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Data viz: surveying Colorado River Basin maps

Confession: I’m a map junkie.

My office walls are plastered with them. Some of my favorite publications are gazetteers. Given my cartographic obsession, it should be no surprise that I’ve picked maps to launch a new feature of The Water Desk: creating, aggregating and sharing data visualizations related to water issues.

We’re building a multimedia library that includes photos, videos, charts, graphics, maps and other visual content that can help tell the story of water, especially in the American West and Colorado River Basin. In addition to creating our own multimedia material and data visualizations, we’ll be pulling together public domain imagery from government agencies as well as platforms that offer content with a Creative Commons license, such as Wikipedia.

In this post, I’ve collected a variety of maps depicting the Colorado River Basin, the region that we’re initially focusing on at The Water Desk. Covering nearly a quarter-million square miles, the basin supplies water to around 40 million people and supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic output.

Click the maps below to see and download full-size versions of the images.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation maps

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has created several maps of the Colorado River Basin, including this one:

The map above not only shows the boundaries of the hydrologic basin but also adjacent areas that receive Colorado River water thanks to massive water works such as the Colorado River Aqueduct, Central Arizona Project, Central Utah Project, San Juan-Chama Project and the many transmountain diversions under Colorado’s Continental Divide.

Here’s a map from Reclamation showing many of the tributaries and major dams in the basin:

Colorado River Basin map 2
Source: Bureau of Reclamation

Native American tribes hold significant water rights in the Colorado River Basin. The map below from Reclamation shows reservations of members of the Ten Tribes Partnership, an organization that represents the federally recognized tribes with reserved water rights in the basin.

U.S. Geological Survey map

If you’re looking for a simpler map of the basin, the U.S. Geological Survey offers this image:

A user-created map from Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s Colorado River page offers an overview map of the basin created by user Shannon1, who has created a variety of river-related maps.

Colorado River Basin Map Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia user Shannon1

Dams and water providers: an interactive map

If you’d like to search for dams and water providers in the basin, the Colorado River Water Users Association offers an interactive map:

Another good source for Colorado River maps is a gallery created by the Colorado River District. Here’s a screenshot:

John Wesley Powell’s basin map

Finally, I would be remiss in writing a post about these Colorado River maps and not include one from famed explorer John Wesley Powell that outlines the boundaries of river basins throughout the West.

The map below, from an 1891 U.S. Geological Survey report that Powell authored as the agency’s second director, not only shows the watershed boundaries but also demarcates the arid region he explored and explained. On the east side, the boundary of the region approximates the 100th Meridian; to the west, the arid region excludes the very wet areas between the Pacific Ocean and the crest of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.

Powell Western water map
Source: U.S. Geological Survey’s 11th Annual Report, 1891

Do you know of other helpful Colorado River Basin maps? Please contact us so we can add them to this page and our multimedia library.

A dry subject: how scientists map drought conditions

Desolate mud flat basin in Death Valley, CA - Adobe Stock photo
Photo: Adobe Stock

This spring, headlines proclaimed that Colorado was drought-free for the first time since 2017, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

The welcomed proclamation came after the state’s waterways and reservoirs swelled thanks to abnormally high snowpack levels, a cooler-than-average spring and an unusually rainy summer. But while the drought monitor is good for identifying overall drought conditions in the short-term––which scientists define as a period of less than six months––it’s not as useful for evaluating long-term trends.

The term drought implies a temporary state––precipitation will eventually return to normal; reservoirs will recharge; streams will continue to flow as expected. But some scientists are now using the term aridification to describe the long-term drying out of the West.  

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map, which is compiled by dozens of scientists at a handful of organizations, is used by researchers, water managers, farmers and others for short-term planning. It provides a snapshot of drought conditions by comparing historic conditions to current data. 

“It’s not a completely mathematical product,” said Becky Bolinger, a climatologist at Colorado State University. “It’s actually a human being who’s looking at all these different things and assessing how bad each of those different indicators are compared to their normal.”

David Miskus, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, prefers the phrase “convergence of evidence” to describe the melange that makes up the Drought Monitor. 

He said they use more than 40 indicators, including soil moisture, precipitation, streamflow and other observational data from a network of over 400 individuals. Once compiled, researchers determine a region’s drought intensity, which is delineated on the weekly map through a color-coded system.

The drought monitor determines the drought intensity of a region, which is delineated on a map using a color-coded system.
The drought monitor determines the drought intensity of a region, which is delineated on a map using a color-coded system.
Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

“We try to keep it simple, because believe me, this is a very complex procedure,” Miskus said of putting the Drought Monitor together every week. “We take a lot of evidence into account, both the data and the impacts that are out there.”

Making things more complicated is the fact that there are four different types of drought: hydrologic, meteorologic, agricultural and socioeconomic. 

There are four different types of drought: hydrologic, meteorologic, agricultural and socioeconomic. 

For example, when media outlets report that the Colorado River basin is experiencing a 20-year drought, what they are referring to is hydrologic drought – defined by shortages in streamflows and reservoir levels. However, some may confuse that with meteorological drought, which is an overall decrease in precipitation. 

During the prior drought, the Four Corners region and Southwest Colorado were experiencing exceptionally dry conditions, which abated due to a wet winter only to start creeping back this summer. The hydrologic drought, however, remained in place, which is not evident from looking at the Drought Monitor, but which is obvious at Lake Powell. The reservoir created by Glen Canyon Dam was 56 percent of full capacity at the end of August.

“We’re still in a drier climate and we still need to be aware of the water we use,” Bollinger said. “We still need to be aware that there are issues with the future of our water long-term in the Colorado River Basin, which affects all of the southwestern states.”

Explore our dashboard with weekly reports from the U.S. Drought monitor dating back to 2000:


Welcome to The Water Desk

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of water journalism. We’re focusing on Western water issues and the Colorado River Basin—the lifeblood for some 40 million people and a $1.4 trillion economy.

Fly fishing photo
Photo: Adobe Stock

The Water Desk is starting up at a pivotal moment for both journalism and water, not only in our home region but also around the world. Digital disruption and other forces are posing existential threats to media outlets just as climate change, population growth and other stressors are creating unprecedented challenges for managing our most precious natural resource.
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Western states buy time with a 7-year Colorado River drought plan, but face a hotter, drier future

Colorado river drought plan photo
The white “bathtub ring” around Arizona’s Lake Mead (shown on May 31, 2018), which indicates falling water levels, is about 140 feet high. Source: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

By Brad Udall, Colorado State University; Douglas Kenney, University of Colorado, and John Fleck, University of New Mexico

As Midwest states struggled with record spring flooding this year, the Southwest was wrestling with the opposite problem: not enough water. On May 20, 2019, federal officials and leaders from seven states signed the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, a sweeping new water management agreement for this arid region.

