Stream management planning watered down by agriculture

Flow targets for the environment, recreation lacking

Boaters float the Yampa River in northwest Colorado photo
Boaters float the Yampa River in northwest Colorado in May 2021. A recent report on stream management plans found that although they were set out to address flow needs for environmental and recreation purposes, only a small percentage have done that. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

Among the goals of Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan was to focus more attention on “non-consumptive” water uses — environmental and recreation water needs — through stream management planning.

The basic idea of a stream management plan, or SMP, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is when stakeholders convene to evaluate the ecological conditions of their local river to identify flow needs to support environmental and recreational water uses.

The goal was to turn some attention on non-consumptive water needs and try to address the gap between how much water is in the stream and how much is needed for a healthy environment and a good recreational experience.

“The environment and recreation are too critical to Colorado’s brand not to have robust objectives; a strong Colorado environment is critical to the economy and way of life,” reads the Water Plan, referring to the need for SMPs. The Water Plan’s objective was to cover 80% of locally prioritized rivers with an SMP by 2030.

But according to a recent River Network report on the 26 SMPs completed or in progress statewide as of September 2021, in some cases the process seems to have been taken over by agricultural interests, watering down what was supposed to have been a tool specifically for the benefit of non-consumptive water uses.

“A pillar of CWCB’s grant guidance for stream management planning is to ‘identify flows needed to support environmental and recreational water uses,’” the report reads. “This pursuit — as a primary SMP focus — has not been consistent and has proven problematic and even unpopular among participating stakeholders.”

Most SMPs evaluate flow regimes, but don’t make recommendations for a specific target flow. Of all the 269 project recommendations, just 6% focused on environmental flow targets and only 1% focused on recreation flow targets. In contrast, 14% of recommendations involved agriculture diversion reconstructions, the largest percentage of recommendations.

And although there are many recommendations for projects like stream restoration (11%) and recreation enhancements (7%), putting a number on how much water a stream needs for environmental or recreation purposes is rare. Projects tend to focus on physical modifications to the stream channel and not necessarily how to get more water into that stream channel.

“This was something I was afraid was going to happen,” said Ken Neubecker, retired Colorado projects director for American Rivers and former Colorado Basin Roundtable member. “I am a little disappointed. Yes, you’ve got to have the other stakeholders engaged, but the original intent with stream management planning was that it should primarily be addressing the environment and recreation needs of a certain stream reach.”

Parshall flume measuring device photo
This Parshall flume measuring device is being installed on a ditch on Morrisania Mesa. Ditch inventories, funded in part with state grant money, are becoming popular aspects of stream management plans. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Bringing ag to the table

Nicole Seltzer is the Colorado River basin program director with River Network, the organization that produced the report and which works to protect and restore rivers. She said there are multiple factors as to why more environmental flow recommendations haven’t yet come out of the SMP process, including a lack of stream gauge data on some tributaries. But a main reason is because it’s a sensitive topic that has to be navigated carefully.

“Sometimes you have to let go of the conversations that are super divisive in order to keep your group together and keep making progress on other things,” Seltzer said. “I think that we’ve seen that the conversation around environmental flow goals and how you meet those goals is sensitive and it has the ability sometimes to derail the entire process.”

That divisiveness reveals the tension between traditional water users like agricultural producers, who take water out of the rivers, and recreational and environmental water advocates, whose goal is to keep water in the river. Environmental and recreation groups have historically not played as big a role in water planning as agricultural and municipal water managers. The SMP process was supposed to be a way to legitimize and enhance their role.

But because agriculture controls the oldest water rights and makes up the largest slice of water use in Colorado — 86% according to numbers provided by the state — some SMP stakeholder groups realized they couldn’t make progress without including agriculture representatives.

“Our organization very quickly realized if you’re going to get anywhere environmentally, you don’t just want to operate in a vacuum,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River basin outreach coordinator for environmental group Trout Unlimited, and a Colorado Basin Roundtable member. “You’ve got to bring your municipal and agriculture folks to the table.”

