that the number of comments reach into the tens of thousands had less to do with an authentic interest in those comments than it did an interest in inoculating the plan from criticism.

One Front Range water manager who asked not to be named likened state water planners, during the public comment phase, to “those kids in high school who rushed around asking everybody to sign their yearbook.” The manager added: “The thinking seemed to be that the more people they got to comment, the more validating or popular … the plan would seem. It’s kind of hard to take a plan like that seriously.”

For all the time and the nearly $4 million the administration put into creating the water plan, Beatie, the Colorado Water Trust’s former executive director, says she expected it would reflect what she calls “the strategic heart of Colorado’s water community” – an honest recognition that “there’s not enough water right now, right here, for progress, real progress not to hurt.”

“But what they came up with is basically just a multi-page tome that’s more narrative than a plan. It’s just a giant thing that just sits on everybody’s desk.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper touts his water plan as pioneering. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

Hickenlooper dismisses criticism that his plan lacks depth, saying, “One of the most important things we laid out are sets of priorities.”

“Any time you try to do something for the first time and you are … a pioneer, you’re going to get some challenges,” he added. “We knew it was going to be hard and that’s why we tried to engage so many people in the process.”

Who should conserve

The governor raised the hopes of environmentalists and water policy reformers in his 2014 State of the State address by saying that “any conversation about water needs to start with conservation.” The “C” word long had been left out of statewide water discussions.

It still is.

That’s because Hickenlooper’s plan puts the entire conservation burden on municipal districts, whose users consume about 8 percent of the state’s water. The plan expects virtually no conservation from agriculture, which consumes about 87 percent.

The governor defends the approach, saying, “Denver Water and all the utilities along the Front Range” have “a moral obligation” to “conserve as much as humanly possible,” and also an obligation to help “sustain food supplies.”

Colorado’s biggest municipal water districts say their conservation programs are meeting those obligations.

Denver Water has reduced per-capita water consumption by 25 percent and says it’s using about the same amount of water district-wide since 2000 despite the addition of about 250,000 more customers. The agency serves about a quarter of Colorado’s population with 2 percent of the state’s water.

“We and the other Front Range water utilities are all basically moving as fast as we can through water efficiency. It’s not something we need to be told to do or incentivized to do by the state. It’s something that we’ve been doing and paying for by ourselves for a long time,” Lochhead said.

Aurora Water has more junior water rights than Denver’s water rights and has started quenching many of its customers’ needs with a $653-million reuse project that turns Platte River water captured downstream of Denver’s wastewater treatment plant into drinkable water. Fast-growing communities such as Castle Rock and Parker have similar projects in the works.

Though most of Colorado’s large municipal water districts are willingly embracing further conservation efforts, their managers say the additional water they’ll collectively be able to save won’t be nearly enough to meet Hickenlooper’s 400,000 acre-foot statewide conservation goal.

“The numbers aren’t realistic because the margins don’t make sense. It’s not feasible to expect all the conservation to come from municipalities when they don’t use even close to most of the water in the state,” said Alexandra Davis, Aurora Water’s deputy director and head of its water resources division.

“What the plan doesn’t say – what nobody will say out loud – is that some of the conservation burden is going to have to fall on agriculture because there’s nowhere else for it to come from. It just is. We need to face that idea rather than pretending that agriculture doesn’t need to be part of this equation.”

That equation, Davis and other municipal water bosses say, needs to address what they describe as enormous amounts of water being wasted by flood irrigation techniques and by seepage from the unlined, dirt ditches through which water is still delivered to many farms and ranches. If cityfolk and suburbanites have to use water more efficiently, they argue that countryfolk should, too.

John Harold, a sweet corn grower in Olathe, is one of the few growers who’ll agree, at least publicly.

“What you see out here are farmers buying all kinds of fancy new tractors but using irrigation methods and open ditches that are more than 100 years old,” he said.

“We’ve got to wake up and become more efficient. But, unfortunately, you have to hit most farmers with a sledgehammer to get them to realize that.”

Others say it’s a myth that farms waste massive amounts of water, and a misconception that more efficient farming and ranching practices could save enough to make a significant difference in the statewide conservation goal.

“That portrayal of us as big water wasters, it’s offensive,” said Paul Kehmeier, a farmer in Eckert who says his 93-year-old father Norman raised him, like Norman’s father and grandfather before him, to use only what’s needed.

