Colorado’s #COWaterPlan is making a splash — Environment Colorado

From Conservation Colorado:

When I first heard about a state water plan, I was skeptical as to how useful it would be. I thought about how notoriously difficult it can be to change water policy in Colorado; meetings are long, technical, and only have one person (among as many as 50) representing environmental interests.

However, two things made me optimistic about the plan.

First, the Executive Order required that the plan, and our water policies, reflect our water values. Second, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) stated that we needed a water plan because “our current statewide water trajectory is neither desirable nor sustainable.” So the plan presented an opportunity for change.

Since Coloradans overwhelmingly prefer solving water challenges through conservation and recycling over diverting more water from our Western Slope rivers, we set out with four basic principles that guided our outreach to citizens and decision makers alike. The plan needed to:

  • Keep Colorado’s rivers healthy and flowing
  • Increase water conservation and recycling in our cities and towns (e.g., statewide conservation goal)
  • Modernize agriculture and water sharing practices
  • And avoid a new, large transmountain diversion.
  • We advocated strongly for these principles at water planning hearings, one-on-one meetings with designated planning representatives, and the public. We heard from roundtable members that they needed more information and data on how to best protect their streams. We heard pushback that a statewide conservation goal was impossible because it would be seen as a “mandate” and “one size fits all” requirement. We heard that more Colorado River water needed to be transported to the Front Range. We kept hearing these things but we kept pushing our principles.

    We persevered.

    Paddle Salute via The Weekender -- Avery Johnson
    Paddle Salute via The Weekender — Avery Johnson

    This first iteration of Colorado Water Plan is an important step forward for Colorado because it reflects Coloradans’ values and priorities. The plan:

    Sets the first-ever statewide urban water conservation goal;
    Addresses the importance of preserving and restoring our rivers and streams including proposing annual funding for river assessments and restoration work;
    Makes new, large, and controversial large trans-mountain diversions, which harm rivers and local communities, a lot less likely.
    We are seeing conservation prioritized as never before, expanded language on reuse and water banking, and incentives and funding toward “alternative transfer methods” which replace water providers buying up agricultural land and then taking the irrigation water for municipal use. There is broad support for and a greater focus on stream health across the state including funding and the importance of preserving and restoring the environmental resiliency of our rivers and streams.

    We’re excited about the plan and are now focusing our attention to getting it implemented.

    The plan must be executed properly to be effective for Colorado. We also need more detailed and thorough water project evaluation criteria that determine which projects get state support (and which do not). We need to ensure that any tweaks to the state’s permitting authority maintains the strong environmental safeguards that protect our rivers and drinking water.

    As the state implements this plan and looks to make changes to it, we will continue to advocate for what is best for Colorado and best for our rivers. Thanks to Governor Hickenlooper for tackling such a contentious issue as water and developing the first ever state plan!

    Right helps to restore [Alamosa] river — The Pueblo Chieftain

    Alamosa River
    Alamosa River

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    Efforts to restore the Alamosa River passed another milestone earlier this month when the water court in the San Luis Valley signed off on an in-stream-flow right.

    The decree issued to the Alamosa Riverkeeper allows the storage of up to 2,000 acre-feet in Terrace Reservoir that can be released after irrigation season when the dam’s headgates would otherwise be closed.

    “The development of a fishery has already started to revitalize the local economy and reconnect the community to the river,” said Cindy Medina of Alamosa Riverkeeper.

    Medina’s group, along with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, applied for the right.

    The restoration of the fishery comes more than three decades after pollution from the Summitville Mine created a dead zone on a stretch of the river above the reservoir.

    The cleanup of Summitville and the installment of a permanent water-treatment plant there thanks to federal stimulus funds in 2009 improved water quality above the reservoir to allow for fish stocking.

    The return of the fishery even prompted Jose Trujillo to open a bait and tackle in Capulin.

    “The locals are very excited to see what the fishing conditions will be in the lower part of the river near town,” she said.

    The in-stream-flow right could allow the fishery to improve below the reservoir by providing water to the river after the end of the traditional irrigation season.

