Colorado River District held its first-ever Western Slope Water Webinar on August 29, 2018.
We were pleased to have broad participation from throughout the Colorado River Basin, and appreciated the thoughtful dialogue that followed the presentations.
- efforts to protect our water resources on the Western Slope
- current drought conditions throughout the Colorado River basin mean for western Colorado communities
- Drought Contingency Planning (DCP) efforts that may help avoid the curtailment of Upper Basin water uses from Compact administration
We received some great questions from participants that we unfortunately did not have time to discuss during the Q&A session. With this in mind, the River District’s team compiled those questions and worked to provide answers below. These are thoughtful questions related to some important topics, and we thought you would benefit from seeing them.
Please let us know if you have additional questions or would like more information on a specific subject.
Q: Would you foresee statute changes to give “hardened demands” by growing cities priority over existing senior water rights?
A: Colorado’s constitution gives priority to municipal water demands over agriculture and industry. To your question, we are not aware of any current proposals of this kind. Of course, the River District would vigorously oppose any effort to upend Colorado’s system of prior appropriation or to take rights away from historical water users on the West Slope.
Q: Considering that once we are in a basin shortage or crisis that demands administration of any kind, how do we know if there will be enough water in the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) buckets upstream of Lake Powell?
A: Importantly, we believe moving water from other (upstream) CRSP storage buckets to Lake Powell should be done before we are in a crisis. Additionally, we acknowledge this strategy is essentially a one-time shot in the arm for Lake Powell.
One of the variables with moving water from the Upper Basin CRSP reservoirs indeed concerns the amount of water they hold, and after any year that looks like 2018, that is a problem that accelerates consideration of demand management.
Q: How is storing water within a water bank in Lake Powell (Utah) vs. a Colorado reservoir of overall benefit to the State of Colorado?
A: The advantage of potentially banking water in Lake Powell is that it is at the bottom of the system and could capture saved water from any of the Colorado River system basins in Colorado. That is not to say a reservoir in Colorado could not be a water bank vessel, but it would be a part of a water banking structure, not the final holding vessel due to the fact that water saved in the San Juan basin, for instance, could not be held by a reservoir in the northwest corner of the state. Lake Powell also has the inherent advantage of size. It is 25 times larger than Colorado’s largest reservoir. Without federal protections for conserved savings in Powell, however, other options – including the construction of new Compact storage in Colorado – could make sense.
Q: What risk does moving the water from the upper CRSP to Powell create for upper basin users who may be junior to storage rights?
A: That is a good question and it depends on the accounting of the water moved to Powell. The answer will affect exercise of the filling right against junior rights. Our presumption is water moved from CRSP reservoirs to Powell will remain and be accounted as system/CRSP water. Extended operations just “bends the curve.”
Q: Are sedimentation issues in Lake Powell & Mead having an effect on this issue, or are they separate?
A: Sedimentation does present long-term risks for our ability to store water in Lake Powell. These risks, however, are less immediate than those presented by declining elevation levels resulting from long term drought and historic overuse by the Lower Basin.
Q: In the future, where can we go to look up current water levels, as well as projections about future levels?
A: The Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-Month Study is a good place to learn about water levels and projections. It can be found here: www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/studies. This BOR website is also information-rich: www.usbr.gov/uc/water/index.html.
Yet another website that is very good with Lake Powell data is: http://lakepowell.water-data.com.
Q: Is Division of Water Resources (DWR) now actively pursuing irrigation waste and efficiency issues as a matter of policy related to reducing diversions by pre and post-compact rights?
A: The Division of Water Resources is looking at waste no matter the priority of the water right.
This is an emerging priority of the DWR with apparent immediacy in Water Division 6 (Yampa, White, and North Platte basins). As you know, the Colorado Supreme Court’s Arkansas River Compact ruling of more than a decade ago has led to close scrutiny of waste in Division 2.
Q: For non-technically minded consumers, what’s the ONE major warning they should take away from your risk study, and what can an average consumer do to help?