Unlined water ditch in Fort Collins. (Photo by Tina Griego)

As Kehmeier tells it, water delivered through the kind of unlined dirt ditches his forebearers built “isn’t being wasted” through seepage, “it’s just being rerouted to natural drainage.” He says any amount that could be saved through lining those canals would be “marginal.” Likewise, he adds, it would make no significant difference if he watered his alfalfa “using flood irrigation or using an eyedropper” – “those alfalfa are going to consume the same amount of water to grow, no matter what.”

That viewpoint is shared by some outside the agricultural community. Anne Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science in the Obama administration’s Interior Department, agrees that “agricultural efficiency doesn’t necessarily save water.”

“So it’s a hard question about what additional contribution agriculture should make,” said Castle, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado. She said expects that economics, not efficiency efforts, will ultimately drive agriculture’s role in helping to avert a statewide water shortfall.

A leap of faith

Colorado’s water law system is predicated on the notion of “beneficial use” – meaning that water must be “used,” even if that means wasted, in order for users to keep their rights to it. That system long has created a built-in disincentive for farmers and ranchers to conserve.

It also has led to suspicions about “alternative transfer mechanisms,” the kind of economic incentive on which Hickenlooper’s water plan is banking. ATMs are deals in which farmers or ranchers are paid to temporarily fallow their land and transfer their water rights for municipal use or conservation purposes. Water planners tout them as a flexible way to save more water as prolonged drought and population growth are putting firmer demands on state supplies.

“The key word here is ‘flexible,’ meaning that by changing cropping patterns temporarily – which is something agriculture has a long history of doing – these are short-term solutions when there’s a squeeze,” said Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as chief of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

But few growers have been willing to agree to such deals, fearing that the process will strip them of their water rights.

“Farmers, from my perspective, don’t like change. They also don’t like risk,” said CSU’s Udall. “For these things to work, farmers need to believe they won’t lose their water.”

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

In the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District – which spans from Brighton north to Greeley, and east to Fort Morgan – not even one grower has been willing to make that leap of faith. The concern, says Executive Director Randy Ray, is that even temporary water transfers like ATMs require applicants to go to water court and quantify their “yield” – the amount of water their farms or ranches use. Once a yield is quantified, it’s open to public examination, which can trigger long and expensive battles in which more junior water rights holders pose challenges, sometimes trying to degrade or devalue the applicant’s senior water rights. Ray likens that process to getting an involuntary haircut.

“Once you go to water court to quantify your yield, you make yourself vulnerable to getting scalped. Nobody wants to take that risk, at least around here.”

Some 340 miles to the west in Eckert, Paul Kehmeier rolled the dice on the land his great-grandparents homesteaded in 1894. In the hierarchy of water rights, his are senior – and valuable.

When the drought hit in 2001, he and his father Norman figured it would pass the way other dry spells had on the West Slope. Farmers, Kehmeier notes, are “eternal optimists.”

But in 2016, after a decade and a half of drought conditions, father and son decided that waiting for more rain and snowmelt would be less an act of optimism than of foolishness. And so they agreed to participate in a pilot project with CSU and the Nature Conservancy whereby, for a price, they stopped irrigating about 60 acres of land from late June through mid-September of that year and let the water flow “down the creek” into the Gunnison River, then to the Colorado River. The deal was part of a larger project funded by the Walton (as in Walmart) Family Foundation to test the efficacy of water markets in Colorado.

“The only way to meaningfully conserve water in agriculture is to not grow crops, plain and simple. And the only way to make that happen is to make it worth a farmer’s while financially,” said Kehmeier, who was pleased with the outcome and would agree to similar water transfers in the future.

Although he said he and family appreciate what he calls “all the nostalgia and warm feelings about agriculture” put forth in Hickenlooper’s water plan, they realize that “when push comes to shove, (municipal) users with the political power and money are going to get what they want, and everybody knows that.

“I don’t think we can turn back the tide.”

The funding question

Paying farmers to send water “down the creek” on a scale large enough to achieve meaningful savings will require money. Lots of it. And the most frequent criticism of Hickenlooper’s water strategy is that nobody knows where that money will come from.

Even the water plan’s price tag has been questionable.

Eklund said in 2015 that implementing the plan would cost $20 billion. He wouldn’t specify which water priorities and projects that amount would fund. Rather, he said that his estimate was a rough, “back-of-the-napkin” analysis that considered “numerous funding areas.”

Weeks after her appointment as Eklund’s successor in 2017, Mitchell put the water plan’s price tag at what she called “a more realistic $40 billion.” That higher price included water quality projects and funding to restore flows and ecosystems in Colorado’s rivers.

Hickenlooper’s pro-business-, pro-development-, and PR-sensitive office cringed at that disclosure. Over the past year, Mitchell has reined the figure back to $20 billion. “It’s what we can do, reasonably, as a state,” she now says.

