Keeping water in the Crystal River

A section of the lower Crystal River in late summer 2012. Irrigators and other water users in the Crystal River valley are working toward ways to leave water in the river during moderate droughts.
A section of the lower Crystal River in late summer 2012. Irrigators and other water users in the Crystal River valley are working toward ways to leave water in the river during moderate droughts.

CARBONDALE — In an effort to leave more water in the lower Crystal River in dry years, a growing number of irrigators in the watershed are considering entering into non-diversion agreements and are reviewing ways to deliver water to their crops more efficiently.

The agreements would be a product of discussions surrounding the recently released Crystal River Management Plan, which sets a goal of adding 10 to 25 cubic feet per second of water into the river during moderate and severe drought years.

The additional water could come from paying irrigators to reduce their diversions by 5 to 18 percent, depending on conditions, and by helping irrigators improve irrigation ditches and installing sprinkler systems.

The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to fix the leaky irrigation ditches it uses to move water from the Crystal River through town and for the town to find ways to get its customers to use less raw water in dry years.

And apparently there is progress quietly being made on the plan’s recommendations.

“We’re really hopeful about this approach and it has had a pretty good response from the folks that we’ve had the opportunity to speak about it with in the agricultural community,” said Seth Mason, the principal hydrologist at Lotic Hydrological in Carbondale, who was the primary consultant on the river management plan.

The plan also cites the potential benefits of a 3,000-acre-foot reservoir at the confluence of Yank Creek and North Thompson Creek, although it notes such a reservoir would cost $9.75 million and it’s not clear who would pay for it.

Today there are 25 water diversions on the main stem and tributaries of the Crystal River and together they can pull up to 433 cfs of water from the river system.

In really dry years, the diversions can leave a section of the lower Crystal disturbingly dry, even if the water is being used to keep fields near Carbondale refreshingly green.

Just how many ranchers and farmers in the Crystal River Valley are now actively weighing their water options is uncertain, as the process to develop the river management plan in concert with local irrigators has largely been conducted in private.

But the acknowledgement section of the Crystal River Management Plan released Thursday does list 12 irrigation ditches among the organizations that “informed and advised” the team that developed the new river management plan.

“A long list of individuals and organizations informed and advised the Project Team throughout the planning process,” the plan states, including “Crystal River water rights holders and agricultural producers, including representatives from the Sweet Jessup Canal, East Mesa Ditch, Lowline Ditch, Ella Ditch, Helms Ditch, Pioneer Ditch, Bowles and Holland Ditch, Rockford Ditch, Carbondale Ditch, Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch, Kaiser and Sievers Ditch, and Southard and Cavanaugh Ditch … ”

No names of any individual ranchers, farmers or ditch company shareholders are included in the plan, but the ditches that are acknowledged account for the majority of diversions from the lower Crystal.

Bill McKee, a rancher and irrigator on the Crystal, has been actively involved in talking with local ranchers about the river management plan and he voiced his support for the plan’s recommendations at Thursday’s public presentation at the Carbondale library meeting room.

“In all our discussions, it’s seen as a good time to strike while the iron is hot,” McKee said.

A slide from Lotic Hydrological as presented to the Colorado River District on May 23, 2016. The slide summarizes key points in the new Crystal River Management Plan.
A slide from Lotic Hydrological as presented to the Colorado River District on May 23, 2016. The slide summarizes key points in the new Crystal River Management Plan.

Drought sparked plan

The planning process for the Crystal River Management Plan started after the drought of 2012 left a section of the Crystal River between Thompson Creek and the state’s fish hatchery, just upvalley of Carbondale proper, with only 1 cubic foot per second of water flowing in it below several diversion structures. That year represented at least a one-in-20-year drought.

(On Saturday, May 28 at 10 a.m. the Crystal was flowing at 851 cfs near the fish hatchery).

“It is a fairly large river channel,” Mason said Thursday. “You can imagine that a channel that size is a pretty astounding sight when there is no water in it.”

During 2012 staffers at the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Water Trust began talking with ranchers about ways to leave more water in the river.

The Trust eventually reached short-term agreements with seven irrigators to leave water in the river in 2013, which was shaping up to be another drought year. Late-season rains negated the need for the agreements, but the work of the Trust helped provide a foundation for ongoing discussions that shaped the current plan.

