Western Water Plans: How do Western states incorporate regional engagement into water resource planning? — @WaterEdCO

Frozen Colorado landscape. Photo credit: Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Hannah O’Neill):

This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent western water plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.

The production cycle of the Colorado Water Plan is a three-phase process, which involves regional engagement and project planning through basin roundtables and Basin Implementation Plans; statewide modeling, published in the Technical Update, and the publication of a comprehensive statewide plan. Not all states directly involve regional groups in state water plan development. Within the five Western water plans researched for this series, two states mandated the production of a high-level statewide policy document; while three states, including Colorado, mandated a regional or “basin” planning effort to inform statewide processes.

These approaches can be described as “top-down” and “bottom-up.” A top-down approach produces a water plan entirely directed and developed through state agencies, with designated periods for public comment. The final product of a top-down approach, exemplified by the California and Oregon state water plans, is described by state agencies as a high-level policy plan. In contrast, a bottom-up approach is rooted in the recruitment of regional planning groups. These groups develop unique basin plans that directly inform the content and directives of the state water plan. Examples of this planning approach include Colorado, Montana and Texas. The product of a regional approach constitutes multiple products: multiple basin plans and a single comprehensive state water plan. This idea is embodied in the figure below, which features Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtable boundaries.

This figure distinguishes two types of water plan production: a “top-down” process, executed and directed by state agencies; and a “bottom-up” process, where the production of regional plans informs the content and policy directives of a comprehensive statewide document.

A legacy of collaboration

The choice to pursue one strategy or another is rooted in the history of each states’ water governance, as well as contemporary policy and budgetary requirements. The Colorado Water Plan’s mandate for regional planning directly builds on the legacy of the basin roundtable process. The basin roundtable process was established in 2005 by the passage of House Bill 05-1177, “Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act.” This bill codified a deeply collaborative approach to addressing regional water concerns and visions for the future. This legislation also established the Interbasin Compact Committee to operate as a statewide forum for basin roundtables. The success of these volunteer groups directly informed the engagement efforts mandated in the 2013 gubernatorial executive order that called for the production of Colorado’s first statewide water plan.

Trends across Western water plans: expanding regional engagement, water education, and data accessibility

Regardless of the degree of regional authorship within a state water planning process, there is interest across Western state water plans in investing in locally identified water projects. For example, documents associated with California’s most recent “2018 Update” underscore a state interest in funding regional priorities. The report “Funding Mechanism Inventory and Evaluation” identifies watershed or river basin assessments as a potential vehicle for the state of California to fund locally-identified management actions.

This trend in regional engagement is concurrent with an effort to expand water education programming and water policy accessibility. To this end, state water plans including Texas, California, and Colorado have developed (or are currently developing, in the case of Colorado!) interactive online components that will accompany their water plans. While the 2019 Utah Water Plan was not explicitly examined for this blog series, it will notably prioritize a new webpage interface over traditional printing.

Recently published Western state water plans reflect an increasing emphasis on data transparency and accessibility, as well as state planning processes that better integrate stakeholder and regional perspectives into state water policy.

Hannah O’Neill. Credit: Water Education Colorado

Our next post, to be published the week of December 9, will contrast how uncertainty is incorporated across Western water plans. Read the first post in our Western Water Plans series, “How does the Colorado Water Plan compare to our neighbors,” here.

Hannah O’Neill is a graduate student at CU-Boulder studying environmental policy and western water management. Hannah is a fifth generation Coloradan and Denver native, who has a professional background in fossil exploration and National Environmental Policy Act compliance. Hannah obtained a BS in Geology-biology from Brown University in 2014.

Western Water Plans: how does the #Colorado Water Plan compare to our neighbors? — @WaterEdCO #COWaterPlan @CWCB_DNR

This figure captures when the most recent water plan was published for each of these five Western states, as well as the length of the planning cycle. Colorado’s first comprehensive state plan was published in 2015, and set a seven-year planning cycle. Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Hannah O’Neill, Bianca Valdez and Jakki Davison):

This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent western water plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.

State water plans account for contemporary water resource challenges, detail supply projections and future demands, and catalyze community discussions around cooperative management. How does the Colorado Water Plan—both the final document and the planning processes involved—compare to other Western states?

