Colorado River Water Conservation District board members and staff discussed the comments they plan to submit on the updated version of the Colorado Water Plan at a Sept. 15 meeting. A main concern of theirs remains the very reason the River District was formed in 1937: transmountain diversions. Director of Technical Advocacy Brenden Langenhuizen said there is still a disconnect in the Water Plan between the basin of origin (the Colorado) and the place of use (the Front Range). The River District would like the Water Plan to include more context about TMDs and to address their long-term economic and environmental impacts. A point the River District continues to make is that many of the water quality issues in headwaters communities (algae, high water temperatures) are actually a water quantity issue — a result of reduced flows from TMDs taking water to the Front Range. “Water quality is not discussed as thoroughly as we think it needs to be,” Langenhuizen said. CWCB officials told Aspen Journalism in July when the new Water Plan was released that it stopped short of a detailed analysis of TMDs because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised to revisit the issue before the next update to the plan.
Water impacts every aspect of life in Colorado, and therefore impacts every Coloradan. Ensuring equitable access to clean, safe drinking water as well as healthy and accessible outdoor spaces is essential. Colorado’s Water Plan, developed in 2015 and currently undergoing an update, is open for public comment through the end of September. This is a critical civic engagement opportunity, and an opportunity for everyone to make their voices heard in ensuring that the plan rises to meet the challenges facing our communities and water supplies at this moment. Historically excluded and misrepresented communities such as Latinos, communities of color, tribal nations and low-income Coloradans want and need to be a part of the solutions to combat climate change and water insecurities.
We commend the state on translating the entire draft to Spanish, providing translation during public listening sessions, and working towards justice, but more is needed. Equity language is used throughout, but the plan doesn’t actually specify who is leading this work or how it will be accomplished.
When the Water Plan and state officials speak of equity, it needs to be more actionable and have a greater focus on accountability. To that end, the state must include a concrete plan to work with a larger range of voices. One way to achieve this would be through the hiring of a Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer or similar role within the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop trust with historically underrepresented communities and ensure equity is being advocated internally in all of the areas they list it in the plan.
Eighteen months ago, the CWCB— the state body guiding the development of the water plan and its update — created the Water Equity Task Force with a stated mission to shape a set of guiding principles around equity, diversity and inclusion that could help inform the update to the Colorado Water Plan. While this group accomplished its “task,” we encourage the CWCB to follow the lead of CDPHE, which established its Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and create a Water Equity Advisory Board, in addition to a Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. This board would help guide implementation of the five recommendations that came from the Task Force in addition to actions outlined in the Draft Plan such as an interagency environmental justice mapping working group and increasing grant funding access, among others. Given the diversity of residents in Colorado there’s a need, and role, for providing guidance around addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion in how our state’s water supply is being managed now as we prepare for a future with less available water for all.
Decision making spaces for how our water supply is managed would benefit from an increase in racial, gender, and other forms of diversity. It is essential that governing bodies accurately represent the population they serve. For example, groups like the nine Basin Roundtables have made progress toward being more diverse and inclusive but are still predominantly white and male — if meaningful progress toward greater racial equity and inclusivity are to be fully realized, it must begin at the highest level. While we support mention of equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the identified action of supporting the long-term stability and impact of Basin Roundtables, we encourage state officials to go beyond even that. Specifically, CWCB should include collaboration with partners such as CDPHE’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, Great Outdoors Colorado, the CPW Colorado Outdoor Equity Board among others to develop a strategy and implementation plan for creating greater racial diversity and inclusivity in decision making spaces such as Basin Roundtables and the CWCB Board of Directors. However we want to emphasize that diversity of membership without addressing inclusion and equity will only result in further disenfranchisement.
Beyond leadership and management at the state level, guidance around policymaking and water-related legislation must also be reviewed through the lens of equity. For example as the state works to implement HB22-1151, a bill incentivizing the removal of high-water turf from municipal landscapes, efforts to reduce outdoor irrigation need to be managed from a variety of perspectives to ensure healthy communities, attractive Colorado-appropriate landscaping, places to recreate, ecosystem benefits (e.g., pollinators), and cooling impacts of vegetation. Ornamental — and often thirsty — landscaping such as lawns can be a privilege of wealth, with lower income neighborhoods often lacking these amenities. As we work to replace non-functional turf with low water use landscaping we must consider all types of neighborhoods and levels of income and accessibility to programs. To ensure equitable access, the legislation was written so that all Coloradans, including those that live in rural areas or communities without existing turf replacement programs, have access to funds for turf removal. When designing the program criteria, the CWCB could look at prioritizing funding or reducing matching fund requirements for communities that have a greater makeup of underserved or underrepresented individuals according to the US 2020 census data.
In addition to considering turf replacement through an equity lens, it is equally important to think about what equity looks like in new development. Colorado is an incredibly fast growing state, and more communities are updating their landscape regulations to ensure that new development is less water intensive. The city of Aurora, for example, is limiting turf in new construction to reduce the water demands of its growth. Just like with turf replacement, we must consider new landscape regulations through an equity lens and think through whether those new landscape regulations will increase the cost of development and housing, or if only affluent developments can follow the regulations in a way that looks nice and functions as a healthy ecosystem (e.g., manicured xeric landscapes with state-of-the-art irrigation systems versus only mulch, gravel or other non-living materials). These landscape regulations must be crafted in a way that achieves the overarching goal — using less water — while benefiting all Coloradoans or at a minimum not disproportionately impacting some Coloradoans. CWCB should add equity and greatest impact scoring criteria to their grants similar to the Justice 40 Executive Order so the result is that funding is intentionally going towards projects that provide the greatest impact to historically underinvested communities and conserving water. Equity must be part of that consideration so that additional unintended consequences such as additional heat islands are not created and our most vulnerable communities are not left behind.
Water for Colorado has developed a series of recommendations for the state to consider as they finalize the draft update. Our recommendations for equity, diversity, and inclusion fall amongst the top of those, and we are asking residents to help elevate the Coalition’s priorities by signing onto our petition. But, much more is needed to elevate diverse voices throughout Colorado and how our water supply is managed. For example, attend a local Basin Roundtable meeting either in person or virtually, provide a public comment at the upcoming CWB Board of Directors meeting on September 20 and 21st in Durango, and/or participate in the Water 22 Pledge.
Jared Romero is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from Colorado State University-Fort Collins and his master’s in Applied Natural Science from Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked in various aspects of conservation, ranging from boots-on-the-ground work as a wildland firefighter to research in ecological toxicology to experience as an educator and administrator. Most recently, Romero spearheaded the development of One Health education and research at Boise State University. The One Health initiative focuses on the interconnected relationship of animal, human and environmental health through engaged collaborative thinking and complex problem-solving. He is a native of the San Luis Valley in Colorado. His love for the outdoors stems from his time camping, hunting, and fishing in the Rocky Mountains with family and friends.
Beatriz Soto is Director of Protégete for Conservation Colorado. Beatriz has been at the intersection of community building, social justice and working towards a stable climate for the past two decades. She is a LEED certified architect that worked on a variety of energy related projects, from Net-Zero affordable housing to high performance straw bale homes, sustainable developments in the pacific coast of Mexico, as well as providing professional trainings with the US and the Mexican Green Building Councils. She is former Director of Defiende Nuestra Tierra for The Wilderness Workshop, also a co-founding member of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, first non-profit organization in the central mountain region, made up of Latinx leaders that helps create opportunities for Latinos to speak and advocate for themselves. Beatriz is based in Carbondale, CO.
Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.
The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.
The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.
“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.
The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.
The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.
For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.
Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.
Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.
Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.
For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”
During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.
Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.
Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.
Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.
“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Colorado’s state water plan will receive $11.4 million from gaming revenues this year, a 43% increase over last year’s distribution. The Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission on Thursday announced that sports betting yielded tax revenues of $12.4 million in its second year of operation.
Under House Bill 19-1327, which later became Proposition DD on the 2019 ballot, tax revenues from sports gambling first go to a “hold harmless” fund and to address program gambling. The state water plan, while last on the list, gets the lion’s share of the revenues.
Colorado’s water plan has suffered from low investment from state government. Initially, the water plan, issued in 2015 under Gov. John Hickenlooper, was projected to require $20 billion in investments — to be paid for with higher water rates, federal grants and loans, and severance tax collections. The state’s share of that investment was projected at $100 million per year, beginning in 2020 and running through 2050.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, Army Corps of Engineers and City of Lakewood partnered on a study to examine gaps in water supply and demand, as part of the Colorado Water Plan. The study looked at several different scenarios to forecast and address water supply gaps through the year 2050. The South Platte Basin, which serves the Denver metro area, Northern Colorado, and the northeastern plains, is projected to have a gap anywhere between 509,000 acre-feet and 835,000 acre-feet per year.
The CWCB and Army Corps of Engineers chose Bear Lake because it has an existing dam and provides an opportunity to store more water at what the group calls a more reasonable cost. The study is examining whether an expansion can decrease the supply/demand gap, possible impacts to flood control, and environmental and recreational impacts.
If deemed feasible, funding for expansion and enhancement of recreational areas and open space would be a large part of the project.
There is no set timeline for the project. The feasibility study is ongoing.
Click the link to read the article on the Westword website (Catie Cheshire). Here’s an excerpt:
People who use the South Platte River for recreation, particularly river surfers, are hoping the next iteration of the Colorado Water Plan will include stronger language about the importance of recreation on the river. An updated version of the plan originally developed in 2015 during the John Hickenlooper administration will take effect in 2023, and the public can currently weigh in on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources draft. David Riordon, an avid river surfer in Denver, says he was pleasantly surprised that the draft indicated a positive approach to recreation, but hopes there will be more specifics regarding the use of the South Platte in the final document. While Riordon recognizes that the plan must tackle big issues across the state, he points out that river surfers keep a close eye on the South Platte’s status in metro Denver when they spend time on the waves at River Run Park in Englewood. “We see what comes by us or what doesn’t come by us,” Riordon says. “That could be water. It could be people. It could be fish, it could be trash. It could be plants. All kinds of stuff comes by us.”
Currently, river surfers gauge several factors, such as the discharge from Chatfield Reservoir and the City of Englewood, to see if the water is running at enough cubic feet per second to surf, generally 180 cfs. Riordon thinks the flow of the South Platte should be controlled the way it is on the Arkansas River, where a voluntary flow management program ensures that the Arkansas will be high enough for recreation during summer months, including rafting and fishing…Although the agreement guiding the Arkansas River program is between the Colorado DNR, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation actually operates it, measuring the reservoirs and controlling the outlet gates to ensure a constant flow of at least 700 cfs from July 1 to August 15. It also maintains a 250 cfs level during fall and winter months to improve conditions for trout. To create something similar on the South Platte, Riordon, who’s president of the Colorado River Surfers Association, hopes to connect with other stakeholders to apply for a grant from the Metro Basin Roundtable to determine if the idea would be feasible…
The new iteration [of the Colorado Water Plan] includes goals for protecting and enhancing both environmental and recreational attributes of the South Platte. Compared to the first version, completed before the original 2015 Colorado Water Plan, it takes a stronger stance on social justice and ensuring equitable access to recreation on the river, [Sean Chambers] continues.
Northern Water Director Jennifer Gimbel was presented as the 2022 winner of the Aspinall Award by Colorado Water Congress during its summer convention Aug. 25, 2022, in Steamboat Springs.
Gimbel received the state’s top water advocacy award based on her many accomplishments during a career with service to the Colorado Water Center, Northern Water, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Department of Interior and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
The Aspinall Award is named after former Congressman Wayne Aspinall, who advocated for the state’s water resources during a 24-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Previous award-winners associated with Northern Water include former general managers Eric Wilkinson (2011), Larry Simpson (2001) and Bob Barkley (1995), Municipal Subdistrict Board President W.D. Farr (1985), legal counsel John M. Sayre (1989) and legislative consultant Fred Anderson (1994).
Irrigation Leader: Does that mean you acquire these rights [with water rights owners willing to cut deals] and then deliver them to the Colorado Water Conservation Board?
Andy Schultheiss: While that was the original intention, we don’t always deliver the rights to the board. Sometimes, we just cut deals with water users to allow more water to stay in rivers. However, we usually go through the board, because it is the only entity that is legally allowed to hold the water for environmental use.
Irrigation Leader: Where do you get the funds to purchase those rights?
Andy Schultheiss: The money comes from a variety of sources, including corporations, private donors, and the Water Conservation Board itself. Our staffing and various other operational costs are covered by funds from private donors and foundations.
Irrigation Leader: How do instream flow rights differ from other water rights?
Andy Schultheiss: Instream flow rights keep water in rivers and streams rather than taking it out for some consumptive use. They typically apply to a few miles of a river and are designated for sections of rivers where Colorado Parks and Wildlife determines that extra flow will be valuable for the fish and other wildlife that rely on it. The beauty of these rights is that they don’t differ from other water rights: They are regular water rights that were created by an act of the Colorado legislature in the early 1970s. Water rights for consumptive uses have existed since the 19th century, so instream flow rates came late to the scene. That means they’re junior rights, and when there isn’t enough water, which is often the case, they don’t get satisfied. That’s where the acquisition and repurposing of older rights comes in.
Irrigation Leader: Do similar instream flow rights exist in other states?
