2015 Colorado legislation: Rainwater 
bill (HB15-1016) includes 
incentives — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

February 27, 2015

cistern

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

A 2009 pilot program designed to encourage the use of capturing rooftop rainwater in new developments to augment water supplies has never quite gotten off the ground.

As a result, a House panel Wednesday approved a bill designed to increase incentives for more such projects, to see if it is a good way to use non-potable water for such things as landscaping, and conserve water that is meant for actual drinking.

The measure, HB1016 [Promote Precipitation Harvesting Pilot Projects], lessens some of the requirements to qualify to be a pilot. To date, only one project has been approved, that in a small development on Denver’s south side.

The measure heads to the House Appropriations Committee for more debate.


2015 Colorado legislation: HB15-1038 (Flexible Water Markets) moves out of committee

February 11, 2015
Colorado Capitol building

Colorado Capitol building

From Colorado Public Radio (Megan Verlee):

The state House moved forward Tuesday with a bill [HB15-1038] intended to make Colorado’s water markets more flexible.

The measure would make it easier for some farmers and ranchers to transfer part of their water rights to other uses. If they found ways to conserve water in their agricultural operations, they’d be able to sell the excess to cities or other users.

“Currently you have to use your entire water right or you stand a chance of losing it. So there’s no incentive to conserve,” said Democratic Representative Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins.

Arndt said the goal is to find new ways to address the state’s growing need to for water.

The bill would limit the number of flexible water rights available statewide. The House approved it with bipartisan support. Western slope lawmakers, though, are concerned about its potential impact on water markets.

The measure now heads to the state Senate, which rejected a similar proposal last year.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.


Palmer Lake: “If we could all get together and try to figure this out without getting attorneys involved, I’m all for it” — Rafael Dominguez

January 26, 2015

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

The towns of Palmer Lake and Monument are in a gridlock over 21.8 million gallons of water, a bitter debate that could pit the towns against each other in court.

Palmer Lake residents, desperate to use the water to save their dry lake, thronged Monument’s Tuesday evening board of trustees meeting to plead for water.

Palmer Lake has been grappling with the state and other southern Colorado water districts since December 2013, when it asked to convert an old railroad water right into something that could save the lake.

The railroad water right has gone unused since the late 1950s, when Colorado’s railroads stopped running steam engines.

For the Town of Monument, losing 67 acre feet of water – an acre foot of water is enough to cover a football field in a foot of water – could have a serious impact on Monument Lake. The towns are working on a negotiation, but without a settlement their dispute will be take to court on Feb. 3.

Monument carefully monitors the lake, and even when it is down 1/100th, town administrators know, said Tom Tharnish, director of public works. Sixty-seven acre feet, or 21.8 million gallons a year, is about a month’s worth of drinking water for Monument.

“If you take 67 acre feet, there’s going to be an effect on Monument Lake,” he said.

While others have steadily dropped from the case, Monument has remained staunch about protecting the town’s water. But Tuesday’s meeting brought together residents from both towns, many of whom pleaded with the board of trustees to let Palmer Lake take the water.

Most argued that the towns are one community and should be invested in each other’s prosperity. Jodie Bliss, a Monument business owner, was one of a few Monument residents who spoke in favor of using the water right to fill the lake.

“I support filling Palmer Lake,” she told the trustees. “My point of view has to a lot to do with the fact that we are one community.”

Residents like Bliss packed the town hall and filled the parking lot. One man in the audience spoke out against Monument turning the water rights over to Palmer Lake. Other audience members joked that the famed “tri-lakes region” has only two lakes.

Jeff Hulsmann of Awake Palmer Lake, a group founded to help resuscitate the lake, was the last to speak on Tuesday. He echoed earlier pleas to encourage cooperation between the two closely connected towns.

“It’s incredible to me how many people came up here and said, ‘Well, I live in Palmer Lake but I used to live in Monument’,” he said. “I implore you, do something that works for all of us.”

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

When Palmer Lake resident Cynthia Graff took her seat in front of the Monument board of trustees last week, she was one in a long line of area residents who came to plead for a timeless Western right – water.

