Coloradans scramble to plan for looming water crisis — The Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

May 16, 2015

The May #Drought Update is hot off the presses from the Colorado Water Conservation Board

May 15, 2015
Colorado Drought Monitor May 12, 2015

Colorado Drought Monitor May 12, 2015

Here’s the release from the CWCB (Taryn Finnessey/Tracy Kosloff):

Activation of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, and the activation of the Agricultural Impact Task Force remain in effect to respond to ongoing drought conditions in Southern Colorado.

April and early May weather conditions improved compared to March. Temperatures in April were slightly above normal statewide. April precipitation was much greater than normal in northeastern Colorado, the upper Arkansas River Basin and the Grand Junction area. The wet pattern continued for the first half of May throughout the state with a great deal of moisture concentrated over Morgan County.

  • Water year-to-date precipitation at mountain SNOTEL sites, as of May 13, is at 86% of normal, an improvement compared to the last drought update, due to a relatively wet late April and early May. Most basins had lower than normal peak snow pack (the exception was the South Platte Basin), but the melt off has been at a slower rate than normal. This means that comparisons of day of the year snowpack to the normal for that day may show near normal snowpack levels, however, the total amount of snow available for water supply purposes, is lower than normal in most basins this year.
  • May 1st streamflow forecasts are near normal only in a few South Platte subbasins and the Blue River. Streamflow forecasts in the southwest and northwest are less than 70 percent of normal with several subbasins forecasted to be less than 50 percent of normal.
  • Reservoir Storage statewide is at 108% of average as of May 1st. Storage in the northern half of the state is well above average with multiple basins seeing storage levels in excess of 120% of average. The Upper Rio Grande and the Arkansas have the lowest storage at 75% and 79% of average, respectively.
  • The Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) is near normal in much of the South Platte, Colorado River, and Lower Arkansas, but showing moderate to severe drought in the northwest and southwest. The lowest SWSI value in the state is in the North–Fork Gunnison where stream flow forecasts range from 31 to 43% of average, the highest value is in the northern South Platte River basin.
  • Water providers in attendance reported their systems are in good shape, largely due to plentiful storage. While demand is low due to the cool and wet spring conditions.
  • Some areas of Weld and Morgan County are cleaning up and will need to repair roads after a slow moving storm over Mother’s Day weekend resulted in flooding.

Click here to read my notes (Tweets). More Colorado Water Conservation Board coverage here.

Eagle River Valley State of the River meeting, May 21 #COWaterPlan

May 12, 2015

0.34% of Colorado’s residents commented on the 1st draft of the #COWaterPlan

May 5, 2015

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

A draft of Colorado’s proposed water plan may not be trickling down to the people — The Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver

May 3, 2015

From The Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

Water fights run deep in this state, and officials long avoided drafting a plan for what to do about it.

But Gov. John Hickenlooper knows avoidance is no longer an option; water is running out.

As Colorado’s population rises, the gap between supply and demand is expected to grow to millions of gallons of water per day by 2050. Already, nearly every drop of groundwater, river-water and rainwater has been claimed in our state.

Just like energy and the Internet, water needs to be regulated.

But farmers and ranchers have one set of interests, city dwellers have another and environmentalists have staked a claim in the fight, too. The current laws, based in frontier feuds, favor farmers and ranchers – particularly the ones whose families have owned their land decades before others.

Some fear states like California, that are already dealing with drought, will grab water from Colorado, either with money or force. After all, water wars are the future, stated a 2012 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the FBI and the CIA.

In 2012, Colorado was ravaged by wildfires and drought. In response, in 2013, Hickenloooper ordered various state departments to craft a long-term water plan. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is heading the effort.

“Throughout our state’s history, other water plans have been created by federal agencies or for the purpose of obtaining federal dollars,” the order says. “We embark on Colorado’s first water plan written by Coloradans, for Coloradans.”

But what Coloradans? City folks? Farmers? Ranchers? Outdoor enthusiasts?

To figure this out, the state needs to hear from people. But do Coloradans even know this planning process is taking place? And, with water wars looming, how can a plan solve the thousands of conflicting water needs Colorado must balance as the planet heats up, our rivers dry up and our population swells.

Don’t touch the water

Theresa Ellsworth didn’t know about the state’s efforts, but she knows in her gut that something is wrong with how water laws work here.

Ellsworth lives halfway between Frisco and Breckenridge, at the foot of the Tenmile Range. In the spring, water rages around her subdivision. Runoff from the mountains surges down the Blue River, feeding millions of gallons of water into Dillon Reservoir each day.

But Ellsworth can’t use any of it, not even a few drops for a petunia patch. She gets her household water from a well, and if she uses well water to wash her car or water her lawn, she’s breaking the law – unless she were to buy into an expensive state-run water trading program that she can’t afford.

“How can I tell somebody this isn’t fair?” she says, with no idea that Hickenlooper’s water-planning process is going on.

Ellsworth isn’t the only one who hasn’t heard of the state water plan or efforts by officials to seek public input before the comment period on the first draft ends [May 1].


Water cop

John Minor, Summit County’s elected sheriff, didn’t know about the planning effort, either. And he’s a public official who, like it or not, deals with water in his job.

His deputies get called in a few times a year by water inspectors who enforce the state’s peculiar groundwater laws. See, these inspectors risk their necks threatening people with water shut-offs and fines. Colorado water law – a tangled mess – isn’t exactly user friendly. Few have the time or energy to untangle it. And many Coloradans don’t like that the government is on their land and trying to take what they see as their water.

So, they make threats, and Sheriff Minor and his deputies have to help keep the inspectors safe.

Minor, a British-born libertarian, rubs his chin incredulously as he ponders the irony of his job as a water cop. Shouldn’t he know about the state plan?


From the start, Hickenlooper and his water planners have sought widespread public input into Colorado’s first-ever statewide water blueprint, even launching a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a one-stop website for commenting, and it’s easy to sign up for email alerts and snail-mail updates.

But like Minor and Ellsworth, many people who should know and care about the water plan just haven’t been reached — or maybe they have, and just haven’t tuned in.

State officials are trying, “but they’re not very good at it,” Eagle County resident Ken Neubecker said. General skepticism about unwieldy government planning efforts probably cause some people to shy away, added Neubecker, a longtime river runner, fly fisherman and head of the Colorado River Basin Project for American Rivers.

“You can never get too much grassroots involvement,” he said. “This plan is really important for the future of the state. It won’t trump water law, but provides a road map for the future instead of looking back at the past. People need to get their comments in, talk about it and tell their friends,” Neubecker said. “This is a chance for people to actually speak.”

So, what’s the plan?

The first draft Coloradans are being asked to read and comment on is 300 pages long. It’s clouded with fuzzy statements about conservation and cooperation among water users. It’s vague. [ed. emphasis mine]

Hidden behind the fuzziness is a blueprint that does not solve historic tensions between water-producing areas west of the Continental Divide and water-hungry areas to the east, commenters suggest. Front Range cities and farms need the water to continue to thrive, but Western Slope farmers, environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts are close to saying, “Not one more drop.”

Federal agencies have sent in comments, wrangling for control. This is one more chapter in the century-long drama over water rights between Colorado and the feds.

State agencies insist they share goals with the feds: more water conservation, reuse and recycling – all nebulous concepts.

The plan calls for more options to avoid permanently drying up farmland, but it doesn’t say what farmland or where. It needs to be specific to make it more than just a memo or feel-good document, water watchdogs say.
Today is the last chance to comment about what people like and don’t like about the first draft. Once the second draft gets released, the public will have another chance to comment between July 15 and Sept. 17.

Whether or not everybody who wants a say knows he or she can have one has yet to be seen.

With our series “Colorado water: What’s the plan?” The Colorado Independent will in the coming months cover the formation of the water blueprint and detail the political, economic social and environmental tugs-of-war that will be stretching it as it takes shape.

Please follow our multimedia coverage and weigh in with your comments and questions as we try to make sense out of one of the driest yet most pressing issues we face.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

‘Split season’ approach to water use could benefit state’s rivers, including the Crystal River — Aspen Journalism

April 28, 2015

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

An innovative deal put together by the Colorado Water Trust to leave more water in the Little Cimarron River, a heavily-diverted tributary of the Cimarron and Gunnison rivers east of Montrose, could serve as model solution to the low flows that often plague the Crystal River in late summer.

“Any new tool coming online that can help agriculture and the environment share water could be useful in the ongoing conversation about the Crystal River,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring streamflows in Colorado.

The “new tool” is a recognition that under current state law an irrigation water right can be changed to also include a late-season instream flow right, at least if the Colorado Water Conservation Board has an interest in the water right.

Under such a “split season” approach, water can be diverted as normal to, say, grow hay in June and July. But in August and September, when river levels typically drop, water normally diverted for irrigation can be left in the river.

In the case of the Little Cimarron River, it will allow 5.8 cubic feet per second of water to flow past a diversion headgate in late summer down nine miles of river, including 3.3 miles of the Little Cimarron normally left nearly dry.

Rick Lafaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, which is working to find solutions to low flows on the Crystal River, said he thought the Little Cimarron deal was “pretty exciting.”

And Beatie of the Water Trust said the concept has statewide application.

“If there is anybody who would be willing to forgo irrigation later in the irrigation season, and would be interested in a payment from us to do that, and then would allow us to take a water right through the water court process in order to protect it for instream flow, then it works anywhere in Colorado,” Beatie said.

But such arrangements can be complex.

“These water acquisitions all require a confluence of a lot of variables,” said Linda Bassi, the head of the CWCB’s instream flow program. “You have to find a water right that is available, and it has to be in a place where it will benefit a reach that needs water.”



Streams dry from diversions

Sections of the lower Crystal River often run dry, or nearly so, in the late summer months, due in large part to a number of irrigation diversions on the river.

A similar situation has existed for years on the Little Cimarron River. It flows pristinely out of the Uncompahgre Wilderness but is often left nearly dry below the McKinley irrigation ditch.

In an effort to leave more water in the Little Cimarron below the McKinley Ditch, the Water Trust signed a contract on April 23 with the CWCB that allows for 5.8 cfs of water to be left in the stream in late summer.

“As a result, the Little Cimarron River is expected to remain a live stream during the irrigation season, and no longer experience dry-up conditions below headgates,” a memo prepared for the CWCB’s September 2014 board meeting states.

The memo also notes that the “split season use of the water is distinctive because it acknowledges and preserves the value of irrigated agriculture as well as the value of restoring flow to a local river.”

The water left in the Little Cimarron will also benefit a reach of the main Cimarron River, which runs into the Gunnison River below Morrow Point Reservoir.


Deal took years

The Colorado Water Trust has been working on the deal since 2008, when John Shephardson contacted the Trust about buying his water rights.

Shephardson had subdivided his scenic 214-acre ranch along the Little Cimarron into 35-acre parcels and wanted sell the land and the associated water rights.

Shephardson owned 1.5 shares, or 18.75 percent, of the shares in the McKinley Ditch. His shares gave him the right to use 5.8 cfs of water to irrigate 194.5 acres of land, where he grew hay and raised cattle.

The McKinley Ditch as a whole has rights, with appropriation dates ranging from 1886 to 1912, to divert up to 31 cfs of water from the Little Cimarron to irrigate 947 acres of land.

Shephardson was ultimately not successful in developing his property and Montrose Bank foreclosed on it.

In 2012 Western Rivers Conservancy, which buys land to help preserve rivers, purchased both the property and the water rights from Montrose Bank.

In January 2014 the Water Trust bought the 5.8 cfs of water rights from the Conservancy for $500,000.

In September 2014 the CWCB board agreed to purchase a permanent “grant of flow restoration use” from the Water Trust for $145,640. The CWCB is the only entity under state law that can hold an instream flow right.

The state’s purchase price was based on an estimate of the loss of agricultural revenues that would come by leaving the water in the river in late summer.

“We’re purchasing a right to use the water that would have been used to produce a second cutting of hay,” said the CWCB’s Bassi.


The water court process

On Dec. 31, 2014 the CWCB and the Water Trust filed an application in Div. 4 Water Court in Montrose to change their water rights on the McKinley Ditch to add an instream flow right.

To date, only two statements of opposition have been filed in the water court case, and both are from neighboring landowners (David Taylor, Wayne Mauer) making sure their water rights are not injured by the change of use, said Beatie of the Water Trust, who believes the water court process will go smoothly.

Beatie said no part of Colorado water law needs to be changed to make the deal happen.

“All we’re doing is transferring a water right to instream flow purposes and making sure in our application that there isn’t injury to other water users,” Beatie said. “We took a customary transfer process and applied it to the outcome that we wanted, which was partial irrigation and partial flow restoration.”

Bassi, of the CWCB, said that creating a “split-season” use of water for both irrigation and instream flow has long been possible under Colorado water law, but such a use just hasn’t been applied for until now.

“This is the first time we’ve done it and we’re hoping it will create a template for more partnerships with agriculture and environmental interests,” Bassi said.

James Eklund, director of the CWCB, says the effort on the Little Cimarron is evidence of a “mindset shift” he’s seeing among irrigators, environmentalists and water regulators in the state.

“The idea that you can use a split-season concept exemplifies the potential for people to get over the perception that a water right can only be used for one thing,” Eklund said. “It is representative of a very big change that I think we’re going to need to see more and more of going forward.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story on Monday, April 27, 2014.

More instream flow coverage here.

“This project is a great new example of how water sharing can work” — Amy Beatie

April 26, 2015
Little Cimarron River via the Western Rivers Conservancy

Little Cimarron River via the Western Rivers Conservancy

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

[The Colorado Water Trust] has collaborated with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to restore late summer flows to a 5-mile stretch of the Little Cimarron River in the Gunnison River Basin by sharing an agricultural water right.

Water Trust Executive Director Amy Beatie told Steamboat Today this week the agreement is the first of its kind, allowing agricultural water rights holders to use their water to raise a crop in early summer and then choose to be compensated for leaving it in the river in late summer and early fall. Compensation can be in the form of a lease or sale. It’s a model they hope to see replicated around the state.

“How to meet the ecological needs of streams while keeping water in agriculture is a discussion happening at every level of water policy in the state,” Beatie said Thursday in a prepared statement. “Agriculture is an essential part of Colorado’s economy. So are recreation and the environment. This project is a great new example of how water sharing can work on the ground within the state’s existing laws to bring together what are usually seen as incompatible uses.”

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Linda Bassi/Amy Beatie):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) and the Colorado Water Trust (“CWT”) today finalized an innovative agreement under which the same water rights will be used to both restore stream flows and preserve agriculture in the Gunnison Basin.

The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold instream flow water rights to preserve and improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Under its Water Acquisition Program, the CWCB can acquire water from willing water rights owners by donation, purchase, lease or other arrangement to include in Colorado’s Instream Flow Program. The CWCB and CWT partnership has resulted in many significant water acquisitions for instream flow use.

Under the agreement, up to 5 cubic feet per second of water that was historically diverted by the McKinley Ditch out of the Little Cimarron River (a tributary to the Cimarron River and Gunnison River in Gunnison and Montrose counties) will continue to be diverted and applied to the historically irrigated ranch until mid-summer. At that time, the water will be left in the river for instream flow use by the CWCB on a reach of the Little Cimarron River that historically saw low to no flows due to water rights diversions, as well as on the Cimarron River.

“Our rivers and our farms are at the heart of what makes Colorado so special,” said CWCB director James Eklund. “This agreement is a model for future agriculture and conservation partnerships.”

The Little Cimarron River originates in the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area and is managed as a wild trout stream by Colorado Parks and Wildlife for several miles above the area where agricultural uses have occurred for more than 100 years. Restoring flows in the Little Cimarron will re-establish habitat connectivity, an important component of a healthy river.

“This permanent, split use of an instream flow is distinctive because it acknowledges and preserves the value of irrigated agriculture as well as the value of restoring flow to a local river,” said Linda Bassi, chief of the stream and lake protection section at CWCB.

Additional information on the CWCB’s Water Acquisition Program is available on the CWCB web site:

More instream flow coverage here.


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