The plan is historic: It acknowledges that southwestern states need to make deep water use reductions – including a large share from agriculture, which uses over 70% of the supply – to prevent Colorado River reservoirs from declining to critically low levels.

But it also has serious shortcomings. It runs for less than a decade, through 2026. And its name – “Drought Contingency Plan” – suggests a response to a temporary problem.

As scholars who have spent years researching water issues in the West, we know the Colorado River’s problems are anything but temporary. Its waters have already been over-allocated, based on a century of false optimism about available supply. In other words, states have been allowed to take out more than nature puts back in.

Now the river is being further depleted by climate change-driven aridification. The next steps, post-2026, require a recognition that Arizona, Nevada and California will likely have to come to terms with permanent reductions in their Colorado River supply. For their part, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico must abandon dreams of taking ever-larger gulps from the Colorado River to support future growth.

Colorado river drought plan map
The Colorado River historically flowed 1,450 miles from Colorado south into Mexico and then into the Gulf of California. For over 50 years it has failed to reach the ocean due to upstream diversions. Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Draining western reservoirs

The Drought Contingency Plan is an important step in that direction. By creating a new layer of rules that temporarily reduces water allocations, it significantly reduces the chance of emptying Lake Mead, the massive reservoir on the Arizona-Nevada border that supports residents of Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico. Without the plan, the lake conceivably could have been sucked dry – a devastating prospect for 40 million people who live in the Colorado River Basin.

As a seven-year stopgap, the plan comes just in time. After 19 years of unprecedented low flows, the nation’s two largest reservoirs – Lakes Mead and Powell – collectively contain only 40% as much water as they held in 2000. And while the winter of 2018-2019 was a big snow year, it merely balances the previous year, when record-setting warm and dry weather in large parts of the basin lowered water levels in Lake Powell by over 40 feet.

Dry years like 2018 are the far more likely future. From 2000 through 2004, annual runoff totaled only 65% of the 20th-century average. And in 2012-2013, it was just 60% of the 20th century average. More episodes like these would seriously compromise the system’s ability to provide water to the seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico.

Farmer Dan Thelander talks about how the Colorado River drought plan will affect farms in Pinal County, Ariz.

A hotter, drier future

Climate change is and will remain a significant issue. Since 2000, Colorado river flows have been 16% below the 20th-century average. Temperatures across the Colorado River Basin are now over 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average, and are certain to continue rising.

Scientists have begun using the term “aridification” to describe the hotter, drier climate in the basin, rather than “drought,” which implies a temporary condition.

Studies show that higher 21st-century temperatures have been reducing runoff. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation from soils and water bodies, and increase sublimation from snowpacks – direct conversion of snow and ice into fog or steam, without melting first. And they increase plant water use, due to a longer growing season and more warmth on any given day.

In a 2017 study, one of us (Brad Udall) and Jonathan Overpeck found that higher temperatures due to climate change had reduced the flow of the Colorado River by approximately 6%. The study projected that additional warming could reduce flows by approximately 20% in 2050 and up to 35% by 2100 if precipitation levels did not change. A 2018 modeling study estimated the flow losses due to higher temperatures at about 10%.

Overuse in the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California is the second major problem. This problem is officially known as the “Structural Deficit” – a 1.2 million acre-foot gap, representing 8% of the river’s flow, between allocations made in the early 20th century and the amount of water the river can provide.

Cities from Las Vegas on the north to Tucson and Phoenix on the south and west to San Diego and Los Angeles all have come to depend on that water. Meanwhile, agriculture – including important areas like Yuma and the Imperial Valley, where much of the nation’s valuable winter produce is grown – uses 70% of the river’s water.

Colorado river drought plan map
The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Although the Colorado River is depicted here as reaching the ocean, it no longer does so due to upstream diversions. Source: Wikipedia

Looking past 2026

With the contingency plan only running until 2026, Basin leaders are already discussing the framework of a new planning effort. In our view, the process should be open and inclusive, given the huge number of competing interests in the region, including municipalities, agriculture, tribes and the environment.

An effective long-term plan should solve the overuse problem in the Lower Basin, while preparing for extended and unprecedented low flows. It should revisit a number of long-standing assumptions about how the river is managed, including the Upper Basin’s so-called “delivery obligation” to the Lower Basin, which leaves the upper states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico – bearing the burden of climate change, while the Lower Basin states remain free to overuse. And it will have to address the reality that there is not enough water for users in the Upper Basin to continue exporting ever more water to growing cities like St. George, Utah, and Colorado’s Front Range.

Solving the twin problems of climate change and overuse will not be easy. The good news is that water users in the basin have found ways to work together for everyone’s benefit, first in a set of water management guidelines negotiated in 2007, and then with the Drought Contingency Plan.

Now, after staving off worry that system reservoirs could drop to calamitous levels, water users and managers can focus on these pressing longer-term issues. It is time to step back, look at the big picture and design a water management system that works for all stakeholders in the basin for the next several decades.

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

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Climate change will mean more multiyear snow droughts in the West

A valuable resource: Snowpack on Oregon’s Mt. Hood. Source: USDA NRCS/Spencer Miller, CC BY
A valuable resource: Snowpack on Oregon’s Mt. Hood. Source: USDA NRCS/Spencer Miller, CC BY

By Adrienne Marshall, University of Idaho

As an environmental scientist, I’ve done plenty of hiking in the western U.S. – always with a map, water bottle and list of water sources. In dry areas it’s always smart to ration water until you get to a new source. Sometimes a stream has dried up for the season, or a pond is too scummy to drink from, so your supply has to stretch further than planned.

On one memorable hike, I found that a water source was dry. The next one, three miles later, was dry too. And the one after that had a dead bear carcass in it. While one dry water source was tolerable, several in a row created a serious problem.

Something similar is happening to snow resources in the western United States. Scientists have long known that the warming temperatures associated with climate change are diminishing the region’s snowpack, with more precipitation falling as rain, rather than snow. That’s a problem because snowpack is a critical resource, acting as a natural reservoir that stores winter precipitation.

In a newly published study, my colleagues John Abatzoglou, Timothy Link, Christopher Tennant and I analyze year-to-year variations of future snowpack to see how frequently western states can expect multiple years in a row of snow drought, or very low snow. We find that if climate change continues relatively unabated, consecutive years with snow drought conditions will become much more common, with impacts on cities, agriculture, forests, wildlife and winter sports.