The Conservancy then contracted with Mason to develop a technical study of the Crystal River and eventually brought in CDR Associates of Boulder to work with stakeholders. Public Counsel of the Rockies, an Aspen-based nonprofit, also joined the planning process and helped raise funds to pay for the plan.

The process has taken two-and-a-half years and cost over $300,000, said Rick Lofaro, the executive 
director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.

Before the plan was unveiled Thursday it was vetted by some irrigators, a number of whom are now in active discussions with the Colorado Water Trust about non-diversion agreements, according to Mason.

“There are ongoing conversations that I can’t say too much about,” said Mason, who was able to characterize the conversations both among irrigators and the town as “positive.”

A non-diversion agreement is a tool the Water Trust uses to give irrigators and other water users the option to leave water in rivers under certain conditions and terms, without going through a water court process to change an existing water right.

“Such agreements, which used to present risk to water users under Colorado water law,​ are now protected by ​[state] Sen. Gail Schwartz’s bill that passed in the 2013 legislative session, ​Senate Bill 19,” said Amy Beatie, executive director of the Water Trust.

(Please see a related story, “City considers 10-year agreement to 
leave more water in the Roaring Fork.”)

A slide from a recent presentation by Lotic Hydrological to the Colorado basin roundtable. The graphic illustrates the drying up of the Crystal in 2012 and four threshold questions posed by stakeholders during a recent river management planning process.
A slide from a recent presentation by Lotic Hydrological to the Colorado basin roundtable. The graphic illustrates the drying up of the Crystal in 2012 and four threshold questions posed by stakeholders during a recent river management planning process.

Private process

Mason helped clarify the situation for many local ranchers with a graphic that illustrates extremely low flows on the lower Crystal in late summer of 2012 in relation to various irrigation ditches.

He also developed a detailed scientific study of the Crystal River watershed and a model that could show what would happen in the river under various scenarios.

During the planning process, it became clear to Mason and other project team members that many local ranchers were not comfortable attending public meetings that included a bevy of professionals from various organizations.

“We did have other folks in the room at a couple points and that did not go the way we wanted it to,” Mason said. “We had some negative reactions to that and we’re very protective of the process. We wanted to make sure that the agricultural community knew that this process wasn’t a process run by folks who didn’t care about their livelihoods or their importance to the local community.”

The project team also learned that there were some threshold questions that needed to be answered.

One question was whether the periodic lack of water in the Crystal was really “the largest constraint on the ecological function,” as Mason put it.

By studying many different aspects of the river, including sediment flows, Mason concluded that yes, having enough water in the lower Crystal River is a key factor in its ecological health.

Another important question posed by stakeholders was, “How much water is enough to make a difference?”

In answering that question, Mason found that using the state’s instream flow right of 100 cfs in summer on the Crystal below Avalanche Creek as a planning goal was unacceptable to local ranchers.

“The agriculture community was not interested in talking about the state’s instream flow as the benchmark for ecosystem health,” Mason said.

He explained that the 100 cfs figure, which the state adopted in 1975 as the amount of water needed to protect the environment of the Crystal “to a reasonable degree,” was tied to average conditions, not drought conditions, and was therefore unlikely to be met in a really dry year.

What was acceptable to water users was working toward a “moderate,” but not “optimal,” level of flow between between Thompson Creek and the fish hatchery during one-in-five-year and one-in-ten-year droughts.

They also, notably, did not set a goal of reaching moderate flows in a one-in-20-year drought, such as 2012.

Mason concluded that during a severe one-in-10-year drought, an “optimal” flow level in the targeted stretch of river was 55 cfs, and a “moderate” flow level was 44 to 55 cfs.

During a one-in-five-year drought, he found the optimal flow level was 58 and moderate flow level ranged from 46 to 51 cfs.

To fill the expected gap between low river levels and the targeted moderate flow levels, the plan calls for 25 cfs to be left in the river from non-diversion agreements in a 1-in-10-year drought, and for 10 to 15 cfs to be left in the river in a one-in-five-year drought.

The plan states that stakeholders “indicated tolerance for moderate ecosystem risk under average to moderate drought conditions.”

A slide from Lotic Hydrological that illustrates the targeted flow rates for dealing with moderate and severe droughts on the lower Crystal River.
A slide from Lotic Hydrological that illustrates the targeted flow rates for dealing with moderate and severe droughts on the lower Crystal River.

Range of options

After developing a solid scientific foundation and a model to help answer “what if” questions, Mason then developed options for each major irrigator on the Crystal.

