The city of Aspen’s recently released integrated water resource plan outlines the strategy for an adaptable, phased approach to meet increasing demands and a large pool of “emergency” storage to protect against threats to supplies from Castle and Maroon creeks.
Aspen Utilities Director Tyler Christoff, Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter and John Rehring of Carollo Engineers, the Denver-based firm that the city hired to complete the study, presented the IWRP to City Council members at a work session Monday night. The report, which looks 50 years to the future, uses projections about population growth and climate change impacts to determine that the worst shortfalls could occur in two consecutively dry years and be about 2,300 acre-feet total over the course of both years.
To make up for that gap, the report offers six different portfolios of potential new water sources, including storage, nonpotable reuse, groundwater wells, Hunter Creek, enhanced water conservation and drought restrictions. The IWRP says storage is included in five of the six portfolios because no single supply option or combination of supply options can completely mitigate shortages without the use of at least some operational storage.
Two storage pools
The plan proposes two separate storage pools to meet demands under projected conditions in 2070: a 520-acre-foot operational pool and a 5,300-acre-foot emergency-storage pool to provide up to 12 months of water.
Since the report recommends a phased approach with each additional implementation coming after a predetermined trigger is reached, the first phase of operational storage would be for just 130 acre-feet to buffer the seasonal shortage. Streams are highest with runoff in the spring, but demands on Aspen’s water system are highest in late summer, when streamflows are low — and this is the gap operational storage aims to fill.
The construction of the combined 5,820 acre-feet of storage and its associated pipelines and pumps comes with a hefty price tag — it is estimated to cost more than $400 million in 2021 dollars as it is implemented over the coming decades.
“We want to make it flexible and adaptable so that we are ready for that worst-case condition,” Rehring told council members. “We implement as needed as we see those conditions unfold over time.”
The report says the emergency-storage pool must be full and ready for use when the need arises — if, for example, an avalanche makes the city’s supplies in Castle and Maroon creeks unusable. “Regardless of siting and co-location, emergency-storage volumes would be filled and maintained at their defined capacity until needed for an emergency,” the IWRP reads.
Storing water specifically until an emergency occurs is not a decreed beneficial use under Colorado water law. But municipal water providers often have a lot of leeway to plan for future needs, which could include storage projects.
Part of the goal of the IWRP is to narrow the city’s options for moving its conditional water rights for reservoirs in Castle and Maroon valleys. After a lengthy court battle, in which 10 entities opposed Aspen’s plans, the city gave up its water rights in those particular locations. One of the places to which the city could move them is a 63-acre plot of land that it bought in Woody Creek in 2018. If the city stores water there, it would have to pump it back uphill to the water-treatment plant via an 8-mile pipeline.
City Council member Ward Hauenstein asked about the timeline for storage and renewing the city’s conditional water rights.
To keep these rights, the city will have to show, through a 2025 filing in water court, that it still intends to use them and that it is making progress on a project.
“Recent history across Colorado shows that it could take decades to implement a storage project, even after sizing and siting analyses are completed,” the report reads. “Therefore, reservoir planning must start immediately.”
Aspen City Council will vote on whether to adopt the IWRP at a later meeting. Mayor Torre thanked the staff, consultants and community members who weighed in on the plan.
“The work you guys are doing on this is some of the most important work Aspen is going to have the benefit of over the coming 10, 20, 30 years,” he said. “Thank you.”
As climate change and drought continue to sap streams and rivers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is offering $500,000 to anyone 18 years old and older worldwide who can produce a better tool to measure how much water snowflakes contain.
“Our technology must advance to meet the particular challenges of climate change and extreme weather,” said Greg Lipstein, a principal at DrivenData, one of the firms partnering with Reclamation and NASA to conduct the challenge.
The high-tech challenge comes as Colorado and other Western states are experiencing a shockingly dry fall and early winter. Denver, for instance, broke the record for the latest first snow in November and is still seeing little if any of the white stuff.
And the seven-state Colorado River system is struggling as well, with lakes Powell and Mead hitting record lows this year and little relief in sight.
