The Chatfield Reservoir south of Littleton was built as a flood control measure after the devastating floods in 1965 and is the centerpiece of a beloved state park. But it now serves a new purpose: providing more water storage for the Front Range without adding a major footprint. After a three-decade planning process, the reservoir level was raised 12 feet and storage space has been reallocated to add 20,600 acre-feet of storage, including an environmental pool of up to 2,100 acre-feet.
“At first blush, this doesn’t sound so complicated. You’re taking water storage that already exists and making it multi-purpose storage without any impacts to the dam itself,” says Charly Hoehn, general manager of the reallocation project. But it was the first project of its kind in the state, so Hoehn’s team had to act as “guinea pigs” on permitting and mitigation issues.
While the project didn’t require new dam construction, it was not without challenges. State park facilities had to be moved, and there were environmental concerns, like the removal of trees and wetlands to accommodate the higher water level. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver unsuccessfully sued to stop construction, citing impacts to birds and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Polly Reetz, the Audubon conservation committee chairperson, says she continues to question “whether this would even work at all” with the project’s relatively junior water rights and doesn’t think it was worth impacting “a very important birding area.”
Other green groups worked with project organizers on a mitigation strategy that placed a value on each piece of land that would be affected (accounting for impacts to wetlands and animals), then found other areas to offset any damage. The result was significant restoration to flows on nearby Plum Creek and bank stabilization primarily upstream on the South Platte River to prevent erosion. The environmental pool will accommodate timed releases to help address some low-flow conditions downstream on the South Platte River. Final approval and the completion of mitigation work in 2020 allowed the new storage to begin, but Hoehn says that the low spring runoff allowed only a “marginal amount” to be stored in its first year.
To address the water needs of a growing population amid shortages, the Colorado Water Plan in 2015 set a goal of attaining 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage by 2050.
Colorado is working its way toward that goal, but building new storage is easier said than done. Increasing environmental and social concerns, limited geographic locations, and even more limited water rights have made many traditional reservoir storage projects tougher to build. On top of that, long-range forecasting — to figure out how much water is going to be available to be stored — has become especially difficult as a result of climate change.
An April 2020 study published in the journal Science found that the American West’s current drought is as bad or worse than any in the past 1,200 years of tree-ring records. Ordinarily, storage would be the obvious solution to drought and dry years. You collect moisture in wet years and save it for times of need. But climate change has created a catch-22. Storage may be necessary, but it has become more challenging to build and less water is available to capture.
Dan Luecke, former director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, says these challenges have upended a philosophy long built on risk analysis to one defined by “decision-making under uncertainty.”
“For a long time, we’ve known there’s risk but we could look to the historical record to manage it,” says Luecke. (Luecke also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). “With climate change, that record is called into question … The nature of the game has changed.”
The cascading challenges of climate change have led water managers to think creatively about alternatives to traditional infrastructure. Greeley, for example, replaced a plan to expand an existing reservoir with one that will store water underground. Front Range districts collaborated to reallocate the space in Chatfield Reservoir, a flood storage basin, raising the water level to add permanent water storage supply. As part of the Basin Implementation Plan for the Yampa/White/Green River Basin, water managers are exploring putting reservoirs high in the mountains to limit evaporative loss.
Decision-making under uncertainty makes it all the more complicated for water providers to meet Colorado’s water needs and has caused many to reexamine what a smart storage project is made of — one that can help meet water supply goals for many water users while respecting the environment, one that is also acceptable to stakeholders, and one with minimum impacts so that it can make its way through the permitting process. Water managers are growing increasingly innovative, out of necessity, to develop water storage projects that will work.
Reservoirs under Climate Change
It’s not simply a matter of how much water is available to store. Everything from the location and size of reservoirs to the timing for capturing runoff and for making releases is being reviewed. Various climate models, including those used by the Colorado Water Conservation Board for state water planning, project warmer temperatures that will affect evaporation rates in rivers and reservoirs and seasonal shifts in precipitation, including reduced mountain snowpack and earlier runoff. Earlier and reduced flows could, for instance, necessitate dams releasing water earlier to meet demand.
Temperature rise, too, makes storing water a challenge. Any pool will lose water through evaporation, and more during hot, dry times, but the loss is worse for reservoirs at lower elevations with more exposed surface area. The science used to estimate evaporative loss is imprecise — estimates could be off by as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is conducting a study to refine its methods. Even so, a 2018 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society study estimated that losses from Lake Powell and Lake Mead could total as much as 15% of the annual upper basin allocation among Colorado River Basin states, or five to six times the annual water use of Denver. The same study said that summer evaporation rates may have risen by as much as 6% over the last 25 years.
The National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, states that climate change is fueling stronger storms that could overwhelm dams and infrastructure designed to capture more moderate storm surge flows. It’s also intensifying wildfires that destroy landscapes, load reservoirs with sediment, and threaten water delivery infrastructure.
The 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan lays out a number of alternatives to new traditional storage projects, including rehabilitating existing infrastructure, reallocating flood storage to active storage, and using below-ground aquifer storage alternatives. While the options are vast, the update says that to meet the state’s goals, “at least some new large reservoirs are needed.”
But building those reservoirs also requires water to fill them, says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. Water rights are not as easy to come by in an era of constraint. Any new water rights claimed today are junior in the state’s legal priority system, making storage necessary to capture peak flows after all senior water rights are satisfied. But as climate change shifts the timing and magnitude of peak flows, reservoirs may not be as effective a tool for managing junior water rights.
“A dam is a bit like opening a bank account, there has to be something to put in it,” Udall says. “Ultimately, everything bends to the hydrological realities of what the supply is.”
The Jigsaw Puzzle
The era of uncertainty doesn’t just make individual storage projects a puzzle — the long-range plans that help utilities figure out what storage they need are now a tangle of variables. Balancing climate-complicated precipitation projections with population and water use trends, regulatory changes, and competition for resources can make the standard planning process a head-spinning endeavor.
When Colorado Springs Utilities started updating its 2017 Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP), the utility wanted a “comprehensive view” that would take a hard look at risk analysis, says water planner Kevin Lusk. Colorado Springs doesn’t sit on a major river system and relies on storage in remote watersheds to manage its variable supply. In the early 2000s, the utility’s water yield saw a 600% difference between the driest and wettest years.
Realizing that a backward-looking dataset might no longer apply to a present and future defined by climate change, the utility took a state-of-the-art new approach to its planning process. Recently, Colorado Springs partnered with the consulting firm Black and Veatch, which expanded the multi-objective evolutionary algorithm (MOEA) to utilities to help them assess the complexities in planning. The machine learning tool can project thousands of possible futures using precipitation, temperature and hydrological factors, then help planners narrow down their range of possible options.
“As these plans get so big, it’s hard for the human mind to comprehend them,” says Leon Basdekas, a private consultant who worked at Colorado Springs Utilities, then Black and Veatch, designing and managing the utility’s IWRP. “This tool allows you to evaluate complex planning options in ways that would be impossible to do otherwise.”
For Colorado Springs, the advanced IWRP process helped water planners see a range of climate and streamflow possibilities, then identify 14 storage options that could meet future water demand. Some, like a potential new reservoir on Williams Creek or one upstream of Rampart Reservoir, have been under discussion for years. Others are more general concepts without specific sites, such as gravel pit storage along the Arkansas River. Among those identified projects, Colorado Springs has also been exploring Eagle River storage options, including the potential Whitney Reservoir, to collect and store Western Slope water, although nearby towns and others have objected to possible impacts on the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Lusk says Whitney Creek alternatives are “one of many possibilities” and that the IWRP analysis even considers “less tangible characteristics” like community values and opposition to any individual project when optimizing storage opportunities.
More than anything, Lusk says, the advanced modeling helped the utility gain a better appreciation for the full scope of storage and transmission. The “a-ha moment,” he says, is seeing how one individual new reservoir may not mean as much for the system as, say, shoring up existing pipelines to make the already-built system run more efficiently.
“We can’t just look at storage on its own, it’s a package deal with supply and conveyance,” Lusk says. “This is a complex jigsaw puzzle.”
When Mitigation Meets Enhancement
To the north, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP, has been moving through a decades-long process to obtain the necessary permits and to gain the favor of local stakeholders. NISP has been reshaped, with operational changes and environmental improvements now built in, in response to stakeholder concerns.
Northern Water’s project, if fully approved, will build two reservoirs, one northwest of Fort Collins off the Cache la Poudre River and another northeast of Greeley, to deliver nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water a year to 15 communities and irrigators along the Front Range. With the population of northern Colorado expected to double by 2050, backers say that such a large shared storage project is necessary to efficiently serve booming towns like Erie, Windsor and Severance. Through water exchanges with farmers — which will average about 25,000 acre-feet per year — and the purchase of conservation easements on farms, Northern Water says the project will also help farmers reduce the negative impacts of buy and dry by keeping water on farms while serving the growing Front Range population.
But supplying those growing towns will necessarily require impacts. NISP will involve constructing the 170,000 acre-foot Glade Reservoir (to accommodate the reservoir, seven miles of U.S. Highway 287 will be relocated) and the 45,600 acre-foot Galeton Reservoir. Northern Water will also build another forebay reservoir, five pump plants, and 80 miles of pipeline.
That kind of construction naturally attracted opposition from environmentalists and some communities. Concerns include that taking water out of the already-stressed Poudre River could reduce its crucial spring peak flows, which flush sediment downriver and restore habitat.
Several environmental reviews as part of the permitting process concluded that the need for storage was there, even after accounting for planned water conservation savings. With so many communities involved, scrapping the collaborative project, as some environmental groups advocated for, would leave them all competing for limited resources.
“I think quite a few participants who saw [NISP] as a [potential] future supply are now looking at this as the future,” says Christopher Smith, general manager of the Left Hand Water District and chairman of the NISP participants committee. “I don’t think anyone is left who is speculating on this. It’s necessary.”
So Northern Water started looking for what project manager Carl Brouwer calls “the wow factor.”
“We really changed our perspective to thinking about how we could put water back and be a part of the preservation of the Poudre River,” Brouwer says.
Project proponents added an estimated $60 million in mitigation and enhancement measures, bringing the total estimated project cost to about $1.1 billion. The idea is that water would be released from Glade Reservoir year round and no water will be diverted to storage when flows dip below 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer and 25 cfs in the winter to eliminate spots where the river already dries up. Collection operations will be adjusted to keep peak flows in the Poudre River two out of every three years, and 90% of the time little or no diversion will take place during peak flows. Organizers will also build new fish passage structures and improve 2.4 miles of stream channel near a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) fish hatchery north of Fort Collins.
The mitigation and enhancement plan received unanimous approval from CPW and the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2017, and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division approved the project’s 401 Water Quality Certification in 2020. NISP has continued moving through the federal permitting process, with final approval expected this spring or summer.
Karlyn Armstrong, water project mitigation coordinator for CPW, says that the flow program will be a benefit to the river. “Currently the river goes dry in places — once the program comes online, the river will have water 365 days a year through the conveyance flow reach,” Armstrong says. “Aquatic life will benefit from sustained minimum flows.”
Critics remain. In August 2020, the Fort Collins City Council voted 5-1 to oppose the project, citing the potential loss of spring flows, and some environmentalists say communities should explore options with less of an environmental footprint.
But Brouwer says that the project, combined with Northern’s efforts on conservation and water exchanges, should set the new standard for infrastructure in the state with its environmental focus.
“What really changed was embracing the enhancement part of mitigation and enhancement. We can make it better,” Brouwer says. “We’ve set the bar pretty high and I do think this will become the norm.”
Improved or not, some still say a large storage project like NISP shouldn’t happen at all. Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates has been a long-time opponent of NISP and in 2012 released an alternative plan it said could meet the needs of Front Range communities without the footprint of new infrastructure. The nonprofit’s “Better Future” alternative included conservation tools that would offset 20,482 acre-feet of use by 2060 and apply reuse technology to another 4,905 acre-feet. Combined with flexible water sharing agreements between agricultural users and municipalities and more thoughtful expansion onto previously irrigated agricultural land that could come with water rights, WRA says their plan reimagines what adding supply could look like.
“We know we need more storage going forward, but new storage doesn’t have to be connected to new development,” says Laura Belanger, water resources engineer at Western Resource Advocates. “Alternative supply portfolios that include reuse or conservation can mean storage that optimizes existing supplies more efficiently.”
WRA’s plan as an alternative to NISP was rejected in 2018, as were all other alternatives proposed during the public comment period, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued NISP’s Environmental Impact Statement, saying that these options “did not meet the project’s purpose and need and practicability screening criteria.” WRA says it relies on different calculations than the economic reports backing NISP and has continued to update its alternative in a series of recent comments on the NISP proposal.
Whether or not it could replace NISP, the “Better Future” model represents how some are thinking about limiting demand as a way to reduce the need for additional storage. Aggressive conservation has started to decouple water use from population growth in some cities across the West; a survey of 20 Western cities published in the journal Water found that between 2000 and 2015, total water use dropped 19% while populations increased by 21% on average. Denver Water has reduced per capita water use by 22% over the past decade.
The City of Aurora has also made conservation and reuse a foundational part of its water plan, including more efficient landscaping requirements, rebates for low water-use appliances, and requirements that new developers make their buildings less wasteful. Tim York, the city’s water conservation supervisor, estimates that it costs about $600 in staff time and resources for each acre-foot of water conserved, compared to about $25,000 per acre-foot for water acquired on the open market.
That doesn’t mean Aurora isn’t looking for more storage. The city is moving ahead on the proposed Wild Horse Reservoir project, a 96,000 acre-foot storage site in Park County.
“There’s always going to be more to be done from conservation and efficiency. At the same time, you can only get so low,” says York. “You get to a point where you need storage. The mindset that you can conserve your way out of any drought is just not realistic.”
Many small- and medium-sized utilities don’t have the staff to mirror Aurora’s efforts, but Belanger says that the strain on resources under the drought makes it necessary for all municipalities to embrace conservation.
“The more efficient existing and new development is, the more water you can have in the supply,” Belanger says. “Managing the demands of your community produces sustainable savings.”
Can Restoration Double As Storage?
Some advocates say it’s time to think beyond cement and instead embrace natural watershed restoration as a storage solution.
In its 2016 Water Plan, the State of California declared that source watersheds would be considered “integral components of water infrastructure,” putting reviving watersheds on essentially the same level as building new dams or pipelines. While Colorado hasn’t adopted similar language yet (Montana is the only other state to do so), there is increased attention to restoring watersheds as an ecological tool with water storage benefits.
“Our water has so much to do, we should give it a longer reach and take advantage of all the benefits,” says Abby Burk of the Audubon Society. “When water is in rivers instead of sitting in reservoirs, there are so many more benefits that support healthy, thriving ecosystems.”
Snowmelt and storm events, for instance, flash quickly through incised streams that are disconnected from their floodplains. Healthier connected floodplain-riparian areas can restore plant life, recharge underground aquifers, preserve flows for aquatic species, and even reduce flood risk. Water in the ground also won’t evaporate like it does from reservoirs. However, it’s less clear if this restoration work can provide the kind of material storage benefits providers want to see.
“We’re careful about saying that restoration of floodplains and wetlands does not produce more water, but it can change the timing,” says Jackie Corday, a consultant working with American Rivers on healthy headwaters issues. “The water can be attenuated [by absorption into the restored floodplain], the runoff is slowed when it’s stored as groundwater, then it slowly gets released throughout the summer instead of all at once.”
Stretching natural runoff releases into the hot summer months could help farmers irrigate for longer growing seasons without storing water above ground, but little research has quantified that potential. Researchers are eyeing projects meant to mimic beaver structures to see how they change flows. A project that’s currently underway to restore floodplains and wetlands upstream of Grand County’s Shadow Mountain Reservoir could offer a good model; preliminary assessments from that project are expected by the end of the year.
According to Melinda Kassen, senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, restoration fits into a more natural philosophy of water systems. She hopes to see more municipalities begin to view natural infrastructure as just as valid as traditional infrastructure.
“You just have to remember that there is an alternative, and sometimes that’s hard when you’ve done something one way for 150 years,” Kassen says. “When we talk about water storage now, one of the first things we say is that we should be looking at green infrastructure instead of gray.”
A bigger way of thinking is taking hold in the South Platte River Basin, home to approximately 70% of the state’s population and its largest projected water supply gap. The South Platte Basin Implementation Plan, completed in 2015 to inform the state water plan, showed that, with a population expected to reach 6 million by 2050, there could be a maximum annual water supply gap of 540,000 acre-feet.
The “status quo” strategy to fill that gap for cities is buy and dry, says Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in northeastern Colorado. Frank has always worked on behalf of the water users in his district, but as water stresses increase, he is thinking more creatively about the future of agriculture by “providing water security for both” farms and cities.
There are more water rights on the South Platte River than there is water to fulfill them in most years, which is why buy and dry — where cities purchase senior agricultural water rights, drying up a farm and gaining the priority to divert that water when flows are low — has been attractive to municipalities. As an alternative, new storage might help. Some flows are available for capture, just not every year. The South Platte Storage Study, ordered by the Colorado Legislature in 2016 and completed in 2017, found that while flows were extremely variable between 1996 and 2015, a median flow of 293,000 acre-feet per year in excess of South Platte River interstate compact obligations crossed the state line into Nebraska. The amount of water that could be put to use in Colorado is much less, the study found, but additional South Platte storage could help with a variety of things — from compact compliance to water sharing agreements to river flows and to better utilizing reusable return flows from upstream municipalities. It also found that a combination of storage pools working conjunctively up and down the river could be more beneficial than individual reservoirs.
To explore ways to move beyond individual reservoirs to close the gap, Frank and other water managers throughout the basin are collaborating on the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group, or SPROWG, and working toward a system-wide approach to storage and water use.
In a feasibility study published in March 2020, SPROWG members identified four alternative concepts that could help close the supply gap without diverting additional water from the Western Slope or buying up valuable water rights from local farmers. The study analyzed the potential to store between 215,000 and 409,000 acre-feet of water in various generalized locations between Denver and the Nebraska state line. New storage would rely on available flows not obligated to existing water rights, water that can be reused, or temporary lease agreements with farmers. Stored water would then be used locally, transported through a pipeline for regional use, or exchanged between locations.
The idea, said SPROWG advisory committee member Lisa Darling, was to think regionally instead of by district, to move water where it’s needed at any given time.
“Maybe there was this sort of older water buffalo thinking in the past, but I think we know now that we can’t develop projects in a vacuum anymore,” says Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. (Darling also serves as president of Water Education Colorado’s Board of Trustees.) “There’s a holistic system and that’s the prism we have to look through now.”
Dan Luecke, who fought multiple large infrastructure projects across the state, says he’s been encouraged by an increase in innovation where cities and growers are thinking more collaboratively on both storage and use. In an era of constraints, he says, it will take all users — even those across state lines — working together to think about creative and efficient approaches to the storage dilemma.
“If we could get cities and irrigators to agree to some kind of combined management scheme, we might need more storage but we could look at it in a more integrated and efficient context,” Luecke says. “It’s not about storage for this user or that area, it’s about an entire system that’s more flexible.”
Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.
Despite a stubborn, 20-year drought and reservoirs whose supplies are below normal, Colorado communities remain split on whether to impose permanent outdoor watering restrictions, according to a Fresh Water News analysis of local watering rules.
According to the analysis, which examined rules in 15 cities representing the state’s different geographies and major population centers, eight of the cities surveyed have enacted permanent restrictions. Seven cities have not, opting instead to enact variable, temporary watering rules each year.
But when communities do impose permanent rules, rather than adjusting them each spring depending on snowpack and reservoir levels, significant savings occur, with some communities seeing reductions of more than 40 percent in peak summer water demand, according to a recent study by Alliance for Water Efficiency, a nonprofit representing water and wastewater utilities across North America.
Those kinds of statistics helped Steamboat Springs last spring make the move to permanent water restrictions. Steamboat limits customers to watering their lawns three days per week based on the last digit of their address — even numbers can water on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays, while odd numbers can water on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The new rules also limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m.
After years of variable outdoor watering rules that fluctuated depending on drought conditions, Steamboat Springs residents embraced the new permanent schedule right away, according to Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city’s former water resource manager who earlier this month became Assistant Director for Water at the Department of Natural Resources.
“Coloradans are ready to take this step,” said Romero-Heaney. “There really is no reason to water irrigated sod every day, unless it’s getting heavy use like you would see at a soccer field or a community park. It just makes perfect sense. We also recognize that it’s not fair for us to say to the Front Range utilities, ‘You need to conserve more, you need to conserve more, that’s your problem,’ if we’re not conserving ourselves. We wanted to lead by example.”