False-color imaging shows changes in snowpack (red) in California’s Sierra Nevada over the past 20 years.

Snow droughts affect ecoystems and people

Snowpack is a critical resource in the western U.S. and Canada. Snow melts and runs off in spring and summer, when cities, farms and forests need water. It supports animals such as wolverines that depend on snow, and underpins winter sports industries.

Multiyear snow droughts are akin to drawing down a bank account for some of these important systems. For example, lower snow years typically have longer summer periods with low soil moisture. Trees and other plants may be able to survive these stresses for one year, but longer stretches could lead to increases in forest mortality.

These periods also test western reservoirs, many of which are managed for dual purposes: Storing spring runoff for times of high water demand, and holding space for potential floodwaters. The amount of space allocated to storage versus flood control varies by time of year.

Water managers may need to update these rules to account for higher chances of snow drought or changes in the timing of snowmelt runoff. Rainfall is also a factor, and at least in California, total precipitation is projected to become increasingly variable from year to year with climate change.

Snow droughts also affect the winter tourism industry. Ski resorts in lower-elevation areas with increasingly warm winters may be able to survive one year of poor snow conditions, but multiple low-snow years in a row may threaten their viability.

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, carries a snow pack measuring tube near Echo Summit, Calif., on April 1, 2015 – the first time Gehrke found no snow at this location on this date. Source: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, carries a snow pack measuring tube near Echo Summit, Calif., on April 1, 2015 – the first time Gehrke found no snow at this location on this date. Source: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Projecting future snows

In our study we defined snow droughts as years with snowpack low enough to have historically occurred only one out of every four years or less. Such events occurred recently in the Sierra Nevada between 2012-2015 and the Cascades in 2014-2015.

Researchers created the dataset we used by first running 10 global climate models – computer programs that simulate historical and future climate based on a number of factors, including atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Like all climate projections, our estimates include some uncertainty. Each global climate model produces slightly different results; by analyzing all 10, we can be more confident in our conclusions when most of them agree on projected changes.

These models produce data with a resolution of hundreds of kilometers. That doesn’t provide detailed information about conditions in the mountainous parts of the western U.S., where conditions vary dramatically over much smaller scales. To solve this problem, the modelers used a process called downscaling to develop results with much higher spatial resolution – in this case, to grid cells that measured about six kilometers on a side.

Then they loaded this climate data into a hydrologic model that estimates daily snow accumulation and melt. We used the results from this hydrologic model to calculate changes in snowpack in future conditions, relative to historical conditions.

Fewer big snow years

Today, back-to-back snow droughts in the western U.S. occur around 7% of the time. By mid-century, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, our results predict that multiyear snow droughts will occur in 42% of years on average.

Under a high-emission scenario, the West could experience multiyear snow drought 42% of the time on average. Source: Marshall et al., 2019., CC BY-ND
Under a high-emission scenario, the West could experience multiyear snow drought 42% of the time on average.
Source: Marshall et al., 2019., CC BY-ND

In addition to projecting more frequent snow droughts, we also found that peak snowpack is projected to decline and become less variable in a warming climate across much of the mountainous West. This will mean there will be fewer very high-snow years to offset the impacts of low-snow years.

Another feature of changing snowpack is the timing of when it accumulates and melts. Generally, as the climate warms snow is melting earlier, which leads to earlier spring runoff and less water available in summer.

In our study, we also found that in many places the timing of peak snowpack is projected to become more variable from year to year. We developed an interactive tool that allows users to explore this data on their own.

Screenshot of interactive data visualization tool developed for the snow drought study. Source: Adrienne Marshall, CC BY-ND
Screenshot of interactive data visualization tool developed for the snow drought study. Source: Adrienne Marshall, CC BY-ND

Planning for the future

Our results are based on a future in which the world continues to rely on fossil fuels. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would limit the impacts on western snowpack that we project.

On the hike where all of my water sources were dry, I was saved by a kind stranger. The trail intersected a road, and a passing driver gave me some water. Global climate change won’t be solved so easily: Addressing these issues will require major coordinated efforts to limit future warming and manage Earth’s natural resources strategically to provide for society’s needs and environmental conservation.

Adrienne Marshall is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Forest, Rangeland, and Fire Sciences at the University of Idaho.

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

At least 2% of US public water systems are like Flint’s

Is your community’s water tainted with lead? The data might not have been reported. ehrlif/
By Laura Pangallozzi, Binghamton University, State University of New York

More than five years after Flint’s water crisis first hit the news, the city has successfully lowered the lead levels in its water.

The most recently available testing, from the second half of 2018, puts the lead in Flint’s water at 4 parts per billion. That’s well below the level, 15 ppb, that the federal government currently regards as dangerous for public health.

No amount of lead in water is safe, but the lower level in Flint represents a substantial improvement over the 27 ppb reported by the Virgina Tech Water Study at the peak of the crisis in April 2015.

However, even Flint’s highest levels were not atypical for water systems that have problems. Most reports of elevated lead levels cluster in the range between 15 and 20 ppb.

Where lead problems occur

The federal Lead and Copper Rule requires public water utilities to sample home tap water yearly in neighborhoods most likely to face contamination.

If more than 10% of samples exceed 15 parts per billion of lead, the rule states that the water system must take steps to control pipe corrosion – the main source of lead in residential tap water – as well as to inform the public and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Water systems, especially in rural areas, can report much higher levels than the EPA cutoff. In 2017, for example, an elementary school in Tulare County, California, home to agricultural laborers, reported lead levels of 4,600 ppb. The school distributed bottled water to its students and replaced its well. The same year, a senior living center in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, had lead levels of 3,428 ppb. Such drinking water is truly poisonous, especially for children.

Large urban water systems tend to have lower contaminant levels than systems in rural areas, including for lead, because they have expert staff to run facilities. But when contamination occurs in urban systems, it affects more people. Flint’s water system serves 71,500 people and its woes drew the attention of the Obama administration. In 2004, when Washington, D.C. had similar lead levels, Congress intervened to demand a rapid fix.

Right now, Newark, New Jersey – an area that I have studied for more than 10 years – is in the hot seat for lead, but has not drawn similar attention. In June the city reported to the EPA lead samples more than 2.5 times higher than that of Flint at the peak of the crisis, the highest level in a two-year running problem.

The Pequannock facility, one of Newark’s two water treatment plants and the source of the issue, distributes water to the city and several surrounding communities. The Newark Water Department serves a total of more than 290,000 people.

