Arizona is once again at a critical decision point in the ongoing struggle to secure our water resources. If we fail to take the right course, we risk igniting yet another Colorado River water war.
Lake Mead, from which we draw our share of the Colorado River, is dropping to perilous levels. In order to stabilize lake levels and protect our water supply, the Department of Water Resources has negotiated an agreement with California and the other basin states to begin reducing water diversions from the Lake.
California and the other basin states are ready to sign the agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Arizona is the lone holdout, mainly because our state Legislature, caught up in special interest demands, has failed to ratify the DCP agreement.
CAWCD is overstepping its role
Behind this legislative impasse are two groups threatening to block ratification.
The first is the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), a local elected body that distributes our Colorado River water throughout central Arizona.
CAWCD is now reaching beyond its proper role by attempting to intervene in the interstate Colorado River negotiations.
These interstate negotiations are the exclusive job of the Department of Water Resources, whose director is appointed by the governor to represent all Arizonans…
Pinal County districts also are a threat
The second threat to legislative ratification of the DCP comes from the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, the Central Arizona Irrigation District and several other agricultural districts located in Pinal County.
In 2004, these Pinal districts signed onto a far-reaching water settlement agreement worked out under the leadership of Sen. Jon Kyl. In that settlement the districts agreed that their use of Colorado River water would be phased out not later than 2030, after which they would go back to full reliance on groundwater.
In exchange for giving up long-term rights to Colorado River water and pumping more local groundwater, the districts bargained for and received heavily subsidized Colorado River rates to be paid for by property taxes levied on landowners in Phoenix, Tucson and throughout central Arizona…
It matters a lot. If the Drought Contingency Plan is not ratified soon California and the other Basin states may decide to proceed without us. That could be the beginning of another Colorado River water war.
Arizona has blundered into Colorado River wars in the past, and we usually lose. We must not go that way again. It is up to the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to promptly ratify the Drought Contingency Plan as negotiated by the Department of Water Resources.
The state of Colorado is now officially on board with a regional water strategy designed to keep enough water in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam to avoid violating the Colorado River Compact and keep generating hydropower at the dam.
At a meeting Thursday in Golden, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board unanimously adopted a state policy giving its “full support” to proposed drought-contingency plans and agreements now being reviewed in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins.
“I think we’ve really done something important for the state today,” Russ George, a CWCB director from Rifle who represents the Colorado River basin within Colorado, told a meeting room filled with water managers, water users and water attorneys from around the state.
The new policy means Colorado, along with the other upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, can declare its support for the drought-contingency plans (DCP) and agreements at a mid-December meeting in Las Vegas of the Colorado River Water Users Association.
The lower basin states of California and Nevada also are in support of the agreements, but water managers in Arizona are still working through a series of contentious, complicated issues and have yet to reach consensus.
If consensus in both basins can be reached by mid-December, legislation may be introduced during the current lame-duck session of Congress.
A sense of urgency to do something about the falling water levels in Lake Powell has been growing, and was heightened in Colorado in 2018 by the hot and dry conditions.
Lake Powell on Friday, November 15 was at 44 percent full and at an elevation of 3,588 feet above sea level on the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam. That’s 98 feet above the “minimum power pool” level of 3,490 feet.
The reservoir level has dropped by 38 feet in the last year, and water officials are concerned if dry conditions persist, the reservoir could reach the minimum power pool level within three years.
Operations, and reservoir levels, in Lake Powell are tied by regulatory guidelines with levels in Lake Mead, which is 38 percent full today. The new DCP storage pool in Lake Powell would be exempt from the operating guidelines, however, and would serve as a secure, and separate, savings account within Lake Powell for the upper basin states.
Bridging the divide
The new Colorado state policy adopted Thursday was crafted by staff members at the CWCB, a state agency within the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the attorney general’s office to bridge the latest chasm that had emerged between water managers on the Western Slope and the Front Range.
Water officials on both sides of the Continental Divide want to store water in Lake Powell in a regulatory pool controlled by the upper basin, with the goals of first, keeping the reservoir levels high enough to keep producing hydropower at the dam, and second, high enough to continue to release enough water from the dam to meet the upper basin’s downstream obligations under the Colorado River compact.