For its permanent watering rules, Steamboat Springs drew inspiration from the handful of other Colorado cities — both on the Front Range and in the mountains — that have made outdoor watering rules the norm, instead of the exception.
Some city and utility leaders say the watering rules help residents to permanently change their outdoor watering behaviors, given the aridification of the West and the accelerating pace of climate change. Others continue to monitor drought conditions throughout the summer months and adjust their watering rules depending on the current severity.
Permanent watering rules have indeed helped some Colorado cities reduce their outdoor water use, which can represent as much as half of all domestic water use. Castle Rock, for example, has seen a 20 percent reduction in per-person, per-day water use since enacting its permanent watering rules in 1985.
But city leaders also view permanent watering rules as just one tool in a broader water conservation toolbox, along with education and outreach, water-wise landscape and fixture incentives, tiered rate structures, and strict enforcement measures.
Conservation experts agree, noting that permanent watering rules aren’t a silver bullet and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to water supply and demand management.
“You can’t prescribe a blanket strategy across every water provider typically,” said Bill Christiansen, director of programs for the Alliance for Water Efficiency. “It’s not fair to say a certain strategy would work for every water provider. You have to do what makes sense for your area.”
Why watering rules?
In the broadest sense, watering rules — both permanent and temporary — help utilities manage peak demand, the period of time when water use is the highest. In most communities, peak demand occurs during the summer, when residential and commercial customers water their lawns and gardens. These rules help ensure that utilities have enough supply to meet the needs of their customers. During drought, when water supply is low, many communities enact or tighten watering rules to help lower the demand for water.
“Outdoor water use can often represent a very large percentage of a water provider’s portfolio, and the capacity of a system is built to meet peak water use,” Christiansen said. “If outdoor water use can be reduced, it can be a very effective way to reduce water consumption. It can also be very helpful if a community is facing the need to expand their capacity — they can lower that peak and avoid or downsize any capacity or expansion projects. That can save ratepayers a lot of money if a large investment can be avoided.”
In a recent study, the alliance found that mandatory watering restrictions of all kinds lead to significant decreases in water demand. Some cities involved in the study saw up to a 42 percent reduction in peak monthly demand. Meanwhile, voluntary watering restrictions produced no statistically significant difference in water demand.
When comparing permanent versus temporary watering rules, the study found that water demand rebounded after cities lifted temporary drought restrictions, while cities that made watering restrictions permanent saw very low levels of rebound. Strong messaging and enforcement, as well as drought surcharges, were also important for reducing demand.
“Increasing rates is often the most effective tool for achieving water savings,” according to the study.
“New” water supply for development
Some growing Colorado cities view permanent watering rules and other conservation measures as a “new” source of water, because these measures help buy them more time before they have to seek out other, often costly new water supplies in advance of future development.
That’s been the case for Aurora since 2002, when the city first enacted its permanent rules limiting residents to watering no more than three days a week and, from May 1 to Sept. 30, to watering before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
But watering rules are just one piece of the puzzle in Aurora. The city also has a tiered rate structure, enforcement measures for violators and many financial incentives for water-conserving landscaping and devices; Aurora also re-uses much of its water through its innovative Prairie Waters system. These and other conservation efforts appear to be working, too. Since the early 2000s, Aurora’s water use has declined 36 percent, resulting in some of the lowest per-person water use on the Front Range.
“Aurora is not fully developed,” said Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water. “We’ve got water supplies that are conservatively or easily able to meet the demand of our existing population. But we do have to continue to acquire supplies to meet future growth and demands that we know are coming our way. So with that, probably the easiest water supply we have is to extend our existing supplies. That’s the least costly option for us.”
Other city leaders view permanent watering rules as a way to change their residents’ and businesses’ behaviors. Instead of flip-flopping between various watering schedules and rules throughout the summer, residents simply adapt to the new norm and move forward.
That was one big reason Thornton adopted permanent watering rules in March, where watering is limited to three days per week between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. At the same time, the city also updated its code to include beefed-up enforcement measures for leaks and other water-wasting behaviors.
“Planning for drought is one thing — we’ve got these short-term strategies where we reduce demand or grab extra water, but one of the real strains on all of our systems is the aridification of the region,” said Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director for Thornton Water, which also has a tiered rate structure and various water-wise incentive programs. “We’re becoming progressively drier and warmer and that’s a challenge to plan for. We have to be able to rely on consistent behavior change from our customers and just a consistent ethic and not this, ‘Oh, we’re in a drought we’re in an emergency,’ like the crash-dieting approach. We need more of a sustained nutrition approach.”
The same is true for Colorado Springs, which enacted its permanent watering rules in January 2020. After years of messaging and education around droughts, the city’s customers immediately adapted to the new watering rules, said Julia Gallucci, water conservation supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities.
“We started communication on May 1 and by the first week in July, we could see by usage that the majority of our customers were all watering no more than three days a week, which was really encouraging,” Gallucci said.
In the first year under the new rules, Colorado Springs saw a 1 percent reduction in commercial irrigation and a 4 percent to 5 percent reduction in residential irrigation, Gallucci said. Those initial numbers were right on target with the city’s goal of contributing 11,000 to 13,000 acre-feet to its supply through conservation over the next 50 years through the watering rules and other measures.
“This is one of the best ways to implement a water conservation ethic across the community, because instead of being really mindful of drought in drought years, we’re mindful of it year after year,” Gallucci said. “Unlike drought response, when you’re trying to manage a dearth in water supply for a shorter period of time, these are planning well out into our future. It was kind of amazing how quickly and supportively our community responded to our water-wise rules last year.”
Of course, if cities are conserving water for future use, they need to have somewhere to store it, Gallucci pointed out. Water storage projects can be expensive and unpopular among some residents, but they’re an important piece of the equation.
“Conservation can only contribute so much to supply,” Gallucci said. “If you use none, you’ll have all of that to use later. But when you curb your water use by 5 percent each year, you have to have the storage to keep that additional water to use later on. Conservation and storage is this really careful and important balance in Colorado. Every large provider is considering different ways to expand their storage as a form of taking care of their supply.”
That’s the main reason Durango has not enacted permanent watering rules, according to Jarrod Biggs, the city’s assistant utilities director.
“We did a pretty thorough and thoughtful evaluation of this when we were developing our drought management plan,” Biggs said. “It seems like a rational exercise, it drives conservation. But we’re a surface supply city, we don’t have significant reservoir space to speak of and so if we enact watering restrictions, we’re just letting the water go by us. There’s the old adage that canals move water in space and reservoirs move water in time. We don’t have enough of that time machine in the City of Durango and we’ve built our policies around that.”
That’s not to say that Durango encourages residents to use water needlessly. In fact, the city has some “pretty punitive” tiered pricing for heavy users, Biggs pointed out. In the meantime, Biggs is pursuing other ways to boost supply in Durango, including using water from Lake Nighthorse, part of the Animas-La Plata Project.
“I’ve got a two-pronged approach,” Biggs said. “Let’s push and strive and discuss and encourage conservation because that will push out the investment that we need to make in additional water supplies, but at the same time, let’s pursue those investments in water supplies because we know they’ll only be more expensive in the future.”
The City of Boulder also continues to make outdoor watering decisions each spring, looking at drought indicators and the city’s water supply status after May 1. Instead of permanent watering rules, the city relies on tiered water prices, customized water budgets for customers, and incentives and education to encourage conservation.
“So far, while current conditions are drier than normal, our snowpack and reservoir levels are looking sufficient enough to not require restrictions,” said Kim Hutton, Boulder’s water resources manager. Still, she said, “Due to drier conditions, we continue to encourage water customers to use water efficiently.”
Since Colorado communities are at different points in their water conservation journey and are facing their own unique challenges, the path forward will look different for every city.
Some communities are installing automated metering infrastructure systems, which they hope will help water users track and better manage their water use in real-time. Others are providing grants to homeowners’ associations and working with developers to encourage more water-friendly landscaping in neighborhoods.
But according to conservation experts, even those cities with the most robust water-saving initiatives underway must keep working, as a good water year here and there isn’t likely to alleviate the West’s long-term drought.
“All the strategies we have at our disposal for water conservation and efficiency fall along a spectrum,” says Waverly Klaw, director of resilient communities and watersheds for the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based conservation organization. “It’s important to keep moving in the same direction of greater and greater water savings. Some communities might have permanent watering schedules and that’s great, and that will save them a certain amount of water, but they should continue to look forward and look at additional opportunities and strategies to go beyond that. One tool or strategy doesn’t solve the whole problem.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kestrel Kunz is surfing, Colorado style, in her kayak among the waves at the Gunnison Whitewater Park a few miles west of town. The waves are more than recreational play for Kunz. Flowing water is an important part of the work she does for American Whitewater as the organization’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director. For Kunz, the Gunnison River is like a watery crystal ball that gives her a glimpse into a future increasingly threatened by drought and climate change.
Kunz is the mastermind behind a prototype web tool developed by American Whitewater and the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District that may change the future of river management across Colorado and eventually the West. The tool, the Upper Gunnison Basin Boatable Days Web Tool, is based on historical wet and dry year flows and other data and gives river users and water managers the ability to check an entire season’s flow forecast.
The Boatable Days Web Tool, Kunz said, “shows the relationship between river flow and recreational opportunities. With a little research we can use historic flows to project how a dry or wet year, a new diversion project, a climate change scenario, or reservoir operations can positively or negatively impact river recreation opportunities and thus Colorado’s robust outdoor economy.”
Being able to look ahead is an especially important feature for the state’s fishing and rafting outfitters, Kunz said. “The web tool will give an estimation on what flows are going to look like and how that is going to affect the number of commercial operating days in an upcoming season and help them plan in advance.” If outfitters know they’re not going to have sufficient boatable flows in September and October they might bring employees in earlier or may have to shift the way they do business and when they do it.
Kunz sees the tool as an opportunity for water managers both locally and at the state level to use the information to better balance flows for recreation with other needs. “This tool provides an important snapshot into how recreation opportunities are going to be impacted by drought. The web tool in no way is going to solve our drought problem, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle that’s been missing before now.”
Kunz and American Whitewater are currently working to fit other pieces of Colorado’s river puzzle together by finalizing boatable days studies on the Roaring Fork, Crystal, and Poudre rivers and creating similar web tools.
“I think the biggest thing the tool does is give us a perspective on how climate change and drought are impacting our rivers,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager of The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Chavez believes the next step will be to gain a better understanding of how changing river flows affect the local economy.
“Gunnison has been discovered,” Chavez said. “We have a lot of people visiting and a lot more people on the river.” As river flows drop, rafters, boaters, and other water users are concentrated into certain segments of the river with more frequency, impacting the fishery and wildlife, boat ramps, wetlands and the boating experience. You can see in water short years how that recreation season is shortened and that’s important for a community like Gunnison that is dependent on recreation.
This web tool is going to be a good model for how communities can come together and identify how their rivers are functioning,” said Trout Unlimited’s Dan Omasta. Omasta was TU’s grassroots coordinator during the development stage of the Boatable Days Water Tool and worked with Kunz and American Whitewater to identify ideal flow ranges for fishing and floating, and the high and low thresholds for navigation.
“When is the river too low to float for a dory or raft with clients?” said Omasta. “The tool will especially help identify sections of river that become unnavigable at certain flows. The Taylor and Gunnison rivers are seeing a lot of pressure. They get busier every year and one of the ways to tackle that challenge is to spread people out and encourage them to be floating and fishing different sections.
“More people are recreating on rivers and that’s awesome to see. We just need to be smarter about how we manage it and hopefully this tool can play a part in that,” Omasta said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register for the information session on June 10, 2021:
Water Education Colorado and Fresh Water News are excited to partner with the Colorado News Collaborative, Gates Family Foundation and Colorado Media Project to bring this new opportunity: “Water Fluency for Journalists!”
Interested journalists are invited to apply by June 23 to increase your water knowledge and receive a $1,000 stipend toward participation.
Colorado’s water future is at risk now more than ever. Facing a growing population, warmer climate, longer growing season, decreased snowpack, and earlier runoff, the state’s water supplies are increasingly taxed to serve competing interests. Hundreds of thousands of residents are new to Colorado and unaware of the fundamental challenges faced by their new home state. Even for Coloradans who consider themselves “natives,” many grew up in urban areas with little or no awareness of where their water comes from, how it is managed, or the risks to and opportunities for ensuring a sustainable future.
Strong water journalism is vital for developing more knowledgeable and engaged Coloradans. Yet as the number of professional journalists has been cut nearly in half over the past 15 years, there are fewer and fewer Colorado reporters dedicated to covering this important issue. Today many journalists covering water for local news outlets are generalists, and may not feel confident covering the often complex topics of water management, water rights, water policy, drought, climate change, forest health, demand management, agricultural water innovations and more.
That’s why Water Education Colorado is proud to co-develop and offer this 2021 Water Journalism Fellowship opportunity for working Colorado journalists.
The five-month fellowship features a series of four “Water Fluency for Journalists” workshops presented by Fresh Water News and Water Education Colorado, plus coaching support for individual and collaborative reporting projects from Fresh Water News and the Colorado News Collaborative. The fellowship experience and $1,000 stipends are made possible through support from the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, through its Natural Resources program.
For more information about the fellowship opportunity and eligibility requirements, visit the CMP website.
Interested applicants should also join us for an information session on Thursday, June 10, to hear more. Register for the meeting now.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Join us June 11 or 12 along Cottonwood Creek for the inaugural Urban Water Cycle Bike Tour in Colorado Springs!
Join us for a fun, free regional bike tour along Cottonwood Creek in Colorado Springs. This tour will connect community members to local water and recreation resources through an approximately 9-mile (mostly downhill) ride.
Both tour days start at Frank Costello Park, with a short ride to Cowpoke Flood Detention and Development. You will then ride downhill all the way to a creek restoration site on Monument Creek. With a short ride back uphill, you will end at Crit Cafe for our final speakers, networking and refreshments on your own.
Tour topics include:
What are the Cottonwood Creek, Fountain Creek, and Arkansas River watersheds?
Why water quality is important? What is stormwater? What is point source and nonpoint source pollution?
How is Colorado Springs conserving water and planning for its future water supply?
How are community partners connecting neighborhoods to trails and creeks?
How can maintaining pipes allow us to restore creeks?
How do we ensure our water is clean and safe?
How can you protect stream health?
We thank our supporters at Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Colorado Springs Utilities, El Pomar Foundation, and Fountain Creek Watershed District. In addition, our partners at the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the City of Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise (SWENT) and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services made this tour possible. We look forward to a fun and educational day along Cottonwood Creek!
Here’s an excerpt from the Spring 2021 issue of Headwaters Magazine (Caitlin Coleman):
INTO THE MODERN STORAGE ERA
Most Coloradans rely on some form of water storage in order to live. Water is collected when available and later released when and where it’s needed. Water storage is a necessity, providing year-round access to water that would otherwise come in a rush each spring as snow melts into runoff and flows hurriedly out of state.
“If we were to leave it up to the natural systems, we would be dry for a big part of the year,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. (Ris also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The Ancestral Puebloans, who once inhabited the Four Corners region, knew this and relied on water storage like Morefield Reservoir, which anthropologists indicate was used between 750-1100 A.D. and is still evidenced by mounds in Mesa Verde National Park.
Years later, upon settlement by non-native populations including land grant recipients, homesteaders and miners, reservoir construction proved vital to sustain a larger population. Dams were rapidly constructed in the late 1800s through 1910, primarily for agricultural water needs. In the early 1900s some 290 dams were built in Colorado, the most dams erected in a single decade.
The 1930s through 1970s brought a boom of reservoir construction to meet the demands of the state’s growing municipal water needs. Toward the end of this municipal era, the 1960s saw the greatest water storage volume constructed in any decade, with more than 1.8 million acre-feet, including two of the state’s largest water bodies: Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.
The rapid construction of big storage projects in Colorado and the West slowed starting in the 1970s as environmental laws and community concern about environmental impacts grew stronger and project permits became more difficult to obtain. The 1980s Two Forks dam and reservoir project debate and subsequent veto, where local community groups raised enough opposition to stop a planned 615-foot dam southwest of Denver, was a turning point. Two Forks marked the very end of the era in which big reservoirs were the primary answer to Colorado’s water supply, and the start to substantial community involvement.
The past 10 years have brought the fewest new dams and least amount of new storage volume in 120 years. Yet the call for storage from stakeholders across the state continues. Through the 2015 statewide water planning process, basin roundtables — stakeholder groups who have been working together on a regional, river-basin-wide scale to develop water priorities, assessments and goals — developed Basin Implementation Plans. All of the eight plans identified the need for new, restored or better-maintained storage.
In the issue, read about the cornerstone role that water storage has played in Colorado for more than a century, the Colorado Water Plan goal to develop additional storage by 2050, challenges and opportunities with specific projects, and some of the many ways that Coloradans are looking toward the next era of storage.
Here’s the release from Water Education Colorado (Jayla Poppleton):
Water Education Colorado kicks off its 15th Water Leaders Program May 27, 2021].
Sixteen up-and-coming water leaders from a diverse range of communities and water sectors across Colorado have been selected to participate in this intensive personal and professional development opportunity. They come from both private and public sector organizations, from state agencies, water districts and nongovernmental organizations.
“This is an invaluable investment that we are making, that our participants are making, to ready themselves for the incredible challenges that we as a state are facing around water,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director for Water Education Colorado. “We are equipping leaders with the confidence and skills to effect change, to work collaboratively across interest areas, and to feel rewarded in what they do as they lead their teams to innovate and craft water solutions.”
Established in 2006, the Water Leaders Program has produced nearly 200 graduates.
Several notable alumni include current Colorado Ag Commissioner Kate Greenberg, Esther Vincent, director of environmental services at Northern Water, and Matt Lindburg, managing principal for Brown and Caldwell who is supporting the state on its 2022 update to the Colorado Water Plan.
Participants are selected based on proven commitment to Colorado water and demonstrated potential for increased leadership roles. Many class members are civically active, serving in a wide range of volunteer roles such as on boards and commissions, in addition to their day jobs.
Molson Coors is a title sponsor of the 2021 program. The company has been brewing beer using Colorado water since 1873 and invests in variety of water sustainability initiatives, ranging from improved efficiency to protection of source watersheds.
“Molson Coors is proud to sponsor the Water Leaders program and ensure a bright future for Colorado by supporting our future water leaders,” said Kayla Garcia, community affairs manager for the company.
Throughout the four-month program, which culminates with a graduation ceremony on Sept. 24, the group will undergo a variety of self-assessments as well as an external, 360-degree feedback review from peers, supervisors, and direct reports. Facilitators will challenge participants to be vulnerable with their hopes and aspirations as well as their fears and perceived limitations as they confront complex issues for Colorado water management and protection in the face of climate change, population growth, and widely diverse community values around resource protection and use across Colorado.
“We have seen individuals break out of their shell and find their calling in the water community in ways that they never even thought possible,” said Stephanie Scott, leadership programs manager for Water Education Colorado. “Seeing graduates stretch beyond their wildest dreams, both personally and professionally, is the true magic of the Water Leaders Program.”
Water Education Colorado is a 501c3 nonprofit providing policy-neutral news and informational resources, engaging learning experiences, and empowering leadership programs. We work statewide to ensure Coloradans are knowledgeable about key water issues and equipped to make smart decisions for a sustainable water future.
WEco offers a variety of digital content and also produces two print publications: Headwaters magazine and the Citizen’s Guide reference series. These publications are distributed to policy makers, water professionals, agricultural and environmental organizations, university students, business leaders, and community groups.
In addition to the Water Leaders Program, WEco runs two other leadership programs: 1) Water Fluency – a comprehensive water literacy course for decision makers without a professional water background, and 2) the Water Educator Network – an affiliate program for fellow water educators to improve their practice.
WEco also provides a variety of other educational and outreach opportunities, including tours, forums, workshops, and the annual Sustaining Colorado Watersheds conference, held in October each year in Avon, Colo.
In June 2018, WEco launched Fresh Water News, a nonprofit news initiative dedicated to providing nonpartisan news coverage of the water issues that define Colorado and the American West.
Water Leaders Program sessions are held across Colorado to highlight local water challenges and leadership lessons.
The 2019 Water Leaders Program class celebrating its graduation .
Liz Roberts is digging into snow-soaked dirt just above the banks of Grizzly Creek in western Colorado. With bare fingers she sifts through the dark soil, looking for life amid the ruins of last summer’s devastating Grizzly Creek fire.
