State water administration still evolving — Craig Cotten

September 14, 2014

sanluisvalleyearlywinterriograndeinitiative

From the Valley Courier (Craig Cotten):

State water administration still evolving

By CRAIG COTTEN Division Engineer Colorado Division of Water Resources

This is the thirteenth article in the series from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable regarding the formation and implementation of the Basin Water Plan. VALLEY For more than 140 years, Colorado has used a system of water allocation known as the prior appropriation system.

Prior appropriation refers to the concept that those that put water to use first are entitled to get their water first during periods of water shortage, or put more simply, “First in Time, First in Right.” The Colorado Division of Water Resources is the sole state agency that is empowered to administer surface and groundwater to ensure that the prior appropriation doctrine is enforced.

The administration of water has been occurring in this area since before Colorado became a state. During the gold rush days when Colorado was still a territory, miners established ‘miners’ courts’ to handle disputes. Many times these disputes centered around water and who was entitled to use the water when there was not enough for everyone. It was during this time that the concept of prior appropriation really came into being in Colorado. In 1876 when Colorado became a state, the idea of a water administration system based upon the prior appropriation doctrine was enshrined in its constitution .

With the establishment of the position of water commissioners in 1879, Colorado became the first state in the nation to provide for the distribution and administration of water by public officials. In 1881, the legislature established the Office of the State Irrigation Engineer, known today as the State Engineer’s Office or the Division of Water Resources. In 1887 the legislature created a position called the superintendent of irrigation for each of the seven main river basins, or divisions, in the state. This position is now known as the Division Engineer.

For the first nearly 90 years of water administration by the state, water administration was restricted mainly to surface water. This changed in 1969 with the passage of the Water Rights Determination and Administration Act. This act required that groundwater be integrated with surface water into the prior appropriation system, and allowed the State Engineer to develop Rules and Regulations to administer groundwater use. In 1972, the State Engineer issued a moratorium on new wells in most parts of the San Luis Valley, and in 1981 that moratorium was expanded to prohibit new wells in all parts of Division 3. In 1975 the State Engineer developed groundwater rules for Division 3, the drainage basin of the Rio Grande. These rules stated that well owners had to replace the depletions due to their well pumping or they would be shut down. Obviously this threat of shutting down many wells in the San Luis Valley did not please the well owners, and a period of nearly 10 years of litigation ensued. In 1985, with an agreement between the parties to the lawsuit, the rules were dismissed . In their place the water users agreed that the Closed Basin Project would be used to offset the depletions to the rivers caused by the wells. The agreement worked fairly well until the late 1990’s and the drought years of the early 2000’s , when it was apparent that more formal regulation of groundwater was needed in Division 3.

One of the hurdles to groundwater regulation in the San Luis Valley has always been the lack of a good understanding of the aquifers and their interaction with the rivers and streams. In 1998 the legislature passed legislation that directed the State Engineer to begin a study of the aquifers of Division 3. This study became known as the Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS), and is an ongoing study that has shed a great deal of light on the aquifers. In that same year the legislature also directed the State Engineer to begin developing rules to govern new withdrawals of water from the confined aquifer based upon information gathered from the RGDSS study. These rules were formally adopted by the State Engineer in 2004 and prevented any increased withdrawals of groundwater from the confined aquifer. After a lengthy trial in Alamosa, the rules were approved by Judge Kuenhold in November 2006. The ruling was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, and in 2008 the Supreme Court upheld the rules.

As part of the need to get more data on groundwater usage, the State Engineer established the well measurement rules in 2005. These rules require all large capacity wells, and some smaller wells, in Division 3 to be equipped with flow meters . The meter readings are collected a minimum of once per year and are being used to get a detailed description of the water use by well, and the total groundwater usage in the San Luis Valley . This is very important for the RGDSS model as well as for the impending groundwater rules.

