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New poll: Slim majority supports spending more to protect Colorado’s water

A Longmont woman, voting in 2020, supported a local tax measure to fund water conservation and other projects. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith

A majority of Colorado voters believe the state should spend more money on protecting and conserving its water resources, but they’re not willing to support new state taxes to fund the work, according to a series of bipartisan polls conducted over the past 18 months.

“Roughly 55 percent of voters said the state should spend more money,” said Lori Weigel, a pollster and principal with the firm New Bridge Strategy.

Though the polling also showed some support for such potential tools as a new statewide tourism tax or a bottle tax, that support eroded quickly when likely voters were asked about a new statewide tax, with 39 percent of likely voters saying they were skeptical the state could be trusted to spend the money wisely, Weigel said.

Her comments came Tuesday at a meeting of the Inter Basin Compact Committee (IBCC), a statewide group charged with helping develop consensus-based solutions to the state’s water issues, including funding.

The bipartisan polling was conducted before and after the elections of 2019, when Colorado voters narrowly approved a sports gambling tax whose proceeds will help fund the Colorado Water Plan, and again before and after the elections of 2020. In those contests voters in the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and the Longmont-based St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District overwhelmingly approved new taxes for local water projects.

Funded by For the Love of Colorado, a nonpartisan coalition that includes environmental groups, water utilities and industry groups, the polling was designed to help policy makers and lawmakers decide how best to raise an estimated $3 billion over the next 30 years to help cities and farmers cope with looming shortages, while ensuring streams have enough water for fish and kayakers.

That’s the amount of money estimated to be needed from new sources to fully fund the Colorado Water Plan. But to date, lawmakers and other sources have only been able to provide between $5 million to $30 million annually. And though the new sports betting tax is likely to bring in $6 million to $11 million dollars annually, it will still fall short of the needed revenues.

State officials hope to build on the recent modest, but still significant, 2020 election wins to create a more stable, permanent source of funding.

“For the first time in a long time we’ve had success,” IBCC Chair Russ George told the group on Tuesday.

But the wins and the recent polls show the state must build broad coalitions and work harder to dispel distrust among voters over how any new statewide tax revenues would be spent if they were approved, officials said.

Aaron Citron, a member of the IBCC and a policy analyst with The Nature Conservancy, said the funding shortfall is likely to become more dire without a permanent statewide funding source because traditional sources, such as oil and gas tax revenues, are plummeting as production declines.

“The situation is likely to get worse,” Citron said. “Yes we should emulate what was done so successfully in the Colorado River and St. Vrain districts and figure out how to build that [statewide] trust. It’s possible but it’s going to be tough.

“The assumption [when the Colorado Water Plan was being developed] was that we would be able to have severance tax revenues into the future. But we can expect them to continue to be unstable and continue to decline because of global market pressures, and state and federal greenhouse gas and renewable energy goals,” Citron said. He was referring to state commitments that call for oil and gas and fossil fuels to gradually be replaced with cleaner energy sources, a process that will phase out oil and gas production and the associated tax revenue it generates.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said voters in his district were willing to raise their property taxes last fall to help fund local water projects, but there was no local support for using those new taxes to make up for missing state funds.

“The state has an obligation to fund water projects,” Mueller said. “This is a much bigger issue at $100 million a year than the $4.2 million my district was able to raise. It doesn’t get us anywhere if it can’t be leveraged against additional state and federal funding.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org

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.

Report: Estimates of future Upper Colorado River Basin water use confound planning

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question. Credit: Ecoflight

By Heather Sackett

Some water experts fear that a long-held aspiration to develop more water in the Upper Colorado River Basin is creating another chance to let politics and not science lead the way on river management.

“Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers,” a white paper released this month by the Center for Colorado River Studies, says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, we need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo.

Estimates about how much water the upper basin will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the paper.

The paper says unrealistic future water-use projections for the upper basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — confound planning because they predict the region will use more water than it actually will. The Upper Colorado River Commission’s estimates for future growth are unlikely to be realized and are perhaps implausible, unreasonable and unjustified, the paper says.

“The projection of demand is always higher than what is actually used,” said Jack Schmidt, one of the paper’s authors and the Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “We said you can’t plan the future of the river based on these aspirational use projections when there’s a clear demonstration that we never end up using as much as we aspire to use.”

The Center for Colorado River Studies is affiliated with Utah State but draws on expertise from throughout the basin. The paper is the sixth in a series of white papers that is part of The Future of the Colorado River Project. The project is being funded by multiple donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Utah Water Research Laboratory and two private donors, as well as by grants from the Catena Foundation, which is a major donor to Aspen Journalism’s water desk.

According to the paper, between 1988 and 2018 consumptive water use in the upper basin has remained flat at an average of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. This figure is based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports. The UCRC’s most recent numbers from 2016 show future water use in the upper basin — known as a “depletion demand schedule” — at 5.27 million acre-feet by 2020 and 5.94 million acre-feet by 2060.

“In percentage terms, these UCRC projections for 2020 are already 23% higher than actual use and would be more than 40% higher than present use in 2060,” the paper reads.

And future water use is unlikely to increase because of three main reasons: thirsty coal-fired power plants are on their way to being decommissioned; land that was formerly used for irrigated agriculture is transitioning to residential developments, which use less water; and there are regulatory and political barriers to more large transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the river to the Front Range.

The white paper’s authors say these unrealistic future projections of water use make it harder to plan for a water-short future under climate change.

“Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations, very low Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage content and greater Lower Basin shortages are inevitable,” the paper reads. “Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”

The issue is twofold: With climate change, there is not enough water for the upper basin to develop new projects without the risk of a compact call; and if the past three decades are any indication, the upper basin is not on track to use more water in the future anyway.

So why might the UCRC be overestimating future water use? To understand that, one must take a closer look at the Colorado River Compact.

Urban development along Colorado’s Front Range is seen in an aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. A commission representing states comprising the upper basin of the Colorado River estimates as much as 40% higher water use compared to current levels by 2060, but a recent white paper calls those assumptions into question as says they hamper efforts to realistically deal with climate change. Credit: Ecoflight

The law of the river

In 1922, the framers of the Colorado River Compact divided the waters of the river, giving the upper basin and the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — 7.5 million acre-feet each. This amount, known as an apportionment or “entitlement,” was thought to be fair at the time because it gave the slow-growing upper basin time to develop their share of the water without the faster-growing lower basin claiming it first.

The mission of the UCRC is to protect the upper basin’s ability to use its share of the river. And this entitlement is symbolic of the upper basin’s dreams and aspirations: growing cities and towns and thriving agricultural communities.

The problem is that the century-old agreement didn’t account for dwindling flows caused by climate change. Studies have found — under what Brad Udall, one of the paper’s authors and a climate and water researcher at Colorado State University, calls “the new abnormal” — that runoff decreases as temperatures rise.

Compounding the issue is that under the compact, the upper basin is still required to deliver the same amount of water to the lower basin regardless of declining flows.