When she finds tiny dormant roots, she smiles and exposes more soil to show visitors that this ground, just two or three inches down, is filled with plant matter that will grow and bloom in the summer when the snow melts.
But farther along this same trail, in the White River National Forest just east of Glenwood Springs, there is thick ash beneath the snow, and few dormant roots. This means the soil was so injured by the fire, which burned for more than four months, that it has become disconnected from the mountainside, and the ash lying unrooted above it will be carried into the creek this spring as the water melts.
In unburned forests, the spring snowmelt is a glorious, annual event.
But not this year.
Roberts and other forest experts know that the spring runoff will carry an array of frightening heavy metals and ash-laden sediment generated in the burned soils, posing danger to the people of Glenwood Springs, who rely on Grizzly Creek and its neighbor just to the west, No Name Creek, for drinking water.
Raging wildfires…are easy to see. But what is rarely seen is the devastation to the natural mountain collection systems, where water starts as snow before melting in the spring and flowing down into creeks and eventually into water systems for towns and agricultural lands.
As soils burn, naturally occurring substances that would normally be locked in place are released.
“Sometimes we see lead, mercury, cadmium, possibly arsenic,” said Justin Anderson, Roberts’ colleague and a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist. “They can be dangerous, especially in high concentrations.”
Like other Western states, Colorado is in red alert mode this year, in part because these new megafires, triggered by drought and climate change, ravaged not just Glenwood Springs’ water system, but other major systems as well. Northern Water, for example, manages the Colorado Big-Thompson Project, which serves more than 1 million people and hundreds of farms on the northern Front Range and Eastern Plains. Burning at the same time as the Grizzly Creek fire, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires rampaged through the project’s mountain collection system, affecting water supplies for Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder, Broomfield and Loveland, among others.
Even as communities across the state keep their eyes on a 2021 fire season expected to be as bad as that of 2020, when the state saw the largest fires in its history explode, they are racing to create high-tech water treatment programs capable of filtering out the toxins now present in their once-pristine water, and replacing the pipes, intake flumes and grates damaged beyond repair last year.
Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s director of environmental services, expects the agency to spend more than $100 million over the next three to five years, restoring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand County and along the Front Range in Boulder and Larimer counties. That is nearly triple the agency’s $40 million reserve fund.
Ravaged pipes, reservoirs
“Over half of our major watersheds were affected,” Vincent said. “In some of them 90 percent is burned. Because there is no option to bypass the runoff that is going to come into our system, it will enter our reservoirs and affect all of our infrastructure on the West Slope.”
Restoring forests is an undertaking that requires decades of work and whole new industries to execute effectively.
Mike Lester is Colorado State Forester. Thanks to Colorado’s rapid recovery from the Covid-19 budget crisis and federal relief funds expected later this year, his agency has more money than it’s ever had to help restore forests.
”We’re going to be pretty well supported this year,” Lester said. The state added $6 million this past year for restoration work and it is expecting another $8 million July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Colorado has some 24 million acres of forest, most of which is owned by the federal government, and to a lesser extent, private landowners. Roughly 10 percent of those acres are in need of immediate attention to protect towns and homes in the wildland urban interface, Lester said. Colorado’s wildland urban interface, also known as the WUI, has become increasingly populated, creating greater risk to lives and infrastructure and complicating forest management.
Repairing the forests, thinning trees so the fires don’t burn with such intensity, and stabilizing hundreds of thousands of scarred mountain slopes requires skilled personnel and methods for utilizing the downed timber.
“We’re way short of resources,” Lester said. “We don’t have a huge amount of logging and professional forestry in Colorado. There is only so much money you can spend well before you run into capacity issues.”
In the short-term communities are focused on doing what they can now to keep their water systems safe.
Matt Langhorst is Glenwood Springs’ director of public works. When the Grizzly Creek fire ignited last August, he could tell almost immediately that the flames were going to engulf the water system’s intake structures in the White River National Forest high above the town at the top of Grizzly and No Name creeks.
“The second I saw the smoke coming over the hill, I knew it was right around our two watersheds. I picked up the phone and called the fire department and said, ’We’re going to have a problem.’”
A massive loss
Nine months later, Langhorst and his crews have reworked the high mountain intake structures and they’ve finished a complete rebuild of the town’s small water treatment plant so that it can remove the pollutants expected to contaminate its once-clear waters, and filter out massive sediment loads that are already beginning to come down into the creeks as they enter the Colorado River just east of town along I-70.
“We are expecting it to change the water quality for three to seven years, but it could be longer than that,” Langhorst said. “It is a massive loss.”
And costly. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the work needed to repair and rebuild its water system, and create a safe evacuation route if Glenwood Canyon is shut down again as it was last summer, will likely cost three times its annual operating budget of $19 million.
“It’s something we can’t afford,” Godes said. “But we can’t afford not to do it.”
In response, state agencies are rethinking how they provide emergency funds as natural disasters such as these megafires happen more frequently.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), last fall, was able to offer Glenwood Springs $8 million in a matter of days so that Langhorst and his crews could get into the high country to do critical construction work before winter snows arrived.
Kirk Russell oversees the CWCB’s loan funds. He said the agency was able to move quickly because it had seen the damage done and the loan delays that occurred after the state’s catastrophic floods of 2013. Back then, federal emergency funds took months to reach devastated Front Range communities and farm irrigation systems that were blown out by powerful flood waters.
“Fast forward to the wildfires that we saw last year and we foresaw there was going to be a need to respond quickly,” Russell said.
Now the agency has new emergency rules that provide for quick approvals on three-year, no-interest loans when water systems are harmed by wildfires.
“Do we need more money and more flexibility? Absolutely,” Russell said.
The state also needs a more cohesive response to managing and restoring forests and the water systems embedded in them. Key to that effort is a two-year-old initiative called the Colorado Forest and Water Alliance, an advocacy group that includes federal and state forest officials, water utilities, logging industries and environmental groups.
Ellen Roberts, a former state lawmaker from Durango, has helped spearhead the fledgling effort and is working on other local initiatives designed to work effectively across city and county boundaries, as well as private, public and federal lands.
Colorado’s lawmakers and the federal government have pledged more than $20 million this year to quickly jumpstart the work.
“I am very encouraged by that,” Roberts said. “A good chunk of the money will need to go to immediate post-fire work, but we need to shift gears soon to put the money in at the front end [to thin the over-grown forests]. Hopefully we will be seeing both with the money that has been set aside. This is not a one-and-done investment. It has to be viewed as being chapter one of a very, very long book.”
Water comes down
Back out in the White River National Forest, the annual snowmelt above Grizzly and No Name creeks has begun.
And Matt Langhorst is waiting, hoping that the residents of Glenwood Springs, who have enjoyed more than 115 years of clear mountain water, won’t notice any difference in how their water tastes.
He got hundreds of calls last August when the town was forced to shut off its fire-engulfed water system and use an emergency source temporarily.
Each call was roughly the same, he said.
“Everyone wanted to know, ‘What happened to my water?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Colorado’s rivers and streams are rising after a year of pandemic quarantine and social distancing, and the anticipation of rafters and kayakers is rising as well. But water resource experts and outfitters are cautioning that the second year in a row of below-average and unseasonably warm spring temperatures will contribute to a short float season.
“We’ve had another dry year. Last year wasn’t that great either,” said Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “The summer was dry. Fall was dry. Soil moisture is very dry. This doesn’t bode well for rafting and kayaking. Things can change but we’re not seeing any indication of that right now.”
As of last week, Strautins said the moisture content of snowpack remaining in the Upper Colorado River Basin is 79 percent of normal, while the Rio Grande and Yampa basins stand at 78 percent, the Gunnison basin is at 73 percent, and the San Miguel, Dolores and San Juan rivers are at 66 percent.
The exceptions are the Arkansas and South Platte river basins. In the Arkansas, snowpack is at 84 percent of normal, and due to some late winter storms, the South Platte Basin is close to 100 percent of normal.
Kyle Johnson, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Adventures in Fort Collins, said the near-normal snowpack in the South Platte Basin will provide his company with enough snowmelt to keep customers on the Poudre River happy this summer.
“We currently have the best snowpack in the state,” Johnson said. “The Poudre has been at runnable levels for the past three weeks. Although we definitely don’t anticipate high water, we’re looking forward to a nice, even flow season.”
Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon Outfitters in Cañon City, said the COVID-19 pandemic provided a tough learning experience for his operation and other outfitters.
“We’re using 2020 as a North Star. We learned things. We were washing paddles. Now we know that was an unnecessary precaution,” Neinas said.
But the company continues to be vigilant, especially in protecting its workers. “Here at Echo Canyon any team member that wants to be tested or vaccinated can do it on the clock. We’re giving our team members a $100 bonus for getting vaccinated.”
Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, said the his basin’s stored water supplies, though well below normal, are holding up and will help ensure rafters have enough liquid to float. “We’re not going to have any problems with water. It won’t be too high but it’ll be sufficient. We’ve seen a pretty good early start already.”
Coping with COVID-19 in 2020 was one of the greatest challenges in Colorado’s commercial rafting history, according to a new report by the Colorado River Outfitters Association. Commercial river use declined by more than 20 percent in 2020, with visitor spending dropping from nearly $185 million in 2019 to $148 million last year.
“We had a lot of anxiety in the rafting business,” Hamel said. “But once we got going, people were ready to get outside. We saw that everywhere on public lands. Rafting was no surprise. We survived last year and we’re appreciative that we’re still in business.”
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Although Brian Werner has served on the WEco Board of Trustees for just over a year, he was involved with helping found the organization nearly 20 years ago. Now retired from his 38-year career as the Communications Department Manager and Public Information Officer at Northern Water, and still a life-long water historian, Brian has written and given hundreds of presentations on the role of water in the settlement and development of Colorado and the West. We spoke with Brian about Northern Water’s storage, the impacts of fire on water storage, permitting, and more.
How long have you been on the WEco board?
I’ve been involved with WEco since WEco has been around. I was involved with the first couple incarnations of water education efforts in Colorado in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and then I helped when WEco came into being in 2002. I was never on the board, until a couple of years ago. It was something I wanted to do towards the end of my career and I retired just last year in January 2020. Luckily I was appointed to the board and I’ve truly enjoyed it.
What kind of experience do you bring to the group?
I think the fact that I had a 38-year career in the water business with Northern Water is an asset. At Northern Water, I’d established relations with people from all over the state and I also coordinated probably 150 to 200 different children’s water festivals, so clearly I was into education. I’m really a big believer in the trickle up theory of water knowledge. Where if you can educate the kids, that knowledge is going trickle up to mom and dad, and those kids will somebody be parents themselves. Ultimately, I’ve been trying to build that ethic in what I’ve been about for most of my career.
How would you describe your experience being on the board?
I’ve really enjoyed being on the board. I’ve watched it and been very much involved for a long time. Both Nicole Seltzer and Jayla Poppleton worked with me at Northern Water, so I have a personal vested interest in them succeeding, and they really have. Nicole moved the organization in a wonderful direction and Jayla has just been top-notch in where she has taken WEco. It has been really interesting because we have a diverse board, and I have enjoyed getting to know people who I didn’t know previously.
I understand you recently retired from Northern Water, can you tell me what your role with them was and maybe what Northern Water does in a general sense?
Northern Water is the largest water conservancy district in the state of Colorado and operates a large Bureau of Reclamation project that is one of the largest in the entire western United States; the Colorado-Big Thompson project. It brings a quarter-million acre-feet a year from the West Slope into Northeastern Colorado to supplement both urban and rural supplies, meaning that it is both a municipal as well as an agricultural water supply. Now there are well over a million people that get a portion of their water supply from that project, but back in 1937, there were only 50,000 people living within Northern Water’s boundaries. So, nobody could have foreseen the growth that occurred since then. This growth has brought all sorts of issues and concerns, but Northern Water is one of the top water agencies in the state and I certainly had a wonderful career there and couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Personally, I was a public information officer for 35 of those 38 years. My role, in essence, was to be the public face of Northern Water and so I talked about Northern Water and its activities all the time. I was able to use my historical training, I have a master’s degree in history, to discuss the historical background of both water development and Northern Water. I focused very much on education, but ultimately, I spent my entire career talking all things water, which was a lot of fun.
I was also the manager of our communications department as we expanded and grew. As we grew, we brought on writers and pushed publications and annual reports, and then we got into the social media craze. So, for some time I managed that department. But really, it was about telling people what Northern Water was all about.
The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow (in m3), and combined relative debris flow hazard. These predictions are made at the scale of the drainage basin, and at the scale of the individual stream segment. Estimates of probability, volume, and combined hazard are based upon a design storm with a peak 15-minute rainfall intensity of 24 millimeters per hour (mm/h). Predictions may be viewed interactively by clicking on the button at the top right corner of the map displayed above. Map credit: USGS
Perhaps a topical question, but how have the numerous forest fires affected the work that Northern Water does in trying to ensure water storage?
That is going to be Northern Water’s principal focus this coming year. Both of our major watersheds burned last year, the Upper Colorado with the East Troublesome wildfire, and then the Poudre watershed with the Cameron Peak wildfire. And both of these watersheds are where we get the vast majority of our water. Luckily, Northern Water had been looking at forest water management for years. Northern Water has been working with the U.S. Forest Service, the counties, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Parks Service. It wasn’t that these fires hit us and Northern Water had no idea what to do. We learned quite a lot from Denver Water after the Hayman Fire, with all of the issues that they had centering around water quality. Northern Water isn’t pleased, but we are certainly going to see some water quality impacts because of these fires.
We went in with our eyes open and with some plans in place for post-fire activities. We always said, ‘it’s not if, it’s when those fires hit.’
What do these fires mean for water supply and water quality now, as well as moving into the future?
One of the things that we see from these fires is a greater level of awareness in terms of forest management, not just if you have a house in a forest or nearby, but for those people living in major metropolitan areas, too. Those people in Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs are all paying attention now, because they saw the two largest fires in Colorado history and what it did to our environment. And I think now there will be a lot more attention focused on the post-fire impacts, which obviously include water. People will certainly be paying attention to the water piece of the post-fire mitigation and clean-up. Overall, I think moving into the future we will have a better awareness, which is always a good thing. There is no way around it, it is going to take money, and where we are at with COVID-19 that discussion is not easy, but the state is making a concerted effort to put monetary resources and people into handling the situation.
How the present or future storage planning is different than what the state has done historically?
One thing I would point out is that the Federal government is no longer in the water storage building business. For years Reclamation, which had been established in 1902 helped jumpstart and build water projects, as they did the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The Federal government neither has the resources nor are they paying for water storage anymore. Now, water storage is something that is having to be more or less self-funded. Meaning that the growing cities are trying to figure out how they can finance additional water for their future citizens.
We are also now looking at the multiple uses of water. Nowadays, water is being used for environmental purposes, which means that we are looking to make sure that there is enough to release into the rivers to help the aquatic habitat. This is a much larger part of the picture today. At a base level of awareness, we want people to understand why we need storage reservoirs. It is a dry year, and it sure looks like we are only getting drier, and when you have the drier years you better make sure that you store when you have the wetter periods to carry you through. I think we are going to have difficulties trying to match up the storage, which we are going to continue to need, with all the environmental issues and issues surrounding the development of water infrastructure.
In the past 20 years, Northern has been in permitting so can you talk about that process?
We say water project permitting works at a glacial pace. When I started working on the Northern Integrated Supply Project permitting at Northern Water, I told my wife that I thought we would have a permit in around 5 years … I’m now retired. Northern Water is going on 17 years later, and they still haven’t received that permit. That’s frustrating. This wasn’t for lack of energy; I mean we were really working hard to secure that permit. These things take much longer than you would probably expect. You have to have a lot of perseverance because the process can really drive you crazy, but my hope is that in the future this process will become much better for all parties involved.
Beavers, known for their work ethic, tenacity and sometimes destructive instincts, are making a comeback in the worlds of science and water as researchers look for natural ways to restore rivers and wetlands and improve the health of drought-stressed aquifers.
“The concept of beavers and their ability to restore streams is not new,” said Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program who has been studying these semi-aquatic rodents for years. “Now we have a body of groundwater and sediment capture studies that have really resonated with folks who are managing water, especially with these nagging problems of drought and earlier snowmelt.”
This fall, Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting and restoring headwater regions in the state, is sponsoring a beaver summit, a conference designed to unveil some of the latest ecological research on creatures once valued only for their glossy fur.
“The idea is to drive the knowledge to the general public and legislators so they have a better handle on how to address this,” said Jerry Mallett, Colorado Headwaters founder and president.
Beaver advocates would like to see more funding for research, new programs, such as a beaver census, and better integration of wetland restoration efforts in headwaters areas.
Before beavers were nearly trapped out of existence in the mid-1800s, they inhabited high mountain wetlands and river basins across Colorado and the West. They played an important ecological role, according to Marshall. Their dams trapped water, allowing it to flood wetlands and soak into underground aquifers. Those same dams also trapped sediment, enhancing habitat for fish and other wildlife.
But beavers also did their fair share of damage as the West was settled, garnering a reputation for damming irrigation ditches and flooding culverts and roads, angering ranchers and city dwellers alike.
Even in urban areas, beavers are considered a nuisance because their never-ending dam building often floods city parks and harms trees.
But Marshall is hopeful that events such as the upcoming summit as well as ongoing education of policy makers and the public on the benefits of the water-related work beavers do will help improve their reputation.
“One of the most important things about how beavers help streams is that they are very dynamic. They don’t just create a dam. They move around in watersheds creating systems that are constantly changing.
“By creating a series of dams they do everything from refilling alluvial aquifers to physically trapping sediment and creating physical habitat for rare species such as boreal toads and trout,” she said.
Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said beavers remain a sore topic in the agricultural world because their dams often harm expensive irrigation systems and cause flooding.
“Certainly they can be a nuisance if they’re in the wrong place,” Currier said.
There is also concern that if beavers significantly alter how water moves through a stream, it could injure water rights.
Currier said he and his ranching colleagues are willing to listen to what the beaver scientists are recommending.
“The devil is always in the details,” he said. “But in headwaters areas, you could argue that they do more good than harm.”
The Colorado conference, slated for Oct. 20 and 22 in Avon, comes on the heels of similar confabs that have been held recently in California and New Mexico, Mallet said.
As drought and climate change cause widespread reductions in river flows and aquifer levels, researchers and others are re-evaluating how wetlands and rivers evolved. They are hopeful that the furry architects and general contractors who originally helped shape them can be restored and put to work again in a way that aids everyone, Marshall said.
“We built all of this infrastructure and managed land in a context that did not include beavers. As we’re changing how we view them culturally, there is an opportunity for co-existence,” Marshall said.
“People are starting to realize that when you have beavers in a stream reach you have nice green grass growing along the banks for your cattle. It’s a fascinating path that we are on. People are starting to see them in a new light,” Marshall said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches past a year, the world has become accustomed to facing problems we rarely, if ever, anticipated before. These new challenges extend beyond logistical work-from-home issues to graver concerns: For example, how do we keep our water systems safe from hackers?
In Florida, a water treatment plant ran into that very issue in February when a hacker breached its remote system. The hacker, who is still unknown, reportedly adjusted the sodium hydroxide — added to alkalize water and limit lead leaching from pipes — in the city’s water to poisonous levels. While the threat was quickly addressed, the incident highlighted the weaknesses of remote access operations.
The Florida water plant is far from the only utility that’s fallen victim to a cyberattack. Similar threats have happened in Colorado, too. For example, in 2019, hackers demanded a ransom from the Fort Collins Loveland Water District and South Fort Collins Sanitation District. (The districts were able to resolve the issue on their own).
And just last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division warned of recent phishing attempts at various water utilities.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, works to help organizations bolster their technology and counter cyberattacks. “Water utilities face the same types of cyberattacks as any other organization: phishing schemes, ransomware attacks and other malware designed to steal credentials,” said Dave Sonheim, Colorado CISA cybersecurity advisor. “While technology creates many advantages, it also brings with it the risk of cybercrime, fraud and abuse.”
COVID-19 has intensified the problem, he said, because it necessitated remote work, making operations for many utilities more vulnerable.
“What we know is that breaches in cybersecurity can knock on a bazillion doors electronically until one opens,” explained John Thomas, professor of engineering practice at the University of Colorado. To prevent cyber threats from escalating, Thomas says it’s important to consider as many challenging scenarios as possible and work backward to build a more adaptable system.