Of cities with more than 100,000 in population reporting issues since the beginning of 2017, nearest in rank to Newark in terms of levels of lead is Pittsburgh; then Trenton, New Jersey; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Suez Water, headquartered in Hackensack, New Jersey, serving multiple communities; Portland, Oregon; Providence, Rhode Island; and Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Most cities reporting issues are in New England and the Middle Atlantic States, where older housing is more likely to have lead pipes that run from the water main into the home.

Shining a light on the problem: Missing data

What’s more, an undetermined number of water systems with lead problems in their water do not report heightened lead levels to the federal government, in violation of the law.

An investigative report commissioned by Congress, publicly released in October 2017, showed that about 2% of public water systems across the country exceeded the federal limit on lead between 2014 and 2016.

The report says that the number of water systems that do not report their problems at all is understated – in some cases badly so. Flint itself initially failed to report its elevated lead levels to the EPA. The congressional report, compiled by the Government Accountability Office, found a host of problems on this score, concluding that “data available from the EPA likely understate the number of sample results, violations and enforcement actions.”

As of December 2016, the end date of the GAO investigation, only about 47% of states had reported as required on their corrosion control methods, the primary way a lead problem is addressed.

The report recommended that the EPA require states to report data for small water systems, those most likely to fail to report, but the EPA folded this initiative into a revision of the Lead and Copper Rule that has not happened.

Without better data collection on lead contamination, Americans will never know how bad the problem really is in their communities.The Conversation

Laura Pangallozzi, Visiting Assistant Professor of Geography, Binghamton University, State University of New York

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

Denver developer, former governor make $118M play for San Luis Valley water

Denver developer, former governor make $118M play for San Luis Valley water
A powerful sprinkler capable of pumping more than 2,500 gallons of water per minute irrigates a farm field in the San Luis Valley June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith

Henry, Colorado: As the sun sets at the Colorado Farm Brewery, a light breeze plays over a deep green rye field that borders the patio. As they do most Thursday nights, nearly two dozen people have wandered into this scenic, rural bar 250 miles southwest of Denver to relax and visit with neighbors.

The brewery is part of a 300-acre farm which grows grains and hops, and which also operates a malting company. Wayne Cody, the farm’s 61-year-old patriarch, has just come in from hours of work, roasting malt, examining fields, and preparing to plant buckwheat the next day.

As he visits with customers, it’s clear that most people in this bar tonight know that something almost unholy is in the works here in the San Luis Valley.

3.Deb Anderson tends bar at the Colorado Farm Brewery June 6, 2019.
Deb Anderson tends bar at the Colorado Farm Brewery June 6, 2019.

A well-connected metro Denver water developer, backed by former Colorado Governor Bill Owens, Front Range real estate interests, and absentee ranchers who themselves control huge amounts of water here, is proposing to export millions of gallons of water out of this drought-stricken, scrappy place for delivery to fast-growing Douglas County.

Sean Tonner, who once served as deputy chief of staff for Owens, is leading the group, which has proposed spending $118 million to acquire water from the farmers here. That sum includes a $50 million community fund to help bolster the poverty-stricken region.

Tonner’s company, known as Renewable Water Resources, is at least the fourth in a stream of developers who’ve beaten a path to this remote region in the past 50 years, intent on harvesting its water. All, up until now, have been decisively turned back.

In February, at a water conference in Alamosa, just up the road from Henry, a man suggesting that Tonner’s proposal had merit was booed.

The proposal to bring water from the San Luis Valley to the metro area would require a pipeline of more than 200 miles. Credit: Chas Chamberlin
The proposal to bring water from the San Luis Valley to the metro area would require a pipeline of more than 200 miles. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s family has farmed here for generations. Salazar also spoke at the conference and reassured the 200-plus people in the packed auditorium that no water would ever flow out of the valley into the metro area.

“Over my dead body,” he said to cheers and applause.

In a minute

For Wayne Cody, it isn’t nearly that clear cut. He and his sons, an energetic, muscular lot, are pouring everything they have, including beer, into saving their family farm.

Cody’s grandparents bought the farm in the 1930s, and the family has grown alfalfa profitably, then raised dairy cows, again profitably, for some 80 years. But as farm costs rose, and dairy prices dropped, they turned to a new industry, brewing, with Coors and others as customers.

In 2008, they started the Colorado Malting Company and last year they opened the Colorado Farm Brewery on County Road 12 South. Its custom beer snifters urge guests to “Drink Like A Farmer.”

Wayne Cody bags malt for shipment to a distillery in Longmont, Colo. Cody’s grandparents bought the 300-acre farm in the 1930s. Now he and his sons are seeking ways to keep the farm profitable, even as farm incomes erode.
Wayne Cody bags malt for shipment to a distillery in Longmont, Colo. He and his sons are seeking ways to keep the family farm profitable, even as farm incomes erode. June 7, 2019 Credit: Jerd Smith

Until a corporate malting company entered the valley two years ago, the Cody clan was selling 1 million pounds of malt a year, but they haven’t been able to compete well with the big operation, and so this year they have contracts to sell just 600,000 pounds of malt, Wayne Cody said.

Last month, the family laid off a full-time and part-time employee. Still they’re pushing ahead, hoping to make inroads into California’s malt market.

In the interim, the notion of selling some of their water each year to generate additional cash has a certain appeal.

“I would hate to see the water leave the valley,” Cody said, “but would I sell some? In a minute.”

Unequivocally no

Eight miles north, in Alamosa, Cleave Simpson runs the Rio Grande River Water Conservation District, an agency created by state law in 1967 to manage the Rio Grande River. It serves roughly 1,000 farm entities in the valley. Simpson and others are deeply worried about the export plan because the valley’s water supplies are already under severe stress.

The region’s sprawling farm economy is supported by the Rio Grande River and a giant underground aquifer, a sort of bathtub that is refilled by snowmelt and runoff.

But the aquifer has been over-pumped and hasn’t been able to refill itself for decades, thanks largely to the giant thirst of the valley’s thriving potato industry. It is the second-largest potato growing region in the United States.

A conveyer sorts potatoes at the Monte Vista Potato Growers' facility in Monte Vista. June 7, 2019 Credit: Jerd Smith
A conveyor sorts potatoes at the Monte Vista Potato Growers’ facility in Monte Vista. June 7, 2019 Credit: Jerd Smith

A stubborn 19-year drought, that broke at least temporarily this year, and a warming climate that is causing declines in western rivers are compounding the problem.

So depleted is the aquifer that the state has ordered the valley to bring water levels back up to where they were prior to 2000, or face a massive shut down of farm wells in 2030.