“The reason we entered into a compact was because we knew we couldn’t develop as quickly as the lower basin, so the whole idea is that we could develop later,” said Jennifer Gimbel, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and interim director at the CSU Water Center. “But as we know, streamflow is not as strong and climate change is cutting into it even more and more, and that puts you into a conundrum.”

The result is that there are 15 million acre-feet of entitlements on paper, not including Mexico’s share, but just 12 million to 13 million acre-feet of water. And that number is likely to decline even further as temperatures rise. Soon, there may not be enough water for the upper basin to meet its compact obligations to the lower basin and to develop new water projects.

“You cannot have a situation where climate change is reducing the yield of the basin and everyone is sticking to what they think their entitlements are under the compact,” said Eric Kuhn, one of the study’s authors. “Something has to give.”

In other words, if the water physically is not there anymore, it doesn’t really matter what the compact says the upper basin is entitled to.

Kuhn is the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and also co-author of the 2019 book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.” One of the book’s main points is that past Colorado River decision-makers let politics and competition for a limited supply of water — not science — be the main drivers of river management. Because of that, the river was over-allocated from the beginning. Kuhn worries that this trend may be continuing.

“The fear is that this is another opportunity to ignore the science,” he said. “Forget about these projections that show how much water we might have been able to develop 40 years ago and focus on the river that nature has given us with climate change and not the one we wish we had from decades ago.”

Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada). Credit: Colorado State University Water Resources Archive

Interstate poker game

The upper basin, including Colorado, is currently exploring the concept of a demand-management program, which could reduce water use by paying irrigators to not irrigate. The goal of the program, which would be temporary and voluntary for participants, would be to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water to Lake Powell to prop up levels and avoid a compact call.

A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states as required by the compact. This could trigger an interstate legal quagmire, a scenario that water managers desperately want to avoid.

If it appears contradictory that the upper basin is looking at how to reduce water use while at the same time clinging to a plan for more future water use, that’s because it is.

Water attorney Peter Fleming said some are asking why the upper basin is planning to reduce existing depletions while also planning an additional million acre-feet of depletions. Fleming is general counsel for the River District. He also is on the legal committee for the UCRC, but is not speaking on behalf of that organization here. “It seems the upper basin as a whole needs to reconcile that seeming contradiction,” he said.

Some water experts compared the UCRC’s depletion schedule to an interstate chess or poker game, complete with bluffing. The upper basin must insist it will one day put to beneficial use all of its unused share — or else the lower basin, which already uses all of its own share, could somehow claim the unused portion.

“There’s still this fear that if we don’t use our water, the lower basin will establish an economic use and economic reliance on that water, and it will be very difficult to get it back in the future, even though we are entitled to it,” Kuhn said. “The downside to that right now is the water is just not there.”

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question. Credit: Ecoflight

Best estimates, not predictions

UCRC Director Amy Haas said in an email that although the paper is thought-provoking, the authors base their analysis on an obsolete projection of future Upper Basin water use demands from 2007 instead of relying on the current 2016 projections, which show a decrease in future demand as well as a slower rate of projected future demand. She said the authors did not consult the commission on the paper before its release.

Study authors have said that current data from the Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t released in time for the 2016 numbers to be used in the paper, and that they used the most up-to-date information available to them. They also say the differences between the two sets of numbers are minor and don’t change their findings.

Haas pointed to the resolution in which the UCRC adopted the 2016 demand schedule, which says demand projections are “best estimates of potential water use based on positive economic conditions and favorable hydrology and climate. As such, they are not predictions of what future water use will necessarily be, but projections for planning purposes to be used for modeling only.”

Colorado’s representative to the UCRC and director of the CWCB Rebecca Mitchell also provided a statement. Colorado is arguably the most important of the upper-basin states when considering these issues because its apportionment of upper basin water is 51.75% and it contributes 70% of the water at Lee Ferry, Arizona, which under the compact is the dividing line between the upper and lower basins.

“Whether we are looking into the concept of demand management or another potential tool for the Colorado River basin states, I remain committed to protecting Colorado’s legally protected entitlements on the Colorado River and our state’s water users,” Mitchell said in an email. “I continue to value input and ideas from a broad range of stakeholders as I work with the other basin states to find lasting solutions to the challenges facing the Colorado River basin.”

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry, just below Lake Powell. Credit: Center for Colorado River Studies

Shrinking pizza

An important conclusion of the paper is that water managers will need innovative thinking that challenges the status quo in order to tackle the problems posed by climate change. And there are still many unknowns. For example, could rising temperatures increase water requirements for thirsty crops enough to cancel out water saved from decommissioning power plants? The paper’s authors say that’s an area that needs further study.

But if the upper basin can let go of its plans for more water development, the risks and impacts of future droughts and climate change would be substantially ameliorated, the paper says. In fact, the paper found that even the water use between the years 2000 and 2018, an ongoing period that has been termed the Millenium Drought, would be sustainable and would allow the upper basin to meet its compact obligations to the lower basin — as long as future growth is limited.

In the coming years, water managers will have to grapple with how to allocate slices of an ever-shrinking pizza and science may take a back seat once again.

“People are going to have these really controversial debates about how big a slice you’re going to get when the pie is smaller,” Schmidt said. “All we’re trying to do is inspire those hard-nosed conversations. But at the end of the day, the conversation about how big the slices are is a political negotiation and an economic negotiation; it’s not a science negotiation.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by a grant from the Catena Foundation, which also helped partially fund the white paper described in this article. This story ran in the Feb. 25 edition of The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and in the Feb. 28 edition of The Summit Daily.

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.

‘Indian Country’ is excited about the first Native American secretary of the interior – and the promise she has for addressing issues of importance to all Americans

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland speaks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Oct. 1, 2018. Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

By Traci Morris, PhD, Arizona State University

President Biden’s nomination of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Department of the Interior is historic on many levels. Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, along with U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas. And if confirmed, she will be the first Native American to head the agency that administers the nation’s trust responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Indian Country has a significant history with the Interior Department that has more often been bad than good. But Haaland’s record shows that she is committed to making progress on larger challenges that affect all Americans. She has been especially vocal on climate, environmental protection, public lands and natural resource management.

As the executive director of one of the only Indigenous policy institutes in the nation, a scholar of Indigenous studies and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, I’ve been acutely aware of Haaland’s work since she was elected to Congress in 2018. I’ve tracked her leadership on issues such as broadband access and infrastructure for Native nations.

https://youtu.be/3xkHbh5xKh8

To Indian Country, Haaland is viewed as everybody’s “auntie.” Having her in leadership gives Native America a seat at the policymaking table. For New Mexico she has been a productive member of Congress, reelected in 2020 with over 58% of the vote. And while a few Western senators have called her views “radical,” I believe that Native issues are American issues. If Haaland is confirmed as interior secretary, many observers expect her to provide bold leadership for an agency that oversees what is arguably the heart of America: its land.

A big portfolio

Haaland grew up in a military family, raised a daughter as a single parent and worked in tribal administration before entering politics. A self-described “proud progressive,” she supports policies including a ban on hydraulic fracking, the Green New Deal, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a national single-payer health care system.