Cities and farms across much of the West rely primarily on mountain snowmelt for their water supplies. While periodic drought has always been part of the West’s water story, before the region became highly populated, in most years there was enough water to serve the people who relied on it. But as climate change has triggered decades-long megadroughts, and populations have soared, water is becoming an ever-increasingly scarce resource.
In the world of snow forecasting, it’s important to be able to know early how snowy a winter season is likely to be, and even more important to know how much water is contained in the snow that falls. Flakes that come down in ultra-cold weather can contain much less water than those that fall during warm spring storms.
To bring more certainty to efforts to forecast and therefore manage snow-based water supplies, the Reclamation has partnered with three technology companies to challenge anyone older than 18 to develop a tool that can predict snow water content, also known as snow water equivalency, with greater accuracy. Reclamation is the largest water supplier in the West and operates major reservoirs such as lakes Powell and Mead.
During the winter of 2020-21, ultra-dry soils absorbed melting mountain snowpacks that in some areas were about average. As a result, the melting snow generated just 30% of what had been forecast in some areas on Colorado’s Western Slope and in California and elsewhere.
Traditionally, the federal government has used ground-based tools known as “SNOTEL” sites, short for snow telemetry, to measure the snow as it accumulates. In Colorado, for instance, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) maintains and monitors more than 150 sites across several states, many of them in remote mountain regions. But the SNOTEL sites are limited in the amount of data they can produce.
New technologies are also being tested, such as airplane-based LiDAR systems in which flyovers are conducted to monitor large swaths of mountain terrain using gear that can detect snow depth and water content. This new tool can generate thousands of data points, but the flyovers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to NASA.
The airborne technology is already being used in Colorado and California by large utilities who are willing to foot the bill.
Satellite imagery is also being used, but it too has limits, according to Karl Wetlaufer, a Colorado hydrologist with the NRCS. Some satellite services can provide daily reports with what he calls “coarse” data that doesn’t provide enough detail for scientists and modelers.
Other satellite platforms provide finer data, but might only do so every 16 days, too infrequently to deliver the precision water managers need, Wetlaufer said.
“Over the last several years there has been a lot of emphasis on getting snow water equivalency data. Agencies like NASA are good at attacking it from a research standpoint, but this competition is going to take a lot of NASA’s research and actually come up with a near real-time operational model blending microwave, radar, airborne snow observatory, and SNOTEL.
“This push by Reclamation is a big boost to putting this research into an operational model that can be used day to day,” Wetlaufer said. “I think it’s a really awesome concept that could be potentially valuable to the community.”
The contest launches this week and will continue through July 2022, according to Reclamation.
California is preparing for a third straight year of drought, and officials are tightening limits on water use to levels never seen so early in the water year. Most of the state’s water reservoirs are well below average, with several at less than a third of their capacity. The outlook for rain and snow this winter, when most of the state’s yearly precipitation arrives, isn’t promising.
Especially worrying is the outlook for the Sierra Nevada, the long mountain chain that runs through the eastern part of the state. California’s cities and its farms – which grow over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruit and nuts – rely on runoff from the mountains’ snowpack for water.
As an engineer, I have studied California’s water and climate for over 30 years. A closer look at California’s water resources shows the challenge ahead and how climate change is putting the state’s water supply and agriculture at greater risk.
Where California gets its water
Statewide, California averages about 2 feet of precipitation per year, about two-thirds of the global average, giving the state as a whole a semi-arid climate.
The majority of California’s rain and snow falls in the mountains, primarily in winter and spring. But agriculture and coastal cities need that water to get through the dry summers. To get water to dry Southern California and help with flood control in the north, California over the past century developed a statewide system of reservoirs, tunnels and canals that brings water from the mountains. The largest of those projects, the State Water Project, delivers water from the higher-precipitation northern Sierra to the southern half of the state.
To track where the water goes, it’s useful to look at the volume in acre-feet. California is about 100 million acres in area, so at 2 feet per year, its annual precipitation averages about 200 million acre-feet.
Of that 200, an average of only about 80 million acre-feet heads downstream. Much of the water returns to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration by plants and trees in the Sierra Nevada or North Coast forests. Of the 80 million acre-feet that does run off, about half remains in the aquatic environment, such as rivers flowing to the ocean. That leaves about 41 million acre-feet for downstream use. About 80% of that goes for agriculture and 20% for urban uses.
