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Can carbon credits save Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta islands and protect California’s vital water hub?

An ambitious plan would use carbon credits as incentives to convert Delta islands to wetlands or rice to halt subsidence and potentially raise island elevations

By Gary Pitzer

The islands of the western Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are sinking as the rich peat soil that attracted generations of farmers dries out and decays. As the peat decomposes, it releases tons of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. As the islands sink, the levees that protect them are at increasing risk of failure, which could imperil California’s vital water conveyance system.

An ambitious plan now in the works could halt the decay, sequester the carbon and potentially reverse the sinking.

The plan would provide a carrot for farmers in the western Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to convert their island acreage to rice fields or managed wetlands in order to cut carbon emissions from the decaying peat and protect their lands and communities as well as California’s water hub. The Delta is the “switching yard” for moving water to the massive pumps for the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project.

Shepherded by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, the Delta Carbon Program is near completion of the first-ever third-party verification of wetlands that quantifies the carbon emission reduction estimates from 1,600 acres of managed wetlands on Sherman and Twitchell islands operated by the California Department of Water Resources.  

The aim is to use that example to encourage Delta landowners to ultimately access the state’s cap and trade market for carbon credits. About 2 million metric tons of carbon are emitted annually from the entire Delta, the equivalent of about 500,000 motor vehicle emissions.

Campbell Ingram, executive director of the Delta Conservancy, the state agency charged with fostering actions to support the Delta’s ecosystem and economy, said the land conversion idea targets about 200,000 acres of islands in the western Delta that are the most subsided and of marginal value. That amounts to more than a quarter of the Delta. About 50,000 acres of this region are under public ownership, providing an opportunity to demonstrate the viability of carbon farming to surrounding landowners.

“It’s a unique little patch of land, the subsidence of which really threatens California’s water supply,” he said. “Also, it’s a chimney that’s just rocketing carbon into the atmosphere.”

Delta islands are seen increasingly at risk of flooding and levee failures from subsidence and sea level rise due to climate change, which could pull salty water deeper into the Delta and foul exported water.

“If you can convert these soils to anaerobic conditions, you reduce the carbon emissions and you have a tendency to stop or slow way down the subsidence factor.”
~Tom Zuckerman, Delta farmer

The answer to reversing subsidence and carbon emissions lies in reverting that part of the Delta to its former marshy legacy. Instead of cultivating crops that dry the soil and exacerbate the problem, the idea is to keep the land perpetually wet, even during the hot summer months. That can be done through converting land to rice or managed wetlands. Either way, it will be a transition for Delta agriculture, Ingram said.

“With managed wetlands, you get more carbon revenue and more accretion, but it does take ag land out of production, which is not a comfortable space,” he said. “On the other hand, if the agricultural practice continues to increase the risk of levee failure, continues the huge carbon emissions and it’s not economically viable … it makes it a tough argument for people to say you’ve got to stop taking ag land out of production.”

Launching pilot projects that demonstrate the potential of reducing carbon emissions from land alterations is challenging because landowners are reluctant to pay the upfront costs when the expected revenue isn’t known, Ingram said,

Tom Zuckerman, a Delta farmer who has been working with the Delta Carbon Program on getting more rice into production, said he has seen a growth in rice production and that the benefits are evident. According to the Delta Protection Commission, Delta rice production increased by about 53 percent, from 4,874 acres in 2009 to 7,468 acres in 2016.

“It’s a double-winner situation,” Zuckerman said. “If you can convert these soils to anaerobic conditions, you reduce the carbon emissions and you have a tendency to stop or slow way down the subsidence factor.”

Zuckerman, who co-owns 1,000 acres, said he is planning to convert a portion of that acreage to rice and has heard the same from other farmers. Rice, he said, is a profitable commodity though upfront work is needed.

“The barrier is that land has to be worked on quite a bit for leveling and re-ditching so there is a capital barrier to entry on the conversion,” he said. “Once that happens, every indication is that farmers will be better off with the rice crop, both from what they get from the crop plus what they might get from carbon credits.”

A viable option

The Delta’s rich, organic peat soil is wonderful for farming, but decades of cultivation have altered the natural hydrology. The peat soil is fragile and susceptible to subsidence. Decades of farming have carved out large bowls in the Delta, some of which are 25 feet below the adjacent river channels.

Crops such as corn and alfalfa require a drained root zone that exposes the peat soil to oxygen and breakdown and releases stored carbon into the atmosphere.

The Delta’s peat slows seepage from the surrounding rivers that are perched 20 to 30 feet above the land surface. When the peat gets thin, water seeps through the underlying sand, leaving areas too wet to farm. Ingram pointed to a recent study showing that in the 1980s about 500 acres were too wet to farm; now that’s about 5,000 acres.

More than 20 years ago DWR began research at Twitchell Island, near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, on how to stop subsidence. By altering the landscape and getting water back on the land, they created a tule marsh that halted subsidence and slowly rebuilt surface elevation. In the process, the state realized a carbon benefit from stopping the breakdown of the peat soils. That has become the test bed for the carbon capture protocol.

Each acre converted to marsh keeps from six to more than 20 metric tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere each year. Quantifying those reductions and the associated carbon credits is the key.

The first third-party verification of carbon reduction credits is expected to be completed anytime now. The final product, Ingram said, will go to the American Carbon Registry, a private, voluntary greenhouse gas registry that validates the environmental and scientific integrity of carbon offsets, where credits can be sold to realize a revenue stream.

Ultimately, the aim is for the California Air Resources Board to adopt the Delta Conservancy’s protocol into its compliance program under AB 32, the state’s landmark 2006 greenhouse gas law. Adoption is expected to raise the value of carbon emission reduction credits to as much as $180 per acre.

Each acre converted to marsh keeps from six to more than 20 metric tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere each year.
~Delta Conservancy

“Our expectation is that the incentive will continue to grow and can compete with the current commodities that are grown in the Delta and be a real viable option for landowners, public and private,” Ingram said.

Chris Scheuring, managing counsel with the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the Farm Bureau isn’t opposed to voluntary transactions that convert Delta farmland to other uses, but worries about the loss of good soil for farming and the impact on farmers. Ultimately, he said, it’s up to individual landowners to decide whether participating in the cap and trade carbon market makes sense for them.

“The compensation has to be there,” Scheuring said, “and it’s got to make economic sense to the farmer.”

Michelle Passero, director of The Nature Conservancy’s California Climate Program, said marketing Delta carbon aligns well with her organization’s mission of keeping the region a haven for birds.

“We are interested in exploring different practices that can help address climate change while also maintaining habitat for cranes,” she said.

Building a market for carbon credits

The Delta is an agricultural powerhouse, growing whatever commodities the market demands – corn, alfalfa, tomatoes, rice, grapes and orchard crops. However, there is concern that factors external and internal could create a quandary for future land management.

At the Delta Stewardship Council’s November meeting, Delta Watermaster Michael George expressed concern about what could happen to areas that are no longer a good investment for agriculture.

“There is a substantial risk that some of those areas [that] will not be able to be farmed profitably may be abandoned” and end up in the state’s lap, he said.

If land does default to the state, it will have to be managed, perhaps for wetlands or rice and reaping carbon benefits. AB 32 requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by this year. Carbon offsets allow businesses to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as the kind advocated by the Delta Conservancy.

In January, the state’s draft Water Resilience Portfolio said among its aims is to provide incentives and technical advice to Delta landowners for creating managed wetlands or cultivating rice and to “eliminate subsidence-inducing practices on state-owned lands and pursue alternative sources of revenue to support long-term land management.”

The current voluntary market for carbon emission reduction credits is about $60 per acre annually. That figure exceeds most annual per-acre leases in the deeply subsided western Delta, Ingram said, but does not fully compete with commodity prices. Furthermore, there are costs associated with converting land to managed wetlands or rice.

“It’s really hard to get farmers to say, ‘I am going to pay those upfront costs and then make less money than I make now,’” Ingram said.

Erik Vink, executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, said it’s important to prove the concept of carbon emission reduction credits in a way that sends the right economic signal to landowners.

“If you want them to farm tules, they’ll be the best tule farmers you’ve ever seen,” he told the Delta Stewardship Council in November.

A carbon credit value of between $15 and $20 per metric ton would help the economics of farming rice, said Zuckerman, the Delta farmer, adding that depending on the circumstances, revenue from carbon credits could begin look like “serious money.”