Water, specifically in Palmer Lake, is part of what drew Graff and others to the Tri-Lakes region. Even after development cut off the flow of runoff into the natural lake, Palmer Lake residents have fought for six decades to keep the iconic lake full. But now the town is fighting for the water against close competitors, the town of Monument and its lake, pitting the survival of one lake against another.

For some locals, the fight over an old railroad water right has one resolution – to fill Palmer Lake, which has been dry since 2012 and began losing water a decade ago.

“We just think this is our water,” Graff said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We deserve to have it back in our lake so we can deserve to be the Tri-Lakes area again.”

Although the meeting was thronged with Monument business owners, Palmer Lake residents and combinations of both advocating to fill the lake, the towns’ lawyers have yet to agree on the fate of 21.8 million gallons of water.

Palmer Lake has been unofficially tapping into the water, once used to fill steam engines on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, since the engines were pulled from the tracks in the late 1950s. But when the town filed in December 2013 to make that water use official, it met with state and local resistance – common in a state where water rights have always been carefully protected.

The town asked for 67 acre feet of water to fill the lake each year – an acre foot is enough to cover a football field in a foot of water.

One by one, objectors to Palmer Lake’s plan to fill the lake settled with the town, all except Monument. Using the water to fill Palmer Lake would lower levels in Monument Lake, which has been declining because of evaporation, said Tom Tharnish, Monument’s director of public works.

“If you take 67 acre feet, there’s going to be an effect on Monument Lake,” Tharnish said.

Unless the towns can settle on the fate of the water, the fight is headed to court Feb. 3. Jeff Hulsmann of Awake Palmer Lake, a nonprofit created to help restore the lake, believes the town stands a good chance to secure the water it needs.

“We have an awful lot of confidence that we will win in court,” he said.

Hulsmann has a complicated relationship with both towns – as do many people who live in one town but own a business in the other. Hulsmann knows that ultimately helping Palmer Lake could mean harming Monument Lake.

“I lose on both ends of this deal,” he said.

A rare body of water

As legend has it, when General William Jackson Palmer scouted southern Colorado for railroad routes, he believed Palmer Lake – the only natural lake for miles around – to be truly unique.

“He apparently said, ‘It was the only open body of water between Denver and El Paso, Texas,'” said Tom VanWormer, of the Palmer Lake Historical Society.

Palmer Lake became an essential part of southern Colorado life, supporting a resort town and providing water for steam engines and ice for refrigeration. Palmer wasn’t the first to discover it, however – Ute Indians lived nearby long before William Finley Thompson plotted the area in the 1880s and christened “Loch Katrine.”

Although Palmer eventually gave his name to the lake, it remained a contested source of water and recreational spot for railroads passing through, VanWormer said. Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande railway later competed with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway for use of the lake’s water and shores.

“It was a great place to come and picnic, to row boats around,” VanWormer said. But to keep the rival railroad’s passengers from venturing to the lake, Palmer had an “8-foot tall barbed wire fence” built on the AT&SF side, VanWormer said.

Later, reservoirs and dams would add Monument and Woodmoor lakes – giving the Tri-Lakes region its name. None of lakes were used for drinking water. Instead, the towns relied on reservoirs and wells to put water in their taps and used creeks to fill their lakes. But when railroads retired steam engines, water in the Tri-Lakes area took on a new significance – supporting increasing populations and keeping the lakes, diminished without runoff, full.

‘It’s an emotional issue’

Thanks to a lease from the railroad, Palmer Lake had tacitly used the old railroad water right to fill its lake for half a century. But in 2002, a severe drought year, publicity about the lake’s ability to stay full brought scrutiny to that agreement, Hulsmann said.

“In 2002, the state comes down and says, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?'” Hulsmann recalled. “So essentially the state says you can’t use the water right (because) it’s an industrial water right.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Palmer Lake purchased the leased water right in the 1980s, but in state records, the right was still marked for industrial use. According to Colorado’s water laws, it could not be used to fill the town’s lake. In December 2013, Palmer Lake filed to have the right declared a municipal one, fair game for lake-filling. But nothing is that simple in water court.