But exactly how water that is now being consumed by farmers and ranchers and city dwellers will be conserved and sent downstream to fill the new pool in Lake Powell is uncertain, and a key issue is whether the state might require mandatory cuts in water use to fill the new pool to avoid a compact call.
The Western Slope, lead by the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, also wanted the state to help ensure that the creation of the new pool of water didn’t lead to a buy-and-dry of irrigated agriculture on the Western Slope.
And they wanted assurances that the state would use a public process to devise any new rules or laws requiring mandatory cutbacks in water use, should low water conditions persist.
Meanwhile, Front Range water interests wanted to make sure that the state didn’t tie its own hands and restrict its abilities to take steps to avoid a compact.
Responsive to concerns
The state’s new policy says it will use an open public process to create a “demand management,” or water-use reduction, program that incentivizes water users — primarily irrigators — to temporarily cut back on their consumptive use of water, in exchange for monetary compensation.
And if mandatory cutbacks in water use are ever necessary, “any alternative measures or rules for compact compliance administration” will be developed after “timely and extensive public outreach” and with “the goal, but not the requirement, of achieving general consensus within the state,” the policy says.
“The CWCB was very responsive to our request that they display state leadership in establishing a policy that going forward provides some security for the Western Slope and other regions of the state, and that no one region is going to suffer the brunt of a demand-management program,” said Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, after the meeting.
Mueller also said the CWCB “clearly separated demand management from some form of involuntary curtailment. It was very important to do that, as they are two different things.”
Both Mueller and Bruce Whitehead, the general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, thanked the CWCB board for listening to their concerns, and drafting a policy that attempted to address them.
“This was a hot topic,” said Whitehead.
Between the two, the Colorado River District and the Southwestern District represent all of the Western Slope. Both Mueller and Whitehead said they will recommend to their boards that they formally endorse the state’s policy at their upcoming board meetings.
The Front Range Water Council, an ad hoc group that includes the major municipal water providers between Fort Collins and Pueblo, sent the CWCB a letter of support for the DCP policy, urging adoption “without any changes.”
“Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of public input on this topic of critical importance to Colorado, and for developing a policy that will allow Colorado to engage in further processes that will protect our collective interests in the Colorado River and Upper Colorado River compacts,” said the letter, which was signed by Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the head of the Front Range Water Council.
Patti Wells, who represents the Denver metro area on the CWCB, said it was important that Colorado not be split by differences between the east and west slopes.
“There clearly is more that unites us in the ability for Colorado not to be subject to a compact call, then there is in the details of how we might avoid that,” she said.
She also challenged water managers to come up with a demand-management program that “makes everyone better off.”
“We ought to be able to figure out a way to get some water into Lake Powell without doing harm to anyone, and really making it a program that will benefit all the participants to the extent that we can,” said Wells, who recently retired as the general counsel for Denver Water. “I see no reason why we can’t approach this in that way, because we are Coloradans for God’s sake, and we are not anyone else.”
The agency that delivers Colorado River water to parts of Arizona offered a new proposal Thursday amid difficult negotiations on a proposed deal aimed at preventing the declining levels of Lake Mead from dropping even further.
The Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s board members voted to pass a motion they described as an “interim mitigation plan.” The proposal lays out a scenario in which the agency could provide “mitigation water” to soften the blow for farmers in central Arizona who have the lowest priority in the state’s pecking order of water users.
The proposal quickly faced questions, however, because it calls for using some of the Central Arizona Project’s stored water in Lake Mead — called “Intentionally Created Surplus” or “ICS” water — at a time when the larger goal is to prevent the reservoir from falling to critically low levels.
“The broader community has not yet produced a consensus proposal. We’re working very hard on it,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke told the district’s board. “We have brought the interim plan forward because we think it will work.”
Still uncertainty about details
A meeting billed as the committee’s final gathering is scheduled for Nov. 29, and both federal and state water managers have said they hope to finish a deal by December.
“There have been some productive conversations over the past few days,” said Suzanne Ticknor, CAP’s director of water policy. “Discussions are helping to move things forward.”
But she said three proposals have come and gone, and there is also uncertainty about the availability of funding to help compensate parties that would transfer some of their water elsewhere.