In 2008 the State Engineer established an Advisory Committee in order to assist him in developing new groundwater use rules for existing groundwater uses. It is anticipated that these rules will be finalized this fall. Once the rules are in place, they will require that most large capacity wells in Division 3 replace their depletions to the streams and ensure that the aquifers remain sustainable. Owners that do not replace the depletions from the use of their wells and take steps to bring the aquifers back into a sustainable situation will have their wells shut down.

As water becomes a more and more precious commodity , there is need for increased administration of that water. This is to ensure that the water is being used by the people entitled to use it, that it is being used for its intended purpose, and that there is no injury to someone else’s water rights due to actions by another water user.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


9News series about #COwater and the #COWaterPlan — Mary Rodriguez

September 10, 2014


9News.com reporter Mary Rodriguez has embarked on a series about the Colorado Water Plan and water issues in Colorado. The first installment deals with Cheesman Dam and Reservoir. Here’s an excerpt:

It is something most of us take for granted: running water. Colorado is now beginning to grapple with how to keep the tap flowing, both now and in the future. As the state develops a water plan, set to be released in December, we are beginning a series of stories revolving around that precious resource…

Cheesman Reservoir and Dam

Nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, it’s a place of stillness and a quiet refuge. Yet, it’s also a place capable of wielding immense power.

Cheesman Reservoir is a major source of water for communities up and down the Front Range. It holds 25 billion gallons of water. That’s enough water to cover Sports Authority Field with a foot of water more than 79,000 times. All of it is held in place by the Cheesman Dam, which was built nearly 110 years ago.

“It was tremendous foresight that this reservoir has been pretty much unchanged in all that time,” documentary filmmaker Jim Havey of Havey Productions said.

The reservoir is just one of the places Havey is beginning to capture as part of an upcoming documentary called “The Great Divide.” The subject? Water.

“We looked at water, initially, as a great way to tell the story of Colorado,” he said.

Colorado’s water system is a complex combination of reservoirs, rivers and dams. As the state’s population has grown, though, there has been a greater need to come up with a water plan that can evolve with time.

“Really, it is all connected,” said Travis Thompson, spokesperson for Denver Water, which bought the Cheesman Reservoir nearly 100 years ago.

Denver Water– along with water municipalities and agencies across Colorado– is now working on a long-term plan for Colorado’s water. It includes, among other things, figuring out the best way to manage the state’s water as it flows between different river basins and whether or not to create more reservoirs.

“We’re not planning just for today, we’re planning for tomorrow– 25 years, 50 years down the road,” Thompson said. “And we have many challenges that we’re looking into, just like our forefathers had.”

Those challenges include how to provide enough water for people and industries in Colorado, as well as people in 18 other states– and even two states in Mexico– which also get their water from rivers that begin in Colorado.

“What the water plan is going to mean, I don’t think anybody knows yet,” Havey said.

Yet, it’s a plan that has a lot riding on it below the surface. The first draft of the state’s water plan is due in December and is expected to be presented to the state legislature next year. For more information about the water documentary, “The Great Divide,” go to http://bit.ly/1qDftUO.

More Denver Water coverage here. More South Platte River Basin coverage here. More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


Basin, state plan for future water needs — the Valley Courier #COWaterPlan

September 3, 2014

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

As more people move to Colorado, the state is trying to make sure there will be enough water for them once they get here. Recognizing Colorado’s population will only continue to grow in future years, the state is developing a water plan encompassing all nine river basins including the Rio Grande Basin in the San Luis Valley. Last year the governor issued an executive order requiring the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to complete a statewide water plan by December 2015.

About halfway through a statewide tour of the river basins, the state legislative committee heading up the water basin plan effort held a public meeting in Alamosa last week to see what local residents thought of the plan so far. There will be further public meetings in the future and the public may submit comments electronically at the web site: http://www.colorado.gov/lcs/WRRC

State Representative Randy Fischer, who is chairman of the legislative water resources review committee, encouraged comments to be made by October 1. He said the legislature does not have a role in formally adopting the water plan. The Colorado Water Conservation Board will adopt the plan in draft form by December of this year followed by the final water plan next year after additional public meetings.

