Milton-Seaman Reservoir expansion update

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

Expanding the 5,000-acre-foot capacity reservoir has been on Greeley officials’ to-do list for more than a decade. But the type of work the city is planning takes a lot of time, mainly because it involves the federal government.

If everything goes without a hitch, Greeley officials have circled 2030 as the year they’ll increase Seaman to 10 times its current capacity…

Here’s why:

» Greeley has never expanded any of its six reservoirs, and most have been around for nearly a century.

» Increasing Seaman to 53,000 acre-feet of water from 5,000 acre-feet will put Greeley in position to satisfy the city’s water needs for decades. (An acre foot of water is enough water for two families to use for a year). The city uses between 25,000-30,000 acre-feet of water per year: That’s expected to reach 40,000 acre-feet by 2030.

Harold Evans, chairman of the water and sewer board in Greeley, likens the Seaman’s expansion to the kind of planning that has kept water flowing from the city’s Bellvue Treatment Plant area since 1907…

Right now, Greeley is working with a consultant and in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop an environmental impact statement.

Greeley is still about two years away from having a draft of that statement.

In the meantime, Greeley officials are working to secure more water rights. The city doesn’t have enough rights to fill the expanded Seaman Reservoir. They’re 40 percent there, and as Reckentine said, it’s an everyday process. Every year, in fact, Greeley commits millions toward purchasing water rights.

Expanding the reservoir could cost $95 million more just in construction costs, according to an estimate provided in a Colorado Water Conservation Board document.

Water rights come from a variety of places, including retiring farms.

Today, Greeley typically uses its reservoirs as drought protection.

Basically, Greeley has water rights from the Colorado, Poudre, Laramie and Big Thompson rivers. But whether Greeley is able to get all of the water it’s owed depends on the rivers’ flow levels.

In drier years, Greeley would have to do without some of that water. That’s where reservoirs come in. Evans said the first reservoirs were used to finish Greeley area crops when river flows weren’t strong enough to do so in late fall.

Snowmelt and water diverted into reservoirs could be tapped for that purpose. Evans said it’s like putting money in the bank. Pound-for-pound, water’s worth more than money, though.

If and when the Seaman Reservoir expansion is complete, Greeley will likely use some of the water from that reservoir every year.

For Evans, that’s a perfect example, among many, of an investment in the future.

Evans mentions the new pipeline from the Bellvue Water Treatment Plant being installed now, with a lifespan of 75-100 years. The Seaman Reservoir has been around since the 1940s.


» Built 1941

» Storage: 5,008 acre-feet

» Elevation: 5,478 feet

» Dam height: 115 feet

» Proposed enlargement date: 2029

» Proposed storage: 53,000 acre-feet


The Seaman Reservoir expansion will put Greeley in a good position, but Deputy Director of Greeley Water Eric Reckentine hesitates to call it the final answer.

Greeley has a four-point plan when it comes to water:

» Maintain what you have — Greeley has reinforced water lines with concrete and fiberglass to reduce leaks.

» Secure supply to stay ahead of demand — The Windy Gap Project, which ensured water during lean times, is an example of this.

» Build storage for the lean times — The Milton Seaman Reservoir expansion project is the best example of this.

» Conserve the water you have — Greeley has a state-approved water conservation plan, and the new water budgets are another example of conservation.


Here’s a quick look at Greeley’s other five reservoirs:

» Barnes Meadow Reservoir — Built in 1922 and located across Colo. 14 from Chambers Lake in the Roosevelt National Park, Barnes Meadow Reservoir holds 2,349 acre-feet of water.

» Peterson Lake Reservoir — Built in 1922, and located southwest of Chambers Lake and adjacent to Colo. 156, Peterson Lake Reservoir holds 1,183 acre-feet of water.

» Comanche Reservoir — Built in 1924, and located along Beaver Creek and west of the Colorado State University Mountain campus, the Comanche Reservoir holds 2,628 acre-feet of water.