That proposal, intended to renew lagging DCP talks, was a bare-bones version that board members said they did not expect everyone to agree with. Nevertheless, they authorized Board President Lisa Atkins and Director Karen Cesare to present it to the next DCP Steering Committee meeting on November 29. Arizona had hoped to agree on a drought contingency plan by then, before meeting with California and Nevada officials in mid-December to discuss a broader Lower Basin DCP…
[Ted] Cooke said that the complexities of the plan could be worked out later, after a Drought Contingency Plan had been agreed upon by other states, passed by the Arizona legislature, and approved by Congress.
Cooke also said that his foremost concern was the cost of water: “What’s this going to do to our rates? I know that’s very important to our customers,” he said. He presented graphs showing that CAP’s fixed rates would increase if its water deliveries to customers decreased, as would occur without mitigation.
The seven Colorado River states are developing a DCP because an ongoing drought, now in its 19th year, is on track to worsen sooner than existing drought guidelines can accommodate.
Those guidelines, passed in 2007, were supposed to last until 2026. But Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River that supplies Arizona, Nevada, and California, has been given a 57 percent chance of falling into shortage in the year 2020. The DCP is supposed to be a six-year plan bridging the years 2020 to 2026.
During the meeting’s public comment period, representatives of other Arizona water users focused on several concerns. One was the new proposal’s reliance on intentionally created surplus (ICS) water sitting in Lake Mead. Another was the question of whether the latest plan was fair.
Like money in a savings account, ICS water has been stored by states in Lake Mead, with the idea that keeping it in the reservoir could help stave off shortage, which is declared when the reservoir’s level dips below 1,075 feet above sea level.
The ICS program, created by interim drought guidelines in 2007, allows states to pull that water out of the reservoir in the future, as long as no shortage has been declared.
The CAWCD board’s $36 million to $54 million proposal would cover three years. It would compensate users in the Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) pool — mainly tribes and cities — 100 percent for their losses under a DCP. It would also compensate agriculture and developers for their cuts. For farmers, it promised to provide them with the 595,000 acre-feet of water through 2026 that the sector has been seeking.
To compensate these users, the proposal suggested pulling up to 400,000 acre-feet of water out of Lake Mead. To many participants in the DCP talks, who attended Thursday’s meeting, that sourcing was a problem, because that would mean using Lake Mead to compensate Arizona water users for reductions to their water supply from… Lake Mead.
“The CAP proposal in its current form does not conform to the state of Arizona’s guiding principles,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the other co-chair of the Steering Committee, told the board Thursday. “The state wants to continue discussing the proposal and other proposals to synthesize the meritorious elements of each one, into a package acceptable to all.”
He pointed out that the proposal did not align with several principles for any DCP plan laid out by Governor Doug Ducey in an opinion article in the Arizona Capitol Times on Tuesday. Among them were that water must be left in Lake Mead, not taken out.
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community echoed that point in his remarks. He reiterated a point the Community has made before — that it was “strongly opposed” to using water from Lake Mead, including ICS water, unless offset by other contributions to the reservoir. Mitigating cuts with other sources of water would raise costs, but that was something the Community was prepared for.
“Rates will have to go up, because DCP will have to become the new normal, and it is best to transition to that new reality sooner than later,” Lewis said.
Lewis reiterated, too, that the water cuts had to be shared equitably and fairly. “DCP cannot be used as subsidy for one affected group,” he said.
The Arizona agricultural sector seeks compensation of 595,000 acre-feet of water from 2020 to 2026, which many other stakeholders see as unfair, given that farmers would fare better with mitigation under DCP cuts than without. These stakeholders also point out that farmers gave up their legal contract to Colorado River water in a 2004 settlement.
Still, the agricultural sector pushed back against calls for equity and criticized the CAP plan.
“I’m disappointed that there are still some folks who think that is too much for agriculture,” said Paul Orme, general counsel for Pinal County agriculture districts. He argued that although agriculture interests had been trying to find ways to use groundwater instead of surface water from the Colorado River, the expectation of farmers had been that they would not have had to figure that out until 2031…
Bas Aja, a lobbyist for agricultural interests, tried to draw a distinction between equity in priorities and contractual agreements, and equity in the impact of cuts. “There’s no equity in impact in these proposals,” he said.
