#RioGrande Roundtable meeting recap

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Roundtable member Judy Lopez and her boss Sarah Parmar with Colorado Open Lands (COL) talked with the Roundtable members on Tuesday about providing more options for farmers and ranchers considering conservation easements on their properties. The Roundtable is a group of San Luis Valley residents representing a variety of water uses throughout the Valley.

Parmar said COL has protected half a million acres across the state through conservation easements. “Conservation easements are still the only permanent tool to keep land and water in agriculture,” she said.

Parmar explained that conservation easements originated on the East Coast, and when they were introduced in Colorado, “water was an afterthought.” The focus was on land protection. However, as they evolved, conservation easements also focused on protecting the water rights associated with the land, not allowing the water rights to be sold but requiring them to remain in their historical use, Parmar explained.

Up to this point, conservation easement agreements were very restrictive regarding water use, she said. To meet current conditions and needs, however, COL brought together a team to look at more flexibility with water rights under conservation easements while still protecting the investment of those funding such easements. The efforts began with the South Platte Roundtable, which was concerned that about one third of irrigated land and water would be transferred to municipal use by 2050 through “buy and dry” purchases. “Buy and dry is the easiest way for municipalities to get water,” Parmar said.

To prevent permanent loss of the water, COL began looking at ways in which property owners could lease their water rights for a certain number of years, like seven out of 10, to municipalities like Castle Rock, while retaining some agricultural use of the water. During the years their water was going to municipalities, farmers could fallow their land, deficit irrigate, irrigate for less than a full season or use a crop that used less water, Parmar explained.

Parmar said South Platte Basin water users who were surveyed on the issue were interested in the concept, with nearly 60 percent saying they would be interested in a lease situation.

Parmar said their choices were to preserve the water rights through conservation easements or sell them off entirely, the latter being more profitable. A leasing option provided farmers and ranchers with another alternative, she said. The water would remain with the land but could be involved in a long-term lease with a municipality, which would give that municipality some assurances as well, Parmar explained.

Parmar said attorneys working with COL have developed easements that would accomplish these goals and meet IRS codes for conservation easements and the tax benefits associated with them.

Lopez said the way this would likely work in the San Luis Valley would be agriculture-to-agriculture leasing, not agriculture-to-municipality leasing. This might help with some of the challenges facing the Valley now from water export threats to state regulations, she said. It might also allow some folks to keep their properties that might not have been able to, she added.

Lopez said the water portions of conservation easements would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Roundtable member Ronda Lobato asked about the possibility of changing existing conservation easements. Parmar said she did not think that was out of the realm of possibility. She said there are about two million acres under conservation easements through various organizations across the state, a lot of it in the San Luis Valley.

Roundtable member Mike Gibson was very opposed to changing existing conservation easements. He said the roundtable had approved funding for conservation easements on the basis the water would stay on the land and be used for historical purposes. He said the people who entered those agreements for their land also did so with the understanding the water would remain protected, and to change that would affect other factors like habitat.

Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs, who is the manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, said he understood that conservation easements already in place were created with some options off the table, but with the current situation in the Rio Grande Basin, it might be time to look at more flexibility.

Little Snake River Dam backers forge ahead with $11 million, seek more from feds — WyoFile.com

Proposed dam site on West Fork of Battle Creek, Little Snake River watershed S. of Rawlins, Wyoming via the Wyoming Water Development Office.

From WyoFile.com (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

The plan to impound 10,000 acre feet of water on the West Fork of Battle Creek barely survived a legislative roadblock earlier this year when the Wyoming House stripped $40 million from a water bill that had been earmarked for the project. A compromise with the Senate saw $4.7 million in appropriations restored, but with caveats requiring further legislative approval for expenditures and pro-rata financial participation from potential beneficiaries in Colorado.

Dam backers are not for the moment returning to Wyoming’s financial well. Neither of two draft 2019 water bills that propose more than $28 million for water planning and development statewide include funding for the project, according to a review of draft bills posted online. But two water districts — one in Colorado and one in Wyoming — are asking for a total of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct environmental reviews of the dam and reservoir that would be constructed in the Medicine Bow National Forest, officials say.