CWCB Member Travis Smith said the drought of 2002 prompted the state legislature to really look at water supplies and future water needs.

“We have a water shortage issue and we have more people coming to Colorado,” he said. “We would like to preserve agriculture and Colorado’s values.”

One consensus developing from the basins around the state is that each basin wants to keep the water it has, and each basin has future needs of its own on top of the statewide needs to serve a growing populace.

“Export is a big deal here,” Water Educator Judy Lopez told the legislators as a mes- sage from the group for which she served as spokesperson . “We will rise and fight it.”

The Rio Grande Basin water plan is being developed under the jurisdiction of the Rio Grande Roundtable, which hired DiNatale Water Consultants to develop the basin plan. Members of the roundtable and other local residents have spent numerous hours compiling a draft plan that sets out specific goals for the basin and how they could be accomplished in the future.

Of the 14 specific goals of the plan, highlights include: protecting and restoring sustainability , watershed health and water quality; abiding by existing water rules such as the doctrine of prior appropriation , state water regulations and the interstate compacts; creating infrastructure such as storage for long-term water needs; sustaining the basin’s agricultural economy; developing projects with multiple benefits ; preserving wildlife habitats and wetlands; providing water-related recreational activities; and continuing to educate the public about water.

The proposed plan also provides a template for those wishing to submit water projects for funding in the future. The template sets up a matrix of basin plan goals so the applicant can see how the potential project meets and measures up to those goals.

See the local plan at http://www.riograndewaterplan.com and read more about the statewide plan at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com

During last week’s public meeting regarding the plan, participants shared their ideas of how they believed the plan could be improved and what they believed was important to consider in future water planning.

Rancher and Colorado Parks/Wildlife Commissioner Dale Pizel urged the group to use the plan once it is formulated and not leave it on a shelf. He said he hoped this would be a plan that would be dog-eared with use and marked up for future changes to make it better.

“I want the plan to be used, and I want it to change, and I want it to go on because it is necessary if we are going to deal with problems of Colorado population and loss of agriculture,” he said.

Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson urged the legislative committee to be involved after the state plan is completed.

“Let this process continue. Present it to the governor. Then the legislature should step in. For the statewide plan to work we will need to be considering changing some of the constraints that are out there today that would prohibit it from being implemented ” like regulations about new infrastructure.”

Comments coming out of the group discussion process included:

• Be sure the plan recognizes and upholds the doctrine of prior appropriation.
• The plan calls for sustaining the confined and unconfined aquifers, but it should also call for restoring the aquifers.
• Using water for multiple benefits and diversified ways is critical and requires cooperation among water users and agencies.
• The plan should not only address future human needs but also the needs of wildlife and riparian habitat.
• Consider recreational and environmental water uses/ needs.
• Soil health is also connected to watershed health and should be considered.
• Perhaps the basin plans should address trans-mountain diversions, some of which are occurring already. However , there is concern about new diversions from this basin to the Front Range or elsewhere, and attempts to do so would meet with resistance. Perhaps the state should keep the status quo regarding current trans-mountain diversions.
• The Valley has many outdated water infrastructures requiring repair or replacement , and the basin water users hope the state plan and the Colorado Water Conservation Board will continue to financially support those needs.
• New and repaired reservoirs are crucial to meeting future water needs, and the state should be more flexible with its regulations to allow such facilities to be improved, expanded, replaced or newly constructed.
• There must be more storage in this basin. A reservoir at the state line would be beneficial , for example.
• It is important to find ways of making existing storage facilities more effective both in this basin and statewide.
• Give the water planning process sufficient time to develop sound, well-reasoned workable plans.
• Streamline the permitting process for water projects going before the state for funding.
• Accurate forecasts are crucial to this basin and the irrigators who are under constant call to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations, so it is vital to maintain technology and resources such as SNOTEL sites to provide as accurate forecasts as possible. Use technology to better measure water uses as well.
• If this basin uses its water more effectively and carefully it could help meet water needs in other parts of the state where the population is expected to increase in future years. However, if water is transferred from this basin to supply urban development, the water should be used effectively and not excessively in those developments.
• Consider the economic impact locally and statewide of increasingly more agricultural acreage being fallowed and take into account that some of that fallowing in this basin is an intentional means to restore the aquifer per state mandates.
• It is important to find ways to decrease water usage and conserve water, not just locally but throughout the state, so the existing supplies can be better utilized.
• Land use planning should be integrated into the water plan.
• Address climate change in the water plan.
• Maybe the state should look to outside water sources, such as the Mississippi River, for new water to meet increasing population demands.
• Consider the relationship of solar energy development to water, or the lack of it.
• Consider oil/gas development in the state water plan.
• It is important for this basin and its agricultural economy to prevent a “buy and dry” acquisition of farmland.
• The state water plan should acknowledge the unique characteristics of each basin and that each basin is different.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