These ditch-by-ditch options are not included in the plan, but Mason has been working with willing irrigators to help them understand how a non-diversion agreement might work for them, especially if they are joined by other water users.

The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to take steps to reduce its diversions from the river, along with the agricultural community.

“Carbondale does have a few big ditches that move quite a bit of water from the river,” Mason said. “That water supports all the lovely large trees that we see down here that wouldn’t be here normally.”

Those steps include lining more of the town’s irrigation ditches to prevent leaking of water and using market forces to curtail use of raw water in dry years.

The new Crystal River Management Plan could be a potential model that could be used to develop other stream management plans, as the state’s recently released Colorado Water Plans calls for such plans on 80 percent of the state’s rivers.

James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which produced the state water plan, complimented the planning process in the Crystal River valley.

“Our quick read says that this plan is based on sound science, examined viable alternatives, and engaged many stakeholders,” Eklund said Friday when asked for comment. “Continued collaboration with water users is required in order to implement effective solutions, but the Crystal River is headed in the right direction.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, May 29, 2016.

CWCB board meeting recap: 11 grants = $734,000

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Arkansas River issues took center stage at this week’s meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board at Otero Junior College.

The board awarded 11 grants totaling $734,000 to projects in the Arkansas Valley, while touring some other projects in the La Junta area that already are underway. It also reviewed the progress of a pilot program by the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, which was authorized under legislation in 2013 and heard plans by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water
Conservancy District to introduce new water banking legislation.

Diane Hoppe at CFWE President's Award Reception 2012
Diane Hoppe at CFWE President’s Award Reception 2012

The board paused for about an hour Wednesday to remember Diane Hoppe, who chaired the board until her death last month. Hoppe was a former state lawmaker who had been active in state water issues for more than 30 years.

On Tuesday, the CWCB staff and board toured the Catlin Canal, a channel-clearing project at North La Junta and a flume-replacement project on the Fort Lyon Canal.

The Catlin project is overseen directly by the CWCB under HB1248, which allows the state to do administrative water transfers without changThe Lower Ark district is championing the Super Ditch as a way to allow farmers to keep water rights while leasing some water to cities.

In the Catlin project, river flows are augmented by releases of water stored in Lake Pueblo and recharge ponds that have been built on farms. Cropland is dried up for no more than three years in 10, and the water is leased to Fowler, Fountain and Security.

At Wednesday’s session, Lower Ark attorney Leah Martinsson explained new legislation that would expand the concept to allow the CWCB to administer small transfers of water through a new kind of water bank. Past efforts to establish water banks relied on storage, while the new concept would allow direct flow rights to be leased.

“This is a different kind of tool,” Martinsson said. The bill, not yet numbered, would be sponsored by Democrat Reps. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins and Ed Vigil of Fort Garland and Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa.

Like HB1248, the new law would put a 3-in-10 year limit on dry-ups, require approval by the state engineer and prohibit transfers out of basin. It would rely on court-approved rules to allow transfers, but would not create a new kind of water right. It covers small transfers over a 10-year period to avoid large-scale speculation, Martinsson said.

The draft bill released to the CWCB is 19 pages long and fairly complex. CWCB member Patricia Wells asked whether the board would be expected to review many small transfers using such complicated criteria.

Martinsson replied that the rule-making process and ongoing review by the state engineer would simplify the process.
Peter Nichols, Lower Ark and Super Ditch attorney, said the proposed water bank would be more useful to farmers than existing statutes, giving them flexibility without altering water rights.

“It’s a better way to do this,” Nichols said. “It adds rigor to the process without going to water court for major changes.”

Meanwhile, the CWCB awarded a grant to study flood control on Fountain Creek. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Visions, studies and arguments over flood control on Fountain Creek have consumed attention in El Paso and Pueblo counties for the past decade.

Real work may finally be just around the corner — give or take a few bad floods.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board gave its approval this week to a $41,800 grant that will be added to $37,500 in local funds to begin evaluating potential sites for a dam or other flood control structures on Fountain Creek between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Like the creek itself, getting even to this point has been a meandering process, hitting snags and jumping out of the channel, as Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District explained to the CWCB.

“We first chose two scenarios to move forward,” Small said, explaining that a U.S. Geological Survey studied identified a dam or series of detention ponds between Fountain and Pueblo as the best way to protect Pueblo from intermittent flooding. “The water rights protection task came first.”

