Transmountain diversion concepts discussed in Rifle — Aspen Journalism #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver #CORiver

Homestake Dam via Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Homestake Reservoir on Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River. An agreement allows for more water to be developed as part of this transmountain diversion project.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, invoked his Western Slope heritage at a “Summit on the Colorado Water Plan” hosted Saturday in Rifle by the Garfield County commissioners.

“The mantra I grew up with in Plateau Valley was not one more drop of water will be moved from this side of the state to the other,” said Eklund, whose mother’s family has been ranching in the Plateau Creek valley near Collbran since the 1880s.

Eklund was speaking to a room of about 50 people, including representatives from 14 Western Slope counties, all of whom had been invited by the Garfield County commissioners for a four-hour meeting.

The commissioners’ stated goal for the meeting was to develop a unified voice from the Western Slope stating that “no more water” be diverted to the Front Range.

“That argument had been made, probably by my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents,” Eklund said. “And I know there are a lot of people who still want to make that argument today, and I get that. But it has not done us well on the Western Slope.

“That argument has gotten us to were we are now, 500,000 to 600,000 acre feet of water moving from the west to the east. So I guess the status quo is not West Slope-friendly. We need something different. We need a different path. And these seven points provides that different path.”

The “seven points” form the basis of a “draft conceptual framework” for future negotiations regarding a potential transmountain diversion in Colorado.

The framework is the result of the ongoing statewide water-supply planning process that Eklund is overseeing in his role at the CWCB.

Eklund took the helm two years ago at the CWCB after serving as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel, and he’s been leading the effort to produce the state’s first water plan, which is due on the governor’s desk in December.

The second draft of the plan includes the seven points, even though the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, is still on the record as opposing their inclusion in the water plan. That could change after its meeting on Monday.

The outflow of the Bousted Tunnel just above Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville. The tunnel moves water from tributaries of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers under the Continental Divide for use by Front Range cities, and Pitkin County officials have concerns that more water will someday be sent through it.
The outflow of the Bousted Tunnel just above Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville. The tunnel moves water from tributaries of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers under the Continental Divide for use by Front Range cities, and Pitkin County officials have concerns that more water will someday be sent through it.

Not legally binding

The “seven points” seeks to define the issues the Western Slope likely has with more water flowing east under the Continental Divide, and especially how a new transmountain diversion could hasten a demand from California for Colorado’s water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“The seven points are uniquely helpful to Western Slope interests because if you tick through them, they are statements that the Front Range doesn’t necessarily have to make,” Eklund said in response to a question. “If these were legally binding, the Western Slope would benefit.”

Under Colorado water law a Front Range water provider, say, can file for a right to move water to the east, and a local county or water district might have little recourse other than perhaps to fight the effort through a permitting process.

But Eklund said the points in the “conceptual framework” could be invoked by the broader Western Slope when negotiating a new transmountain diversion.

As such, a diverter might at least have to acknowledge that water may not be available in dry years, that the diversion shouldn’t exacerbate efforts to forestall a compact call, that other water options on the Front Range, including increased conservation, should be developed first, that a new transmountain diversion shouldn’t preclude future growth on the Western Slope, and that the environmental resiliency of the donor river would need to be addressed.

“We’re just better off with them than without them,” Eklund said of the seven points.

The downstream face of the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir on Homestake Creek, a tributary of the upper Eagle River. A tunnel moves water from Homestake Reservoir to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville.
The downstream face of the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir on Homestake Creek, a tributary of the upper Eagle River. A tunnel moves water from Homestake Reservoir to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville.

A cap on the Colorado?

Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and represents 15 Western Slope counties, told the attendees that three existing agreements effectively cap how much more water can be diverted from the upper Colorado River and its tributaries above Glenwood Springs.

The Colorado Water Cooperative Agreement, which was signed in 2013 by 18 entities, allows Denver Water to develop another 18,000 acre-feet from the Fraser River as part of the Moffat, or Gross Reservoir, project, but it also includes a provision that would restrict other participating Front Range water providers from developing water from the upper Colorado River.

A second agreement will allow Northern Water to move another 30,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River through its Windy Gap facilities, but Northern has agreed that if it develops future projects, it will have to do so in a cooperative manner with West Slope interests.