Fires leave land unable to absorb water — The Pueblo Chieftain

August 21, 2014
West Fork Fire June 20, 2013 photo the Pike Hot Shots Wildfire Today

West Fork Fire June 20, 2013 photo the Pike Hot Shots Wildfire Today

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

When fires raged through the eastern San Juan Mountains last summer, they left a threat to public safety even after the flames had gone out. Of the 88,000 acres burned on the Rio Grande National Forest last summer by the Papoose and West Fork fires, more than 21,000 acres of the burn scars were left with water-repellent soils. The condition, known as hydrophobicity, heightens the risk of flooding during summer and fall thunderstorms and, in part, prompted the formation of the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team.

The watershed team received $2.5 million in state funding last year for recovery work and emergency response and has installed rain and stream gauges throughout the burn scars to better detect flooding.

The team also deployed a temporary Doppler Radar to get a better picture of thunderstorms passing over the burn scar during the monsoon season. Last summer, the team placed a radar unit on Bristol Head Mountain, roughly six miles southwest of Creede. At the end of this month, the group will put a temporary unit at a new location on Lobo Overlook near Wolf Creek Pass.

“It actually gives a little bit better coverage over the burn scar,” Tom Spezze, the watershed team’s director, said.

The site is also more accessible than Bristol Head and will bring the radar unit closer to Internet and power utilities, he said.

The need for the radar stems from the inability of permanent National Weather Service radar units in Grand Junction and Pueblo to give a complete look at storms coming through the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

“There’s a black hole right there,” Spezze said.

Pamela Stevenson, a meteorologist in the weather service’s Pueblo office, said that’s because the radar units are set at such an angle that their signals rise in elevation the further they travel. By the time a signal from Pueblo’s radar reaches the burn scars, it’s at roughly 24,000 feet, she said While stronger storms are often detectable at that elevation, she said the watershed team’s temporary unit will give a better look at storms below that elevation “Definitely having the radar close to the burn scar is going to help,” she said.

Spezze said the need to closely monitor flood threats and inform locals of the dangers will likely last until vegetation can return to the sections of the burn scars with damaged soils. Spezze said that process can take anywhere from two to four years, according to discussions he’s had with officials monitoring the Hyde Park and Waldo Canyon burn scars near Fort Collins and Manitou Springs, respectively.

So far, property owners below the Papoose and West Fork scars have avoided much trouble with flooding and debris flows. The most significant event came at the end of last month when rain washed out a U.S. Forest Service Road near Shaw Lake.

Most of the significant rain since the fires have come from fast-moving storms, rather than slow-moving ones that pose a greater flood risk, Spezze said.

“We’ve been lucky and dodged a bullet,” he said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.


San Luis Valley: Well rules heading into home stretch — Valley Courier

August 15, 2014

San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Years in the making, rules to govern wells in the San Luis Valley are likely one meeting away. In Alamosa yesterday Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe told the advisory group assisting his office in developing the rules that he expects next month’s meeting to be the last one before he submits groundwater rules to the water court.