Despite these disagreements, during its meeting, the board added an important clause to the initial proposal, agreeing to “continue to negotiate a mitigation plan” within the general parameters of that proposal…
Cynthia Campbell, water advisor for the city of Phoenix, said that the new CAP plan had some “fundamental issues” in its use of ICS. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to us,” she said. “We think that there have been other discussions going on of other ways to do it, and that today’s action represents the board being expedient. This is the ‘easy button.'”
“Kudos to them that they’re trying to put a proposal forward,” Campbell added, “But we think that we can still do a little bit better to help protect Lake Mead.”
A major Colorado River water user has proposed an interim plan for Arizona as the state faces looming a looming deadline to manage expected shortages. The Central Arizona Project board said its proposal could jumpstart talks after previous ones failed to gain consensus among water users.
The agency wants to draw up to 400,000 acre-feet of water it stored in Lake Mead and 50,000 acre-feet in Lake Pleasant, and implement a $60 million conservation program to lessen the burden of shortages on mainly farmers and developers. Another program would help improve groundwater systems but doesn’t have a price tag.
The agency said the proposal theoretically would result in a net benefit to Lake Mead because it could not pull out as much water under regular deliveries in shortages, stabilizing the lake before it reaches a level where no one could get any water.
Arizona water users had a mixed response to the proposal presented at a board meeting Thursday. It covers only three years of a required seven-year, multistate plan to manage the shrinking Colorado River.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said this week that any drought contingency plan has to align with four principles, one of which is to build on efforts to prop up the lake that determines how much water can be sent to Arizona, Nevada and California from the river’s lower basin.
“I will not sign a bill that does not adhere to these important principles, or any bill that does not adequately help to secure our state’s water future,” Ducey wrote in an opinion piece.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has said she wants a plan from the seven states that relies on the river by the end of the year. The upper basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – are working on a separate plan…
An Arizona drought contingency committee is scheduled to meet later this month to consider the Central Arizona Project proposal and any others. The Colorado River Indian Tribes recently offered 50,000 acre-feet of water to help reach agreement, with strings attached.
State Sen. Lisa Otondo struck an ominous tone in a recent letter to fellow committee members.
“The longer we argue and delay, the more we risk,” she said. “Time is our enemy. We are facing a common crisis and will all have to take a hit or face the judgment of history.”
Dan Thelander, whose family farms 5,000 acres in Pinal County, said he will have to fallow 2,000 acres under the Central Arizona Project proposal.
“This is a tough pill to swallow, but we understand it,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “We’re ready to do it.”
In a 6-0 vote Thursday, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board officially signed onto its portions of an interstate agreement aimed at keeping more water in the shrinking river system through voluntary cuts.
The so-called Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan seeks to protect critical water levels in lakes Mead and Powell while giving the states that share the river more flexibility to store and use water in dry years to come.
Nevada became the first of the seven river states to ratify the agreement with the approvals granted this week by the water authority board and the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.
“It is a huge step in restoring equilibrium to the system,” said authority General Manager John Entsminger. “We’re going first.”
But the groundbreaking deal is far from finished.
California and Arizona still need to work out internal disputes over how to divvy up the cuts among water users in those states…
Entsminger said valley residents have already conserved more than enough water to absorb any of the voluntary or mandatory cuts expected in the near future.
“It’s well within our pain tolerance,” he told board members Thursday. “We’ve been planning for this for 20 years.”
In addition to protecting the water level in Lake Mead, Entsminger said, the new plan would dramatically increase the amount of water Nevada is allowed to “bank” in the reservoir and free the state to make withdrawals from that bank even when the river is in shortage — something he described as “a major tool in our chest.”
The plan also would trigger the provisions of an earlier deal with Mexico, under which that nation could store more water in Lake Mead while shouldering an equal share of cuts in river water usage…
Meanwhile in the river’s upper basin, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are closing in on their portion of the contingency plan, which seeks to keep enough water in Lake Powell to protect hydro-power generation at Glen Canyon Dam and allow that reservoir to be used as a bank for conservation savings made upstream.
After Thursday’s vote, Entsminger said he thinks the talks among the upper basin states are “in pretty good shape,” and California seems close to signing on as well.
The board’s vote allows the water authority’s general manager, John Entsminger, to execute the Drought Contingency Plan, a result of years of negotiations between the seven states with rights to use Colorado River water. The plan’s goal is to stabilize Lake Mead, the dwindling reservoir outside of Las Vegas that stores water in Arizona, California and Nevada. Under the proposal, the states would temporarily cut their water use to leave more water in the reservoir.
