Colorado River Water Conservation District board members and staff discussed the comments they plan to submit on the updated version of the Colorado Water Plan at a Sept. 15 meeting. A main concern of theirs remains the very reason the River District was formed in 1937: transmountain diversions. Director of Technical Advocacy Brenden Langenhuizen said there is still a disconnect in the Water Plan between the basin of origin (the Colorado) and the place of use (the Front Range). The River District would like the Water Plan to include more context about TMDs and to address their long-term economic and environmental impacts. A point the River District continues to make is that many of the water quality issues in headwaters communities (algae, high water temperatures) are actually a water quantity issue — a result of reduced flows from TMDs taking water to the Front Range. “Water quality is not discussed as thoroughly as we think it needs to be,” Langenhuizen said. CWCB officials told Aspen Journalism in July when the new Water Plan was released that it stopped short of a detailed analysis of TMDs because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised to revisit the issue before the next update to the plan.
Water impacts every aspect of life in Colorado, and therefore impacts every Coloradan. Ensuring equitable access to clean, safe drinking water as well as healthy and accessible outdoor spaces is essential. Colorado’s Water Plan, developed in 2015 and currently undergoing an update, is open for public comment through the end of September. This is a critical civic engagement opportunity, and an opportunity for everyone to make their voices heard in ensuring that the plan rises to meet the challenges facing our communities and water supplies at this moment. Historically excluded and misrepresented communities such as Latinos, communities of color, tribal nations and low-income Coloradans want and need to be a part of the solutions to combat climate change and water insecurities.
We commend the state on translating the entire draft to Spanish, providing translation during public listening sessions, and working towards justice, but more is needed. Equity language is used throughout, but the plan doesn’t actually specify who is leading this work or how it will be accomplished.
When the Water Plan and state officials speak of equity, it needs to be more actionable and have a greater focus on accountability. To that end, the state must include a concrete plan to work with a larger range of voices. One way to achieve this would be through the hiring of a Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer or similar role within the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop trust with historically underrepresented communities and ensure equity is being advocated internally in all of the areas they list it in the plan.
Eighteen months ago, the CWCB— the state body guiding the development of the water plan and its update — created the Water Equity Task Force with a stated mission to shape a set of guiding principles around equity, diversity and inclusion that could help inform the update to the Colorado Water Plan. While this group accomplished its “task,” we encourage the CWCB to follow the lead of CDPHE, which established its Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and create a Water Equity Advisory Board, in addition to a Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. This board would help guide implementation of the five recommendations that came from the Task Force in addition to actions outlined in the Draft Plan such as an interagency environmental justice mapping working group and increasing grant funding access, among others. Given the diversity of residents in Colorado there’s a need, and role, for providing guidance around addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion in how our state’s water supply is being managed now as we prepare for a future with less available water for all.
Decision making spaces for how our water supply is managed would benefit from an increase in racial, gender, and other forms of diversity. It is essential that governing bodies accurately represent the population they serve. For example, groups like the nine Basin Roundtables have made progress toward being more diverse and inclusive but are still predominantly white and male — if meaningful progress toward greater racial equity and inclusivity are to be fully realized, it must begin at the highest level. While we support mention of equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the identified action of supporting the long-term stability and impact of Basin Roundtables, we encourage state officials to go beyond even that. Specifically, CWCB should include collaboration with partners such as CDPHE’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, Great Outdoors Colorado, the CPW Colorado Outdoor Equity Board among others to develop a strategy and implementation plan for creating greater racial diversity and inclusivity in decision making spaces such as Basin Roundtables and the CWCB Board of Directors. However we want to emphasize that diversity of membership without addressing inclusion and equity will only result in further disenfranchisement.
Beyond leadership and management at the state level, guidance around policymaking and water-related legislation must also be reviewed through the lens of equity. For example as the state works to implement HB22-1151, a bill incentivizing the removal of high-water turf from municipal landscapes, efforts to reduce outdoor irrigation need to be managed from a variety of perspectives to ensure healthy communities, attractive Colorado-appropriate landscaping, places to recreate, ecosystem benefits (e.g., pollinators), and cooling impacts of vegetation. Ornamental — and often thirsty — landscaping such as lawns can be a privilege of wealth, with lower income neighborhoods often lacking these amenities. As we work to replace non-functional turf with low water use landscaping we must consider all types of neighborhoods and levels of income and accessibility to programs. To ensure equitable access, the legislation was written so that all Coloradans, including those that live in rural areas or communities without existing turf replacement programs, have access to funds for turf removal. When designing the program criteria, the CWCB could look at prioritizing funding or reducing matching fund requirements for communities that have a greater makeup of underserved or underrepresented individuals according to the US 2020 census data.
In addition to considering turf replacement through an equity lens, it is equally important to think about what equity looks like in new development. Colorado is an incredibly fast growing state, and more communities are updating their landscape regulations to ensure that new development is less water intensive. The city of Aurora, for example, is limiting turf in new construction to reduce the water demands of its growth. Just like with turf replacement, we must consider new landscape regulations through an equity lens and think through whether those new landscape regulations will increase the cost of development and housing, or if only affluent developments can follow the regulations in a way that looks nice and functions as a healthy ecosystem (e.g., manicured xeric landscapes with state-of-the-art irrigation systems versus only mulch, gravel or other non-living materials). These landscape regulations must be crafted in a way that achieves the overarching goal — using less water — while benefiting all Coloradoans or at a minimum not disproportionately impacting some Coloradoans. CWCB should add equity and greatest impact scoring criteria to their grants similar to the Justice 40 Executive Order so the result is that funding is intentionally going towards projects that provide the greatest impact to historically underinvested communities and conserving water. Equity must be part of that consideration so that additional unintended consequences such as additional heat islands are not created and our most vulnerable communities are not left behind.
Water for Colorado has developed a series of recommendations for the state to consider as they finalize the draft update. Our recommendations for equity, diversity, and inclusion fall amongst the top of those, and we are asking residents to help elevate the Coalition’s priorities by signing onto our petition. But, much more is needed to elevate diverse voices throughout Colorado and how our water supply is managed. For example, attend a local Basin Roundtable meeting either in person or virtually, provide a public comment at the upcoming CWB Board of Directors meeting on September 20 and 21st in Durango, and/or participate in the Water 22 Pledge.
Jared Romero is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from Colorado State University-Fort Collins and his master’s in Applied Natural Science from Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked in various aspects of conservation, ranging from boots-on-the-ground work as a wildland firefighter to research in ecological toxicology to experience as an educator and administrator. Most recently, Romero spearheaded the development of One Health education and research at Boise State University. The One Health initiative focuses on the interconnected relationship of animal, human and environmental health through engaged collaborative thinking and complex problem-solving. He is a native of the San Luis Valley in Colorado. His love for the outdoors stems from his time camping, hunting, and fishing in the Rocky Mountains with family and friends.
Beatriz Soto is Director of Protégete for Conservation Colorado. Beatriz has been at the intersection of community building, social justice and working towards a stable climate for the past two decades. She is a LEED certified architect that worked on a variety of energy related projects, from Net-Zero affordable housing to high performance straw bale homes, sustainable developments in the pacific coast of Mexico, as well as providing professional trainings with the US and the Mexican Green Building Councils. She is former Director of Defiende Nuestra Tierra for The Wilderness Workshop, also a co-founding member of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, first non-profit organization in the central mountain region, made up of Latinx leaders that helps create opportunities for Latinos to speak and advocate for themselves. Beatriz is based in Carbondale, CO.
Colorado’s state water plan will receive $11.4 million from gaming revenues this year, a 43% increase over last year’s distribution. The Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission on Thursday announced that sports betting yielded tax revenues of $12.4 million in its second year of operation.
Under House Bill 19-1327, which later became Proposition DD on the 2019 ballot, tax revenues from sports gambling first go to a “hold harmless” fund and to address program gambling. The state water plan, while last on the list, gets the lion’s share of the revenues.
Colorado’s water plan has suffered from low investment from state government. Initially, the water plan, issued in 2015 under Gov. John Hickenlooper, was projected to require $20 billion in investments — to be paid for with higher water rates, federal grants and loans, and severance tax collections. The state’s share of that investment was projected at $100 million per year, beginning in 2020 and running through 2050.
Click the link to read the article on the Westword website (Catie Cheshire). Here’s an excerpt:
People who use the South Platte River for recreation, particularly river surfers, are hoping the next iteration of the Colorado Water Plan will include stronger language about the importance of recreation on the river. An updated version of the plan originally developed in 2015 during the John Hickenlooper administration will take effect in 2023, and the public can currently weigh in on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources draft. David Riordon, an avid river surfer in Denver, says he was pleasantly surprised that the draft indicated a positive approach to recreation, but hopes there will be more specifics regarding the use of the South Platte in the final document. While Riordon recognizes that the plan must tackle big issues across the state, he points out that river surfers keep a close eye on the South Platte’s status in metro Denver when they spend time on the waves at River Run Park in Englewood. “We see what comes by us or what doesn’t come by us,” Riordon says. “That could be water. It could be people. It could be fish, it could be trash. It could be plants. All kinds of stuff comes by us.”