Andy Schultheiss: Colorado’s water rights system is more advanced and legally developed than those of other mountain West states. One other western state that has a highly developed system like Colorado’s is California.
Irrigation Leader: Is the mechanism you use to acquire these rights as simple as going out to the market, finding a right, and buying it?
Andy Schultheiss: We almost never buy a right in fee simple. For example, there was recently a ranch for sale for around $8 million near Rocky Mountain National Park, and more than half the property’s value was water. Buying that water outright, especially a senior right like that one, is beyond most people’s capacity. For a nonprofit like ours, a purchase like that is usually not in the cards, so we often lease a water right instead. Essentially, we buy the use of that senior right to use for one season or perhaps for half a season, or we cut deals with irrigators and ask them to not irrigate for a month or two during the year and compensate them for that. There’s often a framework and agreement that lasts more than 1 year, but the decision to run a project in any given year is always up to the water right owner.
The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping…
Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years.The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell...
The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.
Jennifer Gimbel received the 2022 Aspinall Water Leader of the Year award first thing on Thursday morning. She has had a long and important career in water in Colorado and nationally.
During her acceptance speech she said, “It’s been a long time since my voice was shaking at the microphone. I’ve been so lucky. My resume looks good but my retirement doesn’t. We have a mission, we’re in the national news now, so let’s take advantage of that.”
Thursday’s final session was a panel moderated by John McClow, featuring Tom Buschatzke (Arizona), Colby Pelligrino (Nevada), Rebecca Mitchell (Colorado), and Gene Shawcroft (Utah). The panelists detailed efforts by their states in 2022 to deal with the 22 year drought in the Colorado River Basin.
Rebecca Mitchell had this to say:
“We need to make sure that cuts will actually benefit the system with enhanced measurement. We are committed to continuing the strict admin. of water rights. Colorado is continuing to move on all parts of the 5-point plan. We can’t lose sight of our goals.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Sara Leonard):
The Bureau of Reclamation released its Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which have reached critically low levels. Below is a statement from Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell:
“The Colorado River Basin is facing unprecedented challenges, and the 40 million people who rely on this critical resource are depending on the Basin states and federal government to develop inclusive, sustainable solutions that protect the system and its infrastructure now and into the future. I am proud to say that the Upper Division States are meeting the moment with our 5 Point Plan, and our focus now turns to implementation, including additional conservation efforts to maximize efficiency in all sectors. However, this plan is ineffective without action in the Lower Basin. This will require leadership from the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and bold action across the Basin. Downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, depletions must come into balance with available supply. Colorado stands ready to work with our partners in the Lower Basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as they make the difficult decisions that are necessary to sustain the system.”
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:
“Success is dependent on what happens in the Lower Basin,” [Rebecca] Mitchell said. “Anything we can do is meaningless unless there are actual cuts to what’s being used in the Lower Basin.”
Mitchell’s comments come ahead of a federal deadline on Tuesday.
In July officials from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah submitted a five-point plan that did not provide specific targets for conservation. In their letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, the states called for the revival of a conservation program from 2015 that paid farmers to temporarily restrict their uses. The letter also endorsed the possibility of releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell to bolster its flagging levels. Providing a specific volume to conserve would be unfair to water users in her state, Mitchell said, and any commitment would be premature given that the river’s Lower Basin states have yet to come to an agreement on their conservation plans. Negotiations have stalled among the river’s Lower Basin states, according to sources familiar with the talks, making a seven-state agreement on where to find the 2 to 4 million acre-feet in savings unlikely ahead of the deadline. It’s unclear how the federal government will respond if the states fail to meet their demands.
Two decades of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have prompted dire warnings and alarming headlines about climate change and the Colorado River water crisis. Critically low water levels in lakes Mead and Powell now threaten the ability to generate electricity at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams and spurred Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to issue an ultimatum: On June 14, Touton announced that Colorado Basin states would have 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce water use by 2-4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.)
If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California can’t agree on a plan, the bureau will use its emergency authority to make the cuts, Touton said.
The Arkansas Basin receives about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado Basin – up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, 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.
Water imports to the Arkansas Basin already face risks. Worsening drought conditions could impede Fry-Ark water imports as the project is required to meet minimum streamflows on the West Slope. A call for water on the Colorado River could also curtail water imports.
‘Living within our means’
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between Upper Basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – and Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California. 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, or 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, and Nevada 0.3. The compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that average flows from 2000 to 2021 have dropped to 12.3 maf per year.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf compact requirement. At a recent meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca 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, total water use in the basin exceeded flows by 6.4 maf in 2021.
Colorado officials have indicated they have no plans to make additional cuts to meet the federal mandate. Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the CWCB, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that sending water downstream from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs represents a significant sacrifice in water security for the Upper Basin states. At a recent Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District meeting, Ostdiek observed that, while the Upper Basin states have always lived with the need to limit water use to whatever is available, the Lower Basin states have “drawn down reservoirs instead of limiting usage. … We are living within our means in the Upper Basin, but that’s not happening in the Lower Basin.”
Ostdiek acknowledged that Arizona and Nevada are taking cuts to their Colorado River water allocations “for the first time ever,” but what about California, the most prodigious user of Colorado River water? All seven basin states signed on to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, agreeing to reduce their use of Colorado River water, but the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California’s Imperial Valley refused to compromise, according to an Aug. 27, 2021, story by ProPublica. With 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water rights, the Imperial District accounts for 70% of California’s compact allotment and is by far the largest single water rights holder in the Colorado Basin.
Imperial District Board President James Hanks expressed the district’s refusal to compromise when state officials gathered in Phoenix to sign the 2019 plan.
“As champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is (sic) long,” Hanks said.
As the Bureau of Reclamation’s mandate now makes clear, the 2019 plan proved insufficient to avert the current crisis and the Imperial District is indeed the elephant in the room, refusing to recognize the current reality on the Colorado River.
Growing cotton in a desert
The Imperial Valley lies within the Sonoran Desert and receives less than 3 inches of rain per year. It was uninhabited until 1901, when the Imperial Canal brought Colorado River water into the valley from Mexico. Because of the desert climate and poor groundwater quality, virtually all water demand in the Imperial Valley is satisfied with Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District delivers that water, and 97% goes to agriculture.
Food production is a critical use of water, but not all agricultural water uses produce food. Growing cotton is one example, and the Imperial District supplies Colorado River water to 463,721 acres of cotton fields, according to the District’s most recent crop report. Arizona also uses Colorado River water to grow cotton in the desert. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that Arizona farmers grew 258,000 acres of cotton in 2021.
Water consumption data from the University of Arizona shows that growing cotton in the desert requires 41.2 inches of water per year. In other words, cotton grown in the Imperial District and Arizona requires about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year. But while one area of the federal government (Bureau of Reclamation) calls for reduced water use in the basin, another (Department of Agriculture) subsidizes those cotton fields, providing more than $4 billion between 1995 and 2015.
Not a sudden crisis
Mitchell and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser recently penned an editorial pointing out that Colorado is one of the few U.S. states that administers water rights based on “the availability of water supply in a particular location at a particular time.” Colorado’s water management system was key to the Upper Basin reducing water usage by 25% in 2020, “a huge reduction in water use of almost one million acre-feet.” When added to the “661,000 acre-feet of water provided from Upper Basin reservoirs in 2022, the Upper Basin is providing roughly 43% of its annual water use to help protect Lake Powell.”
In spite of the disparities between Upper and Lower Basin water use, officials in Lower Basin states – like Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – responded to the bureau’s mandate by urging collaboration. As the numbers show, the Upper Basin states, especially Colorado, have done much more to conserve water than the Lower Basin states, which have consistently taken more than their share of water under the 1922 compact.
Another example of Colorado’s leadership in responsible water use is groundwater management. Since 1969, Colorado has recognized the physical connection between surface waters and most groundwater aquifers. The Lower Basin states have not. For example, rivers deposit rocks and sand along their channels and floodplains. River water fills the spaces between the rocks and sand, forming alluvial aquifers. These aquifers are an integral part of streams and rivers; pumping water from them reduces surface-water flows.
In general, Arizona law does not recognize the physical connection between groundwater and surface water. From a legal standpoint, Arizona allows groundwater pumping that reduces streamflows to the detriment of senior water rights. California is just beginning to legally recognize the connection between surface water and groundwater, but groundwater extraction continues to deplete aquifers and cause subsidence, a gradual sinking of land. Ground currently is sinking more than a foot per year in some parts of California, according to ongoing research and multiple news reports.
Finally, anyone reading the alarming headlines would be tempted to believe that the Colorado River crisis is a sudden, unprecedented result of accelerating climate change, but a report published in the May 2007 issue of Geophysical Research Letters indicates otherwise. The authors used paleo-climate data to reconstruct Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry dating back to the year 762. They document multiple “multi-decadal (Upper Colorado River Basin) droughts” during the past 1,260 years, including one “in the mid-1100s” that persisted for “about six decades.”
This means that 15 years ago scientists demonstrated that, even without the effects of climate change, the current 20-year drought was not uncommon and the situation can get much worse, a reality that the Lower Basin states ignored.
“It should be obvious to anyone: Trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish,” wrote Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. “This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River system (lakes Powell and Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals by the Lower Basin states and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.”
Water connects us and supports the lives of every bird and Coloradan every day. It’s time for action for Colorado’s birds and people. People tend to evade challenging work in water until a crisis. Now is an opportune time to lean in and work for holistic water solutions that sustain a more water-resilient Colorado to support our birds, fish, other wildlife, rivers, and all people—equally.
Ironically, water stress can bring hope. [ed. emphasis mine] Pressure can sharpen focus towards innovative actions to protect what is precious to us. The draft Colorado Water Plan update is an opportunity to engage in our sustainable water future—for all of us. After intense work by Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) staff and directors, the draft plan made a public debut on June 30th and is open for comment through September 30th. The plan will be finalized in January 2023 and direct Colorado’s water priorities for ten years.
Coloradans shape our water planning and management. A diversity of voices, needs, and knowledge must be integrated into this water plan update process. Our solutions are stronger with diversity and collaboration. Understanding how, when, and where to engage in water is essential. In 2015, Audubon contributed thousands of public comments and technical input to the completion of the inaugural water plan. We will again call on you, the broad Colorado Audubon network, to engage in this critical water plan update. In the coming weeks, help us define this moment for birds, rivers, and people.
The updated water plan calls on Coloradans to actively contribute to our water-resilient future through participating in any of the approximately 50 identified partner actions. Colorado is a local control state. So, local participation is critical to the health of Colorado’s local river systems and economies. The updated plan also details 50 actions that state agencies will take to help advance local water projects and initiatives.
The plan update also reflects the very real and everyday impacts of climate change—like aridity, wildfires, and floods—on Colorado’s water resources. Over the majority of the last ten years, Colorado has been racking up superlatives like “hottest,” “driest,” and sadly, more than one “historical wildfire” title.
Here are some top highlights from our review focused on the “Thriving Watersheds” and “Resilient Planning” sections of the draft plan.
Top Three Likes
Resiliency is a core pillar in the draft plan. We all depend on watersheds and natural systems for delivery and eco-services to access reliable, clean water. Wildlife and people must be able to respond to what nature gives us. Birds, other wildlife, and all people must be able to respond to and sustain themselves in both scarcity and abundance of water—this is the core of resilience to climate change shocks.
The draft plan acknowledges the need for and inclusion of river health assessment frameworks, a stream construction guide, nature-based solutions, green infrastructure strategies and techniques, and water-dependent native species data coordination and access. Resilience requires a baseline understanding of our watershed and river systems to support sustainable and positive management. Rivers and river health are a crucial part of how we meet our water challenges in Colorado. We need to understand river health conditions more and easily access data to manage and restore this invaluable resource nimbly. Audubon thanks the CWCB staff for the many meetings discussing the importance and inclusion of these topics.
The draft plan also begins down the path of how to engage everyone working towards equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the Colorado water space. The decisions we make about water impact everyone. A diversity of voices representing a diversity of needs strengthens Colorado’s water decisions. The draft update contains leaps forward from the 2015 plan with more substantive diversity content regarding the inclusion of the Water Equity Task Force principles. This includes translating the entire plan and factsheets into Spanish for better language equity, and broader inclusion of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes in the plan’s vision and actions. The advancements in the water equity, diversity, and inclusivity space are notable, while considerable work in actualizing this critical work must still follow. “Connectivity must begin with identifying those most vulnerable around us, building their capacity to engage, and assuring that their needs are prioritized. A region, after all, is only as strong as its most vulnerable communities,” notes the 2020 California Water Resilience Portfolio.
Top Three Needs
Coloradans know we need to act on behalf of water resilience and act quickly. There is an urgency to start implementing water security solutions at scale and take advantage of once-in-a-generation federal funding. Although the draft plan sets an ambitious scope of activity and vision, how will we track work in a transparent and publically accessible way? What are the timelines for achieving this critical work?
The need for more traditional storage is mentioned numerous times in the draft plan. Colorado’s current reservoirs are often far below their capacities. Building more dams to hold questionable water supply is not a sustainable solution to the water crisis. Instead, we need balanced strategies for innovative storage opportunities looking at forest health, pre-wildfire watershed readiness, and creativity to complement storage with nature-based solutions like wet-meadow and wetland restoration. These strategies increase wildlife habitat, improve water quality and cycling, lift wildfire preparedness and recovery, increase overall river health, and provide recreational opportunities for local communities and economies.