Haaland’s knowledge of Native and Western issues are important credentials for heading the Interior Department. Created in 1849, the agency manages U.S. cultural and natural resources. It has nine technical bureaus, eight offices and 70,000 employees, including many scientists and natural resource management experts.

The department’s portfolio includes national parks and wildlife refuges, multiuse public lands, ocean energy development, regulation of surface mining and mine cleanups and research conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. It oversees the use of more than 480 million acres of public lands, mainly in Western states, 700 million acres of subsurface minerals and 1.7 billion acres of the outer continental shelf along U.S. coastlines.

Map of public lands managed by the Interior Department.
The Interior Department oversees more than 480 million acres of public lands, mostly in the Western U.S. USGS

One key departmental mission is fulfilling the trust responsibility – a legal obligation that the U.S. has to uphold promises made to tribal nations in exchange for their lands. This political relationship is derived from 370 treaties between the federal government and Native nations.

Tribal nations are part of the family of governments in the U.S., along with the federal and state governments. There are 574 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations that have a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government via the trust relationship. They are located in 35 states on 334 reservations. Tribal lands total 100 million acres.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, the trust responsibility covers two significant interrelated areas:

– Protecting tribal property and assets that the U.S. government holds in trust for the benefit of tribal nations.

– Guaranteeing tribal lands and resources as a base for distinct tribal cultures, including water for irrigation, access to fish and game and income from natural resource development.

The term “Indian Country” is a legal designation of tribal lands. It is also a philosophical definition of where we as Indigenous people are from.

Native nations and the Interior Department

Indian Country and the Interior Department have had a history fraught with controversy that makes this nomination particularly powerful.

One of the most significant issues has been the agency’s long-standing mismanagement of Indian lands on behalf of hundreds of thousands of individual Native Americans since the late 1880s. In 2009, the Obama administration negotiated a US$3.4 billion settlement in a long-running class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department. Elise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, brought the suit on behalf of more than 250,000 plaintiffs.

A current issue is the struggle over Oak Flat, a sacred Apache location in southern Arizona that is about to be mined for copper. The site is both culturally and archaeologically significant. Several different groups are suing to prevent mining there, and members of Congress have introduced legislation to block the federal government from transferring title to the land to mining companies.

Another example is the struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other water protectors argue threatens Native burial sites and water supplies. Still another controversy is the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which protects sites that are sacred to more than 20 tribes and pueblos. President Biden is reviewing the Bears Ears decision, and tribes and environmental advocates are urging him to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Beyond these high-profile cases, Interior Department actions affect many other facets of tribal governance. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees tribal gaming compacts and right-of-way infrastructure decisions for projects that cross Native lands.

Many of the agency’s resource stewardship activities also affect tribes. The department recently approved a drought contingency plan for the Colorado River that will impose water conservation requirements on multiple states, counties and tribes. And resource development proposals often affect lands that are important to Native Americans even if they are not officially part of a reservation, but are traditional homelands or sacred spaces.

Since the trust relationship includes a relationship between governments, all federal agencies must fulfill it. President Biden issued a Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening the Nation-to-Nation Relationships on Jan. 26. This policy statement, which builds on and expands similar declarations from Presidents Clinton and Obama, has been well received in Indian Country.

If Haaland is confirmed, Biden’s memo will require her to submit a detailed implementation plan and progress reports to the Office of Management and Budget. Tribal consultations are already planned. Policy experts expect that overall, Haaland will work to restore tribal lands, address climate change – which is significantly affecting Indigenous people – and safeguard natural and cultural resources. The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations outlines this agenda.

Indigenous issues are American issues

I believe that as secretary of the interior, Haaland will focus on issues that are important to all Americans, not just Indigenous people. Recent surveys show that a majority of Americans think the federal government should do more to combat climate change and protect the environment. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land,” Haaland said when her nomination was announced.

For Native Americans, seeing people who look like us and are from where we come from in some of the highest elected and appointed offices in the U.S. demonstrates inclusion. Indian Country finally has a seat at the table. The gravity of this position is not lost on Haaland, and I expect that she will make a difference for all Americans.

Traci Morris, PhD is Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Are New York billionaires different than Colorado’s? Work group eyes new tools to stop water profiteering

A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where state regulators are warning that a deadline to shut off wells to help restore flows in the Rio Grande River might be coming sooner than expected.
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where state regulators are warning that a deadline to shut off wells to help restore flows in the Rio Grande River might be coming sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith

Imposing hefty taxes on speculative water sales, requiring that water rights purchased by investors be held for several years before they can be resold, and requiring special state approval of such sales are three ideas that might help Colorado protect its water resources from speculators.

The ideas were discussed Wednesday at a meeting of a special work group looking at whether Colorado needs to strengthen laws preventing Wall Street investment firms and others from selling water for profit in ways that don’t benefit the state’s farms, cities and streams.

The anti-speculation group was created last year by lawmakers and is charged with reporting back to them this August.

As prices for Colorado’s water have soared and Wall Street firms and others have begun buying up agricultural lands and their associated water rights, concern is rising that the state could lose control of its vast, though heavily used, streams and rivers.

“It’s a tough nut to crack,” said Joe Bernal, a rancher and work group member from the Grand Valley on the West Slope, where hedge funds are actively buying land and water.

Water has always been a scarce resource in Colorado. In the late 1800s, as miners and farmers were moving in, the state developed a system so that no one could hoard water, drive up its price, and profit from its sale. To combat the problem, it was required that water rights be granted only to those who could put them to beneficial use, whether in farm fields or mines, or in people’s homes and businesses.

Under state law, water is considered a public resource.  But once obtained, water rights are considered a private property right and can be bought and sold in transactions that, depending on circumstance, may require review and approval from the water courts.

Colorado already has some of the strictest anti-speculation laws in the West.

But the rise in water prices and the purchase of water-rich farms and ranches on the West Slope by deep-pocketed, out-of-state investment firms, as well as in-state efforts to export water from the San Luis Valley, prompted lawmakers in late 2019 to call for more work on the issue.

The work group has yet to make any formal recommendations, but Alex Davis, an attorney for Aurora Water and work group member, said new ideas have to be considered because Colorado’s existing laws were written more than 100 years ago, long before hedge funds existed.

“This idea of appropriating water rights and not using them, we have that covered,” Davis said. “It’s well prevented by the laws that exist. It’s the financial speculation that we’re focused on here. How do you prevent it? It’s a very difficult question.”

Imposing a hefty tax on any profits made in a speculative sale, similar to a capital gains tax, could serve as a disincentive to investors, Davis said.

Still another work group member, Adam Reeves, an attorney with the Denver- and Durango-based firm Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel, said forcing certain investors to hold onto water rights for several years before being allowed to sell them again could provide another powerful disincentive.

Still others suggested some kind of state approval by existing water courts or other state authorities could be required, effectively limiting any sales deemed speculative.

But key to any of these tools is defining what is and isn’t speculation.

“What are the criteria by which you determine that ‘x’ investment is speculative and ‘y’ investment is not?” Davis asked. “Any time anyone purchases an asset it’s an investment…when does it become an investment that is problematic or predatory? Is a Colorado billionaire different than a New York billionaire?”