“So basically everybody downstream objects, and we expected that. If you don’t object then you get no information,” Hulsmann said.

To prove its right to use some of the water abandoned by the railroad, Palmer Lake hired expert witnesses to delve into decades of data on the railroad’s water use. Calculating the number of engines that passed by the lake per day between 1871 and 1955 – 20 to 30 – and factoring in tank size, the study determined that Palmer Lake could use 112 acre feet a year to fill the lake. The town settled for 67 acre feet, Hulsmann said.

The objectors – among them the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the city of Colorado Springs – eventually settled with Palmer Lake, but the town of Monument remained the sole objector, claiming that Palmer Lake abandoned the water and had no right to champion for its official use to fill the lake. Monument officials believe that Palmer Lake has yet to exhaust all ways to get water – for instance digging wells or purchasing another water right. Nonetheless, administrators from both towns say an agreement is in the works.

“There are still negotiations going on,” said Gary Shupp, the lawyer for the town of Monument. “Whether this case goes to trial or not still remains to be seen.”

Palmer’s days of railroad wars are long over, but the subject of water clearly remains a deeply personal one when it comes to Palmer Lake’s survival. At Tuesday’s trustees meeting, residents claimed all chairs and standing room. All but one person spoke up and asked the board to drop Monument’s objection to Palmer Lake’s water use request. Ultimately, Monument Mayor Rafael Dominguez had the last word.

“If we could all get together and try to figure this out without getting attorneys involved, I’m all for it,” he said. “We don’t want to harm Palmer Lake at all. But it’s a water rights issue. And water rights are a big issue in the state of Colorado.”

The residents absorbed his comments and then, one by one, got up and left the room.

More water law coverage here.


First lease-fallowing pilot project under HB13-1248 to move to CWCB next week

January 20, 2015
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A state engineer’s review of a plan to lease water from the Catlin Canal to upstream cities will move to the Colorado Water Conservation Board later next week. The state board is scheduled to review the plan on Jan. 26, the first day of its two-day meeting in Denver.

The plan is the first pilot project under 2013 legislation, HB1248, that allows the CWCB to review projects that lease water from farms to cities on a long-term, temporary basis. In order to provide the water, agricultural land must be dried up during the lease. No more than 30 percent of any given farm may be fallowed during the 10-year lease period.

Seven farms with 1,128 acres on the Catlin Canal will be dried up on a rotational basis to provide up to 500 acre-feet (163 million gallons) per year to three municipal water users: Fowler in Otero County, and Fountain and the Security Water and Sanitation District in El Paso County. If approved, the lease would begin this year.

The CWCB accepted the project in September, but will look at the details in the upcoming review. The state engineer’s office reviewed the plans in a way similar to a water court application or substitute water supply plan.

Bill Tyner, assistant Water Division 2 engineer, told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday that a review of the application has been completed and will go to the CWCB next week with a recommendation to proceed.

The review included concerns about impacts on other water rights from Southeastern and other groups in the Arkansas Valley.

“It’s an important time in the Arkansas River basin for those who have tired to get a lease-fallowing program going. It’s finally going to occur,” Tyner said.

The program is supported by the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, a corporation that includes members from several ditches, as well as the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

More HB13-1248 coverage here. More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.


“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits” — Amy Beatie

December 26, 2014

Screen shot from Peter McBride's video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is

Screen shot from Peter McBride’s video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is


From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board unanimously agreed Thursday to approve a $45,000 grant to help the East Mesa Water Co. repair an irrigation ditch on the Crystal River as long as the ditch company agrees to talk with the county about ways to leave more water in the river.

The grant comes with the condition “that the shareholders of the East Mesa Ditch agree to engage with the river board and consider working with Pitkin County on matters of irrigation efficiency and measures to protect instream flows and the free-flowing nature of the Crystal River.”

The condition was left broad, as there are no routine ways in Colorado to improve an irrigation system and then leave any saved water in a river despite the fact that 86 percent of the water diverted from Colorado’s rivers is for agriculture.