And a third agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding will allow Aurora and Colorado Springs to develop another 20,000 acre feet of water as part of the Homestake project in the Eagle River basin, but will also provide 10,000 acre feet for Western Slope use.

“So effectively these three agreements, in effect, cap what you’re going to see above Glenwood Springs,” Kuhn said.

The Moffat, Windy Gap and Eagle River projects are not subject to the “seven points” in the conceptual agreement, and neither is the water that could be taken by the full use of these and other existing transmountain projects.

“So when you add all that up, there is an additional 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of consumptive use already in existing projects,” Kuhn said.

But beyond that, Kuhn said Front Range water providers desire security and want to avoid a compact call, just as the Western Slope does.

“We’ve been cussing and discussing transmountain diversions for 85 years,” Kuhn added, noting that the Colorado Constitution does not allow the Western Slope to simply say “no” to Front Range water developers.

“So, the framework is an agenda,” Kuhn said, referring to the “seven points.” “It’s not the law, but it is a good agenda to keep us on track. It includes important new concepts, like avoiding over development and protecting existing uses.”

rquoise Reservoir, which stores water brought under the Continental Divide from the Eagle, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork river headwaters.
rquoise Reservoir, which stores water brought under the Continental Divide from the Eagle, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork river headwaters.

Vet other projects too?

Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, told the attendees that she would like to see more water projects than just new transmountain diversions be subject to the seven points.

As part of the state’s water-supply planning efforts, state officials have designated a list of projects as already “identified projects and processes,” or IPPs, which are not subject to the seven points.

“We would like to see the same environmental standards, and community buy-in standards, applied to increasing existing transmountain diversions or IPPs,” Richards said, noting that the “IPPs” seem to be wearing a halo.

“They need to go through just as much vetting for concern of the communities as a new transmountain diversion would, and we’re probably going to see a lot more of them first,” she said.

At the end of the four-hour summit on the statewide water plan, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson said he still had “real concerns” about the long-term viability of Western Slope agriculture and industry in the face of growth on the Front Range, but he offered some support for the seven points.

“I think the seven points is probably a good starting position,” Sampson said.

He also said Garfield County would make some edits to a draft position paper it hopes will be adopted by other Western Slope counties.

On Saturday, the draft paper said “the elected county commissioners on the Western Slope of Colorado stand united in opposing any more major, transmountain diversions or major changes in operation of existing projects unless agreed to by all of the county(s) from which water would be diverted.”

But Sampson was advised, and agreed, that it might be productive to reframe that key statement to articulate what the Western Slope would support, not what it would oppose.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post published this story online on July 25, 2015.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

State water board rules against Glenwood’s proposed whitewater rights — Aspen Journalism #ColoradoRiver

Upstream view of the Colorado River at the mouth of the Roaring fork River
Upstream view of the Colorado River at the mouth of the Roaring fork River

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

IGNACIO — The ongoing effort by the city of Glenwood Springs to establish a new water right for three potential whitewater parks on the Colorado River was dealt a setback Thursday by the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The CWCB board voted 8-to-1 to adopt staff “findings of fact” that the proposed water rights for a “recreational in-channel diversion,” or RICD, would “impair Colorado’s ability to fully develop its compact entitlements” and would not promote “the maximum beneficial use of water” in the state.

James Eklund, the director of the CWCB, and a nonvoting board member, was asked after the meeting what he would tell a kayaker in Glenwood about the board’s vote on Thursday.

“These are complicated issues,” Eklund said. “The CWCB values recreational water projects and takes very seriously its charge to strike a balance among recreational, environmental and consumptive uses. The proponent’s data and analysis weren’t able to demonstrate that the RICD as proposed struck this balance to the satisfaction of the CWCB.”

The CWCB board is required by state law to review all applications made in water courts for new recreational water rights, and to make a determination if the water right would prevent the state from developing all the water it legally can.

Colorado’s “compact entitlements” stem from the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which requires seven Western states to share water from the larger Colorado River basin.