River health is a key component of Colorado’s water resilience. In the draft plan, there is a high priority on watershed-scale work and less on the scale of streams and rivers. The plan needs to include more weight on statewide river health, as Colorado’s river-related recreation is a major economic driver for the state, with more than $10 billion spent each year and nearly $19 billion in overall economic output. Birds, recreation, and agriculture all depend on healthy rivers flowing from resilient watersheds. All of us rely on healthy river ecosystems to thrive.
Colorado’s future depends on water and each of us—birds and people—is connected by it. Even if you are not a water right holder, we are all responsible for engaging in the Colorado Water Plan update and contributing to the stewardship of our water resources. When we understand the connections—where our water comes from and how much we depend upon it—we value water for what it is: life and sustainability for people and nature. Watch for guided water plan engagement opportunities from Audubon. Kingfishers, American Dippers, Snowy Egrets, and Colorado’s water-resilient future depend on you to lean in and participate. Thank you in advance for your engagement in the update of the Colorado Water Plan.
During its bi-monthly meeting on Wednesday this week, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) – the state’s water policy agency, considered and unanimously approved the Governor’s request for $17 million to kick-start local-level implementation of the recently updated Colorado Water Plan…
This newly transferred funding is on top of an additional $3 million previously authorized to the state’s Water Supply Reserve Fund. The recommendation to significantly increase the total amount of funding ($20 million) for basinwide and local water projects comes from severance tax revenue.
They’re seeking opportunity, fairness, and a voice in decision making after a century of exclusion
Mid-morning in early September 2020, leaders from eight tribal nations met with Arizona state legislators, water engineers and policy experts via Zoom. One by one, each recounted their tribe’s history and efforts to secure water for their citizens. Half of the tribes in Arizona have unresolved claims to water. Of the 30 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations in the U.S. segment of Colorado River Basin, the vast majority, 22, are in Arizona.
Meeting that day was the Arizona Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council, a committee of state legislators and water policy experts convened to plan for Arizona’s share of diminishing resources in the Colorado River Basin.
Not quite a year later, in August 2021, federal officials issued the first-ever shortage declaration on the river, resulting in substantial cuts to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water. The state has been working with some of the tribes with resolved, adjudicated water rights to help make up for low water levels.
On that September morning in 2020, two things had become clear: First, tribes like the Navajo Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Yavapai-Apache Nation have found a couple of conditions in Arizona’s policy toward negotiating Indian water settlements unacceptable, thus their water rights remain unsettled. And second, tribal nations had been collaborative partners to surrounding communities and were, and continue to be, positioned to play an increasingly pivotal role throughout the basin as more tribal water rights are settled and basin-wide water supplies continue to decline.
Tribes have played a pivotal role in leasing water to support other water users and states as they cope with water shortage, for example. But with so many tribes who still have unsettled water rights and Colorado River flows declining, big questions remain for the 40 million people spread throughout the basin in seven U.S. States and Mexico—many of those questions center around the tribes.
Everyone in the basin can hear the clock, ominously dripping time like a leaky faucet. Drip: There is less water than ever before with the basin ensnared in a 22-year megadrought, the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Drop: Without swift action to conserve water under the growing pressure of demand, the basin may be hurtling toward a water crisis. Drip: The basin’s existing water shortage management framework is set to expire in 2026 so negotiations to craft the next framework are underway; will tribal nations be included in those negotiations? Drop: How will water shortages affect the tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin and what role will those tribes play as all water users cope with shortage?
Generally, the Colorado River Basin’s tribes have some of the senior-most water rights on the river, based on federally “reserved” water rights with priority dates aligned with the dates reservations were established, some as early as 1865.
But even today, 12 of the basin’s tribes (most in Arizona) have unresolved water rights claims, and eight of those 12 have unquantified rights—meaning the amount of water they have a right to is not yet determined. Simply securing those water rights remains a time-consuming and arduous endeavor, in costly settlement negotiations amidst a scrum of other water users staking claims.
The water held by the basin tribes who have legally quantified water rights amounts to no small sum: 22 tribal nations retain 3.2 million acre-feet of water, or an estimated 22% to 26% of all annual water supplies in the basin, according to a 2021 brief from the Water and Tribes Initiative. This amount will likely increase over the years once more tribal water claims are resolved.
Even for tribes with settled or adjudicated water rights, some can’t access the full extent of that water because of lack of infrastructure or funding, or both. In total, just under half, or 1.5 million-acre-feet, of settled or adjudicated tribal rights have not yet been put to use by the tribes.
When adding together that unused water and unquantified water, and considering that tribes plan to fully develop and use their water, other water users in the basin wonder how it will look to integrate expanded tribal water use with existing water uses as water supplies continue to dwindle.
Lack of Representation
In one blinding instant, a flashbulb floods the adobe-walled room, illuminating a row of stoic men: seven state water commissioners standing behind then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who sat at a desk. In front of them lies the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the formative agreement to carve up flows of the Colorado River. Within the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N.M., these men divided the river into an upper and lower basin, apportioning the rights to consume 15 million acre-feet of water—their estimation of average annual river flow at the time—between the seven U.S. basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming of the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada of the lower basin, with the opportunity for lower basin states to develop an additional 1 million acre-feet from tributaries below Lee Ferry, Ariz.
The compact ushered in a new era of water management for the Colorado River Basin. But now, 100 years later, when facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, Daryl Vigil, peers at this photograph of Hoover and the state water commissioners, he sees an “all monochromatic photo of older white gentlemen” who made no plan for apportioning any share of water to Native American tribes.
Since the beginning of U.S. tribal water law, sovereign tribal nations in the basin have been excluded from cornerstone water management decisions despite having senior title to water. Native American water rights were first officially recognized in 1908, over a decade before the Colorado River Compact was signed, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Winters v. United States decision. The court found that when the federal government “reserved” territories known as reservations, it too had “reserved” sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservations—these water rights are considered established at the date when the reservation was created, making them senior to all uses that came later. But having the right to reserved water didn’t mean that the tribes had access to actual “wet” water or the legal representation to quantify their water rights.
When the 1922 compact was signed, tribes were surviving a multitude of disastrous living conditions and forced assimilation produced by federal Indian policy, established after U.S. violent colonial expansion. Indigenous peoples weren’t recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, tribal governance wasn’t federally recognized until 1934, and Native Americans couldn’t vote in every state until the 1960s. “We were surviving here on government rations in 1922 when the Law of the River was created,” says Vigil.
A 1928 survey entitled “The Problem of Indian Administration” found that 26 Western Native American reservations and their economic bases were crumbling under management of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), asserting that colonialism largely destroyed their ability to hunt, gather and fish.
The report recommended educating tribes to effectively use their land and water rights, saying that administrators “should be given the duty of seeing that the Indians secure their rightful share of water.” This recommendation was not enough. Assigning concrete legal title to tribal water succumbed to federal delay—a defining feature of water rights disputes for all tribal nations.
Tribes gained some ground when, in 1963, tribal water policy and Colorado River policy intersected in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arizona v. California decision. Lengthy litigation led up to the decision, with Arizona filing suit in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water it could use. To answer that question, the U.S. found it had to assess what reserved water rights were needed for some of the tribes in the lower basin. A special master for the case determined the future needs of each reservation by assessing the amount of practicably irrigable acres and reserving water to irrigate that land rather than considering the reservations’ populations. In his proposed decree, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, the special master entered a quantified water right for five reservations on the mainstem of the Colorado River, granting 905,496 acre-feet of water for 135,636 irrigable acres.
After the case established the standard of quantifying the tribal reserved water right as looking at the amount of water required to irrigate the irrigable acreage on the tribal land, the push to quantify more tribal water rights ensued. But Supreme Court rulings “grew more negative,” according to a presentation from DOI. In 1989, DOI adopted the policy to resolve Indian water disputes through settlement rather than litigation, creating the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office. To reach agreement, Indigenous nations must negotiate their rights within a massive tangle of other users staking claims to water within the state where their reservation is located, which can take decades. Once all parties concur, Congress must approve the agreement by passing legislation to fund any tribal water infrastructure projects.
As federal tribal water policy evolved, so too did Colorado River policy. After the 1922 compact, a series of layered agreements—including Arizona v. California and other court decisions, congressional acts, legal settlements, treaties and compacts—known collectively as the “Law of the River” have come to govern the way water is managed and divided throughout the basin.
The latest layers of the Law of the River have been implemented since 2000, in response to years of drought. In 2007, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior adopted the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Interim Guidelines outline a method to balance the amount of water available between the upper and lower basins. In 2019, upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) were developed as additional frameworks to address water shortages and water-saving rules.
The upper basin continues to “equalize” the contents of Lake Powell and Lake Mead per the 2007 guidelines, and continues to pursue water augmentation activities such as cloud seeding. It is also exploring the possibility of developing a demand management program in which water saved or not used in the upper basin could be stored in Powell as a 500,000 acre-foot drought pool, though the Colorado Water Conservation Board put a “hard pause” on Colorado’s demand management investigation in March 2022. For the lower basin, the DCP, a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan with Mexico, and the 2007 guidelines lay out cuts in water deliveries from the Colorado River, triggered by projections of Lake Mead storage elevations. The interim guidelines already outlined cuts but the DCP added additional delivery reductions for the lower basin states and Mexico to absorb. The greatest cuts to lower basin water use will come from Arizona and California but the entire lower basin, including Mexico, will share in scarcity.
When these guidelines and plans were crafted, all but the Lower Basin DCP received little to no tribal input. These plans will expire in 2026, and negotiations for the next phase of shortage-sharing agreements are just beginning.
Vigil, who is also water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation from New Mexico, joined the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017 to facilitate tribal discussions, protect water rights, and unify tribal interests within the Colorado River Basin. Their tribal leader forums helped spur a coalition of the tribes in the basin to call for inclusion in water framework negotiations.
When new guidelines are developed to govern river management beyond 2026, how will they affect existing tribal water rights or unresolved water claims? “Those are questions that are not yet clear to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and probably other tribes,” says Leland Begay, water attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has adjudicated water rights in Colorado but has not yet resolved its water rights in New Mexico and Utah.
Settled Water Rights for the Colorado Ute Tribes
During the hot summers of his childhood, Lyndreth Wall of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe would take refuge on Ute Mountain in southwestern Colorado, herding livestock at his grandparents’ sheep camp. They spoke only Ute to him, which he picked up fast, at least conversationally. In those days, the 1970s, the water on Ute Mountain was delicious. “The tribe took care of the water there,” Wall says. But his home tap water in Towaoc tasted like metal. It was “disgusting,” he says, and could make you sick. In White Mesa, their western tribal community in Utah, the water was worse—contaminated by radioactive waste.
For young Wall, his neighbors, family and livestock, the journey to procure drinkable water would be a 30- to 120-mile round trip excursion from Towaoc to Cortez or Mancos, even Durango, Colo. Wall remembers his parents packing buckets in their family pickup—the Wall’s buckets mixed with those of neighbors. This supply would last a few days before they would need more.
Today, more Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have water for drinking and irrigation thanks to the 1986 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement, followed two years later by a federal settlement act, and by amendments in 2000, all of which they share with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The settlement places the Colorado Ute tribes among the four tribes in the upper Colorado River Basin that have completed water rights settlements, which also means that the State of Colorado is no longer negotiating any tribal settlement agreements.
For the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the settlement meant access to Dolores Project water, an entitlement to Animas-La Plata Project water, and rights to over 27,000 acre-feet of water from rivers that flow near or through their reservation. Most years, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe can access their 25,100 acre-foot water storage allocation from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. Water from McPhee began to flow to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in 1994 delivering clean drinking water to the tribe for the first time in their history and supporting the development of a hotel, travel center and casino, which provide vital tribal employment and income. The tribe’s new irrigation water from the Dolores Project, up to 23,300 acre-feet per year, supported the development of the highly productive 7,700-acre Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise and Bow and Arrow corn mill.
For the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the settlement wasn’t quite as momentous. “We have seven sources of water, seven rivers, that run to the tribe, so the tribe had been accessing those waters pre-settlement,” says Kathy Rall, head of the water resources division for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Before the settlement, the tribe didn’t have quantified rights to that water, Rall says. “Those rights were hammered out and solidified through the settlement,” she says. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also received an allocation of Animas-La Plata Project water—but the infrastructure was never built for either tribe to access that water.
“Ever since [the Animas-La Plata Project] was constructed, we’ve never used a drop of it, yet we have a certain percentage, not only to us, but also our sister tribe, the Southern Ute,” says Wall, who is now a tribal councilman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The project allocated more than 60,000 acre-feet per year of municipal and industrial water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, but a series of obstacles has made this water inaccessible.
The settlement authorized the construction of Lake Nighthorse, just south of Durango, to store Animas-La Plata water for tribal water uses. The project was envisioned to bring water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses to the tribes and non-tribal water users. But environmental and fiscal concerns resulted in the project being downsized.