Meantime, dam backers failed to win full-throated support for the $80 million project from a water coalition in Northern Colorado. Instead, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable said they supported further evaluation of the proposed dam, but not yet construction of the facility itself (see letter below).

Dam backers also must figure out whether Wyoming and Colorado’s new governors — both of whom were elected in November — will support the project and to what degree. Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said he continues to work with his counterpart in Colorado to obtain support and money but the election means dam backers have to undertake a new round of lobbying.

“Every time there’s a new governor, all those conversations start over,” he said in a telephone interview.

Show-me tour wins tepid Colorado support

To build Colorado support, Wyoming officials took members of the Colorado roundtable on a tour of the dam site and surrounding area last summer. LaBonde drafted a letter of support that the Colorado group could consider signing its name to in late November, group chairman Jackie Brown said. “We require[d] that,” she said of the draft correspondence.

It proposed that the roundtable, a coalition of water users that includes irrigators, municipal interests, and recreation representatives, write the following; “We would like to offer this letter of support for the project and look forward to working with your office to continue to move this project forward for the mutual benefit of water users in both states.”

LaBonde’s version stated that the project would have $92 million in benefits. It said the Wyoming Legislature has already appropriated $11.3 million to build the dam and that Colorado irrigators could have a chance to buy some of the stored water. The $11 million figure comes from a $7 million planning appropriation, very little of which was used, plus the conditional $4.7 million appropriation earlier this year.

“As the project is currently configured approximately 4,000 – 5,000 acres of irrigated lands in Colorado would be potentially eligible to purchase supplemental irrigation water from the project,” LaBonde’s draft said.

The Colorado roundtable adopted most of the proposed language. But “the group stopped short of supporting the project,” LaBonde said, backing an investigative process only.

“At our November 14th meeting, the Roundtable unanimously approved the support for the process of reviewing a reservoir at the west fork of Battle Creek,” the final roundtable letter, dated Nov. 27, reads. “The membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration, as approval of a reservoir would need to come before the membership in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”

The roundtable also dropped proposed language that stated it “would like to continue … identifying other funding opportunities for this project.” Instead, the Colorado group said it “supports the development of water resource in the basin and would be happy to work with local water users in Colorado and Wyoming and the State of Wyoming.”

The proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek would serve 67 to 100 irrigators, studies commissioned by the Water Development Office say. The most likely beneficiaries in Colorado would appear to be members of the Pot Hook Water Conservancy District that joined the Savery-Little Snake district in applying for the $1.2 million federal grant.

That district appears to be relatively small. In 2017 it held a successful election to impose a four-mill property tax that would raise $12,831.48 in 2018, and similar amounts in subsequent years. The tax money will “meet the future needs of landowners within the district” and “proactively protect … existing water rights,” according to a description of the measure. It passed on a 13-7 vote.

O’Toole agreed with LaBonde that the fresh administrations in Cheyenne and Denver will require a renewed effort securing support — support that backers couldn’t find in their home House of Representatives. “I’m going to watch and see who gets picked for positions and go from there,” O’Toole said.

Among the considerations is the announced retirement of Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell who has held the cabinet-level position since 2001. A gubernatorial appointee who’s considered the state’s water czar, his office resolves conflicts among users and represents Wyoming during inter-state negotiations. When Tyrrell retires in January, he will have served under four governors.

Meantime, conditions in the Little Snake River Basin are deteriorating, O’Toole said, as a 19-year-drought is forcing water users to plan for shortages. “We saw the [Little Snake] River in a state I’ve never seen,” he said. This summer, for the first time ever, there was a call for regulation on Colorado’s Yampa River as water users asked state regulators to enforce prior appropriation doctrine and law. Those ensure that during low flows the holders of earlier water rights get their allocation before holders of more recent rights can divert river flows.

Backers want federal funds but not oversight

West Fork Dam supporters want a land exchange that would give Wyoming some 100 acres of federal property in the Medicine Bow National Forest to construct the proposed dam and impound the reservoir. Such a deal would exempt the project from some aspects of the demanding NEPA process, likely making it easier to accomplish. So far, the federal agency hasn’t received any formal requests for development, forest spokesman Aaron Voos said in a telephone interview from forest headquarters in Laramie.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Governor Hickenlooper’s proposed budget include $30 million for implementation of the #COWaterPlan

Gov. John Hickenlooper touts his water plan as pioneering. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

from The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta):

On Thursday, several Colorado conservation and river advocacy groups praised Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposal to add a record $30 million to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and help the state prevent water shortages as the state continues to experience an extended drought.