It wasn’t always like this. When farmers began drilling powerful irrigation wells into the aquifer in the 1950s, subsurface water was thought to be so plentiful that they could irrigate their fields almost endlessly. But as modern hydrology caught up with pumping technology, it became clear that there was a close connection between the aquifer and flows in the river, and that the pumping was harming the aquifer, the river, and other farmers’ water rights in the river.

Soon, the Rio Grande Basin was under legal fire. Eventually the courts determined that the farmers of the San Luis Valley were overusing their fair share.

Still, bringing the aquifer back into balance is no small task. To get it done, valley farmers are voluntarily taxing themselves, and using those revenues to pay other farmers to reduce their pumping and fallow fields.  But last year’s drought stripped the Rio Grande River of much of its water, and forced the farmers to pump heavily to protect their crops, wiping out much of the water their voluntary conservation program had placed underground in the prior seven years.

Source: Rio Grande River Water Conservation District. Credit: Chas Chamberlin
Source: Rio Grande River Water Conservation District. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Now, even in a good water year like this one, the valley must pay back the water it has overused in the past so that the Rio Grande can be made whole as it flows south to irrigate fields in New Mexico and Texas and refill reservoirs for the citizens and farmers of those states.

It is a bitter reality in the San Luis Valley, one that makes the notion of outsiders taking even more water out of the depleted region particularly painful to many of its farmers and water officials.

“This basin is just highly over-appropriated,” Simpson said. “There are way more decrees for water rights than can be delivered in any one year. We have water rights that haven’t been able to draw from the river in 20 years. Likewise the groundwater system is also over-appropriated.”

Tonner and his team made a presentation to the district’s board in January, asking that the district support its export proposal and help manage the $68 million water purchasing effort.

That’s big money down here. But the district’s board said no. Unequivocally no.

Simpson and other water leaders here believe that most farmers will oppose any Front Range deal to export San Luis Valley water, no matter the dollar figures involved.

Town by town

Tonner is not discouraged.

Since last October, he’s been traveling the mountain passes and dusty two-lane highways that link the San Luis Valley to the Front Range, bringing his 11-slide PowerPoint presentation to the tiny towns of the valley, from Saguache to Moffat to Crestone.

Sean Tonner, a principal with Denver-based Renewable Water Resources, is leading a group of investors who want to export water from the drought-stricken San Luis Valley. Credit: Jerd Smith
Sean Tonner, a principal with Denver-based Renewable Water Resources, is leading a group of investors who want to export water from the drought-stricken San Luis Valley. June 25, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith

His plan: To buy 22,000 acre-feet of water, a purchase that would dry up roughly 10,000 acres of farm fields and provide enough water for some 44,000 urban homes annually.

He also proposes paying more farmers to fallow enough land to forego the use of another 30,000 acre-feet of water, allowing it to remain in the vast, complex underground water system. According to RWR’s math, even after their 22,000 acre-foot export, ensuring that 30,000 acre-feet is no longer pumped means an 8,000 acre-foot net gain for the system.

Tonner’s Renewable Water Resources is only the latest company to attempt this controversial task. Three others have tried since the 1980s. Tonner was involved with an earlier effort that stalled out due to a ranch owner’s death. Tonner and his backers came back and bought that ranch and are now moving forward with RWR.

RWR says it has raised $28 million from private investors to help fund the deal, but documents on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission indicate that $750,000 has been raised. Tonner said those figures are out of date and that the rest of the money will come once the company has signed a deal with an “end user” in Douglas County.

He says no agreement has been signed yet, but that the end user would need to sell enough bonds to pay the farmers, RWR, and the cost of the massive well fields, pipeline and delivery system that will be needed to bring the water up Highway 285 and across to the Front Range. How much money is that? Tonner estimates construction costs of more than $600 million, depending on the final route of the proposed pipeline.

Tonner said he has signed sale agreements from roughly 40 farmers and that more than 100 farmers have approached him about selling their water. Tonner declined to identify them, citing the tensions in the valley and the potential for public backlash. Wayne Cody is not among them.

But Jerry Berry, a local ranch manager in the town of Moffat who has an ownership interest in RWR, did agree to talk about the proposal.

“This is an 8,000 acre-foot net gain. How does that not benefit the aquifer? You have to be open minded enough to see where the true benefits are. $50 million in a trust fund that they can use for economic growth is more than that water would ever produce agriculturally,” Berry said.

Berry, who is on the local school board, said he believes RWR is looking for a deal that benefits all parties. “I’ve done business with these guys. They are reputable. If it’s not a win-win for everybody they won’t do it.” Other developers, says Berry, have gone straight to water court without seeking community input.

And they’ve all been defeated there.

Having fought off water-hungry invaders before, the San Luis Valley, aided by such powerful politicians as Salazar and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, among others, and such powerful environmental groups as The Nature Conservancy, has established a long list of protections that will make any kind of a water export proposal difficult to execute.

Backers would have to prove that the exports don’t harm other users on the Rio Grande River and that they would not harm the aquifer itself. The plan would also have to demonstrate that it would not diminish the groundwater that maintains the Great Sand Dunes National Park and other conserved areas.

Still farmers are entitled to sell their water rights under Colorado law, even if their neighbors disagree.

Insatiable thirst

In his quest to protect the farmers in his district, Simpson too has been traveling the state and in February briefed Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a group created in 2005 under Colorado state law to facilitate cooperation between river basins.

Jeris Danielson, a former Colorado water regulator who sits on the IBCC, said the RWR proposal exemplifies a long-standing problem in Colorado — how to protect the state’s individual river basins, while ensuring the seemingly endless thirst of the Front Range, whose South Platte and Arkansas basins are also stretched beyond capacity can be satisfied.

“The problem is the six-county sucking chest wound called the metro area,” said Danielson, who represents the Arkansas River Basin on the IBCC. “That’s where all of the people are moving. So how do we solve this problem?”

Transbasin diversions (TBDs), which move water from one river basin to another, are not new in Colorado. More than two dozen pipelines have been harvesting West Slope water and delivering it to the drier Front Range for nearly 150 years, often leaving some of the state’s most scenic, fragile mountain areas and wetlands forever altered.

However, they have become so controversial, and expensive, that no new ones have been built since the 1980s. And Governor Jared Polis, when he was campaigning last summer, said he would do everything in his power to stop any newly proposed TBD.

But that doesn’t address Colorado’s urban thirst. The Front Range needs roughly 300,000 acre-feet of water by 2050 to stave off shortages, according to the Colorado Water Plan.  In Douglas County, the number is smaller but the problem is more urgent. Douglas County, along with parts of El Paso and Elbert counties, relies on an aquifer that, unlike the one in the San Luis Valley, cannot renew itself. And aquifer levels are dropping. Cities such as Castle Rock rely on the aquifer for roughly 70 percent of their water, and though they have acquired some surface water rights and they operate a water recycling plant, they still need more fresh water to ensure they don’t drain their own underground supplies.