In wet years, there may be much more than 80 million acre-feet of water available, but in dry years, it can be much less.
In 2020, for example, California’s precipitation was less than two-thirds of average, and the State Water Project delivered only 5% of the contracted amounts. The state’s other main aqueduct systems that move water around the state also severely reduced their supplies.
The 2021 water year, which ended Sept. 30, was one of the three driest on record for the Sierra Nevada. Precipitation was about 44% of average. With limited precipitation as of December 2021 and the state in extreme drought, the State Water Project cut its preliminary allocations for water agencies to 0% for 2022, with small amounts still flowing for health and safety needs.
Multiyear dry periods, when annual precipitation is below average, are a feature of California’s climate, but rising global temperatures are also having an impact.
Over the past 1,100 years, there has been at least one dry period lasting four years or longer each century. There have been two in the past 35 years – 1987-92 and 2012-15. A warmer climate intensifies the effect of these dry periods, as drier soil and drier air stress both natural vegetation and crops.
Over 80% of the runoff in the central and southern Sierra Nevada comes from the snow zone. In the wetter but lower-elevation northern Sierra, rainfall contributes over one-third of the annual runoff.
The average snowline, the elevation above which most precipitation is snow, goes from about 5,000 feet elevation in the north to 7,000 feet in the south. On average, each 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 Celsius) of warming could push the snowline another 500 feet higher, reducing the snow total.
Shifts from snow to rain and earlier runoff also mean that more of the capacity behind existing dams will be allocated to flood control, further reducing their capacity for seasonal water-supply storage.
Water storage is central to California’s water security.
Communities and farms can pump more groundwater when supplies are low, but the state has been pumping out more water than it replenished in wet years. Parts of the state rely on water from the Colorado River, whose dams provide for several years of water storage, but the basin lacks the runoffto fill the dams.
Public opposition has made it difficult to build new dams, so better use of groundwater for both seasonal and multiyear storage is crucial.
The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local agencies to develop sustainability plans. That provides some hope that groundwater pumping and replenishment can be brought into balance, most likely by leaving some cropland unplanted. Managed aquifer recharge south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is gradually expanding, and much more can be done.
If the state doesn’t do more, including tactics such as applying desalination technology to make saltwater usable, urban areas can expect the 25% cuts in water use put in place during the 2012-15 drought to be more common and potentially even deeper.
California’s water resources can provide for a healthy environment, robust economy and sustainable agricultural use. Achieving this will require upgrading both natural infrastructure – headwaters forests, floodplains and groundwater recharge in agricultural areas – and built infrastructure, such as canals, spillways and levees. The information is available; officials now have to follow through.
Los Angeles is creating wetland parks in low-income neighborhoods, and using them to help clean polluted runoff.
Seattle has begun a mobile wastewater collection program to gather gray and black water from RVs and improve the city’s water quality, which had begun to deteriorate as the homeless population grew and wastewater spills from campers became more common.
Las Vegas has structured its water rates to encourage people to conserve while ensuring that low-income households have access to affordable, clean water.
“We’re facing challenging times,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of California, the largest water utility in the United States. His comments came Nov. 3 at the Water in the West Symposium in Denver, a conference sponsored by Colorado State University and Denver Water.
“We’re facing drier days, hotter days and shrinking water supplies across our region. We need new chapters in our playbook,” Hagekhalil said.
Hagekhalil was among several Western water utility leaders who said efforts to address shrinking water supplies due to drought and population growth means utilities will have to change dramatically in the next 50 to 100 years.
MWD, for instance, has always imported water to distribute to a service area that includes some 20 million people. But now the agency is looking for ways to increase local supplies as its Colorado River supplies shrink.
The answer, in part, is a sophisticated effort to capture the region’s sometimes copious rainfall and inject it into aquifers, where space is plentiful. The utility is also creating urban wetland parks where former parking lots stood and providing subsidies to help low-income homeowners repair unsafe and leaking water delivery pipes.
“It’s no longer enough for us to be an importer of water,” Hagekhalil, said. “We need to leverage resources to create more local water and to collaborate across our region to store our groundwater.”
