From email from the Arkansas River Compact Administration (Kevin Salter):
Click the links for the final notice and agenda for the upcoming Arkansas River Compact Administration Annual and Committee Meetings to be held on December 6thand 7th. Please note that the meeting dates and location were changed at the ARCA Annual Meeting held in December 2023. Also attached are the draft agendas for the ARCA committee and Annual meetings.
The ARCA Committee and Annual meetings will be held at the Jim Rizzuto Banquet Room, Otero College Student Center, 2001 San Juan Ave, La Junta, Colorado.
The 2023 Annual Meeting of the Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) will be held on Thursday, December 7, 2023, commencing at 8:30 a.m. MST (9:30 a.m. CST). If necessary, the annual meeting may be recessed for lunch and reconvened for the completion of business in the afternoon. The public is invited to attend the Annual Meeting.
The Engineering, Operations, and Administrative/Legal Committees of ARCA will meet on Wednesday, December 6, 2023, starting at 2:00 p.m. MST (3:00 p.m. CST) and continuing to completion. The public is invited to attend the Committee meetings.
Meetings of ARCA are operated in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. If you need a special accommodation as a result of a disability, please contact Stephanie Gonzales at (719) 688-0799 at least three days before the meeting.
The meeting announcement and draft agendas can be found on ARCA’s website:
If you have any questions please feel free to contact Andrew or myself.
Kevin Salter, Division of Water Resources, Kansas Department of Agriculture, 4532 W Jones Ave Suite B Garden City, KS 67846, Kevin.Salter@ks.gov, (620) 276 – 2901.
Andrew Rickert, Program Manager, Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section, Colorado Water Conservation Board, P 303-866-3441 x 3249 | M 720-651-1918, 1313 Sherman St., Room 718, Denver, CO 80203, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…
The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.
Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”
“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.
The newly appointed director of the state water board visited the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs [October 18, 2023], and their conversation focused on a topic that has long been a concern for the district: temporary, voluntary and compensated water conservation programs.
Lauren Ris, who took over as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in August, replaces former CWCB director Becky Mitchell, who is turning her full attention to her position as the Colorado representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission and negotiating on behalf of the state on how to operate the Colorado River system. Ris, a water policy expert, had been deputy director of CWCB since 2017.
At the River District’s quarterly meeting, held Wednesday, Ris talked with board members about two water conservation programs, both of which have long been contentious and critical issues for the district. In 2018, the CWCB adopted a policy statement about demand management that said it would aim to avoid disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region in Colorado. Ris assured the River District that was still the case.
“I don’t think anything has changed about our board’s position on that,” Ris said. “That has been our mantra all along.”
At the heart of a demand-management program would be paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to boost Lake Powell’s levels, which have fallen to historic lows as a result of overuse, drought and climate change. The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable program, but the River District has said propping up the Colorado River system cannot come solely at the expense of its constituents; impacts must be spread equitably across the state.
The mission of the River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and spans 15 counties in western Colorado, is to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of Western Slope water. Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. With roughly 86% of the state’s water use in agriculture, irrigators often say they “have a target on their back” when it comes to finding places to cut water use.
“I think it’s still a question out there whether it makes sense for the state at this time with what we have available to us right now and the information we have, given everything that’s going on at the federal level, if it makes sense to pursue that,” Ris said.
Although a state demand-management program may not be on the immediate horizon, another upper basin water conservation program — which is conceptually similar — will take place for a second year, in 2024: system conservation. Administered by the Upper Colorado River Commission and funded by the federal Inflation Reduction Act, system conservation pays water users in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico to cut their water use, typically by drying up fields, for one season.
The River District had sought to have a say in the project approval process, going so far as developing its own criteria for projects within its boundaries. But in March, water managers said that the UCRC had sole authority over the program and that the River District could not be involved in approving 2023 projects after all.
A recent study makes the case for River District involvement and points out what many already know: Water users in the Colorado River basin have a preference for local approaches to water conservation and do not trust formal programs run by state or federal officials — such as the UCRC. But despite this evidence, there probably won’t be an oversight role for the River District in system conservation again in 2024.
“Is there a role for the conservation districts to help them in that process of looking at applications?,” River District board president and Eagle County representative Kathy Chandler-Henry asked Ris. “We feel like we’re one level closer to the users on the ground and able to support that process.”
Ris replied that system conservation is being run by UCRC and that even the CWCB’s role is fairly limited.
Greg Felt, CWCB chair and representative from the Arkansas River basin, accompanied Ris at the River District meeting. The CWCB will consider whether to approve system conservation again for 2024 at its November meeting. He said he does not like the idea of paying people not to farm, but the 2024 program will have a narrower scope that explores demand-management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis.
“What we were presented with was an additional layer, which was to prioritize projects that either helped enhance drought resiliency or conservation,” Felt said. “All of a sudden, I saw a value there that I hadn’t seen before. … I can get behind this because I think it will really help agriculture.”
Ris said that, going forward, the process would have more transparency, echoing a promise made by Mitchell.
For the 2023 program, the UCRC released few details about the individual projects. Payment amounts, the exact location of projects, names of participating ditches and information about water rights, including priority dates and decreed amounts of water, were redacted in the publicly available contracts between irrigators and the UCRC.
“We’re committed to making some changes based on the feedback that we heard,” Ris said. “We are planning on making as much information as possible available to interested parties. … We will still redact personal identifying information but are going to try and go light on the black pen.”
River District General Manager Andy Mueller said transparency for SCP 2024 was imperative, but he also pushed for a process to protect the district’s water users.
“I know (demand management and system conservation) are two different programs, but they may potentially have the same effect inside of our state, and that is reducing consumptive use and potential injury,” Mueller said. “We’d love to work with you to continue to improve both protections on injury and how we address proportionality. We think those are really important to our water users. This board has voiced great concern.”
Ris said the CWCB shares that concern and that the two agencies should continue to talk about it as they go forward.
By way of overview, the CWCB is involved in an amazing number of activities. It oversees the interstate compact compliance on water usage. It works on watershed protection, flood planning, and mitigation. It oversees stream and lake protection, as well as conservation and drought planning. The CWCB oversees water project loans and grants, water use modeling, and water supply planning focused on appropriate stewardship of the state’s water resources; which contrary to the public’s perceptions, is not an infinite resource.
The agendas for these every-other-month sessions are extensive. After moving through the director’s reports, it dived into 18 water plan grants. They ranged from a Colorado Cattlemen’s Association grant to scale up agriculture water education and funding outreach, to a San Luis Valley Rye Resurgence project, to the Blue River Watershed groups habitat restoration project to the Bernhardt Reservoir Water Storage Project for the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Moving from water grants to water project loans, a big topic was a water supply reserve fund application from the Colorado Ag Water Alliance covering nine river basins: Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest, and the Yampa/White/Green basin. Its purpose is to improve agricultural drought resilience and support innovative water conservation.
Near the end of the two-day meeting, the group moved into an executive session to dive into the critical post-2026 Colorado River negotiations. As a Colorado River Upper Basin state, the long-term division of this critical western water resource is becoming contentious, as Upper Basin states remind California, Nevada, and Arizona that they have been using far more than their share.
A Carbondale ditch company is looking for sources of funding after 30-foot-deep sinkholes caused the ditch to collapse in early September, cutting off water to downstream irrigators.
The East Mesa Ditch pulls water from the Crystal River mostly to irrigate about 740 acres of hay and alfalfa south of Carbondale. The ditch operator, East Mesa Water Co., received approval Sept. 20 for an emergency loan up to $418,140 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to pipe the ditch and relocate it away from the area prone to sinkholes. The piped section will include a siphon and be about 1,500 feet long.
According to the CWCB memo, about 34% of the acres irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are currently without water. The ditch is able to pull 41.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal River using two water rights, the oldest of which dates to 1902.
East Mesa Water Co.’s secretary and treasurer, Richard McIntyre, said at the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board meeting in September that the company would like to repair the ditch as soon as possible — definitely before next irrigation season — but first, they have to do a geophysical investigation so that they can avoid more sinkhole issues in the future. The ditch company, which has 12 shareholders, also plans to ask for grant money from the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s Community Funding Partnership as well as the Healthy Rivers program.
McIntyre and water company president Tim Nieslanik gave a presentation during the Healthy Rivers board meeting, held Sept. 21, but declined to speak further with Aspen Journalism. They have not yet asked Healthy Rivers for a specific amount of money.
“That is really going to depend on what the geophysicist discovers in this mesa and where the stable ground is,” McIntyre said. “You guys know water is kind of the lifeline for the ranchers here. Without it, we’re washed up, so to speak.”
Some Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board members see the East Mesa Ditch repair project as not only an opportunity to help local agricultural producers but a chance to potentially benefit the Crystal River.
“We are excited about opportunities where we can both help out the ranchers and farmers that are being hurt by this damage to the canal but also set ourselves up for a partnership in the future where we can look at opportunities for water savings that can potentially be returned to the environment or ways to manage the ditch in a way that benefits the Crystal River more so than it has in its current state,” Healthy Rivers board vice chair Kirstin Neff said.
On the Western Slope, agriculture efficiency infrastructure projects — such as upgrading headgates and diversion structures, lining and piping ditches, and replacing flood-irrigated meadows with sprinkler systems — are often funded with grants from public entities and environmental organizations. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers also helped to fund repairs to the East Mesa Ditch in 2016.
The idea is that when irrigators have more-efficient systems, they don’t need to take as much water from the river, leaving more for the benefit of the environment and recreation. But whether these agricultural efficiency projects actually result in more water in the river is unclear. Some say it’s likely that if irrigators can more easily access their full water right, they will use more — unless they are paid not to do so.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Neff asked how the project would support Healthy Rivers’ mission, which is to improve the water quality and quantity in the Roaring Fork River watershed.
Nieslanik responded that the East Mesa Water Company is interested in leasing some of their water for the benefit of the environment. An example of this is a program that allows irrigators to temporarily loan water to the state’s instream flow program. Colorado water law was tweaked in 2020 to make it more attractive to water-rights holders and effective as a conservation tool, and ranchers in the Gunnison River basin are leasing their water through this program.
“We’d actually like to lease water to help pay back these loans,” Nieslanik said. “We have water at certain periods of time in the year after second cutting. … We would like to consider the ways that our additional water could be a monetary source for us, as well as maybe a safety net for municipalities.”
Representatives of the East Mesa Water Co. have said in the past they would be open to leaving water in the river. Also, they have let other water users borrow some of the ditch’s flow in the past. During an August 2018 first-ever call on the Crystal River, the East Mesa Ditch loaned 1 cfs to the town of Carbondale under an emergency substitute water supply plan.
“We bailed them out. They kindly sent us a check six months later for $10,000,” Nieslanik said. “We would love to do something the same way with you guys if you can help us fund this somehow.”
Nieslanik added that the company would like to get more irrigators to use sprinkler systems, which are more efficient than flood irrigation.
Finding creative arrangements with irrigators to boost streamflows on the Crystal during dry periods has long been a desire of some Healthy Rivers board members. So far, there has been just one such nondiversion agreement between rancher Bill Fales and the Colorado Water Trust that aims to leave more water in the Crystal River that he would usually divert using the Helms Ditch late in the irrigation season of dry years.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely voiced his approval for the county’s funding the East Mesa Ditch piping project. With agricultural water users laying claim to 86% of the water used in Colorado, many water managers who are focused on the environment agree that working with them instead of against them is the best way forward.
“The question is: How can we stay true to our charter of maintaining streamflow while helping somebody divert water from the river?,” Ely said. “You simply can’t preserve water in the river at all without someone you can work with and someone who holds a relatively senior water right. … You can’t solve the riddle of how to protect streamflow without working with agriculture.”
Colorado River officials plan to expand a conservation program next year that pays farmers and ranchers to use less water. But questions remain about some of the proposed ideas and the program’s overall efficacy.
The state initially launched the System Conservation Pilot Program in 2015 as a part of a multistate effort to conserve water from the Colorado River, which provides water for millions of residents throughout seven states as well as Mexico. The effort was designed to see if conservation efforts could stabilize the water levels in critical reservoirs along the river, like Lake Powell.
While there have been some challenges, the project is set to expand in 2024, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Lauren Ris said during the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s Just Economy conference in Denver on Sept. 27.
Some of the changes the CWCB is planning to implement include making it easier for farmers and ranchers to apply for the federally-funded program, creating a transparent pricing mechanism, and encouraging participants to recommend new technology solutions.
These new efforts could help preserve water resources for about 40 million people across multiple states in the Southwest as they face population increases and the need to build more housing. And Colorado is in a unique position to drive that change because of its status as a headwater state, Ris said.
“We really rely on water from mother nature. We don’t have the ability to draw water from somewhere else,” she added.
An unparalleled challenge
When the conservation pilot program began in 2015, concerns about the Colorado River’s declining water levels, largely due to human-caused climate change, were already well established. More than a decade of declining snowfall in the Rocky Mountains created record low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are two of the nation’s largest reservoirs. They also provide water and hydroelectric power to millions of Americans.
To address the issue, Colorado spent about $8.5 million to conserve 47,200 acre-feet of water between 2015 and 2018, according to data shared about the pilot program during the CWCB’s board meeting on Sept. 21. That’s roughly $180 per acre-foot. One acre-foot can support up to two households for a year.
But then the program went dark until 2022 when water levels in the Colorado River reached historic lows. The federal government initially asked several Western states including Colorado to reduce their water consumption by up to 4 million acre-feet per year before deciding to allow the states to work out their own agreement.
By June 2022, the four … Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—had put together a five-point water conservation plan. The first point of the plan was to restart the SCPP.
In December, the federal government reauthorized the program and allocated up to $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for the Upper Basin states to spend on water conservation efforts between 2023 and 2026.
As of this month, the SCPP has supported 64 projects across the Upper Basin states and conserved about 38,000 acre-feet of water, Amy Ostidek, the water conservation board’s interstate, federal, and water section chief, said during the Sept. 21 meeting. Twenty-two of those projects were in Colorado and they conserved a total of roughly 2,500 acre-feet of water.
Conserving the future
But the program’s re-launch wasn’t as smooth as many had hoped, Ostidek lamented.
“Getting things kicked-off in December just wasn’t tenable for water users trying to make decisions about their operations,” Ostidek said. “And, frankly, that put all of us in a crunch to do things very quickly, and maybe not as well as they could have been done if we had more time.”
To address these issues, the SCPP will open applications for the 2024 program starting in October. Ris said this will help provide some “operational certainty” for water users.
Another aspect that will be revised is the pricing mechanism. This year’s SCPP is paying ranchers and farmers about $150 per acre-foot of water saved, which was based on the median payments allocated under the pilot program, The Colorado Sun reported. However, ranchers and farmers have been getting paid nearly $394 per acre-foot on average.
The program is also looking to incorporate more technology to address data and efficiency gaps in the system. Some target areas include creating drought-resilience tools and implementing conservation strategies that address the needs of rural communities along the lower Colorado River Basin, like in northern Arizona.
“At the end of the day, the people who are most impacted by these decisions are often the most vulnerable members of our communities and the most underserved,” Central Arizona Water Conservation Board member Ylenia Aguilar said.
Water commissioners from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming are focusing on water demand management in the future of a conservation pilot program. The Upper Colorado River Commission met for a special meeting on Sept. 21 and heard an update regarding the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP)…Ultimately, the water commissioners unanimously voted to support narrowing the program in 2024 to focus on water demand management and tools for innovation and local drought resiliency. There was also emphasis during the meeting on improving upon what was learned in 2023…
Collum reviewed three options the commission had on the table for 2024. The first option was to have no program in 2024, but no commissioners spoke in favor of that option. The second option was to maximize water conservation.
Option three, unanimously favored by the commissioners, was presented during the meeting as: “Narrow the 2024 SCPP to explore Demand Management (DM) Studies and Support Innovation & Local Resiliency – implement recommended SCPP improvements AND narrow project criteria towards remaining DM questions and supporting innovation & local resiliency resulting in water conservation.”
“…I think when we specifically look at the change in hydrology (and) the definite need for the cuts to happen where the cuts are needed in the lower basin,” Mitchell said. “I really want to think about resiliency on the home front and the thing that we do being focused on building security for our own states and our own water users. And so I think when we look at the implementation with the recommended improvements and the narrow project criteria that are focused on supporting innovation and local resiliency that results in water conservation.” — Becky Mitchell
Colorado River managers on Thursday [September 21, 2023] decided to continue a water conservation program designed to protect critical elevations in the nation’s two largest reservoirs.
The Upper Colorado River Commission decided unanimously to continue the federally funded System Conservation Program in 2024 — but with a narrower scope that explores demand management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis. This was the third of three options that commissioners had regarding SCP and whether they would continue it next year. The other options, which commissioners rejected, were to not do a program in 2024 or to maximize the program, with a focus on increasing the amount of water conserved.
Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner to the UCRC, said she could support doing system conservation again since it will now be focused on water security and innovative conservation for upper basin water users.
“We have an opportunity to do better this time around and learn from last year’s experience and do it in a way that’s responsive to the input that we heard across the upper basin,” Mitchell said. “Option 3 has modified the program in a way that with that prioritization of projects that support innovation of water conservation and development of drought-resiliency tools, it’s something that I can support.”
The System Conservation Program is paying water users in the four upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — to voluntarily cut back with $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act. According to UCRC officials, nearly $16.1 million was spent on system conservation in 2023. Nearly $1 million of that went to 22 project participants in Colorado, resulting in a water savings of about 2,517 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can supply one or two families a year).
Project participants in Colorado are being paid an average of about $394 for every acre-foot of water they conserve in 2023. Officials say the average price per acre-foot across the upper basin is $422. Although water users from all sectors can participate, all of the projects in Colorado this year involved agricultural water users on the Western Slope.
System conservation was first tried in the upper basin from 2015 to 2018 and saved an estimated 47,000 acre-feet, at a cost of about $8.6 million. Last year, the UCRC announced it would restart a system conservation program as part of its 5-Point Plan, aimed at protecting critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have fallen to record-low levels in recent years because of overuse, drought and climate change.
The program for 2024 is being rolled out sooner than the one for 2023 was, giving irrigators more time to plan for next season, which could lead to more interest and enrollment. UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom gave commissioners a timeline proposal: an announcement of the 2024 program Oct. 2; request for proposals issued Oct. 10; project applications due Dec. 11, followed by a nearly two-month review period of applications by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the upper basin states and UCRC’s consultant. Contracts are slated to be executed by March 15.
“We believe that this draft timeline would significantly address the shortcomings that we had identified in the lessons learned report and provide the improvements in the application and review process for a more successful program in 2024,” Cullom said.
The 2024 program’s focus on studying demand management addresses an often-heard criticism of SCP: Any water conserved in a system conservation program is not guaranteed to make it to Lake Powell and could just be picked up by the next downstream user. Conceptually, system conservation and demand management are the same: paying irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to conserve water.
But there’s an important legal difference. If water conservation is done under the umbrella of an official demand management program, that water can be “shepherded” to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell.
The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan created the possibility of this demand management pool for the upper basin states to protect against a compact call. Although Colorado studied the issue extensively from 2019 to 2021, including with nine workgroups, the upper basin states have so far not implemented a demand management program to take advantage of this pool in Lake Powell.
Cullom said the third option will also implement recommendations for improvements that came from interviews with program participants, nongovernmental organizations, tribes and water managers across the upper basin. These include a more transparent and upfront pricing process; more education and outreach to water users; and more information about project applications in Colorado and opportunity to provide comment.
During the 2023 project approval process, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District — whose mission is to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of water on the Western Slope — and the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District voiced concerns about a lack of transparency.
Mitchell had also promised the districts that they could participate in the review and approval process for applications, thereby securing a measure of local control. But she later walked back that commitment, saying the UCRC had sole authority in the approval process.
Information about project specifics is still scant, with much of the information about the exact location of projects, how much participants are being paid, names of participating ditches, and information about water rights such as priority dates and decreed amounts of water in the contracts blacked out.
Mitchell has publicly stated that this second round of the SCP reboot would be more transparent, at least in Colorado, but has not said exactly how.
Paying water users to irrigate less continues to be controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. Water managers have repeatedly said that large amounts of water cannot be saved through system conservation in the upper basin and that cuts are needed from the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — to bring the Colorado River system back into balance.
At an August meeting of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee of the Colorado legislature, Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat whose District 8 spans several Western Slope counties, including Routt, Garfield, Eagle and Summit, asked Mitchell and Cullom if Colorado would engage in system conservation prior to the lower basin implementing substantial and permanent reductions in water use.
Mitchell replied that system conservation is done with the goal of learning what lessons can be gleaned about Colorado’s water resilience and to offer flexible tools for irrigators, not to enable continued overuse in the lower basin.
“We need to ask ourselves: Is it good for Colorado?” she said. “We realized that there was only so much we could do. People wanted to do something, but they wanted it for Colorado.”
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Katie Weeman):
September 21, 2023 (Denver, CO) – the Upper Colorado River Commissioners voted to implement the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) for the 2024 Water Year. SCPP provides Upper Basin water users with the opportunity to participate in temporary, voluntary, and compensated water conservation. SCPP simultaneously allows the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) and Upper Division States to learn from the piloted conservation efforts, expanding knowledge on aspects like monitoring, measurement, and local benefits or impacts. For water users, it provides opportunities to develop tools to build resilience and adapt to long-term drought.
The revamped SCPP integrates input from Upper Basin water users. Changes include:
An earlier application window, beginning in October 2023, to provide operational certainty for applicants.
A transparent pricing mechanism to provide clarity to applicants.
Increased education and outreach to ensure water users are fully informed.
Expanded information about project applications in Colorado with the opportunity to provide comment.
Prioritization of projects that support innovative water conservation and development of drought resiliency tools.
“We learned a lot about SCPP last year, so this year’s revamp integrates a lot of input from Colorado water users,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado River Commissioner for the State of Colorado. “SCPP should—and can—work in a way that makes sense for Colorado. The pilot program can provide flexibility for Coloradans who want or need to explore innovative conservation projects. As we continue to learn together and do what we can to be part of the solution, I continue to push for reductions where it matters most: in the Lower Division States.”
“There is no silver bullet for drought resiliency in Colorado,” said Lauren Ris, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “SCPP is one tool in the State’s toolkit that we can all learn from. It can fund innovation, letting water users try something new, because they have that financial certainty. And, because it’s totally voluntary, temporary, and compensated, SCPP lets Coloradans choose for themselves.”
At the September 21 UCRC meeting, Commissioner Mitchell strongly advocated for SCPP reforms that would be responsive to Colorado water users’ input. More information on the revamped SCPP process will be available in the coming weeks. The Congressional reauthorization for SCPP expires in Fall 2024.
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
August 22, 2023 (Denver, CO) – The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board announced that Lauren Ris has been selected as the next Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Lauren Ris, who has held the position of Deputy Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) since 2017. She is a water policy expert who is passionate about solution-focused water resilience in the state.
”We are excited to welcome Lauren Ris at this important time as we continue to take bold and innovative action to preserve and protect Colorado’s precious water resources. We know that here in Colorado, water is the lifeblood of our state and we will all benefit from Ris’s leadership and expertise on this issue,” said Gov. Polis.
“What’s most inspiring to me about working in the water sphere, is the high degree of collaboration that’s required. It’s not a political issue, it’s a geographical issue—and water is a resource that every sector in Colorado can’t do without. It requires us to work together and find win-win solutions for hard problems,” said Lauren Ris, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board. “Having grown up in Colorado, it’s important for me to see that we have a continued pathway for economic growth, agricultural viability and environmental resiliency in our state.”
Ris holds a Bachelors in English and Environmental Science from Willamette University and a Masters in Natural Resource Policy and Conservation Biology from the University of Michigan. She previously worked as a Committee and Policy Staff Fiscal Analyst for the Colorado Legislative Council, a Legislative Liaison for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Assistant Director for Water in the DNR, and most recently, the Deputy Director of the CWCB.
A major priority, Ris says, is continuing the momentum of the Colorado Water Plan. “We are positioned well with the recent release of the updated 2023 Water Plan, and it’s absolutely critical that now we check off the boxes and make real tangible progress.”
“I would like to see us find creative solutions that allow us to maximize every drop of water in Colorado,” said Ris. “That includes doubling down on municipal conservation efforts like urban landscape transformation. I’d also like us to take a hard look at some of the barriers that are impeding water sharing agreements–the creative, collaborative agreements that allow municipalities to lease water from agricultural operations during times when they aren’t irrigating while continuing to have viable agriculture.”
“I am extremely excited about Lauren Ris’ elevation to Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Her leadership, insight, strong relationships, collaborative nature, and deep knowledge of Colorado water issues will enable her to seamlessly step into the Director role,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “Colorado faces many future water challenges, but Lauren has the experience and skills to help our state build on the great work of CWCB while ensuring the future sustainability of our critical water resources.”
“Ris has played a pivotal role in the agency for years and has provided seamless support as Interim Director,” said Greg Felt, Board Chair of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “The agency, and Colorado’s water future, will be in good hands under Lauren’s leadership.”
A Gunnison County family ranch plans to use a relatively new tool to help keep water flowing in a chronically dry section of creek while still irrigating their hay crop.
In dry years, the Peterson Ranch will temporarily loan some of the water it diverts from Tomichi Creek to the state’s instream flow program, which is aimed at keeping water in rivers for the benefit of the environment. The agreement was approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board this year under legislation passed in 2020 designed to make the water loans more attractive to water-rights owners and effective as a conservation tool.
“We don’t like to see the fish suffer, so we thought this was one way to allow us to continue with our operation and do something for the creek,” said ranch owner, former legislator and Colorado River Water Conservation District board member Kathleen Curry. “For us, it was a way to make a contribution.”
Historically, Curry and her husband, Greg Peterson, have flood irrigated their 220 acres of river bottom ranchland, about 15 miles east of Gunnison, beginning in the spring until the end of July. The end of spring runoff, combined with irrigation season, can cause river flows to plummet during the hottest time of year, which is bad news for fish.
“Historically, Tomichi Creek dries up in several locations,” said Tony LaGreca, a project manager for the Colorado Water Trust. “A dry-up is the complete worst thing to happen for an aquatic ecosystem because everything that needs water to live does not live.”
In late July, Curry and Peterson normally stop irrigating to allow their fields to dry out for a few weeks so that they can get their one annual hay cutting in August, during which time — with the help of monsoon rains — creek flows tend to rebound. They resume irrigating in the fall to regrow some pasture grass and to replenish the groundwater for the next season, which leads to another dip in river flows.
But with the lease agreement enacted, Curry and Peterson would turn off their four ditch headgates at the end of June and keep them off for 37 days — usually the hottest, driest time of year and when Tomichi Creek could most use a boost. By turning water off a month early, they expect to lose about 20% to 25% of their yield, for which they will be compensated nearly $25,000 by the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust.
A second part of the agreement would let them irrigate in August and leave the water in the creek in September, when streamflows are lower. Peterson Ranch could get $2,500 if it enacts the lease in the second operational window. If they do both windows, they could get $30,000.
Over seven miles of Tomichi Creek would benefit from the loan of water. Depending on the location in the stream and time of year, the project could add between 2 and 18 cubic feet per second back to the stream for a total of 116 acre-feet of water conserved.
“It’s a win-win,” Curry said. “We can go with a little bit less yield and they are compensating us very fairly.”
The statute that allows irrigators to temporarily loan their water to the state’s instream flow program was originally crafted in 2005 with the help of Curry when she was a state representative. (Curry this week told Colorado Politics that she intends to run in 2024 to represent House District 58.)
The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to appropriate water rights to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” Since it was created in 1973, the CWCB has appropriated water rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments, covering more than 9,700 miles of streams, according to its website. But because these rights are so junior compared with most other water users, their effectiveness as a tool for keeping water in rivers is limited.
Under the prior appropriation system — the cornerstone of Colorado water law — the holders of the oldest water rights, which usually belong to agriculture, get first use of the river. That means in many locations across the state, the much younger instream flow water rights — 18 cfs in the case of Tomichi Creek, with an adjudication date of 1980 — are not met. Temporary leasing of agricultural water to the instream flow is one way to remedy the problem.
Still, the tool is not widely used, despite tweaks to the legislation in 2020 with House Bill 1157 that allowed projects to expand to being used five of every 10 years from three of every 10 years. The Peterson Ranch lease is one of just three projects using the five-in-10 lease program, according to CWCB staff. There are six other similar projects across the state that came about under the previous three-in-10 legislation.
“It doesn’t appear at the rate it’s being utilized, it’s going to solve environmental problems all across the state just like that,” said Kate Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “But on the streams and rivers where it’s used, it’s transformative. It makes a huge difference.”
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who represents District 8, was one of the sponsors of HB 1157. The bill also made it possible to renew loans for two additional 10-year periods, meaning that holders of agricultural water rights can theoretically loan their water for the benefit of the environment for 15 of every 30 years. Roberts said he has heard positive feedback about the expanded loan program.
“We’ve cut down some of the barriers and made it easier to participate but the whole time we’ve kept it voluntary,” Roberts said. “I think the tool is only going to become more important as we head further into drought and dry summers.”
Curry said she got involved with the original bill that created a legal pathway to loan water to ensure that it was workable for livestock producers.
“The state is changing, and we have to face that there are other values for water,” she said. “We just need to make sure if we go down this path, these types of projects need conditions: They wouldn’t hurt ag, they wouldn’t hurt your neighbor, it’s voluntary — things like that.”
State engineers at the Division of Water Resources still need to give their final sign-off for the Peterson Ranch project to move forward. In the spring, Peterson Ranch will decide whether to enact the lease for 2024’s irrigation season. Ideal conditions for the agreement would be a below-average runoff year but not in the bottom 10%.
Despite the lease program’s limited use so far, Ryan said she has seen more interest lately in partnerships among water-user groups.
“We don’t have to choose between ag and the environment,” she said. “I think water users are seeing there is a natural partnership between ag and the environment. But it’s still complicated and takes a lot of work.”
Federal officials on Tuesday temporarily eased Colorado River water use restrictions due to a “lucky” year of increased precipitation, but drought and overuse remain a crisis as officials begin negotiations for the future of the river on which 40 million people in the West rely for drinking, agriculture and water. Colorado’s top water officials on Tuesday submitted the state’s first formal comments on negotiations that will govern the use of the river after current guidelines expire in 2026. They urged change in how Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two major water storage reservoirs on the river — are operated as the West becomes hotter and drier…
Negotiations for a new plan to replace a 2007 agreement began in June between federal officials, tribal leaders and the seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The groups must come to an agreement by 2027, when the current guidelines established in 2007 end. New operating guidelines must account for climate change as well as “recognize that Lower Basin overuse is unsustainable and puts the entire system at risk,” according to the letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from Mitchell and Lauren Ris, acting director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board…
Water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell rose this spring due to increased snow and rain in the region. The wet winter and spring mean for the next year Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Storage Condition, a “significant improvement” from the Level 2 Shortage Condition implemented in 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday…That means two Lower Basin states that rely on releases from the reservoirs for water — Nevada and Arizona — will have a little more water to work with this year. Cuts don’t affect allocations to the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico or Wyoming — because they are upstream of the reservoirs…
Heavy snowfall and increased rains helped boost flows in the Colorado River Basin this winter and spring, raising the water levels of reservoirs across the system. Lake Mead rose more than 10 feet and Lake Powell rose more than 50 feet.
“We were on the verge of a crash,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program at American Rivers. “There’s no doubt we got lucky.”
Lorelei Cloud joined the Colorado Water Conservation Board in March as the first tribal council member to serve in the position. Cloud, the vice chair of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, was appointed to the position by Gov. Jared Polis. She joins the board at a critical time for water not just in Colorado, but across the American West. As the representative for the San Miguel-Dolores-San Juan drainage basin, she represents land that covers not just the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute reservations, but also 10 counties in southwestern Colorado. She spoke to Colorado Matters about including Indigenous voices in water discussions and the challenges ahead for the Colorado River…
Historically, tribes have been left out of the process of negotiating these Colorado River issues. Do you feel that’s going to be different this time around?
I’m hopeful that we are going to be included in those conversations. There has been a lot of effort going forward historically in making sure that tribes are included in those broader conversations. There currently is still no formal written document or no formal process for tribes to be included in those conversations. The Colorado River Compact was created in 1922. It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans became citizens of this country. And so with that and our tribal history, I think that plays a big part in why we were not part of those conversations at the very beginning. And so now, being included in those conversations is going to be critical. And, because we know that we are sovereigns — and for the federal government and the Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Commission to recognize tribes as sovereigns — and having those government-to-government discussions when it comes to water, I think is critical.
Last fall, we learned that Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming for the first time began formal negotiations with tribal governments over water. How is this going to affect the broader water conversation now that tribes are formally being brought into discussions that they’ve so long been left out of?
I think it’s going to have a positive impact. You know, when we talk about these state officials finally having conversations with tribes, again, it’s been historical. We’ve been meeting with the Upper Colorado River Commission. They’re the commissioners from each one of those states and the six tribes in the upper basin. We’ve had some really good conversations, but we’ve had to get through a lot of tough conversations to get to that point. And I think that since these state officials were still willing to take that on, we’re going to make a really big impact for the Colorado River Basin, not just for the upper basin because it shows that there are four states that are willing and able to work with tribes in their respective areas.
And I’m hoping that creates leeway for other tribes, other states, particularly in the lower basin, to find ways to work together and have positive outcomes. Again, I think it’s going to be a positive outcome when you stand together as a group, as a collective, even though you may not see eye to eye or agree with decisions or the understanding of where somebody is coming from. If you can put that aside and create the trust that’s very much needed, we can do just about anything. And I think we all have the same mind frame of protecting the river and making sure that all of the water users have the water that they need.