As we approach the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan (set to begin in 2020, per the schedule outlined in the 2015 water plan), this blog series will explore a diversity of water planning processes. There are currently 17 U.S. states with water plans. Here, we explore five Western state plans that were all published in the last five years: Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Texas and California.

What’s in a water plan?

State water plans identify current water demands, project future water supply, and explore potential water projects that will close the gap between projections of future needs and availability. Every state water plan is unique and is largely rooted in the political context of an individual state. Creating a state water plan involves an enormous amount of stakeholder engagement and number crunching in order to understand statewide trends in population, climate and hydrology; articulate state and regional values with regards to water consumption and diversion; and identify both broad regional goals and local water projects to meet those goals.

Unique Western states; unique water resource challenges

Importantly, the states featured in this blog series represent two different legal frameworks in how water rights are administered: Colorado, Oregon and Montana operate under prior appropriation, while Texas and California operate under a dual regime of riparian rights and prior appropriation. Prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right,” allocates water based on the chronology of water diversions for “beneficial use,” or the public good. In contrast to prior appropriation, riparian rights governance associates the ownership of water rights with the ownership of land adjacent to water bodies. Proposed water policies and projects are fundamentally shaped by how water rights are defined; in this manner, the legal framework within a given state provides essential context for how planning processes are applied.

Each state planning process is informed by the state’s unique combination of legal doctrine of water governance, history of water planning and development, and current statewide priorities. Every state is working to meet unique planning and regulatory requirements in the implementation of water projects and programs; the discussion of differences within this blog series is not intended to imply differences in plan quality. Like any good policy, the water plans reviewed here all aim to keep pace with emergent environmental, social and fiscal needs.

In the following three blog posts, we will contrast distinguishing components of these five Western water plans in order to better understand the planning process in Colorado. The focus of our discussion will contrast various strategies for executing regional engagement, modeling future scenarios, and incorporating uncertainty; all across our five states of interest: Colorado, Texas, Montana, Oregon and California.

Our next post, to be published the week of December 2, 2019, will contrast regional engagement strategies across Western water plans.

This series was developed by Hannah O’Neill, Bianca Valdez, and Jakki Davison, three graduate students studying environmental policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Masters of the Environment program.

La Plata County commissioners seek applicants for Southwest Basin Roundtable — The Durango Herald

Basin roundtable boundaries

From the La Plata County Board of Commissioners via The Durango Herald:

The La Plata County Board of County Commissioners is seeking applicants to serve on the board of the Southwest Basin Roundtable.

There are nine basin roundtables in Colorado, each of which facilitates local discussion about water issues and encourages locally driven, collaborative solutions on interstate water issues and works with other roundtables on interbasin and interstate water issues.

Applicants with education and/or experience with local and state water concerns are preferred.

Term length is five years, and meetings are held quarterly, alternating between Durango and Cortez.

This position is advisory only and is not monetarily compensated.

Applications are available at http://www.co.laplata.co.us/cms/one.aspx?pageId=1633876 or from the La Plata County Administration Office in the County Administration Building, 1101 East Second Ave.

For more information, call 382-6219.

Colorado Basin Roundtable OKs grant to study Crystal River backup water supply — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District gave up their conditional water rights in 2011 that could have allowed for a reservoir on the Crystal River at Placita. A proposed back-up water supply study has some groups worried that the idea of dams on the Crystal could be resurrected. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.

On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.

The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.

But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.

“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”

McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.

The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.

But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.

“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”

The Sweet Jessup Canal’s diversion structure is on the Crystal River about two miles downstream from Avalanche Creek. Pitkin County wants any storage on the Crystal that an augmentation study might recommend to be located below the Sweet Jessup to keep open the possibility that the upper portion of the Crystal can one day qualify as Wild and Scenic. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

No backup supply

During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.

Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.

“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”

The Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the Crystal River for the first time ever in 2018. Water managers are seeking solutions in the form of a basin-wide augmentation study, which the Colorado River Basin Roundtable recommended for grant money. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious history

To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.

In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River District abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.

To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.

“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.

In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.

“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”

The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Avoiding #LakePowell’s Day Zero — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #COWaterPlan #DCP

Lake Powell, created with the 1963 completion of Glen Canyon Dam, is the upper basin’s largest reservoir on the Colorado River. But 2000-2019 has provided the least amount of inflow into the reservoir, making it the lowest 20-year period since the dam was built, as evidenced by the “bathtub ring” and dry land edging the reservoir, which was underwater in the past. As of October 1, 2019, Powell was 55 percent full. Photo credit: Eco Flight via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Lindsay Fendt):

While the ink was still drying on the final draft of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), policy makers in Colorado were turning their attention to the bigger challenge ahead.

