Multi-group collaboration spawns better fishing in #Colorado — American Water Works Association #FraserRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Fraser River fishing. Photo credit: Denver Water

Click the link to read the release on the AWWA website:

A collaborative agreement among several water partners will increase flows and improve the health of stretches of the Fraser River in Grand County, Colorado, popular for recreational activities. 

Several years of discussion and analysis led to the agreement, which stipulates that Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit organization, will pay Grand County Irrigated Land Company (GCILC) to release water from the Meadow Creek Reservoir to increase flows in a section of the Upper Fraser River. This 10-mile stretch, between the cities of Winter Park and Tabernash, is a popular spot for fly fishing and an area where brown trout spawn in the fall.

The water released from the reservoir will go to Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System. In exchange, Denver Water will divert about five cubic feet per second less water from the Jim Creek collection point. The Coca-Cola Company and Swire Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola’s distributor in the western United States) are funding the transaction.

The agreement is for one year, but all parties involved hope to extend the agreement as part of a long-term solution to increase Fraser River flows.

“Historically, the Upper Fraser River near Winter Park has seen low flows, particularly in August and September when resident trout are starting their fall spawning migration,” said Tony LaGreca, project manager for the Colorado Water Trust, in a press release. Since 2001, the nonprofit has restored nearly 21 billion gallons of water to 600 miles of Colorado’s rivers and streams by developing and implementing voluntary, water sharing agreements.  

“Boosting flows at this time can help those fish have successful spawning runs and keep this valuable recreational fishery healthy,” LaGreca said. “We are fortunate to have an excellent partner in GCILC and we look forward to working with them long into the future to keep the Fraser River flowing strong.”

GCLIC, located in Granby, Colorado, operates an irrigation ditch that transports water to shareholders and leasing properties.

“By partnering with the Water Trust, GCILC hopes the releases of water from Meadow Creek Reservoir will, in a small way, help to mitigate the impacts to the watershed from the trans-mountain diversions, and be consistent with the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement,” said Mike Holmes, president of GCILC.

“Water in Colorado is complex, and this project has a lot of different entities involved to make sure Denver Water is kept whole in terms of water,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply at Denver Water. “Denver Water has the infrastructure to make it happen, Grand County Irrigators brought the water and Colorado Water Trust brought the money. All those made it work together.”

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

#Mancos Conservation District to receive $2.48 million federal grant — The #Cortez Journal #MancosRiver #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #aridification

Thanks to a federal grant through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Mancos Conservation District will build three permanent diversion structures on the Mancos River that will better facilitate irrigation and fish passage. The improved structures, seen here, are tiered so that fish can still swim upstream. (Courtesy of the Mancos Conservation District)

Click the link to read the article on The Cortez Journal website (Reuben M. Schafir). Here’s an excerpt:

The grant, part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, is a ‘game-changer’ for the small district.

The funding will be used for infrastructure improvements, such as permanent diversion and water monitoring structures, and 650 acres of wildfire mitigation in the Mancos River watershed…

“We’re so grateful and thankful for this opportunity,” said MCD Executive Director Gretchen Rank. “We are really looking forward to working with our team at the Bureau of Reclamation and our private landowners here.”

The Mancos River headwaters meet north of its namesake community, pass east of Mesa Verde before cutting southwest and ultimately converging with the San Juan River.

The grant will fund the conservation district’s work to benefit irrigators, as well as the ecosystem. The MCD will build three permanent diversion structures, replacing the push-up dams currently in place. The existing dams are made of stream bed material and are washed away regularly and tend to block fish passage. Instead, the push-up dams will be replaced by permanent tiered structures that create a consistent flow of water for irrigators and allow fish to pass…The project is part of an ongoing effort to enhance fish passage in the Mancos River. In addition to the three diversion installations, 10 existing diversion points will be upgraded with advanced metering technology…There are over 50 irrigation ditches in the Mancos River watershed, Wolcott said. Federal funding will also support wildfire mitigation work on 650 acres of forested private land and riparian zone invasive plant removal.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

2 Eagle County water entities opt out of #PFAS-related settlements — The #Vail Daily

With four locations within the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and one location with the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District showing elevated levels of the “forever” chemical PFAS, the two entities have decided to opt out of current lawsuits against PFAS producers 3M and Dupont in expectation of future developments on the topic. Eagle River Water & Sanitation District/Courtesy image

Click the link to read the article on The Vail Daily website (Zoe Goldstein). Here’s an excerpt:

Board members cited confusing language in the lawsuits, potential for significant future knowledge and regulation developments regarding PFAS

During a special joint meeting on Nov. 30, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority both decided to opt out of accepting settlements resulting from class action lawsuits between thousands of United States public water systems against 3M and a collective of companies including DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company, and Corteva, Inc. Eastern Eagle County’s drinking water entities began sampling for PFAS, the catch-all name for a collection of thousands of so-called “forever chemicals,” five years ago, at the request of the state of Colorado. Three studies have been conducted in the county, with the most recent study in 2023. The 2023 data shows that PFAS has been detected in five out of 11 sources throughout the county, with four detections within the Authority, and one in the District. All five detections were below the maximum contaminant level of four parts per trillion. For reference, one part per trillion is a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools…

“The main reason I put this up is to emphasize that this is super limited data. We have three sampling events, and they are snapshots in time. We have no idea about variability, and we have no idea how this data is trending over time,” said Brad Zachman, District director of operations.

PFAS contamination in the U.S. October 18, 2021 via

2024 #COleg: #Colorado lawmakers expected to consider state permit program protecting wetlands: Goal is to fill regulatory gap left by Supreme Court decision — @AspenJournalism #WOTUS

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in Eagle County. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision says only wetlands with a direct surface water connection to a stream or permanent body of water are now protected under the Clean Water Act. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Colorado lawmakers are expected to consider legislation next session aimed at providing project permits while still protecting wetlands, which were left vulnerable after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act has protected the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) since 1972. But exactly which wetlands and water bodies fall under the definition of WOTUS has long been the subject of litigation and policy that changed with each presidential administration. In Sackett v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the definition of WOTUS did not include wetlands adjacent to streams. Only wetlands with a direct surface water connection to a stream or permanent body of water are now protected under the Clean Water Act.

While it is not always clear whether a wetland has a direct surface connection to a qualifying stream, experts say the decision removed federal protections from at least half of Colorado’s wetlands. The ruling also excludes from protection many ephemeral streams that run only seasonally during spring runoff or summer monsoons.

Colorado Rivers. Credit:

The state will have to decide how to protect the wetlands that now fall outside the purview of the Clean Water Act, which water policy experts are calling “gap waters.”

According to a policy brief by Andrew Teegarden, a water fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, “the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett created a gaping hole in Colorado’s program for protecting and regulating discharge and fill activities and the current state of the law in Colorado is inadequate to fill the gap.”

“Sackett was more devastating than anyone envisioned it being,” said Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Basically, if it’s not a continuously flowing stream or interstate river, it’s no longer protected.”

The main way many wetlands had federal protection under the Clean Water Act in the past was through a permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Developers and property owners had to get a 404 permit — also known as a dredge-and-fill permit — if they wanted to undertake certain projects that involved wetlands. The corps applied guidelines and criteria for making sure the project would not destroy or degrade the waters.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now expected to present to lawmakers a state-level permitting process that would step in to fill the regulatory gap left by Sackett v. EPA. Last summer, CDPHE enacted a new policy that requires notice of discharge into state waters and allows the agency to take enforcement actions when unpermitted discharges of dredge and fill materials takes place. This policy was intended to be temporary while the state comes up with a permanent program.

CDPHE has also been meeting with and taking input from stakeholders — including environmental groups, agriculture interests and water providers — to explore creating a more permanent regulatory program to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands to the same extent they were protected before the Sackett v. EPA decision.

In August, Trisha Oeth, CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection, told lawmakers at a meeting of the Water Resources and Agriculture Committee that the agency has been hearing from stakeholders that any program should have a clear scope and also avoid permitting delays. She said stakeholders want to maintain the status quo and do not have an interest in developing a program that goes beyond the scope of what was federally protected prior to Sackett v. EPA.

“We are going to need to be creative here in Colorado to address those concerns about balance — preserving the status quo with having an efficient program,” Oeth said. “We’ve also been hearing it’s really important to protect source waters.”

These wetlands along Homestake Creek in Eagle County may no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act after the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA. Colorado will now have to decide how to protect the wetlands without a direct surface connection to a stream, which water policy experts are calling “gap waters.” Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Fens could be at risk

One example of those source waters is a type of sensitive, high-country wetland now potentially left vulnerable: fens. These are groundwater-fed wetlands that form peat over thousands of years, are home to rare plants and insects, and cannot be easily restored if destroyed. Fens are sometimes isolated with no stream as an outlet.

“All of our groundwater-fed wetlands are outside of the Clean Water Act regulation now,” said David Cooper, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University and a fen expert. “In the San Juan mountains, we did a project and I think we estimated there were about 10,000 fens, and most of them, because of the Sackett decision, would not be considered adjacent to navigable waters.”

Cooper said most of the water that feeds streams in Colorado goes through fens in the highest part of watersheds, which remove sediment and pollutants. They are also a key piece of the ecosystem that support biodiversity, he said.

“Fens occupy a 10th of 1% of our landscape, but they support probably 25% of species in Colorado,” Cooper said. “Their importance greatly exceeds their tiny presence on the landscape.”

Aaron Citron, a senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, said any new state program should provide regulatory certainty, redirect development to less environmentally sensitive areas and be consistent with the best available wetlands science.

“Every presidential administration has kind of redefined the scope of the 404 program,” he said. “And that’s not good for regulated entities; it’s not good for the natural environment. It just makes everything more complicated. So, one of the goals is to just set a standard and decide that Colorado knows what’s best for Colorado waters.”

Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.

First Water Flows Through #ColoradoRiver Connectivity Channel — @Northern_Water #COriver #aridification

Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin. Graphic credit: Northern Water

Click the link to read the article on the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District website:

November 7, 2023: In what’s been described as “the largest aquatic habitat connectivity project ever undertaken in state history,” crews successfully tested the new Colorado River Connectivity Channel (CRCC) at the end of October. The new channel around Windy Gap Reservoir hydrologically and ecologically now reconnects two segments of the Colorado River for the first time in approximately 40 years.  

Northern Water staff were joined by Grand County officials, Windy Gap Project Participant Representatives, Colorado Parks and Wildlife representatives and others to watch the first flows go through the long-awaited channel. This new video captures the historic day and includes comments from the project participants and stakeholders who were present to witness the occasion.    

While water is now running through the new channel, there is still construction work to be done. Crews will continue putting the finishing touches on the project’s new dam embankment, diversion structure and other elements before winter weather brings activity to a stop in the upcoming weeks. Construction is expected to resume

next spring and wrap up later in 2024. Vegetation establishment along the channel will continue into 2025 and 2026, before the area is anticipated to open for public recreation in 2027.  

The new channel will enable fish and other wildlife to move freely upstream and downstream around what is now a smaller Windy Gap Reservoir. Meanwhile, the reservoir will continue providing a diversion point on the Colorado River for the Windy Gap Project during the high flows of spring and early summer.  

The CRCC is part of a package of environmental measures, valued at $90 million, associated with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which is ultimately where Windy Gap Project water will be stored once reservoir construction is completed.   

#Wellington faces ‘hard decisions’ as it raises water rates, looks to future — The #FortCollins Coloradoan #SouthPlatteRiver #PourdreRiver

Looking west on Cleveland Avenue in Wellington. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Click the link to read the article on the Fort Collins Coloradoan website (Pat Ferrier). Here’s an excerpt:

On Tuesday, the town trustees approved a 5% annual rate hike for 2024-2028 that would cost the average ratepayer and extra $5.37 per month in winter and $12.45 in summer, when more water is used to water lawns. New rates will go into effect Jan. 1. Trustees also approved an increase in capital investment fees paid by developers from $10,437 for water and $9,742 for wastewater per single-family home to $10,959 and $10,229, respectively. The 2024 base water rate will go from $49.71 to $52.20 and the usage rate will go from $11.70 to $12.29 for the use of 4,000 to 7,000 gallons.

This is not a new problem for Wellington, which raised water rates and impact fees in 2020 to pay for an expansion of its water and wastewater treatment plants, imposed water restrictions and limited new residential building permits until the expansions are complete. Once the water and wastewater treatment plant expansions are completed, they should accommodate additional growth for 20 to 30 years, which would generate more building and tap fees, allowing the water and wastewater funds to show a profit.

Currently, however, the water fund will be in a $593,000 hole in 2026 and the sewer fund $700,000 short…Trustees also approved transferring the maximum amount from the general fund to the water and wastewater enterprise funds to reduce the impact to residents. Enterprise funds may only receive up to 10% of the revenue received in the fund from taxpayer transfers through the general fund under the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR. The total transfer will reduce the general fund by $935,000 in 2023 and an estimated $1.06 million in 2024.

2023 South Platte Forum #southplatte23 #SouthPlatteRiver

What a great learning experience yesterday in Greeley at the 2023 South Platte River Forum. The panels were all excellent as were the speakers (even the presentation by Brent Young about crop insurance 😊).

Here’s the link to the forum Tweets.

Lithium in Paradox: aridity could nip a new #Utah mining rush in the bud — Jonatan P. Thompson @Land_Desk

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

Myriad proposals to tap lithium deposits in southeastern Utah are progressing from the conceptual to the exploratory phases. But they are running up against a familiar obstacle in these arid parts: concern about how the projects might affect diminishing water supplies in the Colorado River Basin. 

Lithium is the primary ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric vehicles to grid-scale energy storage. Demand for the stuff has shot up tremendously over the last decade, which has also elevated prices. That, in turn, has sparked interest in developing a domestic lithium industry, with projects sprouting in Nevada, at the Salton Sea and Great Salt Lake, in southern New Mexico, and in the Paradox Formation in the Four Corners Country.

The Paradox Basin and Anson/A1/Blackstone’s main target areas: A. Green River Project; B. Paradox Project; C. Wayne County water rights (and possible future processing plant?).

The Paradox Formation (or Basin), stretching from the northwestern edge of the San Juan Basin up to the town of Green River, Utah, contains oodles of lithium (along with potash and bromide and so on). That’s because some 300 million years ago a sea covered the area, then evaporated, then flooded the area, then evaporated, repeating this cycle about 29 times over the course of 15 million years. The process left behind thick deposits of salts and other materials. Over the ensuing millennia, rock piled up atop the salt, squeezing it into fault lines, where the salt was pushed up into domes that shaped the overlying landscape. Those salt deposits contain lithium.

Geologic cross-section of a portion of the Paradox Basin showing a salt dome.

Companies have poked around in the Paradox Formation in search of potash for years. Now they’re going after lithium in a big way, with several firms staking claims in the Lisbon Valley and beyond. 

Anson Resources’ Paradox and Green River Projects are probably the furthest along (if investor presentations are to be believed).  The Australian company and its subsidiaries — A1 Lithium, Blackstone Minerals, and Blackstone Resources — have been staking claims fervently among the sandstone formations northwest of Moab between the Green and Colorado Rivers over the last several years, amassing more than 1,000 federal mining claims. They also acquired private land surrounding the Department of Energy’s uranium tailings disposal site on the southern edge of the town of Green River as well as securing leases on Utah state land.

Conventional lithium operations pump mineral-filled water to the surface, put it in shallow ponds, and allow the water to evaporate, concentrating the lithium and associated materials. Potash is extracted like this, as well — a complex of potash evaporation ponds near Moab have gone viral as instagram targets due to their vivid colors. This method not only requires a lot of land for the ponds, but also is water-intensive, with as much as 200,000 gallons of water evaporating for each ton of material produced. Plus, the process can produce a lot of waste and takes a long time. 

Anson plans a different approach. They say they will partner with China-based Sunresin and use that firm’s patented direct lithium extraction, or DLE, method. Anson would drill a well (or redrill an old oil and gas well), pump the brine to the surface, and use resin beads to extract the lithium from the water, without evaporation ponds. After the lithium is extracted, the water is injected back underground. That, in theory, makes it a non-consumptive use of the water, meaning it shouldn’t have as much of an effect on water supplies. 

But direct lithium extraction is a largely unproven technology, and it’s not clear that it will work in the Paradox Basin. The technique may require fresh water to be injected into the lithium deposits before pumping it to the surface, since the minerals may not be adequately saturated. In the 1950s and 1960s, a couple of facilities in Moab pumped up brine for use in the Atlas uranium mill; they had to pump fresh water into the subterranean salt beds, first, in order to dissolve the salts. Plus, any time you drill deep into the earth and remove or inject water, you’re potentially screwing with the hydrology — and even the geology. 

Paradox Valley via

This has been shown in the oil and gas fields, where “produced water,” or wastewater left over from the drilling and extraction process, is often reinjected deep underground. The process has induced seismic activity, or triggered earthquakes, in the Permian Basin and elsewhere. During the coalbed methane drilling boom in the San Juan Basin in the 1990s, all sorts of weirdness occurred, from methane flowing from water taps to a freshwater spring suddenly becoming hotter — all likely the result of pumping billions of gallons of water from the coal beds to “liberate” the methane, and then shooting it back into the ground. And in the Paradox Basin, a project that captures salt before it can enter the Dolores River and then injects it 16,000 feet underground (to keep Colorado River salinity levels in check) also triggered tremors in western Colorado. 

In other words, while direct lithium extraction could be a “game changer” for the industry, making it feasible to commercially extract lithium from geothermal brines under the Salton Sea, for example, many unknowns remain about the technology in general and this proposal specifically.  

What we do know is that Anson is looking to secure a bunch of water for its operations. Their water right applications seek:

Dead Horse State Park panorama via the State of Utah.
  • 19 cfs (13,755 acre-feet or 4.5 billion gallons per year) from wells located on Utah state land north of Dead Horse Point state park. The brine presumably would then be piped to a processing plant near the Colorado River, the lithium would be extracted, and the wastewater injected back underground. Intrepid Potash, the National Park Service, and a coalition of environmental groups protested the application, in part for its lack of detail and because, well, there really isn’t any extra water available.

Green River Basin
  • Another 19 cfs from several 8,000- to 9,000-foot deep wells on the south end of Green River adjacent to the uranium tailings depository. After extracting the lithium from a plant on this property, they would inject the wastewater into 5,000- to 7,000-foot deep wells. The Bureau of Reclamation protested this application because of its close proximity to the Green River and the potential to affect surface water supplies and quality. They also worry about direct lithium extraction, writing: “Data shows the success of DLE is hard to predict, consumes both freshwater and brine water, contaminates aquifers, reduces the groundwater table, hurts wildlife, worsens soil conditions …” Ooof.

Hollow Mountain Store, Hanksville, Utah. By Bandgirl807 (talk) – I created this work entirely by myself., CC BY 3.0,
  • And they leased 2,500 acre-feet (814 million gallons) per year from the Wayne County Water Conservancy District. This water may be used for processing, but it’s not clear where, yet. Anson has indicated it could have processing facilities in Green River and on the Colorado River below Moab, neither of which is near Wayne County (home of Hanksville). Perhaps they also plan on having a processing plant there.

The water rights applications are still pending.

For more information, check out John Weisheit’s post for, the website of the Canyonlands Watershed Council.

Research by Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network informed this report.

#ColoradoRiver District funds helped in tapping federal money for water projects — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

Four recently announced federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grants for water projects in the region all included one notable common denominator — they all got help in their application process through a special Colorado River District program made possible by a voter-approved tax measure in 2020…According to a news release from the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs, four of the projects are in the district’s boundaries, and all four made use of the district’s Accelerator Grant program, which was established last year to help West Slope water users in navigating the time-consuming and often-expensive requirements for applying for the considerable funding available under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The assistance includes helping pay for feasibility analysis, design, preliminary environmental review and engineering costs. Altogether, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Bureau of Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects…

Photo courtesy Wright Water Engineers via the Middle Colorado Watershed Council

■ $746,423 to the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which in partnership with Garfield County plans to install a fish barrier to prevent non-native fish migration, and upgrade a diversion structure, on Roan Creek outside De Beque.

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

■ Nearly $1.2 million to American Rivers, which, working with partners, plans to upgrade irrigation infrastructure and enhance aquatic and riparian habitats along a mile of the Uncompahgre River;

August, in the Elk Creek valley. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

■ About $3 million to Trout Unlimited and the Middle Colorado River Agriculture Collaborative to upgrade, relocate or combine six diversion structures in order to remove instream barriers to fish passage along five miles of Elk Creek in the New Castle area.

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

■ Nearly $1.6 million to the Western Slope Conservation Center, which, in partnership with the North Fork Farmer’s Ditch Association, will modernize the Farmers Ditch diversion and headgate structures downstream of Paonia Reservoir to improve upstream fish passage, increase diversion efficiency and improve safety for boaters.

The 2023 Annual Meeting of the #ArkansasRiver Compact Administration (ARCA) will be held on Thursday, December 7, 2023

Map of the Arkansas River drainage basin. Created using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

From email from the Arkansas River Compact Administration (Kevin Salter):

Click the links for the final notice and agenda for the upcoming Arkansas River Compact Administration Annual and Committee Meetings to be held on December 6thand 7th.  Please note that the meeting dates and location were changed at the ARCA Annual Meeting held in December 2023.  Also attached are the draft agendas for the ARCA committee and Annual meetings.

The ARCA Committee and Annual meetings will be held at the Jim Rizzuto Banquet Room, Otero College Student Center, 2001 San Juan Ave, La Junta, Colorado.

  • The 2023 Annual Meeting of the Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) will be held on Thursday, December 7, 2023, commencing at 8:30 a.m. MST (9:30 a.m. CST).  If necessary, the annual meeting may be recessed for lunch and reconvened for the completion of business in the afternoon.  The public is invited to attend the Annual Meeting.
  • The Engineering, Operations, and Administrative/Legal Committees of ARCA will meet on Wednesday, December 6, 2023, starting at 2:00 p.m. MST (3:00 p.m. CST) and continuing to completion.  The public is invited to attend the Committee meetings.

Meetings of ARCA are operated in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.  If you need a special accommodation as a result of a disability, please contact Stephanie Gonzales at (719) 688-0799 at least three days before the meeting.

The meeting announcement and draft agendas can be found on ARCA’s website:

There will be a presentation on the 75th anniversaries for the signing of the Compact and the completion of John Martin Reservoir ahead of the committee meetings on Wednesday, December 6, 2023, starting at 1:00 p.m. MST (2:00 p.m. CST).  The public is invited to attend this presentation.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact Andrew or myself.

Kevin Salter, Division of Water Resources, Kansas Department of Agriculture, 4532 W Jones Ave Suite B Garden City,  KS  67846,, (620) 276 – 2901.

