Park County, et al., purchase augmentation water for Fairplay Beach reservoir

Fairplay photo credit

From The Fairplay Flume (Lynda James):

The closing on 10.05 acre feet of augmentation water from Lone Rock H2O took place June 19.

Purchasing the water was a collaborative effort between the Park County, Fairplay, the Headwater Authority of South Platte and the two water conservancy districts in the county.

The districts had an option to purchase the 10 acre feet from Lone Rock.

HASP will own and manage the augmentation water for the Beach…

Of the 10.05 acre feet, 9.618 acre feet were purchased to augment evaporative losses from the Fairplay Beach reservoir and remaining 0.435 acre foot was purchased by the county for $6,600.

The Beach parcel is owned by the Town of Fairplay, but the water in the reservoir is jointly owned by Fairplay, Park County and the Upper South Platte Water Conservancy District.

Several decades ago, the three entities joined together to build the reservoir for recreational purposes, and at that time, augmentation water was not required. Today it is required.

After Water Commissioner Graver Brown determined that 9.618 acre feet of augmentation were needed, the USPWCD asked the Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District if it would agree to using the Lone Rock option to purchase augmentation water for the Beach.

The Center agreed and then the USPWCD applied for a Land and Water Trust Fund grant to purchase the Lone Rock water. That grant was approved by the county.

The purchase price was $13,000 an acre foot.

The entire process has taken more than two years and June 15, the commissioners signed warranty deeds and several other documents related to the purchase.

U.S. House set to take up Rep. Scott Tipton’s water rights legislation

Copper Mountain snowmaking via

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

The Water Rights Protection Act, H.R. 2939, will be heard Tuesday in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Tipton’s previous efforts to pass the measure — prompted by the experience of new ownership at Powderhorn Mountain Resort — have passed the House only to become stymied in the Senate.

This time, “I’m cautiously optimistic” that the bill will pass both houses, Tipton said, noting that it has support from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as well as Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming.

The measure would require federal agencies to recognize state water laws and prohibit them from requiring ski resorts to surrender state water rights in exchange for leases to operate on federal lands.

The Forest Service required the new owners of Powderhorn Mountain Resort to surrender water rights they obtained when they took over the resort to get permits to operate the ski area.

“It’s important to codify this” as directives requiring Agriculture and Interior department agencies to obtain water rights and exercise control over groundwater remain on the books in those agencies and can’t be halted without congressional action, Tipton said.

The Water Rights Protection Act would “recognize the longstanding authority of the states relating to evaluating, protecting, allocating, regulating, permitting, and adjudicating water use.”


“We need to be able to give certainty and stand up for state law, private property rights and the priority-based system” of water law, Tipton said.

Rep. Scott Tipton reintroduces bill to protect water rights, uphold state water law — @RepTipton

Photo via Bob Berwyn

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that introducing a bill often doesn’t lead to an actual vote, let alone a law. Here’s the release from Representative Tipton’s office:

Congressman Scott Tipton (CO-03) reintroduced the Water Rights Protection Act (H.R. 2939), a bill that would uphold federal deference to state water law and prevent federal takings of privately held water rights

“In recent years, the federal government has repeatedly attempted to circumvent long-established state water law by requiring the transfer of privately-held water rights to the federal government as a permit condition for use of land owned by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management,” said Tipton. “These efforts constitute a gross federal overreach and violation of private property rights. My bill provides permanent protections for ski areas, farmers, ranchers, and others in the West.”

In 2014, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposed the Groundwater Resource Management Directive, which gave the federal government jurisdiction over groundwater in a manner that was inconsistent with long-established state water law. The USFS withdrew the measure but has indicated a desire to issue a revised directive in the future. The Water Rights Protection Act would prohibit the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior from requiring the transfer of water rights as a condition of any land-use permit. The bill would also ensure that any future groundwater directives from the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior are consistent with state water law.

Tipton’s bill has drawn praise from county commissioners and water conservancy districts across the Third Congressional District of Colorado.

In a letter of support, the Dolores Water Conservancy District wrote, “The Water Rights Protection Act decisively addresses the elimination of risks and uncertainties related to federal taking of water. The clarification and direction provided by the proposed act will make management decisions, and work with our partners to make important water supply decisions, much more certain and secure.”

The Garfield County Board of Commissioners wrote, “Garfield County, like many governments in Colorado and the west remains fiercely concerned over the continued challenge the federal government poses to the supremacy of Colorado water law. To that end, Garfield County places its full support behind Representative Tipton’s efforts.”

The Water Rights Protection Act passed out of the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in both the 113th and 114th Congresses.

Water is the most precious resource we have in the arid West, and how we manage and protect our water supply has implications on everything from growing crops to managing wildlife habitats. The Water Rights Protection Act is a sensible approach that would preserve the water rights of all water users and provide certainty that the federal government cannot take their rights in the future,” Tipton added.

Here’s a look at the issues from Allen Best and The Mountain Town News.

Water markets, prior appropriation

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From Water Deeply (Mark Squillace):

AS WESTERN STATES grapple with the best way to allocate dwindling water resources to meet multiple needs, water markets have emerged as one tool. But the idea is not without critics, such as Gary Wockner, who wrote a recent op-ed for Water Deeply about his skepticism that water markets will protect Western rivers.

Wockner raises three concerns with water markets: They commodify nature, there’s a lack of information about how much water they can really save and they skew funding to larger advocacy groups at the expense of others.

I see things differently.

Water markets don’t commodify nature. Rather, it is the prior appropriation system of “first in time, first in right” used through much of the West that gives private water users vested property rights in water. That is the root cause of this problem. It is entirely fair to criticize the prior appropriation system and if we could do it over I would advocate for a temporal permit system that protects the public interest in water from the outset and allows for periodic adjustments to these water permits as new information becomes available as to how to better protect the public interest in water resources. But that is not the world that we live in and it is unrealistic to think that will change – at least in the short term.

