Colorado: Water sharing a good deal for rivers

May 2, 2015

Originally posted on Summit County Citizens Voice:

State water board, conservation group team up to create innovative new water rights agreement

By Bob Berwyn

Photos courtesy Colorado Water Trust

* Tools like the Little Cimarron agreement could be used to improve environmental conditions in many of the state’s rivers, and the evolving Colorado Water Plan can help identify places where deals like this could be used. Read more about the Colorado Water plan here.

FRISCO —For thousands of years, the Little Cimarron River trickled out of the snowfields of the San Juan Mountains, coursing unimpeded through steep alpine canyons and rolling sagebrush foothills before merging with the Gunnison River.

That changed when European settlers arrived in the region. Eager to tame the rugged land, ranchers and farmers took to the hills with shovels and picks, diverting part of the river’s flow to water hayfields and pastures. The back-breaking work brought the imprint of civilization to the area…

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Municipalites & water: A background on water in Colorado — Colorado Municipal League

April 30, 2015

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

April 28, 2015

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But such arrangements can be complex.

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



Streams dry from diversions

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deal took years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The water court process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More instream flow coverage here.

What would a water market for western Colorado and California look like? #ColoradoRiver

April 26, 2015
West Drought Monitor April 21, 2015

West Drought Monitor April 21, 2015

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Even before California declared mandatory water restrictions last week, water purveyors in the Golden State were paying top dollar for water already in the state. That suggests the price of water from upstream might fetch even more money — something that hasn’t gone without notice in the water-wealthy (relatively) and cash-poor (absolutely) places like the Western Slope of Colorado.

There is no way now to sell or lease water outside Colorado’s borders, but that so far hasn’t impeded people giving it some thought. [ed. emphasis mine]

“Are there feelers out there about creating a water market, quote unquote?” said Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users’ Association. “Obviously yes, and people are interested, on both sides of the table.”

Colorado is involved in talks aimed at circumventing a call on the Colorado River by downstream states, especially California, the nation’s most-populous state that is now in its driest condition ever.

“We’re certainly sympathetic with California’s condition,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, in an email. “As the headwaters of a major system they depend on (the Colorado River), we know how devastating 6 percent snowpack would be. This makes the contingency planning talks we’re in the middle of all the more important and urgent.”

California’s woes could very well become Colorado’s, so the Colorado River Water Conservation District is looking well ahead to find ways to make water peace before water wars break out.

“We’re trying to avoid the worst-case scenario,” River District spokesman Chris Treese said. “We know we have to answer (how to manage the river in extreme drought) even though it is too early.”

The effort to avoid that worst-case scenario includes the discussions among the basin states, an emphasis on conservation and the possibility that agreements could be arranged among water-rights holders and willing buyers.

The River District last month organized a trip to Southern California, where Western Slope residents and others saw some of the efforts that are well underway in the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys, both irrigated by Colorado River Water.

In the Palo Verde Valley, farmers have agreed to fallow portions of their lands. Los Angeles gets the water that would otherwise irrigate those fields.

The farmers whose fields lie fallow “are getting paid handsomely,” said Steve Acquafresca, the former Mesa County commissioner and Grand Junction peach grower who has “stayed immersed, pun not intended, in water.”

Those farmers seem more pleased than those in the Imperial Valley, who have a similar arrangement with San Diego, Acquafresca said.

Both cases, though, are temporary, highly managed buy-and-dry schemes.

They’re not the only ones.

The Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles is offering rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley $700 per acre foot of water, the most it has ever offered.

Given Southern California’s drier straits, “I don’t think it’s unrealistic” to think that a water-rights holder in Colorado could demand and get $1,000 an acre foot, said Larry Clever, general manager of the Ute Water Conservancy District.

No arrangements between Western Slope sellers and Southern California buyers are in the offing, though, because there is no way to assure delivery as the water passes through Utah, Arizona and Nevada before reaching California, Clever noted.

The River District is considering ways that it might be able to broker deals between willing buyers and sellers, Treese said.

“We hope not to do it on an individual farmer-by-farmer basis,” Treese said.

Sellers might get a signing bonus, possibly an annual payment and downstream buyers would have to plan ahead.

“This is an insurance policy,” Treese said. “You’re not going to be able to take one out once the fire starts.”

Participants in the California trip will meet on Tuesday to consider what they heard and what to do next.

For Acquafresca, the two key elements of any program are that participation is voluntary and temporary.