A new state Colorado River Drought Task Force will meet nine times between now and early December, and hold two public hearings to develop recommendations on how the parched river’s supplies will be managed inside state lines as its flows continue to decline.
At its first meeting Monday [July 31, 2023], 100 people joined the virtual session as the 17-member task force began planning the work it must conclude by Dec. 15.
“We are at a truly historic moment in Colorado River history,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County Commissioner who is non-voting chair of the group.
“We are tasked with providing recommendations for programs addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin. … It’s a tall order but I am confident we can deliver. … My hope is that we can reach a broad consensus. My concern is the time crunch … 4.5 months in water time is a blink of an eye.”
Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force in May when they approved Senate Bill 23-295. The 17-member task force includes representatives of environmental groups, urban and agricultural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. Its task: to recommend state legislation that would create new tools and programs to address drought and declining flows on the Colorado River.
The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two regions, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.
But it is in the Upper Basin and in Colorado, specifically, where roughly two-thirds of its flows originate.
Colorado is home to eight major rivers, four of which are major tributaries to the Colorado River on the West Slope. They are the Yampa/White/Green, the Gunnison, the San Juan/San Miguel/Dolores, and the Colorado River itself.
This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government are beginning on how to manage and protect the river now and beyond 2026, when many of the existing Colorado River management agreements expire.
Overuse in the Lower Basin is considered to be the largest issue to resolve, but Upper Basin states may be called on to reduce their agricultural water use as well. One proposal, known as demand management, is to create a new drought pool in Lake Powell by having farmers and ranchers fallow their fields in return for cash payments. And the state’s urban water users may also be called on to cut back.
Colorado water users on the West Slope and Front Range are concerned that changes to the river’s seven-state management system could harm their water rights.
Mike Camblin, a task force member representing agricultural water users, said it would be critical to find ways to ensure farmers’ and ranchers’ lands remain healthy and their operations profitable. Agriculture uses 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies across the basin and the agricultural industry is deeply worried that it will take the hit if and when reductions are required.
“I hope we can come up with a plan. I would hate to see our ancestors cuss us down the road,” Camblin said.
Melissa Youssef, a task force member who is also mayor of Durango, said her city is already seeing its water supplies reduced. She said she was glad to have a seat on the task force and to have a say in how her community should be protected.
“My hope is that we can come together, making our positions abundantly clear. We have senior water rights on two rivers, but we are exposed to a reduction in water supplies through drought,” Youssef said.
Alex Davis, assistant general manager of Aurora Water, is a task force member representing Front Range water users. She said urban reliance on the Colorado River is significant.
Roughly half of water supplies for Aurora and Denver, among others, come from the Colorado River.
“My concern is that people will bring very specific agendas from different entities that will benefit their constituents but may not be beneficial to the state as a whole,” she said.
The group will meet at sites around the state, with one meeting each month slated to be in-person and the others designed to be virtual. The next meeting is Aug. 10 in Denver. It is in-person. A location has not yet been determined. All meetings are open to the public.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The Colorado state legislature created the task force last year to bring together representatives from agriculture, water managers from Front Range cities and Western Slope towns, environmentalists, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute representatives and industry. The 17 members will meet 10 times until Dec. 7, when it will submit a report of recommendations to lawmakers ahead of the 2024 legislative session…Colorado’s new task force will consider how the state might be affected if the Colorado River and its reservoirs drop to critically-low levels. The federal government has threatened to step in and make water cuts necessary to prevent that. There’s also concern that, eventually, Colorado and the other upper-basin states— Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — might have to respond to legal challenges if the downstream states — Arizona, Nevada and California — feel they aren’t getting enough water.
“My greatest fear about the task force is that we know that the lower basin is going to be watching, other states in the Colorado River Basin are watching,” said Lee Miller, general counsel of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “That we don’t give them fuel to divide us more or use it against us in the negotiations for the interim guideline extension.”
Upper Colorado River Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell, who was recently appointed as the state’s first full-time Colorado River representative and negotiator, is a member of a subcommittee that will focus on tribal water issues.
“I think really my focus is to make sure that as I go into the negotiations, that Colorado stands united, because I think that’s going to be incredibly important,” Mitchell said at the meeting.
She said the current guidelines on how managing the Colorado River and Lake Mead and Lake Powell, “aren’t working for us right now, and they really have not worked for the tribes ever.”
Federal and state officials have promised more tribal inclusion on the next round of negotiating the operating guidelines for the Colorado River, but what exactly that will look like is still unclear.
On June 16, the Bureau of Reclamation released a notice of intent (NOI), which formally advanced the process for the development of new operating guidelines for the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In the document, Reclamation says that during the upcoming guidelines negotiations, it intends to develop an approach that facilitates and enhances tribal engagement and inclusivity. Officials say they will also prioritize regular, meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations.
“Existing forums and groups will be continued and leveraged, such as the monthly Reclamation-hosted Tribal Information Exchanges,” the NOI reads. “Reclamation is also exploring options for increasing tribal involvement through the potential development of new groups and forums.”
Tribes have historically been largely excluded from policy talks and some have said they only learn about decisions made by the seven states and federal government after the fact.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton previewed the NOI the week before it was released, speaking at a law conference on natural resources at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“We are looking to stand up a forum in which we are engaging with tribal nations,” she said. “There will be a specific framework how we engage with the tribes.”
A Reclamation spokesperson said they don’t have any details to add at this time about what the framework will look like beyond Touton’s comments.
The Colorado River basin’s 30 tribes have rights to use about 25% of the water, a percentage that is slowly increasing as river flows decline overall due to drought and climate change. And most of their rights are senior to nearly all other water users in the basin.
Although they were not included in the Colorado River Compact that divided the river, giving half of the flows to the upper basin and half to the lower basin, the 1908 Winters Doctrine reserved water rights for tribes. The doctrine established tribes’ water rights on the same date the federal government established their reservation, but not the amount of water to which they were entitled.
Tribes have had to quantify and settle their water rights within their states and tribal water comes out of each state’s allocation from the Colorado River. Unlike other water users, tribes don’t have to put the water to beneficial use to hang onto the rights for future development. That means there are unquantified water rights out there on paper that have never been used, although some tribes say they still fully intend to develop their water.
But in an already over-allocated system, any new water project that takes more from the Colorado River could be problematic. Tribes’ unused water has been propping up the system for years, and when finally put to beneficial use, it could exacerbate shortages for other water users.
“Water that is undeveloped tribal water rights is sitting in Powell and being used in some way, shape or form at some point,” said Becky Mitchell, commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Somebody else is benefiting from it. Who benefits from continuing the way that we have, that’s the question we need to ask ourselves.”
The seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada — negotiated the current interim guidelines for reservoir operations in 2007, and the guidelines are set to expire at the end of 2026. Developed in response to drought conditions in the first years of the century, the 2007 guidelines set shortage tiers based on reservoir levels and spelled out which states in the lower basin would take shortages and by how much their water deliveries would be cut in dry years.
Every component of the 2007 guidelines — and then some — is up for renegotiation as water managers figure out river management post-2026, said Anne Castle, a federal appointee and chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Castle is also on the leadership team for the Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative.
“There’s also discussion about broadening the scope of what will be considered in this set of guidelines,” she said. “That could include environmental benefit for the river. It could include development of undeveloped tribal rights. It could include a number of things that have not been previously part of the river operations plumbing discussion.”
One thing on which many agree is the need for tribes’ structural inclusion, meaning their seat at the table will be formally guaranteed and won’t be dependent on the promises of individual state or federal officials who could be replaced at the whims of a new administration. Tribal inclusion was a focus of the CU conference and included a panel discussion with representatives of 14 of the 30 tribes from across the basin.
“We really want tribes to be part of the negotiations and the discussions and the development of the post-2026 operational guidelines and we want this to be institutionalized as well,” Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwestern Colorado, said as a panelist at the CU conference.
“Having a formal process is what’s needed,” said Cloud, a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, representing the San Miguel/Dolores/Animas and San Juan river basins. “It didn’t happen in 1922 or before, so we know it really needs to be in writing as we go forward.”
How to do it
Each tribe is a sovereign government with their own unique water issues, which creates challenges when trying to include everyone.
“If you know one tribe, you know one tribe,” said Daryl Vigil, co-director of the Water & Tribes Initiative, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and panel moderator at the CU conference. “To think there’s an Indian solution really dishonors that individuality and uniqueness of those tribes.”
In 2020, the Water & Tribes Initiative released a report called “Toward a Sense of the Basin: Designing a Collaborative Process to Develop the Next Set of Guidelines for the Colorado River System.” In it, the report’s writers set out potential options for tribal participation, including a Sovereign Review Team (SRT) and a Tribal Advisory Council (TAC). An SRT would consist of federal, state and tribal representatives; would treat tribes as equal players with the states and federal government; and would be an advisory group and the main forum to receive input from stakeholders and the public. A TAC would include representatives from each of the 30 tribes in the basin.
“One of the real issues is how do you choose tribal representatives that would represent more than their own tribe. That’s very problematic,” Castle said. “But at the same time, it’s recognized that having representatives of seven states and 30 tribes sitting in a room is a logistical problem and difficult to have meaningful discussions with that many people. There are logistical issues that need to be talked about further and worked out.”
Representatives from the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and upper basin tribes have been meeting over the past year, usually on tribal territory, partly in an effort to strengthen relationships between water managers. Vigil said that representatives from the group of 14 tribes, known as the basin tribal coalition, have also been meeting over the past year with the seven basin states to talk about collaboration. He said his hope is that tribes will also have to be signatories, along with the seven basin states and the federal government, on governing policy documents — such as the post-2026 guidelines — regarding river operations.
“Tribes understand that this is probably one of the most important components in terms of the forward movement of water policy in the basin: to have structural inclusion in the decision-making process,” he said.
Mitchell said tribal inclusion and engagement is a top priority for her going into the negotiations. Her commitment to the tribes includes communication, consultation and coordination on decision-making, she said.
“I view their involvement as critical and imperative to the success of the post-2026 reservoir operations negotiations,” Mitchell said. “It’s no secret when the compact was signed in 1922, no tribes were involved, consulted or even informed. I cannot alone correct that, but we can do better and we should do better, and we have a responsibility to do better.”
Colorado has two tribal nations, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Utes. They both settled their water rights with the state in 1986. But that doesn’t mean they can put their water to beneficial use. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has about 38,000 acre-feet of stored water for municipal and industrial use in Lake Nighthorse, part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Animas-La Plata project. But because of a lack of infrastructure and high operation and maintenance costs, they haven’t been able to access it.
“In a perfect world, I want to see the federal government fulfill its obligations to the tribal nations,” Mitchell said. “That includes its responsibility to consult with the tribes on a sovereign to sovereign basis and to support the tribes in accessing and utilizing their water resources.”
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Becky Mitchell has first-ever assignment to represent Colorado full time in body of upper-basin states
In an indication of what is at stake, Colorado has made Becky Mitchell the state’s first full-time commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
In prior years, the position had been a part-time position. Mitchell has held the position for the last four years and has directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board for six years.
“The next few years are going to be incredibly intense as we shift the way that the seven basin states cooperate and operate Lakes Powell and Mead,” said Mitchell. “This expanded role will allow me to fully focus on Colorado’s needs at such a critical time and actually work toward long-term sustainable solutions to managing the Colorado River.”
“Climate change coupled with Lower Basin overuse have changed the dynamic on the Colorado River, and we have no choice but to do things differently than we have before,” she said in a statement issued by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Colorado legislators in their 2023-24 budget appropriated funding for an upgraded position supported by an interdisciplinary team within the Department of Natural Resources and support from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
The Upper Colorado River Commission, or UCRC, was established by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. It is the body through which Colorado and three other Upper Basin states coordinate on Colorado River matters.
Mitchell has carved a reputation as an individual who speaks her mind vigorously. That vigor was on clear display at a conference sponsored by her agency on June 1 in Denver. “When we talk about security and certainty, the way that water is being used in the lower basin is damaging all of our security and certainty, not just their own,” she said.
A week later, at the Getches-Wilkinson Center conference about the Colorado River in Boulder, Mitchell was somewhat more restrained in her criticism of the lower-basin states, whose representatives were at the same table. But she verged on emotional in describing the bum deal that she believes that some of the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin have received in struggling to get their water rights recognized. She spoke for the need for a pivotal shove. “I want everyone to move as quickly as I want to move, and sometimes that’s difficult,” she said.
She mentioned the tribes again in the prepared statement: “This role will also allow me the time to get out on the ground more—to hear from folks from all areas across the state, to listen to the needs of all water partners,” she said. “This includes tribal communities and leaders, as it’s critical to include these voices in the Colorado River conversation.”
“The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people and 30 Tribes spread over 7 states and 2 countries, so there’s a lot at stake,” Mitchell said. “We have the tools to solve this, we just need the collective resolve and determination to implement them in a thoughtful, collaborative way.” Mitchell rose up through the ranks at the the CWCB, where she spent 14 years. She is generally credited with overseeing both the first draft of the Colorado Water Plan and its revision completed earlier this year.
The CWCB represents each major water basin in the state and other state agencies in a joint effort to use water wisely and protect Colorado’s water for future generations. The CWCB was created in 1937 and is governed by a 15-member board.
The agency’s responsibilities include protecting Colorado’s streams and lakes, flood mitigation, watershed protection, stream restoration, drought planning, water supply planning, and water project financing. The CWCB also works to protect the state’s water apportionments in collaboration with other western states and federal agencies.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720.415.9308.
In May, students from Palisade High School gathered on the bank of the Colorado River to kiss goodbye to 250 juvenile, endangered razorback suckers and release them into the muddy, fast-moving spring runoff, marking the 50th anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
For the past three years, PHS student scientists have been raising the fish in a hatchery, feeding and weighing them, testing the water, cleaning their tanks and inserting a transponder tag so that biologists can track their movement once released each season as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
Razorback suckers, which can live to more than 40 years old and grow to 3 feet, are one of four prehistoric fish species that live only in the Colorado River basin and whose numbers declined with the acceleration of water development projects such as dams and diversions. In 1991, the species was listed as endangered under the ESA, and it has become something of a success story for the recovery program. The populations have recovered enough in the Colorado River that the program is pulling back on stocking and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed downlisting the species to threatened, a lesser category.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve gotten confirmation that at least two of the fish showed up on a spawning bar, completing the life cycle,” said Julie Stahli, director of the recovery program. “It’s a great sign.”
Because of rebounding populations, one of the razorback sucker’s fellow endangered species, the humpback chub, was downlisted to threatened in 2021. The other two endangered fish — the Colorado pikeminnow and bonytail — are not recovering as well as the razorback sucker and humpback chub.
But, despite the successes and the coordinated efforts of federal and state agencies, upstream water users and environmental organizations, meeting minimum flow requirements in a chronically dry section of fish habitat remains a challenge, and stressors such as climate change, drought and nonnative predators are creating new hurdles for helping the fish recover.
Although the fish are arguably the earliest water users on the river, under Colorado’s system of water law, water for the environment typically has some of the most junior rights. Those who use water by taking it out of the river — farmers, cities, industry — usually have senior rights, giving them first use of the water and not always leaving enough for the fish. To remedy this, one of the main goals of the recovery program and its partners is to get more water into a chronically dry section of river in the Grand Valley where the fish live, known as the 15-mile reach.
The recovery program works to reestablish healthy populations of four species of fish that are listed under the ESA by adding water to the river, restoring habitat, growing hatchery fish and controlling nonnative predator fish. It was created in 1988 to protect the fish while still allowing water development, two seemingly opposed goals.
“Shutting down water development in the West to save an endangered species was a no-go for everyone,” Stahli said. “They came up with what was then a very strange plan to use the water and recover the endangered fish at the same time. There are pathways for both.”
The 15 miles of the Colorado River between large Grand Valley agricultural diversions and where the Gunnison River adds its flow to the Colorado is critical habitat. It also tends to not have enough water to support healthy populations, especially during irrigation season in dry years. Water diversions to the Grand Valley to grow crops, including famous Palisade peaches, can combined take up to 1,950 cubic feet per second from the river — collectively, the biggest agricultural diversion from the Colorado River on the Western Slope.
A 2022 memorandum that reviewed what is known as a Programmatic Biological Opinion, originally issued by the USFWS in 1999, found that during the irrigation season of dry years, flows did not meet the minimum monthly recommendation of 810 cfs 39% of the time. Peak spring flows of more than 12,900 cfs, which are needed for healthy habitat and fish spawning, are also not met 31% of the time in dry years, despite a voluntary program where upstream reservoir operators can send extra water down to the 15-mile reach at the same time to boost the natural peak.
The inability to hit target flow recommendations has led the recovery program to begin the process of reevaluating whether the monthly 810 cfs benchmark was a realistic goal to begin with.
