On Thursday, several Colorado conservation and river advocacy groups praised Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposal to add a record $30 million to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and help the state prevent water shortages as the state continues to experience an extended drought.
In his budget request for fiscal year 2019-2020, the governor proposes to invest $30 million over the next three years from the general fund, on top of funds already earmarked for water projects that benefit river health and our communities across the state.
The groups – Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Environmental Defense Fund, Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Colorado, American Rivers and Audubon — called the proposal a “smart investment in healthy rivers that will have ripple effects across Colorado.”
“This budget request is a recognition of the importance of water to Colorado families, of water challenges that Colorado could face, and the imperative that Colorado secures its water future,” the groups said. “This is a tremendous step forward, and a sustainable water future for Colorado families will require continued investments. We look forward to working with the next governor and the legislature on longer-term commitments that will ensure the state has the resources to fully implement the Colorado Water Plan.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water plan has been big on collaboration, but short on action. He’ll leave the toughest decisions to his successor.
Colorado had plenty of reasons to worry about water by the time it elected John Hickenlooper in 2010.
The state was in its 11th year of drought. The health of its rivers was waning. And early projections of a statewide shortfall had cities and suburbs starting to stress out.
More urgent concerns have surfaced over Hickenlooper’s two terms as governor.
The drought has now lasted 19 years. Low precipitation and hotter temperatures have cut river flows by nearly 20 percent, with no end in sight. And the Colorado River, the state’s main source of water, is over-tapped to the point of possible federal intervention.
Colorado’s population, in the meantime, has skyrocketed with help from Hickenlooper’s pro-growth agenda, while its main source of water funding has proven unreliable. Ranchers are auctioning their cattle early because vegetation is so dry. Trout this past summer were too hot and sluggish to put up a fair fight. And nearly all Coloradans could smell the smoky urgency as wildfires burned our parched forests.
The “dry heat” that used to seem like a plus in Colorado has started, increasingly, to seem like a minus.
Hickenlooper has touted his administration’s 567-page water manifesto as the answer to a looming shortfall in which the state’s water demands are expected to exceed its supply. “Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms and incomparable environment,” he said when releasing it in 2015.
“We are not at a crisis,” he told The Colorado Independent earlier this month. “I don’t think (Coloradans) should be hysterical, but I think it’s a necessary concern for everyone.”
Factors both in and out of Hickenlooper’s control, however, have cast doubts about Colorado’s ability to avert a water shortage. Though the governor with the glass-half-full outlook has raised awareness about the state’s water supply problems, he’ll leave office in January without a strategy on how, specifically, to solve them. A growing chorus of experts says his failure to put forth lasting solutions has left Colorado in hot water.
“We’re not goring oxes any more.”
Colorado’s governors typically have acted as referees rather than visionaries on water policy, if they’ve acted at all. Hickenlooper set out to make a difference in 2013 when he ordered the first statewide water plan to stave off what at that point was projected to be a shortfall in 2050.
By most accounts, he didn’t engage in the specifics. But he saw to it that planners invited input from farmers and ranchers, anglers, rafters and kayakers, environmentalists, and industrial users and municipal users, meaning those of us who hope to keep washing our dishes and showering. All told, his administration likes to note, some 30,000 Coloradans commented on the plan as it was being drafted.
It fell to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a division of the state Natural Resources Department, to write a plan that reflected the state’s diverse water interests and put them in the broader context of 19th century water laws and 20th century legal obligations to keep the Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Colorado rivers flowing to neighboring states.
Released in November 2015, the plan calls for gleaning 500,000 acre-feet of additional water a year – or enough to supply nearly a million people – to avoid the projected shortfall. It seeks to achieve 80 percent of that through conservation, 10 percent through storing more water in aquifers or reservoirs created by new dams, and 10 percent through temporary water transfers from agriculture.
Environmentalists, though unhappy with the prospect of more dams, applauded the plan for acknowledging the effects climate change is having on water supplies. (Utah’s water plan avoids that subject altogether.) They, along with members of Colorado’s $28-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry, saw it as a victory that the plan seeks to keep as much water as possible flowing in rivers.
Farmers and ranchers, though fearful that those environmental goals might threaten their water rights, embraced the plan’s commitment to preserving agriculture at a time when massive swaths of farmland and the water rights tied to them are being sold off to cities. That practice, known as “buy and dry,” has, along with urban sprawl, caused Colorado to lose about 1 percent of its agricultural acreage a year since the turn of the century.
For the officials who run municipal water districts, the plan didn’t much affect their efforts to keep water flowing from the faucets, toilets and sprinkler systems of the 90 percent of Coloradans who live in cities and suburbs. Though most of those districts were already managing their limited supplies, they embraced the spirit of statewide collaboration with agriculture and environmentalists that Hickenlooper says is needed to work out solutions.
That spirit, that ethos that “we’re joined at the hip,” as the governor puts it, has earned his water plan props in a state that is said to have coined the term “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” Those who’ve worked around water policy long enough to remember the bitter, two decade-long fight over the proposed Two Forks Dam see the kinder, gentler approach as the only path forward.
“Colorado’s water world badly needed a new construct,” said Melinda Kassen, a Colorado-based water policy expert with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “What the water plan does is make a shift in who needs to be at the table, and insist that there be a table instead of just litigation in the first place.
“We’re not about goring oxes any more.”
“Because this administration opened lines of communication about water,” added CWCB Director Becky Mitchell, “we’re in a better place than before Gov. Hickenlooper took office.”
Where the plan falls short
For all its big ideas about collaboration, the state water plan lacks specifics.
Its broad-brush, aspirational goals have left water users in all sectors wondering about details. Some are asking how, for example, the state will be able to preserve its farming and ranching heritage while also quenching the needs of population growth, which long has been slurping up agricultural water supplies. Others wonder how, especially in a prolonged drought, the state will manage to store more water in aquifers and reservoirs while simultaneously keeping more water flowing in rivers.
“There are a lot of ideas in that plan that seem, to me at least, mutually exclusive,” said Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. “If you ask me, it’s all feel-good words with nothing concrete coming out of it. I mean, they’re not even working with current numbers.”
By numbers, Schmidt means data projecting water demands and supplies. CWCB’s last comprehensive set of projections, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), was released in 2011 but was based on 2008 data that didn’t factor in climate change. Those were the numbers upon which the projected 2050 water shortfall was based.
James Eklund, who ran the Colorado Water Conservation Board while the plan was being written, told The Colorado Independent in 2015 that a new SWSI would be ready in 2016. Months later, he pushed that date to early 2017. That deadline came and went as Eklund quit for a job as a private water lawyer. Mitchell, the state water planner who replaced him at CWCB’s helm, said the agency had been having problems coming up with roughly $2 million to pay for the study, which is now expected for completion in July 2019, three years behind schedule.
“We were overly optimistic about when we could get it out,” said Greg Johnson, the state’s chief of water supply planning.
Some experts question the wisdom of having released a water plan based on such outdated numbers. Tying the plan to more accurate supply and demand projections, they say, would have offered a clearer picture of Colorado’s water realities and conveyed to policy makers a more pressing sense of urgency.
That urgency stems not just from the fact that 19 years of drought have dropped significantly less snow in Colorado’s high country, but also from research showing hotter temperatures are causing what water there is to evaporate or be absorbed by plants at alarming rates. A study by Colorado State University shows that from 2000 to 2014, flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below those recorded the previous 93 years. Similar shifts could be seen this past summer when the state had to set unprecedented use restrictions on the Yampa and Crystal rivers to keep them from running dry.
Hydrologists note that so much has changed in their projections that they are no longer referring to the 19-year dry spell as a drought because that term implies a return to 20th century snowpack levels, which they say is not going to happen. If temperature and precipitation trends continue, as they are expected to, CSU’s data shows Colorado’s water supplies would diminish another 15 percent more by 2050 in addition to the 19 percent decrease that already has taken place.