For instance, at low lake elevations, Nevada would leave up to 10 percent of its total right to Colorado River water, or about 30,000 acre-feet (the amount of water that can fill one acre of land up to one foot). In past interviews, Entsminger has said that Nevada could sustain those cuts. Because of conservation efforts, Las Vegas, he said, already leaves water in the lake…
With the board’s authority, Entsminger now has the authority to sign the drought plan when it is approved by the other states. Other states, including California and Colorado, are still resolving in-state issues before their state negotiators can sign on the plan. But all eyes are on Arizona, where there remains an ongoing debate over how the cuts should be implemented.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project and the Windy Gap Firming Project, both projects managed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, have been decades in the making, and once they’re complete, they’ll result in three new reservoirs intended to address a growing Front Range population.
During the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s fall water users meeting Wednesday in Fort Collins, officials took an audience through the progress of both projects.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would affect Windsor and Evans, hit a major milestone in July after an Environmental Impact Statement was released.
“In 2019, we’re hoping for a really big, exciting year, in addition to the really big year we had this year,” said Stephanie Cecil, water resources project engineer for Northern Water.
The Windy Gap Firming Project, which would affect Greeley, is moving forward even as the project has been hit with a federal lawsuit.
In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final Environmental Impact Statement on the project — a process that took 14 years.
“It’s a really significant step in the project to be able to have all of those things done,” Cecil said.
Right now, the group is focused on design, particularly for the Glade Reservoir and the Galeton Reservoir. One pressing step in the project will be to relocate a section of U.S. 287 to allow for construction of the reservoir.
Additionally, the organization is working on mitigation projects, including one to help pass fish though a diversion structure and measure the amount of water the group is handling.
The group is also working on permitting with counties and the state, and developing a financing plan.
“How is this over $1 billion project going to be financed, and how is the construction schedule going to line up with the financing plan?” Cecil asked.
Construction could start by 2021, Cecil said, and the projects that will likely get started first are the Glade Reservoir and the U.S. 287 relocation. Cecil said the group hopes that the reservoir will be filled in 2026 and able to serve water in 2030.
“We’re looking at about a five-year timeline, but it’s dependent on weather,” she said. “Hopefully by 2026, we’ll have some really wet years and we can fill it really fast.”
The Windy Gap Firming Project, a collaboration between 12 northern Colorado water providers, including Greeley, will result in a new reservoir — the 90,000 acre-foot Chimney Hollow Reservoir — and the largest dam on the Front Range.
When it’s complete, the project intends to make water supplies more reliable by installing the reservoir west of Carter Lake in Larimer County.
For the past year, the project has been in the middle of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against federal agencies. The lawsuit questions the need for the project, saying it would make significant water diversions from the Colorado River, and that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Crops of Engineers did not have enough information before they issued initial permits to the district.
Still, Jeff Drager, director of engineering for Northern Water, said the project hasn’t been stalled by the lawsuit, especially because funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service requires the group to use the money within the next five years…
Right now, the project is in the permitting process. So far, the organization has $11 million and is seeking ways to fund the final $4 million…
The project has been in the process of permitting the project for 15 years, Drager said…
Drager said the group hopes to start construction in 2021 or 2022.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Division of Water Rights last week heard from project proponent Aaron Million and from numerous entities that oppose it, before deciding to request more information from Million before a decision can be made.
Million, a Fort Collins resident, filed the Utah application through the company Water Horse Resources LLC, seeking to divert 55,000 acre-feet a year and pipe it east to Wyoming and then south to Colorado…
The idea is being opposed by federal agencies including the Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service. Other opponents include western Colorado’s Colorado River District, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Colorado, multiple water conservancy districts in Utah, conservationists, and notably the Utah Board of Water Resources and Division of Water Resources. That board works to conserve and develop the state’s water, and is worried that the proposal would let Colorado benefit at Utah’s expense…
Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, questions the project’s economic feasibility.
“Water Horse’s application has not shown that it has any significant committed recipients who are willing to pay for the water that’s supposed to be diverted,” he said…
The decision on Million’s water right application will be made by Utah’s state engineer, who heads the state’s Division of Water Rights.