When it comes to information, we know enough already to show that the potential for marketing is vast. Current law – not lack of information – is the main obstacle to moving water efficiently. I have written on this topic and so perhaps have my own set of biases, but I believe that incentivizing crop switching, deficit irrigation and rotational fallowing by streamlining water transfers could yield vast quantities of water for new consumptive uses as well as non-consumptive ecological needs.

With regards to funding these projects, we should all be wary of the role that private foundations play in displacing the traditional role of government, ostensibly to promote the public good. And while we should be grateful for the positive work that private foundations have done to benefit our world, we must also acknowledge that private foundations have their own agendas, and their priorities may or may not reflect the public interest as that term might be defined by public agencies.

Nonetheless, so long as government fails or refuses to fund and address public needs adequately, foundations will have an important role to play. That does not mean that we must simply accept the choices that foundations make. On the contrary, we should demand that they be transparent and operate under standards that are fair. But we should judge the work of foundations on the merits and not be unduly suspicious of their motives. (To be clear, my work on water markets has not been funded by private foundations.)

This leads me to the broader point that Wockner raises about the need to reform our laws to protect “the rights of nature.” While I share a passion for protecting the ecological health of our water systems, I am skeptical about the prospects for an Ecuadorian-style constitutional provision.

The good news is we do not need it.

For the most part, we have the tools under our existing law that would allow us to protect the public values associated with water. We just need to use those tools in more creative and effective ways. Most prominently, in every state with positive water law (statutory and constitutional law), water is understood to be public property and, in most states, that translates into a trust responsibility on the part of the state to manage water for the benefit of the public.

Most states further demand that water resources be managed to protect the public interest. (The only state to have denied this responsibility is Colorado – the home state that Wockner and I share.)

Properly understood and properly applied, the public interest/public trust obligation offers the prospect that the communal values in water that we all share – to meet basic human needs, and to protect aesthetic, recreational and ecological needs – must be met first, before private rights are protected. Viewed in this light, and subject to these constraints, water markets are simply a mechanism for reallocating private water rights once public rights have been fully protected.

To be sure, many states have effectively ignored their obligation to manage water resources in the public interest. Other states have defined the public interest in ways that allow for balancing public values with private rights, as if they can be placed on an equal footing. This approach misconceives the nature of the public interest in water resources management. Only by first protecting those shared, communal values in water can we truly protect the public interest.

Rather than chasing a constitutional right of nature that seems unlikely to be realized, we should use the tools that we already have to rethink our approach to managing water resources. This will pose its own serious challenges; but because it is grounded in existing law, it stands a far greater chance of success. Let the hard work begin.

City of Aspen rejects settlement proposal in Castle and Maroon dam cases — @AspenJournalism

Wild berries in the meadow near the Maroon Bells that would be flooded by a Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The city of Aspen has rejected an initial settlement offer made in the unfolding water court cases about conditional water rights tied to two large potential dams on Castle and Maroon creeks.

On May 23 the city’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell, sent a letter to the water attorney for the Larsen Family Limited Partnership, rejecting its settlement proposals made on May 8 and 11.

“Aspen cannot accept your client’s settlement offer,” Covell told Larsen Family attorney, Craig Corona.

The Larsen’s proposal required the city to stay, or put on hold, it’s two current applications to the court to extend its conditional storage rights for another six years.

Then the city could file a new request with the water court to change those conditional water rights to another location and size outside of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys and somewhere within the city limits.

“Our offer was quite clear that there were terms that could be negotiated, and the basic concept was that we would support (along with the other opposers) Aspen’s relocation of its dam rights, in a location and amount to be determined through negotiation,” Marcella Larsen of Larsen Family LP said.

In his May 11 letter, attorney Corona told the city, “If there’s no objection and the change is decreed, dams won’t be built in the wilderness and the city will retain its water rights – a win-win.”

But establishing new water storage rights within city limits, with a 1971 priority date, without opposition, may be hard to do, even with the opposing parties in the current cases sitting on the sidelines.

The current water court review was triggered when the Aspen filed two applications in October to maintain its conditional water storage rights, which were decreed in 1971.

Larsen Family LP is one of ten opposing parties in the resulting “due diligence” cases now before the Division 5 water court referee in Glenwood Springs.

The other parties include the U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin County, four environmental organizations, and three owners of high-end residential property in the Castle and Maroon creek valleys.

Corona told the city there was a “general consensus” among the other parties in the case in support of the Larsen Family proposal, which technically only pertained to the Maroon Creek Reservoir case.

But the city decided to sit on its cards.

On May 22, the council held an executive session to discuss, in part, the water court cases.

On May 23, Covell sent Corona the city’s rejection letter.

Corona then sent the letter to the other opposing parties.

“A new application to change the location (of) the Maroon Creek Reservoir conditional storage right would require that a new location be specified,” the city’s May 23 letter said, according to an attorney in the case. “Aspen must complete its supply/demand study and identify an alternative location or locations for the Maroon Creek Reservoir storage right in order to be able to file a change application to move that right, or some portion thereof, to another location.”

Asked about the rejection of the settlement offer, Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick would only say last week via email that ”the City of Aspen is still working with all parties in the water case with the hope of reaching a mutually agreeable settlement. We are still trying to refine water supply and demand estimates and study alternative storage locations.”

A second closed-door and facilitated settlement meeting hosted by the city for the opposing parties is being set up for the first week of August. The first such meeting was held in March.

A map showing the location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

1965 filing

The city’s conditional storage rights on Castle and Maroon creeks date back to 1965, when the first told the water court it intended to build two reservoirs to meet forecasted demands.

In October 2016, the city again told the state it still intends to build the reservoirs, someday, if necessary.

But since October the city has also has been openly studying alternatives to the two reservoirs, and doing so with the knowledge that it’s possible, in some water court cases, to move and adjust conditional storage rights.

As currently decreed the Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, within view of the Maroon Bells.