A lawsuit halted the construction of Lake Nighthorse’s Ridges Basin Dam in 1992. Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Taxpayers for the Animas River argued the dam’s cost was an undue burden for taxpayers and that its construction would threaten the Colorado pikeminnow fish population, which was federally listed as endangered at the time. Christine Arbogast, lobbyist for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and neighboring water districts and municipalities, remembers a meeting where an environmental advocate said that with the amount of funding required to build the reservoir project, they could supply the tribe with bottled water for life. “That was the kind of mentality on the side of the environmental community,” says Arbogast.
As project proponents tried to advance Lake Nighthorse, part of the permitting requirement was to propose alternatives to the project. To address the endangered fish issues, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an alternative that would allow for reservoir construction but with certain requirements, including a new San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. The recovery program would go on to manage the river to recover the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker while allowing water development to continue.
To carry out the Animas-La Plata Project, a 2000 settlement amendment restricted the water in Lake Nighthorse to municipal and industrial use, excluding irrigation. Now referred to as “Animas-La Plata Lite” there was no longer any plan to construct the irrigation canals that would have connected Lake Nighthorse to the tribes and even neighboring water districts and municipalities that were counting on these water supplies throughout the negotiations. The tribes scrapped their plans to expand farmlands as a result. “It was heartbreaking to every single one of them, including the tribes, when we had to make the decision to shelve the irrigation component in order to get this settlement,” Arbogast says.
Some positive outcomes resulted from the settlement, including quantified and adjudicated water rights for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, access to Dolores Project water for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and funding for both tribes, Rall says. But ongoing lack of access to water stored in Lake Nighthorse and the inability to use that water, if accessed, for irrigation, was “disastrous” she says.
When the project was downsized to the “lite” version “we just kind of said, ‘OK, we’re going to get what we get,’” Rall says. “The tribe went, ‘If we don’t settle now, who knows what we’ll end up with.’”
The settlement means that the tribes’ water allocations are protected, which “does offer the tribes a measure of security in their water rights,” says Amy Ostdiek, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Interstate and Federal Section. “But there are still critical needs in terms of infrastructure and access to clean drinking water.”
As the settlement stipulates, the moment the tribes begin to use water from Lake Nighthorse, they will each inherit an annual bill of around $800,000 in operations and maintenance costs for the dam and pumping facilities that the federal government is currently footing. At the moment, there is still no infrastructure to deliver the water to the tribes, and the tribes are not prepared to take on those costs, so they haven’t used any of their water. This may change due to the $2.5 billion earmarked in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for completion of authorized Indian water rights settlements. Both Colorado Ute tribes are pursuing that funding, with full support from the State of Colorado, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), but whether they will receive it remains to be seen. Information sessions on the bill between tribal nations and DOI are ongoing.
“We’re trying to find alternatives and ways that we can utilize our water in [Lake] Nighthorse. We want it and it seems like we’re having a water war,” says Wall. “What’s rightfully ours is ours by God. We need to continue to save it for the future of our tribe.”
Water or Land, Not Both
Settling and quantifying tribal water rights claims isn’t just beneficial to tribal nations. The state in which a reservation is located and other water users there benefit from the certainty of knowing how much water is allocated to the tribes so they can make plans to live within and stretch their own share or to work together to send water where it’s most needed.
But Arizona is home, at least partially, to 11 of the 12 tribal nations in the basin who still have unresolved claims to Colorado River water—resulting in uncertainty for the state and the tribes. Many tribal leaders are frustrated by the state’s unprecedented condition for tribes to secure their water rights: In exchange, tribal nations must surrender their right to freely enter fee lands into trust, an essential administrative program of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that lets tribes recover their ancestral homelands. Instead, tribes would need congressional approval to have the Interior Secretary take lands into trust.
“We just believe that the congressional process is a more equitable forum for the discussion of those lands into trust,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He cites the importance of hearing from local communities that could be impacted when the tribes bring additional ancestral homelands into trust and ensuring “politically elected leaders get to make the decision.”
That stipulation is a nonstarter for many tribes, and puts them in a precarious position, weighing their right to re-acquire their ancestral homelands against securing water for their people.
“That’s something we will never agree to,” Yavapai-Apache Nation Chairman Jon Huey told the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation and Conservation Council during that September 2020 meeting. The Yavapai-Apache Nation plans to bring land into trust, re-acquiring its homeland to build housing for the growing tribal population.
Already, leaders from the Navajo Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, and Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona have worked for decades with the state and other water districts to reach a settlement. For example, the Navajo Nation has been in recurring negotiations since 1993.
Tribes also object to a condition proposed by Arizona officials that they waive their right to object to future off-reservation groundwater pumping.
Despite hearing from leaders like Huey, the state has not changed its position. Buschatzke says these conditions are just part of the “give and take” nature of settlements. “Some things you give more of, some things you give less of,” he says. “And the whole package has to fit together for both sides at the end of the day in a way that they can live with it and in a way that they believe, hopefully, that they’re better off with the package than they are without the package.”
DOI remains dedicated to facilitating settlement discussions and is aware of the tribal concerns toward Arizona’s anti-fee-to-trust policy. “We are working from the federal perspective closely with tribal partners and with non-federal entities like the State of Arizona to bring these issues to conclusion and resolution,” says Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at DOI, who has been part of these tribal settlement discussions.
Working Together in Shortage
Despite some of the barriers to settlement, Buschatzke concedes that settlements provide certainty for tribes and other water users, as well as a way to work collaboratively. And now more than ever, the need to collaborate with tribes has hit harder than in the past.
The upper basin states are subject to fluctuations in hydrology, which determine the amount of Colorado River water available for their use. While the 1922 compact allocated the consumptive use of 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to each the upper and lower basins, the upper basin regularly uses less Colorado River water than agreed to—about 4 million acre-feet per year since 1990. That’s, in part, because the upper basin hasn’t fully developed reservoirs to store extra water in times of plenty and to use its full allocation. Per the compact, upper basin states cannot deplete the river at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the upper and lower basins, below a certain amount. That non-depletion requirement means the upper basin will likely shoulder the burden of declining flows into the future, and may have to continue to use less water.
Lower basin states rely on supplies stored in Lake Mead, the basin’s largest reservoir, which reached a historic low of just 35% of capacity in August 2021. As Mead’s water level has receded, the lower basin has begun to take cuts to the amount of water it’s drawing from the reservoir, as outlined in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. The first big cuts are coming from Arizona—this year it will take 18% less Colorado River water, coming almost entirely from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), slashing its CAP water use by about 30%. The CAP pipes Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, and to irrigators and tribal nations in central and southern Arizona. Agricultural water users will be the first to feel these water reductions, with CAP agricultural water deliveries, mostly in Pinal County, reduced by 65%.
If Lake Mead levels continue to fall, deliveries to lower basin states will continue to be reduced, eventually affecting all lower basin states and Mexico. In February 2022 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projected that the reservoir level could likely drop by another 30 feet or so over the next two years, reaching new shortage tiers and triggering more cuts to lower basin states.
Tribes play a critical role in all of this: As Colorado River water supply diminishes, and as more tribes settle their water rights, those tribal water rights could comprise a larger percentage of available senior Colorado River water resources. Take the Colorado River Indian Tribes, consisting of four tribes, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo, with a reservation along the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California. These tribes hold rights to more than 700,000 acre-feet of mainstem Colorado River water, with more than 660,000 acre-feet of that water in Arizona. These are the most senior water rights in the lower basin, making them the most secure in times of shortage.
Starting in 2016, the Colorado River Indian Tribes entered a short-term pilot project with Reclamation, in which they were compensated for fallowing more than 1,500 acres of farmland so that water could be left in Lake Mead. Those pilot project numbers were upped in 2018. The following year, in 2019, the tribes worked with the State of Arizona on a much larger agreement, as part of the Drought Contingency Plan, committing to fallow farmland and forego water deliveries to the tune of 150,000 acre-feet over three years to help maintain levels in Lake Mead. In exchange for this contribution of water, the tribes are paid $38 million. Now, the tribes are looking to be able to lease their water—something that wasn’t authorized in the Arizona v. California opinion that established their water rights. A bill introduced to the U.S. Senate in December 2021 could allow the tribes to lease part of their water allocation to individuals, businesses, municipalities, governments and others for off-reservation uses to provide additional drought relief and protect natural habitats in Arizona.
A January 2022 agreement on the Colorado River in New Mexico does just that. The Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy announced a new deal to lease up to 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to the stream commission to support threatened, endangered and vulnerable fish and to increase water security for New Mexico. The tribal nation subcontracts some of its other water to users outside the reservation, providing a valuable source of income.
The Colorado Ute tribes and the State of Colorado are wondering whether a similar agreement or lease deal could put their unused Animas-La Plata Project water to work, says Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (Ortego also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) “The tribes have been eager to see solutions to these problems and the state has been helpful in working with us to find a consumptive use for that water,” says Ortego.
Talks are preliminary and confidential, and the tribes’ settlement legislation is somewhat narrow, Ortego says, specifying that the tribes water can be leased but must be used for municipal or industrial needs within Colorado. Because Lake Nighthorse is in the southwest corner of the state, so close to the border with New Mexico, that doesn’t leave room for a lot of Colorado users to step in and lease water. However, some nearby communities are running short on water and could benefit from the supplies stored in Lake Nighthorse, if an agreement is reached. “I think we’re starting to understand now that if we can all work together to utilize that water, it will be best for the entire region,” Ortego says. “The ultimate goal is to basically keep water in Colorado to help Colorado meet its other obligations.”
More of this water sharing and leasing work could be coming. “We are very open to more discussions with tribes about what additional opportunities may exist,” says Trujillo, who has met with tribes on their ability to contribute water and receive compensation. “I think there is a lot of interest from several different angles to try to do more of that.”
Tribes Unifying in Negotiations
When he became water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Vigil began to see how excluded tribal nations were from river management decisions.
No tribes were invited to provide input to the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which dictate reservoir operations in the event of water shortages. The guidelines were negotiated by representatives from each basin state, federal agencies, and with Mexico through the International Boundary and Water Commission—tribal water use was the responsibility of the state that the tribe resided in, so the tribes were treated as stakeholders within the states, not as sovereigns themselves. In 2012, when Reclamation completed the basin-wide Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, tribes called attention to the fact that there was no meaningful inquiry into tribal water. It was only after pressure on Reclamation that the agency funded the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study, which, in 2018 assessed water supplies for a coalition of 10 tribal nations in the upper and lower basins that had previously come together in 1992 to push for more tribal voices in basin water management. The study was not comprehensive of all basin tribes but gave a stronger sense of tribal water supplies. In developing the 2019 DCP, which outlined water-saving plans between the seven U.S. basin states and Mexico, Reclamation consulted with only a few lower basin tribes.
This neglect from state and federal agencies prompted the creation of the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017. Aiming to support tribes and give them a stronger voice in water management discussions in the region, various leaders formed the initiative, including tribal representatives, policy experts, researchers, conservation groups, state and federal officials and others, co-convened by Vigil and Matt McKinney, co-chair of the University of Montana’s Natural Resources Conflict Resolution Program. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 [tribal] sovereigns who own 25% of the volume of the Colorado River?” says Vigil. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 tribal sovereigns who have been here for millennia?”
As water managers begin to plan, negotiate and draft the next river management framework that will be implemented as the Interim Guidelines and DCP expire in 2026, many tribes are actively trying to gain a seat at the negotiating table. Twenty of the basin tribes have formed an ad hoc group for all 30 of the tribes in the basin called the Colorado River Basin Tribal Coalition. As the most substantive negotiations in developing the next river management framework are likely to unfold over the next two years, the coalition is calling to work together with federal agencies and states as soon as possible. While the next set of guidelines will not affect the status of settled tribal water entitlements, many tribes are concerned that they could affect unresolved water claims, which could still take decades to settle, and their ability to plan for their future.
Rebecca Mitchell, director of the CWCB, has been meeting with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes to develop a sovereign-to-sovereign framework, a process for tribes and the State of Colorado to engage on equal ground throughout water management negotiations.
“The scope of the interim guidelines will be limited to operations of the major reservoirs, so it is important to recognize that we cannot resolve all of the issues in the basin throughout that negotiation process,” Mitchell wrote in a statement via email. “Still, it will be imperative to include tribal nations in the process.”
That relationship between the Colorado Ute tribes and state has been great, says Rall with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “[Mitchell] is trying to lead the way for other states to do the same, hoping that other states will enter into sovereign-to-sovereign agreements with their tribes to have a seat at the table.”
For Leland Begay with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, early involvement in Reclamation’s next framework for managing water shortage is going to be critical for tribes to determine their future—to participate in decisions they were excluded from in years past. “In the past, there’s been a lot of shortcomings on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation in engaging with tribes at an early stage,” says Begay. “This is an opportunity for Reclamation to meaningfully engage with tribes on how the interim guidelines impact tribes and their water rights and their land.”
It’s difficult not to view the Colorado River Compact in a global colonial context. When the compact was signed in 1922, European colonial powers were still carving up African territories, exploiting resources like copper or rubber. The U.S. empire carved up the Colorado River, splitting it among seven states, dispossessing tribes from their natural relationship with the river, with no plan to deliver them water. While the historical Law of the River can’t be removed from this context, its next era could be one where federal, state and local agencies work collaboratively with tribal nations.