Cyber issues predate the pandemic but because water utilities typically use electronic control systems that were developed in the 1960s, their technology tends to be older, too. Older tech combined with pandemic conditions exacerbated an already existing weakness.
“Systems are still outdated and not really designed to be operated on the internet, and with all the issues surrounding COVID-19 suddenly requiring remote administration and access — it’s kind of a perfect storm,” Thomas said.
As hacks have increased, regulators have responded with more explicit guidance. The Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center offers 15 cybersecurity fundamentals targeted for the water sector. Additionally, the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires larger water utilities to conduct risk and resilience assessments of their cybersystems. These kinds of threats have long been on the radar of utilities like Denver Water, which follows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s best practices to stop cyberattacks before they begin.
“Denver Water has a designated cybersecurity team, along with an emergency preparedness program, that investigates the best ways to detect, defend, respond to and recover from cybersecurity attacks, including those similar to the one that occurred in Florida,” said Denver Water spokesperson Todd Hartman. Hartman said Denver Water follows guidelines set by CISA.
But these policies may not be enough. A recent paper on how COVID-19 might transform infrastructure resilience noted that “older best practices that focus on efficiency and stability are becoming increasingly insufficient.” That presents a new opportunity to rethink how infrastructure operates and how it can be designed to respond to unexpected situations.
Emily Bondank, a science and technology fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the paper’s authors, said current guidelines are limited to what utilities can imagine as a future threat. But what about things they can’t imagine, like a global pandemic?
“COVID impacted us in an interesting way because it wasn’t recognized as being a threat to infrastructure at all,” Bondank said. “Even though people know cybersecurity is an issue for the water sector, it just hasn’t been invested in enough for them to really understand the vulnerabilities and threats around it.”
Alejandra Wilcox is a journalist currently based in northern Colorado. Her work has been broadcast on KGNU and has appeared in the Huffington Post, among other outlets.
Colorado’s water storage reservoirs, struggling after two years of severe drought, are holding just 86 percent of their average supplies for this time of year, down dramatically from last year’s 107-percent-of-average mark.
The South Platte Basin, home to the metro Denver area, has been blessed with heavy spring snows and its reservoirs are the fullest in the state, measuring 99 percent of average at the end of March, the latest data available from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the rest of the state’s storage pools are dangerously low.
And it is the state’s farmers who are suffering the most due to last summer’s ultra-dry weather and a weak winter mountain snowpack. Hardest hit is the southwestern corner of the state, where the San Juan/Dolores River Basin’s reservoirs stand at just 59 percent of average, a dramatic drop from last year, when those storage pools were at 104 percent of average, according to the NRCS.
“It’s terrible,” said Don Schwindt, a grower near Dolores who sits on the Southwestern Water Conservation District Board as well as the board of the Family Farm Alliance.
“We emptied virtually all of our [local] reservoirs last year,” he said, which means that there is little water to start the irrigation season if the spring runoff fails to deliver.
Schwindt said growers in his region were already worried last fall after the summer monsoon rains failed to arrive. Those rains are key to adding moisture to the soil ahead of winter, and when they don’t come, the dry soil under the snow absorbs much of the spring runoff.
In the Upper Rio Grande Basin, conditions are similarly dire, with growers preparing to reduce the number of acres they plant as the water forecast deteriorates.
“On our family farm we will have to cut back half of our plantings if we don’t start getting runoff,” said Kit Caldon, an ag producer in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. “There is no way we will plant everything we have even if we have a great runoff because our reservoirs are so low.”
Colorado, like other Western states, remains mired in a drought cycle that has seen four major droughts in the past two decades. The dry weather has sapped soils, raised wildfire danger, and drained underground aquifers on which farmers also rely.
Kathleen Curry is a former lawmaker, a lobbyist and a rancher in the Upper Gunnison River Basin, where reservoirs are also running low on supplies.
“Because we are high up in the basin, we are likely to be okay. But folks farther down are not going to be as lucky,” Curry said, referring to lower-altitude streams where spring flows are projected to be ultra low.
In response to the increasingly alarming conditions, a year ago, the state activated its emergency drought action plan for the agricultural sector, a move that frees up of some federal funds to provide farm relief.
But that federal help, while welcome, isn’t enough to offset the costs of what is shaping up to be another major drought year for Colorado’s farmers.
“Whatever has been provided, no matter how good it is, it is inadequate for this kind of water supply year,” said Schwindt. “Poke down through the snow and you will find dust instead of mud. This is going to be a tough one to recover from.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Beginning in 1970, Americans and later citizens across the globe have celebrated Earth Day on April 22. It’s a day dedicated annually to civic action, volunteerism and other activities to support and promote environmental protection and green living.
This year, Fresh Water News is using Earth Day as an opportunity to highlight a handful of Colorado projects and businesses that are moving the needle on water conservation and sustainability. Here are their stories.
Booze that doesn’t “destroy the planet”
In 2010, Connie Baker attended distilling school somewhat on a whim — she’d always loved vodka and thought learning more about how it’s made would be a fun week-long vacation.
In the end, though, Baker fell in love with distilling and, along with her husband, Carey Shanks, began planning to open a new distillery not far from their home in Carbondale, Colo.
But after touring distilleries around the country for inspiration, they began to fully understand just how resource-intensive — and wasteful — distilling as an industry often was. Traditional distilleries send tens of thousands of gallons of clean water down the drain during the production process — water that could easily be reused, if only they had the right setup.
“I love vodka, but I don’t want to destroy the plant to make it,” said Baker.
Instead of accepting the status quo, Baker and Shanks decided to design and build their own sustainable distillery from the ground up. Their crown jewel? A custom water energy thermal system, WETS for short, that recaptures 100 percent of the water and energy used during the distillation process.
They officially opened Marble Distilling in 2015. Ever since, their WETS system has saved more than four million gallons of water and 1.8 billion BTUs of energy per year. The recaptured energy is enough to heat and cool the distillery, which includes a five-room boutique hotel on the second floor, and to power much of the distilling process.
The distillery’s water bill is regularly less than $100 a month. While most distilleries use the equivalent of 100 bottles of water to produce one bottle of vodka, Marble uses the equivalent of just one bottle of water per bottle of vodka. (They also make bourbon, whiskey and liqueurs.)
“The only water we’re using for the spirit is what’s in the bottle,” Baker said.
Baker and Shanks also freely share information about their WETS system and other sustainable elements with anyone and everyone who’s curious, including and especially other distilleries.
“We don’t want to own this information,” Baker said. “We want to be leaders in the industry for change. We have proven over the course of six years that it absolutely can be done. It makes sense not only from a sustainability standpoint but from an economic standpoint. There’s no reason not to do it. It’s not any harder, so why wouldn’t you do it?”
Sustainability at 14,000 feet
The infrastructure atop the iconic 14,115-foot Pikes Peak is getting a refresh — and one that’s particularly friendly to water.
Construction crews are finishing up work on the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex, which includes a visitor center, a high-altitude research laboratory, and a municipal utility facility.
Visitors to the summit number upwards of 750,000 annually, and the previous facilities that welcomed them at the top were deteriorating. Replacing them created an opportunity to do things differently. The 38,000-square-foot complex, which is set to open around Memorial Day, aims to be net-zero for energy, waste and water consumption; it also hopes to become the first Living Building Challenge-certified project in Colorado, a rigorous green building standard created by the International Living Future Institute.
The project, which is expected to cost $60 million to $65 million when complete, incorporates a number of water-saving and conservation features, including a pioneering on-site wastewater treatment plant, a vacuum toilet system, low-flow fixtures, and a rainwater harvest system for potential future use.
Even with increased visitor numbers, the new complex is expected to use 40 to 50 percent less water than the 1960s-era Summit House it will replace. That water has to be hauled up the mountain, a 40-mile round trip.
In 2018, crews hauled 600,000 gallons of fresh water to the summit, according to Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, a self-supporting enterprise of the City of Colorado Springs. (Colorado Springs operates the Pikes Peak Recreation Corridor, which includes the Pikes Peak Highway and related facilities, through a special use permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land.) The new facility should cut that down to between 300,000 and 350,000 gallons a year, Glavan said.
“In the past, we used roughly a gallon to 1.2 gallons per person, and with this water system, we’re figuring we’re going to cut that down to 0.4 to 0.5 gallons per person,” said Glavan.
Similarly, the water-savvy upgrades will allow the facility to halve the amount of wastewater it hauls down to the Las Vegas Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, which requires an 80-mile round trip.
On top of the water efficiencies, the upgrades will also reduce vehicle trips and associated emissions. Freshwater trips are expected to drop from 127 to 72 per year, and wastewater trips from 174 to 69.
The building also aims to be one of the first in Colorado to reuse water that’s been treated on-site. But for final approval from the state, complex managers must first prove that the wastewater system works, a process that will likely involve about a year of sampling, Glavan said. Assuming all goes according to plan, the facility will use reclaimed water for toilets and urinals.
All told, the facility’s leaders hope that these and many other sustainable design features — undertaken as part of the highest-altitude construction project in the United States, on top of the mountain that inspired the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” — encourage others to reduce their impact on the environment in whatever way possible.
“We’re proud to be doing it,” Glavan said. “It does cost a little bit more incrementally but we are America’s mountain and we’re hoping we’re setting an example for everyone. If we can do it up here at 14,000 feet, people should be able to do it at lower altitudes.”
While working as a hotel engineer at the ART Hotel in Denver several years ago, Mac Marsh noticed that whenever he responded to a maintenance request in the kitchen, the faucet was almost always running. But why?
After some investigating, he found out that running cold water over frozen food was the industry standard when it wasn’t possible to defrost it in the refrigerator. These food-safety defrosting guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and followed by local health officials, are intended to keep restaurants’ guests safe and healthy, since keeping food cool as it defrosts helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and pathogens.
But it takes one hour to defrost one pound of meat under cold water, which equates to about 150 gallons of water per pound. When he began to think about all the restaurants and all the food they defrosted on a daily basis, Marsh realized he had to act.
He invented a novel solution to the problem: a device that can recirculate cold water in a sink or basin. His Boss Defrost device, which plugs into a power outlet, is also equipped with a thermometer, which helps users ensure the water stays below the recommended 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The Denver company began manufacturing the devices, now used in more than 25 states, in January 2020.
The company’s leaders say Boss Defrost can reduce a restaurant’s defrosting water use to about 450 gallons per month on average, a sharp decline from the approximately 32,000 gallons that an average commercial kitchen uses to defrost food each month.
“This water waste is food service’s skeleton in the closet,” said Diana López Starkus, who’s a partner in the business along with her husband, Chris Starkus, an award-winning Denver chef and farmer. “It happens all along the food chain, from fast food to fine dining, K-12 schools, college campuses, hospitals, hospice and state and federal buildings.”
Though the pandemic — and ensuing restaurant shutdowns and capacity limits — slowed down the company’s growth, it also gave them an opportunity to expand into grocery meat and seafood departments.
Sales picked up again when restaurants began to reopen, since their owners were looking for every possible way to save money as they recovered from the pandemic. Starkus said the device generally pays for itself in water bill savings in one to three months.
“We like to say it’s a win-win-win,” Starkus said. “Good for the earth, good for your wallet and the easiest sustainability measure to initiate in 2021. “We’re passionate about empowering ourselves and others to create positive change toward a better future. That’s why we call it Boss Defrost, because every prep cook in the nation can become an environmental boss, someone that’s working optimally, respecting the resources at their fingertips and staying financially sound.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1973, Colorado broke new legal ground by establishing water rights solely for the protection of streams, fish and wildlife. Prior to that, water could be diverted only for things like farming, manufacturing and residential water use.
When the state moved to establish these environmental water rights, it was one of the first states in the American West to do so.
This year it will dramatically expand that ground-breaking effort as three new laws, passed in 2020, take effect. One involves the use of temporary water loans, a second adds protection for ranchers who divert water for cattle in stream segments where special environmental flows have been designated, removing an important obstacle to establishing new environmental flows, and a third creates a new tool for environmental flows once only available to cities and farmers.
Zane Kessler, director of public affairs for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, said the changes represent an important evolution in protecting environmental flows while balancing the needs of Colorado’s ranchers and cities with those of the environment.
“Good policy helps us evolve to meet changing needs and priorities over time,” Kessler said.
How the new laws work
The expanded temporary loan program authorizes emergency loans and allows loans of water for five years in three separate 10-year periods. Previously those same loans could be used only for three years in a single 10-year period.
This provides relief for several regions, including the Yampa River Basin, where an instream flow loan had been used to its fullest extent under the old law, even though drought has continued to harm the Yampa River. The new longer-running loan program will provide critical flows to the river.
The stock water law, though it doesn’t directly add water to streams, writes specific rancher protections into law, paving the way for more stream segments to be considered for the program.
And the third law, which advocates believe may have the most significant impact of the three, allows something known as an augmentation plan to incorporate environmental flows to help protect streams.
Advocates, such as the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that spearheaded the new approach, say the tools can be used as templates across other river basins, where older water rights are already spoken for.
“In the long run, this could be more impactful,” said Kate Ryan, an attorney for the Colorado Water Trust.
Across Colorado nearly 40,000 miles of streams flow year-round and, as a result, have the potential to receive protection under the state’s Instream Flow Program. To date, the state has been able to establish environmental flows on nearly one-quarter of these, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which manages the program. The CWCB is the only entity legally allowed to hold these environmental water rights in Colorado.
Who gets to choose
Anyone can go to the CWCB and ask that it protect a certain stream segment, but whether it’s a member of the public, the U.S. Forest Service, or The Nature Conservancy, the entity must be able to show that there is enough water in the stream to support a new water right. They must also show that, by decreeing an instream flow on that segment, the stream’s existing conditions will be preserved or, where possible, improved.
To accomplish this, extensive engineering and measurements must be conducted. Once an instream flow case has been researched and documented, the state must go to a special water court to have the right legally established. The court must also hear any challenges that other water rights holders on the stream segment may raise if they fear their own water rights could be harmed. The process often takes several years to complete.
Linda Bassi oversees the Instream Flow Program for the CWCB.
“It’s difficult because there are a lot of competing interests for water,” Bassi said. “On some streams, if the state wants to obtain a water right to protect flows there are a lot of other entities with water rights that may feel threatened. Or there are other entities that might have plans to develop a water right on that same segment who are made uneasy by the fact that we are coming in to establish one [an instream flow water right].”
In Colorado, water rights follow what’s known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, or “first in time, first in right.”
That means that a water right claimed in, say, 1894 will get its water before one claimed in 1905 during periods of drought, when there isn’t enough water for everyone who has a right to water in a given stream.
A late start
Because the state environmental program was established 100 years after water users had claimed much of the water in the states’ rivers, the water rights the state has managed to claim are very young, or junior to other more senior rights. That means that in drought years, when they are needed the most, these rights frequently go unfulfilled.
As a result, the state has changed its laws to allow older, senior water rights to be loaned or donated to the state. When it has enough money, the state can actually purchase older water rights that are more likely to receive water during dry years.
When proponents of the 2020 expansion went to lawmakers in 2019 to seek support for the new laws, they faced significant opposition from agricultural interests and cities. It took months of negotiations to craft the bills that finally won near unanimous bipartisan support at the Colorado State Capitol in 2020.
Getting to “yes”
The Colorado River District represents 15 Western Slope counties, many of which are heavily dependent on ranching. Historically any efforts to add new water rights for protecting streams have been viewed with deep skepticism.
This time was no different, Kessler said, but rural lawmakers were able to add enough protections into the new laws that the district’s board ultimately came out in support of the expansions.
One important measure gives the state engineer, Colorado’s top water regulator, the authority to oversee ranchers’ rights to their so-called stock water.
“During the winter months, ranchers with an irrigation water right [tied to] the summer season will often pull small amounts of water from the stream to keep their animals alive,” Kessler said. “With that [protection] in hand, we became a lot more malleable about how we approached the Instream Flow Program.”
A third part of the expansion, allowing the use of augmentation plans to restore environmental flows, could be among the most important part of the expansion effort, according to Ryan.
Farmers and cities have long used augmentation plans to repay the river when they divert out of turn. Now under the new law, this same tool can be used to help streams.
On the Front Range, for instance, the first environmental augmentation plan is getting ready to launch, with the cities of Fort Collins, Thornton and Greeley offering up water they own and already store under an existing augmentation plan. These “seed” flows will be added above various stretches on the Poudre River that dry up every year. As the new water flows downstream, it will restore habitat for fish and wildlife, and eventually travel down to a segment of the river that these cities are presently legally required to restore.
And though most environmental water deals require individual trips to water court, an expensive, time-consuming process, the new law allows existing augmentation plans to be used, which means proper quantities, times of diversion, and water right dates are already in place.
“There are those who believe that prior appropriation as it is practiced in Colorado is too rigid,” said Sean Chambers, Greeley’s water resources manager. “But I think this is an example of how we can use existing statues, tools and programs to meet the needs of municipalities, irrigators, agricultural interests, and the ecological and recreational needs of the river. And it’s a template that can be used in other [river] basins.”
How many more miles of streams could still be protected under the Instream Flow Program isn’t clear, according to Bassi, because the state’s priorities and its ability to buy water rights change.
But every year there are victories.
For decades, fish experts believed that a certain line of endangered cutthroat trout known as the San Juan lineage cutthroat had been extinct. But then they discovered them in a remote part of the San Juan River Basin and, last year, the CWCB was able to establish an instream flow on a critical stream segment there, helping ensure the endangered fish will survive.
“Priorities change, whether it’s [water for] a gold medal fishery, which helps the recreation industry, or to protect a declining species. We don’t have a set quota. We’re just trying to help these organizations achieve their goals through our program,” Bassi said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
For the second time in less than a year, state health officials plan to ask lawmakers to fast-track permitting authority over hundreds of miles of streams left unprotected after a 2020 Trump Administration rollback of federal Clean Water Act rules.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move comes just weeks after a federal court denied Colorado’s effort to prevent the new federal rules from taking effect.
The CDPHE is holding work group sessions and seeking public comment on a proposed bill that is likely to be introduced in the next two weeks, officials said. The CDPHE declined to comment for this article.
Last May Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won a temporary injunction against the new rules, which would have taken effect in June 2020. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision last month.
As a result, the rules are set to take effect in Colorado April 23. Though many expect the Biden Administration to alter the new rules, once again, state health officials say an interim rule is needed to ensure the state has the permitting authority and the funds needed to protect streams.
Major water interests, such as the nonpartisan Colorado Water Congress, are closely watching the latest legislative effort.
Colorado Water Congress Executive Director Doug Kemper said right now there is too much uncertainty around which streams and which activities will be overseen by federal and state agencies.
“It’s a big deal right now because you don’t really know what activity is covered and what is exempted,” said Kemper. His group has not taken a position on the CDPHE’s initiative, in part because a formal bill has yet to be introduced.
Environmentalists said it’s important that the state moves quickly to assume the permitting authority to protect streams and to allow millions of dollars in construction, dam and road projects to be properly reviewed and permitted.
Industry groups, however, believe new legislation isn’t required right now because the state has some discretion to act already and because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees much of the work on federally protected streams, also has some discretionary authority to review and issue permits.
“We’re concerned that the focus is solely on legislative options,” said John Kolanz, an attorney who represents the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. He believes the state could make changes to its own rules, rather than enacting a new law.
“We don’t think it’s advisable to rush through legislation and a complicated rulemaking by the end of the year,” Kolanz said during a public work group meeting hosted by the CDPHE Monday.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who tracks water quality regulation, disagreed, saying the CDPHE must be given new legal authority quickly in order to adequately monitor and fund stream protection work over the next one to two years.
“The biggest part of this legislation is getting some fees so that the [Colorado Water Quality Control] division can do its job and go out and see what’s happening on the ground,” Kassen said Monday.
At issue is what’s known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The rule was designed to classify which streams are subject to federal rules and which activities must obtain permits from the Army Corps to ensure those streams are protected even when they are disturbed by home and road building, construction of new storm water systems, and other activities.
But WOTUS has been contested in courts for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
It has also been difficult to administer because the U.S. is home to such a wide variety of waterways.
In the East and Midwest massive rivers are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new federal rule only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, are regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states are no longer protected under the law.
If the CDPHE’s new legislative effort succeeds, it would give state health officials the authority to issue so-called dredge-and-fill permits on stream segments no longer protected by the federal law.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Despite the recent history-making blizzard on Colorado’s Front Range, statewide snowpack sits at 92 percent of average as of March 19, down from 105 percent of average at the end of February, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Just two river basins, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, are registering above average at 101 percent and 106 percent respectively. Among the driest are the Gunnison Basin, at 86 percent of average, and the San Juan/Dolores, at 83 percent, both in the southwestern part of the state.
