WINDY GAP PROJECT
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RISKY BUSINESS CONFERENCE
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OPINION PIECE BY DANIEL BEARD AND GARY WOCKNER
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ADAPTING TO CLIMATE
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Soothing words on water, but little else
Grand Junction Sentinel
Sep 20, 2018
Western Slope water interests received verbal assurances but nothing more formal from the Colorado Water Conservation Board Wednesday in regard to concerns about interstate drought-response negotiations and the implications for agriculture west of the Continental Divide.
CWCB staff and board members sought to ease Western Slope worries that Colorado and other states are moving toward agreement about creating a dedicated account or pool in Lake Powell or other reservoirs for storing water saved through a potential demand management program. Those worries arise from a lack of any rules that would govern such a program in Colorado.
"Our fear is as Western Slope water users that we may become the target for demand management, and we want to do whatever we can to ensure that doesn't happen," Tom Alvey, a Delta County fruit-grower who is president of the Colorado River District board of directors, told the state board at its meeting in Steamboat Springs.
Alvey was reiterating comments made Friday by the district's general manager, Andy Mueller, at a district forum in Grand Junction focused on contingency planning measures should the region's long-term drought continue. States in the Upper Colorado River Basin are working on ways to try to keep levels in Lake Powell from falling low enough that the states could no longer meet their water-delivery obligations to downstream states under a 1922 agreement, leading to curtailment of water uses in the Upper Basin. Among measures under consideration is a potential demand management program that could involve measures such as temporary fallowing of fields.
Mueller on Friday voiced frustration about not being able to see a demand-management document that James Eklund, Colorado's representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, may soon be signing. The river district fears the agreement could help facilitate a demand management program in Colorado inconsistent with what criteria the river district believes such a program should have.
Mueller's understanding Friday was that Eklund might be signing such a document within a month, but Eklund told The Daily Sentinel that instead draft documents would likely be made public within a month or so, with the goal of reaching final agreements later.
Eklund also said the point of the interstate demand-management negotiations is to reach an agreement under which conserved water could be stored in a separate account in a location such as Powell without being subject to release under an existing interstate agreement that seeks to help balance water levels in Powell and Lake Mead downstream. He sees the particulars about what a demand-management program would entail within Colorado as something to be determined in separate, in-state discussions.
Karen Kwon, first assistant attorney general with the Colorado Attorney General's Office, reiterated that Wednesday at the CWCB meeting.
"If we did a demand-management program and we had nowhere to put the water, it's for naught. We did nothing," Kwon said.
The river district and other Western Slope entities including the Southwestern Water Conservation District are uncomfortable with the idea of working out the storage side of things without first spelling out what constraints a demand management program should have. They asked the state board Wednesday to adopt a resolution stating that any such program should comply with a number of principles laid out by the districts, but the board took no action on the matter.
Among principles the Western Slope sought were that any water conserved in a demand-management program should be able to be stored free of charge; that participation by water users in the program should be voluntary, compensated and temporary; that the conserved water shouldn't be subject to release under the Powell-Mead equalization agreement; and that the program should not have disproportionate impacts on any single basin or region in the state.
Principles such as the free storage are ones Colorado officials already are negotiating with other states, according to Kwon.
The river district also was concerned ahead of Wednesday's meeting about a memo from CWCB staff talking about key issues for consideration should Colorado create a demand-management program. Among those issues were whether such a program should be limited to temporary, voluntary and compensated activities "or be expanded to include something more," and the potential for considering a pivot "to something more akin to mandatory curtailment."
CWCB staff member Brent Newman said at Wednesday's meeting that the memo was simply intended to summarize the full spectrum of discussions, concerns and opportunities as identified by water users when it comes to a possible demand management program. He said CWCB and Attorney General's Office staff aren't "assessing, pursuing or recommending to the board any type of involuntary or anticipatory curtailment scenario."
Peter Fleming, the river district's general counsel, told the state board that Newman's clarifications "were very helpful."
Fleming said the issue has resulted in "a little period of unfortunate tension" of the kind that sometimes arises in the state regarding water issues.
"Sometimes it's unavoidable and sometimes it needs to be aired and it happens and we work through it," Fleming said.
But he said the river district remains concerned about that range of options raised by the CWCB staff in the memo. He said the district is worried about the "unfettered use" of a new tool.