About 50,000 acres in the western Delta are publicly owned or publicly financed, raising the question of whether marketing carbon credits is a viable alternative for public agencies that need a reliable revenue stream for operations and maintenance.

Ingram said he believes once the program gets rolling, landowners — including public agencies — will see the benefit. And with a carbon credit market providing incentives to convert land to wetlands or rice, Ingram said the potential exists for increasing land elevation to help levee stability under an aggressive approach that could yield results in as few as 40 years.

While a key goal is to reduce carbon emissions, he said, the larger objectives are to stop land subsidence that ”continues to threaten the economic vitality of the region” and poses a “huge risk” to the state’s water supply.

Reach Gary Pitzer:, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
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This story originally appeared on Western Water on Feb. 27, 2020 and is republished here by permission.

Colorado water utilities race to protect workers from COVID-19 as they declare tap water safe

Water utilities ask their workers to stay home amid the spread of COVID-19 to protect workers needed to operate treatment and delivery.
Workers put finishing touches on Denver Water’s new super-sustainable administrative complex last summer. As COVID-19 cases spread,Denver and other utilities have enacted emergency operation protocols to protect workers and to keep water treatment and delivery systems operating. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith

As COVID-19 cases spread across Colorado, water utilities initiated emergency action plans, asking hundreds of employees to work from home to limit the virus’ spread and to help protect the workers needed to operate water treatment and delivery systems.

COVID-19 isn’t typically found in treated water systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because it is easily susceptible to the disinfectants used in standard water treatment systems.

“This virus is fragile,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, Colorado’s largest municipal water supplier. “The EPA and CDC and WHO [World Health Organization] have all put out guidance that drinking water systems that are treating water properly are perfectly safe. Our treatment protocols exceed federal and state standards and so we are doing better than we are required to do.”

Though water safety isn’t an issue in this pandemic, at least not yet, worker safety is.

In the heart of Colorado’s ski country, where COVID-19 cases have spread quickly, the Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, as well as its sister agency the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, issued an emergency declaration March 13, a move that will allow them to apply for state and federal funds and extra equipment should they be needed.

The primary worry, said Eagle River District general manager Linn Brooks, is to prevent a rapid onset of COVID-19 among operations staff, something that could hamper the districts’ ability to ensure consistent water treatment and delivery.

“My biggest concern is that if it spreads quickly through our staff and we have a lot of people out, straining our capacity to do our work. Still, we could absorb a fair amount [of employee absences] before it impacts the service we provide,” Brooks said.

To date no Eagle River or Upper Eagle River District employees have tested positive for the virus nor is her district seeing high rates of absenteeism, Brooks said.

But the Eagle River District has imposed new sanitation and cleaning protocols at its plants and is requiring workers to stay home, with or without testing, if they exhibit any cold or flu-like symptoms. They can return to work only after they’ve been symptom free for at least 72 hours.

On the Front Range, Berthoud-based Northern Water, which serves more than 1 million agricultural and municipal customers, has also instituted emergency action plans, asking non-essential personnel to work from home and keeping operators on the job. Northern serves cities across the northern Front Range, including Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder and Longmont, among others.

Northern offers workers unlimited sick leave as a matter course, while other utilities, such as Denver Water, are offering special administrative leave to employees who become ill to encourage them to remain home, allowing them to protect their personal vacation and sick time.

The pandemic has arrived just as the spring water delivery season begins. At least three regularly scheduled major water planning meetings across the state, used to inform the public and collect input on how much water should be made available for the year, have been cancelled.

“The hard part is getting the word out,” said Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla.

Northern’s board will make a decision April 9 on how much water will be delivered to users this year, based on final snowpack numbers and reservoir storage. But that meeting, like many others, may end up being conducted online or via conference call, Stahla said.

Colorado State of the River meetings, typically hosted by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, have also been postponed until further notice.

Back in Denver, Lochhead said his agency will remain in emergency mode “indefinitely.”

“We have calls every morning to assess. It’s a dynamic situation that changes daily if not hourly,” Lochhead said. “But in the uncertain world we’re in right now, the safety and reliability of the supply is the surest thing we have going.”

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

Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News on March 18, 2020.

Cloud seeding study validates ski industry staple

cloud seeding study photo
Scenes from the Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds: The Idaho Experiment (SNOWIE) project, which was undertaken in Idaho’s Payette Basin in winter 2017. Photo credit: Joshua Aikins

By David O. Williams

VAIL — An innovative new study conducted in Idaho and published in February seems to confirm what Vail and other Colorado ski resorts have believed for decades — that “cloud seeding can boost snowfall across a wide area if the atmospheric conditions are favorable.”

“This is a revelation. We can definitely say that cloud seeding enhances snowfall under the right conditions,” said Sarah Tessendorf, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and co-author of a new paper on the research conducted by scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Wyoming, among others.

Cloud seeding uses ground-based generators to disperse dust-sized silver iodide particles into clouds so that ice crystals can form on those particles and fall to the ground in the form of snow. Scientists, water managers and ski industry executives say it’s precipitation that would otherwise stay in the clouds, so cloud seeding is an environmentally safe way to enhance snowfall.

But the efficiency of cloud seeding has so far been hard to prove. Tessendorf said previous cloud seeding studies were unable to achieve statistically significant results because the natural variability of the weather was too great and demanded a larger sample size than could be reasonably obtained, for financial reasons.

In winter 2017, the National Science Foundation, which sponsors NCAR, teamed up with the Idaho Power Company to conduct a field study called SNOWIE (Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds — the Idaho Experiment).

SNOWIE used supercomputing technology to develop a new computer model to simulate cloud seeding, as well as new measurement capabilities, such as a high-resolution cloud radar on a Wyoming research aircraft that can see previously invisible cloud features. Researchers also located mobile radars on mountain ridges north of Boise to see clouds not visible to stationary National Weather Service radars that are blocked by the mountains themselves.

The scientists then used airborne seeding instead of ground-based generators because the silver iodide dispersed downwind from the aircraft in a zig-zag pattern, which is a very unnatural pattern for precipitation to form.

That allowed the scientists “to unambiguously detect the impact of cloud seeding in these clouds using the mobile and airborne radars,” Tessendorf said. “This had never been done before. In the three cases we report on, there was negligible natural snow falling, so the zig-zag pattern was able to be detected very clearly and tracked to the ground to quantify the snow reaching the ground due to seeding.”

One of the examples cited in a press release accompanying the study was a cloud-seeding flight on Jan. 19, 2017, that generated snow for 67 minutes, dusting about 900 square miles with a tenth of a millimeter of snow beyond what was falling naturally.

“This was barely enough snow to cling to the researchers’ eyelashes,” the release reads, ‘but it would have stayed in the air if not for cloud seeding.”

“We tracked the seeding plume from the time we put it into the cloud until it generated snow that actually fell onto the ground,” said Katja Friedrich, a University of Colorado Boulder professor and lead author of the new study.

cloud seeding study photo
Scenes from the Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds: The Idaho Experiment (SNOWIE) project, which was undertaken in Idaho’s Payette Basin in winter 2017. Photo credit: Joshua Aikins

Finding the ideal storms

Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River District, helps oversee a system of 25 ground-based cloud-seeding generators in the central Colorado region that includes Grand, Summit, Eagle and parts of Pitkin County. Nearby generators include one atop Arrowhead and another above Camp Hale.

Kanzer said storms from the north and northwest, which tend to be colder, are ideal for cloud seeding, with temperatures in the clouds no higher than 21 degrees Fahrenheit and no lower than 5 degrees Fahrenheit. If the clouds have the right temperature range and the right moisture levels but lack sufficient particles for ice crystals to form, that’s where cloud seeding comes in.

“We take advantage of the first two and we add the proper amount of particulate matter to enhance the snowfall and precipitation … and that accumulates in the snowpack somewhere in the range of between 5 and 15% on a per storm basis when those conditions are met,” Kanzer said. “And that helps to increase the water yield of the snow sheds in the range of 1 to, 4% of water on a seasonal basis.”

cloud seeding study photo
In winter 2017, the National Science Foundation, which sponsors NCAR, teamed up with the Idaho Power Company to conduct a field study called SNOWIE (Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds — the Idaho Experiment). Photo credit: Joshua Aikins

A tool to maintain snowpack

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources regulates cloud seeding, permitting operations in nine different parts of the state. The operations in the central zone, at the headwaters of the Colorado River, are funded by a wide range of groups, including Front Range utilities and water districts that divert Western Slope water, including Denver Water and Northern Water.