In some cases, what started out as an SMP morphed into an IWMP — Integrated Water Management Plans — so named because they integrate the “non-consumptive” environmental and recreation water uses and the “consumptive” agricultural uses.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable adopted the term IWMP in place of SMP in 2016 and defined the primary goal of an IWMP as “identifying opportunities to meet environmental flow needs along with needs of agriculture, municipal, industrial and residential water users.” The roundtable’s choice to use the term IWMP was in response to concerns that stream management planning could emphasize environmental and recreational water needs in a way that might negatively impact agricultural water users and other interests.

The IWMP undertaken by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council was one of these that started out as an SMP and then expanded the scope to incorporate agricultural interests. The Book Cliff, South Side and Mount Sopris conservation districts tackled the agriculture portion, which included an agricultural water use analysis and inventories of 59 ditches. The individual results of the ditch inventories were not made publicly available, despite being publicly funded.

The final action plan outlines 55 recommendations, including six which it says address protection of flows. These include doing a survey of boaters and anglers to see what their flow preferences are, installing more stream gauges on local tributaries of the Colorado River and supporting the Colorado River District as they work to keep water on the Western Slope.

The idea was that a watershed council, environmental group or other organization would come up with a way to prioritize local streams and get to work creating SMPs for 80% of the ones they deem to be high priority. But since there was no standardized way to do this across the state, streams in areas with environmentally focused watershed organizations tend to have SMPs, while those without them don’t.

Multi-benefit projects

Many of the projects recommended in the SMPs are “multi-beneficial,” meaning they benefit multiple water user groups: agriculture, environment, recreation, municipal, industrial. Checking more category boxes for a project can sometimes aid in getting grant funding.

Often, the thinking around a diversion reconstruction or other improvements to irrigation infrastructure is that it can help irrigators more effectively get water out of the river. At the same time, a project could also create a safer passage for boaters or better fish habitat. But these multi-beneficial projects can also have a downside.

“There is an argument that focusing on multibenefit projects that primarily benefit water users dilutes environmental and recreational flow objectives,” the River Network report reads.

And the tools for boosting river flows are few. While some SMPs are motivated by needing to meet federal requirements, for example keeping enough water in the chronically dry 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley for the benefit of endangered fish, this is not common, according to the report.

“In most communities, the only options for pursuing flow-driven outcomes are expensive infrastructure (e.g. ditch piping) or tools for leaving excess water in the river (e.g. water leasing),” the report reads.

The idea is that when irrigators have more efficient diversions, they don’t need to take as much water from the river, leaving more for the benefit of the environment and recreation. But whether that actually happens or not is unclear.

CWCB Watershed Protection Director Chris Sturm said that addressing flow needs is not the only metric of success for an SMP or a project. If a project results in any kind of physical benefit to the stream, it can be considered a win. He said by and large the SMPs are accomplishing what they set out to do.

“Stream management planning is not all about identifying what the flow needs are,” Sturm said. “I think what our stakeholders are doing is they are finding a path towards trusting each other enough to get to those discussions about flow needs. And it’s being done in a way where they are partnering on projects like diversion reconstructions, which is why you see so many of them.”

Although low flow is not the only issue for the environment and recreation communities, it is often the biggest; other problems like high water temperatures are partly a result of there not being enough water in the river.

“I would say recreation in Colorado is more threatened by diminishing streamflow,” said Hattie Johnson, southern Rockies stewardship director with American Whitewater. “You can fix the navigation hazard, but if there’s no water in the river to float down it, it doesn’t matter. I think the flow aspect of it is much more dire.”

Raymond Langstaff, president of the Book Cliff Conservation District, speaks at a River District meeting in May 2022 photo
Raymond Langstaff, president of the Book Cliff Conservation District, speaks at a River District meeting in May 2022. Langstaff participated in creating the IWMP for the Middle Colorado because, he said, “ag has a target on their back for water.” CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Agriculture has the bulk of the water

Raymond Langstaff is the president of the Bookcliff Conservation District, which extends roughly between Glenwood Springs and Parachute, mostly on the north side of Interstate 70. His organization, along with the Mount Sopris and South Side conservation districts, led the agriculture portion of the IWMP process for the Middle Colorado region.