Andrew Rickert, Program Manager, Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section, Colorado Water Conservation Board, P 303-866-3441 x 3249  |  M 720-651-1918, 1313 Sherman St., Room 718, Denver, CO 80203,

This view is from the top of John Martin Dam facing west over the body of the reservoir. The content of the reservoir in this picture was approximately 45,000 acre-feet (March 2014). By Jaywm – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Grand Lake will get no state help — for now — to restore its once-crystalline water — Fresh Water News

Grand Lake via Cornell University

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

November 15, 2023: A state commission that sets water quality standards in Colorado is declining for now to wade into a debate over murky water in Grand Lake.

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission will instead continue to monitor concerns about the popular tourist destination as federal and state authorities pursue solutions, the commission said at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday.

The lake is considered a prime jewel in Colorado’s scenic landscapes. Located on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, it has been a tourist haven since the late 1800s.

But clarity deteriorated when the federal government began construction on the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, in the late 1930s.

The system gathers water from streams and rivers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand County, and stores it in Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir.

From there it is eventually pumped up into Grand Lake and delivered under the Continental Divide via the Alva B. Adams Tunnel to Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir on the Front Range to serve more than 1 million residents and hundreds of farms.

The pumping creates turbidity that clouds the lake during the resort area’s prime tourist season in the summer. Before the C-BT was built, the lake was clear to a depth of 9.2 meters, or roughly 30 feet. Now it is far less.

Years of studies and work group sessions have failed to produce a solution.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to re-examine several options to fix the problem, including harvesting weeds and introducing aeration at Shadow Mountain, said Jeff Reiker, who manages the agency’s Eastern Colorado Area office. Reclamation owns the C-BT system, which is operated by Northern Water.

“We don’t have any major structural alternatives that have been identified as viable,” Rieker said. Some ideas considered previously involved things such as building a tunnel that would transport murky water from Shadow Mountain through Grand Lake, preventing the murkier water from mixing with Grand Lake’s.

“However, we are continuing our efforts to see if any structural alternatives need to be reconsidered. We want to focus on what can be done with our existing funding and authorities.”

The situation is complicated because it involves federal and state agencies, and any effort to redesign the massive system would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Early on locals had hoped the lake would be protected from damage caused by the project. A 1937 federal law, U.S. Senate Document 80, was approved in part to protect Grand Lake’s recreational and scenic values, and a 15-year-old state standard was designed to improve water clarity, setting a goal for clarity of 3.8 meters, or about 12.5 feet.

During the pumping process, algae and sediment from Shadow Mountain are carried into Grand Lake, clouding its formerly clear waters, causing algae blooms and weed growth, and harming recreation.

In 2008, the state water quality commission moved to set a clarity standard, but it has since been replaced with a clarity goal and the aim of achieving “the highest level of clarity attainable.”

Northern Water and others have implemented different management techniques, including changing pumping patterns, to find ways to improve water quality. In some years, Northern has been able to improve clarity, but not to historical levels.

The utility is getting better at managing clarity, meeting the 3.8-meter standard 50% of the time in recent years, up from 27% historically, said Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s manager of environmental services.

“We have made notable progress,” she said.

Grand Lake advocates did not object to the commission’s decision, but urged it to bolster efforts to improve water quality.

Despite the progress, major improvements remain elusive, said Jeff Metzger, a volunteer advocate who has been trying to solve the problem for roughly 30 years.

“There are numerous documents related to efforts to improve Grand Lake clarity,” he said. “And we have seen some improvements. But none of these agreements have moved the needle.”

During the next several months, Reclamation and Northern Water will continue leading efforts to find a fix and the commission could revisit the issue again after 2024.

At the same time, advocates hope to involve Colorado legislators in their efforts to restore the lake and plan to introduce a resolution next year asking lawmakers to endorse their efforts…

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

Farmers Union Canal project gets federal funding: $1.27 million grant will allow replacement of diversion dam and headgates — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

Graphic credit: Rio Grande Headwaters Trust via the Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen webiste (Chris Lopez):

The Farmers Union Canal and Headgate Improvement Project is going forward with a bump in funds from the Department of Interior. The multi-benefit project from the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, in conjunction with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District and Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, will replace the diversion dam and headgates with new structures that divert water more efficiently and provide increased watershed health benefits, including improved fish and boat passage. 

The old and ailing headgate, which bifurcates the Rio Grande into its north and south channels downstream of Del Norte, is in need of repairs. So a full replacement will be done instead. A new diversion dam and automated headgates will improve ditch operations, reduce maintenance, and protect and preserve the Farmers Union Canal’s full water rights in the future.

The diversion upgrade will provide safe boat passage and more efficiently deliver water to the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch.

The new diversion dam will include fish and boat passage, connecting aquatic habitat and improving community safety. Adjacent streambank stabilization work will also be done along with the replacement of the headgate. This streambank work will protect the diversion infrastructure, reduce sedimentation in the river, improve water quality for downstream users, and enhance surrounding wildlife habitat. This work will include the installation of rock and root wad structures, along with streambed and aquatic habitat through improved sediment transport at the diversion structure.

By controlling flows into the North Channel, this irrigation infrastructure delivers water to the Farmers Union Canals’ 140 water users and nine other irrigation ditches, irrigating a combined 42,980 acres. 

The Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project was awarded a $1.27 million grant on Nov. 15 from the Department of Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation. Along with 30 other projects across 11 states, the funding is part of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda. Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper wrote letters in support of the project.

The collaborative projects focus on water conservation, water management and restoration efforts that will result in significant benefits to ecosystem or watershed health.

“Adequate, resilient and safe water supplies are fundamental to the health, economy and security of every community in our nation,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Interior Department is focused on ensuring that funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is going to collaborative projects throughout the West that will benefit the American people.”

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Bureau of Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including rural water, water storage, conservation and conveyance, nature-based solutions, dam safety, water purification and reuse, and desalination. Over the first two years of its implementation, the Bureau of Reclamation selected 372 projects to receive almost $2.8 billion.

The WaterSMART program also advances the Justice40 Initiative, part of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic commitment to environmental justice, which aims to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate, clean energy, and other federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.

State Attorney General Phil Weiser voices reservations over Shoshone water rights plan — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Shoshone Falls hydroelectric generation station via USGenWeb

Click the link to read the article on The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

Nov 20, 2023

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser this week expressed reservations about the Colorado River District’s proposal to acquire major senior water rights associated with the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon, voicing discomfort with the idea of a proposed instream flow right not being owned by the state. Speaking at a Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, Weiser told river district General Counsel Peter Fleming that the ordinary structure in Colorado is for the state, through the state board, to own instream flow rights…

The proposal is for the river district to lease the acquired water rights back to Xcel for operation of the plant. The river district proposes that it and the CWCB would apply to state water court to get an alternate beneficial purpose of an instream flow added to the Shoshone water rights, to ensure the ability to keep the water in the river when it isn’t used for power generation, such as when the power plant is undergoing repairs. Although water entities already have agreed to generally keep water flowing as if the plant is in operation even when it is shut down, the river district and partners are seeking to protect those historic flows permanently, including in the case of the plant closing…

Fleming said the river district’s position is that the river district would assign the state the right to use the water rights for instream flows. He said that effectively the state would hold the right to use the water for instream purposes, but the only caveat is that Xcel wants to use the water for hydropower as long as the plant is operating, and the river district as the owner of the water rights would lease to Xcel the right to use the water…

Fleming said that although the CWCB ordinarily owns instream flow rights, state law also lets water users loan water to the CWCB for instream flows on a temporary basis, and other types of agreements also are in place. He said state law contemplates the state board using any means of acquiring the right to use instream flows, whether it be via loans, donations, acquisitions or obtaining “any sub-interest in the water right.”


Said Weiser, “What I don’t understand is why you’re talking at all about owning a title for something that’s use is in perpetuity and ordinarily managed by the state. That is not quite making sense to me as something that is outside of the way we tend to operate.” Weiser said the river district’s goal of getting to a status quo that’s sustainable for the Western Slope “seems to be accomplished by an instream flow right that is owned by the state and this body (the CWCB).”

#Palisade passes higher sewer rates to pay for pipeline project — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

Palisade is just east of Grand Junction and lies in a fertile valley between the Colorado River and Mt. Garfield which is the formation in the picture. They’ve grown wonderful peaches here for many years and have recently added grape vineyards such as the one in the picture. By inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +) –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Click the link to read the article on The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dan West). Here’s an excerpt:

The Palisade Board of Trustees voted unanimously last Tuesday to raise its sewer rates in 2024 to $57.23 from the current single family residential rate of $35.37. The rate increase is intended to pay for a capital project to construct a pipe for Palisade’s waste water to the Clifton Sanitation Districts chemical plant and decommission its sewer lagoons. The rate increase was recommended through a rate study, which was completed and presented to the Trustees earlier this year. The rates will help pay back a $16.5 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, which was announced in late April. It also got around $5.6 million in grant funding from the USDA.

The new rates will also come with a new method for determining how much impact individual users have on the wastewater system. That method is called EQU. It is currently used by the Clifton Sanitation District. Palisade has had an EQU ordinance in place for years, but never implemented it, Town Attorney Jim Neu said…A single family home is considered one EQU, while a building with larger use, like a school, could be several EQUs. The Palisade rate in 2024 will be $57.23 per EQU.

#Thornton Water Project update

Thornton Water Project preferred pipeline alignment November 16, 2023 via

Click the link to read the article on the Fort Collins Coloradoan website (Rebecca Powell). Here’s an excerpt:

The city says the new application is unique because Thornton asked community members about what was most important when it comes to site selection and used that information to determine the preferred route…The application is not yet available from the Larimer County Planning Division, but the city of Thornton has posted some information and a map of the preferred route on a project website. The city also sent the Coloradoan its executive summary for the application…

Thornton says the new proposed route through the county is about 10 miles long, 16 miles shorter than what was first proposed in 2018. A pump station would be moved two miles north of where it was proposed to land owned by Water Supply and Storage Company…The new proposed placement affects 20 outside property owners, according to Thornton, whereas the last project crossed 40 properties, according to Todd Barnes, communications director for Thornton…The plan incorporates other changes the city proposed after commissioners told the city to go back to the drawing board in late 2018, like locating the pipeline along County Road 56 instead of through Douglas Road and aligning part of it with the proposed pipeline for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a separate water project…Thornton says the new application provides precise locations for the pipeline and its parts so residents “can have a clear understanding of potential impacts from the project.”


In the new application, Thornton contends any concerns about how the project affects river levels is an issue outside of the county’s authority and is under the jurisdiction of a water court. The city also asserts that because of the court ruling, Larimer County may not consider Thornton’s potential use of eminent domain and “may not require (or criticize Thornton for not including) inclusion of concept of putting water ‘down the river.’ “

Romancing the River We’ve Created: “Real hydrology has to dominate distribution” — George Sibley (Sibley’s Rivers) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

The graph above may look familiar; I used it in a post last summer (June 27, ‘Beyond 2026’). It illuminates a study by three ‘Colorado River elders’: hydrologist Jack Schmidt, retired river manager Eric Kuhn, and USGS scientist Charles Yackulic. 

I personally think that every meeting convened on Colorado River issues should have this graph projected on the wall until we all grow to accept it as the reality of our past, present and future situations. Certainly it should be illuminating the meetings currently in process, as representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states, and its 30 First People tribes, sit down to figure out how to ‘reoperate’ the river after the current ‘Interim Guidelines’ expire (guidelines now modified twice, with increasing urgency) in 2026.

The graph is a record of the flow volumes of the river over the past century-plus, from 1906 to 2022. The flyspecks all over the graph are the annual flows – illustrating a fundamental problem for river planning: the flows are literally all over the map, enabling those motivated more by politics than science to find evidence for any desired perception of bounty or paucity. The wavy black line is their ‘smoothing curve based on the locally weighted least squared error method for the nearest 15% of the data set’ – essentially an effort to sort a pattern out of the seemingly random behavior of the river. What the black line shows is a fairly clear downward trend in the averaged flows – but with upward loops that might inspire hope in anyone grasping for hope.

The brilliance of their study, though, lies in the three straight lines stepping down on the graph. They have broken the recent 117 years of flows – basically the period of our heavy involvement with the River – into three periods, divided around two extended dry spells:

  • The blue line shows the average of the river volumes from 1906 to 1929, since discovered through tree-ring studies to have been the wettest period in the river’s natural history going back many centuries. This ‘pluvial’ (very wet period) coincided with what I would call the early dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch, when we humans were beginning to really develop our technical abilities to fundamentally change the geological and ecological ‘nature’ of the planet, to better meet the needs of our swarming species. The Colorado River Compact was created in the middle of this first period; the seven states who divided the river in order to conquer it believed they were working with a river whose roughly measured annual flows averaged just under 18 million acre-feet (maf). Call it the Pluvial Period of our Colorado River. (I say ‘our Colorado River,’ the river which Euro-American civilization claimed as it own to do with as we will – as opposed to the Colorado River on which our river is an ephemeral, maybe one millennium, maybe less, overlay.)
  • The green line represents the average of flows for the period from a 1930s ‘wake-up’ dry spell to the end of the century – and the dry spell that began in 2001. The ‘smoothing curve’ shows that, for that 70-year period, the river only came close to the pluvial-period average briefly in the 1980s. The average flow for whole 70-year period was 14.3 maf, 20 percent below the pluvial average. The early 1930s saw the construction of Hoover Dam, and by the end of that period our river was fully developed, all the major structures in place for our various human uses, ranging from irrigation water for four or five million acres of desert land, to domestic water for 35-40 million people, to whitewater in the canyons affording the industrialized recreational opportunity to go risk your life. These changes have also been accompanied by unanticipated and unwanted collateral changes, worst of which are the climatic consequences of the substances that fueled all of our impressive development. Call this the Early Anthropocene Period of our Colorado River.
  • The red line represents the average of the river’s volume of flow since the dry spell at the turn of the century – 12.5 maf, 14 percent below the average flow of the Early period, and 30 percent below the average flow of the  ‘Pluvial River.’ This period – like the pluvial period – is a short period in the scale of even human time, let alone geological time, but most scientists says it is probably the shape of the future we’ve shaped for ourselves; the red line is much more likely to gradually slope down than go back up, as we continue to pump carbon gases into the atmosphere. Call this the Woke Anthropocene Period – with a flip of the bird for those who wish to remain ‘unwoke’ about the situations we must try to address.
Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

So – today we are working with a river that is roughly only about two-thirds the size of the river a century ago, when we began making plans for controlling and using the river. This being the case – is it unrealistic to suggest that maybe we should start from scratch with this new river we’ve created? Work out a new reality-based post-2026 management plan for our Woke Anthropocene River (the red line on the chart)?

I realize that probably sounds like I’m suggesting we throw out the revered Colorado River Compact, or at least do radical surgery on it. Well, yes, I am suggesting that. I am aware that numerous Colorado River water mavens have said that this is simply impossible, out of the question, but I’m going to argue that it is impossible not to at least seriously dig into it and make some major changes, for a number of very prescient reasons.

The first and most obvious reason is the fact that we have known since the drought of the 1930s and the anemic flows of the 1940s that the 17.9 maf Pluvial River for which the Compact was written was gone, which negated the ‘equitable division and apportionment’ specified in the Compact. When representatives from the four states of the Compact’s Upper Basin gathered in 1948 to create an Upper Colorado River Compact, they knew already that there might only occasionally be 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for them, especially since the State Department had given Mexico 1.5 maf/year in 1944, on top of the 7.5 maf the existing Compact said the Upper Basin had to deliver on average to the Lower Basin.

So instead of apportioning 7.5 maf among themselves, they created percentages of whatever was left in the river after fulfilling the Compact and Mexican obligations: 51.75 percent for Colorado, 11.25 percent for New Mexico, 23 percent for Utah, and 14 percent for Wyoming. But X percent of what? That was a problem; estimates dropped from around 6 maf immediately after WWII to around 4 maf today, even as Upper Basin use was increasing. Nonetheless, that division into percentages of what’s actually there in the river, over a five or ten year rolling average, makes more sense than firm numbers devoid of real context.

Another serious flaw in the Compact is its failure to take into account system losses – evaporation, bank seepage, et cetera. For the free-flowing Pluvial River, when the Compact was created, these were relatively minor – maybe 5-8 percent or so of the flow. But as the reservoirs and long canals were added, the system losses increased to around 12-13 percent for the Early Anthropocene River (green line on the graph). And now in the warmer and drier Woke Anthropocene Period, system losses are closer to 16 percent of the total flow, maybe more. It’s hard to get good numbers for this because the science of measuring it, especially sublimation and transpiration, is still fairly primitive.

Being committed to deliver defined quantities to the Lower Basin and Mexico, the Upper Basin states absorb their system losses as part of their ‘whatever is left’ portion of the river’s water, but the Lower Basin states have never deducted from their 7.5 maf share the system losses from their several reservoirs (including the huge Mead Reservoir) and hundreds of miles of open canals. They have written it off as covered by ‘surplus flows’: Upper Basin water that made it past Lee Ferry or, since the 1960s, into Powell Reservoir, which the ever-accommodating Bureau continues to pass along as ‘surplus.’ This included roughly 10 million acre-feet of water since 2000 that the Upper Basin has no storage for above Powell (effectively Lower Basin storage), but that ‘surplus’ only made up about half of the Lower Basin’s system losses for the Woke period; the rest was drained from reservoir storage, creating most of the shortages in the 2020s. Real hydrology has to dominate distribution. [ed. emphasis mine]

Topographic map of the US. Credit: Epic Maps

Another Compact problem: The division of the Colorado River into two basins – hailed as a stroke of genius in the 1920s – was not a smart thing to do with a desert river. A desert river only exists because of a ‘water producing’ upland high enough to cool and condense precipitation from air forced up its slopes. At least 85 percent of the water in the Colorado River comes from snow and rain in the 10 percent of the natural basin above 8,000 feet elevation – a boundary that bears no relation to the geographically and ecologically irrelevant state boundaries that are the basis for the Compact division.

A desert river divides naturally into a ‘water producing’ region and a ‘water using’ region. Would it not make a great deal of sense for all of those in the water-using portion of the desert river to be directly involved in – and invested in – the care and keeping of the water-producing portion of the river?

But that is unthinkable under the Compact, which is based on those geographically irrelevant state boundaries, creating two geographically clumsy state-based ‘basins’ that are pitted against each other, the upper one mandated to pass a set amount of water to the other regardless of the climatic vagaries imposed on their mutual headwaters, conceivably having to eventually sacrifice some of its own uses of the waters to deliver the set quantities.

The state-based two-basin division was just a field-expedient solution to the problem that really drove the Compact Commissioners: how to persuade Congress that there was enough agreement among the seven states on the use of the river’s water to allow Congress to go ahead and fund the creation of a big control and storage dam on the mainstem. But the expedient solution has resulted mostly in a worsening antipathy between the state-based basin that includes both the river’s water-producing region and quite a bit of its water-using region, and the state-based basin that consumes most of the produced water and produces comparatively little.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

An example of what this means can be seen in the recent ‘forest planning’ process for the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison National Forests. These three National Forests are mostly above 8,000 feet in the Gunnison River Basin where 15 to 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water is produced. The forests shade and shelter the winter snowpack from sun and wind, but also cause the sublimation of an undetermined part of it through branch interception, and [then] drinking heavily from the water as the snowpack melts; there are probably a host of other more subtle and complex interactions affecting water production.

But the draft forest plan issued last summer did not even mention the Colorado River by name, let alone its water needs. Concerns expressed by probably more people than just me resulted in a couple paragraphs in the revised final draft plan about the river and its climate-related troubles, but there is still no sense that the plan requires forest managers to be as actively concerned about their organic charge to ‘secure favorable flows of water’ as they traditionally are about the companion charge to provide a dependable supply of timber. And which is more important for the Colorado River Basin: timber production (small and scraggly compared to the northern Rockies) or water production?

Yet an admittedly quick search of the hundreds of comments on the first draft and the objections to the final draft show no comments about this omission from any of the big water users downriver from the forests. And the Compact does not encourage what would be construed as interbasin meddling. We need to be one river.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

A final reason why the Colorado River Compact should probably be scrapped and a new one created is the fact that the 30 First People nations overlaid on the seven states will no longer be covered (literally) and dismissed with a single sentence; they will be part of the new management regimen, and this alone mitigates for starting over. They have popular support that the representatives of the Great Father in Washington no longer enjoy, and will either be, in the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, in the tent, or out of the tent pissing in.

In fact, a place to start the whole process of planning for the new Woke Anthropocene River might be for everyone involved to look at a document called ‘A Common Vision for the Colorado River System: Toward a Framework for Sustainability.’ This comes from a ‘Ten Tribes Partnership’ of desert First Peoples, most of whom have gone through, or are still going through, the ‘settlement’ process of negotiating for some portion of the water that should have been theirs since the creation of their reservations (see my last post). Its authors understand the patience, and the willingness to give a little (or a lot) to get a little, that will have to be present as we all figure out what to do beyond 2026 with a shrinking river. Many will find their vision statement naive, but at least they have an articulated and somewhat unified vision, which can hardly be said for the Compact states, where each state just wants, as one water leader said for Colorado, ‘for our state to come out stronger.’ Stronger than what, or whom, and how?

How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes — Allen Best (@BigPivots)

Top: Ron Mettle, left, and Sandy Bertch replaced thirsty turf with low-water native species at the edge of their HOA’s property in Greeley but hope to now expand replacements into other parts of the commons area. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Nov 22, 2023

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

Between 50% and 60% of Coloradans live in housing governed by homeowners associations, commonly called HOAs. Squeezing water devoted to urban landscapes must necessarily involve these neighborhoods.

It’s already happening but, so far, mostly on the edges. A case in point: a small HOA in Greeley called Bittersweet Pointe.

“We keep saying that all the other HOAs are pointless,” Sandy Bertch, president of the board of directors, joked as he led visitors to a hillside on the edge of the HOA’s commons area.

There, three-fourths of an acre of Kentucky bluegrass had been replaced this year by a mixture of blue grama and buffalo grass. With a summer of watering bills now in hand, Bertch estimates that the HOA needs 60% less water to irrigate that section. More turf replacement will occur on the HOA’s 2.5 acres of common ground, Bertsch promised, now that the efficacy of the native grasses has been demonstrated.

The HOA is among the smallest you’re likely to find. It has 11 duplexes, or 22 units altogether, all of whose residents are retired. It is self-managed, unlike most HOAs, which employ property management firms.

Ron Mettler, a retired electrical engineer, was president of the board when he brought up the subject of turf conversion. He got immediate pushback. “Don’t you touch that green grass. That’s why I am here,” said a resident, who has since died. 

Finally, last year, consensus was achieved. Costs were crucial. The retirees will save money in reduced water bills and won’t need to mow the difficult hillside as frequently.