Currently, river surfers gauge several factors, such as the discharge from Chatfield Reservoir and the City of Englewood, to see if the water is running at enough cubic feet per second to surf, generally 180 cfs. Riordon thinks the flow of the South Platte should be controlled the way it is on the Arkansas River, where a voluntary flow management program ensures that the Arkansas will be high enough for recreation during summer months, including rafting and fishing…Although the agreement guiding the Arkansas River program is between the Colorado DNR, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation actually operates it, measuring the reservoirs and controlling the outlet gates to ensure a constant flow of at least 700 cfs from July 1 to August 15. It also maintains a 250 cfs level during fall and winter months to improve conditions for trout. To create something similar on the South Platte, Riordon, who’s president of the Colorado River Surfers Association, hopes to connect with other stakeholders to apply for a grant from the Metro Basin Roundtable to determine if the idea would be feasible…
The new iteration [of the Colorado Water Plan] includes goals for protecting and enhancing both environmental and recreational attributes of the South Platte. Compared to the first version, completed before the original 2015 Colorado Water Plan, it takes a stronger stance on social justice and ensuring equitable access to recreation on the river, [Sean Chambers] continues.
THE waters of the San Luis Valley are a crucial part of life for the people and wildlife that call it home. Particularly tied to these water sources are the multitudes of bird species that reside in the area year-round, seasonally, or even just briefly during migration. As conditions become drier and water scarcer, collaboration and creative solutions on all fronts have grown to make the most of the available water supply. This is particularly relevant for riparian and wetland habitat for bird populations.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plays an important role in this effort by managing a number of riparian and wetland areas, including the Blanca Wetlands, McIntire/Simpson property and the Rio Grande Natural Area (RGNA). The BLM has many ongoing riparian and wetland habitat improvement projects, including riparian exclosures and fencing on the RGNA to protect portions of these delicate riparian habitats for nesting.
Unsurprisingly, water availability is a concern for even healthy habitats, which is why the BLM uses its water rights to irrigate these lands to mimic natural wetting and drying processes and provide habitat when species’ need it the most, whether for nesting or migration or other life cycle needs. In addition to the management of its own lands, collaborations with groups such as the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project and others are improving willow habitat along riverbanks, benefitting bird species such as the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Though there are challenges, the future is hopeful.
Sue Swift-Miller, who has worked as a wildlife biologist in BLM Colorado’s San Luis Valley Field Office for about 20 years, says, “It’s really exciting getting to work with such great partners and to be providing habitat for these species.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), like the BLM, works both independently and with partners to protect and enhance habitat for the benefit of birds. Collaboration with other entities in the Valley has been foundational to CPW’s efforts thus far, most notably with Ducks Unlimited and Wetland Dynamics.
These two private organizations help CPW acquire funding for projects, research bird populations, and manage water use in riparian and wetland areas. CPW also works with farmers and ranchers on and near riparian and wetland areas, helping educate and inform them about practices that are beneficial to their production as well as wildlife. While this effort has presented a certain level of difficulty, the results work to benefit everyone involved.
Tony Aloia, wildlife technician with CPW, says, “Seeing [private landowners] sometimes progress away from what has always been to what is obviously a better way is pretty rewarding … to hear your message being heard.”
Rotational grazing, preventing overgrazing, and other such practices have helped these landowners get more production value from their land, while simultaneously contributing to wildlife and species preservation through increased suitable habitat and less disturbed nesting periods.
Sometimes these collaborations and projects can be challenging as well, but CPW’s staff enjoy the work they do and see the benefits it offers.
Tyler Cerny, who works as a district wildlife manager for CPW, says, “My favorite part of [the job] is seeing the collaboration and people in the community … come together for one common goal, and that is wildlife.”
Aloia added that one of his favorite aspects of this work is “seeing the wildlife, and seeing your work actually have some impact.”
While changes in climate and water supply challenges will continue to be pressing issues, the management of riparian and wetland habitat in the Rio Grande Basin is adapting to meet them through collaboration and innovation.
This article was brought to you by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable. The roundtable meets the second Tuesday of the month. If we are in-person, we are meeting at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, 8805 Independence Way, Alamosa, CO 81101. Due to Covid restrictions we are also offering a Zoom option. We welcome your attendance but encourage checking the Roundtable website at www.RGBRT.org prior to the meeting to see if an in-person option is available.
Water connects us and supports the lives of every bird and Coloradan every day. It’s time for action for Colorado’s birds and people. People tend to evade challenging work in water until a crisis. Now is an opportune time to lean in and work for holistic water solutions that sustain a more water-resilient Colorado to support our birds, fish, other wildlife, rivers, and all people—equally.
Ironically, water stress can bring hope. [ed. emphasis mine] Pressure can sharpen focus towards innovative actions to protect what is precious to us. The draft Colorado Water Plan update is an opportunity to engage in our sustainable water future—for all of us. After intense work by Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) staff and directors, the draft plan made a public debut on June 30th and is open for comment through September 30th. The plan will be finalized in January 2023 and direct Colorado’s water priorities for ten years.
Coloradans shape our water planning and management. A diversity of voices, needs, and knowledge must be integrated into this water plan update process. Our solutions are stronger with diversity and collaboration. Understanding how, when, and where to engage in water is essential. In 2015, Audubon contributed thousands of public comments and technical input to the completion of the inaugural water plan. We will again call on you, the broad Colorado Audubon network, to engage in this critical water plan update. In the coming weeks, help us define this moment for birds, rivers, and people.
The updated water plan calls on Coloradans to actively contribute to our water-resilient future through participating in any of the approximately 50 identified partner actions. Colorado is a local control state. So, local participation is critical to the health of Colorado’s local river systems and economies. The updated plan also details 50 actions that state agencies will take to help advance local water projects and initiatives.
The plan update also reflects the very real and everyday impacts of climate change—like aridity, wildfires, and floods—on Colorado’s water resources. Over the majority of the last ten years, Colorado has been racking up superlatives like “hottest,” “driest,” and sadly, more than one “historical wildfire” title.
Here are some top highlights from our review focused on the “Thriving Watersheds” and “Resilient Planning” sections of the draft plan.
Top Three Likes
Resiliency is a core pillar in the draft plan. We all depend on watersheds and natural systems for delivery and eco-services to access reliable, clean water. Wildlife and people must be able to respond to what nature gives us. Birds, other wildlife, and all people must be able to respond to and sustain themselves in both scarcity and abundance of water—this is the core of resilience to climate change shocks.
The draft plan acknowledges the need for and inclusion of river health assessment frameworks, a stream construction guide, nature-based solutions, green infrastructure strategies and techniques, and water-dependent native species data coordination and access. Resilience requires a baseline understanding of our watershed and river systems to support sustainable and positive management. Rivers and river health are a crucial part of how we meet our water challenges in Colorado. We need to understand river health conditions more and easily access data to manage and restore this invaluable resource nimbly. Audubon thanks the CWCB staff for the many meetings discussing the importance and inclusion of these topics.
The draft plan also begins down the path of how to engage everyone working towards equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the Colorado water space. The decisions we make about water impact everyone. A diversity of voices representing a diversity of needs strengthens Colorado’s water decisions. The draft update contains leaps forward from the 2015 plan with more substantive diversity content regarding the inclusion of the Water Equity Task Force principles. This includes translating the entire plan and factsheets into Spanish for better language equity, and broader inclusion of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes in the plan’s vision and actions. The advancements in the water equity, diversity, and inclusivity space are notable, while considerable work in actualizing this critical work must still follow. “Connectivity must begin with identifying those most vulnerable around us, building their capacity to engage, and assuring that their needs are prioritized. A region, after all, is only as strong as its most vulnerable communities,” notes the 2020 California Water Resilience Portfolio.
Top Three Needs
Coloradans know we need to act on behalf of water resilience and act quickly. There is an urgency to start implementing water security solutions at scale and take advantage of once-in-a-generation federal funding. Although the draft plan sets an ambitious scope of activity and vision, how will we track work in a transparent and publically accessible way? What are the timelines for achieving this critical work?
The need for more traditional storage is mentioned numerous times in the draft plan. Colorado’s current reservoirs are often far below their capacities. Building more dams to hold questionable water supply is not a sustainable solution to the water crisis. Instead, we need balanced strategies for innovative storage opportunities looking at forest health, pre-wildfire watershed readiness, and creativity to complement storage with nature-based solutions like wet-meadow and wetland restoration. These strategies increase wildlife habitat, improve water quality and cycling, lift wildfire preparedness and recovery, increase overall river health, and provide recreational opportunities for local communities and economies.
River health is a key component of Colorado’s water resilience. In the draft plan, there is a high priority on watershed-scale work and less on the scale of streams and rivers. The plan needs to include more weight on statewide river health, as Colorado’s river-related recreation is a major economic driver for the state, with more than $10 billion spent each year and nearly $19 billion in overall economic output. Birds, recreation, and agriculture all depend on healthy rivers flowing from resilient watersheds. All of us rely on healthy river ecosystems to thrive.
Colorado’s future depends on water and each of us—birds and people—is connected by it. Even if you are not a water right holder, we are all responsible for engaging in the Colorado Water Plan update and contributing to the stewardship of our water resources. When we understand the connections—where our water comes from and how much we depend upon it—we value water for what it is: life and sustainability for people and nature. Watch for guided water plan engagement opportunities from Audubon. Kingfishers, American Dippers, Snowy Egrets, and Colorado’s water-resilient future depend on you to lean in and participate. Thank you in advance for your engagement in the update of the Colorado Water Plan.