The Colorado River District spends around a $150,000 a year contracting with Western Weather Group to run the program, which Kanzer said is about the same amount Vail Resorts spends on the program for its four Colorado ski areas – Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.

Vail Resorts declined to comment for this story.

Kanzer presented on cloud seeding at a November Eagle River Watershed Council meeting in Avon, where a few of the 50 or so participants got heated in their questioning of the environmental safety of the process.

Kanzer said cloud seeding is safe, using inert silver iodide that cannot be detected in the environment after it’s released into clouds. He added the process could become increasingly critical to maintaining mountain snowpack as the climate changes.

“It’s one tool that we can use to mitigate or adapt to the changes that we have not only predicted but are starting to experience with shorter snow-covered seasons,” Kanzer said. “And so (cloud seeding) helps us extend that time or at least forestall the reduction.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Feb. 25 edition of Aspen Journalism and The Vail Daily.

‘This system cannot be sustained’

This year, tribal nations enter negotiations over Colorado River water.

tribes, policymaking
Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, has pushed for increased tribal participation in Colorado River renegotiation discussions.Courtesy of Bob Conrad

By Anna V. Smith via High Country News

The Colorado River Basin is the setting for some of the most drawn-out and complex water issues in the Western U.S. In 2019, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — a water-conservation agreement between states, tribal nations and the federal government for the basin, now in its 20th year of drought — passed Congress. This year, it goes into effect.

2020 will also see the start of the renegotiation of the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The guidelines, which regulate the flow of water to users, were created in 2007 without tribal consultation and are set to expire in 2026. The 29 tribal nations in the upper and lower basins hold some of the river’s most senior water rights and control around 20% of its annual flow. But the tribes have often been excluded from water policymaking; around a dozen have yet to quantify their water rights, while others have yet to make full use of them. Most of the tribal nations anticipate fully developing their established water rights by 2040 — whether for agriculture, development, leasing or other uses. Drought and climate change are still causing shortages and uncertainty, however. Already, the Colorado River has dropped by about 20%; by the end of this century, it could drop by more than half. 

High Country News spoke with Daryl Vigil (Jicarilla Apache, Jemez Pueblo and Zia Pueblo), water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Vigil, the interim executive director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, helped co-facilitate the Water and Tribes Initiative, coalitions focused on getting increased tribal participation on Colorado River discussions. Those efforts are critical, Vigil says, “because left to the states and the federal government, they’ve already proven that they will leave us out every time.”

HCN and Vigil spoke about “the law of the river” — the colloquial term for the roughly 100 years of court cases, treaties, agreements and water settlements that govern the Colorado — as well as tribal consultation and climate change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

High Country News: Sometimes it can be hard to really understand the core value of water, because it gets so caught up in things like policies and laws and bureaucratic language. Could you boil it down a bit and explain, at the core, what’s so important about this?

Daryl Vigil: Through the Water and Tribes Initiative (in 2018), we did over a hundred interviews of all the major stakeholders in the basin: states, water providers, tribes, NGOs, conservation groups. And it was pretty amazing, to find out that when you talk to all these folks, almost universally they’re all committed; they have a personal relationship to the river as a living entity that needs to be sustained. And so there’s two different mindsets looking at ’07 guidelines and some of the policy that’s been created around the river. One really looks at the Colorado River as a plumbing system, getting water to people who need it, versus the other end of the spectrum — when you start to look at tribes and others who have similar values, who look at it as a living entity, who look at it as an entity that provides life. And so we started to try to articulate traditional, cultural values and integrate that into current policy so that people can understand. Because we know most people want to see a healthy, sustainable Colorado River, but they also have their constituencies that they protect. And so, how is it that we bridge that divide? Because people really do care about the basin, and they really do want healthy environments and healthy ecosystems. And so that’s proven part of the conversation that we were having — that the next set of guidelines absolutely needs to be able to capture not only the water-delivery issues that already are at the forefront, but really start to address the cultural, environmental, traditional values of the Colorado River and integrate that into the next set of planning. Because if we don’t, this system cannot be sustained. 

HCN: How does climate change figure into the discussion?

DV: We’re already seeing the impacts. And I think that’s something that absolutely has to be considered in the planning of the future, because right now — with 41 million people in the basin — as of 2010, the imbalance between supply and demand is already a million acre-feet. It’s projected, according to the basin study, to be 3 million acre-feet by 2060. We continue to act surprised when something new comes about in terms of a fire or a flood or an incredible drought. We’re making an impact on this planet, and it’s not a good one. That’s where, with the Ten Tribes Partnership, (we’re) really trying to make sure that we integrate those traditional, cultural values and spiritual values that the tribes have for the river as we move forward. Because if we’re not going to address it, it looks pretty catastrophic to us. And so I think, when we start talking about climate change, absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into nature, rather than nature fitting into us.

HCN: These kinds of discussions, compromises and negotiations can often, especially around water in the West, go on for decades. I’m curious what gives you momentum to keep working at it and putting so much energy into it.

DV: A few different things. You know, those hundred-plus interviews that we did, we got to know people on a real personal basis. We got to know who they are and their commitment — many of these people have had decades working in the Colorado River Basin and doing the best that they could, given the structure. And everybody understands and agrees that the current system is not sustainable, and it doesn’t work; it’s not inclusive of the voices that need to be included into this process. And so that gives me great hope. And then you see things like the pulse flow, where they got water all the way to the Sea of Cortez. And to look at the faces of those Mexican kids who had never seen water in the Colorado River in their whole life come out, and just the wonder and the magic in their eyes of seeing what water does.

And then we just recently had our second basin-wide workshop and gathering up in Phoenix. We had a hundred-plus of the major stakeholders: states, feds, water providers, tribes and four tribal chairman present at this particular meeting, which is just huge, a bunch of people all in this room all talking about their joint commitment to the river. It’s moving to me because, I mean, I think that’s what it’s going to take.

HCN: Every tribal nation is different, but how might a tribal nation view water similarly or differently than a city or a state or the federal government in terms of water and management?

 DV: That’s the thing that we’re really trying to create awareness of. Because in the Colorado River Basin alone, you have 29 distinct sovereign entities — geographically, culturally, languages, and mindsets and traditions and culture in terms of how they think about the river. A lot of it’s really about the same, but in terms of the reverence and the spiritual connection that most tribes have, they look at it in different ways. For instance, invasive species of fish: You get tribes who are really aggressive about wanting to remove them because they’re not part of the natural environment that was always there. Then you get other tribes who are just like, eh, who cares and it’s not on their radar. And that’s why it’s important that a conversation about the next set of guidelines for the Colorado River has to include all 29 tribes — in terms of at least the opportunity to participate and at least having the information to determine whether they want to or not.

HCN: What are some big things that you would like people to better understand about the discussions around water in the Colorado River Basin? 

DV: I would like them to understand, from a tribal perspective, the incredible role that tribal water already plays in the basin. The other thing I would like people to understand is that this current law of the river is not sustainable. At some point in time there’s collapse. And I think if we don’t address it quickly, that collapse could happen sooner than later. And I really would like to have them understand that the way that the law of the river is structured — upper, lower basins, and how they’re managed differently, and how there’s different requirements and how states are engaged — it’s really complex and doesn’t make any sense, and, ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to get us where the broader consensus wants us to go in terms of a healthy, sustainable river, and still provide water to all living creatures and plants in the basin.

HCN: Specifically, what is it that tribal nations are bringing to the conversation that was lacking in the 2007 agreements?

DV: I think absolutely a point of view about the sacredness of the river that most people really do share, whether they’re tribal or not. And then the other thing is the unique role that tribes are going to continue to play in the West — the large land areas and our resource development and how we move forward. It creates this mindset, in my mind, of building a pathway of who we want to be in the future. But a huge thing, too, is tribes bring certainty to the table. You know, it’s like, wow, what if we negotiated together about being able to move water where it needs to move, and work from a standpoint of collaboration and need rather than protect, defend and win, lose.

HCN: That’s a good point. Because that’s how water is so often talked about, as somebody versus somebody.