The compact requires that an unspecified amount of water be divided between Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and estimates of the amount of water Colorado can still develop under the compact range from zero to 400,000 acre-feet to 1.5 million acre-feet.

Mark Hamilton, an attorney with Holland and Hart representing Glenwood, told the CWCB board members Thursday that there would be “no material impairment” to the state’s ability to develop new water supplies.

“If the issue really is what’s the additional upstream development potential, we would point out that significant upstream development can still occur,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton also said that the recreational water right would be non-consumptive, meaning the water would stay in the river and simply flow over u-shaped, wave-producing concrete forms embedded into the riverbed.

Glenwood is seeking the right to call for 1,250 cubic feet per second of water to be delivered to three whitewater parks at No Name, Horseshoe Bend and Two Rivers Park, from April 1 to Sept. 30.

It also wants the right to call for 2,500 cfs for up to 46 days between April 30 and July 23, and to call for 4,000 cfs on five consecutive days sometime between May 11 and July 6 in order to host a whitewater competition.

Aurora and Colorado Springs, together as partners in the Homestake transmountain diversion project, are opposing Glenwood’s water rights application, which was filed in December 2013.

“We do not oppose reasonable RICDs, but we believe this RICD claim is extraordinary by any measure,” Joseph Stibrich, the water resources policy manager for the city of Aurora, told the CWCB board, which was meeting in Ignacio on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

“We believe that a water claim of over 581,000 acre feet will seriously impair full development of Colorado’s compact entitlement,” Stibrich said. “This claim will severely impact the state of Colorado’s ability to meet its future water needs.”

Stibrich also said “this RICD is going to shift the burden of water supply development to meet the future needs of the state to the Yampa, to the Gunnison, and to the Rio Grande basins, while promoting further dry-up of irrigated lands throughout the state.”

Denver Water is also opposing Glenwood’s water rights application.

As part of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, Denver Water agreed not to oppose a RICD application from Glenwood, but only if Glenwood did not seek a flow greater than 1,250 cubic feet per second, which is the same size as the senior water right tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant.

Casey Funk, an attorney with Denver Water, said the utility stands by its agreement, but since Glenwood has asked for more than 1,250 cfs, it is opposing the city’s water court application. However, Funk said Denver Water is willing to keep negotiating with Glenwood.

The city made the case on Thursday that it was asking for more than 1,250 cfs on only 46 days between April and September, and it was doing so because the stretch of the Colorado from Grizzly to Two Rivers Park was more fun to float at 2,500 cfs than 1,250 cfs.

According to testimony Thursday, Glenwood also offered to include a “carve-out” in its water right to allow for 20,000 acre-feet of water to be diverted, stored and transported upstream of the proposed whitewater parks at some point in the future.

But that did not do much to sway the concerns of the CWCB staff.

“Staff is concerned with this provision, as it does not include water rights for transmountain diversions,” stated a July 15 memo to the CWCB board from Ted Kowalski and Suzanne Sellers of the CWCB’s Interstate, Federal & Water Information Section.

The CWCB staff memo also found that Glenwood’s recreational water rights would “exacerbate the call on the river and materially impact the ability of the state to fully use its compact entitlements because the RICDs will pull a substantial amount of water downstream.”

Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, suggested the CWCB board give the parties in the case more time to continue negotiating before it ruled on its staffs’ findings.

The River District, which is also a party to Glenwood’s water court case, represents 15 counties on the Western Slope.

“We think that compact issues are effectively done,” Fleming told the board about Glenwood’s application. “We believe there is sufficient water above the RICD to develop.”

But the CWCB board did not take Fleming’s suggestion, and after relatively little debate and discussion, a motion was made to accept the staff’s findings that Glenwood’s RICD failed two of the three criteria the CWCB board was supposed to rule on.

“I think it is really unfortunate that the board took the approach they did,” said Nathan Fey, the Colorado stewardship director for American Whitewater, after the board’s decision against Glenwood.

American Whitewater and Western Resource Advocates are both parties in the water court case, and they are supporting Glenwood’s application.

“It is unclear what evidence the staff presented that shows it is of material impairment to developing our water, or maximizing use of the state’s water,” Fey said. “Those are significant concerns, but I don’t think the state made a very strong case on those points. And it sounds like we would prefer to see another transmountain diversion and some future use on the Front Range, rather than protect the current river uses we have in our communities, like Glenwood Springs, now.”