» Hourglass Reservoir — Built in 1898, and also located along Beaver Creek and west of the Colorado State University Mountain campus, the Hourglass Reservoir holds 1,693 acre-feet of water.

» Twin Lakes Reservoir — Built in 1924, and located southwest of Pingree Park off Colo. 14, Twin Lakes Reservoir holds 278 acre-feet of water.

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

Doug Billingsley doesn’t know what he’s going to do to replicate the peace and quiet of his work when he retires and re-enters the hubbub of normal life. Greeley pays Billingsley to live at Milton Seaman Reservoir, about 15-20 minutes from the mouth of the Poudre Canyon. Billingsley lives in a city-provided house, and has lived there for the past eight years with his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and her caretaker.

Billingsley monitors the Seaman Reservoir. The reservoir is Greeley’s largest, and its water levels can rise and fall quickly. He must ensure the banks and dams are sound and functioning properly, and he’s charged with releasing water down the Poudre Canyon when necessary. Call him the water shepherd.

He’s used to the solitude, if not the quiet.

“I drove over the road truck for 18 years, and was by myself for up to 30 days at a time — I lived in a truck,” Billingsley said. “This is no biggie; this is heaven.”

The city pays him a salary as well as his living expenses. But there’s a catch: He’s on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

The floods of 2013 are a prime example. And Billingsley spent the better part of a week stuck at home after a bridge went out, trapping folks up the canyon. Of course, he had to monitor Seaman’s water levels during the flood, as well.

Billingsley’s wife loves having him at home every night, and he loves being there.

Apart from animals there’s nothing to bother a Seaman Reservoir caretaker. They’ve seen elk, mountain lions, bears, but none of them hurt anybody, he says.

Aspen changing course on conditional water rights?

The Maroon Bells from the meadow just above the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, and the location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

ASPEN – Aspen city officials plan to reveal this week a proposal that seeks to resolve some of the issues raised by its efforts to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to potential dams and reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

Last week the city approved money to study underground storage, looked into how much water storage it needs, and responded in water court to a previous filing. In the past month, city officials also have met with a number of opponents in the water case.

“Things are changing rather quickly regarding the current diligence cases,” Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said Friday, referring to the two ongoing due diligence cases now unfolding in Division 5 water court. “I expect a completely different discussion will be taking place within one week.”

Barwick also said he and other city staff members “have a great deal of work to do toward that outcome” and he expects to hold a news conference by Friday about the city’s proposal.

As presently decreed, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam a mile and a half below Maroon Lake. The Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-tall-reservoir on the main stem of Castle Creek 2 miles below Ashcroft.

The city originally filed for the water rights in 1965 and has periodically told the state it intends to build the dams and reservoirs, if necessary, as part of its municipal water system.

The city filed its most recent applications for due diligence Oct. 31 and is seeking to hold on to its conditional rights for another six years.

City officials do not appear to have tipped their hand to the opposing parties in the cases about the substance of this week’s announcements.

“I really don’t know what the city will present at its big announcement,” said Rob Harris, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, who recently met with city officials on potential alternatives to the reservoirs, along with a representative from Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale. “I’m assuming that this will be more in the nature of the city announcing its preferred solution, or some part thereof, rather than any sort of finalized deal with any of the parties.

“Whatever they present, the follow-up questions we’re going to be asking include whether their idea moves Castle and Maroon creeks upstream of Aspen closer to permanent protection and, if their idea involves moving any or all of the water rights, what the potential impacts and benefits of that change will be,” Harris said.

The environmental organizations opposing the city in water court also include Colorado Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

“What would not make us happy is if they said, ‘We will significantly downsize these reservoirs but keep them in the same place,'” said Matt Rice, director of American River’s Colorado River basin program, during an interview in late June. “We’re hopeful they are coming around to the impossibility of developing those projects in the two valleys, and what that means for this diligence, and that they are getting realistic about more-appropriately sized projects that can help them meet their water supply needs.”

