New lab at @CSUSpur will use 6 types of water to test innovative treatment solutions — #Colorado State University

OWSI CSU Spur Hydro-WaterTAP diagram 1222, based on an initial graphic by hord, coplan, and macht and revised by the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, Colorado State University.

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado State University website (Allison Sylte):

In a building dedicated to all things water is a first-of-its-kind lab dedicated to developing innovative ways to clean and reuse humanity’s most precious resource. 

The Water Technology Acceleration Platform (Water TAP) lab is housed in the newly opened Hydro building on the CSU Spur campus. Here, a team of researchers led by CSU Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Sybil Sharvelle will test a variety of water treatment technologies on six different sources.

It’s part of a variety of programming inside Hydro by the One Water Solutions Institute.  

The lab’s indoor and outdoor spaces won’t be fully operational until later this spring, but Sharvelle sat down with SOURCE to offer a glimpse of what will happen at Water TAP in the coming months.

SOURCE: What are the six types of water sources that will be used at the lab? 

Sharvelle: Those sources are stormwater, graywater, roof runoff, wastewater, river water and water that is actually trucked in from a variety of different sources, which could encompass everything from hydrofracking waste to agricultural runoff to various industrial sources. 

Hydro is the only building nationally – and maybe internationally – that has access to this many types of water. This is truly a unique facility, and something that we’ve envisioned for a decade. 

The space has been designed to accommodate systems that process nearly 1,000 gallons per day of each source of water. 

What happens after all this water gets to the lab? 

We have tanks where the water is stored, and can pump it through a variety of different treatment systems. Those systems could include physical and chemical-based systems (e.g., membrane filtrations or ultraviolet treatment) as well as nature-based solutions. We can even test constructed wetlands that actually have plants incorporated in a growth media. 

What’s a constructed wetland? 

These are a lot like actual wetlands, where we’ll dig out a space for the water in the form of ponds where we grow plants that can be very effective for treatment. 

For example, storm runoff from from Hydro’s roof could be collected and diverted into these ponds, and later used for irrigation. 

The backyard of the Hydro facility will actually have multiple flexible plots where we can test nature-based solutions. 

It’s also unique in that the facility is on the edge of the South Platte River, and we have the ability to test and treat water directly from this source. 

Let’s take a bigger picture look at the research that is happening at Water TAP. What types of problems is this trying to solve? 

We are trying to make use of local water sources so we can reduce the demand on imported and freshwater sources, like the Colorado River. 

We’re figuring out ways to leave water in the environment and instead make use of water sources like stormwater, graywater and roof runoff – all of which are readily available in urban areas. 

Of course, different water has different applications, and water used for flushing toilets doesn’t need to undergo the same treatment as water that’s used for drinking. 

The whole purpose of the lab is to enable the testing of technology to move technology development  and policy forward. 

Webinar: The Upper #ColoradoRiver and #SanJuanRiver endangered fish recovery programs: What’s at stake as reauthorization looms? — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Read about the federal role in Colorado water management, including the endangered fish recovery programs, and get prepped for the webinar by checking out the Fall 2022 issue of Headwaters magazine, The Federal Nexus.
Photo by Nathan Vargas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ribbon-cutting, blessings, #water bubbles open new Hydro building:  New home for water quality lab opens new horizons for innovation, research and teaching — @DenverWater 

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Hydro building on Jan. 6, 2023, marked the completion of the CSU Spur campus, a center for innovation and learning focused on water, land and life. Photo credit: CSU Spur.

Click the link to read the post on the Denver Water website (Cathy Proctor):

Colorado State University’s marching band, university mascot CAM the Ram and the enthusiastic clamor of cowbells joined with dignitaries from the city, state and nation on Friday to celebrate the opening of the new Hydro building at the CSU Spur campus in north Denver. 

The Hydro building will be the home of Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art water quality laboratory, replacing a small and outdated facility in southwest Denver that Denver Water had outgrown. 

It’s the third of a three-building research innovation and education complex called CSU Spur built at the heart of the National Western Center, the historic site of the old stock show complex now undergoing a massive redevelopment effort

See inside the Hydro building, which opened on Friday, Jan. 6:

Denver Water is partnering with Colorado State University to be part of the new CSU Spur campus on the National Western Center campus. Learn about Denver Water’s role at the new building.

Prior to cutting the ribbon to open the new building, Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead noted that the building offers far more than laboratory space, which is expected to be fully operational later this spring. 

“Here at CSU’s Spur campus, Denver Water will be the heart of a new research environment where we can work closely with academics and scientists in planning for water demands and challenges of tomorrow,” Lochhead said. 

“Climate change and emerging water quality issues require innovation. Spur provides a collaborative opportunity with all water interests to help Denver Water provide leading solutions to water challenges for our customers, the state and the West in a public and engaging way,” he said. 

One of the exhibits in the Hydro building provides a hands-on demonstration of how moving water, such as a river, shapes the land around it over time. Photo credit: CSU Spur

The utility’s water quality team conducts nearly 200,000 tests every year to ensure the water delivered to 1.5 million people every day is clean, safe and meets all state and federal water quality standards. The new facility provides room for Denver Water scientists to test three times that amount in the future. 

Denver Water’s Youth Education team also will use the site to teach students about their water — where it comes from, how it’s cleaned and how its delivered to their homes. 

“This space also provides us with new ways to connect with the next generation of water leaders and highlight career paths that many students may not have been aware of before. It’s a win for all of us,” Lochhead said. 

The connections created by the people working at the CSU Spur campus will be “a win for all of us,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO/Manager of Denver Water. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Hydro, which is Greek for water, joins two completed buildings at the CSU Spur campus. 

The first building, Vida, which means “life” in Spanish, opened in January 2022. It’s home to a community veterinary hospital for the Dumb Friends League; Temple Grandin Equine Center, which offers equine assisted services; and a 9-foot model of a kitten named Esperanza, quite possibly the largest cat in the West. 

The second building, Terra, which means “earth” or “land” in Latin, opened in the summer of 2022. It features rooftop greenhouses and a teaching kitchen, along with food innovation labs for new product creation, agricultural diagnostic labs and exhibits focused on food and agricultural systems.

The intersection of those three areas — water, land and life — represent the global challenges facing our world. 

“I don’t think we can imagine what will be accomplished in the next 20, 40, 50 years at this campus. But I believe when we think about the human potential that will be unlocked here, the creativity that will be unleashed to make progress around these great global challenges, CSU Spur is something we’ll be incredibly proud to be a part of,” said Tony Frank, the chancellor of the Colorado State University System, at the opening ceremony. 

Terra, one of the three buildings at the CSU Spur campus, focuses on agriculture and has a teaching kitchen. Photo credit: CSU Spur.

The connections the three buildings will foster — between people dedicated to public health and animal care, the land and the food it provides, and the life-giving water that circulates throughout — was noted by several speakers during the ceremony. 

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Denver Water’s presence at the building, with its water quality experts, will feature the mission of Hydro — to bring research and innovation to the questions of water resilience and sustainability. 

Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has been involved in the planning for the CSU Spur campus for years. The end of construction means the start of opportunity and change on a local and international level, he told the crowd. 

“These buildings are not just buildings. They’re not just incredible educational opportunities. They’re not just a place to celebrate the science and arts. They’re not just a place to connect rural and urban,” Vilsack said. 

“This is the center of transformation. This is a center for a brighter and better future, not just for Colorado agriculture, not just for United States agriculture, but for global agriculture. It’s that important what you all are doing here. 

“I hope as you go through here, you understand and appreciate how proud you should be to be connected to a university, to a city, and to a state that is so committed to this endeavor,” he said. 

The Vida building at the CSU Spur campus has a veterinary clinic for professionals, and a learning space for students exploring future opportunities. Photo credit: CSU Spur.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he viewed the campus and the connections it will foster as a place that will drive the state’s economy and sustainability efforts. 

“Water is life in our state, and the challenges that Colorado and the West face around water are really reaching a critical point in less water, more demand, our straining of our streams and our waterways, making the work here, inventing innovative, a future that works for the West, that works for Colorado is more important than ever before,” Polis said. 

“This is a place where we can continue our leadership on water, fostering conversations that lead to local, regional, statewide solutions.”

After the ribbon was cut, all three buildings were open to the public. 

Children, parents and adults walked through Hydro, learning about the importance of water from Denver Water employees who staffed the “Water and Land” hands-on exhibit demonstrating how moving water, such as a river, shapes the land around it. 

On the third floor of the building, they peered through the glass at the new laboratory space that will be set up and operational in coming months. And they gathered around a column of water, watching bubbles rise through the water and using an information table to explore different indicators that scientists look for to determine water quality. 

Interactive exhibits explore the world of water at the Hydro building. Photo credit: Denver Water.

At the Terra building, students explored food options, while at Vida they learned about veterinary care – even trying on lab coats while bandaging a stuffed dog. 

Before the celebration, John Gritts, a member of the Cherokee Nation, blessed the building:

“Creator, as we gather here today to open and celebrate Hydro, the last building in this educational complex, we ask for your blessings upon this sacred ground,” Gritts said. 

“We ask for your blessings for this place where people can learn the importance of the relationship between animals, plants — and how sacred water is to us as human beings. May we recognize and honor those relationships. 

“Thank you for this day that we can celebrate.”

John Gritts, a member of the Cherokee Nation, sought a blessing for the Hydro building prior to its opening on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo credit: CSU Spur.

Guest column: A new water future starts at CSU Spur — @ColoradoStateU

CSU Spur Hydro Building. Photo credit: CSU

Click the link to read the guest column on the Colorado State University website (Jim Lochhead and Tony Frank):

Back in 2017, at the Biennial of the Americas, Colorado State University and Denver Water announced plans to work together to support a new future for water research, policy, education and innovation. This week, that vision comes fully to life with the opening of the Hydro building on the CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center.

Jim Lochhead. Photo credit: Denver Water

Historically, water has been viewed through the lens of starkly different choices. Do we use it for agricultural lands and food production, urban life and expansion, recreation and the environment — or something else?

When CSU and Denver Water announced our partnership, we chose not to view water that way. We didn’t want to focus solely on the water needs of agriculture (a primary concern for CSU), nor just on issues connected to municipal water supplies (where Denver Water is focused). Instead, we approached it as all just water – a life-giving, flexible, finite resource that has to work for all of us, an approach much more closely tied to that of the Indigenous people who relied on the life-giving flows of the South Platte long before there were cities here. And we wanted to bring great minds, experimentation and learning about water together in one place where we could collectively focus on addressing the complex water challenges facing all sectors of our state and the American West.

Hydro is that place, and we’re honored to open its doors to the people of Colorado.

CSU Spur, with funding from the State of Colorado, is a three-building complex at the National Western Center nestled up against the Platte River. It’s a place where people of all ages and education levels can explore learning, research and demonstrations connected to food, water, and human and animal health. The Vida building, focused on human and animal health, opened a year ago. The Terra building, which opened this past summer, spotlights food and agricultural systems.

The partnership between CSU and Denver Water is centered in the third building at Spur, Hydro (named for the Greek word for water), which opens this week in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show.

Tony Frank March 22, 2018. Photo by Ellen Jaskol via CSU.

With its physical connectivity to the Platte, and a backyard space demonstrating the concepts of headwaters and watersheds, Hydro is uniquely positioned as a resource for teaching about the importance of water and how it flows to different users and communities. But for the people of Denver, its importance is even greater. Hydro will be the home to Denver Water’s new water quality lab, dramatically expanding our ability to ensure a safe and reliable water supply for the people we serve.

The lab is responsible for ensuring 1.5 million people across the Denver metropolitan area have safe, clean drinking water that meets all state and federal standards. Denver Water currently performs nearly 200,000 tests every year to monitor water quality and the effectiveness of our treatment and distribution systems. Thanks to the expanded capacity and state-of-the-art equipment at CSU Spur, the new laboratory will provide capacity for nearly three times as many tests.

The location at Spur also positions Denver Water to interact more closely with the University’s scientists and students. Planning for the water demands of tomorrow requires innovation and understanding as customer needs and policies surrounding water in our state are changing. It requires that all voices be brought into the mix of how water is discussed and treated. The partnership at Spur will help Denver Water provide leading solutions to water challenges for its customers, the state,and West in a more public-facing and engaging way than ever before.

The quality of the water around us — knowing what it is, how it changes, and how it affects our food, our health and our lives — will be crucial as we address new and emerging issues and uses, from the “forever chemicals” moving from consumer products into our environment to the cutting-edge use of wastewater to heat new buildings at the old Stock Show complex. Water quality also underpins the rehabilitation work underway at the edge of the Spur campus, where the South Platte River is becoming a place for recreation and wildlife habitat.

This is a neutral, science-based campus focused on finding solutions to real-world problems. We are interested in helping bring together people representing agencies and interests across many disciplines to work on challenges common to all of us. And the location at the National Western Center allows us to leverage the entire site to educate the water industry and the many types of visitors to the main NWC campus – starting with the North Denver community. Free educational programming will be a cornerstone of this campus for everyone.

When we announced this partnership back in 2017, we were inspired by the Biennial of the Americas and its mission to create connections, build community and inspire change. With Hydro, that mission is coming into focus in ways that will serve Colorado and its water future for generations to come.

15 Northern Colorado communities win key federal #water project OK as legal battle looms — @WaterEdCO #PoudreRiver #SouthPlatteRiver

Erie is among 15 Northern Colorado entities participating in the Northern Integrated Supply Project. Water to supply new growth is a key driver of the project. Construction underway in Erie. Dec. 4, 2022. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Allen Best):

Fifteen towns, cities and water districts in northern Colorado hope to begin building two dams and other infrastructure in 2025 to deliver enough water to meet needs for a quarter-million people, many of them along the fast-growing Interstate 25 corridor.

Northern Water, the agency overseeing what’s known as the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), hailed federal approval of a critical permit last month as a milestone. “This action is the culmination of nearly 20 years of study, project design and refinement to develop water resources well into the 21st century,” said Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water. Wind said that NISP will enable the 15 project members, including Windsor, Erie and Fort Morgan, to grow without buying farmland, then drying it up and using its water for growth.

The environmental group, Save the Poudre, hopes to dash those plans. The nonprofit says it will file a lawsuit in an attempt to block the $2 billion NISP. To succeed, the group will have to overcome precedent. It failed to block Chimney Hollow, the dam that Northern Water is constructing as part of a separate project, in the foothills west of Berthoud whose construction began in 2022 after a three-year court case.

“We have a much stronger case against NISP because the project would drain a dramatic amount of water out of the Poudre River, which would negatively impact the river’s ecology, its habitat, and its jurisdictional wetlands — protected by the Clean Water Act — all the way through Fort Collins and downstream,” said Gary Wockner, director of Save The Poudre.

This new court challenge was set up by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement Dec. 9 that it was issuing a crucial permit under the Clean Water Act. Directors of Northern Water, the overarching agency for the participating jurisdictions, are scheduled on Thursday, Jan. 5, to take up whether to accept the terms of the permit. Staff members have advised them to do so.

Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) map July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.

The impetus for NISP can be traced to the early 1980s when Northern Water began drawing up plans to dam the Poudre River in the foothills near Fort Collins. Federal agencies balked at Denver’s plans for a similar project on the South Platte River at Two Forks, in the foothills southwest of Denver. Northern shelved its initial plan. But after the scorching drought that began in 2002, Northern developed plans for NISP, which it submitted to federal agencies in 2004.

Two reservoirs are central to NISP. Glade Park, an off-channel reservoir, would be built north of La Porte, bounded by the Dakota hogbacks and a dam that would cross today’s Highway 287. It would have a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet, slightly larger than the 157,000 acre-feet of Horsetooth Reservoir. Northern’s water rights are relatively junior, dating from the 1980s and would only generate water in spring months during high runoff years.

The project promises delivery via pipeline of 40,000 acre-feet of high-quality water annually to the 11 mostly smaller towns and cities and the 4 water districts. Erie is buying the largest amount of water from the new project, claiming 6,500 acre-feet. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.

The second storage pool, Galeton Reservoir, at 45,000 acre-feet, would impound water northeast of Greeley. Unlike the water from Glade, which is to be strictly dedicated to domestic use, Galeton would hold water that will be delivered to farms in Weld County that otherwise would have received water from the Poudre River. This will be done via a water-rights swap with two ditches north of Greeley. Those agreements have not been finalized.

Preservation of agricultural land, costs of water, and water quality figure prominently in the talking points both for — and, in some cases, against — the project.

Northern and its project participants argue that NISP will allow them to grow without drying up farms. It can do so, they say, by delivering the water at a lower cost.

The federal environmental impact statement’s no-action alternative found that population growth would occur regardless of whether a federal permit was issued, said Jeff Stahla, the public information officer for Northern Water. That analysis found that in the absence of NISP, the 15 cities and water districts would look to buy water rights currently devoted to agriculture, ultimately taking 64,000 acres — or 100 square miles — out of production.

The 15 utilities will be able to get NISP’s new water at $40,000 per acre-foot, substantially below current market rates for other regional water sources such as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project shares. Those shares, which constitute seven-tenths of an acre-foot, have been selling for about $75,000.

In some cases, expanding cities will take farmland out of production — and presumably gain access to the water, but not always.

“We do not want to dry up northern Colorado,” says John Thornhill, Windsor’s director of community development.

Thornhill said that Windsor, a town of 42,000 with its 20th Century sugar beet factory still standing, is participating in NISP to improve the resiliency of its water portfolio as it prepares for another 10,000 to 15,000 residents in the next 10 to 15 years.

“The town of Windsor has just as much interest in having a clean, healthy river as anybody else does,” he says. “[The Poudre River] goes right through our town.”

Fort Collins is not participating in the project. In a 2020 resolution, it said it would oppose the proposal or any variant that failed to “address the City’s fundamental concerns about the quality of its water supply and the effects on the Cache la Poudre River through the city.”