“The recovery program has determined that the service’s spring and summer base flow recommendations in dry years are unrealistic and appear to have been unrealistic through the entire period of record,” reads the review memo. “The recovery program should work closely with the service to determine if there is utility in revising the 15-mile reach flow recommendations to more closely align with what we know about Colorado River hydrology and which studies would be needed to support such revisions.”
This reassessment, which is scheduled to be completed by 2028, will look broadly at flow recommendations and the best ways to set them, according to Stahli. For example, a daily minimum flow recommendation may make more sense than a monthly average.
“It’s really an examination of how we are doing within the river basin and whether the 15-mile reach is still serving the ecological function we think it is,” she said.
One of the main actions of the recovery program has been working to add water to this reach. It has been the focus for the program’s environmental conservation partners such as The Nature Conservancy and Western Resource Advocates.
“Our approach is we have always very heavily emphasized the flow piece of it,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers director at WRA. “In the last 23 years, there has been a lot of dry years. … It’s clear that in the system as a whole, there’s been less water.”
To combat these declining flows from drought and climate change, several entities offer up water they store in upstream reservoirs and release it for the benefit of the fish. For example, for the past few years, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has leased water owned by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Garfield County and Ute Water Conservancy District in Ruedi Reservoir and sent it downstream to boost flows for the fish during dry periods.
Historically, 43% of the Upper Colorado and San Juan recovery programs’ funding, which was $8 million and $3.46 million, respectively, in 2022, has been spent on flow management and protection, according to the program’s 2023 report to Congress. Since 1998, dedicated pools in reservoirs for the fish and other sources have provided more than 1.7 million acre-feet to supplement flows in the 15-mile reach.
The recovery program helps fish in other ways, too, such as funding fish passages that help them move past dams; hatchery breeding and stocking; screens that prevent them from swimming into irrigation canals; and habitat restoration.
Nonnative predators that eat endangered fish and compete for habitat have increased since the fish were listed and are now the biggest threat to the recovery of the species, according to the PBO review memo. Smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye are the biggest problems.
“I believe if we didn’t have nonnative fish, these (endangered) fish would be fine,” Stahli said.
Historically, the program has spent 6% of its funding on management of nonnative species. But in fiscal years 2023-24, the program expects to spend 20% of its funding on getting rid of nonnative fish. Stahli said the recovery program catches 2 million to 3 million nonnatives a year.
“What keeps me up at night is nonnative fish,” Miller said. “They have the numbers throughout the basin and have really exploded over the last decade.”
One of the advantages of such a highly engineered and manipulated river system is that it creates opportunities for water users to coordinate their operations to the advantage of the endangered fish.
The first example of this is the Historic Users Pool, a 66,000-acre-foot pool of water in Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River in Summit County. This water is earmarked for beneficiaries on the Western Slope, including the Grand Valley irrigators. But in some years, not all the water is needed and any surplus can be made available for endangered fish.
The details of the timing and volume of water to be released are hashed out on conference calls that can include more than 40 participants.
“In most years, the HUP surplus becomes the largest single source of flow augmentation for the 15-mile reach,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who coordinates the HUP conference calls.
The second example is Coordinated Reservoir Operations (CROS), where upstream reservoir operators can voluntarily send a pulse of water that arrives at the 15-mile reach at the same time and enhances the peak flow of the year. Retiming excess flows in this way creates a flushing flow that clears out excess sediment built up on fish-spawning grounds over the previous year. CROS is managed by the CWCB.
“Each reservoir operator decides for themselves whether or not they will participate in CROS for that year,” said Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist with CWCB. “The fundamental idea behind CROS is to retime what you were going to bypass anyway. If the reservoir operators don’t think they have excess inflow, they will not participate.”
CROS is more likely to occur in wetter-than-average years, but not extremely wet years, Garrison said. In 11 of the past 30 years, peak flows were supplemented with CROS releases. CROS did not happen this year because the prolonged high runoff from a big snowpack was enough of a benefit.
Despite its ongoing challenges, the recovery program proves that entities with different missions can come together for the good of four species of vulnerable wildlife. The fish, although they are the charismatic megafauna of the Colorado River ecosystem and are important in their own right, are also a proxy for river health. If humans can successfully aid in their recovery, it says something about our values, Miller said.
“Do we care that the rivers still flow in the month of August? And if we do, then these fish are the canary-in-the-coal-mine example,” Miller said. “They are the first species that are feeling the brunt of climate change and river management and diversions and everything humans have imposed on the river in the last century and a half. It’s a tribute to us that we can get together on a big geographic scale and put our energy behind trying to keep all the pieces of our larger Colorado River community in place.”
Join us next Wednesday, June 28 at 3 p.m. for a webinar on putting the Colorado Water Plan into action!
The update to the Colorado Water Plan, published earlier this year, relies on people across the state to get things done and implement it. What sort of work fits in with the plan? What support is there to get this work done? And what projects have already been successful in advancing the goals of the plan?
During the webinar, we’ll hear about action areas in the plan and how those overlap with funding opportunities. Plus we’ll hear from representatives from different parts of the state and take a look at a variety of projects — including a focus on collaborative water sharing in the Arkansas River Basin, forest health work in the Yampa River Basin, stream management planning and agricultural infrastructure improvements in the Rio Grande Basin, and water reuse, conservation and storage in the Metro area — that have already been implemented before diving into a discussion about moving forward.
With speakers: Russ Sands, Colorado Water Conservation Board Julie Baxter, City of Steamboat Springs Daniel Boyes, Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Projects Lisa Darling, South Metro Water Supply Authority Scott Lorenz, Colorado Springs Utilities
This webinar is FREE for WEco members! Not a member? Join to support our mission and to take advantage of this and many other benefits.
Native Americans were not invited to craft the Colorado River Compact in 1922. Now they are at the table — and insist they must be part of solutions. Big Pivots
Voices of Native Americans, long shunted to the side room, if acknowledged at all, are being heard more clearly in Colorado River discussions, as reflected in two recent water conferences in Colorado.
At the first, a drought summit held in Denver, a panel that was devoted to the worsening imbalance between water supplies and demands included Lorelei Cloud, the vice chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Her presence was an overt acknowledgement by conference organizers that the Ute tribe, if a part of Colorado, is also a sovereign. That’s something new.
The conference was sponsored by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s preeminent water policy agency. Cloud recently became a board member, representing southwestern Colorado. She’s the first Ute ever on the board.
Cloud lauded Colorado for being ahead of many other states in including native voices. “We’re making strides,” she said but added that work remains.
The next week, she was on a stage in Boulder, at the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s annual conference about the Colorado River. Thirteen of the 30 federally recognized tribes that hold water rights in the Colorado River Basin were present.
Their rights stem from a 1908 Supreme Court decision involving tribal lands in Montana. The high court agreed that when the U.S. government created reservations and expected tribes to live there, water sufficient to the presumed agrarian ways was part of the deal.
This decision, called the Winters Doctrine, has enormous implications for the shrinking Colorado River. Tribes collectively hold 25% to even 30% of the water rights in basin. Not all claims have been adjudicated. Most tribal rights predate others. The Southern Ute rights, for example, date to 1868.
All predate the Colorado River Compact. Tribes were not invited to Santa Fe in 1922 to apportion the river’s waters among the seven basin states, though the compact does acknowledge federal obligations.
Now, with the Colorado River delivering an average 12.5 million acre-feet, far less than the 20-plus assumed by those who crafted the compact, with flows expected to decline further, we have hard decisions to make. Tribal voices are being integrated into the discussions. Not fast enough for some, but very different than just a few years ago, when the federal government merely “consulted” tribes in the 2019 drought plan. The states were fully engaged.
“We need to be at the table, not just at a side table,” said one tribal representative at the Boulder conference.
Some tribes have been amenable to leasing their rights to cities and others. But will tribes with a few thousand members exert as much influence as California with its giant farms and its huge cities? California maintains that its senior rights be respected in any agreements. Still unclear is what hewing to that principle means when it comes to tribes with their even more senior rights.
Also unclear is the practicality of fully integrating the 30 tribes, each with unique circumstances and perspectives, in discussions with the seven basin states and federal government about how to address the sharp limitations imposed by the river. What has changed is broad recognition that tribal voices must better be included. Through the Water and Tribes Initiative, the tribes themselves have insisted upon being heard.
Residual anger at being shunted aside remains. Also ample is a spirit of cooperation. Many representatives suggested their tribes offer creativity and innovations in the community of 40 million Colorado River water users that extends from the farms of northeastern Colorado to the metropolises of Southern California.
Stephen Roe Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, pointed out that his tribe has undertaken the largest integration of solar panels over water canals in North American, a practice called aquavoltaics.
Others suggested they offered perspective. The Hopi have been in Arizona for more than 2,000 years. They’ve experienced drought before, said tribal member Dale Sinquah. “Our ceremonies and prayers revolve around water,” he said. “That is what Hopi can contribute, along with dialogue.”
Native Americans often talk of water as being sacred, but that does not mean roped-off, kept in closets. The Native understanding is different than the legalistic framework most of us use. They see water as something to be used, yes, but not in the same lens as most of us, who view it more narrowly as a commodity. What that means in practice is hard to tease out.
Peter Ortego, a non-native attorney representing the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado, said he found it odd the session had not started with a prayer. “Maybe we should ask, ‘What should we do day to day to respect the spirituality of water?’”
He’s got a point. I’ve never asked that question, but I am very curious about the answer.
Like hard rains amid the Dust Bowl, Colorado has lots of water almost everywhere now amid long-term drought. That’s exactly the time to talk about what do as hotter and drier inevitably return.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board chose an awkward time to conduct a drought summit, launching the two-day event on the last day of May at History Colorado in downtown Denver.
It was the fourth wettest month in Denver since 1876, before Colorado was a state, and June got off to a soggy start, too. This followed one of the snowiest winters in decades in some parts of Colorado. The only part of Colorado still in drought is in the state’s southeastern corner.
The somewhat awkward timing was noted by Anne Castle, of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “It’s perfect time to hold a drought summit,” she said with intended irony.
Like others, though, she doesn’t expect this wetness to last. Most of Colorado, including cities and farms east of the Continental Divide, depends upon water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, and it should be news to exactly no one that those who depend upon the largesse of that river have a serious re-reckoning underway. Too slow in some places, according to at several speakers at the conference.
Unlike last year, though, the heat is off. That is good, said Castle. “We can make better decisions when we’re not right in the midst of a crisis, as long as we recognize that one winter does not solve our long-term problems.”
That problem is not necessarily drought, although Colorado and Southwestern states clearly have seen less precipitation in the last 20-plus years. Droughts come and go, and this one in the Colorado River Basin is the worst in at least 1,200 years. Something more is happening here, what scientists call aridification. In aridification, it can snow just as much, but warmer temperatures draw more of the precipitation into the atmosphere. At least one study found that up to 50% of the declined flows in the Colorado River could be attributed to the warming now underway.
Aridification doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as drought, noted Russ Sands, section chief for water supply planning at the CWCB.
Make no mistake, though. Climate change, a subject approached gingerly 20 years ago by state water officials, has become part of the conversation. Consider Greeley.
The once-smallish city located at the confluence of the Poudre and South Platte Rivers has grown to a population of more than 110,000 residents. That is almost certainly just the beginning.
Sean Chambers, director of water and utility services for Greeley, said the city expects to need to expand its water portfolio, currently at 35,000 acre-feet, to 80,000 acre-feet by 2080. “That does not get Greeley to build-out; it’s only half-way there,” he said.
The city gets about 40% of its water from the Colorado River Basin.
Chambers said Greeley is starting to integrate the impacts of climate change into its planning, among them pressures on reservoirs, different times of runoff, and more watershed disruptions.
“All of these risks and challenges on the water system driven by climate change come on top of managing for growth and uncertainties around supply,” he said.
As for its planning, Greeley hopes to keep ahead of hard pressures. Last year, the city gained access to an aquifer to the north of the city that it plans to manage in conjunctive fashion. It can be drawn upon when needed but also used as a storage vessel.
“It’s really difficult to innovate when your back is against the wall,” he said during a panel discussion under a heading of “storage, conservation and innovations.”
Peter Mayer, a Boulder-based consultant who has worked for 30-plus years in water demand management, said conservation has worked very well in Colorado, especially in urban sectors. “That is my specialty. We started in the late 1980s and 1990s and have seen a gradual decline in per-capita use across the state.”
Mayer argued that this has allowed Colorado’s population to grow in a way that has been much less expensive “Because conserved water is much, much cheaper generally than (developing) new supply.”
Greg Fisher, who supervises conservation efforts for Denver Water, talked about the major water reductions in its service territory since 2000, which has allowed Denver to better keep water in its reservoirs. “Conservation really works,” he said.
But there can be tensions within water agencies between programs to reduce water use and the revenue needed to pay for the infrastructure that has been installed, as described by representatives for both Colorado Springs and Durango.
“Your leaders say (conservation) is first, but in the process of setting rates, you tend to find out it’s second or third,” said Jarrod Biggs, from the City of Durango.
“Every councilor wants to make sure that they are saving the last drop and doing what is right for the community and regional partners. When talk gets to dollars and cents, conservation ends up being somewhat important, but it does kind of fall down that list, particularly if you have a very noisy political constituency.”
Castle, from the University of Colorado, who had a law practice for much of her career, pointed out the need for getting land use right, to produce urban landscapes that are less water-intensive. “It’s really the initial configuration of development that is the primary factor that influences future water demand,” she said. We have land-use plans, master plans, comprehensive plans, subdivision improvement agreements. That is where you can deal with and incentivize water conservation and incorporate that into any new development plans.”
Municipal use represents only 7% of total water consumption in Colorado, said Mayer, compared to 91% for agriculture. “What is the agriculture sector doing?” he asked. He suggested the answers can be found with better measuring.
Taylor Hawes, who directs the Colorado River program for The Nature Conservancy with 26 years of experience, talked about the need to pick up the pace.
“We have lost 20% of the Colorado River supply since 2002,” she said. The pace of change must accelerate to correspond with the need. “The longer we wait, the harder it gets.”
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at email@example.com or 720.415.9308.
Chuck Cullom was speaking before a friendly audience on June 1 when he shared his perspective on the messy story in the Colorado River Basin.
“Is the press here?” he asked early in his remarks, surely knowing that the event, the Colorado Drought Summit, was being taped for later posting on the website of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the sponsor of the two-day meeting. “Is anybody here from a ski town?”
Since 2021, Cullom has directed the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Colorado and three other upper-basin states of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. This is distinct from the lower basin, which consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.
The bifurcation, primarily a legal one but a hydrologic one, too, was created by the Colorado River Compact in 1922. The division is marked by Lee Ferry, just below what is now Glen Canyon Dam and the launch point for boaters rafting the Grand Canyon. Most of the water in the Colorado River Basin comes from upstream, especially from snow and especially in Colorado.
For the 25 years prior to his current position, Cullom was in the lower basin, most immediately before at the Central Arizona Project. That giant straw, the last major one stuck into the Colorado River, delivers water to Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities as well as some agriculture users in Arizona. It’s also worth noting that there has always been friction between Arizona and California.
Now, from his base in the greater Salt Lake City area, he’s just across the hill from Park City, one of the top mountain resorts.
“So we have what are referred to as the trustafarians, which is a tribe of people who live off their trust funds,” he said. “Trustafarians tend to drive something between a new Subaru and a Range Rover, but with the latest kit bolted atop. I don’t know if they ever take it off, but they do have skis and mountains bikes and stuff—and they expect their paycheck every month from daddy or whomever. And they are insufferable.”
“You better be going someplace with this,” quipped another panelist, Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, known in water circles by CWCB. She is also Colorado’s voice on Colorado River affairs.
Mitchell had just wrapped up a critique of the recently announced agreement in which the federal government is to give lower-basin states $1.2 billion to curtail about 10% of their withdrawals from the Colorado River during the next three years. During that time, at least in theory, the basin states will have figured out how to solve their bad-math problem. During the 21st century, they’ve been withdrawing more water than the river has delivered. The two basins – upper and lower – do not share equal responsibility. The lower-basin has been drafting on the water banked during wetter times.
Like ski town trustafarians, Cullom explained, the lower-basin has a sense of entitlement. Trustafarians don’t have to get a job when the money runs out, and the lower-basin states for most of the last century have never had to live within the limitations of natural runoff.
Upstream of the desert empires lies Hoover Dam and, above that, Glen Canyon Dam – plus a lot of other much smaller dams and reservoirs, about 50 million acre-feet in total capacity, which provide assurances that the water will be available, no matter what is happening in the headwaters. But what has been happening most years in the 21st century has been drought and its longer-term and less reversible component, aridification.
Mitchell, who was first in the batting order in the program, has never been one to mince words. She seemed particularly animated as she described being in Phoenix the previous day to present the upper-basin’s perspective. The majority of the day was devoted to sharing “their concerns over security and certainty that they felt they were entitled to,” she said.
