Wyoming’s efforts to build a 280-foot-high dam above the Little Snake River near the border of Colorado are “picking … back up,” after backers received a $1.2 million federal grant, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission said last week.
The funds, to be matched by Wyoming, will help consultants prepare federal environmental reviews. Planned for the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County, the estimated $82 million dam and 10,000-acre-foot reservoir would be constructed in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
The dam on the tributary of the Little Snake River would serve 67 to 100 irrigators by providing late-season water. Irrigators are unable to finance the project, so 91% of the costs would be borne by Wyoming, a formula backers say is justified because the structure would produce $73.7 million in public benefits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service in 2019 approved a $1.25 million grant to the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District and the neighboring Colorado Pothook Water Conservancy District to boost the project, according to federal records. The grant requires a matching contribution.
“It became a little bit dormant for a while,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told members of the state water commission Thursday as he described the project. The grant will help consultants decide whether to pursue a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service or try to construct and operate the facility through permits.
The project faced scrutiny and criticism in the Legislature in 2018 when backers sought $40 million in construction funds. Lawmakers appropriated only $4.7 million, requiring none of the money be spent until two conditions were met.
One was securing “additional funding commitments from project beneficiaries in both Wyoming and Colorado on a pro-rata basis.” The second string the legislature attached required legislative approval before any of the 2018 appropriation be spent…
In addition to the $4.7 million 2018 appropriation, the West Fork account had some $6 million already appropriated in 2013, for a total of $10.9 million. The earlier appropriation did not include requirements for cost sharing with Colorado or for further legislative approval…
Lawmakers became wary of the dam project because of its cost, its location and the small number of Wyoming irrigators it would serve. Critics said it would only irrigate an additional 2,000 acres or so…
A Feb. 24 memo to commission members described Wyoming’s historic engagement with Colorado officials but with a contemporary revision. “All entities expressed support for additional storage in the Little Snake/Yampa River drainages and support for the West Fork project,” the memo reads.
But that statement mischaracterizes Colorado’s position, said Cody Perry, vice president of Friends of the Yampa. The Little Snake River flows along the Wyoming/Colorado border and into the Yampa, a tributary of the Green River.
Wyoming tried to get the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to endorse the project in 2018. But that group would not sign a proposed letter backing the dam and reservoir.
Instead, the Roundtable said it would need to see the dam proposal “in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”
“The [Roundtable] membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration…” the Colorado group’s letter stated.
Three members of the Colorado roundtable said the group’s position has not changed since 2018…
The Water Development Commission last week extended a planning contract for the project through the end of 2022. It had been set to expire June 30, 2021.
From The Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (Mandy Eskelson and Al Pfister) via The Pagosa Springs Sun
A Pagosa Springs-based collaborative group, called the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), has been working since 2018 to identify concerns and opportunities to address the needs of the diverse water users of the Upper San Juan River Basin.
The WEP strives to be a community-driven effort that supports values and needs unique to our basin while assisting the broader state and regional goals of the Colorado State Water Plan and Southwest Basin Implementation Plan. The state calls these local planning efforts of multiple water uses either Stream Management Plans (SMP) or Integrated Water Management Plans (IWMP).
The WEP’s three-phased IWMP process is designed to ensure there is ample time to gather public feed- back, conduct analysis and create a plan with local priorities, which is why we encourage all community members to attend our upcoming virtual public meeting. We are excited to share our updates from our work and hear your ideas on how this information can be used to support local water users.
In Phase I, the WEP organized a steering committee comprised of representatives of the agricultural, environmental, municipal and recreational water users of our community to begin outlining water-related needs and issues. Through multiple public meetings, the steering committee gathered input on the geographic scope/focus, concerns and potential project opportunities to help guide what information was known, what gaps existed, new data to collect, and what analysis and modeling the community wanted in Phase II.
In 2020, as part of Phase II, the WEP has partnered with experts Lotic Hydrological and San Juan Conservation District/NRCS to analyze components identified as priorities during public meetings, such as current and future river flows, riparian habitat, forest health/wildfire risk influences on water resources, and agricultural infrastructure conditions and needs. Based on public feedback and the capacity of models and our partners, the WEP’s work has mainly focused on the upper San Juan watershed, but we continue to include steering committee members and project components from the Rio Blanco and Navajo watersheds.
Results from Phase II’s data analysis, field assessments and model outputs now need to be reviewed and approved by you, the community. Our upcoming public meeting on Wednesday, March 31, held via Zoom
from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., will present the preliminary results of these assessments and models, gather feedback to ensure it aligns with local experience and knowledge, or identify where additional data and analysis may be needed. WEP steering committee members Joe Crabb and Justin Ramsey will also present on local water systems and drought preparations.
To learn more about other Colorado watershed groups conducting a SMP/IWMP process, visit www. coloradosmp.org. If you have questions, please contact Al Pfister at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mandy Eskelson at email@example.com. We hope to “see” you on March 31.
Colorado lawmakers are considering three major water bills that would help finance wildfire mitigation and forest health projects, study underground water storage for future beneficial use, and create a state enterprise to fund drinking and wastewater projects through fees paid by water utility customers.
Wildfire mitigation and forest health
Last year was Colorado’s worst wildfire season ever. The three largest fires on record burned over 600,000 acres. Water providers fear that spring runoff will clog streams and reservoirs with ash and sediment, damaging clean water supplies.
House Bill 1008 is sponsored by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. (Editor’s note: Rep. Arndt is a board member of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News). HB21-1008 (Forest Health Project Financing) aims to help fund local wildfire mitigation and forest health efforts to protect watersheds. It would allow counties, municipalities and special districts to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes to fund wildfire mitigation and forest health projects. It would also make those improvement districts eligible for $50 million from a Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA) bond program, and expand the program’s life by 10 years to last through 2033.
Arndt said districts would be formed voluntarily and noted that any property tax assessments would require voter approval. “The Colorado way,” she said, “opt in.” Catlin, the bill’s co-sponsor, agreed. “This is an opportunity for communities to take some preemptive steps and, if needed, be able to bond through the state to get help and make the payments to take care of the problem.” Keith McLaughlin, CWRPDA executive director, emphasized that “every $1 in fire mitigation efforts saves between $3 and $6 in fire suppression costs.”
The House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee passed the bill unanimously to the House Finance Committee Feb. 22. It will be heard there on March 4.
Underground water storage
Concern with declining water tables and the volume of water leaving the state in excess of compact requirements led Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, a rancher and dryland farmer, to introduce HB21-1043 Study Underground Water Storage Maximum Beneficial Use. The bill would require the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to contract with a state university to study ways to maximize beneficial use of water by storing excess surface flows in aquifers for future use. The study would identify aquifers with storage capacity, funds to pay for storage, specific storage projects, and proposed legislation to implement its recommendations. It would be due to the interim Water Resources Review Committee by Aug. 1, 2022.
While acknowledging the value of underground water storage, some House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee members questioned the need for the study since several similar studies had already been done and at least two large water providers—Denver and Greeley—are already storing water underground. There were also concerns about who would have rights to excess surface flows. Rep. Arndt, committee chair, asked, “Who would get those rights…you can’t just capture excess water?” Rep. Holtorf replied that whoever’s next in line when it reenters the river would gain use to the water; nothing changes the prior appropriation doctrine.
Rep. Holtorf concluded, “I’m not going to say it’s not complicated, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do something to get maximum beneficial use of water that we give away and try to keep it in our state for the beneficial use of everyone.” He had the backing of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Water Congress and Colorado Groundwater Association. The committee passed the bill 9-1 to the House Finance Committee.
Financing water projects
The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, projects a need to spend an additional $100 million a year for 30 years in state money to fully fund water projects and activities to meet its objectives. Funding to date has come nowhere near that figure, but a bill introduced this session will try to put a dent in it.
SB21-034 (Water Resource Financing Enterprise), sponsored by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, would create the Water Resources Financing Enterprise made up of both the CWRPDA and CWCB board of directors. The new enterprise would provide grants and loans for drinking water, wastewater treatment, and raw water delivery projects. The enterprise could issue revenue bonds to be repaid from fees assessed on drinking water customers of 25 cents per 1,000 gallons of water delivered each month in excess of the first 4,000 gallons. SB21-034 would generate roughly $37 million annually. If passed, it would go on the November 2022 ballot as a legislatively referred measure for approval by voters statewide.
The bill is similar to legislation Sen. Coram introduced last year. That bill was defeated in committee with assurances that it would be studied in greater detail by the interim Water Resources Review Committee. The pandemic, however, wiped out all interim studies. SB21-034 has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and is scheduled to be heard on March 4.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Help define this moment for birds, rivers, and people.
What memories can you recall from five years ago? Well, you may remember that Colorado’s inaugural Water Plan had just been finalized in November of 2015. The Audubon network, our partners, and Coloradans were key in defining the plan. Five years of plan implementation have flown by. As the plan moves forward in its first update, what have we learned to set the course for necessary immediate and long-term steps to ensure water security for people and the environment? We need your statewide engagement, again.
The Water Plan in Short
Colorado’s Water Plan 2015 is a framework pointing the way toward safeguarding Colorado’s water values as population, water variability, and drought increase. Colorado’s water values are supporting healthy watersheds and the environment, robust recreation and tourism economies, vibrant and sustainable cities, and viable and productive agriculture.
The plan’s foundation stands on work by Colorado’s nine basin roundtables and their basin implementation plans, the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), partners, and stakeholders statewide. The collaboration that fueled the Colorado Water Plan sparked the state’s largest civic engagement and the CWCB received more than 30,000 public comments on priorities and direction for the plan. Audubon’s network provided nearly 20 percent of general comments received, and Audubon staff provided consented technical environmental resilience and stream ecology language. The top-two categories of all public comments received were support for healthy rivers and better use of water in cities and towns. The unprecedented public engagement truly produced Colorado’s Water Plan.
Without a strong plan and funding for implementation, Colorado’s birds, rivers, and people will face a problematic future with unacceptable consequences.
Why Update Now?
Colorado is changing and the Colorado Water Plan must be responsive. Our population is over 5.7 million today and could nearly double by 2060. With climate change increasing temperatures and making water supply less predictable, rivers are already stretched thin. Within the next few decades, even assuming aggressive water conservation and the completion of dozens of water projects currently being considered, the state could face a shortfall that exceeds 500,000 acre-feet annually.
The plan update will complete in 2022 and map Colorado water resource management for the next seven years. As a headwaters state, the value of Colorado’s rivers flows far beyond its boundaries. Healthy, flowing rivers support all water uses and users—both wildlife and people. Protecting rivers protects our economy, our birds, and our way of life, but their future is uncertain. Audubon was closely involved in the creation of the plan and currently is involved in its implementation. Now, five years later, we’re helping to update the plan.
(Abby Burk and other experts explain how Colorado can best update the Colorado Water Plan.)
How to Engage
Audubon is committed to protecting the health of Colorado’s rivers, ecosystems, and sustainable water supplies—values that benefit everyone. We are working across water interests to show that water connects rather than separates us. Together, we can protect Colorado’s incredible rivers and the birds that depend upon them. Public input on the Colorado Water Plan update will be critical. Here’s how you can participate:
Engage in Your Local Basin
Each of Colorado’s nine basin roundtables has been updating their local water supply and management plans called basin implementation plans (BIPs). Updated BIPs will soon be ready for public review. Click on your basin here to find your basin roundtable website, then click through to the BIP update status. Updated BIPs are getting ready to roll out soon. Also, due to COVID-19 concerns, basin roundtables have been meeting virtually. If you have not already, you can attend a virtual basin roundtable meeting to get to know your basin’s scope of work and your basin’s hardworking volunteers leading local water management efforts.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register.
Join a roundtable discussion focusing on agricultural irrigation infrastructure issues and solutions to inform the 2022 Colorado Water Plan.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, in partnership with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance and Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance, invites you to participate in a virtual, Colorado Water Plan Update Scoping Workshop focusing on agricultural irrigation infrastructure issues and solutions. The format of the workshop will be an expert roundtable discussion that will inform the scoping process of the Colorado Water Plan Update (more information here: https://engagecwcb.org/colorado-water-plan-update).
The Colorado Water Plan provides a roadmap for addressing water resource challenges; informing strategies, policy development, and programming. The event will be open to the public.
A majority of Colorado voters believe the state should spend more money on protecting and conserving its water resources, but they’re not willing to support new state taxes to fund the work, according to a series of bipartisan polls conducted over the past 18 months.
“Roughly 55 percent of voters said the state should spend more money,” said Lori Weigel, a pollster and principal with the firm New Bridge Strategy.
Though the polling also showed some support for such potential tools as a new statewide tourism tax or a bottle tax, that support eroded quickly when likely voters were asked about a new statewide tax, with 39 percent of likely voters saying they were skeptical the state could be trusted to spend the money wisely, Weigel said.
Her comments came Tuesday at a meeting of the Inter Basin Compact Committee (IBCC), a statewide group charged with helping develop consensus-based solutions to the state’s water issues, including funding.
The bipartisan polling was conducted before and after the elections of 2019, when Colorado voters narrowly approved a sports gambling tax whose proceeds will help fund the Colorado Water Plan, and again before and after the elections of 2020. In those contests voters in the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and the Longmont-based St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District overwhelmingly approved new taxes for local water projects.
Funded by For the Love of Colorado, a nonpartisan coalition that includes environmental groups, water utilities and industry groups, the polling was designed to help policy makers and lawmakers decide how best to raise an estimated $3 billion over the next 30 years to help cities and farmers cope with looming shortages, while ensuring streams have enough water for fish and kayakers.
That’s the amount of money estimated to be needed from new sources to fully fund the Colorado Water Plan. But to date, lawmakers and other sources have only been able to provide between $5 million to $30 million annually. And though the new sports betting tax is likely to bring in $6 million to $11 million dollars annually, it will still fall short of the needed revenues.
State officials hope to build on the recent modest, but still significant, 2020 election wins to create a more stable, permanent source of funding.
“For the first time in a long time we’ve had success,” IBCC Chair Russ George told the group on Tuesday.
But the wins and the recent polls show the state must build broad coalitions and work harder to dispel distrust among voters over how any new statewide tax revenues would be spent if they were approved, officials said.
Aaron Citron, a member of the IBCC and a policy analyst with The Nature Conservancy, said the funding shortfall is likely to become more dire without a permanent statewide funding source because traditional sources, such as oil and gas tax revenues, are plummeting as production declines.
“The situation is likely to get worse,” Citron said. “Yes we should emulate what was done so successfully in the Colorado River and St. Vrain districts and figure out how to build that [statewide] trust. It’s possible but it’s going to be tough.
“The assumption [when the Colorado Water Plan was being developed] was that we would be able to have severance tax revenues into the future. But we can expect them to continue to be unstable and continue to decline because of global market pressures, and state and federal greenhouse gas and renewable energy goals,” Citron said. He was referring to state commitments that call for oil and gas and fossil fuels to gradually be replaced with cleaner energy sources, a process that will phase out oil and gas production and the associated tax revenue it generates.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said voters in his district were willing to raise their property taxes last fall to help fund local water projects, but there was no local support for using those new taxes to make up for missing state funds.
“The state has an obligation to fund water projects,” Mueller said. “This is a much bigger issue at $100 million a year than the $4.2 million my district was able to raise. It doesn’t get us anywhere if it can’t be leveraged against additional state and federal funding.”
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.
In the five years since Colorado’s Water Plan took effect, the state has awarded nearly $500 million in loans and grants for water projects, cities have enacted strict drought plans, communities have written nearly two dozen locally based stream restoration plans, and crews have been hard at work improving irrigation systems and upgrading wastewater treatment plants.
But big challenges lie ahead — drought, population growth, accelerating climate change, budget cuts, wildfires and competing demands for water, among others.
And though the state has made progress on the plan’s ambitious goals and funding needs since November 2015, it hasn’t yet been able to secure the estimated $100 million needed each year through 2050 to fully fund the plan.
Colorado water leaders are optimistic about advances made under the plan thus far. But they acknowledge that this five-year milestone is just the beginning of a long-term effort with no easy path forward. The plan is also undergoing a comprehensive update that will help refine its direction moving forward by incorporating lessons learned and better data.
“Five years in water time is really a blink of an eye,” said Lauren Ris, deputy director for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the statewide water policy agency tasked with administering the plan. “Even though we’re so proud of the progress we’ve made, we’ve got a lot of work in front of us. There’s a lot to celebrate but I also think we can’t rest too much on our laurels here.”
The water plan, explained
The plan provides a framework for ensuring there’s enough good-quality water for all of Colorado’s diverse users, as well as the state’s downstream neighbors. Gov. John Hickenlooper called for the plan’s creation in May 2013, which set in motion 30 months of meetings, public input, writing and reviewing to ultimately create the 567-page plan.
Colorado has long faced unique water challenges in part because its high-altitude rivers deliver water to 18 other states and Mexico, activity that is carefully governed by legal agreements that include compacts and treaties. Accelerating climate change and rapid population growth have only added more complexity. Colorado’s population is expected to grow as high as 8.1 million by 2050, up from 5.76 million in 2019, with much of that growth occurring on the East Slope. Meanwhile, 70 to 80 percent of the state’s water originates on the West Slope.