Colorado’s water leaders have released an updated blueprint detailing how the state will manage and conserve water supplies as climate change and population growth strain the system in unprecedented ways…
In the years since, continued warming, poor snowpack and low river flows have devastated available water supplies for farmers and ranchers. The reservoirs on the Colorado River, which starts in the mountains of Colorado and supplies more than 40 million people in the West with water, have hit critically low levels in the last year. The emergency has prompted the federal government to step in and demand the use of less Colorado River water…
The new analysis in the draft version of the new Colorado Water Plan, which was written by a team overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, finds that cities, towns and industries in Colorado could be short 230,000 to 740,000 acre-feet of water annually by the year 2050 — enough water, depending on different drought and climate scenarios, to supply between 500,000 and 1.5 million homes. As the state faces warmer temperatures and less water, analysis in the draft plan finds that statewide water use in towns, cities and industries will climb between 35 percent and 77 percent by 2050…
The plan calls on leaders of Colorado’s nine river basins — known as roundtables — to identify local needs and projects that the Colorado Water Conservation Board can fund. Right now, about 1,800 such projects have been identified, a running list in various stages of readiness that comes with a hefty price tag: about $20 billion in funding to be fully completed. Some of the proposed projects include building new reservoirs and expanding old ones, watershed improvements, environmental restoration projects and infrastructure improvements.
A Crystal River Valley rancher and a nonprofit organization are teaming up for the second time to try to leave more water in a parched stream.
Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have inked a six-year deal with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily retime their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River during the late summer and early fall, when the river often needs it the most. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, the ranchers will be paid $250 a day up to 20 days, for each cubic foot per second they don’t divert, for a maximum payment of $30,000.
The water would come from reducing diversions from the Helms Ditch and could result in up to an additional 6 cfs in the river. The agreement would become active in the months of August and September any time streamflows dip below 40 cfs and once becoming active, will extend through October. The agreement will lift if streamflows rise above 55 cfs.
The goal of the program is to use voluntary, market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users — who often own the biggest and most senior water rights — to put water back into Colorado’s rivers during critical times.
The program has the hallmarks of demand management, a much-discussed concept over the past few years at the state level: it’s temporary, voluntary and compensated. Other pilot programs that focus on agricultural water conservation usually involve full or split-season fallowing of fields, but with this agreement Fales still intends to get his usual two cuttings of hay.
“The idea is to find something that is a flexible way for water rights owners to use their water in years where it makes sense for something different than strictly agricultural practices,” said Alyson Meyer-Gould, director of policy with the Colorado Water Trust. “It’s another way to use their water portfolio.”
The plan focuses on four “interconnected action areas,” including resiliency planning, thriving watersheds, robust agriculture and community. It describes 50 “partner actions,” or project ideas that could be supported by Water Plan grants, as well as 50 “agency actions,” to support local projects, conservation and wise-water development. Overall, however, basin roundtables and stakeholders identified more than 1,800 potential future projects statewide, and 321 are in the Colorado Basin with 36 being in Summit County. In total, over $20 billion would be spent on the projects by 2050. Russ Sands, senior program manager of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that projects in the database are designated as near-term, midterm or long-term when it comes to getting them done. They’re also not all infrastructure projects. Some may work toward water conservation and others may be educational projects or environmental…
According to the plan, the Colorado Basin — which includes Summit County and the Blue River — faces issues such as competing resources for agriculture, tourism, protection of endangered species and potential for Colorado River Compact administration. The basin encompasses about 6% of the state’s population, and between 2015 and 2050, population is expected to increase 48-88%. Flows are also projected to be variable over the next several decades. Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for wetland plants and fish habitats. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if summer flows decrease due to climate change. Each year, water providers in the South Platte and Arkansas Basins export approximately 480,000 acre-feet each year from the Colorado Basin for eastern slope agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. Across the basin, as much as 70% of the river’s water flows out of Colorado…
“(June 30) opens up the 90-day public comment period,” Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said. “This updated new and improved Water Plan is designed to meet today’s water challenges and builds on the legacy that we have in Colorado of collaborative statewide water planning.
State officials are hoping dire climate predictions and water shortages will convince Coloradans to get involved in planning how to share a dwindling resource.
Colorado Water Conservation Board staff released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday, which is now open for public comment. The first version of the plan was implemented in 2015.
Words from the late water expert and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs set the tone on page 1 of the document: The 21st century is no longer about developing a resource, it is now an era of limits and learning how to share a developed resource.
“I think we get to educate and engage and inspire and be an example and I think that’s the benefit,” said CWCB Executive Director Becky Mitchell. “I think when we are given the opportunity to lead, Coloradans do that.”
The updated plan lays out four interconnected areas for action: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning. Although municipal and industry does not currently experience a gap, the plan predicts a 230,000 to 740,000 acre-foot shortfall for cities and industries by 2050. According to the plan, about 20% of agriculture diversion demand is currently not met statewide, and that gap could grow to a 3.5 million acre-foot shortfall by 2050 under the “hot growth” scenario that would see temperatures rise 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meeting these supply-demand gaps will require hundreds of water projects throughout Colorado’s eight river basins, and carries a price tag of $20 billion. These projects, many of which have benefits to more than one water-use sector, are laid out in each roundtable’s Basin Implementation Plan.
Backdrop of climate change
The 239-page document is set against the backdrop of climate change, which plays a bigger role in this water plan than in the 2015 version. The first water plan did not include projections of future climate change in its analyses. Three of the five planning scenarios now include assumptions of hotter conditions in the years to come.
According to the plan, Colorado has had three of the top five driest years on record since 2000 and has experienced a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. The state may see an additional 2.5 to 5 degree warming by 2050. Most projections show a decline in spring snowpack and more frequent heat waves, drought and wildfire, all of which have implications for water.
Environmental and recreation water needs could see the worst impacts since those uses generally have the most junior water rights.
“Peak runoff may shift as much as one month earlier, which could lead to drier conditions in summer months and impact storage, irrigation and streamflow,” the plan reads. “Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for riparian/wetland plants and fish habitat. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if June-August flows decrease due to climate change.”
Old tensions and trends
The new plan addressed a tension from the first plan: Front Range water providers would like the ability to develop new transmountain diversions in the future, while Western Slope stakeholders say not to look to the Colorado River basin for more water for thirsty cities. Colorado’s Front Range currently takes about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the headwaters of the Colorado River basin across the Continental Divide.
The plan stopped short of a detailed analysis of transmountain diversions because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised that state staff would facilitate discussions about transmountain diversions before the next update to the plan.
“Our promise to West Slope folks was when we could get past those legal barriers, we would take an honest look at trying to have a better conversation,” said Russ Sands, senior program manager for the CWCB’s water supply planning section. “I think we owe it to our stakeholders to try and focus on analysis.”
The plan says Colorado will continue the slow but steady transformation of moving water from agriculture — by far the largest water user — to cities, with nearly 14,000 acres of irrigated land expected to be urbanized, one-third of that in the Grand Valley. Stakeholders estimate the loss of irrigated land to “buy-and-dry” to be even greater at 33,000 to 76,000 acres, which is three times higher than the 2015 Water Plan estimate.
But this could be eased by innovative and flexible agreements between water users that allow the temporary transfer of water from one use to another. Formerly known as Alternative Transfer Methods, state officials have rebranded them Collaborative Water Sharing Agreements, which allow water sharing, but prevent the permanent removal of water from the land.
Equity and engagement
State officials have also made an effort to be more inclusive this time around and in March 2021 convened a Water Equity Task Force to help shape a guiding set of principles around equity, diversity and inclusion to inform the water plan. Abby Burk, the western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies, was an equity task force member.
“People are engaging and leaning into the space other than just the water right owners,” she said. “We are all supported by water every single day. How do we expand this decision-making to include more voices? How do we open our arms and encourage more people to come into this space?”
The 2015 Water Plan racked up more than 30,000 comments and state officials are hoping Coloradans become even more involved this time around. The plan lays out three levels of engagement citizens can take and encourages Coloradans to promote water conservation, join water-focused stakeholder groups and coordinate with local leaders to advance water policy.
And there is a small bright spot that shows the potential for change when citizens get engaged: The plan says that Coloradans have reduced their per-person water use from 172 to 164 gallons a day, a 5% reduction in demand since 2008, mainly due to conservation efforts.
Sands said the tough conditions can open people’s minds and make them more willing to come to the table to talk.
“I think we are actually going to see more collaboration than ever,” he said.
The update to the Colorado Water Plan is open for public comment until September 30 and CWCB staff will also hold four online listening sessions. The plan is scheduled to be finalized by the CWCB in January 2023.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
During its March meeting, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) – a group of 15 governor-appointed representatives from each major Colorado river basin with expertise in water policy and planning – approved 52 grants through the Water Plan Grant Program.
“The Colorado Water Conservation Board is pleased to approve more than 50 projects this month to help advance the Colorado Water Plan, many of which are a direct result from recent stimulus funding approved by Governor Polis,” said CWCB Chair Jackie Brown. “We also look forward to utilizing funding from sports betting as enacted by Proposition DD in the near future to make an even bigger impact. And as we prepare to release the next Water Plan, securing future funding will become increasingly important for our water future.”