Vigil has a gentle, impassioned cadence when he speaks. The river, he says, has given him a calling, a voice. Tribal nations in the basin are in a much better position today to advocate for their water interests, but it took years—a whole century really—to reach this point. It’s left him wondering: Where are we headed if we don’t start to build a collaborative framework that includes tribes?
While he talked, Vigil would occasionally chuckle or laugh in disbelief, especially about the history of tribal water rights. “I think [the laughter] is a, you know, it’s a Native thing. It’s like a way to deal with the absurdity and like the massive amount of grief that comes with having to acknowledge this and where we’re at. Like every single time.”
Kalen Goodluck is a Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian journalist and photographer based in Albuquerque, N.M. His work has appeared in High Country News, The New York Times, Popular Science, National Geographic – Travel, NBC News and more.
Colorado’s water leaders have released an updated blueprint detailing how the state will manage and conserve water supplies as climate change and population growth strain the system in unprecedented ways…
In the years since, continued warming, poor snowpack and low river flows have devastated available water supplies for farmers and ranchers. The reservoirs on the Colorado River, which starts in the mountains of Colorado and supplies more than 40 million people in the West with water, have hit critically low levels in the last year. The emergency has prompted the federal government to step in and demand the use of less Colorado River water…
The new analysis in the draft version of the new Colorado Water Plan, which was written by a team overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, finds that cities, towns and industries in Colorado could be short 230,000 to 740,000 acre-feet of water annually by the year 2050 — enough water, depending on different drought and climate scenarios, to supply between 500,000 and 1.5 million homes. As the state faces warmer temperatures and less water, analysis in the draft plan finds that statewide water use in towns, cities and industries will climb between 35 percent and 77 percent by 2050…
The plan calls on leaders of Colorado’s nine river basins — known as roundtables — to identify local needs and projects that the Colorado Water Conservation Board can fund. Right now, about 1,800 such projects have been identified, a running list in various stages of readiness that comes with a hefty price tag: about $20 billion in funding to be fully completed. Some of the proposed projects include building new reservoirs and expanding old ones, watershed improvements, environmental restoration projects and infrastructure improvements.
A Crystal River Valley rancher and a nonprofit organization are teaming up for the second time to try to leave more water in a parched stream.
Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have inked a six-year deal with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily retime their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River during the late summer and early fall, when the river often needs it the most. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, the ranchers will be paid $250 a day up to 20 days, for each cubic foot per second they don’t divert, for a maximum payment of $30,000.
The water would come from reducing diversions from the Helms Ditch and could result in up to an additional 6 cfs in the river. The agreement would become active in the months of August and September any time streamflows dip below 40 cfs and once becoming active, will extend through October. The agreement will lift if streamflows rise above 55 cfs.
The goal of the program is to use voluntary, market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users — who often own the biggest and most senior water rights — to put water back into Colorado’s rivers during critical times.
The program has the hallmarks of demand management, a much-discussed concept over the past few years at the state level: it’s temporary, voluntary and compensated. Other pilot programs that focus on agricultural water conservation usually involve full or split-season fallowing of fields, but with this agreement Fales still intends to get his usual two cuttings of hay.
“The idea is to find something that is a flexible way for water rights owners to use their water in years where it makes sense for something different than strictly agricultural practices,” said Alyson Meyer-Gould, director of policy with the Colorado Water Trust. “It’s another way to use their water portfolio.”
Click the link to read the article on the KRDO website (Mallory Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:
A draft of the 2023 Colorado Water Plan has been released and outlines what the state needs to do in order to conserve resources as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs dry up…
A new analysis by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) says up to 740,000 additional acre-feet of water could be needed by 2050 to meet community and industrial demands. For agriculture, an even bigger number. An estimated 2.6 to 3.5 million acre-feet of water is needed.
“I think we’re presenting a very honest view of where things are at,” said Russ Sands, Section Chief for Water Supply Planning with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It’s going to be tough. We can’t change things like mega-fires. We can’t stop the drought. But, we can do a lot of things to work together to mitigate the worst impacts of what is headed our way.”
A major way the Colorado Water Plan hopes to mitigate impacts is through local projects the CWCB is ready to give grants to…The Water Plan estimates that $20 billion is needed to address the water crisis…Despite the high price, the CWCB is staying positive when looking towards the future of water in our state…Public comment is now open for the Water Plan draft and closes on September 30, 2022.
The plan contains no silver bullet for the challenges facing cities, farms, forests, recreation and conservation areas in the state. It does lay out the challenges and points toward potential solutions to a future far shorter on water than what the recent past has experienced.
As noted in a quotation from former Colorado Justice Gregory Hobbs in a preamble to the document, “The 21st Century is the era of limits made applicable to water decision making. Due to natural western water scarcity, we are no longer developing a resource. Instead, we are learning how to share a developed resource.”
The plan picks up Hobbs’ “sharing” advice with a call for greater collaboration between the water basins and water decision makers in the state and beyond.
Headwinds in the use of Colorado water include multiple factors:
The population is growing. It’s nearly 6 million now and will be 8.5 million by 2050.
Nineteen other states plus Mexico also depend upon water that originates in Colorado.
It’s getting hotter. Average temperatures are up 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years.
Rainfall is coming less often. It’s been below average since 2000.
Yet some progress in meeting challenges has been made, the report said.
Conservation efforts have reduced per capita water consumption by 5% since 2000.
Cities have worked collaboratively to lease 25,000 acre feet of agricultural water since then, instead of buying-and-drying.
About 400,000 acre feet of storage has been created since the turn of the century, too.
Colorado has no plans to make additional cuts to water use next year to meet the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand to conserve millions of acre-feet of water, a step needed to preserve power production in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Instead, Colorado officials insist that other states should do the cutting.
“I think that at this point, we stand ready to hear what the Lower Basin has in mind,” said Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Ostdiek told The Gazette the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — dramatically reduced their water use in 2021 because of drought conditions. Specifically, they cut 1 million acre-feet in use in 2021 compared with 2020, bringing it down to 3.5 million acre-feet. But, at the same time, total water use in the Lower Basin has not been cut enough to preserve levels in the lakes, said Ostdiek, who is chief of the Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section. She said water users in Colorado cut their consumption to meet the obligations of the 1922 river compact that governs use between the seven states and Mexico, who all share the river.
“The most impactful thing we can do is live within the means of the river,” she said.
The plan focuses on four “interconnected action areas,” including resiliency planning, thriving watersheds, robust agriculture and community. It describes 50 “partner actions,” or project ideas that could be supported by Water Plan grants, as well as 50 “agency actions,” to support local projects, conservation and wise-water development. Overall, however, basin roundtables and stakeholders identified more than 1,800 potential future projects statewide, and 321 are in the Colorado Basin with 36 being in Summit County. In total, over $20 billion would be spent on the projects by 2050. Russ Sands, senior program manager of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that projects in the database are designated as near-term, midterm or long-term when it comes to getting them done. They’re also not all infrastructure projects. Some may work toward water conservation and others may be educational projects or environmental…
According to the plan, the Colorado Basin — which includes Summit County and the Blue River — faces issues such as competing resources for agriculture, tourism, protection of endangered species and potential for Colorado River Compact administration. The basin encompasses about 6% of the state’s population, and between 2015 and 2050, population is expected to increase 48-88%. Flows are also projected to be variable over the next several decades. Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for wetland plants and fish habitats. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if summer flows decrease due to climate change. Each year, water providers in the South Platte and Arkansas Basins export approximately 480,000 acre-feet each year from the Colorado Basin for eastern slope agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. Across the basin, as much as 70% of the river’s water flows out of Colorado…
“(June 30) opens up the 90-day public comment period,” Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said. “This updated new and improved Water Plan is designed to meet today’s water challenges and builds on the legacy that we have in Colorado of collaborative statewide water planning.
State officials are hoping dire climate predictions and water shortages will convince Coloradans to get involved in planning how to share a dwindling resource.
Colorado Water Conservation Board staff released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday, which is now open for public comment. The first version of the plan was implemented in 2015.
Words from the late water expert and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs set the tone on page 1 of the document: The 21st century is no longer about developing a resource, it is now an era of limits and learning how to share a developed resource.
“I think we get to educate and engage and inspire and be an example and I think that’s the benefit,” said CWCB Executive Director Becky Mitchell. “I think when we are given the opportunity to lead, Coloradans do that.”
The updated plan lays out four interconnected areas for action: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning. Although municipal and industry does not currently experience a gap, the plan predicts a 230,000 to 740,000 acre-foot shortfall for cities and industries by 2050. According to the plan, about 20% of agriculture diversion demand is currently not met statewide, and that gap could grow to a 3.5 million acre-foot shortfall by 2050 under the “hot growth” scenario that would see temperatures rise 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meeting these supply-demand gaps will require hundreds of water projects throughout Colorado’s eight river basins, and carries a price tag of $20 billion. These projects, many of which have benefits to more than one water-use sector, are laid out in each roundtable’s Basin Implementation Plan.
Backdrop of climate change
The 239-page document is set against the backdrop of climate change, which plays a bigger role in this water plan than in the 2015 version. The first water plan did not include projections of future climate change in its analyses. Three of the five planning scenarios now include assumptions of hotter conditions in the years to come.
According to the plan, Colorado has had three of the top five driest years on record since 2000 and has experienced a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. The state may see an additional 2.5 to 5 degree warming by 2050. Most projections show a decline in spring snowpack and more frequent heat waves, drought and wildfire, all of which have implications for water.
Environmental and recreation water needs could see the worst impacts since those uses generally have the most junior water rights.
“Peak runoff may shift as much as one month earlier, which could lead to drier conditions in summer months and impact storage, irrigation and streamflow,” the plan reads. “Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for riparian/wetland plants and fish habitat. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if June-August flows decrease due to climate change.”
Old tensions and trends
The new plan addressed a tension from the first plan: Front Range water providers would like the ability to develop new transmountain diversions in the future, while Western Slope stakeholders say not to look to the Colorado River basin for more water for thirsty cities. Colorado’s Front Range currently takes about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the headwaters of the Colorado River basin across the Continental Divide.
The plan stopped short of a detailed analysis of transmountain diversions because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised that state staff would facilitate discussions about transmountain diversions before the next update to the plan.
“Our promise to West Slope folks was when we could get past those legal barriers, we would take an honest look at trying to have a better conversation,” said Russ Sands, senior program manager for the CWCB’s water supply planning section. “I think we owe it to our stakeholders to try and focus on analysis.”
The plan says Colorado will continue the slow but steady transformation of moving water from agriculture — by far the largest water user — to cities, with nearly 14,000 acres of irrigated land expected to be urbanized, one-third of that in the Grand Valley. Stakeholders estimate the loss of irrigated land to “buy-and-dry” to be even greater at 33,000 to 76,000 acres, which is three times higher than the 2015 Water Plan estimate.
But this could be eased by innovative and flexible agreements between water users that allow the temporary transfer of water from one use to another. Formerly known as Alternative Transfer Methods, state officials have rebranded them Collaborative Water Sharing Agreements, which allow water sharing, but prevent the permanent removal of water from the land.
Equity and engagement
State officials have also made an effort to be more inclusive this time around and in March 2021 convened a Water Equity Task Force to help shape a guiding set of principles around equity, diversity and inclusion to inform the water plan. Abby Burk, the western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies, was an equity task force member.
“People are engaging and leaning into the space other than just the water right owners,” she said. “We are all supported by water every single day. How do we expand this decision-making to include more voices? How do we open our arms and encourage more people to come into this space?”
The 2015 Water Plan racked up more than 30,000 comments and state officials are hoping Coloradans become even more involved this time around. The plan lays out three levels of engagement citizens can take and encourages Coloradans to promote water conservation, join water-focused stakeholder groups and coordinate with local leaders to advance water policy.
And there is a small bright spot that shows the potential for change when citizens get engaged: The plan says that Coloradans have reduced their per-person water use from 172 to 164 gallons a day, a 5% reduction in demand since 2008, mainly due to conservation efforts.
Sands said the tough conditions can open people’s minds and make them more willing to come to the table to talk.
“I think we are actually going to see more collaboration than ever,” he said.
The update to the Colorado Water Plan is open for public comment until September 30 and CWCB staff will also hold four online listening sessions. The plan is scheduled to be finalized by the CWCB in January 2023.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
The mid-August deadline is quickly approaching for the states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Arizona — to figure out how to cut water usage down by 2 to 4 million acre-feet. For context, the entire state of Arizona is allowed to use 2.8 million acre-feet of river water each year.
Becky Mitchell, the commissioner of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, represents Colorado at the planning table with other states in the basin. Right now, her work is focused on collaborating with the other states in the upper part of the river basin — Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — to come up with a list of ways their states can cut down on how much water they use. In a conversation on CPR’s Colorado Matters, Mitchell said most of that responsibility should be on the states in the lower part of the river basin: Arizona, Nevada and California.
“They’re using more than mother nature provides,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the states in the upper part of the river basin had been forced to use less water because of ongoing drought worsened by climate change. The states in the lower basin use water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the U.S., which she said has allowed those states to increase their water usage in the last few years. Mitchell said water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead allows the lower basin states to use more water than the river can provide, which has significantly dropped after decades of ongoing drought and the impacts of climate change.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon and Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado’s water shortages are not relegated to the distant future. Water supplies cannot meet current demands in many communities, and are only likely to worsen as climate change heats up and dries out the state’s cities and farms. That message is front and center in the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s first draft of a comprehensive update to the Colorado Water Plan, originally passed in 2015. Its initial creation was spurred by then-governor John Hickenlooper.