Many Colorado water leaders agree that the plan — and the multi-year processes for creating and updating it — has fostered an authentic spirit of collaboration. Even if they disagree, people have to work together to find common ground because the plan prioritizes projects that achieve multiple benefits, which in turn makes them more likely to receive state funding.
“Collaboration is now the starting point of conversations about water and maybe that wasn’t always true before,” said Russ Sands, water supply planning section chief for the CWCB. “Like any dinner party, you have some strong conversations and it’s hard. But then ultimately, we do come together around these multi-purpose, multi-benefit projects.”
Key to putting the plan to work are the public roundtables in each river basin, whose volunteer members are charged with identifying each region’s needs and the methods and funding to meet those needs.
The plan hasn’t completely eased tensions, but it has given water users a forum for voicing their opinions, popular or unpopular. And, perhaps above all else, it has succeeded in keeping water top of mind.
“The best thing the water plan has done is kept the water problem in everybody’s face,” said Max Schmidt, manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Project Power Plant. “Traditionally, we have a dry year and everybody gets all worried. Then the next year’s a wet year and everybody forgets about it. People are now saying, ‘This is a long-term, serious problem.’”
Progress under the plan
Work on the plan is occurring mostly on specific projects in Colorado’s eight river basins, which are often funded by loans and grants administered by the CWCB. Five years in, the plan has provided $63.5 million in grants to 241 projects, and $420 million in loans to 82 projects.
According to the CWCB’s data, 76 percent of the plan’s actions have been initiated or completed, but how this translates to progress on the plan’s eight measurable objectives isn’t clear yet. Those objectives set measurable targets for things like water conservation, new water storage, and water-smart land use, as well as informing the public. When asked about progress toward the objectives, the CWCB said it is no longer calculating specific progress metrics using the objectives but is instead tracking new projects or programs that work toward the goals outlined in the plan.
Since taking office in 2019, Gov. Jared Polis has made water one of his “Wildly Important Goals,” issuing a call to the CWCB and roundtables to create a database of 500 local water projects that are ready or nearly ready to launch and are backed by strong data demonstrating costs and potential outcomes.
While the “water WIG,” as it is known, did not come with any funding attached, the exercise has forced local water leaders to refine, prioritize and provide cost estimates for their most promising ideas.
Though the focus on specific projects has been effective for achieving goals in each river basin, some water leaders feel the plan doesn’t go far enough to address statewide issues.
“We need to think more broadly about water,” said Kathleen Curry, chair of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable on the West Slope, rancher and lobbyist. “Having a project-specific focus is great if you’re the entity pushing the projects, but really, overall forest health, stream measurement, snowpack measurement, some of the overall statewide water supply challenges that are out there, those need to be part of the plan as well. [We need to] make sure the plan isn’t simply a laundry list.”
Funding wins and challenges
Since the Colorado Water Plan’s inception, state funding for implementation has ranged from a low of $5 million in 2016 to $30 million in 2019, far short of the estimated $100 million needed each year through 2050
In 2020, lawmakers appropriated $7.5 million for the water plan, however, that money is expected to be stretched over three years because of declining oil and gas severance tax revenue and the economic consequences of COVID-19 on the state budget. Many other water-related programs are also not expected to receive additional funding in the near future, according to CWCB spokesperson Sara Leonard.
The plan got a new funding source in 2019 when voters approved Proposition DD, which legalized sports betting and directed tax revenue to the water plan.
Sports betting got off to a slow start in the spring of 2020, thanks to the near-total shutdown of sporting events because of the coronavirus pandemic. But activity picked up speed during the second half of the year, generating $3.4 million in taxes between May and December, double the estimated $1.5 million to $1.7 million per year.
Though not an immediate source of cash, the sports betting initiative was a big win in a state where voters have historically balked at statewide funding for water.
“The water plan requires about $100 million a year in sustainable funding to meet many of the goals outlined for 2025, 2030, 2050,” said Alec Garnett, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of the sports betting bill. “We never thought Prop DD was going to achieve that annual goal, but at least it established a reliable critical revenue source.”
Garnett said he always envisioned general fund money, plus the sports betting tax revenue, to help get the water plan closer to $100 million a year, but this year’s state budget challenges showed just how fraught that path forward may be. Since its launch, lawmakers have contributed general funds to the plan just once.
“Our economy and state budget have been turned upside down by the pandemic and we have to move through this period before we can talk about sustainable funding,” Garnett said. “It’s just hard to navigate with the changing environment.”
There were other wins for water funding over the last five years, too. Several local water districts and initiatives found success at the polls, garnering millions of dollars in new taxpayer support for an array of local and regional goals aligned with the plan.
In November 2020, voters approved property tax increases to support water projects in the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Longmont-based St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District.
“We’re already seeing where [funding is] being piecemealed together so maybe it’s statewide or maybe it’s a local thing,” said Garrett Varra, who chairs the South Platte Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District. “Voters are more apt to trust people they know and be able to sit down and talk with directly than maybe the state Legislature itself or the CWCB or whoever it is. One way or another, whether it’s done region by region or statewide, it will happen at some point.”
Colorado water leaders are in the middle of a comprehensive water plan update that will conclude in 2022. The update will incorporate five potential supply and demand scenarios for Colorado water in 2050, created by adjusting variables like water availability, climate change and population growth.
“It’s about choices that we make,” said the CWCB’s Ris. “We’re not locked into any future, that we have the ability to make choices in how we deal with everything coming down the pipe, including population growth, funding, climate change.”
Using the various planning scenarios and other data, the CWCB has also developed new tools to help estimate the environmental impacts and costs of water projects, as well as the costs and consequences of doing nothing. The board also created a new “Engage CWCB” website to encourage more community engagement with the plan.
This month, the Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide board charged with helping shape policy and coordinating among the various river basins, will re-ignite talks about how best to fund the water plan and, ultimately, achieve its goals.
Set against the backdrop of record-setting wildfires, intensifying drought in the Colorado River Basin and other parts of the state, escalating climate change, and fears around potential water speculation, state water leaders say that funding can’t come soon enough.
“There’s a lot of talk about how do we get to that $100 million mark with the ever-increasing challenges that Colorado faces, with climate change happening faster than anyone really thought, even in 2015 when the water plan was created,” said Garnett.
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graphics created by Chas Chamberlin, principal with cdcgraphics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Sports betting got off to a hot start, meaning enough tax revenue has already been collected to start benefiting Colorado’s Water Plan projects…
Colorado had already collected more than $3.4 million in sports betting tax revenue through the end of December, more than enough to cover the roughly $2 million in startup costs that had to be paid off before wagering dollars could start being directed to the water plan projects, including increasing storage capacity.
Sports betting began in Colorado in May, after voters passed Proposition DD in November 2019. More than $1 billion has been wagered so far…
Proposition DD was pitched to voters as a way to direct money to the state’s water plan, which could have a price tag as large as $40 billion. But in December 2019, Polis’ Department of Revenue warned state lawmakers that it would possibly take until the 2021-22 fiscal year before enough tax revenue came in for the water plan to benefit.
The sports betting tax revenue is still far lower than the Colorado General Assembly’s fiscal analysts projected. But the upshot is that there’s already plenty of sports betting tax dollars — which are generated by a 10% tax on casinos’ net proceeds — to turn on the water-plan-funding spigot…
Gamblers have placed more than $1.1 billion in wagers since sports betting began in Colorado last year.
American football saw the most bets in December, with $88.1 million in wagers placed with retail and online operators, followed by basketball at $42.8 million. Coloradans continue to show interest in betting on table tennis, with $10.9 million in bets coming in for the sport last month.
Betting on professional football and basketball, and college basketball added up to more than half of the $284.6 million total in December. Last month’s total was up 23.1% from November but the amount sportsbooks kept after paying winners fell by 36.7% to $5.67 million, in large part because sportsbooks gave away nearly $11 million in free bets on promotions.
“Hitting the $1 billion mark is a milestone event for the department, leading us to believe that the trust and competition in the industry are leading bettors from the black market to the regulated market,” said Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming, which regulates sports bettering and casinos. The $1.19 billion in bets last year generated $3.4 million in tax revenue for the state. Sportsbooks pay a 10% tax on profits, which funds Colorado water projects.
After pro football, and pro and college basketball, college football and table tennis were the two next-most-popular sports with bettors, attracting $14.1 million and nearly $11 million in wagers, respectively. Parlays and combination bets accounted for $46.4 million in wagers and other sports combined to total another $45.9 million. More than 98% of all bets were placed online or with mobile applications, and nearly 94% of all amounts wagered were paid to winning bettors.
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.”
Here’s a guest column that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gena Hinkemeyer):
Did you know that Colorado’s Water Plan calls for 80% of locally prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.
The Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The roundtable’s Integrated Water Management Plan will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions that protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty.
So where do we begin with the IWMP process? Why not start with the biggest users of water here in the basin, our agricultural stakeholders. Stakeholders have been clear that agricultural infrastructure is in need of improvement, but there is limited documentation about specific needs. Stakeholder engagement is the most important factor to successful IWMPs. That’s where I come into play.
As a segment coordinator for the project, I am reaching out to our agricultural users to listen and learn from them about their use of water and riverside lands, plus their management concerns and opportunities they may see for improvements. I wasn’t really sure what my job would entail. I had visions of field work and lots of interaction with ranchers. Our work was delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, but we were able to roll with the punches and conduct our interviews over the phone.
Virus or not, ranchers still had to irrigate their fields, so we found a way to continue our work. As it turns out, I learned more about irrigation and the effects irrigation has on our community than I ever thought possible. From the headgates of the Yampa all the way down to the confluence of the Green River, our team chose 50 water diversion structures for assessment.
What does a diversion assessment entail, you might ask? A technical team, J-U-B Engineering out of Grand Junction, conducted site visits on the 50 river structures. The site visit included a field inspection of the river headgate, ditch conditions, inventory and assessment of control structures, measurement devices and level of functionality, overall structural integrity and diversion functionality, along with the ability of the structure to divert a wide range of flows.
The results of the diversion assessment will benefit irrigators by providing a technical evaluation of their structure, including suggestions of ways to improve or modify the structure, if needed. The roundtable will use the information along with a combination of other studies regarding river health and recreation to select future priorities and action planning.
As the work of the IWMP continues, the assessments will also support regional decision making regarding multi-benefit projects — those that overlap agriculture, environment and recreation. Working on the IWMP has opened my eyes to how important agriculture and water are to this community. It’s our livelihood and our heritage.
For more information on the IWMP project, visit yampawhitegreen.com/iwmp.
Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator for the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Integrated Water Management Plan.
Contrary to the common phrase, fire and water actually do mix – and there’s often a direct connection between the two.
This year in particular, wildfires have gripped Colorado with historic magnitude. And while we often think of property damage and air quality as the most immediate consequences of severe wildfire, rivers and drinking water supplies are often wildfire casualties as well.
2020 was Colorado’s third-driest water year on record and one of our warmest, with the hottest August since record-keeping began in 1895. Models show that climate change and historic drought will continue to affect the Colorado River Basin and increase the severity and frequency of wildfires.
To combat this, we must strive to bolster the resiliency of both land and water, including our rivers and streams, to support our communities that rely upon them.
The good news is that Coloradans across the state recognize the need to invest in our rivers.
Voters this year approved two ballot measures that will generate additional funding to support the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District as well as the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The measures will generate a combined $8 million per year to support healthy rivers, local agriculture, watershed health and water quality across both districts.
That local funding will support the types of solutions and water-management projects outlined in Colorado’s Water Plan. The plan, finalized in 2015, provides a blueprint to address the gap between water supply and demand across the state.
And now we have a critical opportunity to build on that work – and voters’ recent mandates – by making updates to the Water Plan. These updates will provide a chance to identify and recommend a path towards a healthy, secure water future.
“From extreme drought to extreme fires, 2020 highlights the need for us to build our climate resilience and protect the watersheds that sustain our streams, farms and cities. Finding these opportunities and identifying the state of the science is at the heart of the Colorado Water Plan Update,” says Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell.
Wildfire-related impacts on river health are significant, including post-fire floods, debris flows, erosion, and the threat of toxic debris flowing into our rivers and water supply. Laurie Rink of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council says that key stakeholders have expressed the need for coordinated planning and response to Colorado’s wildfires.
“Immediate focus will be on post-fire recovery and rehabilitation to reduce post-fire hazards, such as flooding and erosion. Longer-term efforts can turn towards planning for and implementing future fire risk mitigation throughout the watershed,” Rink says.
Healthy rivers flow from healthy watersheds. We must broaden the river health conversation beyond the river channel itself, to include the entire “riverscape,” comprised of the streams, floodplain, and vegetation surrounding them.
Riverscapes support bird and wildlife habitat, as well as ecological services that directly influence water quality and quantity. Nearly 80% of Colorado’s clean, reliable drinking water comes from these forested watersheds. But significant data gaps exist around watershed health, and without current science, the effort to create projects and management plans to protect Colorado’s rivers is daunting.
Ensuring that Colorado’s riverscapes and forests can recover from future wildfires at a landscape scale is crucial. Implementing proven wildfire mitigation strategies such as forest treatments and prescribed fires, as well as investing in the health of our rivers and streams, will promote increased resilience to climate change and mitigate the effects of wildfires on water supplies and communities.
Colorado’s Water Plan strives to develop stream management plans for at least 80% of rivers and streams across the state, as well as 80% of critical watersheds with watershed protection plans, all by 2030.
Current, accurate, scientific data is crucial for the development of these stream management and watershed plans. Fortunately, river health assessments can inform locally driven projects to protect or improve conditions and empower communities to develop tailored resilience strategies and track river health over time.
It’s essential that an updated Water Plan provide funding and guidance for addressing river health information gaps.
While rivers connect all Coloradans, so does drought and wildfire in 2020. When we invest in the health of our rivers, we are also investing in future resilience to climate change and associated disruptions to our rural heritage and Colorado lifestyle.
Abby Burk is the Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies.
One year ago, exactly zero parts of Colorado were officially designated as being abnormally dry or in drought. What a difference a year makes.
Now, even as the ski season starts up, every corner of our state is facing drought conditions. As the effects of unchecked climate change continue to worsen, these conditions, which previously would have been considered extreme, are sadly becoming the new normal, and the impacts are wide ranging.
As Coloradans know all too well, these hot, dry conditions played a significant role in fueling wildfires that tragically steal away lives, communities and our beloved natural landscapes. Images from recent months of families fleeing burning homes and beleaguered firefighters waging battle while air tankers swoop overheard are pictures that we won’t soon forget.
Some of these record-breaking wildfires — like Cameron Peak — are still burning, even as it snows. Last year, the Fern Creek Fire burned all winter, in a place where fire has not occurred in 500 years.
The impacts of these disasters stretch well beyond the fire lines, and have downstream effects on our precious rivers and waterways.
Colorado’s mountains supply water to seven downstream states and the wildfires can directly impact the quantity and quality of that water. This problem is likely to only worsen in the years and decades ahead, which is why we need to take action now to safeguard our water supplies and ensure that our state’s vital natural resources are protected.
This may seem like a daunting problem, but there is so much that our society can do. Fortunately, voters know that protecting our water is critical. Colorado voters are notoriously anti-tax, but on Nov. 3, voters in 23 Colorado counties approved two ballot measures to protect our water and rivers. That follows 2019, where statewide voters approved a measure to provide as much as $29 million annually to implement Colorado’s Water Plan. Similar local county measures were enacted in 2016 and 2018.
The results are clear: Coloradans are aware of the threats facing our water supplies and are willing to dedicate state resources toward preserving and protecting them.
The dollars from these measures are critical and will go a long way toward protecting our water for future Coloradans, but only if we leverage them in the right ways and build on a coalition. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and if we’re serious about tackling these issues we need to marshal all of the support we can find and elicit the help of as many stakeholders as possible.
The federal government can help by funding water conservation efforts by both cities and the agricultural sector, who have both been largely leading the charge. It also can help support natural water storage and build on “natural infrastructure,” i.e. natural or naturalized areas that are strategically managed to conserve the ecosystem’s protective functions while also providing economic and societal benefits.
What does that mean in layman’s terms? It means providing jobs to restore healthy forests. It means safeguarding the wetlands and streams that naturally clean our water, provide firebreaks, and support the wildlife and scenery for which our state is famous. We know these techniques can work, we just need the resources to properly implement them.
And the only way to protect enough forests, wetlands and streams at a big enough scale to make a difference is to layer public funds with other sources of funding in creative ways. The innovative Environmental Impact Fund under development in southwest Colorado is a perfect example of such creativity.
This fund is the result of years of partnerships and collaboration that have brought all stakeholders together with local leadership — homeowners, water providers, agriculture, hikers and agencies. They are working together to combine and leverage funding so that they can protect forests and water resources in a coordinated and cost-efficient way that provides jobs, reaches economies of scale, and protects the community and its water for people, agriculture and nature.
Finally, let’s not forget that all of this helps implement Colorado’s Water Plan, which is currently marking its fifth anniversary. The plan was developed with input from community leaders and residents throughout the state. The resulting plan outlines solutions to address the gap between our finite water supplies and demand, while setting a goal of achieving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation savings by 2050. It also outlines steps for maintaining our vital agricultural economy, which bolsters our communities while supplying food and fiber around the world.