In his budget request for fiscal year 2019-2020, the governor proposes to invest $30 million over the next three years from the general fund, on top of funds already earmarked for water projects that benefit river health and our communities across the state.

The groups – Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Environmental Defense Fund, Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Colorado, American Rivers and Audubon ­­— called the proposal a “smart investment in healthy rivers that will have ripple effects across Colorado.”

“This budget request is a recognition of the importance of water to Colorado families, of water challenges that Colorado could face, and the imperative that Colorado secures its water future,” the groups said. “This is a tremendous step forward, and a sustainable water future for Colorado families will require continued investments. We look forward to working with the next governor and the legislature on longer-term commitments that will ensure the state has the resources to fully implement the Colorado Water Plan.”

South Platte and Metro basin roundtables release new basin data tools — @AspenJournalism

An interactive graphic from one of the new storyboards shows the instream flow rights of rivers and streams throughout the South Platte Basin.

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

For anyone in Colorado wondering how water reaches their pipes, there is plenty of public information out there. But a cursory internet search will quickly turn up incomprehensible acronyms — SWSI, TBD, BIP and CWP, just to name a few — along with hydrology charts, infrastructure designs and a complicated set of laws that traces back all the way to the 19th Century.

In an effort to simplify the deluge of data out there, the water community in the South Platte Basin teamed up with a local non-profit to develop a new set of tools to explore data about water management in the basin.

“I thought that rather than referring to big documents and PDF reports that people could look at these live interactive resources and have more engaging discussions on the issues,” said Steve Malers, chief technology officer at the Open Water Foundation and the project’s creator.

With a year and $100,000 in combined funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the South Platte and Metro basin roundtables, Malers was able to sift through reams of water data to create three interactive storyboards.

“There are lots and lots of things out there already, but they aren’t all easy to understand,” said Lacey Williams, public education and outreach coordinator for both the South Platte and Metro roundtables. “We liked the idea of putting together maps and data into a story.”

The storyboards are designed to explain the more dense aspects of water management to the public (and to shed light on some of those acronyms).

Malers also incorporated information specifically for people who work in water.

By crunching numbers and reformatting data to fit into one readable page, Malers hopes that roundtable members and others working in water can use the storyboards to make more informed decisions.

“If they find those things useful, perhaps that can change the paradigm a bit and we can have more data-driven discussions,” he said.

For now, these storyboards are tucked away on the South Platte Basin Roundtable’s website, but Malers and Williams are working to spread the link across the web.

According to Williams, the education committees are already considering expanding the storyboards to other parts of the state.

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

“News You Can Use from the Gunnison Basin” is hot off the presses from @GunnisonRiver

Confluence of the Cimmaron and Gunnison rivers. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Lower Gunnison Project (LGP)

The LGP is making progress and construction bids have come in for one of four projects (Needle Rock Head gate Improvement) slated to go to construction this fall. Initial permitting and planning has been completed with the publication of the Environmental Assessment (EA). This detailed EA can be reviewed here. Information on the next steps is being uploaded to the LGP page. This will include news for both on- and off-farm activities.

Western Slope to keep studying water without state funds, Front Range support — @AspenJournalism

Lake Powell April 12, 2017. Photo credit Patti Weeks via Earth Science picture of the day.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

Two Western Slope water conservation districts are moving forward with the third phase of a “risk study” exploring at how much water might be available to bolster water levels in Lake Powell, and they are doing so without state funding to avoid Front Range opposition to the study.

Lake Powell today is half-full and dropping and water managers say several more years like 2018 could drain the reservoir, which today contains 12.3 million acre-feet of water. And the looming water shortage is revealing lingering east-west tensions among Colorado’s water interests.

Officials at the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District, whose boundaries include the Yampa, Colorado, Gunnison, and San Juan river basins on the Western Slope, are eager to answer some forward-looking questions.