Will new surface water come from the San Luis Valley? That’s not clear yet.

Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith
Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The city needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith

“RWR has presented to us,” said Castle Rock Director of Utilities Mark Marlowe. “But it’s not part of our long-term plan at this point.”

Tonner said RWR has talked with several major water districts in Douglas County, including Castle Rock and Parker and, very early on, Colorado Springs. But he says he’s not ready to identify the lead water district in the deal thus far.

Marlowe says it isn’t Castle Rock, but that the city might be interested in the plan if the price was right and if there was local support for the proposal in the San Luis Valley.

Colorado Springs said it has not met with RWR and it will not participate under any circumstances, planning instead to pull more water from places such as the Colorado River, where it already has some supplies.

$50 million worth of indifference

Jason Anderson is a Saguache County Commissioner. If this export plan becomes a reality, the well field and pipeline for the project would be built within his district. Saguache is one of the poorest counties in Colorado, with a median household income of $34,765, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Across the Continental Divide, in Douglas County, that figure is $111,000. The chasm between rich and poor isn’t lost on anyone in the San Luis Valley.

Cattle have their evening meal in the San Luis Valley. June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith
Cattle have their evening meal in the San Luis Valley. June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith

“It seems like every five years or so, the Front Range tries to figure out how to tap our water,” Anderson said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind because some of the folks in the proposal are from Saguache County. On the other hand, I haven’t had many folks speak to me in a positive manner about the plan.”

So far, Anderson said, the proffered $50 million community development fund, which might be used to support food banks and new industry, hasn’t swayed public opinion, despite the region’s poverty.

“That $50 million doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role in anyone’s decision down here,” he said.

But a look at Front Range water prices makes clear why there is so much pressure to find more and sell it on the Front Range. RWR says it is willing to pay double the market price for an acre-foot of San Luis Valley farm water. That’s roughly $2,000-plus 3,000.

That same acre-foot of water piped east across the mountains would easily sell for ten times that. And in some communities, $30,000 an acre-foot is a blue-light special.

RWR’s Tonner says his backers are now examining whether they can create an additional financial incentive for farmers that could include a sort of annual royalty payment in addition to the economic development fund.

“Look,” said Tonner, “I’ve had some people say we should pay them $1 billion for their water. That’s not going to happen. But we are trying to put some bones on a proposal that would include an annual royalty payment.”

Tonner said he would go public with his plan in six months and begin making presentations to the public water roundtables in the San Luis and in metro Denver.

Once it starts

Among locals, though, there is a much bigger concern than the cash behind the deal. The worry is that if another pipeline is built to the metro area, it will be only the first in a series of urban water exports that sooner or later will permanently strip the region of its agricultural economy and its proud farm culture.

“There is a reality that when you take the water that is being used in the San Luis Valley and open up a 22,000 acre-foot spigot — I can guarantee in 20 years it opens up to 220,000 acre-feet,” Salazar said in February at the Alamosa water conference. Salazar did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Tonner says his backers have agreed that they will insert into any eventual water court decree an absolute limit of 22,000 acre-feet on their export plan. But that would not necessarily limit others from using the same pipe to export more water, said David Robbins, an attorney who represents the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

“I don’t care what RWR says, no one is going to build a pipeline out of the valley and simply take 22,000 acre-feet. That is absurd. You would have to be so insanely naïve as to believe in the tooth fairy. Once it starts, it never stops,” Robbins said.

A sign at the Colorado Farm Brewery pays homage to the farm. June 7, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith
A sign at the Colorado Farm Brewery pays homage to the farm. June 7, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith

Saving a farm

Out in Henry, the Cody family has grown accustomed to hard work and risk. In recent weeks, they’ve unveiled a new lager and brought in beer steins to sell. It’s not clear that any of this will sustain the farm.

But if selling a small portion of their water and deriving an annual royalty payment from it could help, Wayne Cody might consider such a proposal.

“Everything we’ve done here is to save this farm,” he said. “Selling some of the water is the most profitable thing I could do.”

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

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

Aurora, Colo. Springs seek to drill on lower Homestake Creek dam sites

Homestake Creek photo
Homestake Creek, flowing toward the Eagle River, near the Alternative A dam site being studied by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, about three miles up Homestake Road from U.S. 24. The photo was taken on July 13, 2019 by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Brent Gardner-Smith

Minturn, Colorado— The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are increasing their efforts to develop a reservoir on lower Homestake Creek in the Eagle River basin that would hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water.

The two Front Range cities, working together as Homestake Partners, have filed an application with the U.S. Forest Service to drill test bores at four potential dam sites on the creek, renowned for its complex wetlands.

They briefed members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation in April about federal legislation they are drafting that would adjust the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the dam sites.

And Aurora spent $4.1 million in 2018 to purchase a 150-acre private inholding parcel that accounts for about half the surface area of the 20,000-acre-foot version of the reservoir, removing one obstacle in the way of submitting a comprehensive land-use application to the Forest Service.

“We are in preparation to permit this overall project, to try and get that larger application in, so every piece of the project has had more time and effort spent on it,” said Kathy Kitzmann, a water resources principal with Aurora Water.

Homestake Creek photo 2
One of four potential dam sites on lower Homestake Creek, about four miles above U.S. 24, between Minturn and Leadville. From this location, the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir higher up the creek can be seen. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Eagle River MOU

The Whitney Reservoir project is defined in part by the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, a 1998 agreement that gives Aurora and Colorado Springs a basis to pursue 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Western Slope.

Parties to the MOU include Aurora, Colorado Springs, Climax Molybdenum Co., Colorado River Water Conservation District, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Associates.

Peter Fleming, the River District’s general counsel, told the district’s board in a July 1 memothat the River District is “not participating in any Homestake Creek based alternative at this time, this effort is now being carried forward solely by the Homestake Partners.”

Under the MOU, various parties can pursue projects on their own, and the other parties are bound to support those efforts, but only to the degree that a proposed project meets the objectives of the MOU, including whether a project “minimizes environmental impacts.”

Homestake Creek photo 3
A view, from the Alternative A dam site, of the Homestake Creek valley. The triangle shape in the distance is the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Serious intent

Whitney Reservoir takes its name from Whitney Creek, which flows into Homestake Creek just above the four potential dam alignments now being studied. The dam that would form Whitney Reservoir would stand across Homestake Creek, not Whitney Creek. Homestake Creek flows into the Eagle River at Red Cliff.