Water quality will be at the heart of Save the Poudre’s lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers’ 404 permit. The group’s Wockner says the diversion to Glade Reservoir will reduce peak flows in the Poudre, a river already suffering from E. coli and other pollutants, by up to 40%. “The water quality in the river will worsen because as you take out the peak flows what is left is dirty water,” he says.

Also at issue, says Wockner, will be the impacts to Fort Collins’ wastewater treatment. With reduced flows downstream from its two treatment plants, those plants would have to be upgraded.

On the flip side, Fort Morgan got involved partly because of Glade Reservoir’s higher water quality, according to City Manager Brent Nation.

The city of 12,000 historically relied upon aquifer water heavily laden with minerals for its domestic supply. As the aquifer became increasingly tainted by chemicals used in agricultural production, the city, in the late 1990s, began importing water through an 80-mile pipeline from Carter Lake, a reservoir that stores imported Colorado River water southwest of Loveland.

To use aquifer water for its new population growth Fort Morgan would need to upgrade its water treatment system to use reverse osmosis. That’s a more expensive treatment that also produces a problem of brine disposal.

Both Fort Morgan and Windsor have started working on land-use regulations that will restrict high-quality water for domestic use, at least in some subdivisions, leaving lower-quality water for landscaping.

If NISP as proposed survives Save the Poudre’s legal challenge, it may still need a 1041 permit from Fort Collins. Those regulations have not yet been adopted, however.

Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.

Confab: Feds say #ColoradoRiver flows will continue to plummet, threatening releases from #LakePowell — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton (left) alongside members of the Upper Colorado River Commission at the 2022 Colorado River Water Users Association Conference on December 14, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

As the Colorado River crisis deepens, a new federal analysis of flows into Lake Powell shows that they will continue to plummet through 2025, before beginning to recover.

James Prairie, a hydrologic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said flows are likely to be just 24% of average this year, making it unlikely under various planning scenarios that Powell will have enough water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to meet their legal commitment to deliver a minimum of 7 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin. That amount is already reduced from the historical delivery obligation due to low flows on the river.

The news comes as more than 1,300 of the river’s most powerful water users gather this week in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference, the largest annual confab on the river.

This year it has sold out for the first time in its history, according to Crystal Thompson, communications manager at the Central Arizona Project, a major user of Colorado River water and a conference organizer.

In the water world, stream and reservoir measurements are based on what’s known as the water year, which begins Oct. 1. Prairie said Upper Basin flows in water year 2023 are expected to be just 24% of average. In 2024 they are likely to improve, reaching 58% of average, before rising to 61% of average in 2025.

But because Lake Powell is so low — it’s just 23% full with roughly 5.5 million acre-feet of water stored right now — it won’t be able to recover enough water to keep those releases going, Prairie said. And that means that users across the seven-state Colorado River Basin will see more dramatic cutbacks in their water supplies to try to protect remaining supplies in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, farther downstream.

The basin, mired in a drought believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

During a meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission held Wednesday during the confab, hundreds packed a conference room to hear the reports. The commission works to ensure the Upper Basin states receive their allocation of Colorado River Water and that they meet their obligations to send water to the Lower Basin.

“We all know that we are gathering here today in a time of unprecedented crisis in the basin,” said Anne Castle, a Colorado water attorney who President Biden appointed to serve as federal chair of the commission in September 2022.

“We all know we have a huge imbalance between supply and demand and we also know we don’t have much time to correct it,” Castle said.

Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, but no agreements have been reached, leaving the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts.

Touton urged water users to continue working together to find a solution to the crisis.

As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.

In Colorado, major cutbacks have already occurred.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the state has already had to temporarily dry up thousands of acres of irrigated farmland because of the crisis.

Mitchell said the state used 25% less Colorado River water in 2021 than it did in 2020 because of the drought.

Critical negotiations among the states are underway to reach a consensus on how to slash water use enough to keep Lake Powell full enough to continue producing power.

“The gap is big enough that no one basin, no one state, no one sector of the economy can solve it alone,” Castle said.

“The real enemy here is not another basin, or another state or alfalfa or golf courses. It is climate-change-induced lower flows. It’s not an enemy that we can defeat. It is one that we have to learn to live with,” she said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Say hello to “A User Guide to #ClimateChange Portal and other resources that support planning and adaptation in the Mountain West” — #Aspen Global Change Institute #ActOnClimate

Click the link to go to the Aspen Global Change Institute website (Julie Vano and Jeff Lukas):

This User Guide is designed to help planners, policymakers, and communities navigate this often confusing information landscape and acquire information most suitable for their needs. While focused on the U.S. Mountain West, much of the information in the User Guide is transferable to other regions too.

Please share this User Guide with your networks and others who might benefit from this free resource…

This User Guide was made possible through NOAA Sectoral Applications Research program funding. We gratefully acknowledge the tremendous work that went into the climate resources this Guide addresses, and appreciate the valuable feedback we received from so many in the research and management communities.

A reminder of the choices that global society has to make about the climate: Delaying action on reducing emissions commits the world to live with severe consequences. Rapid action now means a more habitable world for all. There is no going back. Choose wisely. Credit: Ed Hawkins via via his Twitter feed

As #ColoradoRiver flows drop and tensions rise, #water interests struggle to find solutions that all can accept — Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Foundation website (Nick Cahill):

Chorus of experts warn climate change has rendered old assumptions outdated about what the Colorado River can provide, leaving painful water cuts as the only way forward

When the Colorado River Compact was signed 100 years ago, the negotiators for seven Western states bet that the river they were dividing would have ample water to meet everyone’s needs – even those not seated around the table.

A century later, it’s clear the water they bet on is not there. More than two decades of drought, lake evaporation and overuse of water have nearly drained the river’s two anchor reservoirs, Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead near Las Vegas. Climate change is rendering the basin drier, shrinking spring runoff that’s vital for river flows, farms, tribes and cities across the basin – and essential for refilling reservoirs.

The states that endorsed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 – and the tribes and nation of Mexico that were excluded from the table – are now straining to find, and perhaps more importantly accept, solutions on a river that may offer just half of the water that the Compact assumed would be available. And not only are solutions not coming easily, the relationships essential for compromise are getting more frayed.

With the Compact’s shortcomings and the effects of climate change and aridification becoming as clear as the bathtub ring around Lake Mead, previous assumptions of how much water the river can provide and the rules governing how it gets divvyed up must be revised to reflect the West’s new hydrology. One thing is certain among experts and Colorado River veterans: Water cuts are in the short-term and long-term forecast for major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, as well as farmers from Colorado’s West Slope to growers in California’s Imperial Valley near the Mexican border.

“You don’t have any other arrow in your quiver right now except to reduce use,” Pat Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told a gathering of Colorado River water interests this fall. “There are no other arrows.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

The River’s Changing Math 

Predicting the amount of water the Colorado River can provide in a given year has always been a challenge. The river’s flow is famously erratic, dictated by the size of the often-fickle Rocky Mountain snowpack and other variables such as soil moisture and changes in temperature. 

Flows in the White River (pictured above) and other Upper Basin tributaries have declined dramatically over the last 20 years, a trend experts warn will worsen as the West becomes hotter and drier. (Source: The Water Desk)

The old expectations of the Compact signers is giving way to a new reality on the river. Over the last century, the river’s flows in the Upper Basin have dropped by 20 percent. Scientists have pinned warming temperatures as the main cause of the disappearing flows and predict the trend will worsen as the Upper Basin, source of most of the river’s water, becomes even hotter and drier. 

Water users have been able to counter previous dry spells by relying on the river’s main reservoirs. But after more than two decades of drought, both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are only about one-quarter full. The reservoirs’ rapid declines have forced the Bureau of Reclamation to order unprecedented water cuts to Arizona and Nevada. Mexico is taking similar cuts under binational agreements. And Reclamation has warned more severe actions are needed to prevent the collapse of the Colorado River system. 

The Compact signatories, relying on data from a small but abnormally wet time period, estimated the river’s annual average natural flow in the Upper Basin to be about 18 million acre-feet. The figure, they asserted, was enough to cover 7.5 million acre-feet of water in perpetuity for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. They also agreed that any water committed to Mexico would be supplied equally by the two Basins. Native American tribes, who now legally hold substantial rights to the river’s water, were barely mentioned.

Brad Udall, Colorado State University climate researcher, said it’s becoming harder and harder for the river to meet the promises outlined in the Compact and the accompanying set of agreements, laws and court cases referred to as the Law of the River. He warned dozens of water managers and policy experts at a recent Water Education Foundation Symposium that climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions is rapidly and permanently shifting precipitation trends in the Basin.

“It’s not a drought, it’s not temporary, it’s aridification,” said Udall. “Additional 1 degree Celsius or more warming by 2050, Lee Ferry flows in 9 million acre-feet are possible. Every important trend line [is] heading in the wrong direction, notably our reservoirs, but all the science trends as well.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Data from recent decades shows it’s becoming uncommon for the river to meet the benchmark used to craft the Compact. Estimated annual flows at Lee Ferry, a key dividing point between the Colorado River’s Upper and Lower Basins, have surpassed 18 million acre-feet just four times since 1991, while the river’s average flow since 2000 has been 12.3 million acre-feet.

“If we’re taking out more than comes in, it is really simple math that the reservoirs are going to continue to decline,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s water management agency. 

The federal government may reduce releases from Glen Canyon Dam (pictured above) in 2023 by an unprecedented 2-3 million acre-feet, a move that would trigger severe cuts in the Lower Basin. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Mitchell was among nearly 200 state and regional water managers, farmers, tribal leaders and other water interests from the seven Basin states, along with key federal and Mexican officials, who attended the Foundation’s biennial Colorado River Symposium in late September to mark the Compact’s 100th anniversary and to discuss the risks and challenges ahead for the iconic Southwestern river. 

Discussions were sometimes sobering and sometimes tense, underscoring the growing risks to a river depended upon for drinking water by 40 million people and for irrigation of more than 4 million farmland acres across the Basin. An undercurrent of the discussions was whether Basin interests can avoid taking their differences to court – a prime motivation behind creating the 1922 Compact. Despite the occasional sharply worded airing of differences between Upper and Lower Basin interests, there was broad acknowledgement that action is needed to keep the river system functioning. 

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton was among those urging water interests throughout the Basin to continue working collaboratively toward solutions and she provided a broad outline of actions that federal officials are preparing to take in 2023 – including reducing water releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead – to keep the river from crashing. 

“The actions we choose to take over the next two years,” Touton told participants, “will define the fate of the Colorado River for the next century.”

Living Within New Means

Though the Colorado River’s annual yield has shrunk in the 21st century, demand for its diminishing supply hasn’t, creating a glaring math problem for Basin water managers. In a system where every drop of water is already allocated, the specter of an 11 million acre-foot river — or worse — is forcing users to prepare for a drier future. 

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

One agency that has been actively finding ways to stretch its river supply is Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves more than 2 million people in the Las Vegas area. The agency has updated its modeling and long-range planning to reflect the river’s changing hydrology. 

John Entsminger, the authority’s general manager, said computer models are sending a direct warning that the Lower Basin will end up with only a slice of the 7.5 million acre-feet per year outlined in the Compact. After accounting for evaporation and system losses, he said, it’s probable the Lower Basin and Mexico will have much less water to split.

“It is incumbent upon the Lower Basin to come up with a plan to live within its 7 million acre-feet release from Lake Powell probably forever going forward and hope it’s not less than that,” said Entsminger.

Like Nevada, Arizona is already feeling the pinch from the latest round of federal water cuts. So far, the two states and Mexico have shouldered most of the pain.

In 2022, Arizona is using approximately 2 million of its 2.8 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation, according to state officials The state’s agricultural industry is taking the hardest hit, including one rural county that fallowed more than 50 percent of its farmland for lack of irrigation water.  

“We’re already seeing huge pain, and with an 11 million acre-feet [river] that pain’s just going to continue to grow,” said Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources director. 

Lees Ferry, located 15 miles downstream of Glen Canyon Dam is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River basins. Photo/Allen Best

The widening gap between supply and demand is also having an impact above Lee Ferry, where inflows into Lake Powell continue to fall below historical average. Water from Powell is critical for helping the Upper Basin meet its commitment under the 1922 Compact to deliver water to the Lower Basin.

Representatives from the Upper Basin states say they have collectively cut their annual consumptive river use from 4.5 million acre-feet to approximately 3.5 million acre-feet over the last three years. Over the same period, they argue, the Lower Basin has done little to reduce its own consumptive use. Similar to Arizona, Upper Basin farmers also have been on the receiving end of water cuts. 

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has fallowed the majority of its farmland in southwestern Colorado while in Wyoming, more than 100,000 acres of farmland were cut off from surface water for most of August because of low stream flows in the Upper Basin. 

“That equates to about 100,000 acre-feet of [diverted Colorado River water] a month…that’s a third of our average irrigated use,” said Brandon Gebhart, Wyoming State Engineer. 

The Upper Basin states have proposed a five-point plan built around paying farmers to reduce water consumption. Though it doesn’t require mandatory cuts for water users, proponents say the success of the plan hinges on whether the Lower Basin agrees to leave more water in Lake Mead.

“I think we need to recognize that the uses are far outweighing what Mother Nature is providing and that is primarily not in the Upper Basin,” said Mitchell with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

California In the Spotlight

California’s use of the river has been a sore point among others in the Colorado River Basin. California, the largest user of Colorado River water, has been spared from water cuts so far due to its senior priority rights and has been using its full 4.4 million acre-feet entitlement in 2022. Groups in both the Upper and Lower Basins say the state must significantly reduce its use to prevent the river system’s collapse.

The Salton Sea (pictured above ) straddles the Imperial and Coachella valleys and has long been a sticking point in Colorado River deals. But the federal government recently committed up to $250 million for restoration efforts at the sea. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

California water agencies and state officials have pushed back on criticism that they aren’t doing enough to help buoy the shrinking reservoirs.

Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, argued California delayed the current crisis by enacting voluntary deals that pay farmers not to plant their fields, transfer water to urban users or make their systems more water efficient.

“In the Lower Basin, since the last seven years or so, we’ve stored 1.5 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead as Intentionally Created Surplus water,” said Nelson, who farms in the Coachella Valley. “That has enabled the lake levels at Lake Mead to stay high enough to stay out of shortages and benefit other states in the Basin.”

Though the state is using its full share amid another bitterly dry year on the Colorado River, California water managers say they are not dismissing the fact that the river is overprescribed and that future cuts are needed. But they warn that the state’s farmers shouldn’t be made the scapegoat for all the Basin’s water problems.

For example, cutting off water to farmers in the Imperial Valley may help solve one crisis but simultaneously cause another, said Henry Martinez, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. Agriculture overwhelmingly drives Imperial County’s economy, he said, so fallowing would lead to major job losses in a region already prone to high poverty and unemployment rates.  

“You can devastate the whole industry by making the wrong cutbacks at the wrong time. There has to be consideration also as to how to prop up or maintain the economy of the region, otherwise you go from a very poor area to devastating even furthermore the economy,” said Martinez.

In response to Reclamation’s call this summer for river users to voluntarily conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023 to protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell, Imperial Irrigation District and other California agencies on Oct. 5 proposed a plan that would save 400,000 acre-feet — 9 percent of California’s river allocation — each year between 2023 and 2026.

Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior approved the deal, committing $250 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to kickstart the conservation plan and support Salton Sea restoration efforts. As a result of water conservation efforts and a long-term transfer of farm water from the Imperial Valley to urban San Diego, the sea has been shrinking, exposing more lakeshore to winds that blow hazardous, lung-choking dust into the region.

California’s offer has received mixed reviews throughout the Basin: Some have applauded the proposal and called it an encouraging first step from the river’s biggest user, but others have cast it as an underwhelming opening gambit.

Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary, said the Basin must continue negotiating and taking advantage of federal aid earmarked for Western drought relief to spur water conservation. 

“As challenging and as tense as this is, I think that there’s a real opportunity and that failure is not an option,” said Crowfoot. “Everybody understands we have to figure this out and we have some resources at our disposal.” 

“We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

In June, Reclamation Commissioner Touton told a U.S. Senate panel that unless an emergency conservation deal was reached by river users in 60 days, the federal government would have to take unilateral action to prevent the system’s demise.

In response to Reclamation’s call this summer for river users to voluntarily conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023 to protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell, Imperial Irrigation District and other California agencies on Oct. 5 proposed a plan that would save 400,000 acre-feet — 9 percent of California’s river allocation — each year between 2023 and 2026.

Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior approved the deal, committing $250 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to kickstart the conservation plan and support Salton Sea restoration efforts. As a result of water conservation efforts and a long-term transfer of farm water from the Imperial Valley to urban San Diego, the sea has been shrinking, exposing more lakeshore to winds that blow hazardous, lung-choking dust into the region.

California’s offer has received mixed reviews throughout the Basin: Some have applauded the proposal and called it an encouraging first step from the river’s biggest user, but others have cast it as an underwhelming opening gambit.

Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary, said the Basin must continue negotiating and taking advantage of federal aid earmarked for Western drought relief to spur water conservation. 

“As challenging and as tense as this is, I think that there’s a real opportunity and that failure is not an option,” said Crowfoot. “Everybody understands we have to figure this out and we have some resources at our disposal.” 

“We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

In June, Reclamation Commissioner Touton told a U.S. Senate panel that unless an emergency conservation deal was reached by river users in 60 days, the federal government would have to take unilateral action to prevent the system’s demise.

Bruce Babbitt, former Interior secretary and Arizona governor. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

But the deadline passed without a deal and there was no immediate federal response, causing water users to wonder whether repercussions were coming. With little progress on a watershed-wide conservation plan, some Colorado River veterans contend the federal government should take a direct role in facilitating negotiations.

“I think Reclamation is going to have to get some key players in the room, probably including Mexico, and really get down to the brass tacks of leveraging and what needs to be done,” said Tom Davis, general manager of the Yuma County Water Users’ Association. “We need to save this patient’s life in the next 24-36 months.”  

Touton’s demand that the Basin states cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet caught them off guard, said Bruce Babbitt, former Interior secretary and Arizona governor. Since the announcement, Babbitt said, the states have essentially been “stumbling around” in the absence of a well-defined negotiation framework.

Babbitt likened the current situation to the one 100 years ago, when the states’ negotiations on how to split the Colorado River had also stalled before President Warren Harding tapped Herbert Hoover to guide the talks. Babbitt told the September symposium there are important lessons to be taken from the structured discussions at Bishop’s Lodge, just outside of Santa Fe, N.M., that ultimately led to the formulation of the 1922 Compact.

“What finally emerged out of that in terms of process at Bishop’s Lodge is something that I think we need to reflect on because we’re going to have to put together a workable framework,” Babbitt added.

Federal officials contend there isn’t a leadership void.

David Palumbo, Reclamation’s deputy commissioner of operations, said Reclamation is preparing a suite of actions — including reducing releases from Lake Powell in 2023 — to prevent a scenario where water can’t flow out of the system’s main dams.  

“If we need to release less than 7 million acre-feet [from Glen Canyon Dam] … if that hydrology is not there, we’re going to have to do something to avoid the crash and we’re going to be prepared to do that,” said Palumbo. “We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

With talks between the states and tribes at a standstill, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Oct. 28 announced the federal government is considering deviating from operating rules established in 2007 and 2019 to handle water shortages on the river. 

During recent public briefings, federal officials have indicated that Lake Powell releases may be slashed by 2 to 3 million acre-feet annually to keep the reservoir from reaching a point where it could no longer generate electricity or deliver water downstream.

Meanwhile, Reclamation is now offering Lower Basin water users up to $400 per acre-foot of conserved water over the next three years, part of the $4 billion in drought relief funding secured through the Inflation Reduction Act. In addition, at least $500 million will be reserved for water conservation and efficiency projects in the Upper Basin.

Some Colorado River veterans, including Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, are urging Reclamation to focus the federal drought relief on actions that will not just temporarily halt Lake Mead’s decline, but permanently change water use habits.

“We should be using that money to fundamentally change the way we do everything in this Basin to use the least amount of water possible,” she said.

Considering the scope of the damaging economic, social and ecosystem impacts that would flood the Basin if Lake Mead or Lake Powell were to reach dead pool, others argue Congress should get more involved. One idea, outlined in a policy paper presented at the Symposium by the Foundation’s 2022 Colorado River Water Leaders class, is a biennial program that would provide federal funding for programs that would reduce system demand and encourage more frequent discussions between the states, tribes and other water users in the Basin.

Congress has enacted similar regional programs in recent decades, including in the Florida Everglades, the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. A stable source of federal funding can create permanent, multi-benefit solutions, said Brenda Burman, former Reclamation commissioner who will take over as general manager of the Central Arizona Project in 2023. 

“Whether it’s biennial or yearly, I think we need to be looking at a Colorado River Basin program,” she said. 

Tribes Gain a Say

Unlike previous deals, the federal government and states say they are committed to figuring out how to share Colorado River water while acknowledging the sovereignty and water needs of Native American tribes.

Lorelei Cloud, member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s tribal council. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Many Basin tribes, which hold legal rights to about a quarter of the river’s water, are hoping to upgrade their infrastructure and fully develop their water rights. As the tribes assert their water rights, the amount of water available to states with junior rights like Arizona or Nevada may shrink. After fighting legal battles to secure their rights to the river — 12 Basin tribes still have unresolved water rights claims — tribes aren’t eager to halt the progress they’ve made in bringing water to their communities and farms.

Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s tribal council, said the tribe’s unused river water simply flows by its Colorado reservation to be used by others downstream. She reiterated that unused tribal water, which gets treated as “surplus water”, is a vanishing luxury the rest of the Basin won’t soon be able to bank on.

“Tribes don’t get compensated and have never been compensated for our unused tribal water, especially the water that’s sitting in Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” said Cloud.

Decrepit water infrastructure among other issues prevents the Southern Ute from being able to use its full river allocation as it is, so Cloud added that the tribe is unlikely to cut back its water use even if the river continues to shrink.

“When tribes start to develop their water, what are you all going to do?” Cloud asked the Symposium crowd. “Because that water is ours. We’re in Colorado, so we’re going to get our water first.”

While the tribes have been historically excluded from and considered an afterthought in Colorado River negotiations, there are signs that the balance of decision-making power is shifting. Congress is providing billions of dollars in funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to help tribes across the country improve their drinking water and water delivery systems.

At the September Symposium, both federal and state officials echoed the need for tribes to be included at the bargaining table.

“Tribes across the Basin will also continue to play a vital role,” said Interior Secretary Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. “Indian tribes have water rights, and not only are they deeply affected by the drought, but they have been and will be invaluable partners in finding solutions.”  

Other Challenges

Before considering any major changes to the river’s guiding principles, water managers will have to ensure that the country of Mexico is included in the process.

Mexico, already dealing with water shortages in several of its northern cities, is taking cuts to its river supply in 2022 and 2023 under binational agreements. Tensions over sharing the Colorado River have traditionally waxed and waned but the neighboring countries have been able to reach a series of water management agreements in recent decades. 

Members of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which oversees boundary and water issues between the U.S. and Mexico, said they are confident the two countries can continue communicating and building on previous partnerships.    

“I feel that we’re going to go very far and be able to identify what we need to solve the issues along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Maria-Elena Giner, the U.S. commissioner to the IBWC.

Thus far, talks regarding the river’s future have focused on limiting impacts to cities, farms and tribes. But reserving enough water to ensure the Basin’s fish and wildlife survive the drought is another thorny task water managers are wrangling with.

Environmental groups and other nongovernment organizations argue they are key river partners that can bring myriad resources and ideas to the brainstorming process.

“When the system is not sustainable, it’s not resilient and the environment loses. It’s the one that gets sacrificed first,” said Taylor Hawes, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River program director. “Finding solutions that do not sacrifice the environment, that do not look at the environment as a sacrificial lamb, need to be part of our collective path forward.”

Meanwhile, new rules that would require Lower Basin users to account for water lost in large reservoirs to evaporation or leaky water delivery infrastructure are in the works. Currently, Upper Basin states are charged for evaporation losses but the Lower Basin is not.

Federal officials estimate as much as 10 percent of the river’s flow evaporates annually, including more than 1 million acre-feet from the Lower Basin. The federal government has announced it may change the evaporation accounting practices by the end of 2024, meaning the Lower Basin could take a significant cut to its share.     

“In these serious times, we need to take the overdue step of assessing how to account for those losses throughout the Basin. This is another tough reality that we must work together to address,” Haaland said.

As water managers attempt to navigate the river’s mounting crises, they can turn to a variety of recent success stories for inspiration.

Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law and the former longtime general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is an advocate for extensively rethinking how the Colorado River is managed. (Image: University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law)

Cities such as Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have shown the ability to decouple water demand from population growth. Restoration efforts at the long-neglected Salton Sea are producing positive results. An innovative water sharing deal is providing economic benefits to the Jicarilla Apache Nation as well as water security for New Mexico and increased river flows for endangered species of fish.

These beneficial programs and decisions — in a refreshing twist from a river history dominated by men — are being crafted with the input of women in high-ranking positions, creating hope on a river in dire straits. 

Instead of court battles that could lead to a federal judge taking over management of the Colorado River, water users need to negotiate with open minds as they chart a path for the lifeline that means so much to so many, said Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. To cut through the paralysis that has bogged down negotiations, everyone will have to show the courage to deviate from old agreements and assumptions and prepare for cuts.

“We’re talking about a body of law and a structure we’ve lived with predicated on 17 to 18 million acre-feet,” Mulroy said, “and a reality that has 9 to 11 million acre-feet in the river – the two don’t mesh.”

Think big! #Colorado #water projects on tap for $800M to $1.2B in federal money — @WaterEdCO

The Chimney Hollow Reservoir under construction in Colorado’s Larimer County, July 8, 2022. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Thy Anh Vo):

Since 1962, people in Colorado’s Lower Arkansas Valley have heard talks of a pipeline that would bring them clean drinking water from Pueblo Reservoir upstream.

The 103-mile Arkansas Valley Conduit promises to be a long-term source of clean water for the region, where many people rely on poor-tasting and contaminated well water. The project was planned as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, but for decades, the pipeline was too expensive for the small towns to afford, $600 million by today’s estimates.

If the project stays on schedule, the pipeline will reach its easternmost destination, the town of Lamar, Colorado, in 2035.

But with $60 million in new funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, officials are hoping to cut the project’s remaining 13-year timeline in half — and ensure steady access to clean water for more than 50,000 people living east of Pueblo along the Arkansas River.

“People have waited 60 years to build this,” says Chris Woodka, a spokesperson for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has made it entirely feasible that we could do this in a much shorter time.”

Also known as the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the 2021 law authorizes more than $550 billion in new investment that will be spread across the nation, including more than $50 billion for clean water programs and another $8.5 billion for Western water needs. The historic federal investment comes as Colorado and other Western states face growing pressures from climate change, drought and a regional crisis along the Colorado River.

Colorado windfall?

Colorado could receive between $800 million and $1.2 billion for water projects alone, according to an early estimate from Gov. Jared Polis’ budget office. A companion bill that passed in August 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act, dedicates another $4 billion for drought resiliency in Western states.

The funding won’t resolve the drought. But the law is an opportunity to fund critical repairs on neglected water systems, many of which were built at the turn of the century.

Amy Moyer, director of strategic partnerships at the Colorado River District, hopes it will inspire water managers and public servants, who are used to engineering workarounds and funding projects piecemeal, to be more ambitious.

“It’s really giving [people] the license to think big,” Moyer says. The river district is giving grants to entities in its 15-county area to conduct studies and develop competitive applications for the federal money. “Projects that were previously unachievable because of a huge financial cost might be back on the table.”

How much money Colorado ultimately gets, however, will depend on efforts by state agencies, regional boards and advocacy groups to help communities, especially small and rural areas, navigate funding programs and pull together competitive applications. Entities eligible for funds include cities and towns, special districts, tribes, water suppliers, and nonprofit cooperative associations like mutual ditch companies.

“We have so many small water users and water providers that are maxed out by just trying to keep their systems running,” says Moyer, whose team has been helping people wade through federal programs to match their projects to the right opportunity.

Largest investment ever

The $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the largest single federal investment in the nation’s water infrastructure ever, with billions available for programs aimed at improving clean water access, fixing century-old facilities and dams, and investing in the health of watersheds and forests.

Most of the one-time dollars will flow through longstanding programs. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program, which invests in projects that improve water efficiency, will get $400 million through the BIL. Another Reclamation program for Water Storage, Groundwater Storage and Conveyance Projects will get $1.15 billion, almost twice the total that the program received between 2016 and 2021.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, will receive $50.4 billion for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure improvements, including $15 billion to replace lead service lines. States will receive those dollars through their state revolving funds, programs that provide low-interest loans and use the money that borrowers pay back, through interest and principal, to provide additional future funding.

Colorado’s revolving funds — administered jointly by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, and the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority — will get $680 million over the next five years, or nearly three times usual annual funding levels.

The money won’t make up for decades of neglect of the country’s water infrastructure; a 2020 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $109 billion each year over the next two decades to catch up. The EPA’s own estimate calls for more than $744 billion in capital investments over that time period to bring communities into compliance with federal water quality and safety standards.

It’s still a “tremendous opportunity” for utilities to make a serious dent in their deferred infrastructure needs, says Tommy Holmes, legislative director for the American Water Works Association.

“We’ve got to use this money effectively if we want to see any future federal investments on a big scale,” says Holmes.

Finally, cash

Other programs are getting funded for the very first time. Reclamation’s aging infrastructure account, created in 2009 to help fund operations and maintenance work at Reclamation facilities, has until now never received any money. Most of the agency’s facilities are between 60 and 100 years old. BIL allocates $3.2 billion to that account, or 39% of Reclamation’s total funding under the law.

The law also sets aside $1 billion for water initiatives in rural communities nationwide.

Tribal communities will receive $3.5 billion through the Indian Health Service, a recognition of the historical dearth of funding for tribal water infrastructure. Nearly 48% of tribal homes do not have access to clean drinking water or basic sanitation, according to a 2021 report from the Water and Tribes Initiative, with Native American families 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has been awarded more than $1.1 million in BIL dollars for two wastewater projects, including a project to repair damaged sewage pipes and improve service to more than 1,000 homes. Another $1 million will help improve drinking water service and water pressure to more than 152 homes in Towaoc, the headquarters of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southern Colorado.

The $3.5 billion represents the entire construction funding gap identified by IHS to bring tribal communities to federal standards and tackle a backlog of critical clean water projects.

“This is the first time in history that gap has been filled with funding,” says water policy expert Anne Castle, who is co-leader of Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities, a project of the Water and Tribes Initiative. “I don’t want to suggest it is a complete eradication of the problem of lack of access to water and sanitation in Indian country, but it is a huge forward step.”

Pressure to act

Groups will need to act relatively quickly to pull together applications for the federal funding opportunity, which can take months to years to prepare.

At the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, general manager Steve Pope is used to navigating federal requirements. The association manages a federally owned system that diverts water from the Gunnison Basin to over 76,000 acres of land in Montrose and Delta counties.

The association hired a consultant to write a grant for a $6 million project to line a one-mile section of canal. Planning on any of its bigger pursuits, which range from $25 to $30 million, are still eight or nine months away from the grant-writing stage, a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Pope says.

“We’re probably going to get one crack at it,” says Pope. “You really have to have your ducks in a row.”

Small organizations with limited capacity may decide it’s not worth the work, says Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Many projects need engineering work or a feasibility study to make their application competitive. To go after federal dollars, groups also need to secure state and local matching funds.

“For me to put in the effort to go after federal funds, I probably wouldn’t do it unless I had a significant project to go after,” says Chavez.

The advantage will go to “shovel-ready” projects that have already been studied and planned. Colorado’s revolving funds, for example, have so far awarded BIL-funded loans to four projects, all of which have been in development for years.

“There’s a lot of pressure to get this money out the door as quickly as possible,” says Alex Funk, director of water and senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which is convening policy groups to strategize and support environmentally sustainable projects funded by the law.

A slow roll-out

Although the legislation was passed in November 2021, the money has been slow to roll out. Reclamation and state revolving funds will award funding on a rolling basis over the next five years, meaning organizations that aren’t yet ready to apply can try for a later round. Many programs have not released any funds, while some new programs have yet to release the criteria for applications.

Unlike the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which requires public agencies to spend all of their dollars by the end of 2026, there’s no uniform deadline for when organizations must spend their BIL funds.

The state revolving funds have one year to obligate the BIL dollars they receive each year and another two years to spend them, says Keith McLaughlin, executive director of the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA), which serves as the banker for Colorado’s revolving funds.

In Northwest Colorado, the 126-year-old Maybell Ditch still delivers water from the Yampa River to 18 agricultural producers. Adjusting the headgates – which were built in the 1960s and are now broken – requires a one-mile hike into the canyon and the effort of a few people, says Mike Camblin, a rancher and volunteer manager of the Maybell Irrigation District.

Now with a $1.92 million BIL grant, the district hopes to begin construction next year on a project to build an access road, replace the headgates with an automated system, and to reconstruct portions of the ditch to address low-flow areas and large debris that make it impassable for boaters and too shallow and warm for fish.

The district and its partners worked for nearly five years to raise money for the project, get support in the community and from the Moffatt County Board of County Commissioners, and secure a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

All that helped the project’s application to Reclamation’s WaterSMART Grants program, says Diana Lane, sustainable food and water program director at The Nature Conservancy, the project’s fiscal partner. The application criteria awards points for projects that build on state or local planning efforts.

Finding workers

Amid a nationwide labor shortage, finding the skilled workers and planners to move projects forward expediently will be challenging.

Many state and local governments are still trying to fill positions that opened up months ago. And while a large water utility or municipality has staff dedicated to grant writing or to support project development, smaller organizations often need to hire a consultant to write a grant, conduct a study, or do engineering work.

That kind of expertise can be hard to come by, especially in rural Colorado communities.

At the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance, executive director Greg Peterson is focused on a watershed program under the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which received $918 million in BIL funding, that could help irrigators and agricultural users address issues like soil erosion and flood mitigation. Local entities only have to put up a quarter of the costs of a project and can receive up to $25 million.

Peterson is working with eight different communities on applications for the program. He struggled to find a Colorado expert with experience applying to the fund and ended up reaching out to a group in Oregon for help.

“If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t go after [the money] at all, probably,” he says.

State, regional groups step up

Early rounds of BIL grants went to states like Arizona and California that had more “shovel-ready” projects to put forward, says Moyer.

This year, officials are hoping money set aside by state lawmakers will give Colorado a competitive edge and help communities that don’t have the capacity to go after grants on their own.

“We’ve been really impressed with Colorado leadership in terms of recognizing that you have to work for these funds,” says Funk. “I think Colorado is actually a big competitor for this funding and could be a model for other states.”

The governor’s office estimates that Colorado needs $1 billion in local or state matching funds to successfully secure $4.1 to $7.1 billion in federal infrastructure dollars. Most federal programs require a local funding contribution, with some as high as 75%.

In addition to the $80 million in state matching funds set aside by state lawmakers, the state legislature also set aside $5 million for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to provide technical assistance for groups going after the dollars. Half of that will be available as direct grants for agencies to hire their own contractors, while the other half will pay for in-house contractors at CWCB who will provide assistance.

State agencies are also staffing up to conduct outreach about opportunities under the BIL. The Department of Local Affairs and Office of Recovery are hosting roundtables and webinars to answer questions from prospective applicants. Each of the state’s regional councils of government will receive funding to hire a coordinator to help local groups navigate federal and state programs. 

“We want to make sure communities have the opportunity to say yes or no to these funding opportunities – we don’t want a community to say, ‘I wasn’t aware,’” says Meredith Marshall, infrastructure coordinator at the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

This article first appeared in Water Education Colorado’s Fall 2022 issue of Headwaters Magazine.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

Thy Anh Vo is a freelance journalist based in Colorado. She’s passionate about journalism that shows people how government works and how to hold it accountable. Thy has reported for The Colorado Sun, ProPublica, The Mercury News in San Jose, and Voice of OC. 

New report, Nature-Based Solutions, published for the National #Climate Task Force — NOAA #ActOnClimate

Cover of the NBS report, released at COP27. Credit: White House

Click the link to read the article on the NOAA website (Genie Bey):

At COP27 in Egypt, the Biden-Harris Administration released the Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap, an outline of strategic recommendations to put America on a path that will unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions to address climate change, nature loss, and inequity. This marks the first time the U.S. has developed a strategy to scale up nature-based solutions. The report was developed in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 14072, which recognizes the importance of forests and other nature-based solutions to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen communities and local economies. Led by the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Climate Advisor, the report was developed in consultation with numerous agencies, and identifies key opportunities for greater deployment of nature-based solutions across the Federal government. 

The Roadmap calls on expanding the use of nature-based solutions and outlines five strategic areas of focus for the federal government: (1) updating policies, (2) unlocking funding, (3) leading with federal facilities and assets, (4) training the nature-based solutions workforce, and (5) prioritizing research, innovation, knowledge, and adaptive learning that will advance nature-based solutions. Genie Bey, Zac Cannizzo, Chelsea Combest-Friedman, Bhaskar Submaranian, and Lisa Vaughan represented NOAA’s Climate Program Office as contributors to this report and the accompanying resource guide.

Access the White House Fact Sheet here » 

Access the NBS Roadmap Report here »

Access the NBS Resource Guide here »

Read more about nature-based solutions at COP27 here »

For more information, contact Genie Bey.

Crop residue November 4, 2021. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

Opinion: Why you should attend the West Slope Water Summit — The #Montrose Daily Press #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Register here. Click the link to read the guest column on The Montrose Daily Press website (Sue Hansen). Here’s an excerpt:

What we need now is your help; I invite you to join us for the West Slope Water Summit on Nov. 10 at the Montrose County Event Center. Even though we are a small community on the western slope, arming our community members with knowledge, encouraging conservation, and researching potential solutions is a role that we all play in the Colorado River system. In its fourth year, the West Slope Water Summit’s theme is “troubled waters” featuring an impressive number of prominent water and conservation experts.

The program begins with Andy Mueller, Executive Director of the Colorado River District, who will address adapting the 1922 Compact to today’s reality. Next, Don Day, Meteorologist Day Weather Inc., is presenting on the State of the Weather: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Before the free lunch, our local Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association Manager Steve Pope will provide an update to the Colorado River Basin Drought Response as part of a panel of water user board members.

Spots are still available — we recently moved from the conference room to the arena to accommodate a larger crowd. Register at westslopewatersummit.com

River Bottom Park Uncompahgre River. Photo credit: PhilipScheetzPhoto via the City of Montrose

The Water in the West Symposium (November 2-3, 2022) will bring together global experts in #water — #ColoradoState University

South Platte River near CSU Spur. Photo credit: Colorado State University

Register here. Click the link to read the release on the Colorado State University website (Anthony Lane):

This year’s CSU Spur Water in the West Symposium, to be held Nov. 2-3 in downtown Denver, will bring together policymakers, researchers, and experts from the business, nonprofit, and agriculture sectors to look globally for lessons and strategies with the potential to inform how Colorado and other western states respond to the region’s water challenges.  

The event’s theme, “Global Water: Successes and Solutions,” underlies a program that includes panel discussions and keynote speeches aimed at starting conversations about how communities and the entire region can respond and adapt to the pressures created by a growing population within a changing environment.   

“Water in the West, now in its fifth year, has always focused on creating opportunities for speakers and audience members to connect while exploring solutions from unexpected places and sectors,” said Jocelyn Hittle, the CSU System’s associate vice chancellor for CSU Spur and special projects. “This year, we are bringing speakers with wide-ranging expertise — from ag to business to investing — together from across the world to present solutions that might be useful here in the American West. We hope the CSU community and others from across the West will join us for a stellar speaker line-up, a solutions-oriented approach, and a chance to build new, and perhaps unexpected, connections.”

Speakers and panel discussions 

Among the speakers at the 2022 Symposium is Jay Famiglietti, a water researcher who leads the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Panel discussions on cities, agriculture, and innovation opportunities will seek to inform western water discussions by drawing on the experiences of experts from government agencies, private industry, and municipalities as far away as Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa.  

Two additional panel discussions will examine lessons and opportunities related to international water agreements. One will focus on the Columbia River Treaty, which the United States and Canada signed in 1961 and governs the construction and operation of dams on a river that begins in the mountains of British Columbia, flows south through eastern Washington, and then turns west, defining the border between Oregon and Washington on its way to the Pacific. The other will explore solutions involving the United States and Mexico, both of which rely on water from two rivers, the Colorado and Rio Grande, that have their headwaters in Colorado. 

In the future, the Water in the West Symposium will be held at the CSU Spur Hydro building, which opens in January 2023.

The Symposium switched to a virtual format in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID precautions. This year, attendees have the option of attending in-person sessions at the Seawell Ballroom or participating virtually. A combined reception at CSU Spur the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 2, will bring Symposium participants together with the ranchers, farmers, conservationists, land managers, scientists, and others attending Regenerate 2022, an annual conference focused on sharing knowledge and building a culture of resilience. 

The event will take place just weeks before the Spur campus’s third building, Hydro, opens in January. In coming years, Hydro will house the Water in the West Symposium and a range of programs and initiatives focused on water research, conservation, and education. Among these will be Denver Water’s new water quality lab, which will serve to inform the public while providing capacity for more than 200,000 tests each year to monitor the quality of water before treatment and after it is prepared for distribution to customers across the metropolitan area.   

Program details and registration information for the 2022 Water in the West Symposium are available at csuspur.org/witw/ 

The new Water Cycle map is now available: See how humans affect the water cycle — USGS #ActOnClimate

Diagram credit: USGS

Click the link to read about the water cycle on the USGS website:

The water cycle describes where water is on Earth and how it moves. Human water use, land use, and climate change all impact the water cycle. By understanding these impacts, we can work toward using water sustainably. 

What is the water cycle?

The water cycle describes where water is on Earth and how it moves. Water is stored in the atmosphere, on the land surface, and below the ground. It can be a liquid, a solid, or a gas. Liquid water can be fresh or saline (salty). Water moves between the places it is stored. Water moves at large scales, through watersheds, the atmosphere, and below the Earth’s surface. Water moves at very small scales too. It is in us, plants, and other organisms. Human activities impact the water cycle, affecting where water is stored, how it moves, and how clean it is.

Pools store water 

Oceans store 96% of all water on Earth. Ocean water is saline, meaning it’s salty. On land, saline water is stored in saline lakes. The rest of the water on Earth is fresh water. Fresh water is stored in liquid form in freshwater lakes, artificial reservoirs, rivers, and wetlands. Water is stored in solid, frozen form in ice sheets and glaciers, and in snowpack at high elevations or near Earth’s poles. Water vapor is a gas and is stored as atmospheric moisture over the ocean and land. In the soil, frozen water is stored as permafrost and liquid water is stored as soil moisture. Deeper below ground, liquid water is stored as groundwater in aquifers. Water in groundwater aquifers is found within cracks and pores in the rock. 

Fluxes move water between pools 

As it moves, water can change form between liquid, solid, and gas. Circulation mixes water in the oceans and transports water vapor in the atmosphere. Water moves between the atmosphere and the surface through evaporationevapotranspiration, and precipitation. Water moves across the surface through snowmeltrunoff, and streamflow. Water moves into the ground through infiltration and groundwater recharge. Underground, groundwater flows within aquifers. Groundwater can return to the surface through natural discharge into rivers, the ocean, and from springs

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

What drives the water cycle? 

Water moves naturally and because of human actions. Energy from the sun and the force of gravity drive the continual movement of water between pools. The sun’s energy causes liquid water to evaporate into water vapor. Evapotranspiration is the main way water moves into the atmosphere from the land surface and oceans. Gravity causes water to flow downward on land. It causes rain, snow, and hail to fall from clouds. 

Greeley Irrigation Ditch No. 3 construction via Greeley Water

Humans alter the water cycle 

In addition to natural processes, human water use affects where water is stored and how water moves. We redirect rivers. We build dams to store water. We drain water from wetlands for development. We use water from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater aquifers. We use that water to supply our homes and communities. We use it for agricultural irrigation and grazing livestock. We use it in industrial activities like thermoelectric power generationmining, and aquaculture

We also affect water quality. In agricultural and urban areas, irrigation and precipitation wash fertilizers and pesticides into rivers and groundwater. Power plants and factories return heated and contaminated water to rivers. Runoff carries chemicals, sediment, and sewage into rivers and lakes. Downstream from these sources, contaminated water can cause harmful algal blooms, spread diseases, and harm habitats for wildlife. 

The water cycle and climate change 

Climate change is actively affecting the water cycle. It is impacting water quantity and timing. Precipitation patterns are changing. The frequency, intensity, and length of extreme weather events, like floods or droughts, are also changing. Ocean sea levels are rising, leading to coastal flooding. Climate change is also impacting water quality. It is causing ocean acidification which damages the shells and skeletons of many marine organisms. Climate change increases the likelihood and intensity of wildfires, which introduces unwanted pollutants from soot and ash into nearby lakes and streams.

What determines water availability? 

Humans and other organisms rely on water for life. The amount of water that is available depends on how much water there is in each pool (water quantity). Water availability also depends on when and how fast water moves (water timing) through the water cycle. Finally, water availability depends on how clean the water is (water quality). By understanding human impacts on the water cycle, we can work toward using water sustainably. 

Read more about the components of the water cycle in more detail: 

Atmosphere  ·  Condensation  ·  Evaporation  ·  Evapotranspiration  ·  Freshwater lakes and rivers  ·  Groundwater flow  ·  Groundwater storage  ·  Ice and snow  ·  Infiltration  ·  Oceans  ·  Precipitation  ·  Snowmelt  ·  Springs  ·  Streamflow  ·  Sublimation  ·  Surface runoff 

#Colorado OKs drinking treated #wastewater; now to convince the public it’s a good idea — @WaterEdCO

Filtration pipes at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s wastewater recycling demonstration plant. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Colorado regulators, after years of study, negotiations and testing, approved a new rule that clears the way for drinking treated wastewater this week, one of only a handful of states in the country to do so.

The action came in a unanimous vote of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission Oct. 11.

Direct potable reuse (DPR) involves sophisticated filtering and disinfection of sewage water for drinking water purposes, with no environmental buffer, such as a wetland or river, between the wastewater treatment plant and drinking water treatment plant. That water is then sent out through the city’s drinking water system.

Colorado joins Ohio, South Carolina and New Mexico in setting up a regulated DPR system, with California, Florida and Arizona working to develop a similar regulatory scheme, according to Laura Belanger, a water reuse specialist and policy advisor at Western Resource Advocates.

Ron Falco, safe drinking water program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), said the new regulation would provide communities across the state important access to a new, safe source of drinking water, a critical factor in a water-short state.

“This is going to be a need in Colorado and we want to be prepared,” he said. “Can DPR be done safely? Our answer to that is yes.”

Aurora has had a reuse system in place for more than a decade that also uses treated wastewater. But Aurora’s water is treated and released from the wastewater treatment plant into the South Platte River, where it flows through the river’s alluvial aquifer, before Aurora pumps it out through groundwater wells. Aurora then mixes it with raw mountain water before treating it and distributing it to customers. That practice is known as indirect potable reuse — there’s an environmental buffer between the wastewater plant and the drinking water plant, in Aurora’s case, that’s the river. Indirect potable reuse is used by several big cities nationwide, including San Diego.

Graphic by Chas Chamberlin, Source: Western Resource Advocates

Under Colorado’s new regulation, water providers will be required to show they have the technical, managerial and financial resources needed to successfully treat wastewater.

Communities will also be required to show how they will remove contaminants in their watersheds before the water reaches rivers and streams.

Wastewater intended for drinking will require extensive disinfection and filtration, among other techniques, all of which are intended to eliminate pathogens like viruses and bacteria, and remove drugs and chemicals to safe and/or non-detectable levels, according to CDPHE.

And any community that seeks to add treated wastewater to its drinking water system will have to set up extensive public communication programs to show the public its process and to help educate residents about this new water source.

Communities will also have to collect a year’s worth of wastewater samples and prove that they can be successfully treated to meet the new standards.

Western Resource Advocates’ Belanger, who has long advocated for the use of DPR, said the approval has been a long time coming and is cause for celebration.

“We believe DPR is a very important water supply for our communities now and into the future. We feel [this new regulation] is robust and protective of public health.”

But key to tapping the new water source will be helping the public get over the “ick factor,” officials said.

Jason Rogers, vice chair of the Water Quality Control Commission who is also Commerce City’s director of community development, said public outreach should be carefully monitored to ensure it is actually reaching people in all communities and that it is being well-received.

“When thinking about that public meeting, where does it occur? People in some of these communities may have a high reliance on multi-modal transportation, it may not allow for that meaningful engagement,” Rogers said. “And if it isn’t being well received, we need to have them go out and do more public engagement.”

With a mega drought continuing to grip the Colorado River Basin and other Western regions, Colorado’s multi-year process to develop a sturdy new drinking water regulation drew widespread attention, said Tyson Ingels, the head drinking water engineer at the state’s Water Quality Control Division.

Ingels said Utah and Arizona participated in Colorado’s work sessions, demonstrating the interest in what could become an important new water source in the West. Arizona is just now kicking off its own rulemaking process, Ingels said, and Utah, while not yet regulating DPR, has seen a handful of communities proposing to use DPR.

Colorado’s rulemaking process, which dates back to 2015, was at times fractious, with water providers and wastewater operators concerned that the proposed regulation would interfere with what they’re doing already and could add burdensome costs to efforts to develop new water sources.

Ingels said the addition of a third-party facilitator was essential to resolving everyone’s concerns.

Jeni Arndt, a former lawmaker who also serves on the water quality commission, said finalizing the groundbreaking new regulation signaled an important step forward in navigating difficult public policy issues. [Editor’s note: Arndt is a former board member of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.]

“Gone are the days when we were struggling to come to agreement,” Arndt said. “I’m very excited to move forward into a new era.”

On Tuesday, several water utilities spoke in favor of the new regulation, including the Cherokee Metropolitan District, Castle Rock, and the City of Aurora.

Matt Benak, Castle Rock’s water resources manager, said the regulation will give his town the certainty it needs to move forward developing new water supplies. “DPR is a critical tool for sustainable water resources. Creating this regulation will allow water providers like us to plan and to potentially implement DPR,” he said.

Tuesday’s approval was contingent on fixing minor clerical errors in the regulation. Commissioners will give final formal approval of the regulation at its November meeting.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Prairie Waters schematic via Aurora Water.

Inaugural #ColoradoRiver Water Leaders class releases recommendations for post 2026 river operating guidelines — Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification

Water Education Foundation Inaugural ColoradoRiver Water Leaders class with their suggested 2026 operating guidelines for the river basin. Photo credit: The Water Education Foundation

Click the link to read the announcement from the Water Education Foundation website:

Our inaugural 2022 Colorado River Water Leaders class completed its six-month program with a report outlining key policy recommendations for managing the Colorado River after existing operating guidelines expire in 2026.

The class of 13 up-and-coming leaders included engineers, lawyers, resource specialists, scientists and others working for public, private and nongovernmental organizations from across the river’s basin. The class had full editorial control to choose its recommendations.

Class members presented their recommendations at the Foundation’s biennial Colorado River Symposium, an invitation-only event in Santa Fe, N.M., whose audience included key water managers, state and federal officials, tribal leaders and other interested groups from throughout the Colorado River Basin.

The biennial Colorado River Water Leaders program is modeled after our California Water Leaders program, which allows participants to deepen their knowledge on water, enhance individual leadership skills and prepare participants to take an active, cooperative approach to decision-making about water resource issues. Leading experts and top policymakers served as mentors to class members. Our next Colorado River Water Leaders class will be in 2024.

Among the Colorado River Water Leaders’ key recommendations:

– Improve the planning process through increased frequency, communication and engagement with water interests

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

– Establish a more holistic approach to systems management that balances water use with available supply and inflows that provides flexibility and allows the system to recover and build resilience.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

– Leverage the political power of the Colorado River Basin to push Congress for large-scale, predictable federal investment.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

– Incorporate the environment in the next round of Colorado River operating guidelines.

Bills to create year-round water committee, explore #water storage via snowmaking head to #Colorado capitol — @WaterEdCO #2023coleg

Colorado state capitol building. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Larry Morandi):

The Colorado General Assembly’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee recommended two bills for consideration next session, which will begin in January 2023, at its third and final meeting on Sept. 22. One would change the committee from an interim to a year-round committee, and the other would create a task force to explore the use of snowmaking by ski areas as an alternative form of water storage.

Joint Water Committee

George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South

The committee unanimously recommended a bill that would change its status from an interim committee — limited to meeting after the legislature adjourns each session — to a year-round committee that would meet at least four times each year. Its purposes would remain the same: “contributing to and monitoring the conservation, use, development, and financing of the water resources of Colorado for the general welfare of its inhabitants; identifying, monitoring, and addressing Colorado agriculture issues; and reviewing and proposing water resources and agriculture legislation.” And its make-up would not change: 10 members, with five appointed by the president of the Senate and two by the minority leader; and five appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives after consultation with the minority leader.

In proposing the bill, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, said he was responding to a “sense of urgency, and really approaching almost emergency status in the state about water issues.” He pointed to “challenges from Nebraska on the South Platte, [and] declining reservoirs in the Colorado River system” that would benefit from giving the committee “the ability to meet as needed throughout the course of the year.”

High-Altitude Storage

The committee also unanimously recommended a bill that would create a seven-member task force to study and report back on the feasibility of using high-altitude snowmaking to serve as water storage. Task force members would include the state engineer, two state legislators, a representative of the ski industry and one from the whitewater rafting industry, an engineer with experience in high-altitude hydrology, and staff from the U.S. Forest Service. If the bill passes, the task force would meet no later than Nov. 1, 2023, and report its findings and any recommendations to the committee by June 1, 2024.

Snowmaking. Photo credit: Allen Best

At an earlier committee meeting in August, Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said he had been mulling the concept of an alternative water storage system and this approach “would allow ski resorts to blow other people’s water as snow up into the high woods to extend the snowmelt by 30-45 days and literally allow them to create storage up high as snow.” He thought this could be a “transformative way of storing water in the state of Colorado that does some things for an industry we depend on, and does some things to delay water coming down, in some cases, until we really need it.”

In introducing the bill, Rep. McKean acknowledged that “this is intended to be a conversation” to explore whether the idea makes sense. He was looking for the task force to help determine if “there is a financial and logistical way of increasing storage at high altitude.”

Other Issues

The committee had seven other bills before it but all were withdrawn by their sponsors, citing the need for additional work. Among those receiving testimony was a bill that would restrict a homeowners association from unreasonably requiring the use of either rock or turf grass on more than a certain percentage of a homeowner’s landscape and providing an option for drought-tolerant plantings on the rest of the property. Another bill would provide legal protections and financial incentives to treat nontributary water that is “developed,” or brought to the surface, as a byproduct of oil and gas operations for other beneficial uses.

Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at larrymorandi@comcast.net.

Tribal breakthrough? Four states, six tribes announce first formal talks on #ColoradoRiver negotiating authority — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education website (Jerd Smith):

Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.

The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.

The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.

“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.

The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.

For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.

Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.

Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.

Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.

For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”

During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.

Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.

Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.

Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.

“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

Farms use 80% of the West’s water. Some in #Colorado use less, a lot less — @WaterEdCO

Cattle of the Bow & Arrow herd, graze in a frosted corn field on the 7,770 acre Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch Enterprise near Towoac, Colorado. About 700 head of cattle, graze on the farm and ranch lands during the winter. During the summer the herd is moved to mountain pastures. (Dean Krakel photo, special to EWC)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Allen Best):

At Spring Born, a greenhouse in western Colorado near Silt, you see few, if any, dirty fingernails. Why would you? Hands never touch soil in this 113,400-square-foot greenhouse.

You do see automation, long trays filled with peat sliding on conveyors under computer-programmed seeding devices. Once impregnated, the trays roll into the greenhouse.

Thirty days after sprouting, trays of green and red lettuce, kale, arugula, and mustard greens slide from the greenhouse to be shorn, weighed and sealed in plastic clamshell packages. Hands never touch the produce.

Spring Born says it needs 95% less water compared to leafy greens grown using Colorado River water a thousand miles downstream in Arizona and California. That region supplies more than 90% of the nation’s lettuce. At Silt, the water comes from two shallow wells that plumb the riverine aquifer of the Colorado River, delivering about 20 gallons per minute. The water is then treated before it is piped into the greenhouse. This is agriculture like nowhere else.

he all-mechanized operations at Spring Born’s large greenhouse near Silt, Colo., produce leafy greens by maximizing the use of water. Spring Born says it needs 95% less water compared to greens grown using Colorado River water 1,000 miles downstream in Arizona and California.
From the Hip Photo courtesy of Spring Born

Great precautions are taken to avoid contamination and prevent the spread of pathogens. Those entering the greenhouse must don protective equipment.

There’s no opportunity for passing birds or critters to leave droppings. As such, there is no need for chlorine washes, which most operations use to disinfect. Those washes also dry out the greenery, shortening the shelf life and making it less tasty. The Spring Born packages have an advertised shelf life of 23 days.

Spring Born likely constitutes the most capital-intensive agricultural enterprise in Colorado. Total investment in the 250-acre operation, which also includes traditional hay farming and cattle production, has been $30 million. The technology and engineering come from Europe, which has 30 such greenhouses. The United States has a handful.

Agribusiness in Colorado generates $47 billion in economic activity but it ties to one reality: The future is one of less water. So how exactly can agriculture use water more judiciously?

The Thirsty Future

A Desert Research Institute study published in April 2022 concluded that the warming atmosphere is a thirstier one. Modeling in the study suggests that crops in some parts of Colorado already need 8% to 15% more water than 40 years ago. Agricultural adaptations to use less water are happening out of necessity.

Grahic credit: Colorado Climate Center

Colorado has warmed about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 120 years. Warming has accelerated, with the five hottest summers on record occurring since 2000.

Higher temperatures impact the amount of snowfall and amount of snowpack converted to water runoff. “As the climate warms, crops and forested ecosystems alike use water more rapidly,” says Peter Goble, a research associate at the Colorado Climate Center. “As a result, a higher fraction of our precipitation goes into feeding thirsty soils and a lower fraction into filling our lakes, streams and reservoirs. Essentially, a warmer future is a drier future.”

This year was a good example of the drying trend.

Dolores River watershed

Snowpack was around average in the San Juan Mountains, but spring arrived hot and windy. Snow was all but gone by late May, surpassed in its hurried departure only in 2018 and 2002. Farmers dependent on water from the Dolores River, still reeling from last year’s meager supplies, were required to accept lesser supplies yet again as the growing season began this year.

The Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, the most southwesterly agriculture operation in Colorado, expected less than 30% of its regular water delivery from McPhee Reservoir. This was on top of a marginal year in 2021, too. Simon Martinez, general manager of the operation, said just 15 of the 110 center pivots had crops under cultivation in early June. Employment was cut in half, and the 650-head cow-calf operation had been slimmed to 570.

Pressured by compacts

The warming climate is not alone in spurring adaptations. In many river basins, irrigators must also worry about delivery of water to downstream states specified by interstate compacts.

Water conservation districts formed in the last 20 years are paying farmers to decrease pumping and planting to save the water that remains in the aquifers, comply with compacts, and transition to less water use.

Kansas River Basin including the Republican River watershed. Map credit: By Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4390886

Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District, in northeastern Colorado were successful in voluntarily retiring 4,000 acres by June 2020. They are confident about retiring 10,000 acres in the area between Wray and Burlington before 2025. They’re less sure of achieving the 25,000 acres that compact compliance will require by 2029.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District directors in south-central Colorado have an even greater lift. They must figure out how to retire 40,000 irrigated acres by 2029. They’re at 13,000.

High commodity prices have discouraged farmer participation. The pot of local, state and federal money hasn’t been sufficient to fund high enough incentives to compete with commodity pricing. A bill, SB22-028, Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, which passed in the Colorado Legislature in May, will allocate $60 million to both the Republican and Rio Grande basins to help them comply with interstate river compacts by reducing the acreage outlined above. The law says that if voluntary reductions cannot be attained, Colorado may resort to mandatory reductions in groundwater extraction.

From Sprinklers to New Crops

Even as center-pivot sprinklers are removed in the Republican River Basin and San Luis Valley, they are going up in the Grand Valley of western Colorado. There, instead of drafting groundwater, they are distributing Colorado River water, because they are reducing labor costs and reducing water use.

The geography of the valley from Palisade to Fruita and Loma does not immediately favor center pivots. They work best as a pie within a square, a full 40 or 160 acres. Parcels in the Grand Valley tend to be more rectangular. That means a pivot can arc maybe three-quarters of a circle. That slows the payoff on investment.

Why the pivot, so to speak, on pivots? Perry Cabot, a water resource specialist with Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Fruita, sees two, sometimes overlapping, motivations. (Cabot also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)

The greater motivation is the desire to save labor. That itself is good, he says, because the investment reflects an intention to continue farming. “People are obviously doing it for the long haul,” he says.

The other motivation appears to be water related. “The feedback I get is, to paraphrase the farmers, at some point in the future we are going to have less water to farm with and so we must prepare for that,” Cabot says.

Incremental improvements have improved efficiency. Experiments at the CSU research center in Walsh have shown conclusively the advantage of long-drop nozzles that spray the water just a couple feet off the ground, reducing evaporation.

Jason Lorenz with Agro Engineering talks about irrigation, soil moisture and chemistry during a soil workshop for students in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Courtesy of AgroEngineering

Technology can help perfect a producer’s irrigation set up. Consider work in the San Luis Valley by Agro Engineering, crop consultants who seek to assist growers in producing maximum value with minimum water application. Potatoes, the valley’s largest cash crop, thrive in warm, but not hot, days and cool nights. They need 16 to 18 inches of water per year, of which 13 to 15 inches comes from irrigation. This includes two inches applied during planting, to moisten soils sufficiently for germination. They do not do well with too much water, explains Jason Lorenz, an agricultural engineer who is a partner in the firm. That, and the need to align use with legal requirements, gives growers compelling reason to closely monitor water.

The company uses aerial surveys conducted from airplanes to analyze whether the desired uniformity is being achieved. The latest advancement, multispectral aerial photography, enables the detection of green, red and near-infrared light levels. These images indicate the amount of vegetative biomass, vegetative vigor, and the greenness of the leaves. Variations show where crops are healthier and where there are problems, including insects and diseases, water quality, or soil chemistry problems.

Any discussion of water and agriculture in Colorado must include a focus on corn. In 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost 1.4 million acres in the state were devoted to corn, with well more than half of that irrigated.

Corn is also thirsty. So far, efforts to produce corn with less water have come up short, says Colorado State University water resources specialist Joel Schneekloth. But if corn still needs the same amount of water, researchers have succeeded in producing greater yields.

How about alternatives to corn? Sunflowers, used to make cooking oil but also for confections, came on strong, but acreage shrank from 132,000 acres to 59,000 acres statewide between 2010 and 2019. For farmers, corn pays far better.

Quinoa may be possible. It consumes less water. But no evidence has emerged that it’s viable in eastern Colorado. The demand is small. Demand also remains small for black-eyed peas, which a bean processing facility in Sterling accepts along with pinto, navy and other beans.

“We can find low-water crops, but they just don’t have huge markets,” explains Schneekloth who conducts studies for the Republican and South Platte basins at a research station in Akron. There has to be enough production to justify processing facilities, he said. One such processing facility proximate to the Ogallala aquifer in Colorado—it was in Goodland, Kansas—closed because it didn’t have enough business.

Nearly all of the corn in Colorado is grown to feed livestock. What if, instead of eating beef or pork, we ate plant-based substitutes? The shift, says Schneekloth, would save water. It takes seven pounds of forage and grain to produce one pound of meat. For a meat substitute, it’s closer to one for one. But that tradeoff isn’t that simple in most places. Much of the cattle raised in Colorado start on rangeland, feeding off of unirrigated forage, which is not suitable for crop production.

Besides, Schneekloth says he has a hard time imagining a mass migration to meat substitutes in the near future. Plant-based substitutes cost far more and the product, to many people, remains unsatisfactory. “Mass migration will be a hard one to sell,” he says. “Maybe eventually, but it won’t happen for a long time, I don’t think.”

Healthier Soils

Soil health has emerged as a lively new frontier of research and practice and the integration of livestock and crop production is one of its tenets—manure adds nutrients to the soil and builds organic matter, improving soil health.

Soil, unlike dirt, is alive. It’s full of organisms, necessary for growing plants. Wiggling worms demonstrate fecund soil, but most networking occurs on the microscopic level. This organic matter is rich with fungi and bacteria. Iowa’s rich soils have organic content of up to 9%. The native soils of Colorado’s Eastern Plains might have originally had 5%. The farms of southeastern Colorado now have 1% to 3%.

Derek Heckman is on a quest to boost the organic matter of his soil to 5% or even higher. It matters because water matters entirely on the 500 acres he farms in southeastern Colorado, just west of Lamar.

Derek Heckman, who farms near Lamar in eastern Colorado, is implementing various soil health practices to build the organic matter of his soil, improve water retention, and stretch limited water supplies farther. Allen Best

“Water is the limiting factor for our farms a majority of the time,” he explains. “We are never able to put on enough water.”

Heckman’s water comes from the Fort Lyon Canal, which takes out from the Arkansas River near La Junta. In a good year, he says, his land can get 25 to 30 runs from the ditch. Last year he got 16 runs. This year? As of early May, Heckman was expecting no more than 10 runs.

“The more organic matter there is, the more the moisture-holding capacity of the soil,” he explains. This is particularly important as water supplies dwindle during the hot days of summer.

“Let’s say we have 105 degrees every day for two weeks,” says Heckman. “Organic content of your soil of 3% might allow you to go four additional days without irrigation and without having potential yield loss or, even worse, crops loss.”

Heckman, 31, practices regenerative agriculture.

In explaining this, Heckman shies away from the word sustainable. It’s too limiting, he says. “I don’t want to just sustain what I’m doing. Regenerative is bringing the soil back to life.”

Growing corn in the traditional way involved plowing fields before planting. The working of the field might involve five passes by a tractor, compacting the soil and reducing its porosity. The plows disrupt microbial life.

For several decades, farmers and scientists have been exploring the benefits of less intrusive tilling of the soil. Beginning about 20 years ago, Heckman’s father was one of them. The scientific literature is becoming robust on the benefits of what is generically called “conservation tillage.”

Irrigated corn fields of eastern Colorado can require 10% less irrigation water depending upon tillage and residue management practices, according to a 2020 paper published by Schneekloth and others.

Heckman experiments continuously, trying to find the best balance of cover crops, minimal tilling, and the right mix of chemicals.

“A lot of guys are comfortable with what grandpa did and what dad did, and that’s what they do,” he says. “I want to see changes in our operation.”

On the Western Slope, soil health restoration is being tested in an experiment on sagebrush-dominated rangelands south of Montrose. Ken Holsinger, an ecologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, says the intent is to restore diversity to the lands and improve the water-holding capacity of the soil.

Holsinger says the federal land was likely harmed by improper livestock grazing, particularly prior to adoption of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, but may well have continued until the 1970s prior to implementing modern grazing practices.

This experiment consists of a pair of one-acre plots that have lost their topsoil and have become dominated by sagebrush and invasive vegetation. Such lands produce 200 to 300 pounds of forage per acre but should be producing 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre of native grasses. The soil will be amended with nutrients to restart the carbon cycle. Afterward, 50% of the sagebrush will be removed.

“We are looking at restarting the carbon cycle and ultimately holding more water in the soil profile,” says Holsinger.

One way these enhanced, restored soils help is by preventing the monsoonal rains that western Colorado typically gets in summer from washing soil into creeks and rivers, muddying the water. If the experiment proves successful, then the task will be to cost-effectively scale it up, ideally to the watershed level.

Back in Silt, at the site of Spring Born, Charles Barr, the company’s owner, speaks to the need for innovation. “That will be the model going forward for all of these agricultural areas,” he says. “They have to find new sources of revenue, they have to find new ways of doing business, and they have to find new ways to conserve water.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of Headwaters magazine

Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.

Water crisis sinks to new level — Metropolitan State University of #Denver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River bridge on the Utah State Route 95 at Hite, Utah. Panorama stitched from 7 portrait format images. Photo credit: Christian Mehlführer via Wikimedia Commons

Click the link to read the article on the Metropolitan State University of Denver website (Mark Cox):

The Biden administration has given Western states a deadline to tackle the escalating emergency.

The Colorado River’s literal race to the bottom hit another low last month.

As the waterline dropped farther and shortages hit dire new levels, the Biden administration announced unprecedented cuts, giving Colorado and six other Western states 60 days to reach an agreement on how to radically reduce their water use.

There is good reason for such urgency. Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation imposed the first-ever Tier 2 water restrictions — a “break glass” emergency measure that was unthinkable even a few years ago.

The latest stark cuts mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year will see their shares of Colorado River water drop by 21%, 8% and 7%, respectively. And there are likely even more grueling restrictions ahead.

“People need to understand how important the Colorado River is for all of us,” said Elizabeth McVicker, Ph.D., J.D., a Management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who was instrumental in creating the One World One Water Center (OWOW). “It provides drinking water for 40 million people across seven states, fuels many major cities and generates electricity for 5 million households. If it fails, we all fail.”

The Colorado River meanders through ranch land near Kremmling on Aug. 17, 2021. Choked by chronic overuse, a 22-year drought and the effects of climate change, the Colorado River’s flow has declined by nearly 20% this century. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Standoff among states

The crux of the current problem? Neither Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) nor Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona) want to make further water cuts — they each think the other side should make more sacrifices.

In essence, they are like seven people arguing over who gets the biggest bite of an ice-cream sandwich as it melts away before them.


RELATED: Water wars come to Colorado


However, McVicker sees glimmers of light. “Personally, I’m optimistic that the states will ultimately make progress because there’s a growing awareness that without serious action, we’ll all lose,” she said.

(Left to right) John McClow, Rebecca Mitchell, Gene Shawcroft, Tom Bucshatzke at the Colorado Water Congress 2022 Annual Summer Conference. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Unsurprisingly, she points out, state politicians are rattling their sabres and fighting their respective corners. “But we are seeing more meaningful collaboration between on-the-ground water agencies,” she added, “and that’s what counts.”

Climate consequences

It’s no mystery how we got here. The U.S. is caught up in a historic 23-year megadrought. Our mountain snowpack is rapidly diminishing. Extreme heat is evaporating more water off the top of the great reservoirs. And unprecedented signs of depletion are seemingly everywhere.

Around the Lake Powell reservoir, a white “bathtub ring” outlines the recent steep water loss.


RELATED: Where did all the water go?


At Lake Mead, once-sunken boats have risen from the depths like ghoulish tombstones. Last month, receding waters in Texas revealed 113 million-year-old dinosaur tracks.

“We reached this point much more quickly than anyone thought,” McVicker conceded. “Most people thought it would be several more years before we reached Tier 2 status, but then it came along all at once.”

Students with answers

The urgency of the U.S. water shortage has long been recognized at MSU Denver, which runs a range of pioneering water-studies courses, including via the OWOW Center and a noncredit option via Innovative and Lifelong Learning. And many MSU Denver students are rolling up their sleeves to tackle an issue that will likely be around for their entire adult lives.

MSU Denver Computer Science major Victor Lemus Gomez presented a policy to lawmakers that proposed water loss audits as a way to plan for the future. Photo by Alyson McClaran

This summer, Victor Lemus Gomez took part in a Colorado fellowship program designed to give policymaking experience to STEM students. He created a proposal urging water providers to conduct water-loss audits, which would help state leaders plan better for the future. And the best part? He got to deliver it personally.

“It was such a privilege to present my policy proposal directly to lawmakers,” he said. “It gave me a firsthand look at the hard work and urgency that our state elected officials bring to this fight.”

Also in the fellowship program was fellow student Claire Sanford, who focused her efforts on water-wise landscaping. “It’s so important for water conservation,” she said. “Using native plants empowers people to tackle climate change while simultaneously lowering their water bills and encouraging biodiversity.”

Equally important, she said, it gives Coloradans a chance to connect with beautiful native landscapes that flourished in these same spaces centuries ago. “It’s always exciting to see people interacting with regionally appropriate plant life,” she said, “and it makes me feel hopeful for the future.”

Water waste

Tackling this imminent crisis will necessarily mean improving the efficiency of U.S. agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the Colorado River’s water use. But that’s a tall order, given that there is so much waste, leakage and, sometimes, plain poor judgment.

“Right now, our desert-based farmers are using billions of gallons of American water to grow crops such as cotton and hay for export to competitor countries like Saudi Arabia and China,” McVicker said. “Where is the sense in that?” The whole agricultural industry, she argues, needs to take a strong look at itself.

MSU Denver Environmental Science major, Claire Stanford, observes native plants and water wise landscaping at Botanical Gardens in Denver. Photo by Alyson McClaran

For a better example of how to do things, McVicker points to Aurora, where a new city proposal seeks to eliminate “nonfunctional turf” in almost all new developments, including residential lawns, medians and commercial properties. “They are taking real, concrete action and standing up for the simple idea that we have to preserve to thrive,” she said.

Persuading Coloradans to adopt a more responsible approach is also at the core of Sanford’s fellowship work. “People are awestruck when I show them how our native plants have complex root systems up to 5 feet deep, as opposed to the shallow Kentucky bluegrass,” she said. “These plants are literally rooted in our tradition, so we should be using them much more.”


RELATED: Lawn of the dead


One positive side effect of the ongoing crisis has been that the water industry is growing fast and increasingly becoming a realistic career choice for students. Smitten by the water bug himself, Gomez is encouraging others to explore potential opportunities in this fascinating field.

“Water is one of those critical elements that encompasses every aspect of our lives,” he said. “And the great courses at MSU Denver offer a pathway into a field of study that isn’t just fascinating and rewarding — it can also bring about real social change.”

‘We’re almost at the breaking point:’ Colorado Water Center director discusses latest round of #ColoradoRiver restrictions — #Colorado State University #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the interview on the Colorado State University website (Allison Sylte):

John Tracy is the current director of the Colorado Water Center, and has previously served as the director of the Texas Water Resources Institute.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday that two states plus Mexico will have a reduced supply of water for 2023 as the Colorado River basin enters a Tier 2 shortage for the first time in its recorded history. 

The effort to conserve water comes as water levels in two of the river’s largest reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – reach historic lows, stoking concerns about their respective dams’ ability to provide power. Meanwhile, roughly 40 million people in seven states rely on the Colorado River for water.

The latest federal restrictions come after the states that use the Colorado River failed to reach an agreement about how to reduce consumption in the long-term. Those conversations will continue – and could lead to changes to the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact. 

“We’re almost to the breaking point where someone will have to suggest that the compact needs to be looked at, or all the states involved will have to decide, ‘we need to adjust our water usage every year because there’s no more water coming down the basin,’” said John Tracy, the director of the Colorado Water Center. “That’s the reality.”

He spoke to SOURCE about what the latest restrictions mean, what will happen next and Colorado State University’s role in researching water in the West. Read the full Q&A below:

What’s the significance of the Bureau of Reclamation declaring the current situation on the Colorado River a Tier 2 shortage, and why should we care?

There are a lot of different economies on the Colorado River that have been predicated on diverting water and carrying it long distances to cities, industries and agricultural production facilities. That’s been going on for 100 years.

If all of a sudden that water were shut off, it would be bad news for the region’s water supply. The most obvious city in that basin that would be impacted is Las Vegas, but there are other communities that would also have problems.

Being able to have certainty about how much water is available allows a wide range of communities and economic centers to prepare and work to allocate water resources between cities and for industries.

On top of that, the Colorado River is a huge power producer, so making sure the hydroelectric turbines keep flowing in the basin is a big deal. If the water levels drop below a certain point and are unable to produce power, there are cities like Las Vegas that simply can’t operate.

The U.S. government is reducing the water supply for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. What does the crisis mean for the state of Colorado?

This gets into an interesting question, because in the U.S., the Constitution leaves decisions on water management up to individual states. The Colorado River Compact set the rules for who gets water when.

Where the federal government became involved is with the dams, and the two really big ones on the Colorado River are the Hoover Dam and the Glen Canyon Dam. Both are downstream from Colorado, so the decisions about reductions in releases there won’t have much of an impact here. 

The only thing that might have some impact are instances where individual diverters enter into voluntary agreements to let water go downstream.

What can the federal government do to fix the situation?

Reclamation only has the authority to manage the facilities that they own, and that’s the Colorado River reservoirs. They can’t tell a state or irrigation district what to do. They can enter into agreements with water users, or can reduce releases from their facilities, but they have no regulatory authority on individual water users.

That’s why it’s up to the states to negotiate, and the document the Bureau of Reclamation released on Tuesday essentially says, “we’re going to punt this to next year and hope for a wet winter.”

It’s not the major cutback that’s needed. Instead, it’s trying to bring the lower states back into the allocations that were originally agreed upon by the Colorado River Compact 100 years ago. The federal government is hoping to get people to live by the agreement, and is hoping for a wet winter that will make the situation less urgent.

With climate change and the record drought, is there time to wait for a wet winter?

It’s one of those situations where you look at it via basic numbers. In essence, the Colorado River Compact from 100 years ago was predicated on a whole lot more water being available in the river than what really exists.

Climate change has made this worse and the timing worse, and it’s something we’ll have to live with in the future. So, you either do something really big, dealing with multiple states and the politics and interest groups involved, or you do year-to-year adjustments and see what happens. 

 What happens if no action is taken?

The solution will put itself into place. Reclamation has an obligation to keep the hydropower going for the electric grid, and if we don’t have a good winter and the water levels continue to drop, they’ll be in a position where they’ll have to reduce flows to the lower states.

It will be up to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to choose to either reduce hydropower production or the allocations to the lower states, because there will be no water to allocate.

This year, the Bureau said, “we can manage, but we’re right on the cusp.” But if the situation worsens, no action will not be a possibility and decisions will have to be made.

How is the Colorado Water Center furthering the scientific understanding of what’s happening in the Colorado River Basin?

There are various elements to it. You have Senior Water and Climate Scientist Brad Udall researching the climate change impacts on the Colorado River and beyond, and he has been providing very insightful basic science to inform policy makers about what they’ll have to deal with.

He’s been very important in moving this discussion forward to the point that it’s clear a crisis is coming.

Senior Water Policy Scholar Jennifer Gimbel is working to educate people on the Colorado River, and not just the physical nature, but how it impacts the seven states that utilize it. She’s teaching a graduate-level seminar course (GRAD 592) this semester focusing on the Colorado River Basin.

Research Scientist and Extension Specialist Perry Cabot is calculating water usage, and specifically helping policy makers understand how much water is utilized by crops and how much returns to rivers. He’s been collaborating with a wide variety of scientists across the West.

The Colorado Water Center is also doing lots of work to help policy makers understand the physical situation of the Colorado River, the history of the Compact, the water use in the basin and the science behind the drought’s impact.

What we don’t do is get into the discussion of where any agreement should go. We’re at the point where something’s got to give, and it will be interesting to see what happens, but that’s up to the policy makers and federal agencies responsible for the river.

To put it succinctly, our role is understanding the science and making sure everybody’s educated on the science.  

#Colorado #Water Congress Summer Conference Day 2: The Airborne Snow Observatory does not replace SNOTEL, in fact we need an expanded SNOTEL network — Taylor Winchell

Sunset August 24, 2022 Steamboat Springs.

Day 2 included a “Rapid Topics” session with moderator Kelly Romero-Heaney, CO Dept of Natural Resources:

RAZORBACK SUCKER The Maybell ditch is home to four endangered fish species [the Humpback chub (Gila cypha), Bonytail (Gila elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and the Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus)] © Linda Whitham/TNC

Colorado and San Juan River Endangered Species Program: Julie Stahli, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This map shows the snowpack depth of Castle and Maroon valleys in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement Group: Taylor Winchell, Denver Water

Screenshot from the http://water22.org website.

Water ‘22: Jayla Poppleton, Water Education Colorado

Denver Water crews dug up old lead service lines from customers’ homes for years of study that led to the utility’s Lead Reduction Program. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Eliminating Lead in School Drinking Water Facilities: Mike Beck, CO Water Quality Control Division

Winchell told the attendees that, “ASO is an extremely powerful #climate adaption tool.”

He’s right, stationarity is dead so Colorado needs to incorporate new strategies for measurement of snowpack and that is exactly what the ASO technology provides.

#Water confab: #Colorado politicos call for more water storage, smart growth — @WaterEdCO

olorado Water Congress hears from Gov. John Hickenlooper at its summer convention in Steamboat Springs. Aug. 24, 2022. Credit: Fresh Water News

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Colorado needs more reservoir storage and ways to manage urban growth in order protect its water supplies, prominent politicians said Tuesday at a major gathering of water officials in Steamboat Springs.

“Water is central to our livelihoods and its increasing scarcity is a challenge of the first order for everyone who calls the American West home,” said Joe O’Dea, a Republican challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet for one of Colorado’s U.S. Senate seats.

O’Dea spoke, along with Bennet, Gov. Jared Polis, and republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl at the Colorado Water Congress’s summer convention. The Colorado Water Congress is a statewide association that represents water districts, utilities, environmental groups and tribal communities.

“You can’t solve our problem without talking about storage. We know this region is getting drier and large-scale weather events are coming at unpredictable times,” O’Dea said. “That makes it all that more important to store water resources whenever they do appear.

“But we need a more rational process to approving them. Chatfield took the better part of 23 years to permit a single common sense project. Environmental review and public comment are central to good decision making, but they shouldn’t take decades,” O’Dea said.

O’Dea was referring to the successful effort to convert some of the space in the federally owned Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver for storage rather than simply flood control, which was its mission when it was built in the 1960s.

Gov. Jared Polis, too, pointed at climate change as a key driver that will shape how Colorado and other states manage their water supplies in the coming decades.

“Over the past two decades we have faced forces that threaten our access to water. The chronic, extreme drought, the changing nature of precipitation across the West. These pressures threaten water security, not just of our farms, cities and rivers, but the entire region,” Polis said.

“As a headwaters state, our resources flow to 18 states and Mexico. The entire region relies on Colorado to be a good steward. We’re proud of that responsibility and we take that responsibility very seriously,” he said.

To fulfill that responsibility within and outside the state’s borders, Polis called for more major investments in water sustainability, citing as an example the $60 million that Colorado lawmakers approved this year to fallow land in the Rio Grande and Republican River basins to improve aquifer health and ensure the state can meet its obligations to deliver water to New Mexico and Texas, which also rely on the Rio Grande, and Kansas, which relies on the Republican River.

“As we look to the future of our state, we need to understand the connectedness of water to the many challenges we face,” Polis said. “We are facing consistent growth in Colorado. But we can’t afford the water profile of exurban sprawl. We need to grow in a sustainable way,” he said, citing the need to develop more housing that reduces Coloradans’ per capita water use.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl also called for more water storage and promised to limit federal intervention in Colorado’s water affairs, including negotiations over how to reduce water use among the seven states that rely on the Colorado River. These include the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

“The Upper Basin states have done just fine working through water issues. But expanding water storage is a must … and we must go in a different direction [regarding federal permitting requirements],” Ganahl said, adding that she would push the federal government to streamline water project approval processes.

She also criticized the Colorado Water Plan, a multi-million dollar collaborative effort by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to ensure the states’ major river basins are able to plan for and secure the water they need. Ganahl said it was too expensive and bureaucratic and that the current work to update the plan, first approved in 2015, “misses the mark. As governor I would simply work to develop more water.”

Bennet urged the conference attendees to look ahead and continue the hard work that has already been done.

“The conditions are as dire as we’ve seen, and we have a very difficult negotiation in front of us,” he said. “The people in this room have stepped up and made sacrifices,” he said. “But we know temporary Band-Aids are not going to cut it. All parties have to live with what the Colorado River can provide. This is an opportunity to make decisions that will strengthen the West for the next 100 years and fulfill our responsibility to the next generation.”

Political pollster Floyd Ciruli said that so many candidates spoke at the water conference was an indicator of the national attention that Western water shortages are generating, and he gave the politicos credit for providing on-point suggestions for what could be done.

“All four of these candidates were ready for today,” Ciruli said. “All of them talked about water.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#Colorado #Water Congress Day 1: “To me #ClimateChange is not about #carbon but is instead about #biodiversity” — Pat O’Toole #cwc2022 #water22

Coyote Gulch on the Yampa River Core Trail August 24, 2022.

Day 1 included an introduction to the The Headwaters of the Colorado Project from Pat O’Toole, a rancher on the Little Snake River near the Colorado/Wyoming border. An interesting note: He irrigates from ditches that divert in both states.

East Troublesome Fire. Photo credit: Northern Water

The Pre-conference workshop on forest and watershed health was killer. So much good work is being done across Colorado but of course due to decades of neglect the watersheds are in terrible shape and prone to the massive wildfires we have witnessed since 2000.

It was cool to hear about efforts at mitigation and restoration. There was a palpable excitement about the funding bills passed by Congress and signed by President Biden (with nearly universal non-support by Republicans) in the last 14 months including the recent $4 billion that the USBR scored for aridification relief in the Colorado River Basin. Molly Pitts drove home the need for a thriving forest products industry as part of the solution but she pointed out the need for trained workers, saying that you don’t put an inexperienced worker into a million dollar piece of equipment and turn them loose on the forest.

Much of the afternoon was a chance for the politicians running in the November election. Michael Bennet, Jared Polis, Joe O’Dea, and Heidi Ganahl all spoke. The final act was an election analysis by Floyd Ciruli.

Here’s the link to the conference web page and the agenda. Here’s the link to the Twitter fest. Note that the conference tag I’m using, #cwc2022, is shared by others.

Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

#Colorado #Water Congress 2022 Summer Conference

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

I’m at the Steamboat Grand gearing up for the conference. Click th link to go to the conference website. Here’s the agenda.

I wonder if we’ll be chatting about the Colorado River?

I rode the Yampa River Core Trail from my campsite W. of town. It is a delight and a great way to get going in the morning.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

#Carbondale ranch, @COWaterTrust launch 2nd effort to boost #CrystalRiver flows — @WaterEdCO #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Carbondale rancher Bill Fales says that in 47 years of ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley, he’s never sees hay production as dismal as in 2020. “I used to think that one of the advantages of ranching here is we had a really stable climate,” he says. Photo credit: Laurine Lasalle/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Website (Olivia Emmer):

In July, Cold Mountain Ranch and the Colorado Water Trust penned an agreement they hope will improve the Crystal River’s streamflow in dry years. The contract compensates the Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for adjusting the timing of their water diversions when late summer flows dip.

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

The Crystal River has its headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but as the river descends through the wide pastures above the Town of Carbondale, more than 30 agricultural diversions, representing around 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water rights, pull water from the Crystal and its tributaries to irrigate around 4,800 acres of land. In drought years, which are becoming more frequent, sections of the Crystal River run dry.

Created by Imgur user Fejetlenfej , a geographer and GIS analyst with a ‘lifelong passion for beautiful maps,’ it highlights the massive expanse of river basins across the country – in particular, those which feed the Mississippi River, in pink.

“A river is like a circulatory system,” says Alyson Meyer Gould, staff attorney & policy director for the water trust, “if you have a point where the circulatory system doesn’t work, it can have negative effects both upstream and downstream.”

A 2016 report on the Crystal River found there are specific stretches of the lower Crystal River that are most impaired, primarily after major ditches divert water from the river and before their return flows rejoin the Crystal downstream. This change to the river’s hydrology can impact water temperature, habitat quality and habitat availability, diminishing the ecosystem.

Cold Mountain Ranch is right next to one such beleaguered section of the Crystal River. The property has been in Marj Perry’s family since 1924. A cow-calf operation, the ranch irrigates several hundred acres for pasture and hay, utilizes grazing permits on nearby public lands and leases pasture nearby. In a typical year, Fales flood irrigates from early May through early October, moving water via ditches around his property in a three-week cycle. Fales gets two cuttings of hay, and spring and fall pasture with their water rights.

Under the new six-year agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, when river flows dip to 40 cfs or below, Cold Mountain Ranch will decide whether to enact the diversion coordination agreement. The ranch will be paid a $5,000 signing bonus for entering the updated agreement, an acknowledgment of the time and effort required to negotiate such a contract.

In addition to the bonus, for each cfs per day — up to 20 days total per year in up to five years — that they don’t divert during the contract period, they will be paid $250. The agreement will lift when flows hit 55 cfs. If the ranch is able to enact the agreement for their maximum decreed flow rate for the 100 potential days in the agreement, they could be paid $150,000 over five years.

Says Fales, “It’s the right thing to do. I’m not sure it’s a perfect thing to do, but I try not to let perfect be the enemy of the good. We’ll try it, we’ll see if it works and see what we learn from it.”

This is the second time that Cold Mountain Ranch and the Colorado Water Trust have entered such an agreement. The first ran from 2018 to 2020 but was never implemented. In 2018, flows in the Crystal were so low that “there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream,” according to the water trust. In 2019, flows were high enough that the threshold was never met. In 2020, heat and drought meant the ranch couldn’t afford to give up any water and still grow the hay and pasture they needed to feed their cows.

Helms Ditch irrigated acreage. Credit: Colorado Water Trust via Aspen Journalism

The water for this agreement will come from the Helms Ditch, which can divert up to around 6 cfs. In late summer this can be about 30% of the ranch’s available water. About half those rights were adjudicated in 1903 and the other half in 1936, making the diversion significantly more senior than the environmental instream flows on the river, which date to the 1970s. Cold Mountain Ranch uses water from three ditches, but the Helms Ditch is not shared with any neighbors, which makes it an easier candidate for an agreement with the water trust.

Crystal River rancher Bill Fales stands at the headgate for the Helms Ditch, with Mount Sopris in the background. As part of an agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, Fales could be paid to reduce his diversions from the ditch when the river is low. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

One barrier to in-stream water conservation is the fact that water voluntarily left in the river can simply be diverted by another user downstream. In this case, the agreement is designed to alleviate drought stress on a concise stretch of stream, an area that in the dry year of 2012 was completely dewatered. If the water stays in the river for as little as a mile or two, it can make a big difference. As Heather Tattersall Lewin, director of science and policy at the Roaring Fork Conservancy explains, “As little as 6 cfs can make a difference in temperature resiliency, the existence of a cool pool versus a shallow riffle, or the ability for a fish to move from pool to pool or not.”

This agreement with Cold Mountain Ranch is not the only one of its kind for the Colorado Water Trust. In 2012, when much of the state was in a severe drought, there were insufficient laws in place to protect water users who wanted to conserve. In 2013, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 13-19, allowing some water users to temporarily reduce their water use without jeopardizing their legal rights. Without that protection, a water user who conserved could legally be considered to be abandoning their valuable rights to water, a rule often referred to as “use it or lose it.”

Willow Creek via the USGS

Senate Bill 13-019 was first used by the Colorado Water Trust and a rancher on Willow Creek in 2016. Willow Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park. The rancher had noticed Willow Creek sometimes ran dry during the late summer months and reached out to the water trust. That agreement has been used to restore flows in 2016, 2021 and 2022. According to the water trust, “The project restores a fairly small amount of water to the stream, but because there are no other diverters immediately downstream, that additional water helps to keep Willow Creek connected to the Colorado River.” This style of agreement has since been drawn up by the water trust for four other projects, including Cold Mountain Ranch.

Climate change is impacting both the supply and timing of flows in streams like the Crystal River. Average peak runoff is moving to earlier in the season, extending the amount of time in late summer when streams run low. Warmer temperatures make the soil thirstier, so more snowmelt gets absorbed by the land instead of turning into runoff, even when snowpacks are typical, increasing the frequency of low-flow years.

“The Colorado Water Trust sees diversion agreements as one of many tools in the toolbox to improve flows in Colorado Rivers in the face of climate change,” says Blake Mamich, water transactions coordinator for the water trust.

For some water users, dry years will make changing their diversions more challenging — many agricultural water users on the Crystal River and its tributaries already experience water shortages in dry years. But, continues Mamich, “these agreements may be advantageous to agricultural producers in sub-optimal production years, as a way to diversify income while supporting the health of the river.”

Agriculture represents the majority of water use in Colorado, so ranchers and farmers will need to be part of any major water conservation strategy. But it’s not as simple as just buying agricultural water rights. Farms and ranches around the state are a significant part of the state’s economy and lifestyle — permanently drying them up can have profound negative effects on local communities.

That’s why the water trust is trying these voluntary and temporary agreements, hoping to find a solution that benefits both the environment and agriculture. But, in the quest to improve flows around the state, the water trust uses many statutory tools to get more water in rivers, including purchasing and leasing water rights, creating agreements around the timing of reservoir releases, and more.

The Crystal River widens and becomes shallower just before it passes under the southern bridge into River Valley Ranch. A group of local organizations is working to restore both the stream and the banks.
CREDIT: WILL GRANDBOIS / ASPEN JOURNALISM

For the Crystal River, water from Cold Mountain Ranch is just a start. The Crystal River Management Plan cites a need for 25 cfs during severe drought to meet goals for maintaining the ecosystem. The agreement between the water trust and the ranch will, at most, contribute 6 cfs for just 20 days of the year. To continue to build the river’s resilience in the face of climate change, Mamich says it will likely take a combination of various tools, from new infrastructure to additional diversion agreements with more water rights holders in the watershed.

Olivia Emmer is a freelance journalist based in Carbondale, Colorado. She can be reached at olivia@soprissun.com.

A Conversation with Nicholas Colglazier, #Colorado Corn Administrative Committee — @WaterEdCO

Nick Colglazier. Photo credit: Water Education Colorado

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Caitlin Coleman):

Back in the spring, we spoke with Nicholas Colglazier, a member of the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees and executive director of the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee (CCAC), for the Summer 2022 issue of Headwaters magazine “How Are Colorado Farms and Ranches Managing Water For Tomorrow?” about the challenges facing corn growers and the organization’s work to promote water efficiency improvement measures.

CCAC is the state check-off for corn producers in Colorado, established back in 1987 through a market order to collect a 1.8 cents per bushel assessment on all grain corn grown in Colorado. CCAC uses that funding to conduct research, market development, promotion, outreach and education. That work includes sharing opportunities related to water efficiency soil health and more.

What does your water-related research and work look like?

We’re really looking at how do we help our producers be more efficient? How do we help producers operate with better management practices or best management practices?

And so a lot of that has actually been focused on water in the past. A lot of it has focused on variable rate irrigation or variable rate sprinklers. We’re also looking at, if you’re short on water, when should you irrigate to get the best yield for your crop? So we put some research dollars into that.

We’re really very much invested in how we use this scarce and very important resource efficiently and for the betterment of our industry and environment.

The latest thing we’re doing is we have really dove into soil health because what we see in terms of agriculture is a need for resilience especially as we see the climate changing, whether it’s getting hotter or drier or just hotter will be borne out in the future. But regardless, to be successful you have to be able to manage water and one of those ways is through soil health.

This monitoring station is part of a research project by Colorado State University to track soil and plant conditions in irrigated pastures. The study aims to learn more about how using less water affects high-elevation fields.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

What does soil health mean for producers?

If you can improve your soil health, whether it be through soil structure, organic matter, minimizing erosion from water as well as wind, you build a healthy foundation that you have as an agriculturalist to really be able to make it through harder times.

If you’re able to store more water in your soil, that means that you’ll have a better chance of making a crop in a hotter, dryer year.

If you have better soil structure that means that you have a higher infiltration rate. So when we get a hard rain, which we are notorious for here in Colorado—you know, getting 4 inches of rain in a couple of hours—your field has a better chance of actually absorbing and taking that water into the soil rather than letting it run off and provide no benefit for the future crops.

So we’re really investing heavily with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. We’re part of their soil health initiative and we’re trying to help farmers adopt those conservation practices that will lead to healthier soil and lead to better water retention. And a lot people recognize that this is really what we’re after water retention and healthier soil, so that we can better manage that water here and for future crops.

How are you communicating the importance of soil health out to corn growers?

What we’re trying to do is enroll about seven producers in the STAR+ program. STAR stands for Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources and it basically awards producers a star level depending upon their practices. So if you are minimizing soil disturbance, if you are building soil armor, if you’re incorporating livestock, if you have plant diversity, if you have a continual live root, these are all things we look for to increase soil health and the microbiome within it. If you’re doing this, you get awarded points.

It’s not like a test where you get answers wrong and they take points away, it is literally an accumulation of points where they look at, “OK, what are you doing? Are you doing your best management practices? Are you adopting good conservation methods? Are you looking out for ways to lessen soil erosion? Are you looking out for ways to lessen your trips across the field and while you’re doing it, lessen the disturbance of that soil so that you can build that soil health?”

And that goes into everything, like soil structure, water infiltration rates, and managing that soil so it can better take in that water resource.

So we’ve been trying to get out there and get a few people to bite.

We have some monetary incentives because these things aren’t cost-free, it takes money to change these practices and buy new equipment, to buy new cover crop seed, you name it. It takes capital investment from our producers and if we can help offset that from the very beginning so that we can learn how things work on farms and get actual practical knowledge and practice on somebody’s farm, it helps flatten that learning curve for the future so that more and more people will be willing to adopt.

So we’re really trying to incentivize producers into this program so that we can get that data and help communicate further to producers to say, you know, doing this is not only beneficial to the environment but it’s beneficial for your bottom line and that sustainability tripod of economics, environment, and social benefits are all there. Without one of them, that whole sustainability table topples right over so were really big believers in that and moving that forward.

Farmers Highline Canal Arvada.

What are the biggest challenges that Colorado Corn growers are up against today?

I’d say first and foremost is water availability.

We look at what’s going on, not only just soil health but also in terms of what water’s available and who’s out there buying it. We’ve seen a lot of agricultural operations dry up in the past and we’ve seen a lot of municipalities and people buy farms specifically for the water for later use. So the farm may be using that water now but what is it going to be like in 10, or 15 or 20 years? Are they going to keep that water on the farm or are they going to pull that off for municipal reasons? Keeping water available to farmers is definitely an issue that we see farmers facing down.

Making sure that people who have water have access to it is a big issue, but also making sure the resource is there for the longevity of the industry and community it supports.

Another one is profitability. That is always something that has been an issue within agriculture. It’s a pretty interesting time to talk about it because we’re seeing $8 corn on the board and I just looked at it today in Yuma you can contract, October and November, corn for $7.81 that’s a very, very high price for corn. But we’re also facing questions on the availability of fertilizers and pesticides that are needed to successfully grow a crop. And if you don’t have access to those tools, are you going to be able to grow a crop? Even with $7 corn.

Micha Ide of Bright Ide Acres farm, Washington, practices rotational grazing on her farm. Animals are moved frequently around the pasture to increase soil fertility and enhance the sustainability of the farm.
Photo credit: Audra Mulkern

Another issue that we’re constantly trying to figure out is the sustainability of corn. We entered into the soil health arena with the department because we realized sustainability really is a big deal but it’s becoming a much bigger deal outside of our industry. Our customers are the ethanol plants and feed yards, they’re the ones who are selling, ultimately, to the consumer and the consumers are demanding more environmentally conscious sustainability in their products and their buying.

So, how can corn make sure we are on that path? That we’re providing a sustainable product to our consumers so to feed lots, to the ethanol plants, to the hog farms, to the chicken farms. How do we make sure that corn is sustainable?

It’s finding that message and delivering the fact that throughout the years we’ve been ahead of our time. Take 1980-2015, you know, we reduced erosion immensely, we’ve become much more efficient with our land use, we’ve become much more efficient with our water use, we reduced our gas footprint, but we’ve got to keep doing more.

We’re seeing companies like Mcdonald’s and Walmart come out with sustainability statements on row crops, so you know that at some point, those are going to take hold and it’s going to impact what we can and can’t do on our farms. Those producers who are able to adopt practices so they can meet those sustainability metrics are going to be successful. It’s going to impact the entire industry and how we do things.

So, making sure we keep that up, we are at the table when it comes to these sustainability discussions so we can look at a Walmart or a Mcdonald’s and, as they set their goals, we can say ‘Yeah, we can do that” or “you’re asking too much, that’s just not a feasibility.” There are limitations on what we can do and still allow profitability in the system. Because if you don’t have profitability in the system, you’re not going to have anybody there to do it.

Are most producers feeling the same pressure and push toward sustainability?

I don’t know if they are feeling it at the farm level just yet. A lot of them are probably looking at just figuring out “how do we make it through this year, how do we make it through next year?”

But a lot of them are looking at how do we become more sustainable in our operations? Maybe not because of what Walmart or Mcdonald’s are doing but because we need to become more sustainable. We realize that sustainability, the traditional definition of social, economic, environmental benefit, they’re trying to find a balance between all of those knowing that’s what they need to do for their own success in their operation. If they can find ways to impact the environment less, if they can find ways that build that soil, build that foundation, they’re going to be ultimately more successful. So I think a lot of them are looking in that direction versus what are customers’ customers demanding of them. And sometimes that’s coming from the top down.

Agriculture in Colorado is the state’s largest water diverter and user. But knowing that, ultimately, we’re doing that for consumers and we’re trying to do that in the most environmental and sustainable way possible. Being efficient, trying to conserve where we can, and doing this because ultimately, the food we grow whether it be corn for livestock or fruit and vegetables is consumed by consumers, who, most of them live in the Denver metro area. So, that relationship that everybody has to water and agriculture is there because every day, whether it’s a direct consumption of water through your faucet or consumption of water through the foods that they eat ultimately it comes back to us as a consumer when it comes to agriculture diverting water.

That’s why it’s so important to find ways to keep water in agriculture because that allows that food that we consume each and every day, for a lot of it to come from their backdoor, from their state, to not have to bring it across state lines or transport it thousands of miles, it allows them to support their farmers who are just in their backyard, out on the Eastern Plains or the Western Slope and it’s incredibly important that people realize that we’re all part of this water cycle and we’re all using that water.

Read about other ways in which Colorado’s farmers and ranchers are managing water with an eye toward efficiency and water quality improvements in the summer 2022 issue of Headwaters magazine “How Are Colorado Farms And Ranches Managing Water For Tomorrow?

Registration is now open for the 2022 Sustaining #Colorado Watersheds Conference Oct. 11-13, 2022 — @WaterEdCO

#Water22 Live Stream: Kevin Fedarko

Here’s to weekends on wild rivers! And to cool boats that make a statement. There is no ride like a classic dory – and the Glen Canyon is a special boat. You must give this a try sometime if you haven’t already. So cool! @AmericanRivers

The Evolution of Agriculture — @WaterEdCO

Photo courtesy of Ben Wolcott, Wolcott Ranches

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education website (Sensa Wolcott):

My family has been raising cattle in the Southwest for almost 50 years, and last year we experienced a first – producers in our valley did not receive any supplemental irrigation water from the reservoir. Agricultural producers in the river valleys and winding canyons of the Southwest are feeling the impacts of climate change. Temperatures are rising, snowpack is decreasing, runoff is occurring earlier in the year, and it’s becoming drier. As climate change continues to impact the Southwest, understanding how these environmental changes impact us will help farmers and ranchers like myself adjust our land management practices to remain resilient to drought and climate change.

Ecosystems Adapt & So Can We!

Areas that receive low amounts of rainfall are especially susceptible to changes in the environment. The plants and animals that live in dry areas are specialized to this unique landscape, and as the world around them changes, they must adapt or face extinction. Fortunately, healthy ecosystems respond to change, and so can we. The key to responding is diversity. Biodiversity is what gives species the genetic advantage they need to adapt to changing environments. The environment is changing, and just as genetic diversity allows for change, farmers and ranchers can proactively use innovative, versatile strategies to respond and help their enterprises survive.

Healthy Livestock Make Happy, Profitable Ranchers

Ensuring livestock remain healthy is the top priority for those who raise animals. Managed grazing that supports healthy soils and robust forage is a must. Lack of water affects the nutritional content and digestibility of forage. This leads to animals – and ranchers – becoming stressed. Adjusting stocking rates and pasture rotation are a few strategies recommended by the USDA Southwest Climate Hub that can help support the health of your pastures, which in turn supports the health of your animals.

Increased temperatures aren’t just uncomfortable; livestock consume more water when it is hot, making stock water especially important when water is scarce. Warmer temperatures also directly impact the health of our livestock, which in turn reduces profits. Providing access to pastures with trees or shade structures where livestock can get out of the sun is just as important as providing access to water.

It’s No Surprise That Plants Need Water

Photo courtesy of Sensa Wolcott

When water is limited, our fields produce less hay, forage and produce, making it challenging to grow what we need to be successful. Changing temperature will affect which crops thrive in particular areas. The Colorado State University Extension office provides many helpful strategies for how we can tackle these challenges. Prepare to make adjustments to the specific plants that you cultivate. Try planting crop varieties that require less water to thrive and research how specific crops use water. Rotate crops in a way that better promotes growth and productivity during drought and incorporate strategies that slow down water and increase infiltration, such as installing contour swales in fields.

Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns will impact the harvest timing of hay and produce and increase the likelihood of weeds popping up. Be prepared for changes in when you typically harvest and focus on increasing biodiversity by planting a mixture of different types of plants in a hayfield or pasture. Variety provides resilience as well as defense against invasive species, which are less likely to move into healthy, drought-resilient pastures and hayfields.

Healthy Watersheds Support Us All

Wetland. Photo courtesy of Sensa Wolcott

Water is critical to life in Colorado because it supports the biodiversity and health of the entire watershed, including the animals and plants so important to farmers and ranchers. Improving irrigation efficiency and upgrading diversion structures can help us adapt to rising temperatures that cause snow to melt and runoff earlier in the year. Early runoff means there is less water later in the season, when animals, plants, and irrigators all need water. Practicing irrigation strategies that encourage keeping rivers wet and implementing practices that increase groundwater storage support healthy waterways and support the needs of farmers and ranchers.

Riparian area management techniques like those mentioned in this article from Agri-Food Canada can benefit producers and the ecosystem. Try fencing livestock out of parts of the riparian corridor to support healthy riparian ecosystems. Livestock can cause erosion and water quality concerns – but well-planned access points that provide livestock with access to crucial drinking water can support both a healthy herd and a thriving waterway.