Rice also said that Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron met with Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of American Rivers, on June 21 at city hall for 45 minutes.

“It was an opportunity to extend an olive branch of sorts and commit to working toward a resolution to this issue in good faith,” said Rice.

The city has scheduled a second settlement conference for Aug. 2 with the 10 opposing parties in the water rights cases.

A view of the Aspen municipal golf course from Red Butte. A consulting engineer for the city of Aspen has found that an ‘in-situ’ reservoir could likely be built to store water under the golf course, which sits on about 75 feet of glacially-deposited rock and gravel. A trench filled in with a clay-like material could be dug around the perimeter of the golf course and water could be poured into the open space in the remaining gravel, and pumped back out as necessary.

Golf course option?

On Monday the city council approved a $116,000 contract with the engineering firm of Deere and Ault of Longmont to drill test bores and dig exploratory pits on the course at the Aspen Golf Club as part of a feasibility study of an in-situ, or underground reservoir.

Such an “in-situ” reservoir would likely hold about 1,200 acre-feet of water, according to a preliminary investigation done by Deere and Ault.

Deere and Ault now plans to drill up to six test bores through what is estimated to be 75-feet of gravel under the golf course, and to dig up to eight pits, of undisclosed size, to analyze the soil and gravel conditions.

City Engineer Trish Aragon said this week that a construction management plan will be required by the city’s engineering department for any drilling work that goes deeper than 50 feet.

And a permit would be required if the excavation pits disturb more than 200 square feet of surface area.

Aragon, after checking with officials at the city’s water department, said it has not yet been determined when, or where, the drilling or digging will take place.

The members of the Aspen City Council on Monday, July 10, 2017. From left, Bert Myrin, Ward Hauenstein, Mayor Steve Skadron, Ann Mullins, and Adam Frisch.

In water court

On the same day the city council approved further investigations on the golf course, the city’s water attorney, Cindy Covell of Alperstein and Covell in Denver, submitted a required response to a “summary of consultation” report filed by the division engineer in Division 5, Alan Martellaro, on January 23.

In a July 10 letter Covell told Materellaro that Aspen “understands that it must meet the required burden of proof at trial,” but otherwise she left the concerns of the state officials unaddressed.

The report, prepared after consulting with water referee Susan Ryan, challenged the core of Aspen’s applications for the dam and reservoir rights.

“I cannot recommend approval of this application until the following concerns are addressed,” Martello’s report began, in a standard opening line for such reports.

The first concern cited was about the phrase “other beneficial uses” in the city’s claims to maintain its conditional storage rights, which carry a 1971 decree date.

And the second concern was whether Aspen’s applications meet key tests in a due diligence case.

“Regarding the ‘can and will’ and the ‘anti-speculation’ doctrines,” Martellaro wrote, “the applicant must demonstrate” that it will secure necessary permits and land use approvals, that it will complete the projects “within a reasonable time,” that a “specific plan is in place to develop the subject water rights,” and that the city “is not speculating with the subject water rights.”

The issues raised by the state officials are much the same as those raised by the ten opposing parties in the two cases.

The parties, in addition to the four environmental organizations, include Pitkin County, the United State Forest Service, and four private landowners.

Two of the landowners own property in the Maroon Creek valley, Thomas and Margot Pritzker and Marcella Larsen and her family. And two own property in the Castle Creek valley, Robert Y.C. Ho and Charles Somer.

“I think the division engineer raised some serious concerns that are entirely consistent with ours,” Rice of American Rivers said in late June. “We would appreciate it if they would answer the core questions.”

But the city chose not to do that this week.

The questions raised in the summary of consultation remain open in the case, however, and may be addressed in the future by the water referee or at trial, as Covell suggested.

The location of the potential Maroon Creek dam and reservoir, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks.

