Demand-management groups multiply in Colorado water fight

Twin Lakes Tunnel photo for demand management story
The east-side outlet of the Twin Lakes tunnel, which is operated by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., a member of the Front Range Water Council. The FRWC recently declined to meet with members of a Colorado Basin Roundtable group about demand management. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The state of Colorado’s investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program has spawned the spinoff of several additional groups to study the issue, underscoring persistent tensions between the Western Slope and Front Range water managers.

In June, the Colorado Water Conservation Board named 74 people — most of them experts in their fields — to nine workgroups charged with helping the state study whether a water-use reduction plan is right for Colorado. Now, some roundtables and conservation districts are forming their own grassroots stakeholder groups to study demand management outside of the state’s formal process.

One of those is the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. The stakeholder group, chaired by Kirsten Kurath, who is general counsel for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, invited Front Range water providers to an informal meeting on Monday to discuss demand management and address some assumptions about the contentious topic.

Although representatives from Northern Water and Aurora Water initially accepted the invitation, a subsequent letter from the Front Range Water Council made it clear that Front Range water interests were circling the wagons and closing ranks. The FRWC is an ad-hoc group made up of representatives from Front Range urban water providers.

In a letter signed by FRWC chair and Denver Water CEO James Lochhead, the group declined Kurath’s invitation to the meeting.

“We feel it is best at this point not to have ‘official’ side meetings regarding demand management and what a demand management process/program may look like because, particularly with press present, such conversations may lead to confusion and may undermine the state process,” the letter reads.

Kurath said she was extremely disappointed and discouraged by the response.

“It seemed like a great opportunity as part of our workgroup to invite folks from the Front Range Water Council and chat with them about what we are thinking about demand management,” Kurath said. “We do need to work at relationship-building between these historically adverse parties.”

Roaring Fork River irrigation photo for demand management story
This field is irrigated with water from the Roaring Fork River, under a senior water right. Some on the Western Slope worry that water savings from a water-use-reduction plan known as demand management could fall disproportionately to the agriculture sector. By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious topic

So, why is demand management a touchy subject that highlights tensions between Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range? It may be because some in Western Slope agriculture worry that Front Range water providers, backed by a reliable pot of money from their rate-paying customers, can simply pay ranchers to fallow fields without having to reduce their own water consumption. Some Western Slope agricultural water users have voiced concerns about how to create a demand-management program that reduces water use equitably across all sectors, not just agriculture.

On top of that, some fear that if fields are no longer producing crops, a cascade of unintended consequences for the local economy could be the result. The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are studying the secondary economic impacts of demand management.

“What are the economic impacts should someone decide not to grow a crop?” said Frank Kugel, executive director of the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District. “What about the tractor-supply store, the feed stores, the restaurants and the workers that work on those farms?”

Adding to the controversial nature of demand management is Colorado’s social and cultural backdrop. At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations. Under such a program, ranchers and farmers could get paid to leave more water in the river.

But Andy Mueller, general manager of the CRWCD, said the concept of intentionally saving water goes against the age-old Western water adage of “Use it or lose it.” Some irrigators believe their water right, which is seen as a property right, could be considered abandoned if they don’t use their entire share of the water all the time, although it is rare in Colorado for this aspect of the law to be enforced by the state.

“We are asking people to change 150 years of cultural, family, political traditions,” Mueller said. “What we need to do in the water-policy world is help provide people with security and confidence they are not unintentionally damaging themselves for the future and that they are protected and have economic certainty.”

To this end, the river district also is forming a demand-management stakeholder group of its own. Mueller said the goal is to convene a group of roughly 30 water users to figure out how their interests would be protected if a demand-management plan is implemented.

“It’s a really critical thing for our actual water users to be driving the train because they know how their farms work,” Mueller said. “If you get ideas from them, they are much more likely to work in the long run.”

Government Highline Canal photo for demand management story
The Government Highline Canal, near Grand Junction, delivers water from the Colorado River, and is managed by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Representatives from the Grand Valley Water Users Association invited members of the Front Range Water Council to discuss demand management, but the FRWC declined. By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water from ag?

Although some might assume that the easiest way to save a large amount of water in a demand-management program is to take it from Western Slope agriculture, Front Range water providers say that isn’t the case. Lochhead said that Denver Water would participate in a demand-management program along with everyone else using “wet water,” not just by throwing money at the problem.

Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water, agreed that water savings solely from Western Slope agriculture isn’t the solution.

“I get the impression from some West Slope entities … that they think the whole burden of demand management is going to come on the backs of the West Slope,” he said, “and honestly, I don’t think anybody on the Front Range Water Council is saying that.”

These were some of the issues Kurath was hoping to clear up in a meeting with her stakeholder group and Front Range water providers.

“We just wanted to explore that with folks,” she said. “It was a real disappointment to me to have them decide they didn’t want to participate.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Oct. 30 edition of the Times.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

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