GUNNISON — The directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board have consented to let staffers hold closed-door meetings of nine workgroups that would explore a water demand-management program and to let staffers require the participants to sign confidentiality agreements.

“Workgroup members will be expected to sign a confidentiality agreement to abstain from discussing outside of the workgroup forums any information that is deemed confidential or privileged per the terms of the agreement,” read a slide shown at the state agency’s most recent meeting, which took place here May 15.

In presenting the closed-meeting plan, Brent Newman, the chief of CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section, told the agency’s 15 directors: “We need these groups to be able to candidly identify, discuss and examine important issues without undue attribution.”

Newman also stressed that any recommendations formed in the closed-door workgroups, expected to meet throughout the year, would be shared in a series of public workshops. He also said any decisions about whether, and how, the state sets up a demand-management program will be made by CWCB directors.

The closed-door meetings about demand management, also known as water-use reduction, are being slated just as the prospect of such a program in Colorado is increasing.

On Monday at Hoover Dam, representatives of seven states and the federal government signed a set of drought contingency planning agreements to better manage falling water supplies in federal reservoirs, including Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The DCP agreements outline a process for the four states in the upper Colorado River basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — to each develop demand-management programs.

And the agreements also create a new regulatory pool to store, mainly in Lake Powell, up to 500,000 acre-feet of water, conserved through such water-use reduction programs.

Demand management also could get a financial boost this fall if voters approve a statewide ballot question legalizing sports betting in Colorado.

The betting question, now slated to be question “DD” on the ballot, includes a provision for the state to keep up to $29 million a year from a 10% tax on gambling revenue, most of which is to go to the CWCB to make grants tied to the state water plan.

A fiscal note prepared for the bill estimated tax revenue of between $9.7 million and $11.2 million for the first full year of the program, while a January study done for a race track near Aurora estimated $361 million in total revenue by 2023, which would produce $36.1 million in tax revenue.

But the tax revenue, according to House Bill 1327, which sets up the sports-betting program, can be used for more than water plan grants. It can also be used for “expenditures to ensure compliance with interstate water allocation compacts” and “to support projects and processes that may include compensation to water users for temporary and voluntary reductions in consumptive use.”

The primary compact in question is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which requires the upper basin states to deliver a set amount of water to the lower-basin states: California, Arizona and Nevada.

Lake Powell, formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, serves as the upper basin’s storage vessel to meet its requirements in dry years. Today, the giant reservoir is 41 percent full.

And while the reservoir’s water level is expected to rise with this spring’s healthy runoff, the Colorado River basin has been in a lingering drought since 2000 and there is a concern the reservoir could drop so low that the upper basin would fail to meet its compact obligations.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat representing District 5, which includes Pitkin County, was a sponsor of the sports-betting bill. She confirmed that the bill’s language about “temporary and voluntary reductions in consumptive use” refers to a potential demand-management program.

“It may fund demand management,” she said. “It could. It’s not a ‘shall.’”

She also pointed out that demand management is referenced in the state’s water plan.

Demand management in Colorado was also given additional momentum this year when the state legislature approved $10 million in revenue from the state’s general fund for the CWCB, with $1.7 million of that earmarked for both investigating the feasibility of demand management and for outreach and education about the potential program.

In November, the CWCB adopted a policy to guide the development of a demand management program. The policy said the agency would “investigate voluntary, temporary and compensated reductions in consumptive use of waters that otherwise would deplete the flow of the upper Colorado River system for the specific purpose of helping assure compact compliance.”

Such reductions are expected to come mainly by fallowing fields and crops or reducing water in urban areas on the Front Range, which rely heavily on water from the Colorado River system delivered via transmountain diversion systems, including at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan river basins.

In addition to investigating voluntary curtailment though demand management, the state is studying how a mandatory curtailment program, if necessary, might be managed.

The nine closed-door workgroups are being set up by CWCB staff to explore aspects of demand management: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations; funding; education and outreach; agricultural impacts; and tribal interests.

Several veteran water managers in Colorado interviewed for this story said they couldn’t remember the CWCB inviting participants to serve on workgroups in closed-door settings and requiring confidentiality agreements.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead served as CWCB director from 1983 to 1994 and as director of state’s Department of Natural Resources, where the CWCB is housed, from 1994 to 1998.

He said he has not seen the approach before, nor has he or anyone else at Denver Water yet been invited to serve on a workgroup.

“I’m just presuming that they want smaller groups that are going to have very candid and frank conversations with the state about how this can be implemented,” Lochhead said.

And he said any recommendations about any new policies or legislation must be made public eventually.

While some of the CWCB’s directors had clarifying questions for Newman about the staff’s recommended closed-door approach, none of the directors challenged it during last week’s meeting.

“I certainly support the idea of allowing these workgroups to operate in the right environment without a lot of public interference,” said director Steve Anderson, who represents the Gunnison River basin.

Anderson said he was comfortable with that closed-door approach because the product of those workgroup discussions would eventually be shared with the state’s nine river-basin roundtables.

In an interview Wednesday, Newman said the basin roundtables are already talking about demand management, and he sees the workgroups as engaging in “parallel conversations.”

For example, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs, has set up a demand management workgroup, for example, and it has developed and circulated a draft list of questions and concerns it has about the program after holding several public meetings and phone calls.

Celene Hawkins, who represents that San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel river basins on the CWCB, asked Newman if CWCB directors could attend the closed workgroup meetings.

Newman said no, but that CWCB directors could attend the planned workshops about demand management, which would be open to the public.

“When you have a decision-making 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 told Hawkins and the other CWCB directors “The workgroups are kind of an extension of staff at this point, that’s how we’re seeing them. 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.”

Invitations to serve on the CWCB’s new workgroups are to be extended to various “subject-matter experts,” who will be told they need to sign confidentiality agreements.

Newman told the directors that people are not being invited based solely on their affiliation with different water organizations and that, generally, the invitees “are not already an active voice or in a leadership role in other forums and groups discussing demand management.”

And any professional consultants who want to serve on a workgroup are advised they should not do so if they plan on bidding on related state contracts in the future.

The final roster of workgroup participants will be posted on the CWCB’s website by the end of the month, Newman said.

The workgroup participants are expected to gather for an “all-hands” meeting in June, and then meet periodically through 2019 and beyond. 

The development of a demand management program is seen as a large undertaking for the staff at CWCB. Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the CWCB, likened it in scale and intensity to the effort taken by CWCB staff to produce the state water plan in 2015.

“We all know that this is going to be heavy lift,” Mitchell said during the CWCB meeting in Gunnison. “Some of the folks that are involved in this were involved in Colorado’s water plan, and know what that effort took. And I think this is going to be a similar type effort.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Friday, May 24, 2019.

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...