DV: And I think that’s what the law of the river does. It’s contentious, and it automatically puts you in a position to protect and defend. And if that’s the foundation we’re operating from, what does that get us? It’s just going to get us this recurring, vicious cycle that we’ve been stuck in. The work that we’re doing at the partnership and Water and Tribes Initiative hopefully has broader implications in terms of tribal sovereignty, and looking at tribal sovereignty from the standpoint of an opportunity to create your future.

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at or submit a letter to the editorFollow @annavtoriasmith

This story was originally published at High Country News ( on March 10, 2020

Water is life. It’s also a battle. So what does the future hold for California?

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (IBM Research via Flickr)


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Water plays a lead role in the state’s political theater, with Democrats and Republicans polarized, farmers often fighting environmentalists and cities pitted against rural communities. Rivers are overallocated through sloppy water accounting. Groundwater has dwindled as farmers overdraw aquifers. Many communities lack safe drinking water. Native Americans want almost-extinct salmon runs revived. There is talk, too, of new water projects, including a massive new tunnel costing billions of dollars.

Scientists say climate change will bring more unpredictable weather, warmer winters and less snowpack in the mountains. These challenges and some ideas for remedies are outlined in a new plan, called the California Water Resilience Portfolio, released by Gov. Gavin Newsom in January to a mix of praise and disappointment. 

Below, an explanation of the state’s water development — as well as the challenges, today and tomorrow, of providing water for California’s people, places and things.  


Where does our water come from?

It originates as rain and snow. Some falls in Oregon and drains into the Klamath River, and some falls in the vast drainage of the Colorado River. But most of it lands in California — about 200 million acre-feet on average per year. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, what an average household consumes in between six months and two years.) 

To understand what that volume means, imagine a skyscraper 38,000 miles tall. Yes, miles tall, not feet. Now, fill it with water. That is California’s average annual precipitation. 

So, where does all this water go? More than half evaporates, leaving about 75 million acre-feet either frozen in mountains or filling rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Some sinks into the ground. 

About half of the 75 million is diverted to human uses, and half is left in watersheds, what is referred to as environmental “use” of water.  

Source: Daniel J. Hoover, et al. Map of California showing the average annual rainfall from 1981–2010. Used with permission.

How does this water get to us?

Because precipitation falls unevenly in California — almost ten feet per year drenching parts of the Coast Range and just several inches falling in deserts — water agencies have found ways to spread the resource. 

A complex system of dams, reservoirs, pumping stations and about 2,000 miles of canals supplies water to Californians that originated in the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades. 

For instance, when an 11-mile tunnel was drilled through the mountains of California’s North Coast in 1960, water that naturally flowed to the salmon streams and redwoods was diverted to San Joaquin Valley orchards and other farmland. This Trinity River project is one of many ambitious engineering projects that have brought water to Los Angeles swimming pools, San Diego lawns, Kern County crops and the taps of about 30 million people. 

Here are our major delivery systems:

Between rain and snow, the state’s drainage basins receive an average of about 200 million acre-feet of precipitation each year.
Source: California Department of Water Resources
  • The federal Central Valley Project uses 20 reservoirs and 500 miles of canals to send water from the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Trinity basins into the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. It provides water for about 3 million acres of farmland. 
  • The State Water Project transports water via more than 700 miles of canals from the same river systems to cities and farms throughout the state, as far as San Diego. In all, it supplies 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. 
  • Another 4 million acre-feet per year flow via a 242-mile aqueduct from the Colorado River to Southern California farmland and cities.
  • Water from the Sierra Nevada travels via canals as far as 160 miles to San Francisco and surrounding cities, and Los Angeles imports it from the Eastern Sierra in a canal system more than 400 miles long.
  • About 40 percent of all water used in California is pumped from underground basins in an average year. This share increases during drought years.

How much water do we use?

On average, each Californian used 85 gallons of water at their homes every day in 2016. By national standards, that’s right about in the middle. In Idaho, each person on average uses 168 gallons a day, the national high. Residents of Maine use the least, about 55 gallons.

Coastal city dwellers, especially in the cooler, rainier north part of the state, use the least water, while residents of inland suburban areas with spacious lawns, gardens and pools use much more.

In one water district in north San Diego County, each resident uses more than 500 gallons per day during the hottest summer months.

Graphic by Pacific Institute and used with permission.
Source: California Department of Water Resources Water Use Balances for Planning Areas, 1998–2010 (Department of Water Resources 2014) and US Census Bureau (2010 population by Census Tract)

How much is used by homes compared to farms?

Even multiplied by 40 million people, the amount of water used by homes amounts to relatively little. Farmland uses three to four times more than people use for cooking, drinking, washing, gardening and landscaping.  

California’s farmers and ranchers irrigate their land with about 30 million acre-feet of water each year (mostly from surface supplies but also from underground). Residential water use runs about 8 million acre-feet per year.

Another 40 million acre-feet or so flows through river systems, supporting wildlife. That’s on average, spiking in wet years and ebbing during droughts.

What are farmers growing with all that water?

Farm products generated $50 billion in sales in 2018, making agriculture the state’s most valuable industry. The biggest money makers are dairy, grapes and almonds. 

Almond groves cover more than 2,000 square miles, mostly in the Central Valley. Because the trees occupy so much land — more than any other crop — environmentalists argue that they guzzle too much. They use an estimated 3 to 4 million acre-feet per year.

But other major crops require plenty of water, too. Alfalfa often uses more than 5 million acre-feet per year, although acreage has been declining. Open pasture for grazing takes up another 3 million acre feet or so. Rice paddies are annually flooded with almost 3 million acre-feet per year (though much eventually returns to the environment).

What are the environmental impacts of our water use?

In addition to economic prosperity, water diversions have brought environmental consequences.

Mono Lake, millions of years old, dropped 25 feet, nearly destroying its scenic ecosystem, when Los Angeles diverted the eastern Sierra’s water. The San Joaquin River nearly dried up. Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy disappeared under reservoirs. And the Colorado River, in most years, is empty before it reaches its estuary at the Sea of Cortez.

Dams blocked migration routes of salmon and steelhead, and then diversions, levee construction and development created poor conditions for the surviving fish. Coho salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and many salmon runs are expected to vanish this century. In addition, the tiny Delta smelt is almost extinct. The totuava, an ocean fish that can reach 300 pounds, once spawned in great numbers in the Colorado River Delta but is now scarce.

Much of the conflict over California’s water focuses on the Endangered Species Act. To protect species, pumping from the Delta is reduced. This creates strife between environmentalists and growers. Some biologists say more water needs to be left for river fish as well as San Francisco Bay creatures such as crab, herring and halibut.

Source: National Marine Fisheries Service

Why is there so much talk about the Delta?

The Delta is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, east of San Francisco Bay. It is the hub of California’s water supply and conveyance system. 

In an average year, pumps withdraw about 5 million acre-feet from the estuary. That’s about one-fourth of all the water that flows into the Delta. A pair of canals transport it to semi-arid regions, including San Joaquin Valley farmland and Southern California cities. 

This use, combined with other factors like invasive species and water pollution, has strained the Delta’s ecosystem. 

It’s not just fish that are in trouble. The levees are old and at risk of breaking, especially as sea level rises. A major levee breach could allow seawater to flood pumping stations, spelling disaster for farmers and millions of people.  

Adding to the pressures is a recent pact to use less water from the Colorado River, which is divided among seven states. These battles are intensifying as demand increases and supplies shrink. This could force Southern California to look for more water from other sources, like the Delta.

Will a tunnel solve these problems?

One proposed solution to the Delta’s water woes is to build a 35-to-40-mile-long tunnel that starts upstream of the Delta, near Sacramento, and routes water around the Delta before reconnecting with the southbound canal system. 

Former Gov. Jerry Brown promoted a two-tunnel project for eight years without success. Newsom has downsized the plan to one tunnel and hopes to begin construction within three years. 

Currently, major Delta pumps pull water from the heart of the estuary. This causes obstacles for migrating fish. In addition, the pumps are vulnerable to saltwater during low river flow and high ocean tides. A tunnel would shift water diversion miles upstream, which might alleviate these problems. Intakes would be several feet above present-day sea level, and the rivers would flow through the Delta and out to sea, which helps migrating fish. 

But the tunnel plan is extremely controversial. Many opponents worry it could harm the ecosystem by diverting too much water before it reaches the estuary. Excessive diversions could also allow saltwater to threaten farms and communities in the Delta area that rely on freshwater. Moreover, moving the diversion point upstream to avoid rising seas simply kicks that can down the road a few decades. 