In Seattle, a water-rich city, the challenges lie in soaring water treatment costs and a growing population base that includes a significant number of campers and RV dwellers, driven out of traditional housing because of rising prices.
“Like everyone else, we are trying to change the way we do business,” said Andrew Lee, interim general manager of Seattle Public Utilities.
After watching the number of wastewater spills rise almost as quickly as housing prices, the utility decided to create a mobile collection program for people who had no other way to dispose of their sewage.
“It’s been a game changer and a life changer for a number of people,” Lee said.
Western utilities are spending millions of dollars to build water recycling plants and new storage systems and to upgrade water treatment systems. At the same time, the call for more affordable water is growing as well.
To address the issue Las Vegas provides a 50% subsidy on the first 5,000 gallons of residential water used and charges service fees based on the size of the delivery pipe. Smaller homes pay just $5 a month, while the area’s largest homes pay a service fee of $300, according to John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas and the surrounding area.
“We need our water prices to send a conservation signal to the high water users,” Entsminger said.
“But we want lower water users to have affordable water.”
To that end, the utility charges customers just $1.74 per thousand gallons for low levels of use.
“That’s how we attempt to make sure that the disadvantaged parts of our community and the poorest parts of it still have access to clean, cheap water supplies for necessary uses,” Entsminger said.
And to help the region address ongoing water shortages, Nevada lawmakers this year made it illegal to use any precious Colorado River water on “non-essential turf.”
But more work lies ahead and the utility leaders said the answers would be found in better integrated water systems capable of addressing supply and affordability issues.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.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 Colorado River is a vital lifeline for the arid U.S. Southwest. It supplies water to seven states, Mexico, 29 Indian reservations and millions of acres of irrigated farmland. The river and its tributaries support 16 million jobs and provide drinking water to Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson – in all, 40 million people.
These rivers also course through several of the world’s most iconic national parks, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Canyonlands in Utah. Today millions of people visit the Colorado River Basin to fish, boat and explore.
Southwestern states, tribes and Mexico share the Colorado’s water under the century-old 1922 Colorado Compact and updates to it. But today, because of climate change and rapid development, there is an enormous gap between the amount of water the compact allocates to parties and the amount that is actually in the river. With users facing unprecedented water shortages, the compact is hopelessly inadequate to deal with current and future realities.
I have studied water resource development for 35 years and written extensively about Native American waterrights and the future of America’s rivers. As I see it, the compact rests on three fundamental errors that now plague efforts to develop a new vision for the region. I believe the most productive way forward is for states and tribes to negotiate a new agreement that reflects 21st-century realities.
Flawed data and allocations
The compact commissioners made two fatal blunders when they allocated water in 1922. First, they appraised the river’s volume based on inaccurate data that wildly overestimated it. Actual annual historic flows were far below what was needed to satisfy the dictates of the compact.
There is evidence that the commissioners did this purposefully: Reaching an agreement was easier if there was more water to go around. This strategy guaranteed that the compact would allocate more water than was actually in the river, a situation now referred to as the “structural deficit.”
Second, the compact allocated water in fixed amounts rather than percentages of the river’s actual flow. That approach would be viable if river flow were constant and the agreement were based on sound science. But the Colorado’s flow is highly variable.
The compact divided the river artificially into an Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) and a Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California), and allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water to each basin. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or about 325,000 gallons.
In 1944, a treaty allocated an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, actual flow has typically been below that amount. River volume at the time of the compact was about 18 million acre-feet per year, but the 20th-century average was closer to 14.8 million acre-feet. And then things got much worse.
That month, the Bureau of Reclamation declared an official shortage, which will force Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to make significant cuts in water use. In short, the original fixed allocations are no longer anchored in reality.
In my view, a much better approach would be to allocate water among the states and tribes in percentages, based on a five-year rolling average that would change as the river’s flow changes. Without such a shift, the compact will merely perpetuate a hydrological fallacy that leads water users to claim water that does not exist.
No Native participation
Beyond these errors, the compact also rests on a fundamental injustice. The 30 tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin are the river’s original users, and their reservations encompass huge swaths of land. But they were completely left out of the 1922 allocations.