Supply and uncertainty

On Tuesday the city council got an update on a risk analysis being conducted by Headwaters Corp. of Nebraska regarding the city’s future water supply and demand equation.

George Oamek, the economist who is preparing the study, submitted a preliminary report to the city on July 3, in an effort to help the city council determine how much will they need in the future and where they should store it.

He told the council that in order to complete his risk analysis, he and the council members are going to have make a number of assumptions about “uncertain variables.”

He said the data recorded by now defunct stream gages on Castle and Maroon creeks from 1970 to 1994 was insufficient for his analysis, although the 24 years of data has been the basis of several other in-depth water supply and demand studies done for the city.

He said that available climate data would be hard to use to predict local conditions.

And he recommended using land use projections in Aspen and Pitkin County to determine future water demand, as opposed to the standard methodology of using population projections.

Oamek also presented a pie chart to the council that illustrated the varying degrees of uncertainty presented by each of those areas.

About 70 percent of the uncertainty, and thus required assumptions, is in the area of climate change, he said, while 20 percent was related to the gaps in the data about flows in the creek, and ten percent was tied to demand projections.

Oamek told the city council members that he was relying on them for assumptions about land use and population.

Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager for the city, told the council that Tuesday’s meeting on the Headwaters study was not the last.

“This is just the first of many conversations,” she said. “We’ll be coming back to council for quite some time.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Monday, July 17, 2017.

@COindependent: Farms could help solve Colorado’s water shortage. So why aren’t they?

Feature photo of the Little Cimarron River by the Colorado Water Trust

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Colorado’s looming water shortage would be easier to quench if farmers and ranchers were willing to part, if only temporarily, with some of their supplies.

But most are not.

“I’m in agriculture to produce, not to sell or lease water,” said Logan County farmer Gene Manuello.

The state’s water situation can be boiled down to three simple factors.

One is numeric: Agriculture slurps up as much as 89 percent of available water in Colorado, compared to municipalities and industry, which use 7 and 4 percent, respectively.

The second is power: Farmers and ranchers typically hold senior water rights that trump the junior water rights held by cities, suburbs and manufacturers. In Colorado, and in most western states, the first person to claim the water right gets to use it. Everyone else and their water needs come next on the priority list. The arrangement is known as the doctrine of prior appropriation, and it’s been the defining principle of Colorado water going back to the 1850s, before we were even a state. Our byzantine system of water laws favor farmers and ranchers and essentially encourages them to use all the water to which they’re entitled, or risk losing it.

The third factor is shortage: Colorado’s current population of 5.6 million people is expected to soar to as much as 10 million by 2050. Estimates show that, if water supplies aren’t reconfigured and redistributed by that time, demands caused by climate change and urban and suburban growth will leave the state looking more like desert Nevada than semi-arid Colorado.

Colorado’s looming water shortage is projected to be about one million acre-feet of water per year. A family of four, on average, uses about a half-acre foot of water per year, or about 163,000 gallons of water per year. So a million acre-foot shortage would impact virtually every Coloradan and in every way of life: farmers, city dwellers, businesses, oil and gas drillers, environmentalists, birders, anglers, rafters, kayakers and everyone else who values the health and vibrancy of Colorado’s rivers.

Almost all of the new residents expected in the next three decades, possibly another four million or more, are likely to settle on the state’s Front Range and its urban population centers. That underscores a longtime conflict in Colorado’s water landscape: While 80 percent of the water in Colorado is west of the Continental Divide, 80 percent of the population is on the Eastern Slope, mostly in the Front Range cities between Fort Collins and Pueblo. That fact is at the heart of decades of angst for Western Slope residents who believe the Eastern Slope wants all their water, especially from the Colorado River, versus those on the Eastern Slope who point out that most of the state’s agriculture is based on their side of the Divide.

Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled Colorado’s first statewide water plan in November 2015 as a blueprint for finding a massive amount of water to keep up with growth and climate change’s effects on water supplies. Although the plan lacks specifics, it will rely largely on a host of possible solutions from municipal water users and from industrial users, which generally have the most junior water rights in the state.

