DENVER – One of the busier weeks in Colorado water policy began this morning as the Colorado Water Conservation Board opened a two-day meeting at the Hyatt Regency hotel in the Denver Tech Center.

The CWCB meeting will be immediately followed at the same hotel by the three-day Colorado Water Congress annual meeting.

All winter water meetings go better with news of a healthy snowpack and this morning the statewide snowpack is at 157 percent of normal, with more snow in the forecast.

The CWCB meeting opened, as usual, with a series of reports from directors, most of whom sit on the board in a non-voting capacity.

Highlights from the report included:

John Stulp, the governor’s point person on water issues, updated the board on the activities of the Interbasin Compact Committee, which last met in November at a larger meeting focused on alternative transfer mechanisms. Stulp reported that having water storage in the right place was seen as key toward making new water leasing arrangements work. (Also see Jan. 2 memo on the IBCC meeting from the Colorado River District);

Stulp also reported on a survey taken in August by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association that showed a third of ag producers are open to new ways of leasing water, another third want more information, and a third are not in favor of it;

Don Brown, commissioner of the Colorado Dept. of Agriculture noted that prices for corn and wheat are down 50 to 60 percent compared to the 1980s but that prices for farm tools are up significantly. He said that a tractor in the 1980s cost $50,000 and today a tractor costs $350,000;

Brown also said that a recent survey showed the people now value ag in Colorado more for the open spaces it preserves than the food it produces, which he suggested means that people need to better understand food production issues;

James Eklund, CWCB director, said that recent efforts to update a treaty minute with Mexico on the Colorado River was not completed by Jan. 20 and that there are “obviously different dynamics at play” under the Trump administration;

Eklund told the CWCB board he has recently taken a leadership position in trying to get water interests on both sides of the Continental Divide to agree on an “risk” study that Western Slope interests are working on to better understand the risk of water levels in Lake Powell dropping below several benchmarks. (For more, see River District memo on the study);

Eklund noted that the System Conservation Pilot program is entering a third year (the program was originally set up for two years) and has $1.8 million to spend this year on paying ranchers and farmers to fallow land and instead send the “saved” water downstream toward Powell;

Eklund said that Kirk Russell, the section chief of CWCB’s finance section, has been named interim deputy director of the CWCB, and that other section chiefs are going to rotate through stints serving as the CWCB’s interim deputy director. Eklund said it was a way to take advantage of the expertise of the agency’s various section chiefs, and that he expected Russel to remain as interim deputy director through the legislative session;

Eklund made a joking reference to “alternative facts” and to statements made by President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday, and said that “facts are important.” He then noted that the CWCB has “great facts” regarding progress being made on new storage facilities in the state and on developing alternative transfer methods, or ways to use ag water for municipal purposes without hurting the ag sector;

Bob Broscheid, the director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, then updated the CWCB board. He said while a big snowpack is a positive in terms of water supply, the deep snow has caused some wildlife in the state to congregate along roads and highways, which can be a hazard to both drivers and the animals;

Broscheid said Parks and Wildlife is considering “baiting operations” to try and encourage the animals to move away from roadways. Those operations are different than “feeding” efforts to try and influence animal populations, and those are under consideration depending on snowpack;

Broscheid said about 1,200 pronghorn antelope were recently seen walking single file along a roadway north toward Wyoming. “They send us wolves and grizzly bears, and we send them antelope,” Broscheid said of Wyoming;

Broscheid also discussed the likelihood of legislation this year that would significantly increase fees charged to Colorado residents for hunting licenses for all species, perhaps as high as nearly 100 percent. “We’ve laid the groundwork” for such an increase, he said, noting there is a need for $38 million a year in the face of state funding challenges;

Broscheid also said the agency is considering charging a new invasive-species-inspection fee for non-motorized watercraft using state reservoirs, including “canoes, kayaks, paddleboards – those kinds of things.” He said there is a working group weighing the issue as part of a fee program (PDF) dedicated to preventing aquatic nuisance species from spreading throughout the state. And he said to date such efforts have been relatively successful;

The meeting then moved into executive session to discuss the following items, per the memo to the board from the attorney general’s office:

Rio Grande Compact Issues

Colorado River Issues; including

• Negotiations on Minute 32X with Mexico
• Drought Contingency Planning
• Glen Canyon Dam Long Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) — Final Record of Decision
• System Conservation Pilot Program

Case No. 14CW3096, Division 5: Application of Stillwater Ranch Open Space Association; and the Busk-Ivanhoe case.

The Stillwater Ranch case is based in Aspen, where a group of landowners are working to solidify diversion rights from the Roaring Fork River. The CWCB is an opposer in the case, which has been set for a trial in March.

The Busk-Ivanhoe case has sent ripples throughout the state, and a number of transmountain diverters are checking to see if their water rights might be impacted by the decision, especially as it relates to decreed storage rights for water from the Western Slope. (Also see recent memo from the legal counsel at the River District on the case.)

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...