#ColoradoRiver District GM unveils manifesto on water-use reductions — @AspenJournlism @ColoradoWater #COriver #crdseminar

A slide presented by Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, on Sept. 14, 2018 at the district’s seminar called ‘Risky business on the Colorado River.’ The slide shows how water from the Colorado River system, within the state of Colorado, is used.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

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.”

(Also see, “River planning muddied up?” by Dennis Webb in Grand Junction Sentinel on Sept. 14).

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.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, addressing a crowd of 265 water managers, users and stakeholders in Grand Junction on Friday at a River District seminar called ‘Risky business on the Colorado River.’ Mueller spelled out six principles the River District wants the state to embrace as it develops a ‘demand management’ program designed to get the state’s water users to reduce their water use in order to bolster levels in Lake Powell.

Depletions

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.”

One of the slides in Andy Mueller’s presentation deck on 9.14.18.

Bar fight?

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.

After years of drought, #Colorado water bosses face uncertainty — @COindependent

Photo of Lake Powell in extreme drought conditions by Andy Pernick, Bureau of Reclamation, via Flickr creative commons

From The Colorado Independent (John Herrick):

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.

As a result, funding specifically for the Colorado Water Plan was slashed this year from $10 million to $7 million. Lawmakers also had to use money from Colorado’s sales and income taxes to keep environmental regulatory agencies operating through the next year.

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.”

“If I was to look at the one thing that changed the most in my public life, it’s the collaborative approach” — Gov. John Hickenlooper

Here’s an in-depth look at Gov. Hickenlooper’s legacy from Marianne Goodland writing for The Colorado Springs Gazette. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

US Drought Monitor June 25, 2002.

The beginnings

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.”

A look at “Buy and Dry”

Photo credit: Allen Best

From KUNC (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…

Cautionary tales

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.

Wringing what’s left out of the booming South Platte river basin

Development along the I-25 corridor north of Denver is booming, according to water providers in the South Platte basin. A new proposed storage and re-use plan will help meet demands they say.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

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.

A map shown by representatives of the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group to the members of the Interbasin Compact Committee on May 2, 2017, Keystone. The map shows three large water-storage facilities and a re-use pipeline back to the north metro area.

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.”

A new home, complete with lush lawn, not far from I-25 in Thornton. The northern metro area is booming and water providers are willing to use 'buy-and-dry' as a way to move water from the ag sector to the municipal sector.

Price tag?

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 Moffat Tunnel and water pipe, at Winter Park, is an example of existing transmountain diversion that brings water to the South Platte River basin. While the South Platte working group's project does include new transmountain water, there are concerns it could lead to more such water being shipped under the Continental Divide.

Interbasin view

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.

Water in the West Symposium creates foundation for work in water #WaterintheWest2018

Water in the West Symposium April 27, 2018. Photo credit: Colorado State University

From Colorado State University:

Solutions to water needs lie in the hands of the next generation, said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. He was in Denver April 27 for a conversation about water with former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who serves as a special advisor to Colorado State University, as part of the inaugural Water in the West Symposium.

“We’re seeing a lot of millennials getting their hands back into the soil,” Perdue said.

Perdue and more than 30 experts in water – ranging from conservationists, politicians, researchers, farmers, to business professionals – shared their insights during the two-day event. The sold-out Symposium drew more than 400 attendees and highlighted the greatest challenges surrounding water in the Western region. Experts explored best practices and proposed solutions to address emergent challenges – all efforts that will be continued at the future Water Resources Center at the National Western Center.

Topics discussed during the Symposium included:

  • Funding for water projects
  • Federal, state, and local policies surrounding water
  • Water education
  • Colorado’s Water Plan
  • Water research
  • Water innovation
  • Water infrastructure
  • The need for cross-sector collaboration
  • Water is an endless topic of discussion in the West. Especially in Colorado – the only headwater state in the continental United States, which means all of the water in the state flows outside state boundaries – everyone has an interest and a stake in water, but leaders at the Symposium firmly held the importance of collaboration in working toward solutions around water challenges.

    “These issues are not partisan, and we should not allow them to become partisan,” said U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), during the Symposium. “We can actually solve these problems; and we might find ourselves able to accomplish a lot — and we should.”

    Tony Frank, president of CSU and chancellor of the CSU System, joined other speakers in reiterating the theme that water needs to be at the forefront of conversations around growth of cities, agricultural production, economic development, recreation – and all aspects of the future.

    “As you’ve heard virtually every speaker say, what happens around water will in a very real sense influence the world we leave to future generations,” said Frank.

    More from Colorado State University:

    Related news from the Water in the West Symposium

    A $10 million grant to fund the Irrigation Innovation Consortium was announced; the consortium is a collaborative research hub involving five university partners, including CSU, that will be built in Fort Collins in the next three years.

    News from day one of the Symposium.

    A full video recording of the Symposium.

    Symposium photos.

    #WaterintheWest2018 recap

    Dan Hobbs planting near Avondale. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

    From The Fence Post (Samantha Fox):

    On the first day of the inaugural Water in the West Symposium on April 26 in Denver, there was a lot of talk surrounding what already is being done when it comes to conserving the water needed by agriculture, cities and businesses, alike.

    One of the panels included a mix of city, business, oil and gas and agriculture leaders.

    They each shared why water is not just important to them, but how their industries attempt to save as much water as they can.

    AGRICULTURE

    Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown talked about irrigation and how it’s used by the agriculture industry to increase crop yields.

    He said conservation in agriculture means a few different things.

    “Usually it means use less, but in agriculture it also means more crop per drop,” he said…

    Colorado has two of the top 25 agriculture counties in the nation. No. 9 is Weld County and No. 24 is Yuma County.

    The common factor: water.

    Weld County is in the South Platte River Basin and Yuma is within the Ogallala Aquifer region.

    Weld County is home to one of Leprino Foods’ facilities. Mike Reidy, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Leprino, said that when the company was looking for a location they were looking for access to dairies and raw and waste water…

    He said the company strives to use best practices. They’re close to the city’s waste treatment plant and will treat the water for reuse after it is used at the facility…

    CLIMATE CHANGE

    Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist for the Colorado Water Institute, pointed to climate change in the conversation about future water supplies.

    “Climate change is water change,” he said.

    From TheDenverChannel.com (Russell Haythorn):

    “It would be irresponsible of us to develop this state without planning for the amount of water that we’re going to need,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, (D) Colorado.

    Bennet is among hundreds attending the first-ever ‘Water in the West’ Symposium in Denver this week, hosted by Colorado State University.

    “We all acknowledge that no more water is being created,” Bennet said. “We have to find ways of using the water we have more efficiently, more responsibly.”

    […]

    One of the central issues this year is drought. A dry winter on the plains and low snow pack in the high country could be catastrophic, especially to lower basin states if the pattern continues…

    The central question along the front range: Do we have enough water to support the roaring pace of growth?

    “If we’re not smart about it, the answer to that is going to be, ‘No,’” Bennet said.