“The snowpack numbers are still below normal though they don’t look that bad,” said Peter Goble, a specialist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “But based on how dry soils were to start this accumulation season, we’re still pretty nervous about what water availability is going to look like.”
Those numbers are hard to believe for some, given that nearly 30 inches of snow fell in and around Denver the weekend of March 13, with some portions of the foothills and higher receiving more than three feet of snow. It is considered the fourth-largest storm in Denver’s history.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state remains mired in drought, with nearly half classified as being extremely or exceptionally dry, the most dangerous categories.
Mountain snowpack is watched closely in Colorado and other Western states because as it melts, it fills rivers and reservoirs to supply the state’s cities, farms and industries with water for the coming year.
Thanks to 2020’s severe drought, in November, for only the second time in its history, the Colorado Water Conservation Board activated its municipal emergency drought response plan in an effort to help cities cope with the dry conditions.
As part of that effort some 14 metro area cities have agreed to coordinate how they inform community members of potential drought restrictions.
“The biggest thing is we don’t want to be counter-messaging anybody,” said Greg Baker, spokesperson for Aurora Water. Aurora is one of the members of the new drought coordination group. “Towns that have robust storage like Denver and Aurora may not need restrictions. But there are about 50 water utilities across the Front Range.”
Those that don’t have hefty storage systems might have to declare drought emergencies, as many did in 2012 and 2013, Baker said.
And when, for instance, major TV stations broadcast that there are no restrictions in Denver or Aurora, it makes it difficult for communities that have to impose limits to help customers understand the vast differences in drought response, he said.
How this year will play out isn’t clear yet, Baker said. Aurora’s reservoirs are at 63 percent of capacity, the low end of normal. Aurora draws its water from the mountains in the Arkansas, Colorado and South Platte river basins.
“A lot of customers forget that we may have had some good snow down here but that is not where we collect our water. It happens up in the mountains,” Baker said.
Even as mountain snows approach the average mark, soils remain dry and therefore capable of absorbing much of the snow that will melt in the spring.
“We’re getting reports that soil moisture is 10 inches below normal,” Baker said. “Will runoff be sucked up? We don’t know.”
Of particular concern to hydrologists and water watchers across Colorado is the forecast for the seven-state Colorado River Basin. The river begins high in Rocky Mountain National Park and, together with tributaries in Colorado like the Gunnison, Yampa, and Dolores rivers, it supplies all of the state’s Western Slope’s water as well as roughly half of the water for Front Range cities and tens of thousands of acres of farms in the Eastern Plains.
As it flows south and west, the river supplies not only Colorado but also Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, a region known as the Upper Basin, and Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin. It also supplies Mexico.
The basin has two major storage reservoirs in the U.S. and they are filled almost entirely from the mountain snows generated in the Upper Basin. The forecast for the basin remains grim, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimating that Lake Powell will see inflows of just 47 percent of average as of March 3, the most recent data available.
According to Reclamation, the last half of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in the Colorado River Basin, and closely resembles the deep droughts of 2002, 2012, 2013 and early 2018. These are, according to the March 3 report, four out of the five driest years on record.
Levels in Powell and Mead are likely to drop low enough this year to trigger additional cuts in water deliveries to Lower Basin states. The recent blizzard in Colorado, because it did not benefit Colorado’s Western Slope and the headwaters of the river as much as it did the Eastern Slope, aren’t likely to change that, according to Reclamation.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Unfortunately, recent snowstorms did very little to improve the mountain snowpack. And the near-term prediction for measurable precipitation isn’t promising.
That’s according to several sources of data and predictive models tracked by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey Program.
NRCS Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted in his monthly snowpack report issued March 5 that, “While February snow accumulations did improve the snowpack in many parts of the state, snowpack still remains below normal levels in all major basins except the Rio Grande.”
At that time, the Colorado River Basin was at 84% of median snowpack, and just 71% of last year’s snowpack. Statewide, the median snowpack at that time was 85%, and only 77% of last year.
Then came the big one — sort of.
A major snowstorm the weekend of March 13 that mostly blanketed the the foothills and eastern Colorado with up to 2 feet of snow in places did have some impact on the high country snowpack. When it comes to Western Slope water, that’s where it mostly matters.
Just before that storm hit, on March 10, the Colorado River Basin was at 88% of median snowpack.
Likewise, one of the Colorado’s major drainages, the Roaring Fork River, with its headwaters on Independence Pass east of Aspen, was at 84% of median.
Afterwards, the area basin snowpack had improved to 91% and 90%, respectively.
As of Tuesday, with more localized snowfall in recent days, the Roaring Fork drainage had improved to 94% of median.
The summer and fall of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in Colorado.
“This led to dry soil moisture conditions and the expectation is that snowmelt runoff will produce lower volumes than would commonly be observed with a similar snowpack,” Wetlaufer observed in his March 5 report.
Before winter even started, snow forecasters were saying Colorado would need multiple years of 150% to 200% of normal snowpack to improve the drought situation…
“There is currently a significant soil moisture drought that will consume a greater-than-average amount of snowmelt runoff, and leave less to streamflow runoff,” [Brian Domonkos] said. “To add to the complexity, low soil moisture means lower base flows in rivers and streams, which means more precipitation is needed to bring stream flows back to normal levels.”
From the Water Education Colorado Blog (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):
This is the second blog post in a series on diversity, equity and inclusion in Colorado agricultural water planning. Find the first post here.
As discussed in our previous post, Colorado has an exciting opportunity to create a truly sustainable future for residents by making its water plan update process more inclusive. There are at least three groups that have been historically excluded from Colorado statewide agricultural water planning: the Colorado Ute tribes, those who operate under acequia management systems, and urban agriculture producers. While these groups have been included at an interstate level and at the local level through the Basin Roundtables, intrastate coordination and statewide inclusion of these folks is in need of improvement.
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) acknowledges federally recognized tribes within Colorado and their federally reserved water rights, these important topics are only covered at a high level without in-depth examination of more local nuances. Additionally, the term acequia is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP, in a footnote of a farmer profile.
Colorado should thoughtfully integrate more explicit inclusion for these groups not only in the Colorado Water Plan 2022 update, but also within the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Colorado Water Congress, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The CWCB has made efforts to initiate more inclusion in the CWP update process through the newly announced Equity Committee. This Committee will constitute two representatives from each of the nine river basins, plus one representative from each of the two Colorado Ute tribes. The true purposes and outcomes from this committee, however, remain to be seen. To create a more thoughtful and equitable Colorado water planning process, the equity committee must focus on creating robust measures for water justice in each element of the Colorado Water Plan Update.
This post will focus particularly on agricultural stakeholders who have been excluded from Colorado water planning. The following sections will provide background and discussion for the three groups identified. While these groups are related in that they were not adequately included in the 2015 CWP, each community is quite distinct. Both acequia water management systems and tribal water users have a rich history in Colorado that must not be ignored in planning discussions. Separately, urban agriculture, while not entirely novel, is a rapidly emerging practice in Colorado’s cities and may serve as an important tool not only to preserve agricultural viability but also to facilitate water stewardship and education. These three communities each have uniquely valuable and important perspectives on regional water issues in the state and should be given specific consideration in the planning process.
Acequias in Colorado
For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. The philosophy revolves around loyalty to the community and a common understanding that water is both a shared resource and a shared responsibility. This ideology has shaped relationships between humans and the environment for centuries in Colorado, creating a resilient natural and cultural system that supports families, communities, and the food system.
Acequia water management systems have been largely excluded in Colorado’s state water planning process, despite the fact that there are thousands of acres of acequias between Colorado’s Rio Grande and Arkansas River Basins. Among the Statewide Water Supply Initiatives, the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, the 2017 Technical Update, and the 2019 Ripple Effects Report, the word acequia is mentioned only once一in a footnote in the 2015 Plan. Acequias are briefly discussed in the 2015 Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan, and they are not mentioned in the 2015 Arkansas Basin Implementation Plan.
Acequia stakeholders are often absent from statewide planning process meetings and forums. The newly established Colorado Water Equity Task Force does not include any representation for acequia stakeholders. Excluding acequias from the Colorado water planning process shuns an entire population of Coloradans一primarily farmers of color一from statewide water planning and funding. Farmers and others who operate under acequia management must be recognized and included in the statewide planning process for the 2022 CWP update.
Colorado water planners may look to acequia management in New Mexico to model pathways for inclusion. Despite the similarities in culture and natural resource demands in the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s and New Mexico’s governance approaches to acequias are starkly different. Acequia recognition has been written into New Mexico law since the mid-19th century. Furthermore, throughout New Mexico’s statewide water plan, almost every time that agriculture or irrigation is discussed, so are acequias. For example, as mentioned above, the culture of shared scarcity that underlies acequias is crucial to farmers in times of drought. New Mexico’s Water Plan explicitly acknowledges this strength, illustrating that this type of water sharing should be encouraged to support holistic agricultural viability. Colorado water planning could benefit from a similar outlook on the resilience of acequias.
Though the 2009 Colorado Acequia Recognition Statute codified that acequias hold unique powers and rights under Colorado water law, the statute only allows acequias with written bylaws to have the special powers and unique rights recognized under Colorado law. This can be a barrier for acequia communities, as some producers may not have the means to hire a lawyer to draft legally acceptable bylaws. New Mexico’s Water Plan also discusses how the state supports acequia bylaw creation. Such programs are absent in Colorado, where acequia users rely on non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, such as the Getches-Wilkinson Center Acequia Assistance Project and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, rather than on funds directly from the state.
Colorado water planners should consult with stakeholders within Colorado’s acequia communities on how to best include planning and funding for acequias in statewide water management. Historically, the relationship between acequia managers in the San Luis Valley and in the Arkansas Basin with the Colorado Water Conservation Board has not been the strongest. CWCB should be inclined to add another seat to the equity committee specifically for acequia representation to try to remedy this historic exclusion.
Colorado Ute Tribes
The Ute peoples are the oldest continuous inhabitants of the land now called Colorado. They have been intimately tied to the waters of the region for many centuries, long before incursion by European colonizers and settlers. However, beginning in the mid-19th century, the United States federal and Colorado state governments began systematically dispossessing the Ute people of their land and separating them from their sources of water.
By the end of the 19th century, the only three bands of Ute peoples remaining in the state had been relegated to its southwest corner, in what are now the Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute reservations. Although the Ute people had been gradually pressured to adopt a settled agricultural lifestyle, they were removed to some of the least suitable lands for agriculture in the state.
Despite these setbacks, both tribes have fostered successful agricultural communities on their reservations; the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise, for instance, has been repeatedly recognized at both state and national levels for its products.
Much has been done in the last 30 years to address some of the historical inequities created by the separation of the Colorado Ute Tribes from their ancestral lands and traditional water sources. The 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act and subsequent 2000 Amendments clarified and quantified the Tribes’ reserved rights and authorized a reduced Animas-La Plata Project as well as deliveries from McPhee Reservoir to provide a reliable source of water to the tribes. Both tribes are active members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable and are represented on the Colorado Water Equity Task Force, and the importance of Tribal reserved rights is addressed in the 2015 Water Plan.
Both tribes, however, still face significant supply and infrastructure challenges, as detailed in the 2018 Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study. Some of these infrastructure projects, such as the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, are nominally maintained by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, although that agency’s budget and staffing challenges make adequate upkeep difficult.
As holders of federal reserved water rights, the Southern Ute Indian and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes are invaluable partners to the State of Colorado and the Southwest Basin in addressing water management challenges, particularly issues of interstate compact compliance. Much of the groundwork for this partnership has been laid in the Ten Tribes Partnership Study, which provides detailed data on the challenges faced by the Colorado Ute Tribes, as well as opportunities that working closely with the tribes can provide state and regional water planners. The study provides an excellent starting point for addressing the challenges faced by the tribes and highlights their importance in addressing the water challenges faced by the State and the region.
Given the challenges and opportunities posed by the tribes’ unique water rights and the long history of oppression and exclusion of Indigenous peoples by both the federal and state governments, particular considerations of equity and justice must be extended to the Colorado Ute Tribes in regards to water issues. This is particularly important because tribes’ vital cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial uses are often not adequately addressed in Western legal and economic structures.
Careful, intentional, and respectful consultation with the tribes一as well as inclusion in statewide deliberative water planning processes一is essential to developing a robust understanding of their needs, as well as the cultural significance and intended uses of water.
Urban agriculture (UA) is most simply defined as “all forms of agricultural production occurring within or around cities.” In any given urban area, this may include quite a variety of operations and projects, including ground-based outdoor gardens and farms, indoor hydroponic or aquaponic growing, rooftop gardens and farms, landscaping and nurseries, urban livestock, and more. The sector is growing as cities become home to more UA-focused organizations, citizens get more creative with urban landscapes, and policies incentivize green infrastructure. Such programs or policies are often intended to promote public health, economic development, and enhance socio-ecological relationships.
Over time, UA has taken on a new form and meaning. With connections now to social justice and environmental sustainability, urban farming has taken root in countless large and small city centers across the nation, oftentimes appearing in the form of community gardens, rooftop gardens, and greenhouses. UA is not recognized in the Colorado Water Plan, or many other western state water plans, despite its growing popularity across the nation. UA offers a multitude of exciting opportunities to foster resilience within western water planning and our food systems.
Regardless of the form it takes, all UA operations require water. Water resources may be utilized on a wide spectrum of UA irrigation tactics一from traditional flood irrigation in peri-urban fields to precision application in a vertical farm. The increasing prevalence of UA operations in Colorado cities requires more attention from water planners, especially as food production technology advances and local food becomes more popular among citizens. The CWP update should not only provide support for both existing operations, but also recognize the potential water-efficient food production in the future of UA. This will be especially important as Colorado could see a shifting food system in the face of climate change and urbanization. The current trajectory of UA could provide a significant contribution to water resilience planning and food production for Colorado.
Though this growth may represent an exciting shift in the food system, it is crucial to recognize UA’s capacity for exacerbating environmental injustices. Often, initiatives led by non-residents may be detrimental to local communities. This is especially prevalent when mostly young, white non-residents have led initiatives in predominantly Black and/or Latinx neighborhoods, “unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts.” Furthermore, residents of lower-income communities and/or people of color are more likely to experience difficulty accessing land, funding, and political support for UA projects than white and middle class individuals or organizations. Therefore, in order to avoid perpetuating injustice, UA implementation must be nuanced and place-based. A successful and anti-racist CWP update will recognize possible inequities and provide support for urban residents to facilitate UA projects within their own neighborhoods.
This overview intends to provide the background and ethics necessary to integrate the Colorado Ute Tribes, acequias, and urban agriculture considerations into the Colorado Water Plan update. In an effort to begin the process of elevating voices of underrepresented communities, this research team hosted a virtual listening session and working meeting for water planning professionals and UA stakeholders. This event was meant to serve as a platform for stakeholder and administrator collaboration with the goal of creating a more equitable and inclusive CWP update. Our next post will detail the process and results of this meeting.
When he first started farming in 1987, Curtis Sayles went through a new pair of cowboy work boots every year.
These days, he’s still wearing a pair he bought three years ago.
The difference? Sayles stopped using harsh fertilizers on his fields that ate through the leather of his boots. Sayles, a fourth-generation farmer with 6,000 acres near Seibert in eastern Colorado, now practices regenerative agriculture, a multi-faceted style of farming that advocates say has a host of benefits, including improved water efficiency, water quality and profitability.
Above all else, regenerative agriculture can help restore healthy, fertile soils — working with nature, instead of against it.
“I’m really tired of fighting nature — because she always wins. That’s her ace in the hole,” said Sayles, 64.
Farmers like Sayles — and those who want to get started with regenerative agricultural practices but could use some support — are getting a boost thanks to a renewed partnership between federal and state agencies.
In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Colorado State Conservation Board entered a five-year, $5 million agreement to help support regenerative agriculture, soil health, water conservation and urban farms.
The agreement itself is new, but is the result of a long-standing partnership between the two agencies, which have entered into similar agreements every five years for the last 15 or so years, according to Clint Evans, Colorado state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The most recent agreement provides funding for 25 existing conservation positions across Colorado. More specifically, the agreement funds district conservation technicians in some of Colorado’s 76 conservation districts, which date back to 1937 and represent private landowners’ interests in conservation-related work such as water quality, energy efficiency and habitat improvement.
District conservation technicians, which often work out of the USDA’s local service centers and collaborate with federal staffers, provide expertise to help farmers and ranchers address an array of questions or concerns ranging from water and wind erosion to irrigation distribution.
Under the agreement, federal dollars provide 75 percent of funding for those positions, while the remaining 25 percent is split between the state and local conservation districts, Evans said.
The agreement also provides funding for up to six new positions: five positions to support the state’s new effort to focus on soil health and one to support urban farmers with conservation practices.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture launched its new Soil Health Initiative in 2020, with an overarching goal of helping farmers and ranchers boost their land’s productivity and drought resiliency by improving soil health. Other soil health initiatives are also underway in Colorado, led by groups like the Colorado Collaborative for Healthy Soils and Farmers Advancing Regenerative Management Systems (FARMS).
Regenerative agriculture, which prioritizes soil health, has garnered renewed interest over the last 10 or so years as farmers and ranchers grapple with challenges like variable crop prices, climate change and increasing expenses, Evans said. Soil health also appeared throughout the 2018 farm bill, the federal legislation that encompasses a wide swath of agriculture-related issues and programs.
“A lot of producers have started looking at soil health as a way that, over the long term, can help improve their overall sustainability and resources on their farm or ranch and help them become more profitable,” Evans said.
Some of the most common tenets of improving soil health are minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing soil cover, biodiversity, and the presence of living roots. In practice, this means farmers stop tilling the land, or greatly reduce tilling, plant cover crops, grow a strategic rotation of diverse crops, add mulch, and introduce grazing livestock.
Performed together over several years, these practices can lead to rich, productive soil that naturally retains moisture, produces nutrient-rich crops, and staves off weeds and pests without the need for as many added chemicals. By reducing the use of energy, resources and chemicals, these practices also save farmers and ranchers time and money in the long run, Evans said.
According to the USDA, healthy soil practices can help reduce evaporation rates, while healthy soil itself can hold more available water, two outcomes that are especially helpful during drought. What’s more, reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides helps protect groundwater from chemical leaching. Healthy soil practices also reduce runoff and erosion, which keeps sediment out of lakes, rivers and streams.
Since they’re not tilling the land, farmers can make fewer trips using farm machinery, which leads to lower emissions and improved air quality. Healthy soil also sequesters carbon.
“Soil health could be the baseline to healthy forests, healthy rangelands, healthy croplands,” Evans said. “All across agricultural lands, it could really be the foundation for drought resiliency and higher productivity even as climate and rainfall cycles change.”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which administers the water plan, worked with the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help develop the new soil health initiative to address water management issues across the state and help make progress on the water plan’s objectives, according to Sara Leonard, a spokesperson for the CWCB.
Now, the CWCB is actively promoting soil health as a water conservation tool. For example, the board recently awarded a Colorado Water Plan grant to San Miguel County to study expanding its Payment for Ecosystem Services program, which gives landowners incentives for adopting practices that improve soil health, water conservation, and other ecological goals.
“The water plan identifies soil health practices such as conservation tillage and mulching as promising practices to conserve water while providing other important co-benefits such as water quality enhancement, creating wildlife habitat and improving a producer’s bottom line,” Leonard said. “In particular, soil health practices show potential in enhancing resiliency to drought and reducing pressure on groundwater supplies by improving water-holding capacity and reducing evaporative losses.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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As land trusts conserve private land, they also protect water rights. Some of Colorado’s land trusts are going beyond the parcel-by-parcel approach to conservation and are tackling big water challenges in a regional way.
During this March 9 webinar, we’ll learn how land trusts work with water rights in Colorado. Then we’ll focus on two visionary projects: Colorado Open Lands and partners in the San Luis Valley are reimagining conservation easements and putting them to work to slow groundwater decline and encourage aquifer sustainability. And the Palmer Land Conservancy is protecting irrigated farmland east of Pueblo along the Bessemer Ditch with conservation easements and, thanks to a high-level landscape-scale analysis, Palmer is combatting the effects of buy and dry by keeping water on the area’s most productive ag land.
How are land trusts making these projects work? Why are they well-positioned to play such an important role in water management? Is there an opportunity for more land trusts to tackle water management challenges in these big, innovative ways? Join us to explore these questions and come prepared with your own.