The plan anticipates a supply-demand gap of 240,000 to 740,000 acre-feet for cities and industries by 2050…For agricultural users, shortages are already a way of life. The plan projects that an existing shortfall of 2.6 million acre-feet for farmers and ranchers could increase to 3.5 million acre-feet by the middle of this century.
The plan is candid about the harsh effects of climate change, and the likelihood that Colorado’s water future will be shaped by warming and drying patterns. This includes acknowledgements of “aridification” – the idea that the West is not just experiencing the normal ebb and flow of drought, but instead becoming permanently drier. Climate scientists broadly agree that rising temperatures are driving a batch of changes that result in a shrinking water supply for much of the Southwest.
Today, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) released the draft update of the Colorado Water Plan for a 90-day public comment period. The plan, originally developed in 2015 under the direction of Governor John Hickenlooper, is meant to address growing water scarcity in Colorado and ensure the state has a sustainable water future that meets the needs of a wide range of water uses by all Coloradans. In response to the release of the updated plan, Water for Colorado has issued the following statement.
“We appreciate all of the hard work by CWBC staff and board members and Department of Natural Resources to prepare a draft update to the Colorado Water Plan. We have already begun our thorough and detailed review and we look forward to providing comments. Our coalition was founded seven years ago to help influence the development of the 2015 Water Plan through providing technical review and driving civic engagement. We will submit comments and engage in a robust conversation with stakeholders on how we can best protect Colorado’s watersheds and rivers for all Coloradans and for future generations. We look to this Water Plan update to improve water security throughout the state by equitably addressing many of our watershed and water conservation needs.
This revision of the Colorado Water Plan will certainly play an important role in advancing our water goals throughout the state. But it alone will not be sufficient to meet the growing water challenges we face. This was further emphasized by recent statements by federal officials about the need for substantial water reductions by all states and in all water sectors to avoid critically low levels in the Colorado River basin’s largest reservoirs. Worsening hydrology and increased demands placed on dwindling water resources guarantee that additional, urgent actions will need to be taken to ensure a secure water future for Colorado. Governor Polis has called 2022 the “year of water” for Colorado, and we look forward to working with Governor Polis and his administration, other elected officials, Basin Roundtables, and communities on the critically important issues facing our state in 2022 and beyond. We must meet this pivotal moment in a way that positions Colorado as a leader in collaborative water management — our state’s future depends on it.”
The coalition has spokespeople available for comment now and in the coming 90 days, during which both partner organizations and the public have a vital opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard, that their interests are considered, and that Colorado’s water plan is truly that — a plan for the entire state.
Click the link to go to the Colorado Water Plan website:
The Colorado Water Plan provides a framework for helping Colorado meet its water challenges through collaborative action around water development and water conservation. The plan includes a range of collaborative partner actions that stakeholders can advance through grant funding & local projects, as well as specific actions the Colorado Water Conservation Board and other agency partners will commit to in order to advance the plan. The plan guides future decision-making and supports local actions to address water challenges with a collaborative, balanced, and solutions-oriented approach that builds resilience.
The Colorado Water Plan uses state-of-the-art data and tools to analyze the state’s water issues, including adapting to aridification and climate change, embracing innovative ideas and new technology that align with Colorado’s evolving water goals. The Plan includes four main focus areas that work together for a stronger state: Vibrant Communities, Robust Agriculture, Thriving Watersheds, and Resilient Planning.
Colorado Water Plan grants support a range of multi-beneficial projects for water storage, water conservation, the water-land use nexus, agricultural efficiency, water education and awareness, watershed health, and outdoor recreation. The Colorado Water Plan’s focus areas will address overlapping themes to address identified risks and challenges: funding, supply, equity, climate change, land use planning, storage, efficiency, education, and forest health.
It should come as good news then that the bipartisan infrastructure package Congress passed last fall appropriated a landmark $8.3 billion for investment in western water, along with $50 billion earmarked for projects to bolster resilience to climate change. Collectively, the infrastructure package is the largest investment in water infrastructure and the resilience of physical and natural systems in American history. Additionally, last year’s American Rescue Plan Act delivered $3.8 billion to Colorado, a portion of which will fund necessary and overdue investments in projects to protect sources of drinking water, increase resilience to climate-driven drought, and provide capital for critical infrastructure that would finally deliver safe, reliable drinking water to Tribal communities.
While these historic federal investments have been made, the equally vital work of putting them to use has only just begun. Given the high demand and the competitive nature of the funding available through the federal infrastructure bill, Colorado must take proactive steps to secure these federal funds. As two Western Slope residents — one a former state senator and CWCB director, one the Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies — we thank the general assembly and Governor Polis for making Colorado more competitive by passing and signing into law HB22-1379 and SB22-215 this past legislative session. This is a down payment toward a more secure water future…
The billions of dollars that have been set aside for western water and climate resilience in the infrastructure package represent an unparalleled opportunity for state decision makers to advance implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan. The coalition members of Water for Colorado, along with our partners across the state, stand ready to help the administration expedite the pace and scale of efforts to fund and implement water projects across Colorado. Our investment in these efforts now will pay dividends to strengthen Colorado’s communities and protect Colorado’s water resources for future generations.
Capturing these federal funds isn’t a given. It necessitates a concerted effort and leadership from local governments and state agencies such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado State Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Public Health and Environment to apply for federal infrastructure funds and work with eligible entities to move swiftly, implementing projects that protect our water resources. Additionally, in many cases, access to funds is contingent upon being matched by state or private dollars, making it critically important that money appropriated toward that end from HB1379 — Wildfire Prevention Watershed Restoration Funding and SB216 — Responsible Gaming Grant Program reaches its goals. Multi-benefit projects that support healthy watersheds, protect rivers, enhance climate resilience, accelerate urban water conservation and work toward a future in which everyone has access to clean, reliable water supplies are within reach if we meet this moment.
Water supports the lives of birds and people every day and was a high, bi-partisan priority for Colorado lawmakers during the 2022 legislative session. The General Assembly wrapped up the 120-day session on May 11. Audubon and our partners were active in securing several wins for water, our most precious natural resource. Funding for water projects, watershed resilience, and capacity are through lines for these wins. Here are a few highlights.
Wildfire Prevention Watershed Restoration Funding, HB22-1379 appropriates $20 million from the Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund for projects to protect watersheds and river resiliency from wildfire impacts. The funding breaks down as $2 million to the Wildfire Mitigation Capacity Development Fund, $3 million to the Healthy Forests and Vibrant Communities Fund, and $15 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to fund watershed restoration projects with a boost for capacity to assist in applying for natural resource management federal grants. The Audubon network activated and supported HB-1379 by submitting 2,468 supportive responses!
Infrastructure Investment And Jobs Act Cash Fund, SB22-215 creates a new cash fund that allows the state or local governments to receive federal funds for certain categories of infrastructure projects allowed under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). For Colorado to be competitive for this once-in-a-lifetime funding under IIJA, it is necessary to have funds available as nonfederal match. SB-215 requires the state treasurer to transfer $60 million to the fund. Among the winners, 25 percent of this fund will be used toward water, environmental, and resiliency programs. The money in this fund is appropriated by the general assembly and the governor. Audubon and our partners met with decision makers and applaud bill sponsors for the foresight in creating this fund.
Turf Replacement Program, HB22-1151 creates a program to incentivize water-wise landscapes. Irrigation of outdoor landscaping accounts for nearly half of the water use within cities and towns and is mostly used for nonnative turf grass. Voluntary and incentivized replacement of nonessential irrigated grass turf with water-wise landscaping increases communities’ resilience regarding drought and climate change, reduces the sale of agricultural water rights to municipal demand, and helps protect river flows. The bill defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants that need less water. To learn more about native plants that support birds and pollinators, visit Rockies’ Habitat Hero program. Audubon thanks Habitat Hero Ambassador Don Ireland for his influential testimony in support of this bill.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Construction Fund Project, HB22-1316 appropriates $8.2 million from the Colorado Water Plan implementation cash fund to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for grant-making for projects that assist in implementing the Colorado Water Plan. Water Plan grants serve as the bridge for Coloradans to implement actions within the plan. The Plan contains actions that can improve river health and support clean, reliable drinking water for communities and flourishing economies. Without a strong plan and funding for implementation, Colorado’s birds, rivers, and people will face a problematic water future with unacceptable consequences.
Thank you for your engagement during the 2022 Colorado legislative session! Great Blue Herons, Yellow Warblers, and American Dippers depend on you to support our healthy rivers, wetlands, and watersheds for all of us. Audubon will continue to work with lawmakers and partners to prioritize water security for people, birds, and the healthy freshwater ecosystems that we all depend upon.
How water works: An important series by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable does a great job of explaining how water works in the San Luis Valley and across Colorado with a running series of articles that are published monthly on AlamosaCitizen.com. The latest article looks at the Yampa River. Past articles have gone in depth on water augmentation in the San Luis Valley and work being done to improve snowpack and refined streamflow forecasting.
You can find all the articles here and watch for more each month. They are educational and beneficial in understanding the water puzzle of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and other critical river basins in the state.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Seeking Water Success Stories
As part of the larger Colorado Water Plan update process, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has launched a new online portal for members of the public to submit their success stories on how they are building a stronger water future for Colorado. To learn more and submit a story, visit engagecwcb.org. The Colorado Water Plan draft is set for release for public comment on June 30.
The Colorado General Assembly adjourned its 2022 session on May 11. Among the water bills that passed, four share a common theme—funding. A rare confluence of new revenue sources led to strong bipartisan support of bills dealing with groundwater compact compliance and sustainability, state water plan projects, wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration, and urban turf replacement. A bill designed to strengthen Colorado’s water speculation laws failed.
Groundwater compact compliance and sustainability
Senate Bill 28 creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay for the purchase and retirement of wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande basins in northeast and south-central Colorado. It appropriates into the fund $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) revenue that had been transferred into the state’s Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will distribute the money based on recommendations from the Republican River Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, with approval by the state engineer. These are one-time dollars that must be obligated by the end of 2024; if not spent by then, they will be used to support the state water plan.
The bill seeks to reduce groundwater pumping connected to surface water flows in the Republican River to comply with a compact among Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. It will also help meet aquifer sustainability standards required by state statute and rules in the Rio Grande Basin, home to the San Luis Valley. To achieve those goals, 25,000 acres of irrigated land must be retired in the Republican Basin, and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande, by 2029. If the targets are not met, the state engineer may have no choice but to shut down wells without compensation.
Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, noted that agricultural production coming out of the two basins benefits the overall state economy, not just the local communities. “The state has some skin in the game,” he said, and the availability of ARPA revenue “presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to support the districts.
Simpson emphasized that neither district is looking for a handout. The Republican has already assessed its water users over $140 million since 2004 to retire irrigated land and purchase or lease surface and groundwater to meet Colorado’s water delivery obligations. The Rio Grande district has taxed its farmers nearly $70 million since 2006 to take irrigated land out of production and has cut groundwater pumping by a third. Simpson requested $80 million from the Economic Recovery Task Force and, by demonstrating the interconnectivity between the state and local economies and the commitment already shown by the districts—along with strong bipartisan support from legislators—was able to secure the $60 million appropriation.
State water plan projects
Each year the Colorado General Assembly considers the CWCB’s “projects bill,” which, among other things, has included appropriations from CWCB’s Construction Fund to support grants for projects that help implement the state water plan in recent years. The funding source for those grants is different this year, with gambling revenue from Proposition DD, which the electorate passed in 2019, becoming available for the first time. Proposition DD legalized sports betting and levied a 10% tax on sports betting proceeds, with the majority of that revenue going into the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund.
House Bill 1316 appropriates $8.2 million from the fund for grants to help implement the state water plan; $7.2 million of that amount is from sports betting revenue. Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said, “This is the first appropriation of funds from Proposition DD … and it looks like it’s starting to grow into what we had hoped.”
The bill also appropriates $2 million to CWCB from its Construction Fund to help the Republican River Water Conservation District retire irrigated acreage. Rod Lenz, district president, said the district has doubled its water use fee on irrigators but that “we’re in need of short-term funding while we wait for that rate increase.” The $2 million in state revenue will help the district meet its 2024 interim target of retiring 10,000 acres of the 25,000 acres necessary to comply with the Republican River Compact by 2029. This is on top of the funds the district will receive from Senate Bill 28.
Wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration
Like Senate Bill 28, House Bill 1379 takes advantage of ARPA revenue by appropriating $20 million from the Economic Recovery and Relief Cash Fund for projects to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from damage caused by wildfire-induced erosion and flooding. Testimony on the bill in the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee emphasized how investing mitigation dollars now helps avoid spending even more on very expensive recovery efforts later.
The bill allocates $3 million to the Healthy Forests and Vibrant Communities Fund to help communities reduce wildfire risks by promoting watershed resilience. It moves $2 million into the Wildfire Mitigation Capacity Development Fund for wildfire mitigation and fuel reduction projects. And $15 million goes to CWCB to fund watershed restoration and flood mitigation projects, and to help local governments and other entities apply for federal grants under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act related to water and natural resources management.