    The group currently holds about 500 acre-feet and would have to buy more water to reach the limit of the right.

    Medina said the flows, which have been operated on a temporary permit, have extended the river enough to reach Gunbarrel Road, which sits roughly a mile west of Capulin.

    She’s hopeful that once the riverkeeper has bought enough water to fulfill the right it would extend the river another 4 miles outside irrigation season.

    In addition to restoring the river, Medina said the in-stream flows also would bolster groundwater levels in the area.

    She said that fact helped gain the support of the Terrace Irrigation Co., which owns the reservoir, and other irrigators in the area.

    Summitville Mine superfund site
    Summitville Mine superfund site

    Colorado Water Trust eNews November 11, 2015

    Alamosa River
    Alamosa River

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

    Absolute Alamosa

    On November 5th, the Division 3 water court issued final decrees to permanently bolster streamflows in the Alamosa River. These official decisions by the water court are the final steps in a multi-year approval process spearheaded by Alamosa RIVERKEEPER®, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to improve water quality and the ecological functionality of the Alamosa River. The absolute decree means that up to 2.5 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from the Gabino Gallegos Ditch and up to 0.5 cfs in the Valdez ditch can be used to bolster streamflows in a 16-mile stretch of the Alamosa River. These instream flows are the FIRST on the Alamosa River to be enrolled in the CWCB’s Instream Flow Program and protected for this use.

    The Water Trust has served the Alamosa RIVERKEEPER® project as technical consultants on water rights and instream flow information since 2008. We owe thanks for this successful water court application and complete project to a partnership between CWCB, Alamosa RIVERKEEPER®, and Terrace Irrigation Company, who owns the reservoir where the water is stored for release after the irrigation season, if needed.

    Basalt approves whitewater kayak park — The Aspen Daily News

    Proposed Basalt whitewater park via the Aspen Daily News
    Proposed Basalt whitewater park via the Aspen Daily News

    From The Aspen Daily News (Collin Szewczyk):

    Pitkin County plans to install concrete structures and place boulders in the Roaring Fork River near the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Elk Run Drive to create the wave feature for kayakers, and help secure an in-stream diversion water right to keep more of the precious liquid in the river.

    But whitewater enthusiasts will have to wait just a bit longer to ride the waves, after construction was delayed until next year so that more public input can be taken into account and amorous trout have time to do their thing.

    John Ely, Pitkin County attorney, told the council that Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials had concerns over spawning trout in the river where the construction is to occur. This sentiment was echoed by members of the local angling community who urged caution on moving forward, and asked that the project be delayed.

    David Johnson, member of the Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance and guide at the Crystal Fly Shop in Carbondale, said more public input needs to be reeled in before construction occurs.

    “Our official position on this issue is that, as an entity, we’d like to see the town of Basalt delay construction on this project so the public can be more fully informed and engaged,” he said. “Pitkin County has had this on the drawing board for a long time, many years, but there hasn’t been outreach to the fishing community.”

    Johnson added that the “washing-machine effect” of the feature could be detrimental to fish in the river, and that many locals are skeptical of just how much water the junior right would put in the river, even though any would be a benefit…

    Laura Makar, assistant Pitkin County attorney, noted that the cubic feet per second associated with the right would entail an extra 240 CFS from April 15 to May 7; 380 CFS from May 8 to June 10; 1,350 CFS June 11 to June 25; then down to 380 CFS June 26 to Aug. 20; and 240 CFS from then until Labor Day…

    Ely said that construction will be delayed until 2016, and that the Army Corps of Engineers, which provides the 404 permit for the project, has been amenable to a delay. The permit has already been granted but is scheduled to expire on Dec. 7…

    Denise Handrich, an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen campus, said the whitewater park will provide a wonderful location to teach her students how to kayak…

    Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said that while safety must still be addressed in the area, she was relieved by the delay to allow for the spawning trout to procreate, calling fishing the top economic driver for Basalt.

    “I’m really happy that we’re going to slow down,” she said. “I think this issue with the spawning is a big deal. … Fishing is a really, really big deal for this community.”