Million said he thought the hearing went well and he’s awaiting a letter from the state engineer detailing what additional information is needed…
He said probably one-third or one-half of the 28 or so objectors didn’t show up at the hearing.
In the case of those who testified, “every point they made we’ve already looked at inside and out and so we’ll answer the issues related to the permit and move on,” he said.
A 30-day comment period will be provided after Million responds to the request for more information.
Ariel Calmes, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said in a news release after the hearing, “This application is the latest episode in Aaron Million’s decade-long effort to profit off of the private sale of Green River water. Million is proposing to divert water from Utah to the detriment of multistate water agreements, the recovery of endangered species, and millions of dollars in recreation spending.”
Here’s the release from Denver Water (Travis Thompson):
At its meeting today, the Denver Board of Water Commissioners adopted rate changes to fund essential upgrades and new projects to keep Denver Water’s system running smoothly. The new rates take effect Feb. 1, 2019, and monthly bills for most Denver residents will increase by 55 cents if they use water the same as they did in 2018.
“While the cost to maintain and upgrade the water system continues to increase, rapid development inside the city of Denver has brought in more fees from new taps sold, helping to minimize the 2019 rate increase for Denver customers,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO/Manager. “The surrounding suburbs, however, had less development than in the past, reducing the amount collected from new tap fees, which means we’ll need to collect more revenue from suburban water rates in 2019.”
Suburban customers who receive water from one of Denver Water’s 65 distributors will see an additional monthly increase added to their volumetric charges. The Denver City Charter requires that suburban customers pay the full cost of service, plus an additional amount. Learn more about how this works: “Why Denver water costs more in the ‘burbs.”
If you live outside Denver and receive water from a distributor under contract with Denver Water, you can expect to see an annual increase between $23 and $41, which is between $1.90 and 3.40 a month (based on an annual use of 102,000 gallons of water).
Pat Fitzgerald, general manager of four Denver Water distributors including the Platte Canyon Water and Sanitation District and chairman of the suburban districts’ Technical Advisory Committee, which reviews Denver Water’s rates annually, provided this statement:
“The advisory committee supports the rate increase. The cost-of-service study used to determine the difference between inside city and outside city customers is fair and reasonable, and the committee had no objections to the results. The expenses are going up, but they’re all projects that are necessary to provide a reliable and safe source of water.”
The major multiyear projects that water rates fund include building a new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant, installing a new 8.5-mile water pipeline to replace a pipeline that was built in the 1930s, expanding Gross Reservoir to provide a more reliable future water supply, constructing a new water quality lab to ensure the highest water quality standards, investing more than $100 million to repair and replace water pipes, and more. There are 158 major projects identified in Denver Water’s five-year, $1.3 billion capital plan.
A customer’s bill is comprised of a fixed charge, which helps ensure Denver Water has more stable revenue to continue the necessary water system upgrades to ensure reliable water service, and a volume rate. The fixed monthly charge — which is tied to meter size — in 2019 is increasing by 55 cents for most residential customers both inside the city and out.
Denver Water’s rate structure includes a three-tiered charge for water use (called the volume rate). To keep water affordable, indoor water use — like for bathing, cooking and flushing toilets — is charged at the lowest rate. Essential indoor water use is determined by averaging the customer’s monthly water use on bills dated from January through March each year. This is called average winter consumption. Water use above the average winter consumption — typically for outdoor watering — is charged at a higher price.
Volume rates for Denver residents will remain the same, but will increase on suburban bills.
Denver Water operates and maintains more than 3,000 miles of pipe — enough to stretch from Los Angeles to New York — as well as 20 dams, 22 pump stations, 30 underground storage tanks, four treatment plants and more. The water provider’s collection system covers more than 4,000 square miles, and it operates facilities in 12 counties in Colorado.
Denver Water does not make a profit or receive tax dollars, and reinvests ratepayers’ money to maintain and upgrade the water system. The utility is funded by water rates, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and fees for new service (called System Development Charges).
Customers will see more information about 2019 rates in their bills and on Denver Water’s website over the next few months.
Western Slope water managers have doubled down on their position that they will oppose federal legislation creating a new regulated pool of water to boost the falling level of Lake Powell unless Colorado adopts a policy that the pool should be filled only on a voluntary basis.