The tunnel will cost an estimated $11 billion. Water suppliers, like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supports the project, would likely cover the cost, although details remain unsettled.

The proposed Delta tunnel could take one of two different paths — the Central Tunnel Corridor or the Eastern Tunnel Corridor.
Source: California Department of Water Resources

Can’t we just pump more groundwater?

Many farmers rely on groundwater, especially in dry years. Some Southern California cities also get as much as half of their supply from wells. But no California agency has been tracking exactly how much is used or who uses it, even though nearly every other state regulates this resource.

The free-for-all has led to farmers in many areas pumping groundwater faster than the natural recharge. Water tables have rapidly dropped and, in some communities, homes have run out of water. During the 2012-to-2016 drought, about 3,500 domestic wells went dry

Also, when coastal aquifers are heavily tapped, saltwater creeps inland. In central and Southern California, water managers have to inject freshwater into aquifers to stop the saltwater intrusion. 

San Joaquin Valley farmers have pumped so much water that some areas have subsided by 20 feet or more. This damage cannot be undone, and the water storage capacity is lost forever.

Is there legislation to protect groundwater now?

Brown passed a triage of bills in 2014, collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. 

The law requires local agencies to begin monitoring and regulating groundwater so that withdrawals don’t exceed inflow. But this stabilization may not happen anytime soon, since the law sets a sustainability deadline of 2040. 

Many farmers are uneasy because it will reduce water supply and force land out of production. Some experts say farmers will have to fallow between 500,000 and a million acres. These changes are likely to hit hardest in the San Joaquin Valley.

Farmers have ideas to cope: One is to pay some not to grow anything and leave their water allocation for someone else. Another is to develop water markets to buy and sell water. 

Are we facing another drought this year?

After a soggy December, California has entered 2020 almost bone-dry.

January and February are typically the wettest months in most of the state, and the current conditions suggest that California will face another drought. As of Feb. 18, 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry.

A drought would damage the environment and economy, particularly because the state has not recovered from the 2012-2016 drought. Groundwater tables remain overdrawn, and with below-average  Sierra Nevada snowpack, water reserves are unlikely to rebound anytime soon.

A rainy, wet March — a “miracle March” — could help, but if dry conditions persist, it will likely bring more feuds between frustrated water users.

Is our water safe to drink?

Some of California’s aquifers, including large basins in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, are contaminated with chemicals. 

One of the greatest dangers is nitrates that leach from fertilizers, manure and sewage. Pesticides, oil waste, industrial solvents and other contaminants also pollute groundwater. The Community Water Center, a social justice group, estimated that more than one million state residents are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year. 

What if we just recycled more water?

In many communities, treatment plants collect used water, purify it and send it back into the delivery system, mostly for irrigation and industrial purposes. In 2015, California recycled about 714,000 acre-feet, primarily for landscaping and irrigation. Sixteen percent, about 114,000 acre-feet, was used to recharge groundwater basins.  

Water recycling is often termed a “drought-proof” supply, and state initiatives aim to be reusing about 2.5 million acre-feet annually within a decade.

How will climate change affect our water supply?

While scientists don’t know if California will see more precipitation in the future or less, average temperatures will increase. This will worsen water storage and supply issues, for a variety of reasons. 

Warmer winters mean less precipitation will fall as snow and more as rain, which will quickly fill reservoirs and force managers to release water from dams. With less snowpack, flow to reservoirs could slow to a trickle between spring and fall. 

Research also has shown that warming, by increasing evaporation, will cause a devastating 35 percent flow reduction this century in the Colorado River, one of Southern California’s key sources. 

Rising sea level also threatens freshwater supplies. Seawater could eventually flood Delta pumping stations, spoiling the water supply of millions of people and seeping into coastal aquifers.

Will technology help?

It probably will. Consider desalination, which removes salt from seawater. It seems like something between a miracle and a no-brainer.  But desalination is very expensive, and only a few small plants have been built in California. It also can generate greenhouse gases and requires disposal of brine. As some skeptics have joked, desalination is a promising future technology — and it probably always will be.

Water recycling looks more promising, and its technologies are advancing. State policies call for more sophisticated systems that purify reclaimed water to a drinkable state. Only a few such facilities exist in the world.  

Capturing stormwater could be cheaper. Diverting runoff into treatment systems or storage basins could, according to one analysis, add as much as 630,000 acre-feet each year in coastal cities.

And if times get really hard, water might be harvested from fog by placing fine mesh screens on seaward bluffs and dunes. Stay tuned.

Wouldn’t it just be cheaper and easier to consume less water?

Yes. For all the high-tech ways to fortify and expand our supply, the easiest, cheapest and potentially most effective solution is to use less water to begin with.

The Pacific Institute, a think tank in Oakland, says that conservation could cut California’s water use half. 

In fact, conservation has already helped. In Southern California, total urban demand — residences, businesses, institutions and parks — exceeded 200 gallons per person per day in the early 1990s. Today, it’s about 130 gallons per person per day. That means a population that has grown by several million people has reduced water use by more than a third.

Are farmers wasting water?

Some farmers use water inefficiently, but in general, they try to squeeze as much “crop per drop” as possible. Many growers have retired flood irrigation and wasteful sprinklers and adopted drip irrigation systems. They also use technology that autonomously monitors soil moisture and remotely opens and closes water valves. 

Almond growers, for example, grow each nut with one-third less water than 20 years ago. However, because acreage has more than doubled, the industry still uses more water than it did.

How is President Trump affecting California’s water problems?

In 2019, the Trump administration introduced a plan that critics say weakens Endangered Species Act restrictions on pumping water from the Delta.

Many farmers welcome the proposal since it could increase their annual water deliveries by half a million acre-feet or more. But environmentalists call it “an extinction plan” for winter-run Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. They say it will allow more diversions during key migration periods, increasing the odds the fish will be sucked into the pumps, and it may affect spawning salmon. Newsom has threatened to sue the federal government to halt the plan.

What’s the governor doing?

The Newsom administration created a “Water Resilience Portfolio” of more than 100 ideas. It focuses on four areas: diversifying water supplies, protecting the environment, improving storage and conveyance systems, and preparing for climate change and natural disasters. A Delta tunnel is a priority, as is a new Sacramento Valley reservoir. 

The portfolio stresses the need for more underground storage, as well as desalination and farming programs that build healthy soils that retain more water. It also recommends identifying minimum flow rates to protect and restore salmon runs. It warns, too, of a future climate that will challenge existing storage systems. 

Overall it’s  a long to-do list. Jeffrey Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California said the portfolio was “a Herculean effort,” but it doesn’t mandate action, it just makes recommendations. “This is a plan to plan,” Mount said.

This explainer was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Video story: The value of water (full length)


By Jerd Smith and This American Land

With population growth around Denver prompting fierce competition for water, investors want to import a new supply from the San Luis Valley, but many farmers and ranchers who depend on that water are opposed to the plan.

This video story was produced for The Water Desk by public television’s “This American Land.” Reporter: Jerd Smith. Producer and Editor: Dave Timko

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Report: Colorado’s farm water use exceeds national average, despite efforts to conserve

An irrigation ditch flows on the Marshall Mesa in Boulder County. A new USDA report shows little progress has been made in reducing overall ag water use in the state, despite millions of dollars spent on water-saving projects. Credit: Jerd Smith
An irrigation ditch flows on the Marshall Mesa in Boulder County. A new USDA report shows little progress has been made in reducing overall ag water use in the state, despite millions of dollars spent on water-saving projects. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith

Colorado’s farm water use remains stubbornly high, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite millions of dollars spent on experimental water-saving programs and a statewide push to conserve water.

Farm water is critical to Colorado’s effort to balance a growing population with a water system stressed by drought and climate change. Farmers are the largest users of water in Colorado and other Western states. On the Front Range, for instance, growers use about 89 percent of available supplies, according to the Colorado Water Plan, while cites and industry consume less than 10 percent.

State water officials and environmentalists have long called for finding ways to use less water on farms as one way to make Colorado’s drought- and growth-pressured supplies go further.

Although some individual operations are finding success in improving water efficiency, the new report shows little progress has been made on a statewide level. While the national average has gone steadily down since 2003, Colorado’s ag water use has not changed, remaining almost exactly where it was 17 years ago, according to the USDA’s Irrigation and Water Management Survey, which is conducted every five years.