After a study last year confirmed flood control on Fountain Creek could be attained without harming water rights, the district moved to the next step of identifying where structures might be located. The existing study by the Army Corps of Engineers is limited to big projects and more than 40 years out of date.

The water rights issue doomed an earlier grant request at the Arkansas Basin Roundtable. Since then, the state Legislature passed a law that allowed storage of flows for flood control for up to 72 hours, except on Fountain Creek. The Fountain Creek district completed its study of water rights last year, however, and it passed roundtable scrutiny.

“We resolved the differences between stakeholders,” Small said. “It showed that water rights are a top priority in future projects.”

The preliminary work is needed as the Fountain Creek district prepares to receive $50 million over a five-year period specifically for flood control projects to protect Pueblo. The district is looking at the money to leverage more funding that would be needed to complete at least $150 million in projects already identified in plans.

The $50 million is a condition of a 1041 permit issued by Pueblo County for construction of the Southern Delivery System pipeline from Pueblo Dam to the El Paso County line.

Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain
Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain

#ColoradoRiver: Grand County rancher uses 2013 law to leave water in Willow Creek without penalty — Hannah Holm #COriver

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

A Grand County rancher has become the first person in Colorado to use a 2013 state law to intentionally leave water in a stream without fear of diminishing his water right. Working with the Colorado Water Trust , Witt Caruthers developed a plan to curtail diversions from Willow Creek when its flows drop to critical levels.

The additional flows will benefit half a mile of Willow Creek and then four and a half miles of the upper Colorado River before encountering the next downstream diversion, where another water user could potentially take the water. This stretch of the Colorado River has been heavily impacted for decades by upstream diversions across the Continental Divide to Front Range cities and farms.

The 2013 law, Senate Bill 13-019, allows some Western Slope water right holders to reduce their water use in up to five out of any consecutive ten years without having the use reductions count against them in water court calculations of “historic consumptive use.” This reduces the “use it or lose it” disincentive for conservation in Colorado water law.

The law applies only to water users in Colorado Division of Water Resources Divisions 4 (Gunnison River Basin), 5 (Colorado River Basin) and 6 (Yampa, White and North Platte River Basins). In order to qualify for the law’s protections, the water use reductions must be the result of enrolling land in a federal land conservation program or participating in an officially-sanctioned water conservation or banking program.

Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, which approved Caruthers’s conservation program, told the Sky Hi Daily News that “we’re glad to be in the vanguard and helping the agricultural community protect their water rights when they want to lend the water rights to environmental purposes.” The same article quotes Caruthers as saying that he and his partners sought to “one, preserve our water rights but also to contribute to the overall maintenance of the ecosystem there by leaving water in the stream when it wasn’t needed.”

The Colorado Water Trust has also pioneered the use of other voluntary and market-based tools for landowners to share water with streams without diminishing their water rights. These include a 2003 law that created a streamlined process for water users to make short-term leases of water to the state for environmental purposes. The Trust first used this tool in 2012 by brokering a deal to support flows in the Yampa River. It has since been used in several other places.

Support and funding for such innovative water conservation efforts is rising as Colorado and the other states and cities that share the Colorado River are seeking ways to prop up water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead in the face of long-term drought.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

Willow Creek via the USGS
Willow Creek via the USGS

2013 Colorado legislation: Willow Creek provides test case for SB13-019

Willow Creek via the USGS
Willow Creek via the USGS

From National Geographic (Sandra Postel and Todd Reeve):

A groundbreaking 2013 Colorado law provides new flexibility that allows water rights owners to allocate water to a river during times of critical low flow.

In the Colorado River headwaters, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, Willow Creek is providing a test case for the new law.

There, Witt Caruthers, a ranch owner with rights to divert a portion of Willow Creek’s water, decided to develop a plan allowing him to leave water in the creek for up to five years during a 10-year period—without the threat of the “use it or lose it” provision.

The water for Caruthers’ ranch, which is delivered through two irrigation ditches not far from where Willow Creek meets the Colorado River, fills stock tanks for cattle and irrigates 70 acres (28.3 hectares) of pasture. Typically, the diversions begin in May and continue through late summer. By that time, rivers and streams that rely on snow melt are running low – and after diverters take their share of water, many streams are at risk of running completely dry. Such was the case with Willow Creek.

For Caruthers the conservation project offered a chance to do something positive for Willow Creek and to set a precedent for other rivers in the drought-stricken West.