“That 34 percent turns this drought from a serious challenge to a disaster,” said CSU hydrologist Brad Udall, co-author of the CSU study (and former member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors). “Policy makers need to be paying attention, close attention, to this data.”
Aside from updated data, the water plan also lacks specifics on strategy. The planners assigned to write it struggled for more than a year with the last section, Chapter 10, which promised to lay out “measurable objectives, goals, and critical actions,” and was meant to be the plan part of the plan.
But a close read of that chapter shows very few measurable goals for which the administration can be held to account. The plan underscores the importance of “instream flows” – keeping more water in rivers to protect their ecological balance – for example, but avoids setting levels for what those flows should be. Without those kind of specifics, critics say it’s toothless.
“I found that incredibly frustrating,” said Amy Beatie, former executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that buys and leases water so it can be returned to rivers. “We need more than conceptual agreement. We need specific expectations and goals before we’ll see any real progress.”
The administration’s reluctance to commit to specific strategies is perhaps most apparent in the way it has structured decision-making. Under the plan, nine “roundtable” groups – representing Colorado’s eight river basins plus metro Denver water users – are free to choose which water projects should receive state funding.
“You’d think that if they’re spending the state’s money, there would be a clear articulation by the state of the objectives for that spending,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, Colorado’s biggest municipal water district. “Instead, what you get with that type of bottoms-up approach is a grab bag, a something-for-everyone dynamic that’s not particularly effective in advancing a statewide vision.”
Lochhead is a former state Department of Natural Resources director who served as Colorado’s lead water negotiator under three governors. Although he has described Hickenlooper’s willingness to create a water plan as an “act of political courage,” he has been saying for three years that the end product is not a plan at all, but rather a “compendium of ideas and platitudes.”
He is especially critical that Hickenlooper has not done more to address the impact urban sprawl is having on water supplies. He says the administration should have made more progress helping to establish water markets to allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights without losing them long term. And he cites what he calls the state’s “failure” to not eliminate regulatory impediments to water reuse and recycling projects and to not speed up permitting processes that, for example, have delayed Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir for almost 20 years.
“A commitment to collaboration is all well and good, but it’s not going to get us there,” Lochhead said. “Somebody needs be more aggressive in making some real decisions on where we’re going to come up with enormous amounts of water. But that’s not going to happen, at least under this administration.”
More than a dozen municipal and state water officials interviewed over the past year have echoed Lochhead’s frustrations, but would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs or jeopardizing their agencies’ working relationships. Almost all said the water plan lacks clear strategic goals. And several felt that the public engagement aspect took on absurd proportions. Though they laud efforts to seek public comments while the plan was being drafted, they say the administration’s insistence that the number of comments reach into the tens of thousands had less to do with an authentic interest in those comments than it did an interest in inoculating the plan from criticism.
One Front Range water manager who asked not to be named likened state water planners, during the public comment phase, to “those kids in high school who rushed around asking everybody to sign their yearbook.” The manager added: “The thinking seemed to be that the more people they got to comment, the more validating or popular … the plan would seem. It’s kind of hard to take a plan like that seriously.”
For all the time and the nearly $4 million the administration put into creating the water plan, Beatie, the Colorado Water Trust’s former executive director, says she expected it would reflect what she calls “the strategic heart of Colorado’s water community” – an honest recognition that “there’s not enough water right now, right here, for progress, real progress not to hurt.”
“But what they came up with is basically just a multi-page tome that’s more narrative than a plan. It’s just a giant thing that just sits on everybody’s desk.”
Hickenlooper dismisses criticism that his plan lacks depth, saying, “One of the most important things we laid out are sets of priorities.”
“Any time you try to do something for the first time and you are … a pioneer, you’re going to get some challenges,” he added. “We knew it was going to be hard and that’s why we tried to engage so many people in the process.”
Who should conserve
The governor raised the hopes of environmentalists and water policy reformers in his 2014 State of the State address by saying that “any conversation about water needs to start with conservation.” The “C” word long had been left out of statewide water discussions.
It still is.
That’s because Hickenlooper’s plan puts the entire conservation burden on municipal districts, whose users consume about 8 percent of the state’s water. The plan expects virtually no conservation from agriculture, which consumes about 87 percent.
The governor defends the approach, saying, “Denver Water and all the utilities along the Front Range” have “a moral obligation” to “conserve as much as humanly possible,” and also an obligation to help “sustain food supplies.”
Colorado’s biggest municipal water districts say their conservation programs are meeting those obligations.
Denver Water has reduced per-capita water consumption by 25 percent and says it’s using about the same amount of water district-wide since 2000 despite the addition of about 250,000 more customers. The agency serves about a quarter of Colorado’s population with 2 percent of the state’s water.
“We and the other Front Range water utilities are all basically moving as fast as we can through water efficiency. It’s not something we need to be told to do or incentivized to do by the state. It’s something that we’ve been doing and paying for by ourselves for a long time,” Lochhead said.
Aurora Water has more junior water rights than Denver’s water rights and has started quenching many of its customers’ needs with a $653-million reuse project that turns Platte River water captured downstream of Denver’s wastewater treatment plant into drinkable water. Fast-growing communities such as Castle Rock and Parker have similar projects in the works.
Though most of Colorado’s large municipal water districts are willingly embracing further conservation efforts, their managers say the additional water they’ll collectively be able to save won’t be nearly enough to meet Hickenlooper’s 400,000 acre-foot statewide conservation goal.
“The numbers aren’t realistic because the margins don’t make sense. It’s not feasible to expect all the conservation to come from municipalities when they don’t use even close to most of the water in the state,” said Alexandra Davis, Aurora Water’s deputy director and head of its water resources division.
“What the plan doesn’t say – what nobody will say out loud – is that some of the conservation burden is going to have to fall on agriculture because there’s nowhere else for it to come from. It just is. We need to face that idea rather than pretending that agriculture doesn’t need to be part of this equation.”
That equation, Davis and other municipal water bosses say, needs to address what they describe as enormous amounts of water being wasted by flood irrigation techniques and by seepage from the unlined, dirt ditches through which water is still delivered to many farms and ranches. If cityfolk and suburbanites have to use water more efficiently, they argue that countryfolk should, too.
John Harold, a sweet corn grower in Olathe, is one of the few growers who’ll agree, at least publicly.
“What you see out here are farmers buying all kinds of fancy new tractors but using irrigation methods and open ditches that are more than 100 years old,” he said.
“We’ve got to wake up and become more efficient. But, unfortunately, you have to hit most farmers with a sledgehammer to get them to realize that.”
Others say it’s a myth that farms waste massive amounts of water, and a misconception that more efficient farming and ranching practices could save enough to make a significant difference in the statewide conservation goal.
“That portrayal of us as big water wasters, it’s offensive,” said Paul Kehmeier, a farmer in Eckert who says his 93-year-old father Norman raised him, like Norman’s father and grandfather before him, to use only what’s needed.
As Kehmeier tells it, water delivered through the kind of unlined dirt ditches his forebearers built “isn’t being wasted” through seepage, “it’s just being rerouted to natural drainage.” He says any amount that could be saved through lining those canals would be “marginal.” Likewise, he adds, it would make no significant difference if he watered his alfalfa “using flood irrigation or using an eyedropper” – “those alfalfa are going to consume the same amount of water to grow, no matter what.”
That viewpoint is shared by some outside the agricultural community. Anne Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science in the Obama administration’s Interior Department, agrees that “agricultural efficiency doesn’t necessarily save water.”
“So it’s a hard question about what additional contribution agriculture should make,” said Castle, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado. She said expects that economics, not efficiency efforts, will ultimately drive agriculture’s role in helping to avert a statewide water shortfall.