The water plan puts a strong emphasis on keeping farm- and ranchland intact in an era of unprecedented growth. By 2050, the state estimates that irrigated farmland could shrink from 3.5 million acres currently to about 2.7 million acres. The largest hit is expected in the South Platte River Basin, which covers most of the northern Front Range and northeastern plains, and includes seven of Colorado’s ten most productive agricultural counties. The South Platte Basin holds 80 percent of the state’s population, but only 20 percent of its water supply. Growth along that corridor is expected to take out of production up to 35 percent of irrigated acreage in what Hickenlooper says would be a big blow to Colorado’s farm economy and culture.

For all its emphasis on the need to preserve farms and ranches, Hickenlooper’s water plan also recognizes that agricultural water needs to be at least part of solving Colorado’s massive water shortage in the next three decades. It is banking on a host of ideas for temporarily transferring water from farms and ranches to quench other, pressing needs. The state says those methods could glean 5 percent of the state’s projected shortfall. That is, if agriculture is inclined to participate.

But, at least so far, interest has been tepid. Farmers and ranchers are reluctant to embrace new practices, fearing that Colorado’s use-it-or-lose-it system of water law will strip their long-term water rights.

Colorado’s future water demands pit agriculture’s massive water consumption against virtually every other need for water out there.

Share and store alike

To find the water for cities, suburbs, towns and industry, yet still keep agriculture viable, the water plan borrows on an idea that southwestern states have been using for a decade: alternative transfer methods, or ATMs.

In one method, known as rotational fallowing, farmers forgo planting and irrigating their land for a growing season and lease the water saved, over the short term, to utilities or districts that serve cities and towns. Say, for example, a farmer has rights to 100 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to supply two families of four for a year. That farmer decides to lease 10 acre-feet to a city for one growing season, maybe cutting back on the acreage of winter wheat planted. The farmer is paid for that water, which in a time of low wheat prices may be more valuable than the crop itself and the city receives, at least temporarily, enough water to satisfy 80 people for a year.

The state invested close to $6 million between 2009 and 2017 into encouraging farmers and other water users to participate in agricultural transfer method programs, dating back to the authorization of these grant and pilot programs in 2007.

Agricultural water transfers have been a way of life for Chris and Mary Kraft, who operate two dairy farms and grow 900 acres of corn and hay near the city of Fort Morgan. The Krafts have for the past 20 years leased 2,500 acre-feet of their water every year to Xcel Energy for a nearby power plant. Neighboring farms also participate in that lease program. In dry years, Chris Kraft said in a recent webinar, he can tap into nearby Jackson Lake for water to sustain his crops, if needed. Other farmers may have to dry up a portion of their land in order to meet their obligations to Xcel. But in wet years, such as the last three, the lease payments go to make improvements – including conservation measures – to the ditch system that transports the water to farms and the power plant.

“The whole community benefits from the arrangement,” Chris Kraft said.

Transfer methods are an alternative to “buy and dry” – a practice in which farmers and ranchers sell their water rights to cities and stop raising their crops. The choice comes down to whether to sell out and use the profit for retirement, or to, as the Krafts do, temporarily lease water and receive an annual payment from the cityfolk who are thirsty for it. One option irreversibly dries up the land, and the other keeps it in production and preserves families’ roots on their farms.

Photo of Crowley County by Jennifer Goodland

Related: Buying and drying: water lessons from Crowley County

Those roots are embodied in the words of novelist, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry, who in his book Bringing it to the Table, asked, “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming?

“As always the answer is: ‘Love. They must do it for love.’ Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live… They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide.”