Studies show that the entire American Southwest is on the precipice of a historic megadrought, which means that our climate and ecosystems are entering into uncharted territory. The future is already here: We must act now to help our communities and environment navigate future wildfires and intensifying drought.
Protecting Colorado’s rivers and streams today means acting to protect future generations of Coloradans. But we’re Coloradans. We have proven that water is an issue that unites us, and we are poised to lead the nation on creative and effective solutions to address this issue head-on.
Jill Ozarski is a program officer in the Environment Program focusing on the Colorado River initiative for the Walton Family Foundation.
At the Nov. 2 Board of County Commissioners meeting, commissioners decided to appoint Amber Weber to the Arkansas Basin Roundtable at the recommendation of County Administrator Amy White-Tanabe…
Weber is no stranger to the Arkansas Basin Roundtable. She has participated on the roundtable in other capacities before. Since 2018, she’s served at the roundtable as Public Education, Participation and Outreach Coordinator. She is also on the Basin Implementation Plan Committee, which Weber said facilitates the discussion of how the Arkansas Basin fits into the Colorado Water Plan.
“I facilitated educational opportunities, discussions, curated content, hosted workshops, et cetera, all surrounding one goal — water in the Arkansas Basin,” Weber told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat in an email.
As a PEPO Coordinator, Weber has engaged in agricultural, municipal, recreational and environmental sectors of water, she said.
“As I transition into a voting role, I am thrilled that I have the opportunity to represent Otero County and will be able to represent the best interests of the County and the citizens within it,” said Weber. “Through this voting seat for Otero County, I will be speaking with the commissioners regularly and ensuring each of them are kept in the loop on all items that come to the roundtable.
Likewise, Weber will communicate Otero County’s ideas and concerns to the roundtable.
Weber works as a consultant to Otero County Commissioners in other areas of county interest as well, such as the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance, a state-wide organization whose goal is to serve and protect water delivery providers, Weber said; she also serves as the soil health director for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District “as the district works to navigate the nexus between water and soil quality.”
The Catamount gauge on the Colorado River is a result of a big collaboration, and for now, it has gone a long way in quelling the concern of conservationists in the Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group.
Couple that with a few good-faith efforts from Front Range diverters to get more water into the river, and most everyone seems to be convinced that collaboration has been a lot better than the courtroom in this case.
The stakeholder group was formed in 2008, and its mission was overt — convince the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service not to write a report stating that the Upper Colorado River is suitable for a Wild and Scenic Designation from the federal government…
But while it takes an act of Congress to welcome a new river into the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a report from the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service saying a river is suitable for wild and scenic designation can trigger a change in management for the river…
[Rob] Buirgy said the Colorado Water Conservation Board supported the stakeholder group using the state’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Fund for scientific studies, recreational surveys, and stakeholder group coordination and facilitation. The stakeholder group also recommended that the board appropriate three in-stream flow water rights to preserve the natural environment on the river from the confluence with the Blue River to the area just above the confluence with the Eagle River. The Colorado Water Conservation Board appropriated and the water court decreed those water rights in 2013.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is expected to help install biological metric tracking tools along the river in the coming months, and a few years ago a new USGS temperature and flow monitoring gauge was installed at the Catamount Boat Launch, near Bombardier’s house, which will measure temperature and serve as a resource guide.
While resource guides do not mandate management action based on their readings, good-faith management efforts have been undertaken based on the Catamount gauge’s readings during the collaborative process. Bombardier says the readings have been crucial for that stretch of the river, which is prone to warm temperatures…
[Ken] Neubecker said after spending more than a decade working toward Wild and Scenic designation on the Upper Colorado River, he feels the collaborative group’s plan represents the best effort conservationists could have expended toward maintaining the Upper Colorado River’s “outstandingly remarkable values,” or ORVs.
“It got all of the people who would have been opposed to actual designation to sit down at the table and work out a plan that — if everybody plays along — will have the best shot we’ve got at protecting those ORVs,” Neubecker said.
The agreement was formerly accepted by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service in July. Participating groups include: American Rivers, American Whitewater, Aurora Water, Blue Valley Ranch, Colorado River Outfitters Association, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Colorado Springs Utilities, Colorado Whitewater, Confluence Casting, Conservation Colorado, Denver Water, Eagle County, Eagle Park Reservoir Company, Eagle River Watershed Council, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Grand County, Middle Park Water Conservancy District, Municipal Subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Summit County, Upper Colorado Commercial Boaters Association, Upper Colorado River Private Boaters Association, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, Vail Associates, Inc., and Yust Ranch.
2020 has been a tumultuous year, and as we enter our fifth month of quarantine and social distancing, it can be encouraging to find things to celebrate. With the close of Colorado’s legislative session last month and Governor Polis finalizing his bill signings, one thing that we can laud is the work that was accomplished for our rivers. Even though the Colorado General Assembly struggled to fully address a more than $3 billion budget shortfall, they maintained and expanded programs and investments necessary to keep our rivers flowing, and this is something we can be proud of.
In March, Governor Polis signed two bills into law that expand and improve Colorado’s instream flow program. These bills, HB20-1157 and HB20-1037, provide new tools for water users and conservationists to work together to keep water in rivers for the benefit of fish and wildlife. HB20-1157 will be a particularly important tool for the Yampa River Fund which provides grants to improve the health of the Yampa River, including through leases of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to enhance late-season fish habitat, agriculture, and to benefit the local tourism and outdoor recreation economy.
Colorado also made a new commitment to improve water conservation in our cities and towns. The Colorado Water Plan, finalized in 2015, sets a goal of achieving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation savings by 2050. The way that we plan and build our cities and towns contributes to how we use water, how much we use, and how quickly demands grow for new supplies. The new law, HB20-1095, authorizes local governments to include water conservation elements into their master plans, thereby encouraging local governments to combine their land and water use planning to accelerate the state toward its 400,000 acre-foot conservation savings goal.
While budgets were slashed statewide, fortunately funding for the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan was maintained. Over $7 million was included in the Colorado Water Conservation Board budget for Water Plan implementation grants or water projects across the state, and an additional $4 million was allocated to invest in stream and watershed management planning efforts to keep rivers healthy and flowing. We appreciate the state’s continued recognition of the importance of clean rivers and drinking water for all Coloradans and hope that this commitment continues.
Just over six months ago, voters demonstrated their own commitment to healthy rivers and water supplies by legalizing sports betting and directing tax revenues to fund the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan. As sports begin to start back up, we urge the General Assembly to respect the will of the voters and ensure this tax revenue is directed, as intended, to Water Plan implementation.
While we celebrate these wins for Colorado’s waterways, we recognize there is still more work to be done.
In June, the Trump administration issued rules that significantly reduce protections for Colorado’s rivers and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, leaving many previously protected waterways in limbo. The new federal rule leaves one out of every five stream miles in Colorado, including half of the state’s wetlands, unprotected from construction activity discharges. Thanks to a lawsuit led by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, the rule has been temporarily blocked pending resolution, which maintains protections for our state’s waterways—for now.
Regardless of the outcome in court, it is time for Colorado to ensure that its rivers and wetlands will always be protected from destructive dumping and discharges. The Water community is coming together—virtually—this summer to try to find some common ground on this issue and we plan to bring a solution before the General Assembly for the 2021 legislative session.
While 2020 seems to be the year of one bad headline after the next, we are heartened by the work of our state legislature and government to make positive strides toward safeguarding our water future.
From the Friends of the Yampa (Eugene Buchanan) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:
The key to river planning is collaboration, and the Yampa River Basin is doing just that. There are water users everywhere — agriculture diverting water to grow food and raise animals, municipalities securing drinking water and treating wastewater, ski resorts making snow, power plants producing steam to create power, recreationists fishing and paddling, and wildlife using it as sustenance and a home. With all of these various purposes, how do we manage water use?
The key is planning and working together. There is an understanding among river users that, without this collaboration, there is a risk that one of these stakeholder groups might not receive the water they need.
To that end, there exist such entities as Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Round Table and Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan to help all these water use stakeholders.
According to its website, “The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is leading the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan (IWMP). The process will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions to protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty.”
“The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and the Integrated Water Management Plan are great examples of collaboration,” said Friends of the Yampa President and Basin Round Table Recreation at-large member Kent Vertrees. “A lot has been accomplished in a short time because of this. People look to our basin here in the Yampa Valley as a great example of how to work together to ensure water for our future.”
Another entity helping the cause is the newly formed Yampa River Fund, whose goal is “to establish a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to: enhance water security for communities, agriculture, the economy and the natural environment in the Yampa Valley; support a healthy, flowing river and enhance critical low flows through water leases from reservoirs; and maintain or improve river function through a holistic approach to restoration of riparian and/or in-channel habitat.”
The fund’s first funding cycle of grants was announced in May, awarding a total of $200,000 to various projects. The projects include riparian habitat restoration in Steamboat Springs and in the Lower Elkhead Creek; recreational access improvements in Moffat County; water releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir facilitated by Colorado Water Trust; and stream improvements in Oak Creek.
Of special importance this year is the fund’s funding mechanisms to absorb some of the basin’s variability as well as its environmental and recreational vitality. While 2019 was heralded as a banner water year, we currently stand at 30% of average discharge to the river, meaning the use of water leases could come in especially handy this year. And stakeholders working together will be more important than ever.
Eugene Buchanan is a board member of the Friends of the Yampa and local author. Lindsey Marlow is the program manager for Friends of the Yampa.
From the Business for Water Stewardship (Claudia Hensley):
New study finds Colorado’s waterways support over 100,000 jobs and billions in tax revenue across the state
AnewstudyreleasedbyB usinessforWaterStewardshiptodayfoundthat water-related outdoor recreation in Colorado produces $18.8 billion in economic output, and contributes $10.3 billion to the state gross domestic product (GDP) overall. According to the study:
6.7 million people participate in water-related outdoor recreation in Colorado annually, whether in the form of hiking, jogging, camping, fishing or other water-related activities on or around Colorado’s waterways.
Water-related recreation supports over 131,000 jobs a round the state that provide $6.3 billion in household income and generate an estimated $2.7 billion in tax revenue.
“The access to unparalleled outdoor recreation is part of what makes living in Colorado so special. But it’s not only about quality of life — outdoor recreation is a cornerstone of the state economy, and Colorado’s waterways are an essential economic engine,” said Molly Mugglestone, Director of Communications and Colorado Policy, Business for Water Stewardship. “Investing in clean and plentiful waterways isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for business. Continued stewardship of Colorado’s waterways is essential to the long-term health of Colorado’s economy, ecosystems, and communities.”
“The access to unparalleled outdoor recreation is part of what makes living in Colorado so special. But it’s not only about quality of life — outdoor recreation is a cornerstone of the state economy, and Colorado’s waterways are an essential economic engine,” said Molly Mugglestone, Director of Communications and Colorado Policy, Business for Water Stewardship. “Investing in clean and plentiful waterways isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for business. Continued stewardship of Colorado’s waterways is essential to the long-term health of Colorado’s economy, ecosystems, and communities.”
The study, conducted by Southwick Associates, presents economic contributions based on estimated retail spending in Colorado attributable to time on or along the water spent engaging in one of nine target activities (trail sports, camping, picnicking or relaxing, water sports, wildlife-watching, fishing, snow sports, bicycling or skateboarding and hunting or shooting) across nine river basins (Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, San Juan / Dolores San Miguel, South Platte, Yampa / White Green). Of the nine basins surveyed, the Colorado River mainstem alone generates $3.8 billion in economic output annually and supports 26,768 jobs.
“We believe it’s critically important to promote the outdoor industry’s importance to Colorado’s economy and our way of life. These figures are staggering, but not surprising,” said David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly Outdoors. “At Mayfly, we see the impact that recreation and engagement has on our community in Montrose as well as across the state. We think it’s part of our job to help ensure our communities can access and enjoy our rivers and waterways. Protecting river resources is even more important than ever as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In releasing this study BWS has partnered with the Outdoor Industry Association to promote the critical need to protect Colorado’s rivers and waterways. “Outdoor recreation is a huge economic driver in the state and Colorado is home to many outdoor businesses and to our industry’s largest gathering, Outdoor Retailer, said Lise Aaangeenbrug, executive director, Outdoor Industry Association. “While we can’t gather as an industry this summer in Denver, watching the growth of people going outdoors during the pandemic and the release of this important data gives the industry great hope for the future. Protecting our state’s public lands and waterways are more important than ever to provide places to go outside and support the health and wellbeing of our communities.”
“We know that our great outdoors, including Colorado’s beautiful rivers, are a huge part of what makes our state such a great place to call home, drawing millions of people from around the globe every year and bringing industry and business here. But we can’t stop at enjoying nature – we must also protect it for the future. This study shows how much our state’s economy depends on preserving our rivers. We must continue to protect our quality of life and keep our environment as a top priority,” said Kelly Brough, President and CEO, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
FromThe Denver Post (Judith Kohler) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
The report released Monday by Business for Water Stewardship said 6.7 million people participate in water-related recreation annually, supporting more than 131,000 direct and indirect jobs. That translates to $6.3 billion in household income, $2.7 billion in tax revenue and roughly $10 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, according to the analysis by Southwick Associates.
“The general message is the importance of rivers, waterways, to our economy,” said Molly Mugglestone, director of Colorado policy for the business organization. “We need to preserve and protect these areas that people want to go to and spend time on.”
The report relies on spending data collected by Southwick Associates for the Outdoor Industry Association and a survey that looked at where people recreated. The report includes responses from 1,252 people and targets such activities as swimming, rafting, kayaking and other sports on the water as well as trail running along the water, fishing and wildlife watching.
The report analyzes statewide data and date for nine river basins in the state…
The Business for Water Stewardship’s promotion of keeping waterways healthy is a big benefit for the outdoor industry, [David] Dragoo said. “As an industry, we don’t really have any infrastructure, if you will. Our corporate infrastructure is our public lands and our waters.”
From the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project via The Conejos Citizen:
In 2015, then-Governor John Hickenlooper signed a momentous document into being — the Colorado Water Plan. At the time, decades of analysis concluded that a gap was widening between the limited supply of water and an increasing demand from users.
This gap in water supply and demand would only grow worse and more insurmountable without decisive action. Simply conserving water wasn’t enough. The drought of 2002 drove home the fact that a decreasing and erratic snowpack would become the norm, wreaking havoc on communities and river systems across the state. Lawmakers, farmers, water managers, and others saw the writing on the wall and determined to be strategic and proactive.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the government agency tasked with overseeing water supply and management and utilizing technical data and analysis to assist decision-making, were key partners in spearheading the unprecedented strategy. They couldn’t undertake the entire process on their own and looked to the Roundtables for on the ground planning.
Just as in the first BIP process, stakeholders from the Rio Grande Basin are encouraged to participate in subcommittees on each of the five target areas.
This update process will be facilitated by a local expert who has been trained in coordination with Local Experts from other basins by the state’s general contractor for the 2021 Water Plan. The Rio Grande local expert is the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) staff, with Daniel Boyes as lead expert. The RGHRP was involved in the first BIP and works to improve the health of streams and riparian areas across the San Luis Valley and recently completed Stream Management Plans for the Rio Grande, Conejos River and Saguache Creek.
Boyes and the other RGHRP staff have begun holding meetings to determine project possibilities and data gaps within the five key areas with community members providing valuable input. These meetings will determine what projects, goals, and objectives represent the Rio Grande Basin’s priorities for each of the key areas, providing once again valuable input to the overall state water plan.
With a below average snowpack for 2020 and no guarantee of continuing moisture or increased snow in 2021 or beyond, the Rio Grande Basin will face similar challenges as the rest of the state over the coming year: The creation of subdistricts to meet aquifer sustainability requirements, newly approved well rules and regulations for groundwater use, and the new SLV radar are unique local responses to these challenges. Participating in identifying and prioritizing new projects and goals is a simple way for the community to involve themselves with these crucial water decisions. With the help of the community, Rio Grande water leaders are working diligently to ensure our resources are able to meet needs and continue our San Luis Valley way of life.
The Roundtables, one for each major river basin plus an additional Roundtable serving the Denver metro population, were created in 2004 as a regional answer to address water needs as identified by a variety of stakeholders. All of these partners were needed to become the task force, which created the first-ever Colorado Water Plan.
These five hundred plus pages of graphs, data, photos, and text combined to tell the story of each of Colorado’s major river basins. But more than that, it creates a compass for Colorado’s basins to identify and implement projects in their region that addressed a multitude of issues such as stream flows, reservoir storage capacity, agricultural sustainability, environmental needs, water administration and even education and outreach on water topics. The Colorado Water Plan includes five major areas of water use: Municipal & Industrial, Agriculture, Environment & Recreation, Water Administration and Education & Outreach. Each of these areas affects all the river basins; however, water leaders recognize that the plan could not be a one size fits all effort. Geography, population, tourism, and other factors affect each region differently, so state officials decided to utilize the leadership of local roundtables. The resulting comprehensive state plan was made possible by thousands of hours of donated time from people in each basin who created an individual plan outlining the needs of their region and highlighting potential projects to address those needs. This basin implementation plan process, or BIP, allowed each basin to prioritize projects and informed the larger Water Plan’s goals and objectives. With many projects completed and numerous goals met over the past five years, new ones are needed to answer the increasingly pressing question of how to adequately meet diverse water needs with an ever-dwindling supply. To that end, the Colorado Water Plan is in its first iteration of updates, scheduled for completion in 2021.