With the agreement’s signing in May 2019, the state and its neighboring upper Colorado River Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were granted the ability to bank conserved water in Lake Powell and other upper basin reservoirs in case of a future water crisis—but only if the states agree on an upper basin demand management program. Getting all the parties on the Colorado River to agree to that so-called “drought pool” in Lake Powell was difficult, but designing the demand management program to get water into the pool will be much harder. Determining when to release water from the pool could also prove challenging.

Demand management is water conservation on such a large scale that it reduces the amount of water drawn from the river in a significant, measurable way. If the upper basin states develop a demand management program, they will collectively use less water, then track, deliver and bank those savings in upper basin reservoirs. That water could be sent downstream when flows are low to meet the upper basin’s commitment to the lower basin states and Mexico, as outlined under the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements.

The compact stipulates that the upper basin states must not deplete the flow of the river at Lee Ferry below 75 million acre-feet based on a 10-year running average. Although the upper basin is a long way from running out of water, if the future brings more dry years and low reservoir levels, as is projected, it will become increasingly difficult to send water downstream while still meeting upper basin water needs. If the lower basin does not receive its share of water, a legal battle could ensue, threatening water rights in the upper basin—so the upper basin complies with the compact to maintain control over its own water supply.

The DCP lays out processes for how this might be achieved but is only in effect through 2026, at which time the federal government, in consultation with all Colorado River Basin states, will reconsider how the system should be operated.

Exploring demand management is just one of the upper basin’s commitments under the DCP—the other two elements include a new plan to move water from smaller upper basin reservoirs to Lake Powell, and finally, water supply augmentation. As a whole, the upper basin’s DCP aims to maintain storage volumes at Lake Powell, enabling continued hydropower generation, thereby funding continued operation of the reservoir system and use of Colorado River water in the upper basin. But demand management could be part of the upper basin’s strategy. So work is underway to determine what demand management might look like, if a program is developed. “There are still a lot of big ifs,” said Brent Newman, the former interstate and federal section leader for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, during a presentation in August.

Newman was addressing about a dozen people gathered in the Summit County Library in Silverthorne for the first meeting of the Economic and Local Governments Working Group on demand management. The group of county commissioners, lawyers, consultants and utility managers will spend the next year identifying critical issues for the feasibility of a demand management program.

As the meeting closed, the group filled three large boards with sticky notes of questions and possible problems with demand management, issues to be hashed out in the coming months. Similar brainstorming sessions are playing out across the state in eight other working groups, each dedicated to exploring demand management from a different perspective, like agriculture and the environment. Simultaneously, each of the other upper basin states is also examining how it could approach demand management. Unless all four upper basin states agree, there will be no demand management program.

This massive planning effort from four different states will cost millions of dollars and require tough negotiations. And while each upper basin state is putting its best foot forward to create a plan, there is no guarantee that conditions will get bad enough that it will be needed. There’s also no guarantee that a demand management plan will be adopted—and even if adopted, will it be adopted in time to make a difference?

The DCP and Colorado

Over the last 20 years, the Colorado River has experienced extreme drought, unprecedented in modern history. Now, states throughout the West are planning for a future with less water, and for good reason—modeling shows an increasing likelihood of water shortage in the basin. According to Phase III of the Colorado River Risk Study, an effort completed in June 2019, the upper basin faces a 45 percent chance of a water shortage in the next 25 years at current water use levels. If upper basin water use increases by just 11.5 percent, that risk doubles, creating a 90 percent chance of coming up short, the study says. Instead of tumbling unprepared into shortage, representatives from the seven states that rely on the Colorado River created the DCP to stave off a future water crisis by readying for dry times.

The objective of the DCP, which is really two plans, one for the upper basin and one for the lower, is to prevent water in the river system and its two primary reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead —from dropping too low. Reaching these critical levels would trigger a crisis-level response in the region with some states taking significant reductions in their water allocations and some areas losing access to clean power due to the loss of production from the reservoirs’ hydroelectric dams. The revenue earned from hydropower contracts is used to fund conservation for rivers and programs like endangered fish recovery. The loss in funding would also limit the government’s ability to run the dams and distribute any water remaining in storage.