Melissa Daruna, Keep It Colorado
Sarah Parmar, Colorado Open Lands
Ed Roberson, Palmer Land Conservancy
Presented in partnership by Water Education Colorado and Keep It Colorado
From Water Education Colorado (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):
Effective agricultural water planning is critical for a sustainable and resilient future in Colorado. Not only does the agricultural sector account for 86.7% of the state’s consumed water, but agriculture is also the crucial economic and cultural foundation for many communities. The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP), a statewide roadmap for water management, is currently undergoing a multi-year update that includes new information, critical action items, and revised water planning schemes for all sectors. This update will be published in 2022. In order to foster lasting resilience, the CWP update must be more inclusive of all Coloradoans and provide comprehensive planning for historically underserved communities across the state.
True sustainability can not be divorced from empowering all communities. Studies show that systems with many sources of knowledge are generally more resilient. Just as farmers often plant several different crops to prepare for potential vulnerabilities, water planning must strive to be as diverse as possible to create a water resilient future.
Who has been excluded from agricultural water planning?
Colorado has an exciting opportunity to be more inclusive in water planning and subsequently create a truly sustainable CWP. But first, underserved groups must be identified throughout all sectors. This will necessitate nuanced outreach and calls to action. Three groups who have been historically excluded from Colorado water planning in agriculture are:
People who operate under acequia management systems. For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. These producers are primarily Hispanic or Latinx and reside in the San Luis Valley within the Rio Grande River Basin or in the Arkansas River Basin. The term “acequia” is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP — in a footnote of a farmer profile.
Tribal water users. Two federally recognized tribes have designated land reservations within the borders of Colorado: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe (SUIT) and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (UMUT). While it must be acknowledged that 48 contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up Colorado, the Ute tribes are holders of federal reserved water rights in the state. Both the SUIT and UMUT tribal reservations are located within the Southwest Basin (e.g. San Juan/Dolores), though the UMUT reservation also includes land in New Mexico and Utah. While the tribes have become more frequent partners in broader interstate negotiations, inclusion at the intrastate level is still limited to the Southwest Basin Roundtable. Given the Ute tribes’ status as the state’s original water users and the unique nature of their federally reserved rights, more efforts should be made to explicitly include tribal representatives in deliberative processes.
Urban agricultural producers. Urban agriculture in Colorado may include a variety of production methods and water uses, such as community gardens, hydroponic growing facilities, small-scale market farms, and more. It is important to note that there is not necessarily the same rich history or record of exclusion for urban agriculture as the above two groups. Rather, planning for water in urban agriculture could present an exciting opportunity to foster resilience in the food system and land use planning for the future of Colorado. Before defining demographics and practices within urban agriculture, a standard definition of urban agriculture in Colorado must be implemented.
Tribes are acknowledged in the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan, and acequias are acknowledged in the Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan. Urban agriculture is not mentioned in the 2015 CWP or in any of the Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs). The BIPs could serve as an opportunity to elevate underserved voices, given their regional focus, and create a space for them at the state level. An equitable and just water planning process at all levels, from local to basin to state, is critical for Colorado’s present and future water needs.
Paving the way toward more inclusivity in Colorado water planning
The Department of Natural Resources has recently announced the formation of a water equity committee, which is set to include representatives from each river basin and each tribal nation. Within this engagement process, Colorado water planners must make the effort to explicitly solicit input and feedback from underserved individuals and groups in agriculture and all other water sectors. Outreach efforts must be nuanced for each community, each conversation, and each stage in inclusive planning. Overall, CWCB should focus on elevating voices of change makers within historically underserved communities and solicit consistent feedback for a more inclusive, equitable, and holistic Colorado Water Plan.
This strategy should aim to advance diverse representation in natural resource planning and provide opportunities for more equitable funding. Explicit inclusion via community outreach may also encourage diversity in water planning schemes, which can in turn create a more sustainable future. The equity committee and the CWCB should reach out to representatives of underserved communities and facilitate dynamic and interactive working sessions where stakeholders can discuss water challenges and opportunities with the CWCB.
In partnership with CWCB and the University of Colorado – Boulder, we conducted an initial working session with a goal of establishing a more inclusive dialogue for producers. This work session, which focused on water issues among urban agriculture producers, will be discussed in a later blog post.
Ideally, such facilitated dialogues will lead to additional working sessions, inclusion in water planning procedures at the state level, participation in Basin Roundtables, submission of public comments, and general advocacy pointed toward agricultural water planning. This approach may foster a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive 2022 Colorado Water Plan, and a better water planning process into the future.
Imposing hefty taxes on speculative water sales, requiring that water rights purchased by investors be held for several years before they can be resold, and requiring special state approval of such sales are three ideas that might help Colorado protect its water resources from speculators.
The ideas were discussed Wednesday at a meeting of a special work group looking at whether Colorado needs to strengthen laws preventing Wall Street investment firms and others from selling water for profit in ways that don’t benefit the state’s farms, cities and streams.
The anti-speculation group was created last year by lawmakers and is charged with reporting back to them this August.
As prices for Colorado’s water have soared and Wall Street firms and others have begun buying up agricultural lands and their associated water rights, concern is rising that the state could lose control of its vast, though heavily used, streams and rivers.
“It’s a tough nut to crack,” said Joe Bernal, a rancher and work group member from the Grand Valley on the West Slope, where hedge funds are actively buying land and water.
Water has always been a scarce resource in Colorado. In the 1800s, as miners and farmers were moving in, the courts developed a system so that no one could hoard water, drive up its price, and profit from its sale. To combat the problem, they required that water rights be granted only to those who could put them to beneficial use, whether in farm fields or mines, or in people’s homes and businesses.
Under state law, water is considered a public resource. The legal right to claim it and use it for some beneficial purpose, such as farming or manufacturing or municipal use, must be approved in water court. Once obtained, water rights are considered a private property right and can be bought and sold, again with approval from the courts.
Colorado already has some of the strictest anti-speculation laws in the West.
But the rise in water prices and the purchase of water-rich farms and ranches on the West Slope by deep-pocketed, out-of-state investment firms, as well as in-state efforts to export water from the San Luis Valley, prompted lawmakers in late 2019 to call for more work on the issue.
The work group has yet to make any formal recommendations, but Alex Davis, an attorney for Aurora Water and work group member, said new ideas have to be considered because Colorado’s existing laws were written more than 100 years ago, long before hedge funds existed.
“This idea of appropriating water rights and not using them, we have that covered,” Davis said. “It’s well prevented by the laws that exist. It’s the financial speculation that we’re focused on here. How do you prevent it? It’s a very difficult question.”
Imposing a hefty tax on any profits made in a speculative sale, similar to a capital gains tax, could serve as a disincentive to investors, Davis said.
Still another work group member, Adam Reeves, an attorney with the Denver- and Durango-based firm Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel, said forcing certain investors to hold onto water rights for several years before being allowed to sell them again could provide another powerful disincentive.
Still others suggested some kind of state approval by existing water courts or other state authorities could be required, effectively limiting any sales deemed speculative.
But key to any of these tools is defining what is and isn’t speculation.
“What are the criteria by which you determine that ‘x’ investment is speculative and ‘y’ investment is not?” Davis asked. “Any time anyone purchases an asset it’s an investment…when does it become an investment that is problematic or predatory? Is a Colorado billionaire different than a New York billionaire?”
Bernal said any definition of speculation should consider whether transactions in which cities are buying agricultural water with an intent to permanently remove it at some future date to serve a growing population could also be considered speculative and therefore subject to some limitation.
“The concern we all have here is where it might go and who will end up with it. Is it right, is it proper that it go to large municipalities?” Bernal asked. “Why are some of these transactions bad because of who they involve, and what limitations do we put on these transactions, and how does that affect people who’ve owned the water traditionally? Is there something we need to do that doesn’t interfere with private property transactions?”
Work group member Peter Fleming, a water attorney for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, said the state should be careful not to limit investment in ways that are harmful.
“There is no risk to Coloradans from a non-speculative investment in water,” Fleming said. “We need that to increase productivity and maximum utilization of the state’s water resources.”
The work group has six months to finish its research and craft recommendations for lawmakers to consider later this summer.
The group plans to meet next in March, though a date has not yet been set.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com
Coloradans legally bet more than $1.1 billion on sports in 2020, exceeding expectations and funneling some cash to the Colorado Water Plan sooner than anticipated.
Colorado collected more than $3.4 million in sports betting taxes in 2020, with operators running from May through December. Voters agreed to legalize and tax sports betting in November 2019 with the passage of Proposition DD, which also directed much of the tax revenue to the Colorado Water Plan, a comprehensive vision for the state’s water future created in 2015.
Colorado’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, which makes the sports betting numbers even more promising, since December was only the halfway mark for the current fiscal year. From July to December 2020 — the first half of the current 2020-21 fiscal year — Colorado collected $3.1 million in sports betting tax revenue.
Even with six months remaining in the fiscal year — a span that includes big-time sporting events like the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Kentucky Derby and more — that $3.1 million is already double the gaming division’s initial projections of $1.5 million to $1.8 million for the full 2020-21 fiscal year. That means the Colorado Water Plan could see sports betting funds as soon as this fall, a year earlier than initially projected.
“We took a very conservative approach based on how fast the market would pick up, how fast people would embrace it, what effect we were going to have on moving people from the black market to the regular market, and we’ve just really blown all of those things out of the water — no pun intended for the water front,” said Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming. “We really moved a lot of needles a lot further, a lot faster that we thought we were going to. We’re optimistic and really excited about where sports betting is and, ultimately, that there’s going to be better-than-projected amounts going to the water plan.”
Based on tax revenue collected in the first half of the current fiscal year, and factoring in the other ways sports betting tax revenue must be spent under the new law, the water plan so far stands to gain a little more than $1 million — and counting.
That’s still well short of the $100 million officials estimate they need each year in new funding to accomplish the water plan’s goals by 2050, but sports betting was never expected to fully fund the water plan — and every little bit counts, said Alec Garnett, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of the sports betting bill.
“We’ve always known that Coloradans love sports. We always knew that there was a black market and that people were already doing this,” Garnett said. “From a regulatory standpoint, I feel very strong and good about what these numbers mean for the market we created.”
If these early numbers are any indication, the sports betting program is likely to continue to grow in future years as the market matures and sports calendars get back to normal.
Though he has not created an official updated projection based on 2020’s wagers and tax revenue, Hartman said he believes annual sports betting tax revenue could double by next year.
“I’m comfortable in projecting that we’re probably on pace to do twice as much next year as we did this year,” Hartman said.
Sports betting got off to a slow start in Colorado, since it launched in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when many sporting events were canceled. But as the sports betting program got underway and more live sporting events were held (often without fans in the seats), the tax revenue started growing.
Even so, before any of that money goes to the Colorado Water Plan, the gaming division must first pay back the $1.7 million lawmakers allocated from the state’s general fund to start the new sports betting program, which will likely happen at the beginning of March, Hartman said. The program’s ongoing operating costs are paid for with fees from licensed sports betting operators in the state, which now number 17.
The gaming division must also set aside 6 percent of tax revenue for a hold-harmless fund, provide $130,000 per year to the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health, and give $30,000 per year to Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners to operate a gambling hotline.
Any remaining tax revenue can then go to the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund, pending the approval of the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission, according to Suzi Karrer, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Revenue.
“The gaming commission will take that up in one of their meetings in the fall,” Hartman said. “Legislatively, it’s been turned over to the commission to follow the formula and give [the funds] to the beneficiaries.”
The early sports betting numbers were also a small bright spot for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the state agency tasked with administering the water plan, which expects to be rationing much of its current funding over the next two years.
CWCB hasn’t received any of the sports betting tax revenue yet and, since it’s difficult to predict how much Coloradans will wager in future years, the agency hasn’t yet made plans for spending it.
“Based on what has been collected so far, sports betting revenue does look promising as an additional — and more permanent — funding source for the water plan and important water projects, but again, it is still new, and we really don’t know yet what the revenue generation capacity will be,” said Sara Leonard, CWCB spokesperson.
As of right now, the CWCB is not planning to ask the Colorado Legislature to allocate funding to the Colorado Water Plan for the next two years and will instead rely on the 2020-21 allocation of $7.5 million, according to Leonard and state budget officials speaking at recent CWCB meetings.
The approval of the new sports betting tax, which created a dedicated funding source for the Colorado Water Plan, was an accomplishment in a state where voters have historically rejected statewide water funding efforts. But it’s still not enough to meet the ambitious goals outlined in the plan.
To that end, state and local water leaders plan to re-start conversations about water funding this month. Those talks will begin at the Feb. 23 meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), according to the committee’s director Russell George. The IBCC, created in 2005, is a statewide public board that helps set policy and coordinate talks between river basins.
“We’re going to re-ignite that large discussion and see where we can go,” said George during his Jan. 25 update to the CWCB. “I don’t have to tell you the need for an input, an infusion of capital, in all of the things that we’re trying to do…It’ll just be the beginning of a conversation that I think’s going to go on until we’ve succeeded.”
Garnett said he wasn’t aware of any upcoming legislation related to new funding sources for the water plan, but said he was happy that funding for Colorado’s water future remains in the public eye.
“There’s just a lot of focus on this area because of the pressures that are being put on our most precious natural resource,” he said. “It’s always hard to find dedicated revenue streams in Colorado and it was certainly a hard process to get Proposition DD passed. I’m sure everyone has their eyes wide open about the challenges.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nathan Coombs, a burly alfalfa farmer in the San Luis Valley, never imagined he would trust an environmentalist, much less partner with one to improve habitat for fish in the region’s rivers and streams. As manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, Coombs cares first and foremost about supporting the livelihoods of agricultural water users in the upper Rio Grande Basin. As such, he had figured that more water for fish meant less water for farmers and ranchers.
And that was unthinkable.
But things took a surprising turn about seven years ago when Coombs met Kevin Terry, a fish biologist at Trout Unlimited. Terry, who manages the organization’s efforts in the Rio Grande Basin, approached Coombs with what seemed like an outlandish idea, if only because it had never been suggested before, at least not here: shift the timing of some water deliveries from storage reservoirs to provide enough water for trout to survive the winter, while still meeting the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact. Even a small boost in streamflows can be enough to significantly help trout and other fish hang on until the late-spring snowmelt naturally improves their ability to reproduce.
For decades reservoirs in the basin have only released water for agricultural, the basin’s primary water users, during the April-through-October irrigation season. As a result, many streams and ditches run dry or slow to a trickle in the winter.
What kept Coombs, whose district operates the Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River, from rejecting Terry as just another antagonizing environmentalist or silver-spoon fly-fisherman, as he might have previously, was that Terry didn’t pontificate or try to persuade. Rather, he asked Coombs and other board members and residents what they needed to support their farms and ranches.
Terry then suggested a way to help them: Pay irrigators to re-time reservoir releases, providing them with cash, while giving native and wild fish a leg up.
Over the course of many discussions with Terry and heated debates among district board members, Coombs became convinced that this did not need to be a zero-sum proposition. About two years later, in 2015, he joined Terry in creating the Rio Grande Winter Flow Program. That same year the district board voted unanimously to change a longstanding rule to allow for the re-timing of water released from reservoirs.
The program works like this: Trout Unlimited pays participating water users to shift the release of a portion of their water allocation from the growing season to the winter months. Those landowners then pay a fraction of what they receive from TU to their local water conservancy district to release that amount of water from their storage reservoir, and they can keep the difference.
Dennis Moeller, for instance, owns a 2,000-acre ranch near the town of Antonito that stretches to the Conejos River in the southern San Luis Valley. Some 80 head of cattle roam the ranch in the winter, and another 400 graze on public land in the mountains. Now, the Conejos district releases a portion of Moeller’s allocated water from Platoro Reservoir into his ditch through the winter. Not only does this help the trout upstream of Moeller’s ranch, but he no longer needs to truck in winter water for his cattle. Trout Unlimited pays him $10 per acre-foot. Moeller pays the Conejos district $4.50 per acre-foot and pockets the $5.50 difference. For a total of about 84 acre-feet, he netted $462. Hardly a 401(k) plan, but it’s easy money. He said he still comes out net positive even if he needs to buy extra water to irrigate his meadow grass and alfalfa hay during the growing season.
And the collaboration is paying off across the valley.
“I promise you, I was considered the most anti-environmentalist in the room a few years ago,” said Coombs. “And the attitude of the board in the beginning was ‘no and hell no.’ But we realized that the [winter flow] program could benefit operators in the district, and that fish were a footnote. And we came to recognize that it also helps fisheries and tourism broadly in the region. The genius of this [program] is getting enough people in the room who understand what the common goal is, and enough trust.”
Five storage reservoirs in the basin participate in the program: Platoro, Continental, Terrace, Beaver Creek and Rio Grande. They operate on the Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa rivers.
For the voluntary program with an annual budget of about $80,000, Trout Unlimited does not set firm goals, but Terry noted that any additional water in the winter helps fish and their habitat. “The more the better, but we consider the program a success if we get any additional acre-feet of water for instream flows,” he said.
Last year was Colorado’s second-driest year on record, making precious little water available for additional instream flows.
The situation is also made more complicated by the Rio Grande Compact. Under this agreement, formalized in 1938, water users in the valley must make sure that certain amounts of water are delivered across the state border en route to New Mexico and Texas every year.
And the winter flow program, which works cooperatively with the water users, is able to work within the constraints of the compact.
Although Terry said Trout Unlimited’s goal to raise streamflows in the basin is not specific, the Conejos district set a goal of adding at least three cubic feet per second (cfs) per day, a 43 percent increase from its minimum required release of 7 cfs, in the non-irrigation season, amounting to roughly 900 acre-feet total to the program.
Last winter the Conejos far exceeded its goal—releasing an additional 4,345 acre-feet during the winter months. Overall, the winter flow program generated more than 5,000 acre-feet, according to Terry. And although it was not the most productive year, it was a pleasant surprise.
“The message is that we made a small portion of the [Rio Grande] Compact water do more work while it was still in Colorado, by re-timing some of it so that Colorado’s streams benefitted and we still paid the bill,” Terry said.
Estevan Vigil is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has been researching fish populations and their habitat in the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers. He said the program has helped to restore and improve some trout and insect habitat, although low flows in the last two years especially have made it difficult to survey fish populations. Going forward, he said, climate change and drought will pose major slow-moving threats.
“Doing things like the winter flow program, where we’re keeping flows higher in rivers as often as we can, allows us to try to mitigate the impacts of those changes,” Vigil said.
Anecdotal evidence from fly-fishing outfitters suggests that the winter flows have helped bring more wild brown and other trout into local rivers and streams. Randy Keys, owner of Riffle Water LLC in Antonito, said the program has helped restore certain areas for fishing, drawing more anglers to the area. “It has made a huge difference,” he said. “For example, before the program the area right below the Platoro [Reservoir] was nothing but meadow water, with not a lot of holding places for trout. Now it’s great for fishing.”
As water in this region, and more broadly in the West, becomes increasingly scarce, the winter flow program may become one of many examples of how different water interests with seemingly competing priorities are reassessing their historic perspectives in order to figure out how to squeeze more out of every drop, for everyone.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just changing people’s mindsets,” said Craig Cotten, Division 3 engineer at the Division of Water Resources, which has been working with Trout Unlimited to administer water under the winter flow program. “We don’t have to do everything exactly like we did in the past. We can adjust it a bit to get multiple benefits.”
Susan Moran is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. She can be reached at email@example.com or @susan_moran.
This article was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
Here’s a guest column from Patrick Stanko that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today:
Do you know the critical water concepts? The Colorado State Water Education plan has identified six critical concepts that all Coloradans should understand about water.
The first concept is “The physical and chemical properties of water are unique and constant.” The physical properties of H2O are unique because its molecular structure gives rise to surface tension. The solid form of water, the white stuff so important to our community, is less dense than the liquid form allowing it to float.
The second concept states, “Water is essential for life, our economy and a key component of healthy ecosystems.” As we all know, there would be no life without water, and the ecosystems need clean water to survive. But the Routt County economy, both recreational and agricultural, depends upon water.
The Yampa Valley receives most of its water in the form of snow, the basin’s biggest reservoir, which is used by the recreational industry to ski and play on. When the spring melt happens, that water is used by agriculture to irrigate and produce the lush green hay fields we all have grown accustomed to, and of course, the river is used for fishing, boating and tubing.