The board’s finding will now be sent to the Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs, where the city filed its water rights application and the process is still unfolding.

And while the CWCB board’s determination is not binding on a water court judge, it has to be considered by the court as part of the ongoing case.

But Hamilton, Glenwood’s attorney, said after the meeting that the court would also need to consider additional balancing information presented by Glenwood.

It could be an uphill journey for Glenwood, though, as the CWCB staff has also been directed by the CWCB board to remain a party in the water court case and to defend its “findings of fact,” which includes more issues than were considered by the CWCB on Thursday.

Given the board’s vote on Thursday, Stibrich of Aurora said settlement discussions with Glenwood Springs are now likely.

“I’m certain they will make overtures to us and we’ll talk,” Stibrich said. “We’ll see if something can be reached or not.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story online on July 16, 2015.

More whitewater coverage here.

City of Glenwood Springs proposed whitewater parks via Aspen Journalism
City of Glenwood Springs proposed whitewater parks via Aspen Journalism

Silverthorne: 22nd annual State of the River recap

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey
Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

From the Summit Daily News (Ali Langley):

Summit’s Blue River Basin recorded snowpack near the 30-year average, and the six speakers at the 22nd annual State of the River meeting on Tuesday, May 5, stressed that local residents should feel fortunate that the headwaters community was spared the immediate water supply problems others are facing around the West.

“Everybody has Blue River envy,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District. “You’re the sweet spot this summer.”

However, the event’s speakers also emphasized the coming impacts of long-term drought and overconsumption on Summit and other communities that supply the majority of the West’s water.

Kuhn said major water players including Denver Water, which owns and operates Dillon Reservoir, are for the first time loudly prioritizing certainty of water supplies over development because they are worried about their future abilities to deliver water to their current customers…

County Open Space director Brian Lorch and Blue River Watershed Group board treasurer Jim Shaw said restoration projects on the Swan River northeast of Breckenridge and the Tenmile Creek east of Copper Mountain are moving forward with success.

Summit County water commissioner Troy Wineland said Summit’s snowpack didn’t quite reach average this winter, according to data from the Blue River Basin’s four SNOTEL measuring sites. Half of the snowpack arrived in November and December, and it was gone at lower and middle elevations by the end of March, which was unusually dry and warm.

Runoff started sooner this year, and Tenmile Creek flows in early April were five times greater than average, Wineland said. He predicted peak runoff will occur in early June depending on the weather.

On Monday, May 4, Wineland said Old Dillon Reservoir achieved its first complete fill of 303 acre feet. The reservoir is jointly operated by the county and the towns of Silverthorne and Dillon, and it was stocked with golden trout from California that Wineland said should mean good fishing in the next year or two.

Wineland stressed the role that Summit residents can play in shaping the state’s first-ever water plan, which will outline Colorado’s water policy priorities for the next 50 years and will be handed to the governor in December…

Bob Steger, water resources engineer with Denver Water, said his calculations of Summit snowpack included data from Fremont Pass, which is why he measured Summit’s snowpack as above average but “nowhere near the snowpack that we had last year.”

The Blue River Basin may be the only basin in the state that peaks above average, and Denver Water’s No. 1 priority of filling Dillon Reservoir “should be no problem,” he said. “We’re only two feet from full right now.”

It should be a great summer for boating as well as rafting and kayaking below the dam, Steger said. “The fishing will eventually be good, but if you don’t like high water you probably better stay out until sometime in July.”

He answered a question about Antero Reservoir in Park County, which Denver Water will empty this summer ahead of repairs to the 100-year-old dam. The phase that requires draining the reservoir should be done by the end of 2015 with refilling beginning next spring. Steger also said Denver Water is still working on a permit to enlarge Gross Reservoir in Boulder County.

Ron Thomasson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who oversees Green Mountain Reservoir operations, said runoff flows won’t be high enough this year to allow coordinated reservoir operations that would protect endangered fish on the Colorado River.