Making the decision easier was the city of Greeley’s incentive: $1 a square foot for removal of Kentucky bluegrass in addition to rebates for water efficiency.

Clinching the deal was the shared perception of growing water scarcity. Homeowners agreed that they needed to do their part in lessening demands. 

“These two are poster children,” Ruth Quade, Greeley’s water conservation administrator, said of Mettler and Bertsch. “The key to a successful project is having one or two champions, and that is what these two are.”

Every turf conversion project needs a champion, says Ruth Quade, water conservation administrator for Greeley. This lawn of this Presbyterian church has been partially replaced with pollinator-friendly vegetation. Photo/Allen Best

Replacing Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses with native grasses and other less-thirsty species will not solve all of Colorado’s water problems. Nearly 90% of water in Colorado goes to agriculture. Only 7% of the state’s water gets used within towns and cities, and roughly half of that goes to outdoor use for lawns, gardens and other urban landscaping.

So, why does it matter? For one thing, it’s very expensive, and politically fraught, for cities to develop new water sources, usually from distant locations. Treating that water to potable standards is expensive, too. Water used indoors, which is largely contained in pipes, can be recycled. Water engineers calculate that 85% of water used for outdoor landscapes is lost because of evaporation and other causes.

All of this has water providers looking to focus on water devoted to discretionary outdoor use in road medians, business parks, homes and common areas. Experts say this transition to less water-demanding landscapes in urban areas will take many years.

Clearings around castles

How did thirsty bluegrass become the landscaping default, the cultural norm in Colorado and elsewhere?

“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America,” Michael Pollan wrote in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 1989. “In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of grass across the continent, with scarcely a thought to the local conditions or expense.”

In his essay, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” Pollan shared that when he was a child growing up on New York’s Long Island, his father defied convention and refused to mow the turf at the family’s tract house. The turf grew tall enough to flower and seed, something impossible with mowed lawns. “The lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag,” wrote Pollan.

Neighbors saw something else. Some instructed their children not to play with the young Pollan. Later, when he got a lawn himself, Pollan began mulling the purpose of lawns. In this suburban paradise, he concluded, such individuality was unacceptable. 

Pollan and other writers have traced our modern idea of a lawn to the early 17th century. In at least one telling, aristocrats wanted clearings around their castles for defensive purposes. They either had animals graze it or dispatched servants with scythes to keep the grasses low.

The idea of grassy lawns around homes was transferred to the United States in the mid-19th century. At first, it was limited to the American aristocracy. Thomas Jefferson put in a lawn at Monticello. So did other wealthy landowners. But for Americans of lesser means, yards were devoted to more functional pursuits, such as the growing of vegetables or the keeping of pigs and other animals. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

“Turf War,” a 2008 essay by Elizabeth Kolbert published in The New Yorker, identifies Andrew Jackson Downing as a seminal influencer as the masses began to embrace lawns. In his 1841 book, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” Downing, based in New York, took aim at the dowdy rural landscapes of his familiarity. He equated personal self-improvement with gussied-up front yards.

“In the landscape garden, we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” Downing wrote. Essential to that perfect garden, Downing wrote, was an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.”

Others spread the gospel. Frank J. Scott, in an 1870 book titled “The Art Of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent,” wrote that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” Frederick Law Olmsted deployed the broad lawns of Central Park and also planted grass in some of our first suburbs.

Technology also played a role. In 1830, a textile engineer in England adapted a carpet cutter to create the world’s first reel lawn mower. After an improved design in 1870, hand-pushed lawn mowers were produced by the tens of thousands annually. In 1893 came a patent for the first steam-powered mower. We were well on our way to the Saturday ritual many people know so well. “Over time,” wrote Kolbert, “the fact that anyone could keep up a lawn was successfully, though not altogether logically, translated into the notion that everyone ought to.”

Kolbert further identified the role of what farmers call inputs. To get potassium and other essential elements to spur growth, farmers over the ages had used everything from human dung to ground-up bones. In Europe, some robbed human graves for the skeletons. On the American Great Plains, bison were shot, their bones piled high and shipped to the East Coast.

Costs of waging war on weeds

In 1909 came an invention in Germany with profound but conflicting implications. Fritz Haber, a chemist who later won the Nobel Prize, figured out an economical way to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.

One result: explosives and gasses used to help run up the death toll in World War I to 20 million. Another: the ability to create fertilizer that, when applied to fields, enabled the world’s population to expand by several billion more than it probably would have otherwise.

This synthesized fertilizer could also be applied to turfgrass to counteract the seasonal cycle. By tricking the plants into putting out new growth, wrote Kolbert, fertilized grass could become ever-green. Other chemicals could quell the yellow blemishes of dandelions and every other shade of plant deemed a weed. That includes clover, which otherwise has value for fixing nitrogen in the soil. Such is the cost of having unadulterated grass.

By the time baby boomers were mostly toddlers, the idea of a perfect lawn had swept the country, even to the smallest of Colorado towns and cities. Along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Abraham Levitt, the namesake for the Long Island town, declared that “no single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and locality as well-kept lawns.”

In “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins pointed to the export of this idea to deserts of the Southwest and also to the Middle East. “Even the American community in Saudi Arabia has front lawns in the middle of the desert,” she wrote.

“Don’t crush me,” says this sign at a housing development in Timnath. Native grasses take several years to get established, but then require far less maintenance and water. Photo/Allen Best

Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.

What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.

Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.

Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.

Private governments

Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.

Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.

What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.

Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.

Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.

Private governments

Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.

Before George Teal became a Douglas County commissioner, he was a member of the Castle Rock City Council for 6½ years. Because the city was heavily reliant on a large but unrenewable underground aquifer, it wanted to encourage low-water landscapes — what it calls ColoradoScapes.

Homeowners associations resisted, said Teal. He cited “just numerous examples” given to the City Council members each year of homeowners being told by their HOAs that they could not rip out their turf. That included his own neighborhood and HOA, Crystal Valley Ranch, one that he describes as consisting of mostly working middle-class people. A change would have required a 65% vote. He similarly cites another HOA, Woodland, which consists of more-affluent residents.

“It became kind of a rallying cry on the council,” Teal said in a recent interview. “What could we do to get HOAs to accept the more water-smart landscape methodologies that were being advocated by our water utility?”

The answer was nothing. Local governments did not have the power to curb HOA powers. It had to be done at the state level.

Colorado legislators have nudged HOAs toward less water-consumptive landscapes several times in the last few years. Photo/Allen Best

In 2019, Colorado legislators passed the first of four laws that do so. House Bill 19-1050stipulates that it is contrary to public policy for common-interest communities, such as HOAs, to “prohibit or limit installation or use of drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes, or require cultivated vegetation to consist wholly or partially of turf grass.”

The law did allow HOAs to adopt aesthetic guidelines.

In 2021 came another law, HB21-1229. It required HOAs to allow artificial turf in backyards and also solar panels, once again subject to “reasonable aesthetic guidelines.”

These steps were applauded by Jody Beck, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. “Extensive green lawns are almost never an appropriate expression of responsible citizenship in the arid West, if by responsible citizenship we mean the conscientious use of limited shared resources,” he said. 

In 2022, legislators did not specifically target HOAs and water. Instead, HB 22-1151 instructed the state’s chief water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a program for the voluntary replacement of turf in cooperation with local governments and appropriated $2 million for that work. After administrative expenses, $1.5 million has been awarded to more than two dozen local jurisdictions in Colorado.

Later that same year, legislators were advised that another law was needed to close a loophole in the 2019 law. At least some HOAs had used the clause that gave them aesthetic discretion in reviewing plans to effectively stall or even block turf-replacement projects proposed by owners of single-family homes.

Proponents have cited abundant anecdotal evidence. The most-direct evidence came from a survey conducted in 2021 by Western Resource Advocates in cooperation with the city of Greeley. The survey was intended to reveal the primary barriers keeping residents from replacing some or all of their grass with water-wise landscaping. Cost? Expertise? Aesthetics?

Nothing was asked by the survey about HOAs, but when allowed the opportunity to describe the challenges, 41 of the 720 who completed the survey cited their HOAs.

A step in the right direction

This year’s bill had bipartisan support. “In practice, we see barriers to people who want to replant their front yards with more water-conserving plants,” said state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Longmont, when introducing the bill, HB23-178, at a legislative committee hearing.

Another bill sponsor, Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, who represents seven Western Slope counties, cited demands on the Colorado River. “This will not save all of Colorado’s water, but it is a step in the right direction.”

The bill requires that HOAs must select at least three preapproved water-saving landscaping templates that residents can follow. Residents and HOAs can choose to go for other designs, but at least three options must be preapproved. There’s no real excuse for saying no.

Also in this five-part series:

Part I. Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes Pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened as headwaters state struggles to embrace limits of water supply in a warming, likely drying climate

Part II. Enough water for lawns at the headwaters of the Colorado River? The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?

Part III. How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes Some Colorado HOAs have started moving the needle, while state legislators prod others into water-wise landscapes; plus, a history of how we arrived at a certain idea of landscape perfection.

Part IV coming. The outliers of the native grass movement. Some Coloradans have taken it upon themselves to remove their thirsty turf, and a non-profit is helping them do it.

Part V coming. Do we really need bluegrass in road medians? And Aurora, Castle Rock and Denver push for sharper limits on what can be installed in the first place.

The state’s most significant organization representing HOAs didn’t bother to show up to testify one way or another. The bill passed with minor opposition grounded in questions of local control.

Teal, who testified in both legislative committee hearings, said he would have preferred local control. But, given the sweeping powers of HOAs, he believed the state had to step in order to aid municipalities. “Water conservation and water reuse have become primary goals of the town of Castle Rock and, I think, soon will become one of our primary policy goals here in (Douglas) County as well,” he said.

Robert Greer, a Denver attorney, helped draft the bill that he says closed the loophole in the 2019 law that was big enough to “drive a solar system through.”

He was driven, he said, most powerfully by a desire to create urban landscapes that accommodate pollinators of the natural ecosystem. His sentiment is part of a broad and powerful undercurrent in Colorado’s push to replace Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and other imported cool-season varieties. It’s not all about saving water.

Also testifying was Chris Marion, who began work in 2017 as a water conservation specialist. After getting a master’s degree in sustainability planning from the University of Colorado Boulder, he founded a company called 3.0 Management. It provides management for about 40 HOAs in metropolitan Denver.

Marion sees an opportunity for HOAs and other places with large expanses of turf to rethink their landscapes. Irrigation systems installed 40 to 50 years ago need replacement or updating, Some HOAs are poorly funded for replacement of leaking pipes and so forth.

 “It’s not only the cost of water, but the associated maintenance costs of older grass,” he said.

Something else is going on, a shifting cultural norm. The impetus for expanses of Kentucky bluegrass that we see today was “simple, cost-effective landscaping, which was primarily bluegrass.” Now, said Marion, younger generations in particular have become at least aware of “the concept of personal ecological footprints.” 

That shift in attitudes is now being integrated into governance of HOAs.

A sidewalk divides Kentucky bluegrass on the left from the native grasses at the Oak Ridge commons area in Fort Collins. Photo/Allen Best

Lessons from Fort Collins

In Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth-largest city, with a population of 170,000, residents of the Oak Ridge VII homeowners association were informed in 2018 that they would have to pay $18,000 more annually for water. 

When the tap fee for the commons area owned by the 52 members of Oak Ridge VII and two other HOAs had been assessed several decades ago, it assumed a maximum volume of water. Water use for that commons area had been rising, exceeding the maximum. Homeowners had to figure out how to use less water or pay the greater fee.

The 10.1-acre commons area consists of expansive lawns interspersed with trees that turn bright with warm colors during the fall. It also has a soccer field and a 1.4-acre detention area designed to hold stormwater. Water can get 1 foot deep when it rains, as it did prodigiously this year. In previous drier years, though, Kentucky bluegrass required irrigation to maintain its well-coiffed look. 

In 2019, HOA directors approved conversion of the bluegrass to buffalo and blue grama grasses. A survey of homeowners found that 80% supported the shift. Later, another problem area — a small south-facing hill that was difficult to irrigate and mow — was also replaced. Water use for the park has declined to 3.1 million gallons per year — the original projected need when the subdivision was created 30 years ago — from 4 million to 5 million gallons per year.

The full cost of the landscaping work of $86,000 was defrayed by $57,000 in grants from Northern Water, the bulk water provider, and the city of Fort Collins. “We never could have done it without the grants,” said Susan Gilbert, a homeowner who championed the shift.

“People have loved it,” said Gilbert during a walk through the park. A pollinator park along the concrete pathway, buzzing with bumblebees, has been particularly popular.

Weeds can be a problem in conversions, and this was no exception. The HOA had its landscaper apply herbicides in some spots. 

“Everybody gets a little jittery when we do spraying,” said Milan Hanson, president of the HOA’s board of directors. 

“During the first year or two, I think every native grass conversion looks pretty bad,” he added.

Tony Koski, a professor of turfgrass sciences at Colorado State University and described by many as the guru of water-wise landscaping in Colorado, condones the use of herbicides as essential in landscape conversions, but he counsels care and transparency. 

Native turf grasses green up more slowly in spring and turn brown more rapidly in autumn, as was evident at this commons area of a homeowners association in Fort Collins in mid-October. Kentucky bluegrass and other imported grasses have a longer season of green. Photo/Allen Best

The need for herbicides diminishes as the native grasses become dominant over the course of about three years. But homeowners planting native grasses should expect to see the new turf brown more quickly in the fall and green up more slowly in the spring.

Still, Oakridge residents have seen enough to think about converting other places to native grasses.

What caused the increased water use? It’s not uncommon, said Frank Kinder, water-efficiency manager for Northern Water. The agency distributes Colorado River water to providers along the northern Front Range. 

“People are watering earlier and watering more during a year to keep up the appearance,” said Kinder. “The landscape may take up to 120% of the previous amount in order to keep looking like what people want it to look like.”

HOAs undertaking conversions can have different motivations: costs, concerns about climate change, a desire for landscape diversity or easier maintenance. “Bluegrass takes a lot of work to meet certain expectations,” said Kinder.

Key lessons from Fort Collins and Greeley HOAs are that turf replacements take time and are most easily accomplished with partnerships. Key in both cases, too, were grassroots champions. 

Very likely, you will also begin to see more and more cool-weather turf converted to low-water landscapes in Colorado’s HOAs. That’s exactly what some of those who helped draft some of Colorado’s recent laws intended. Call it a grassroots movement.

Next: Colorado allows sales of only low-flush toilets to better conserve limited water. What role should the state have in reducing water use allocated to urban landscapes? A task force has been studying the state’s options and opportunities. 

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at and at

Tribes gain clout as #ColoradoRiver shrinks — Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification

The Central Arizona Project canal cuts through Phoenix. Arizona has made deals with the Gila River Indian Community to leave some of the tribe’s Colorado River water in the canal for urban use. Photo by Ted Wood/ Water Desk The climate-driven shrinking of the Colorado River is expanding the influence of Native American tribes over how the river’s flows are divided among cities, farms and reservations across the Southwest. The tribes are seeing the value of their largely unused river water entitlements rise as the Colorado dwindles, and they are gaining seats they’ve never had at the water bargaining table as government agencies try to redress a legacy of exclusion. Photo credit: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Foundation website (Nick Cahill):

Western Water in-depth: Tribes hold key state-appointed posts for first time as their water rises in value

The climate-driven shrinking of the Colorado River is expanding the influence of Native American tribes over how the river’s flows are divided among cities, farms and reservations across the Southwest.

The tribes are seeing the value of their largely unused river water entitlements rise as the Colorado dwindles, and they are gaining seats they’ve never had at the water bargaining table as government agencies try to redress a legacy of exclusion.

The power shift comes as the federal government and seven states negotiate the next set of rules governing the river that flows to nearly 40 million people and irrigates more than 4 million acres of farmland.

The tribes stand to hold outsized sway in those discussions. Altogether, they hold rights to more water than some of the states in the Colorado River Basin, which stretches from Wyoming to Mexico. Tribes such as the Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community and Jicarilla Apache Nation also hold some of the most senior rights to the water, giving them first dibs on the precious flows before cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

But most tribes haven’t been using their full allotment because they lack the infrastructure to put their water to use or because their water rights remain unsettled.

Large volumes of water meant for the tribes flow downstream and are captured, stored and used by cities and farms that have far more developed networks of canals, pumps, reservoirs and water treatment plants. The water not used by tribes has helped to slow the decline of major reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead and spur growth in the arid Southwest.

Now, tribes are poised to use more of their water, straining an already oversubscribed river system that has been pushed to its limit by more than 20 years of sustained drought.

While some water users in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are facing a third straight year of water cuts, tribes with ironclad water rights are reaping record amounts of federal infrastructure funding under the Biden administration.

“Downstream users have built a reliance on tribes and their unused or unsettled water,” said Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwest Colorado. “But our tribe plans to fully develop our water to support our economic development and the resiliency of our people.”

Lorelei Cloud, member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s tribal council. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Once an afterthought, Basin tribes are gaining recognition and bargaining power. In the past five years, the tribes have seen significant advances:

  • Thirsty water users in states like Arizona and New Mexico are leasing water from tribes or paying them to leave water in the system.
  • The federal government began engaging directly with tribes alongside state representatives on the river’s future operating rules.
  • Some Basin states for the first time appointed tribal leaders to important negotiating posts.

“Tribes are very cognizant that [their unused water] is being used by others,” said Anne Castle, the federal appointee to the Upper Colorado River Commission and former assistant Interior Department secretary for water and science. “Political will has been shifting toward greater recognition of the need to address these inequities and to ensure that tribal rights and interests are protected in these ongoing discussions that are going to result in changes to the way the Colorado River operates.”

A Major Power Shift

For over a century, compacts, treaties, laws and drought plans were hatched among the federal government, Mexico and the seven Western states that use the river: Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

Missing from the decision-making tables were Basin tribes that hold rights to nearly a quarter of the river’s water.

In recent years, however, tribes have increasingly inserted themselves into broad discussions over the river’s management through a series of groundbreaking studies and water-sharing deals with Basin states.

The power shift can be traced back to at least 2018 when the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation and a tribal consortium known as the Ten Tribes Partnership issued a study that for the first time tried to quantify the Basin tribes’ current and likely future water uses.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

A 2021 update by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that tribes hold rights to 3.2 million-acre feet or approximately 22 to 26 percent of the Basin’s average annual water supply. It also estimated the yet-to-be-settled amount of tribal water claims at 400,000 acre-feet. That’s more than the entire state of Nevada is allotted in a year.

The quantification made the enormity of the tribes’ water shares explicit and strengthened their bargaining power as the Lower Basin states and federal government were scrambling to devise a new system of water cuts. Guidelines for operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead were proving insufficient and the Basin states were locked in tense negotiations over new drought rules.

Discussions were particularly thorny for Arizona because, unlike California and Nevada, much of its allotted river water is reserved for tribes with land in the state. Under pressure to take significant water cuts, the state pitched a proposal that the Gila River Indian Community said could reduce the amount of water set aside for the tribe.

After the tribe threatened to sue, Arizona negotiated a deal to pay the tribe $60 million in exchange for 500,000 acre-feet of water through 2026. The state also paid the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to leave some of its water in Lake Mead.

Jason Hauter

“The Gila River Indian Community really forced itself into that [negotiation] process,” said Jason Hauter, a water attorney and tribal member. “It ended up taking a leadership role because it had the most water at stake.”

The 2019 deal marked a turning point: The federal government and states have since routinely offered to pay tribes to conserve water and sought their advice on the shrinking river’s future.

In 2021, the Gila River Indian Community and CRIT agreed to preserve up to 179,000 acre-feet of water under the deal known as the 500+ Plan, a move that cushioned the blow of water cuts to urban and agricultural users in central Arizona.

Earlier this year, the Gila River Indian Community agreed to conserve up to 40 percent of its river allocation each year through 2025 in exchange for up to $150 million from the federal government. It also received money for a new pipeline to deliver recycled wastewater across the reservation for irrigation, which will further reduce its reliance on Colorado River water.

“Time and again, the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated its deep commitment to strengthening our water future in the face of historic drought,” Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said in a statement.

An innovative deal is also underway in the Upper Basin, as the Jicarilla Apache Nation is leasing nearly half of its annual river share to bolster New Mexico’s water supply and increase San Juan River flows to benefit endangered fish. Previously, the tribe leased the water supply to coal-fired power plants that are now facing closure.

Celene Hawkins, who heads The Nature Conservancy’s engagement with Basin tribes, said the Jicarilla-New Mexico deal could serve as a model for other multi-benefit water deals in the Upper Basin. The conservancy helped the two sovereign governments negotiate and implement the 10-year program, which released its first batch of water in June to support endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.

“It was the first time that we have seen an Upper Basin tribal nation and a state work together in this way,” said Hawkins, who advises the Water and Tribes Initiative, a group dedicated to enhancing tribal water resources. “Water leasing is a super-critical tool in the bigger toolbox that we’re going to need to handle the drought and water stress that’s hitting the Basin.”

Gaining Seats at the Table

It remains an uphill fight, but tribal nations are starting to gain ownership in the management of the Colorado River. Tribal members now hold a variety of positions at key agencies that decide river policy and for the first time are included in Basin-wide planning sessions.

“Attitudes have changed as we have progressed as a society, so generally there is more inclusion,” Hauter said.

Last year, Utah designated a tribal seat on its Colorado River negotiating board. The inaugural appointee, Paul Tsosie, an attorney and a member of the Navajo Nation, previously served as the Interior Department’s Indian Affairs head of staff.

This year, Colorado appointed Cloud of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe as the first tribal member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And last March, California appointed Jordan Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, to its Colorado River board.

Paul Tsosie. Photo credit: Water Education Foundation

The federal government is also doing more to court tribal perspectives under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation this past summer held a pair of brainstorming sessions open to all Basin tribes and states. Some participants cast the meetings as “groundbreaking” and an important show of transparency from the federal government.

“They were historical meetings,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist with the Navajo Nation. “Tribes had the opportunity to be able to engage in ways that haven’t occurred before.”

Reclamation officials say the meetings will continue as Basin water users negotiate a replacement for Colorado River operating guidelines that expire at the end of 2026.

Hauter, the Gila River Indian Community member and Water and Tribes Initiative advisor, said tribes historically have found out about new water policies after they became final. He said Reclamation’s “Federal-Tribal-State” meetings will give tribes insight into what the governments are considering and a rare chance to present their own solutions for the over-tapped river system.

The top negotiators for California, Nevada and Arizona echoed Hauter’s point, saying they look forward to continued collaboration with Basin tribes.

“Successful management of the Colorado River will depend on the support and participation of the tribes,” they wrote in a recent letter to Reclamation.

Reclamation officials declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement saying the federal government “continues to value the input of the tribes and stakeholders … and will continue to host meetings with this group throughout the post-2026 process.” The agency anticipates publishing a draft of its long-term river management strategies by the end of 2024, with a final plan approved in early 2026.