And the Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam across Castle Creek two miles below Ashcroft.

Both dams would flood some portion of the Maroon Bells –Snowmass Wilderness.

The city has done little work on the reservoirs since the mid-1960s. But since 2012 when the rights came into public view, city staffers have increased their warnings to the city council about the city’s lack of storage, save for nine acre-feet at the water treatment plant.

A staff memo for the May 15 work session, for example, said “the Aspen community will face significant challenges maintaining its water supply as we experience changing precipitation and runoff patterns, and possible increased fire, drought, change in runoff timing and lower snowpack levels due to climate change.”

But a raw water availability study prepared by Wilson Water Group in June 2016 indicated the city would not need any storage in the future, although it may need to curtail some irrigation if it wants to maintain minimum flow levels on Castle and Maroon creeks.

And while the council adopted the Wilson Water study as a formal planning document last year, it also recently contracted with an economist at Headwaters Corp. to develop new scenarios illustrating a range of needs and varying levels of risk in a hotter and drier future.

Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager with the city, told the city council on May 15 that the work from Headwaters will not be complete until the end of summer. And more studies may then be necessary.

That’s been a frustration to Corona.

“Instead of engaging in meaningful settlement discussions, the city engaged a myriad of consultants at great expense to study its ‘needs’ when it already has a demand study,” Corona told the city on May 11. “This work should have been done before filing the application, not after.”

Corona’s May 11 settlement letter also contained a number of other messages for city.

“The City is concerned with giving up the current locations for the dams,” Corona wrote. “But, the City can’t build the reservoirs there, anyway. It would take twenty to forty million dollars (at least) to condemn private property for the Castle Creek dam. The City would need a special use permit to inundate Forest Service property, and private legislation from Congress to inundate wilderness – highly improbable, if not impossible. So, if the City transfers the rights to a new location that has challenges, the City will be no worse off than they are now.”

“The City’s claims are weak,” he also told the city. “In almost fifty years, the City has done almost nothing to develop these rights. The City has no need for storage, especially not a sixty-year supply, according to the City’s engineers. Unless the City settles, it will not come out of these cases with its water rights intact.”

“The delay for the City’s studies is unnecessary and is self-inflicted. With no need for storage, it should be simple to determine a reasonable supply amount and risk,” he also wrote. “The 1,200 acre feet we originally offered would give the City a five-year supply. Is the City concerned that Castle Creek and Maroon Creek will be completely dry for more than five years? If that happens, 1965 reservoir rights are not going to help.”

And he told the city it can expect ongoing opposition from Larsen Family LP.

“Larsen Family LP will never stipulate to diligence for dams in the wilderness,” Corona wrote. “It seems it should be easy for the City to say it will never dam the Maroon Bells. But, apparently, that’s not the case.”

The location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

How much water?

There is also a question about how much storage the city thinks is really necessary.

The combined storage of the two potential reservoirs in Castle and Maroon creeks, is 13,629 acre feet, or almost 14,000 acre-feet. Ruedi Reservoir, by comparison, holds 100,000 acre feet.

Aspen city council member Bert Myrin said on May 15 he did not think that the city would ever need more than about ten percent of the conditional 14,000 acre-feet described in the city’s conditional rights.

Myrin said council members should know the size of the need before studying various alternatives, such as an “in-situ” reservoir under the city’s golf course, which could hold about 1,200 acre feet.

“I think it would help us to have a better idea of the problem we’re trying to solve before we try and solve the problem,” he said.

But Scott Miller, Aspen’s public works director, said the result of the Headwaters Corp. study will not be a single number.

“We’ll have a range of risks,” Miller told the council members. “A range of need, and a range of risk. Then you guys are going to lead the discussion about where we go from here.”

Marcella Larsen, of Larsen Family LP, Larsen also responded to questions in writing from on Aspen Journalism on May 31 about the settlement proposal:

Larsen is a retired attorney and served for four years as the assistant Pitkin County attorney from 1997 to 2001. Her remarks, as perhaps the most aggressive of the opposing parties in the two cases, are notable.

AJ: In a May 23 letter, the city informed your attorney that it could not accept your settlement offer because it had not developed an alternative location for the Maroon Creek Reservoir storage right. First, to clarify, your settlement offer was for both the Maroon and Castle creek reservoirs, correct?

ML: The Larsen LP is a party only in the Maroon Creek case, but it was our understanding that the other opposers, including Pitkin County, the U.S. Forest Service, the multiple environmental non-profits, and other private property owners whose properties would be inundated by Aspen’s dams were all generally open to pursuing the offer further. The offer was a concept that would be worked out among the parties, and could have included the Castle Creek side, but unfortunately Aspen rejected it out of hand.

AJ: Next, the city says it is still defining how much storage it needs. Do you yet understand whether that means the city needs something less than a combined nearly 14,000 acre feet of storage?

ML: The City hasn’t said they need less than the 14,000 acre feet claimed and, at their latest work session, they maintained the possibility they will need all 14,000 acre feet. However, Aspen’s own 2016 Wilson Water Group Water Supply Availability report shows that Aspen has no need for any water storage, much less giant dams in wilderness areas. As in zero need. That study concludes that Aspen will only need 231 acre feet per year in 2064.

Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates recently shared their analysis of how Aspen might simply conserve water to avoid dams in wilderness areas. Instead of trying to justify 14,000 acre feet of storage that would provide sixty-five years of unneeded storage, we wish Aspen would identify a realistic storage amount and location. As evident from our settlement offer, we will support Aspen storage in locations other than the White River National Forest and wilderness areas—and that’s even if Aspen choses to build storage it does not need.

AJ: Your settlement offer included a condition that the storage be located within the city of Aspen. Was that a firm condition? If so, why was it included?