For the past two years, CWCB staff has worked with stakeholders in all basins, as well as engineering firms, to complete data analysis through Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) using updated data and the most up-to-date modeling tools available. These teams created five potential future scenarios facing Coloradans in the next 20-50 years. Each scenario incorporates existing data from the basins regarding current water use coupled with projected water use, population and economic growth, and, in some scenarios, potential impacts of climate change on water supply and use.
These technical updates necessitate an updated Basin Implementation Plan incorporating the modeling and identifying where other data gaps exist. In addition, projects which will address the gaps and meet Basin goals and objectives need to be prioritized for the next five years.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Gunnison State of the River
Learn about current Gunnison Basin water conditions, drought, and water planning at the virtual Gunnison State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District.
•Bob Hurford, Division 4 (Gunnison Basin) engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, will talk about the weak winter snowpack, the dry spring and how these factors are affecting streamflows, reservoir storage and water rights administration.
•Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, will address the “Protection of West Slope water as we face an uncertain future.”
• Molly Mugglestone, director of communications and Colorado policy for Business for Water Stewardship, will present on a study that found Colorado’s rivers are major economic drivers producing nearly $19 billion in output annually from people recreating on or near rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs and waterways.
• Tom Alvey, head of the projects committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District, will discuss hot water topics in the basin including drought, fruit freezes, an update of the roundtable’s water plan for the region, how the new crops of hemp and hops are working and the River District’s Lower Gunnison Project.
Jun 24, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
Join us for a two-part miniseries of our podcast series We Are Rivers. We’ll learn more about Stream Management Plans, an innovative planning tool prioritized in Colorado’s Water Plan, from people working with stakeholder groups and communities across Colorado to put them in place.
Water has always been the architect of life in Colorado. Communities have worked within the availability, demands, and constraints of water to engineer lives and livelihoods. Water designs our lives as much by its availability as it does by scarcity—perhaps even more. In 2013, the State of Colorado recognized the impending impacts of rising populations, increasing demand across the state and the West, and a changing climate, then-Governor John Hickenlooper called for a plan to address these issues. He directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board—the government entity tasked with conserving, developing, protecting and managing the state’s water—to work with diverse stakeholders and develop Colorado’s first water plan. You can learn more about the Plan from Episode 6 in our podcast series.
In some ways, Colorado’s Water Plan articulated and formalized ways to meet the needs of agriculture, land use, and storage that were already in place. But it also did something else: for the first time, the Colorado Water Plan called for the consideration and integration of environmental and recreational flow needs. This decision came from growing recognition of the critical role rivers play in local economies, and the immense ecosystem services that healthy, functioning rivers and streams provide for all values—human and environmental. With this in mind, the Water Plan outlined a goal of inspiring community-driven development of Stream Management Plans for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers and streams.
In the first episode of this miniseries, we hear from Nicole Seltzer, Science and Policy Manager of River Network, who talks us through the fundamentals of the stream management planning process. Holly Loff, Executive Director of Eagle River Watershed Council, shares on-the-ground experiences of a community planning effort along the Eagle River, and Chelsea Congdon-Brundige, a watershed consultant in the Roaring Fork Valley, shares her highlights from a similar but unique effort for the Crystal River.
As you’ll hear in the podcast, a critical component of Stream Management Planning is the diversity of stakeholders and interests at the table; the important and foundational role of science; and the way each Plan is unique to the community that builds it. SMP’s (as they’re often referred to) are really more about process than a final product, and the greatest win is the long-lasting trust inspired through tough but important conversations across values. SMPs aren’t designed to prioritize any one interest, but instead to bring agriculture, the environment, municipal needs, and recreation alongside one another for the best possible solutions for all.
If you’re inspired by this first Episode, and we suspect you will be, make sure to tune in for part 2 (coming 6/1/20) . We’ll hear from some of the same voices and from new ones from the Rio Grande Basin – including Heather Dutton with the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Emma Reesor with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project – about the groundbreaking and inspiring ways communities are working together to plan for the future of the rivers and streams that bind them, and all of us, together. Join us – and listen in today!
Here’s a guest column from Al Pfister that’s running in The Pagosa Sun:
We are living in an age where we are facing drier and warmer times ahead. While we have had a few wet years over the past two decades, looking over that entire time span, we have been in a drought. We are currently in a severe drought with gradually worsening conditions in southern Colorado over the past few months. This scenario is believed to be a foreshadowing of our future.
The Colorado Water Plan, completed in December 2015, recognized these conditions and outlined numerous strategies to guide all water users in collaboratively addressing our challenging water future.
One of those strategies was the development of stream management plans (SMPs). SMPs are intended to compile a community’s understanding of a watershed’s collective environmental, recreational, agricultural and municipal water needs, identifying information gaps, and promoting projects and processes that meet those needs and gaps.
In 2018, community representatives formed a group, now called the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), to better understand current and future local water use and needs through the Colorado Water Plan’s SMP process. Funding for this local effort is provided by the state through Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), Southwest Basin Roundtable, San Juan Water Conservancy District, Archuleta County, Town of Pagosa Springs, Banded Peak Ranch and numerous other partners.
Envisioned as a three-phase process, the ultimate purpose of this effort to explore opportunities to conserve the Upper San Juan Basin streams and their uses with wide-ranging community support and decisions based on local input and current science and assessments. In order to ensure a broad representation of the community’s interests are brought forward and maintained through the process, a steering committee was formed. Representatives of agricultural, environmental, recreational, and municipal water users, private landowners, business owners, and local government comprise the steering committee.
While forming the steering committee and informing stakeholders about this endeavor, the local water users decided to call it the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership to recognize the voluntary and collaborative nature of this effort. Phase I, just completed, of this effort entailed formation of the steering committee and outreach to stakeholders, identification of our community’s collective values on issues, opportunities and the geographic scope of the WEP. Funding for Phase II has been obtained and is now awaiting formal approval from the CWCB in order to proceed with implementation.
Phase II will focus on assessing the environmental, recreational, and agricultural structural water needs and values of our community. We will be working with partners, San Juan Conservation District and Lotic Hydrological, to evaluate current and future water needs via community input and scientific analysis. Our goal is to complete an assessment that can prioritize projects and processes to meet those needs. This assessment will inform the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan that lists goals, potential projects and actions in Phase III, as determined by the local community.
In order to accurately assess and identify projects that align with local values and needs, the WEP is again asking for community input throughout Phase II. To help the WEP and our partners better understand environmental, recreational and agricultural structure needs this year, our partners will be working directly with ditch companies, land owners, governmental agencies, as well as providing updates to the general public throughout the process. We greatly appreciate your involvement and input, helping our communities in the San Juan River Basin better prepare and secure our water future.
If Colorado decides to join in an historic Colorado River drought protection effort, one that would require setting aside as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, can it find a fair way to get the work done? A way that won’t cripple farm economies and one which ensures Front Range cities bear their share of the burden?
That was one of the key questions more than 100 people, citizen volunteers and water managers, addressed last week as part of a two-day meeting in Denver to continue exploring whether the state should participate in the effort. The Lake Powell drought pool, authorized by Congress last year as part of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, would help protect Coloradans if the Colorado River, at some point in the future, hits a crisis point, triggering mandatory cutbacks.
But finding ways to set aside that much water, the equivalent of what roughly 1 million people use in a year at home, is a complex proposition. The voluntary program, if created, would pay water users who agree to participate. And it would mean farmers fallowing fields in order to send their water downstream and cities convincing their customers to do with less water in order to do the same. The concept has been dubbed “demand management.”
Among the key issues discussed at the joint Interbasin Compact Committee and demand management work group confab last week is whether there is a truly equitable way to fill the drought pool that doesn’t disproportionately impact one region or sector in the state.
In addition, a majority of participants reported that they wanted any drought plan to include environmental analyses to ensure whichever methods are selected don’t harm streams and river habitat.
Some pointed to the need to identify “tipping points” when reduced water use would create harmful economic effects in any given community, and suggested that demand management be viewed as a shared responsibility.
Flipping the narrative of shared responsibility, participants said sharing benefits equally was important as well. They want to ensure that people selected to participate would do so on a time-limited basis, so that a wide variety of entities have the opportunity to benefit from the payments coming from what is likely to be a multi-million-dollar program.
“People are starting to get it,” said Russell George. George is a former lawmaker who helped create the 15-year-old public collaborative program which facilitates and helps negotiate issues that arise among Colorado’s eight major river basins and metro area via basin roundtables. He chairs the Interbasin Compact Committee, composed of delegates from those roundtables.
“It’s understood that we have to be fair about this and we have to share [the burden] or it won’t work. I think we’re making great progress,” George said.
The Colorado River is a major source of the state’s water, with all Western Slope and roughly half of Front Range water supplies derived from its flows.
But growing populations, chronic drought and climate change pose sharp risks to the river’s ability to sustain all who depend on it. The concept behind the drought pool is to help reduce the threat of future mandatory cutbacks to Colorado water users under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The public demand management study process, facilitated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has caused concern among different user groups, including farmers. Because growers consume so much of the state’s water, they worry that they are the biggest target for water use reductions, which could directly harm their livelihoods if the program isn’t implemented carefully and on a temporary basis.
In early 2019 the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin—agreed for the first time to a series of steps, known as the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, to help stave off a crisis on the river.
And while Lower Basin states have already begun cutting back water use in order to store more in Lake Mead, the four Upper Basin states are still studying how best to participate to shore up Lake Powell. For the drought pool program to move forward, all four states would need to agree and contribute to the pool. George pointed to Colorado as a leader among the four states, saying it would likely be responsible for contributing as much as 250,000 acre-feet to the pool.
“We appreciate the focus, dedication and collaboration of our work group members,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell in a statement. “This workshop was the next step in sharing ideas for Colorado’s water future, and positioning our state as a national leader for cooperative problem solving.”
The eight major volunteer work groups, addressing such topics as the law, the environment, agriculture and water administration, will continue meeting throughout the year, with a mid-point report based on their findings to date due out sometime this summer.
Travis Smith, a former CWCB board member from Del Norte who is now participating on the agriculture work group, said he is hopeful that the work groups will be able to come up with a plan the public will endorse. Any final plan will likely have to be approved by Colorado lawmakers.
“Coming together to address Colorado’s water future is something we’ve been practicing through the [nine river basin roundtables] for years. Will we get there? Absolutely,” Smith 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.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Attention K-12 teachers in the Gunnison River Basin – NEW financial assistance for water education now available (for example: bring your students to the Eureka Science Museum in Grand Junction). Please visit our website for more information.
To ensure that they don’t develop beyond the limits of their water supply, Riley says [Woodland Park] has closely integrated its land-use decisions with local water conservation and efficiency goals that align with the Colorado Water Plan.
A new bill at the Colorado Capitol hopes to encourage more local governments to do the same. House Bill 1095 says that if a community identifies it will need more water to grow, it should also include conservation measures for its existing supply.
“In a state that hates mandates, this is a gentle nudge for communities to make sure they are planning for the future when it comes to water,” said state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat who is bringing the bill.
The Colorado Water Plan five years ago set the goal that by 2025, 75% of Coloradans will live in communities that have incorporated water-saving actions into land-use planning.
Currently, 24 communities have completed the Sonoran Institute’s Growing Water Smart Training, a leading program that helps communities integrate land use planning and water conservation efforts, said Sara Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Leonard estimates that 15 to 20 more communities have participated in similar workshops, but many more would need to take part in order to meet the state’s goal…
HB20-1095 would also make permanent a temporary, partially grant-funded position in the Department of Local Affairs that assists local governments in integrating water conservation in their land use planning — though there is currently no money allocated in the bill to support the position.
“Historically, water resource planning and land-use planning have been implemented on parallel tracks. By separating these planning areas into different silos, the impacts from each on the other are not fully addressed,” Leonard said.
“With a growing population in Colorado, it is imperative to synchronize land and water planning to help planners to better understand the impact of new growth and redevelopment on future water demand in our urban areas.”
Today, Woodland Park has added dozens of regulations and ordinances into its zoning and building codes that focus on water conservation. It also limits the number of houses that can be built each year by setting a cap for how many new taps can be installed.
What the bill would do –– and what it wouldn’t
One of a dozen water bills introduced this session, ranging from water well inspections to fee exemptions, House Bill 1095 requires that if a local government’s comprehensive plan includes a water supply element, it must also include conservation policies.
A comprehensive plan is an advisory document that outlines long-term goals for community development, and often includes guidelines for things like transportation, utilities, land use, environmental protection, recreation and housing.
But comprehensive plans are not regulatory documents.
These conservation policies may include “goals specified in the state water plan, and may also include policies to implement water conservation and other state water plan goals as a condition of development approval, including subdivisions, planned unit developments, special use permits, and zoning changes,” the bill says.
Though state statute requires every municipality or county in Colorado to have a comprehensive plan, it doesn’t require them to include water element. But if it does, water conservation measures must be added the first time the plan is amended after the bill takes effect, but no later than July 1, 2025.
Gretel Follingstad, a Colorado-based land use planner and consultant who specializes in water resource management, said the language in the bill makes the recommendations “optional” and minimizes the bill’s potential impact.
“If you really want a strong policy around water, and you really want the state water plan goals to come to fruition, you need a will, not a may,” she said. “Because otherwise communities won’t do it if they don’t have the funding for it or they don’t have the political will, or if they don’t feel like they have a problem.”
But just by adding water into the local comprehensive plans, it’s changing the conversation, she said.
“We can’t change the fact that Colorado uses water districts as water suppliers and that those water districts are separate entities from their community,” Follingstad said. “All we can do is to teach the community planners that water is not infinite.”
In July, the Colorado Water Conservation Board released a technical analysis and update to the state’s supply and demand projections. The update examined water supply under five scenarios, with the two biggest drivers for water supply gaps being population growth and a warming climate.
The scenarios project that municipal and industrial water users may see water supply gaps ranging from 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet by 2050. Approximately one acre-foot can support the needs of two families of four to five people a year, according to the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University.
“It’s unlikely that conservation efforts can completely close the gap,” Arndt said. “But it can certainly help.”
Colorado Counties Inc., which lobbies on behalf of the state’ county governments, testified at the bill’s Feb. 3 hearing before the the House Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee that its members worry the measure could open the door to formal regulations…
Gervais also added that counties and local governments already have the authority to include water planning in their land-use planning process. A 1991 law requires water utilities with a demand of greater than 2,000 acre-feet annually to have a water conservation plan.
“I’m glad we have that, but that’s not a substitute for a five- or 10-year visionary master plan,” Arndt said.
For Follingstad, comprehensive plans are crucial tools for communities envisioning the future. And that they can provide a policy framework for zoning and development regulations…
Avoiding the worst case scenario
Even though the bill doesn’t give local governments more authority, advocates hope it helps bring water conservation into the land-use conversation at the beginning of the community planning process, not the end.
“So, basically, utilities have been expected to come up with a supply to meet the demands,” Follingstad said.
“But when you insert population growth that’s beyond the capacities of many watersheds and water systems, and you insert climate change, which is making water, especially in the West, especially in Colorado because of the Colorado River compact, much more scarce — that’s not a sustainable system.”
Follingstad helped create the Growing Water Smart handbook — a guidebook that helps local governments integrate water conservation measures into their land use planning.
Since 2017, Colorado’s Water Conservation Board has worked with the Sonoran Institute and Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy to host Growing Water Smart workshops in communities across Colorado. The next workshop is May 6-8 in Breckenridge.
The training focuses on reducing the demand for water by utilizing three key strategies: decreasing water use by modifying consumption behaviors; using technology and optimizing building or site designs to use less water; and increasing water recycling.
She says Colorado lags behind other states in terms of integrating water conservation into land use plans. And that lack of governmental guidance has created a false sense of security for some communities.
“Everybody has to do something in order to create sustainability,” she said. “And this is a way of making sure that towns and communities across Colorado, No. 1, understand that there is a state water plan and that the goals in that plan are real and serious and have consequences. And two, that there is a way at the local level that they can make a difference.”
If signed into law, the bill would take effect on Aug. 5.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado Water Leaders Gather for Annual Water Congress Convention
On January 29 – 31, the Colorado Water Congress hosted its annual convention in Westminster, where hundreds of attendees discussed the biggest water issues facing Colorado this year. The Colorado Water Conservation Board moderated a variety of workshops and panels – covering the ongoing Demand Management Feasibility Investigation, Instream Flow Recommendations, Stream Management Plans, Water Conservation and Efficiency, Agriculture, Climate Change, and updates on the Colorado Water Plan.
Policy priorities for the 2020 Colorado legislative session.
Colorado lawmakers returned to the Capitol on January 8th to kick off the 2020 legislative session. Even before bills were introduced, it was clear that the General Assembly will wrangle with issues that will touch every corner of the state and impact the daily lives of Coloradans. Water is one of these key issues.