Peak flows must be between 12,900 cfs and 23,000 cfs to do that, and the current forecast is for 9,600 cfs, he said…

Kuhn presented last and detailed continued threats facing Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations.

“We’re going to have to cut back our uses,” he said, “after 100 years of develop more, develop more, develop more.”

Lake Mead could likely see its first shortage next year or in 2017, he said, and “bad things happen when Lake Mead and Lake Powell get drained.”

Allowing Lake Powell’s water level to fall below the amount needed to generate electricity would lead to dramatically higher utility bills costs, the elimination of funding for the important environmental programs funded by the hydropower revenue noted above that protect current and future water use in Colorado.

If Colorado and the other Upper Basin states violate the 1922 Colorado River Compact and fail to provide enough water to Lower Basin states, the West could be fighting over water in lengthy court battles and Colorado could be forced to prohibit some water uses.

Western states could lose control of water to the federal government, Kuhn said, and Colorado would likely lose power in management of the Colorado River and water in the state.

When asked about building an interstate water pipeline to solve some shortages, Kuhn said water managers have discussed pipelines of absurd lengths and he doesn’t think that method will work.

“To expect that we can export our problems to somebody else, I just don’t see that somebody else will willingly accept them,” he said.

#ColoradoRiver: “When do we say no, and who do we say no to?” — Mark Squillace

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

From the Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

By its natural flow, the Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park and ends in the Sea of Cortez. But flows of the Colorado decades ago ceased to be natural, as Phil Fradkin famously captured in his 1981 book “A River No More.”

A discussion on April 3 sponsored by the University of Colorado Law School’s Environmental Law Society examined two aspects of the unnatural flows. All three speakers, in different ways, talked about different management regimes for water revolving around the adage of “just add water.”

Since 1999, Jennifer Pitt has shepherded efforts on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund to restore flows to the river’s delta in Mexico. Water has not reached the sea with regularity since the 1960s and, until special releases last spring, not at all since the late 1990s.

Eric Wilkinson talked about the diversions of the river and its tributaries to cities along the Front Range of Colorado and to benefitting farms at least as far downstream as the Nebraska and Kansas borders. He’s general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, which administers the single largest diversion across the Continental Divide, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

Introducing the session, law professor Mark Squillace framed the primary issue of the Colorado as one of management that recognizes inherent limits and demands choices: “When do we say no, and who do we say no to?”

The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado, Powell and Mead, together were at 94 percent of capacity in 1999. By 2007, that storage had dropped to 54 percent of capacity.

This year looks even worse: 42 percent of storage capacity for the two reservoirs, and more decline as the year progresses look inevitable. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this year projected runoff in the Colorado River to be just 52 percent of normal. “Things are not looking good,” Squillace said.

“Are we facing a crisis?” he asked rhetorically, before answering his own question: “I would suggest it’s not a water crisis. It’s a management crisis.”

In talking about the successful effort to return water to the river delta in Mexico during March 2014, Pitt described a long, evolving process that essentially began in 1999 with a study that found that ecosystem functions in the river delta could be restored with just 1 percent of annual flows. Securing that water for a successful pulse of water last year required persistence and new levels of cooperation.

Wilkinson continued Pitt’s theme. “Everything you do with water takes time,” he said.

The Colorado-Big Thompson Project itself took time. It was conceived in at least some vague ways in the late 1890s as farmers in the South Platte Valley of northern Colorado noted insufficient water for late-summer irrigation. Recurrence of drought in the 1930s added argument for a giant, federally funded capital works project. Work began in 1938 on Green Mountain Reservoir, to serve needs of the Western Slope, but final work was not completed until 1957.

This and other diversions from the Colorado River headwaters have created a thriving economy along the Front Range. Weld County, the largest in the basin, is 8th in the nation in total agricultural production. By itself, Weld County produces more than all 20 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope combined.

All this belies the impression of Zebulon Pike who, upon encountering the high plains leading up to the Rockies, made comparisons to the deserts of Africa. “Just add water,” Wilkinson advised. He said that two-thirds of irrigated acres in Colorado get at least some of their water from the Colorado River.