ML: Our offer was quite clear that there were terms that could be negotiated, and the basic concept was that we would support (along with the other opposers) Aspen’s relocation of its dam rights, in a location and amount to be determined through negotiation. Again, that offer was rejected by Aspen. The reason we included a condition that the relocated water storage be located in Aspen (and let’s be clear about what we are talking about here, which would be industrial-scale development, similar to other extractive industries), is because we believe Aspen should not externalize the impacts of its growth and force others (Pitkin County, the Forest Service, private property owners, and the public) to bear the burden of Aspen’s failure to adequately plan for and control its own growth. (Again, this assumes that storage is actually needed, or will be built by Aspen regardless of need.)

AJ: What do you expect from the city’s supply/demand study from Headwaters?

ML: The credible and credentialed expert Aspen hired in 2016 to prepare Aspen’s Water Supply Availability report concluded that Aspen “can always provide sufficient potable and raw water supplies” without dams/reservoirs. When Aspen realized that the Wilson Water Group’s finding conflicted with their desire to continue with dam rights up Castle and Maroon Creek, they hired an economist (not a scientist) to prepare a new report.

We expect this new “study” from Headwaters will do what Aspen wants it to do: prove up an extreme “Mad Max” scenario where both Castle and Maroon Creeks are obstructed for a long period of time, wildfires burning, land sliding, and water short. Also, expect huge projected population increases, where many in this dystopian “Mad Max” world decide to make Aspen their full-time home. In short, we expect this new “study” will attempt to demonstrate the “need” for storage Aspen’s prior experts, the Wilson Water Group, did not support.

AJ: Have you heard a credible explanation why the Wilson Water study is somehow incomplete?

ML: No. Wilson Water Group provided the type of demand analysis typical for municipal planning, and prior to Aspen’s water court filing, there was no indication Aspen believed it was “somehow incomplete.”

AJ: You’ve reserved the right to re-refer the case to the water judge at the July status conference. Do you think you will do that at that time?

ML: We reserved the right to re-refer the case at any time between the last status conference on May 9 and the next one on August 10. The City wants to have a settlement conference in late July or early August. We are looking for some indication from Aspen that they will commit to moving the dams out of wilderness areas, along the lines we already offered. If Aspen continues to advocate for wilderness dams without any offer of settlement, then, yes, of course we will re-refer the case. Aspen’s wilderness area dams, in the iconic Maroon Bells, should be opposed by everyone, except for perhaps the Trump Organization. We will do our part to further that cause, as I’m sure the other opposers will do as well, because Aspen’s dams in national forest and wilderness areas is fundamentally bad public policy and contrary to the values of our environmentally-conscious, nature-respecting, slow-growth community.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily on coverage of water and rivers in the upper Colorado River basin. The Times published a shorter version of this story on June 13, 2017.

The Colorado River District’s take on Aspen’s conditional storage rights — @AspenJournalism

This map from 1984 is one of the few ever published that puts the Maroon and Castle creek reservoirs into the context of the city’s overall water system.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Given the ongoing discussion in Aspen about the city’s conditional water storage rights tied to two reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks, we thought it would be informative to interview Chris Treese, the external affairs manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which works to protect Western Slope water supplies.

Treese oversees the River District’s legislative and regulatory governmental relations in Denver and Washington, D.C. Treese, who has a master’s degree in economics, describes his current job responsibilities “as everything you don’t want lawyers and engineers doing,” but he still spends much of his time discussing the finer points of existing and proposed water law.

The city of Aspen filed two due diligence applications on Oct. 31 in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs, seeking to extend the conditional storage rights for Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs until 2022. The city originally filed for the rights in 1965. Ten opposers have filed statements of opposition in the two resulting diligence cases, and the next status conference among the parties is set for August 10, 2017.

We spoke with Treese on April 25 in the River District’s conference room in Glenwood Springs.

The resulting transcript has been edited for clarity.

BGS: Chris, thanks for doing this. It seems like the River District is well-positioned to shed some light on conditional water storage rights. The River District both holds conditional water rights and it also has walked away from conditional water rights, including on the Crystal River in 2013 which were part of the West Divide Project. And the River District is not involved in either of the two water court cases now underway in response to Aspen’s due diligence filings for the two reservoirs.

CT: Correct.

BGS: People have drawn parallels with the Crystal River rights that the River District abandoned, which were tied in part to two large dams, and the option, if you will, for Aspen to do the same. What’s similar and what’s different about the River District’s former rights on the Crystal and Aspen’s conditional storage rights on Castle and Maroon creeks?

CT: One of the similarities is they are both conditional water rights and simply by virtue of being conditional, they are what a conditional water right is, a placeholder in the priority system. But frankly, the differences leap to mind.

One difference is the ownership, as Aspen is a municipality, and municipalities have a different standard for diligence. The West Divide Project did not have a municipal purpose. It was originally, and remains, part of a federal project. And it was an out-of-basin diversion with its own impacts and concerns. I think those differences are significant.

The advantage, if you will, of having a municipal right, is you benefit from what’s known as the great and growing cities doctrine. In contrast to an agricultural or an industrial right with some fixed parameters around acreage or location and purpose of use, the courts have recognized that municipalities grow. And the responsibility of a municipal water provider is to provide water for present as well as the future.

As such municipalities have enjoyed almost unfettered ability to hold on to water rights and to perfect their conditional rights as part of their portfolio, either because they are growing or because they may grow. So the great and growing cities doctrine has provided an essentially unconstrained ability for municipalities to hold large quantities of water rights.

BGS: Wasn’t that latitude more closely defined by the two recent Supreme Court decisions known as the Pagosa decisions?

CT: Yes. So now you can’t say you will need the water in 100 years, but you can project need out 50 years. The Supreme Court found that 50 years is a reasonable planning horizon, and it recognizes that water projects take a long time to develop and water rights can be evermore critical during a period like 50 years. It also said that there has to be some common sense, some historical reality, to the projections over that 50-year period.

BGS: You mean you can’t just say Aspen’s population is going to from 7,000 to, say, 100,000 people, because, maybe it could.