Drought Forces Change

Basin states and the federal government are paying more attention than ever to tribal water use. Federal tribal reserved water rights were recognized in the 1908 landmark Winters v. United States decision, in which the Supreme Court held that when the government established reservations for tribes it implicitly reserved water rights for them.

A canal delivers Colorado River water to the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix. Photo by Ted Wood/Water Desk

Resolved tribal water claims are included in the Colorado River allocations for the states in which reservations are located. For example, the Gila River Indian Community’s 653,500 acre-feet comes out of Arizona’s annual river share.

The effects of climate change – longer, more severe droughts, more extreme hot spells and more variable precipitation – are placing a premium on tribal water. The annual amount of reserved water is often more than some tribes can use. Tribes are rarely paid for what they can’t or don’t use. Their unused reserves stay in the river system, enriching users downstream.

Over the past two decades, dry conditions have cut flows from the Colorado River’s main tributaries, but water use across the Basin hasn’t dropped equally. The unused tribal water helped keep a stable supply for some of the river’s largest users. The cushion, however, is vanishing as demand outstrips supply: Average flows in the Upper Basin have already dropped 20 percentover the past century and increased tribal water use seems inevitable.

Meanwhile, water cuts have become a reality in Mexico and the Lower Basin states.

Reclamation declared water shortages on the river for the first time in 2022 and again in 2023. Though much of the Basin recorded above-average snowfall last winter, the agency said cuts will continue next year for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. With talks beginning on new river operating rules, there’s growing agreement among federal and state negotiators that an even more rigorous system of cuts needs to be implemented.

Castle, who chairs the interstate commission representing Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, said Basin states are more concerned about the possibility of tribes maximizing their supply than they were in 2007 when the current set of guidelines was adopted.

“There’s a significant chunk of water that the tribes control that is not yet used and is a potential addition to the problem,” Castle said. “So, trying to get ahead of that problematic situation is part of the motivation.”

The 2018 Tribal Water Study estimated the Upper Basin tribes were using 670,000 acre-feet a year, or just 37 percent of their total reserved and settled rights. Castle said the commission is vetting those numbers with tribes and states to get a clear picture of how much more water tribes might develop in the coming years.

Infrastructure Problems Linger

For tribes, putting their Colorado River water to beneficial use remains a difficult proposition.

Those who have gone through the arduous process of settling and quantifying their water claims often lack the infrastructure for diverting water to farms, businesses and homes on rural reservations. Moreover, a range of laws and bureaucratic hurdles restrict how and where a tribe can use its water.

Much of the irrigation infrastructure and technology on the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado is antiquated. The channel on the right looks much as it did in the 1950s photo on the left. Source: Tribal Water Study Basic projects, like expanding a water treatment plant or installing a new drinking water pipeline, can advance at a glacial pace, as tribes must deal with a variety of different federal agencies to get them approved. Even when funding is available, it can be difficult to launch projects as tribes often lack the resources to navigate the various regulations, fees and environmental reviews. Credit: Water Education Foundation

Basic projects, like expanding a water treatment plant or installing a new drinking water pipeline, can advance at a glacial pace, as tribes must deal with a variety of different federal agencies to get them approved. Even when funding is available, it can be difficult to launch projects as tribes often lack the resources to navigate the various regulations, fees and environmental reviews.

Lack of safe drinking water also continues to be a glaring public health issue. Nearly half of Native American households don’t have clean drinking water or basic sanitation, according to a study by the nonprofit Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative.

On the Navajo Nation reservation, which stretches across more than 17 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, approximately 30 percent of families live without tap water and rely on bottled or hauled supplies.

Cloud, who serves on the leadership team for the Water & Tribes Initiative, said her Southern Ute Indian Tribe uses only a quarter of its reserved water because of shoddy infrastructure. Most of the tribe’s farmers rely on a federally built system more than a century old with broken diversion structures, leaky canals and clogged ditches.

“The federal government says they don’t have the funding to fix their own infrastructure,” Cloud said. “We can’t use the water if the infrastructure is failing.”

The underutilized water supply gets chalked up as a missed economic opportunity. A North Carolina State University study this year found Western tribes collectively lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year due to their unused water.

Some of the Ute Indian Tribe’s irrigation system is in poor condition, as shown here on the Uintah Canal east of Salt Lake City. Source: Tribal Water Study

Outstanding tribal water rights claims continue to complicate matters. Nearly a dozen of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the Basin have at least partially unsettled claims.

To tap into its reserved water, each tribe must negotiate with the state or states where it has land to quantify the size of its share. This process averages 22 years and can cost tribes millions of dollars in legal and consulting fees. There is an additional layer of federal oversight, as Congress must sign off on deals made between states and tribes.

Expediting the outstanding claims, most of which are in Arizona, is in the best interest of Basin water users as talks intensify over a new set of river guidelines, Castle said.

“It’s a burden on everybody to have this unquantified amount hanging out there,” she said.

Tribes as Part of the Solution

Tribal leaders and experts say being involved in the crafting of the next set of river management rules could benefit Basin tribes in a variety of ways, including compensation for their unused water.

Hauter, of the Gila River Indian Community, said one potential solution would involve paying tribes to not develop or increase their water use for a set period. These “forbearance” deals would suspend a portion of a tribe’s allotment and continue to allow non-tribal users to use the water.

The Gila River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, flows through the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, east of Safford, Arizona. Photo by Ted Wood/Water Desk

Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe in California, said forbearance deals like the one the tribe negotiated with California water agencies in 2005, generate income for tribes for badly needed drinking water infrastructure and reduce the risk of new draws on the river.

“This is an opportunity that should not be squandered,” Joaquin said in a recent letter to Reclamation officials.

Additional support for tribal water infrastructure may also be on the horizon. By being in the same meeting rooms, tribal leaders will be able to convey the scope of their drinking water problems to the federal government and states’ top negotiators.

“It’s a straight-up issue of equity for American citizens,” Castle said.

While the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a “groundbreaking” amount of money for fixing and building new drinking water systems, Castle said tribes need additional assistance getting their projects shovel-ready. More money would help tribes with the design, engineering, permitting and other pre-construction stages.

With the demand for tribal water increasing across the Basin, tribes could press to level the playing field when it comes to profiting from their unused water.

Federal laws enacted more than a century ago, decades before any Southwest state was established, effectively bar tribes from sending water off their reservations. Marketing water to non-tribal users requires congressional approval, a difficult task to achieve for even the most well-resourced, politically connected tribe.

CRIT got the nod from Congress earlier this year to market some of its allotted Colorado River supply off-reservation. It plans to use the revenue to make its water delivery systems more efficient.

Streamlining the process would allow tribes to find new ways to share their water with farmers or cities.

The states and the federal government could also find new ways to support investment in tribal lands. Peter Culp, an attorney specializing in Western water law and policy, said tribes often do not have the means to undertake projects that could help reduce erosion, water pollution and wildfire risks.

“We need to think more broadly to solve the problem we face,” Culp said. “We’re not going to address the declining [water supply] without thinking about the significant investments that need to be made in tribal lands.”

Tribes entering the negotiations want the federal government and the states to give serious consideration to their visions for managing a shrinking river they have relied on for time immemorial.

“[Drought] is opening the eyes of people whose thoughts have been very restrictive of tribal water and haven’t wanted tribes at the table,” Cloud said. “This is an opportunity for us to be part of the solution.”

Reach writer Nick Cahill at

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Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

#OakCreek moving forward with key Sheriff Reservoir dam construction — Steamboat Pilot & Today

This photo shows the newly-installed headgate stem wall at the Sheriff Reservoir dam in Routt County. The town is moving forward with repairs to the dam’s spillway after the Colorado Division of Water Resources placed restrictions on the 68-year-old structure in 2021. Town of Oak Creek/Courtesy photo

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Trevor Ballantyne). Here’s an excerpt:

Oak Creek is preparing to move forward with important upgrades to a 68-year-old dam at Sheriff Reservoir…With the threat of a dam breach, the town worked with the engineering firm W. W. Wheeler & Associates to create a hydrology study to determine what repairs would be necessary. Completed this year, the report used updated high elevation hydrology formulas to anticipate how much water the dam and its spillway would need to handle in a maximum flood event. According to Torgler, the study found the spillway would need to be expanded from its current 32 feet to 55 feet across. Approved by the state’s engineer Monday, the study is key, the town administrator said, because it was originally believed the expansion improvement would need to be 330 feet across…

After completing work to replace the headgate on the dam, which sits close to the structures base on the reservoir side, the project will now turn to the completion of the design engineering for the spillway enhancements, Torgler said. To date, the town has spent $520,000 for design engineering for the headgate and the purchase and installation of operating equipment and $320,000 for final design work. Cost estimates for the spillway work will be ready by the end of the year.

Torgler said that without performing the dam improvements, there would be a significant reduction in the amount of water stored in the reservoir. He noted the reservoir provides recreational opportunities for locals and visitors, but it is also Oak Creek’s drinking water supply.

Thornton Water Project update

Cache la Poudre River. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (John Aguilar). Here’s an excerpt:

As Thornton filed its latest application for a water pipe permit with Larimer County on Monday, officials had hope that they would face less resistance this time…A no vote [from the Larimer County Commissioners] would jeopardize long-term growth plans in Thornton, Colorado’s sixth-largest city, for years to come by hampering the ability to access water it bought the rights for decades ago.

“Though it has been frustrating all these years, I firmly believe this is a better project with all the community feedback,” said Brett Henry, executive director of utilities and infrastructure for the city of Thornton. “It’s more clear about what to expect. There are less unknowns.”


Thornton says the pipe’s new proposed alignment through Larimer County holds several advantages over a route the county rejected in early 2019. It would take 16 fewer miles of pipe in the county than the original route called for, and the project’s western terminus would avoid a number of neighborhoods that had raised concerns around construction disruption. The city is also willing to move a proposed pump station well apart from homes. The station would be used to divert the water shares Thornton owns in the Poudre to a collection of reservoirs northwest of Fort Collins. The pipe would then traverse 22 properties in Larimer County before crossing into Weld County and turning south. City spokesman Todd Barnes said Thornton already has begun discussions with most of the landholders about obtaining easements for the pipe.

Waltons commit $1.4 million to new Tribal Water Institute — @BigPivots #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water feature in Castle Rock. Photo credit: Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website:

November 15, 2023

Institute to be part of the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund and likely will play a major role in the Colorado River Basin discussions

The Walton Family Foundation has committed $1.4 million during the next three years to create a Tribal Water Institute. The institute is to provide tribal nations the resources and training to advocate for their water rights and develop policy solutions.

It will be housed within the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund, or NARF. The organization was established in 1970 and has provided legal assistance to Native American tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide who might otherwise have gone without adequate representation.

This money for the Tribal Water Institute will double the Native American Rights Fund’s staffing devoted to water issues, allowing it to take on more casework. The goal is also to build a pipeline of new leaders and develop research and forward-thinking policy proposals.

“Addressing the West’s significant water challenges requires an all-hands on deck approach. Tribal Nations must be included in water decision-making,” said Moira Mcdonald, environment program director of the Walton Family Foundation.

“Tribal Nations often have the most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin and throughout the West. But they are under-represented in federal and state policy discussions. That is unjust and unwise. We need to listen to their voices. More inclusive decision-making will lead to greater benefits for the environment and society as a whole.”

David Gover, managing attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said the new institute will help fill a critical gap.

“It will provide legal support, train water attorneys, develop policy ideas, and educate state and federal decision-makers,” he said. “By increasing law and policy expertise within Tribal Nations, we can help Indian Country ensure water is available for generations to come.”

The Native American Rights Fund declares that its mission is to hold governments accountable. We fight to protect Native American rights, resources, and lifeways through litigation, legal advocacy, and legal expertise.

Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, welcomed the announcement.

“Tribal water rights and related interests are getting increased and much needed attention in the western U.S. and the Colorado River Basin in particular,” she observed. “It will be wonderful to have additional expert legal minds addressing these important issues with the practical and thoughtful experience NARF brings to bear.”

Castle was assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of Interior during the Obama administration.

The Walton Family Foundation, at its core, consists of three generations of descendants of the founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and their spouses. The foundation works in three areas, including protecting rivers and oceans. The foundation has become an important source of funding for many of the players in the Colorado River Basin during recent years. Many a conference has been underwritten, at least in part, by the Waltons. See more here.

As for how this new investment will be used, NARF identified five ways:

  • A fellowship program to train young attorneys to represent and advocate for tribal water law solutions.
  • Advocacy for tribal water rights. “To our knowledge, there is no national tribal organization or academic institution that focuses on tribal water rights or policy development,” says NARF. “The institute will help fill this gap and provide much-needed recommendations and other legal resources to guide tribal water policy.”
  • A semi-annual report detailing water-related legal information and opportunities. Included will be such details as case summaries, pending legislation, successful settlements, and related commentary.
  • Support for participation in the Ad Hoc Water Group; the group has been operated since 1981 by the Western States Water Council and NARF.
  • Continuation of a biennial Indian water settlement symposium that has been held since 1991.

See more about the plans here.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

A firsthand look at Grand Canyon beaches — @AmericanRivers

Beach in the Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Click the link to read the article on the American Rivers website (Sinjin Eberle):

The Grand Canyon is magical in any season, but fall may take the cake for the perfect boating season on that stretch of the Colorado River. Cool mornings, warm days that are still long enough to dry out your gear after a day of getting hammered by huge waves, and starry nights that appear after the sun has dipped below the ramparts of rock in the distance. This year, canyon explorers are lucky to experience the additional gift of abundant sand from the High Flow Experiment(HFE) that was conducted in April, 2023.

I was on the river a couple of weeks ago, conducting survey activities alongside scientists from the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC). This is part of a long-running program to quantify impacts to various resources throughout the canyon from the construction of Glen Canyon dam in the early 1960s. Since the early 1990’s, scientists from GCMRC and Northern Arizona University have been using geodetic survey techniques to measure sand volume, in three dimensions, to a select group of around 40 beaches and sandbars from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek. The changes are compared year over year and show trends of how these beaches shrink or grow based on Colorado River flow conditions over the year. These measurements are coupled with photographic evidence from cameras also placed throughout the canyon to observe these changes across an entire year or multiple years.

The beach below Redwall Cavern | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

My observation? There is a lot of sand down there, with huge beaches the likes of which I have not seen in many years. The last time an HFE was conducted in the canyon was 2018, and the last time a spring high-flow was conducted was in 2008. Without these HFEs, the sediment-reduced water coming out of Glen Canyon dam actually erode beaches and sandbars, deteriorating conditions over time that impact not only beaches for recreation but allow greater encroachment of vegetation as well as the gradual uncovering of cultural resources near the river throughout the 277-mile corridor. Nearly every beach that was either surveyed, seen from a distance, or camped on was larger – much larger – than what I have seen before. And many of the beaches actually had two stages of sandbars; a lower, very large bench of flat sand, and a higher, more piled berm of sand behind it which formed a tall dune crest or back-bench of soft sand. The volumes we witnessed in places were surprising to say the least.

The beach at Buck Farm illustrates the two-bench effects from this summer. The foreground shows sand deposited up to about 19,000cfs, while the distant bench shows sand up to about the 42,000cfs elevation. Photo by Sinjin Eberle

This configuration of sand was created by the flow regime that was the HFE itself as well as the summer flows that followed. When the HFE was conducted in mid-April, about 42,000 cubic feet per second of water (a very high flow!) was released continuously for 72 hours before the flows were brought back down to normal (~10,000cfs). That mobilized more than 1.5 million tons of sand that had been deposited by the Paria River (roughly 15 miles downstream) over the past couple of years – this is the sand that rebuilt the beaches and sandbars I saw on my trip. After the HFE, though, Bureau of Reclamation moved nearly 10 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, creating unusually high flows (topping out at about 19,000 cfs) each day all summer long. These higher daily flows actually stripped some of that new sand at the lower elevations of the channel, shooting it downstream. In September, Reclamation pulled the flows back a bit more, revealing those lower, expansive benches of sand.

Where is all this leading? Well, in early October Reclamation issued a Notice of Intent for scoping some supplemental rules related to the Long-Term Experimental Management Plan, or LTEMP. While much of what is being considered is related to a situation where invasive small mouth bass have come into the canyon from Lake Powell, threatening the humpback chub population in the canyon, it also is proposing to amend the guidelines for how HFEs are conducted. The new rules would make it so the period of time that sand is accounted for in the canyon would be longer (on an annual basis rather than two, shorter timeframes) as well as lengthening the one of the periods that HFEs could be conducted (importantly making it so HFEs could be triggered in May and June, which they cannot be under the current rules.)

Importantly, you can comment on these new rules. You can read more at the Notice of Intent link above and send your comments by email to But you only have until November 3 to make your voice heard.

Seeing these beaches and sandbars firsthand is an extraordinary experience, but being able to speak up for the canyon and all that depend upon it is both a privilege and responsibility. I know that I for one am proud to be able to put my energy into making my voice heard for such a special place. And for even more Grand Canyon exploration, check out our award-winning storymap, Caught in the Middle, which we published last spring.

Sunset paints the walls towering above Basalt Camp in Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

New Mexico’s #RioGrande Compact debt is likely to grow; El Vado Dam won’t be fixed for a long while yet; we might see a lot more Middle Rio Grande Valley farmers paid next year to fallow — John Fleck (InkStain)

Rio Grande at Albuquerque, November 2023. Photo credit: John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

Finishing the new book has thrown me into a time warp.

We’re about to hand in a manuscript for a book that traces a century and a half of the evolution of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande, leading up to now. But the now of the act of writing (November 2023) is different from the now that will exist when the book first emerges in 2025, and the now in which readers experience it in the years that follow.

This conceptual muddle is crucial for the book. We are trying to describe the process of becoming that made Albuquerque what it is. That process of becoming, we argue at some length, cannot be understood without understanding how we as a community came together to act collectively to manage our relationship with the river that flows through our midst.

But – and this is the crucial thing, because it explains why we are writing this book – the process of becoming is never done. We hope to help inform Albuquerque’s discussion of what happens next.

There’s less water. What do we do? We will never stop negotiating our complex relationship as a community with the Rio Grande.

I spent a delightful afternoon yesterday that stretched well into the evening, listening to a series of enormously consequential discussions of these issues at the monthly meeting of the board of directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. One of the district’s senior folks recently pointed out how often, during the most difficult of discussions, they look at me sitting in the audience and see me grinning. Those most difficult discussions are the most fascinating to me.

I found myself leaning forward in my chair frequently, shifting my position to see the faces of the board members and staff as they wrestled with this stuff.

I grinned a lot.

Three things from yesterday’s meeting stood out. All three are things that would have merited a significant newspaper story back in my Albuquerque Journal days. This blog post is not that, but if you’re paying attention to Middle Valley water you should keep an eye out for these three incredibly important developing issues.


The Rio Grande Compact, an agreement among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to share the waters of the compact’s eponymous river, has a tricky sliding formula determining how much water each state is allowed to consume (through human use as well as riparian evapotranspiration), and how much it must pass to its downstream neighbor. It’s got some wiggle room – states can run a debt, as long as it doesn’t get too large and they catch up in subsequent years. But the changing hydrology of the Middle Valley has made it increasingly difficult for New Mexico to meet its downstream delivery obligations.

New Mexico is currently 93,000 acre feet in debt because of under deliveries in recent years. The hole’s likely to get a lot deeper this year, thanks to a big spring runoff (which increases New Mexico’s required deliveries) and a lousy monsoon (good summer rains can help make up a deficit – this year they did not). If our debt rises above 200,000 acre feet, bad things happen.

El Vado Dam and Reservoir. Photo credit: USBR


El Vado Dam was built in the 1930s to store water for Middle Rio Grande Valley irrigators, allowing storage of spring runoff to stretch the growing season threw summer and into fall. But it’s kinda broken. Contractors working for the US Bureau of Reclamation began work a couple of years ago to fix it, with the expectation that it would take a couple of years. It is now widely understood that it may not be done and in operation again until 2027. Or later.

This would be devastating to the portion of irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Valley that farm for a living. As our book will deeply argue, it’s critical to understand that this represents a minority of irrigated land in the valley. Much of the farming here is non-commercial, “custom and culture” farming, a supplemental income (or even, for the affluent, a delightful money loser) for people whose livelihood doesn’t depend on it. But for either class of irrigators, a lack of late summer and fall water makes things incredibly hard.

El Vado’s problems have not been publicly announced yet, but all the cool kids are talking about them. Expect something more substantive at December’s MRGCD board meeting.

Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)


We could see a substantial expansion of acreage fallowed, with a big chunk of federal money paid to irrigators to forego their water in the next few years. MRGCD has been building the institutional widget to do this for several years, with federal money flowing to irrigators to lay off watering their land for either a partial or full season as part of a federally funded program to generate water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for our beloved Rio Grande silvery minnow. In 2023, that generated (in accounting terms, be skeptical of the four-digit precision) 3,615 acre feet of water.

For 2024, the MRGCD, working with federal money funneled through the state, will push for a dramatic increase. Price per acre will double, to $400 an acre for a split season (irrigate in spring and fall, but not in summer when demand is highest) and $700 an acre for a full season. It’s a voluntary program, so all depends on how much irrigators want to join in, but I can imagine a lot of people looking at the El Vado shitshow and taking the money.

There was a very confusing board discussion that involved an actual invocation of Roberts Rules of Order by the district’s legal counsel and a vote that I still don’t understand with people who support the program voting “no” and people who oppose it (I think) voting “yes”. If I was still a reporter I would have had to sort all of this out while an editor hovered barking about deadlines, but thankfully it’s just a blog that no one actually reads, written by an old guy in pajamas still working on his morning coffee and breakfast.

The bottom line is the possibility of the compensated fallowing of as much as 8,000 acres next year, ~15-ish percent of all irrigated land. I think. As I said it was a pretty confusing thing, and I’m not done with breakfast.

The Rio Grande Basin spans Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Biden-Harris Administration Announces $51 Million from Investing in America Agenda for Water Resources and Ecosystem Health — Department of Interior

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investing in environmental projects to increase water availability

11/15/2023 WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today announced $51 million from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda for 30 new Environmental Water Resource Projects in 11 states through the Bureau of Reclamation. The collaborative projects focus on water conservation, water management and restoration efforts that will result in significant benefits to ecosystem or watershed health.

“Adequate, resilient and safe water supplies are fundamental to the health, economy and security of every community in our nation,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Interior Department is focused on ensuring that funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is going to collaborative projects throughout the West that will benefit the American people.”

As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s commemoration of the two-year anniversary of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Michael Brain announced the selections during a visit to Grand Junction, Colorado, where eight of the selected projects are located.