The lower basin’s DCP laid out cuts in lower basin water use that are tied to projected reservoir levels. But the upper basin is in a different position. Its DCP gives the upper basin tools to manage its water supply in case of shortage, which should help it meet its obligations under the 1922 compact and avoid involuntary cutbacks. The first of these tools, which is really the basin’s first line of defense in protecting Lake Powell’s storage levels, is a new mechanism to move water from upstream reservoirs down to Powell when Lake Powell is facing a critically low level, what is known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement. The second is a 500,000 acre-foot storage pool in upper basin reservoirs, which the basin can use to store water from a demand management program, if such a program is deemed feasible and adopted. The third, known as augmentation, which is already in use, is a combination of cloud seeding to stimulate precipitation, and the control of phreatophytes like tamarisk and Russian olive, which are deep-rooted non-native plants that soak up water from riverways.

Over the next several years, the upper basin will use these tools and determine whether to bank water for shortage. While the upper basin’s work is just beginning, it could shift the way water has been managed in the West for more than a century.

This possible shift matters to water users across Colorado, that’s why the scene of the demand management workgroup in Summit County yielded three boards covered in questions and concerns. The Colorado River starts as snow high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. In the spring, it melts down into a web of tributaries that flow across the upper basin states into the river’s mainstem. Each of the basin states relies heavily on water from the river, but Colorado, in particular, plays an outsized role in how the Colorado River water system works. Colorado snowmelt contributes about 70 percent of the total flow of the Colorado River.

But Colorado also gets the lion’s share of the upper basin’s water—it can use 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s allocation per the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948. Colorado’s average annual consumptive use of Colorado River water is about 2.5 million acre-feet, according to the Colorado River Risk Study. And though only about 20 percent of the state’s population lives in the greater Colorado River Basin—which in Colorado includes not only the Colorado Basin but all West Slope rivers such as the Gunnison, Yampa, White, San Juan, San Miguel, and other smaller tributaries—more than 570,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water is piped across the Continental Divide each year, reaching the Rio Grande, South Platte and Arkansas basins. More than 80 percent of the state’s population lives along the Front Range, where transbasin diversion water accounts for about 60 percent of water use. Users of Colorado River water range from municipalities to farmers to industrial users like oil and gas operations.

If a severe water shortage resulted in the upper basin not meeting its compact obligations, water rights across the state would be at risk of curtailment. Although no curtailment procedure has been decided upon, water rights adjudicated after 1922, the year the compact was signed, are often considered to be more at risk than pre-1922 rights. In Colorado, transbasin diversions serving the state’s population center constitute more than half of the state’s post-compact depletions, which means that Front Range municipal water users, though geographically disconnected from the Colorado, have an extreme interest in protecting the river and Lake Powell reservoir levels—thus in seeing the upper basin DCP succeed. If the actions in the upper basin’s DCP aren’t sufficient to protect reservoir levels in Lake Powell and if releases below Lee Ferry were too low and violated the compact, a compact deficit could result and lead to involuntary curtailment.

Drought Response Operations Agreement

Rather than a step-by-step plan, the upper basin’s DCP is all about process. The new elements of the DCP, the Drought Response Operations Agreement and demand management, are plans to create a plan if conditions warrant it. The plan first lays out strategies to maintain water levels in Lake Powell during a drought. If those operations are not enough, the agreement describes how water from the three federal storage projects in the upper basin—Fontenelle in Wyoming, Flaming Gorge in Wyoming and Utah, Navajo in New Mexico and Colorado, and the Aspinall Unit which is composed of Blue Mesa, Crystal and Morrow Point reservoirs in Colorado—could be used to bolster storage volumes in Lake Powell.

The agreement does not designate how much water will be sent downstream or specify which reservoir will make the release, it simply says those negotiations will begin once the Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study models indicate that Lake Powell might fall below the target elevation of 3,525 feet mean sea level.

The three reservoir units, along with Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, were authorized with the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) Act in 1956 to stabilize the upper basin’s water supply against variability in the Colorado River. Since the CRSP units were built, their water has been used to fulfill water rights throughout the upper basin, satisfy increasing water demand, and meet environmental standards for river flows. The U.S. Interior Secretary oversees the reservoirs and determines their operations every year.