At a well-attended water meeting last week, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that without a new state policy putting limits on how water can be stored in the big reservoir, “You will find that our district, the Southwest District and hopefully others will be, frankly, opposing the federal legislation.”
Mueller said his district and the Southwestern Water Conservancy District “have to have those guidelines” in order to protect agriculture on the Western Slope, a stance first expressed by both districts in September.
In response to the Western Slope’s concerns, a policy on how to fill a new “demand management storage” pool in Lake Powell is being drafted by the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for review by the agency’s directors Nov. 15.
“I can’t say with certainty, but I believe that policy will be established and will allay the concerns that we’ve heard,” Steve Anderson, a CWCB board member representing the Gunnison River Basin, said Tuesday at the meeting.
But there may be still be a gap between the protections the Western Slope wants and the Front Range’s stance, which is that it may be necessary to fill the proposed pool of water in Lake Powell through mandatory cutbacks in water use if voluntary efforts are not enough.
Water managers from Southern California to Wyoming are watching the ongoing debate because if Colorado can’t reach a consensus, an ongoing effort to establish a “drought contingency planning” program could falter.
Draft “DCP” agreements are now under review in seven states. They would change the way water is stored in Lake Mead, which primarily affects the lower Colorado River Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
In the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the DCP agreements would set up a process to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, if necessary.
The agreements also would create a pool of water in Lake Powell that would be shielded from current regulations that balance water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Regional water officials are working hard to gain widespread consensus by Dec. 14 for the DCP agreements in both the upper and lower basins, and given how slow water policy usually moves, it’s a tight timeline.
The necessary federal legislation to implement the program may be introduced during the coming lame-duck session in Congress, and any significant opposition to the legislation, such as that from the Colorado River district, could derail the effort.
And the differing views between Western Slope and Front Range water managers now appear to be the largest obstacle to gaining consensus in the four upper-basin states.
“I’m not aware of any other issue that has risen to the top like this,” said Amy Haas, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which is coordinating the upper basin’s drought contingency efforts. “I know that some discussions have been difficult in other states, but not to this degree.”
Officials on both the Western Slope and the Front Range do agree on many aspects of demand management storage in Lake Powell, which is designed to keep Glen Canyon Dam both producing hydropower and releasing enough water to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
They agree that such a program should include equitable reductions in the use of water from both sides of the Continental Divide.
And they agree that the effort should start with a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” approach, with the goal of incentivizing irrigators to fallow fields and send the conserved water downriver to Lake Powell.
But where they differ is the potential use of mandatory reductions in water use if voluntary measures are not enough to keep Glen Canyon Dam operating as usual.
In a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River and the Southwestern districts said the state must declare that “Colorado’s contributions to the demand management program will be generated exclusively through voluntary, temporary and compensated contributions of water.”
The key word there is “exclusively.”
The two districts also said they were concerned “that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted.”
Meanwhile, the Front Range Water Council, which includes the biggest water providers from Pueblo to Fort Collins, told the CWCB in a Sept. 13 letter that if there is not enough water generated through a voluntary program, the state “may wish to pursue alternative measures to ensure continued compliance with the Colorado River Compact.”
To Western Slope officials, “alternative measures” sounds like mandatory “anticipatory curtailment,” where water rights are cut back by the state to avoid a compact call.
State officials continue to stress that the state is not developing a mandatory curtailment program and is only focusing on a voluntary program.
However, the Colorado River District’s Mueller has been telling Western Slope water managers that the Front Range, which uses large amounts of water from the Colorado River, is eager for mandatory curtailment.
“There are major water users, major interests in this state on the Front Range, who are talking about that,” Mueller said Tuesday at the water meeting, which was attended by about 200 Western Slope water managers and users. “Because they either don’t think we are going to get the money for a voluntary program or maybe they see advantages to be had in mandatory curtailment.”
But Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the president of the Front Range Water Council, on Friday rejected Mueller’s assertions that it was pushing for mandatory curtailment.
“That’s not our preference, that’s not our hope, that’s not what we want to see — it’s just reality,” Lochhead said. “It may happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But it’s not something we’re rolling out, and the first priority should be voluntary, temporary and compensated.”
But he also said, “At the end of the day, if we’re in trouble from a compact standpoint, the state is going to have to exercise its authority.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Oct. 29. The Summit Daily News published the story in its print edition on Oct. 30.