“These locally led initiatives utilize the investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to demonstrate quantifiable and sustained water savings, all while providing a direct benefit to the surrounding ecosystems,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Brain. “These types of projects and robust cooperation with stakeholders are helping to improve watershed health and increase water reliability and access for families, farmers, and Tribes.”

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including rural water, water storage, conservation and conveyance, nature-based solutions, dam safety, water purification and reuse, and desalination. Over the first two years of its implementation, Reclamation selected 372 projects to receive almost $2.8 billion.

The WaterSMART program also advances the Justice40 Initiative, part of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic commitment to environmental justice, which aims to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate, clean energy and other federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.


Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, Surface Water Conservation for Drought and Climate Resilience in the Altar Valley Watershed

Reclamation Funding: $1,213,809         

The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, in partnership with the Pima County Regional Flood Control District, will use a series of nature-based features in the Altar Wash watershed, southwest of Tucson, Arizona, to slow flows, improve groundwater infiltration, and create surface water habitat for wildlife. The Alliance will install low-tech natural infrastructure in dryland streams facilities across 8,985 acres of the wash, which will slow the runoff, reducing erosion and retaining water in the wash for longer periods. The project will enhance drought and climate change resilience, reduce downstream flood impacts and increase the sustainability of agricultural operations.


San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, Hidden Valley Creek Aquatic and Riparian Habitat Restoration Project

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000

San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District will implement the Hidden Valley Creek Aquatic and Riparian Habitat Restoration Project within the Upper Santa Ana River Watershed, a tributary of the Santa Ana River, in southern California. The project will restore and improve the condition of 21.7 acres of degraded aquatic and riparian habitat, including habitat for the threatened Santa Ana Sucker. The district will construct new and restored stream channel, establish a buffer of native riparian vegetation on each side of the stream, and enhance a 1.2 acre floodplain bench. The project will include non-native plant removal and site revegetation efforts. This restoration will improve water quality, increase habitat connectivity, and provide crucial support for recovering endangered and sensitive species.

Uncompahgre River


American Rivers, Inc, Uncompahgre River Multi-Benefit Project

Reclamation Funding: $ 1,198,376        

American Rivers, in partnership with the Ward Water Group and local landowners, will upgrade irrigation infrastructure and enhance aquatic and riparian habitats along one mile of the Uncompahgre River in western, Colorado. The current push-up diversion dam structure has caused channel widening, reduction of aquatic habitat diversity, and a decrease in floodplain connectivity. American Rivers will improve the Ward Irrigation Ditch infrastructure by constructing 2 cross-vane weirs, installing a new concrete stoplog bypass at the headgate, and piping 5,600 linear feet of open irrigation ditches. The project will improve aquatic and riparian habitat within the channel by constructing cross-vane weirs, J-hook vanes, rock vanes, and boulder clusters; revegetating the banks and meanders using willow pole clusters and riparian plant species plugs; and removing invasive vegetation.

Rio Grande through the eastern edge of Alamosa July 5, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,274,625

The Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, in partnership with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, will upgrade the diversion infrastructure for the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch, in southwestern Colorado, to meet agricultural, ecological, recreational, and community needs. The current diversion infrastructure creates a barrier to fish passage, is hazardous for boaters, and requires frequent maintenance. The partners will construct a new diversion structure, incorporating fish passage that will allow fish to access an additional 1.42 river miles of habitat. The project also includes restoration of streambank through the installation of rock and root wad structures and streambed and aquatic habitat through improved sediment transport at the diversion structure. The diversion upgrade will provide safe boat passage and more efficiently deliver water to the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch.

Mancos River in Montezuma County

Mancos Conservation District, Riparian Restoration and Infrastructure Improvements to Better the Ecological Processes of the Mancos Watershed

Reclamation Funding: $2,482,686    

The Mancos Conservation District, in partnership with the Town of Mancos, will implement a multi-benefit project consisting of a suite of infrastructure improvements and nature-based solutions along the Mancos River, a tributary of the San Juan River, in southwestern, Colorado. The partners will upgrade three agricultural diversion structures, install remote metering and telemetry equipment on 10 agricultural pipeline headgates, complete fire mitigation work on 650 upland acres and replace invasive riparian plants with native species adjacent to the Mancos River. The project is downstream of Reclamation’s Jackson Gulch Reservoir and will mitigate wildfire risk to the reservoir and water supplies in the Mancos River Watershed. 

Roan Cliffs Aerial via Rocky Mountain Wild

Middle Colorado Watershed Council, Roan Creek Fish Barrier and Diversion Infrastructure Upgrade

Reclamation Funding: $746,423

The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, working in partnership with Garfield County, will install a fish barrier to prevent non-native fish migration, and upgrade a diversion structure on Roan Creek, in western Colorado. The upper portion of Roan Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, contains a unique native fish assemblage comprised of Colorado River cutthroat trout, bluehead sucker, Paiute sculpin, and speckled dace. Non-native fish in the Roan Creek watershed harm the river system’s ecology by predating on or hybridizing with the unique native species. Construction of a fish barrier will effectively eliminate the upstream movement of non-native fish to improve Roan Creek’s aquatic and riparian habitat and protect the native fish.

Purgatoire Watershed Partnership, Purgatoire River Fish Passage

Reclamation Funding: $2,403,748

The Purgatoire Watershed Partnership will improve fish passage at the Baca-Picketwire diversion dam on the Purgatoire River in downtown Trinidad, Colorado. The Purgatoire River supports a robust assemblage of fish species and is of local and regional interest for conservation. Currently, ecological function is impaired because the existing concrete diversion dam is not passable to fish. This project will restore fish habitat connectivity and enhance recreation opportunities by adding a low-gradient engineered riffle feature that mimics a natural channel. The upgrade will allow fish access to 3.3 miles of main river, wetlands, 20 miles of Raton Creek, and many stream miles within ephemeral drainages, including approximately 4 miles of Moore’s Canyon and 9 miles of Colorado Canyon. The project is also expected to have flood mitigation, sediment transport, and bank stabilization co-benefits.

Los Pinos River

Southern Ute Tribe, Nannice Canal Diversion and Fish Passage Project

Reclamation Funding: $651,920

The Southern Ute Tribe, in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and The Nature Conservancy, will implement the Nannice Canal Diversion and Fish Passage project on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in southwestern, Colorado. Part of the BIA-owned and operated Pine River Indian Irrigation project that receives water from Reclamation’s Vallecito Dam, the Nannice Canal Diversion is a low-head dam that sweeps across the Los Pinos River and creates a significant fish barrier. Fish get entrained in the Nannice Canal during low flows and during irrigation season. The Southern Ute Water Resources Division will upgrade the diversion structure and install a fish screen and fish ladder. The project will restore river connectivity, improve fish passage, and eliminate fish entrainment during low flows, while continuing to allow the diversion of Nannice Canal’s decreed water.

August, in the Elk Creek valley. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Trout Unlimited, Inc, Middle Colorado River Agriculture Collaborative: 4 Fish Passage/ Irrigation Diversion Upgrade Projects on Elk Creek-a tributary to the Colorado River

Reclamation Funding: $2,999,595

Trout Unlimited and the Middle Colorado Agriculture Collaborative will upgrade, relocate, or combine six diversion structures to remove instream barriers to fish passage in the Elk Creek west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. These upgrades will open approximately five miles of aquatic habitat in Elk Creek to fish passage. The project is anticipated to improve stream morphology, increase instream flows, and benefit irrigators by increasing the operational capabilities of the diversions and reducing transmission losses of vital irrigation water.

Agriculture in the U.S. Southwest is at high risk from the impacts of climate change. EcoFlight photo of the North Fork Valley by the Western Slope Conservation Center.

Western Slope Conservation Center, Farmer’s Ditch Improvement Project

Reclamation Funding: $ 1,594,799

The Western Slope Conservation Center, in partnership with North Fork Farmer’s Ditch Association, located in west-central Colorado, will modernize the Farmers ditch diversion and headgate structures to improve upstream fish passage, increase diversion efficiency, and improve safety for boaters. The project will upgrade the existing concrete headgate structure with a long-lasting alternative headgate that is equipped with remote automation technology, enabling more efficient water deliveries to irrigators while maximizing water that remains in the river. In addition, the Center will install graded riffle and small pools and drops to mimic the natural morphology of the river for approximately 200 feet below the diversion to promote upstream fish passage and allow for safe recreational boating.


Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Protecting Forests for Water Supply Sustainability in Molokai, Hawai’i

Reclamation Funding: $936,892

The state of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife, will expand protection of native landscapes in the north-eastern portion of Molokai, one of the five Hawaiian Islands. Invasive hooved animals, including feral pigs, deer, and goats, are the main threat to Hawai’i’s original forests, negatively impacting water supply, increasing flood risk and land erosion, and threatening several listed species. The project will reduce populations and associated damage to the forest due to these invasive animals through animal control and installation of fencing to exclude them from 3,340 acres within the Pelekunu Valley. The project will also remove hooved animals from an additional 12,000 acres along the north shore of Molokai in an area with steep terrain that is not possible to fence. The island of Molokai relies on ground water for all fresh water needs and is designated as a groundwater management area by Hawai’i’s Commission of Water Resources Management. The forest provides increased water infiltration into the aquifer and reduces soil erosion and associated water quality issues.


City of Pocatello, Rainey Park Stream Restoration and Wetland Creation

Reclamation Funding: $1,635,276

The city of Pocatello, Idaho, will implement a river restoration project on the Portneuf River in downtown Pocatello. The health of the Portneuf River has been severely compromised by flood protection levees and the construction of a concrete channel, which removed hundreds of acres of wetlands when installed. Restoration will be accomplished by moving the river’s existing riprapped levee to an area of city-owned property. A wetland and side channel will be installed adjacent to the levee, along with accessible river access for anglers and floaters. Additionally, a stormwater pond will be installed to capture the first flush of sediment-laden waters from city streets. This project builds on the concepts developed in the 2016 Portneuf River Vision Study and addresses a wide range of environmental goals, including improving hydrologic functions by increasing floodplain, wetland, and riparian habitat areas, and improving water quality.

The Nature Conservancy, Loving Creek Tributaries Restoration and Water Conservation Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,900,217

The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with Idaho Department of Fish and Game and landowners, will complete a suite of nature-based features on four reaches of Loving Creek, located in Blaine County in south central Idaho. The four project locations span the full extent of Loving Creek from its headwaters to the outlet at Silver Creek. Through a combination of in-stream restoration work, sediment removal, and riparian habitat creation, the project will restore 2.75 miles of active stream channel, regenerate riparian and wetland habitat, and remove one fish passage barrier to holistically restore connectivity to 5.72 miles of upstream habitat. The project also will revive upland and agricultural buffer habitat and pipe 1,200 linear feet of open water delivery canal to conserve 9 acre-feet of water, which will remain in Loving Creek as instream flow. Despite improvements in agricultural management and land use practices over the past several decades, water quality and habitat conditions in Silver Creek and its tributaries remain degraded. This project will restore more natural channel morphology, increase habitat complexity, and improve water quality in Loving Creek.

Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District, White Road Passage Project

Reclamation Funding: $367,091

The Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District will improve anadromous fish habitat for Federally listed Steelhead Trout in the Tom Beall Creek watershed, a tributary to Lapwai Creek, located in northern Idaho. The project will improve watershed health within the boundaries of the Reclamation’s Lewiston Orchard Project. The district will replace an existing culvert with a fish passable structure to support the migration of the Steelhead Trout and additional species including Coho and Chinook Salmon. When completed, the project will provide access to approximately two miles of habitat and reduce area flood risk. The project also will improve water quality to downstream recreational and agricultural water users. The project is supported by the Lapwai Creek Ecological Restoration Strategy developed collaboratively with the Nez Perce Tribe, National Marine Fisheries Service, Idaho Department of Transportation, Nez Perce County, city of Lapwai, city of Culdesac, Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District, a landowner advisory group, and several Idaho state government divisions.

Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District, Lower Clearwater Snake Rivers Phase I

Reclamation Funding: $451,889

The Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District will undertake the Lower Clearwater Snake Rivers Phase I Project in Culdesac, Nez Perce, and Lewis Counties, in northwest Idaho. The project will improve watershed health within the boundaries of the Reclamation’s Lewiston Orchard Project. The district will enhance anadromous fish habitat for Federally listed Steelhead Trout and improve overall water quality in the Lower Clearwater River Basin. The district will upgrade a culvert for aquatic organism passage, thin approximately 129 acres of forest to mitigate wildfire risk and install over 100 instream wood structures to enhance over 10,000 feet of stream for juvenile steelhead habitat. The project will yield ecological benefits including improved habitat function, optimized flow timing, increased groundwater recharge, and reduced sedimentation.

Trout Unlimited, Inc, Completion of the Alta Harris Creek Boise River Side Channel and Fish Passage Project Along the Boise River

Reclamation Funding: $734,103

Trout Unlimited, together with the city of Boise, Idaho, will improve aquatic ecology in the Boise River by restoring spawning and rearing habitat for salmonid fishes, and providing fish passage connection between the lower Boise River and Barber Pool, downstream of Reclamation’s Arrowrock Dam. The project will enhance 3,800 feet of existing side channel and include construction of 1,600 feet of new side channel, complete riparian revegetation with native plants, and construct of a fish passage facility at Barber Dam. The fishway design will better accommodate fluctuating river flows and variable water surface elevation. Completion of this project will reconnect 2.5 miles of the main-channel Boise River with 5 acres of adjacent riparian habitat and over a mile of side channel for spawning and rearing of juvenile fish. The project also will allow fish to bypass a half mile of the Boise River with a risk for fish entrainment in water delivery canals.

Wood River Land Trust, Warm Springs Preserve Stream Restoration and Irrigation Improvement Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,733,154

Wood River Land Trust, in partnership with the city of Ketchum, Idaho, will enhance and improve the ecological function of the 65 acre Warm Spring Preserve along the Warms Springs Creek in Blaine County, in central Idaho. Warm Springs Creek in the project area has been artificially confined, concentrating flow, and creating incision and floodplain abandonment. There is virtually no floodplain connectivity within the northern half of the project reach. The project will restore 1.3 miles of Warm Springs Creek through instream earthwork to create pools, point bars, and constructed riffles, and installation of woody debris structures to promote in-channel complexity. The project will also create nine acres of adjacent floodplain habitat by lowering the floodplain. The floodplain restoration will be complemented by revegetation with low-water native plant species along the riparian zones and throughout the preserve, which will collectively aid in improvement of water quality and temperature of Warm Springs Creek.

New Mexico

Chama Peak Land Alliance, Increasing Resiliency in the San Juan-Chama Project Headwaters

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000

The Chama Peak Land Alliance will conduct ecological forest thinning on approximately 2,150 acres to protect source watersheds for Reclamation’s San Juan-Chama Project, the Rio Chama headwaters, and the Rio Brazos headwaters from the impacts of future wildfires. Forests in these headwaters are unnaturally dense and homogenous, putting them at risk of severe wildfires and deterioration of watershed function. These watersheds supply crucial drinking water to the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and numerous tribes, Pueblos, and rural communities throughout New Mexico. In addition to threatening water supply infrastructure, a severe wildfire could cause water quality impairments, flooding erosion and significant degradation of habitat for fish and wildlife.

Pueblo of Isleta, Restoring Watershed Function and Protecting Sacred Ancestral Sites on the lower Rio Puerco, a tributary of the Rio Grande

Reclamation Funding: $2,487,942

The Pueblo of Isleta will build resilience in the lower Rio Puerco watershed by implementing nature-based watershed restoration techniques to restore natural watershed function on an approximately 30,000 acre parcel of the Comanche Ranch and neighboring lands, in central New Mexico. Forming a part of the Pueblo of Isleta lands, the Comanche Ranch comprises over 90,000 acres of public and private lands and is home to upwards of one hundred sacred ancestral sites, including an important cultural site, the Pottery Mound. The ranch forms an integral part of the Rio Puerco lower watershed, the primary source of sediment to the middle Rio Grande and Reclamation’s Elephant Butte Reservoir. The Pueblo and stakeholders have identified that loss of vegetation and increasingly higher energy monsoonal storms that have resulted in erosion and soil loss throughout the uplands in this region and threaten the cultural sites downstream. The Pueblo will utilize a series of watershed restoration practices that spread and slow runoff flows, increase groundwater infiltration, and reduce erosion, including contour plowing with native seed imprinting, contour stone line and brush weir installation to protect plantings and slow runoff, and riparian restoration and revegetation on a section of the Rio Puerco adjacent to Pottery Mound, including the planting of wild medicinal and traditionally gathered edible plants.


Southern Nevada Water Authority, Muddy River Riparian Corridor Improvements at Warm Springs Natural Area

Reclamation Funding: $743,329

The Southern Nevada Water Authority will protect the Warm Springs Natural Area, a 1,250 acre property located in southern Nevada, and downstream habitat from drought impacts. The property is regionally significant as it contains more than 20 perennial springs that form the headwaters of the Muddy River and numerous habitat types. These resources provide habitat for several protected and sensitive species, including the endangered Moapa dace, endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. The project will widen the riparian corridors along 0.3 miles of the mainstem of the Muddy River and establish mesquite bosques along the corridor, resulting in the creation of 12 acres of new habitat. These actions will increase habitat for listed species, improve hydrologic conditions, lessen wildfire risk, and reduce erosion and sedimentation during flood events. Non-native vegetation will be removed and replaced with native vegetation to restore the area to the natural habitat that existed before the area was converted for agricultural purposes.


Crooked River Watershed Council, Lower Crooked River Riparian, Floodplain, and Habitat Restoration Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,400,000         

The Crooked River Watershed Council, working in partnership with the Ochoco Irrigation District, will restore habitat and enhance ecological features on two project sites just downstream from Prineville, Oregon. Hydrology in the Crooked River watershed is impacted by upstream Dams, including Reclamation’s Bowman Dam, leading to loss of floodplain continuity, degraded channel structures, and water quality impairments, impacting native Spring Chinook Salmon and Columbia River Steelhead populations that inhabit the watershed. To address these impairments, the Council will strategically place approximately 130 large wood structures to promote habitat complexity, stabilize eroding streambanks on 3,285 linear feet of stream channel, restore approximately 19 acres of floodplain and upland habitat, improve 0.22 acres of alcove habitat, and create 0.42 acres of wetland.

Deschutes Land Trust, Ochoco Preserve Restoration – Phases 2 and 3

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000         

The Deschutes Land Trust, with support from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, will restore aquatic, floodplain, and upland habitat across 124 acres on the Ochoco Preserve, located in Crook County, Oregon, adjacent to the city of Prineville. The Crooked River and Ochoco Creek support reintroduced spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead, as well as a host of other native aquatic species. The waterways frequently experience low flows, elevated summer stream temperatures, and poor water quality. These issues are compounded by a lack of suitable habitats for both fish and terrestrial wildlife, and the impacts to river ecology of Reclamation’s Crooked River Project, including Bowman and Ochoco Dams. The Deschutes Land Trust will lead efforts to create over 2 miles of new main baseflow stream channels, 1.5 miles of side channels, over 11 acres of wetland, and restore 37 acres of floodplain and 75 acres of upland habitat, significantly increasing available habitat for native species.


Menard County Water Control and Improvement District #1, Pipe a 2.5 mile section of the Menard Canal and dedicate 1,100 acre-feet instream

Reclamation Funding: $1,891,500         

Menard County Control and Improvements District #1, in central Texas, will upgrade the Menard Canal irrigation water conveyance system to reduce losses so that more water is kept in the San Saba River for fish and wildlife benefit. A water loss study conducted by U.S. Geological Survey in the summer of 2014 showed that the 6-mile long canal experiences an approximately 50% loss over the first 2.5 miles. The project involves replacing the first 4,000 feet of the unlined Menard Canal with pipe, and re-sloping, reshaping and partially filling the next mile of unlined canal to create a narrower channel profile. Following that narrowed span of canal, the district will pipe an additional 2,000 feet of the canal and install gates to control flow. The district has committed to leaving the majority of the conserved water, 1,100 acre-feet per year instream for a 30 year term. The additional instream flows will contribute significantly to baseflow of the San Saba River and create a more reliable supply of water for downstream aquatic habitat. Sections of the San Saba River downstream from the project that will benefit from the increased flows include critical habitat for the Texas fatmucket and Texas pimpleback mussel species.


The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Lower Yakima River: Anadromous Fish Survival

Reclamation Funding: $2,248,677

The Yakama Nation, in partnership with the Benton County Conservation District, will improve conditions for anadromous fish species in the Prosser, Snively, and Confluence reaches of the lower Yakima River, in central Washington. The project will address two key elements of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan: fish passage and habitat protection and enhancement. The Yakima Nation will complete instream restoration work to expand a cold-water refuge within the Yakima River mainstem at the confluence of Amon Creek, including construction of 1,400 linear feet of cool water channel habitat and restoration of 20 acres of riparian zone through invasive vegetation removal and revegetation with native species. The Yakima Nation will also complete electrofishing and install a fish trap on the Wanawish Dam to remove and prevent reintroduction of invasive predatory fish species that impede the migration of endangered fish species. These improvements will benefit the federally threatened Middle Columbia River steelhead; spring and fall/summer run Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye salmon; and the Yakima population of Pacific lamprey. The project area is downstream of Reclamation’s Yakima Project, which impacts river flows, temperatures, and habitat conditions in this area.

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Yakima River Mile 89.5 Side Channel and Floodplain Restoration

Reclamation Funding: $600,000

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation will reconnect approximately 9 miles of side channel along the Yakima River within the Yakama Reservation, in south central Washington. Upstream flow regulations tied to Reclamation’s Yakima Project have constricted historical floodplain processes and cut-off side channel access for native fish species, leading to degradation of riparian and wetland habitat areas. The Yakama Nation will excavate five historic side channel sections connecting to the mainstem of the Yakima River, install two constructed logjam inlet structures to ensure fish access to the mainstem of the river, and install three stream ford crossings to access the project site. The excavation of side channels will increase winter and spring off-channel habitat utilized by Middle Columbia River Steelhead and restore hydrologic connectivity to a total of 135 acres of floodplain and wetland habitat. The project is supported by the Yakima Basin Integrated 10-Year Action Plan developed by water and land management stakeholders.