Bernal said any definition of speculation should consider whether transactions in which cities are buying agricultural water with an intent to permanently remove it at some future date to serve a growing population could also be considered speculative and therefore subject to some limitation.

“The concern we all have here is where it might go and who will end up with it. Is it right, is it proper that it go to large municipalities?” Bernal asked. “Why are some of these transactions bad because of who they involve, and what limitations do we put on these transactions, and how does that affect people who’ve owned the water traditionally? Is there something we need to do that doesn’t interfere with private property transactions?”

Work group member Peter Fleming, a water attorney for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, said the state should be careful not to limit investment in ways that are harmful.

“There is no risk to Coloradans from a non-speculative investment in water,” Fleming said. “We need that to increase productivity and maximum utilization of the state’s water resources.”

The work group has six months to finish its research and craft recommendations for lawmakers to consider later this summer.

The group plans to meet next in March, though a date has not yet been set.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that water rights can be bought and sold only after approval by the water courts. In fact, that approval is not always necessary depending on the nature of the transaction. 

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Sara Kuta contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared on Fresh Water News. Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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.

Colorado Water Plan turns five: Is it working?


The Green River at the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument. A key goal of the Colorado Water Plan is preserving water for the state’s hallmark rivers and its recreation industry. Sept. 25, 2020. Credit: Mitch Tobin, The Water Desk

By Sarah Kuta 

In the five years since Colorado’s Water Plan took effect, the state has awarded nearly $500 million in loans and grants for water projects, cities have enacted strict drought plans, communities have written nearly two dozen locally based stream restoration plans, and crews have been hard at work improving irrigation systems and upgrading wastewater treatment plants.

But big challenges lie ahead — drought, population growth, accelerating climate change, budget cuts, wildfires and competing demands for water, among others.

And though the state has made progress on the plan’s ambitious goals and funding needs since November 2015, it hasn’t yet been able to secure the estimated $100 million needed each year through 2050 to fully fund the plan.

Colorado water leaders are optimistic about advances made under the plan thus far. But they acknowledge that this five-year milestone is just the beginning of a long-term effort with no easy path forward. The plan is also undergoing a comprehensive update that will help refine its direction moving forward by incorporating lessons learned and better data.

“Five years in water time is really a blink of an eye,” said Lauren Ris, deputy director for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the statewide water policy agency tasked with administering the plan. “Even though we’re so proud of the progress we’ve made, we’ve got a lot of work in front of us. There’s a lot to celebrate but I also think we can’t rest too much on our laurels here.”

The water plan, explained

The plan provides a framework for ensuring there’s enough good-quality water for all of Colorado’s diverse users, as well as the state’s downstream neighbors. Gov. John Hickenlooper called for the plan’s creation in May 2013, which set in motion 30 months of meetings, public input, writing and reviewing to ultimately create the 567-page plan.

Forecasts show water supplies will not keep pace with demand by 2050 for agricultural (Ag) or municipal and industrial (M & I) needs if Colorado does not find new approaches. Source: 2019 Analysis and Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan

Colorado has long faced unique water challenges in part because its high-altitude rivers deliver water to 18 other states and Mexico, activity that is carefully governed by legal agreements that include compacts and treaties. Accelerating climate change and rapid population growth have only added more complexity. Colorado’s population is expected to grow as high as 8.1 million by 2050, up from 5.76 million in 2019, with much of that growth occurring on the East Slope. Meanwhile, 70 to 80 percent of the state’s water originates on the West Slope.

Colorado’s population could grow by varying degrees depending on variables like economic growth, with the most significant growth in the South Platte Basin and metro area.

Many Colorado water leaders agree that the plan — and the multi-year processes for creating and updating it — has fostered an authentic spirit of collaboration. Even if they disagree, people have to work together to find common ground because the plan prioritizes projects that achieve multiple benefits, which in turn makes them more likely to receive state funding.

“Collaboration is now the starting point of conversations about water and maybe that wasn’t always true before,” said Russ Sands, water supply planning section chief for the CWCB. “Like any dinner party, you have some strong conversations and it’s hard. But then ultimately, we do come together around these multi-purpose, multi-benefit projects.”

Key to putting the plan to work are the public roundtables in each river basin, whose volunteer members are charged with identifying each region’s needs and the methods and funding to meet those needs.

The plan hasn’t completely eased tensions, but it has given water users a forum for voicing their opinions, popular or unpopular. And, perhaps above all else, it has succeeded in keeping water top of mind.

“The best thing the water plan has done is kept the water problem in everybody’s face,” said Max Schmidt, manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Project Power Plant. “Traditionally, we have a dry year and everybody gets all worried. Then the next year’s a wet year and everybody forgets about it. People are now saying, ‘This is a long-term, serious problem.’”

Progress under the plan

Work on the plan is occurring mostly on specific projects in Colorado’s eight river basins, which are often funded by loans and grants administered by the CWCB. Five years in, the plan has provided $63.5 million in grants to 241 projects, and $420 million in loans to 82 projects.

According to the CWCB’s data, 76 percent of the plan’s actions have been initiated or completed, but how this translates to progress on the plan’s eight measurable objectives isn’t clear yet. Those objectives set measurable targets for things like water conservation, new water storage, and water-smart land use, as well as informing the public. When asked about progress toward the objectives, the CWCB said it is no longer calculating specific progress metrics using the objectives but is instead tracking new projects or programs that work toward the goals outlined in the plan.

Since taking office in 2019, Gov. Jared Polis has made water one of his “Wildly Important Goals,” issuing a call to the CWCB and roundtables to create a database of 500 local water projects that are ready or nearly ready to launch and are backed by strong data demonstrating costs and potential outcomes.

While the “water WIG,” as it is known, did not come with any funding attached, the exercise has forced local water leaders to refine, prioritize and provide cost estimates for their most promising ideas.

Though the focus on specific projects has been effective for achieving goals in each river basin, some water leaders feel the plan doesn’t go far enough to address statewide issues.

“We need to think more broadly about water,” said Kathleen Curry, chair of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable on the West Slope, rancher and lobbyist. “Having a project-specific focus is great if you’re the entity pushing the projects, but really, overall forest health, stream measurement, snowpack measurement, some of the overall statewide water supply challenges that are out there, those need to be part of the plan as well. [We need to] make sure the plan isn’t simply a laundry list.”

Funding wins and challenges

Since the Colorado Water Plan’s inception, state funding for implementation has ranged from a low of $5 million in 2016 to $30 million in 2019, far short of the estimated $100 million needed each year through 2050

In 2020, lawmakers appropriated $7.5 million for the water plan, however, that money is expected to be stretched over three years because of declining oil and gas severance tax revenue and the economic consequences of COVID-19 on the state budget. Many other water-related programs are also not expected to receive additional funding in the near future, according to CWCB spokesperson Sara Leonard.

Southwest of Denver, partners used water plan funding to reallocate Chatfield Reservoir’s storage space to make room to store water for farms and cities as well as environmental flows, while maintaining its historical ability to control flooding. Credit: Mitch Tobin, The Water Desk with aerial support provided by LightHawk.