“We have been working at this a long time now,” Wolfe said. “We would like to get this through.”

One of the goals of the rules is to reach sustainability in the confined (deep) and unconfined (shallow) aquifers in the Rio Grande Basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. The state legislature has set that sustainability benchmark as the time period between 1978 and 2000, and the rules specify how that goal will be determined and reached.

Wolfe said the peer review team, which has overseen the technical aspects associated with the rules, will be meeting again on Monday to finalize changes to the g r o u n d w a t e r m o d e l t h a t will be used to implement the rules. They will finalize response functions within the next few weeks, Wolfe added, and the final draft of the rules should be ready about this time next month.

Wolfe said anyone with further comments at this point should submit them to Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan.

“I envision about a month from now will be the last meeting and would envision very shortly thereafter being in a position to submit these to the water court for their consideration,” Wolfe said.

After Wolfe submits the groundwater rules to the court, objectors and supporters will have 60 days to file responses. If there are objections to the proposed rules, the judge will have to set a trial date to deal with objections that have not yet been resolved by that date. Wolfe said in Division 2, there were 21-22 objections filed , but the state was able to resolve all of the issues raised in the objections short of a trial.

“I hope we get to do that on these. We would like to get these implemented and operational,” he said.

The rules will become effective 60 days after publication or after all protests have been resolved, in the event there are protests.

Trying to minimize the objections that might arise over proposed groundwater rules, Wolfe set up an advisory group at the onset of the rulemaking process. In January 2009 he signed an order establishing the advisory committee, which includes representatives from senior and well user associations, residents from the basin’s various geographical areas, canal and irrigation companies , municipality and county designees, federal and state agencies, engineers and water attorneys. The initial group, comprised of 56 members , met for the first time in March of 2009. At that time Wolfe told the group he hoped to submit well regulations to the water court by the end of that year.

The process took longer than initially expected, in part due to the laborious development and revision of the groundwater model, the Rio Grande Decision Support System.

The arduous process may soon be over, however. Advisory group member LeRoy Salazar told Wolfe yesterday he hoped the rules would be ready by October so the farmers and ranchers could have time to review them in the winter months when they are not as busy.

“I think we are almost there,” Salazar said. “We appreciate all the work so many of you have done getting these rules.”

Wolfe explained as he went through changes in the proposed rules yesterday that most of the modifications now are for the purpose of clarity, consistency and flexibility within the document.

One new definition introduced into the document during yesterday’s meeting was composite water head, the metric by which sustainable water supplies will be evaluated and regulated. The composite water head represents water levels or artesian pressures of an aquifer system within specified areas. It is derived from the annual measurements collected outside of the irrigation season of multiple monitoring wells, water level or artesian pressure and applies weighting within the specified areas. The metric will refer to the change in the composite water head from a baseline rather than an aquifer’s absolute elevation.

Water Division 3 Assistant Division Engineer James Heath explained that this is not based on individual wells but composite water head representative of different areas throughout the Valley that have been divided into four response areas: Conejos Response Area; Alamosa La Jara Response Area; Saguache Response Area; and San Luis Creek Response Area.

“Each well would have its own percentage based on the area it represents,” he said. Wolfe said the water division has been working with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to add new monitoring wells in areas where there might not be sufficient existing wells to provide representative data.

Those are scheduled to be in place by March 2015, which will serve as a baseline for the groundwater rules. Wolfe said the model would utilize the data that has been gathered over time as well as the new data, which will fill in some gaps that have existed in data collection. He added within 10 years after the effective date of the rules his office, using the model and all of the collected well monitoring data, should be able to establish with a fair amount of confidence the historical average composite water head for each response area for 1978-2000 , the sustainability target set by the state legislature.

“That’s what we are building back to,” Wolfe said. Heath said the new data would be calibrated into the model, which can go back in time to extrapolate the 1978-2000 ranges not available in existing data.

“This 10-year time frame gives us time to add in additional information ” that will better give us confidence when estimating the water levels in these locations going forward.”