Tribes have gone to court to claim a share of the Colorado’s water and have won significant victories, beginning with the landmark 1963 Arizona v. California ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized water rights for five Indian reservations in the Colorado River Basin. The tribes continued to press their claims through numerous negotiated settlements, starting in 1978 and continuing to this day. They now have rights to over 2 million acre-feet of water in the Lower Basin and 1.1 million acre-feet in the Upper Basin. And 12 tribes have unresolved claims that could total up to 405,000 acre-feet.
I see these discussions as an excellent opportunity to discard the compact’s unworkable provisions and negotiate a new agreement that responds to the unprecedented challenges now affecting the Southwest. As I see it, an agreement negotiated by and for white men, based on egregiously erroneous data, in an age when people drove Model T cars cannot possibly serve as the foundation for a dramatically different future.
In my view, the 1922 compact is now an albatross that can only inhibit innovation. Eliminating fixed rights to water that doesn’t actually exist could spur members to negotiate a new, science-based agreement that is fairer, more inclusive and more efficient and sustainable.
The Colorado General Assembly’s interim Water Resources Review Committee is recommending new legislation that, if approved, could set aside millions to help water-strapped regions of the state meet their obligations to deliver water to Kansas, New Mexico and Texas.
It also recommended another bill designed to curb water speculation. Both measures are expected to be considered by the Colorado General Assembly next year.
Groundwater compact compliance
The committee on Oct. 27 approved a draft bill that creates a Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund to help pay for the purchase and retirement of farm wells and irrigated acreage in the Republican and Rio Grande river basins. The action was taken to reduce groundwater use that diminishes surface flows and ensure compliance with interstate compacts on both rivers. Legislative appropriations and federal revenue would bankroll the fund. The Colorado Water Conservation Board would distribute the money based on recommendations from the Republican River Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, with approval by the state engineer.
So how much land are we talking about? To comply with compact water delivery obligations and groundwater sustainability rules, 25,000 acres of irrigated land would have to be retired in the Republican basin and 40,000 acres in the Rio Grande basin by 2029. To date, just 3,000 acres in the Republican and 13,000 acres in the Rio Grande have been retired from production. Absent those reductions, well pumping could be curtailed.
When asked how much money is needed, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, whose district includes the Republican River basin, said the conservation district there is looking for $50 million in addition to the $50 million it already has. Pinning the cost down is difficult; Sonnenberg noted that, “It’s harder to retire farm ground when you have $5 [per bushel] corn than it is when you have $3 corn.”
David Robbins, general counsel to both the Republican and Rio Grande districts, testified at an earlier committee meeting that the Rio Grande would also require at least $50 million on top of the $69 million it has already raised by taxing its farmers for sustainability efforts.
The committee also reported a bill that it views more as a vehicle for further discussion than a finished product. It prohibits the purchaser of a water right from engaging in “investment water speculation” and empowers the state engineer to investigate alleged violations. Investment water speculation is defined as “the purchase of agricultural water rights that are represented by shares in a mutual ditch company in the state with the intent…to profit from the increase in the water’s value in a subsequent transaction…or by receiving payment from another person for nonuse of all or a portion of the water” unless it’s part of a water conservation or instream flow program.
Committee members struggled with trying to balance concerns over speculation with protecting property rights. Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, committee chair and one of the bill’s sponsors, said she continues to hear from constituents on the West Slope about what looks like investment water speculation and its impact on farming operations. At the same time, she noted other groups are sending “a very conflicting narrative now that we actually have bills to respond to…and the feedback is don’t do anything, slow down.”
Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, another bill sponsor, emphasized that “it’s not our intent to take away the ability of a farmer whose 401K is his water [if that water were sold], but somehow we need to put some constraints” on speculative investments. “This bill as written,” he continued, “probably doesn’t get us there, but it does give us the opportunity to work through the session.”
With that said, Coram proposed an amendment that broadened the bill’s title by shortening it, from a bill “Concerning a Prohibition Against Engaging in Investment Water Speculation in the State” to one “Concerning Water Speculation in the State.” That change provides the bill sponsors with flexibility to flesh it out over the coming months without being locked in to the current text.