“One of the reasons we got involved is because we have a target on our back for water,” Langstaff said. “The bottom line is ag has the bulk of the water. When people need water, where are they going to go? They are going to go to ag to get the water.”

And agricultural water users are feeling the squeeze from drought and climate change too. Langstaff, a retired engineer with the U.S. Forest Service, has a place on Dry Rifle Creek that has been in his family since 1951. He irrigates about 22 acres of grass and alfalfa with water from the Grass Valley Canal and sells the bales of hay to horse owners.

This year, the number of days he is allowed to use water from the local irrigation water project dropped from 50 to 35 this year. If the water gets cut more, he may do one fewer cutting of hay. And irrigators on the south side of the Colorado River have it even worse.

“If you live on Divide Creek, chances are you will be out of water somewhere around the Fourth of July,” he said.

One of the ideas behind the ditch inventory, in which irrigators got an analysis of their system and potential areas of improvement, was that they would result in efficiency projects that would benefit the irrigator and could also leave more water in streams for the benefit of the environment.

But Langstaff is skeptical that agriculture projects will automatically lead to more water in streams. If agricultural producers can more easily get access to their full water right by making efficiency improvements, they will probably take advantage of that by using all of their water, he said.

“It’s a false hope they might be able to free up a little more water to leave in the river,” Langstaff said. “If you get more efficient, you get to water more times. And it’s their water and they have the right to use it.”

The results of a 2019 survey about SMPs by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water Network seems to confirm that sentiment. More than half of respondents said the amount of water available to them was a challenge. Survey responses also indicated that more acres would be irrigated and more acres would be more fully irrigated if more water was available for diversion.

If environmental and recreation groups want more water to stay in the river, it will require paying agricultural water users, Langstaff said.

“If you want ag to let water stay in the stream, you’re going to have to compensate somehow,” he said. “If you’re in the ag business exclusively, you need every nickel and dime.”

Boaters on the Yampa River in May 2021 photo
Boaters on the Yampa River in May 2021. Stream management plans were originally intended to address flow needs for recreation and environmental water uses, but traditional water uses like agriculture often participate in the process too. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

A way forward

The actions of diverters often have the biggest influence on the health of rivers and the quantity of water in them. And as the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries continue to decline due to climate change, there will be even less water to go around.

In the hierarchy of water uses in Colorado, environmental and recreation interests have taken a back seat to traditional water uses like agriculture. Under the bedrock principle of Colorado water law, prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — typically agricultural water rights — get first use of the river.

The only way to secure a water right specifically for the environment is through an instream flow right, which is held exclusively by the CWCB to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” Although the state has ISF rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments around Colorado, they date to the 1970s and later, making them very junior to most agricultural and municipal water rights, and thus limiting their ability to keep water in the stream.

As for recreation, a handful of communities around the state hold what’s known as a recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, around which they have built a whitewater park or play waves primarily for kayakers. But in a nod to traditional water users, these rights often end up making concessions to future water development. Two bills floated by recreation proponents that aimed to secure water for recreation purposes have stalled in 2021 and 2022.

But most environmental and recreation groups still say that cooperation among all water users within the existing constraints is the best way forward and insist they are making inroads.

“If you’re an environmental advocate you do the best operating in the system that exists, and the system that exists is Colorado water law,” Van Gytenbeek said. “You have to work with water rights holders to see if there’s flexibility in their operations. It’s not a perfect world and it can be very frustrating if you are a kayaker or a fisherman. But we are making progress by collaborating.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the May 7 edition of The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, and the May 9 edition of the Vail DailySteamboat Springs Pilot & Today and Craig Press.

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.

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