The plan got a new funding source in 2019 when voters approved Proposition DD, which legalized sports betting and directed tax revenue to the water plan.

Sports betting got off to a slow start in the spring of 2020, thanks to the near-total shutdown of sporting events because of the coronavirus pandemic. But activity picked up speed during the second half of the year, generating $3.4 million in taxes between May and December, double the estimated $1.5 million to $1.7 million per year.

Though not an immediate source of cash, the sports betting initiative was a big win in a state where voters have historically balked at statewide funding for water.

“The water plan requires about $100 million a year in sustainable funding to meet many of the goals outlined for 2025, 2030, 2050,” said Alec Garnett, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of the sports betting bill. “We never thought Prop DD was going to achieve that annual goal, but at least it established a reliable critical revenue source.”

Garnett said he always envisioned general fund money, plus the sports betting tax revenue, to help get the water plan closer to $100 million a year, but this year’s state budget challenges showed just how fraught that path forward may be. Since its launch, lawmakers have contributed general funds to the plan just once.

“Our economy and state budget have been turned upside down by the pandemic and we have to move through this period before we can talk about sustainable funding,” Garnett said. “It’s just hard to navigate with the changing environment.”

There were other wins for water funding over the last five years, too. Several local water districts and initiatives found success at the polls, garnering millions of dollars in new taxpayer support for an array of local and regional goals aligned with the plan.

In November 2020, voters approved property tax increases to support water projects in the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Longmont-based St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District.

“We’re already seeing where [funding is] being piecemealed together so maybe it’s statewide or maybe it’s a local thing,” said Garrett Varra, who chairs the South Platte Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District. “Voters are more apt to trust people they know and be able to sit down and talk with directly than maybe the state Legislature itself or the CWCB or whoever it is. One way or another, whether it’s done region by region or statewide, it will happen at some point.”

Looking ahead

Colorado water leaders are in the middle of a comprehensive water plan update that will conclude in 2022. The update will incorporate five potential supply and demand scenarios for Colorado water in 2050, created by adjusting variables like water availability, climate change and population growth.

“It’s about choices that we make,” said the CWCB’s Ris. “We’re not locked into any future, that we have the ability to make choices in how we deal with everything coming down the pipe, including population growth, funding, climate change.”

Using the various planning scenarios and other data, the CWCB has also developed new tools to help estimate the environmental impacts and costs of water projects, as well as the costs and consequences of doing nothing. The board also created a new “Engage CWCB” website to encourage more community engagement with the plan.

This month, the Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide board charged with helping shape policy and coordinating among the various river basins, will re-ignite talks about how best to fund the water plan and, ultimately, achieve its goals.

Set against the backdrop of record-setting wildfires, intensifying drought in the Colorado River Basin and other parts of the state, escalating climate change, and fears around potential water speculation, state water leaders say that funding can’t come soon enough.

“There’s a lot of talk about how do we get to that $100 million mark with the ever-increasing challenges that Colorado faces, with climate change happening faster than anyone really thought, even in 2015 when the water plan was created,” said Garnett.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article contained a graphic that incorrectly portrayed Water Supply Reserve Funding support as being separate from the main Water Supply Reserve Fund. The two figures have been combined and equal $74.4 million. 

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

Graphics created by Chas Chamberlin, principal with cdcgraphics. He can be reached at chasdcham@gmail.com.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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.

Colorado officials crack down on ponds in Arkansas River basin

This pond is in Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs. State water engineers are beginning an evaluation of ponds without legal water rights throughout the Arkansas River basin
This pond is in Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs. State water engineers are beginning an evaluation of ponds without legal water rights throughout the Arkansas River basin. Credit: Colorado Division of Natural Resources

By Heather Sackett

State engineers in the Arkansas River basin are beginning to crack down on more than 10,000 ponds without legal water rights, which they say are harming senior rights holders.

Last month, Colorado’s Division of Water Resources in Division 2 rolled out a new pond-management plan, which they say will help relieve pressure in the over-appropriated basin by restoring water to senior rights holders. The first step was mailing on Jan. 14 informational brochures to 317 pond owners.

Even though the ponds targeted in this effort may have existed for many decades, they don’t have a legal right on the books to divert and store the water. The main concern with these ponds is water loss through evaporation. According to the brochure, for every acre of pond surface area, up to 1 million gallons of water — which is just over 3 acre-feet — is lost to evaporation each year. Division 2 Engineer Bill Tyner said, “Tens of thousands of acre-feet over time would be maintained in the Arkansas River system with a pond-management system in place.”

Although the cumulative water loss could threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its obligations to deliver water to Kansas under the Arkansas River Compact, the main issue is injury to senior water users. Added together, these ponds without a water right could deplete enough water that it makes it hard for these senior water rights holders to get the full amount to which they are entitled.

“Once we put the data together and we could look at the images of ponds and get a count of the number and relative sizes on average of those ponds, it did make us just very sure that this was a problem that could have some very negative consequences for the basin if we didn’t get more aggressive about the way that we took it on,” Tyner said.

Front Range water users divert water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers into the Arkansas Basin, but the new pond-management plan probably won’t affect those transmountain diversions, Tyner said.

According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.

Because these undecreed ponds don’t have an official water right, they are taking water out of priority, which amounts to stealing water from senior users.

Matt Heimerich, the consumptive-use representative on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said that over the past two decades the Arkansas River system has been under incredible pressure because of erratic and below-average flows. He described the shifting baseline of what constitutes a severe drought.

“It seems to me we just keep moving the bar lower,” he said. “How bad can the river get? We are always looking for the next threshold.”

Drought and warming temperatures fueled by climate change comprise the backdrop for the implementation of the pond-management plan.

This pond in Chaffee County near Salida is one of thousands in the Arkansas River Basin that is being evaluated by the Division 2 engineer’s office as part of a new pond management program. Engineers say ponds without decreed water rights could injure senior water rights holders.
This pond in Chaffee County near Salida is one of thousands in the Arkansas River Basin that is being evaluated by the Division 2 engineer’s office as part of a new pond management program. Engineers say ponds without decreed water rights could injure senior water rights holders. Credit: Colorado Division of Natural Resources

This pond in Chaffee County near Salida is one of thousands in the Arkansas River Basin that is being evaluated by the Division 2 engineer’s office as part of a new pond management program. Engineers say ponds without decreed water rights could injure senior water rights holders.

Augmentation plans

In order to be allowed to keep water in a pond, pond owners must replace the water loss to the system, usually through what’s known as an augmentation plan.

In some areas in Division 2, pond owners can purchase water to replace their depletions through a conservancy district. Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District offers this replacement water, but manager Ralph “Terry” Scanga doesn’t believe there is enough water to fully augment all the ponds in the already over-appropriated basin.

“That’s a concern of mine because that’s a lot of water,” Scanga said. “I don’t think it’s being overstated what the impact could be.”

Scanga, who also serves on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said it may be time to prioritize certain water uses over others. Having domestic water for use in homes may be more essential than ponds for aesthetic purposes, he said.