Water infrastructure investment
The committee also approved a letter to the state’s Task Force on Economic Relief and Recovery Cash Fund to consider investing money in water projects. The task force was created by the General Assembly last session to receive federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and recommend how to spend it. The legislature transferred nearly $850 million into the fund and among the eligible uses are “investment in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”
The legislature convenes Jan.12.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date the committee met to approve the draft legislation.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at email@example.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 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.
This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”
The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.
Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.
These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.
First-ever drought accord
Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.
Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.
But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.
“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.
As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.
Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.
But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.
“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”
Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”
Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.
Still no decisions have been made.
A call to act
Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.
Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.
“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”
One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.
A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.
But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.
Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.
In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.
The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.
Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.
Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.
Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.
“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”
Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.
Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.
But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.
“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”
Checking the averages
As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.
Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.
Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.
Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.
The big dry out
Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.
“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”
Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.
And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.
“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.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.
DENVER — Colorado lawmakers are advancing a bill aimed at outlawing water investment speculation, even as they acknowledged their attempt to address the complex problem is an imperfect one.
On Wednesday, members of Colorado’s Water Resources Review Committee voted to put forth a bill in the 2022 legislative session that aims to prohibit a buyer of agricultural water rights from profiting on the increased value of the water in a future sale. The measure is an attempt to prevent out-of-state investors from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.
The draft bill gives the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and fine a purchaser up to $10,000 if they determine speculation is occurring. Those making a complaint could also be fined up to $1,000 if state officials deem a complaint frivolous. A second section of the bill also directs the board of directors of mutual ditch companies to set a minimum percent of agricultural water rights for one purchaser to hold that would trigger the presumption that they are engaging in investment water speculation.
Western Slope state Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Eagle County, Don Coram, R-Montrose County, and Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Boulder County, are sponsoring the bill.
At the beginning of Wednesday’s discussion, Donovan vented her frustration with what she called mixed messages from water managers. Most seem to agree that stopping investment water speculation is important, but no one can agree on the best way to do that.
“There was a general agreement that investment water speculation was an important issue to work on, so much so… that we invested taxpayer dollars in order to turn out a report,” she said. “We have put resources into addressing this issue and now the feedback is ‘don’t do anything, slow down.’”
Donovan was referring to a report released in August by a work group, which was tasked with exploring ways to strengthen the state’s current anti-speculation laws. The group, made up of water managers and policy experts from across water sectors, came up with a list of concepts on how to prevent water investment speculation. But they did not give clear recommendations to legislators because they could not come to a consensus on which concepts to implement.
Legislators are now saddled with the complex task of figuring out how to protect Colorado’s water from profit-seeking investors without infringing on private property rights.
The lack of consensus points to the varied, sometimes opposing, interests of the work group members. Some municipal water providers may want to see tighter regulations on investment water speculation because as the state continues to urbanize and water moves from agriculture to growing cities, they see speculators as middlemen who have the potential to drive up prices. And although some agricultural water rights owners recognize there could be negative impacts to their communities if water is sold to investors, they also don’t want the state making the process of selling their ranch harder, placing restrictions on who they can sell to or limiting their ability to make a profit.
District 58 Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose County Republican who also serves on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, voted against advancing the bill, which he said still needs more work. He told the committee they need to be sensitive to the concerns of the people the bill is trying to protect.
“I don’t like speculation, but one of the things we’ve got to think about is the people that are selling,” he told Aspen Journalism after the committee meeting. “If you can’t make money, you can’t make a living.”
Although the organization doesn’t take a formal position on legislation until it’s introduced in the next session, which starts Jan. 12, 2022, the Colorado Farm Bureau also has concerns about the bill and submitted comments to the committee. The organization’s comment letter urges the committee to slow the conversation down and not approve the proposal.
Molina rancher Carlyle Currier is the president of the farm bureau and has a seat on the Colorado Basin Roundtable. He said changing Colorado’s already-strong anti-speculation laws could do more harm than good and lead to unintended consequences for agricultural producers. He added that it was troubling that the committee advanced a bill even though the task force did not recommend any changes to policy.
“To set up a task force and ask them for recommendations and then to basically ignore their work because they didn’t like the results of what the task force came up with is, to me, a little troubling,” Currier said.