While the original CRSP Act was designed with the idea of storing and releasing water to meet the compact agreements, it does not clarify the states’ roles in this process. By laying out this process in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the upper basin states and the federal government clarified how they would interact—hopefully avoiding future conflict—if reservoir releases become necessary to protect Lake Powell storage.

“But if we have 10 years of hydrology just like this [year], it may never come to pass”, says Amy Haas, the executive director and secretary of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The agreement also sets ground rules for how those negotiations would play out. First, any water releases from the reservoirs would need to fit within the existing records of decision and biological opinions, including each reservoir’s existing environmental impact study in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Any reservoir releases also must come with a plan to refill the water that was released to Lake Powell once hydrological conditions improve. The agreement also stipulates that if a facility makes a release one year, the other two facilities will be considered first if further need arises, before tapping the same reservoir twice.

The Drought Response Operations Agreement is the first plan of attack for the upper basin in case of a shortage. While this could be executed without too much controversy, there are still some concerns with the agreement.

The first concern is that while the agreement places three of the upper basin’s federal water storage projects on the table for water releases, both the Aspinall Unit and Navajo Reservoir have very little additional water available each year. This puts a burden on Flaming Gorge as the reservoir most likely to make a release. The second issue is that, while all of the states’ attorney general’s offices call for actions taken under the Drought Response Operations Agreement to fit in existing NEPA permitting, some believe that a new environmental impact study under NEPA might be required before releases can be made to Lake Powell. Even with these issues, the Drought Response Operations Agreement is mostly uncontested. It’s the second element of the Upper Basin DCP—demand management—that could mark a paradigm shift in Western water law.

Demand Management

When people think of water conservation, they typically think of home-grown efforts to take shorter showers. But with a demand management program, the upper basin states would work collectively to use less water and bank those savings in Lake Powell or other CRSP reservoirs. If necessary, that water could be sent to the lower basin to comply with the compact. Although this may seem like a common-sense solution, it’s complicated by the laws surrounding water rights.

“The reason that it is a problem legally is that our whole water law framework is set up to encourage maximum utilization of water,” says Anne Castle, senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment and former assistant secretary for water and science with the Department of the Interior. “So the way our laws work is that if you’re not using your full entitlement of water then other people get to use it.”

Because of the legal framework surrounding Western water, water conservation is not simply a matter of turning off the taps. Large-scale conservation only occurs when conserved water is accounted for and, in the case of demand management, that water must also reach its target area without being diverted by a downstream user, a process known as shepherding. This is more complicated when moving water through multiple states, as the water authorities in each state must shepherd the water downstream. Calculating the quantity of conserved water is also challenging. Some of the water saved through demand management will evaporate or be lost through transit as it moves down the river, and lost water isn’t considered conserved.

These legal and technical issues must be solved before a demand management program is implemented, but the DCP didn’t create a program, the DCP simply makes exploring such a program possible.

Before diving into the details of how to conserve water, the upper basin needed the ability to bank its savings in a CRSP reservoir. While there is room in Lake Powell—which has been hovering at around 50 percent full—prior to the DCP, any water in Lake Powell was considered unused by the upper basin and therefore was subject to release to the lower basin. But the DCP authorized a pool of up to 500,000 acre-feet for the upper basin to store water in CRSP reservoirs to be used, if needed, to comply with the compact. This water can be tracked and accounted for, and cannot be called for by the lower basin.

“This is a big change to the Law of the River, and a new wrinkle in the way the river is managed,” says Newman, who was leading the demand management work for the CWCB. “But there is a lot to do before one drop of water can be stored in that pool.”

First, each state must assess the feasibility of a demand management program. The states are considering everything from specifying how much water each state would need to contribute to the pool, to identifying what laws to modify, if any. Each state also needs to ensure that water users participating in the program can do so voluntarily and temporarily and will be compensated for the water they conserve. The costs of such a program are still unclear, but the four-year System Conservation Pilot Program, which ended in 2018 and can be likened to demand management, paid an average of $205 per acre-foot for conserved water. The pilot program was implemented on the ground in various places, including with the Grand Valley Water Users Association, where 10 members took more than 1,000 acres of land out of production and, in 2017, received $560 per acre to help make up for the crops they would have grown otherwise. That year, the project returned an estimated 3,200 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River—a drop in the bucket.