The rules require that after five years the composite water head in each response area must be above the minimum level it was in 2015, the starting point.

“If not, there’s a provision they’ve got to reduce their pumping levels back to what they were in the 1978-2000 period,” Wolfe explained. The next benchmark is at 10 years and the next at 20 years, Wolfe added. Between the 11th and 20th years, composite water levels must be maintained above the 1978-2000 range for at least three out of 10 years, Wolfe explained.

“Once we reach the 20th year, they’ve got to meet absolutely that sustainability requirement from that point forward ” This is just the first step in that process getting there.”

Salazar said the 1978-2000 target set by the legislature may have been based on faulty assumptions and may need to be modified.

“I guess in the end we may need to go back to the legislature and say it didn’t make sense to do what you did,” Salazar said. “We didn’t have the database we needed.”

Wolfe said the data collected from this point on may confirm the need to go back to the legislature, but “what this does is gets us started on the path so we can collect data we need.”

He added, “We may have to come back and amend the rules at some point.”

He said the primary purposes of this plan are to protect senior water rights and reach sustainability, and if the plan needs to be modified in the future, the state can go back to the court to do that.

Pat McDermott from the water division office said the state is recognizing this basin has finite water supplies.

“We have to learn to live within our means,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Western watershed priority: Manage wildfire risk and impacts

August 11, 2014


From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Krista Bonfantine can look up into the mountains behind her Sandia Park home and understand, better than most, the connection between the forested watersheds that provide most of New Mexico’s water and the stuff coming out of her tap.

As she opened the lid on the concrete box that surrounds Cienega Spring, which supplies her neighborhood’s water, she pondered what might happen if a fire burned through the overgrown woods above – the risk of floods tearing down the picturesque canyon, ash and debris wiping out the water supply intake.

Fire and the resulting damage to watersheds have been an increasing concern in recent years, and Bonfantine is part of an ambitious effort to tackle the cause – overgrown forests in New Mexico’s mountains.

While the risk to Bonfantine’s neighborhood is nearby, and therefore immediately apparent, the widespread risk of fire in the watersheds that provide much of New Mexico’s water supplies is harder to see.

The problem is not just the forests themselves, explained Beverlee McClure, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry, a business group. The threat of upland fires threatens the reliability of the water supplies on which we all depend, she said…

McClure’s organization is part of The Rio Grande Water Fund, a broad-based coalition that is working to scale up patchwork efforts underway in the mountains of northern and central New Mexico to restore forests in order to protect the watersheds and water systems on which they depend.

As McClure spoke, a crew from a Corona-based company called Restoration Solutions was at work up the road with chain saws, felling trees in an overgrown patch of woods at a place called Horse Camp on the edge of the Cibola National Forest.

The overgrown woods in the mountains of New Mexico are the result of a century of firefighting that prevented natural, low-intensity fires that used to clear out undergrowth. The result is forests that are so thick in places that they are hard to walk through…

Trees being cut last week on Forest Service land near the Sandia Crest Road can be used as firewood, but there is not enough money to be made from cutting the small timber clogging the unhealthy forests to make such work self-supporting, Racher said. “There’s not enough value in that wood to pay for what needs to be done,” Racher said.

That is at the heart of the Forest Trust, which is attempting to raise $15 million per year in government money and private contributions to pay to expand the work, said Laura McCarthy, director of New Mexico conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group…

“This is a big problem that the federal government is not going to be able to solve for us,” McCarthy said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.


New partnership formed to address drought in Colorado River Basin — Denver Water

August 8, 2014
Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS

Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

From Denver Water (Travis Thompson):

In a first-of-its-kind partnership, agricultural and environmental organizations, West Slope water districts and Denver Water have come together to explore measures that could help benefit the Colorado River and avoid reaching critically low water levels in Lake Powell. Should levels in this important reservoir continue to decline due to the prolonged drought in the basin, it could result in a compact call, putting water supplies to much of Colorado and the upper basin states at risk. This also could result in a loss of regionally important hydropower production, a reduction in revenues derived from the sale of this power, and an associated loss of funding for important programs like the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that provides the means by which all existing water use and an increment of future use in the upper basin can comply with the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Denver Water, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited are working together to leverage $11 million made available under the Colorado River System Conservation Program, which will fund pilot projects to reduce demands in the Colorado River Basin and improve reservoir levels in Lake Powell as well as Lake Mead, which also has declined to its lowest level in its 80 year history.