“Colorado’s water system created an incentive to use our water even in times when it’s not absolutely necessary,” Caruthers told the Denver Post. “When you’re under that pressure to use it or lose it, you’re almost forced to abuse it. That’s to the detriment of all.”

Caruthers and his partners worked with the Denver-based Colorado Water Trust (CWT) to design the project. It essentially involves curtailing diversions from Willow Creek when flows drop dangerously low. Because there are no other diverters immediately downstream, the enhanced flows will benefit not only the lower half mile of Willow Creek, but also some 4.3 miles of the upper Colorado –including populations of brook and brown trout.

Although the project restores only a small volume of water to the stream, that additional flow at crucial times of the year can help keep Willow Creek connected to the Colorado River, enhance water quality, and sustain fish and other aquatic organisms.

This past June, the chief engineer of the Colorado River District approved the CWT-Caruthers conservation program.

The Willow Creek project also sets a precedent that could be a game-changer for other Colorado rivers, as well as for farmers and ranchers that have the ability to use less water and share any surplus with a river. For those who desire to balance economic productivity with recreation interests, fish and wildlife needs, and community benefits, this new law offers a positive step forward.

The beauty of the new law, says Amy Beatie, CWT’s Executive Director, “is that it allows for a very simple, low-risk and flexible way for a water user to experiment with leaving water in a river.”

“It is one of the most straightforward programs the state has ever created to allow flexibility in water use,” Beatie continued, “and it has potential to benefit entire water user communities that are interested in collaborating to keep water in the river.

This 2013 Colorado law provides added flexibility and longer-term benefits for rivers than a 2003 state law that was designed to ensure that rivers aren’t denied water when they need it most.

The 2003 law was first tested during the drought of 2012 on the Yampa River, another upper Colorado tributary and the heartbeat of the popular tourist town of Steamboat Springs. That law allows farmers, ranchers and water districts to temporarily lease water to rivers and streams in times of need.

The following year, CWT and partners replicated that leasing approach on several other rivers, including the Fraser, another headwater tributary. The Fraser suffers not only from low flows during droughts, but also from trans-continental tunnel systems that divert its water to the Denver area.

Colorado’s 2013 law also gives water-rights protection to participants in the Colorado River System Conservation Program, an $11 million pilot initiative of the US Bureau of Reclamation and the water agencies supplying the four largest cities drawing upon the Colorado River – Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Some $2.75 million will be spent in the upper Colorado River Basin.

Although a small step for the restoration of the state’s rivers, Colorado’s new law breaks important new ground. And it may just inspire other western states to add flexibility to their systems of water rights so that more rivers can keep flowing.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Todd Reeve is CEO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. They are co-creators of Change the Course.

Change the Course, a partnership of National Geographic, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Participant Media, provided funding to support the flow restoration projects in the Willow Creek, Fraser and Yampa Rivers.

Pitkin County ponies up $35,000 to help the Colorado Water Trust

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

From the Aspen Daily News (Collin Szewczyk):

A three-pronged approach to restore local water flows got a shot in the arm on Tuesday when Pitkin County supported a $35,000 Healthy Rivers and Streams grant to help a Front Range nonprofit’s plan to keep more water in the Roaring Fork River.

The project looks to provide a pathway for water right holders to leave more of their allocation in the Roaring Fork without being penalized, and assess availability of other water sources to combine the total for maximum benefit for the river.

The Denver-based Colorado Water Trust is spearheading the project, which aims to extend a non-diversion agreement for the city-owned Wheeler Ditch; look into the utilization of up to 3,000 acre-feet of water that would otherwise be diverted through the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System to bolster flows near Aspen; and study ways to use more water in Grizzly Reservoir to benefit the Roaring Fork.

The funding will go toward coordinating the project; the completion of a feasibility analyses; forecasting instream flow needs for the upcoming irrigation season; performing outreach; and monitoring and reporting of streamflow and project benefits, according to a supplemental budget request from Lisa MacDonald, of the Pitkin County Attorneys Office.

Amy Beatie, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust (CWT), said this is a “real opportunity” to put water back in the Roaring Fork River, especially in the stretch between the Salvation Ditch and Castle Creek…

Wheeler Ditch non-diversion agreement

Aspen City Council partnered with the Colorado Water Trust in 2013 on a one-year Wheeler Ditch non-diversion agreement to improve streamflow conditions on a section of river that flows through the city. This area stretches from the ditch, which is located near the eastern edge of town, down to the Rio Grande Park, the CWT grant application noted. The agreement was also renewed in 2014.