The munificence of Colorado River water extends to the cities of the Front Range corridor, where about 85 percent of Coloradans live, mostly in the fast-urbanizing strip along I-25 north from Denver. The Front Range, said Wilkinson, represents 80 to 86 percent of Colorado’s economic activity.

Wilkinson’s description of Colorado’s transmountain infrastructure was a story of triumph. The future, he acknowledged, is far more muddled.

One outstanding issue is whether Colorado can expect to divert substantial amounts of additional water from the Colorado River and its tributaries. It’s not clear how much Colorado has left of its apportionments as specified by two major compacts governing the Colorado River, the seven-state compact of 1922 or the 1948 compact among the four headwaters states.

But even if there is water, said Wilkinson, there are additional questions: “If so, how do you develop it, and if so, how do you develop it in ways that protect basins of origin and still make the project economical?”

Then there’s this simple fact: existing diversions are not an absolute. They depend upon volumes of water in the river to meet compact requirements—and deepening drought could throw even long-standing diversions off the rail.

Responding to a question about California’s drought, Wilkinson said that he is “scared” that the federal government—administrator of the compact—will someday force curtailment of diversions with appropriation dates after 1922. That would include the Colorado-Big Thompson.

As the northern Front Range looks to add 2.5 million people during the next 35 years, the equivalent of the existing Denver-Boulder metroplex, there will be questions of where the water will come from. There is, said Wilkinson, a “disconnect” between the people who provide water and the people who approve residential developments.”

All this points to a new era of water management, as opposed to the “just add water” mantra of the mid-20th century.

The water czar who reshaped Colorado River politics — High Country News #ColoradoRiver

Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University

Here’s an in-depth look at Pat Mulroy and her role shaping Colorado River politics and leading the Southern Nevada Water Authority into the 21st Century, from Matt Jenkins writing for the High Country News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

In 1985, Mulroy became deputy general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, one of seven water agencies that supply Vegas and its suburbs. By 1989, she was general manager — and found herself with a fight on her hands. The seven agencies were running out of water and squabbling over what remained. “Southern Nevada was in meltdown,” she says. “It was acrimonious and ugly.”

It took three years to find “peace and a pathway forward,” as she puts it, by convincing the other agencies to cooperate under the banner of a new superagency called the Southern Nevada Water Authority, whose primary goal would be to ensure water supplies for the entire metropolitan area. From the start, it was clear that Mulroy would be in charge. “There was no way in hell,” says George Forbes, then Boulder City manager, “that she was going to play Number Two to anybody.”

Then Mulroy turned outward. In the 1920s, when the Colorado River was originally divvied up, Las Vegas was little more than a railroad stop, and Nevada was a sparsely populated desert. The other six states that share the river received nearly all the water — and the power. Mulroy was determined to change that by challenging the so-called “law of the river,” an amalgamation of more than four-dozen statutes, international treaties and court decrees that other states’ managers adhered to, Mulroy notes sarcastically, as if they were Moses’ tablets. With southern Nevada’s warring agencies now united, Mulroy was ready to take on the other states. “When we said something,” she says, “they knew we meant it.”

For his part, Bunker likens Mulroy’s entrance into the broader realm of Colorado River politics to unleashing “a flash-bang grenade” on a bunch of “old, mossback, gray-headed guys.”

Mulroy’s grand entrance came at a critical time for Las Vegas, which was well on its way into a major boom. In 1992, when Mulroy took charge of the Water Authority, roughly 840,000 people lived in the metropolitan area. Over the next decade, that number would nearly double. By 2002, Mulroy fully expected to have hit the limits of Nevada’s full Colorado River allocation of 300,000 acre-feet — roughly 98 billion gallons per year — even as the city continued to swell.

So she launched a campaign to wrest more water from the Colorado. Roughly 70 percent of the river’s water is used for agriculture, and many urban water agencies see that as a reservoir on which they might draw if necessary. But there’s very little farming in southern Nevada, so Mulroy was forced to look toward other states. This was sacrilege in a system where each state traditionally guarded its own allocation of the river as if it was more precious than gold.

Her sights eventually fell on Chevron, which held rights to water that it hoped to use to extract oil shale in western Colorado. The company needed a way to put the water to use until the shale industry took off. One way to do that might be by leasing it to Las Vegas.