On Friday, Dennis Davidson, a consultant helping East Mesa secure funding for the ditch-repair project, said the 12 shareholders in the ditch company would likely accept the county’s condition.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” said Davidson, who had not conferred with the shareholders yet. “There is no reason for them not to talk with them.”

After presenting to the river board Nov. 20, Marty Nieslanik, president of East Mesa Water Co., said, “I think all of us we want to see the river healthy, too. I mean, it’s not like we’re trying to hog all the water; it just takes water to do what we do.

“We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

The East Mesa Ditch repair project includes shoring up a collapsing tunnel and installing 1,200 feet of new pipe. The project is still being engineered, and the projected cost is now $700,000.

East Mesa has raised $410,000 for the project from state and federal sources so far. That does not include the river board’s $45,000 grant, which still must be approved by the Pitkin County commissioners, who are set to review it Jan. 6.

The repairs to the ditch are not expected to result in more water for the river, but other improvements, such as piping or lining more sections, installing high-tech control gates and using sprinklers in fields, could likely save water.

The 8.5-mile-long ditch irrigates 740 acres of land southeast of Carbondale. Of the 740 acres, 180 acres are under a conservation easement either through Pitkin County Open Space and Trails or the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

East Mesa is the second-largest diversion on the Crystal River, which in summer can run well under the environmental minimum set by the state of 100 cubic feet per second.

The ditch has two water rights that allow it divert as much as 42 cfs of water. One right is from 1904 and is for 32 cfs. The second is from 1952 and is for 10 cfs.

Pitkin County’s river board, created in 2008, is funded with a 0.1 percent sales tax, which is expected to generate $850,000 in 2015. The board has budgeted $150,000 for grants next year.

The board is charged with “improving water quality and quantity” in the Roaring Fork River watershed and “working to secure, create and augment minimum stream flows” in conjunction with nonprofits and government agencies. The board also can improve and construct “capital facilities.”

While the vote to award East Mesa the grant was unanimous, some board members questioned whether fixing an irrigation ditch was consistent with the board’s mission.

“Our job isn’t supporting ag and open space,” said Andre Wille, the chairman of the board. “Agriculture and healthy rivers are two different things.”

But board member Bill Jochems supported the grant, saying it could increase support among irrigators for federal protection of the upper Crystal River.

And board member Dave Nixa suggested that East Mesa talk to the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, which works with water-rights owners to find ways to leave water in rivers.

“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the water trust, who was pleased Friday with the river board’s decision.

Rick Lofaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, is working with irrigators in the Crystal River Valley as part of developing a management plan for the river.

“The goodwill and the momentum this could create could really be precedent-setting,” Lofaro told the river board Thursday.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Meanwhile, he East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for dough to pipe the ditch, according to this article from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism:

The East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for a $45,000 grant to help cover the $550,000 cost of installing 1,450 feet of new pipe in the 8.5-mile-long East Mesa Ditch.

The irrigation ditch can divert up to 42 cubic feet per second of water out of the Crystal River 9 miles above Carbondale, but it typically diverts about 32 cfs.

The proposed East Mesa Ditch project entails installing 48-inch plastic pipe on a failing section of the irrigation ditch that includes an 80-year-old, 650-foot-long tunnel and a hillside that often sheds rock and mud down toward the ditch.

The work will keep the ditch functioning but won’t result in more water being left in the Crystal River, which is a goal of the county river board.

“As a board, with our mission, we’d like to keep as much water in the river as we can,” Andre Wille, the chair of the county river board, said Nov. 20 during the review of the East Mesa application. “If we can improve the efficiency of that ditch, and leave the rest in the river, that would be in our interest.”

Dennis Davidson, a consultant for East Mesa Water Co. with more than 40 years experience at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said there would be “minimal” water added to the river from the repair project, as it only included adding 1,450 feet of pipe to a 8.5-mile-long ditch.

But, he noted, if the ditch were fully piped, which he said would cost $20 million, there would be water savings.