One can wonder how her message may have been delivered on the road as opposed to a home-court crowd.
“When we talk about security and certainty, the way that water is being used in the lower basin is damaging all of our security and certainty, not just their own.”
As did Cullom, Mitchell described a system that has shielded the lower-basin states from the hydrologic realities.
Colorado and other upper-basin states must largely live within the natural water budget, what falls from the sky. There are many dams and reservoirs, but even the largest are almost tiny in their capacities compared to the behemoths of Powell and Mead. Having those giant reservoirs above them allows California and Arizona to be certain that the water will be there for their cities and crops, be it lettuce in winter, or alfalfa and almond groves in summer. Agriculture, particularly in the Imperial Valley of California and the Yuma area of Arizona, has the most secure water systems.
In a sense, Mead and Powell represent savings accounts. Now, as all of the nation understands, the result of new and devoted national media interest, those bank accounts have verged on functional depletion. Going into this winter, the two reservoirs were 26% and 23% full. There was legitimate worry that, given just another dry winter, hydroelectric production at Glen Canyon would cease and, with another dry winter or two, Powell might drop to levels such that it could not allow water to go downstream, a level called dead pool.
The marvel in all this is that California, especially, and to a lesser extent Arizona, have not fundamentally changed anything in the last 20 years. According to Cullom, the lower basin states have been consuming about 10 million acre-feet. This compares to about 3.5 to 3.75 million acre-feet by the upper-basin states.
The Colorado River Compact stipulates equal apportionment between the two basins of 7.5 million acre-feet on a rolling 10-year average.
Almost everybody has heard talk about whether the Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, said Mitchell. It does not, she declared. Instead, it needs to be honored.
“The foundational principle of that compact is equity. Sit with that for a little bit,” she said.
“While these quantities are distracting and we know that the river is suppling less than it did a 100 years ago, that doesn’t take away from the foundation principles of this compact. With that being said, I believe that the compact is flexible enough to adapt to these conditions. We, as humans, are flexible enough to include other voices in these conversations,” added Mitchell, a reference to Lorelei Cloud, a representative of the Southern Utes who was also on the Colorado River panel at the conference.
Native Americas, if almost completely ignored when the waters of the Colorado River were being apportioned, in fact have the most senior of rights as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1908 case that yielded the Winters Doctrine. Those rights in the Colorado River Basin are estimated to be 20% to 25% of the river’s total flows. Tribes in Colorado and other upper-basin states have had their allocations determined, but the work remains incomplete in the lower basin.
Mitchell and Cullom also described efforts by upper basin states, if not always successful, to begin pruning water use in anticipation of possibly hotter, drier times ahead. Lower basin states have made some adjustments, but the question is whether they are remotely close to what is needed.
“When we saw the flags of a crisis coming, there was a choice by some to not make changes that are going to be painful,” said Mitchell, alluding to the lower basin.
Upper-basin states, she went on to explain, did make choices. In her description, users in upper-basin states did suffer, pointing to the divergent numbers of the upper-basin and the lower basin. in a chart on the screen behind her. (See above).
“These numbers tell the story of how change has to happen. And so when people get tired of us sharing the numbers, we’re going to share them some more.”
Cullom made a similar point. “It’s a threshold difference when you live downstream of 50-plus million acre-feet of storage. Your concerns about your year-over-year precipitation and runoff in operations are pretty marginal. It’s very, very different up here. Last summer, fully one-third of Wyoming’s users on the Green (a tributary to the Colorado) were shut off, regulated off.”
That, he added, is not something understood in the lower basin. “It means you are out of priority.”
It means that you are out of priority that day, that week, that month. And the state engineer, who in Wyoming is a law-enforcement official, comes and shuts you off. That is not a thing in the lower basin. But in August and September (of 2022, fully one-third of growers in the Green were curtailed. Ninety percent of the Ute Mountain Ute water was curtailed, their agricultural productivity was reduced because of hydrology.”
There’s another difference, he went on to say: the upper basin has tens of thousands of individual water users and “turnouts,” places where water is diverted. In the lower basin, there are probably 30 main-stem turnouts of which fewer than 10 really matter.
The upper basin, he said, is “small, messy and complicated. The lower basin is just a corporate machine of giant turnouts.”
A bit of history: The reservoirs entered the 20th century close to full. The 1990s had been good snow years and the upper basin states had not developed their full allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet. California famously had been allocated 4.4 but was using about 5.5
Then came the lean years, worst of all 2002. The river carried only 4.5 million acre-feet of water. Attorneys who framed the Colorado River Compact had assumed 20 million acre-feet of water on average. The thin “bathtub rings” on the sides of the reservoirs representing high marks widened considerably—and then widened more in subsequent years.
The first response was the Interim Guidelines of 2007. Then came other very small belt-tightening measures. California, for example, cut back to its legal entitlement.
By 2015, though, it had become clear that more would be needed. A modestly good water year allowed the lower-basin states to postpone any serious talk. Then came a bad year—and finally there was action. The result was the 2019 drought contingency plan.
At the time, Brad Udall, who has family roots in Arizona but a lifetime mostly in Colorado, told me that he believed that 2019 agreement that was broadly heralded was not close to being enough. “I hope I’m wrong,” he said.
More lean years followed, the reservoirs shrank, and the small measures weren’t near enough.
In their remarks at the Drought Summit in Denver on June 1, Mitchell and Cullom mentioned several of those efforts in the upper basin, with Mitchell describing one as “clumsy.” Cullom said something similar, noting the call for accelerated action as not without risk. “Part of the challenge with picking up the pace is you stub your toe,” he said, alluding to mistakes made in the system conservation pilot program.
Finally, in August 2021, the Colorado River story became national in a way that it had not been before. “In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts,” announced the New York Times.
That cut off some farmers in Arizona. More reduction was needed, though.
On June 14, 2022, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is sort of the task-master on the Colorado River because of its role in regulating the dams, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation was needed just to protect reservoir levels. She gave the basin states 60 days to come up with a plan.
To compare, the entire state of Colorado uses about 2.2 million acre-feet from the river each year.
“I wasn’t surprised by the two-million acre-feet,” recounted Mitchell last week. “It wasn’t rocket science. It was addition and subtraction. It’s not even multiplication and division. It didn’t work. There was an overuse that was not sustainable.”
That deadline from the Bureau of Reclamation was missed, as was an extension.
Finally, in late January, something came out, if it also fell short. California wasn’t on board.
“Cut the crap,” Udall was quoted as saying in a Denver Post story in January.
Finally in late May, a new agreement was announced, getting front page attention from New York and Washington DC to Los Angeles (and, of course, in Denver).
“We’ve received a page and a half of bullet points saying what the lower-basin intends to do. We don’t know how they’ll do it. We don’t know where the water will come from (among existing uses). We don’t know if it will be binding and enforceable,” said Mitchell.
She said Colorado and other upper basin states are waiting to see a revised draft supplement environmental impact statement.
Mitchell was unsparing. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we don’t get paid for the conservation that happens in the upper-basin states, because it’s in response to hydrology,” she said.
There is yet another bone of contention, one that all but Colorado River wonks will have a hard time understanding. That is who takes responsibility for evaporation from the reservoirs as well as transmission loss.
Hydrologists estimate a million acre-feet of evaporation occurs on Lake Mead – but in the accounting of the lower-basin states, he said, it doesn’t exist.
“In the lower basin,” said Cullom, “they, uh, somehow , uh, there’s an atmospheric thing that prevents evaporation from being considered. Apparently physics doesn’t work (the same) everywhere.”
By that point, Cullom had left his metaphor for ski town trustafarians alone. Do you think he uses that when he speaks in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Needles?
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720.415.9308.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
Hot on the heels of a short-term agreement to cut back on Colorado River water use, states are looking ahead to talks about more permanent cuts. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which manages the West’s water, announced that those negotiations will formally begin next week with a notice in the Federal Register. The announcement came at an environmental law conference in Boulder, Colorado on Thursday [June 8, 2023], where scientists, state and federal governments, and tribes met at the University of Colorado’s law school…
It still remains unclear how exactly the states plan to arrive at permanent cutbacks that will likely be painful to some of the farms and cities that depend on the river’s water, which flows to tens of millions of people and a multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Pressed for details, state leaders shared little beyond high-level ideas about the need for water conservation across all seven states that use the Colorado River…Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, emphasized that post-2026 guidelines need to “acknowledge that climate change is real.”
Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, shared new details about the agency’s upcoming plans for water management. The agency has withdrawn its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement while it reviews the proposal, and plans to arrive at a final plan – or “Record of Decision” – by the end of 2023. Reclamation has so far been tight-lipped with details about negotiations related to the 2026 deadline, but Touton said the agency will “formally advance” the process for those multi-year talks starting the week of June 12. Starting the process next week, she said, will allow the agency to publish a new draft SEIS by the end of 2024…
A panel with representatives from 13 tribes spoke about the evolving role of tribes in water negotiations. Officials and attorneys spoke about their current struggles to maintain steady access to clean water, the historic aggression and exclusion that drove them away from water management and the need for tribes’ input as talks continue.
Although Indigenous people in the Southwest have been using Colorado River water longer than any other group in the region, they have largely been excluded from discussions about how the river is shared. The 30 federally-recognized tribes that use the river control about a quarter of its flow, but most lack the money and infrastructure to use their full allotments. Tribal leaders said their millennia-long history in the region could offer lessons for the future of water management.
Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Kyle McCabe). Here’s an excerpt:
The river district’s Public Relations Director Marielle Cowdin spoke about the district’s work. She highlighted the Colorado River’s crisis, saying that the increased precipitation over the last year will not save the river…Cowdin talked about the water consumption differences between the upper and lower basin states, highlighting that upper basin states make cuts more effectively because they do not have massive reservoirs like Lake Mead or Lake Powell to rely on in drier years.
“Between 2020 and 2021, the four upper basin states cut our water consumption by 1 million acre-feet — just on our own because the water wasn’t there,” Cowdin said. “Instead of about 4.5 million acre-feet of water use, in that year timeframe, we only used 3.5 (million).”
The lower basin states’ 2020-21 consumption went up 600,000 acre-feet from their average use, Cowdin said. The annual water usage split between the states has been about 60%, or around 8.8 million acre-feet, used by the lower basin versus 30%, or around 4.4 million acre-feet, used by the upper basin, with the remaining water going to Mexico…
The next speaker, Rebecca Mitchell, the Colorado Water Conservation Board director and Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, was the special guest at the event. She spoke about the Bureau of Reclamation’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and news that broke about it the day of the meeting. Mitchell explained that the bureau’s SEIS came after the lower basin states did not respond to the bureau’s June 2022 announcement that states needed to cut 2-4 million acre-feet. That announcement, she said, was not a surprise to those working on the Colorado River…Differences between the upper and lower basin states came up several times in Mitchell’s talk. She mentioned that the six-state plan, which included all states besides California, acknowledged that the upper states have shortages annually because, unlike the lower states, they do not have huge reservoirs from which to draw…On May 22, the day of the meeting, the bureau announced a pause on the SEIS. Mitchell explained that the lower basin states had presented a plan which included temporary cuts that would amount to 3 million acre-feet from 2024-26 but provided few details on how cuts would be enforced.
“Instead of coming up with 2-4 million on an annual basis, they were like, ‘Hey, there’s all this money … we can kick the can a little bit more, and we can use this money and make some temporary changes,” Mitchell said of the lower basin states.
Registration includes access to the Watershed Summit, happy hour, refreshments, and entrance to Denver Botanic Gardens on June 22, 2023.This year, we’re excited to offer add-on optional experiences for those looking for something special before the main event:Guided tour of water-wise gardens by Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturists: $10 (75 spots available)Eat within your watershed: Locally sourced lunch prepared by SAME Café: $20 (25 spots available)The Watershed Summit, or “Shed” as it is affectionately known, has become a Colorado tradition, gathering a range of stakeholders to discuss current and future water challenges and opportunities facing the state. This year’s event will convene diverse voices and creative points of view to explore water efficient landscaping, how youth environmental education is bridging geographical divides, federal involvement in western water issues, and so much more!
Shed ’23 returns to a fully in-person event at Denver Botanic Gardens, concluding with the ever-popular happy hour event sponsored by Stem Ciders and Howdy Beer.
This event is produced through a collaborative partnership between the One World One Water Center (a joint initiative of Metropolitan State University of Denver and Denver Botanic Gardens), Aurora Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver Water and Resource Central.
We hope you’ll join us this summer for the return of the Watershed Summit!
On April 11, the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). The SEIS is a mechanism to adjust the current operating guidelines for Glen Canyon (Lake Powell) and Hoover Dams (Lake Mead), providing tools for Reclamation to adapt to potentially dry years in the next few water years. Several news outlets, including The Colorado Sun, Politico, Colorado Politics, and AP News, covered the release with commentary from CWCB experts. CWCB Director and Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell is seeking public input to inform Colorado’s response to the SEIS. Share your feedback.
Major water infrastructure project funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to provide clean, reliable drinking water to 50,000 Coloradans once completed
PUEBLO, Colo. – The Bureau of Reclamation today broke ground on the Boone Reach trunk line of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), a major infrastructure project under President Biden’s Investing in America agenda that will bring clean, reliable drinking water to 39 communities in southeastern Colorado.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Gary Gold and Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton joined local and Federal leaders at the groundbreaking ceremony where they highlighted the $60 million investment provided through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for the project. When completed, the project’s 230 miles of pipeline will deliver as much as 7,500 acre-feet of water annually from Pueblo to Lamar, where water providers in Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties will serve a projected future population of 50,000.
“The results of the historic investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are evident here today as we see this project moving forward,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Gary Gold. “This project will bring a long-term, clean water supply to so many communities in southeastern Colorado.”
“Through the President’s Investing in America agenda, Reclamation is now well positioned to help advance these important water projects that have been paused for decades,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Our investment in this project, dedicated by President Kennedy more than 60 years ago, will provide the path forward for safe drinking water to so many residents of this area.”
“This long-awaited project is a vital step forward for the Arkansas Valley and shows what can be accomplished through a strong coalition of federal, state, and local partnerships,” said Jeff Rieker, Eastern Colorado Area Manager.
“Generations of people of the Lower Arkansas Valley have waited for the AVC for more than 60 years, and now with construction starting, we are seeing the realization of that dream,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “This is the culmination of years of determination on the part of Reclamation, the District and the AVC participants to get this job done.”
“This is a truly monumental achievement and marks the culmination of decades of hard work, dedication, and collaboration by those who have devoted their lives to the business of water,” said Seth Clayton, executive director of Pueblo Water. “Pueblo Water is proud to be an integral participant in this important time in history.”
The Arkansas Valley Conduit was part of the 1962 Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, and its construction represents the completion of the project. Once complete the project will replace current groundwater sources contaminated with radionuclides and help communities comply with Environmental Protection Act drinking water regulations. The connection point for AVC is at the east end of Pueblo Water’s system, at 36th Lane and U.S. Highway 50, and follows the Arkansas River corridor from Pueblo to Lamar, with spurs to Eads and Crowley County. Reclamation is building the trunk line, while the Southeastern District will build the spur and delivery lines. Estimated total cost is about $600 million.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $8.3 billion for Bureau of Reclamation water infrastructure projects over five years to advance drought resilience and expand access to clean water for families, farmers, and wildlife. The investment will repair aging water delivery systems, secure dams, and complete rural water projects, and protect aquatic ecosystems. The funding for this project is part of the $1.05 billion in Water Storage, Groundwater Storage and Conveyance Projects provided by the Law.
Click the link to read “Arkansas Valley Conduit project breaks ground” on The Pueblo Chieftain website (JamesBartolo/USA Today). Here’s an excerpt:
Advocates of the Arkansas Valley Conduit celebrated the groundbreaking of the conduit’s Boone Reach 1 trunk line, which will connect Pueblo’s water system to Boone, on Friday, April 28, at Martin Marietta Rich Sand & Gravel east of Pueblo. The trunk line is the first 6-mile piece of the conduit’s planned 230mile project stretching from Pueblo to Lamar and Eads. Once completed, the conduit will send up to 7,500 acrefeet of Pueblo Reservoir water to about 50,000 southeastern Colorado residents. WCA Construction LLC., a Towaoc, Colorado-based company owned by the Ute Tribe, was awarded a $42.9 million contract from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in September 2022 to complete construction of the Boone Reach 1 trunk line.
Communities benefitting from the conduit include communities in eastern Pueblo, Crowley, Otero, Bent, Kiowa and Prowers counties. Drinking water in many of these communities currently contains contaminants like radionuclides and selenium, according to Bill Long, board president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District…
Estimates for the total cost of the project are between $600 and $700 million, Long said. Project leaders hope to receive upward of $500 million more from the federal government. After receiving $60 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Package, the Arkansas Valley Conduit continues to be a competitive project in the fight for future federal funding, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camile Touton.
Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Website (Jerd Smith):
A new, late-session bill creating a statewide task force designed to shore up the state’s Colorado River drought protection efforts will be heard this week by Colorado lawmakers, with the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee considering the bill today.
The Colorado General Assembly adjourns May 6, giving lawmakers just days to deliberate on the bill.
Senate Bill 23-295 is sponsored by Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon; House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Summit County; Sen. Perry Will, R-New Castle; and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. It would create a task force that has six months to come up with ways to protect the state from water shortages due to the ongoing megadrought in the Colorado River Basin, and to ensure that efforts to temporarily fallow West Slope farms and ranches to help keep more water in the Colorado River don’t impose undue burdens on West Slope farms and ranches and other water users.
“This legislation … will bring us one step closer to addressing one of the most pressing issues our state has ever faced – the endangered Colorado River – and ensure every Colorado community has access to the water resources they need now and into the future,” Roberts said in a statement.
The Colorado River Basin covers seven states. The Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California and Nevada, and the Upper Basin comprises Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The majority of the river’s supplies are generated here in the Upper Basin, with Colorado being the largest contributor to the system.
And the majority of the river’s water, roughly 80%, is used to grow food. If states can find ways to reduce agricultural water use, it would help rebalance the system. But it is a complicated undertaking, and could harm rural farm economies and food production if not done properly.
Major water districts on Colorado’s West Slope, including the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, as well as the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, represent many growers who rely on the Colorado River. They have been frustrated by what they say is a failure by the state to include them in decision making about new federal farm fallowing pilot programs, among other things. The proposed task force would be charged with devising a formal structure for including water districts and other interested parties.
Last month these districts were alarmed when the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy body, opted not to give them the opportunity to review fallowing proposals submitted to the Upper Colorado River Commission as part of what is known as the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), a short-term initiative that would pay growers to voluntarily fallow their fields, or switch crops, or use other techniques to reduce their use of Colorado River water.
Steve Wolff is general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. He said state water officials need to be more inclusive and transparent about decisions being made about the Colorado River.
Wolff said the CWCB’s decision to exclude the water districts from the SCPP review process is an example of the lack of transparency that is driving concern on the Western Slope.
He said the task force bill is a major undertaking and may not be finished before the session ends.
“It’s moving very fast,” he said.
The CWCB did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But CWCB Director Becky Mitchell has acknowledged previously that the SCPP initiative was rolled out very quickly, and its processes could be improved. Mitchell also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
This year, due to historically deep mountain snows in Colorado and elsewhere, lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the Colorado River system, will see more water flowing in than they have in decades. But because both reservoirs have sunk to less than 30% full, the bountiful runoff won’t be enough to restore the system.
In the coming weeks, major decisions loom on how to restore the river and to sustain it as climate change and lingering drought continue to sap its flows.
This week, for instance, the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents the four Upper Basin states, will likely make decisions about which growers will participate in the $125 million SCPP.
Later this summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will announce how much Lower Basin states will have to cut their water use and which states will take the largest cuts.
Last summer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the seven states to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water this year, but negotiations have failed to produce a consensus.
The Upper Basin states, along with Nevada and Arizona, have agreed to a six-point plan that includes the SCPP, as well as a longer-term plan to create a special protected drought pool in Lake Powell, an initiative known as demand management. At the same time, California has offered its own plan that proposed cuts that are largely opposed by Arizona.
The new Colorado task force, if approved, would include West Slope and Front Range water district members, as well as environmental, agricultural and industrial interests.
Brad Wind is general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservation District. It is one of the largest users of Colorado River water on the Front Range, and serves hundreds of farmers and more than a million urban water users.
He said his board won’t have time to take a formal position on the bill, but he said he’s concerned that it favors West Slope districts over those on the Front Range.
“There will be a lot more work between now and then [the end of the session],” Wind said. “It’s going to be a lively discussion.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Here’s the releasee from the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum (Joe Stone):
The premier water event in Colorado’s largest river basin happens Tuesday and Wednesday, April 25-26, in Colorado Springs. The 27th Arkansas River Basin Water Forum will feature discussions and presentations on “Facing the Future Together” delivered by top water experts in Colorado and the Ark Basin.
Tuesday’s keynote speaker will be Kelly Romero-Heaney, assistant director of water policy for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. Kelly has over 20 years of diverse experience in natural resource issues, having worked as a consultant, hydrologist, environmental specialist and wildland firefighter. In her current position she advises top executives at DNR, the Division of Water Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board about water policy issues and legislation.
Rachel Zancanella will deliver Wednesday’s keynote address. Rachel was promoted to Division 2 (Arkansas River Basin) engineer in December 2022 following Bill Tyner’s retirement. She has held multiple positions with DWR, ranging from deputy water commissioner to water resources engineer and lead assistant division engineer. Prior to joining DWR, Rachel worked as a water resources engineer in the private sector.
Mornings at the Water Forum will feature presentations on topics like projects in El Paso County to meet future demand for water, technological advances in snow measurement, transforming landscapes to conserve water, and PFAS mitigation in drinking water supplies.
After lunch, attendees can choose from several tours and field trips. Tuesday afternoon will feature:
A field trip to explore aquifer recharge and water reuse in El Paso County.
A tour of the Mesa Garden, a demonstration garden for water-wise landscapes.
A tour of Fountain Creek that will highlight the importance of Plains fish conservation and visit streamgages managed by DWR and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Wednesday afternoon opportunities include:
A tour highlighting pioneering work in PFAS mitigation using strong base anion ion exchange resin.
A filed trip to Colorado Springs Utilities to see how non-potable water is being reused.
An Art and Ale tour that will feature murals created through the Storm Drain Art Project followed by a visit to a Fountain Creek Watershed District Brewshed Alliance brewery.
Since 1995, the Ark River Basin Water Forum has served the basin by encouraging education and dialogue about water, the state’s most valuable resource, and this year’s Forum will take place at the Doubletree by Hilton.
The Forum remains a very good value:
Two-day full registration, including lunches – $300.
One-day registration, either Tuesday or Wednesday, including lunch – $150.
Percolation and Runoff networking dinner – $20 (all proceeds support the ARBWF Scholarship Fund).
The real fun begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday with Percolation and Runoff, a casual networking event that raises money for the Forum’s college scholarship fund. The $20 cost includes dinner, drinks and entertaining conversation.
The Colorado Drought Summit will be a 2-day event on May 31 & June 1, 2023. Space is limited – Register here(External link). The full draft agenda can be accessed in the sidebar to the right and a snapshot of the draft agenda is below.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is hosting the Drought Summit to evaluate lessons-learned and adaptive solutions for addressing drought concerns. In January 2023, Governor Polis directed the CWCB to hold this event. The two-day summit will make good on that directive and demonstrate CWCB’s commitment to advancing the conversation around drought resilience in the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.
CWCB is grateful to Brown & Caldwell for being the lead sponsor and for helping to plan and staff the event.
A state-backed coalition of conservation groups is launching an unprecedented push that would pay private landowners to save 3.3 million acres of natural terrain from development. That’s a small portion of Colorado’s total 66 million acres, which include nearly 40 million acres of private property. Robust real estate activity and new construction, bringing high-end houses and commercial buildings to once-pristine mountain valleys, has added urgency to the effort…
Saving 3.3 million acres of private land within ten years — the goal Keep It Colorado announced Wednesday at the Denver Botanic Gardens — would match the amount of private land protected against development since 1965, according to data in a “Conserving Colorado” strategy unveiled after a $300,000, 18-month planning effort. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Great Outdoors Colorado provided funding. Private land conservation increasingly is seen as essential for enduring multiple threats: cascading impacts of climate warming, including droughts, heat waves, wildfires, erosion, extreme storms; degradation of ecologically sensitive areas; water scarcity; and economic challenges that threaten to drive ranchers and farmers out of agriculture.
A Nature Conservancy analysis recently identified 16 million acres of “climate-resilient” private property in Colorado that is critical for wildlife survival under harsher climate conditions. Keep It Colorado members planned to prioritize land in river valleys that benefits existing human communities as well as wildlife.
Protecting natural terrain depends on landowners who prioritize the ecological health of their property and agree to conservation easements — agreements that block future development. Ownership stays private. Landowners receive compensation for the value of development rights they give up through state-level property tax breaks, which Keep It Colorado leaders propose to increase, along with creating new federal tax incentives and future payments to landowners for “ecosystem services.”
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced the creation and appointment of members to a water conservation focused Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. Over the next year, the Task Force will work to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water conservation through state policy and local initiatives, to meet the pressing challenges of urban water conservation in Colorado.
The Task Force arose out of the Governor’s initiatives announced during his 2023 State of the State highlighting the need to prioritize the intersections of climate change, water and housing. The Task Force is also informed by the newly finalized Colorado Water Plan calls for “Transformative Landscape Change”—understanding the need to start building the landscapes of tomorrow, today and more closely aligning land use plans, water use, and water conservation.
“Rather than just pointing to other states’ methods, the Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force will strive to find solutions that work in our state’s unique environment,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The Task Force will focus on actionable recommendations like setting standards for turf-alternative ‘Colorado Scaping,’ gallons-per-square-foot water budgets, as well as evaluating land use development, water affordability, and much more.”
Sustained outdoor water savings are often difficult to realize. These goals require water providers and other groups working together in ways that extend beyond turf removal and work to advance landscape transformation in ways that provide lasting water savings.
“There’s not one single solution to urban water conservation success in Colorado,” said Becky Mitchell, CWCB Director. “It will require a cumulative effort, everyone doing a little bit—so I’m happy to have such a robust team of experts on this Task Force including water providers, urban planning experts, land use experts, developers and more, from all across the state.”
The 21-member task force is now set, consisting of 8 water utilities, 2 water conservation districts, 2 environmental non-governmental organization representatives, and several single seats. Additional Task Force consultation may also include coordination with specialists like: affordable housing professionals, water rate experts, arborists, transportation specialists or other groups as determined by the Task Force. The team will aim to meet 4 times over the next year, wrapping up in January 2024.
Let me give you a precise example of what we’re talking about. An infill housing development took shape a couple of years ago near the Arvada High School in metropolitan Denver.
My midnight walks—it’s safer to walk then—often take me up that hill above the baseball diamond where grass was planted next to a row of mini-mansions. Rarely, if ever, will anybody set foot on that basketball court-sized plot of grass save to mow it.
Why was the turf planted? Likely because that’s the way it was always done. What I know with greater certainty is that roughly 75% of the water for this municipality comes from tributaries of the Colorado River. And I also know that these water rights—Arvada gets water from Denver Water—are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Water did not begin flowing through the Moffat Tunnel until 1936.
Huffing up the hill past this ornamental turf, I ask myself, “Don’t they know that adding turf in metro Denver or, for that matter, Grand Junction, during this time of rapid climate change is deeply problematic? Doesn’t this qualify as either terribly ignorant or, just perhaps, arrogant?”
In Colorado, we’ve resumed our conversation about how we use water and, more broadly, the type of development we want to see. Gov. Jared Polis made housing a central portion of his state-of-the-state address in early January—and he cycled around again and again to frame it within an ecosystem of impacts and goals, including water. He mentioned water 24 times in his address:
“Let me be clear – housing policy is climate policy.
Housing policy is economic policy.
Housing policy is transportation policy.
Housing policy is water policy.”
On Jan. 26, in an address to the Colorado Water Congress, Polis made it a little more clear what he has in mind. He called for a “comprehensive approach to housing to preserve our water resources.” He cited multiple benefits for revised land-use policies: reduced traffic, saved money for consumers and – most important, he added, it “limits demand on water resources.”
Polis said the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead a study on integrating land use and water demand.
This 21-member Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force is to include representatives from 8 water utilities, 2 conservation districts, 2 environmental NGOs, with the balance to come from areas of expertise and interests such as stormwater, equity, and urban planning.
Looming over the three-day Water Congress conference was the future of the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser and Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, both spoke from the same script. They said Colorado has kept within its limits as specified by the compact. The problems of the Colorado River are due very fundamentally to overuse by the lower-basin states, particularly California.
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt,” Weiser said.
Mitchell reported that Colorado and the three other upper-basin states in 2020 used altogether 3.5 million acre-feet compared to the 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River Compact apportionment. The lower-basin states used on the order of 10 million acre-feet. The upper basin states live within what the climate delivers, she said, while the lower-basin states have lived beyond their means, steadily draining the federal reservoirs, both big and small. “They must do something, they must do it now,” Mitchell said.
On Jan. 30, an agreement was announced among six of the seven states – California was the hold-out. It didn’t impress many people.
“Let’s cut the crap,” Brad Udall, who has emerged in the last decade as one of the most insightful observers of the Colorado River, told The Denver Post. “We don’t have elevation to give away right now,” a reference to elevations of the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell.
Sounds simple enough. We wear the white hats. Yet Eric Kuhn, a former long-time manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said it’s not really that simple. He’s parsed the agreements at length in a book he co-authored called “Science Be Dammed,” a history of the Colorado River Compact, as well as various other papers and studies.
Kuhn said it’s not a given that Colorado municipal water providers—most of whom have water rights junior to the Colorado River Compact—will always be able to access the Colorado River and its tributaries. And having no water is not an option.
“Curtailment of those junior users is not acceptable at any time in the future,” said Kuhn.
But the only logical place for growing towns and cities to expand their water portfolios is from water users with senior appropriations, namely agriculture.
When we spoke several days after the water conference, Gimbel reminded me that it was written for a business audience understanding that it needed to include the water community. “It was our opportunity to tell the business community ‘pay attention, because what happens with water is going to affect our economy one way or another.’”
This is from Big Pivots 67, a reader-supported e-journal covering climate change and the resulting energy and water transitions in Colorado.
“Common Sense Institute is a non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy. CSI is at the forefront of important discussions concerning the future of free enterprise in Colorado and aims to have an impact on the issues that matter most to Coloradans.”
The report cites the need for demand-mitigation measures such as removing non-functional turf in new development. They cite the examples of Sterling Ranch, a tiny project in Douglas County where the developers, because they had little water, were forced to figure out how to minimize water use. They also cite Aurora, which last year adopted regulations that dramatically ratchet down water for new development.
They say this must become more common as Colorado’s population grows.
“Lacking statewide or regional standards, home developers are free to choose cities with less strict conservation standards,” they wrote. “Regional approaches are needed.”
They suggest regional conservancy and conservation districts might be a vehicle in lieu of statewide standards. They also cite WISE, the project in metro Denver and several of its suburban water providers, particularly those on the south side.
The report, if broad-ranging and data-rich, also has a vagueness to it on this point. Gimbel says that lack of specificity was intentional. “The idea of demand-management measures in the report was left vague for a reason,” she says. “We purposefully did not develop it more, to allow discussion already taking place to maybe morph into broad action.”
“We have to do more with less,” said Kuhn. He cited projected population growth of 1.6 to 1.8 million new residents by 2050, most along the Front Range, but also the probability that the warming climate will make less water available, particularly from the Colorado River.
At several times during their Water Congress presentation, Gimbel and Kuhn acknowledged that state-wide standards would be an uphill struggle. In Colorado, towns, cities, and counties have traditionally called their own shots on land use and other development questions.
This is starting to shift, though. It is clear in Colorado’s agenda on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But even here, there’s a balancing act. Legislators—with the consent of Polis—have told the investor-owned utilities they must meet carbon reduction goals. They have delivered the same mandate to Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which operates in ways that somewhat resemble those of Xcel.
But legislators left alone the municipal providers and the independent electrical cooperatives, instead choosing to persuade. It always helps, though, when the market is marching at a fast pace in the same direction.
In what I see as a direct parallel, the state recently has started to apply pressure to local jurisdictions to get ready for electrification in their building codes. There’s some wiggle room for local jurisdictions, but it’s not the free-for-all of yesteryear. Climate change forces a more urgent focus on issues we would have faced anyway but for other reasons.
Colorado has been having this water conversation for a while. In 2014, Ellen Roberts, then a state senator from Durango, and Don Coram, then a state representative from Montrose, introduced a conservation bill called “Limit Use of Ag Water for Lawn Irrigation.”
Local governments didn’t want the state stepping in. And there was pushback from the ag sector. “If it’s water intensive, are you going to tell us that we can’t grow that?” one agriculture sector representative responded.
In the end, the bill became a study bill, the idea directed to an interim committee for further study. That, notes Roberts, is where bills commonly get sent to die. In this case, though, the conversation continued—and that was what she had intended all along.
“My concern was that if we waited for that to happen naturally, it might never happen or it would be so slow that it would have no meaningful impact,” she says.
If the proposal was watered down, so to speak, even some legislators from the Western Slope who might not vote for it were “appreciative that somebody was willing to walk the plank on the topic.” In Durango itself, support ranged from those on the far left to those on the far right of the political spectrum.
The same issues that Roberts encountered are still very much alive.