How much water in a hotter and drier world might still be available from Western Slope rivers to divert and put to beneficial use, for example.

And how much water might be made available from current water users to send downriver from each of the major Western Slope river basins to help fill Lake Powell?

Those are sensitive questions in Colorado, on both sides of the Continental Divide.

And powerful Front Range water interests think the state should be answering them, not the two Western Slope conservation districts.

A state agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, approved a $32,000 grant in March 2015 to help pay for the first phase for the Western Slope’s “risk study.”

Then the CWCB kicked in $40,000 in March 2017 for the second phase of the Western Slope’s risk study.

But that second grant-review process brought opposition from the Front Range Water Council, which unsuccessfully sought to block the requested funding from the Western Slope.

“The opposition to Phase II of the risk study was focused on concerns related to the direction and management of the study coming solely from the West Slope without East Slope involvement, and being funded by the state,” said Jim Lochhead, the president of the Front Range Water Council and the CEO of Denver Water, in a statement released July 20. “Risks on the Colorado River are of statewide concern and any such studies are better conducted by the state, through its Colorado Water Conservation Board.”

The Front Range Water Council is an ad-hoc group that includes Denver Water, Northern Water, Aurora Water, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, Colorado Springs Utilities, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company.

The first two phases of the Western Slope’s risk study showed that 1 million to 2 million acre-feet of water from current water users may be needed to bolster levels in Lake Powell, especially if more water is also diverted to the Front Range.

Today, irrigators on the Western Slope use about 1.3 million acre-feet of water a year, while the Front Range uses about 541,000 acre-feet from the Western Slope to meet municipal and agricultural demand.

As such, officials at the Western Slope conservation districts are now asking if, say, 10 percent of that water use was cut back over time, in a voluntary and compensated demand management program, and the saved water was banked somewhere — ideally Lake Powell itself — would that be enough to keep the big reservoir full enough to still produce power at Glen Canyon Dam and deliver enough water downstream to the meet the terms of the Colorado River Compact?

And if it was enough, how much should come from each Western Slope basin?

On Monday in Glenwood Springs, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acknowledged that the 2017 funding request from the Western Slope “ran into a lot of political opposition from the Front Range, basically saying, ‘You guys are asking questions that may harm our state.’ And the questions that were posed in Phase II were essentially dumbed down in order to comply with that request so that we could get the [state funding]. So our board and the Southwestern board voted unanimously to proceed to fund [Phase III of the study] on their own.”

Mueller was addressing the members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable when he described the 2017 process. The roundtable, which reviews grants for the CWCB, had twice voted to fund the risk study, along with three other Western Slope roundtables.

And even without state funding, it’s still important to the two Western Slope conservation districts that the four Western Slope basin roundtables now conceptually support the third phase of the risk study.

On Monday, the members of the Colorado roundtable unanimously passed a resolution to that effect.

Mueller assured the roundtable members that the two districts will work to make the mechanics, and the results, of the evolving water-modeling tool available.

“We really want to make sure that what we’re doing is an open and transparent modeling process,” Mueller said. “Because we think that data that everybody can agree on is data that can then elevate the conversation with respect to the risk in the Colorado River.”

Mueller also told the roundtable that interest from the Front Range is welcomed during the third phase of the study, up to a point.

“We have reached out to the Front Range,” he said. “I went over to their joint roundtable in May and explained to them what we were doing and welcomed their participation, input, their views. Didn’t welcome their censorship, but welcomed their thoughts.”

Heather Sackett of Aspen Journalism contributed to this story. Aspen Journalism is reporting on water and rivers in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river basins in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other news organizations.

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

Rodeo Rapid on the upper Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado Basin Roundtable Integrated Water Management Planning Framework Project

The Colorado Basin Roundtable’s Integrated Water Management Planning Framework Project created guidance and on-line data tools to build a foundation for conducting comprehensive integrated water management plans in the mainstem Colorado River Basin in Colorado. The purpose of these plans is to identify ways to provide water for environmental needs in conjunction with the needs of agricultural, domestic and industrial water users. The Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University coordinated the project, and most of the technical work was conducted by Lotic Hydrological.

The Final Report for this project is available for review here.

The website that houses the on-line tools referred to in the report is here.