“If we lined the East Mesa Ditch from beginning to end, we would probably get by diverting 50 percent of the water that we divert,” Davidson told the river board.

The ditch “loses as much as 35 percent of the water in the ditch due to seepage through the course and rocky soil,” according to a feasibility study from East Mesa submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in a funding application.

The East Mesa Ditch typically runs the first two weeks of May until about mid-October. It sends water to 740 acres of land between 1 and 5 miles south of Carbondale, most if it with big views of Mount Sopris and some of it protected with conservation easements.

The water is used for cattle ranching, and growing nursery trees, forage crops and hay.

On paper, the East Mesa Ditch is the second biggest diversion on the lower Crystal.

The largest diversion on the river is the Sweet Jessup Canal, which can divert 75 cfs. It is located about a mile-and-a-half upstream from the East Mesa diversion structure.

When the Sweet Jessup, the East Mesa and the Lowline Ditch, which is just downstream of East Mesa, are all diverting, water levels in the Crystal River often drop well below the environmental minimum of 100 cfs set by the state.

According to a study done by consultant Seth Mason in 2012, the river below the diversions dropped to 4 cfs Sept. 4 and to 1 cfs Sept. 22, 2012.

“Near complete dewatering of the stream channel was observed through much of September at Thomas Road and near the Garfield/Pitkin County line,” Mason, with Lotic Hydrological, LLC, said in his 2012 report.

Need to divert all the water?

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior water right for 32 cfs that dates back to 1894 and a second water right for 10 cfs from 1942.

Davidson told the river board that in his experience in the Roaring Fork River Valley, 20 cfs is usually enough to irrigate 800 acres of land.

As the East Mesa Ditch typically diverts 32 cfs to irrigate 740 acres, does that mean there is as much as 12 cfs of water that could potentially be left in the river and still allow for adequate irrigation?

No, according to Marty Nieslanik, president of the East Mesa Water Co.

He said the full 32 cfs of water needs to be diverted today to act as “push water” to convey water to the end of the long irrigation ditch.

“We figure we lose two feet of water from our head gate to the last person who takes it out,” Nieslanik said.

He also said that some of the diverted water also returns to the river.

“After it dumps out at our ranch, it comes down the draw and drops in right below the fish hatchery,” Nieslanik said. “So that’s why you see the big difference as you drive down the Crystal, it’s almost dry and then all of a sudden there is a lot of water there.”

Nieslanik told the river board that the company was “trying to make our water go further.”

“If we can get that whole mesa irrigated with 25 feet of water, we may let six or eight of water go by to help the river maintain its levels,” he said.

“It would be good to understand the benefits,” river board member Lisa Tasker told Nieslanik about the project. “We are very interested in the natural hydrograph and trying to mimic that as best as possible.

“Speaking for myself, I would love to leave a little bit of water coming down the river to help the river out, if we could somehow make that happen,” Neislanik said after the meeting. “We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

Money for water

The East Mesa Water Company is on track to raise $410,000 toward its ditch-repair project, whether or not the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board agrees to a grant.

The company will receive a $300,000 grant from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service when the work is complete.

It has secured a $60,000 grant from the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado River District. And it has requested a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Soil Conservation Board.

The company also has obtained a $375,000 loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is to serve as a bridge loan until the project is complete and grant funds come in, Davidson said.

There are 12 shareholders in the East Mesa Water Co., and 1,003 shares have been issued to them, based on the size of their land holdings. Owners are assessed an annual fee of $15 a share, which brings in $15,000 a year. The company has no debt.

“The East Mesa Water Co. operates on assessments of the water users,” according to the feasibility study given to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “For many years, the ditch company has kept the assessments as low as possible as many of the users are just getting by.”

The largest shareholders in the company include Paul Nieslanik, who owns 200 shares, John Nieslanik, who owns 185 shares, Tom Bailey, whose Iron Rose Ranch owns 185 shares and Richard McIntrye, who owns 168 shares.

Marty Nieslanik told the county the hay grown with water from the East Mesa ditch was worth about $500,000 a year under a calculation of four tons of hay per acre, on 740 acres, at $170 per ton.