CT: The applicant in the Pagosa cases – Pagosa Water and Sanitation District – were projecting 8% annual compounded growth for 100 years, and that was seen as overly aggressive by the court.

BGS: So there is a great and growing cities doctrine, which Aspen presumably can benefit from, but there’s also now some limitations placed on it from the Pagosa cases, primarily concerning reasonable growth projections.

CT: Right.

BGS: It strikes me that one of the similarities is the absurdist factor in both the Crystal River and the Maroon Creek situations. The dam forming Osgood Reservoir on the Crystal River would have flooded the town of Redstone, and Maroon Creek Reservoir requires a 155-foot-tall dam within view of the Maroon Bells. How should someone consider the relative impossibility of building such projects?

CT: One of the challenges to conditional water rights is that you have to prove diligence on the conditional right as filed. In the case of the Crystal it was a conditional water right for a reservoir that would have flooded a large part of the town of Redstone, if built exactly where and to the size as filed.

But the fact is that a water right, conditional or otherwise, can be changed, can be modified. It still would need to meet some of its basic purposes, but you could go into the water court and say, “There’s now a town of Redstone there and before there wasn’t a town of Redstone. And now the highway is there” and seek changes.

In fact, when the River District and its West Divide District partners looked at the Crystal conditional rights, we looked at how those conditional rights could be useful to the Crystal River valley, in contrast to their originally decreed purpose of transferring water out of the Crystal basin. But we knew we would still have to file diligence on the project as originally decreed.

BGS: So how flexible, how portable, are conditional water rights and their priority dates? There’s been ideas floated with the Castle and Maroon rights – that a smaller reservoir could be built, that they could be transferred to an underground storage facility on the city golf course, etc.

CT: What you can’t do is come in to a diligence filing and say, “We’ve talked about this.” That’s not diligence. You would have had to do more than talk about it, you would have had to at least study it.

BGS: Have studied moving it, for example?

CT: Yes, having studied moving it or using it for a different purpose at a different location. But it’s always up to the water court to find what’s adequate diligence, and they can look back at the original project and say, ” I think you’re talking about a new and different project. You need to file for a new water right.” That’s a risk.

BGS: Is there a threshold for what constitutes a new project?

CT: No.

BGS: Can we explore the standards of diligence? It seems there is a difference in what the water court might consider as diligence and what the average person might understand as diligence.

CT: There is a definition of diligence. It’s broad, and fairly non-specific in the legislation.

BGS: Is the diligence standard excused because you’re a municipality? Or does it still apply?

CT: It absolutely still applies. You must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that you are moving diligently toward development of the conditional water rights.

BGS: In the last clause of the city’s diligence application for the Maroon Creek Reservoir, it says, “applicant city of Aspen having demonstrated that it has steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation of the Maroon Creek reservoir conditional water right in a reasonably expedient and efficient matter under all the facts and circumstances … ” should be allowed to hang on to the rights for another six years.

So if someone has “steadily applied effort” to complete the appropriation of a conditional storage water right, does that means they’ve steadily applied effort towards storing the water in question?

CT: Yes.

BGS: Which also means they’re steadily applying effort toward building the structures, or dams, that would actually store the water in question?

CT: Well, the courts recognize that developing a reservoir is not as simple as getting a bunch of spray-painted shovels and having a ground-breaking ceremony. There are a lot of studies, and permits, and financing, and there’s a lot that goes into the early conditional period when planning for a reservoir.

BGS: But “steadily” applying effort means you’re moving towards actually storing the water some day, right?

CT: Yes.

BGS: It’s doesn’t mean you’re just hanging on to the water right for the sake of hanging on to the water right?

CT: Colorado water law prohibits speculation.

BGS: To be clear, if you’ve steadily applied effort to “complete the appropriation” of the conditional water right, then you’re moving towards storing the water. And if you are moving toward storing water, you need to be moving toward building a structure, a dam.

CT: Yes, right.

BGS: That’s what “complete the appropriation” ultimately means, right?

CT: Yes it does. Storage is clearly the end game, but diligence doesn’t specifically mean you’ve applied for a permit, or that you’ve hired bond counsel. There are a lot of early steps that may qualify as diligence.

BGS: Aspen, for example, does not claim it has been studying the reservoirs themselves, but instead it says that work on any part of integrated water management system counts as work on the whole system. So something like repairing pipes in downtown Aspen can count as steadily applying effort toward building the dams and reservoirs?

CT: Every water system is an integrated system in one form or another.

BGS: So what’s a citizen to make of that? In Aspen’s case, there appears to be little, if any, actual diligence on aspects of the projects that commonly comprise a feasibility study, such as water supply and demand studies, geological studies, construction analysis, permitting review, etc.

CT: I don’t know that.

BGS: Well, I’ve asked for such studies, and none have been forthcoming. What the city has told the court is that the reservoirs are part of their integrated water management system, they’ve been working on other parts of the system first, and work on one part of the system is work on all parts of the system.

That strikes me as a bit of a loophole, or at least a low bar. But how bulletproof of a legal argument is the integrated water management argument? Is that all the state requires? If you develop a reuse system at a wastewater plant, say, you can legitimately say you’ve also made progress on building two reservoirs?

CT: Nothing’s bulletproof, it’s up to the water court. And I’ll keep saying that. It’s to the satisfaction of the judge in water court. Or, actually, to the water referee and then, if necessary, the water court judge.

I can tell you the history of the integrated water system provision. The oil shale sector was the primary proponent for the amendment to that section of the law. And they said if they were working on other aspects of a system, such as a pump station and a pipeline, then those were physical manifestations of diligence toward developing their overall system.

If say, a pump station was for 20 cubic feet per second, but their conditional right allowed for 100 cfs, they didn’t wish to see the larger amount challenged, as they were simply working in a steady and progressive manner toward eventual development of the entire system and perfection of the conditional right.

BGS: So does a judge have to decide, in a claim of being in an integrated water management system, whether there’s actual progress being made in that claim?