This grant program provides critical funding for multi-beneficial water projects in all eight river basins that advance actions outlined within the Colorado Water Plan.
It seems to be a striking proposal: That Nebraska could use eminent domain in Colorado and build a canal that diverts water from the South Platte River for irrigation in Nebraska.
But the idea — floated earlier this month by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other Nebraska officials — is laid out in a compact agreed to by the two states and approved by Congress almost 100 years ago.
Nebraska officials want to invoke the 1923 South Platte River Compact to build that canal and a reservoir system, and ensure Nebraska continues receiving water that they say is at risk as the population on Colorado’s Front Range booms.
But with a $500 million estimated price tag, a history of failed attempts, confusion from Colorado, the potential for lawsuits and a stream of unknown details, one fundamental question hangs over the proposal: Would it be worth it?
Canal idea predates compact
Even in communications between Delph Carpenter, who negotiated the compact for Colorado, and then-Nebraska Gov. Samuel McKelvie, the canal project was referred to as “old.”
“The old Perkins County canal was projected in the early (1890s) with the object of diverting water from the South Platte some miles above Julesburg, within the State of Colorado, for the irrigation of lands in Nebraska lying south of the river and particularly of that beautiful area of land in Perkins County between Ogallala (sic) and Grant,” a 1921 letter from Carpenter reads.
Construction efforts had started in 1891, according to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. But it was abandoned due to financial troubles.
Remnants of the abandoned ditch are still visible near Julesburg.
Another effort to pursue the canal, this time by the North Platte-based Twin Platte Natural Resources District, was derailed in the 1980s because it didn’t comply with requirements of the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
The compact, borne out of a desire to resolve litigation, is more than the canal…
Current director Tom Riley told The World-Herald that flows drop below 120 cfs nearly every year at times during that time period. When it happens, Nebraska calls Colorado and it addresses the issue by limiting its users who are subject to the compact.
Another part of the compact would allow Nebraska to also claim water outside that growing season — provided there’s a canal.
The canal could run from near Ovid, Colorado, east near the route of the abandoned “Perkins County Canal,” it says. And Nebraska could buy land or even use eminent domain to make it happen.
With such a canal, the state would be entitled to divert 500 cfs for irrigation between Oct. 15 and April 1.
However, data from the Julesburg gage suggests Nebraska has been getting about that much from Colorado for the last 10 years of record during the non-irrigation season, Riley said. The goal of the project would be to keep it that way.
Asked how the state would avoid what happened in the ‘80s, Riley pointed out that was 40 years ago. And, as he understands it, those proponents chose not to try to comply with endangered species requirements…
Colorado disputes Nebraska’s rationale
In revealing his desire to resurrect the plan, Ricketts earlier this month sounded alarm bells that without the project, agriculture, drinking water across the state, power generation and the environment could be affected…
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s Department of Natural Resources said they learned of the situation the same day Ricketts announced it publicly…
Since then, officials haven’t shared a vision of an exact route for the newly proposed Perkins County Canal, nor details of the reservoir system it would feed into.
Despite its colloquial name, the canal wouldn’t be located in Perkins County, according to the Governor’s Office. It could be on or close to the county’s northern border, though.
The general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, Kent Miller, has been promoting the project for over 25 years…
Ninety-eight of the [Colorado Water Plan] projects are in process or complete, according to Sara Leonard, spokesperson for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But not all are construction projects. Some are water conservation projects, she said, and environment and recreation enhancements.
Joe Frank, a roundtable member and general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Colorado, said he hadn’t sorted through how many of the projects would even impact the flow of the river, but said that many of them would not…
As for Nebraska’s assessment that flows could be restricted by 90%, he can’t understand how that figures.
A Nebraska Department of Resources fact sheet features that projection. That sheet shows the 90% was inferred from a 2017 Colorado report on water storage options along the South Platte to capture flows that would usually leave Colorado “in excess of the minimum legally required amounts.”
But Frank said that level of restriction could never actually happen…
More important than the straight cost estimate, though, may be another question: Would the water Nebraska actually gets out of this be worth the cost?
Anthony Schutz, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dave Aiken, longtime water and agricultural law specialist at UNL, both pointed out it’s uncertain how much water Nebraska could get out of such a canal…
Colorado would have dibs on some water before Nebraska, even if it were to build the canal. Colorado has the right to divert the first 35,000 acre-feet of water for its own off-season storage, Aiken said, even if it cuts into what Nebraska wants to divert…
Schutz pointed out that there are other water users in line ahead of Nebraska’s canal in the compact, too — anything on the “upper” part of the river, and uses in place before Dec 17, 1921…
Could canal lead to a court battle?
There’s some ambiguity in the compact, Aiken said, and people have built projects and invested in them in the years since it was signed. The states could resolve any differences by negotiation, or by litigation…
Riley, with DNR, said that Nebraska’s approach will be to work collaboratively with Colorado, and that he expects Colorado to comply without a need for court action. If disagreements aren’t resolved, though, he said interstate compacts and conflicts like that are addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court…
The question still remains, though: How much water would Nebraska actually get out of this? Riley didn’t give an estimate, but said actual yield would vary year to year.
Colorado’s governor is warning he will “protect and aggressively assert” his state’s water rights after Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a plan to spend $500 million on a canal and reservoir project.
FromOmaha World-Herald (Nancy Gaarder) via The Lincoln Journal-Star:
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday that his state would work to protect its water rights in light of Nebraska’s proposal to build a canal in his state to pull water from the South Platte River.
In a statement, Polis said Colorado would “protect and aggressively assert Colorado’s rights under all existing water compacts.”
Ricketts said the canal is needed because Colorado is planning “nearly 300 projects and over $10 billion of expenditures to ensure no ‘excess’ water leaves its state.”
If those proposals are carried out, Ricketts estimates, there would be a 90% reduction in flows coming into Nebraska.
Polis said Ricketts’ comments reflect a “misunderstanding of Colorado’s locally driven water planning projects.”
Polis said Colorado has used roundtable discussions to generate grassroots ideas for solutions to Colorado’s water needs. These brainstorming ideas “should not be taken as formally approved projects.”
Colorado, he said, has complied with the South Platte Compact for its 99 years and continues to respect the agreement. “We hope that our partners in Nebraska will show they share that respect.”
In response, Ricketts issued a statement saying he “welcomes future conversations with Gov. Polis as we move forward to secure Nebraska’s access to water.”
Any project involving U.S. waterways typically faces rigorous scrutiny. Polis said any project by Nebraska in Colorado would have to comply with the compact, private property rights, state and federal laws and regulations, including environmental ones.
From the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable via The Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
THE 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) was developed in response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2013 Executive Order and is focused on strategies to address the state’s growing water demands. Alongside the CWP, eight Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) were also developed in 2015 by the state’s basin roundtables to identify short- and long-term objectives and projects that are critical to meeting each basin’s current and future water challenges.
The original 2015 Rio Grande BIP, developed by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Roundtable), identified several goals aimed at addressing the basin’s major water challenges. Another key focus of the 2015 BIP was identification of projects that would help meet the basin’s water needs and have multiple benefits for water users and the environment.
As conditions change from year to year, updates to the BIP are important. In 2019, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) worked with the state’s basin roundtables to initiate the first update to the original BIPs. and the roundtables are currently in the final stages of completing this update. The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable selected a local nonprofit watershed group, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) to facilitate the BIP Update process. Led by the RGHRP, the Roundtable formed BIP Update subcommittees, made up of diverse local stakeholders, from local, state, and federal agencies to nonprofits, landowners, and community members. The subcommittees were tasked with developing strategies to meet the basin’s water needs, from agricultural and municipal/industrial water use to water administration and water resources education.
The updated Rio Grande BIP features project accomplishments since 2015, new data and analyses related to the basin’s current and future water use, projects and strategies to meet the basin’s water needs, and updated basin goals. Since the publication of the 2015 BIP, a variety of projects have been completed, many of which were funded in part by the Roundtable. During the BIP update process, more accurate agricultural and municipal water use data and well defined environmental and recreational attributes allowed the Roundtable to identify strategies to meet these water needs. Finally, the updated goals center around healthy watersheds and sustainable surface and groundwater that supports the basin’s communities.
CWCB and the Roundtable are seeking feedback on the draft BIP Update, which is currently available on the website: http://engagecwcb.org This public comment period will remain open through Nov. 15.
Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office (Chris Arend):
Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced the appointment of Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), as Chair of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC).
The IBCC was established to share information across Colorado’s eight major river basins and to facilitate negotiations amongst them. Its members provide expertise in water-related environmental, recreational, local governmental, industrial, and agricultural policy matters and it serves as a venue for consensus-building.
In this role, Director Gibbs will Chair the IBCC, a 27-member committee that includes representatives from the nine basin roundtables, Colorado Senate and House Agriculture Committee representatives, and six Governor appointees from geographically diverse parts of the state.
“Water is so important for Colorado’s economy and our quality of life,” said Governor Jared Polis. “Today now more than ever, we need strong leadership to ensure a healthy environment, viable agriculture, and thriving recreation and tourism across the state. Appointing Dan as Chair of IBCC will ensure we will have the leadership, communication, and collaboration needed to protect and preserve all of Colorado’s river basins.”