Colorado growers applied an average of 1.6 acre-feet of water per acre in 2018, according to the USDA, slightly above the 1.5 acre-foot-per-acre average nationwide.

Graph of farm water use and irrigation methods show Colorado above the national average, but dropping at a similar rate starting in 2013.

Bill Meyer, Colorado director of the USDA program that produces the survey, said it wasn’t clear why the numbers aren’t showing a reduction. “You would assume that with better technologies and farming practices that it would have gone down.”

A complex beast

But Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg said the USDA report doesn’t capture the layered realities of Western water.

“These surveys and charts don’t tell the whole story,” Greenberg said. “It’s an incredibly complex beast, both from the legal and hydrologic perspective.”

The new report comes at the same time Colorado cities, such as Denver, have become remarkably savvy in cutting water use, saving more than 20 percent in the last decade. They’ve done this largely by shrinking lawns, offering incentives to use water-saving plants, and enacting price increases, strategies that are largely unavailable to farmers.

And Colorado isn’t the only state struggling.

Seven arid states comprise the Colorado River Basin—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California—and all exceed the national average for farm water use, with the exception of Wyoming, which uses 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre, in line with the national average.

While it comes as no surprise that arid states would use more water than rain-rich states like Nebraska and Missouri, it doesn’t make the problem any less urgent, water officials said.

The pressure is on 

Water managers are well aware of the public call for conservation.

“There is no doubt that with climate change and urbanization, the pressure is on [to reduce the use of] ag water,” said Aaron Derwingson, a farm water expert with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Project. “A lot of people are saying, ‘If ag got more efficient we wouldn’t have [these looming shortages] this problem.”

“There is no question that ag needs to be a part of the solution, but we have to be thoughtful about how we do that….we need to think about a broader set of solutions,” Derwingson said. “This [notion of doing a] cut across the board may not meet our goals when we think what we really want Colorado to look like.”

Numerous programs are aimed at further improving farm water efficiency and conserving water that could eventually be freed up to share with cities or to benefit the environment while preserving farm economies.

Derek White Heckman farms 1,200 acres near Lamar in southeastern Colorado. In an effort to become more efficient with his water use, he is experimenting with cover crops, which when grown after a major crop such as corn is harvested help boost soil nutrients and, equally important, help keep moisture in the soil. Because rain is so scarce in this region, he’s willing to try almost anything to make sure he uses every drop of water that comes through his irrigation ditch.

And none of the work is easy, Greenberg said.

“Producers have been making progress in using new efficient technologies, but just because they are getting more efficient, doesn’t mean that they are going to divert less,” Greenberg said. “The legal liability for water right holders is that if they don’t use the full amount, they risk losing it.”

She is referring to Colorado’s prior appropriation system, in which the right to use water can be maintained only if it continues to be put to beneficial use. Water rights are subject to complex quantification analyses in the event of a transfer or sale. Although the only part of the water right that is transferable is the part that is technically “consumed” to grow the crop, much misconception remains around the notion of “use it or lose it.” Farmers who divert less, as they’re being encouraged to do, often don’t, because they fear losing their full water right, Greenberg said.

Ancient v. modern irrigation

Decades ago, the majority of Colorado farm fields were watered using flood irrigation, a simple, but labor-intensive method that fills field furrows with water to saturate adjacent rows. It is considered only 50 percent efficient. Today, less than half of those fields are watered using flood irrigation, with the majority now using a much more efficient technology that sprinkles fields, allowing water to be applied more precisely and reducing evaporation, according to the USDA report.

An irrigation system known as a center pivot sprinkler sits in a field near Longmont, Colo. The systems have helped Colorado use its farm water more efficiently, but state use still exceeds the national average. Credit: Jerd Smith
An irrigation system known as a center pivot sprinkler sits in a field near Longmont, Colo. The systems have helped Colorado use its farm water more efficiently, but state use still exceeds the national average. Credit: Jerd Smith

Still, the most modern, efficient systems for irrigating crops, subsurface or drip irrigation, are used on fewer than 1 percent of Colorado fields, according to the USDA, in part because they are much more expensive than traditional methods and because they don’t fit well with Colorado’s crop mix.

Nationwide roughly 10 percent of farm fields use these modern systems, according to the USDA survey.

Drip systems work best with high-dollar crops, such as vegetables, which comprise a small portion of Colorado’s farm economy.

Pricey upgrades

The vast majority of Colorado farmers grow corn, wheat and hay, whose low commodity prices don’t justify pricey high-tech watering technologies, Greenberg said.

Installation of one sprinkler system, for instance, can cost $700 per acre, while a subsurface drip irrigation system can cost nearly twice that amount, at $1,331, according to research done at Kansas State University.

The lack of progress frustrates farm conservation experts. They say that changes to Colorado’s laws to remove conservation disincentives may be needed as well as more funding to modernize farm ditches and diversion structures.

“It’s a tough situation,” said Joel Schneekloth, regional water resource specialist with the Colorado State University Extension Service.

Finding just enough

Colorado’s scenic, historic irrigation ditches lose significant amounts of water to seepage and evaporation, some of which actually enhances wildlife habitat and streams and helps ensure farmers downstream have enough water (via return flows) to fulfill their own water rights.

“It takes a certain amount of water just to run a canal system,” Schneekloth said. “Often you can’t reduce that amount unless you line the canals, but then you run into reduced return flows farther downstream.”

“We would like to get to a point where we are putting on just enough water, but not excess water,” Schneekloth said.

Clint Evans is Colorado State Conservationist with the USDA. His agency spent $45 million in 2019 on some 600 farm water conservation projects, all with the hope of helping Colorado farmers use their water more efficiently. And the projects have shown some success.

One project in the Grand Valley has lined and piped miles of irrigation ditches, allowing some 30,000 acre-feet of previously diverted water to remain in the Colorado River.

Still, given the vast amounts of water used, these small programs have yet to move the needle significantly, according to the report.

Food or development?

Even as Colorado considers new ways to conserve farm water, some fear that across-the-board cuts in farm water use could cripple local farm economies, hurt streams and wetlands that have come to rely on the excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, and eventually limit Colorado’s ability to grow food.

“The most common way I’ve seen the narrative framed is, ‘If ag uses 80 percent of the water, and we could get that down to 70 percent, the Front Range could grow [urbanize] as much as it wants,” Greenberg said, “meaning that growth has a greater value than water used in farming.

“What we could choose to say, instead, is that we value our farmers and ranchers, and we value being able to produce our own food just as much as the rampant development that is gobbling up ag land and ag water,” Greenberg said.

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

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

This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News on Feb. 19, 2020.

Garfield County to lease its Ruedi Reservoir water to help endangered fish in Colorado River

The 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near 19 Road in Grand Junction is home to four species of endangered fish. Garfield County is leasing some of the water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to help bolster flows during late summer and early fall. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
The 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near 19 Road in Grand Junction is home to four species of endangered fish. Garfield County is leasing some of the water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to help bolster flows during late summer and early fall. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

By Heather Sackett

WESTMINSTER — Through the release of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir, Garfield County will help endangered fish species in an often-depleted section of the Colorado River.

Garfield County will lease 350 acre-feet of water annually over the next five years to the Colorado Water Conservation Board under the CWCB’s instream-flow program. The water will bolster flows July through October in the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to the endangered humpback chub, bonytail, razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. The CWCB board approved Garfield County’s offer at its meeting last week in Westminster.

Garfield County owns 400 acre-feet a year of Ruedi water as a backup source for the county, municipalities and other water users within its service area. Since the county does not immediately need the water, it will lease the water to the CWCB for five years at $40 an acre-foot for the first year and $45 an acre-foot for the second year. The price would go up in years three through five by 2% annually. The maximum price the CWCB would pay for the water is $14,000 in 2020 and $78,915 over the five years of the lease.

Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs.

“We are really appreciative that Garfield County stepped up and offered to lease the water,” said Linda Bassi, CWCB’s stream- and lake-protection chief. “You never know what kind of water year we are going to have, so it’s great to have an extra supply to send down to the reach for those fish.”