That, however, would run headlong into a hallowed proscription in the state of Colorado. Owing to the structure of the law of the river, the upstream, Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and their downstream, Lower Basin counterparts — Nevada, Arizona and California — form two separate negotiating blocs, which are set squarely in opposition to each other on key legal controversies. And Colorado officials have long maintained that, under the law of the river, transfers between the Upper and Lower basins are illegal.

Though it would be decades before Colorado needed its full river allocation, officials there saw Chevron’s water as critical to the state’s future economic development. If Las Vegas came to depend on the water, they feared, Colorado might lose its rights through a sort of adverse possession.

So when Jim Lochhead, a strategy advisor for Colorado, heard about Mulroy’s negotiations with Chevron, he quickly booked a flight to Vegas and delivered a warning: Back off. “She would have gotten years and years of litigation,” Lochhead said last year. “And she wouldn’t have gotten any water.”

Mulroy turned her attention to the safer territory of the Lower Basin. Water managers there were already bandying about a series of interstate “banking” proposals, under which the states could store water for each others’ use. Both Arizona and California were interested, but Nevada’s need was urgent.

Finally, in 2001, Mulroy got what she wanted: The Southern Nevada Water Authority inked a deal under which it would pay a counterpart in Arizona to buy water from farms there and store it underground. In return, the Water Authority could, in later years, take an equivalent portion of Arizona’s share of the Colorado River directly from Lake Mead, the massive reservoir just east of Las Vegas from which the city already draws most of its water.

Though it was pitched as a banking deal, it was really an exercise in figuring out how to move water across state lines. “If you think about it, it’s pretty much the exact same thing as us going to Arizona and buying water and moving it to Nevada,” says David Donnelly, who was Mulroy’s engineering and operations chief and the principal architect of this deal. “Except in this case, Arizona buys it, takes the water and banks it for us — and then we get it back in the future.”

It was also the first federally sanctioned deal for a water transfer between two states. But Mulroy has only ever spoken about it euphemistically because transfers, even within the Lower Basin, are so politically charged. “Don’t ever call it a transfer,” she scolded during a 2008 interview. “It’s a banking agreement. That thing will disappear on us tomorrow if we call it a transfer.”

She had learned a crucial lesson, however. In the years that followed, Mulroy would — despite her reputation as a woman who didn’t mince words — speak an increasingly convoluted lingua franca that would eventually include enigmas like “intentionally created unused apportionment.” It sounds like gobbledygook, but it was all for a larger end.

“I learned it’s not what you do, it’s what you call it,” Mulroy told me. “You find the right name for it, and you can do anything.”

The opaque language bought managers leeway to try new approaches within the arcane system of interstate water management on the river. That helped Mulroy in her quest for water to sustain Vegas’ runaway growth. Ultimately, however, it would help all the Colorado River water bosses weather a much bigger looming disaster.

More Colorado River coverage here.

Transparency and the Colorado River Compact — John Fleck #ColoradoRiver

Members of the Colorado River Commission
Members of the Colorado River Commission

Click through to read John Fleck’s reflection on the minutes from the negotiations for the Colorado River Compact on InkStain. Here’s an excerpt:

The negotiation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing the allocation of water from the West’s great river, and the ratification process that followed, was a politically delicate process.

Precisely how delicate is made clear in a fascinating exchange of letters 10 years after between Colorado attorney Delph Carpenter (the compact’s primary architect) and Norcutt Ely, who at the time was executive assistant to Interior Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur.

The Compact Commission’s 27 sessions were largely closed affairs, though detailed minutes were kept…

…they were stashed in a “small room” at the Commerce Department. Carpenter suggests several people who might know where they were, and that they be forwarded to the state representatives “before they become lost”.

Thankfully, they were not lost. The University of Colorado has published them in full.

I found the Carpenter-Ely letters in the Colorado State University digital collection.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

Water Lines: Colorado Water Plan delivered, key dilemmas remain — Hannah Holm

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

Colorado lurched one more step towards resolving how to satisfy growing demands for water with stable-to-diminishing supplies when Governor Hickenlooper received the first complete draft of a statewide water plan on Dec. 10.