“You may want that pond and you may have enough money to purchase that augmentation plan from the district, but is that a wise use of that resource?” Scanga said. “Those are the real hard questions that need to be asked.”

Un-decreed ponds can be found throughout the state, including in the Roaring Fork watershed. Last fall, Division 5 engineers issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights that they said were out of priority and depleting the Colorado River system.

So far, state engineers are focusing their pond-management plan on just the Arkansas River basin; it’s not yet a statewide program. Still, Tyner said it’s a big undertaking for his division. It could take five years for engineers and water commissioners to work their way through all the ponds.

“How do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time,” Tyner said. “Our approach is to be systematic about it and fair as we go.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Feb. 1 edition of The Aspen 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.

To make less-harmful road salts, we’re studying natural antifreezes produced by fish

Deicing salts keep winter roads passable but do a lot of harm in the process. Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

By Monika Bleszynski, University of Denver

Many people associate a fresh snowfall with pleasures like hot chocolate and winter sports. But for city dwellers, it can also mean caked-on salt that sticks to shoes, clothing hems and cars. That’s because as soon as the mercury dips below freezing and precipitation is in the forecast, local governments start spreading de-icing salts to keep roads from freezing over.

These salts are typically a less-refined form of table salt, or sodium chloride, but can also include other compounds, such as magnesium chloride and potassium chloride. They work by lowering the freezing point of water.

De-icing salts also do extensive damage to autos, infrastructure and the environment. And cities use them in enormous quantities – nearly 20 million tons per year in the U.S. Snowbelt cities in Canada, Europe and Japan also use de-icing salts heavily.

But new options are in the works. I am a materials scientist seeking solutions for our overly salted sidewalks by analyzing ways in which the natural world deals with ice. Fish, insects and even some plants have learned to adapt to cold climates over hundreds of thousands of years by making their own antifreeze agents to survive subfreezing temperatures. By taking a page from nature, my colleagues and I hope to develop effective but more benign antifreeze compounds.

Harmful impacts of salt

As many drivers know too well, road salt reduces cars’ lives by speeding up the rusting process. A 2010 study estimated that the use of de-icing salts costs U.S. drivers US$23.4 billion dollars nationwide yearly in vehicle damage due to corrosion.

Road salts also damage the surfaces we drive on. They contain chlorine ions – atoms with a negative charge – that alter the chemistry of water and make it more corrosive when it comes in contact with materials like concrete and steel.

As a result, road salts increase existing strains on aging structures. De-icing salts have contributed to bridge failures and cause cracking and other forms of weathering in highway surfaces.

De-icing salts have widespread effects in nature too. If you drive along a forested road after a long snowy winter, you may notice that trees next to the road look a little more brown than the others. That’s because road salts displace minerals in soil and groundwater, creating a condition known as physiological drought.

This means that trees cannot take up water through their roots even if it is freely available in the soil. When natural drought conditions already exist, in such places as Colorado, physiological drought can increase the risk of wildfires by making plants more prone to ignition.

Streams, rivers and lakes are especially vulnerable to water runoff that contains de-icing salts. Chlorine from the salt can inhibit fish from spawning and reduce dissolved oxygen levels in the water, which harms fish and other aquatic life. Salt-laden runoff can also promote the growth of dangerous cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. Some forms of blue-green algae produce toxins that can sicken humans or animals that consume them in drinking water.

Salting roads is an efficient and economic way to keep roads clear in winter, but de-icing salts move easily into soil, streams and groundwater. Scientists are working to understand their effects in nature.

Natural antifreezes

An alternative de-icing option should be nontoxic and break down into benign components – but not too quickly, or its effects won’t last. To see why this is important, consider propyplene glycol, which is used to de-ice aircraft.

Propylene glycol is preferred for this purpose because it is less toxic than the ethylene glycol that keeps your car radiator from freezing up. But propylene glycol’s effects are short-lived, so aircraft typically can wait for only a limited period between de-icing and takeoff. This is also why propylene glycol is rarely sprayed on roadways and surfaces. Furthermore, although it is generally classified as safe for humans, it can still be deadly for aquatic life.

Antarctic toothfish underwater in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica
The Antarctic toothfish swims in the coldest waters on Earth, thanks to natural antifreeze proteins in its tissues. Paul Cziko/Wikipedia, CC BY

What about natural alternatives? Scientists have found insects and spiders in Alaska that create antifreeze proteins in their bodies that lower the freezing point of water by a few degrees. And some fish, like the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni), create antifreeze glycoproteins that prevent the blood in their veins from freezing in the coldest waters on Earth.

Most of these glycoproteins are delicate structures that break down quickly in the harsh outside world. But my colleagues and I are learning how to make our own antifreeze compounds through imitation. Our first challenge is to learn how the natural versions work so we can re-create them.

While there’s still much we don’t understand, we are using advanced computer modeling to see how antifreeze proteins interact with water molecules. Other scientists have discovered that fish antifreeze glycoproteins contain two main segments, and that certain sections are more essential than others.

Specifically, small compounds called hydroxyl groups, which consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, do most of the work. These small compounds lock into place with water molecules, like a key in a lock, to prevent ice from forming. They are also part of most critical sections of the proteins that bind to the surface of any developing ice crystals and prevent them from getting bigger.

Diagrams of antifreeze protein molecules produced by fish and insects
Antifreeze proteins produced by (left to right) the ocean pout, winter flounder, yellow mealworm beetle, spruce budworm moth and snow flea. The lighter-blue portions bind to the surface of ice crystals and slow or prevent them from growing. Protein Data Bank

Antifreeze proteins are natural polymers – enormous long molecules consisting of smaller repeating molecules, like links in a chain. Re-creating these compounds is no easy task, but we can create our own synthetic versions in a lab, starting with polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. This is a simple, inexpensive compound that is nontoxic to humans and aquatic life and is a common ingredient in many everyday personal care products.

PVA contains the same hydroxyl groups as those found in fish antifreeze proteins. Using a bit of chemical engineering, we can change where those hydroxyls are located in the polymer structure, making it more like the compounds that fish produce. In the future, we may be able to change PVA from an everyday compound into an ice-fighting substance that can be used just about anywhere.

Because PVA doesn’t degrade too quickly, it has the potential to work on surfaces that need to stay ice-free, such as roads, sidewalks and handrails. Its long chemical structure makes it suitable for shaping and adapting into sprays or coatings. Someday cities may rely in winter on nontoxic spray-on antifreezes that won’t stain your clothes or corrode your car.

Monika Bleszynski is Research Scientist and Adjunct Professor at University of Denver

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Work underway to smooth out big drop in river near Basalt

Roaring Fork River near Basalt
An excavator works in the bed of the Roaring Fork River near Basalt below a temporary dam. Boulders were being arranged to create one of two grade-control structures that will smooth out a section of river previously home to a steep drop created by a weir that channeled water to a diversion ditch. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

By Curtis Wackerle

Work currently underway in the Roaring Fork River between old town Basalt and Willits will make for a smoother ride for boaters beginning this spring.