Garfield County is leasing 350 acre-feet of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to help bolster flows in the Colorado River for endangered fish. A section of fish habitat known as the 15-mile reach often has low flows in late summer because of two large upstream irrigation diversions. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.
Garfield County is leasing 350 acre-feet of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to help bolster flows in the Colorado River for endangered fish. A section of fish habitat known as the 15-mile reach often has low flows in late summer because of two large upstream irrigation diversions. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.

Preserving Fryingpan fishing

Late summer, flows in the 15-mile reach are often lower than what is recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for healthy fish habitat mainly because of two large upstream irrigation diversions: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, known as the Roller Dam, and Palisade’s Grand Valley Irrigation Canal.

Gail Schwartz, who represents the Colorado River mainstem, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork region on the CWCB board, reminded staffers of the need to coordinate flows out of Ruedi to preserve conditions for anglers. When flows exceed about 300 cubic feet per second, it becomes difficult to wade and fish the Fryingpan’s popular Gold Medal Fishery waters. At critical wading flows of 250 to 300 cfs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends releases be capped at 25 cfs to avoid dramatic changes for anglers.

“We want to support the economy and the recreation on the Fryingpan and we want to support the success of the 15-mile reach for the species,” Schwartz said.

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map by Colorado Water Conservation Board.
This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map by Colorado Water Conservation Board.

More fish water

At its March meeting, the CWCB board will consider another lease of Ruedi water for endangered fish. The Ute Water Conservancy District, which provides water to about 80,000 people in the Grand Junction area, is offering to renew its lease of 12,000 acre-feet of water it stores in Ruedi Reservoir. The CWCB could lease the water at $20 an acre-foot for 2020, at a total cost of $240,000.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published in the Feb. 6 edition of The Aspen Times and Aspen Journalism.

Mobile-home residents stuck in a regulatory roundabout

This is the second of a two-part series. For part 1, click here. 

Residents at Eagle River Village say the water is undrinkable at the 381-unit park, which is home to more than 2,000 lower-income and mostly Hispanic residents. Local and state government officials say they feel they don’t have the tools or the regulatory teeth to get the park’s owners to improve the water.
Residents at Eagle River Village say the water is undrinkable at the 381-unit park, which is home to more than 2,000 lower-income and mostly Hispanic residents. Local and state government officials say they feel they don’t have the tools or the regulatory teeth to get the park’s owners to improve the water.

By David O. Williams

EDWARDS — At a recent water-quality meeting with six residents of the Eagle River Village mobile-home park, a woman asked a simple question: “What is the motive for asking us about this? The water has been bad for so many years, and it never changes. What is the point of this?”

Her frustration, in many ways, matches that of local and state government officials who say for years they’ve felt they don’t have the tools or the regulatory teeth to get the park’s owners to improve the water, despite legislation aimed at enforcing mobile-home park regulations passed last year.

Some say state and county officials might be hesitant to use the new authority granted in that law to call for tougher regulations for fear that park owners could pull out and communities will lose crucial workforce housing. And it’s unclear whether the new law could improve water quality in the Eagle River Village park.

Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Summit County Democrat, was a prime sponsor of last year’s legislation that opens up mobile-home park owners to tougher enforcement. She would like to see park owners take more responsibility for upgrading valuable rental assets. Photo by Vail Daily.

‘Fix the fricking water’

State Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat who was a prime sponsor of last year’s legislation, has introduced a follow-up bill this session.

McCluskie recognizes the value of mobile homes as low-income and workforce housing in high-dollar real-estate regions such as the ski resort counties of Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Routt. And she would like to see park owners take more responsibility for upgrading valuable rental assets.

“If you’re a mobile-home park owner and you want to make your life easier, then fix the fricking water,” McCluskie said. “Why leave it to the state to have to craft policy to make you take care of your residents?”

The six Eagle River Village park residents at the meeting, who did not want to be identified because they feared retribution and possible eviction from management, said little has changed at the 381-unit park, which is home to more than 2,000 lower-income and mostly Hispanic residents. Officials at Ascentia, the Littleton-based company that owns the park, counter that they’ve been taking numerous actions, including Spanish-language outreach on water quality.

Thorough testing last fall revealed well water that meets minimum federal safety standards but is high in sodium and other total dissolved solid minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It’s safe to drink but tastes salty, tests confirmed, and the company’s own survey of nearly 300 people found that the majority of residents don’t drink the park’s well water.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll says the company that owns Eagle River Village doesn’t need to go to the expense of hooking into the local water system. He doubts counties will jump too eagerly into the regulatory fray. Photo by David O. Williams/Aspen Journalism

‘Who’s going to pull that enforcement trigger?’

Still, the company does not plan on spending the millions of dollars needed to connect to the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority system, and state and local government officials say there is little they can do to force the issue — even with a new state law in place, which sets up a complaint-arbitration process, grants county governments more regulatory authority and increases eviction notices from 48 hours to 30 days.

At a meeting in Eagle last fall, Maulid Miskell, program manager of the state’s newly created Mobile Home Park Act Dispute Resolution & Enforcement Program, said his agency does not have jurisdiction over water issues but would refer complaints to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which does have jurisdiction.

CDPHE officials said the agency does “not have the regulatory tools to require a reduction in sodium” in a park’s well-water system. It recommends under-sink filter systems and contacting a doctor if a resident is on a low-sodium diet.

It’s also unclear whether counties will use the new law’s regulatory authority to call for tougher water regulations at the local level.

“From a resource standpoint, though — now that there’s a state program in place — I’m guessing a lot of (counties) will say it’s great that we can do it, but we’re not going to have the resources to do it, so let’s let the state handle it,” Miskell said of tougher county regulations.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll, who has been working with Ascentia to improve conditions at Eagle River Village, said the company doesn’t need to go to the expense of hooking into the local water system, and he doubts counties will jump too eagerly into the regulatory fray.

“I kind of want to wait and see who’s going to pull that enforcement trigger and what’s that lawsuit going to look like,” Shroll said. “Because I don’t think your Ascentias of the world are going to go down quietly. I don’t know if it’s going to be Ascentia, but there’d be some other mobile home parks (filing lawsuits).”

But Shroll acknowledges that state lawmakers are going to keep after parks to improve conditions.

“The legislature is going to start pounding on them every session with something,” Shroll said. “Some (regulations) are going to get challenged at the constitutional level, but traditionally there’s not been a lot of tools in the shed for any kind of a government, a county or a town to go, ‘You will fix this or you will do this.’”

Shroll suggested various nonprofits and other quasi-governmental agencies might be able to step in and help with smaller-scale fixes such as replacing faulty or aging pipes, water filters or water heaters when residents don’t have the necessary resources.

Former Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavney, now executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, said his organization has replaced numerous water heaters at Eagle River Village but has done so using grants for energy upgrades, not water-quality problems.

Having served as a commissioner, he understands the county not wanting to push too hard. He said mobile-home parks in resort areas are “cash cows” sitting on very valuable real estate.

“Do we go after them with environmental health and have them just say, ‘Yeah, for the cost of that, I’m just going to close down and no longer rent that unit,’ or if you nail (them) for enough that (they) have to do a major investment — new well, new infrastructure — are they basically just going to one way or another, displace a bunch of people — either through redevelopment or selling it or getting rid of the people who are doing the complaining?” Stavney said.

The Eagle Valley Community Foundation and local rotary groups have offered to raise funds for infrastructure fixes for individual mobile homes.

But half the battle, which Ascentia officials said they’re trying to cope with, is getting residents to speak up and ask for help. The dozen or so residents interviewed over the past several months say they still fear stepping forward and complaining. McCluskie’s legislation may help fix that.

“One of the areas that we’ll tackle in this follow-up legislation is retaliation because currently there’s no protections against retaliation for efforts that a community might undergo to try and improve their park,” McCluskie said.

Contact information

Ascentia urges residents of Eagle River Village mobile-home park who have water-quality or water-pressure issues to call Eagle River Village community manager Maria Cisneros at 970-446-8646.

Residents can also reach out directly — and, if they wish, anonymously — to the Ascentia home office in Littleton by email at or by phone at 303-730-2000.

Residents can also contact CDPHE’s Water Quality Control Division by email at or by phone at 303-692-3500.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Feb. 13 edition of The Vail Daily and was published by Aspen Journalism on Feb. 13.

Owners of Eagle River Village mobile-home park defend water quality

But residents of Edwards park say water remains undrinkable.