A leap of faith
Colorado’s water law system is predicated on the notion of “beneficial use” – meaning that water must be “used,” even if that means wasted, in order for users to keep their rights to it. That system long has created a built-in disincentive for farmers and ranchers to conserve.
It also has led to suspicions about “alternative transfer mechanisms,” the kind of economic incentive on which Hickenlooper’s water plan is banking. ATMs are deals in which farmers or ranchers are paid to temporarily fallow their land and transfer their water rights for municipal use or conservation purposes. Water planners tout them as a flexible way to save more water as prolonged drought and population growth are putting firmer demands on state supplies.
“The key word here is ‘flexible,’ meaning that by changing cropping patterns temporarily – which is something agriculture has a long history of doing – these are short-term solutions when there’s a squeeze,” said Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as chief of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
But few growers have been willing to agree to such deals, fearing that the process will strip them of their water rights.
“Farmers, from my perspective, don’t like change. They also don’t like risk,” said CSU’s Udall. “For these things to work, farmers need to believe they won’t lose their water.”
In the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District – which spans from Brighton north to Greeley, and east to Fort Morgan – not even one grower has been willing to make that leap of faith. The concern, says Executive Director Randy Ray, is that even temporary water transfers like ATMs require applicants to go to water court and quantify their “yield” – the amount of water their farms or ranches use. Once a yield is quantified, it’s open to public examination, which can trigger long and expensive battles in which more junior water rights holders pose challenges, sometimes trying to degrade or devalue the applicant’s senior water rights. Ray likens that process to getting an involuntary haircut.
“Once you go to water court to quantify your yield, you make yourself vulnerable to getting scalped. Nobody wants to take that risk, at least around here.”
Some 340 miles to the west in Eckert, Paul Kehmeier rolled the dice on the land his great-grandparents homesteaded in 1894. In the hierarchy of water rights, his are senior – and valuable.
When the drought hit in 2001, he and his father Norman figured it would pass the way other dry spells had on the West Slope. Farmers, Kehmeier notes, are “eternal optimists.”
But in 2016, after a decade and a half of drought conditions, father and son decided that waiting for more rain and snowmelt would be less an act of optimism than of foolishness. And so they agreed to participate in a pilot project with CSU and the Nature Conservancy whereby, for a price, they stopped irrigating about 60 acres of land from late June through mid-September of that year and let the water flow “down the creek” into the Gunnison River, then to the Colorado River. The deal was part of a larger project funded by the Walton (as in Walmart) Family Foundation to test the efficacy of water markets in Colorado.
“The only way to meaningfully conserve water in agriculture is to not grow crops, plain and simple. And the only way to make that happen is to make it worth a farmer’s while financially,” said Kehmeier, who was pleased with the outcome and would agree to similar water transfers in the future.
Although he said he and family appreciate what he calls “all the nostalgia and warm feelings about agriculture” put forth in Hickenlooper’s water plan, they realize that “when push comes to shove, (municipal) users with the political power and money are going to get what they want, and everybody knows that.
“I don’t think we can turn back the tide.”
The funding question
Paying farmers to send water “down the creek” on a scale large enough to achieve meaningful savings will require money. Lots of it. And the most frequent criticism of Hickenlooper’s water strategy is that nobody knows where that money will come from.
Even the water plan’s price tag has been questionable.
Eklund said in 2015 that implementing the plan would cost $20 billion. He wouldn’t specify which water priorities and projects that amount would fund. Rather, he said that his estimate was a rough, “back-of-the-napkin” analysis that considered “numerous funding areas.”
Weeks after her appointment as Eklund’s successor in 2017, Mitchell put the water plan’s price tag at what she called “a more realistic $40 billion.” That higher price included water quality projects and funding to restore flows and ecosystems in Colorado’s rivers.
Hickenlooper’s pro-business-, pro-development-, and PR-sensitive office cringed at that disclosure. Over the past year, Mitchell has reined the figure back to $20 billion. “It’s what we can do, reasonably, as a state,” she now says.
Of the $20 billion, about $16 billion is expected to come from municipal water districts via consumer water rates, and another $1 billion from federal grants and revenues from the state severance tax. That tax, levied on oil and gas companies for drilling, long has been Colorado’s biggest source of water funding. Revenues were at $68 million annually in fiscal year 2014-2015, but took a nosedive in fiscal year 2015-2016 just as the water plan was being released. State officials have decided that severance tax revenues fluctuate too dramatically to reliably carry out the water plan.
That leaves a funding gap of more than $3 billion for parts of the plan that don’t already have revenue streams. Those include subsidizing conservation by municipal water districts in economically depressed parts of the state, paying to rehabilitate streams and rivers after decades of over-depletion, and paying farmers like the Kehmeiers to temporarily fallow their land.
Hickenlooper will leave office in January without having identified a way to fill that funding gap. “Some of the funding is still not locked down,” he acknowledges. His departure comes just as a new development on the Colorado River has created additional pressure – one far more urgent than a looming shortfall in 2050 – to conserve.
The federal government has given Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah until the end of the year to agree on a plan to send more water to Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in which the four Upper Basin states store Colorado River water, to ensure they can meet their contractual obligations to deliver a certain amount annually to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Lake Powell is less than half full after years of drought and overuse. If Colorado fails to conserve enough water to help replenish it or otherwise meet the terms of the “drought contingency plan” the Upper Basin states are currently negotiating, the feds could step in and curtail our access to river water.
“If the same hydrology (patterns) that started in 2001 continue, Lake Powell will be dry within three years. It is a very serious situation, an existential threat that we need to be acting on sooner rather than later,” Lochhead said, noting that the state’s water strategy needs to be more proactive than simply hoping we have a few big snow years “To me, that’s not preparing. We’re staring a crisis in the face.”
“We have to get after it,” added CU’s Castle. “Every year we wait, it gets worse.”
Tom Gougeon is president of the Denver-based Gates (as in Gates Rubber Company) Family Foundation, which funds ways of balancing Colorado’s disparate water needs. Given that “there’s a lot of stress on the system right now,” he says it’s important to harness “that sense of impatience and urgency.”
Gates has an ally in the even deeper-pocketed Walton Family Foundation, the biggest private funder of sustainable water projects on the planet. Walton has taken a special interest in funding conservation projects and water banks along the Colorado River.
Recognizing that Colorado can’t wait for Hickenlooper’s successor to come up with a funding source, the two philanthropies have formed a 25-member working group to make a recommendation.
“This plan is only as valuable if it has secure, sustainable funding to support it,” said Ted Kowalski, the head of Walton’s Colorado River Initiative.
Made up of experts representing a wide variety of water interests throughout the state, the working group is considering a bottle tax, a tourism tax, and a tax on sports betting as possible funding options. Whichever of those or other methods it picks, the goal is to raise $100 million in revenues annually, totalling $3.2 billion by 2050, the year in which the shortfall is currently projected.
The group aims to come up with a suggested funding plan in the next few weeks, then urge lawmakers to start crafting bills for the 2019 session, which starts when Hickenlooper leaves office in January.
In the meantime, a state-organized group called the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) is attempting a parallel effort to come up with a water funding recommendation, but sources close to those talks say they’re languishing.
By most accounts, it’s easier for philanthropies to prod movement because they don’t face the political pressures that politicians do. Hickenlooper is eyeing a bid for president.
“We don’t operate on two- or four- or six-year terms. We’re uniquely situated in asking people to participate in the conversation because we can have a longer view,” said Kowalski.
Added Gougeon: “The fact that we’re not the decision makers, I think, gives us the freedom to explore these possibilities.”
Whichever funding option is recommended, it will likely require voter approval. The working group is eyeing the 2020 ballot, allowing almost two years to educate Coloradans about statewide water needs.
But state Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, wants to push for a ballot issue in 2019: “The truth is that Colorado doesn’t have the luxury of waiting,” he said.