The project, with an estimated price tag of $935,000, requires a temporary cofferdam during construction across much of the river’s channel, with heavy machinery in the exposed river bed. It will create two new “grade-control” structures to replace a weir that was used to channel water toward a diversion for the Robinson Ditch. That weir created a difficult passage for boaters that was often referred to as Anderson Falls.

Instead of that steep drop with no clear passage around or through, the project has been designed by Carbondale-based River Restoration to create a gradual riffle drop between the grade-control structures. The Robinson Ditch diversion structure, which delivers raw water for outdoor irrigation from April through October to customers in the Mid Valley Metropolitan District, will also be rebuilt as part of the project.

Roaring Fork River near Basalt
An excavator arranges boulders to create one of two grade-control structures in the Roaring Fork River, part of a $935,000 project to smooth out a section of river previously home to a steep drop. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Work on the project, which was approved for funding in March by Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board of directors, began in December and is permitted to take place through March 15, said Quinn Donnelly, an engineer with River Restoration.

The weir, he said, created “probably one of the bigger navigation hazards” on the Roaring Fork, resulting in many boaters avoiding that stretch, which is just above a boat ramp near the FedEx facility off of Willits Lane. “We are trying to make a natural riffle here” that meets the needs of boaters, Donnelly said. Making that stretch of the middle Roaring Fork more accessible might also have the added benefit of taking pressure off other stretches of river and more crowded boat ramps farther downvalley, he said. 

The project should also improve fish habitat as water scours the riverbed around the newly placed boulders.

The cofferdam is blocking the river across most of the channel, funneling the Roaring Fork’s winter flow into a series of culverts on river right. On Thursday morning, an excavator was picking up 3- to 6-foot-diameter boulders and arranging them in a line to form the upper grade-control structure. The site is visible from the bike path connecting Willits Lane to Emma Spur.

Donnelly said that most of the boulders that were being placed this week will be buried by alluvium below “scour depth,” with more rocks placed on top. The project has been designed to keep the ditch headgate clear of sediment and debris carried downstream.

Once the grade-control structures are completed, the current cofferdam will be removed. A second temporary cofferdam will be installed at river right to allow for the new headgate to be built. That, too, will be removed before the project is complete and the river flows unimpeded through the section.

As of last year, project planners had secured $256,200 in grants, including a $171,216 Colorado Water Plan grant and a $45,000 Water Supply Reserve Fund grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as a $40,000 Fishing Is Fun grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers fund, supported by a 0.1% sales tax, will cover the difference when all grants have been applied, said Lisa MacDonald, who works in the Pitkin County Attorney’s Office and provides staff support for the Healthy Rivers program.

MacDonald and Donnelly credited the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance for supporting the project. Donnelly noted that in any river project, there are myriad interests in play involving water users, riparian habitat and recreation. It is a balancing act, he said, but a successful model involves bringing stakeholders together and that has been the goal here.

Roaring Fork River near Basalt
The Roaring Fork River flows through culverts while being channeled around a temporary dam put in place to allow contractors to work on a project to smooth out a section of river previously home to a steep drop. Anderson Falls, which was created by a weir that funneled water into a diversion ditch, will be gone this spring. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Robinson Ditch Co. president Bill Reynolds, who is also the director of the Mid Valley Metropolitan District, said he’s happy to see the project making progress and believes it will enhance the experience for river users.

The ditch company paid for the engineering and design of its diversion infrastructure, he said. That infrastructure makes it possible for users in a wide swath of the midvalley to irrigate using raw water, as opposed to more-expensive treated potable water, which the district also provides via a series of wells, he said.

Ditch companies typically rely on government grants to make infrastructure improvements, he said, expressing gratitude for Pitkin County’s model of supporting river projects.

“Pitkin County and the funding mechanisms they’ve been using have been a blessing,” Reynolds said.

This story ran in The Aspen Times on Jan. 30.

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.

Some good news on funding for water: Sports betting tax revenue gaining strength

Sports betting, after a slow start, is generating more tax revenue than early Covid-related estimates indicated.
The Lady Luck Casino in Central City. Sports betting, after a slow start, is generating more tax revenue than early Covid-related estimates indicated. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Sarah Kuta

Coloradans legally bet more than $1.1 billion on sports in 2020, exceeding expectations and funneling some cash to the Colorado Water Plan sooner than anticipated.

Colorado collected more than $3.4 million in sports betting taxes in 2020, with operators running from May through December. Voters agreed to legalize and tax sports betting in November 2019 with the passage of Proposition DD, which also directed much of the tax revenue to the Colorado Water Plan, a comprehensive vision for the state’s water future created in 2015.

Colorado’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, which makes the sports betting numbers even more promising, since December was only the halfway mark for the current fiscal year. From July to December 2020 — the first half of the current 2020-21 fiscal year — Colorado collected $3.1 million in sports betting tax revenue.

Even with six months remaining in the fiscal year — a span that includes big-time sporting events like the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Kentucky Derby and more — that $3.1 million is already double the gaming division’s initial projections of $1.5 million to $1.8 million for the full 2020-21 fiscal year. That means the Colorado Water Plan could see sports betting funds as soon as this fall, a year earlier than initially projected.

“We took a very conservative approach based on how fast the market would pick up, how fast people would embrace it, what effect we were going to have on moving people from the black market to the regular market, and we’ve just really blown all of those things out of the water — no pun intended for the water front,” said Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming. “We really moved a lot of needles a lot further, a lot faster that we thought we were going to. We’re optimistic and really excited about where sports betting is and, ultimately, that there’s going to be better-than-projected amounts going to the water plan.”

Based on tax revenue collected in the first half of the current fiscal year, and factoring in the other ways sports betting tax revenue must be spent under the new law, the water plan so far stands to gain a little more than $1 million — and counting.

That’s still well short of the $100 million officials estimate they need each year in new funding to accomplish the water plan’s goals by 2050, but sports betting was never expected to fully fund the water plan — and every little bit counts, said Alec Garnett, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of the sports betting bill.

“We’ve always known that Coloradans love sports. We always knew that there was a black market and that people were already doing this,” Garnett said. “From a regulatory standpoint, I feel very strong and good about what these numbers mean for the market we created.”

If these early numbers are any indication, the sports betting program is likely to continue to grow in future years as the market matures and sports calendars get back to normal.

Though he has not created an official updated projection based on 2020’s wagers and tax revenue, Hartman said he believes annual sports betting tax revenue could double by next year.

“I’m comfortable in projecting that we’re probably on pace to do twice as much next year as we did this year,” Hartman said.

Sports betting got off to a slow start in Colorado, since it launched in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when many sporting events were canceled. But as the sports betting program got underway and more live sporting events were held (often without fans in the seats), the tax revenue started growing.

Even so, before any of that money goes to the Colorado Water Plan, the gaming division must first pay back the $1.7 million lawmakers allocated from the state’s general fund to start the new sports betting program, which will likely happen at the beginning of March, Hartman said. The program’s ongoing operating costs are paid for with fees from licensed sports betting operators in the state, which now number 17.