The 2005 Water for the 21st Century Act (HB 05-1177) ushered in a new era of regionally inclusive and collaborative water planning. It created the IBCC and the nine basin roundtables to secure an informed constituency and to expand public education, participation and outreach efforts for water policy.
“Now is the time to seek cooperative solutions to Colorado’s greatest water challenges,” said Dan Gibbs, Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “As our state grapples with climate change, population growth, drought, wildfires and depleted water supplies, we need our river basins and the IBCC to be communicating and working together to help inform the Colorado Water Conservation Board as it creates policy. I look forward to working with members of the IBCC to continue their strong role in building collaboration and engaging with the basin roundtables on water issues.”
Director Gibbs will replace Russell George, who formerly chaired the IBCC. Russ’s steadying leadership helped to promote collaboration throughout Colorado’s water community.
During the development of the Colorado Water Plan six years ago, Water for Colorado came together to help ensure Coloradans’ voices were heard in the creation of the plan. In the end, 30,000 public comments were submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, making it one of the largest and most celebrated examples of civic engagement in state history.
It’s time to once again ensure Coloradans’ voices are heard as the Colorado Water Plan undergoes an update. As you may have read about in last week’s blog post, the state’s nine Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) that inform the Water Plan are in the process of being updated, and it’s time for us all to get involved to ensure the long term health of our water and rivers. The month-long public comment period on BIP drafts has opened and runs through November 13, allowing residents to provide input on what they want to see in their community’s plan.
Basin Implementation Plans aren’t just important to the local basins and watersheds; they help build the scaffolding of the Colorado Water Plan overall. Crucially, the BIP public comment period is the first opportunity to engage community members, decision-makers, and all water stakeholders (that means you!) – especially those who may have been left out in years past – to ensure their voices are being heard.
Meaningfully commenting on your local plan can be as simple as asking your Basin Roundtable representatives to prioritize and protect local river flows and ensure opportunities for river enjoyment and recreation by all. To help you do this, Water for Colorado is collecting comments, which will then be submitted on your behalf to your local Basin Roundtable once the public comment period ends on Nov. 13.
If you want to get involved but are unsure of what to say or how to comment, we’ve used the expertise of our nine organizations to compile a few key recommendations that encompass what we believe is necessary for ensuring healthy and thriving rivers and watersheds as we face unprecedented climate change.
WATER FOR COLORADO’S KEY RECOMMENDATIONS:
HEALTHY FLOWING RIVERS:
Manage rivers to benefit healthy flows for all communities, recreation, and fish and wildlife across the state by encouraging flexible, collaborative water-sharing and conservation programs to enhance environmental and recreational flows.
Actively manage our watersheds‘ forests, streams, and wetlands, the source of our clean drinking water, to improve their resilience to drought and fires by incorporating nature-based solutions that protect, sustainably manage and restore headwater streams, riparian corridors, and wetlands. This includes scaling up projects that utilize natural process based restoration methods (e.g. beaver mimicry structures and other natural approaches) that result in beneficial ecological and hydrological processes to ensure communities and habitats are more resilient to a changing climate.
Water is one of the few things that truly connects us all, so we must support clean water and healthy river access for everyone by ensuring ongoing opportunities for public outreach and engagement to ensure diverse, inclusive, and equitable engagement on basin-level water planning efforts.
SUPPORT IRRIGATED AGRICULTURE:
Support our local food, local families, and wildlife through water-smart agriculture practices such as upgrading agricultural infrastructure to provide multiple environmental and recreational benefits, promoting soil health, and developing markets for lower water use crops.
WATER CONSERVATION AND EFFICIENCY:
Support water-smart planning for our new growth (including limits to areas of non-essential turf grass) and increase water reuse and recycling. Reduce current legal and financial barriers to the adoption of water conservation and efficiency programs and practices.
Encourage basin funding prioritization of multi-benefit projects enhancing river and watershed health, which includes support for the development of regional funding programming (ex: 2020 7A ballot measures) and the efficient implementation of all state and federal funds.
Colorado communities from Greeley to Durango have identified $20.3 billion in water projects that will help ensure residents have adequate water, that agricultural supplies are protected, and that rivers and streams can continue to support fish and wildlife as population growth, chronic drought and climate change threaten future water supplies.
According to the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, the state faces a gap between expected demand and existing water supply of as much as 560,000 acre-feet per year for cities and industry by 2050.
Colorado is home to eight major river basins, each of which is governed by a public roundtable. A ninth basin roundtable represents the Denver metro area.
These entities are charged with evaluating each region’s water needs and projects that would help meet those needs. Funding for those projects will likely come from several sources including local governments and water utilities, and state and federal funding.
Known as basin implementation plans (BIPs), the working documents summarizing those projects and needs were submitted to the state earlier this month and are open for public comment through Nov. 15. These plans are updated versions of the originals that were initially developed by the roundtables in 2015 to inform the Colorado Water Plan.
Since 2015, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which is responsible for implementing the water plan, has spent some $500 million in grants and loans helping fund water projects across the state, according to Russ Sands, head of water supply planning at the CWCB.
The plans are a key part of Colorado’s larger statewide effort to ensure it has adequate water supplies. The Colorado Water Plan is the primary document that guides state water policy and it relies on the planning efforts of the local roundtables.
“The basin roundtables represent a grassroots initiative that allow access to state planning,” Sands said.
The South Platte and Metro basin roundtables, which submitted a combined plan, have the most costly project list at $9.8 billion. This figure includes costs of projects that are planned, currently being implemented, or recently completed.
The South Platte Basin is home to the largest population centers and covers metro Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder, Greeley and Sterling, among dozens of other communities.
The next largest project list comes from the Colorado River Basin on the West Slope. It has identified $4.1 billion in water projects that will help it ensure its residents’ future needs are addressed.
The roundtables, made up of water professionals, citizens and local elected representatives, receive funding to operate from the CWCB. They also help fund projects each deem important to meeting a local need, whether it is improving an irrigation company’s diversion structure, building a new reservoir, funding a stream restoration project, or building a new kayak park.
The plans are “important because the process was to identify gaps in what a basin needs for irrigated agriculture, municipal and industrial, and environmental and recreational needs,” said Jason Turner, who chairs the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “We have a robust mix of all sorts of projects and it allows people who, say, live on the Roaring Fork [a tributary] to understand some of the bigger Colorado River issues as well.”
Barbara Biggs is chair of the Metro Roundtable. She said the project list for the combined South Platte and Metro roundtables represents one of the most detailed assessments of water needs on the Front Range.
“Just creating the project database is a huge step in the right direction because it will allow us to track and measure our success,” she said.
The basin plans are scheduled to be finalized at the end of January 2022 and will be incorporated into an update of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan next year.
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.
Seven states will negotiate access to what’s left in the river. My job is to represent all of Colorado’s interests.
If you live in Colorado—you get it. We don’t quit when challenged. Whether you live in a city, on a farm or ranch, in a rural town, or somewhere in between—you are part of the dynamic group of people who call Colorado home; people who understand when it comes to protecting Colorado water, specifically the Colorado River’s water, we must rise together to meet the challenge.
From its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River flows broadly across 1,450 miles of the southwestern United States, changing elevation by a remarkable 10,000 feet. More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado, the nation’s fifth-longest river, for drinking water and energy through hydroelectric power. In addition, the river supports an estimated $25 billion recreational economy and an agricultural economy of about $1.4 trillion a year.
About 100 years ago, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin created an agreement known as the 1922 Colorado River Compact and divided the seven states into two groups, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was the beginning of these seven states acting cooperatively to take the lead in managing and allocating the Colorado River’s annual flow of water.
Yet, in the early 1900s, it was impossible to foresee that in the 21st Century, the dwindling supply of water due to climatic forces, coupled with growing demand, would result in the present-day low water levels in our nation’s two largest reservoirs.
Extensive drought that began over 20 years ago in 2000—and continues to this day—has been a major factor leading to Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, reaching its lowest level since being filled. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir on the Arizona-Nevada border, also is at its lowest level since filling.
The state of the river is important to every Coloradan – all 6 million of us. It is critical to providing for the needs of current and future generations of Coloradans. More broadly, it is critical to the 40 million people who directly rely on the water of the Colorado River.
That is why all seven states agree that working collaboratively is critical to solving our own river management issues through cooperative agreements like the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.
The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan provides that, should Lake Powell’s water levels fall too low, Upper Basin states would release more of the river’s water from other reservoirs, to be stored in Lake Powell as part of the Drought Response Operations Agreement in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
The agreement has been activated and the states now are in planning mode.
Another tool could involve an effective demand-management program, which provides compensation for water users, such as farmers and ranchers and municipalities, to voluntarily conserve water on a temporary basis — without the loss of their ongoing water rights — while allowing for more water to be stored in Lake Powell with greater downstream water flow.
So, where do we stand? The seven Colorado River Basin States soon will be negotiating new interim guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to coordinate operations of both reservoirs.
As Commissioner representing Colorado’s interest in these negotiations, I am charged with effectively representing and protecting the state’s water and the water users’ interests, while also working collaboratively with the other six states and the federal government. As a state, we will continue leading the effort in conjunction with all the Colorado River Basin states.
Throughout the process, I commit to hearing the voices of tribal nations, key stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, and our fellow Coloradans. To learn how to make your voice heard, visit EngageCWCB.org.
As we continue to face the challenges of climate change, persistent drought, and growing populations, we cannot quit.