"It is demand management. It is a controversial topic and we can't shy away from that. The reduction of consumptive uses is something that is a new thing on the West Slope in particular."
Kathleen Curry, a former state lawmaker whose family in Gunnison runs a cattle and hay operation, said the Western Slope wants to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But she also worried that measures aimed at avoiding compact curtailment could significantly impact the viability of Western Slope agriculture.
"I hope that the treatment isn't worse than the disease," she said.
Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer and manager of Denver Water, said he saw a media account describing the West Slope position as a "manifesto."
"From Denver Water's perspective, I don't believe we need manifestos. What we need is diplomacy and what we need is leadership," he said.
Referring to letters Western Slope and Front Range water entities sent to the CWCB, he said there's actually a lot of common ground in them, which is no coincidence because those groups have been in conversations with each other.
But he added that while Denver Water prefers a voluntary, temporary, compensated demand management program, not talking about the prospect of mandatory curtailment won't make the problem go away
"We need to be thinking about that and we need to be thinking about it proactively," he said.
In choosing against taking any action on the issue Wednesday, CWCB board members voiced a desire to wait to see what's in the draft negotiation documents once they're released. They also referred to what they viewed as the importance of addressing the storage aspect of demand management.
"The storage is vital," said board chair Jim Yahn. "How we use it, we can agree to figure that out."
Grand Junction Sentinel Editorial Board
September 20, 2018
It's never fun to learn that authorities aren't on the same page about something as critical as water, which is the lifeblood of any Western community.
Over the last several years, we've seen greater harmony between the Front Range and the Western Slope when it comes to water. As the Colorado Water Conservation Board went about finalizing the state's first-ever water plan, entities from both sides of the state met often in public forums and hammered out a consensus that worked for all parties.
But old suspicions die hard. In a departure from this new spirit of collaboration, we got a dose of old-school saber rattling last week from the Colorado River District. Warranted or not, it's a reminder how communication and transparency can go a long way toward easing long-held tensions.
On Friday, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District took advantage of a public forum to announce his concerns with a "demand-management document" and its implications for Western Slope water users. The states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are supposed to spell out how they intend to deal with falling water levels in Lake Powell.
As the Sentinel's Dennis Webb reported, Mueller said the district hasn't seen documents that would commit the state to a drought contingency plan to fulfill its downstream obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Mueller said that was "unacceptable."
He's right. It would be unacceptable for the state water board to keep the documents from the district or the public, but that doesn't appear to be the case. James Eklund, Colorado's representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission and a former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board said the goal is to get documents ready for review by this month, but that the district and other stakeholders would have plenty of time to evaluate and analyze them before they're executed.
Reassuring as that is, Mueller pointed to a memo written by the Colorado Water Conservation Board staff ahead of Wednesday's board meeting asking if a demand-management program should be confined to temporary, voluntary and compensated activities "or be expanded to include something more."
The memo also raised the question of whether the program would be used to help assure continued compliance with the river compact "or something more." The memo later suggests that mandatory curtailment is an option, but Mueller said it's never been discussed by water roundtables around the state.
Clearly, there's enough concerning language in the memo to justify an inquiry about the status of the documents in question. But it seems a simple phone call from the district to the CWCB staff could have cleared up any confusion before it escalated into a public calling-out of Eklund and the board. Perhaps some outreach from the board staff to the district and roundtables might have headed off Mueller's public concerns that conserved water could somehow be co-opted by wealthy Front Range water interests.
High and dry irrigators getting a hand
Grand Junction Sentinel
Sep 19, 2018
The Grand Valley's largest domestic water provider and a leading energy company are stepping in to help area irrigators stretch out their watering season due to western Colorado's severe drought conditions.
The Ute Water Conservancy District board of directors has agreed to donate 4,000 acre-feet of contract water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt to help keep water flowing in local canals. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy is contributing 5,000 acre-feet that it maintains in Ruedi Reservoir for use downstream of the reservoir, including for irrigation needs in Mesa County and to help protect endangered fish in a crucial 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River in the county.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons. XTO said in a news release that its donation is equivalent to the water needed for 1,500 homes or to irrigate 10,000 acres of farmland for a year.
"Oh man, the whole Grand Valley ought to be very appreciative of that water," Dan Crabtree, who manages the Palisade Irrigation District, said of the donations.