Eagle River Village, a critical low-income working-class neighborhood off U.S. 6 in west Edwards, has more than twice the population of Minturn and houses about 3.5% of Eagle County’s total population. Ascentia, a Littleton-based company, bought the park in 1985. Photo by Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily.

This is the first of a two-part series. For part 2, click here. 

By David O. Williams

EDWARDS — In the seven months since the Vail Daily published a three-part series on water-quality issues at the Eagle River Village mobile-home park, the company that owns the park has been busy conducting surveys, testing water, upgrading equipment and launching an outreach campaign to assure residents that the park’s well water is potable and safe to drink.

But one thing the Littleton-based company, Ascentia, won’t be doing is spending the millions of dollars necessary to connect the populous park — more than 2,000 people in 381 mobile homes — to the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority system despite ongoing complaints from residents that the well water tastes, looks and smells bad.

“The premise is that the water that we have now is not somehow bottle-quality water, but … the first question is: Is our existing system serving its purpose? And the answer is ‘Yes,’” Ascentia president and CEO John Eberle said in a meeting last fall with the Vail Daily and Eagle County officials. “So we have a Ford that’s working just fine. Do we want to go buy a Maserati? No, I don’t need to buy a Maserati.”

Eagle River Village, a critical low-income working-class neighborhood off U.S. 6 in west Edwards, has more than twice the population of Minturn and houses about 3.5% of Eagle County’s total population. Ascentia bought the park in 1985.

The well water at Eagle River Village is regularly tested and in compliance with the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act as administered by the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Officials there confirmed they have been working with Ascentia to further improve water quality. But sodium levels are still high, making the water taste salty and leading residents to buy bottled drinking water.

“The water meets all water quality regulations, but there are high sodium levels in the water,” CDPHE officials said in a written statement. “Appropriate amounts of daily water consumption are foundational to human health, so we encourage Ascentia to do everything possible to improve the taste of the water.

“While the state doesn’t have regulatory tools to require a reduction in sodium, we will continue to provide technical assistance to Ascentia, with the goal of residents having access to safe and clean-tasting water.”

The original Vail Daily series was based on complaints from numerous residents of the park — most of them translated from Spanish and offered anonymously out of fear of retribution from park management — that the well water is unfit for consumption. For many years, residents have been purchasing bottled water.

Ascentia officials say that since last summer, they’ve informally surveyed nearly 300 residents about the water and found only three or four trailers with discolored or smelly water, which they attributed to infrastructure problems in the trailers such as bad pipes and aging water filters or hot-water heaters. They are also systematically replacing water risers — the pipe that connects each home to the main water system — to improve water pressure.

But nothing much has changed in the past seven months, according to a group of six residents who spoke to Aspen Journalism in mid-January. All six residents, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution or possible eviction, said they had not been contacted by park management about water quality.

“A Ford?” one resident said of the well water. “It’s more like a bicycle.”

They added that the water pressure, despite the replacement of some water risers, has not improved noticeably in recent months.

County officials, who had offered $1.2 million in water rights as part of a $4.4 million deal to connect the park to the UERWA system — a deal that fell apart last spring — agree that the park’s well-water system is adequate and Ascentia does not need to “buy a Maserati.”

“Are they going to spend $4 million to $7 million and tie into the (UERWA) water? No,” Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said. “I don’t think they need to.”

Consultant Tom Day of Colorado Water Systems said the mobile-home park doesn’t need any additional water rights and has a system that’s inexpensive to run, with operable wells that are chlorinated. He advised Ascentia to do the deal last spring if the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District — the local water provider that contracts out to the UERWA — would assume liability for the well-water system at Eagle River Village.

“If Eagle River Water and (Sanitation District) was willing to take over your infrastructure, your pipes and everything in the community, that would be a huge, good thing for you guys,” Day told Ascentia. “(ERWSD officials) weren’t willing to do that. So then what’s the big upside for Eagle River mobile-home park? When they asked me, I said I don’t really see a big upside.”

In a blind taste test conducted for the Vail Daily and county officials, five samples of water were provided — three from Eagle River Village and two from Eagle River Water and Sanitation District sources in Avon and Cordillera. Due to elevated sodium levels, the Vail Daily identified the three samples from the park on the first try. The water did not look or smell bad.

Why the ongoing complaints?

“I asked the same question last time: Why did this come up if everything looks OK?” said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, who has attended multiple tastings. “And I think when you went through the science pieces of it, that was helpful.”

Chandler-Henry was referring to an Eagle River Mobile Home Park Water Assessment conducted in September for Ascentia by Lamp Rynearson, an engineering company with offices in Lakewood and Fort Collins. The test showed water within U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended levels in 39 of 40 contaminant-testing categories, excluding sodium.

“I was pretty convinced after last time here that it’s a taste and film issue,” Chandler-Henry said. “And I think some of the comparison data that you have with your water and Eagle River Water and Sanitation (District) water was interesting, because it shows a quality comparable except for those secondary pieces on the taste.”

Ascentia also cites a 2018 Consumer Confidence Report filed with the state showing favorable comparisons to ERWSD water.

In that report, the trailer park’s well water tested at 115.4 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of sodium. State officials said EPA guidelines recommend levels below 60 mg/L in general and below 20 mg/L for people on a low-sodium diet. For those people, they recommend contacting a doctor and installing an under-sink filtration system.

“Aesthetics matter so much. The last message we want to send is that it doesn’t matter,” said Marko Vukovich, Ascentia’s vice president of asset management. “We’re on a well … and we don’t claim to be Fiji (Water) by any means. There are and have been opinions for a long time regarding the taste or preference of well water, but that’s very different than danger.”

Vukovich said the majority of the residents surveyed in recent months told the company they cook with and bathe in the park’s water but don’t drink it.

So Ascentia has launched an information-outreach campaign in English and Spanish to convince residents the water is safe to drink, cook with and bathe in. Company officials say some of the communication issues stem from cultural differences in the predominantly Hispanic park.

“Tests show that Eagle River Village water is high in TDS (total dissolved solids),” reads a fact sheet. “TDS includes minerals such as sodium, calcium and magnesium. These minerals are naturally occurring and don’t pose a health risk, but they can affect the taste of the water.

“So what does it all mean? While your water is potable and safe to drink, higher mineral content can cause water to taste salty. We are committed to ongoing testing and maintenance of our water system and appreciate your continued feedback.”

Ascentia’s Eberle said he thinks the misconception that the park’s water is undrinkable has spread by word of mouth for many years, from social media to local dentists who tell patients to avoid drinking the water.

And some in the Hispanic community say, ‘We just don’t drink water from a tap. We buy water. That’s just what we do because that’s what we’ve always done,’” Eberle said.

Asked whether the Mexican heritage of the majority of the park’s residents plays into their reluctance to drink the water, as suggested by Eberle, the six residents pushed back on that notion.

“Of course not!” one woman said. “They think we like carrying around the big, heavy jugs that cost a lot of money?”

Another resident recently had family visiting from Mexico and they all drank the water because they hadn’t been told to avoid it. She said they all got sick.

Faviola Alderete, the community health strategist for Eagle County Public Health who attended a taste-testing, said she moved to Eagle County from Chihuahua City — where many local residents are from — and her first home was renting a room from a family in Eagle River Village. When she first moved into the park in 2000, Alderete said she was told not to drink the water.

“I felt that this was a seed that was planted a long time ago and it has been perpetuating from generation to generation,” Alderete said. “So people keep saying the water is bad. That’s what I believed. I didn’t want to bathe my newborn baby with the water from here because I was told it was bad water.

“We, as Hispanics, rely a lot on word of mouth. So my neighbor who has been living here for five years before I got here, of course, I am going to believe what they’re saying,” she said. “So I think it’s just the mistrust and the lack of education on water.”

Contact information

Ascentia urges residents of Eagle River Village mobile-home park who have water-quality or water-pressure issues to call Eagle River Village community manager Maria Cisneros at 970-446-8646.

Residents can also reach out directly — and, if they wish, anonymously — to the Ascentia home office in Littleton by email at or by phone at 303-730-2000.

Residents can also contact CDPHE’s Water Quality Control Division by email at or by phone at 303-692-3500.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. For more, go to This is the first of a two-part series. The second part focuses on potential government and nonprofit agency fixes for residents of mobile-home park with low water quality, as well as an update to the Mobile Home Park Act that was passed during Colorado’s most recent legislative session. This story was originally published by Aspen Journalism on Feb. 12, 2020.