CT: Yes. I think the court would ask, is there a reasonable nexus to the diligence application for the water right in question? Is one action leading to another? The other part of steady progress is that it cannot just be in the last week before you filed. You do have to show you were engaged in steady application of diligence efforts.

BGS: So even though it’s within the confines of an integrated water management system, there still has to be a nexus to the ultimate development of completing the appropriation.

CT: Yes.

BGS: So can Aspen claim it worked on one part of our system, even though it bares little relationship to the actual potential reservoirs, and still claim that as steady effort?

CT: That’s up to the water judge.

BGS: There is no clear standard?

CT: Well, in the diligence applications that I’m familiar with, you include all of the efforts that you feel are relevant. For example, when the River District files for diligence on conditional water rights, we often include details of our work on the recovery program for endangered fish, because it’s critical to the way the river system works today. It may not have a geographic nexus to the conditional filing in question, but it has a hydrologic nexus. And so we hope the water court recognizes our work is a necessary element to be able to ultimately develop the water right.

For example, if a city was going to build a reservoir someday they could look forward to having to go through a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review. As such, they will need to study a range of alternative measures they could take, such as making sure they don’t have leaks, water conservation efforts, pricing, all of that.

You have to accept that water development is an enormous challenge, and you’re going to have to show that you’re using your existing supply to its maximum benefit and efficiency before seeking permits. So a water provider might include in an application for diligence the work done today on those types of activities, even though they don’t appear to be physically linked to the reservoirs. And they can count it as work toward a future reservoir, because it’s related.

BGS: Do you think the city should have been more actively studying its two potential reservoirs?

CT: You have to allow any conditional water right owner to decide what their own timing is that leads to development.

BGS: Okay, but is there any requirement for work to be done on a specific site or project basis? Even if you’re doing other stuff, do you still have to study the project at some basic level?

Because, in this case, it doesn’t appear Aspen has done much, or is doing much, investigating of the feasibility of the reservoirs themselves. And if the city thinks it might actually need the reservoirs, shouldn’t city officials be studying them?

CT: Not necessarily. You have to allow that Aspen has accepted from 1965 that these reservoirs may be necessary. And what they have asserted is that what they’re doing is working on the other elements of their integrated system that require immediate work, and in the succession of development and maintenance of their system, those are their priorities.

The fact that I filed for a reservoir, say, on Three Mile Creek, doesn’t mean that I have to keep drilling every six years to see what the soils look like on Three Mile Creek.

BGS: Yes, but should you have drilled once? No drilling, for example, has ever been done on the location of the Maroon Creek Reservoir, that I can find or that the city can produce.

CT: Eventually you will, but there are many other things required before eventual storage construction. Personally, I don’t know what the order is of when drilling or soils testing is required.

BGS: Wouldn’t you want to know what a drill test says about a key factor in a reservoir, which is where the bedrock is?

CT: Yes. You will.

BGS: Not now?

CT: Maybe not yet. This is probably not the first thing I need to know. Not everything is a study for fatal flaws, especially if you accept that they have a premise around their original filing that this is necessary and appropriate someday. That’s exactly what a conditional water right is.

BGS: It just strikes me as a profound lack of curiosity.

CT: I understand. I think you have a legitimate question as long as you’ll acknowledge that there is a whole series of studies, and hard and soft science steps, that have to be followed before you can get to application, let alone development. Then I think it’s a legitimate question.

BGS: So what’s the average person to make of the larger situation? The city can, in effect, say they are making progress but really, at least in terms of how most people might see the question, they are really not?

CT: Yes.

BGS: I understand then that someone can technically say in water court they are making progress, given the integrated system provision, but it seems to lack a certain integrity from a street corner or real-world perspective.

CT: Well, for example, for the Osgood Reservoir on the Crystal River, the River District didn’t feel we could tell the court “Rest assured, we’re not going to flood the town of Redstone” when the water right as decreed would have done so.

We were, in fact, looking at alternatives, but then it would no longer have been the West Divide project as conditionally decreed. And we would have admitted that to most anybody, except the court. Because if we weren’t going to flood the town of Redstone, by moving the storage right to a more acceptable location, it might be considered a different right by the court.

BGS: So that suggests there is an integrity gap in Aspen’s approach, because they are saying, in effect, “We don’t want to build the dam near Maroon Bells” and yet they are still pursuing the same rights that are tied to the dam.

CT: When you are filing for diligence, you’re filing to maintain the water right’s priority date. And it’s not a secret, and it’s not a lie, that the water right may in fact be developed someday in another fashion for another purpose in another location.

BGS: Well, then, how low are the state’s standards for diligence? If you simply say you’re making progress, and want to keep all your options open, does the court just say, “Okay, carry on.”

CT: Let me acknowledge that conditional water rights are typically not contested. You usually don’t have objectors in a diligence case. And until relatively recently, if a filing didn’t have an objector, including the state of Colorado or anyone else, water courts tended to say, “Nobody’s upset, so no harm, no foul. Continue. Your diligence application is approved.”

Now the bigger filings have had objectors. We’ve had objectors on the Western Slope from eastern Colorado for large filings that were senior to some of the junior aspects of their transmountain diversions. They have had a clear self-interest in attacking these conditional rights, because they would improve the seniority of their junior rights by removing the threat, if you will, of a senior conditional.

But most filings aren’t contested, and uncontested filings are generally approved by the court without much analysis. Admittedly, the court might take exception to that.

BGS: Switching gears, what is the harm in walking away from a water right?

CT: It depends. We maintained the rights on the Crystal because we thought storage in that basin could have been a significant benefit to western Colorado. And our choice to abandon those rights was not as simple as concluding we didn’t need storage there.

We were being challenged in court, and the challenge was to the entire West Divide project. And our partners in that project, the West Divide Water Conservancy District, still intended to pursue aspects of that project that are outside of the Crystal River drainage.