At the end of Nieslanik’s presentation, the members of the Healthy Rivers and Stream Board agreed to meet in December to continue to review East Mesa’s application.

The Healthy Rivers and Streams Board will next consider the East Mesa application Thursday at 4 p.m. in Pitkin County’s Plaza 1 meeting room.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

More Crystal River coverage here.


Blue Mesa Reservoir water bank study #ColoradoRiver

December 14, 2014

Aspinall Modeling Memo coverviaarkansasbasinroundtable122014
Click here to read the report.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Another piece of the Colorado River shortage puzzle has been put in place with the completion of a Blue Mesa Reservoir water bank study. The study was a joint effort by the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, Gunnison Basin Roundtable and Colorado Water Conservation Board. It looked at whether water could be stored in Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to be released during a drought when Colorado might owe water to downstream states.

“There are benefits to the environment during low-flow periods,” said Mark McCloskey, of CDM-Smith, consultants for the study, as he explained the study to the Arkansas Basin Roundtable this week.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) are required to deliver 75 million acre-feet to Lake Powell under a 10-year rolling average. If that fails to happen, downstream states (Arizona, California and Nevada) could issue a call on the river. Colorado’s share is 51.25 percent of the deficit.

Another 1.5 million acre-feet annually must be delivered to Mexico.

While there has never been a shortfall of deliveries, there are indications from tree-ring studies that decades-long dry spells are possible.

The study used the worst-case scenarios from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin study — high demand in very dry years — to develop models of optimum timing and levels of storage in a water bank in Blue Mesa. It projected water that would be needed if levels fell to 80-98 percent of minimum levels. The study also determined how much water would be lost to evaporation or to stream banks along the way to Lake Powell.

Replacement water likely would be purchased by Front Range or statewide interests from ranchers, and it’s not known how those purchases would affect high-altitude hay meadows, McCloskey acknowledged.

It’s important to the Front Range, because a call on the Colorado River could mean curtailment of diversions across the Continental Divide.

A curtailment could mean less water for Pueblo, the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project, Colorado Springs, Denver, Aurora and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

All of those have water rights that were established after the 1922 compact.

The study showed the optimum time to store water would begin when deliveries fell to 85 million acre-feet in a 10-year period. The optimum amount to keep in storage would be about 300,000 acre-feet. Some benefit was also seen in deficit irrigation below Blue Mesa in dry years to preserve river flows.

The compact was drawn up by the states and approved by Congress because down­stream development was already occurring in Arizona and California. While it was known that drought impacts the basin, most thought the average flows in the 1920s could be used as a yardstick.

The flows at that time actually were higher than they have been in the ensuing decades. Record low flows were recorded during the 2000s.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


Colorado River Research Group Delivers Message of Water Limits — Circle of Blue

December 5, 2014
Colorado River via Google Street View

Colorado River via Google Street View

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

I have been reporting on Western water issues – specifically the Colorado River Basin – since 2009. Over the past five years, the question of how to meet current and future water needs in the iconic watershed has taken on new urgency as a long drought and steady water consumption sap both reservoirs and aquifers. Typically the debate is one of bridging the gap between expected demand and a shortfall in supply.

But a refreshingly direct statement was released this week from a new university research group that is dedicated to Colorado River issues. In the second paragraph of the group’s first policy paper, the message about limits hits with force and clarity:

“Water users consume too much water from the river and, moving forward, must strive to use less, not more. Any conversation about the river that does not explicitly acknowledge this reality is not helpful in shaping sound public policy.”

Such sentiments are a sharp turn from a history of increasing consumption, a pattern that no longer seems tenable. As the researchers point out with graphs of shrinking water supply and rising demand, the river’s ability to drive more growth in the future cannot be hitched to the same tactics that led to economic prosperity in the 20th century. Those tactics depleted the river to the point that it no longer touches the sea. (Note: The Colorado River did reach the ocean this spring as part of an experiment to restore the river’s delta. The flush of water was part of a November 2012 agreement between Mexico and the United States.)