Of the $20 billion, about $16 billion is expected to come from municipal water districts via consumer water rates, and another $1 billion from federal grants and revenues from the state severance tax. That tax, levied on oil and gas companies for drilling, long has been Colorado’s biggest source of water funding. Revenues were at $68 million annually in fiscal year 2014-2015, but took a nosedive in fiscal year 2015-2016 just as the water plan was being released. State officials have decided that severance tax revenues fluctuate too dramatically to reliably carry out the water plan.

That leaves a funding gap of more than $3 billion for parts of the plan that don’t already have revenue streams. Those include subsidizing conservation by municipal water districts in economically depressed parts of the state, paying to rehabilitate streams and rivers after decades of over-depletion, and paying farmers like the Kehmeiers to temporarily fallow their land.

Hickenlooper will leave office in January without having identified a way to fill that funding gap. “Some of the funding is still not locked down,” he acknowledges. His departure comes just as a new development on the Colorado River has created additional pressure – one far more urgent than a looming shortfall in 2050 – to conserve.

The federal government has given Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah until the end of the year to agree on a plan to send more water to Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in which the four Upper Basin states store Colorado River water, to ensure they can meet their contractual obligations to deliver a certain amount annually to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Lake Powell is less than half full after years of drought and overuse. If Colorado fails to conserve enough water to help replenish it or otherwise meet the terms of the “drought contingency plan” the Upper Basin states are currently negotiating, the feds could step in and curtail our access to river water.

Rain above Hite Crossing. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

“If the same hydrology (patterns) that started in 2001 continue, Lake Powell will be dry within three years. It is a very serious situation, an existential threat that we need to be acting on sooner rather than later,” Lochhead said, noting that the state’s water strategy needs to be more proactive than simply hoping we have a few big snow years “To me, that’s not preparing. We’re staring a crisis in the face.”

“We have to get after it,” added CU’s Castle. “Every year we wait, it gets worse.”

Tom Gougeon is president of the Denver-based Gates (as in Gates Rubber Company) Family Foundation, which funds ways of balancing Colorado’s disparate water needs. Given that “there’s a lot of stress on the system right now,” he says it’s important to harness “that sense of impatience and urgency.”

Gates has an ally in the even deeper-pocketed Walton Family Foundation, the biggest private funder of sustainable water projects on the planet. Walton has taken a special interest in funding conservation projects and water banks along the Colorado River.

Recognizing that Colorado can’t wait for Hickenlooper’s successor to come up with a funding source, the two philanthropies have formed a 25-member working group to make a recommendation.

“This plan is only as valuable if it has secure, sustainable funding to support it,” said Ted Kowalski, the head of Walton’s Colorado River Initiative.

Made up of experts representing a wide variety of water interests throughout the state, the working group is considering a bottle tax, a tourism tax, and a tax on sports betting as possible funding options. Whichever of those or other methods it picks, the goal is to raise $100 million in revenues annually, totalling $3.2 billion by 2050, the year in which the shortfall is currently projected.

The group aims to come up with a suggested funding plan in the next few weeks, then urge lawmakers to start crafting bills for the 2019 session, which starts when Hickenlooper leaves office in January.

In the meantime, a state-organized group called the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) is attempting a parallel effort to come up with a water funding recommendation, but sources close to those talks say they’re languishing.

By most accounts, it’s easier for philanthropies to prod movement because they don’t face the political pressures that politicians do. Hickenlooper is eyeing a bid for president.

“We don’t operate on two- or four- or six-year terms. We’re uniquely situated in asking people to participate in the conversation because we can have a longer view,” said Kowalski.

Added Gougeon: “The fact that we’re not the decision makers, I think, gives us the freedom to explore these possibilities.”

Water, post-Hickenlooper

Whichever funding option is recommended, it will likely require voter approval. The working group is eyeing the 2020 ballot, allowing almost two years to educate Coloradans about statewide water needs.

But state Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, wants to push for a ballot issue in 2019: “The truth is that Colorado doesn’t have the luxury of waiting,” he said.

Parched lakebed of Green Mountain Reservoir, October 2018. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Regardless of which year, there will be obstacles. A long list of other statewide needs – such as education, health care, rural broadband, and possibly transportation – will be competing for state funding. And Coloradans have a less than stellar record of approving water taxes. Voters in 2003 soundly rejected a statewide water funding ballot measure in a defeat blamed largely on the fact that the initiative gave no specifics about which water projects it would fund. Politicos say a future measure, if it’s to succeed, would need to be more specific than the 2003 effort and than Hickenlooper’s 2015 water plan.