We didn’t want the tail – the potential dams on the Crystal – to wag the dog – the other parts of the project. So we looked at number one, the opposition and the risk to the other water rights outside of the Crystal River basin. And, two, we recognized that if, in the future we still wanted to pursue storage on the Crystal then a new junior storage right would accomplish largely the same goals as those senior rights associated with the conditional filing would have.

BGS: Okay, so the River District made a call to walk away from two large dams. But the city of Aspen seems to always pour cold water on that option by suggesting if they abandon them someone else is going to come in and claim them, and their decreed date of 1971, apparently.

CT: Impossible.

BGS: So if someone else comes in and claims a storage right on Castle and Maroon creeks, it’s going to have a new junior priority date? They can’t come in and claim a 1971 right?

CT: Correct.

BGS: And someone could always still come in and file for a new junior right, whether or not the city abandoned its rights?

CT: Yes, but it’s a very different water right if you’re behind a senior conditional right. And there is the “can and will” test. You may not be able to develop the new junior right if it’s in line behind a senior conditional right. It depends upon the hydrology and how much water is available to store during runoff.

BGS: So if by retaining a conditional senior storage right, you make it less likely that someone’s going to come in and file for a junior right, isn’t that an advantage for a senior rights holder, like Aspen, in this case? If so, that suggests there is value in just sitting, if you will, on a senior conditional right as a preemptive move against future interlopers.

CT: Aspen, or anyone else, may see a strategic value in that approach. But that’s not sufficient diligence. There were a number of people in the Crystal basin who were in favor of water development. Not in favor of flooding Redstone, but who were in favor of water development. And they saw our conditional water rights as a strategic card and said if we didn’t hang onto that water right, then someone like Denver Water could come in and file. But we never said that; we never saw that. It’s not a legitimate or feasible threat. Nor did we see it as a sufficient to present as diligence.

BGS: You mean you can’t protect your water rights unless you’re actually making progress towards completing the appropriation? You can’t just be doing it for strategic purposes?

CT: Correct. You have to be diligently moving toward development. Remember, though, that oil shale has largely maintained its water rights from the 1940s by researching oil shale development. Some would argue there’s no way that they’re moving toward development or perfection of those rights. But the courts so far largely have found that they are.

BGS: Ah, yes, it’s always the court’s call. But how unusual is it to have ten opposers, as Aspen does, in a diligence case? Doesn’t that change things?

CT: It’s certainly uncommon to have opposers in diligence cases. And it’s worth noting that while a city cannot hold onto water rights solely to suit their strategic priorities, opposers can challenge the city’s rights based on their own strategic priorities

BGS: In other words, as an opposer you don’t need to prove standing, you don’t have to show injury.

CT: Essentially right.

BGS: Another outstanding question I have is about storage. The Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,000 acre feet of water and the Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold about 4,500 acre feet.

And recently, Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick told the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, and I quote, “All of this, this whole notion of how much water do we need and how much water do we need to store, and all of that, has been based upon very preliminary analysis. And now it’s time to tighten up the whole analysis and do a rational set of studies so we can have a rational discussion with the entire valley about what are we going to do here. How much storage do we need, and where do we want to put it?”

Given that, why is the city telling the state it needs 14,000 acre-feet of storage if they aren’t sure how much storage they need? How hard is it to determine how much storage a city needs? A recent raw water supply analysis from Wilson Water found the city could meet future needs without storage, even after aggressive climate change projections.

CT: I would suggest that it’s not particularly easy to look 50 years down the road and try to figure out exactly what your needs are going to be.

BGS: So, again, what should a citizen make about the duality in the situation, where the city is telling the state it’s making progress while telling citizen’s it’s the last thing they want to do?

CT: I will say I feel the city’s pain, because while they may not have any actual intent to build that size reservoir in that location, they apparently see a need and a purpose for additional storage. As we did on the Crystal. Were we going to flood the town of Redstone? Not in this day and age. We knew that. Could we admit that anywhere but the water court? Sure. But in the water court, that’s not what you’re able to do.

BGS: So does that speak to the failing of the water court? Or to an issue of integrity?

CT: You keep suggesting that this is an issue of integrity.

BGS: Well, I keep asking.

CT: I think the city recognizes the value, the purpose, and the benefit of storage at large. Storage of some size. Storage in their water supply planning.

BGS: Storage of some size, somewhere, at some point, in some location.

CT: Yes, and that’s what a conditional water right may provide. But it’s not a failing of the court, because it doesn’t, in fact, allow for unfettered flexibility. The court would likely reject a suggestion, say, that a conditional storage right on Castle Creek might be used on Hunter Creek.

BGS: But the city is studying and positioning various potential alternatives, suggesting the rights are quite portable and flexible.

CT: The conditional water right system does allow for movement. But it would likely have to have a junior right if moved too far.

BGS: But no one knows for sure until they go through the process? There’s no standard?

CT: Well there is a standard for that. If you go too far, say if you try to exchange that right to Hunter Creek, it’s going to end up being a new junior right.

BGS: So there’s generally limited flexibility?

CT: Yes. But you never know until you go through water court.

BGS: Can we discuss why the River District has not taken a position, or really, said anything, one way or the other, about Aspen’s conditional water rights? The district is not an opposer, so it apparently doesn’t oppose them, but it hasn’t said, for example, that they think those reservoirs might be valuable for any reason.

CT: Well, we’ve never been asked.

BGS: The city has not come to you? They’ve never consulted with you?

CT: No. Aspen has not asked for help.

BGS: Or sat down and asked you about your experiences on the Crystal?

CT: No. Nor do I find that odd that they didn’t. Montrose hasn’t, and Grand Junction hasn’t. Ute Water is working on developing and permitting storage on the Grand Mesa. They haven’t asked for our help. Others have. Eagle River and Water Sanitation asked for our help in putting together multi-party agreements that years ago resulted in the Eagle River memorandum of understanding, or MOU. Now we’re working on fulfillment of the MOU to develop joint-use, mutually beneficial East Slope-West Slope water.