Despite the optimism from a snowy December, Colorado’s snowpack is now starting to fall closer to average. Although Colorado is perched at 108 percent average snowpack statewide, much of the West Slope remains in drought conditions. With enough snowpack, flurries will melt and become flows for healthy rivers that support all of us. But as water supplies are becoming more unpredictable, sharing a limited water supply—statewide—between urban, rural, agriculture, industry, environmental and recreational needs is the challenge at hand.
Audubon Rockies is working with lawmakers and partners to prioritize water security for people, birds, and the healthy rivers that we all depend upon. Colorado’s birds and people cannot thrive unless our rivers do too. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon Rockies in the 2020 Colorado legislative session.
Funding Colorado’s Water Plan
Water security for Coloradans, birds, and rivers begins with implementing the state Water Plan. In the light of climate change and booming population growth, Colorado’s Water Plan, finalized in 2015, aims to ensure a sufficient supply of water for the various users across the state including environmental, agricultural, municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. Implementing Colorado’s Water Plan is projected to cost $3 billion in total, or $100 million a year over the next 30 years.
In November 2019, voters approved Proposition DD to legalize sports betting and a 10% tax on these casino revenues which will result in an estimated $12 million to $29 million annually, the majority of which will go toward the Water Plan. Proposition DD is expected to generate more than $7 million in new tax revenue for the Colorado Water Plan in 2020, a significant bump up from past funding sources.
At this point, it is not clear how the state will spend these dollars given the various priorities and the considerable Water Plan funding gap. The language in DD was vague and will need refinement and transparency. Stakeholders and lawmakers will likely explore options with the legislature to guide how DD funds are spent on Water Plan implementation.
Audubon will advocate for spending that supports healthy rivers for the birds and people that depend on them, as we support a fully funded Water Plan.
Supporting the Colorado River
In 2019, the Drought Contingency Plan was adopted by the upper and lower Colorado River basin states. One of next steps for Colorado and the other upper basin states is to investigate the feasibility of a demand management program. The Water Resources Review Committee recommended SB20-024 to create a robust public engagement process similar to the development of the Water Plan before adopting any rules or recommendations regarding demand management. While public input is nearly always a positive, this process seems to get ahead of the process established by the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) demand management workgroup. Audubon is monitoring SB20-024.
With Colorado’s water supply becoming more unpredictable and valuable, particularly on the West Slope, concerns were raised by the Water Resources Review Committee to address anti-speculation. Specifically, concerns were raised that agricultural water rights are being sold to entities with no real interest in farming or ranching in Colorado that are holding those rights for future, more profitable transactions. SB20-048, Study Strengthening Water Anti-Speculation Law, would create a working group to explore ways to strengthen anti-speculation laws and report its findings and recommendations to the committee next year. Audubon is in favor of SB20-48 to keep Colorado’s water out of the hands of risky transactions. We need to support our agricultural heritage and the habitats our working landscapes provide.
For the second year, Colorado lawmakers will see the return of two similar bills attempting to expand the instream flow program. Since 1973, the instream flow program has given the CWCB the unique ability to hold instream flow rights—water rights with the sole purpose of preserving the natural environment by remaining in streams or lakes. First, HB20-1037, Augmentation of Instream Flows, is essentially a rerun from last year with key benefits for the Cache la Poudre River near Fort Collins. The bill permits the CWCB to use water for instream flow purposes, if the water has been decreed for augmentation without seeking a further change of use in water court. (Augmentation water restores water uses that are out of priority.) This would create a new pool of water, with lower administrative costs, which could be available for instream use.
The second bill, HB20-1157, Loaned Water For Instream Flows To Improve Environment, looks to expand the existing instream flow loan program. Under the current law the instream flow loan program allows water right holders to loan water for three years out of a 10-year period to the CWCB to preserve water for rivers where there is an existing instream flow water right. The current program participation is not renewable.
HB20-1157 looks to expand the instream flow loan program by increasing the years of participation from three to five years in a ten-year period, and allow for two additional ten-year renewal periods. It also supports greater notification to local water users, provides for an expedited process to address water-short river emergencies, and adds a longer term procedure for loaning water to instream flow decreed river segments for improvement of the environment. The instream flow loan program is completely voluntary and allows greater flexibility for the water right holder to use their property right in a beneficial way.
In 2019, a similar bill to HB20-1157 passed the House of Representatives only to die in Senate Committee. Perceptions around the potential impacts to soil health from fallowed fields and on historical irrigation return flows from leaving water in stream rather than applying it on the land may have caused the bill to fail. With robust engagement and input from Audubon, partners, stakeholders and the Colorado Water Congress over the past year, bill sponsors are more optimistic for successful instream flow loan expansion in 2020.
Audubon supports multiple tools in the toolbox to support healthy rivers, agriculture, and economies. HB20-1157 and HB20-1037 bring greater flexibility and beneficial options for rivers and water right holders.
Here’s a guest column from the White River Conservation District that’s running in The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:
The State of Colorado adopted the Colorado Water Plan in 2016. The Plan proposes to create a water management roadmap to achieve a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment and a robust recreation industry. Specific to protecting and enhancing stream flows, the plan calls for 80% of locally prioritized rivers to be covered by Stream Management Plans (SMP) by 2030.
Through this effort, locally-led groups are encouraged to develop plans that will help meet the above 80% goal. The Water Plan initially encouraged only SMPs using biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data to assess the flows or other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values.
However, experience across the State has shown the need to incorporate a more holistic approach including consumptive uses (agriculture, municipalities, energy, etc.). These types of plans are often called an Integrated Water Management Plan (IWMP). The local community is encouraged to determine what they want to accomplish and then find the right planning effort to help them achieve their goals.
The White River and Douglas Creek Conservation districts embarked on an effort in 2019 to identify what local needs can be met through the development of a plan and to determine community support for this effort. The districts are working with a Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) made up of 16 individuals representing agriculture, municipalities, industry, environment, recreation and land/water right holders. The committee is well balanced geographically within Rio Blanco County and members have strong knowledge of water rights, water quality and quantity concerns, water planning efforts, and local customs and cultures.
During December, district staff conducted approximately 25 interviews of local citizens identified by the committee. Questions developed by the committee were used for the interviews. The information gathered from the interviews are being used to develop a starting point for the much broader discussion within the community during January…
More information on the process and Planning Advisory Committee is available on the districts’ website at http://www.whiterivercd.com. Please contact the district office at 970-878-9838 with any questions. We look forward to your input.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Demand Management – a Hot Topic!!
There was an in-depth conversation around the Demand Management topic!
Celene Hawkins stated that the Demand Management workgroups are just at the beginning stages of work and there are still many questions. There is a greater need for coordination and keeping a steady pace of the work, while not moving too quickly so as to not miss things, as these are very complicated issues and need to take that time that is needed to do the work. There will be a joint IBCC and Demand Management work-group meetings that will take place March 4-5 where discussion could take place about that better coordination and how the CWCB can support the work-groups moving forward.
Russell George stated that the IBCC is not a work-group in Demand Management, they intentionally stand aside because they wanted to be ready as the IBCC to pick any particularly thorny question with the statewide implication that needed their help. The IBCC believes that at this point in time, and because of what’s going on with the river as a whole and the water levels of the big reservoirs, Demand Management becomes probably one of the most important issues for discussion on Colorado water issues that there is today. George explained that we owe it to the other Upper Basin states who are going through this drill, to work together to find an approach that works in all four states or to learn together that Demand Management can’t be done. Whatever conclusion is reached, it needs to be based on open and careful consideration of Demand Management as a tool that is being evaluated, as called for in the Drought Contingency Plans and Legislation.
Conservation Colorado, which has offices across the state to help organize citizen activism and engagement, will be hosting “Securing Our Water Future,” from 6 – 8 p.m., Thurs., Jan. 23, at 4Corners Riversports. The goal of the event is to discuss what local residents and businesses can do to help curb water usage, build drought resilience and support the goals of the [Colorado Water Plan]. The meeting will be held in partnership with local members of the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance, which has 40 members in Southwest Colorado. In addition to free food and drinks, the evening will include an expert panel: Celene Hawkins, of the Nature Conservancy and Colorado Water Conservation Board; Marcie Bidwell, from the Mountain Studies Institute; and a representative from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“The point is not to shame people for their water use,” Goodman said. “Instead, we will present more efficient irrigation strategies and programs.” Goodman said the biggest hurdle to implementing the state’s water plan right now is money. It’s estimated that putting the plan into action will require $100 million a year – which might seem like a lot but is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the state’s other budget items, he said. State legislators are currently looking at adding $10 million to next year’s budget toward the plan, and the recently passed Proposition DD, which legalized sports betting, will add about another $10 million a year (that number will be significantly less in its first year of implementation).
Goodman said he hopes next week’s meeting, in addition to providing a dialogue, will spur local citizens to get active and encourage their representatives to fund the water plan.
“This is a good starting point, our legislators need to know this matters to us and to make it a reality,” he said. “As great as the water plan is, if we don’t have money behind it, we won’t see results.”
Here’s a guest column from Andy Mueller that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
At the Colorado River District, we are working to ensure that whatever the future holds, there’s water on the West Slope to support our way of life.
Whether you grow food, rely on clean water from your kitchen tap, or recreate on our rivers, the River District is working to develop every tool possible to ensure that West Slope water users are represented and protected.
In fact, the District recently received a $315,000 “WaterSMART” grant, which we will use to analyze many of the risks that we face on the West Slope in an uncertain water future.
Despite the optimism from recent snowfall, Colorado is still amid a prolonged decline of flows in the Colorado River — and facing more variable weather conditions and snowpack with each passing year. When you combine that with growing population in the Colorado River basin, both in Colorado and downstream, we’re looking at an uncertain water supply.
Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are required to keep a certain amount of water flowing to states in the Lower Basin. But declining flows have signaled a risk to that obligation. And continued drought could mean water users in the Centennial State might have to reduce water use in the future without compensation in order to meet this compact commitment.
As part of a multi-state plan to avoid that, Colorado is exploring the feasibility of a program called demand management, which would pay farmers, industry and cities to voluntarily and temporarily reduce water use in order to bank it in reservoirs for use in preventing an uncompensated call. At the Colorado River District, we have concerns about whether such a program is advisable or necessary, but even as we seek answers to those concerns, others are looking at how such a program will be structured.
Right now, there are a lot of questions. As Colorado decides if and how demand management would be implemented, we want to advocate for rules that are the best possible for West Slope water users. We are studying the hypotheticals and talking to a broad set of water users to understand what might work in western Colorado.
The Colorado River District received its $315,000 WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a federal water planning program. We will be working with the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, The Nature Conservancy, Basin Roundtables, the state of Colorado and others to study risks to our water supply. Leveraging these federal funds and partnerships allows us to do more to protect West Slope water users.
Agricultural producers play a critical role in our local economies, whether it’s equipment repairs at a local mechanic or a ranch hand buying a burger at the local diner. Our main street businesses could see changes if farmers, even temporarily, aren’t farming.
To understand how our local economies might be affected by demand management, the River District is sponsoring a study of the potential secondary economic impacts that such a program could have on the businesses and communities that West Slope agriculture supports.
The grant will also fund the next phase of a multi-year study to understand the risk to Colorado’s water users if a call under the Colorado River Compact requires that we use less water. This study is designed to give us all an idea of what water rights might be curtailed by a compact call, giving water users across the West Slope a better idea of what could happen to their water.
Finally, the WaterSMART grant will help us bring West Slope water users together to understand how to create a program that makes sense for them. While we can’t get the thousands of water users in the Colorado River District in a room to decide what demand management should look like, we’ll be working with a broad cross-section of water users from different industries and communities in the district to do just that. We want to be sure that if demand management is implemented, it works for ranchers, towns, and rivers in western Colorado.
All these studies and conversations will give West Slope water users the information and tools they need to decide if they should take part in demand management. They will also better allow the Colorado River District to advocate for those users and protect water on the West Slope in an uncertain future.
Water managers from throughout the Colorado River Basin took the stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference earlier this month to talk about conserving water in the face of the twin threats to the river: increasing demand and climate change.
The state of Colorado is currently exploring a water-use-reduction program that is largely designed to pay farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope to voluntarily conserve water. While there’s still debate whether such a program should be implemented, the first question many ask is how to pay for such a program. In recent months, some water managers have come up with innovative ways to fund the controversial water-use-reduction plan — known as demand management — that wouldn’t rely entirely on taxpayers.
The drought contingency plan, which water leaders inked at last year’s annual CRWUA meeting, set up a reserve account of 500,000 acre-feet of water that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — could use to store water in Lake Powell as an insurance policy against dwindling reservoir levels.
In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition DD, which is projected to funnel roughly $16 million a year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB, by taxing sports betting. Demand management is one of the two things money from Proposition DD could fund (the other is Water Plan grants).
However, it’s widely accepted that $16 million is not enough to fund either of those things in their entirety. Demand management needs other sources of money.
Although the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District still isn’t convinced that a demand-management program is the right approach for the Western Slope, general manager Andy Mueller told the Las Vegas crowd that the Upper Basin has to reduce its water consumption — and explore creative solutions to accomplish that.
“I often talk about the Lower Basin overuse and how that’s driving the problem, and I will say they in the Lower Basin need to fix that problem,” Mueller said. “I will also say we in the Upper Basin … need to reduce our use. The science is pretty clear. Water we all thought was there even 15 years ago is not going be there. You can’t have water for the environment and the people if we are not reducing consumptive use throughout the basin.”
Who should pay?
So, if nearly all water users on the Colorado River, including those in the Lower Basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — would stand to benefit from a demand-management program, who should pay for it?
Not Colorado taxpayers, Mueller said, at least not entirely.
“Eighty million (dollars) a year would need to be out there in payments to get the appropriate amount of water in Lake Powell,” he said. “That cost to taxpayers is too high. So you turn to: Who else benefits from us creating a storage account in Lake Powell?”
One answer: power providers in both the Upper and Lower Basin states, who all need Lake Powell to remain above 3,525 feet, the minimum level required to continue generating hydropower. Some Upper Basin power cooperatives such as Western Area Power Administration, which sell power to local communities, including Aspen and Glenwood Springs, purchase hydropower generated at Lake Powell. Adding a small demand-management surcharge to customers’ bills is something that should be explored, Mueller said.
“Power customers should share in the costs of us storing for demand management,” Mueller said.
Another potential source of funds could be nonprofit environmental groups, since sending more water downstream to Lake Powell would also benefit stream health. The federal government, whose Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, also has a role to play, Mueller said.
But no matter where the money comes from, Mueller said it must be channeled through the CWCB in a heavily regulated market to prevent speculation by private buyers.
“We have been very clear it needs to be a guided market if it’s going to happen, with lots of thoughtful, proactive rules to prevent lots of serious consequences,” he said.
The CWCB currently has a workgroup devoted to exploring how to fund demand management. The group has met twice so far, but CWCB facilitator Anna Mauss said the two biggest questions the group is grappling with are these: how much water is needed and what would the cost be. The workgroup, she said, will dive deeper into funding strategies at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.
“We are baby-stepping into this, trying to be diligent,” Mauss said. “It’s really just looking at scenarios at this point.”
The state is also encouraging innovative ideas from the private sector. The CWCB recently awarded $72,000 to 10.10.10, a Colorado Nonprofit Development Center project that aims to tackle “wicked problems” in water and climate. Under the program, 10 entrepreneurs will, over 10 days, attempt to tackle 10 systemic issues that are not adequately addressed by government, organizations or institutions.
“Yes, we are looking at demand management, and it could be one of the wicked problems we address,” said Jeffrey Nathanson, president of 10.10.10.
Platform for payment?
While some people work on finding sources of funding, others are already creating a platform to pay irrigators once the money is in place. Southwest Colorado water managers Steven Ruddell and David Stiller think a reverse auction to compensate water users for using less is the best way to go.
A reverse auction, which features many sellers (farmers and ranchers) and one buyer (the state of Colorado through the CWCB), would allow water-rights holders to set the lowest price they are willing to accept to voluntarily send their water downstream. According to Ruddell and Stiller’s paper on the subject, a reverse auction would remove paying for demand management from a political process and move it into a market-based process that lets water-rights holders bid the fair-market value of their water. It would also keep costs down for the CWCB.
Ruddell and Stiller presented their reverse-auction idea at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University last month.
“We’ve tried to bite off a small piece of demand management by suggesting we use an auction that people are familiar with,” Ruddell said. “It’s used to determine the value of something, especially in the ag world.”
There are still many questions surrounding how a demand-management program might be paid for.
“There are all sorts of options,” Mueller said. “We shouldn’t just focus on raising taxes in our state.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Dec. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click here to view the Twitter hashtag #CRWUA2019 from the conference.