Regardless of which year, there will be obstacles. A long list of other statewide needs – such as education, health care, rural broadband, and possibly transportation – will be competing for state funding. And Coloradans have a less than stellar record of approving water taxes. Voters in 2003 soundly rejected a statewide water funding ballot measure in a defeat blamed largely on the fact that the initiative gave no specifics about which water projects it would fund. Politicos say a future measure, if it’s to succeed, would need to be more specific than the 2003 effort and than Hickenlooper’s 2015 water plan.
It will be in the ironing out of those specifics and deciding which water projects would and wouldn’t be funded that one of Colorado’s most outspoken water watchdogs expects the spirit of collaboration at the core of Hickenlooper’s water plan could break…
As Castle, the former Interior Department undersecretary, tells it, “It will require dedicated leadership at the highest levels in order to make progress” convincing voters to approve a statewide water tax and leading Coloradans to conserve enough water to start replenishing Lake Powell.
“I don’t know the extent to which either of the two candidates (for governor) will prioritize achieving some of these goals,” she said.
Neither Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis nor Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has much experience with water policy. Neither tends to raise the issue on the campaign trail. And neither particularly impressed their audiences when speaking to state and local water officials at the Colorado Water Congress in August. In prepared remarks that Stapleton recited like a term paper and Polis delivered with a notable lack of energy, both said they’d carry out the water plan and find a way to raise the $100 million a year to do so.
Stapleton seemed to favor sports gambling as a funding option. He hedged when asked about climate change’s effects on water resources. And he said the state will need to build new ways to store water because “conservation won’t get us where we need to go.” Some water wonks bristled when he mispronounced the word aquifer.
Polis emphasized a heavy investment in conservation and water efficiency. He said “growth needs to pay its own way” when it comes to water infrastructure. And he said he would oppose any transmountain diversions (projects carrying water from the West Slope to the Front Range) “that are not universally agreed upon.”
Both campaigns since have refused to answer The Independent’s questions about the specifics of their candidates’ water stances.
“I would like to hear more specifics from them about some of the fundamental policy issues. I think a lot of people would,” Lochhead said. “My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough. Things need to move more quickly, a lot more quickly, than they are today.”
Whichever candidate wins in November will have to persuade state lawmakers and voters from urban areas – who already will be shouldering 80 percent of the cost of implementing the plan through their water rates – to agree to an additional water tax.
He also will have fences to mend with folks who’ve complained that Hickenlooper’s administration has iced them out about where state water policy is headed.
In September, a group of West Slope water users slammed Eklund (the former CWCB director whom Hickenlooper kept as Colorado’s lead negotiator on the Colorado River), accusing him of a lack of transparency about his talks with other Upper Basin states on how to manage water in severe drought and replenish Lake Powell. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, had especially harsh words about what he saw as Eklund’s refusal to keep his group apprised on the agreement to bank water in Lake Powell. Growers on the West Slope fear that water banking efforts could strip them of their water rights.
“We haven’t seen those documents that are about to be executed. We’ve been told that we don’t need to see them. We’re not OK with that. We don’t think it’s acceptable. We think those documents need to be shared with us and frankly the impact of those documents needs to be shared with the water users of the Western Slope and the state of Colorado,” Mueller was quoted last month by The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.
His remarks called into question how “joined at the hip” statewide water interests really are, despite Hickenlooper’s push for collaboration and trust.
Eklund since has shared the details Mueller sought, but continues to be distrusted not just on the West Slope, but also among some of his former state colleagues and other water officials who have questioned whether his work practicing water and infrastructure law at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs conflicts with his representation of the state on Colorado River issues. In response, he says he won’t make his client list public. “My firm wouldn’t allow that.”
Though he has advised Polis on water, infrastructure and regulatory issues, Eklund says he’s not vying for another political appointment. “I’m not interested in a position with a Polis administration, or a Stapleton administration, for that matter,” he told The Independent Sunday.
He says he has told Polis what he tells anyone who asks about the water challenges Colorado is facing: “That at this point, we’ve not been doing the kind of conservation that we need to bend the curve at Lake Powell, and that Colorado’s governor will need to oversee and encourage scaling up by the entire water community for it to do any good. That’ll take leadership right now, when it’s hard for me to overstate the urgency that we face on this river.”
Eklund lauds Hickenlooper for setting a tone of collaboration not just in Colorado, but with the six other Colorado River states with whom he negotiates. That approach, that ethos of “we can work together to control our destiny,” he said, “has become our brand as a state.”
“Governor Hickenlooper believes that our brand can be exported.”
Leadership on water and other environmental issues requires a certain art in messaging, the ability to strike a balance of conveying urgency without creating panic. Udall underscores this point by quoting Colorado physicist and environmental activist Amory Lovins: “You can’t depress people into action.”
“In politics, being a doomsdayer doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Udall, the son of a congressman and presidential candidate, nephew of an interior secretary, and brother of a U.S. senator. “This state has more positive things going on than anywhere else in the West. We have a lot of really good people here trying to come up with solutions. Are they trying hard? For the most part, yes. Are they doing enough? No.”
As Udall tells it, Colorado needs more than branding to avert a water crisis.
“Climate change is coming at us faster than anyone expected just a few years ago. The wheels are coming off and nobody seems to be responding quickly enough,” he said. “We need leaders willing to take swifter action.”
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, presented six principles last week to guide an emerging federal and state program designed to reduce water use in order to avoid a compact call on the Colorado River.
Mueller spoke at a seminar produced by the River District in Grand Junction that attracted 265 people. The theme of the seminar was “Risky Business on the Colorado River.”
The first two principles Mueller described Friday at the meeting relate to a legal bucket-within-a-bucket that the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming plan to create through federal legislation in Lake Powell, which would allow the three states to control water that they deliver to the big federal reservoir through a demand management, or water-use reduction program.
The River District’s first principle is that such a storage program in Lake Powell should be “free of charge” and designed “for the benefit of the upper basin to avoid a compact violation.”
The district’s second principle says water stored in Lake Powell from a demand-management program should “not be subject to equalization or balancing releases from Lake Powell.”
That principle stems from a set of interim guidelines approved in 2007 by the upper-basin states and the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada that seek to use water from Lake Powell, when it is at certain levels, to keep Lake Mead operational.
Mueller and other upper-basin regional water managers think the guidelines, which expire in 2026, now allow the lower basin to take more water than they deserve under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Mueller told his audience that the demand-management pool to be created in Lake Powell is “for preventing lower-basin entities from sucking too much water down that river.”
So, the second principle is meant to protect the upper basin from the lower basin.
The other principles are designed to either protect the Western Slope from the state, which is discussing potential mandatory cutbacks in water use in order to avoid a compact call, or from the Front Range, which may support such a measure, according to Mueller.
The River District’s board members are determined to protect agricultural interests on the Western Slope, which use about 1.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River system every year, mainly for irrigating alfalfa fields and pastures.
By comparison, Front Range cities use about 360,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River Basin through their transmountain diversion systems, which are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
And if those cities have that water cut off in the face of a call under the compact, Mueller said they would come buy out willing irrigators on the Western Slope and dry up their fields.
The River District’s third principle is that any use-reduction program in the upper-basin states must be “voluntary, temporary and compensated” and “must reflect proportionate contributions from each upper division state.”
Mueller said the River District supports a “guided market” approach to paying water users to use less water and let it flow instead to Lake Powell.
“What we’re opposed to is some form of mandatory uncompensated curtailment of water rights, whether it is pre- or post-compact,” he said.
The fourth principle is that there must be “no injury to other water rights.”
The fifth principle is that there must be “no disproportionate impacts to any single basin or region with Colorado.”
Mueller said Friday that the demand-management program must “make sure that the pain that comes with the reducing consumption of water is actually equitably distributed and applied to all users, everybody with a straw in the river.”
Mueller explained that the post-1922 water rights in the Colorado River basin are roughly split equally between the transbasin diverters on the Front Range and users on the Western Slope.