Asked how serious the two cities are about the Whitney Reservoir project, Kevin Lusk, the principal engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, said, “We’ve been serious about it for the last 20 years.”

And he said the recent drilling application “is another step in the continuum from concept to reality.”

On June 25, the two cities submitted an application with the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District for permission from the White River National Forest to drill 13 test bores 150 feet to explore the geology under the four sites.

The sites are clustered on the creek between 3 and 5 miles above the intersection of U.S. 24 and Homestake Road, shown as Forest Road 703 on most maps. The intersection is not far below Camp Hale, between Minturn and Leadville.

The drilling application says Aurora and Colorado Springs are conducting “a fatal-flaw level reservoir siting study” that “comprises subsurface exploration to evaluate feasibility of dam construction on lower Homestake Creek.”

White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said review of the drilling application itself is “fairly standard stuff.”

“We’ll definitely send out a scoping statement, asking for public comment, but it won’t be about a dam,” he said. “It will be about drilling the holes.”

Each of the 13 borings would take up to five days to drill, so there could be 65 days of drilling this fall or, if the application is not approved this year, in 2020, according to Lusk.

The project includes taking a “track-mounted drill rig or a buggy-mounted drill rig,” a “utility vehicle pulling a small trailer” and a “track-mounted skid steer” onto public lands along 10-foot-wide “temporary access routes.”

The drill rigs are about 8 feet wide, 22 feet long and 8 feet high. To get the rigs to drilling sites, some wetlands may need to be crossed and trees will be cut as necessary.

The information about the geology under the four sites will help determine the size of a dam on a given alignment and how much water a reservoir would hold, Lusk said. And that could affect how much wilderness area might be encroached on.

Holy Cross Wilderness Map
A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.

Wilderness boundary

Given that Aurora and Colorado Springs are still working through various options, it’s not clear yet how big of an adjustment to the wilderness boundary they might ultimately seek from Congress.

The current proposed legislation developed by the cities asks to remove 497 acres from the wilderness boundary, but it is also expected to include a reversion provision so if all 497 acres are not needed, the boundary adjustment could be reduced.

According to Lusk, in one the of the alternatives studied, about 80 acres would need to be removed from the wilderness area if Whitney Reservoir was to hold 20,000 acre feet of water. However, the cities have yet to rule out the option of building an alternate reservoir below the Whitney Reservoir location – Blodgett Reservoir – which could require a larger boundary adjustment, although not the full 497 acres.

An adjustment to a wilderness boundary requires an act of Congress and the president’s signature. In April, representatives from the two cities described the potential boundary change to staffers of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, Jason Crow, Joe Neguse and Doug Lamborn.

Fitzwilliams said Monday the Forest Service won’t accept a full-blown land-use application for Whitney Reservoir until the wilderness boundary issue has been worked out through federal legislation, if that is still needed after the final version of the reservoir is better defined.

Kitzmann said she is reaching out to stakeholders to continue to refine the legislative language and the map showing the extent of the proposed boundary change.

wetland photo
A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. Aurora and Colorado Springs, seeking to build the reservoir, have recently submitted a drilling application to the U.S. Forest Service to search for fatal flaws in the geology under four potential dam alignments. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Wetlands and fens

On another front, Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities staffers are hosting a tour this week for the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board of the Homestake Plant and Fen Relocation Project, near Leadville.

The CWCB directors, holding their July meeting in Leadville, also will hear a presentation at their meeting about the fen-relocation effort, which consists of moving “fen-like organic soils and plant life” from one location in blocks or bales to another location and “reassembling them in a specially prepared groundwater-fed basin.”

Many regulatory agencies do not believe it’s possible to re-create complex fen wetlands, according to a CWCB staff memo, but that regulatory stance “may be related to the lack of scientific investigation on fen mitigation.”

A 2016 study estimated between 26 and 180 acres of wetlands on lower Homestake Creek would be impacted by Whitney Reservoir.

“This is one of the finest wetlands we can find on our forest — it’s unbelievable,” Fitzwilliams said. “From an environmental impact standpoint, this would not be a project that we would be favorable to.”

But Lusk said the fen-relocation project near Leadville is “proof of concept” that replacing fens, while “a tough nut to crack,” can be done.

Fitzwilliams may be hard to persuade.

“You can mitigate,” he said, “but you can’t replace 10,000 years of work.”

Homestake Creek map
A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
Homestake Creek photo 4
Homestake Reservoir, which is partially in Pitkin County, but mainly in Eagle County. Below the reservoir the Homestake Creek valley is visible, as well as short section of what’s known as Homestake Road. Water held in the potential Whitney Reservoir would be pumped up to Homestake Reservoir and then sent to the Front Range. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Forebay and pumping

Despite the wetlands and wilderness challenges, Lusk and Kitzmann said no fatal flaws have been found yet in what they view as an important future element of their water-supply systems.

The new reservoir would serve as a collection point for water brought in via tunnels from the Eagle River and Fall and Peterson creeks, and for water captured from Homestake Creek.

The reservoir would also serve as a forebay, as the water captured in Whitney Reservoir would be pumped 7 miles up to Homestake Reservoir. Once there, it can be sent through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then on to Aurora and Colorado Springs.

The two cities own and manage Homestake Reservoir, the upper end of which is in Pitkin County. The reservoir opened in 1967 and normally stores 43,600 acre-feet of water from seven high-mountain creeks behind a 231-foot-tall dam. About 25,000 acre-feet a year is sent through the Homestake Tunnel each year to the Front Range.

Homestake Partners also has a conditional water-storage right from 1995 to store 9,300 acre-feet of water behind a potential 110-foot-tall dam in what is called Blodgett Reservoir, located on Homestake Creek below the Whitney Reservoir sites. Blodgett Reservoir also has a longer history, and has been viewed as an alternate location for older water rights – appropriated in 1952 and adjudicated in 1962 – that are tied to Homestake Reservoir.

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. This version includes a clarification concerning the size of the adjustment to the wilderness boundary and the date of the water rights for Blodgett Reservoir.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

CWCB changes course, will open most demand management meetings to public

cwcb meeting photo
A meeting on Thursday, July 18, 2019 in Leadville between the members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Interbasin Compact Committee, in a meeting room on the Colorado Mountain College campus. The CWCB members discussed the unfolding demand-management workgroup process in an unscheduled executive session, and then were challenged to explain their process. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

LEADVILLE — After a week filled with pushback from water managers and users, especially on the Western Slope, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board has decided to hold upcoming workgroup meetings about a potential water-demand management effort in public and will no longer ask the workgroup volunteers to sign non-disclosure agreements or always meet behind closed doors.