It will be in the ironing out of those specifics and deciding which water projects would and wouldn’t be funded that one of Colorado’s most outspoken water watchdogs expects the spirit of collaboration at the core of Hickenlooper’s water plan could break…

As Castle, the former Interior Department undersecretary, tells it, “It will require dedicated leadership at the highest levels in order to make progress” convincing voters to approve a statewide water tax and leading Coloradans to conserve enough water to start replenishing Lake Powell.

“I don’t know the extent to which either of the two candidates (for governor) will prioritize achieving some of these goals,” she said.

Neither Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis nor Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has much experience with water policy. Neither tends to raise the issue on the campaign trail. And neither particularly impressed their audiences when speaking to state and local water officials at the Colorado Water Congress in August. In prepared remarks that Stapleton recited like a term paper and Polis delivered with a notable lack of energy, both said they’d carry out the water plan and find a way to raise the $100 million a year to do so.

Stapleton seemed to favor sports gambling as a funding option. He hedged when asked about climate change’s effects on water resources. And he said the state will need to build new ways to store water because “conservation won’t get us where we need to go.” Some water wonks bristled when he mispronounced the word aquifer.

Polis emphasized a heavy investment in conservation and water efficiency. He said “growth needs to pay its own way” when it comes to water infrastructure. And he said he would oppose any transmountain diversions (projects carrying water from the West Slope to the Front Range) “that are not universally agreed upon.”

Both campaigns since have refused to answer The Independent’s questions about the specifics of their candidates’ water stances.

“I would like to hear more specifics from them about some of the fundamental policy issues. I think a lot of people would,” Lochhead said. “My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough. Things need to move more quickly, a lot more quickly, than they are today.”

Whichever candidate wins in November will have to persuade state lawmakers and voters from urban areas – who already will be shouldering 80 percent of the cost of implementing the plan through their water rates – to agree to an additional water tax.

He also will have fences to mend with folks who’ve complained that Hickenlooper’s administration has iced them out about where state water policy is headed.

In September, a group of West Slope water users slammed Eklund (the former CWCB director whom Hickenlooper kept as Colorado’s lead negotiator on the Colorado River), accusing him of a lack of transparency about his talks with other Upper Basin states on how to manage water in severe drought and replenish Lake Powell. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, had especially harsh words about what he saw as Eklund’s refusal to keep his group apprised on the agreement to bank water in Lake Powell. Growers on the West Slope fear that water banking efforts could strip them of their water rights.

“We haven’t seen those documents that are about to be executed. We’ve been told that we don’t need to see them. We’re not OK with that. We don’t think it’s acceptable. We think those documents need to be shared with us and frankly the impact of those documents needs to be shared with the water users of the Western Slope and the state of Colorado,” Mueller was quoted last month by The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.

His remarks called into question how “joined at the hip” statewide water interests really are, despite Hickenlooper’s push for collaboration and trust.

Eklund since has shared the details Mueller sought, but continues to be distrusted not just on the West Slope, but also among some of his former state colleagues and other water officials who have questioned whether his work practicing water and infrastructure law at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs conflicts with his representation of the state on Colorado River issues. In response, he says he won’t make his client list public. “My firm wouldn’t allow that.”

Though he has advised Polis on water, infrastructure and regulatory issues, Eklund says he’s not vying for another political appointment. “I’m not interested in a position with a Polis administration, or a Stapleton administration, for that matter,” he told The Independent Sunday.

He says he has told Polis what he tells anyone who asks about the water challenges Colorado is facing: “That at this point, we’ve not been doing the kind of conservation that we need to bend the curve at Lake Powell, and that Colorado’s governor will need to oversee and encourage scaling up by the entire water community for it to do any good. That’ll take leadership right now, when it’s hard for me to overstate the urgency that we face on this river.”

Eklund lauds Hickenlooper for setting a tone of collaboration not just in Colorado, but with the six other Colorado River states with whom he negotiates. That approach, that ethos of “we can work together to control our destiny,” he said, “has become our brand as a state.”

“Governor Hickenlooper believes that our brand can be exported.”

Leadership on water and other environmental issues requires a certain art in messaging, the ability to strike a balance of conveying urgency without creating panic. Udall underscores this point by quoting Colorado physicist and environmental activist Amory Lovins: “You can’t depress people into action.”

“In politics, being a doomsdayer doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Udall, the son of a congressman and presidential candidate, nephew of an interior secretary, and brother of a U.S. senator. “This state has more positive things going on than anywhere else in the West. We have a lot of really good people here trying to come up with solutions. Are they trying hard? For the most part, yes. Are they doing enough? No.”