“These junior water rights that are diverting significant amounts of water to the Front Range, along with our junior water rights on the West Slope, are the ones that need to be willing to share in this demand-management program, in the intentional reduced use,” Mueller said.
The sixth principle is that a demand-management program must be consistent with what’s known as “the conceptual framework” in Colorado’s 2015 water plan relating to future potential transmountain diversions.
“We’re not going to curtail our uses on the West Slope and send demand-management water down to Lake Powell, only to have another transmountain diversion come in and suck water to the East Slope,” Mueller said. “That’s what the state agreed to when it agreed to the state water plan, and we’re saying that needs to be upheld.”
Mueller’s last slide said “the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state engineer should agree to abide by these principles and not go beyond them without unanimous agreement among those entities charged with protecting the state.”
He plans to deliver that message to the CWCB when it meets Wednesday in Steamboat Springs.
On Tuesday, the River District also released a series of letters and a draft resolution on the issue, including a letter from the River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District to the CWCB board, a draft resolution from the River District and Southwestern they want the CWCB to approve, a letter from the Colorado Basin Roundtable to the CWCB, and a letter from the Front Range Water Council to the CWCB.
The letter from the Front Range Water Council, an ad hoc collection of the largest water providers on the Front Range, was dated Sept. 13. It includes a reference to the possibility of a non-voluntary water curtailment program in the upper Colorado River basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
“If the quantity of conserved water made available through a voluntary compensated demand management program is not sufficient to ensure compliance with the Colorado River Compact,the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission may need to adopt alternative measures to generate water for storage in an Upper Division storage account,” the letter states. “We will work with the state of Colorado to develop an alternative mechanism for generating conserved water for the Upper Division storage account.”
In its letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River District and the Southwestern River District, stressed the need for consensus, and their inclusion, on any sort of mandatory curtailment program.
“We are concerned about recent discussions that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted,” said the letter. “That is the reason we request that the CWCB adopt of (sic) formal resolution or policy-statement regarding a demand management program, and that the CWCB commit that such a program be consistent in particular with Principle 4 of the Conceptual Framework set forth in the Colorado Water Plan.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications outlets on the coverage of rivers and water.
On June 1, a spark near the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad ignited a flame in the Animas River gorge north of Durango. The fire would burn for weeks, torching more than 55,000 acres and filling the air with smoke.
Then came the rain.
“Mother Nature is the one that really helped out,” Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District told a group of water experts and planners at the Colorado Water Congress in Vail this week.
But Mother Nature also wreaked havoc. As the rainwater hit the burn scar and flowed along the dry surface into the Animas and its tributaries, the ash and debris it brought down with it suffocated fish and clogged irrigation ditches, Whitehead said. It also forced the Durango water utility to shut off its water intake due to high turbidity for several days and instead draw from nearby reservoirs.
The fallout of the 416 Fire is an example of how hotter, drier conditions due to climate change are making it tougher to plan water supplies in Colorado. And it is just one example of how the impacts of drought – and the broader effects of “aridification” – are being felt across the state.
For the first time, Aspen has called for stage 2 mandatory water restrictions. This includes limiting lawn watering to no more than three days a week and running sprinklers no more than 30 minutes a day.
There are currently fishing restrictions — some voluntary, some mandatory — on eight rivers in Colorado because of low flows and high water temperatures. Anglers and rafters who make their living on those rivers have had to limit their trips like never before.
Ranchers are selling off their cattle because drought has limited their natural food supplies and caused hay prices to rise.
And there is a potential for a first-ever “call” on the Yampa River, which flows through Dinosaur National Monument. That would limit users from drawing upon the Yampa in order to maintain minimum required flow levels.
These developments have brought a sense of anxiety to the annual meeting of statewide water bosses and watchdogs.
“We are not going to be able to rely on the historical hydrology that occured before 2000 to make decisions going forward,” said Lain Leoniak, a water lawyer in the Colorado Attorney General’s office. “This is a Colorado River system problem.”
A NASA report has found that drought conditions are becoming more common in the Western U.S. Several water experts at this week’s conference scoffed at the term “drought,” preferring instead “aridification,” meaning not just a lack of rainfall, but a wholescale transformation of Western land into a drier landscape.
Colorado is expected to warm 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 due to climate change, according to a Western Water Assessment study. As a parable for what to expect, the Water Congress held a panel discussion about Cape Town, a South African city of four million people that nearly ran out of water earlier this year.
Warmer, drier weather in the West has extended the fire season and made forests more prone to burning. It has also warmed up waterways and increased the rate of evaporation from rivers and reservoirs. This creates challenges for both water quality and quantity.
“I think nature could throw curve balls at us that are on the order of Cape Town,” said Brad Udall, a member of the Colorado River Research Group and a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University (also a former Colorado Independent board member). Udall added that “Day zero” – meaning the day water sources run dry – “happens here potentially because a community has only one water source and that source gets hammered for some reason — be it ash or low flows.”
‘I don’t think we have a choice’
Colorado has a statewide water plan, crafted with great fanfare by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. But implementing it has been difficult due to lack of funding and a dearth of knowledge about what to expect in Colorado’s water future.
The Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), which previously predicted Colorado will run out of water in 2050, began in 2016. A full, updated report is long overdue and now expected in July of 2019.
Russ Sands, senior program manager at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said population increases and climate change are key factors that determine water supply. The SWSI will include a variety of different scenarios with different water forecasts. Sands said he hopes it will help water planners better prepare for climate change and a variety of potential scenarios.
One scenario is already playing out. Spring snowmelt now comes one to four weeks earlier than it did about three decades ago, according to a 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Given earlier seasonal peak snowpack runoff, one strategy is to store the water in a reservoir.
John Porco, the president of the San Juan Water Conservation District, has been trying to build such a reservoir on a diversion off the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs. The project is known as the San Juan Headwaters Project, and previously Dry Gulch. It began in earnest following especially dry conditions in 2002. But it lacks community support. Voters in Archuleta County rejected a mill levy increase last November to help fund the project.
Porco said the reservoir is needed to ensure the community can keep the water to which it has a right under Colorado’s complex water law system. It also could be used to regulate flows of the San Juan for fish and wildlife and boaters, he added.
“If things get really bad, we don’t have a backup,” he said of his community’s current drought preparedness.
But conservationists argue that building more water storage is not the silver bullet.
“Storage is just a bucket,” said Abby Burk, western rivers program manager for Audubon Rockies. “It doesn’t create any new water.”
Instead, Burk said water managers need to be thinking about new ideas for conservation and efficiency.
But, as with reservoirs like the one Porco wants to build, there isn’t much money to get these projects off the ground. Most of the money for water conservation projects comes from the state’s tax on oil and gas production, known as the severance tax. But that funding source is proving to be insufficient and far too volatile because it hinges on fluctuations in oil and gas prices. Tax deductions that oil and gas companies claim also have chipped away at revenues, especially since 2016 following a lawsuit brought by BP America.
The two major-party candidates running for Colorado governor hinted at a possible funding plan when they spoke to the Water Congress this week.
State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican, said there are “opportunities for Colorado to expand revenues” through sports betting and medical marijuana, but noted he wants to fund the water plan without raising taxes. He declined an interview for clarification after his speech, leaving through an exit at the side of the ballroom. His spokesperson did not return an emailed request seeking elaboration on how medical marijuana could pay for the water plan without a tax increase.
Congressman Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee for governor, spoke of a stakeholders’ group working on a funding proposal that includes ideas ranging from sports betting to bottle fees. But he did not say how, if elected, he would prefer to fund a water plan that he deems necessary.
“I look forward to hearing your ideas,” he said.
State lawmakers, in the meantime, are considering new funding ideas.
Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, mentioned a water bottle tax, a 25-cent per thousand gallon water meter surcharge, and a sales tax as potential other sources of revenue. He also wants to pay back some of the severance tax money used to balance the budget in prior years. According to a February memo by the Joint Budget Committee, $322 million in severance tax dollars have been transferred to the General Fund since 2001.
“I don’t think we have a choice. We’re not producing any more water. We have to manage the water we have,” Corum told The Colorado Independent at the end of this year’s legislative session in May. “We need money to do that.”
Call on the River
A new forecast by the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that Lake Mead – formed behind Hoover Dam to store Colorado River water for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California – could fall below a critical level by 2020. Currently, the reservoir is just four and a half feet above 1,075 feet, the point at which Colorado and other Upper Basin states may have to release their share of stored water from Lake Powell into Lake Mead in what would be known as a “call” on the River. The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — to send at least 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin. The so-called Law of the River would require users with newer rights to water to have to give up water first, depending on how curtailments are carried out.
Even so, Eric Kuhn, a retired manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said compacts are only agreements to agree. He seemed worried about total supplies in a complex Western water law system that divided water rights between Western states nearly a century ago and in which farmers and ranchers often have higher water priority than urban and suburban users.
“Deep uncertainty implies that you have to be flexible,” said Kuhn. “Nature may not care if you have a decree or not.”
In a fast-growing state that places greater demands on its water supply each day, a state that regularly faces withering droughts, Hickenlooper has spent his eight years in office navigating water issues and leading the development of a state water plan that Denver’s chief water official calls a “real act of political courage.”
But not everyone believes the governor has made all the right choices on water. Colorado still faces daunting water-supply challenges. Some say Hickenlooper should have done more to promote dams and reservoirs and there’s no clear way to pay for the ambitious state water plan he fostered.
Still, many give Hickenlooper credit for reshaping how Colorado deals with water.
“He was the first governor to put water at the forefront,” said veteran northern Colorado water manager Eric Wilkinson.
Hickenlooper’s legacy may depend on what is done with the water plan that he is leaving for his successor. Colorado Politics talked to members of Colorado’s water community to see what they think his legacy in water looks like – and the governor weighed in on that, too.
When Hickenlooper became mayor of Denver in July 2003, the state was already entering the second year of a record-setting drought. Gov. Bill Owens, in his 2003 State of the State address six months earlier, claimed the 2002 drought was the worst in 350 years, with most of Colorado in what the U.S. Drought Monitor called “exceptional drought,” the worst stage in their rankings.
So water got into the future governor’s mind early on, although as mayor, his control was limited primarily to appointing commissioners to Denver Water, the state’s largest water utility.
But as he saw it, he wasn’t dealing with just Denver’s water. It was water that belonged to the entire state, he said.
At the time, state officials were also trying to figure out how to solve the water problem. In the midst of devastating drought, the General Assembly and Owens began working on several ideas that still hold water today, including a new assessment of Colorado’s water supply, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI)…
In the 2005 session, the General Assembly approved a law setting up groups known as basin roundtables, which divided Colorado into nine regions, each representing a major river, plus one for Denver.
But the groups weren’t required to work with each other. There were differences among the regions, including claims from the Western Slope that the Denver area was seeking more “transmountain diversions” to channel water from the Colorado River and other western waters through the mountains to the Front Range. That claim still sticks today.
And there were long-standing hard feelings over what happened about 15 years earlier, when ski towns joined forces with environmentalists to help defeat a major Denver reservoir project…
Two Forks was a proposed dam on the South Platte River that would have created a million acre-feet reservoir, flooding 30 miles of canyon from Deckers south to the river’s confluence with its north fork.
Advocates said the project was vital to supplying growing metro Denver. But environmentalists sounded the trumpets, complaining of the potential drowning of much of Cheesman Canyon with its prime fishing, hiking and kayaking areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed a permit for the project in 1990.
Denver Water, which exhausted its appeals of the rejection in 1996, was forced to shift to conservation rather than looking for major new water supplies from storage.
That’s the environment that Hickenlooper walked into as mayor. And that’s when his water legacy started, says Eric Kuhn, who has spent 40 years working on the Colorado River, including as general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
It was then, he said, that the groundwork was laid with Denver Water board members to build cooperation with Western Slope water providers.
Knowing that Denver Water controlled a quarter of the state’s water supply, it meant new conversations with the Western Slope water community. Those discussions started in 2006 between Denver Water and 42 Western Slope partners, ranging from water providers to local governments to ski resorts.
That eventually became the groundbreaking Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, first reached in 2011 and signed by all parties by 2013. The agreement resolved at least some of the historic fights over the Colorado River. It focused on efforts to improve the river’s health and looked for ways to provide additional water supplies to Denver Water…
Hickenlooper got one other big advantage during his time as mayor: The Denver Water board selected a new general manager, Jim Lochhead, who would continue the agenda set forth by the board and with Hickenlooper’s vision in hand. That took place in 2010.
Hickenlooper “made very thoughtful appointments” to the Denver Water board, including people like Tom Gougeon, John Lucero and George Beardsley, Lochhead told Colorado Politics. They were “really strong leaders with the ethics for moving Denver Water forward but with having us take a far-sighted approach with the Western Slope,” he said.
Part of a strategic plan
Hickenlooper says he tackled water issues again shortly after being elected governor in November 2010. The state found itself in another multi-year drought starting in 2011, and that’s when Hickenlooper asked if drought would be the new normal and how Colorado would deal with it.
He talked to other governors to research the best practices they employed, and found that what Colorado lacked was a comprehensive water plan, which he called a “serious vacuum” in the state’s framework. It was a risky proposition, given that Coloradans were historically polarized around the issue of water, he said.
There were things – like boosting water conservation – that he knew would be difficult. He knew rural Colorado’s farmers and ranchers did not want to be told what to do. “We couldn’t deny people the right to sell their property,” he said, referring to water rights. But the plan would look at how to incentivize farmers to at least temporarily lease their water rather than sell.
With the traditional east-west divide over water evolving with the completion of the Colorado River agreement, the time to strike came early on in Hickenlooper’s first term. He began asking his cabinet about a water plan.
According to James Eklund, who first served as Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel and then as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the governor was asked if he was willing to spend his political capital by wading into the water wars.
“Some governors only touch (the issue) on a superficial level,” Eklund told Colorado Politics. Previous governors would go to the Colorado Water Congress (the state’s leading water advocacy organization), pound the table, say that water is the lifeblood of the West and then get out.”
After the discussions with the other governors, that wasn’t going to be Hickenlooper’s way. “We have no choice but to treat this as a serious discussion” and to engage in strategic planning, according to Eklund.
Hickenlooper – a former restaurateur – looks at everything through a business lens, Eklund said. That meant that if water is so important to Colorado’s bottom line and there isn’t a strategic plan, that’s not acceptable.
In May 2013, Hickenlooper announced he would task Eklund and the CWCB to come up with a state water plan…
In November 2015, the water plan was unveiled after more than 30,000 public comments from all over the state. “We wanted to make sure all the interests were represented, not just conservation,” Hickenlooper said. “We also put in water storage,” meaning reservoirs, but that also ruffled the feathers of environmentalists, he said.
Hickenlooper said he was most pleased with the ability of the basin roundtables – set up in that 2005 legislation – to take the long view, especially for groups historically polarized over water.
According to many in the water community, it’s the statewide water plan that most defines Hickenlooper’s water legacy…
‘Water at the forefront’
The water plan attempts to address what is now expected to be a 1 million acre-feet shortage of water in Colorado by 2050, based in part on projected population growth of another 3 to 5 million people on top of the state’s current population of 5.6 million.
It focuses on a number of strategic goals: 400,000 acre-feet of water to be gained through conservation, another 400,000 to be gained through new or enhanced storage (dams and reservoirs), and the rest from other steps, such as agricultural water sharing.