While most of the focus at the Capitol in reducing water use has been on agriculture through retiring irrigated farmland, House Bill 1151 elevates urban turf replacement in importance. The bill requires CWCB to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for residential, commercial, institutional and industrial property owners to voluntarily replace non-native grasses with water-wise landscaping. It appropriates $2 million in general funds to a newly created Turf Replacement Fund and authorizes local governments, nonprofits and other entities to apply to CWCB for grants to help finance their programs. Landscape contractors, to whom individuals can apply for money to replace their lawns, are also eligible.
Rep. Catlin pointed out that “50% of the water that comes from the tap and goes through the meter and into the house is used outside.”
“We’re building ourselves a shortage,” he warned, “by continuing to use treated water for irrigation.” Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, added, “For too long the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains have borne the brunt of water conservation … but this is a bill that will give the tools to metro areas for them to play their fair part in this problem that is our drought.”
Investment water speculation
Senate Bill 29 was an attempt to strengthen protections against investment water speculation, defined as the purchase of agricultural water rights “with the intent, at the time of purchase, to profit from an increase in the water’s value in a subsequent transaction, such as the sale or lease of the water, or by receiving payment from another person for nonuse of all or a portion of the water.” It was aimed at curbing outside investors who may have little or no interest in agriculture from using the water right to maximize its value as the price of water increases during drought. It authorized the state engineer to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and, if found, to levy fines and prohibit the buyer from purchasing additional water rights for two years without the state engineer’s approval.
The 2021 interim Water Resources Review Committee recommended the bill, but it was never viewed as more than a “placeholder.” Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, a co-sponsor of the bill, expressed her disappointment that the bill did not generate more engagement between the water community and policymakers. “I was certainly hopeful that by having a bill we would force conversation,” she said, “but it did not result in having some forthright ‘let’s get around a table and hammer this out.’” Members struggled with trying to balance concerns over speculation with protecting property rights. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, the other co-sponsor of the bill, emphasized, “We are certainly not trying to take a farmer’s or rancher’s ability away from selling that water. In many cases that is their 401K, their retirement.”
Opposition from water user groups in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee sent a clear message: Existing legal requirements provide the necessary safeguards to address water speculation. Travis Smith, representing the Colorado Water Congress, said what’s needed is “having more voices, taking more time.”
Senate Bill 29 was amended to strike the language in the bill and refer the issue to interim study. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who was chairing the committee, expressed his frustration: “We have an ineffective water group that won’t have a conversation with lawmakers anymore. When they have a bill they just take a position and quit working with people.”
With that said he carried the bill over for further consideration, effectively killing it since this was the last committee meeting of the year. It’s unclear whether the issue will be studied this interim since it’s an election year and fewer committee meetings will be held.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colorado’s drought situation is a little better than it was a year ago, but warm temperatures, windy conditions in April and almost no precipitation in parts of the state means the snowpack is melting a couple of weeks sooner than most water watchers would prefer. The state’s Water Availability Task Force met on April 19 to look at the most recent numbers from the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
From October to March — the first six months of a water year that started Oct. 1 — it’s been much drier than average in southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley and Rio Grande River basin, and on the Eastern Plains, but wetter than normal in northwestern Colorado, Peter Goble said. April ends the wet season for the mountains and begins the wet season for the Eastern Plains. But the moisture has stayed away from the Eastern Plains, Goble said…
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which reports drought conditions weekly, while the entire state is in some level of drought, compared to a year ago Colorado is not seeing the worst levels, known as exceptional drought. That’s particularly true for the Western Slope, with snowpack in better shape now than a year ago, Goble said. The next six weeks will be critical for the Eastern Plains, he added…
NRCS hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer offered slightly better news when it comes to the state’s water supply, including for reservoir storage. While not a drought buster, water storage is substantially better than it’s been the last couple of years, he said. The expectation is that snowmelt is ramping up and unfortunately sooner than hoped for, he said…
The state’s trouble spots are in the Upper Rio Grande and in the lower Arkansas, according to Wetlaufer’s data. The Rio Grande is already seeing substantially earlier snowmelt, he said. It’s unlikely there will be enough precipitation to gain even average streamflows in the river, he said. That’s going to be a problem for the streamflow in areas like the southern Sangre de Cristos, and that in turn will affect compacts tied to the lower Rio Grande, which flows into New Mexico.
If the lake does drop lower than 3,490 feet, it is uncertain how much water, if any, will be delivered to the communities that rely on it. Lake Powell doesn’t only supply water to millions of Americans, it also provides power through turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam. Below 3,490 feet, the dam will not be able to provide hydropower. All Colorado Basin states receive power from the dam. Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, explained that the emergency at Lake Powell may seem far removed from Grand County, but it’s closely connected. Forty million people, from Wyoming to Mexico, rely on water from the Colorado River, including every Grand County resident. When someone turns on the tap here, they are getting the same water that will eventually get sent down to Lake Powell for a California (or other regional) resident…
Klancke feels the Lower Basin is demanding too much water from Lake Powell, and this may decrease the water supply of Upper Basin states like Colorado.
“My concern for Grand County is that our water rights will be cut into to make up the difference,” he said. “I worry they might go after our agricultural rights first … and (agriculture) makes up a huge part of our economy.”
Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com website (Cory Reppenhagen). Here’s an excerpt:
The Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) identifies an elevation of 3,525 feet as a target level to take action because a level of 3,490 feet would threaten the infrastructure and hydropower resources at Glen Canyon Dam.
“We are concerned, we are watching,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Governor Polis’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “There are significant challenges facing the Colorado River system.”
She said that two unprecedented measures are being taken to help prevent Lake Powell from hitting that critical level of 3,490 feet. One, which has already been approved, is to move an unprecedented 500,000 acre-feet of water out of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in northern Utah and southern Wyoming, into Lake Powell over the next 12 months. A second proposal, which [was approved by the basin states this week], is to withhold nearly 480,000 acre-feet of water that is scheduled to be released from Lake Powell and sent to Lake Mead.
The amount of information Colorado water managers have about the state’s crucial snowpack is poised to swell exponentially over the next two years.
In mid-March, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which aims to help water managers conserve, develop, protect and manage Colorado’s water, approved a $1.9 million grant to help pay for a plane stuffed with high-tech equipment to fly over Colorado’s mountains and measure the snowpack below.
Denver Water used Airborne Snow Observatory, or ASO, flights in 2019 and 2021 to gather data on the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir, the utility’s largest reservoir.
The information helps forecast how much water is expected to come tumbling down the mountain during the spring runoff — a critical time for collecting and storing water for the utility’s 1.5 million water users across metro Denver.
“Getting more and better information about the snowpack improves the accuracy of our spring runoff forecasts, and that helps us in many ways,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water.
“With better information, we have a better idea of how the spring runoff could impact the environment and recreation, and whether we might have to go on watering restrictions during the summer. It also helps inform us on how we should manage all of water resources,” he said.
This year, in addition to getting ASO data about the snow in the Blue River Basin above Dillon, Denver Water also will get information about the snowpack in the Fraser, Granby and Willow Creek watersheds. Flights are scheduled for April and May, weather permitting.
Based on NASA-developed technology, LiDAR equipment carried by the ASO planes use beams of light to measure the depth of the snow across entire watersheds and capture reflections from the frozen surface. Data from the flights over the snow-covered watersheds is compared to data collected when the same watershed is free of snow.
The resulting information from comparing the two sets of data tells water managers how much snow is on the ground and how much water it holds, augmenting data collected from SNOTEL sites, which also measure snowpack at selected sites, and decades of historical statistics.
“We see these ASO flights as a climate adaptation strategy,” said Taylor Winchell, a water resource engineer at Denver Water who works on climate change adaptation and water supply planning issues.
“As our snowpack changes with the changing climate, being better able to measure that snowpack becomes more important as more snow falls as rain, as the timing of the spring melt changes and as snow falls at ever-higher elevations because of warming. We can’t rely as much on historical snowpack datasets to understand the new snowpack reality.”
Winchell worked with water managers throughout Colorado to develop support for the state grant and create a collective known as CASM, short for the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, that grew to include members from federal, state and local government levels, academia, the recreation industry and agriculture industries, as well as local nonprofits and environmental advocacy organizations.
“We had 37 letters of support for the initiative. To have that many groups supporting a water project, that’s unprecedented for a water project in Colorado. It’s rare to see so many people agree on something — but more accurate data helps everyone,” Winchell said.
In addition to flights over snow-covered mountain watersheds, the grant also will help pay for flights over snow-free ground — collecting essential baseline information that can be used to expand the snow-on flight areas even more next year and beyond, Winchell said.
Work also will be underway this year to figure out how to continue the CASM program in the future, as the state’s grant is a one-year grant, Winchell said.
Denver Water managers are looking forward to seeing more ASO information about its watersheds, and also those throughout the state.
“How much snow falls outside our watersheds can affect Denver Water’s supply and operations just like the amount of snow that falls inside our watersheds,” Elder said.
“With this starting to become a statewide program, with data collected from more areas and that data being shared among the partners, it will help everyone better manage Colorado’s water supply.”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has granted three more years of funds to the Middle Colorado Watershed Council (MCWC) to continue the United States Geological Survey (USGS) water quality and rain gauge monitoring set up in 2021, adding new mid-stream water quality monitoring stations between South Canyon and Cameo, soil moisture monitoring, and a dashboard notification system for downstream municipalities.
The Colorado River District has agreed to serve as fiscal agent for the USGS in a three-year cooperative agreement with MCWC. The $583,396 CWCB grant will be matched with in-kind labor and cash from the USGS, Garfield County, the Glenwood Canyon Restoration Alliance, and coordinated project funding from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Education (CDPHE) for a total project cost of $1.3 million over the next three years.
Funding secured from CDPHE, $206,600, will be used to purchase the additional equipment needed for the new mid-stream water quality station, soil moisture monitors, and the user-friendly dashboard for downstream users to monitor changes in water quality and rainfall information. The CDPHE funding will also support pre-fire mitigation planning and allow the Silt Water Conservancy District to complete repair work from damage due to the continual impact of high amounts of sediment in the Colorado River in 2021.
Since early 2021, the Middle Colorado Watershed Council has coordinated post Grizzly Creek Fire water quality and rain gauge monitoring to set up a regional notification system and lessen the impact on downstream water users. MCWC received the first year of funding from CWCB, CDPHE and the Colorado River District’s Community Partnership Funds.
Using services from the USGS Colorado Water Science Center, the USGS Next Generation Water Observing System (NGWOS), and SGM, an engineering firm acting as MCWC’s technical advisor, water quality and precipitation information networks were set up in canyon drainages and on the Middle Colorado river corridor. Seven rain gauges were deployed throughout the Grizzly Creek burn area and a 6-parameter data sonde water quality monitoring station was set up at No Name.
During the summer of 2021, summer monsoons caused flooding, debris flows and highway infrastructure damage in Glenwood Canyon as a result of the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire burn scar and a 500-year-rain event. MCWC and other stakeholders expect continued problems with flooding and debris flows from these canyon drainages over the next few years and sought the additional funding to continue and expand monitoring in 2022 through 2024.
Four times this spring, local resident and Desert Research Institute scientist Rosemary Carroll will aid Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) field scientists, Alex Newman and Curtis Beutler. They will perform ground surveys as airplanes use high resolution lasers to measure the depth of the snowpack and snowpack reflectivity, or albedo. They will dig snow pits for detailed measurements of snow depth, hardness and density. In addition, they will look at snow grain size and shape and note any dust layers. The data helps determine the accuracy of the measurements conducted by the air.
“These airborne data collection efforts provide a map of our snowpack at high-spatial resolution from the mountain tops to the valley bottom. When ASO (Airborne Snow Observatory) is combined with ground surveys and snow observations over time at our snow telemetry (SNOTEL) network, we can better track our snowpack and manage our water resources,” Carroll explained. “As climate changes, stream water forecasting models built on historical precedence, are not able to adequately predict stream runoff. The ASO methodology has been shown effective in California for improving stream water forecasting…The state of Colorado has recently allocated nearly $1.9 million to track snow using ASO.
Carroll explained that ASO flies a fixed-wing aircraft across the basin using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) with no snow, and then again with snow. The difference between the two data sets produces a snapshot in time of snow depth every three meters. ASO also uses a spectrometer to measure snow reflectivity. New snowfall has a very high reflectivity, while older snow or snow with dust has a lower reflectivity. Less reflective snowpack will melt more quickly than high reflective snowpack. The resulting ASO data helps to generate precise readings on the amount of water in the snow and guide estimates on where and when this snow may melt soonest. ASO not only quantifies total snow volume but also indicates where snow has moved across the landscape through things like avalanches and wind. ASO-informed stream water forecasts have been shown to have accuracy rates of close to 98% or almost double traditional forecasts…
Carroll is also managing a local stream discharge network so that there is high spatial and temporal data of streamflow across the smaller-order streams in the East River. She has stream gauges on Quigley, Rustlers, Rock and Copper Creek, to name a few. She currently manages 13 stream gauges. By measuring streamflow across the upper East River and in combination with the stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), she can monitor sub-watershed response to different snow conditions…
Carroll emphasized that mountain snowpack is a critical water resource globally and is also extremely sensitive to climate change. “The East River is emblematic of these mountain systems, and it has become the largest field observatory for integrated mountain hydroclimate and biogeochemical response,” she said. “Work between entities like the Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, the USGS and others, and with help from RMBL, the research in the East River is critical to understanding how mountain systems store and release water and solutes. It is extremely exciting!”