When the water level in the river fell below 32 cubic feet per second (CFS), the city reduced the Wheeler Ditch diversions to keep water in the river, leading to an increase of about 2 to 3 CFS from mid-July through the end of the irrigation season.

Under the new proposal, this Wheeler agreement would be extended for 10 years, but only five of those years are covered under SB-19.

The water trust’s hope is that once others with water rights see the success of non-diversion agreements, they too will allow more water to remain in the Roaring Fork without penalty.

Beatie added that the city of Aspen has given the CWT a “resounding thumbs-up” in its efforts.

“[The non-diversion agreement] is an informal agreement where a water user decides not to use its water right for its decreed purposes,” she explained. “But can instead leave it in the river. There’s no transfer obligations, it’s a very simple and private process and it’s a private contract between the trust and the city to experiment with leaving water in this section of river.”

More water from Grizzly Reservoir

Beatie said a right to 800 acre-feet of water in Grizzly Reservoir was acquired in a settlement by the Colorado River Water Conservation District in an application for a junior right enlargement.

John Currier, chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, explained that out of the first 2,400 acre-feet that’s diverted in any given year under the junior water right, 800 goes to the river district.

“Through agreements with the city and county, that water is to be used in various ways, primarily for instream flow purposes,” he said.

Currier added that the real task of the overall project is figuring out how to marry the three sources and maximize the benefit.

“This was water that the river district secured,” Beatie noted. “It’s 800 acre-feet, about 750 of which can be used by a combination of the river district and Aspen for environmental purposes.”

Beatie said the river district is allowing CWT to analyze how the water can best be used and “sow this supply together with the Wheeler Ditch project.”

The CWT then intends to investigate how to best utilize the Grizzly water to enhance Roaring Fork streamflows, especially in years in which the Wheeler Ditch isn’t being diverted.

According to the CWT grant application, the first 40-acre feet of Grizzly Reservoir water would “be held in a mitigation account for subsequent release to enhance flows in the Roaring Fork during the late irrigation season.”

“The remaining water is to be stored either in Grizzly Reservoir in a Colorado River Water Conservation District account (up to 200 acre-feet) or held in [Twin Lakes Reservoir] storage,” the application continued.

Commissioner Steve Child asked if Grizzly Reservoir could be enlarged to provide more water on the West Slope.

Currier said that while nothing is in the works yet, the idea has “been on the radar screen.”

Water from the ‘Exchange’

In the third part of proposal, known as the “exchange,” the CWT will also investigate, in partnership with the water district, how to restore flows via the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System.

This could provide up to 3,000 acre feet of water “in exchange for equivalent bypasses from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River,” the CWT grant application noted.

But Beatie said that while this arrangement has been implemented, it’s never been formally approved.

“The state engineer cannot administer an agreement, they need to administer a water right,” she said. “There may be more steps that need to be undertaken, both to secure this water right as instream flow, and then to have it protected.”

Wide support for effort

The Pitkin County commissioners supported the HRS grant allocation for the project, and praised the city’s involvement.

“From the bottom of my heart I want to applaud the city for taking the lead on this during the drought and continuing and following through,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards. “It’s just been fabulous.”

Dave Nixa, vice chair of the Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, said data from this project could provide a huge opportunity to increase local flows, calling it the most comprehensive grant request that HRS has ever received.

“We’re talking about, could some of those places be Snowmass Creek and the Crystal [River]?” he said. “Where we could use the value of this as a catalyst to encourage others to participate.”

April Long, stormwater manager for the city, said Aspen is looking at creating a river management plan for the Roaring Fork, calling it a top priority.

“It’s something that we’ll be working with the county very closely on, and all the other stakeholders in the suburb section of the watershed in the next two years to develop an operational river management plan for how we can maintain flows in drought years,” she said.

The CWT had already attained a matching grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the total budget for the project is approximately $70,000, according to a letter from Beatie to the HRS board.

“The idea behind this application is that it’s a really good start,” Beatie said, “Our experience is that one step forward into solving flow shortages is often the catalyst to bring more energy and enthusiasm and other water rights and water users into the program.”