The plan has its detractors who have criticized it for lack of specific objectives in how to achieve those goals. And some lawmakers believe the General Assembly has been shut out of the process and that storage gets short shrift.
Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling told Colorado Politics that he’s been frustrated with the plan’s lack of attention to storage and that there hasn’t been enough emphasis on how to avoid “buy and dry” – the practice of buying up agricultural land for its water rights and then draining the land dry…
Sonnenberg disagrees that the water plan is a positive legacy for Hickenlooper.
“He tried to put the plan together and it didn’t get a lot of attention other than from the environmental community that wants to make sure we leave more water in the rivers. If you want to be a water leader with a water legacy, you must support water storage that is paid for by the communities planning for growth,” Sonnenberg said, citing the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which plans two reservoirs – Glade, near Fort Collins and Galeton, east of Greeley.
Sonnenberg complained that the governor has not yet endorsed those projects, although Hickenlooper did endorse two other reservoir projects two years ago: Chimney Hollow, near Loveland, and expansion of Gross Reservoir, near Boulder.
But Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as general manager of Northern Water, which runs NISP, does believe in Hickenlooper’s water legacy.
“He was the first governor to put water at the forefront,” Wilkinson told Colorado Politics. He was pleased with Hickenlooper’s endorsement of Chimney Hollow, a Denver Water reservoir project, which he said tells federal agencies that the project has cleared Colorado’s permitting and is ready to go forward. That was part of the state water plan, too, Wilkinson noted.
ilkinson also pointed to the people Hickenlooper put in charge of water issues as part of the legacy: Stulp, Eklund and Becky Mitchell, the current head of the CWCB; and both of his heads of the Department of Natural Resources, first Mike King and now Bob Randall.
In the water plan, the balance between conservation and new storage is a pragmatic solution for the state’s future, Wilkinson said. “We need to have a greater ability to manage the water resources, and to do that, conservation is first, but infrastructure is very much needed. The water plan calls that out.”
The timing was right and the leadership was right, Stulp told Colorado Politics.
Hickenlooper saw what had been taking place for the past seven to eight years, after the formation of the basin roundtables, which came up with projects for their own regions. The time was right to pull all that together, Stulp said.
Eklund, now with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, is still involved in water issues, partly as Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. He said Hickenlooper’s legacy isn’t only about the water plan; it’s also where he positioned Colorado internationally on water issues.
Colorado’s position as a headwater state that provides water to 18 downstream states and Mexico means “we punch above our weight on water policy,” Eklund said. The eyes of the water-stressed world are on the Southwest United States.
Colorado finally has a platform in that discussion by coming up with the water plan, which he called a “gold standard” for water planning. Other states and nations can look at what Colorado is doing and judge for themselves, he said.
Colorado now speaks with one voice on water, said Mitchell, who was in charge of water planning prior to becoming the CWCB’s latest director.
“The default starting point now on water talk is cooperation, not confrontation,” she told Colorado Politics.
The water plan shows what’s possible, she added, when people with polarized perspectives and faulty assumptions sit down together, listen and speak with civility and respect…
Hickenlooper told Colorado Politics he hopes the next governor recognizes the funding gap for implementing the plan. The General Assembly has so far devoted about $17 million over the past two budget cycles to funding projects in the water plan, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need, which is estimated at around $20 billion.
Water providers are expected to shoulder most of that, but the state’s obligation is expected to be around $3 billion, at $100 million per year for 30 years, starting in 2020.
No one, including Hickenlooper, has come up with a solid plan for where that money is coming from. Lots of ideas have been floated, such as changes to the state’s severance tax structure on oil and gas operations – a no-go with Senate Republicans – bottle taxes, water tap fees and the like.
Hickenlooper said he believes funding for the water plan is sufficient for the next few years, but there is a gap, and at some point, the state will need to spend more money on water infrastructure…
That political courage, and part of the legacy, as Lochhead sees it, is that Hickenlooper opened the door for the next governor to come in and pick up where Hickenlooper ended and made it a little safer for a governor to jump into water issues.
So how does Hickenlooper view his legacy in water?
“If I was to look at the one thing that changed the most in my public life, it’s the collaborative approach,” the governor said. “This is everyone’s issue.”
FromKUNC (luke Runyon, Matt Bloom & Esther Honig):
“Buy and dry” describes a class of water transactions that typically involve a municipality or other local government paying the owner of a farm for some or all of their available water rights.
It’s a slow, mostly invisible flow of water from the region’s heritage industry — agriculture — to a new powerhouse: real estate development and urban growth.
The transactions go back decades, with plenty of cautionary tales to guide both farmers and government officials, casting various Front Range cities and Eastern Plains farming communities as both villains and victims.
Concern about the practice has reached a fever pitch. The state’s water plan, adopted in 2015, frowns at buy and dry tactics. Water prices continue to rise. Some alternative methods for leasing water are slowly being implemented, at the same time multi-million dollar checks are passed from developers and city planners to farm families.
Urban growth is a driver
The practice of buy and dry is primarily driven by the growth of water-short cities – of all sizes – along the Front Range. According to Colorado’s State Demography Office, communities along the I-25 corridor in Weld and Larimer counties are the fastest growing. Populations there are increasing at a rate twice as fast as the state as a whole…
Windsor, like many fast-growing Front Range communities, sees agricultural water as a viable source to supplement future growth. As recently as May, Windsor purchased water rights from at least two different farming families, according to allotment contracts from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
One purchase was of units of water within the Colorado-Big Thompson Project from the John Ernest Lucken Revocable Trust. The other with the Andrew H. Blase Family Trust.
In both cases Wagner says he doesn’t know whether the town’s purchases led to farms “drying up.”
“I’m not sure of what’s happened to those farms,” he said. “Whether they still have enough water rights to irrigate or whether they’ve reduced the farming acreage.”
Wagner added that Windsor, unlike other cities, has not specifically purchased farms to own them and take the water off them. When asked about the likelihood of the town doing that, Wagner said it very well could…
Water rights worth millions
For farmers in the West, access to water is a key part of making agriculture possible in an arid region. Without irrigation farmers are significantly limited on the range of crops they can grow and in the profitability of the land they own.
With commodity crop and milk prices at low points, selling water rights can help make a farm operation whole.
That’s the case for Colorado dairy farmer Timothy Bernhardt, just down the road from Windsor in Milliken. The Bernhardt family has farmed there since the 1920s. Access to water to quench the thirst of his 900 dairy cows is essential, Bernhardt says.
“Cattle drink a lot of water, so about 50 to 100 gallons of water a day,” he says. “So it’s critical for milk production because milk is made up mostly of water.”
In May Bernhardt and his brother made the choice to sell 175 units of water within the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — about 57 million gallons — to the city of Milliken for nearly $5 million.
That money will be used to pay off debt, Bernhardt says. Like many businesses, farms rely on loans and credit to operate and the brothers wanted to pay it off because they’re each older than 60 and looking at retirement. Their children aren’t interested in running a dairy farm, so when they retire, the business ends with them…
There’s no arm-twisting in buy and dry, cities are often quick to say. These transactions involve willing buyers and sellers. Cities get what they need — new water supplies — and farm families get an opportunity to pay off debt, make on-farm upgrades or retire.
But on a regional-scale, water managers and government officials are troubled. Water flowing from farms to the Front Range means a movement of power and economic activity, from rural areas to cities. Take the Colorado-Big Thompson Project as an example.
When the vast network of reservoirs was originally built in the 1930s to transport water from the state’s wetter Western Slope to the east, agriculture was the majority user of its stored water. Today, 70% of the project’s water is used by municipalities and industry…
Conversations about buy and dry often turn to the Arkansas River valley and the communities of Crowley, Ordway and Sugar City. Water managers don’t really have to imagine what a future of rampant buy and dry could look like. It has already happened there…
Cronin and a handful of other water managers in the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group recently started a conversation about what it would take to allow Front Range cities to keep growing, without draining farms in the process. It looked like at least three — maybe four — new reservoirs positioned along the South Platte River to the stateline with Nebraska to supplement water supplies for cities and farmers.