“Without collaborative action, water supplies, hydropower production, water quality, agricultural output, recreation and environmental resources are all at risk in the next several years in the upper basin, if Lake Powell reaches critically low levels,” said Doug Robotham, Colorado water project director of The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

The Colorado River System Conservation Program, announced last week, was created by the Bureau of Reclamation and four municipalities in the upper and lower Colorado basins, including Denver Water, to provide funding to develop, test and gather data on potential short-term demonstration or pilot programs that keep water in lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and fully compensated mechanisms. If a pilot program proves to be successful, it could be part of a contingency toolbox developed by states and the federal government to be implemented only if a severe shortage looks imminent and discontinued when conditions improve.

“Our interest is to protect water users in Colorado and the upper basin. We know that if there is a compact call, agriculture is the first area that will be looked at for the solution,” said Don Shawcroft, Colorado Farm Bureau. “A crisis is bad for everyone — especially agriculture. It is vital that we have a voice at the table.”

The upper basin pilot projects developed under the System Conservation Program will be used to demonstrate ways to put water immediately in Lake Powell, through voluntary, compensated means, and only for as long as a drought continues.

“Lake Powell is the ‘bank account’ that assures the upper basin has the wherewithal to meet our obligation to the lower basin under the Colorado River Compact. While the risks of Lake Powell going below its power pool are low, the consequences are high,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager of Denver Water. “Currently there are no contingency plans for such an event. Denver gets half its water supply from the Colorado River so we have a big stake in the future security of the river, not just for ourselves, but for all water users in Colorado. As leaders, we simply cannot wait for a crisis to happen before we come together to figure out how to address it. That would be irresponsible.”

“For a number of years now we have been working with Colorado, Front Range water providers, Southwestern, TNC, and agricultural producers on a long-term water banking solution. The System Conservation Program is a natural outgrowth of that effort. The challenge is to be sure all parties are represented and that we have fair and transparent processes,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District.

In order to ensure that local concerns are addressed, and that there is equity and fairness among all parties, the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Upper Colorado River Commission will have a direct role in program efforts. This envisioned structure is distinct from that of the Lower Colorado River Basin, where the Bureau of Reclamation will manage conservation actions in Arizona, California and Nevada to address declining reservoir levels in Lake Mead in a manner consistent with past programs.

“Complying with the Colorado River Compact is a shared responsibility across all water-use sectors and among all the upper basin states” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “We must control our destiny. The worst case is a compact call or a situation where the federal government determines how we will manage critical flows. We simply must work together to protect the future of this state, all our economies and critical industries to avoid a future compact call.”

As this is a basin-wide project, the coalition will continue to seek additional stakeholders throughout the upper basin states. The members also plan to actively seek additional funding for education and outreach.

“This is not a one-sector or one-state solution. The pilot programs will demonstrate the viability of cooperative means to reduce water demand from any number of different sources where water is lost or consumed — agriculture, municipal and industrial,” said Frank Daley, president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

“We have learned in Colorado though our Water Conservation Board and Basin Roundtables how critical public awareness is to project success. Education and awareness of the pilot projects may be equally as beneficial as the projects themselves. We have to be sure people have the real facts of what we are trying to do, buy in to the process and then document the benefits,” stated Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Conservation District.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, and the combined metropolitan areas served by the Colorado River represent the world’s 12th largest economy, generating more than $1.7 trillion in Gross Metropolitan Product per year along with agricultural economic benefits of just under $5 billion annually.

More Denver Water coverage here.


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