The County of Chelan, Camas Meadows Streamflow and Ecosystem Restoration Project

Reclamation Funding: $468,903

The Chelan County Natural Resource Department, in coordination with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, will restore wet meadow hydrology in Camas Meadows, a unique meadow ecosystem within the steep canyon drainages of north-central Cascade Mountains in Washington. The 1,300 acre meadow flows into Camas Creek, a tributary of Peshastin Creek, in the Wenatchee Watershed. Due to widespread floodplain disconnection and irrigation withdrawals, the Peshastin sub-basin is among the top three flow-limited sub- basins in the Wenatchee Watershed, with chronic low flows and high stream temperatures limiting recovery of ESA-listed steelhead and spring Chinook that reside throughout Peshastin Creek and in the lower reaches of Camas creek. Historic land use practices have resulted in Camas Meadows being confined into ditch-like channels with incision ranging from 4 feet to 8 feet, causing rapid and early drying of the meadow. This projectwill restore the natural hydrology of the meadow by replacing the meadow outlet culvert, re-grading the channel and meadow elevations, installing channel-spanning habitat log structures, and re-planting with native shrubs and plants. The project will restore floodplain connectivity and wet meadow hydrology for a modeled additional water storage of 180 acre-feet and an anticipated year-round baseflow contribution of 0.2 cfs.

Kittitas Conservation Trust, Gold Creek Restoration Phase 2 RM 2-3 Implementation

Reclamation Funding: $2,475,000

Kittitas Conservation Trust will implement an in-stream restoration project on river mile 2-3 of Gold Creek, in Kittitas County, Washington. Located just east of Snoqualmie Pass in Kittitas County, Washington, Gold Creek is the headwaters of the upper Yakima River and flows for approximately 8 miles from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness into Keechelus Reservoir in the Central Cascade Mountains. Upstream fish passage is blocked at Reclamation’s Keechelus Dam on the downstream end of the reservoir. Prolonged dewatering conditions and a century’s worth of anthropogenic channel widening have dramatically impacted the habitat and health of the creek’s Federally threatened Bull Trout. The Trust will install a total of 28 large woody debris structures along the river mile. The instream wood replenishment will create habitat complexity, including deeper pools with shaded cover, provide relief from high velocity flood flows, and ensure optimal habitat for both the successful rearing of juvenile Bull Trout and migration of mature fish. The project also will provide floodplain reconnection, which will improve groundwater recharge from flood flows, and reduce the likelihood of future flood events further harming the channel morphology.

Kittitas Reclamation District, Kittitas Reclamation District – South Branch Piping

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000         

The Kittitas Reclamation District, located in central Washington, will restore in-stream flows and provide benefits to fish and wildlife in Mantash Creek, an over-appropriated tributary of the Yakima River. The project will involve the piping of a 2,656 linear feet section of the currently unlined South Branch Canal, which is part of Reclamation’s Yakima Project. Once piped, the district anticipates conserving approximately 385 acre-feet per year currently lost to seepage. The district will designate this otherwise lost water through an allocation, management, and protection agreement, that involves careful monitoring of stream flow on Mantash Creek to maintain optimal conditions for Yakima Basin fish species, including Coho and Chinook Salmon, Mid-Columbia Steelhead, and Bull Trout. The Washington State Department of Ecology is responsible for water protection and enforcement and will ensure that conserved water stays instream.


City of Casper, North Platte River Restoration — Izaak Walton Reach

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000

The city of Casper, in collaboration with members of the Platte River Revival Committee, will complete a river and riparian restoration project on the Izaak Walton reach of the North Platte River in Natrona County, Wyoming. The North Platte River is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery, but this reach suffers from significant bank erosion, tight riverbend geometry, a lack of riffle-pool complex development, poor bedform complexity, meager floodplain connectivity, and is characterized by a low quality riparian vegetation community. These conditions have resulted in degraded habitat for trout as well as native aquatic and terrestrial species. These characteristics have also contributed to reduced ecological function, adversely affected the regional municipal water supply, degraded aesthetic values, and impaired river recreation. The city of Casper will restore over 5,150 linear feet of the North Platte River that will involve regrading of the riverbed, banks, and floodplain to create appropriate geometry and bedform complexity, reduce riverbank degradation, and improve instream and riparian habitats.

Trout Unlimited, Inc, Sage Creek Watershed Restoration for Drought Resilience and Sediment Control

Reclamation Funding: $1,513,538

Trout Unlimited, working in partnership with Wyoming Game and Fish, will complete a multi-part restoration project, including nature-based features, in the Sage Creek Watershed, located in southwestern Wyoming. The project will involve the installation of 50 beaver dam analogs, 160 aggradation structures, and an aquatic invasive species barrier along a 5.6 mile stretch of Sage Creek. These installations will be complemented by a robust invasive plant removal and native riparian reseeding along 7.6 miles of both the Sage and Trout Creeks. Together, these actions are estimated to restore 453 acres of valley floor habitat and protect 79.5 linear miles of aquatic habitat from invasive trout that inhabit Reclamation’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir just downstream of the project site. The project is additionally expected to reduce channel incision and erosion to reduce sediment and nutrient delivery to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, protect native trout from hybridization, and increase groundwater recharge and surface water availability.

Enough water for lawns at the headwaters of the #ColoradoRiver? — Allen Best (@BigPivots) #COriver #aridification

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District General Manager Siri Roman. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.

Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.

U.S. Drought Monitor July 23, 2002.

First came 2002. Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.

West Drought Monitor map October 12, 2021.

In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad, bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.

Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other upper basin states.

Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected significantly, even in headwaters areas such as in Glewnood Springs, where this photo was taken after a rainstorm in September 2023. Photo/Allen Best Top photo: Siri Roman of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Courtesy photo.

In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards. 

Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year. 

The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors. 

Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.

“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”

Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf. 

Three years ago, Eagle River Water began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2. 

“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said. 

Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.

Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also acknowledgement of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities. “That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.

‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango

Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, the Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”

Harris believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, Harris thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.

At the Colorado Capitol, the bill introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.

Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended. 

Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.

The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.

Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.

All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.

Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.

Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.

“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager. 

Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits? “We are not overly prescriptive,” said Musser. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”

Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?

“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” Musser said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”

But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”

As this diagram (Snake Diagram) shows, native flows in the Arkansas River Basin are dwarfed by the amount of water in West Slope basins (created by the Colorado Water Conservation Board).

Droughts versus aridification

The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.

And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California and Nevada.

The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.

In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.

It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.

Grand Junction has a maze of irrigation canals but the municipal water utility gets water from a creek that flows from the Grand Mesa. Photo/Allen Best

Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.

Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal  utility  taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.

Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.

This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification. “I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.

Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.

Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player. 

These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.

“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a nonprofit. “It was crazy.”

The Yampa River at Deerlodge Park July 24, 2021 downstream from the confluence with the Little Snake River. There was a ditch running in Maybell above this location. Irrigated hay looked good. Dryland hay not so much.

Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.

In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water-conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.

“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”

The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.

Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.

Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines. “It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping. 

It’s all about saving water, says Deb Forsline, explaining the native grasses installed at The Reserve, a housing project at Edwards where she lives. Photo/Allen Best

Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.

Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”

A steeper staircase of water rates 

After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.

Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.

In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.

So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program. 

Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.

The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border. Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”

That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume. 

Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”

District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.

Linn Brooks uses about 7,000 gallons of water a month at her house in Avon after transitioning the yard to water-wise principles. Before, it used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons. Courtesy photo

In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.

The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.

Next: How did bluegrass lawns in Colorado become the default? Some trace it to the castles of Europe. Half or more of Coloradans live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations. Some have started to curb thirsty bluegrass, but others needed a firm nudge this year from state legislators.

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at and at

Map credit: AGU

#Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes — Allen Best (@BigPivots) #conservation

Meredith Slater, S. Denver. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened as headwaters state struggles to embrace limits of water supply in a warming, likely drying climate 

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the first of a five-part series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

Like weekly haircuts for men, a regularly mowed lawn of Kentucky bluegrass was long a prerequisite for civic respectability in Colorado’s towns and cities. That expectation has begun shifting.

A growing cultural norm blesses a broader range of respectable landscapes, which require not much more water than what occurs naturally across most of Colorado. Denver, for example, averages 15.6 inches annually.

Native grasses, most prominently buffalo and blue grama, need half to one-third as much of the supplemental water a year required to keep Kentucky bluegrass — a species native to Europe — bright green. In metro Denver, for example,  Westminster and Broomfield estimate that these cool-season grasses require 24 to 29 inches of supplemental water annually in addition to the 15 to 16 inches of average precipitation.  Other water-wise landscape choices can also ratchet down water requirements by at least half.

Many homeowners have the additional goal of installing shrubs, flowers and other plants that attract pollinators.

The shift can be traced back to at least 1981, when Denver Water coined the term “xeriscape” to reflect landscaping choices that use less water. The drive to cut excessive water use for landscapes picked up significantly during and after the searing drought of 2002. When that drought ended, many consumers retained their new, more judicious habits of irrigation.

Now, say water providers and others, the pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened. If still far from universal, Coloradans have started developing a new aesthetic around urban landscapes. What is required to be a responsible homeowner and property manager is being redefined. 

With Colorado River water woes still unresolved and depletion of aquifers in the Denver Basin and elsewhere continuing, Big Pivots in collaboration with Aspen Journalism set out to understand water devoted to urban landscapes in Colorado. This is the first of five stories about this giant and probably long-term shift in how we use water in urban landscapes.

Nobody argues that this shift alone will solve Colorado’s water challenges. Water devoted to lawns and other urban landscapes constitutes just 3% to 4% of Colorado’s total water consumption. Nonetheless, that use is being questioned as never before.

Western Slope residents have long objected to dewatering of rivers and streams for lawns along the Front Range. Now, water utilities on both sides of the Continental Divide see more-judicious use of water as being the most cost-effective strategy in serving larger populations in a hotter and possibly drier climate. And many homeowners have decided that by replacing imported varieties of turf with native plants, they can be part of the solution to declining populations of pollinating insects. 

Colorado legislators have passed several laws in recent years to curb standard turf-growing practices. In January, they will be asked to approve a bill that would require local governments and homeowners associations to ban the installation, the planting or the placement of new nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or invasive plant species in commercial, institutional or industrial properties. The bill takes aim at purely aesthetic non-functional turf along roads and in medians.  Residential homes would be exempted from the prohibition.

At Interlochen, a business park in Broomfield, an expanse of grass lies behind a fence at a corporate headquarters. Photo by Allen Best

Nonfunctional turf generally means grass intended to be seen but rarely, if ever, touched by human feet. For example, the Flatirons Mall in Broomfield, a hospital in Fort Collins and a warehouse complex in Aurora have broad swathes of green grass surrounding them. Another example is along the drive-up lane to an ATM at a bank on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Cosmetic or aesthetic turf is universal.

The bill has the backing of both Denver and Aurora. They argue that replacing existing turf, a costly task, is negated if the saved water is then used for new development that hews to the old habits of landscape. Aurora, in particular, has made clear that voluntary approaches have had only marginal success.

Colorado Springs, although equally committed to reducing water use, believes that a harder but better approach will be more effective in the long term. The Colorado Municipal League, representing 270 of the state’s 272 towns and cities, has concerns. At issue is a familiar one in Colorado: state mandate vs. local prerogative.

Voluntary approaches, though, have been impressive. For example, thoughtful design can be found in abundance at Centerra, a commercial and housing complex in Loveland. There’s still bluegrass, but it tends to be minimized.

In Boulder, Resource Central began offering water-conservation services to Front Range communities during the severe drought of 2002. The nonprofit reports a rapid uptick in its lawn replacement and other programs. It now has relationships with 47 water providers who help support the nonprofit’s Garden In A Box and other programs.

“This is the first year that we have seen more than 10,000 people participating in our various water-conservation programs, which tells us that this is rapidly becoming the new norm in Colorado,” said Resource Central CEO Neal Lurie, referring to lower-water landscapes. “What happens is one person makes a change in their yard and their neighbors come over and ask, ‘What are you doing?’”

It is that neighbor-to-neighbor conversation that is driving the urban landscape changes evident to anyone moving about most Colorado towns and cities.

Centerra, a business and residential complex in Loveland, blends traditional and new landscaping in ways that lessen water requirements and heighten visual interest. Photo by Allen Best

Growing awareness of water scarcity also drives these altered sensibilities as well as new government regulations limiting outdoor water use. Declined flows in the Colorado River figure prominently in the thinking of many individuals but also public officials.

Aurora adopted bold restrictions on water use for outdoor landscapes in 2022. No use of Kentucky bluegrass or other so-called cool-weather varieties that use higher volumes of water will be allowed at new golf courses. The same applies to new front yards, although 500 square feet or 45% of backyards, whichever is less, will be permitted. The regulations also take aim at water for road medians and curbside landscapes. Fountains, waterfalls and other ornamental water features will also be banned in new development.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman — whose city has the state’s third-highest population, at 400,000 — cites worries about potential diminishment of water imported from the Colorado River basin as one of several reasons for taking action. “The longer you wait, the more dramatic your decisions have to be,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.” 

At least 38 utilities and other water providers have instituted turf-replacement programs, offering incentives that in some places can reach $3 per square foot of turf removed. That’s almost double the number of jurisdictions of just a few years ago. Like Aurora, many local governments have also adopted limitations on outdoor landscaping. Broomfield adopted regulations in late August.

Doing their small parts

In southeast Denver, Meredith Slater took a break on an August morning to explain why she and her husband, Jake Hyman, earlier this year had replaced the lawn of their brick home with plants native to Colorado and nearby areas. The yellow, red and orange flowers were thick with bees and other pollinators.

“Over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that native bees, birds and insects don’t have a place to call home in much of Denver because of all the grass and nonnatives,” Slater said as her husband used a tiller to rip out  the remaining Kentucky bluegrass on the other half of the front yard. “That was part of the impetus for this.”

Slater works for a global organization called ActionAid. It operates in 40 countries, many of them in Africa and Asia, to assist farmers faced with the challenges of a warming climate. That work has made her particularly attentive to the challenge of protecting adequate water for agriculture. In Denver, she sees water devoted to lush green lawns as wasteful. 

“I’m just trying to do my little part with my front yard,” she said.

Her thought was echoed by dozens of homeowners from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to Durango who were interviewed for this series of stories. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re doing what we can,” said a Denver homeowner.

Colorado gets 83% of its water from rivers, streams and other surface sources, while the other 17% comes from groundwater, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture uses about 90% of Colorado’s water, towns and cities 7%, and industry 3%.

Within urban areas, outdoor irrigation consumes roughly 50% of water. 

Why would cities want to cut outdoor use? Motivations vary.

For most jurisdictions, conserving water through reduced outdoor use represents the cheapest way to serve larger populations. Colorado Springs Utilities, for example, serves a population of 500,000 but has expectations of serving 800,000 at buildout.

Population growth along the Front Range during the past century has been primarily satisfied by transmountain diversions. Half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. In theory, Colorado has undeveloped water in the Colorado River. New transmountain diversions, though, can be very expensive and problematic. Aurora and Colorado Springs, for example, completed their Homestake diversion project in 1967. Since the early 1980s, they have been seeking additional diversions from Homestake Creek, an Eagle River tributary. Conservation has been more easily accomplished.

Easier in most cases than transmountain diversions — but still difficult — has been converting agriculture water to municipal use. That’s true even in the South Platte River Basin. As The New York Times reported in a September story, the Denver suburb of Thornton began acquiring water rights near Fort Collins in 1985. Construction of a 72-mile pipeline to bring that water to Thornton residents and businesses has barely started.

A pipeline almost to Nebraska

Several of Denver’s south-metro-area cities have been unsustainably drafting the Denver Basin aquifers. Parker gets nearly 60% of its water from the aquifers; Castle Rock attributes “most” of its water from the aquifers. 

Parker Water and Sanitation District, working with farmers in the Sterling area, plans to pump water roughly 125 miles across eastern Colorado. It estimates the cost at $800 million. Castle Rock may participate in that project and also has a project called Box Elder that would draw water from 60 miles away in northeastern Colorado.

Lessened demand from landscaping means less need for costly new infrastructure. It also makes water utilities more resilient in the face of drought. Landscapes can sparkle with little water. Actually, they can be even brighter at times. After all, the “perfect” lawn is a monotone, unblemished by yellow dandelions or anything else. 

Still other water providers have been motivated simply by a desire to leave water in streams and rivers. That’s the case in Vail, which is landlocked with no expectations of significant expansion. There, the town has been replacing water-consumptive Kentucky bluegrass in town parks since 2019 with less-thirsty native species. This year’s projects also include removal of grass from an on-ramp to Interstate 70.

Vail’s motivation is simple: to preserve flows in Gore Creek and protect the aquatic environment, said Todd Oppenheimer, the town’s capital projects manager. 

Boulder has a robust portfolio of water rights and self-imposed growth limitations. Unlike neighboring jurisdictions along the Front Range, It has no practical considerations driving landscape changes. But for 20 years, it has been participating in Resource Central’s water-saving programs. This year, the city provided each customer $500 that can be applied toward either turf removal or Garden In A Box programs.

Turf removal reflects community values, said Laurel Olsen, Boulder’s utilities engagement and outreach senior program manager. “We have decided as a community that wise use of our resources is a high priority.”

Turf grown to be seen but rarely, if ever, used, can be found across Colorado, including along roads and parking lots surrounding a shopping complex in Broomfield. Photo/Allen Best

In theory, this should result in Boulder’s leaving more water in creeks. The city, however, does not have a tabulation of that.

Colorado’s state government has also been delivering nudges. State legislators in 2022 directed the state’s leading water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a statewide program that would use financial incentives to encourage the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping. That law allocated $2 million for the programs. Through early September, funding had been awarded to 25 jurisdictions with 13 others considered “eligible.” A deadline to apply for a second round of grants was in late August.

In February, Gov. Jared Polis appointed 21 members to a new Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. He asked them to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water-conservation through state policy and local initiatives. Members must report their findings in January.

Several of the major water providers in the Colorado River basin have also agreed to reduce water for urban landscapes.

In August 2022, water providers from Denver, Aurora and Pueblo, along with those from Los Angeles and other southwestern cities, announced a memorandum of understanding. The MOU commits participating water utilities to “reduce the quantity of nonfunctional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife and the environment.”

The MOU does not specify water savings, only the reduction in turf. 

Shifting attitudes 

Driven, at least in part, by the Colorado River troubles, public perceptions have been shifting rapidly. 

Denver Water has conducted surveys since 2016 that ask respondents how scarce they think water is now, and how scarce they think it will be in 10 years. Survey results show a sharp uptick in concern.

“Two-thirds of people think water is scarce now, and 90% of people think water is going to become more scarce in the future,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water. 

Fisher sees a link to the “innumerable Colorado River stories” that have been published and broadcast in recent years. “We’re attaching that to climate change. And I think from what I read, it’s a lot of people asking, ‘What can I do? I now understand there’s this problem in the Colorado River. What can I do to help that?’ And I think we’re starting to show them a way that they can help.”

Denver Water in 1981 coined the term “xeriscape,” combining the Greek prefix “xero,” which means dry, with landscape. Water conservation advocates now rarely use it. They say too many people take it to mean zero-landscape, and for many, that means rocks and cactus. Yards of gravel are anathema to landscape architects. Not only are gravel yards boring, but they contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas.

Colorado Springs-based landscape architect Carla Anderson said she constantly stresses the alternatives to turf grasses imported from other parts of the world to Colorado’s semi-arid climate.

“I have been advocating for years – not saying that grass is bad but to put it in places that make sense. A little bit of turf can go an awful long way in creating a feeling of an oasis,” she said. “The good thing is we’re getting some wonderful options to bluegrass.”

Gravel spread across lawns, such as this one in Denver, may seem like an easy replacement for turf, but landscape architects roll their eyes, as do others. Also, gravel yards contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas. Photo by Allen Best

In her work, she sees a generational shift. Older people, generally 70-plus, tend to insist on bluegrass lawns because they see it as a status symbol. “If you have this big, sweeping front lawn, you have made it,” she said.

Younger generations, even including those in their 60s, have a broader perspective. They are less likely to assign status to a lawn. 

But conversions to water-wise landscapes do take time and energy. “That is a stumbling block for a lot of lower-income people,” said Anderson.

Riding on a bus in Colorado Springs, her attention was directed toward a weedy front yard. “What would you call that?” she was asked. “An unkempt yard.”

Colorado Springs officials estimate that 30% of homes in the city are unkempt. The challenge they see is to ease the conversion to low-water yards. They hope to help foster native grasses, which use little water and, once installed, demand less maintenance.

The process of changing attitudes will take time, said Anderson. “It won’t happen overnight. We have this long affair with the bluegrass lawn in all corners of our country, and so the process of changing people’s perception of what is right and looks good, what is aesthetically pleasing, is a significant process. It is just going to take time. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time. We need to crack down and save water in a hurry.” 

A new word

As the word “xeriscape” falls out of favor, it is being replaced with new words: water-wise, water-efficient and Coloradoscape.

“There is no agreement yet” on which should be the commonly accepted phrase, said Lindsay Rogers of Western Resource Advocates, a group that has devoted substantial resources to the shift.

“We want climate-appropriate landscapes in Colorado that are verdant and beautiful and use native plants but also use less water than Kentucky bluegrass,” she said.

Westminster is unusual among Front Range cities in its small reliance on the Colorado River. The city’s water utility located midway between Denver and Boulder serves 135,000 people. Most of the water comes from Clear Creek. And it has no expectations of rapid growth, unlike Aurora, which envisions a near doubling of population in the next 50 years. 

More than 80% of Westminster residents live in single-family homes and have above-average affluence. Converting lawns into water-efficient landscapes, which saves both time and money in the long term, has high up-front costs that rebates by utilities only partially cover.

From his perspective as Westminster’s senior water resource analyst, Drew Beckwith sees a broad social transformation beginning.

“We are in the midst of seeing this social change in how people view a green lawn along the Front Range of Colorado,” he said. 

Beckwith perceives a challenge to prevailing notions. Bright-green lawns require not only regular irrigation in most years, but frequent fertilization. They must be mowed regularly, at least to conform to cultural expectations.

“My customers are saying, ’I don’t want to do that anymore,’ and I don’t think it’s only because of the cost of water,” Beckwith said. “I think there is a new social idea, that a green-grass lawn is not a very responsible thing to do in a water-short and dry area like Colorado.”

Westminster, like dozens of other municipalities along the Front Range, has been paying homeowners to replace thirsty turf. The city shares the costs of landscape transformation with homeowners by providing a rebate on physical turf removal, providing new plants to take its place, or a mix of the two. From 11,000 square feet, when the program began in 2020, the program expanded last year to 107,000 square feet in 191 separate projects. On average, customers paid $560 for each project, and the city paid $650. 

“We have taken out 4 acres of turf grass in residential properties in Westminster over the last three years,” Beckwith said. That’s enough water for 20 single-family homes.

In these numbers, Beckwith sees just the earliest stage of a transformation.

“You will have the bleeding edge of folks who pick it up because they are super trend-setters. They were doing this over a decade ago,” he said. “I think we are past the bleeding edge, and we are now into the early adopters. These are normal people who are saying, ’Yeah, this is probably something we should do.’”

Beckwith expects to see, during the next three to five years, many more of the early adopters wanting to replace their turf.