The donations come in a year when much of western Colorado is in extreme and in some areas even exceptional drought, the most extreme category. That drought has come to threaten even Grand Valley irrigation water that involves some of the most senior water rights on the river in Colorado. That makes it some of the last water to get cut off when supplies run out, and also helps protect upstream Colorado River flows that ensure delivery of that water.
Some Grand Valley irrigation water comes from what's called a historic users pool at Green Mountain Reservoir outside Kremmling. This year, Grand Valley irrigation water providers began tapping that 60,000-acre-foot pool earlier than usual due to the drought.
In August, the Colorado River District agreed to release water from Ruedi Reservoir to help trout suffering from low water flows in the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers and help meet Grand Valley irrigation needs while taking pressure off the users pool.
Even with that donation, by Sept. 12, just 8,700 acre-feet remained in the pool, and irrigation providers were anticipating shortages affecting more than 45,000 acres in the Grand Valley.
Ute Water spokesman Joe Burtard said the amount of water in the pool has continued to dwindle since then, prompting Ute Water to step in with the water of its own.
Ute Water owns 12,000 acre-feet of contract water in Ruedi, and in June already agreed to lease half that amount to the state to help endangered fish in the so-called "15-Mile Reach" stretch of the Colorado.
Ute Water held on to the other 6,000 acre-feet for domestic use, in case drought conditions continued to worsen. It now believes the 2,000 acre-feet it is keeping is sufficient as a reserve for domestic use.
"We're being very conservative in maintaining the 2,000 acre-feet for domestic use should we be in a situation where we need it," Burtard said.
So far, Ute Water has been able to meet its water needs from supplies coming off the Grand Mesa.
The donation of the irrigation water could help avert heavier demand on Ute Water and other local domestic water suppliers. Reduced flows in irrigation canals would mean subdivisions would be without irrigation water and homeowners would turn to their domestic water services to water landscaping.
The Ute Water donation will benefit the Palisade Irrigation District, Grand Valley Irrigation Company, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Mesa County Irrigation District and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.
Burtard said it's hard to put a dollar value on the water Ute Water is donating. It paid $1,289.90 an acre-foot for the contract water, he said. It is receiving $7.20 an acre-foot for the 6,000 acre-feet it leased in June to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, an amount intended to cover related operation and maintenance costs for the district.
XTO's water releases will be coordinated with the state's Division of Water Resources, and with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service in terms of timing to best benefit endangered fish.
"XTO Energy shares the state of Colorado's concerns about the persistent drought that is affecting much of Colorado," Michael Johnson, vice president of XTO's Central Division, said in a news release. "Just as we did during the 2002 drought, we are making an effort to offer our assistance by donating water we would normally use for internal operational purposes to help mitigate drought impacts." Said Crabtree, "The Exxon(Mobil) water, that's to keep water in the river, not only for recreation or aesthetics or the fish. It is just good to keep the ecosystem healthy."
Burtard said the Colorado River District is working with other entities to secure another 1,900 acre-feet for Grand Valley irrigators.
Crabtree said irrigators already have cut back use substantially to extend the historic users pool, which otherwise probably would have run out last week or this week. Without the newly donated water, irrigation providers would have to rely on the river's natural flows, "and there would definitely be some shortages," he said.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said in the XTO news release that XTO's contribution helps ensures the proper operation of his association's diversion structures, which also benefit other irrigation districts.
Crabtree, a retired Bureau of Reclamation employee, said he's been doing water work for 40 years and never has seen conditions so bad.
Dennis Clark, owner of Clark Family Orchards in Palisade, said the river is "about as low as I've ever seen it."
He said his farm probably has been irrigating a bit more than normal and will continue to do so this fall "just because we've been so hot and dry."
Another concern is the potential for moss issues developing in the river's low water that could create problems with irrigation filtration systems, he said.
So far, he said, his farm has survived the drought fairly well.
"It's going to be dire straits if we don't have a winter," he said.
Alan Rossi, whose R Ranch in Mack raises hay and cows, said his operation has always had water this year, and has had to irrigate a little more than usual due to this year's hot and windy weather.
"If we don't get any snow this winter that's the big concern, but right now everything seems to be OK," he said.
He said that even in the case of senior water rights, if there's no snow and resulting snowmelt, "then we're out of luck too."