Saving water on the Colorado River system, funding the state water plan, and preserving more water for streams are expected to top lawmakers’ water agenda when the Colorado General Assembly begins its work Jan. 8
Saving Water on the Colorado River
Last May the seven Colorado River Basin states signed a drought contingency plan that requires the three lower basin states, Arizona, Nevada and California, to cut water use. It also gives the four upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — the option to create a large-scale water conservation program that would add more water to storage in Lake Powell. That water would be credited to the Upper Basin states and protect them from cutbacks if levels in Powell start to fall below those needed to generate power and to meet water delivery obligations to the Lower Basin. Colorado and other Upper Basin states are exploring whether such a conservation program, known as demand management, is feasible. Any water users who contributed to the new Powell storage account would do so voluntarily and would be paid for their participation.
Where would that water come from? Since irrigated agriculture is the largest user, most of it is likely to come from farmers and ranchers. That troubles Colorado Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, former manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association in southwest Colorado. “We’re still looking at agriculture as a living reservoir that we don’t have to build,” he says.
But Catlin sees “some shifting in the conversation” about sharing water cuts with East Slope communities, where there’s a growing recognition that “if it hurts western Colorado, it hurts the whole state.” That’s because East Slope urban water providers rely on transmountain diversions for much of their water supply. Denver Water, for example, counts on Colorado River imports for half its water. And since most of those rights are junior — acquired after the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed — the metro area, along with irrigators in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys that receive water via transmountain diversions, would also be affected by any cutbacks in Colorado River water deliveries. It is anticipated that those entities and regions would participate in conservation alongside West Slope irrigators.
While the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is now examining whether to create such a program, lawmakers this year will consider a bill that would require CWCB to involve the public and the state’s nine river basin roundtables in developing a demand management program. Although CWCB would have final say, it would have to submit any draft program to the Water Resources Review Committee and consider its feedback.
Funding Colorado’s Water Plan
Implementing Colorado’s Water Plan is projected to cost $3 billion over the next 30 years, or $100 million annually. The CWCB and the General Assembly have provided some funding for the water plan, but those amounts cover only a fraction of the water plan’s estimated costs.
Enter Proposition DD, approved by voters in November. It legalizes sports betting and assesses a 10 percent tax on casinos’ net proceeds. The state can collect up to $29 million per year, with more than 90 percent of that going into a newly created Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund run by CWCB. Experience with sports betting in other states suggests that no more than $16 million in tax revenue will be generated annually, and during the first year just $7 million is expected.
Lawmakers are expected to discuss options giving them some say in how CWCB allocates that revenue, but those talks may not result in legislation this year.
Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a member of the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) and prime sponsor of the general fund water appropriations last year, does not expect Proposition DD to affect JBC’s water plan funding recommendations this year. Last year, for the first time, lawmakers approved $10 million in general fund money for the water plan. But Rankin cautions that appropriating another $10 million in general funds to support water plan implementation and demand management development will depend on how revenue forecasts shake out.
Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, said he plans to introduce a bill that would expand the existing instream flow loan program. Under current law, a water right holder can loan water to the CWCB to further preserve water for rivers on stream segments where the board already holds an instream flow water right. The loan may be exercised for no more than three years in a single 10-year period. Roberts’ bill would increase the number of years the loan could be exercised from three to five, and allow for two additional 10-year periods.
The proposed bill is similar to one that passed the House of Representatives but was defeated in Senate committee last year. Opposition to that bill centered on the potential impact on historical irrigation return flows from leaving water in the stream rather than applying it on the land, the effects on soils fallowed for long periods, and the tight comment period allotted after a loan application is filed in which opponents can make their case. Those issues were discussed during the interim session, but the Water Resources Review Committee took no action.
Roberts says that recommendations developed by a Colorado Water Congress working group to provide water right holders with more opportunities to comment and protect downstream users will be incorporated into the new bill. With those changes, he’s optimistic that “we have arrived at a place where more of the water community feels comfortable with the program’s expansion.”
The Water Resources Review Committee recommended three other bills for consideration this session. One would address water speculation, with concerns raised that agricultural water rights are being sold to entities with no real interest in farming that are holding those rights for future, profitable transactions. The bill would create a working group to explore ways to strengthen anti-speculation laws and report its findings and recommendations to the committee next year.
Another bill would task the University of Colorado and Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center with studying new technologies to improve monitoring, management, conservation, and trading of water rights and report back to the committee in 2021.
The final bill would increase the number of state water well inspectors and require rulemaking to help the state engineer identify high-risk wells for inspection.
And although no legislation has yet been drafted, Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Wolcott, said she anticipates discussion of how to better dovetail water planning with land use development to ensure large new communities have sustainable water supplies.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at http://www.wateredco.org.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Here are a few of the reasons 2019 was a year to
CELEBRATE in the Gunnison River Basin
Year of plenty with full reservoirs & ditches!
The Gunnison Basin Roundtable had another successful year in their continued support of water users, water education and through management of grants for important projects from headwaters to mouth.
Completion of significant water use efficiency improvements within the Lower Gunnison Basin Project.
Blue Mesa played a huge role in meeting flow targets in the critical reaches while providing full supply to irrigators; Taylor Park, Paonia, Crawford & Ridgway Reservoirs met both human & environmental needs. as well.
Major agreements were signed benefiting not only our basin but all of the much larger Colorado River Basin as evidenced by the Drought Contingency Plan, approved by all seven basin states & Congress helping to ensure that we keep our eye on the prize – healthy Lake Powell & Lake Mead levels to maintain vital hydropower generation & compact compliance for all.
And one more of the many reasons to celebrate, one of our own,- John McClow was named Aspinall Water Leader of the Year.
When Colorado voters OK’d Proposition DD last month, they were told sports betting would deliver millions in tax revenue toward solving the state’s water problems.
But a new analysis from the Polis administration shows that likely won’t happen in the first full year of wagering.
The Division of Gaming expects sports betting, which starts in Colorado in May, to generate between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in tax revenue in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins on July 1. That amount isn’t enough to reach the threshold under which funds would be transferred to water projects.
The projection is wildly different from what state lawmakers anticipated when they put the measure on the November ballot. In fact, it’s about the same amount the Colorado General Assembly’s fiscal analysts projected would be generated in the first two months of sports betting.
The annual revenue expectation also is far less than the $16 million in tax revenue that legislative analysts forecast would be collected each year for the first five years of sports betting in Colorado. The state is authorized to collect up to $29 million in sports betting tax revenue annually under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights…
The Division of Gaming’s estimates were presented Thursday to the Joint Budget Committee as it prepared to draft the $30 billion-plus spending plan for the coming fiscal year. And members of the panel expressed concern…
It’s likely that enough tax revenue will be generated in future years to go toward the water plan, but how much water managers can expect appears lower overall given the latest projections by the gaming division. Proponents of sports betting are bullish that tax revenue figures will rise once the industry matures in Colorado, though they admit initial estimates were likely too high.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue, which oversees the Division of Gaming, noted “that all of these numbers are still projections.” She added that the department has been consistently conservative in its assumptions about sports betting revenue when speaking with lawmakers and legislative analysts…
One reason revenue projections are lower: The gaming division doesn’t believe the state’s casinos, which will operate sports betting, will be willing to pay the $125,000 per license — which would have to be renewed every two years — to offer wagering as originally projected. Instead, gaming officials think that the most they could reasonably charge for a license fee would be $40,000 and possibly much less, according to a memo presented to the JBC on Thursday.
Because the cost to implement sports betting is expected to exceed the tax revenue generated in the first months, it could actually end up costing taxpayers money.
If that deficit were to happen, the Joint Budget Committee would likely ask the Department of Revenue to dig into its pockets to cover the difference. The funds could, however, ultimately have to come out of the legislature’s discretionary fund, which goes toward paying for things like transportation and education…
The division’s revenue estimates came after the agency gathered 75 people representing gambling companies and operators from around the world to help create its rules around sports betting. The agency also visited other states where sports betting has been legalized, like New Jersey, to better understand how to implement the wagering in Colorado and what to expect.
Once the proceedings were underway, Wayne Schwab of the Trinchera Irrigation Company recognized Emma Reesor, Vice-Chair of the Roundtable, for being named “Basin Hero” for the Rio Grande Basin by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Later, Bethany Howell of the Rio Grande Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative gave a funding request preview to add a staff position to the Public Education and Public Outreach (PEPO) program in the Basin. Howell pointed out that PEPO is becoming increasingly important because there is a growing lack of local and statewide water knowledge and a lack of communication between various entities that have the potential to collaborate. Also, she mentioned that PEPO could promote the work in the Basin along with highlighting “cutting edge” projects such as the new Doppler Radar System. Howell’s final presentation and the request will come at the January meeting.
Following Howell’s remarks, Virginia Christensen of the Terrace Irrigation Company also gave a funding preview and request. The Terrace Irrigation Company is seeking to replace diversions that makeup its canal system in 2020. Upon approval, the project anticipated to improve the administration of the system’s water along with numerous other benefits.
This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent western water plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.
The production cycle of the Colorado Water Plan is a three-phase process, which involves regional engagement and project planning through basin roundtables and Basin Implementation Plans; statewide modeling, published in the Technical Update, and the publication of a comprehensive statewide plan. Not all states directly involve regional groups in state water plan development. Within the five Western water plans researched for this series, two states mandated the production of a high-level statewide policy document; while three states, including Colorado, mandated a regional or “basin” planning effort to inform statewide processes.
These approaches can be described as “top-down” and “bottom-up.” A top-down approach produces a water plan entirely directed and developed through state agencies, with designated periods for public comment. The final product of a top-down approach, exemplified by the California and Oregon state water plans, is described by state agencies as a high-level policy plan. In contrast, a bottom-up approach is rooted in the recruitment of regional planning groups. These groups develop unique basin plans that directly inform the content and directives of the state water plan. Examples of this planning approach include Colorado, Montana and Texas. The product of a regional approach constitutes multiple products: multiple basin plans and a single comprehensive state water plan. This idea is embodied in the figure below, which features Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtable boundaries.
A legacy of collaboration
The choice to pursue one strategy or another is rooted in the history of each states’ water governance, as well as contemporary policy and budgetary requirements. The Colorado Water Plan’s mandate for regional planning directly builds on the legacy of the basin roundtable process. The basin roundtable process was established in 2005 by the passage of House Bill 05-1177, “Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act.” This bill codified a deeply collaborative approach to addressing regional water concerns and visions for the future. This legislation also established the Interbasin Compact Committee to operate as a statewide forum for basin roundtables. The success of these volunteer groups directly informed the engagement efforts mandated in the 2013 gubernatorial executive order that called for the production of Colorado’s first statewide water plan.
Trends across Western water plans: expanding regional engagement, water education, and data accessibility
Regardless of the degree of regional authorship within a state water planning process, there is interest across Western state water plans in investing in locally identified water projects. For example, documents associated with California’s most recent “2018 Update” underscore a state interest in funding regional priorities. The report “Funding Mechanism Inventory and Evaluation” identifies watershed or river basin assessments as a potential vehicle for the state of California to fund locally-identified management actions.
This trend in regional engagement is concurrent with an effort to expand water education programming and water policy accessibility. To this end, state water plans including Texas, California, and Colorado have developed (or are currently developing, in the case of Colorado!) interactive online components that will accompany their water plans. While the 2019 Utah Water Plan was not explicitly examined for this blog series, it will notably prioritize a new webpage interface over traditional printing.
Recently published Western state water plans reflect an increasing emphasis on data transparency and accessibility, as well as state planning processes that better integrate stakeholder and regional perspectives into state water policy.
Hannah O’Neill is a graduate student at CU-Boulder studying environmental policy and western water management. Hannah is a fifth generation Coloradan and Denver native, who has a professional background in fossil exploration and National Environmental Policy Act compliance. Hannah obtained a BS in Geology-biology from Brown University in 2014.
From Water Education Colorado (Hannah O’Neill, Bianca Valdez and Jakki Davison):
This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent western water plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.
State water plans account for contemporary water resource challenges, detail supply projections and future demands, and catalyze community discussions around cooperative management. How does the Colorado Water Plan—both the final document and the planning processes involved—compare to other Western states?
As we approach the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan (set to begin in 2020, per the schedule outlined in the 2015 water plan), this blog series will explore a diversity of water planning processes. There are currently 17 U.S. states with water plans. Here, we explore five Western state plans that were all published in the last five years: Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Texas and California.
What’s in a water plan?
State water plans identify current water demands, project future water supply, and explore potential water projects that will close the gap between projections of future needs and availability. Every state water plan is unique and is largely rooted in the political context of an individual state. Creating a state water plan involves an enormous amount of stakeholder engagement and number crunching in order to understand statewide trends in population, climate and hydrology; articulate state and regional values with regards to water consumption and diversion; and identify both broad regional goals and local water projects to meet those goals.
Unique Western states; unique water resource challenges
Importantly, the states featured in this blog series represent two different legal frameworks in how water rights are administered: Colorado, Oregon and Montana operate under prior appropriation, while Texas and California operate under a dual regime of riparian rights and prior appropriation. Prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right,” allocates water based on the chronology of water diversions for “beneficial use,” or the public good. In contrast to prior appropriation, riparian rights governance associates the ownership of water rights with the ownership of land adjacent to water bodies. Proposed water policies and projects are fundamentally shaped by how water rights are defined; in this manner, the legal framework within a given state provides essential context for how planning processes are applied.
Each state planning process is informed by the state’s unique combination of legal doctrine of water governance, history of water planning and development, and current statewide priorities. Every state is working to meet unique planning and regulatory requirements in the implementation of water projects and programs; the discussion of differences within this blog series is not intended to imply differences in plan quality. Like any good policy, the water plans reviewed here all aim to keep pace with emergent environmental, social and fiscal needs.
In the following three blog posts, we will contrast distinguishing components of these five Western water plans in order to better understand the planning process in Colorado. The focus of our discussion will contrast various strategies for executing regional engagement, modeling future scenarios, and incorporating uncertainty; all across our five states of interest: Colorado, Texas, Montana, Oregon and California.
Our next post, to be published the week of December 2, 2019, will contrast regional engagement strategies across Western water plans.
This series was developed by Hannah O’Neill, Bianca Valdez, and Jakki Davison, three graduate students studying environmental policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Masters of the Environment program.
From the La Plata County Board of Commissioners via The Durango Herald:
The La Plata County Board of County Commissioners is seeking applicants to serve on the board of the Southwest Basin Roundtable.
There are nine basin roundtables in Colorado, each of which facilitates local discussion about water issues and encourages locally driven, collaborative solutions on interstate water issues and works with other roundtables on interbasin and interstate water issues.
Applicants with education and/or experience with local and state water concerns are preferred.
Term length is five years, and meetings are held quarterly, alternating between Durango and Cortez.
This position is advisory only and is not monetarily compensated.
The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.
The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.
On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.
The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.
But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.
“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”
McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.
The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.
But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.
“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”
No backup supply
During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.
Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.
“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”
To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.
In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River District abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.
To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.
“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.
In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.
“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”
The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.
While the ink was still drying on the final draft of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), policy makers in Colorado were turning their attention to the bigger challenge ahead.
With the agreement’s signing in May 2019, the state and its neighboring upper Colorado River Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were granted the ability to bank conserved water in Lake Powell and other upper basin reservoirs in case of a future water crisis—but only if the states agree on an upper basin demand management program. Getting all the parties on the Colorado River to agree to that so-called “drought pool” in Lake Powell was difficult, but designing the demand management program to get water into the pool will be much harder. Determining when to release water from the pool could also prove challenging.
Demand management is water conservation on such a large scale that it reduces the amount of water drawn from the river in a significant, measurable way. If the upper basin states develop a demand management program, they will collectively use less water, then track, deliver and bank those savings in upper basin reservoirs. That water could be sent downstream when flows are low to meet the upper basin’s commitment to the lower basin states and Mexico, as outlined under the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements.
The compact stipulates that the upper basin states must not deplete the flow of the river at Lee Ferry below 75 million acre-feet based on a 10-year running average. Although the upper basin is a long way from running out of water, if the future brings more dry years and low reservoir levels, as is projected, it will become increasingly difficult to send water downstream while still meeting upper basin water needs. If the lower basin does not receive its share of water, a legal battle could ensue, threatening water rights in the upper basin—so the upper basin complies with the compact to maintain control over its own water supply.
The DCP lays out processes for how this might be achieved but is only in effect through 2026, at which time the federal government, in consultation with all Colorado River Basin states, will reconsider how the system should be operated.
Exploring demand management is just one of the upper basin’s commitments under the DCP—the other two elements include a new plan to move water from smaller upper basin reservoirs to Lake Powell, and finally, water supply augmentation. As a whole, the upper basin’s DCP aims to maintain storage volumes at Lake Powell, enabling continued hydropower generation, thereby funding continued operation of the reservoir system and use of Colorado River water in the upper basin. But demand management could be part of the upper basin’s strategy. So work is underway to determine what demand management might look like, if a program is developed. “There are still a lot of big ifs,” said Brent Newman, the former interstate and federal section leader for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, during a presentation in August.
Newman was addressing about a dozen people gathered in the Summit County Library in Silverthorne for the first meeting of the Economic and Local Governments Working Group on demand management. The group of county commissioners, lawyers, consultants and utility managers will spend the next year identifying critical issues for the feasibility of a demand management program.
As the meeting closed, the group filled three large boards with sticky notes of questions and possible problems with demand management, issues to be hashed out in the coming months. Similar brainstorming sessions are playing out across the state in eight other working groups, each dedicated to exploring demand management from a different perspective, like agriculture and the environment. Simultaneously, each of the other upper basin states is also examining how it could approach demand management. Unless all four upper basin states agree, there will be no demand management program.
This massive planning effort from four different states will cost millions of dollars and require tough negotiations. And while each upper basin state is putting its best foot forward to create a plan, there is no guarantee that conditions will get bad enough that it will be needed. There’s also no guarantee that a demand management plan will be adopted—and even if adopted, will it be adopted in time to make a difference?
The DCP and Colorado
Over the last 20 years, the Colorado River has experienced extreme drought, unprecedented in modern history. Now, states throughout the West are planning for a future with less water, and for good reason—modeling shows an increasing likelihood of water shortage in the basin. According to Phase III of the Colorado River Risk Study, an effort completed in June 2019, the upper basin faces a 45 percent chance of a water shortage in the next 25 years at current water use levels. If upper basin water use increases by just 11.5 percent, that risk doubles, creating a 90 percent chance of coming up short, the study says. Instead of tumbling unprepared into shortage, representatives from the seven states that rely on the Colorado River created the DCP to stave off a future water crisis by readying for dry times.
The objective of the DCP, which is really two plans, one for the upper basin and one for the lower, is to prevent water in the river system and its two primary reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead —from dropping too low. Reaching these critical levels would trigger a crisis-level response in the region with some states taking significant reductions in their water allocations and some areas losing access to clean power due to the loss of production from the reservoirs’ hydroelectric dams. The revenue earned from hydropower contracts is used to fund conservation for rivers and programs like endangered fish recovery. The loss in funding would also limit the government’s ability to run the dams and distribute any water remaining in storage.
The lower basin’s DCP laid out cuts in lower basin water use that are tied to projected reservoir levels. But the upper basin is in a different position. Its DCP gives the upper basin tools to manage its water supply in case of shortage, which should help it meet its obligations under the 1922 compact and avoid involuntary cutbacks. The first of these tools, which is really the basin’s first line of defense in protecting Lake Powell’s storage levels, is a new mechanism to move water from upstream reservoirs down to Powell when Lake Powell is facing a critically low level, what is known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement. The second is a 500,000 acre-foot storage pool in upper basin reservoirs, which the basin can use to store water from a demand management program, if such a program is deemed feasible and adopted. The third, known as augmentation, which is already in use, is a combination of cloud seeding to stimulate precipitation, and the control of phreatophytes like tamarisk and Russian olive, which are deep-rooted non-native plants that soak up water from riverways.
Over the next several years, the upper basin will use these tools and determine whether to bank water for shortage. While the upper basin’s work is just beginning, it could shift the way water has been managed in the West for more than a century.
This possible shift matters to water users across Colorado, that’s why the scene of the demand management workgroup in Summit County yielded three boards covered in questions and concerns. The Colorado River starts as snow high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. In the spring, it melts down into a web of tributaries that flow across the upper basin states into the river’s mainstem. Each of the basin states relies heavily on water from the river, but Colorado, in particular, plays an outsized role in how the Colorado River water system works. Colorado snowmelt contributes about 70 percent of the total flow of the Colorado River.
But Colorado also gets the lion’s share of the upper basin’s water—it can use 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s allocation per the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948. Colorado’s average annual consumptive use of Colorado River water is about 2.5 million acre-feet, according to the Colorado River Risk Study. And though only about 20 percent of the state’s population lives in the greater Colorado River Basin—which in Colorado includes not only the Colorado Basin but all West Slope rivers such as the Gunnison, Yampa, White, San Juan, San Miguel, and other smaller tributaries—more than 570,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water is piped across the Continental Divide each year, reaching the Rio Grande, South Platte and Arkansas basins. More than 80 percent of the state’s population lives along the Front Range, where transbasin diversion water accounts for about 60 percent of water use. Users of Colorado River water range from municipalities to farmers to industrial users like oil and gas operations.
If a severe water shortage resulted in the upper basin not meeting its compact obligations, water rights across the state would be at risk of curtailment. Although no curtailment procedure has been decided upon, water rights adjudicated after 1922, the year the compact was signed, are often considered to be more at risk than pre-1922 rights. In Colorado, transbasin diversions serving the state’s population center constitute more than half of the state’s post-compact depletions, which means that Front Range municipal water users, though geographically disconnected from the Colorado, have an extreme interest in protecting the river and Lake Powell reservoir levels—thus in seeing the upper basin DCP succeed. If the actions in the upper basin’s DCP aren’t sufficient to protect reservoir levels in Lake Powell and if releases below Lee Ferry were too low and violated the compact, a compact deficit could result and lead to involuntary curtailment.
Drought Response Operations Agreement
Rather than a step-by-step plan, the upper basin’s DCP is all about process. The new elements of the DCP, the Drought Response Operations Agreement and demand management, are plans to create a plan if conditions warrant it. The plan first lays out strategies to maintain water levels in Lake Powell during a drought. If those operations are not enough, the agreement describes how water from the three federal storage projects in the upper basin—Fontenelle in Wyoming, Flaming Gorge in Wyoming and Utah, Navajo in New Mexico and Colorado, and the Aspinall Unit which is composed of Blue Mesa, Crystal and Morrow Point reservoirs in Colorado—could be used to bolster storage volumes in Lake Powell.
The agreement does not designate how much water will be sent downstream or specify which reservoir will make the release, it simply says those negotiations will begin once the Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study models indicate that Lake Powell might fall below the target elevation of 3,525 feet mean sea level.
The three reservoir units, along with Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, were authorized with the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) Act in 1956 to stabilize the upper basin’s water supply against variability in the Colorado River. Since the CRSP units were built, their water has been used to fulfill water rights throughout the upper basin, satisfy increasing water demand, and meet environmental standards for river flows. The U.S. Interior Secretary oversees the reservoirs and determines their operations every year.
While the original CRSP Act was designed with the idea of storing and releasing water to meet the compact agreements, it does not clarify the states’ roles in this process. By laying out this process in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the upper basin states and the federal government clarified how they would interact—hopefully avoiding future conflict—if reservoir releases become necessary to protect Lake Powell storage.
“But if we have 10 years of hydrology just like this [year], it may never come to pass”, says Amy Haas, the executive director and secretary of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
The agreement also sets ground rules for how those negotiations would play out. First, any water releases from the reservoirs would need to fit within the existing records of decision and biological opinions, including each reservoir’s existing environmental impact study in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Any reservoir releases also must come with a plan to refill the water that was released to Lake Powell once hydrological conditions improve. The agreement also stipulates that if a facility makes a release one year, the other two facilities will be considered first if further need arises, before tapping the same reservoir twice.
The Drought Response Operations Agreement is the first plan of attack for the upper basin in case of a shortage. While this could be executed without too much controversy, there are still some concerns with the agreement.
The first concern is that while the agreement places three of the upper basin’s federal water storage projects on the table for water releases, both the Aspinall Unit and Navajo Reservoir have very little additional water available each year. This puts a burden on Flaming Gorge as the reservoir most likely to make a release. The second issue is that, while all of the states’ attorney general’s offices call for actions taken under the Drought Response Operations Agreement to fit in existing NEPA permitting, some believe that a new environmental impact study under NEPA might be required before releases can be made to Lake Powell. Even with these issues, the Drought Response Operations Agreement is mostly uncontested. It’s the second element of the Upper Basin DCP—demand management—that could mark a paradigm shift in Western water law.
When people think of water conservation, they typically think of home-grown efforts to take shorter showers. But with a demand management program, the upper basin states would work collectively to use less water and bank those savings in Lake Powell or other CRSP reservoirs. If necessary, that water could be sent to the lower basin to comply with the compact. Although this may seem like a common-sense solution, it’s complicated by the laws surrounding water rights.
“The reason that it is a problem legally is that our whole water law framework is set up to encourage maximum utilization of water,” says Anne Castle, senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment and former assistant secretary for water and science with the Department of the Interior. “So the way our laws work is that if you’re not using your full entitlement of water then other people get to use it.”
Because of the legal framework surrounding Western water, water conservation is not simply a matter of turning off the taps. Large-scale conservation only occurs when conserved water is accounted for and, in the case of demand management, that water must also reach its target area without being diverted by a downstream user, a process known as shepherding. This is more complicated when moving water through multiple states, as the water authorities in each state must shepherd the water downstream. Calculating the quantity of conserved water is also challenging. Some of the water saved through demand management will evaporate or be lost through transit as it moves down the river, and lost water isn’t considered conserved.
These legal and technical issues must be solved before a demand management program is implemented, but the DCP didn’t create a program, the DCP simply makes exploring such a program possible.
Before diving into the details of how to conserve water, the upper basin needed the ability to bank its savings in a CRSP reservoir. While there is room in Lake Powell—which has been hovering at around 50 percent full—prior to the DCP, any water in Lake Powell was considered unused by the upper basin and therefore was subject to release to the lower basin. But the DCP authorized a pool of up to 500,000 acre-feet for the upper basin to store water in CRSP reservoirs to be used, if needed, to comply with the compact. This water can be tracked and accounted for, and cannot be called for by the lower basin.
“This is a big change to the Law of the River, and a new wrinkle in the way the river is managed,” says Newman, who was leading the demand management work for the CWCB. “But there is a lot to do before one drop of water can be stored in that pool.”
First, each state must assess the feasibility of a demand management program. The states are considering everything from specifying how much water each state would need to contribute to the pool, to identifying what laws to modify, if any. Each state also needs to ensure that water users participating in the program can do so voluntarily and temporarily and will be compensated for the water they conserve. The costs of such a program are still unclear, but the four-year System Conservation Pilot Program, which ended in 2018 and can be likened to demand management, paid an average of $205 per acre-foot for conserved water. The pilot program was implemented on the ground in various places, including with the Grand Valley Water Users Association, where 10 members took more than 1,000 acres of land out of production and, in 2017, received $560 per acre to help make up for the crops they would have grown otherwise. That year, the project returned an estimated 3,200 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River—a drop in the bucket.
That program and the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup, which started in 2009 and has since evolved, gave Colorado a head start into considering some of these questions. But there’s more to learn, says Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, who has long been involved with these water banking discussions.
Even after years of studies, the workgroup made the most significant progress when the System Conservation Pilot Program put water banking to the test on the ground. So Hawes recommends piloting demand management. “It’s in our best interest to have a program up and running, to see what the kinks are and what the critical needs are, to be in a better position to negotiate for that,” Hawes says. Negotiations to determine what will happen in 2026 could begin next year, so there’s reason for Colorado and the other upper basin states to get practice. “We could easily overcomplicate it. We need to be really systematic in our thinking on how to work through these issues. It is feasible so I hope we can put a plan in place and start to test it a little bit to make sure it can work for all sectors in the long run.”
In addition to the technical logistics, the upper basin states must account for attitudes about demand management. “There’s a general curiosity about what demand management will or could be,” says Kelsea Macilroy, a Ph.D candidate in Sociology at Colorado State University. Macilroy, in a project for The Nature Conservancy, spoke with 34 West Slope agricultural stakeholders in May 2019 to hear about perceptions and barriers to demand management. She heard from an equal number of people who said they would never participate in a demand management program and people who were excited about it. She heard people question if demand management is an opportunity, a burden, or both.
She also unveiled cultural beliefs that shape how the West Slope responds to the idea of demand management. “When the demand management conversation arises, it triggers these historical injustices,” Macilroy says, like loss of other natural resource industries such as logging in southwestern Colorado, for example. “I heard, almost unanimously, people referencing buy and dry. Not only that water could be taken away but that a way of life is under attack. That this is just the next thing that threatens the way that we live that’s coming from the Front Range,” she says.
But Front Range water managers are eager to share in demand management. “From a Front Range perspective, this problem of reducing demand is not a Front Range [versus] West Slope issue. It’s a whole state issue. It’s an upper basin issue,” said Jim Lochhead CEO/manager of Denver Water at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in October 2019. Denver Water, which receives about 50 percent of its supply from Colorado River sources developed after the 1922 compact and serves about a quarter of the state’s entire population, has a lot to lose if supplies are curtailed without a plan in place. Thus, the utility plans to cut water use along with other water users if a demand management program is created. “Our participation is not just funding someone else to use less water,” Lochhead says. “Our obligation is to participate equitably with other geographic regions in Colorado to create wet water that will get to Powell.”
Questions around demand management are deep and many, but for the time being, each state has separated to internally assess whether a program is feasible. In Colorado, the process is with the CWCB’s nine workgroups. The CWCB has $1.7 million for demand management at its disposal, which will be used for meeting logistics, for commissioning some consulting work to study feasibility for demand management, and for other relevant needs. This first round of funding expires in June 2020.
As every state conducts its own process, interstate issues are also being discussed through the Upper Colorado River Commission. If any one state decides that demand management is not feasible, it could serve as a veto for the entire basin.
While there is no hard deadline for the formation of a demand management program, the DCP agreements expire in 2026, and the availability of the 500,000 acre-foot conservation pool arrangement for upper basin use is only guaranteed until then.
If the states reach consensus and create a program, it will be reviewed by the lower basin, and subject to approval from the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Department of the Interior. The DCP also requires the upper basin to create a plan for verifying the amount of water conserved by demand management. The plan could then move forward only if the Upper Colorado River Commission determines that conservation is necessary in order to maintain compact compliance.
If the region has another series of wet years, the plan may never go forward. But in the face of climate change, many believe demand management is critical.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Chavez to Take the Lead at UGRWCD
Sonja Chavez has been selected to serve as the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. When asked about her new role, Ms. Chavez said, “I look forward to working with my local community and our Upper Gunnison Board of Directors and staff to continue to ensure that all water needs within the Upper Gunnison basin are being addressed, with other regional water users to speak with one voice on water resource issues affecting west slope communities, and with other state and federal entities to make informed decisions and have respectful dialogue around our current and future water use.”
As a native Coloradan, Sonja’s passion for water and agriculture is deeply rooted in her family’s ranching heritage. She grew up in a small community in southwestern Colorado along the banks of the Purgatoire River.
Ms. Chavez received a BA in Environmental Biology and an MA in Limnology (study of freshwater systems) from the University of Colorado. Her areas of expertise are in water quality, water resources management, funding acquisition, environmental and natural resource sciences, and policy and planning.
Early in her career Sonja worked in both the private and public sectors in Colorado (Water Quality Control Division, Department of Transportation and Summit County Government). In 2002, she moved to the Gunnison community and started her own consulting firm, assisting west slope water providers and water users planning and implementation of over $38 million dollars of water-quality and agricultural efficiency improvement and hydro-electric projects.
In 2015, she left the consulting world to join the Colorado River Water Conservation District as a Water Resource Specialist where her responsibilities included the management of off- and on-farm agricultural efficiency, system optimization and water-quality improvement projects, environmental compliance, funding acquisition, and grant management, and drought contingency planning and demand management including the evaluation of water banking.
From the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable (Gena Hinkemeyer) via The Craig Daily Press:
The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is one of nine basin roundtables in Colorado established to address the ever-increasing water challenges facing our state.
As part of its mission and to meet the Colorado Water Plan, the roundtable is developing an Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River Basin that best represents the interests and needs of all water users. These interests include agricultural, recreational, environmental, municipal, industrial and water providers. The first phase of the Management Plan focuses on the Yampa River main stem and the Elk River basin.
In order to make the Management Plan a success, the roundtable seeks to provide the community with meaningful opportunities to participate and provide valuable input for the Management Plan. To do this, two subcommittees where formed — stakeholder and technical — to complete related tasks.
The stakeholder subcommittee is working to implement a community outreach program designed to listen and learn in an open communication process. This subcommittee will provide a forum for dialogue on water related issues for all water users, including agriculture, recreational, municipal and environmental aspects of a healthy river.
The technical subcommittee was formed to look at the science-based river health for each of the identified geographic segments. One of the many related tasks is working with a private engineering contractor to conduct 40 to 50 voluntary water diversion assessments within the Yampa River Basin.
The goal is to learn more about the diversion effectiveness and incorporated environment aspects at the diversion site. Ultimately, this may help identify water projects that have positive impacts for the water diversion and broader river health.
The Management Plan recognizes the importance of agriculture to the Yampa River Basin. One of the roundtable priorities is to protect and maintain agricultural water rights in the region in consideration of increasing water demands and water availability fluctuations. Another goal is to help identify potential funding for water infrastructures that have multiple benefits and are in need of improvement for interested and volunteering agricultural stakeholders.
Two segment coordinators, Gena Hinkemeyer and Jerry Albers, are working as contractors on this project to listen, learn and seek input from agricultural stakeholders. Hinkemeyer has lived in the Yampa Valley for most of her life and will be working in the lower and middle Yampa River regions. Albers has lived in Stagecoach for the last 15 years and will be working in the Upper Yampa and the Elk River Basin.
The coordinators will be reaching out to members of the agricultural community to better understand water related issues confronting agriculture and seek input on planning efforts. If you are interested and would like to learn more visit the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable site at yampawhitegreen.com or contact Gena Hinkemeyer firstname.lastname@example.org.