Rebecca Mitchell, of Denver, is Colorado commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Commission.
When environmental projects garner support from the Colorado Basin Roundtable, it’s a sign to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that they fall in line with the Colorado Water Plan, thus making it easier to obtain grants and other funding. There’s a caveat though: The roundtable only updates its list every five years. If projects want to be added to the list, they must appeal to their representative…
The roundtable’s focus is on the Colorado River Basin, one of nine watersheds in the state and one of the largest, according to the roundtable’s website. The eight counties in the basin that have representatives sitting on the roundtable include Summit, Grand, Routt, Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa.
The roundtable completed its own implementation plan in 2015 that outlines specific goals of the Colorado River Basin. Projects must fall in line with both this and the state plan, in addition to one of the roundtable’s six focus areas:
Encourage a high level of basin-wide conservation
Protect and restore healthy streams, rivers, lakes and riparian areas
Assure dependable basin administration
Develop local water-conscious and land-conscious strategies
Secure safe drinking water
“If your project is listed on the basin’s implementation plan, then you have a better probability of obtaining the funding,” [Peggy] Bailey said “…Through their vetting process, (the roundtable) looks at what it does for the basin and if it’s in alignment with the interests of the basin’s implementation plan. Then they will put it on this list and they will also write a letter of endorsement for the project. Then that makes it easier for the project proponents to obtain funding.”
Projects are divided into different tiers. Projects in the first tier are ready to launch, supported by an entity and determined to be of importance to the roundtable. Projects in the second tier are nearly ready to move forward, but still need to be pursued. The third-tier projects have less data, don’t have a clear entity supporting them and need to be fleshed out. Projects in the fourth tier are supported, but need to be tweaked before moving forward.
Projects in the first tier include the Swan River restoration project and the Blue Valley Ranch fishery restoration on the lower Blue River. These projects are already well underway and have organizations securing funding that are responsible for moving them along.
Another project in the pipeline is the second phase of the Blue River integrated water management plan. Backed by the Blue River Watershed Group, this was one that Bailey said she helped push forward when the roundtable was updating its list. Formerly in the second tier, this project moved to the first as the group began collecting data over the summer…
Other projects in the second tier include the Silverthorne Kayak Park, backed by the town of Silverthorne, and cleanup measures in the French Gulch mine drainage, which is backed by the town of Breckenridge and Summit County government.
Bailey pointed out that all of these projects are meant to protect the natural beauty and splendor of not just of Summit County but the entire basin, and that much of the county’s way of living is highly dependent on this single resource.
Here’s the release from the Water Information Program:
The updated Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) documents are out now for public comment through November 15, 2021. There’s no one better suited to inform local planning than people like you, who live, work, and recreate in the basins and understand the critical role that water and healthy rivers play in our economy, environment, and everyday lives.
This represents a critically important opportunity to learn more, engage in local conversations, and help shape the content of these plans which inform how water is managed at a local level. The Public are invited to review the BIP’s and provide comments! Feedback will be delivered to each basin for consideration. Check out the BIPs at: https://engagecwcb.org/bip-public-comment-period
It’s especially important to engage right now. The Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) — locally driven documents identifying goals and actions in each of Colorado’s nine river basins — are undergoing updates and will help inform the update of the state’s Water Plan, due to be final in late 2022.
Basin Implementation Plan: Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) are developed in a collaborative process by basin roundtables to help frame regional issues as part of the overall creation of Colorado’s statewide water plan. While the Colorado Water Plan seeks to address statewide water concerns, BIPs are more focused on local needs, plans, projects, and goals that provide a pathway to success. The BIPs are developed by basin roundtable members with support from the community and ultimately help inform the statewide water plan as well as direct spending priorities for the Roundtables. The new BIPs advance the basin roundtables’ 2015 efforts.
For the first time, a shorter and standardized Volume 1 BIP strategy document makes comparing BIPs easier.
Basin Roundtable: The basin roundtables were developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2005 to “facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven collaborative solutions” (CWCB Basin Roundtables). These roundtables are composed of local volunteer members who represent a variety of interests including basin agriculture, environment, and recreation. Each basin has its own bank account and funds local projects. Monthly meetings are open to the public, and are where funding and other strategic decisions are made. This means you, and others who care about water conservation can participate and help influence the decision making process. Better yet, you can join these meetings virtually from the comfort of your home.
The first step toward responsibly managing water is working to ensure the public helps shape these plans.
The Public Comment Period for the BIPs runs from October 13, 2021 – November 15, 2021.
For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
The 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.
This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”
The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.
Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.
These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.
First-ever drought accord
Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.
Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.
But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.
“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.
As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.
Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.
But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.
“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”
Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”
Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.
Still no decisions have been made.
A call to act
Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.
Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.
“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”
One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.
A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.
But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.
Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.
In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.
The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.
Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.
Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.
Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.
“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”
Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.
Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.
But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.
“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”
Checking the averages
As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.
Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.
Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.
Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.
The big dry out
Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.
“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”
Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.
And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.
“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”
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.
Our rivers are the lifeblood of the American West, and we all know that river and water management are both fundamentally important and infinitely complex, governed through a dizzying network of boards and contracts, local entities and statewide groups, individual expertise, and communal understanding.
Known as the “Mother of Rivers,” Colorado’s water impacts everyone and everything. It’s important that Coloradans from across the state have their voices heard as decisions about our critical waterways are made.
It’s especially important to engage right now. The Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) — locally driven documents identifying goals and actions in each of Colorado’s nine river basins — are undergoing updates and will help inform the update of the state’s Water Plan, due to be final in late 2022. The public comment period for BIPs begins next week and represents a critically important opportunity to learn more, engage in local conversations, and help shape the content of these plans which inform how water is managed at a local level. Before the comment period begins, Water for Colorado has prepared this blog to help you and your community understand the world of river basins and roundtables, and how you can speak up to protect healthy rivers for all who depend on them.
Basins: In order to facilitate conversations around managing our water, Colorado developed nine unique Basins that encompass multiple rivers, natural or artificial boundaries, and watersheds. Each basin has its own governing body called a “basin roundtable” composed of local volunteers who plan and make decisions about how to manage precious water resources.
So why are there nine basins and basin roundtables? The concerns of the Arkansas Basin — from the San Luis Valley to the Eastern Plains, where agriculture reigns supreme — are different from the concerns of the Metro South Platte — where rapid growth and a booming population are key challenges — which are different from the concerns of the Colorado — where the conversations around America’s hardest working river are both intensely local and surprisingly broad. As such, having governing bodies familiar with the unique concerns and opportunities in each basin helps ensure that the management within each basin is driven by locals. This process allows for decisions to be discussed and decided by locals who deeply engage with the rivers that support our environment, economies, and Colorado way of life.
You can check out a map below to determine your river basin; and engage with the graphics at the bottom of this post to learn more about how each basin’s economy is impacted by the recreation in the area.
Basin Roundtable: The basin roundtables were developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2005 to “facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven collaborative solutions” (CWCB Basin Roundtables). These roundtables are composed of local volunteer members who represent a variety of interests including basin agriculture, environment,and recreation. Each basin has its own bank account and funds local projects. Monthly meetings are open to the public, and are where funding and other strategic decisions are made. This means you, and others who care about water conservation can participate and help influence the decision making process. Better yet, you can join these meetings virtually from the comfort of your home.
Basin Implementation Plan: Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) are developed by basin roundtables to help frame regional issues as part of the overall creation of Colorado’s statewide water plan. While the Colorado Water Plan seeks to address statewide water concerns, BIPs are more focused on local needs, plans, projects, and goals. The BIPs are developed by basin roundtable members with support from the community and ultimately help inform the statewide water plan as well as direct spending priorities for the Roundtables.
Colorado Water Plan: In 2015, then-governor John Hickenlooper ordered the creation of a plan to help coordinate and manage Colorado water. That moment was the impetus for our nine partner organizations to come together to form the Water for Colorado Coalition. The Water Plan was written and developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with support from stakeholders, interest groups, and the general public, who submitted 30,000 comments (which Water for Colorado played a major role in gathering) to inform the plan. The core values of the plan are designed to support a productive economy, create efficient water infrastructure, and protect the state’s diverse ecosystems. Colorado’s Water Plan remains a living piece of guidance that undergoes regular updates, the next of which is coming up in June 2022 — and is therefore already underway.
The first step toward responsibly managing water is working to ensure the public helps shape these plans. Members of the public need to speak up ensuring environmental concerns are addressed in the BIP updates. There’s no one better suited to inform local planning than people like you, who live, work, and recreate in the basins and understand the critical role that water and healthy rivers play in our economy, environment, and everyday lives. In the coming weeks, Water for Colorado will share opportunities for you to engage in the update process for the Basin Implementation Plans during the public comment phase that runs from October 13 through November 15. This is a critical opportunity for you to make your voice heard! Until then, we hope that you share this blog with members of your community to help all Coloradans understand the role they can play in supporting Colorado’s rivers and water!
THE Colorado Water Conservation Board handed out roughly $2.8 million last week to five projects in the San Luis Valley, including a first-of-its kind conservation easement program aimed at protecting the region’s groundwater.
Colorado Open Lands garnered $1.4 million for a voluntary conservation easement program, which would reduce groundwater pumping while allowing for continued agricultural use. The management plans accompanying the easements would draw on the experience of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The total cost of the project is $8.2 million, the majority of which will come from the NRCS.