Cronin cautions that these are preliminary discussions.
He calls the discussion of new reservoirs a “generational” one — if the idea gains enough supporters for it to happen at all. Large-scale water projects often take decades in planning, permitting and litigation before a shovel hits the ground. This one would likely follow a similar timeline, Cronin says. Questions still linger about how much it would cost, another big hurdle to bringing it to fruition.
KEYSTONE – Representatives of various water providers in the South Platte River basin said Wednesday they intend to develop a new water-storage project that includes 175,000 acre-feet of storage at three locations on the South Platte River system.
The potential project would store 50,000 acre-feet of water in Henderson, just north of Denver, 100,000 acre-feet in Kersey, downstream of Greeley, and 25,000-acre-feet further downriver on the Morgan County line at the Balzac Gage, east of Snyder.
By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt holds about 100,000 acre-feet of water and Dillon Reservoir in Summit County holds about 257,000 acre-feet.
“We think we have something that could help the Front Range and the South Platte, and the state as a whole,” said Jim Yahn, who represents the South Platte basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District.
The proposal, which does not include a new transmountain diversion, is coming from an informal and collaborative working group that included officials from Denver Water, Aurora Water, and Northern Water, along with officials from other water providers and users, such as Yahn.
The group called itself the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, which rhymes with frog.
Now a new regional water organization is expected to be formed to guide the proposal toward permitting and funding, said Lisa Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
Darling was on the working group and she was presenting the project to the members of the Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, in Keystone on May 2.
She said the various water providers in the South Platte realized that “not unifying was not an option” and that the group developed “a series of projects that could be linked together to benefit everybody as a whole.”
Darling also said, “We have to be able to maintain control of the supply, and not have it leave the state unnecessarily.”
The South Platte River rises in the mountains west of Denver, runs through the city north to Greeley, and then turns east toward the Nebraska line.
According to slides presented to the IBCC, the reasons to do the big project because it would “maximize use and effectiveness of available water on South Platte” and “minimize traditional agricultural ‘buy and dry.’”
“There is no choice,” Darling told the IBCC. “We have to work together to do this, and we really don’t have a choice.”
The project, which would provide 50,000 acre-feet of “firm yield,” is based on capturing water in the river at times when it is physically and legally available, such as in wet years, and then storing it for release as needed in a regional water re-use system.
New facilities would include off-channel reservoirs, reclaimed gravel pits, and underground storage facilities, at the three strategic locations along the river to give providers more flexibility. There might also be some storage at Julesburg, near the Nebraska state line.
A key component of the project is a long pipeline and pump system from the lower river back to the metro area north of Denver, in order to re-use the water released earlier from the upstream storage facilities. Each time the water went through the system, up to 40 percent could be re-used, Yahn said.
“It’s a big one,” said Yahn, of the project. “It doesn’t fulfill all the needs, especially on the other basins, but on the South Platte it could be a pretty big deal.”
He also said the storage and re-use project would be in addition to all the other planned water projects in the South Platte basin, as listed in the “basin implementation plan” developed by the Metro and South Platte basin roundtables.
“It’s not in place of anything,” Yahn said. “It’s not in place of NISP (Northern Integrated Supply Project). It’s not in place of Gross (Reservoir) enlargement. It’s not in place of any of those other things that all of our entities are trying to do on the South Platte to meet some of our water demand.”
The project also builds upon a recently completed study of available storage sites in the lower South Platte basin. That study found there was available water to store, and a “long list of possible storage sites,” as well as a wide range of types of facilities, and costs.
Help ag, and cities?
Yahn said that storage on the river upstream of irrigators on the lower South Platte would allow farmers to sell their water to cities in a more flexible way. They could, for example, fallow a portion of their fields instead of selling the whole farm.
He also said that would spread the potentially negative economic impact of “buy and dry,” which can change the economies of agricultural communities, across a bigger area in the South Platte basin.
“You’re not hurting, economically, any one area,” Yahn said. “You’re spreading it out and farmers are getting a little bit of extra money for their water, using it a little differently, treating it as a commodity, getting some interest out of it. But really, to do that, you need storage.”
Yahn also told the IBCC, “Basically, we’re trying to give farmer’s options. But you’ve got to have a place to put the water.”
Sean Cronin, the executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont, also served on the working group, which was formed after the 2015 Colorado Water Plan was completed.
“I want to emphasize how significant this analysis and this effort has been, because it’s really a fundamental shift in how the South Platte was thinking of things at that time,” Cronin told the IBCC members. “It was told ‘you need to get your house in order.’ And this is very much in that vein, of getting the South Platte’s house in order.”
He also said “there is a sense of urgency for this. If you’ve traveled on I-25 between, say, north of Thornton to Ft. Collins, there is an absolute crazy boom going on right now in that corridor.”
The project proponents did not provide a cost estimate during their presentation on Wednesday.
“As for costs, the number is, gazillions,” Darling told the IBCC members. “It is a very, very large number.”
But not large enough that the working group thought state funding would be needed.
“That was never really talked about at SPROWG, as to where the funding was coming from, or whether there was going to be state funding,” Cronin said. “In fact, it was sort of a presumption that the individual water providers would find enough value in this on a cost per acre foot that they could collectively get there and pull off a project. But we didn’t get there. There was no cost-benefit analysis.”
He said water from the Colorado-Big Thompson project, which serves the northern Front Range, was now “going for $38,000 an acre-foot, and developers aren’t even batting an eye, because houses are now going for $400,000. So, it is on in the South Platte.”
He said the storage and re-use project might actually take pressure off of water supplies from the Western Slope.
“The urgency for what we’re trying to do I think helps, ultimately, the West Slope because these guys are going to be scrambling for buy-and-dry, and when that’s all done they’re going to be looking elsewhere,” he said.
The Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, operates under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is charged with sorting out potential conflicts between basins, especially those brought up by transmountain diversions under the Continental Divide.
It includes two representatives from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, six governor’s appointees and two members of the state legislature.
The South Platte project does not include new sources of West Slope water, but concerns were still raised by West Slope interests on the IBCCC last week that the South Platte project could eventually draw more water through existing transmountain diversions.
Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District who remains a governor’s appointee to the IBCC, suggested that the West Slope might want to see “some protections that these reservoirs don’t end up sitting there empty for a long time and that it doesn’t just drag additional transmountain water over the hill.”
T. Wright Dickinson, a rancher along the Green River, also serves as a governor’s appointee on the IBCC.
“I think the South Platte is clearly demonstrating what many around this table has asked, in the context of fully utilizing your own resources,” Dickinson said. “But I have a concern that the project could in fact pull water through existing projects – more water across the divide.”
Bruce Whitehead, the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, commented on the South Platte basin’s apparent stance that the project was happening regardless of what the West Slope thought.
“I’m a little concerned about ‘we’re moving forward, with or without you,’” Whitehead said. “I’m not sure that’s the way we’re going to get cooperation.”
He also suggested the West Slope might embrace the project if it also included “an acknowledgement there won’t be any more development of water from the West Slope.”
That drew a chuckle from some IBCC members, as Front Range water interests have said they do not intend to walk away from the Western Slope as a source of water.
There are two “water development concept workshops” set up for the public to learn more about the South Platte project, one on May 10 at 1:30 p.m. at Denver Water’s headquarters in Denver and one on May 15 at 3 p.m. at Northern Water’s headquarters in Berthoud.
Yahn said the two meeting locations does not mean the project is coming from Denver Water and Northern Water.
“Denver and Aurora were part of it, and Northern, but it wasn’t them,” Yahn said. “It was all of us just thinking outside the box together. And taking off our agency hats.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and waters with The Aspen Times. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Monday, May 7, 2018.