The four-year-old Colorado Water Plan—the Centennial State’s proactive response to drought, flood, unpredictable water supplies, climate change, and a booming population that is likely to rise from 5.7 million today to nearly 9 million Coloradans in the next 30 years—is now guaranteed some of the annual $100 million needed to implement the plan. This month, Colorado voters narrowly approved Proposition DD to legalize sports betting (and a 10% tax on these casino revenues) which will result in an estimated $12 million to $29 million annually, the majority of which will go toward the Water Plan.
While we likely won’t see $29 million for the first several years, DD revenues bring Colorado’s first dedicated funding source to Water Plan implementation. The sports-betting tax money will flow into a new fund overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Revenues from DD are a drop in the bucket that renew every year, and represent a much-needed down payment toward the full $100 million per year for the Water Plan.
Revenues from DD could be used for a variety of Water Plan purposes including: stream and watershed management improvements, urban water conservation and efficiency, improved irrigation infrastructure for farms and ranches, and storage projects. At this point, it is not clear how the state will spend these dollars given the various priorities and the considerable funding gap. The language in DD was vague and will need refinement, and transparency. Stakeholders will likely explore options with the legislature to guide how DD funds are spent on Water Plan implementation.
Audubon will engage to advocate for spending that supports healthy rivers for the birds and people that depend on them—as we support a fully funded Water Plan. But even with the revenues DD will provide, additional dollars, heightened public awareness, and action will be critical to ensure healthy rivers—and the sustainable water future they enable for Colorado’s birds, economies, communities, recreation, agricultural heritage, and quality of life.
Audubon is proud to have supplied nearly 20 percent of the nearly 30,000 public comments that informed Colorado’s inaugural Water Plan, and Audubon will be there every step of the way through Water Plan implementation. Colorado cannot thrive unless its rivers do too.
Everything we love about Colorado is connected to water. We need your help in raising awareness about water and healthy rivers throughout Colorado. Spread the word. Join us as Audubon works across the state for a water-secure future for people and the environment.
The Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Cattlemens’ Association and most agriculture organizations are celebrating the measure approved by voters to allow sports betting in the state. But it’s not a cure-all for what ails us.
The Farm Bureau’s Shawn Martini says it was a given they would support Proposition DD, as it is a way to guarantee future funding for the state’s Water Plan. The Water Plan – a blueprint for ensuring stable water supplies in the years and decades to come.
Martini: “And thus far it has not been funded anywhere close to what it needs. That initial figure of about 100 million dollars a year we need to fully fund the state’s water plan. While this doesn’t get us up to a 100 million a year, it at least provides us a dedicated revenue stream of maybe even up to 30 million a year to help continue to implement and build the projects that are a key part of the state’s water plan.”
Martini says they are waiting to see how much the state legislature will add to the Water Plan funding on a yearly basis. But with the passage of Prop. DD there is now a dedicated stream of funding that will allow the state to begin to chip away at the backlog of projects that need to be done to fulfill the state’s future water supply.
DD will legalize sports betting in Colorado and create a 10 percent tax on casinos’ house winnings that would largely benefit the Water Plan. Colorado’s 33 casinos will be able to offer in-person and online wagering on professional, collegiate, motor and Olympic sports beginning in May 2020.
Colorado voters narrowly approved a new sports-betting tax whose proceeds will help fund water projects across the state, including conservation programs, stream restoration, and new reservoirs.
The vote is a major victory for the bi-partisan coalition that backed the measure and represents the first voter-approved effort to fund the four-year-old Colorado Water Plan.
The nail-biter margins, 1.5 percent at press time, provide a cautionary tale on how much support exists for water funding and how much more will be needed in the future, backers said.
“I was surprised. It was super close,” said Alec Garnett, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of the bill that referred Proposition DD, as it was known, to voters. “But it’s a reminder to everyone that Colorado is a fiscally conservative state.”
Proposition DD legalizes sports betting and imposes a 10 percent tax on casino revenue derived from this new form of gambling. A statewide map of the vote count showed voters on the Front Range and in ski counties, such as Eagle, Summit and Ouray, had the most enthusiasm for the measure, while rural counties on the West Slope and Eastern Plains rejected it.
Garnett said he was proud of the consensus on water demonstrated by the win, and the power of the bi-partisan coalition of politicians, environmentalists, water utilities, and agriculture groups that came together to back the campaign.
“Any legislator will say, ‘You’re electing me to go in to help solve problems and bring people together,’ and I’m proud of how we did that here,” he said.
The vote sends an important signal to lawmakers and others, according to political pollster Floyd Ciruli.
“There is no better conversation to have than a ballot issue. You get everyone’s attention. This vote shows people do believe water is important and that this is a good way to [fund] it,” Ciruli said.
Early on, Prop DD was barely showing up on voters’ radar, with early polls indicating little support. But a digital and TV ad campaign launched last month helped turn the tide, Ciruli said.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, opposed the measure and said he remains concerned that there isn’t enough transparency in how the money will be managed and that it is improper to use a so-called “sin tax” to pay for something as fundamental as water resources.
“Water is such an important issue we should pay for it out of the general fund or out of severance taxes,” Sonnenberg said, adding that he will continue to fight in the Legislature to ensure the money is used for the water plan.
Estimated to total between $12 million to $29 million annually, the sports-betting tax money will flow into a new fund overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). It could be used for a variety of purposes, including water-saving programs for cities and farms, habitat restoration programs, storage projects, land use planning, and environmental water supplies for water-short streams.
Since 2015, the CWCB has financed the water plan using income derived from severance taxes, the state’s general fund, and other sources. Those amounts have varied widely, with the state setting aside $30 million this year, up from $5 million in 2015, according to the CWCB.
Backers characterize DD as a valuable down payment on the water plan. Assuming the tax is able to eventually generate $29 million a year, that’s still less than one-third of the $100 million a year the state has previously estimated it will take to protect scarce water resources and to prevent future water shortages.
This year, another group emerged whose intent is to raise additional money for the water plan. For The Love of Colorado, backed by the Walton Family Foundation (also a funder of Fresh Water News) and the Gates Family Foundation, is preparing to run a large public awareness campaign about the critical nature of the state’s water challenges and the need for funding.
The group’s executive director, Tim Wohlgenant, said the close vote demonstrates how much more work is needed.
“It’s great that voters did this. But I need to emphasize it’s literally only a drop in the bucket. And even though it passed, it barely passed. We have more work to do.”
David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said he hopes Prop DD will stimulate environmental and water conservation programs, much like Great Outdoors Colorado has. GOCO is the 1992 ballot initiative that has helped preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of historical ranches and open space across Colorado, protecting them from development. It is funded with state lottery proceeds.
“We’re pleased that Colorado voters are making a decision to invest in our resources, using the water plan as a road map for that,” Nickum said.
“Hopefully it will lead to a proliferation of projects, much like GOCO did,” he 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.
From Western Resource Advocates (Jennifer Talhelm):
DD secures an important down payment for Colorado’s Water Plan, but full funding is still needed
A coalition of environmental and sportsmen groups today hailed passage of Colorado Proposition DD to help conserve and protect the state’s rivers and streams and drinking water. The coalition – which includes Conservation Colorado, Environmental Defense Fund, Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates, American Rivers, Business for Water Stewardship, and the Colorado Water Trust issued the following joint statement:
“Passage of Proposition DD is a big win for Colorado and the quality of life we enjoy here. Taxing the revenue from legalized sports betting will create a dedicated down payment to help ensure that Colorado has healthy rivers and enough water for all. Still, it’s important to remember that this is just the first step toward addressing the growing gap between the water we have and the water we need.
“Four years ago, Coloradans came together to create Colorado’s Water Plan to protect all the things we love about our Colorado way of life – from healthy flowing rivers, to farming and ranching, and even beer. Our rivers contribute over $9 billion annually to the state’s economy, yet Colorado has not lined up adequate funding for the plan, despite overwhelming bipartisan support from across the state.
“Proposition DD will help generate a much-needed revenue stream to improve wildlife habitat, protect our agricultural heritage and the open spaces that come with it, and strengthen our economy. But the plan estimates the total need to be $100 million a year for the next 30 years, and we must keep working to ensure Colorado fully funds our water future.”
Proposition DD places a 10 percent tax on casinos’ profits from sports wagers, up to $29 million annually, and the majority of the revenue raised will go to implementing Colorado’s Water Plan. The annual funding is expected to be between $10 million and $15 million annually in the first few years.
It was a squeaker, but sports betting will be legal in Colorado beginning in May 2020.
Voters on Tuesday approved a ballot measure 51% to 49% to legalize and tax betting on certain professional and collegiate games at casinos and online, according to results from the Colorado secretary of state. The vote was too close to call until mid-afternoon Wednesday. The Associated Press called the race at 2:33 p.m.
Revenue from a 10% tax on the net proceeds companies make on sports betting will help pay for some of the state’s critical water needs. It is, in other words, a narrowly focused tax targeted for a widespread need.
The vote was far from the slam dunk many expected. While the success of its sister ballot measure, Prop CC, was always uncertain, Colorado voters have historically been more receptive to so-called sin taxes.
But the measure had critics on both sides of the political spectrum. For conservatives, the question about raising taxes may have been a non-starter. And for liberals, a regressive tax paid by gamblers, some of whom may struggle with addiction to gambling, perhaps was too problematic to support.
“This has always been a white-knuckles job,” said Josh Penry, a former Republican state Senator and political strategist who worked on the Prop DD campaign. “There is real skepticism. It’s not a traditional right-vs-left issue.”
More than 90% of that new tax revenue, estimated at an average of $16 million per year, and as much as $29 million, would help pay for managing the state’s dwindling water supplies. That tax revenue alone is not enough to meet the state’s water needs, but in the minds of most of its supporters, it represents the best shot yet to pay for the general projects outlined by the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
“The Colorado Water Plan will have a permanent, dedicated funding source,” said Becky Mitchell, the director for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, in a statement. “Sports betting tax revenue for the Water Plan will support critical environmental, agriculture, and storage projects as well as promote outdoor recreation opportunities across the state.”
Coming up with the money to help better manage Colorado’s water supplies is seen as critical to maintaining the state agriculture and recreation industries and preserving healthy river ecosystems threatened by slow flows and warming waters. The estimated cost of implementing the water plan is $100 million a year.
Lawmakers have struggled to find that money. They pulled together nearly $30 million in one-time money for water projects and planning last session, a historic yet insufficient amount. Prop DD, which was referred to the ballot by state lawmakers, was seen as the best shot at getting at least some funding and getting it fast.
“This is not the best way to fund such an important need, but we have to take the opportunities that come to us,” said Scott Wasserman, the president of the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank.
Opponents had concerns about paying for the Colorado Water Plan because it calls for possibly damming rivers to build reservoirs. The margins of victory in Boulder and Larimer counties were tight, areas where projects to expand or build reservoirs are planned. The Water Plan also calls for lining irrigation ditches, upgrading flood gates and paying farmers to use less water.
The measure struggled despite a $2.4 million campaign to promote it. FanDuel Group, a New York City-based sports betting company, spent $1 million backing the measure, according to campaign finance records with the secretary of state. Other top donors include DraftKings, a Boston-based sports betting company, Twin River Casino Hotel from Rhode Island and the Colorado Gaming Association.
A coalition of environmental groups backed DD, including American Rivers, Business for Water Stewardship, Colorado Water Trust, Conservation Colorado, Environmental Defense Fund, Trout Unlimited, and Western Resource Advocates. The Colorado Farm Bureau also supported the measure.
Colorado already allows limited stakes gambling — under $100 — in the towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. Some supporters saw Prop DD as a way to regulate underground sports betting.
“Black markets aren’t conservative and they aren’t good for Colorado. Bringing sports betting into the daylight, regulating it, and leveraging it for the benefit of our water future is a common-sense approach,” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Republican from Littleton, in a statement.
From the Environmental Defense Fund (Brian Jackson):
Water in Colorado — one of the state’s most important natural resources — scored a major win today when voters approved Proposition DD. Prop. DD will provide up to $29 million a year for water projects from revenue raised by legalizing and taxing sports betting.
This funding will support critical projects to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and keep Colorado the state we know and love, with healthy rivers, clean drinking water, productive agriculture and abundant recreation.
EDF and EDF Action were key advocates for Prop. DD. We are thrilled voters approved the measure because it shows Coloradans across the political spectrum care deeply about building a more resilient future for our state.
Closing the water funding gap
Colorado’s Water Plan identified a funding gap of $100 million a year for 30 years to conserve and protect key elements of the state’s water system, including the environment, in the face of climate change and a growing population. Prop. DD will provide an impactful down payment to fill this funding gap.
Achieving voter approval of tax measures is always challenging, especially in Colorado, but EDF, EDF Action and our partners in the state worked hard to earn broad support for Prop. DD. Every major newspaper in Colorado endorsed it, and there was strong bipartisan support among state leaders and lawmakers who referred the measure to the ballot.
Uncommon partners rally around common-sense water solutions
The list of Prop. DD supporters was long and diverse, including the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Municipal League, Colorado River District, Colorado Farm Bureau, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates, among many others. Working side by side with some of these unlikely allies paves the way for more collaboration to deploy the funding to Colorado’s highest water priorities and best projects.
The success of Prop. DD clearly demonstrates to our state lawmakers that water is a priority issue for Coloradans, and we hope policymakers will continue to focus on ensuring our water system meets our state’s needs for decades to come.
We can’t wait to roll up our sleeves to help effectively implement Prop. DD and usher in this important new era for water funding and resilience in Colorado.
From the Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water NetWORK (Phil Brink) via The Fence Post:
The Colorado Water Plan includes twin goals of having 80 percent of the state’s critical watersheds covered by watershed management plans and 80 percent of the locally prioritized streams covered by stream management plans by 2030. Successful watershed and stream management planning involves people representing all local water interests, and that nearly always includes the agricultural community. Through ownership and leasing, agricultural producers control most of the water and land in Colorado. Agricultural input and cooperation is essential to achieving needed improvements in our streams and watersheds.
Irrigation water is a vital component of Colorado’s agricultural industry. Without it, crop and forage yields are dramatically lower. Colorado agricultural statistics indicate that an irrigated field of corn, for example, will produce almost three times more grain than a non-irrigated field of corn. Irrigation water is a big part of the reason Colorado agriculture contributes $41 billion to our state’s economy.
We often say that agriculture provides food, fiber and fuel, but Colorado agriculture accomplishes much more. It preserves open space and extraordinary vistas, provides wildlife habitat — including habitat for threatened and endangered species — and connects us with our agricultural heritage, helping to create a sense of place and community. Consider the farmer’s markets and Colorado-made foods and beverages we enjoy. Much of it would not be possible without irrigation water.
Like other stakeholders, agricultural producers have specific interests around water. Farmers need to utilize their water rights to grow crops and forage and to water livestock. For surface water users this means diverting water from rivers and streams and other surface water bodies and conveying it to fields for application.
The top three water-related challenges expressed by survey respondents were all irrigation-related (see chart below). Note that the survey allowed producers to select more than one challenge, so the percentages exceed 100 percent when totaled. Not having enough water (“amount of water”) was closely followed by water delivery infrastructure. These two challenges along with “water storage” — which was the fourth most frequently cited challenge — are often interrelated and addressing them can be capital intensive. Demand for grant and cost-share funding chronically exceeds available financial resources.
Through the watershed and/or stream management planning process, funding for irrigation water diversion and delivery infrastructure and source water protection can be obtained from a wider range of sources than is typically available to agriculture as long as projects are multi-benefit in nature. One example is the combination of stream channel and embankment improvements with a diversion dam replacement — which may also incorporate a fish passage that allows aquatic life to move past the diversion structure. Projects like these help wildlife, aquatic life, water quality and irrigators alike. Because this type of project benefits multiple uses, it can garner more funding and reduce the cost to irrigators.
The third greatest challenge cited by ag producers was irrigation efficiency. One of the benefits of watershed and stream management planning is that the process involves assessment and analysis of prioritized problems. This helps to ensure that solutions fix existing problems without creating unintended negative consequences. For example, how should individual farmers and ranchers best address irrigation ditch seepage and irrigation efficiency?
Increasing irrigation efficiency — like switching from flood irrigation to sprinkler — can reduce or even eliminate deep percolation of water as well as runoff from the edge of the field. Lining earthen ditches with concrete improves the delivery of water to fields by eliminating seepage. This can also improve water quality in streams by reducing the selenium and salinity content of seep water in areas where shale is near the surface.
However, leaky irrigation ditches also provide watering spots and seasonal wetlands — serving as an oasis for wildlife and birds in otherwise dry areas. Also, flood and furrow irrigated fields and meadows release water slowly back to streams and rivers later in the summer and fall, enhancing flows after snowmelt and summer rains have dwindled. This supplemental flow helps sustain fish and wildlife, and extends recreational use in some cases. So, a thorough evaluation of a canal or ditch system is crucial to understanding how to help agricultural producers and other stakeholders achieve multi-benefit solutions.
The ultimate goal of watershed and stream management planning is to implement actions that benefit watersheds and streams, as well as the stakeholders that use and rely upon them. Engaging agricultural producers and getting to know them and their water-related challenges will help achieve outcomes that benefit all stakeholders.