“The CWCB will adjust course and move forward without requesting that workgroup participants sign any disclosure agreements,” director Becky Mitchell said in an update on the workgroup process released Sunday. “Additionally, the workgroup meetings will be open to members of the public, with an opportunity for comment.”

But Mitchell also reserved the option to shield from public view sensitive information and discussions that came up during the process.

“As appropriate and dependent on the relevance of the workgroup discussion to interstate considerations, a non-disclosure setting may be necessary for elements of particular workgroup subject-matter discussion,” Mitchell wrote.

Mitchell said it was most likely that sensitive information would come up in the law and policy workgroup, which includes eight current or former water attorneys.

CWCB staff members, working closely with lawyers in the attorney general’s “defense of the Colorado River” subunit, have been crafting a process for months to investigate the feasibility of a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” demand-management, or water-use reduction, program in order to stay in compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The CWCB intends to set up eight workgroups, each exploring a different aspect of a potential demand-management program in Colorado: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts.

Each workgroup is slated to meet four times over the next year, meaning there could be 32 workgroup meetings.

“The workgroups are kind of an extension of staff at this point. That’s how we’re seeing them,” Brent Newman, the head of CWCB’s section on Colorado River issues, told the CWCB directors in May. “They’re here to help inform staff about these solutions from a more technically diverse perspective. And then we’re going to bring those solutions to you guys.”

Asked whether CWCB directors should attend the closed-door workgroup meetings, Newman advised against it.

“When you have a decisionmaking body like this board, having you all directly participate in some of the conversations of these working groups, it contravenes some open-meeting requirements, and we don’t want to do that,” Newman said.

The open-meetings law says that if two or more officials of a state public body, such as the CWCB, attend a meeting, then it’s a public meeting.

Steve Zansberg, an attorney at Ballard Spahr in Denver, is an expert on the state’s open-meetings law and the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

He said advisory committees, such as the CWCB’s proposed workgroups, are considered public bodies subject to the open-meetings law if they are appointed directly by the members of a public body, such as the CWCB directors.

But if staff members form such committees and if the committees report directly to staff members and not to a board, then they may meet behind closed doors.

“They are probably being very crafty and careful, and with the advice of the attorney general’s office, trying every which way to set these workgroups up as not being public bodies, and they are probably succeeding,” Zansberg said Friday, before Mitchell at the CWCB had changed course and opened up the meetings, or at least most of them.

Zansberg also said the Colorado Supreme Court stated in a 2008 case, Town of Marble v. Darien, that “the open-meetings law prohibits bad-faith circumvention of its requirements.”

“I’m not going to ascribe bad faith here, but it is an effort to evade or circumvent the requirements of the open-meetings law,” he said of the CWCB’s staff-meeting approach.

During the River District’s quarterly meeting in Glenwood Springs last week, the district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, brought up the CWCB’s proposed workgroup process with his board of directors, who represent 15 Western Slope counties.

Some of the directors voiced strong opposition to the CWCB’s requirement of a non-disclosure agreement and closed-door meetings, and unanimously passed a motion asking the CWCB to explain its process.

“In all my years of participating in policymaking at the state level, at the local level, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Steve Aquafresca, who represents Mesa County on the River District board and is a former Mesa County commissioner and a former state legislator.

Marc Caitlin, a state legislator and the Montrose County representative on the River District board, said, “This idea of putting this behind closed doors, putting a gag in your mouth and having us be surprised, so wonderfully surprised, when this comes out is not going to make sense to me. I can’t believe that the CWCB believes that they can actually pull this off.”

He added: “I can’t believe the attorney general would even go along with this.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser explained his support for the CWCB’s process in a July 8 memo to the CWCB board.

He said the proposed non-disclosure agreement was meant to “strike a balance between the need for the CWCB to lead the investigative process in a manner that considers and protects the state’s ongoing strategies in interstate forums” while also “honoring the roles and perspectives of the subject-matter experts” asked to participant in the workgroups.

The first version of the CWCB’s non-disclosure agreement — a six-page “confidentiality agreement” — ran into opposition from many invited workgroup members when it was released in June.

In July, a second proposed agreement — this time labeled as a “disclosure agreement” — was circulated. It was shorter but still contained two key provisions from the first proposal.

First, participants needed to agree to not attribute anything said in the closed-door workgroups. Second, the participants couldn’t share in a public setting what was said at the workgroups unless they got permission from the CWCB.

The 74 invited participants are still being asked to volunteer as individuals and “subject-matter experts,” and not as representatives of their organizations or clients, which also troubled some River District board members.

On Thursday, during a CWCB meeting in Leadville, Mueller told the CWCB directors that the River District board was seeking an explanation about the process, and that he and his staff could not participate until his board had learned more.

Mueller made his comments shortly after the CWCB directors held a long and unscheduled executive session to discuss the non-disclosure agreements.

CWCB chair Heather Dutton, who represents the Rio Grande River basin, responded by saying the board’s position on the workgroup process was still evolving.

Also during the meeting, the CWCB had invited the members of the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee to join them at the table to discuss aspects of demand management.

And Bill Trampe — a rancher from the upper Gunnison River basin who serves on the IBCC, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and the River District board — told the CWCB board members that their approach to the workgroup process was raising a lot of questions about demand management among his constituents on the Western Slope.

“Everybody is starting to think about how they might participate, because they like the voluntary, compensated, temporary part,” Trampe said. “And they recognize the fact that we probably better show up and participate in some fashion, so that our brethren on the east side of the mountain will also be willing to participate.

“But we know it’s going to hurt us like heck if we participate very deeply, and we’re trying to figure out how we can do it. And we feel like we’ve been shut out of this initial process. If you’re going to go behind closed doors and develop these ideas, we feel that that’s the wrong way to do it, that it should be open from the very beginning, and we can’t figure out why these different workgroups have things that they think they need to do behind closed doors.”

On Friday, Mitchell issued a workgroup update that said the non-disclosure agreements had been eliminated and that the meetings would be public.

That update took a softer approach to the remaining potential need for closed-door meetings and agreements to not discuss sensitive information, saying “each of the groups will work with CWCB staff to develop expectations around participation and communication in this effort.”

On Sunday, she issued a revised update that did not include that statement but did include the new provision that some meetings could still occur, if necessary, in a “non-disclosure setting.”

In response the overall course change by the CWCB, the River District said, “We look forward to working with CWCB as they move forward with this important public-policy process. And we appreciate the deliberation that went into considering how the workgroups will do their work.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspaper. The Times published a version of this story on Monday, July 22, 2019.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

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