”And then we are going to be in the meat of that general population that is going to start changing their landscapes,” he said. “Beyond will be some people who will never want to change. And that’s OK.”

Nothing to the contrary

By Beckwith’s classification, Don and Jill Brown would be classified as being on the bleeding edge. They live in a red-brick house in Colorado Springs with a large lot. He’s a counselor, of marriages among other things, and she is an author.

In 2017, they decided to do something with a weedy 30-foot-by-80-foot section of their large lot. But instead of Kentucky bluegrass, said Don Brown, they wanted vegetation more natural to Colorado. They chose blue grama.

After planting buffalo grass in their yard in Colorado Springs, Don and Jill Brown rarely need to mow it and give it little water. Once established, it outcompetes weeds. Photo by Allen Best

The grass can go brown in a drought but does not die. “In a dry year, we might water it once or twice. This year, not at all,” he said.

It grows to be about knee-high, but that’s it. Once established, it leaves no room for weeds. He rarely mows.

“We really love it,” he said. “We like the look of it. We like the low maintenance. And we especially like the sense of being responsible stewards of this property.”

A native grass, blue grama evolved in the context of Colorado’s arid environment, the nation’s seventh driest, with an average 18.1 inches of precipitation annually. Colorado Springs gets a little less: 15 to 16 inches.

“In this fairly arid state, we learned that if you use native plants, you will do a lot better,” Don Brown said.

As for the aesthetics, it hasn’t provoked any contrary comments from passersby. “It looks like a meadow,” he said.

Next in the series:  The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and Grand Junction, too, want to crimp thirsty turf? 

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at and at

Backer of #SanLuisValley water plan, state water buff chosen for board on Douglas County’s water future — The Douglas County News-Press #RioGrande

Rueter-Hess Dam before first fill. Photo credit: Parker Water & Sanitation

Click the link to read the article on the Douglas County News-Press website (Ellis Arnold). Here’s an excerpt:

Months of discussion on who will help decide the future of water supply in Douglas County have come to an end now that county leaders have chosen 11 members of a new volunteer board…The forming of the new volunteer board — the Douglas County Water Commission — comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state…Last year, county leaders Abe Laydon and Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while elected leader George Teal has continued to support it. [Sean] Tonner, one of the principals of Renewable Water Resources, attracted news media attention for throwing his hat in the ring to serve on the water commission…The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county…The main members of the water commission, named on Nov. 6, include the following.

Representing District I, or northeast Douglas County:

• James Eklund, who had worked on the state’s water plan, according to county staff.(Removing the requirement for being a landowner or a resident of Douglas County allowed for choosing Eklund, who told county leaders he is “in the city and county of Denver.”)

• Jack Hilbert, formerly one of Douglas County’s elected leaders.

• Donald Langley, who serves on the Parker Water board.

Representing District II, including central and south Douglas County:

• Clark Hammelman, a former Castle Rock town councilmember.

• James Maras, a Perry Park Water and Sanitation District board member.

• Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilmember.

Representing District III, or northwest Douglas County:

• Frank Johns, who said he has worked on various water plans for communities over the years. Johns serves on the board of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.

• Evan Ela, a longtime water attorney.

• Harold Smethills, a member of the Dominion Water and Sanitation District board and a developer of the Sterling Ranch area in northwest Douglas County.

Appointees “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole, include Tonner and Tricia Bernhardt, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Denver, according to a LinkedIn page.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel diversions end for this season #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Official opening of the Gunnison Tunnel by President Taft at the west portal

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 850 cfs to 350 cfs on Tuesday, November 14th.  Releases are being decreased in response to the end of irrigation diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel.  The Gunnison Tunnel will be shut down on November 14th. 

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future. 

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be 1050 cfs for November and December. 

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 320 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 0 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 320 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

#Colorado sends too much #RioGrande water downstream — @AlamosaCitizen

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From email from the Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):

Colorado figures it over-delivered on the Rio Grande Compact this year by 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet and as such extended the irrigation season for some Valley farmers to Nov. 8. The over delivery on Rio Grande Compact water is another reason why the Rio Grande has so little flow this fall and likely won’t pick up without some natural moisture. “It’s probably not going to happen for any time soon because we are actually over-delivered on our compact obligations,” said Craig Cotten, division engineer in the San Luis Valley for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We will have delivered a little bit too much to downstream states.” Cotten made the comments during a taping last week of The Outdoor Citizen podcast hosted by Marty Jones. You can hear his full remarks on the over delivery of Rio Grande Compact water in this episode of The Outdoor Citizen.

San Diego Selling Back Some Pricey #ColoradoRiver Water for Cheaper Met Water — #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the website (MacKenzie Elmer):

A trade deal is brewing between major southern California water agencies to help restock a major reservoir on the drought-stricken Colorado River and meet federal demands to cut back use.  

San Diego, Los Angeles and Imperial Valley are the major players trying something that’s never been done before using a water trading agreement inked 20 years ago as a guiding light. Under the proposal, San Diego is going to give up some of its Colorado River water it fought so hard to secure so more can be saved in the larger river system. But instead, it would lean on supplies from northern California, a source that was virtually unavailable to the region due to drought just last year. 

Here’s how it would play out: San Diego would forgo buying a portion of its Colorado River water supplies from Imperial Valley. The federal government would pay Imperial Valley not to take that water out of the river at all, then Imperial Valley would reimburse San Diego. Then San Diego would instead buy that same amount of water from California’s other (and cheaper) supply source – the Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack – via the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  

The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California or Met, based in Los Angeles, will be the first to consider the deal at its Nov. 13 meeting. The savings San Diego generates from switching supplies – potentially tens of millions of dollars — could help smooth future water rates in San Diego, said the San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Dan Denham. 

“This is bringing more flexibility to water management in southern California,” Denham said. “If we’re able to pull this off then it speaks volumes for these water agencies and the federal government and show we’re able to work together.”  

This is part of a larger plan to help the Imperial Irrigation District or IID – the Colorado River’s single largest user and from which San Diego buys much of its Colorado River water – meet its promise to the feds to cut its use by 115,000 acre feet this year – about four percent of its supply. (That’s enough to quench 230,000 California households’ indoor and outdoor water use in one year.)  

The feds are paying IID to reduce its water use by that much. The price hasn’t been made public yet, but IID customers already pay some of the cheapest rates for Colorado River water around: about $20 an acre foot. San Diego buys its water from IID at a premium, about $710 an acre foot. It’s likely that the final reimbursement price from the feds will fall on the more expensive side of that range.  

What’s interesting about this deal is San Diego and Met have historically been at each other’s throats over prices of imported water. So much so that the two are still involved in a lawsuit over how much San Diego should pay Met to get Colorado River water down south. It’s partly why San Diego cut a deal 20 years ago to buy most of its water from Imperial Valley instead.  

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

But now, San Diego is turning back to Met for about 15 percent of its supply.  

“We’re taking advantage of the wet year and putting water in Lake Mead to benefit the whole (Colorado River) system,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager at Met. The State Water Project refers to water from the Sierra Nevada mountains.  

West Drought Monitor map November 7, 2023.

Even though it’s been a wet year, especially for California which drew most of the state out of drought, large swaths of the Colorado River basin are still dangerously dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The feds have told the seven U.S. states using the river they’ll need to figure out a way to use much less as climate change intensifies drought in the West. But last winter’s record-breaking rain and snow delivered a window for southern California water suppliers to spread that wealth of water around – for now. 

There’s so much water flowing from that mountain range’s melted snowpack, Met is able to use that source instead of the Colorado River for much of its customer day – about 19 million people. Because Met has two water sources, the Colorado River and the California mountains, it can lean on its California supply when water is plentiful and then, like a savings account, store water in the river’s largest reservoir (Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam) to use on a less-rainy day.  

Met has so much water it plans on maxing-out its savings account by banking 450,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead, Hagekhalil said. And it will make a little extra money by selling more water to San Diego.  

“What you end up with is a win-win for everybody,” Hagekhalil said.  

The proposed deal would be temporary or in place just for 2023, according to a Met board document.  

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

Archuleta County considers taking over #waterquality plan reviews — The #PagosaSprings Sun

Septic system

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) heard a proposal from Planning Manager Owen O’Dell and Water Quality Manager Kevin Torrez for the county Water Quality Department to take over plan reviews from San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) at its Oct. 24 work session…[Kevin Torrez] explained that the Water Quality Department would oversee licensing of local septic system installers…Development Director Pamela Flowers stated that the cost for licensing would be approximately $50, which would cover administering a test created by the state and providing a certification document. [Torrez] highlighted that the Archuleta County Board of Health would ap- prove OWTS variances and that OWTS inspections would also occur upon transfer of title for a property with an OWTS…

Torrez briefly covered inspection and maintenance of high-level treatment systems before moving on to discussing lagoons, noting that lagoons are allowed if they were permitted before 1967. He indicated that there is an after- the-fact permitting system for unpermitted lagoons, but new lagoons are not allowed…Torrez explained that the Water Quality Department would inspect these lagoons and determine if they are functional and can receive a permit or if they need to be abandoned…

In response to a request for legal advice from [Verionica] Medina, [Todd] Weaver stated that this would be possible, noting that the laws governing the dissolution of health districts are limited. He added that he did not foresee a legal challenge to this change.

Weighing options for protecting the #CrystalRiver: Some say Wild & Scenic still the ‘gold standard’ — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver

An image of the Crystal River Valley from an EcoFlight mission in August 2022. The view is downvalley, toward Mount Sopris. A group is exploring a federal designation of wild and scenic for the Crystal River in Gunnison and Pitkin counties. Courtesy of Ecoflight

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

In Colorado, there are several ways to protect rivers, which vary depending on the goals. 

To maintain water quality, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offers an Outstanding Waters designation. If boosting the flows for boating is the goal, municipalities can get a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) water right. And to protect the environment, the state water board acquires instream-flow water rights, designed to maintain minimum flows. 

But if the goal is preventing dams and transbasin diversions, and guaranteeing a free-flowing river, experts say a federal Wild & Scenic designation is the gold standard. That was the message from some presenters at a community summit on the Crystal River on Thursday at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. 

“It’s the strongest, most robust form of river protection,” said Jennifer Back, a retired employee of the National Park Service and former member of the Interagency Wild & Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council. “If you like what’s out there right now, Wild & Scenic River designation does a really good job of protecting what’s there.”

Back was one of eight presenters at Thursday’s [October 26, 2023] open house, organized by a steering committee that is exploring the feasibility of Wild & Scenic designation and other management and protection alternatives. The committee is chaired by representatives from the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

The meeting, which drew about 130 people, was the second community summit of a public stakeholder process aimed at evaluating local interest in pursuing protections for the Crystal River, which flows about 40 miles from its headwaters, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and through the towns of Marble, Redstone and Carbondale before its confluence with the Roaring Fork River. 

Some residents of the Crystal Valley, along with Pitkin County, have long been proponents of a Wild & Scenic designation. But others, wary of any federal involvement, have balked at the idea. 

Manette Anderson, one of just a handful of residents of Crystal, a tiny historic hamlet named for the river, is a member of the steering committee. She said she’s still learning and that it’s too early in the process for her to yet be in favor of, or dismiss, any of the options. 

“Going into all this, I thought Wild & Scenic would probably not be an option I would be interested in, generally speaking, because of anecdotal concerns that other people in other areas of the country have had with Wild & Scenic experiences,” she said. “But I’m open to learning about it.”

The U.S. Forest Service determined in the 1980s that portions of the Crystal River were eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve in a free-flowing condition, rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values.

There are three categories under a designation: wild, which describes sections inaccessible except by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, which describes shorelines largely undeveloped but accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which describe places readily accessible by road or railroad and that have development along the shoreline.

The initial Forest Service proposal for the Crystal included all three designations: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters; scenic in the middle stretches; and recreational from Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.

Any designation would take place upstream from the big agricultural diversions on the lower portion of the river near Carbondale. 

According to Back, the management framework for a Wild & Scenic River can be as unique as the river itself, and involve cooperative agreements between federal, state and local agencies. The “teeth” of the designation, she said, comes from an outright prohibition on federal funding or licensing of any new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-permitted dam. A designation would also require review of federally assisted water resource projects.

“What we mean by that is a project that basically is in the waterway below the ordinary high-water mark,” she said. “It could be a bridge; it could be a road; it could be power lines. It’s not an outright prohibition, but they do have to be reviewed before the project goes forward.”

Back said there are 228 rivers in the country with a Wild & Scenic designation. Many of them are in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. But with water managers historically unwilling to tie up potential future water development, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache la Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. 

Jennifer Back, a retired National Park Service employee and former member of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council talks with Crystal River valley resident Larry Darien at Thursday’s community summit on the Crystal River. Darien, who is on the steering committee exploring management options, has said he is in favor of protecting the Crystal but not in the form of a federal Wild & Scenic designation.

Protection options

In addition to Outstanding Waters, instream-flow water rights and RICDs, other potential river protections detailed at Thursday’s meeting include creating a National Conservation Area or Special Management Area (environmentalists are pursuing this on the Dolores River after determining that Wild & Scenic isn’t politically feasible there); 1041 regulations, which allow counties to maintain control over certain development; and local options such as riparian restoration projects and leasing agreements where water users can loan some of their water for the benefit of the environment. 

Another option would be to create a management plan that doesn’t carry the same restrictions as Wild & Scenic but is still aimed at protecting ORVs, much like a stakeholder group on the upper Colorado River completed in 2020. This alternative management plan took more than 12 years to come to fruition, and participation of the stakeholders is voluntary. 

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas-Kury, a member of the steering committee, said she continues to think that a Wild & Scenic designation is the best option for river protection that meets the criteria laid out by the stakeholder process: prevention of dams and out-of-basin diversions; sustainable recreation and tourism; support of local agriculture, water rights and property rights; limiting future development; and maintaining a healthy river corridor. 

After Thursday’s presentations, attendees were asked to fill out a survey that ranked how well each option met these criteria.

A Wild & Scenic designation would not preclude any of the other protection options; multiple approaches could take place at the same time.

“Wild & Scenic would never get in the way of (Outstanding Waters), but Outstanding Waters is not going to give us what a Wild & Scenic River designation might,” McNicholas-Kury said. 

According to McNicholas-Kury, the steering committee is striving for consensus among its members before it makes a recommendation to the public about a path forward for Crystal River protections. But if consensus cannot be reached, they can go to a super-majority vote that would require agreement of at least 75% of committee members.

“Folks have really come in with a desire to learn and a desire to keep an open mind,” she said. “I think there is a ton of consensus around wanting to protect the river, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.”

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

#ColoradoRiver #Drought Task Force to deliver recommendations December 15, 2023 — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification

State Capitol May 12, 2018 via Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

The chair of a special task force set up in Colorado to help protect in-state interests on the Colorado River told lawmakers Tuesday that it would deliver its final report to them Dec. 15.

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force when they approved Senate Bill 23-295 last spring. It includes representatives of environmental and agricultural groups, urban and rural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. It is charged with developing policy recommendations and new tools to help save water, and ensuring neither water users nor the environment are adversely affected by any new Colorado River programs and agreements.

The 17-member task force has drawn fire from some, who worry that its public discussions of in-state Colorado River water issues could weaken Colorado’s position as it negotiates with the other states in the basin on how to rescue the drought-strapped river system.

“Last year we put a lot of money into our Colorado River negotiating team,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Arapahoe County. “And what I have heard from them is that this work is not necessarily helpful. I hope you are taking this into account.”

Bridges’ comments came at a meeting of the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Oct. 31 in Denver. Bridges is a member of the committee.

Task force chair Kathy Chandler-Henry said the group was aware of those concerns but did not share them. “As a task force, we have talked about how we can best support our negotiators … Our plan is to do no harm, protect Colorado, and tell the Lower Basin to clean up its act,” she said. Chandler-Henry is also an Eagle County Commissioner and president of the board for the Colorado River District, which protects local water interests within the 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope within its boundaries.

The broader Colorado River system includes seven states, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin. Chandler-Henry was referring to years of overuse in the Lower Basin, which most experts believe contributed to the current crisis on the river.

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

The Colorado River system has its headwaters within Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As it flows west, Colorado’s massive mountain snowpack generates roughly two-thirds of the water that eventually serves cities from Denver to Los Angeles and millions of acres of productive farmland from Colorado to California.

But a 22-plus-year drought, widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years, as well as a sharp decline in flows due to climate change nearly drained the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, last year. The crisis prompted the federal government to order the states to dramatically cut back their water use.

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government have begun on how to stabilize the river. Suggestions include reducing water use in the Lower Basin, finding new ways to grow food using less water, and improving water delivery systems so that less water is lost to leakage and evaporation.

Interest remains high within Colorado on how to protect water users’ interests in the river here at home as well as how to protect its ecology as climate change continues to sap its flows.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, current chair of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee, who was also a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill that created the drought task force, said he believed the group’s report would prove useful and that it would be important to be prepared for what may lie ahead on the river.

“We are having conversations now so that tools are in place when we need them,” Roberts said.

Task force staffer Kelsea Macllroy said the group will have its draft report ready for public review Dec. 1 through Dec. 7 and that public comments could be submitted during that time via its website. Once the final report is completed, lawmakers will evaluate the recommendations and determine how to proceed prior to the start of the 2024 General Assembly Jan. 9.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

More by Jerd Smith

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

Map credit: AGU

Colorado River crisis averted? — Jonathan P. Thompson (@Land_Desk) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead’s stark bathtub ring. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

Maybe by now you’ve heard that the collective users of the Colorado River have come together in harmony and agreed to cut water consumption significantly to avoid further depletion of Lakes Powell and Mead. Well it’s true! And the feds even seem ready to sign onto the plan. Maybe you’ve also heard this means the crisis is over and we can all relax and go home now. 

I don’t think so. 

A refresher: The 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was added later). They assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet ran down the river each year, when in fact it was more like 14 million acre-feet. This discrepancy became clear over the last two decades as the water users’ giant savings accounts — Lakes Mead and Powell — were depleted to critically low levels.

The “Natural Flow” is an estimate of how much water would flow past Lees Ferry if there were no diversions or dams upstream. Basically it’s the amount of water available for all of the river’s consumers. Source: USBR

That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. After a lot of wrangling, the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) finally relented and proposed 3 million acre-feet of cuts. Perfect, right?

Wrong. Their cuts would be spread out over three years, meaning their reductions only amounted to 1 million acre-feet per year, which is far less than needed. The deal seemed to many of us like a non-starter — or at least like very faulty math

But it so happens that the proposal came on the heels of an extraordinarily wet winter in the Colorado River Basin, giving a bit of a boost not only to the reservoirs, but also to forecasters’ optimism regarding river flows over the next few years. Also, water users have responded to mandated cuts and done some voluntary cuts of their own, and the wet year meant they had to irrigate less, bringing Lower Basin water consumption to its lowest point in decades.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

All of that was enough to prompt the feds to include the proposed Lower Basin cuts in an updated environmental impact statement and to make it the preferred alternative. They seem to think it will be enough to fend off the crisis, for now. And maybe it will be. But here are some numbers to consider:

  • Lake Powell currently holds about 8.7 million acre-feet of water, which is higher than the last two years, but 2.2 million AF less than on this date in 2020.
  • Lake Mead currently holds about 8.8 million acre-feet, which is less even than in 2021.
  • Lake Powell, alone, lost 136,550 acre-feet — or about 44.5 billion gallons — to evaporation between July 1 and Nov. 1 of this year.
  • The combined storage of Lake Meads and Powell is currently at about 17.5 million acre feet, which is less than a third of the total capacity. In other words, the reservoirs are still two-thirds empty — even after the big winter.

Crisis averted? Probably, at least for now. And with an El Niño pattern likely in coming months, we might get another big winter. Still, it seems somewhat imprudent to relax efforts to cut consumption — and to discount more drastic plans for dealing with the diminishing Colorado River.

Click here to read “Breaking down the’breakthrough’ Colorado River deal” from Jonathan written last May.

Biden-Harris Administration Announces Nearly $64 Million for New Water #Conservation Agreements to Protect the #ColoradoRiver System #COriver #aridification

Graphic by Chas Chamberlin, Source: Western Resource Advocates

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Biden-Harris administration today announced $63.4 million in new investments as part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda for water conservation, water efficiency, and protection of critical environmental resources in the Colorado River System. The investments, which will improve and protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future, are administered through the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program and funded by the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in history.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton joined federal, Tribal and state leaders in Phoenix today to announce the execution of seven new system conservation agreements in Arizona, which will conserve up to 162,710-acre feet of water in Lake Mead through 2026. The conservation agreements will help finance voluntary system conservation to protect Colorado River reservoir storage volumes amid persistent drought conditions driven by climate change.

The new conservation agreements build on the Biden-Harris Administration’s announcement of a historic consensus-based proposal to conserve at least 3 million-acre feet of Colorado River System water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.

“Thanks to President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program is helping address, improve and protect the long-term stability of the Colorado River System,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Biden-Harris administration is using every tool and resource at our disposal to continue our sustained, collaborative progress in increasing water conservation across the West.”

“Addressing the drought crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck moment, and close collaboration among federal, state, Tribal and local communities. We are excited to see so many Arizona entities committing to system conservation and partnership,” said Commissioner Touton. “Together, we can come together to find solutions to meet the challenges of these unprecedented drought conditions.”

New Conservation Agreements

The System Conservation Implementation Agreements announced today will commit water entities in Arizona to conserving water in the Colorado River System. Water entities entering into these agreements include:

Historic Funding from Investing in America Agenda

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is integral to these efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Because of this funding, conservation efforts have already benefited the system this year. 

The seven new agreements announced today join eleven previously announced contracts in Arizona. In total, the 18 agreements executed in Arizona will commit water entities across the state to conserve up to 348,680-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 984,429-acre feet through 2026. Reclamation is working with its partners to finalize additional agreements. These agreements are part of the 3 million acre-feet of system conservation commitments made by the Lower Basin states, 2.3 million acre-feet of which will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests a total of $4.6 billion to address the historic drought across the West. 

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is also investing another $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. 

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once funded projects are complete: 

Disaster averted on #ColoradoRiver — for now — thanks to wet winter and states’ plan to conserve water, feds say — The #Denver Post

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…

The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.

Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Finding Solutions for Land Use Issues Facing Agriculture — #Colorado Water Trust

Three generations looking out over their farm. Photo credit: Colorado Water Trust

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Water Trust website (Marsha Daughenbaugh):

Heroes are sometimes hard to find. However, in the world of protecting Colorado’s environment, culture and water resources, Colorado Water Trust is a hero.

I have served on the Board of Directors with Colorado Water Trust (CWT) for five years and am continually amazed with the projects, work ethics and involvement of the staff and fellow board members. The positive, “can-do” attitude is proving to be a model of what can be done to protect and improve our state’s river flows.