The third and fourth concepts are “Water is a scarce resource, limited and variable” and “The quality and quantity of water, and the timing of its availability, are all directly impacted by human actions and natural events.” One only has to compare the last two years to see how variable and scarce water is in Colorado.
s the weather becomes drier and more variable and the population of Colorado continues to grow, water will become scarer. An update by the Colorado Water Plan predicts that the municipal and industrial gap in water supply will be in the range of 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet of water annually. As a reference, the Dillon Reservoir holds approximately 250,000-acre feet.
The fifth concept is “Water cycles naturally through Colorado’s watersheds, often intercepted and manipulated through an extensive infrastructure system built by people.” Again, the biggest reservoir and storage of water in the Yampa Valley is snow.
In the spring the snow melts, some of the water returns to the atmosphere via sublimation, evaporation or transpiration. If the soil is dry, then most of the water will seep back into the ground filling the aquifers. The water that makes it to the river is used by the agriculture community to irrigate meadows for grazing and crops. Water is also captured in reservoirs, like Fish Creek Reservoir, that supplies Steamboat Springs with drinking water.
The sixth concept states “Water is a public resource governed by water law.” Colorado has a long doctrine of water laws dating back to the 1860s. A water right allows one to put a public resource to beneficial use as well as a place in line, where the junior water right may be curtailed to meet the needs of the senior water right, “first in time, first in right.”
A coalition of high-profile businesses, including Coors Seltzer and Coca-Cola, as well as the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust have signed up to add additional water for fish, farmers and hydropower generation to a key segment of the drought-stressed Colorado River known as the 15-Mile Reach.
This stream segment begins just east of Grand Junction, Colo., and ends west of town where the Gunnison River merges with the Colorado River.
For decades this reach has been under intense scrutiny, in part because it is a key source of water for Western Colorado ranchers and fruit growers, and it is also considered critical habitat for four endangered fish species: the razorback sucker; the humpback chub, the bonytail and the Colorado pikeminnow.
Dec. 15, the Colorado Water Trust unveiled a 10-year funding commitment from Business for Water Stewardship that will help ensure that there is more water in the river during dry times to keep irrigators, a small federal hydro plant, and the fish healthy.
The Colorado Water Trust is a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to helping secure water rights through purchase, lease or donation to benefit the environment. Business for Water Stewardship is a program of the Portland, Ore.-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation that brings companies together to aid the environment.
Bringing in corporate funders, who have the resources to commit to a multi-year effort is key, according to Todd Reeve, the founder of Business for Water Stewardship. Danone and Intel Corp. are also funders.
“Companies are increasingly realizing the state of our water resources,” Reeve said. “And they are stepping up to support these environmental water solutions.
“This project stands up as an important example of all of these entities coming together. We’d like to see more of them,” Reeve said.
How much money and water will be provided under the agreement isn’t clear yet, according to the Colorado Water Trust, in part because it will depend on weather conditions and the condition of the river each year.
To date nearly $100,000 has been raised to buy water, according to the water trust.
Efforts to preserve Colorado’s 15-Mile Reach are coordinated by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative launched in 1988 that also includes Utah and Wyoming. But because the river has multiple users, from growers to rafters and anglers, to power generators, dozens of other agencies, water users and towns are also involved, according to Kate Ryan, an attorney for the water trust.
The hope, according to Ryan, is that this long-term commitment to the area will build on and add more durability to what others have begun.
Under the agreement, the Colorado Water Trust each year will buy water from upstream sources for delivery to the Grand Valley Power Plant near Palisade. The power plant produces electricity to pump irrigation water to members of the Grand Valley Water Users Association and is operated by the Orchard Mesa Irrigation Company (OMIC).
After the water moves through the plant, it will continue downstream to the 15-Mile Reach.
“The water that comes down through the hydropower plant makes my system work better,” said Max Schmidt, OMIC’s manager. “But it’s also good for the fish.”
As the Colorado River Basin continues to dry out, natural flows in the river will have to be supplemented by water that can be obtained from those who have water in storage that they don’t need and are willing to sell or lease on a temporary or permanent basis.
Ryan said she is pleased the water trust was able to secure the agreements and funding that will allow it to be a long-term contributor to the health of the 15-Mile Reach.
“What was amazing and sobering this year is that the dry-year targets for flow are 650 cubic feet per second (cfs). But most of the summer they were down at 300 cfs,” Ryan said.
Despite the dire water forecasts, the potential for more cooperative efforts on the river appears to be growing.
Schmidt can reel off a list of cities, irrigation districts and water agencies that have stepped up in recent years to help, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District, and the cities of Aspen, Snowmass, Palisade and Grand Junction.
That doesn’t count the cash and operating support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the recovery program, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or the new contributions from the Colorado Water Trust and Business for Water Stewardship.
“When everybody wins, everybody wins,” Schmidt said. “I don’t care if it’s power water, irrigation water or fish water, wet water in the river makes everybody’s lives better.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
The State of Colorado has activated the municipal portion of its emergency drought plan for only the second time in history as several cities say they need to prepare for what is almost certainly going to be a dangerously dry 2021.
Last summer, the state formally activated the agricultural portion of the plan, calling on government agencies that serve farmers and livestock producers to begin coordinating aid efforts among themselves and with growers.
Now a similar process will begin for cities, according to Megan Holcomb, who oversees the drought work for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy agency.
Holcomb said the state’s decision to sound the alarm on municipal water supply came in response to requests from several cities, who believe the drought has become so severe that they need to prepare quickly for whatever 2021 may bring. Normally cities don’t make decisions about whether to impose watering restrictions until the spring, when it becomes clear how much water will melt from mountain snows and fill reservoirs.
But not this year.
“Even with an average snowpack we will still be in drought in the spring,” Holcomb said.
Colorado Springs, just last summer, enacted permanent three-days-per-week outdoor watering restrictions.
Kalsoum Abbasi oversees the city’s water delivery system and its reservoirs. She said the state’s decision to activate phase III drought planning makes sense.
“Personally I think it’s a good move for the state to move forward because it will help keep these drought conditions at the forefront of the conversation,” she said.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the state is now blanketed in drought, with more than two-thirds of its terrain classified as being in extreme or exceptional drought, the worst condition.
Colorado has experienced four severe droughts since 2000, but the trend has intensified with the drought of 2018 barely lifting before 2020 began seeing searing temperatures and dry weather again.
Going into 2021 soils across the state are desperately dry. As mountain snows melt and runoff makes its way to streams, a large share of the moisture will be absorbed by the thirsty landscape, leaving less for reservoirs and cities to collect.
“Soil moisture is a huge part of this story,” Holcomb said. “I also think 2020 is likely the hottest year on record globally. Long-term forecasts for temperatures show January through October of next year being extremely warm again.”
Colorado is divided into eight major river basins, with the four to the west of the Continental Divide feeding the bigger Colorado River Basin, which extends from the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Gulf of Mexico.
Federal forecasts for this system over the next several months have been dropping sharply. Paul Miller, a hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake City, said the amount of water predicted to be generated by this winter’s mountain snows dropped to 5.6 million acre-feet in December, down from 6.45 million acre-feet just one month earlier.
“Even before this recent change there was cause for concern because this past year was very dry and reservoir levels fell,” Miller said.
Local city water officials such as Jerrod Biggs, deputy director of utilities in Durango, said there is little time to waste.
Durango lies in the southwest corner of the state. The region has been hardest hit by the current drought and was similarly hard hit in 2018.
“All the groundwork we can lay today is worth it. Everybody hopes it’s not needed. But sticking our heads in the sand isn’t going to do anybody any good. It’s ugly and it’s getting uglier,” Biggs said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Developers often dropped by unannounced at the Allely farm to ask if the family would consider selling their 70-acre property south of Greeley at the confluence of the Big Thompson and South Platte rivers. The answer was always no — the Allelys did not want their land, which had been in the family since in the early 1960s, to be developed, now or in the future.
So when staff from Westervelt Ecological Services first approached the Allelys about creating a habitat preservation program on their farm roughly three years ago, the family was skeptical. But over the course of many months and long conversations, they began to warm to the idea and eventually agreed.
Instead of selling their property to the highest bidder or leaving it to the next generation, the family established a conservation easement — a permanent agreement to never develop the land — and, for a fee, allowed Westervelt to create the new Big Thompson confluence mitigation bank. The project broke ground in late October.
Now, a developer who disrupts wetlands or streams elsewhere along the Front Range and in parts of eastern Colorado can offset that impact by buying credits generated from floodplain and ecosystem restoration work completed on the Allelys’ land. Purchasing credits from this new mitigation bank allows developers to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act.
“It’s a very important piece of property to us as a family,” said Zach Allely, the fifth-oldest of the six children who grew up on the farm. “If there’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘No, this is a place where native fauna, native flora can thrive forever,’ we’ll take that.”
Mitigation banks, explained
Mitigation banks are not new in Colorado — there are some 21 pending, approved, sold-out or suspended throughout the state, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ database — but this is the first new mitigation bank approved on the Front Range in 20 years.
Across the country, mitigation banks have become more popular since 2008, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed a preference for mitigation banks (over other types of mitigation) and offered clearer guidance, standards and timelines for these projects.
Mitigation banks like this one are a byproduct of the federal Clean Water Act, first enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and then expanded and reorganized in 1972. More specifically, they relate to Section 404 of the act, which aims to protect the country’s wetlands from the discharge of dredged or fill materials during the construction of dams, levees, highways, airports and other development projects.
Under Section 404, developers must take steps to avoid and minimize damage to wetlands and streams by adjusting the scope, location, design and type of project they wish to undertake. After avoidance and minimization, they must turn to a third mitigation type: compensatory mitigation.
Under compensatory mitigation, developers can restore, establish, enhance or preserve wetlands at the project site or somewhere else nearby. But this type of work isn’t always practical or possible, which is where mitigation banks come into play. Instead of going to all that trouble, a developer can pay for someone else to do the heavy lifting at a different, nearby location.
A mitigation banker, in this case Westervelt, pays for the upfront costs of finding a suitable piece of land, gaining approval from the right regulatory agencies, and doing the actual mitigation work. Then, depending on the scope and size of the project, the banker can sell a certain number of credits to offset the impacts of future development within the bank’s general vicinity.
Restoring historical floodplain
Today, crews are hard at work on the Allely property, re-establishing the historical floodplain to help restore the ecosystem for plants and animals and improve flood resiliency for nearby communities.
This restoration work also creates 34.76 wetland credits and 460 stream credits — released in phases — that developers, public agencies, mining companies and others can buy to help mitigate the unavoidable damage their projects will cause to other Colorado wetlands and streams.
Lucy Harrington, the Rocky Mountain region director for Westervelt Ecological Services, declined to say how much the company is charging for credits from the new 72.4-acre bank, citing variable pricing and bulk discounts.
But the Colorado Department of Transportation, which regularly buys credits from mitigation banks across the state, recently paid $200,000 for a credit from the new bank to help offset the impact of its Central 70 highway improvement project, said Becky Pierce, CDOT’s wetlands program manager.
To find potential mitigation bank sites, Westervelt staffers perform geographic information system (GIS) analyses that take into account a property’s proximity to streams, hydrology, oil and gas infrastructure, and proximity to other conserved properties, among other factors, Harrington said.
The company, which opened its newest regional office in Centennial in 2016, also looks at community-identified areas for wetland restoration and conservation, as was the case with the new Big Thompson confluence bank. Westervelt staff worked with the Middle South Platte River Alliance to understand local priorities and identify possible sites for the new bank. The alliance helped introduce Westervelt to the Allely family.
“It’s really a confluence of technical work, relationship-building and a little bit of luck, to be perfectly honest,” Harrington said.
Westervelt and other mitigation bankers often buy property outright. But in this case, Westervelt paid the Allely family an undisclosed amount to use their land for the mitigation bank and, in return, the Allelys protected the property in perpetuity with a conservation easement, which comes with its own tax benefits and incentives. Westervelt and the Allelys also established a long-term endowment for the site’s management with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
After creating a detailed plan and getting approval from regulatory agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others, Westervelt began work.
Credits going fast
The company has released its first round of credits, which includes 8.69 wetland acres and 115 functional feet of stream credits. So far, the company has sold more than half of the wetland credits, Harrington said.
“Any project, whether it’s a highway widening that may cross a river, home development that may affect ephemeral or perennial drainage, a Walmart parking lot that’s expanding, a pipeline going in, any of those development items that could impact wetlands and streams, instead of having to provide a wetland offset themselves can just come to us, write a check and just walk away,” Harrington said. “We take on all the liability of the site in perpetuity.”
Meanwhile, the Allely family knows that their property will never be developed and is instead being restored to its historical conditions. They can also still access the land under the conservation easement, which is held by the nonprofit land trust Colorado Open Lands.
Staff at Colorado Open Lands say they hope the success of the Big Thompson mitigation bank will inspire other landowners to conserve their land.
“It’s just another tool, another way for us to look at getting creative about protecting open space in Colorado,” said Carmen Farmer, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. “Traditionally, we protect land throughout the state using state tax credits and federal tax deductions and incentives. Sometimes the traditional model doesn’t necessarily pencil out for landowners. This is another way for us to go about incentivizing landowners to help protect their properties and make sure they’re compensated for doing so.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Water won big in Colorado on Election Day as voters in two multi-county districts approved property tax increases to fund water projects and programs.
Voters in two local water districts — the Colorado River Water Conservation District on the West Slope and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District on the Front Range — said yes to ballot measures that will generate millions of dollars in new money for conservation, water education, stream health, storage and agriculture.
Based on vote totals as of 4:30 a.m. this morning, 72 percent of voters in the Colorado River District approved ballot issue 7A, with nearly 28 percent voting against the measure.
Meanwhile, 69 percent of voters in the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District approved a separate ballot issue 7A, with 31 percent voting against.
Though statewide funding for water projects has historically been a tough sell for Colorado voters, local initiatives with a more direct connection to residents are finding more success at the polls in recent years. These 2020 water funding ballot measures come on the heels of similar successes in 2018, when voters in Denver, Eagle, Chaffee and Park counties approved tax increases, new taxes, and tax extensions for water and land-focused initiatives.
“Passing any type of fiscal measures statewide in Colorado is going to continue to be an extreme challenge but it’s a much different story on the local level and the regional level,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers, which supported the Colorado River District measure. “People in Colorado like to make their own decisions locally about fiscal issues, but also about how we manage and protect and restore our rivers for the environment, for agriculture and for local economies.”
In deciding to ask voters for more money this year, the two districts’ leaders cited factors like growing demand for water, drought, higher temperatures, population growth, declining oil and gas revenue, and declining property tax levels under the state’s Gallagher Amendment.
Those reasons resonated with voters on both sides of the political spectrum across the state. On the West Slope, for example, voters in right-leaning counties like Mesa and Montrose and left-leaning counties like Pitkin and Summit approved the ballot measure. (Of note: Nearly 80 percent of voters in Pitkin County approved the ballot measure, despite opposition by three county commissioners and the county’s representative on the district’s board.)
“It’s really a testament to what can happen if people put aside partisan differences on water issues,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Voters in Colorado are seeing the effects of rising temperatures, changing climate and the impact it’s having on water resources, and they know that we need to adapt and mitigate and that it’s going to cost money to do that.”
West Slope says yes
In the large Colorado River District, which includes 15 counties and some 500,000 residents, voters approved a mill levy increase that will double the district’s budget by generating an additional $4.9 million every year starting in 2021.
The district spans an area that covers 28 percent of the state and encompasses the Colorado River and its major tributaries, which include the Yampa, the White, the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre rivers.
With the passage of the ballot measure, West Slope voters approved a median residential property tax increase of $7.03 per year for residents of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Delta, Ouray, Gunnison and parts of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties. The increase represents an additional $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of home value.
The district, which has 22 employees, will use the new funding for projects related to agriculture, infrastructure, water quality, conservation, efficiency, and other key priority areas determined by local communities and river basin roundtables.
District leaders say they will also stretch the extra money further by using it to solicit matching funds from state, federal and private sources.
Water funding on the Front Range
It was also a historic night for the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, where voters approved a property tax increase for the next 10 years. This is the first time in nearly 50 years — since its founding in 1971 — that the district has asked voters for more funding.
The district’s board thought long and hard about how best to approach voters — and whether this was the right year to do it. But in the end, their approach paid off.
“The discussions were good and essentially resulted in consensus and agreement with the board,” said Chris Smith, board vice president representing district 3, which encompasses northwest Longmont and parts of unincorporated Boulder County. “It was all done in a very thoughtful manner, which speaks a lot to having a board that represents, geographically, the entire watershed.”
Smith said he was happy to see the West Slope ballot measure pass, too.
“The people of Colorado have really keyed in on the importance of water,” he said. “There are so many new people moving to Colorado, it’s good to see that they’re carrying on that mantle of protecting our most important resource.”
The St. Vrain and Left Hand district encompasses some 500 square miles along the St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties. Voters agreed to a mill levy increase from 0.156 mills to 1.25 mills through 2030.
The tax increase will generate an additional $3.3 million per year for the district starting in 2021, up from the $421,000 generated annually by the current mill levy. On a $350,000 home, the tax increase represents an additional $2.61 per month; on a $500,000 commercial building, it’s an extra $15.10 per month.
District leaders say they will use the extra money for projects related to water quality, river and creek health, water education, agriculture, storage and conservation, among others.
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The summer days of 2019 in Castle Rock were hot and endless. School teacher Kirsten Schuman, pregnant with her second child, wearily watered her suburban yard only to see it go brown almost immediately, week after week.
But then a friend told her about a new city contest to win an $11,000 yard makeover, one that would remove the beleaguered bluegrass and install an array of low-water use plants, trees and grasses.
Prospects for her lawn suddenly took an exciting turn. In a matter of minutes, the Schuman family mobilized.
She and her husband, a high school football coach, painted slogans on their cars. They posted on neighborhood message boards, and on Facebook and Twitter. They made a video of their oldest child in an empty plastic pool.
“It was intense,” she said. “My husband and I are both very competitive.”
That fighting spirit paid off. They won and now have a low-water use landscape that blooms freely and costs less.
And that’s what it’s like to live in Castle Rock, a fast-growing community where water is scarce and the pressure to conserve runs high.
Conservation as buffer
Colorado water officials hope more communities follow in Castle Rock’s footsteps. The state wants to dramatically reduce water use in the next 30 years as a buffer against intense drought and looming water shortages caused by population growth.
But a new analysis of residential water use by Fresh Water News shows statewide savings in recent years may have stalled out, with some cities seeing conservation efforts pay off big, while for others use remains flat or is rising.
The analysis used data collected by the state from 2013 through 2018, the latest year for which complete data sets were available, and examined only metered, residential indoor and outdoor use. Under state law, data must be reported by water utilities and districts delivering more than 2,000 acre-feet of water annually, and who wish to borrow money from the state. Depending on the year, 40 to 45 communities report data. To see how much water your home town uses, click here.
Nine of those, including Denver, Castle Rock, Colorado Springs, Durango, and Grand Junction, among others, have succeeded in cutting residential water use since 2013. Castle Rock leads the state with a 12 percent reduction over the six-year period, while Denver saw its water use drop 8 percent. Grand Junction reduced its use 4 percent and Colorado Springs has ratcheted its use down 3 percent.
The struggle to conserve
At the same time, however, several communities, including ski towns and the fast-growing south Denver metro community of Parker, continue to struggle. Vail, for instance, saw its water use rise 17 percent between 2013 and 2018, while use at the Parker Water and Sanitation District rose 20 percent.
Statewide, when combining results for all 15 cities examined, per capita water use during that period showed virtually no reduction. Daily per capita use in 2013 registered at 73.66 gallons per person per day. By 2018 it was down to 73.13, a reduction of less than 1 percent.
At 73 gallons per capita per day (gpcpd), Colorado is likely the envy of other states, where that metric is often well over 100 gallons per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which has tracked national water use data and reported on trends since 1950.
Tamara Ivahnenko, a water conservation researcher with the USGS in Pueblo, said Colorado has historically been a leader in reducing water use.
And she gives the state high marks for establishing the conservation database, something only a handful of states, such as Texas and California, have done.
“Especially in the West there are water-stressed cities. We really have to be careful,” she said.
Colorado’s data collection effort comes under a major conservation bill approved by state lawmakers in 2010. They sought to shed more light on water conservation practices and to encourage communities to reduce water as one tool in staving off shortages.
Bruce Whitehead, a former state senator from Durango, was a sponsor of that legislation. He said getting down to real numbers was and remains critical to successful conservation.
“Without having the law in place, the way things were being reported prior to that was inconsistent,” he said. “If you can start zeroing in on what these numbers are, it gives you a starting point.”