A: Thank you. It’s important that we keep end-users in mind as we approach these technical issues. As you saw in the webinar presentations, Colorado is projected to see continued population growth in the coming years. And how we grow will have tremendous impacts on both water quality and quantity in the Centennial State. The Colorado River District’s risk study found that a 10% increase in Upper Basin depletions could double the frequency that demand management efforts would be needed in order to meet our obligations to the Lower Basin states.
Everyone in the arid West plays a role in wise stewardship of our scarce water resources. We’ll need everyone’s efforts, large and small, to meet the twin challenge of increasing demands and diminishing supplies.
Q: I’m giving a thumbs up to the first ever River District Webinar. As a resident of Grand County, Ground Zero for Transmountain diversions (TMD), what is the best course of action for us as more and more landowners sell water rights to east slope water providers?
A: Under Colorado law, water rights are privately held and can be bought and sold on the open market. We do not advocate changing that system. For the record, the Colorado River District and the Middle Park Water Conservancy District both have adopted policies that prohibit providing contract water supplies to properties from which the water rights have been sold to TMDs. As for what a county government can do, Pueblo, Otero and Crowley Counties, for example, have adopted 1041 regulations that claim regulatory authority over the purchase of agricultural property and/or water rights where the underlying intent of the acquisition to transfer the water off the land. Additionally, Western Slope communities can incentivize the continued use of water on the Western Slope through zoning and conservation easements for land owners.
Q: If demand management is voluntary and compensated, those with deep pockets can still choose to use water inefficiently. Is there any thought on trying to shift attitudes and values so that water conservation is a social norm, and not an exception to the rule?
A: Good question. For communities on both sides of the Continental Divide, it’s important that we educate the public on our shared reliance on the limited water resources of the Colorado River. We all have skin in the game, and we all have a lot to lose – economically, environmentally and socially – under Compact curtailment scenarios.
Q: What can Western Colorado do to influence urban Eastern Colorado aggressive recruitment of major employers such as Amazon?
A: In terms of directly influencing recruitment of any business to Eastern Colorado, the answer is nothing. What the Amazon recruitment highlights is that the Front Range and all of Colorado will continue to grow, and we have to grow water-smart. That means more closely linking growth with water-use policies such as influencing outdoor irrigation/landscaping to be more appropriate to an arid climate. As Denver Water has advocated, growth needs to occur in more dense patterns where landscaping is minimized and infrastructure is in place.
Q: Please differentiate between a Front Range style water bank and what the West Slope is considering for a water bank.
A: On the Front Range and for that matter in places such as California, water generated by agricultural fallowing is a tool to create new supply for cities. In western Colorado, a water bank is not intended to supply new uses. It is intended either to proactively protect critical levels in Lake Powell to avoid Colorado River Compact non-compliance or to meet a compliance “call.” In other words, it is all about Lake Powell water levels. It is not anybody’s new water supply for growth. It is to protect existing water uses in Colorado.
Q: Why is Colorado simultaneously pursuing more diversions, like the Windy Gap Firming Project, while also initiating demand management conversations and talking about the risks of future depletions? When will the diversions stop?
A. The irony you point out is not lost on us – and others. Projects such as Windy Gap Firming have been in planning and permitted for a decade or more, before drought and low levels at Lake Powell prompted the concerns that exists today — and thus talk of demand management. In this timeframe, the Colorado River District has cautioned that Colorado’s allocation of water under the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and the Upper Colorado River Compact of 1948 could be nearing their limits. But under Colorado’s constitution, water development can proceed without regard to compact risks to either those proposing projects or others that will be affected by compact administration if it were to occur. The game changer, although it is not embodied in law, is Colorado’s Water Plan. In Chapter 8, the plan lays out seven principles – “the Conceptual Framework” — under which a transmountain diversion should be reviewed in order for it to gain state approval. http://cwcbweblink.state.co.us/WebLink/ElectronicFile.aspx?docid=199506&searchid=80d50cb3-95bf-405c-bfa5-587c633c7136&dbid=0
That said, the Colorado River District believes that current uses of water are at risk currently, absent any new development, under what appears to be the “new normal” hydrology of the Colorado River.