That program and the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup, which started in 2009 and has since evolved, gave Colorado a head start into considering some of these questions. But there’s more to learn, says Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, who has long been involved with these water banking discussions.

Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program director for the Nature Conservancy, has been involved with water banking discussions and studies since 2009 via Water Education Colorado.

Even after years of studies, the workgroup made the most significant progress when the System Conservation Pilot Program put water banking to the test on the ground. So Hawes recommends piloting demand management. “It’s in our best interest to have a program up and running, to see what the kinks are and what the critical needs are, to be in a better position to negotiate for that,” Hawes says. Negotiations to determine what will happen in 2026 could begin next year, so there’s reason for Colorado and the other upper basin states to get practice. “We could easily overcomplicate it. We need to be really systematic in our thinking on how to work through these issues. It is feasible so I hope we can put a plan in place and start to test it a little bit to make sure it can work for all sectors in the long run.”

In addition to the technical logistics, the upper basin states must account for attitudes about demand management. “There’s a general curiosity about what demand management will or could be,” says Kelsea Macilroy, a Ph.D candidate in Sociology at Colorado State University. Macilroy, in a project for The Nature Conservancy, spoke with 34 West Slope agricultural stakeholders in May 2019 to hear about perceptions and barriers to demand management. She heard from an equal number of people who said they would never participate in a demand management program and people who were excited about it. She heard people question if demand management is an opportunity, a burden, or both.

She also unveiled cultural beliefs that shape how the West Slope responds to the idea of demand management. “When the demand management conversation arises, it triggers these historical injustices,” Macilroy says, like loss of other natural resource industries such as logging in southwestern Colorado, for example. “I heard, almost unanimously, people referencing buy and dry. Not only that water could be taken away but that a way of life is under attack. That this is just the next thing that threatens the way that we live that’s coming from the Front Range,” she says.

Brent Newman, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Interstate and Federal Section, is coordinating nine work groups around the state to discuss, study, and determine whether Colorado will develop a demand management program. Pictured here, the Economic and Local Governments Working Group first met in August 2019 at the Summit County Library and came away with a slew of questions via Water Education Colorado.

But Front Range water managers are eager to share in demand management. “From a Front Range perspective, this problem of reducing demand is not a Front Range [versus] West Slope issue. It’s a whole state issue. It’s an upper basin issue,” said Jim Lochhead CEO/manager of Denver Water at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in October 2019. Denver Water, which receives about 50 percent of its supply from Colorado River sources developed after the 1922 compact and serves about a quarter of the state’s entire population, has a lot to lose if supplies are curtailed without a plan in place. Thus, the utility plans to cut water use along with other water users if a demand management program is created. “Our participation is not just funding someone else to use less water,” Lochhead says. “Our obligation is to participate equitably with other geographic regions in Colorado to create wet water that will get to Powell.”

Questions around demand management are deep and many, but for the time being, each state has separated to internally assess whether a program is feasible. In Colorado, the process is with the CWCB’s nine workgroups. The CWCB has $1.7 million for demand management at its disposal, which will be used for meeting logistics, for commissioning some consulting work to study feasibility for demand management, and for other relevant needs. This first round of funding expires in June 2020.

As every state conducts its own process, interstate issues are also being discussed through the Upper Colorado River Commission. If any one state decides that demand management is not feasible, it could serve as a veto for the entire basin.

While there is no hard deadline for the formation of a demand management program, the DCP agreements expire in 2026, and the availability of the 500,000 acre-foot conservation pool arrangement for upper basin use is only guaranteed until then.

If the states reach consensus and create a program, it will be reviewed by the lower basin, and subject to approval from the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Department of the Interior. The DCP also requires the upper basin to create a plan for verifying the amount of water conserved by demand management. The plan could then move forward only if the Upper Colorado River Commission determines that conservation is necessary in order to maintain compact compliance.

If the region has another series of wet years, the plan may never go forward. But in the face of climate change, many believe demand management is critical.

“Our goal is to avoid a crisis,” Hawes says.

The Yampa/White Basin Roundtable is developing a #YampaRiver integrated water management plan #COWaterPlan

Serene corner on the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable (Gena Hinkemeyer) via The Craig Daily Press:

The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is one of nine basin roundtables in Colorado established to address the ever-increasing water challenges facing our state.

