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

April 28, 2015

littlecimarronriver2022cwt
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.”

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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.

littlecimarronrivervicinitymapcwcb

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.

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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: http://cwcb.state.co.us/StreamAndLake/WaterAcquisitions/

More instream flow coverage here.


Aspinall Unit operations meeting Thursday #ColoradoRiver

April 21, 2015
Aspinall Unit dams

Aspinall Unit dams

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Unit Operations meeting will be held this Thursday, April 23rd, at the Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction, starting at 1 PM.

The address of the WCAO is 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite #221

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.


Aspinall Unit operations update: Current forecast for inflow into Blue Mesa = 71% of avg

April 15, 2015

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Blue Mesa Reservoir


From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be increased from 1050 cfs to 1150 cfs on Wednesday, April 15th at 9:00 AM. This release increase is in response to an increase in diversion to the Gunnison Tunnel. The current forecast for April-July unregulated inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 480,000 acre-feet which is 71% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 350 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 800 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 350 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.


Aspinall Unit operations update

April 8, 2015

Crystal dam spilling May 2009

Crystal dam spilling May 2009


From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be increased from 600 cfs to 750 cfs on Wednesday, April 8th at 8:00 AM. This release increase is in response to an increase in diversion to the Gunnison Tunnel. The current forecast for April-July unregulated inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 480,000 acre-feet which is 71% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 300 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 400 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 350 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.


The latest Colorado Water Trust eNews newsletter is hot off the presses

April 1, 2015

McKinley Ditch headgate photo via the Colorado Water Trust

McKinley Ditch headgate photo via the Colorado Water Trust


Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Before the Court: Change of Use for Colorado Water Trust’s McKinley Ditch Shares

Colorado’s water-short rivers present complex challenges that require creative solutions. At the Water Trust, we’ve always been inspired to explore new, localized approaches when existing ones don’t fit. For example, our innovative remedy on the Little Cimarron River southwest of Gunnison blends agricultural and non-consumptive water uses for the first time through split season operations. Seasonal lease agreements mean the water could be used for agriculture in the early season through our partners Western Rivers Conservancy, while later in the season more water would remain in the river for environmental benefits. Several Directors on the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) praised our project when voting last fall to approve the CWCB’s purchase of the Grant of Flow Restoration Use for the Water Trust’s water right shares in the McKinley Ditch.

“I can tell that this has been a tremendous amount of work because it is novel. And it seems to me that it’s the sort of thing we need to explore so that we can figure out, if agriculture did something just a little differently but not harmful, could there be a benefit for some other use…Being able to move water around to where it’s needed, when it’s needed…by changing things just a little, I think, is hopefully the wave of the future.” ~ Director Patricia Wells, CWCB Meeting on September 12, 2014

In December 2014, the Water Trust and CWCB took the next step towards implementing this experimental concept by filing a joint application with the Division 4 Water Court seeking to add “instream flow use”(ISF) to the Water Trust’s shares of the senior McKinley Ditch water rights. Once this added use is approved by the Water Court, the Water Trust’s water rights can be used by the CWCB to keep water flowing in the Little Cimarron River, accruing benefits to almost ten miles of Colorado streams, from the McKinley Ditch headgate to the Gunnison River.


Aspinall Unit update: The Gunnison Tunnel to turn on Tuesday

March 30, 2015
Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be increased from 500 cfs to 600 cfs on Tuesday, March 31st at 9:00 AM. This release increase is in response to the start of diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel. On Tuesday morning, the Gunnison Tunnel will begin diverting 200 cfs. The current forecast for April-July unregulated inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 590,000 acre-feet which is 87% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for March and April.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 200 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.


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