Aurora, if lately a shining light for advocates of demand-management policies, harbors skepticism of mandates. “Aurora must retain control of what our city looks like,” says Greg Baker, the city’s spokesman. Guidelines could be acceptable—and smaller water municipalities could very well use help in delivering incentives.
This said, Aurora is open to discussion “and it needs to be a proportional discussion,” says Baker. “We don’t want to tell agriculture how to use their water, but they account for 85% of water use in this state.”
On Jan. 31, in a legislative forum sponsored by Empower our Future, a Boulder County energy-focused organization, I asked State Sen. Fenberg, the Senate president, if the legislative broad brushes to advance the Polis land-use agenda could be described. He didn’t deliver specifics, but he did a good job of describing the dynamics of what he called a “third-rail issue.”
“It will come down to what things should stay at the local level and I think the vast majority will remain at the local level.” That said, he continued, the question remains of how we go about this in ways to advance Colorado’s other goals.
More issues have become statewide in nature. More state funding has been advanced for funding to expand housing. Water use is associated with housing, so the state has a connected interest, he suggested.
“Because of that, I think people have started asking more questions. If it is a state problem, shouldn’t the state be more involved in either solving the problem or stopping the problem from getting worse?”
It will be, he concluded, a “tough conversation.” Laws governing water move slowly, and speakers at the Water Congress repeatedly said it is wise to move cautiously. Can the rapidly changing water story in the Colorado River Basin and the changing climate that is producing the crisis abide caution?
With the Colorado River crisis deepening and the warming climate continuing to rob streams and rivers of their flows, talk in Colorado has resumed about how to limit growing water demand statewide for residential use.
A new report commissioned by the Common Sense Institute and written by Colorado water veterans Jennifer Gimbel and Eric Kuhn, cites the need for broader conservation measures such as removing non-functional turf in new development, among other things.
“Regional approaches are needed,” they added in their broad-ranging report. They suggest regional conservancy and conservation districts might be a vehicle in lieu of statewide standards.
Gimbel, a senior scholar at CSU’s Water Center and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Kuhn, retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, summarized their findings last Friday [January 27, 2023] in a presentation at the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention. The water congress is a bi-partisan group representing dozens of water users across the state.
“We have to do more with less,” said Kuhn. He cited projected statewide population growth of 1.6 to 1.8 million new residents by 2050, most along the Front Range, but also the probability that the warming climate will make less water available, particularly from the Colorado River.
Kuhn warned that deliveries of water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range are by no means guaranteed. Several Front Range water providers, including Pueblo, Denver and Northern Water have at least some water rights that are younger, or more junior than those farther downstream in places such as California, and could be vulnerable if mandatory cutbacks ever occurred. Within individual states in the West, older water rights are typically fulfilled before younger water rights during times of scarcity, though it’s yet to be seen how mandatory cutbacks would materialize across the entire Colorado River Basin.
“Curtailment of those junior users is not acceptable at any time in the future,” said Kuhn.
Earlier during the conference, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis called for a “comprehensive approach to housing to preserve our water resources.” He cited multiple benefits for revised land-use policies: reduced traffic, saved money for consumers and – most important, he added, it “limits demand on water resources.”
Polis said the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead a task force on integrating land use and water demand. This 21-member Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force is to include representatives of 8 water utilities, 2 conservation districts, 2 environmental NGOs, with the balance to come from areas of expertise and interest such as stormwater, equity, and urban planning.
Local control, a basic precept of Colorado’s form of government, will also likely be an issue. Towns, cities and counties who are authorized to govern themselves in most cases, often resist state control in matters they believe should remain in local hands.
Aurora, if lately a shining light for turf removal and strict water conservation policies, harbors skepticism of any potential statewide mandates. “Aurora must retain control of what our city looks like,” says Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s spokesman.
Aurora is open to discussion but “it needs to be a proportional discussion,” says Baker. “We don’t want to tell agriculture how to use their water, but they account for 85% of water use in this state.”
In 2014, when Ellen Roberts, then a state senator from Durango, introduced a conservation bill, she found significant opposition.
Roberts said she introduced the bill, which did not pass, to get the conversation going in Colorado about stepped-up conservation programs. “My concern was that if we waited for that to happen naturally, it might never happen or it would be so slow it would have no meaningful impact,” she says.
This latest report was designed for the business community, says Gimbel, but with the understanding that it needed to include the water community. “It was our opportunity to tell the business community ‘pay attention, because what happens with water is going to affect our economy one way or another.’”
Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.
“Water is the conversation. It will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year,” said newly elected Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, setting the tone and elevating water issues for Colorado’s 2023 General Assembly.
It’s no secret Colorado’s rivers and streams are suffering and our state’s challenges are a good example of water crises gripping the American West. Parched rivers; stressed farms, livestock and fish; and more frequent floods and wildfires are all symptoms of the disruption wrought as climate change impacts our region and already strained water supply.
Colorado’s lawmakers and other leaders have a responsibility to ensure Coloradans have the tools we need to proactively respond to drought and its impacts — on the legislature’s opening day, Senate President Steve Fenberg made it clear water will be among the high priority items the General Assembly takes on. And Speaker McCluskie concurred, saying: “Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space.” Gov. Jared Polis’s proposed 2023 budget has already highlighted support for addressing our state’s water challenges. Last year the federal government injected a once-in-a- generation allocation of public funds to support water needs in the West. Now action is needed within the Colorado legislature to increase funding and capacity to establish both immediate and long-term drought security and to protect clean drinking water alongside river and watershed health.
We’re excited to see the Governor’s budget request for a historic $25.2 million to advance implementation of the state’s water plan, providing capacity to meet increasing demands, to combat the effects of climate change, and to support the health of our rivers. It’s important to note: these state funds are vital for unlocking matching federal dollars, dollars that are expected to be leveraged for approximately $100 million worth of water project grants across the state — a 4-to-1 return on investment. By engaging local communities, investing federal funds in needed infrastructure projects, and empowering millions of people to take action to conserve water, Colorado will make significant progress toward responding to long-term climate trends.
Flows in the Colorado River have decreased by more than 20% in just the past 20 years, which is why improving the struggling Colorado River system has been, and remains, the top priority for Water for Colorado. A healthy and vibrant river system serves as habitat for wildlife, increases resilience to floods and wildfires, enhances the quality and availability of water and forage for livestock, bolsters critical rural recreation economies and provides numerous ecological services that protect our sources of clean drinking water. With increasing threats of extreme weather events, healthy and functioning streams are critical to ensuring resilient communities, and a thriving state. This is why we are supporting efforts by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to pass legislation clarifying stream restoration projects can proceed without unnecessary red tape; and also why we support Governor Polis’s budget request to increase Colorado’s ability to leverage federal funds and assist with the crisis we are facing on the Colorado River.
Water policy is no longer a niche issue. Water conversations are happening at every level of state leadership — from the Governor’s office, to the General Assembly, to the Attorney General’s office — and across issue areas this session, making national headlines week after week. For example, as Governor Polis and the General Assembly seek to address land-use patterns and the affordable housing crisis, they are inserting water use into the conversation as a vital element. Integrating land use, development planning and more flexible water management can be another area on which our state leads.
The focus on water needs to be wide-ranging, but it also must be consistent. The time is now for Colorado to implement innovative policies that keep rivers flowing and proactively respond to drought conditions. In doing so, we will be a leader, showing other states how to do more with less, supporting the health of our river systems, and securing our state’s long-term vitality in the face of a hotter, drier future.
As Speaker McCluskie told us, the work ahead on water may be “the most challenging work the state has ever done.” While this is likely true, it may also be the most
rewarding — we can tell our children and grandchildren they live in a more resilient state because of the work conducted this session.
In his 2023 State of the State, Governor Polis reminded us “water is life in Colorado and the (W)est, it’s as simple as that.” The consequences of inaction this session are too great to consider. Failing to protect our water resources is not an option. Luckily, Colorado has the opportunity to not only protect our water resources in the near-term, but lead the charge toward longer-term drought resilience and climate resilience. It’s incumbent upon our lawmakers to secure Colorado’s water future. We look forward to working together to do so.
Abby Burk is Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies. Jessica Gelay is the Colorado Government Affairs Manager for Western Resource Advocates. Audubon Rockies and Western Resource Advocates are both members of the Water for Colorado Coalition.
Water is our most precious natural resource and life-sustaining force for Coloradans, birds, and other wildlife. On January 9, Colorado lawmakers headed to the Capitol to start the 120-day legislative session. As a centerpiece of the session, water will connect and unite lawmakers and constituents with ripple effects for years to come.
At a critical time for water, leadership from all three legislative chambers have commented on the importance of Colorado’s water to the sustainability and vitality of our state. “(Water) is the conversation, it will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year, if for no other reason than that Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space,” said Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie. “The conversation around water is going to be a big one,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg.
On January 17, 2023, Governor Jared Polis, in the State of the State address, remarked: “Water is life in Colorado and the west, it’s as simple as that. But we’re at a crossroads. Increased demand, chronic and extreme drought, conflicts with other states, and devastating climate events are threatening this critical life source— and we’ve all seen the impacts. Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and devastated entire communities. Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won’t have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs… When Colorado is 150, I want our state to have the water resources necessary for our farms, communities, and industries to thrive, and the tools in place to protect our state’s waterways and defend our rights.”
Clearly, water is a legislative priority. Big water ideas are in the wind, but proponents need to share concepts broadly. Our decisions about water influence all areas of life for people and nature. We’re doing a better job of including and valuing a diversity of input in water decisions, but we need to do more. A diversity of water stakeholders must support legislative proposals that support multiple beneficial uses.
Audubon Rockies is busy working with lawmakers, agencies, and partners to prioritize healthy, functioning, and resilient watersheds and river systems for people and birds—the natural systems that we all depend upon. There are already seven bills on our water watch list, plus several draft bills. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon in the 2023 Colorado legislative session. Please make sure you’re signed up to hear about opportunities to engage with them.
Colorado’s ability to thrive depends upon the health and function of our natural stream systems. Healthy, functioning stream systems provide critical habitat to most of Colorado’s wildlife; improve wildfire resilience, drought mitigation, flood safety, water quality, forest health, riparian and aquatic habitat; and provide many other ecological benefits that are beneficial to all Coloradans.
Stream restoration practices have been successfully implemented across Colorado for more than 30 years by federal, state, and local agencies, conservation organizations, water providers, and private landowners. The projects are usually designed to address the environmental, public safety, infrastructure, and economic impacts of degraded river corridor conditions. However, recently there has been increased uncertainty about stream restoration practices in regards to water rights issues. Project proponents need a clear path to initiating and completing a stream restoration project.
Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is on track to introduce proposed 2023 legislation to provide clarity and certainty on where stream restoration projects may take place based on the historical footprint (the presence of a stream and its riparian corridor’s location before disturbance occurred) without being subject to water rights administration. Without a legislative solution, Colorado could miss out on the critical benefits of healthy functioning river corridors and the significant funding currently available for watershed restoration work through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.
This stream restoration legislation is a top priority for Audubon. We have partnered with DNR to host a water legislator webinar series on this bill.
Join me on February 2, 8-8:45 AM for a bill orientation webinar with DNR leadership, bill sponsors, and leading experts. Register here.
Despite near-term optimism from a snowy December and January, climate change and unprecedented drought conditions in recent years are threatening Colorado’s ability to satisfy water users, environmental needs, and potentially interstate obligations. We need more flexible ways to manage and deliver water to support the Colorado we love. The Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought going on 24 years. There are real consequences for people, birds, and every other living thing that depends on rivers in this region. Colorado needs tools and resources to proactively respond to drought conditions and maximize the benefits to the state, its water users, and river systems from once-in-a-generation competitive federal funds that have recently been made available to address the Colorado River Basin drought. Audubon will be watching this session for legislation to support that will provide new innovative solutions to the water threats we face.
Water Funding & Projects
Governor Polis’ proposed budget request includes a historic $25.2 million to advance the state’s Water Plan implementation and expansion of staff and funding to capture competitive federal funds. These much-needed proposals should be well-received by lawmakers, given that water security, drought, and fire are on everyone’s mind for this legislative session. We must ensure that these funds are invested wisely in water projects and water resources management strategies. The strategies must be equitable and fair for vulnerable communities and improve the health of Colorado’s watersheds for people and nature. Funding and water projects that support our river ecosystems are intrinsically related to our public health, economy, and the Coloradan ways of life.
Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on January 31, 2023, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.
All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.
“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.
“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.
“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.
The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.
As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.
Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.
Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.
The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.
But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.
Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.
While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.
At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.
Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.
Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.
“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
On January 24, 2023, to meet Colorado’s most critical water challenges, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) unanimously approved the finalized the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. First released in 2015, the Water Plan provides a comprehensive framework to guide collaborative action from water partners, agencies, and Coloradans. From securing supplies that provide safe drinking water to improving farm irrigation to rehabilitating streams—the 2023 Water Plan targets specific, key actions to contribute to a stronger, more water-resilient Colorado.
“In Colorado, water is life,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “Colorado’s Water Plan sets a vision for vibrant communities, successful farming and ranching, thriving watersheds, and climate resilient planning. I’m excited to see how the updated plan supports a more resilient future here in Colorado for years to come.”
Governor Polis championed approval of $17 million this year to kick-start local-level implementation of the Water Plan and is proposing $25.2M, including $12.6M General Fund, for the Water Plan Grant Program, which supports statewide water projects by providing grants and loans in collaboration with local partners in his FY 2023-2024 budget.
The 2023 Colorado Water Plan builds on the successes that followed the initial release of the pioneer plan in November 2015. For example, in recent years: water conservation efforts have decreased statewide per capita water use by 5 percent, water outreach and messaging reached 2.7 million people, and in 2019 Colorado voters passed Proposition DD to dedicate funding for the Colorado Water Plan grants program.
“We are excited about this much-anticipated update. Seven years ago, the CWCB released the original Water Plan—and now, guided by state-of-the-art data and innovative tools, the 2023 Plan puts Colorado’s values into a set of actions that tackle the specific challenges and opportunities of our state,” said Becky Mitchell, CWCB Director. “The 2023 plan will spark the action we need across all sectors to build a better water future in Colorado, setting the stage for future decision-making and water resiliency.”
Now, the 2023 update maintains the values and priorities of the original plan, while reframing actions into four key areas: Vibrant Communities, Robust Agriculture, Thriving Watersheds, and Resilient Planning. Within these four interconnected areas, a list of approximately 50 actions for partners and 50 actions for the state aim to address themes such as equity, climate resilience, water conservation, land use, education, and more. The Water Plan Grant Program welcomes projects and programs that fall in five major funding categories: Water Storage and Supply, Conservation & Land Use, Engagement & Innovation, Agricultural projects, and Watershed Health & Recreation.
Colorado’s water challenges impact everyone from local leaders to stakeholders to families in their own backyards. The CWCB encourages people from all walks of life to get involved with Colorado’s Water Plan: whether that’s by practicing personal water conservation, getting involved in critical water initiatives—or applying for a Water Plan grant or encouraging local organizations to pursue a grant to advance projects that build water resilience.
Throughout the development of the Colorado Water Plan, engaging with the public has been critical for the CWCB. The team conducted a year-long public engagement phase to incorporate all Colorado’s voices, hosted a public comment period, held workshops, and encouraged Coloradans to share their own water conservation success stories and commit to actionthrough a water conservation pledge.
In total, the public comment period yielded over 528 pages of comments, 1,597 suggested edits to the plan and more than 2,000 observations. Comments came in a variety of formats including letters, emails, survey responses, feedback at events, and public listening sessions. Of those comments, about 60% were either already captured in the plan or were addressed by modifying the draft plan.
“I congratulate the Colorado Water Conservation Board, staff and all the Colorado water stakeholders who contributed to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The Plan provides an important vision and roadmap for Colorado’s water future which faces increased challenges from climate change, population growth and changing water demands. But working together we can meet these challenges and ensure our Colorado communities, agriculture and environment will continue to thrive for generations to come.”
CWCB will celebrate the release of the Water Plan on January 24, 2023, at Improper City in Denver from 5-9 p.m. The celebration is open to the public, and will feature speakers, live music, and recognition of 14 local water heroes who were instrumental in bringing the updated Plan to fruition. The Basin Water Heroes include Garret Varra (South Platte Basin), Bob Peters (Metro), Carl Trick (North Platte Basin), Daniel Boyes (Rio Grande Basin), Ken Brenner (Yampa/White/Green Basin), Mark Shea (Arkansas Basin), Carrie Padgett (Southwest Basin), Jason Turner (Colorado Basin), Kathleen Curry (Gunnison Basin); as well as the following Community Water Heroes: Ronda Lobato, Ernest House Jr., Jared Romero, CREA Results, and Water Education Colorado.
Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com website (Cory Reppenhagen). Here’s an excerpt:
The state of Colorado is projected to gain 1.8 million more residents by the year 2050. While that can be a sign of economic prosperity, a study by NumbersUSA indicates most residents think that growth will have too many negative impacts.