As Chris Kraft sees it, water transfers could in the long run be a lot more costly to cities than they anticipate. He pointed out that transferring water rights in Morgan County, for example, means that cities like Aurora that are leasing the water have to set up pipelines and pumping stations because they’re at a higher elevation from the farmland. That means the true cost of water transfers comes not just in paying the farmer for the lease, but also paying for the infrastructure and electricity to operate the pumping stations. As the old adage goes, “water runs uphill to money.”

The better solution, he said, is to store water in underground aquifers (which is done by pumping water into those aquifers) so that in wet years, excess water can be stored and then available in times of drought. That kind of storage is available: Colorado has four major underground aquifers, all located along the state’s Eastern Slope. A series of bedrock aquifers that stretches from Greeley to Colorado Springs and from the foothills to Limon has been identified as a strong possibility for storage in future years.

“The state needs some kind of alternate storage to make up for the new people moving here,” Kraft said. “It won’t be cheap. And when there’s a high demand situation, the last drop of water will be the most expensive.”

Storage first, ATMs second is also the view of Joe Frank, who manages the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, based in Sterling. Frank said the state needs to capture and store its available water first, noting that water coming out agricultural transfers still needs a place for that water to be stored.

In good years, Frank said, the South Platte has water available that isn’t already committed through interstate agreements or through local water rights. An agricultural water transfer should act as a way to bolster water supplies in years when the water isn’t as plentiful. “Storage should be the focal point,” Frank told The Colorado Independent. He believes ATMs should be part of a combined coordinated project with new or refurbished storage, such as underground aquifers. “Otherwise you put a lot of pressure on drying up agricultural land. Even though it’s an ATM, it’s still taking ag land out of production. The less we can do that, the better.”

For Manuello, who has been growing corn and hay and raising cattle since the 1970s near Sterling, water leasing undermines the very reason he works in farming and ranching. “I believe in agriculture and ag production, so any process to take irrigated acres out of production doesn’t work for me.”

Although he understands that leasing water temporarily helps keep some farms going, Manuello said the state’s inclusion of ATMs in its water plan sends a strong message to farmers that population growth should come at the expense of agriculture. Until the state exhausts other options for gleaning and storing more water, he said, “I have a problem taking water off the land or even promoting the idea” of ATMs.

Those who watch the growing use of water transfers don’t see them as a magic bullet, but more of a compromise and one that won’t fix the problem of 100,000 new Colorado residents every year.

Carlyle Currier, a Western Slope cattle rancher, told The Independent that some in the agriculture community worry that ATMs are just a slower way of putting farm and ranchland out of production. But as an alternative to “buy and dry,” ATMs can provide farmers and ranchers with, at least in the short term, “the chance to retain ownership of their water rights” and at the same time keep their farm and ranches sustainable, he said.

A hard sell

Aside from heartland ideology, there are market and meteorological forces at play that help explain why agricultural water transfers aren’t catching on.

On the face of it, you’d think waning commodity prices would drive up farmers’ interest. Some of the state’s biggest crops like corn and wheat are at their lowest prices in 20 years. Beef prices also are lean. The value of farmers’ and ranchers’ water rights often exceeds the value of what they’re growing. You’d think growers driven financially to consider temporarily leasing their water under ATMs should be able to find willing buyers.

But that’s not the case, at least some parts of the state.

ATM pilot projects have been under way for the past six years in the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which encompasses most of southeastern Colorado. The district’s executive director Jay Winner said he has 5,000 leases for water available from local farmers eager to temporarily lease their water rights to cities to offset the hit from low commodity prices. But no one wants them right now, Winner said, largely because the state is not facing drought conditions or water restrictions for the first time since 2012. The only interest he has had is from the Security Water District south of Colorado Springs, which is battling contamination in its water from toxic chemicals believed to come from a nearby military base.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board – the state agency that oversees water and administers agricultural transfer programs – has identified other significant barriers ATMs must overcome in order to succeed. In addition to the costs of building pipelines and storage, there are the potential high costs associated with transferring water rights, which are tied to the process of gaining approval through the state’s water courts. Changing a water right can take up to five years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Greg Baker of Aurora Water. Another barrier is that constantly switching farm and ranchland in and out of production can create soil and weed problems that could lower farmers’ lower crop yields and hurt their bottom line.