As Udall tells it, Colorado needs more than branding to avert a water crisis.

“Climate change is coming at us faster than anyone expected just a few years ago. The wheels are coming off and nobody seems to be responding quickly enough,” he said. “We need leaders willing to take swifter action.”

#ColoradoRiver District wants state policy on potential water-use cutbacks — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification @ColoradoWater @CWCB_DNR

A big beach on the lower Green River in late September is indicative of the low flows in 2018, which have caused water levels in Lake Powell to continue to drop. Plans to bolster flows in the reservoir by sending water down the Green and Colorado rivers is raising hard questions for Western Slope irrigators.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Before the Colorado River District will support pending federal legislation allowing drought contingency plans in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins to proceed, it wants the state of Colorado to adopt a policy putting limits on a new water-use reduction program designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.

That was the clear message from the River District board that general manager Andy Mueller said he received during a passionate discussion during a district meeting Tuesday.

“Most of the board is saying that at a bare minimum we have to have the state, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, affirm that there are in fact some sideboards and protections from the risks we face,” Mueller said, in summarizing the board’s discussion. “We’ve got to have some principles that guide the way this program is set up, and its consistency with the state water plan.”

Mueller said the program has to be consistent with the state water plan, there has to be an equitable distribution of wet water coming from both the Front Range and the Western Slope, and the program has to be voluntary, temporary and compensated.

“This board is not OK with the idea of a mandatory curtailment to fill a demand management pool,” Mueller said. “We don’t feel that there is legal or statutory authority for such a program.”

The concerns of the River District directors stem from an ongoing multi-state effort to create and gain approval for “drought contingency plans” in the lower and upper basins.

The lower basin states include California, Arizona and Nevada, and the upper basin states include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

And as part of the regional “DCP” effort, it is anticipated that federal legislation will be required to implement changes to how water is managed in the upper and lower basins, with the goal of keeping enough water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to keep those massive reservoirs functioning in the face of an ongoing 18-year drought.

The proposed changes include modifying the current regulations that guide how much conserved, or saved, water can be stored in Lake Mead by lower basin entities.

The changes include developing a plan to release water in a coordinated fashion from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, which can send water down the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers, respectively, to Lake Powell.

And the changes include creating a legally secure pool of water in Lake Powell to be filled with water conserved after fallowing fields, primarily, in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

Officials from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City who are working on the drought contingency plans say legislation will be submitted to Congress during the lame-duck session after the midterm elections.

And it’s widely assumed that such legislation will pass only if there is no opposition from entities that would be affected, such as the Colorado River District, which represents 15 Western Slope counties.

Mueller said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the CWCB, a state agency that manages water planning, will adopt a guiding policy at its November board meeting about the creation of a demand management program.

And a senior CWCB official Wednesday offered reasons for Mueller’s optimism, including that such a policy is now being drafted for the board’s consideration.

“The policy statement will be informed by the public testimony, letters received, and the feedback we’ve heard from stakeholders around the state in the past year of aggressive public outreach,” said Brent Newman, who is the section chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section and the state agency’s point person on Colorado River issues. “Because we’re hoping to respond and provide CWCB leadership to concerns that our partners and stakeholders have raised, it will likely address these issues.”

Newman also emphatically told the river district’s directors Tuesday that the state is not working on a mandatory curtailment program to avoid a call on the river system under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“Not myself, not the CWCB staff, not our board, not the Attorney General’s Office, not the division of water resources, not the state engineer, none of us at the state are assessing or recommending any kind of mandatory anticipatory curtailment scenario,” Newman said. “That is not in our books. Yes, we’ve had some water users say that if voluntary, temporary and compensated isn’t sufficient, you may have to look at this. We are not doing that.”

It was also made clear during the river district’s meeting that “anticipatory mandatory curtailment” of water rights in Colorado is seen as a direct threat to family-run farms and ranches on the Western Slope.

“If we want to push the Western Slope to the brink, where people start to actually sit down at the kitchen table and consider whether or not they ought to sell the farm to some outside-the-Western-Slope interest, this is how we get there,” said Marc Catlin, who represents Montrose County on the River District’s board, and also represents District 58 in the Colorado House.

After Catlin’s comments, many other River District board members said they agreed.

“This just shows how important it is to get the demand-management program right, and that we don’t rush into a demand-management pool in Lake Powell before we’ve had this discussion and before we’ve agreed to a policy and principles to guide us,” said Tom Alvey, the current president of the district’s board, who represents Delta County. “From all the perspective of water users on the Western Slope, there is huge concern about this.”

Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.