The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed a reduction in the annual release volume from Lake Powell from 7.48 to 7.0 million acre-feet for water year 2022. This is based on the Department’s determination that additional actions are needed to protect dam operations and hydropower production, and to address public health and safety concerns.
Below is a statement from Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell:
“Colorado understands the unprecedented challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and will work collaboratively to protect critical infrastructure at Lake Powell. While we support the Assistant Secretary’s proposal, we also acknowledge that this is a temporary solution and that it is incumbent on all who rely on the Colorado River to develop longer-term solutions that address the imbalance between supply and demand in the Basin.”
Colorado Water Conservation Board to Focus on Water Resilience within the State as Demand Management Investigation Paused
In March, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) decided to pause its Demand Management Feasibility Investigation in Colorado. Demand Management is the concept of temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in the consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin. Colorado has been a leader among the Upper Basin States in the feasibility investigation, gathering information from Colorado water users, stakeholders, and the public since 2019, and developing a Roadmap for answering questions in the future. CWCB stands ready to continue its investigation when more information becomes available from the ongoing feasibility investigations in the other Upper Basin States. All Upper Basin States would need to agree to a program if it is to be established, and any such program would depend upon a storage pool in Lake Powell, which could only be used to ensure ongoing Compact compliance. This pause provides an opportunity for CWCB to focus on what can be done in the more immediate future within Colorado. CWCB will consider a full range of mechanisms that would not be dependent on other states or the broader Colorado River System and could be implemented by and within Colorado, with the purpose of protecting Colorado’s water users through increased hydrologic shortage and variability.
The reservoir could drop below the level needed to generate power at the Glen Canyon Dam this year if other ways of increasing the elevation of the lake aren’t used
…water managers in Colorado announced last week that they will stop exploring one proposal to prop up the rapidly depleting levels in Lake Powell. The plan — known as demand management — would compensate farmers and ranchers for voluntarily stopping irrigation on a temporary basis, sending water that would have been used for agriculture to the reservoir. A drought contingency plan developed in 2019 by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming identified demand management as one method that could be used to keep the water level in Lake Powell above 3,525 feet in elevation, around a quarter of its capacity, in order to protect electricity generation. The four-state demand management proposal was met with suspicion by agricultural interests, according to Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School who previously worked on Colorado River issues under the Obama administration. Skeptics of the plan feared it could “wipe out irrigated agriculture” in parts of the river basin and fundamentally alter rural economies, Castle said at a recent University of Utah symposium hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center. She said those fears were “not unfounded” and “they would have to be dealt with in an equitable demand management program.”
Utah still supports a four-state demand management program, said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, but it is also prepared to move forward with water conservation pilot projects and potentially pursue a smaller-scale demand management program on its own. She pointed to Utah’s investments in water measuring infrastructure, studies looking at switching to crops that require less water and other programs…
The Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that it is studying modifications to the Glen Canyon Dam that would allow for power generation at lower water levels. That could include installing turbines on bypass tubes that are located below the current hydropower intakes…
But Brad Udall said finding the political will and leadership at federal and state levels to permanently reduce demand is difficult.
“My biggest fear,” Udall said, “is that it’s easier to let the system crash than it is to find the painful solutions that are needed.”
He defined a system crash as letting the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — empty because of an inability to respond to declining flows. Udall added there have been incremental, positive solutions implemented in the basin over the last two decades, but he said future solutions have to be “more than incremental” to deal with the crisis.
In short, the kind of clouds that create snowstorms contain massive amounts of super-chilled water vapor, Rickert said. Left alone, those clouds can release some snow and retain the rest of their water vapor. Cloud seeders look to agitate those super-chilled water particles, causing them to freeze inside the cloud. From there they form snowflakes and fall to the ground, Rickert said. Seeders can agitate those particles by plane or from machines on the ground, both processes typically use a silver iodide compound. Airplanes will “pretty much fly right through the cloud,” spraying the compound across a flame, and spreading it throughout the air, sparking the chemical reaction, Rickert said. Ground generators do the same except they use wind drafts to carry the compound into the clouds, he said. he end result? Up to a 12% increase in snowfall for a particular storm, [Andrew] Rickert said…
Seeding efforts in central Colorado are working well too, according to Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Colorado River District, which helps manage the program in Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties. Water from the extra snowfall eventually melts, flowing down Colorado’s rivers and streams and eventually out of state, Rickert noted, so downstream states like Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico all chip in to the state’s $1.5 million budget. But there’s a catch, Kanzer added. Cloud seeding can’t create snow storms out of nowhere. They can only enhance existing storms…
“It’s the only option for physically augmenting snowpack,” Rickert said. “And the only way to actually create and add water to the system.”
Local leaders are celebrating a win this week, after learning last Friday that the Norwood area was awarded a $110,000 grant for water. The Wright’s Mesa Water Planning and Prioritization Project (WMWPPP) partners are the recipients, and they were supported in the application process by the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC)…
WMWPPP is a group that includes the Town of Norwood, San Miguel County, WEEDC, Norwood Water Commission, Farmers Water Development, the Lone Cone Ditch Company, the Norwood Fire Protection District, and the San Miguel Watershed Coalition.
The idea to go for funding came together in the summer of 2021, when Norwood Town Trustee Candy Meehan and District 3 Commissioner Holstrom were both students in Water Education Colorado’s program “Water Fluency.” One session in Water Fluency was focused on funding, and learning about the availability of funds for just the type of infrastructure needed in the local region “lit a fire” for Meehan and Holstrom. Meehan spearheaded the grant application effort, and she and Holstrom worked with Deanna Sheriff, of WEEDC, and April Montgomery, of the Telluride Foundation, to flesh out their idea of looking for ways to get some of the $80 million in monies available for known water projects identified by the Southwest Basin Roundtable…
With funding secured, an engineering firm will be chosen to conduct a collaborative water infrastructure planning and prioritization analysis for all of Wright’s Mesa…
Though this winter appears to be looking good regarding snowpack, the local region is still classified in drought — with a changing climate, the need for housing and development, and the critical need for repairing and updating the town’s current water infrastructure…
The Colorado Water Conservation Board made its decision to fund Norwood during its March 15 meeting and announced the decision on March 18.
During its March meeting, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) – a group of 15 governor-appointed representatives from each major Colorado river basin with expertise in water policy and planning – approved 52 grants through the Water Plan Grant Program.
“The Colorado Water Conservation Board is pleased to approve more than 50 projects this month to help advance the Colorado Water Plan, many of which are a direct result from recent stimulus funding approved by Governor Polis,” said CWCB Chair Jackie Brown. “We also look forward to utilizing funding from sports betting as enacted by Proposition DD in the near future to make an even bigger impact. And as we prepare to release the next Water Plan, securing future funding will become increasingly important for our water future.”
This grant program provides critical funding for multi-beneficial water projects in all eight river basins that advance actions outlined within the Colorado Water Plan.
Colorado has approved a $1.9 million snow measuring initiative based on NASA technology that will help communities across the state better measure and forecast how much water each winter’s mountain snowpack is likely to generate, using planes equipped with sophisticated measuring devices.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has been testing the accuracy of the flight-based data measuring work since 2015, according to Erik Skeie, who oversees the program for the CWCB. The board approved funding for the new $1.9 million initiative at its March 16 board meeting.
The new collective, known as Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, includes utilities, irrigation districts and environmental groups, including Northern Water, Denver Water and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, among others. In all, 37 water-related groups wrote letters in support of the grant and the measuring program, Skeie said.
Northern Water, which supplies more than 1 million residential, commercial and farm customers on the Northern Front Range, is hopeful the grant will help create an annual monitoring and measurement effort.
”I think it’s a really good program if we can make it sustainable into the future,” said Emily Carbone, water resources specialist at Northern Water.
Airborne Snow Observatory technology uses planes equipped with LiDAR, a pulsing radar, to develop a grid that contains a deeply detailed picture of the ground when it isn’t covered by snow. Then, during the winter months, those planes fly the same terrain once or more each month when it is covered with snow. In this way, the instruments are able to measure snow depth and snow reflectivity. These data, combined with computer-based models, allow the ASO to generate precise readings on when the snow will actually melt and how much water the snowpack in different regions actually contains.
Traditional forecasts can be off by as much as 40%, and sometimes more. But ASO forecasts have been shown to have accuracy rates of 98%.
As the megadrought in the Colorado River Basin has intensified, and climate change has altered snowfall and traditional patterns of snowmelt, finding better ways to measure the water content of snow has become critical, said Taylor Winchell, a climate adaptation specialist at Denver Water who is overseeing the utility’s flight data program.
Denver Water began using the technology in 2019.
“As the snowpack is changing, the more accurate measurements that we can have help us adapt our operations to a new water future and it helps us make the most of every drop in the system,” Winchell said.
Since the early 1930s, snowpacks have been measured manually and via remote ground-sensing by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Colorado and other Western states use a network of dozens of snotel sites to collect on-the-ground data, but forecasts can change dramatically if the weather becomes volatile, as has been the case more often in recent years.
That volatility and the ongoing drought have made water forecasting even more critical for water agencies. If water supplies come in lower than forecasts indicated, cities and irrigation districts can come up short of water, causing disruptions in deliveries, among other problems.
But ASO technology is expensive. Denver Water spends about $145,000 for two flights, a cost that includes subsequent modeling as well. But the forecasts have proved to be so accurate that the utility is committed to its ongoing use.
California is spending roughly $7 million annually and that cost could grow to more than $20 million if the golden state opts to expand the geographic reach of its ASO program, according to Tom Painter, a former NASA scientist who helped develop the ASO technology and who is now the CEO of Airborne Snow Observatories Inc., the NASA spinoff that is commercializing the technology.
A similar program in Colorado, one expansive enough to cover all the critical mountain watersheds, could cost as much as $15 million annually, Painter said.
The work would include flying some 10 flights per year per river basin during January, February, March and April, with additional flights in late spring as the snow begins to melt. Then flight data would be incorporated into forecast models.
Predicting snowmelt and its water content as warm weather arrives has been a tricky issue for researchers and water utilities because it becomes highly variable.
“That’s when traditional models start to fall apart,” Painter said. “They can’t hold onto the snowpack well enough. So having the data from ASO is nice to keep the forecast accurate. It’s like looking at your checking account balance a couple of times a month.”
Skeie, of the CWCB, said the new approach to measuring what’s known as snow water equivalent, or the amount of water contained in the snow, will take much of the guess work out of annual water forecasts.
And he’s hopeful that the multi-million price tag can be covered by an array of agencies, including the water utilities, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state governments, among others.
“It’s going to take all of that to make it sustainable,” Skeie said. And with the backing of the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, it’s more likely to occur than it has been before.
Using ASO, in combination with snotel data, “is the difference between having someone describe a picture to you, and being able to see it in 4D,” he said. “It’s incredibly useful.”
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.
Lake Powell surface level dropped below the critical 3,525-foot mark sometime on the Ides of March. You’ve probably already read that somewhere, since the national media can’t seem to get enough of the slow motion desiccation of one of the nation’s largest reservoirs. And what’s so critical about 3,525 feet?
The real critical number is 3,490 feet, otherwise known as the “minimum power pool.” When Lake Powell sinks below that elevation, Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce hydropower. That’s a big deal because Lake Powell really only serves two purposes these days: recreation and hydropower generation (the water storage component becomes somewhat irrelevant when Lake Mead is as low as it is now). Not only are the dam’s turbines a significant source of power for the Western Grid, but they also provide resilience for the grid in a way that other generators cannot.
Lake Powell has officially dipped just below 3,525 feet in elevation, reflecting the Colorado River Basin’s dry winter season. The elevation is expected to climb back above 3,525 feet over the course of spring runoff. More info: https://t.co/IobOBURhqH#drought#coloradoriver
Water managers had hoped to keep the level at least 35 feet above minimum power pool, i.e. above 3,525 feet, so they’d have a bit of a buffer to work with. Now the level is inside the buffer zone, which is reason for concern but not immediate alarm. While the rate of decline has prompted officials to issue a more pessimistic outlook for the reservoir, they don’t expect a loss of hydropower anytime soon. Snowpack levels in the watersheds that feed Lake Powell are slightly below average for this time of year, but are tracking about 7 percent ahead of last year’s levels. Spring runoff will soon begin, inflows will increase, and the lake should begin rising again, staving off the turbine shutdown—for now.
Let’s get to the data:
3,569 feet above sea level: Lake Powell’s surface level on March 9, 2021.
3,524.9 feet: Level on March 15, 2021.
-44 feet: Twelve-month change.
3,490 feet: Level at which Glen Canyon Dam stops producing hydropower.
384 billion gallons: Amount by which Lake Powell’s storage has declined since November 2021.
855,656 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Four Corners Power Plant.
309,640 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Glen Canyon Dam