As part of its mission and to meet the Colorado Water Plan, the roundtable is developing an Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River Basin that best represents the interests and needs of all water users. These interests include agricultural, recreational, environmental, municipal, industrial and water providers. The first phase of the Management Plan focuses on the Yampa River main stem and the Elk River basin.

In order to make the Management Plan a success, the roundtable seeks to provide the community with meaningful opportunities to participate and provide valuable input for the Management Plan. To do this, two subcommittees where formed — stakeholder and technical — to complete related tasks.

The stakeholder subcommittee is working to implement a community outreach program designed to listen and learn in an open communication process. This subcommittee will provide a forum for dialogue on water related issues for all water users, including agriculture, recreational, municipal and environmental aspects of a healthy river.

The technical subcommittee was formed to look at the science-based river health for each of the identified geographic segments. One of the many related tasks is working with a private engineering contractor to conduct 40 to 50 voluntary water diversion assessments within the Yampa River Basin.

The goal is to learn more about the diversion effectiveness and incorporated environment aspects at the diversion site. Ultimately, this may help identify water projects that have positive impacts for the water diversion and broader river health.

The Management Plan recognizes the importance of agriculture to the Yampa River Basin. One of the roundtable priorities is to protect and maintain agricultural water rights in the region in consideration of increasing water demands and water availability fluctuations. Another goal is to help identify potential funding for water infrastructures that have multiple benefits and are in need of improvement for interested and volunteering agricultural stakeholders.

Two segment coordinators, Gena Hinkemeyer and Jerry Albers, are working as contractors on this project to listen, learn and seek input from agricultural stakeholders. Hinkemeyer has lived in the Yampa Valley for most of her life and will be working in the lower and middle Yampa River regions. Albers has lived in Stagecoach for the last 15 years and will be working in the Upper Yampa and the Elk River Basin.

The coordinators will be reaching out to members of the agricultural community to better understand water related issues confronting agriculture and seek input on planning efforts. If you are interested and would like to learn more visit the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable site at yampawhitegreen.com or contact Gena Hinkemeyer gena@yampawhitegreen.com.

Colorado Bets on New Funding for Water Plan — @AudubonRockies

Common Mergansers. Photo: Lynn Cleveland/Audubon Photography Awards

From Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):

The four-year-old Colorado Water Plan—the Centennial State’s proactive response to drought, flood, unpredictable water supplies, climate change, and a booming population that is likely to rise from 5.7 million today to nearly 9 million Coloradans in the next 30 years—is now guaranteed some of the annual $100 million needed to implement the plan. This month, Colorado voters narrowly approved Proposition DD to legalize sports betting (and a 10% tax on these casino revenues) which will result in an estimated $12 million to $29 million annually, the majority of which will go toward the Water Plan.

While we likely won’t see $29 million for the first several years, DD revenues bring Colorado’s first dedicated funding source to Water Plan implementation. The sports-betting tax money will flow into a new fund overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Revenues from DD are a drop in the bucket that renew every year, and represent a much-needed down payment toward the full $100 million per year for the Water Plan.

Revenues from DD could be used for a variety of Water Plan purposes including: stream and watershed management improvements, urban water conservation and efficiency, improved irrigation infrastructure for farms and ranches, and storage projects. At this point, it is not clear how the state will spend these dollars given the various priorities and the considerable funding gap. The language in DD was vague and will need refinement, and transparency. Stakeholders will likely explore options with the legislature to guide how DD funds are spent on Water Plan implementation.

Audubon will engage to advocate for spending that supports healthy rivers for the birds and people that depend on them—as we support a fully funded Water Plan. But even with the revenues DD will provide, additional dollars, heightened public awareness, and action will be critical to ensure healthy rivers—and the sustainable water future they enable for Colorado’s birds, economies, communities, recreation, agricultural heritage, and quality of life.

Audubon is proud to have supplied nearly 20 percent of the nearly 30,000 public comments that informed Colorado’s inaugural Water Plan, and Audubon will be there every step of the way through Water Plan implementation. Colorado cannot thrive unless its rivers do too.

Everything we love about Colorado is connected to water. We need your help in raising awareness about water and healthy rivers throughout Colorado. Spread the word. Join us as Audubon works across the state for a water-secure future for people and the environment.