BGS: Do you feel there’s any harm done if the city’s water rights are abandoned, from a Western Slope water rights perspective?

CT: We have not looked at them.

BGS: With respect, why not? It seems like something the River District would do.

CT: Well, this is what individual utilities do within our 15 county district. They develop their water rights.

BGS: But Aspen suggests there are threats from a Front Range bogeyman, and I wonder if you think a bogeyman is lurking, waiting for the city to give up its rights?

CT: We don’t see this as the bargaining chip that we need to, or have been asked to, help preserve. It’s a tool in the toolbox, perhaps, but we haven’t analyzed exactly how these water rights might be used in the ongoing poker game.

BGS: I’m trying to discern the significance of the River District’s neutrality and silence about the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs.

CT: I find our position unremarkable. There are many entities that are pursuing diligence or perfection of their water rights. We have no interest in jumping into a situation that has already divided our shared constituents. And Aspen has not asked for our help in their diligence filing, or their studies. So we have no direct dog in this fight.

BGS: So, again, is there a downside to Aspen giving up the rights, as the River District did on the Crystal?

CT: I think it may be important to ask what the opposers are seeking. Are they concerned about a dam in that particular location? If the dam were somewhere else, would they have the same concerns? Are their concerns really about growth? Is the concern that Aspen has, or may have, a vision of its future, that is more crowded than some may accept? I don’t know the answer. Is it that Aspen has said that they want to maintain the instream flow rights? Is it the idea that storage can be used for meeting an instream flow, or enhancing an environmental benefit? What are their motivations? And perhaps most importantly, what happens if they succeed?

BGS: Well, fair enough. I’ll follow-up with the opposers, and they have articulated many of their concerns for the water court referee. But that’s why I asked you what harm the River District sees if the rights are abandoned. Apparently you don’t see any, which says something about the size of the bogeyman.

CT: What does Aspen see? Are there any competing conditional rights in between that if Aspen drops out, somebody moves up the line? If there’s an intervening conditional water right on the Roaring Fork, that would be pertinent.

These water rights may be a bar, or a deterrent, to another conditional rights that couldn’t be developed if these rights were senior. So I think it’s a legitimate inquiry as to whether, say, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams, has considered what the full implications are to not having these water rights. I don’t know the answer. I’m just saying it’s a reasonable question.

BGS: I agree it is a reasonable question. And a reasonable question to ask the River District, too.

CT: We haven’t looked at it.

BGS: Again, with respect, why not?

CT: Nobody’s asked us, nobody’s suggested it. It’s not a problem.

BGS: But isn’t that in your mission? I have to think that if the River District thought that if these rights were to go away it would harm the Western Slope, you would have said something.

CT: If we thought so yes, if we had looked at it and come to that conclusion. But you’re giving us too much credit.

BGS: I guess so.

CT: We haven’t looked at it. I think if they were pre-compact, or pre-1922, rights I guess it would be more interesting to us.

BGS: Do you think there’s a bogeyman out there as it relates to Castle and Maroon?

CT: I think there’s a much bigger bogeyman in the upper Roaring Fork. Castle and Maroon, hard to picture, but the upper Roaring Fork, easy to see. The evidence is all there.

Navajo/Hopi mediation session recap

Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River.

From the Navajo-Hopi Observer:

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the Nation would continue to pursue an agreement to protect all water rights it has to the Little Colorado River and all its tributaries during a mediation session with the Hopi Tribe.

The mediation session about the Little Colorado River (LCR) Water Settlement was held May 31 and came at the recommendation of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who recognized the two tribes were at an impasse in negotiations. McCain solicited the assistance of the Udall Institute to facilitate the mediation.

“We appreciate the opportunity to have this meeting and I hope we can move these negotiations forward,” Begaye said. “We need to be further along in our negotiations at this point. This agreement is the catalyst to moving both nations forward in resolving water rights in Arizona.”

On behalf of the Udall Institute, Brian Manwaring, acting director for the U.S. Institute of Environmental Health, noted that the two tribes had come together in early 2016 with the goal of reaching agreement on a perspective of “Two Tribes, One Voice” in addressing a potential LCR Settlement.

“Sen. McCain is wanting both tribes to re-engage in their discussion,” Manwaring said. “We are here to work with the tribes to figure out what’s happening. Our responsibility is to assist both tribes.”

Manwaring said he realizes that each tribe holds strong opinions in what they feel they deserve in a settlement. The role of the mediator is to look at what is behind each side’s position to bring forth a consensus or agreement.

“If both sides are going to haggle, neither party is going to reach an agreement,” he said. “We need to look at the structure of the positions, the communication going forth and to ensure that we have the right people at the table.”

In addressing the totality of the settlement, Begaye asked the Udall Institute and the Hopi Tribe to keep in mind that both tribes comprise only two stakeholders in the settlement.

“Coming to a resolution is just the beginning,” Begaye said. “We have to keep in mind that we also face opposition from non-Native interests. There will be a bigger fight as we move into discussion with non-Native stakeholders and then onto Congress.”

The president said it’s unfortunate that the Navajo Nation was left out of the original negotiations in 1922 when water distribution was first being determined. Because of that, Begaye said the Nation will now ensure that it’s always at the table whenever water is being discussed.

“We want to make sure that we fight for every ounce of water that belongs to us,” he said.

The president extended his appreciation for the opportunity to work with the Udall Institute in addressing any of the disagreements causing the impasse.

“The Navajo Nation understands how important water is in everything we do, which is why we will do everything to protect our water,” Begaye said. “This includes protecting it against contamination and misuse. Water is life and it gives life to all our land, livestock and people.”

The Udall Institute scheduled a follow-up meeting for June 29, at a location to be determined. The trial for the LCR adjudication will commence in September 2018.

“Timing in moving the settlement forward is critical at this point,” Begaye said.