Perhaps the most significant barrier is a desire by water providers, such as municipal water utilities, to find permanent water supplies rather than the temporary water provided by an ATM. Cities – and the developers building in them – are looking for reliable, sustainable sources of water rather than quick fixes that come at the whims of farmers and ranchers, and with the unpredictability of how much it rains or snows year to year.

But these temporary transfers do serve a purpose, according to Baker. Sometimes temporary is better, he indicated, because it’s cheaper to lease water than to obtain permanent water supplies, and all costs are passed along to customers. Even then, however, temporary transfers can take a lot of time; Baker pointed to an example from 2003 when Aurora wanted water leases from the Arkansas Valley to solve that year’s drought. By the time the water finally reached Aurora, it was 2005 and the drought was over. The water was used to refill reservoirs depleted by the drought, so it didn’t go to waste and did work to their benefit, he said. “Leases are good for hedging our bets” for future water shortages, Baker said. But he added that there haven’t been enough of those leases for Aurora Water to determine just how practical they can be.

Learning to ‘play nice’

In April, the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University released a report that looked at the future of agricultural transfer methods.

Brad Udall, one of the report’s authors, said that while these methods won’t quench all Colorado’s water needs, the water plan likely won’t meet its goals without them. There should be a way, he mused, to carry out ATMs that persuades long-feuding agriculture and municipalities they “can play nice together.”

The “water world is remarkably conservative, as it should be,” Udall said, and ATMs are relatively new. “And whenever you have that conflict, you will have a hard time getting a foothold [in making changes]. What we really need are good cases where it works.”

As a case in point, Udall – a member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors – pointed to a project known as the Super Ditch in the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. The ditch is a water-leasing collaboration among nine water districts that took about seven years of stop-and-start, often painful negotiations. Udall noted that the state engineer put 60 conditions on one of the proposed deals tied to the Super Ditch. Water from the Super Ditch agreement flows to Fountain and Security, south of Colorado Springs, and in Fowler, in Otero County in southeastern Colorado.

The other part of the problem, and it’s one inherent to water, Udall said, is that every deal is different. The Water Institute advocates for some continuity among these deals, which would help reduce the costs of reaching legal agreements between teams of engineers and lawyers. Those costs can become “barnacles on the ship of commerce,” Udall said.

“They can overburden and eventually kill deals that would otherwise work.”

Recognizing that ATMs will be necessary in helping to solve Colorado’s water woes, the state has been more than willing to invest in them and fund efforts to educate farmers in hopes that they’ll overcome some of their reluctance. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has put $1 million annually into ATM grants since 2009. One grant, to the Parker Water and Sanitation District, allowed Colorado State University to set up farm demonstration on irrigation patterns for corn crops, which reduced water use by 30 to 40 percent. The Super Ditch made 500 acre-feet of water available through rotational fallowing. Another concept, known as water banks, lets farmers and cities “bank” water in an existing reservoir, without risk of losing water rights, and allows other water users to tap that water for a negotiated price.

Another transfer method that focuses on growing water-efficient crops, which frees up water for leasing, hasn’t been well received because farmers raise concerns that they lack the expertise or even the equipment to grow these different crops. With the average age of a Colorado farmer at 59, that’s not a small ask. Colorado’s two largest commodities – corn and wheat – are considered water-intensive crops; water-efficient crops that can be watered more efficiently include vegetables or the grain sorghum, which can be used for cattle feed in place of corn or wheat.

Then there’s deficit irrigation, a method that requires a crop be watered just enough to produce minimal yields, but which farmers say translates into minimal prices.

Water transfers may not yet be the boon in agriculture that state officials would like, but the environmental community is definitely taking an interest, as a way to shore up stream flows in some of Colorado’s jeopardized waterways.