CWCB granted $818,030 to the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project for work on the Anaconda, Independent No. 2, Knoblauch, Ehrowitz, and Billings ditches. The project would improve diversions for the respective ditches, all of which are in Rio Grande County, while also including fish and boat passage. Work crews would also restore 3,960 linear feet of stream bank and enhance aquatic habitat through willow planting, channel and stream bank shaping, and the installation of rock clusters.
The board awarded $163,406 to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to develop an in-basin water marketing strategy to secure the roughly 16,000 acre-feet needed by the Subdistricts to offset stream depletions. The program’s managers are eyeing tools such as temporary water leases or rotational fallowing toward that end. The Rio Grande Basin Cooperative Project, as the effort is known, also received $212,105 from the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, and roughly $163,000 from three other funders toward the $425,511 project cost.
The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association received $24,500 to hold seminars around irrigation, soil health and cropping in 2022. Funds would also go toward developing a stakeholder group to implement projects and the association’s hosting of the Congreso de Acequias.
Colorado Master Irrigator, a nonprofit educational group, received $414,875 to expand trainings on water and energy conservation and other efficiency practices across the state. Part of those funds will focus on expanding offerings into the San Luis Valley through a partnership with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Subdistrict No. 1.
All of the funding for the Valley projects came from the Colorado Water Plan Grant Program. State lawmakers and Governor Jared Polis gave the grant program a boost in spring with $15 million from the state’s General Fund.
FromThe Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gene Hinkemeyer):
Did you know the Colorado Department of Natural Resources calls for 80% of 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 — YWG BRT — is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven, collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The YWG BRT has been working on an integrated water management plan for the past several years.
The overall goal of the integrated water management plan is to use science, data and community input to build a healthy, productive water future in the Yampa basin for all water users. A committee of volunteers selected by and reporting to the YWG BRT coordinates the project.
Over the past two years, the integrated water management plan has focused on four geographic segments in the basin: upper, middle and lower main stem of the Yampa and the Elk River. Stakeholder interviews were conducted of agricultural, environmental/recreational and municipal/industrial water stakeholders in the basin. Interviews were conducted to learn about stakeholder’s operation and diversion infrastructure, water and riparian land management related concerns and opportunities for improvement.
Diversion assessments were also conducted to identify, evaluate and recommend multibenefit projects. The diversion infrastructure assessment report, which can be found at http://YampaWhiteGreen.com, represents the findings of the structures assessed. The primary goal of the diversion assessments was to gain an understanding of infrastructure used for diversions and to identify locations where infrastructure improvements could provide multiple benefits to the river and water users. These assessments evaluate opportunities that could benefit the structure owner(s), fish passage, recreational boating and overall river health.
So, what do we do with all this information? The integrated water management plan volunteer committee organized three focus areas around key topics to learn more and help identify projects for future work: ag infrastructure; riparian habitat/wetland/natural bank stability; and flows/shortages. A few projects are already in the works, with other projects to begin later this year.
The ag infrastructure work group has identified an initial set of agricultural diversion infrastructure projects that the integrated water management plan hopes to support and fund starting in 2022. Using data collected from interviews, the riparian focused work group has identified landowners with concerns related to erosion, bank stability and riparian habitat. Follow up interviews over the next few months are planned to better characterize their concerns and learn more about potential solutions.
Additional work has been completed, including a remote assessment that provided geomorphic, hydrological and ecological context for the integrated water management plan planning effort. This broad characterization applies remote sensing and GIS-based tools and techniques to assess moderate-resolution data sets across watershed and planning segment scales to identify and map trends and characteristics in physical and biological functions within the basin. Field assessments are underway to ground truth and verify the remote assessment findings.
A fluvial hazard mapping project is also in progress to delineate areas vulnerable to sediment and debris impacts spurred by rainfall or rapid snowmelt. As a final product, these maps can be used to inform land use planning, stream interventions and to identify and prioritize the conservation or restoration of natural geomorphic floodplains, wetlands and river corridors within the basin.
The integrated water management plan volunteer committee has been busy and continues to work hard on community driven plans for the Yampa Basin. We can only be successful with input and ideas from all stakeholders. If you would like to learn more, please visit our website, http://YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.
Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
Colorado gaming officials on Thursday [September 23, 2021] announced that the first full year of legal sports betting in the state produced nearly $8 million in tax revenue that will help the state implement its water resiliency plan.
The Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission approved the allocation at its meeting Thursday.
“In all, the state received nearly $8.6 million in revenue, that’s discounting $1.6 million state gaming officials returned to the general fund in March to reimburse for start-up costs covered to launch wagering in May 2020.”
The Colorado Water Plan was established in November 2015 to help ensure the state’s long-term water needs would be met amid concerns about climate change and other challenges the state faces…
Despite the water plan funding representing less than 1 percent of the actual bets placed, state officials are still pleased with the results so far.
FromThe Denver Post (Conrad Swanson) via The Lamar Ledger:
Since Colorado launched legalized sports betting in May 2020, the state has collected nearly five times more money for water projects than anticipated, gaming officials said.
The start of the National Football League’s season provided yet another welcome financial bump, with about $44 million in bets during its first weekend (Sept. 9-13), according to Daniel Hartman, director of the state’s Division of Gaming…
Money collected from gambling proceeds goes toward work meant to conserve water, protect natural habitats, improve infrastructure and more, according to Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And more money equals funding new projects under the Colorado Water Plan at a time when Colorado River reservoirs downstream are low.
Hartman said his office earmarked about $8 million from sports betting for the plan, which sets priorities through 2050 for projects in the following five categories: agriculture; conservation and land use; engagement and innovation; environment and recreation; and water storage and supply.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board doles out the money, and Ris said it tries to fund projects that check more than one box, like work with Colorado Springs Utilities that brings water from the Eagle River Basin to Colorado Springs and Aurora — which she said “opened up quite a bit of fish and boating habitat.”
Before voters legalized sports betting, Ris said her department was awarding grants with whatever money officials found in their “couch cushions.”
At the outset, legislative analysts projected gambling could bring in between $9.7 million to $11.2 million in its first year, revenue department spokeswoman Suzanne Karrer said. But shortly after voters agreed to legalize the practice, state officials cut their estimates for 2020-2021 to between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in part because casinos weren’t willing to pay $125,000 every other year to host sports betting, Karrer said.
Even when the pandemic shut down leagues for a few months, gamblers flocked to sports betting — made easy through apps. The $3 billion in bets from May 2020 to July 31, 2021, translates into $9.4 million in state revenue, Hartman said…
Ris said the board can’t give out any of this windfall until next summer, after the 2022 General Assembly grants it permission to spend the money.
Here’s a guest column from Phil Weiser and Bob Rankin that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
From the very founding of our state, our predecessors recognized that, in Colorado, life is inscribed in water. This truth is even written on our Capitol walls beneath the gold dome. As we continue to grapple with the implications of a changing climate and an ever-growing population, one thing is clear — the water management challenges we face require collaboration, innovation, planning, and major funding.
From the San Luis Valley to the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains, our communities depend on water for our agriculture, our outdoor recreation economy, and our lives. But we cannot simply stand pat and continue a status quo in the face of a growing population and decreasing water supplies on account of reduced snowpack.
We must invest in water infrastructure with a sense of urgency — so we can deliver win-win solutions. And we need to do this now as we have unprecedented opportunity to utilize federal and state funds. Our forecast for state revenues for the next few years rebounded dramatically from the initial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the American Rescue Plan Act provides Colorado $3.8 billion to recover from the pandemic and invest in our future. Water projects are one such investment in which these funds can and should be invested. Furthermore, Congress may very well send additional funds to Colorado this summer through a bipartisan infrastructure package. To be sure, there are competing demands for these funds, such as investing in broadband infrastructure for unserved areas. At the top of the list, however, we should prioritize water infrastructure.
We believe investment from these combined sources will dramatically strengthen Colorado’s water security and enable us to implement water management projects called for by the Colorado Water Plan. These funds will not address every need, or even every high-priority project, but they will drastically accelerate construction and maintenance work, such as repairing pipes and water leaks, on the systems we rely upon to deliver safe and clean water to our communities.
Colorado has both a vision and a strategy — as well as priorities — for how to allocate funding for water projects. The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, represents a visionary promise for how Colorado will manage its water resources. For starters, we are committed to protecting all of Colorado and not allowing wholesale “buy and dry” situations. When “buy and dry” plans are implemented, which has already happened in some rural counties, those plans spur the decline of rural communities’ infrastructure, undermine their agriculture, damage the economy, and hurt the local population. There are many cautionary tales in rural Colorado warning us that this is not how to manage water.
The Water Plan also calls for significant investments in water infrastructure, storage, and conservation efforts to meet tomorrow’s water needs. In particular, the plan identified billions of dollars in needs across water supply, infrastructure, recreation, and the environment over the next 30 years. Currently, as noted by the water plan, a fraction of the state budget goes toward water projects. We need to prioritize such investments.
In the Colorado Water Plan, we have a broad roadmap to invest in Colorado’s water future. But right now our biggest challenge is funding. With continued growth on the horizon, planning for the future of water management will become even more important. And to fulfill the plan’s vision, it will take billions of dollars. To be sure, the General Assembly has commendably found both some one-time funding and dedicated funding streams to fund the water plan in recent years. But to properly fund Colorado’s water will take billions more.