I became aware of Colorado Water Trust before joining the Board because of their efforts to maintain sustainable water levels in the Yampa River. As a non-legal, non-engineering individual in the water world, it was amazing to me that a non-profit had the interest and resources to purchase water for a struggling river system. My first thought was “they really care about agriculture” because this extra water meant ranchers along the Yampa River would be able to irrigate hay fields and pastures that were threatened with severe drought conditions. A search of CWT’s website opened my eyes to their mission, and I became intrigued with other projects.

Years later, through a strange set of events, I was asked to become part of their Board. They were looking to expand their representation throughout the state with people involved in day-to-day agricultural water and land use. I became a candidate, was accepted, and was thrilled with the opportunity to become involved.

CWT is striving to find solutions for many of the land use challenges facing agriculture: water equity, adequate water quantity, protection of natural resources, retention of properties for future generations, and respect for people who provide food and fiber to our country and world. 

Much has been accomplished and there are many successful CWT stories. We have projects in process and potential proposals are being researched. There is much to do—and Colorado Water Trust is a positive leader in the efforts.

Hero is defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. CWT is an organization  that embodies that definition, and I am proud to serve on the Board.

Marsha Daughenbaugh
Board Member, Colorado Water Trust
Rancher, Steamboat Springs

Short-term outlook for #LakePowell, #LakeMead improves — The #Aspen Daily News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The federal government may reduce releases from Glen Canyon Dam (pictured above) in 2023 by an unprecedented 2-3 million acre-feet, a move that would trigger severe cuts in the Lower Basin. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Aspen Daily News website (Austin Corona). Here’s an excerpt:

A wet winter and strong runoff season have drastically reduced the possibility that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to “critical elevations” in the next three years, according to a newly updated draft statement released by the federal government on Wednesday [October 25, 2023].  Citing updated hydrological data, the updated draft statement indicates the short-term outlook for the two drought-stricken reservoirs is not as dire as previously thought…

Estimates in the new draft statement, released by the Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency overseeing dams at the reservoirs — show a 49 and 48 percentage point decrease in the likelihood that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to critical elevations by 2027. This assumes the bureau and states take no additional action to alter existing reservoir operation guidelines. The decrease is in comparison with estimates from a previous statement released in April. According to the new draft statement, these likelihoods have dropped to only eight and four percent in Powell and Mead, respectively. A Wednesday press release defined “critical elevations” as low water levels that would threaten hydropower production and water releases through the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. 

Wednesday’s draft statement attributes the reservoir’s brighter short-term outlook to a wet 2022/23 winter and a strong runoff season in the upper Colorado River basin. The newly revised draft statement used hydrological data from June, 2023, for its modeling, whereas the original document used hydrological data from September, 2022. 

The newly revised draft statement, titled the “Near-term Colorado River Operations: Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” is the second version of a draft document released in April, which is meant to weigh the impacts of potential adjustments to dam operation guidelines at lakes Powell and Mead through 2026. According to Wednesday’s draft statement, the bureau is considering adjustments to dam operation guidelines because of “extraordinary circumstances” created by dropping water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. In 2022, declining water levels had reached all-time lows in both reservoirs. The bureau has expressed concern that existing dam operation guidelines created in 2007, along with existing drought contingency plans, would not be enough to sustain the reservoirs in the face of extended drought. According to a Wednesday press release, the statement is part of an ongoing effort to “address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis” and “protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026.”

Navajo Dam operations update October 31, 2023: Bumping releases down to 400 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map credit: USBR

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to reduced irrigation demand and sufficient forecast flows in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 450 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for tomorrow, October 31st, at 8:00 AM.  

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).  The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area.  The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. 

West Slope water interests make a $98.5M play for a major #ColoradoRiver water right — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, near Grand Junction, Colorado, on April 26, 2019. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Negotiations are underway in Colorado to purchase one of the oldest, largest water rights on the Colorado River within state lines, expanding that water’s legal use to include environmental benefits, and creating one of the most significant opportunities in the state to protect streamflows for fish, habitat and wildlife.

Led by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the proposed $98.5 million deal would allow a coalition of West Slope entities to purchase from Xcel Energy the most senior water right on that segment of the river and lease it back to Xcel’s Shoshone Hydropower Plant eight miles east of Glenwood Springs.

“It feels like the biggest investment we could make for water security for this side of the mountain,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, chair of the river district board and an Eagle County Commissioner. She was referring to the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.

“I know it’s a big price tag, but in the future it will feel like a bargain,” she said.

That’s true in part because the volume of water is so large. According to Colorado River District documents, the water right generates anywhere from 41,000 to 86,000 acre-feet of water in a dry year. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons. For comparison, Cheesman Reservoir, a Denver Water reservoir 50 miles southwest of the metro area, holds 79,000 acre-feet.

Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism

West Slope water interests have been trying for decades to find a way to purchase or at least control the Shoshone plant water right because it provides an important buffer for the river itself and for West Slope water users, Chandler-Henry said. If another electric company or water utility won control of the water right, West Slope interests worried that the water would not be managed in their interests.

Willing partner?

But Xcel has never agreed to a sale of the water right and as recently as 2018 has said it wasn’t interested in changing the status quo.

Xcel declined to comment on this proposed purchase, but Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said a draft agreement with the utility is in place and that Xcel is ready to support the change, in part to help protect the crisis-ridden Colorado River system.

“Xcel has shown a renewed interest in the health and viability of the Colorado River,” Mueller said via email.

In Colorado, water rights are tied to a particular stream segment and are regulated, or administered, based on the date they were first legally established. The Shoshone water right has a 1902 date.

Under the terms of the current proposal from the River District and its West Slope partners, which include 17 local governments and water entities, Xcel would continue to use the water to drive the turbines in the hydropower plant. When the plant isn’t operating, if it’s temporarily shut down for repairs for instance, the water would remain in the river, protected from upstream diverters by its 1902 water right.

Denver Water is one of those upstream diverters and, in years past, when the power plant wasn’t operating, has been able to use water it would otherwise need to leave in the river to flow downstream to fulfill the plant’s more senior water right. Whether the utility will back the purchase isn’t clear. Denver Water declined to comment, saying it was waiting to learn more about the proposal.

In or out of the stream?

In the water arena, a water right can have one of several designated rights to use, including agricultural, industrial, municipal and, just since the 1970s, instream or environmental.

Water rights are also classified based on whether they take water out of the stream for the intended use, termed a consumptive use, or whether they protect water from diversion so it can continue flowing in the stream for a prescribed benefit, which is referred to as a nonconsumptive use. Most uses fall in the consumptive use category. But the Shoshone water right, because the water returns to the stream once it passes through the hydropower plant, is nonconsumptive, as are environmental and recreational flow water rights, which keep water in the stream for the benefit of fish, wildlife, habitat and recreation.

“The whole state benefits from having a good, strong environment. And because this is the most senior nonconsumptive water right on the Colorado River, its ecological and environmental benefits are huge, especially with drought and climate change,” Chandler-Henry said.

The river district has agreed to contribute $20 million to the $98.5 million purchase, and is asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for an additional $20 million grant. Another $10 million would be contributed by 17 governments and water agencies. The river district is seeking another $48 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has $4 billion set aside for drought resiliency in the Colorado River Basin, according to the grant proposal submitted to the CWCB.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, speaking at the district’s annual seminar on the Colorado RIver, on Sept. 14, 2018 in Grand Junction. Muller expressed concerns about how the state of Colorado might deal with falling water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The negotiations are likely to take months, Mueller said, and will require approvals from the CWCB and potentially state legislators, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation and eventually a state water court, which will have to approve the expansion of legal uses from industrial to both industrial and environmental.

Another benefit of the Shoshone Water right is that its bountiful flows help support the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative that works to protect four endangered fish species on the river. Water utilities are obligated to help support the program as well and can face harsh penalties if there isn’t enough water in the stream to support the fish.

“Importantly, upstream and downstream water users all benefit from Shoshone’s contributions to the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program,” Mueller said.

A unifying effect

Environmental groups such as American Rivers see the proposed purchase as a major opportunity to help stabilize the Colorado River within state lines and across its seven-state basin.

Matt Rice is southwest regional director for American Rivers. “I see this as a real opportunity to do a really big transformative thing for the river and the state, and an opportunity to unify the state around the river. A big thing like this has a way of bringing people together,” he said.

Chuck Ogilby is a long-time river advocate and former member of the Colorado (River) Basin Roundtable, a public group that represents local water users reliant on the Colorado River mainstem within Colorado and that helps decide how state funding is spent within the basin.

“It’s the best news the Western Slope could ever have,” Ogilby said. “All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope the West Slope gets those water rights.”

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

Eagle River Watershed Council: Drought Resiliency Task Force offers hope for #Colorado — James Dilzell in the #Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Recreational vehicle: Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the guest column on the Vail Daily website (James Dilzell). Here’s an excerpt:

What are we to do in those years when we’re up against poor snowpack, warmer summers and a lack of a monsoon season? Our fisheries will still need water. Our recreation-based economy relies on the river for both its whitewater and rafting season and its role in snowmaking at resorts. Ranchers will still need to irrigate. Locals, visitors and wildlife across Colorado will need to access clean drinking water. How can we better protect our community’s values when it comes to our rivers? Enter the Colorado River Drought Task Force. Senate Bill 23-295, which passed this spring, created a task force of diverse stakeholders — including representatives of agriculture, recreation, conservation, natural resources, the environment, municipal water providers, state and local agencies, and Colorado’s Indigenous Peoples. The group of 17 stakeholders is tasked with providing recommendations for programs to assist Colorado in addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin and the state’s interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries…

Ultimately, the goal is to come up with creative and proactive policies and programs that can benefit river users, the environment, and all Coloradans. Our state has been hard at work to conserve water and find reasonable solutions, but the policies that this group creates will strengthen our abilities and options when it comes to managing water. This group is meeting biweekly on Thursdays, with public comment on the agenda at every meeting. Rivers are at the mercy of Colorado River Water users’ willingness to work together and collaborate to find solutions that benefit the environment and all of us now, and well into the future. To learn more about the Colorado River Drought Task, its members, and meeting topics, visit If you’d like to get more involved, reach out to me at

How should we manage the drying #ColoradoRiver? Here’s what’s at stake in negotiations for its long-term future — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

Federal officials announced this week that last winter’s heavy snowpack and cuts in use likely will be enough to keep the river basin’s two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from draining to water levels too low to generate power or move water downstream for at least three years. Federal officials, the seven Colorado River basin states and 30 tribes in the basin are negotiating the future of water management on the Colorado River and creating the next set of guidelines that will govern use of the critical water source in decades to come. The negotiations will be a “rollercoaster ride,” but history shows that the states are capable of coming to a consensus, said Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

“There’s hope,” she said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”


One of the key problems negotiators must address is overuse by the Lower Basin states, experts said. The three states in the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — are allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year as are the four states in the Upper Basin: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Mexico also gets 1.5 million acre-feet. An acre-foot equals the amount of water it would take to cover a football field in one foot of water, which is generally considered enough water for two households’ annual use. The Lower Basin repeatedly has used more than its annual allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet while the Upper Basin uses less than its allotment. Between 2019 and 2021, the Lower Basin used more than 9 million acre-feet every year while the Upper Basin used less than 5 million acre-feet. In both 2020 and 2021, millions of acre-feet more water flowed out of Lake Mead and Lake Powell than flowed in.

“We’re going to have to reduce our water use, no matter what,” Hawes said. “We’re going to have to move away from the current sense of entitlement that a lot of water users have, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Officials also need to re-evaluate expected flows of the river and create a more accurate annual average flow from which to base agreements, Gimbel said. When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, people estimated annual flows of up to 20 million acre-feet. That calculation was an overestimate and climate change has worsened the deficit even further. In recent years flows have been closer to 10 million acre-feet, Gimbel said.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Biden-Harris Administration Announces Next Steps to Protect the Stability and Sustainability of #ColoradoRiver Basin — Reclamation #COriver #aridification #LakePowell #LakeMead

View of Glen Canyon Dam from Lake Powell. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website:

Oct 25, 2023

WASHINGTON – The Biden-Harris administration today announced next steps in the Administration’s efforts to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System and strengthen water security in the West. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation released a revised draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) as part of the ongoing, collaborative effort to update the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams to address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis.

In order to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026 – at which point the current interim guidelines expire – an initial draft SEIS was released in April 2023. Following a historic consensus-based proposal secured by the Biden-Harris administration in partnership with states – which committed to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026 enabled by funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda – Reclamation temporarily withdrew the draft SEIS to allow for consideration of the new proposal.

Today’s revised draft SEIS includes two key updates: the Lower Basin states’ proposal as an action alternative, as well as improved hydrology and more recent hydrologic data. The release of the revised draft SEIS initiates a 45-day public comment period.

“Throughout the past year, our partners in the seven Basin states have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in helping achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, who led negotiations on behalf of the Administration. “Thanks to their efforts and historic funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we have staved off the immediate possibility of the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.”

“The Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, including its two largest storage reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain at historically low levels. Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we move forward in this process, supported by historic investments from the President’s Investing in America agenda, we are also working to ensure we have long-term tools and strategies in place to help guide the next era of the Colorado River Basin.”

Key Components of Revised Draft SEIS

Reclamation conducted updated modeling analyses using June 2023 hydrology for the No Action Alternative, Action Alternatives 1 and 2 from the initial draft SEIS, and the Lower Division proposal. The results of that modeling indicate that the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead has been reduced substantially. As a result of the commitment to record volumes of conservation in the Basin and recent hydrology, the chance of falling below critical elevations was reduced to eight percent at Lake Powell and four percent at Lake Mead through 2026. However, elevations in these reservoirs remain historically low and conservation measures like those outlined by the Lower Division proposal will still be necessary to ensure continued water delivery to communities and to protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.

Based on these modeling results, Reclamation will continue the SEIS process with detailed consideration of the No Action Alternative and the Lower Division Proposal. The revised SEIS designates the Lower Division Proposal as the Proposed Action. Alternatives 1 and 2 from the initial SEIS were considered but eliminated from detailed analysis.

Historic Funding from Investing in America Agenda     

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is integral to the efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Because of this funding, conservation efforts have already benefited the system this year.

This includes eight new System Conservation Implementation Agreements in Arizona that will commit water entities in the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas to conserve up to 140,000-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 393,000-acre feet through 2025. Reclamation is working with its partners to finalize additional agreements. These agreements are part of the 3 maf of system conservation commitments made by the Lower Basin states, 2.3 maf of which will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests a total of $4.6 billion to address the historic drought across the West.

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is also investing another $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

The process announced today is separate from the recently announced efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin starting in 2027. The revised draft SEIS released today would inform Reclamation’s ongoing efforts to set interim guidelines through the end of 2026; the post-2026 planning process advanced last week will develop guidelines for when the current interim guidelines expire.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

A final environmental report for FortCollins’ Halligan Reservoir expansion is out — The #FortCollins Coloradoan #PoudreRiver

Halligan Reservoir. Photo credit: The City of Fort Collins

Click the link to read the article on the Fort Collins Coloradoan website (Rebecca Powell). Here’s an excerpt:

A final environmental impact statement for Fort Collins’ proposed Halligan Reservoir expansion is out, and now the public has about a month to weigh in on it. The Halligan Reservoir project north of Fort Collins would expand the reservoir from 6,400 acre-feet to 14,600 acre-feet to help the city meet its projected water demands through 2065. The reservoir stores water from the Poudre River, which makes up half of Fort Collins Utilities’ water supply.

“The project will provide added space to store Utilities’ water rights, enabling a more robust, resilient, and reliable water supply for Utilities’ current and future customers,” according to a news release from Fort Collins Utilities.

The project would require excavation and would discharge dredged or fill material into the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River and adjacent wetlands, so it requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act. Since a draft environmental impact study, or EIS, came out in 2019, the city has modified its plans to address some challenges in meeting guidelines for dam safety and construction. Rather than raising the height of the current dam by about 25 feet, it now plans to build a replacement dam that is 26 feet higher than the current dam. It would be located about 200 feet downstream. The existing dam, which is more than 110 years old, would be either partially or fully removed.

Water Year 2023 in Context: A Cautionary Tale — Center for #ColoradoRiver Studies (Jack Schmidt) #COriver #aridification

Photo credit: Center for Colorado River Studies

Click the link to read the article on the Utah State University website (Jack Schmidt):

The end of September marked the end of Water Year 2023 (WY2023). This is a good time to take stock of the year’s runoff and to understand how much reservoir storage improved. What kind of a year was WY2023? How long will any added storage last? Can we ease our collective effort to reduce consumptive uses and losses in the basin?

In Summary

The short answer is that WY2023 was certainly a good year for runoff, reservoir inflow, and increases in reservoir storage—but the same amount of inflow would have to occur for several additional years to fully recover storage to what it was in summer 1999 when the system was last full.  Such a string of high flow years has not occurred in the 21st century and is unlikely in the future.

History also warns that we should work to conserve the gains of WY2023. In notably wet WY2011, WY2017, and WY2019, extra storage that accumulated during each year’s snowmelt runoff was totally consumed in approximately two years. Thus, our past shows that there is potential to quickly consume the benefits of a good water year. We’ve done it before. It is imperative to keep a keen eye toward accomplishing significant reductions in water use throughout the basin to save what we have gained. We should not expect Mother Nature to bail us out again.

The Details

Estimates of WY2023 unregulated inflow and natural flow indicate that the year’s runoff was the second largest in the 21st century, exceeded only by WY2011. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center estimates that the April to July unregulated snowmelt inflow to Lake Powell was 10.6 million acre feet (maf) and that the total unregulated inflow for the year was 13.4 maf. Reclamation estimates that natural flow at Lees Ferry in WY2023 was 17.7 maf (Table 1). Unregulated inflow is the estimated stream flow if little of this year’s runoff had been stored in reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, and natural flow is the estimated flow at Lees Ferry if there were no reservoirs in the basin and no upstream consumptive uses.

Table 1. Natural flow and total basin consumptive use in the five largest runoff years of the 21st century. Total basin consumptive use includes reservoir evaporation and use by Mexico but does not include use in Lower Basin tributaries.

Data concerning reservoir storage are made available by Reclamation at their comprehensive basin-wide hydrologic data base. Daily water storage data are available for 46 reservoirs in the basin including all the large reservoirs and many small ones.

Figure 1 shows how reservoir storage changed during the 21st century. Total storage in all the reservoirs reported in Reclamation’s database is shown in blue, and storage in the three different parts of the watershed are distinguished. Between 60 and 80% of all reservoir storage in the basin occurs in Lake Mead and Lake Powell (orange line). Between 16 and 32% of basin reservoir storage occurs in the many reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell (green line), and between 4 and 8% of basin storage occurs in Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu (red line) that are downstream from Hoover Dam. Graph showing daily storage contents of reservoirs of the Colorado River basin, as reported by Reclamation,
between 1 January 1999 and 30 September 2023. Data do not include reservoirs on Lower Basin tributaries.

The most striking trend in these data is that reservoir storage decreased greatly between August 1999 and October 2004 when total storage decreased by 27.4 maf and storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell decreased by 24.5 maf. There was a small amount of recovery in storage between October 2004 and August 2019; total basin storage increased by 4.1 maf, and storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell increased by 0.9 maf. Between August 2019 and March 2023, storage plunged again, decreasing by 14.8 maf in the entire watershed of which 11.4 maf was lost from Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These trends were described in more detail by Schmidt, Yackulic, and Kuhn (2023, The Colorado River water crisis: its origins and the future. WIREs Water).

On 30 September 2023, the total storage in the watershed’s reservoirs was 28.4 maf, of which 62% was in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The storage in all reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell was 8.6 maf and comprised 30% of the total basin storage. Total basin storage in WY2023 peaked on 13 July at 29.7 maf, and the combined storage in Mead and Powell peaked on 16 July at 18.0 maf (Table 2).

How does this year’s increase in storage compare to increases in other years of large inflow? At the beginning of the WY2023 runoff season in mid-March, total reservoir storage in the basin had dwindled to 21.3 maf (Table 2), which is approximately 18 months of supply, based on the average basin-wide water consumption rate for 2016-2020. The combined storage contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell was 12.7 maf.

Between mid-March and mid-July, total basin-wide storage increased by 8.4 maf, of which 5.3 maf accumulated in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In comparison, the other four large runoff years of the 21st century — 2005, 2011, 2017, and 2019 – resulted in increases in basin reservoir storage between 5.2 and 8.8 maf and increases in storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell between 3.7 and 6.9 maf (Table 2). Not only was WY2023 the second largest runoff year of this century, but reservoir storage increase was also the second largest of the century.

Nevertheless, the increase in reservoir storage in WY2023 was small in comparison to the total loss in storage that had occurred since summer 1999. Between August 1999 and March 2023, the reservoir system lost 38.1 maf, and the increase in storage in WY2023 was only 22% of that amount.  It would take another 3 to 6 years of very large runoff to fully recover the basin’s reservoirs to what they had been at the turn of the 21st century.

It is unrealistic to expect that the next several years will be similar to the remarkable winter of 2022-2023. No other high flow year of the 21st century was immediately followed by another high flow year. Our best hope for achieving sustainability in water supply is for the Basin States and the federal government to reach new agreements to greatly reduce basin-wide water use so that the modest recovery in reservoir storage in WY2023 might be preserved. Otherwise, our gains may quickly disappear.

Historical data from the previous wet years of this century provide a cautionary tale about how slowly the political process responds to the opportunity provided by a wet winter. Table 3 summarizes the duration of months it took to consume the increased supply of each of the previous years of large runoff. Half of the supply provided by the largest inflow year of WY2011 was gone 11 to 13 months after peak storage had occurred in early August 2011; 8 to 10 months after that, all of WY2011’s large runoff had been consumed (Table 3). The historical story is the same for WY2017 and WY2019.

Since mid-July when the snowmelt season had ended, reservoir storage has begun to decline. The basin’s reservoirs lost 1.3 maf of storage between mid-July and 30 September of which 0.3 maf was lost from Lake Mead and Lake Powell and 0.9 maf from the reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell. The total consumption in these 2.5 months was 16% of the “benefit” of WY2023. Today, the contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are about the same as what they were in mid-June 2021.

A Last Thought

One strategy for maintaining a public focus on water conservation would be to widely report—every month—changes in total reservoir storage. The Basin States, and the basin’s citizens, would benefit from knowing the rate at which we are consuming the bounty of the WY2023 supply. It would be especially useful to know the point in time when we consume half of what we gained this year. If we reach that point in less than a year, we would have fair warning that the political process by which we now seek to reduce water consumption is too slow. Hope for a secure and sustainable water supply must rely on nimble and adaptable strategies for reducing water consumption and saving the gains of each wet year.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism