Conservation easements have figured prominently in the Arkansas River Basin as a way to offer landowners incentives to retain water rights rather than selling them off the land.
They also underpin Colorado’s Water Plan, mainly through statements in several of the basin implementation plans which fed into the final product.
Conservation, as a term in the water plan, is often described as reducing water demand, either for urban or agricultural use, in order to protect stream flows.
But the continued use of water on farms is an important element of the water plan in maintaining the environmental and recreational landscape that makes the state so attractive. Preserving agricultural water requires incentives to prevent it from being sold for uses that, on the surface, appear more lucrative. That’s how conservation easements fit in.
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, formed in 2002 to protect water in the Arkansas River basin, considers conservation easements one of its most valuable tools in preventing water from permanently leaving the land.
But it’s taken a while for groups that promote conservation easements to come to the roundtables.
The Pueblo Chieftain asked Ben Lenth, executive director of the San Isabel Land Trust, and Matt Heimerich, conservation director for the Palmer Land Trust’s Lower Arkansas Valley programs, to reflect on how their organizations will connect with Colorado’s Water Plan.
How do we fill the gap in the Arkansas River Basin within the Colorado Water Plan and Basin Implementation Plan?
1. Financially incentivize temporary and intermittent water sharing and leasing agreements for landowners with water rights.
2. Incentivize efficiency improvements for irrigation without penalizing the water rights holder.
3. Prioritize water projects that have multiuse functions to benefit as many water users as possible.
4. Continue to incentivize and/or regulate water conservation measures by municipalities and industry.
It is important to consider that the Colorado Water Plan recognizes the importance of balancing the water needs of municipalities, agricultural and non-consumptive uses, such as recreation, and watershed health.
As a regional organization, Palmer Land Trust is committed to preserving open spaces, outdoor recreation, and working farms and ranches. Our goals as a land trust are well-aligned with the working tenets of the Colorado Water Plan.
Past solutions to solving water supply problems at the expense of working farms and ranches and the environment are no longer acceptable. As the state’s largest basin, it is imperative that the identified water supply gap in the Arkansas not create winners and losers over the equitable distribution of this precious resource.
What projects do you plan to fill the gap?
1. Planning and implementing land and water conservation projects to have maximum flexibility for leasing/ sharing water over time.
2. Water reallocation projects which benefit agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife habitat.
After an in-depth study, Palmer Land Trust made the decision to open an office in Rocky Ford with the purpose of exploring economic-based alternatives to large-scale water transfers from irrigated agricultural to municipalities. Palmer’s conservation easements use language that, in addition to tying the water rights to the land in perpetuity, allow for short-term leasing opportunities when an extended drought threatens the viability of municipal water providers.
Palmer Land Trust is also an active participant in a coalition of farmers, water providers, locally elected officials and research institutions examining strategies on how to ensure the long-term sustainability of farming under the Bessemer Ditch as farmers face increasing competition for land and water in eastern Pueblo County.
How do we keep the gaps for agriculture and municipalities from becoming bigger?
Integrate landuse planning and water planning. Do not allow subdivisions to be permitted without proven sources of water.
Palmer believes that one of the ways to avert conflicts between municipalities and agriculture is to engage the urban/suburban citizen in a dialogue regarding the importance of irrigated farming to the region’s economy and cultural identity. The demand for locally-grown foods is increasing at a rapid pace.
Drying up farms along the Arkansas River is counterproductive on many levels. Our visibility in the greater Pikes Peak Region affords Palmer a unique opportunity to help close this gap between agriculture and municipalities.
Farm families in Western states like California and Colorado are increasingly under pressure to sell their water. It’s been coined “buy and dry,” as water is diverted from farm fields and instead used to fill pipes in condos and subdivisions.
Buy and dry deals are usually cut behind closed doors, in quiet, unassuming meetings. A city approaches a farmer, or a farmer approaches a city, and strikes a deal. But a recent public auction in Loveland, Colorado threw the doors wide open, bringing myriad bidders and interests into one room to duke it out. It gives a glimpse of the unique stresses and opportunities farmers face in parched portions of the West.
Bidders, some in cowboy hats, some in business suits, packed the room at the Larimer County Fairgrounds. Abuzz with a sort of nervous energy, audience members whisper about how high the prices might climb. Auctioneer Spanky Assiter takes the mic, and lays out what’s at stake.
“Today’s an opportunity to buy water,” he says.
“You see commercials on TV all the time, invest in gold, invest in silver, invest in natural resources. There’s nothing more valuable than water.”
An auction of this size — with hundreds of units of Colorado-Big Thompson water and more than a dozen shares of a local ditch company up for grabs — is rare. The Colorado-Big Thompson project moves water from the Western Slope through canals and tunnels to provide water for Front Range municipalities and farmers.
There’s also more than 400 acres of farmland, except that’s not the asset that packed the room. Even though the tracts sit just 40 miles from Denver, one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country, the water that flows into the fields is worth way more.
Scotti Reynolds, who ran a cattle operation on the property with her husband, until his death in 2012, has been contemplating how and when to sell the property.
“The land and the water have become more valuable than the income from farming.”
One by one, water shares find new owners in the crowd. When all’s said and done the grand sum for the 400 acres, and the water rights, totals $12.6 million. The water rights, between the ditch shares and the units, alone went for close to $10 million. By far, the biggest spenders were cities — like Broomfield, a Denver suburb.
“It’s not cheap, but you only pay for it once. You buy it once and you get it forever,” says Melanie Calvert, who purchases water for the city.
At the auction she bid $3.2 million for 120 units of Colorado-Big Thompson water, each unit fetching $27,000. The city’s purchase continues a longtime trend. Increasingly, water is more valuable coming out of lawn sprinklers and bathroom faucets than growing sugar beets.
Broomfield’s been on a tear. The city’s spent $12.6 million since the beginning of 2016 on acquiring water, with another $2.6 million deal in the works. Hardly the only city buttressing water supplies by buying up agricultural water rights, they’re just following in the footsteps of Thornton and Aurora, other cities with reputations for buying lots of water.
The recently adopted Colorado Water Plan laments the fact that auctions like this even exist. It attempts to offer up alternatives, some of which are still theoretical because of the legal wrangling and economic conditions needed to bring them to fruition.
Join the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and Colorado Water Congress with support from CoBank on August 16th from 12:00 to 1:00pm, for a timely interactive webinar that explores some of the promising creative funding options available to pay for Colorado’s water future. Learn more about the funding gap, and creative funding mechanisms as discussed by the state finance committee and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Then dive into options, tips and examples of financing through P3s and cooperative partnerships; venture capital and impact investing; and philanthropic donations and investment. We’ll hear about these very real financing ideas and provide a forum to engage in discussion with experts.
In the face of population growth, Colorado communities are solidifying the work outlined in Colorado’s Water Plan around water storage, infrastructure, education, conservation, and more. Amid new growth, we also face an era of repair, with emerging needs in infrastructure replacement and recovery, environmental and stream management and recovery, recreational needs, and the continued viability of water for agriculture. The water needs of the future may be far different, with more financing needs than we’ve seen to date.
Where will Colorado find the billions of dollars necessary to fund its water future and pay for what’s ahead?
Eric Hecox, South Metro Water Supply Authority
Ben McConahey, Hydro Venture Partners
April Montgomery, The Telluride Foundation and CWCB Board Member
Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water, said Tuesday that building new dams in the Colorado River basin is not at the top of his to-do list. Nor, for that matter, is drying up farms to provide water for Colorado’s growing cities.
But he says Colorado still needs to have hard conversations about how to flexibly manage its water. In particular, he wants farmers to be able to share water with Denver and other cities without worrying that they may lose their water rights.
Speaking at the annual Western Water Symposium at Colorado State University, Lochhead credited the 2015 Colorado Water Plan as being a useful “compendium of the issues” but said it highlighted relatively easy solutions without fully addressing the harder challenges.
“I don’t think the solution is $20 billion of new water projects for Colorado, but that’s an easy thing to go look for,” said Lochhead, head of the state’s largest water utility that supplies 1.4 million people, and stores nearly 40 percent of its water in Summit County’s Dillon Reservoir.
A coordinated plan is needed, Lochhead said.
“We’re not there yet with the state water plan to develop any kind of coordinated principle vision for the future, much less how to get there,” he said.
Lochhead, who took the helm of Denver Water in 2010, described Colorado’s historical approach to water as a zero-sum game where there had to be a winner and a loser.
That zero-sum game lost its moorings in the second half of 20th century as a result of new federal and state laws, court decisions and political fights, Lochhead said.
He said that two decades have brought more collaboration between diverse interests, including those on both sides of the Continental Divide, and it is reflected in such projects as Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling.
Both Denver Water and the Colorado River Water Conservation District have an interest in Wolford Reservoir, with Denver Water on track to soon own 40 percent of the water in the reservoir. The water has many benefits, among them providing late-summer water to meet needs of four endangered fish species in the Colorado River near Grand Junction.
Another collaborative effort has been launched in the Winter Park area. There, Denver plans to increase diversions from the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, but is doing so with the blessing of local authorities, thanks to a collaborative “learning by doing” effort in Grand County that seeks to reduce streamflow impacts from both new and existing diversions.
But Lochhead believes Colorado must still dramatically change its water allocation methods as it faces population growth. Demographers project that Colorado’s 5.4 million population will double within a few decades. If we seek to provide the water for the additional residents the way we provided for the first 5 million, he said, “we won’t like the outcome very well.”
The river itself
A second challenge is the Colorado River itself, the fountain that supplies at least part of the water for 40 million people, from corn farms in northeastern Colorado to San Diego. And despite some good snow years, the two big reservoirs on the lower Colorado River, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are both low enough to keep a ballroom full of water experts up at night.
It could get worse. And, according to projections of climate models, it likely will.
Laurna Kaatz, an in-house climate expert at Denver Water, recently told the Metro basin roundtable it’s still not clear if it will be hotter and drier, or hotter and wetter in Colorado in the future, but there is little doubt it will be hotter.
More major dams on the Colorado River are not the solution, Lochhead said. Evaporative losses would result in more loss than gain, he said, although he did allow for the possibility of relatively small dams.
Denver Water is, however, studying the potential for putting water into aquifers beneath the city, creating underground storage — storage that could, in theory, hold water from the Western Slope.
And Denver Water is looking to store up to an additional 15,000 acre-feet of Western Slope water in an expanded Gross Reservoir, southwest of Boulder. The $360 million project seeks to raise the elevation of the dam by 131 feet, which would increase the capacity of the reservoir by 77,000 acre-feet, bringing it up to 119,000 acre-feet.
Lochhead said that Colorado needs more flexible water management options that allow for greater sharing of the resource.
About 85 percent of water in Colorado is used by agriculture and ranchers and farmers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights.
Water rights are private, said Lochhead, “but you can’t really do anything with that property right except what you are currently doing with it unless you go to water court. And by going to water court you put that entire water right at risk.”
In Colorado’s water courts, objections to changes in uses of water rights are often filed. The process can be lengthy and expensive for those seeking to make changes.
“You need a safe process where you don’t have to put your water right at risk, and you understand that you don’t have to spend years negotiating,” he said.
And Lochhead thinks Colorado also needs another conversation about conservation, where the emphasis is not about sacrifice but about innovation.
Denver Water intends to demonstrate what is possible as it redevelops its 35-acre headquarters campus along Interstate 25 near downtown Denver. There, planners think they can reduce demand for potable water by more than 50 percent.
In water reuse, said Lochhead, Colorado is “way behind the curve” as compared to some world cities, including Amsterdam and Sydney.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published this story on Friday, July 29, 2016.
Eric Kuhn paints a big picture of changing realities in the Southwest
rom his office in Glenwood Springs overlooking the Colorado River, Eric Kuhn has become one of the West’s most prominent thinkers about the intersection of water, climate change, and allocations for farms, factories and cities, including ski towns.
He joined the Colorado River Water Conservation District as an engineer after working in the private sector as a nuclear engineer. He has been manager of the water district since 1996. The district encompasses all of the Colorado River drainage in Colorado upstream from Fruita. As such, the district is a primary source of water not just for the bulk of Colorado ski towns and Front Range cities but also downstream farms and cities, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Mountain Town News collaborated with Kuhn on a reader-friendly Q&A to probe the growing evidence that warming temperatures have started upsetting the apple cart of Colorado River operations.
Was it a good snow year in the upper Colorado River Basin? It varied, of course, but generally it was average to a little above average in the Gunnison, Yampa, Green and other basins of the upper Colorado River.
Does that mean the reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin are filling? We’ve been hearing a lot about declining levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River. Water runoff is a more complicated story than snowpack. This year, for example, the runoff reached about 94 percent of average. So, average or above-average snowpack but below-average runoff.
The best way to understand snowmelt is to study the inflow into Lake Powell. You can call this reservoir the savings account for the Upper Colorado River Basin. It is this savings account that allows the upper division states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to consistently meet water supply obligations to the Lower Basin at Lake Mead as spelled out by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The lower division states are California, Nevada, and Arizona.
There is no such thing as an average snow year—nowhere, no place. Snowpack varies wildly from year to year. That said, in an average water year, about 10.7 million acre-feet flows into Powell. Three-fourths of that occurs during April through July.
Average snowpack but below-average runoff? That poses an obvious question. But first, would you explain this savings account more? The 1922 compact requires the upper division states to not deplete the flows downstream to Lake Mead below a certain volume. Powell most often releases 8.23 to 9 million acre-feet, as required by the 2007 interim agreement among the seven basin states and the federal government, a side agreement to the compact. But ordinarily, because of evaporation, that means the effective demand on Powell is 8.6 to 9.4 million acre-feet.
What this means is that in any year with an 85 percent of average runoff, Lake Powell just about breaks even. In other words, water levels are not gaining but neither are they declining.
For local supply reservoirs in most of Colorado, we can get by with an 85 percent or better inflow year without too many concerns.
So nothing to worry about in the upper basin?We’re meeting our obligations, end of story? We are OK for now and probably for the immediate future, but if the current conditions transition into a drought over the next several years, as happened after the 1998 El Niño event, we could be in serious trouble because unlike in 1998-99 when system reservoirs were plumb full, today they’re only about half full.
How much of the water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead comes from upstream of Grand Junction (or Moab)? And how much of that originates as snow in places like Steamboat Springs, the Eagle Valley, and the San Juan Mountains? Most of the run-off in the upper basin originates from about 20 percent of the land: those watersheds above about 9,000 feet in elevation, where snowpack accumulates and sticks through the snow season.
The Green River drainage contributes 36 percent of the flow into Lake Powell, the Colorado mainstream 36 percent, the San Juan 24 percent, and the others 4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This is the long-term average.
We’ve heard a lot about drought in the 21st century. Are we still in drought? Colorado as a whole is definitely not in a drought. From the entire Colorado River Basin perspective, it depends on the period one looks at. From 1906 through 2015, the mean annual flow at Lee’s Ferry (between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon was 14.8 million acre-feet (maf). From 1930 forward, it’s been less, 13.9 maf, according to the National Flow Data Base kept by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (available on its website)
For the period of 2000 though 2015, the mean natural flow was 12.4 maf. That’s well below average. During the first part of the century, from 2000 through 2004, it was even less, just 9.4 maf.
Bottom line here: Nearly all the water in the Colorado River comes from upstream of the Grand Canyon, and the average in the 21st century has lagged below the longer-term averages of the 20th century.
Why are Lake Powell and Lake Mead continuing to decline? The recent declines in Mead have been caused by annual demand levels that exceed supply. By the end of 2016, I expect that total storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be close to what it was at the end of 2005. Keep in mind that the major decline in runoff and hence storage was from 2000 through 2004.
That’s scary. Some decent snow years in the Rocky Mountains, where most of the Colorado River water comes from, but yet the storage in Mead is declining. Why the decline in Lake Powell?Lake Powell has actually gained a little bit of storage since 2013 and is well above the low point it reached in the winter of 2005. But because of obligations to deliver a little extra water to Lake Mead and because of OK-but-not-great inflows of 90 to 95 percent, the storage is not going up as rapidly as the snowfall in the Rocky Mountains suggests it should.
People talk about a “structural deficit.” What do they mean by that? The structural deficit is the difference between inflow to Lake Mead and demands at Lake Mead when Lake Powell is delivering a “normal” 8.23 maf/year. The math works this way: 8.23 maf from Powell plus native inflow between Powell and Mead of about 700,000 acre feet gives a total inflow of about 9 maf. Demands are 7.5 maf for the three Lower Basin states plus 1.5 maf for Mexico plus about 1.2 maf of evaporation and system losses for a total of 10.2 maf. Thus, the structural deficit is about 1.2 maf. Evaporation varies based on Lake Mead levels. When Lake Mead is fuller, evaporation plus system losses can be as high as 1.5-1.6 maf.
In a recent paper, you cited evidence that warming regional temperatures have turned above-average or abundant precipitation into just average runoff, kind of a reverse alchemy. How can this happen, turning more into less? Temperature is a major variable in the hydrologic cycle. As temperatures go up, evaporation goes up, crops and native vegetation consume more water (transpiration), and the runoff occurs earlier, which exposes native vegetation earlier. The net result is lower stream flows for the same precipitation levels. Brad Udall suggests that about one-half of the reduction in flows we’ve seen since 2000 in the Colorado may be due to temperature alone.
Good snow years means so-so water years in the Colorado River? Wow, that seems to have a lot of so-what! What do you think are the most important so-whats? For water supply purposes, it’s more than a so-what. If temperatures continue their upward trajectory (with year to year variability, of course), we may be in for a new normal. That normal may not have a ground floor.
I like statistics. Does one statistic leap to mind that illustrates what’s going on in the Colorado River Basin? Yes, the number is 1.2 million acre-feet, the amount that the Lower Basin (and Mexico) must reduce their demands if they are to stabilize levels in Lake Mead—at least for the moment. If temperatures continue to warm, they may have to reduce their demands even more.
Why do California, Arizona and Nevada have to cut back—and we in the headwaters area don’t. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave the upper basin states 7.5 million acre-feet, and the lower-basin states 8.5 maf. It was always assumed that California, in particular, but also Arizona would develop more rapidly, and they did, while the upper-basin states would be slower to put their allocated water to use. But, by the 1970s California was using far more than its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation. Since then, they have been reducing their diversions, but they remain above their allocation.
What are the implications for the headwaters in Colorado and Wyoming? We could continue to see good snow years and decent regional water supply conditions, but due to increasing regional temperatures and system-wide demands that exceed supplies, the Colorado as a whole may continue to be in crisis. There is an old saying that water flows uphill toward money. My biggest concern is that the continuing supply deficit may trigger efforts that will impact our quality of life, especially upper basin agriculture, which may be seen as the “low-hanging fruit.”
In your recent paper, you issue a warning. What is that warning—and is more than just one exclamation mark justified? My warning is that often, but not always, after we’ve had big El Niño years, in the next year, or two (or even three), we end up with drought in Colorado. 1997-98 and 1957-58 are good examples.
In Colorado, we need to quit talking about continuing drought and acknowledge that conditions in much of the state since the fall of 2013 have been wet (the Southwest and Rio Grande have not been as lucky). This means we need to be prepared for the NEXT drought. As (Colorado Water Conservation Board director) James Eklund says “wishing for the drought to end is not a successful strategy.”
For the basin as a whole, we need to be prepared to survive another 2000-2004 period. The difference is that in 1999 reservoirs were full to the brim. Now, they’re at levels of 40 to 50 percent of capacity.
It sounds like we will really need to rethink our use of water from Colorado and Wyoming to Arizona and California. Who’s in charge of this Plan B? The good news is that many entities are actively engaged in seeking solutions. The State of Colorado has just issued a water plan, for the first time ever. The lower division states appear to be on track to implement significant additional water savings if Mead levels continue to decline. Nobody is really in charge. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior has a significant role because of her authority over the operation of the major projects, but the states, affected water users, environmental groups, and the Native American tribes are all at the table.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Nita Gonzales):
Colorado River Day on July 25 is a special day for many Latinos. That is the day in 1921 when Congress renamed the Colorado River from the “Grand” to the “Colorado.” It is a day we celebrate and reflect what this mighty river means in our daily lives and to our history.
For Latinos living in the Southwest, the Colorado River occupies a special place. In addition to its economic and environmental contributions, the river is at the heart of our culture for centuries. Our faith communities still baptize people in the river. Protecting the river is more than just smart water management for Latinos in the Colorado River basin; it is honoring part of a rich heritage.
And as citizens of the Colorado River Basin, we must protect it.
So we celebrate our beloved river on Colorado River Day each year, to bring attention to the importance of the river and to water conservation as the greatest tool to sustain the river for today and for the next generations.
In Colorado, to help face our water challenges, we have created a state water plan which was finalized in November 2015.
The overarching sentiment for the plan came from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper when he said, “every conversation about water should start with conservation.” Indeed, the plan has put forth an unprecedented emphasis on sound conservation measures and directs attention to keeping the Colorado River healthy and flowing.
The lack of engagement on the state water plan almost eight months later is distressing. We are going to need action from the Legislature to ensure implementation of these steps.
As we celebrate Colorado River Day on July 25, these are the Top 10 things we wish for to protect our “Mother of Rivers.”
1. Water conservation, the most cost-effective and efficient answer to our water challenges, in urban areas and agriculture.
2. More efficient management in drought.
3. Keeping the river healthy and flowing to protect wildlife and ecosystems that rely on them.
4. Education and personal responsibility for water conservation in our homes and businesses.
5. Coordination among local, state and federal policymakers to ensure long-term success.
6. No new dams or large diversions. There is no water left to divert and the price tag is too high.
7. Permanent halt on new uranium mines near the Grand Canyon that could contaminate creeks and other tributaries that flow into the Colorado River.
8. Multiple and diverse communities working together on the sustainability of the Colorado River.
9. State and local governments acting now, before the gap between needs and availability grows.
10. A new generation of river stewards from Latino youth and the guidance to become ambassadors for the Colorado River.
Chief Seattle, for whom the biggest city in the Northwest was named, once said, “You must give to the river the kindness you would to any brother.” Across Colorado and the rest of the Colorado River basin, these words have never been truer. For the sake of our heritage and our future we must protect the river from harmful forces. We must take care of this most precious Colorado River so that it may take care of us.
Nita Gonzales is Colorado coordinator of Nuestro Rio, an organization representing Latinos living in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada devoted to the protection and sustainability of the Colorado River.
Here’s the update from DNR (Taryn Finnessey/Tracy Kosloff):
June 2016, was the 3rd warmest June on record, with only 2012 and 2002 logging hotter temperatures. Much of the state experienced average monthly temperatures four to six degrees above normal. July has seen cooler temperatures, thus far, with temperatures near normal across most of the state. The forecast for the next two weeks shows continued warm temperatures and better chances for precipitation as we move into monsoon season.
Statewide water year-to-date mountain precipitation as reported from NRCS is at 99 percent of normal as of July 19th.
July is the second consecutive month with below average statewide precipitation (June was 71 percent of average, while July to-date is 64 percent), this time of year precipitation tends to be spotty due to storms, but the WATF will continue to monitor the situation closely.
Reservoir storage statewide remains unchanged from last month at 108 percent. The Arkansas basin has the highest storage levels in the state at 116 percent of average; the Upper Rio Grande has the lowest storage levels at 79 percent. All other basins are near or above normal.
Water providers all reported storage levels above 90 percent and are not anticipating any mandatory watering restrictions this season, however continued warm and dry conditions have resulted in increased demands.
The Statewide Water Supply Index (SWSI) is near normal across the majority of the state