“On a stream, one cubic foot a second can make a big difference” — Amy Beatie #ColoradoRiver

earlyseasonstremflowicebobberwyn
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

For 139 years, state enforcers have said farmers, cities and ranchers who don’t use all the water they are entitled to could have their rights curtailed. Critics have said that discourages conservation.

A first deal in the works, made possible by a 2013 law, lets a ranch owner near Granby leave water in Willow Creek, a tributary of the overtapped Colorado River, without facing penalties.

A second deal would leave more water in the Roaring Fork River, another Colorado River tributary, in Aspen.

Colorado Farm Bureau leaders said they’re watching to make sure water left in rivers by those who don’t exercise their senior rights stays available to next-in-priority irrigators.

“We’re definitely taking a wait-and-see approach,” CFB president Don Shawcroft said. “We had a certain understanding when the law was passed, but it’s certainly up to the interpretation of the court and lawyers.”

The Colorado law says not using water won’t diminish or cancel a water right if the owner is enrolled in a conservation program with local approval.

Colorado River District officials last week approved the Willow Creek deal. Water saved initially will be small, flows of a few cubic feet per second into stream channels.

But the emerging alternative to Use It Or Lose It — developed by the Colorado Water Trust — marks a milestone in modernizing the state’s first-come, first-serve system for allocating water.

“We can look at the local water rights and determine if leaving water in a particular section of a river would create environmental benefits,” said Amy Beatie, director of the trust, devoted to saving rivers.

“The benefits could be significant,” Beatie said. “On a stream, one cubic foot a second can make a big difference.”[…]

Given the water pressures in the West, Louisiana-based ranch owner Witt Caruthers this year decided to try the new approach at his head-gates along Willow Creek.

“Colorado’s water system created an incentive to use our water even in times when it’s not absolutely necessary. When you’re under that pressure to use it or lose it, you’re almost forced to abuse it. That’s to the detriment of all,” Caruthers said.

He and his partners turned to the Colorado Water Trust to take advantage of the new law. Without it, he said, “You’re caught between taking what you need and taking what you are entitled to.”

When drought nearly dried up the Roaring Fork River a few years ago in Aspen, city officials began thinking about how to ensure a minimal flow by leaving water they divert from their Wheeler Ditch to irrigate parks and feed fountains.

Yet their efforts to leave water in the river led to legal challenges by competing users, who claimed the city’s senior rights must be reduced if it stops diverting its full allotment, said Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer for special projects.

“Aspen is interested in doing this. Leaving a little water in that stream is what we are trying to accomplish,” Overeynder said.

Agricultural irrigators are wary of changing Colorado water law, said John McKenzie, director of the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance. Yet the system causes many to flood fields with more water than they need for fear that government will list their water as abandoned, McKenzie said.

“We want to protect ditch company water rights,” he said. “But if there’s a mechanism where a ditch company that doesn’t need the water could allow it to flow down a river, and there was no ‘abandonment’ of that water, it could help a ditch company. There are costs to diverting water.”

More SB13-019 coverage here.

First lease-fallowing pilot project under HB13-1248 to move to CWCB next week

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A state engineer’s review of a plan to lease water from the Catlin Canal to upstream cities will move to the Colorado Water Conservation Board later next week. The state board is scheduled to review the plan on Jan. 26, the first day of its two-day meeting in Denver.

The plan is the first pilot project under 2013 legislation, HB1248, that allows the CWCB to review projects that lease water from farms to cities on a long-term, temporary basis. In order to provide the water, agricultural land must be dried up during the lease. No more than 30 percent of any given farm may be fallowed during the 10-year lease period.

Seven farms with 1,128 acres on the Catlin Canal will be dried up on a rotational basis to provide up to 500 acre-feet (163 million gallons) per year to three municipal water users: Fowler in Otero County, and Fountain and the Security Water and Sanitation District in El Paso County. If approved, the lease would begin this year.

The CWCB accepted the project in September, but will look at the details in the upcoming review. The state engineer’s office reviewed the plans in a way similar to a water court application or substitute water supply plan.

Bill Tyner, assistant Water Division 2 engineer, told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday that a review of the application has been completed and will go to the CWCB next week with a recommendation to proceed.

The review included concerns about impacts on other water rights from Southeastern and other groups in the Arkansas Valley.

“It’s an important time in the Arkansas River basin for those who have tired to get a lease-fallowing program going. It’s finally going to occur,” Tyner said.

The program is supported by the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, a corporation that includes members from several ditches, as well as the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

More HB13-1248 coverage here. More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.