Speculation has been a hot topic of discussion on the Western Slope recently, especially in the Grand Valley, where a New York City-based private-equity firm has been acquiring irrigated farmland. Water Asset Management is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the valley. But under Colorado water law, as long as WAM keeps putting the water to “beneficial use” by keeping the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.
For all the talk about water investment speculation, there is little evidence it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. In some ways, the effort at trying to stop speculation is really a conversation about a broader fear: the loss of agricultural land and with it, a way of life and a part of Colorado’s history, culture and identity. The work group identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators.
“Every other week I get a story of someone whose land just got bought up and they are no longer growing hay, they are no longer running cattle,” Donovan told the committee.
But land changing hands or even changing water use from agriculture to cities — as long as it’s done with the approval of the water court — is not the same as investment water speculation.
“There are some outsiders buying, but they haven’t changed the use of those farms, so we can’t really say, ‘what are you doing?’” Catlin said. “We’ve got to be careful to not run from shadows.”
The committee voted 8-2 to advance the bill as a way to keep working on solutions. Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat who represents District 26 in Arapahoe County, said legislators could always kill the bill if they can’t make it work in the next session.
“I’m inclined today to say yes to this and immediately get to work,” he said. “I think we should move forward today with some kind of vehicle to continue this conversation.”
The Green River is the most significant tributary of the Colorado River. Journalist Heather Hansman floated the Green in a pack raft to explore water issues in the American West, then wrote a fascinating book about her journey. We also talk to Heather about her reporting on water issues on the Navajo Nation. Heather’s new book, “Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow” was released this month.
Heather Hansman, author and water journalist Heather‘s writing appears in such publications as The Guardian, Sierra and The New York Times, and she is is an environmental columnist for Outside online. Her 2019 book “Downriver: into the Future of Water in the West” explored the western U.S. water system during a trip down the length of the Green River. Her latest book book “Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow” was released in November of 2021. Starts at 1:03
New book: “Powder Days” The book is described as “an exhilarating journey into the hidden history of American skiing, offering a glimpse into an underexplored subculture from the perspective of a true insider.” Starts at 34:10
As the gap between water supplies and demands narrows in northwestern Colorado, state officials want to ensure that, as best as reasonably can be done, every last drop gets measured and recorded.
They made their case to about 60 ranchers in North Park’s Walden, Colo., on Friday in the fifth of six stakeholder meetings during October that will conclude tonight with a meeting in Craig.
The proposed rules governing the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins would require that headgates, which allow water diversions into ditches, be supplemented with measuring infrastructure, either flumes or weirs, to track the amount of water being diverted. The rules would also institute protocols for reporting the measurements, for collection in state databases. Authority to require the measuring and reporting is clearly defined by state law, but the law leaves room for discretion about the particulars, hence the stakeholder process.
In an already drought-stricken region likely to become hotter and drier yet in the 21st century, those measurements will become ever-more important in administering water rights. The Yampa River this century has carried on average 6% less water than it did during the 20th century. On the White River, flows have fallen 19%.
Already, there is concern that Colorado will be forced to curtail diversions of water rights dated later than the 1922 Colorado River Compact if the aridification of the Colorado River Basin continues, said Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, at the outset of the meeting in Walden.
The compact specifies that Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico “will not cause the flow of the river” at Lee Ferry, at the top of the Grand Canyon, “to be depleted below an aggregate” of 75 million-acre feet for any period of 10 consecutive years. Colorado and the three other upper basin states are in relatively good shape—for at least the next couple of years. In the last decade, 92 million acre-feet have flowed past Lee Ferry toward Arizona, Nevada, California and, eventually, Mexico.
But if below-average becomes the new normal, as climate scientists warn almost certainly will be the case, Colorado may be forced to defend its diversions in light of the compact. “When they come in and ask for water, we can’t refuse if we have no data,” said Mike Sullivan, the deputy state water engineer.
The state water officials pointed to the Aug. 2021 report Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration issued by the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and MacIlroy Research and Consulting. “Confronting the limits of a water supply is a painful experience,” the report said after studying the Republican, Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. “Across each of the basins, earlier action to address potential compact and supply issues has enhanced the control communities have to develop and choose their own, less painful, options.”
The North Platte River does not flow into the Colorado River. It’s east of the Continental Divide but separated from the Front Range by the Medicine Bow and other mountain ranges. So why the need to measure water in North Park the same as in the Yampa and White river valleys?
