Colorado official says demand management program holds water

The bathtub ring in Lake Powell in October 2014, which illustrates how reservoir levels have dropped since 2000.
The bathtub ring in Lake Powell in October 2014, which illustrates how reservoir levels have dropped since 2000. A state official says she sees no reason Colorado shouldn’t move forward with an investigation of a program that would send water to Lake Powell. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

By Heather Sackett

After a year of meetings, workshops and in-depth discussions, state officials feel a feasibility investigation into a program that would pay water users to reduce consumption and add to a savings account in Lake Powell should continue.

Although no formal decision has yet been made on whether to implement a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan known as demand management, Amy Ostdiek, Colorado Water Conservation Board deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information, told the state agency’s board of directors on Wednesday she has not found a reason to keep from moving forward.

“I didn’t identify any points that would indicate to me that we should stop the feasibility investigation,” said Ostdiek, who has been leading and organizing the process for the state. “From my perspective, we have not identified a reason not to continue the analysis or any hard reason it wouldn’t work.”

At the heart of a potential program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send up to 500,000 acre-feet downstream to Lake Powell to bolster levels in the giant reservoir and meet 1922 Colorado River Compact obligations.

Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river, in order to fill a 500,000 acre-foot pool as an insurance policy in case of continued drought or further reduction in average flows.

This field near Carbondale is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state has wrapped up the first year of an investigation into a program that could pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.

Report from workgroups

In June 2019, the CWCB, a state agency responsible for developing and protecting Colorado’s water, named 74 water experts and managers to eight work groups tasked with tackling complicated issues and questions around the creation of a demand management program. The groups were divided by topics: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts.

A ninth group, headed by former Colorado lawmaker and chair of the Interbasin Compact Committee Russell George, has been focusing on how to ensure a demand management program is equitable among water users and basins. The IBCC facilitates conversations among representatives of different river basins and addresses statewide water issues.

Each group met multiple times over the past year and their findings, as well as their lingering questions, were included in a 200-page demand management update report presented Wednesday to CWCB directors.

The sprawling report summarizes the work completed by the groups and their overlapping key values, concerns and uncertainties. The sustainability of agriculture and agricultural communities ranked highest in the values category, while program design and participation ranked highest in the uncertainties category.

Several board members offered their opinions on a potential demand management program. Steve Anderson, who represents the Gunnison-Uncompahgre River basin, questioned whether the state could create water savings by funding more projects outlined in the Basin Implementation Plans instead of crafting a demand management program. The BIPs identify how each basin’s water needs will be met through existing or new projects, policies and processes.

“Once we become more efficient I think we would generate more system water for the Colorado,” he said. “At the end of the day we are going to have a choice between buying an insurance plan or using those funds elsewhere for conservation and efficiency.”

It is unclear how much a demand management program would cost the state, but one of the work groups is dedicated to the funding question.

The main goal of a demand management program would be to defend against what’s known as a “compact call,” which could happen if the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states, as required by the Colorado River Compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, which looms larger each year with the increasing effects of drought and climate change on an over-allocated river, because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.

CWCB board member Greg Felt, who represents the Arkansas River basin, struck a dark tone, saying moving forward with a demand management program is necessary because one of the potential alternatives — involuntary cutbacks, also known as “curtailment” under a compact call — will be impossible to enforce.

“I frankly think that people are not going to accept curtailments on any rights the way they have historically,” Felt said. “From what I’ve watched this year in rural Colorado, people aren’t going to be buying curtailment. The water is going to come out of the stream. You can’t have enough water commissioners to stop that.”

Water from the Government Highline Canal pours into Highline Lake in Mack. If irrigators in Grand Valley need more water than what was supplied upstream, the Grand Valley Water Users Association – the group that regulates water flow in the canal – can close the gate to the lake to back up water as a last resort. Photo by Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism.

Funding for next steps restored

With the first year of a feasibility investigation complete, the ultimate decision on whether to move forward with a demand management program lies with CWCB board members. The board plans to discuss the work presented by the work groups at a one-day workshop in September.

CWCB staff also are planning a virtual regional workshop for the public to learn more about the first year’s findings. Both meetings will be open to the public.

For several weeks there was uncertainty surrounding the future funding of the demand management feasibility investigation, when on May 1, Gov. Jared Polis suspended the program’s funding due to the COVID-19-caused state budget crisis. But the funding was restored in this year’s projects bill, according to CWCB Deputy Director Lauren Ris.

The agency now has until the end of June 2021 to spend the remaining $834,000 of the original $1.7 million allocation, should the board decide to continue delving into the issue for another year.

CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell urged the board to be leaders for Colorado on the issue of demand management.

“We want to do whatever we can to avoid a curtailment situation,” Mitchell said. “Everyone is looking to see what we do and how we handle this, and we do have a very unique opportunity at a very critical time to lead strongly on this.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the July 18 edition of The Aspen Times and the July 19 edition of Aspen Journalism.