“This is not going to be new supply for growing metropolitan areas,” Acquafresca said.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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

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

Little Cimarron River via the Western Rivers Conservancy

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More instream flow coverage here.

Poem: Tent Like Openings — Greg Hobbs

April 25, 2015

Tent Like Openings

Let the music in your judgments sing!

The rule of law is nothing but the song of human beings
raised in hopeful expectation of yearning for a place to

Nourish, grow, and cultivate each and every living thing.

A cup of water from the widow’s well, a burning bush,
a father’s knife, spared to save a darling son

His future husbandry.

When so much is given, holding to the world’s rim
intonations of a cherished sister’s richer resonance,

If not to ask, “Why does each and every day re-circulate?”
as if, the day before, we’d missed the cairn the breaking light

Sets upon the ripples of a lake.

Greg Hobbs 4/19/2015


Rio Grande National Forest federal reserved water right decree a “huge success story” — The Pueblo Chieftain

April 23, 2015


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Few things heighten the blood pressure of water users like a federal reserved water right.

Around the American West they’ve been used to secure water supplies for Indian reservations, national parks and other federal lands, occasionally overturning the pecking order defined in water law by the maxim “first in time, first in right.”

But local water users in the San Luis Valley have spent the last couple of months urging the Rio Grande National Forest to protect one that’s believed to be the only one of its kind ever granted to an entire national forest.

“It’s a huge success story, not only for the federal agency, but for the water users in the San Luis Valley,” said Travis Smith, who represents the region on the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Local groups and forest officials spent more than two decades negotiating the decree that protects in-stream flows on the 1.9 million-acre national forest before hammering out an agreement in 2000.

The decree established 303 quantification points on the headwaters of streams and rivers in the eastern San Juan and La Garita mountains and the northern Sangre de Cristos.

Each quantification point includes minimum high flows and maximum high flows that vary depending on the time of year.

The in-stream flows, which don’t involve the removal or consumption of any water, are designed to protect stream function and fish habitat.

The decree also gave forest officials the right to an unspecified amount for fighting fires.

But the upcoming revision of the forest’s management plan has prompted the federal agency to examine its existing management practices — including those for water — and collect public opinion on whether change is needed.

The plan-revision process is expected to last four years, but U.S. Forest Service officials want the feedback before they begin devising management alternatives later this year.

Toward that end, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, a 21-member panel representing users from around the valley, voted earlier this month to submit comments calling for the decree to stay the same.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District followed with a similar vote Tuesday.

Such consensus would have seemed unlikely in the 1970s when the Forest Service began seeking federal reserved rights for in-stream flows at water courts around the state.

The trials for those efforts in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins were sprawling affairs with each ending up in the Colorado Supreme Court before being sent back to their respective trial courts.

Neither water court, in the end, granted in-stream-flow rights to the national forests in those basins.

And, initially, there was plenty of opposition in the Rio Grande Basin as 35 parties filed objections to the Forest Service’s filing.

Steve Vandiver is director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District but he was involved in negotiations for the Rio Grande’s decree as the division engineer at the time.

He said the lack of development in the headwaters of the Rio Grande compared to other river basins made it much easier to reach a deal.

“If you look at the other basins, there’s a lot of private ground in and above the forest,” he said. “If you’re Vail, or you’re Aspen or Copper Mountain, you don’t want a dedicated flow below you that has to be met every day.”

The decree signed by Judge Robert Ogburn mirrors Vandiver’s point, noting that there are only four large reservoirs and 181 other water rights located on or upstream of Forest Service lands.

Still, local water organizations secured important concessions in the decree.

The priority date for the forest’s water right was pegged at 1999, even though the lands covered by the decree were brought into the national forest between 1902 and 1938.

Another point in the agreement holds that if the Forest Service impeded on the exercise of other water rights or increased its stream flows through the use of its land-use authority, the decree could be reopened.

Jim Webb, who served as forest supervisor for the Rio Grande at the time of the decree, credited Vandiver and other local water leaders at the time for being forward thinking. “There was a high degree of trust,” he told The Chieftain in a phone interview.

Moreover, he said the failed efforts by American Water Development Inc. and Stockman’s Water Co. to take water out of the valley made water managers more amenable to locking down in-stream flows on the forest.

He, like Vandiver, wants the decree left untouched, adding that there’s no unclaimed water left on the forest to increase the in-stream flows or become available for downstream users.

He also doesn’t want to see anyone mess with the decree because of the impact it would have on the forest’s relationships with its neighbors in the valley.

“Politically, it would be a bomb,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


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