The gaming division must also set aside 6 percent of tax revenue for a hold-harmless fund, provide $130,000 per year to the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health, and give $30,000 per year to Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners to operate a gambling hotline.

Any remaining tax revenue can then go to the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund, pending the approval of the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission, according to Suzi Karrer, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Revenue.

“The gaming commission will take that up in one of their meetings in the fall,” Hartman said. “Legislatively, it’s been turned over to the commission to follow the formula and give [the funds] to the beneficiaries.”

The early sports betting numbers were also a small bright spot for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the state agency tasked with administering the water plan, which expects to be rationing much of its current funding over the next two years.

CWCB hasn’t received any of the sports betting tax revenue yet and, since it’s difficult to predict how much Coloradans will wager in future years, the agency hasn’t yet made plans for spending it.

“Based on what has been collected so far, sports betting revenue does look promising as an additional — and more permanent — funding source for the water plan and important water projects, but again, it is still new, and we really don’t know yet what the revenue generation capacity will be,” said Sara Leonard, CWCB spokesperson.

As of right now, the CWCB is not planning to ask the Colorado Legislature to allocate funding to the Colorado Water Plan for the next two years and will instead rely on the 2020-21 allocation of $7.5 million, according to Leonard and state budget officials speaking at recent CWCB meetings.

The approval of the new sports betting tax, which created a dedicated funding source for the Colorado Water Plan, was an accomplishment in a state where voters have historically rejected statewide water funding efforts. But it’s still not enough to meet the ambitious goals outlined in the plan.

To that end, state and local water leaders plan to re-start conversations about water funding this month. Those talks will begin at the Feb. 23 meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), according to the committee’s director Russell George. The IBCC, created in 2005, is a statewide public board that helps set policy and coordinate talks between river basins.

“We’re going to re-ignite that large discussion and see where we can go,” said George during his Jan. 25 update to the CWCB. “I don’t have to tell you the need for an input, an infusion of capital, in all of the things that we’re trying to do…It’ll just be the beginning of a conversation that I think’s going to go on until we’ve succeeded.”

Garnett said he wasn’t aware of any upcoming legislation related to new funding sources for the water plan, but said he was happy that funding for Colorado’s water future remains in the public eye.

“There’s just a lot of focus on this area because of the pressures that are being put on our most precious natural resource,” he said. “It’s always hard to find dedicated revenue streams in Colorado and it was certainly a hard process to get Proposition DD passed. I’m sure everyone has their eyes wide open about the challenges.”

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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.

Two-thirds of Earth’s land is on pace to lose water as the climate warms – that’s a problem for people, crops and forests

Cape Town residents queued up for water as the taps nearly ran dry in 2018. Morgana Wingard/Getty Images

By Yadu Pokhrel, Michigan State University

The world watched with a sense of dread in 2018 as Cape Town, South Africa, counted down the days until the city would run out of water. The region’s surface reservoirs were going dry amid its worst drought on record, and the public countdown was a plea for help.

By drastically cutting their water use, Cape Town residents and farmers were able to push back “Day Zero” until the rain came, but the close call showed just how precarious water security can be. California also faced severe water restrictions during its recent multiyear drought. And Mexico City is now facing water restrictions after a year with little rain.

There are growing concerns that many regions of the world will face water crises like these in the coming decades as rising temperatures exacerbate drought conditions.

Understanding the risks ahead requires looking at the entire landscape of terrestrial water storage – not just the rivers, but also the water stored in soils, groundwater, snowpack, forest canopies, wetlands, lakes and reservoirs.

We study changes in the terrestrial water cycle as engineers and hydrologists. In a new study published Jan. 11, we and a team of colleagues from universities and institutes around the world showed for the first time how climate change will likely affect water availability on land from all water storage sources over the course of this century.

We found that the sum of this terrestrial water storage is on pace to decline across two-thirds of the land on the planet. The worst impacts will be in areas of the Southern Hemisphere where water scarcity is already threatening food security and leading to human migration and conflict. Globally, one in 12 people could face extreme drought related to water storage every year by the end of this century, compared to an average of about one in 33 at the end of the 20th century.

These findings have implications for water availability, not only for human needs, but also for trees, plants and the sustainability of agriculture.

Where the risks are highest

The water that keeps land healthy, crops growing and human needs met comes from a variety of sources. Mountain snow and rainfall feed streams that affect community water supplies. Soil water content directly affects plant growth. Groundwater resources are crucial for both drinking water supplies and crop productivity in irrigated regions.

While studies often focus just on river flow as an indicator of water availability and drought, our study instead provides a holistic picture of the changes in total water available on land. That allows us to capture nuances, such as the ability of forests to draw water from deep groundwater sources during years when the upper soil levels are drier.

The declines we found in land water storage are especially alarming in the Amazon River basin, Australia, southern Africa, the Mediterranean region and parts of the United States. In these regions, precipitation is expected to decline sharply with climate change, and rising temperatures will increase evaporation. At the same time, some other regions will become wetter, a process already seen today.

Map of water storage loss
The map shows the projected change in terrestrial water storage by the end of the 21st century, compared to the 1975-2005 average, under a mid-range scenario for global warming. A continuum of yellow to orange to dark red reflects increasing severity of loss of stored water; teal to blue to dark blue reflects increasing gains in stored water. Yadu Pokhrel, et al, Nature Climate Change, 2021, CC BY-ND

Our findings for the Amazon basin add to the longstanding debate over the fate of the rainforest in a warmer world. Many studies using climate model projections have warned of widespread forest die-off in the future as less rainfall and warmer temperatures lead to higher heat and moisture stress combined with forest fires.

In an earlier study, we found that the deep-rooted rainforests may be more resilient to short-term drought than they appear because they can tap water stored in soils deeper in the ground that aren’t considered in typical climate model projections. However, our new findings, using multiple models, indicate that the declines in total water storage, including deep groundwater stores, may lead to more water shortages during dry seasons when trees need stored water the most and exacerbate future droughts. All weaken the resilience of the rainforests.

A new way of looking at drought

Our study also provides a new perspective on future droughts.

There are different kinds of droughts. Meteorological droughts are caused by lack of precipitation. Agricultural droughts are caused by lack of water in soils. Hydrological droughts involve lack of water in rivers and groundwater. We provided a new perspective on droughts by looking at the total water storage.

Diagram of water cycle
Water in the environment. U.K. Met Office

We found that moderate to severe droughts involving water storage would increase until the middle of the 21st century and then remain stable under future scenarios in which countries cut their emissions, but extreme to exceptional water storage droughts could continue to increase until the end of the century.

That would further threaten water availability in regions where water storage is projected to decline.

Changes driven by global warming

These declines in water storage and increases in future droughts are primarily driven by climate change, not land-water management activities such as irrigation and groundwater pumping. This became clear when we examined simulations of what the future would look like if climate conditions were unchanged from preindustrial times. Without the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, terrestrial water storage would remain generally stable in most regions.

If future increases in groundwater use for irrigation and other needs are also considered, the projected reduction in water storage and increase in drought could be even more severe.

Yadu Pokhrel is Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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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