One good example is taking place on the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River that flows between Gunnison and Montrose most of the year. But the Little Cimarron goes dry in the summer, leaving its plants to wither and threatening its renowned trout habitat.

In an effort to improve the stream flows, the Colorado Water Trust is working on its first-ever permanent sharing of water that would boost stream flows in waterways that typically go dry, and in turn endanger the river’s ecosystem. The alternative transfer method planned for the Little Cimarron relies on temporarily using the water from nearby foreclosed land, formerly a farm near Cimarron (east of Montrose), that was purchased by Western Rivers Conservancy, which gave the water rights to the Trust. A smaller portion of those water rights were sublet to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency that awards grants for ATM pilots.

Under the plan, the farm’s water will be diverted during the driest times of the year into the Little Cimarron, allowing for enough water – and at a cool enough temperature – to provide a sustainable habitat for trout. The Trust’s Amy Beatie says her organization has a “projection tool” that indicates the best time to divert water into the river and how much is needed to maintain its flows.
Beatie acknowledges that water transfers off of agricultural land has its detractors. She pointed out that some of the pushback comes from long-standing beliefs about state water law.

“We got good at moving water out of rivers but there’s no provision [in state law] to protect rivers,” especially once those river flows drop to critically low levels. “The Constitution says the right to divert [water] shall never be denied,” she said, and that tells water users “take all you want and flat-line rivers across the state.”

While Colorado is a bit late to the game of protecting its rivers, Beatie said, climate change and population growth are moving the state forward on discussing ways to help restore or maintain rivers.

Says Beatie: “If everyone in [the water] community is willing to give up a little, we can look at restoring flows in other rivers.”

@RockiesProject: The fourth section of the 2017 State of the Rockies Report is now available online

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Click here to read the section, “Reservations and Reservoirs: Deferred Tribal Justice on the Columbia and Colorado River,” from the State of the Rockies Project (Emelie Frojen).

The latest newsletter from the CCWCD is hot off the presses

Crop circles — irrigated agriculture

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

109 Wells Added to WAS Plan

In 2004 and 2005 many WAS contract holders had multiple irrigation wells included in a Substitute Water Supply Plan operated by the Well Augmentation Subdistrict while the Subdistrict worked to obtain a permanent augmentation plan. The permanent plan of augmentation was granted by the Water Court in 2006, however Subdistrict members were notified that WAS was unable to allow them to include more than one well per contract in the decreed plan for augmentation. The deleted wells were placed on a waiting list with every intention to incorporate those back into the decreed augmentation plan as the Subdistrict worked to secure additional augmentation supplies.

June 21, 2016 , after ten years of development of water supplies the CCWCD Board of Directors voted to direct staff to proceed with the incorporation of the waiting list wells into the WAS augmentation decree. February 28, 2017, the Water Court application to formally add these 109 wells was filed. Statements of opposition to the application were received from City of Sterling, City of Boulder, Centennial Water & Sanitation District, Public Service, The Irrigationists (lower South Platte River water users), Farmers Reservoir & Irrigation Company, South Adams Water & Sanitation District, and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

In order to allow operation of these wells during the 2017 irrigation season, WAS filed an application seeking temporary approval from the Water Court on March 16, 2017. A few months later on June 29, 2017 the Substitute Water Supply Plan (SWSP) was approved by the State and Division Engineers which authorizes pumping from June 29, 2017 through June 28, 2018. The Central Board and Staff anticipated a more rapid approval for the SWSP, however the City of Sterling provided comments in lieu of the request sought by WAS. Fortunately the State and Division Engineer granted the approval and processed the request with fair reasoning and timely consideration. No additional pumping will be added to the contract holder’s allocation, but they now have the flexibility of pumping from either of their wells on the WAS Contract.

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

Fairplay photo credit

From The Fairplay Flume (Lynda James):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copper Mountain snowmaking via

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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