Kevin Reidy, water conservation specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, oversees the state’s conservation programs and the database.
The more recent data could indicate that things have stalled, he said. But he said it’s also difficult to gauge how much conservation is occurring in such a short period of time because of the high variability caused by wet and dry years. The state started collecting the data in 2013.
A technical update to the Colorado Water Plan released last year examined an earlier time period, from 2008 to 2015, and used data based on river basin geography rather than town-by-town. That analysis showed statewide water use had dropped roughly 5 percent, Reidy said.
Communities in Douglas County and other fast-growing areas are often served by water districts that have little if any control over how cities regulate development. That means that things such as lawn size and requirements for water-saving appliances are typically out of the water district’s control. Such is the case at the Parker Water and Sanitation District.
Billy Owens, who tracks the data for the district, said her district has worked hard to bring down water use, in part because it is fast-growing and it relies heavily on non-renewable groundwater. In addition to the town of Parker, the district serves parts of Lone Tree, Castle Pines and unincorporated Douglas County.
That 2018 was a hard-hitting drought year likely bumped up their use numbers, Owens said, as residents used more water on lawns and gardens. That same year the district also began serving several large new developments, where initial watering needs were high.
Reducing water use has also been a challenge for ski towns. Many have introduced elaborate conservation strategies, but the influx of visitors every winter and summer, and the prevalence of second homeowners who have lush landscapes to water and who may be less sensitive to high-priced water bills make it difficult to achieve savings, ski town officials said
All four ski towns in the analysis, Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Steamboat, have relative low per capita daily use, in part because their transient tourist populations are included in the equation even though tourists aren’t contributing year-round to those communities’ water use statistic.
But even at the lower per capita numbers, the analysis shows their water use has increased at varying levels since 2013.
For example, in 2013, the Vail region was using 77 gallons per person per day, according to the Fresh Water News analysis, a number that rose to 90 by 2018.
Jason Cowles, manager of engineering for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which serves the region, said the rise likely reflects the area’s ongoing struggle to manage second-home water use, climate change, and the dramatic influx in visitors every year.
In the region, more than 50 percent of homes are occupied by part-time residents, whose landscapes are watered even when owners aren’t in residence.
Because hot weather is arriving earlier and staying longer due to climate change, residents are turning on sprinkler systems in May and leaving them on into the fall, Cowles said.
The winning formula
Castle Rock has achieved significant savings with an innovative collection of initiatives, including aggressive water pricing, leading-edge construction technologies, and popular community outreach programs. The ColoradoScape Makeover, introduced in 2019, has helped lure hundreds of homeowners like the Schumans into the water-saving fold.
“When we bought our house, we realized we were dumping a lot of water into the front and back yards. But it didn’t look like we were doing anything and it was expensive,” Schuman said. “So the contest and makeover were amazing.”
Even more effective, according to Mark Marlowe, Castle Rock’s director of water, are the strict guidelines developers must follow if they want to build new homes. Lot sizes are sharply limited; bluegrass is no longer allowed; homeowners have custom water budgets; and development parcels that haven’t been grandfathered in must show how new technologies will reduce water use beyond existing baselines.
“We let developers tell us how they’re going to do better. We want them to be a little creative,” Marlowe said.
Castle Rock also offers generous rebates to homeowners who buy water-saving toilets and other appliances. But if they want a rebate, they have to go to special water conservation classes. And those routinely sell out, according to water conservation specialist Linda Gould. In recent years more than 3,300 people have gone through the city’s classes.
The city also takes a dim view of landscapes that don’t perform as promised. If a developer or homeowners’ association uses a registered landscaper and the system doesn’t perform properly, the landscaper can lose their license to work in the city.
Marlowe says the tight coordination between the planning department, the water resources division, and the city council are paying off.
“The council has been very supportive of everything we’ve been trying to accomplish, and our ratepayers are motivated,” he said.
Will Colorado reach its goal?
The Colorado Water Plan, an initiative coordinated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) aimed at making sure Colorado has enough water for its cities, farms and environmental needs, has set a goal of conserving 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2050.
That’s part of a wider plan that also envisions developing new water supplies, as well as reusing and recycling more water to make supplies last longer.
Heather Cooley is director of research at the San Francisco-based Pacific Institute. She said communities across the West are making healthy strides in conserving water, and new technologies, as well as leak detection initiatives, should allow states such as Colorado to do much more.
“We think there is still significant opportunity to reduce use even further,” Cooley said.
Castle Rock hopes to cut its overall water use number to 100 gallons per capita per day by 2050, down from its current level of 115 gpcpd. This number includes commercial and industrial uses, not just residential uses, which Fresh Water News examined.
To help cities hit their goals, the CWCB has also launched an ambitious program to help utilities plug leaks in their systems, a problem that is common and wastes millions of gallons of water a year. At some utilities, that loss can be as high as 10 percent of delivered water.
Jeff Tejral, manager of water efficiency at Denver Water, said the state as a whole is making good progress on the water conservation front.
“I think that there are things to be done that we haven’t actually worked on yet, like how to engage fully with our customers. But some things are working. I take these numbers as a win,” Tejral said.
Cooley said technology is advancing rapidly as well, offering hope for even more savings. New devices continue to set low-use records. Clothes washers coming out this year are using even less water than those sold just five years ago. Homeowners can attach rain monitors to their houses that automatically shut down sprinklers when it rains. Almost anyone can now install an app on a cell phone that alerts them when their water use rises beyond a set level.
The CWCB’s Reidy said Coloradans are becoming more water savvy all the time.
“We’re definitely more engaged than we were a decade ago and way more engaged than we were 20 years ago,” Reidy said. “And we have 30 years to hit the goal. I think we’re on a good path.”
Former lawmaker Bruce Whitehead said he remains concerned, particularly about the ongoing disconnect between land used for new growth and water conservation plans.
He also thinks the pressure to conserve will continue to rise. And because Colorado sits at the top of the drought-stressed Colorado River system, the state needs to be able to demonstrate to its neighbors to the south that it can use each drop well.
“We need to know what’s actually taking place,” Whitehead said. “If we’re looking at taking additional water from the Colorado River [as some Colorado cities are], we should be doing everything we can statewide to put conservation practices in place.”
Data journalist Burt Hubbard contributed to this report.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Colorado’s reservoirs are 25 percent lower than they were last year at this time, as a hot, dry summer continues into the fall.
Statewide reservoir levels are at 84 percent of average, according to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Sept. 30 report, well below last year’s mark, when they stood at 112 percent of average.
The 2020 water year, which began Oct. 1, 2019, and ended Sept. 31, is now Colorado’s third driest on record, trailing behind only 2018 and 2002 for lack of precipitation, according to Peter Goble, service climatologist and drought specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
“The water year was certainly drier than average. We finished it out with some pretty startling hot, dry conditions,” Goble said.
Colorado averaged 13.09 inches of precipitation in water year 2020, which was 72 percent of the 18.01-inch historical average, Goble said.
It was also the 12th warmest year on record, with much of that warmth concentrated in the summer and early fall during a poor monsoon season, Goble said.
August, in particular, was extremely hot — it was the hottest August on record in Colorado since 1895, when record-keeping began.
Denver Water’s storage system has held up reasonably well this year, thanks to standard watering restrictions and a strong snowpack in 2019.
Denver’s reservoirs are 82 percent full, not far below the 87 percent average for this time of year, according to Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s water supply manager.
Since 2002, Denver Water has implemented drought rules that prohibit outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and encourage residents to water no more than three days a week from May 1 to Oct. 1. The water utility also has tiered rates to encourage conservation.
“We’ve had one of the hottest, driest summers and, despite that, our customers have still been really careful with their water use. We didn’t see extreme demand this year, despite the extreme weather,” said Elder, who added that a strong 2019 water year carried over into 2020 storage.
In the southwestern part of the state, however, reservoir storage levels are much lower. In the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, reservoir storage levels finished September at 59 percent of average; in the nearby Upper Rio Grande Basin, levels were 67 percent of average.
Much of the state continues to experience severe, extreme and exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The lack of precipitation, hot temperatures and high levels of evaporation have left Colorado’s soils very dry, which has made winter wheat farming and ranching a challenge, Goble said.
“A number of ranchers across the state have had to sell cattle, and winter wheat for the coming season has had to be drilled in in many locations because the soil moisture is too lacking to plant conventionally,” Goble said.
It has also been a bad year for wildfires, with two of the largest fires on state record — the Pine Gulch and Cameron Peak fires — occurring this year.
The record-breaking snowstorm much of Colorado saw on Sept. 8-9 was helpful, but didn’t ultimately make a big difference for drought conditions, even in places like the San Luis Valley, which logged up to 14 inches in some places.
“It was one of the biggest snowstorms on record in the Alamosa area, regardless of time of year, so it did improve drought conditions in the San Luis Valley, but in an ecosystem that’s so streamflow fed and reliant on seasonal snowpack, it didn’t provide the level of relief that a good seasonal snowpack would,” Goble said.
Looking ahead, climate scientists are forecasting weak La Nina conditions and warmer-than-average temperatures continuing into the fall and winter.
A weak La Niña likely means more snow for Colorado’s northern mountains and less snow for the southern mountains, Eastern Plains and Front Range, although the exact conditions are hard to predict, Goble said.
“Even a strong La Niña doesn’t guarantee us a good winter in the Northern Rockies,” he said. “We could still see anything from quite dry to quite wet. It tilts the scale a little bit on the wet side for places like up near Steamboat and even Summit County, but it’s not as strong a predictor in Colorado as it is in some other places, like the Pacific Northwest.”
Spring 2021 is likely to be a repeat of last year, with parched soils soaking up more runoff, according to Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the National Resources Conservation Service.
“It’s very, very dry and we do expect that to carry into the spring and how that affects our streamflow runoff next spring,” he said. “A lot of that snowmelt will be absorbed into the soil structure and may not make it to the streams. If we have a near-normal snowpack again, we would expect less-than-normal runoff with the severe drought that we’re going into winter with.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Grand County rancher Paul Bruchez stands in a hay field near Kremmling, holding a small tuft of hay between his fingertips, twirling it back and forth, seeing how quickly it disintegrates after a summer without water.
The plant, known as timothy, is native to Colorado and feeds thousands of cattle here in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
This hay species and others are being closely watched this year as part of a far-reaching $1 million science experiment, one designed to see if ranchers can take water off of hay fields and successfully measure how much was removed, how much evaporated, and how much was used by plants. They also need to know how reducing their irrigation in this fashion affects the nutritional value of the hay.
If certain hay species retain more nutrients than others when they’re on low-water diets, then ranchers know their cattle will continue to eat well as they evaluate whether they can operate their ranches on less H20—not all the time, but perhaps every other year or every two to three years.
“We’ve spent centuries learning how to irrigate these lands,” Bruchez said. “Now we’re learning what it’s like not to irrigate them.”
Any water saved could be left in the Colorado River, allowing it to become more sustainable, even as the West’s population grows and drought cycles become more intense.
While similar small-scale experiments on five or 10 acres have been done before, this one by comparison is vast in scale, involving 1,200 acres of high-altitude hay meadows, nine ranch families, a team of researchers spread across Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and the backing of powerful water groups, farm interests, and environmentalists.
“We’ve never had a project this large in the state of Colorado,” said Perry Cabot, a Colorado State University researcher who is the lead scientist on the project.
The undertaking is sponsored by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, whose members include Bruchez.
“We set out on a mission to ensure we have as much science and data as possible,” Bruchez said.
The data being collected serves several needs. It should help ranch families see if they can afford to participate in these modern-era conservation efforts.
It will allow researchers to better understand what works on the ground and what to do, for instance, when rambunctious bulls destroy research equipment enclosures 25 miles from the nearest town.
And it will give policy makers insight into the political problems that will have to be solved, as well as how much money could need to be raised, to make large-scale conservation on the Colorado River feasible.
The $1 million, three-year project is being funded by the state and several environmental groups, with the money being used to pay researchers, buy equipment, and compensate ranch families who temporarily fallow their fields.
Water for Powell?
Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the water in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, and hay meadows that grow feed for cattle are among the basin’s largest water users.
Last year, under an historic drought agreement on the Colorado River, a new specially protected drought pool in Lake Powell was authorized.
Now Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the four states that comprise the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, above Lake Powell, are studying whether they can or should help save enough water to fill that drought pool. The pool, authorized at 500,000 acre-feet, is intended as further insurance that the Upper Basin won’t be forced to involuntarily reduce water use from the river under the terms of the Colorado River Compact.
Colorado expects it would need to provide roughly half the water for the drought pool, and, led by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is working out difficult questions about how that water would be saved and ushered downstream to Lake Powell under a possible voluntary program known as demand management. The research being done near Kremmling will help answer several critical questions.
Wendy Thompson is a rancher who also serves as the research technician for the pilot program, cutting hay samples and gathering soil moisture and precipitation data, among dozens of other tasks. She has driven hundreds of miles across Grand County this summer, checking each of the program’s 24 research sites every week or so, lugging an aging laptop from one meadow to the next.
She knows better than most that ranch families will need real information, such as how fallowing affects crop yields and soil health and production costs, in order to make decisions about whether to join in a voluntary multi-state conservation effort or to back away.
Intuition vs. facts
“The experiment is important to us,” Thompson said. “We want to make decisions based on the science and the data, not a gut feeling.”
Much of the work is grueling, like cutting hay samples week after week, and low tech, like measuring water levels in rain gauges.
But dramatic advances in satellite imagery and global evapotranspiration databases are helping people like Perry Cabot create science-based templates that eventually will be useful not just in Colorado, but Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and perhaps even farther downstream, on cotton fields in Arizona and avocado groves in California’s Central Valley.
“We now have the ability to measure the whole field,” Cabot said. “It’s becoming more accurate and it’s tremendously convenient if you’re trying to get a good understanding of patterns. We don’t have to rely on one data point anymore.” [Editor’s note: Cabot sits on the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News.]
That this particular team has agronomists, economists and environmentalists pitching in with their expertise is also helping move the science forward.
“What makes this different is the scale and the depth of the questions we’re asking,” said Aaron Derwingson, an agricultural water specialist with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, which is helping to fund the project.
“When we’re done it will be relevant to more people than just the ranchers. We will be able to extrapolate these field conditions and what it means for water savings and the recovery of different species,” he said.
“It’s tough to figure all that out on paper. Here we’re getting down to brass tacks,” Derwingson said.
With irrigation season over, Cabot and his team have serious number crunching to do before they begin monitoring next year, measuring how the hay fields survived their fallowed season, how quickly they return to health, and precisely how much water was conserved.
Early estimates indicate that the ranchers may have saved 1,500 acre-feet to as many as 2,500 acre-feet of water this year. If this process can be replicated, scientists and ranchers could begin to see how long it might take to fill the 500,000 acre-foot drought pool at Lake Powell.
No collateral damage
But even more important to Bruchez and state policy makers is the impact the pilot is having on a highly skeptical ranching community, some of whom are deeply worried that they will lose control of their water.
“We wanted a project that would be as smooth as possible,” Bruchez said. “We wanted to simplify it and ensure there weren’t unintended damages to neighbors who weren’t participating.
“Some people were comfortable about what we were doing and others had great fears,” he said. “We just had to keep telling them, ‘We are not delivering water to Lake Powell. We are trying to fill data gaps.’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
With another drought year draining the Colorado River system, a new economic study suggests that a wide-scale water conservation program in Colorado to reduce stress on the river could cost more than $120 million, depending on the amount of water saved for use in the program.
The study examined how much money it would take to adequately compensate ranchers and farmers who agree to temporarily remove water from Colorado’s West Slope hay meadows and corn fields using a practice known as fallowing. It also looked at how such a conservation program would affect the farm economy and the communities and workers who rely on it for jobs.
“Potentially the program could be beneficial to the participants,” said BBC Managing Director Douglas Jeavens, a principal with BBC Consulting, which conducted the work. “The payments have to be large enough to offset any losses,” he said.
The water saved would go into a special drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool is envisioned as a way for Colorado and other states in the Colorado River Basin’s Upper Basin—Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—to further protect their ability to use the river’s water even as Lake Powell continues to shrink.
Kathleen Curry, a former lawmaker and rancher in the Gunnison River Basin, said the analysis covered all the variables at play.
“I thought they did a good job,” she said. “The numbers they came up with are reasonable.”
The study looked at two different scenarios. Under a moderate scenario it examined the impact of fallowing 25,000 acres of West Slope land annually over five years, and an aggressive scenario under which 100,000 acres of land would be fallowed for the same period of time.
The study, released Sept. 25, was sponsored by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission. It adds important new detail to a statewide discussion about whether Colorado should participate in the drought pool.
Since the state began studying the pool’s feasibility in 2019, West Slope ranchers have said repeatedly that they can’t make a decision about whether to participate if they don’t know how much money they would be paid and how such a program would affect the local economy.
The study provides some preliminary answers.
Across the Yampa, Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores river basins, under the moderate scenario, ranchers would see a net benefit of nearly $9 million, while under the aggressive scenario, the net benefit would rise to $36 million over a five-year period. The water in the study was priced in a range starting at $194 an acre-foot and rising to $263 an acre-foot.
Individual ranchers who agree to fallow 100 acres of land could see an annual benefit, after expenses, of more than $50,000 under at least two scenarios, according to BBC’s analysis.
In modeling changes to the economy, the study found that 55 jobs would be lost under the moderate scenario, while 236 jobs would be lost under the aggressive scenario.
It also found that hay prices would rise 6 percent as supplies tighten and livestock populations would shrink by 2 percent.
Another key concern for ranchers and others is whether taking water off the fields could harm other water users on the river farther downstream.
“This is a critical issue,” said Jeavens. “But we think looking ahead we could design a program that either reduces or eliminates that risk.”
The pool would be filled with 500,000 acre-feet of water, roughly half of which would likely come from Colorado, should it, along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, agree that filling the drought pool is doable.
Under a broader statewide study also underway, ranchers and cities would be asked to voluntarily set aside water for the drought pool and would be paid for whatever water they contributed to the program.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is conducting the statewide feasibility analysis, declined to comment on the West Slope economic study.
Whether Colorado’s Front Range will embark on a similar study focusing on its contributions to the conservation program isn’t clear yet.
Previously Front Range cities have said they would be willing to contribute whatever water and/or cash is necessary to fill the drought pool in a way that is fair to cities and agricultural producers, as well as to different regions of the state.
The Colorado River, which starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park, supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and is also used to irrigate millions of acres of hay meadows, corn fields and other crops on both the West Slope and Eastern Plains.
But if the drought-stressed river continues its decline, it could feasibly trigger involuntary cutbacks under the Colorado River Compact for the Upper Basin states, affecting both Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range.
Though such a scenario is still considered unlikely, policy makers and others want to see Colorado develop some kind of insurance against such a catastrophic event.
Who would pay for the conservation program remains to be decided. Some have suggested that thirsty state’s in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin—California, Nevada and Arizona—ante up any needed cash. Others believe that a new set of fees or taxes could fund the ambitious effort.
Don Schwindt, a rancher who sits on the board of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the study is a good step forward, but he wants more detailed analyses.
“These numbers are as good as any that have been generated. But the simple answer right now is that this is not enough money to generate the water. For my operation, I have to have a higher dollar than those averages or I am going to go broke.
“We’ve moved forward,” he said, “but we don’t have anything we can take to the bank yet.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Risk of severe water shortages in the seven-state Colorado River Basin have risen dramatically since April with new forecasts indicating that lakes Powell and Mead could hit crisis levels much sooner than previously expected.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the change in the forecast is noteworthy.
“We’re dealing with more uncertainty than we thought,” she said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for managing the two storage vessels and monitoring the mountain snowpack and runoff that feeds them every year.
As recently as April, when the last forecast came out, inflows to Lake Powell were projected to be roughly 75 percent of average this year. The latest report, however, indicates inflows will be just 55 percent of average.
In just five months, the risk that reservoir levels could fall low enough by 2025 to threaten power generation and the ability to release physical water to downstream users has risen 12 percent, according to Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, a hydrologist and water modeling expert, runs the modeling team for Reclamation’s Lower Basin operations.
The 21-year stretch of drought in the Colorado River Basin has made the system extremely vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, Jerla said.
“In this system, one year of poor hydrology can influence the ways these reservoirs are impacted for multiple years into the future,” she said.
Reclamation officials stopped short of saying how states should respond to the dire water supply predictions.
Seven U.S. states share water from the Colorado River Basin. These include Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Mexico also relies on the river’s flows.