“We as a society, and the Western world in general, have got to find ways to have long-term sustainable prosperity that doesn’t depend on population growth,” said Leon Kolankiewicz, the science director for NumbersUSA, an advocacy group that favors immigration levels that would allow for population stabilization…
The study includes a scientific survey of 1,024 Colorado residents conducted by the Rasmussen research group. It focuses on several environmental issues, including water. Citing increased traffic, the loss of open space, and a strain on the water supply, 75% of Coloradans surveyed said urban sprawl, which is the encroachment of cities into natural space and agricultural space, is making Colorado a worse place to live. Kolankiewicz said urban sprawl damages natural waterways, takes water away from agriculture and reduces the supply of water. Of those surveyed, 70% said water should not be diverted away from agriculture in favor of supporting further urban development. And 76% said water should be kept in streams to support wildlife.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said even with a stable or reduced population, there still may not be enough water because of a 20-plus-year mega-drought in the West.
“We don’t fight with Mother Nature; we dance with her, and we embrace her. And I think how we do that is by living within what she provides,” she said.
The cuts that are needed are on an unprecedented scale, and officials will be fighting an uphill battle against a deep, multi-year drought to get them done. State officials tried drastic measures to cut their usage this year, but the river’s continued decline was an alarming reality check…Experts told CNN that even with a good winter and spring runoff season, water managers still need to plan for the worst-case scenario.
“You can’t live with no water in the reservoirs hoping for good years; you need to refill the system,” Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told CNN. “People realize that you can’t live on the brink of disaster.”
Anxiety is growing in the West as reservoir levels plummet. Negotiations between the states on voluntary water cuts have been tense and closely watched, particularly between the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Those talks have stalled amid disagreement on how much water each state should sacrifice and how much money farmers, tribal nations and cities should be paid to reduce their water consumption. State negotiators are themselves waiting for the feds to decide how it will dole out $4 billion in drought relief money, which the Biden administration fronted from the Inflation Reduction Act to essentially pay people to not use water.
“I would not say it has put anything on hold,” Buschatzke told CNN.
On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.
The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.
I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.
This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.
In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.
What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.
You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”
He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.
All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.
The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.
By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.
In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.
Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.
As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”
On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.
Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.
“Yes,” Touton responded.
For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.
Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.
For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.
All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.
It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”
In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.
I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.
Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.
What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”
Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.
The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.
Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.
If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.
Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.
A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.
In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”
This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.
What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.
The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.
Water authorities in the Western U.S. don’t have a crystal ball, but rapidly receding reservoirs uncovering sunken boats and other debris lost in their depths decades ago give a clear view of the hard choices ahead.
If western states do not agree on a plan to safeguard the Colorado River — the source of the region’s vitality — there won’t be enough water for anyone.
Water managers, researchers, agricultural producers and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met in Las Vegas last week for the Colorado River Water Users Association annual convention to face hard truths about the state of the river and historically-low levels of its biggest reservoirs.
Two decades of drought and poor planning have caused the river’s biggest reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell — to drop to their lowest collective volume since they were filled. [ed. emphasis mine]
“Time is not on our side. Hydrology is not on our side. That’s the frightening reality,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The hydrology “is going to force us to do something because we will have no other choices. Every day that passes this problem gets harder and harder to solve.”
Water storage in Lakes Mead and Powell is at a fraction of what it was two decades ago, and could drop below what’s needed to generate power as soon as next year, said water experts.
To put it in perspective, this winter both reservoirs were about a quarter full. In December 1999, Lake Powell was at 88% capacity, and Lake Mead was at 96% capacity, according to analysts.
Lower basin states faced their first-ever federally declared water shortage, which directs how much states can draw from the Colorado River in 2021. Deeper cuts were subsequently declared this year.
Water experts say more water cuts for lower basin states – including Nevada – are likely in 2024 due to even lower water levels.
Even further restricting water allocation “doesn’t mean the lakes won’t go lower than that,” said Ted Cooke, the general manager for the Central Arizona Project.
If nothing is done, there is a real possibility water levels in both reservoirs will drop so low in the next two years that water will no longer flow downstream to the 40 million people in the West who rely on the Colorado River.
Faulty numbers and an over-allocated river
At the center of discussions last week was one of the most important legal documents governing how the river’s waters are shared: the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocated 7.5 million acre-feet for each basin, based on a faulty model that assumed the river system could supply 15 million acre-feet annually.
Today, officials acknowledge only 12.4 million acre-feet flows from the river each year, meaning western states will have to agree on massive cuts to their water supply for the sake of the river — a politically perilous decision.
Despite clear evidence of diminishing water supplies over the past century, not much has changed in terms of how states allocate and use water.
But those in charge are starting to understand that western states are getting to a tipping point that will force them to adjust their attitudes and change their consumption habits.
In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton issued an ultimatum to states: Develop a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by next year — roughly one-fifth of the water currently allocated to states—or the federal government will step in.
During a panel discussion at last week’s convention in Las Vegas, representatives for the seven western states who rely on the Colorado River said reaching a compromise will be their collective priority for the next six months.
They agree that the longer it takes to stabilize the river and conserve the water needed to keep the river functional, the more likely reservoir levels will continue to plummet, leaving states with fewer and fewer options.
Water managers also agree that about 75% of future water cuts will need to come from lower basin states — including Nevada — to reach reductions large enough to protect critical elevations in the reservoirs.
Lower basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — use nearly all their 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation compared to the 4.5 million acres-feet used by the upper basin states, said water managers.
“Yes, the lower basin will have to take the lion’s share of the reductions,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security, but I’m an even bigger believer in math.”
Nevada uses only a small share of the river’s water and has made great strides in conservation, but Arizona and California are still far from a deal. Both states will need to make painful reductions and incur massive expenses to stabilize their water use, say water experts.
Just last week, all of Southern California was declared to be in a drought emergency by the Metropolitan Water District, the main water supplier for Los Angeles county.
Lower basin states argue that upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico — also need to make a firm commitment to lower their water use.
Officials for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that aridification, the long-term shift to a drier climate, means even less snow runoff is making it to the river each year.
“It’s really hard to come up with solutions” based on who has priority water rights, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. If cities in lower-basin states “wipe out every drop of their water, it’s still not going to stabilize the system,” said Buschatzke.
The upper basin has committed to looking into the feasibility of cutting back their water use — a move critics say amounts to “planning to make a plan.”
Upper basin states have not released an estimate of how much water they are able or willing to cut. However, the Upper Colorado River Commission says they are slowly taking steps to create a management plan with potential water cuts.
“We live within the means of the river every day,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “What we like to do is under-promise and over-deliver, and make sure if there is a number out there it is a number that can actually be achieved.”
Reservoirs in upper basin states are currently providing what amounts to 19% of their annual water usage to Lake Powell, based on a 2019 drought response agreement.
“Those releases have had significant impacts, huge impacts on the local communities,” Mitchell said. “What you’re asking for is a big ask. We are willing to look at this, but we also need to look at the impacts at the same time.”
Water managers representing the four upper basin states released details of a temporary conservation plan last week.
One critical component of the plan is the reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Program, a program that paid water users to reduce their use, with the goal of implementing it by the summer.
It’s unclear how much water the pilot program will successfully conserve as a voluntary and temporary solution. The original program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.
“The System Conservation Pilot Program is called a pilot program for a reason,” said Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. “We believe we will learn a lot from that. We believe that it can easily be transitioned into a management plan.”
‘This is going to be painful’
Brandon Gebhart, the top water official in Wyoming, said previous conservation programs that depend on voluntary cuts were not as effective as water managers had hoped, but a recent shift in mentality among water users could make the difference.
Another change that could make the difference is the nearly $4 billion set aside for the Colorado River that would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to pay users to voluntarily forgo water use.
“There are positives. The funding that is coming in provides opportunity. It provides the ability to change,” said Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Still, water managers say the federal government will need to invest even more money into the river.
“If you look at the federal investment in Florida, after one hurricane they got an order of magnitude more federal assistance than the entire Colorado basin is getting in the face of this crisis,” said Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager.
Western states will need all the assistance they can get to find ways to run their economies with less water, and time is running out.
A recent survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that more than 650 farmers in 15 Western states saw a 74% reduction in harvests, and 42% switched crops due to the drought.
It took Western states five years to agree on a short-term five year plan to address the region-wide drought that is set to expire in 2026, said Entsminger.
“We don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023,” Entsminger said. “It’s time to set aside the talking points and get real.”
Climate change has shrunk the river’s flows roughly 20% in the past two decades, and scientists predict they will shrink nearly 10% more with each additional degree of temperature rise.
“We have to move quickly and we’re committed to that,” said Mitchell. “We need to accept the situation we’re in and we need to reduce demands. All of us, every sector, every state, every water user. There isn’t any other way.”
“We have to accept that we can not cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there none of it matters,” Mitchell continued. “Folks in the room have to be willing to let us make hard decisions, because this is going to be painful.”
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As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*
The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”
The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry.
Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”
Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”
Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.
“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”
In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. The Compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona, 2.8 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf Compact requirement. At a meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.
As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21.
Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year.
In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf. Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.
* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Upper Colorado River basin officials seemed to inch closer to implementing a demand management program, the heart of which involves paying agricultural water users to use less, at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference this week.
At the annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas — which sold out for the first time ever with over 1,300 attendees — the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) released more details of a rebooted “system conservation pilot program” (SCPP). It originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water.
The restarted program comes with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, with the goal of reducing Colorado River use and mitigating the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs.
A request for proposals released Wednesday set a price of $150 per acre foot of conservation. But applicants could be paid more if they can justify a higher price for their conservation project. The UCRC expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.
The UCRC has also been studying the feasibility of a demand management program, which would also pay water users on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water.
Discussion of the two water conservation programs comes at a moment when the nation’s two biggest reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, are at historically low levels. Their combined storage is at just 26% of capacity, according to numbers provided Thursday by Bureau of Reclamation officials.
The annual gathering has traditionally included finger-pointing among different water use sectors, but federal appointee and chair of the UCRC Anne Castle cast the real villain as climate change in her opening remarks at Wednesday’s board meeting.
“The real enemy here is not the other basin, it’s not another state, it’s not alfalfa, it’s not golf courses,” she said. “The common cause we have to address is climate-change-induced lower flows and that’s what we have to work on together.”
SCPP versus demand management
Conceptually, the SCPP and demand management are the same: paying water users — mostly agricultural water users who are the biggest water users in the basin by far — to cut back.
The major difference between the two is that water saved from a demand management program would be legally set aside in a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell to protect the upper basin against a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
As climate change continues to rob the Colorado River basin of streamflows, the threat of a compact call becomes increasingly likely. The framework for a demand management program was set out in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.
Any water conserved through the SCPP would simply flow downstream, becoming “system” water to be picked up by water users in the lower basin.
“If we are going to do it, I would much rather see it done in a demand management program where we can save the water, bank the water in our storage account in Blue Mesa, Lake Powell, Navajo and Flaming Gorge,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller. “It’s much more in our interest in western Colorado that we keep that water to protect our interests and obligations under the compact.”
Officials said on Thursday that the SCPP program could eventually be rolled into a demand management program.
“We believe (the SCPP) can easily be transitioned into demand management as we learn about that,” Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and commissioner to the UCRC, said in a Thursday CRWUA conference panel. “There are steps being taken to move toward (demand management), one of which is the SCPP.”
The state of Colorado conducted an in-depth study of demand management feasibility, convening nine workgroups to investigate different aspects of a potential program like impacts to the environment and agriculture and how to monitor and verify water savings. Earlier this year the CWCB placed it on the back burner to focus on a “drought resiliency toolkit” while officials waited for the report from the UCRC’s interstate demand management feasibility investigation, which was released Wednesday.
A summary of the 63-page report says that next steps will include a committee drafting a program concept to present at the June 2023 UCRC regular meeting. Commissioners could consider approval of a demand management program at this June meeting.
“I think if a demand management program is approved, then we will definitely use the lessons learned from the pilot program,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and commissioner to the UCRC. “The difference from this pilot program versus the last one is the funding. We’ve never had this kind of funding before.”
The original SCPP saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water in the upper basin at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.
River District involvement
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers 15 counties on the Western Slope, will play a key role in approval of projects enrolled in the renewed SCPP. Both the CWCB and River District will have to sign off on projects within the district’s boundaries. Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District will also be involved in the approval of projects in its district, according to general manager Steve Wolff.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller has long said that a demand management program could pose risks to Western Slope communities and should have sideboards to mitigate any negative impacts. Mueller said he did not yet know what exactly the River District project approval process would look like.
Along with the state of Colorado, the River District has been a leader in looking into a demand management program. The district developed its own conceptual framework for a program and was one of several entities that commissioned a study on the potential secondary economic impacts of a program. It showed a small number of jobs would be lost if some water users were paid to fallow fields.
Upper basin officials say they will scrutinize project proposals for evidence of those trying to unfairly profit from the sale of water. Third-party agents will be a red flag, UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said.
“One of the clues to speculation is compensation to a third party to help you,” Cullom said. “The other thing is the compensation relative to the activity. So if you have a corn operation and you’re asking $1,000 an acre-foot, that seems like that’s out of sync with a reasonable return on your typical corn crop.”
But preventing speculation may be easier said than done. The state of Colorado convened a workgroup to explore how to do that, but the group did not come up with any recommendations because members couldn’t reach consensus. State lawmakers also gave up on an effort to enact anti-speculation legislation after it was met with resistance from agricultural water users. An amendment to the draft legislation floated by the River District also failed to gain traction.
Upper basin officials have consistently pushed back on questions of how much water can be saved through conservation programs, saying there are too many uncertainties to offer a number or make guarantees. Mitchell said she would rather under-promise and over-deliver.
“It’s hard to predict what we can do next year, because the predictions have consistently failed,” Mitchell said. “We have planned on a river that is not there so for us to make a commitment… is not a gamble I would take.”
From email from the Colorado Water Trust (Kate Ryan, Rick Lofaro, Brendon Langenhuizen, and Rob Viehl):
Colorado Water Trust and Roaring Fork Conservancy have teamed up with the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Colorado River District) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to purchase and release water from Ruedi Reservoir to mitigate the impacts of anchor ice on the Fryingpan River. On Friday, December 16, the first release of water from Ruedi Reservoir will begin. The project aims to release 1.26 billion gallons of water (or 3,866 acre-feet) between December 16, 2022, and March 1, 2023, to the Fryingpan River, maintaining flows around 65 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) in order to diminish ice buildup.
Anchor ice is a natural occurrence, but can have serious consequences on the hydrology of the river and the health of the ecosystem within. When there are low flows in the river during the cold winter months, large amounts of anchor ice can form on the bottom of the river, negatively impacting fish and macroinvertebrate function and diversity. Maintaining minimum winter flows between 60 to 70 cfs increases ecological resilience in the river through mitigating the formation of the anchor ice, and improving recovery from previous anchor ice impacts.
The partners will monitor the flow levels in the Fryingpan River, water temperature, air temperature, and anchor ice presence, from December through March. Anchor ice survey results will be compared to previous two years to continue to observe trends and build a long- term data set. “Roaring Fork Conservancy’s unique anchor ice monitoring program will allow us to objectively document anchor ice over time. This allows us to continue to promote management of Ruedi Reservoir with local benefits in mind” says Rick Lofaro, Executive Director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.
As the Colorado River crisis deepens, a new federal analysis of flows into Lake Powell shows that they will continue to plummet through 2025, before beginning to recover.
James Prairie, a hydrologic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said flows are likely to be just 24% of average this year, making it unlikely under various planning scenarios that Powell will have enough water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to meet their legal commitment to deliver a minimum of 7 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin. That amount is already reduced from the historical delivery obligation due to low flows on the river.
The news comes as more than 1,300 of the river’s most powerful water users gather this week in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference, the largest annual confab on the river.
This year it has sold out for the first time in its history, according to Crystal Thompson, communications manager at the Central Arizona Project, a major user of Colorado River water and a conference organizer.
In the water world, stream and reservoir measurements are based on what’s known as the water year, which begins Oct. 1. Prairie said Upper Basin flows in water year 2023 are expected to be just 24% of average. In 2024 they are likely to improve, reaching 58% of average, before rising to 61% of average in 2025.
But because Lake Powell is so low — it’s just 23% full with roughly 5.5 million acre-feet of water stored right now — it won’t be able to recover enough water to keep those releases going, Prairie said. And that means that users across the seven-state Colorado River Basin will see more dramatic cutbacks in their water supplies to try to protect remaining supplies in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, farther downstream.
The basin, mired in a drought believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
During a meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission held Wednesday during the confab, hundreds packed a conference room to hear the reports. The commission works to ensure the Upper Basin states receive their allocation of Colorado River Water and that they meet their obligations to send water to the Lower Basin.
“We all know that we are gathering here today in a time of unprecedented crisis