In compiling the plan, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) provided the latest information on current and projected water supplies and defined some “no regrets” actions that would help no matter what the future holds. These include achieving at least low-to-medium levels of conservation, completing already planned projects, implementing water re-use projects, and preserving the option of taking more water out of the Colorado River and its tributaries to meet both West and East Slope needs.

The CWCB stopped short of endorsing (or vetoing) any particular projects to meet future needs or taking a hard stand on the role conservation and land-use restrictions should play in meeting future needs. The draft plan maps the landscape, but doesn’t define the route.

The identification of specific projects was left to roundtables of water providers and stakeholders in each of the state’s major river basins. As anticipated, those basin plans conflict on the issue of whether East Slope basins can continue to rely on additional West Slope water to meet their growing needs. Approximately 500,000 acre-feet per year already flows east across the Continental Divide through ditches and tunnels that siphon off a majority of the natural flows from many headwaters streams. One acre-foot can meet the needs of two to three households for a year under current usage rates.

Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism
Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

While the draft plan doesn’t say “yes” or “no” to additional transmountain diversions, it does incorporate a seven-point “draft conceptual agreement” on how to negotiate on future transmountain diversions. The draft discussion framework (there’s been a lot of push back on calling it an agreement) contains several new features in the many-decades-long debate between East and West Slope actors over transmountain diversions. It states that the East Slope is not looking for stable water deliveries each year from any such project, recognizing that it may only be able to divert in wet years and would have to use transmountain water in conjunction with non-West Slope sources, such as the Denver Basin aquifer and temporary transfers from agriculture.

The draft framework also notes the need for an “insurance policy” to protect against Colorado water users getting cut off in the event that we fail to let enough water flow beyond the state line to meet downstream obligations. Colorado and the other Upper Colorado River Basin states have never failed to meet their obligation to downstream states under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, but the margin by which we’ve exceeded it keeps diminishing. Additional use in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, plus continued drought, could push us over that threshold.

While the draft framework is a tiny part of the draft Colorado Water Plan, it’s likely to be at the center of debate between water leaders from each of the state’s major river basins as the draft Colorado Water Plan becomes “final” over the coming year. In a meeting Dec. 18, members of the four West Slope basin roundtables met in Grand Junction to work towards a common negotiating position in those discussions.

The four roundtables share extreme skepticism about the wisdom of any transmountain diversion, no matter the caveats; they also share a concern that any “insurance policy” to protect existing uses from curtailment under the 1922 Colorado River Compact would ultimately result in water being transferred out of West Slope agriculture, even if the transfer is voluntary and lower-impact than the wholesale “buying and drying” of agricultural water rights that has already devastated some East Slope farming communities.

Where the West Slope roundtables begin to diverge is over how additional Colorado River Basin development on the West Slope figures into the picture. Given that any new uses raise the risk of failing to meet downstream obligations, should new West Slope water projects be looked on any more favorably than new projects to send water across the Continental Divide? Where is the right line in the trade-off between protecting existing Colorado River water users and making the fullest use possible of the resource? And what place should “nonconsumptive” uses of water for the health of the environment and recreation play into these decisions?

This already complicated dilemma is made more complicated by the fact that the Yampa and White river basins have fewer dams and diversions on their streams than the other West Slope river basins, and therefore have a greater interest in new projects to provide greater security for existing users, as well potentially irrigate even more land and/or meet the needs of increasing energy development. Is the Yampa Basin bearing an unfair share of the burden of meeting downstream obligations, or would it be even more unfair for existing users in other basins to have to cut back in order to subsidize Yampa Basin growth?

In the quest to find common ground on this issue, participants in the Dec. 18 meeting called for better hydrologic data in order to better understand how much additional risk is created by different levels of additional use.

I don’t know if that’s possible, given the current state of scientific understanding of our region’s climate and hydrology, particularly when it comes to forecasting. What may bear fruit is the search for the right “triggers,” in terms of reservoir and/or streamflow levels, to indicate when more development, on either side of the Continental Divide, can proceed without posing unacceptable risks to the whole system. Don’t expect this dilemma to be resolved any time soon, no matter what deadlines exist on paper.

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 about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at http://Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at http://Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.