“It’s such a simple message,” Doug Kenney, director of the Colorado River Research Group, told me, referring to the principle of using less. “It’s not like we’re getting veteran researchers together and coming up with something completely new. It’s an obvious problem and an obvious solution. We just need people to say it.”

From Constraints Come Creative Solutions

The research group is a pet project that Kenney, the director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been pondering for two years.

A grant from the Walton Family Foundation – no relation to me – gave life to the vision, and this fall Kenney began handpicking his research dream team. Each of the 10 members that he selected is a respected scholar with decades of experience studying the Colorado River. Their expertise strikes at all angles – public policy, law, hydrology, water management.

Kenney’s inspiration came from another arid river basin, Australia’s Murray-Darling, a watershed that crashed during the horrendous Millennium Drought of the first decade of this century. In those bleak years, the Wentworth Group, a collection of scientists – “esteemed people with clout,” as Kenney put it – came together to guide political leaders through the crisis.

“It looked like they helped steer the conversation in a productive way,” Kenney explained.

For Kenney’s group, the conversation begins with the idea of limits. Going by the long-term historical record (1896-2013), water use in the Colorado River Basin began outstripping the average supply in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The Basin has since endured the driest 14-year period on record by depleting its two huge reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. With both lakes less than half full and with the knowledge that river flows will likely decrease even more as the planet warms, a continuation of past water-development policies seems absurd.

Yet the group’s goal of redirecting water policy in the Southwest will be a formidable challenge.

Obstacles

Earlier this year, I spoke with officials in each of the four Upper Basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. According to legal tradition, the Basin is divided in two, and each half is granted by treaty the use of 7.5 million acre-feet of water from the river.

  • The Lower Basin – the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada – is already using its full allocation.
  • The Upper Basin – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – is using roughly 60 percent of its share, but all four states are planning to pull more water from the river, to use for irrigation or urban growth, energy development or water rights settlements with Indian tribes.
  • “We have mapped out how the remainder of our allocation can be used,” Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, told me in June. “It’s going to happen sooner rather than later. We have a place for every drop.”

    All of the water officials that I have interviewed recently about this issue told me that they were thinking about the risks involved but that the existence of risk alone would not cause them to shy away from a project.

    As more water is used, the potential for a shortage increases, but each state will determine its own acceptable level of risk. It is this lack of Basin-wide perspective that Kenney says is missing in these debates about new withdrawals. Each project is analyzed individually, but the accumulation of such diversions will – drop by drop – magnify the risks for everyone. [ed. emphasis mine]

    If not more diversions, where does new water come from? Kenney is careful to point out that the principle of less use does not mean a grounding of the region’s economy. Embracing a less-is-more frugality has a way of generating creative responses to increase efficiency and wring out the waste from the system – an idea that any college student on a budget would understand.

    To that end, Kenney said his group will be publishing short policy briefs every couple of months that will address the benefits of these water-saving adaptations – measures such as transfers of water between farms and cities, fallowing farmland, and irrigating with less water. Beyond the policy briefs, Kenney is not sure where the group’s path leads.

    “We’re still evolving,” he said.

    I will be following Kenney and his group in the coming months. What other groups are doing interesting work on the Colorado River? Contact me via email at brett@circleofblue.org…

    Colorado River Research Group Members

    Robert Adler, University of Utah (Professor of Law and Dean)
    Bonnie Colby, University of Arizona (Professor of Ag. and Resource Economics)
    Karl Flessa, University of Arizona (Professor of Geosciences)
    Doug Kenney, University of Colorado (Director of Western Water Policy Program)
    Dennis Lettenmaier, UCLA (Professor of Geography)
    Larry MacDonnell, University of Colorado (Adjunct Professor of Law)
    Jonathan Overpeck, University of Arizona (Professor of Geosciences)
    Jack Schmidt, Utah State University (Professor of Stream Geomorphology)
    Brad Udall, Colorado State University (Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist)
    Reagan Waskom, Colorado State University (Director of Colorado Water Institute)


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