Because it’s good to have the data should it be necessary as required by other interstate agreements, in this case involving Wyoming and Nebraska, said Sullivan.
But there’s another reason for more rigorous accounting of diversions, said the state water officials. Owners of water rights can best look out after their own interests by documenting their water use. This guards against those rights being placed on lists of abandoned water rights that state law requires be issued every 10 years. The most recent list for all river basins, including North Park, was issued last year.
Measuring devices also give those with more senior water appropriations the right to divert their legal entitlements in water-scarce years. And in the case of land sales with connected water rights, it gives owners the proof of water use to demonstrate value to potential purchasers.
In several river basins in Colorado, notably those east of the Continental Divide, measurements became crucial as early as the 19th century. In those river basins where water users experienced an earlier squeeze between supplies and demands, those with senior water rights began placing calls that required those with newer—and hence more junior— rights upstream to cease or cut back diversions.
In Water Division 6, which includes the North Platte, Yampa and White river basins, 54% of headgates had appropriate measuring devices as of April. This compares with upwards of 90% in several other water divisions of Colorado.
Overlapping the new rules is a proposal being considered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated. Most rivers in the state are already considered over-appropriated, in some cases over a century ago. Segments of the Yampa—including the river upstream from Steamboat Springs and several tributaries—already have been so designated. This designation will require irrigators drilling wells to have water that they can use to augment streamflows if there is a call on the river by a senior user. Improved measuring will assist in administration. Meetings to gather input were scheduled for Monday night in Craig and Thursday night in Hayden.
State officials hope to get the measurement rulemaking as well as the Yampa designation completed by early next year. Rules will be unique to the needs of Northwest Colorado, just as rules governing the Republican and Arkansas River basins are unique to the interstate water agreements and other circumstances governing water use in those basins.
North Park was particularly warm and dry last winter. One rancher after the Walden meeting recalled that it was possible to drive across his hay meadows all of last winter whereas many years he has to plow the driveway almost daily.
“It was pathetic, really,” said Keith Holsinger, standing on a bridge over the Michigan River east of Walden where he grows hay on 800 acres. One of his neighbors, who usually gets 500 to 600 tons of hay, got only 90 tons this year, he reported.
Holsinger has lived on the ranch all of his 77 years. His water rights range from among the oldest in North Park, an 1885 decree with a priority number of 32, to more junior rights of 240th in priority.
He remembers putting in the first measuring device sometime after the drought of 1977. His last device, a weir, he had installed last year.
During the meeting, some skepticism was voiced about the coming measurement rules. State representatives characterized the relationship between water users and state authorities as one of cooperation and trust. But one audience member pushed back. Implementation seemed to be discretionary, he said. “It’s a trust issue, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a lot of faith.”
But as for the need for the rules, Holsinger is already persuaded. “If it’s free water in priority, if you want that water, you had better have a headgate and weir,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The most significant discontent voiced in the background of the meeting agenda was about the high turnover in water commissioners. It’s a common problem across Colorado, say state water officials, as the job is by nature semi-seasonal. But in conversations after the meeting, North Park residents suggested that if the state wants water users to be partners in administration, the state needs to allow proper resources. A water commissioner has between 350 and 500 headgates to check, and there’s a learning curve.
Some people wanted to know why the state wanted the ability to lock headgates. State representatives said they rely primarily on voluntary compliance with water allocations but need the ability to force compliance if diverters take more than they are entitled to.
“In 20-some years, I have probably ordered a half-dozen headgates locked,” said Sullivan. “If we can’t get someone to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, we lock the cookie jar.”
As for the specific type of weir or flume, there are several formal varieties as well as less formal ones. They can be expensive, but none of the irrigators in Walden indicated that cost alone is an issue. Erin Light, the Steamboat Springs-based water engineer for Division 6, said she had seen a flume made of a road sign. It worked, she reported. Sullivan reported seeing one made of rock that worked effectively.
Said Sullivan, speaking to people mostly old enough to remember a bestselling small-model car in 1979 and 1980, “We don’t want to require a gold-plated Cadillac headgate when a Chevette will do.”