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

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

    Willow Creek via the USGS
    Willow Creek via the USGS

    From National Geographic (Sandra Postel and Todd Reeve):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    County wins money for reservoir study — Montrose Daily Press

    From the Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Montrose County on Thursday nabbed a significant award from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which unanimously approved a combined total of $300,000.

    The money from the state’s Water Supply Reserve Account will be used to help fund a feasibility study of up to four possible reservoir sites on the West End. The county will spend $966,000 on the study, which was included in its annual budget.

    The conservation board, as part of its Montrose meeting, awarded approval of the funds on the condition that some of the money be spent to assess the effect each proposed site will have on recreational uses, especially rafting, on the San Miguel River.

    The county is glad to comply with the condition, and would have noted that on its application had the form allowed for it, Marc Catlin, Montrose County’s water rights manager, told the board.

    “If there’s going to be a future on the West End, those people are going to need water,” Catlin said.

    The county needs to determine where and how reservoirs would be built to impound the water it secured under a 2012 water rights decree.

    “It’s the result of two and a half years of hard work and paying attention to detail, wanting to do the right thing,” Montrose County Commissioner Ron Henderson said later on Thursday.

    “It’s finally starting to pay off. It’s just a really nice thing for the West End of Montrose County, actually, the whole county, but most especially the West End.”

    Montrose County in a controversial move previously filed for water rights on a 17.4 stretch of the San Miguel. Under settlements reached, the county agreed to a volumetric use limitation of 3,200 acre-feet. An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water it would take to cover a football field at a depth of 1 foot.

    Conditions of the water right decree include a means of capturing and impounding the water. The county, which is considering four possible sites for a reservoir, needs to know the best place to site it and therefore applied for funding to offset feasibility study costs.

    It sought $50,000 from the Southwest Water Board and $250,000 from statewide accounts, both to be approved by the conservation board.

    April Montgomery, a conservation board member representing the San Juan and San Miguel basins, on Thursday commended the county and Catlin for having been proactive.

    “I think it’s setting an example,” she said, referring to the county’s feasibility study. The county showed forethought in looking at multiple uses, Montgomery said.

    Fellow member Patricia Wells, representing the City and County of Denver, called Montrose County’s approach commendable.

    “It’s simply a very good approach,” she said.

    “Storage is part of the answer for the future,” Catlin later told the Daily Press. “The state’s moving toward multiple use. I think this is the first project that is investigating multi-use at the feasibility stage.

    “It’s a good thing for the community.”

    Ouray County also won funding, $50,000, from the board. The money will help fund the upper Uncompahgre Basin water supply protection and enhancement project.

    A call on water in 2012 served as a wakeup call, Ouray County Attorney Marti Whitmore told the board. That dry year brought to the forefront the need to plan for accommodating needs, while also sustaining agriculture and tourism, industries that are part of Ouray County’s economic backbone, she indicated.

    Whitmore said she anticipates that Ouray’s study will show a need for additional water storage.

    The board awarded 15 Water Supply Reserve Account grants Thursday.

    “We passed all the grant applications. There was about $5.5 million, total, in grant applications we approved,” said James Eklund, Colorado Water Conservation Board director.

    CWCB hopes that its instream flow right on the Dolores River will keep fish species off the endangered list

    From Western Resource Advocates (Rob Harris/Joan Clayburgh):

    Yesterday afternoon the Colorado Water Conservation Board rendered a unanimous decision to seek a water right on the Dolores River to protect fish and wildlife, securing up to 900 cfs of water during spring peak flows, as well as essential winter base flows, on one reach in western Colorado’s Red Rock Country. This will help prevent three native fish in the Dolores River from becoming threatened or endangered species. The reach slated for the largest instream flow protection on the river to date is near the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway between Gateway and Uravan Colorado…

    The Board heard testimony opposing this water right that asked for water for unspecified future urban or agricultural water demands. The Board determined these requests for withholding water from this instream flow water right were speculative and unfounded. Now the Board will approach the state water court to secure the water right and it appears at this time that it should be a straightforward process.