Farmers and ranchers want to see water in the river – the longer the better – which also supports the health and well-being of the aquatic ecosystem. Protecting our riparian areas is imperative; when our riparian corridors are healthy and thriving, so are we.

We Have a Choice

The future of agriculture is tied tightly to the future of our waters. Healthy ecosystems that have a variety of plants and animals are vital. Choosing innovative management strategies enables us to be good stewards of the natural world while also improving our farms and ranches so that we all can remain resilient in the face of drought and a changing climate.

Sensa Wolcottt.

Sensa Wolcott works as the Watershed Coordinator for the Mancos Conservation District. She is pursuing her Masters in Biology through Miami University’s Project Dragonfly, where her work focuses on community-based conservation and connecting people with the land through dialogue and collaboration. Sensa and her family live on their family owned and operated cattle ranch and enjoys hiking, camping, mountain biking, and photography.

Mancos and the Mesa Verde area from the La Plata Mountains.

Tribes Call for Inclusion on the #ColoradoRiver — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #Water22

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Kalen Goodluck):

They’re seeking opportunity, fairness, and a voice in decision making after a century of exclusion

Mid-morning in early September 2020, leaders from eight tribal nations met with Arizona state legislators, water engineers and policy experts via Zoom. One by one, each recounted their tribe’s history and efforts to secure water for their citizens. Half of the tribes in Arizona have unresolved claims to water. Of the 30 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations in the U.S. segment of Colorado River Basin, the vast majority, 22, are in Arizona.

Meeting that day was the Arizona Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council, a committee of state legislators and water policy experts convened to plan for Arizona’s share of diminishing resources in the Colorado River Basin.

Not quite a year later, in August 2021, federal officials issued the first-ever shortage declaration on the river, resulting in substantial cuts to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water. The state has been working with some of the tribes with resolved, adjudicated water rights to help make up for low water levels.

On that September morning in 2020, two things had become clear: First, tribes like the Navajo Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Yavapai-Apache Nation have found a couple of conditions in Arizona’s policy toward negotiating Indian water settlements unacceptable, thus their water rights remain unsettled. And second, tribal nations had been collaborative partners to surrounding communities and were, and continue to be, positioned to play an increasingly pivotal role throughout the basin as more tribal water rights are settled and basin-wide water supplies continue to decline.

Tribes have played a pivotal role in leasing water to support other water users and states as they cope with water shortage, for example. But with so many tribes who still have unsettled water rights and Colorado River flows declining, big questions remain for the 40 million people spread throughout the basin in seven U.S. States and Mexico—many of those questions center around the tribes.

Ticking Clock

Everyone in the basin can hear the clock, ominously dripping time like a leaky faucet. Drip: There is less water than ever before with the basin ensnared in a 22-year megadrought, the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Drop: Without swift action to conserve water under the growing pressure of demand, the basin may be hurtling toward a water crisis. Drip: The basin’s existing water shortage management framework is set to expire in 2026 so negotiations to craft the next framework are underway; will tribal nations be included in those negotiations? Drop: How will water shortages affect the tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin and what role will those tribes play as all water users cope with shortage?

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

Generally, the Colorado River Basin’s tribes have some of the senior-most water rights on the river, based on federally “reserved” water rights with priority dates aligned with the dates reservations were established, some as early as 1865.

But even today, 12 of the basin’s tribes (most in Arizona) have unresolved water rights claims, and eight of those 12 have unquantified rights—meaning the amount of water they have a right to is not yet determined. Simply securing those water rights remains a time-consuming and arduous endeavor, in costly settlement negotiations amidst a scrum of other water users staking claims.

The water held by the basin tribes who have legally quantified water rights amounts to no small sum: 22 tribal nations retain 3.2 million acre-feet of water, or an estimated 22% to 26% of all annual water supplies in the basin, according to a 2021 brief from the Water and Tribes Initiative. This amount will likely increase over the years once more tribal water claims are resolved.

Even for tribes with settled or adjudicated water rights, some can’t access the full extent of that water because of lack of infrastructure or funding, or both. In total, just under half, or 1.5 million-acre-feet, of settled or adjudicated tribal rights have not yet been put to use by the tribes.

When adding together that unused water and unquantified water, and considering that tribes plan to fully develop and use their water, other water users in the basin wonder how it will look to integrate expanded tribal water use with existing water uses as water supplies continue to dwindle.

Lack of Representation

In one blinding instant, a flashbulb floods the adobe-walled room, illuminating a row of stoic men: seven state water commissioners standing behind then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who sat at a desk. In front of them lies the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the formative agreement to carve up flows of the Colorado River. Within the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N.M., these men divided the river into an upper and lower basin, apportioning the rights to consume 15 million acre-feet of water—their estimation of average annual river flow at the time—between the seven U.S. basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming of the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada of the lower basin, with the opportunity for lower basin states to develop an additional 1 million acre-feet from tributaries below Lee Ferry, Ariz.

The compact ushered in a new era of water management for the Colorado River Basin. But now, 100 years later, when facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, Daryl Vigil, peers at this photograph of Hoover and the state water commissioners, he sees an “all monochromatic photo of older white gentlemen” who made no plan for apportioning any share of water to Native American tribes.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Since the beginning of U.S. tribal water law, sovereign tribal nations in the basin have been excluded from cornerstone water management decisions despite having senior title to water. Native American water rights were first officially recognized in 1908, over a decade before the Colorado River Compact was signed, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Winters v. United States decision. The court found that when the federal government “reserved” territories known as reservations, it too had “reserved” sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservations—these water rights are considered established at the date when the reservation was created, making them senior to all uses that came later. But having the right to reserved water didn’t mean that the tribes had access to actual “wet” water or the legal representation to quantify their water rights.

When the 1922 compact was signed, tribes were surviving a multitude of disastrous living conditions and forced assimilation produced by federal Indian policy, established after U.S. violent colonial expansion. Indigenous peoples weren’t recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, tribal governance wasn’t federally recognized until 1934, and Native Americans couldn’t vote in every state until the 1960s. “We were surviving here on government rations in 1922 when the Law of the River was created,” says Vigil.

A 1928 survey entitled “The Problem of Indian Administration” found that 26 Western Native American reservations and their economic bases were crumbling under management of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), asserting that colonialism largely destroyed their ability to hunt, gather and fish.

The report recommended educating tribes to effectively use their land and water rights, saying that administrators “should be given the duty of seeing that the Indians secure their rightful share of water.” This recommendation was not enough. Assigning concrete legal title to tribal water succumbed to federal delay—a defining feature of water rights disputes for all tribal nations.

Tribes gained some ground when, in 1963, tribal water policy and Colorado River policy intersected in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arizona v. California decision. Lengthy litigation led up to the decision, with Arizona filing suit in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water it could use. To answer that question, the U.S. found it had to assess what reserved water rights were needed for some of the tribes in the lower basin. A special master for the case determined the future needs of each reservation by assessing the amount of practicably irrigable acres and reserving water to irrigate that land rather than considering the reservations’ populations. In his proposed decree, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, the special master entered a quantified water right for five reservations on the mainstem of the Colorado River, granting 905,496 acre-feet of water for 135,636 irrigable acres.

After the case established the standard of quantifying the tribal reserved water right as looking at the amount of water required to irrigate the irrigable acreage on the tribal land, the push to quantify more tribal water rights ensued. But Supreme Court rulings “grew more negative,” according to a presentation from DOI. In 1989, DOI adopted the policy to resolve Indian water disputes through settlement rather than litigation, creating the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office. To reach agreement, Indigenous nations must negotiate their rights within a massive tangle of other users staking claims to water within the state where their reservation is located, which can take decades. Once all parties concur, Congress must approve the agreement by passing legislation to fund any tribal water infrastructure projects.

As federal tribal water policy evolved, so too did Colorado River policy. After the 1922 compact, a series of layered agreements—including Arizona v. California and other court decisions, congressional acts, legal settlements, treaties and compacts—known collectively as the “Law of the River” have come to govern the way water is managed and divided throughout the basin.

The latest layers of the Law of the River have been implemented since 2000, in response to years of drought. In 2007, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior adopted the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Interim Guidelines outline a method to balance the amount of water available between the upper and lower basins. In 2019, upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) were developed as additional frameworks to address water shortages and water-saving rules.

The upper basin continues to “equalize” the contents of Lake Powell and Lake Mead per the 2007 guidelines, and continues to pursue water augmentation activities such as cloud seeding. It is also exploring the possibility of developing a demand management program in which water saved or not used in the upper basin could be stored in Powell as a 500,000 acre-foot drought pool, though the Colorado Water Conservation Board put a “hard pause” on Colorado’s demand management investigation in March 2022. For the lower basin, the DCP, a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan with Mexico, and the 2007 guidelines lay out cuts in water deliveries from the Colorado River, triggered by projections of Lake Mead storage elevations. The interim guidelines already outlined cuts but the DCP added additional delivery reductions for the lower basin states and Mexico to absorb. The greatest cuts to lower basin water use will come from Arizona and California but the entire lower basin, including Mexico, will share in scarcity.

When these guidelines and plans were crafted, all but the Lower Basin DCP received little to no tribal input. These plans will expire in 2026, and negotiations for the next phase of shortage-sharing agreements are just beginning.

Native American Timeline. Credit: Water Education Colorado

Vigil, who is also water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation from New Mexico, joined the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017 to facilitate tribal discussions, protect water rights, and unify tribal interests within the Colorado River Basin. Their tribal leader forums helped spur a coalition of the tribes in the basin to call for inclusion in water framework negotiations.

When new guidelines are developed to govern river management beyond 2026, how will they affect existing tribal water rights or unresolved water claims? “Those are questions that are not yet clear to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and probably other tribes,” says Leland Begay, water attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has adjudicated water rights in Colorado but has not yet resolved its water rights in New Mexico and Utah.

Settled Water Rights for the Colorado Ute Tribes

During the hot summers of his childhood, Lyndreth Wall of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe would take refuge on Ute Mountain in southwestern Colorado, herding livestock at his grandparents’ sheep camp. They spoke only Ute to him, which he picked up fast, at least conversationally. In those days, the 1970s, the water on Ute Mountain was delicious. “The tribe took care of the water there,” Wall says. But his home tap water in Towaoc tasted like metal. It was “disgusting,” he says, and could make you sick. In White Mesa, their western tribal community in Utah, the water was worse—contaminated by radioactive waste.

For young Wall, his neighbors, family and livestock, the journey to procure drinkable water would be a 30- to 120-mile round trip excursion from Towaoc to Cortez or Mancos, even Durango, Colo. Wall remembers his parents packing buckets in their family pickup—the Wall’s buckets mixed with those of neighbors. This supply would last a few days before they would need more.

Today, more Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have water for drinking and irrigation thanks to the 1986 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement, followed two years later by a federal settlement act, and by amendments in 2000, all of which they share with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The settlement places the Colorado Ute tribes among the four tribes in the upper Colorado River Basin that have completed water rights settlements, which also means that the State of Colorado is no longer negotiating any tribal settlement agreements.

For the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the settlement meant access to Dolores Project water, an entitlement to Animas-La Plata Project water, and rights to over 27,000 acre-feet of water from rivers that flow near or through their reservation. Most years, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe can access their 25,100 acre-foot water storage allocation from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. Water from McPhee began to flow to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in 1994 delivering clean drinking water to the tribe for the first time in their history and supporting the development of a hotel, travel center and casino, which provide vital tribal employment and income. The tribe’s new irrigation water from the Dolores Project, up to 23,300 acre-feet per year, supported the development of the highly productive 7,700-acre Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise and Bow and Arrow corn mill.

For the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the settlement wasn’t quite as momentous. “We have seven sources of water, seven rivers, that run to the tribe, so the tribe had been accessing those waters pre-settlement,” says Kathy Rall, head of the water resources division for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Before the settlement, the tribe didn’t have quantified rights to that water, Rall says. “Those rights were hammered out and solidified through the settlement,” she says. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also received an allocation of Animas-La Plata Project water—but the infrastructure was never built for either tribe to access that water.

“Ever since [the Animas-La Plata Project] was constructed, we’ve never used a drop of it, yet we have a certain percentage, not only to us, but also our sister tribe, the Southern Ute,” says Wall, who is now a tribal councilman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The project allocated more than 60,000 acre-feet per year of municipal and industrial water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, but a series of obstacles has made this water inaccessible.

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

The settlement authorized the construction of Lake Nighthorse, just south of Durango, to store Animas-La Plata water for tribal water uses. The project was envisioned to bring water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses to the tribes and non-tribal water users. But environmental and fiscal concerns resulted in the project being downsized.

A lawsuit halted the construction of Lake Nighthorse’s Ridges Basin Dam in 1992. Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Taxpayers for the Animas River argued the dam’s cost was an undue burden for taxpayers and that its construction would threaten the Colorado pikeminnow fish population, which was federally listed as endangered at the time. Christine Arbogast, lobbyist for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and neighboring water districts and municipalities, remembers a meeting where an environmental advocate said that with the amount of funding required to build the reservoir project, they could supply the tribe with bottled water for life. “That was the kind of mentality on the side of the environmental community,” says Arbogast.

As project proponents tried to advance Lake Nighthorse, part of the permitting requirement was to propose alternatives to the project. To address the endangered fish issues, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an alternative that would allow for reservoir construction but with certain requirements, including a new San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. The recovery program would go on to manage the river to recover the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker while allowing water development to continue.

To carry out the Animas-La Plata Project, a 2000 settlement amendment restricted the water in Lake Nighthorse to municipal and industrial use, excluding irrigation. Now referred to as “Animas-La Plata Lite” there was no longer any plan to construct the irrigation canals that would have connected Lake Nighthorse to the tribes and even neighboring water districts and municipalities that were counting on these water supplies throughout the negotiations. The tribes scrapped their plans to expand farmlands as a result. “It was heartbreaking to every single one of them, including the tribes, when we had to make the decision to shelve the irrigation component in order to get this settlement,” Arbogast says.

Some positive outcomes resulted from the settlement, including quantified and adjudicated water rights for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, access to Dolores Project water for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and funding for both tribes, Rall says. But ongoing lack of access to water stored in Lake Nighthorse and the inability to use that water, if accessed, for irrigation, was “disastrous” she says.

When the project was downsized to the “lite” version “we just kind of said, ‘OK, we’re going to get what we get,’” Rall says. “The tribe went, ‘If we don’t settle now, who knows what we’ll end up with.’”

The settlement means that the tribes’ water allocations are protected, which “does offer the tribes a measure of security in their water rights,” says Amy Ostdiek, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Interstate and Federal Section. “But there are still critical needs in terms of infrastructure and access to clean drinking water.”

As the settlement stipulates, the moment the tribes begin to use water from Lake Nighthorse, they will each inherit an annual bill of around $800,000 in operations and maintenance costs for the dam and pumping facilities that the federal government is currently footing. At the moment, there is still no infrastructure to deliver the water to the tribes, and the tribes are not prepared to take on those costs, so they haven’t used any of their water. This may change due to the $2.5 billion earmarked in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for completion of authorized Indian water rights settlements. Both Colorado Ute tribes are pursuing that funding, with full support from the State of Colorado, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), but whether they will receive it remains to be seen. Information sessions on the bill between tribal nations and DOI are ongoing.

“We’re trying to find alternatives and ways that we can utilize our water in [Lake] Nighthorse. We want it and it seems like we’re having a water war,” says Wall. “What’s rightfully ours is ours by God. We need to continue to save it for the future of our tribe.”

Water or Land, Not Both

Settling and quantifying tribal water rights claims isn’t just beneficial to tribal nations. The state in which a reservation is located and other water users there benefit from the certainty of knowing how much water is allocated to the tribes so they can make plans to live within and stretch their own share or to work together to send water where it’s most needed.

But Arizona is home, at least partially, to 11 of the 12 tribal nations in the basin who still have unresolved claims to Colorado River water—resulting in uncertainty for the state and the tribes. Many tribal leaders are frustrated by the state’s unprecedented condition for tribes to secure their water rights: In exchange, tribal nations must surrender their right to freely enter fee lands into trust, an essential administrative program of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that lets tribes recover their ancestral homelands. Instead, tribes would need congressional approval to have the Interior Secretary take lands into trust.

“We just believe that the congressional process is a more equitable forum for the discussion of those lands into trust,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He cites the importance of hearing from local communities that could be impacted when the tribes bring additional ancestral homelands into trust and ensuring “politically elected leaders get to make the decision.”

That stipulation is a nonstarter for many tribes, and puts them in a precarious position, weighing their right to re-acquire their ancestral homelands against securing water for their people.

“That’s something we will never agree to,” Yavapai-Apache Nation Chairman Jon Huey told the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation and Conservation Council during that September 2020 meeting. The Yavapai-Apache Nation plans to bring land into trust, re-acquiring its homeland to build housing for the growing tribal population.

Already, leaders from the Navajo Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, and Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona have worked for decades with the state and other water districts to reach a settlement. For example, the Navajo Nation has been in recurring negotiations since 1993.

Tribes also object to a condition proposed by Arizona officials that they waive their right to object to future off-reservation groundwater pumping.

Despite hearing from leaders like Huey, the state has not changed its position. Buschatzke says these conditions are just part of the “give and take” nature of settlements. “Some things you give more of, some things you give less of,” he says. “And the whole package has to fit together for both sides at the end of the day in a way that they can live with it and in a way that they believe, hopefully, that they’re better off with the package than they are without the package.”

DOI remains dedicated to facilitating settlement discussions and is aware of the tribal concerns toward Arizona’s anti-fee-to-trust policy. “We are working from the federal perspective closely with tribal partners and with non-federal entities like the State of Arizona to bring these issues to conclusion and resolution,” says Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at DOI, who has been part of these tribal settlement discussions.

Working Together in Shortage