Colorado can have a bright future that enables our entire state to thrive. Ensuring that future, however, is going to require smart and innovative investments in how we manage our water. By investing a meaningful portion of the billions provided to Colorado under the American Rescue Plan Act, we can shore up critical water infrastructure that will enhance our resilience going forward, and deliver dividends by strengthening rural communities, creating jobs for agricultural and outdoor recreation centers, and ensuring water resources are protected for the next generation. We have the available resources now to do it and should come together to make the investments called for by the Colorado Water Plan. We both stand ready to work and support the effort to do just that.
Phil Weiser is the attorney general of Colorado. Bob Rankin is a state senator and represents Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.
Water, always an important topic in our area, will be the focus of this month’s meeting. In July, we will learn about the work of the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), a local organization working to address the management of this precious resource.
Al Pfister, on behalf of the WEP, will be presenting the results of data collected in Phase II of the WEP’s assessment of the environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the Upper San Juan River. The WEP’s data collection is a part of the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan of 2015 in the development of a Stream Management Plan/Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The WEP’s data collection efforts were done to assess local environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the face of a warming and drying climate.
Pfister is a semi-retired fish and wildlife biologist who has worked in seven western U.S. states dealing with endangered species issues, trying to find a balance between conserving imperiled fish, wildlife, plants, herptiles and invertebrates, while still allowing the various uses (development, recreation, grazing, timber harvest, energy development, etc) to coexist. In addition to his work with WEP, he serves on the board of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership and on the board of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. He is a past board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society.
Audubon meetings are open to the public. Please come with your questions about this important management tool. We hope to be able to return to in-person meetings this fall if conditions allow.
Click here to read the report (Natalie K. Day). Here’s the abstract:
The Upper Yampa River Basin drains approximately 2,100 square miles west of the Continental Divide in north-western Colorado. There is a growing need to understand potential changes in the quantity and quality of water resources as the basin is undergoing increasing land and water development to support growing municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with stakeholders in the Upper Yampa River Basin water community, began a study to characterize and identify changes in streamflow and selected water-quality constituents, including suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and orthophosphate, in the basin. This study used streamflow and water-quality data from selected U.S. Geological Survey sites to provide a better understanding of how major factors, including land use, climate change, and geological features, may influence streamflow and water quality.
Analysis of long-term (1910–2018) and short-term (1992–2018) records of streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and tributary sites indicate downward trends in one or more streamflow statistics, including 1-day maximum, mean, and 7-day minimum. Long-term downward trends in daily mean streamflow in April (22 percent overall) at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, correspond to observed changes in streamflow documented across western North America and the Colorado River Basin that are predominately associated with changes in snowmelt runoff and temperatures. During the short-term period of analysis, decreases in streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and some tributary sites are likely related to changes in consumptive use and reservoir management or, at sites with no upstream flow impoundments, changes in irrigation diversions and climate.
Concentrations of water-quality constituents were typically highest in spring (March, April, and May) during the early snowmelt runoff period as material that is washed off the land surface drains into streams. Highest concentrations occurred slightly later, in May, June, and July, at Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir, Colo., and slightly earlier, in February and March at Yampa River at Milner, Colo., indicating that these sites may have different or additional sources of phosphorus from upstream inputs. Yampa River at Milner, Colo., and Yampa River above Elkhead Creek, Colo., had the highest net yields of suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and are likely influenced by land use and erosion as the basins of both of these sites are underlain by highly erodible Cretaceous shales.
Upward trends in estimated Kjeldahl nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations and loads were found at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colo. From 1999 to 2018, the Kjeldahl nitrogen concentration increased by 10 percent or 0.035 milligram per liter, and load increased by 22 percent or 26 tons. Total phosphorus concentration increased by 20 percent or 0.0081 milligram per liter, and loads increased by 41 percent or 6.2 tons. Decreases in streamflow and changes in land use may contribute to these trends.
During multiple summer sampling events at Stagecoach Reservoir, the physical and chemical factors indicated conditions conducive to cyanobacterial blooms, including surface-water temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius and total phosphorus and total nitrogen concentrations in exceedance of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment interim concentrations for water-quality standards. Local geological features (predominately sandstones and shales) and additional inputs from upstream land use likely contribute to the elevated nutrient conditions in Stagecoach Reservoir.
The Water for Colorado Coalition today celebrated the passage of HB21-1260, which allocates $20 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and Basin Roundtables for implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan.
The bill, co-sponsored by House Speaker Alec Garnett, Rep. Marc Catlin, and Sens. Kerry Donovan and Cleave Simpson, passed both the state House and Senate with unanimous approval, illustrating continued, widespread support for water funding in Colorado. The bill will provide the CWCB $15 million for grant projects — like the ones featured here — that will benefit water users and rivers through conservation and education efforts across the state. It also allocates $5 million to be distributed directly to Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtables.
In response to the passage of HB21-1260, the Water for Colorado Coalition issued the following statement:
“We are thrilled by the unanimous approval of $20 million to support critical state water priorities, and applaud the Colorado General Assembly for their continued prioritization of water conservation needs. These funds will bolster ongoing water projects and programs and pave the way for new grants, allowing the state to increase resilience to climate change, safeguard flowing rivers, and support thriving communities. We look forward to working with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Basin Roundtables, and local communities as these funds are distributed to ensure that our rivers and water continue to meet the needs of all who rely on them.”
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Scoping Phase Finalized for Colorado Water Plan Update
The scoping phase for the Colorado Water Plan update process took place between March and early June 2021. During this phase, the Colorado Water Conservation Board collected feedback and input by hosting 13 workshops including 40 speakers and involving 600 participants. Topics ranged from environmental and recreation impacts, forest health, land use planning, climate change, agricultural viability, and more.
The updated Water Plan will also incorporate eight Basin Implementation Plans – smaller, tailored plans for water issues in each of Colorado’s river basins. These sections of the Plan are set to be finalized in January 2022.
The state water board is encouraging all nine basin roundtables to adopt a code of conduct requiring members to communicate in a professional, respectful, truthful and courteous way. But some Western Slope roundtables are pushing back.
Over roughly the last month, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell has been visiting the remote roundtable meetings on Zoom, answering questions about the code of conduct and urging the roundtables to adopt it. The goal of the document is to make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking up in meetings.
Mitchell said that with important and potentially contentious discussions on the horizon for water-short Colorado, it’s important to have a set of conduct standards in place to guide those discussions.
Gunnison River Basin Roundtable member Bill Nesbitt said at the May meeting it was a “third-grade sandbox question.” Mitchell agreed.
“I think it is similar to a third-grade sandbox, but not every sandbox is fair and some kids throw sand in other kids’ eyes,” Mitchell said. “We need to make the message clear about the expectations as we move forward to some of those really difficult discussions.”
Some members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable welcomed the code of conduct.
“I support adopting a policy,” said Mely Whiting, environmental representative and legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “I think that things do get more and more controversial as we move forward. In my experience on this roundtable, in recent times things have gotten a little bit out of hand and quite a bit more aggressive. I’ve been, myself, uncomfortable quite often.”
The Colorado legislature created the nine basin roundtables — South Platte, Metro, Arkansas, Rio Grande, San Juan/Dolores (collectively known as Southwest) Gunnison, Colorado, Yampa/White/Green and North Platte — in 2005 to encourage locally driven collaborative solutions on water issues. They represent each of the state’s eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, and are made up of volunteers from different water sectors like agriculture, environment, recreation and municipal.
In addition to asking members to promote an inclusive environment that treats everyone fairly, the code also lays out best practices for conducting business. According to the code, the roundtables have the responsibility for noticing meetings, adhering to federal and state laws and public health orders and performing job tasks promptly and effectively.
Members at both the Southwest and Gunnison roundtables had issues with the best practices section. Montezuma County representative Ed Millard said the best practices section seemed more relevant to employees of the Division of Water Resources, not a volunteer board.
“I just think it’s going to have to be tuned to a volunteer organization before we adopt it,” he said at the April Southwest Roundtable meeting. “We certainly do need to resolve the tension and friction, but I don’t think adoption of (an) employee code is the way to do that.”
Southwest adopted the rest of the code of conduct, minus this best practices part at its May meeting. In the Gunnison basin, a motion to adopt the code of conduct failed; the discussion has been tabled until the July meeting.
Roundtable member Michael Murphy, who represents Hinsdale County, said the group already holds their meetings with respect and that the code was unnecessary.
“We are western Colorado. We don’t like being told what to do,” he said at the May Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting.
While the code of conduct will be the policy of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Mitchell admitted there was little the CWCB could do to enforce it on the roundtables, and the roundtables don’t have to adopt it.
“Being perfectly honest and transparent, enforcing a code of conduct on a volunteer roundtable is difficult,” she told the Southwest Roundtable. “(Enforcement) is as much a responsibility of me as a self-policing in the way we treat each other.”
Arkansas and Yampa/White/Green roundtables are aware of the code of conduct, but have not adopted it. The Rio Grande, South Platte and Metro basin roundtables have formally adopted it. The Colorado and North Platte basin roundtables have not discussed it yet.
This story ran in the May 24 editions of The Aspen Times and the Sky-Hi News.
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.