The Runoff Monthly Newsletter from Aspen Journalism
Colorado Water Conservation Board Executive Director and commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, Becky Mitchell
Colorado Water Conservation Board Executive Director and commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission Becky Mitchell, center, speaks on a panel with representatives of each of the seven basin states at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas Thursday. The UCRC released additional details of a water conservation program this week. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Thank you for reading the work of our Water Desk. Your support keeps me in attendance at the meetings and conferences where big decisions about a river in crisis are made. 

Every December the biggest gathering of water experts and managers convenes in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association conference. There are panels, posturing, memorable quotes and the occasional media circus like last year when the lower basin states announced their 500+ Plan. The feel of this year’s conference — despite being sold out for the first time ever with more than 1,300 attendees — felt less frantic to me than 2021. 

Perhaps now that the shock has worn off from the average 2021 snowpack translating into more abysmal runoff than anyone thought possible and Reclamation modeling showing reservoir levels dipping to critical levels, water managers have gone from panic to acceptance. Like Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) Executive Director Chuck Cullom said, the time for strongly worded letters has passed. See another journalist’s take on the vibe.

Thanks for going deeper with us and for supporting Aspen Journalism!

– Heather Sackett
Reporter and Managing Editor of the Water Desk

The Briefing

Demand management

Freddie Botur
Wyoming rancher Freddie Botur walking across rocks that form the diversion structure at his headgate on Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Green River. Botur was paid to let water flow past these headgates and down the river system toward Lake Powell as part of the System Conservation Pilot Program Credit: Jim Paussa

Upper basin water managers are now getting down to the real work of standing up a water conservation program, a reboot of the System Conservation Pilot Program, which is slated to begin this coming irrigation season. The price per acre-foot was set at $150, but Cullom said that number is really the minimum amount from where haggling between those proposing projects and the UCRC can begin.  

The restarted program could be rolled into a long-discussed, studied and debated demand management program. You can read Aspen Journalism’s previous coverage of Colorado’s efforts here, here and here. It sounds like more information about a program will come in June at the UCRC meeting. 

Estevan Lopez, UCRC commissioner from New Mexico, said a plan for The Nature Conservancy to lease 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Jicarilla Apache nation out of Navajo Reservoir will function as a demand management demonstration project. The water is for endangered fish in the San Juan River, but “we think we can also get an additional bang for the buck in that we are uniquely situated in getting water to Lake Powell,” Lopez said. 

Cities versus agriculture

Caesars Palace in Las Vegas
Fountains shoot water from the Colorado River into the air outside of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas Friday. The resort hosts the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Some water managers at CRWUA acknowledged a truth that is widely known but rarely stated so candidly: As the Colorado River crisis deepens, water to cities will not be cut off in favor of continuing to grow hay in the desert, no matter what the law of the river — which grants the most powerful water rights to the mostly agricultural users who got here first — says. 

“If the literal enforcement of the law is that 27 million Americans don’t have water, those laws will not be enforced,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

The wisdom of building mega-cities in arid regions aside, the fact is that Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and L.A. exist now and rely on the Colorado River. And denying people water at their taps would be a public health catastrophe and moral failure. 

“People migrate toward opportunity and you can’t stop it only at great moral cost,” said Kathryn Sorenson, a professor at Arizona State University and former director of Phoenix Water Services. “The cities have an obligation to provide water to the people who arrived.” 

Streams and lakes renaming

In September, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially replaced the names of 650 geographic features nationally, including 28 in Colorado, that contained the racist slur squ*w. Colorado has approved replacement names for four creeks and one lake and the CWCB will also now make the name switch in water court for the instream flow water rights it holds on these streams. Three of these are in Hinsdale County. Little Squ*w Creek will become Little Spruce Creek; Squ*w Creek and Squ*w Lake are now Grizzly Creek and Grizzly Lake. In Chaffee County, Squ*w Creek will become Tabeguache Creek and in Summit County Squ*w Creek will become Colorow Creek. 

Aspen WEP

The city of Aspen has released its updated Water Efficiency Plan, which outlines the city’s plans for new and ongoing enhanced conservation programs, and is taking public comment on it until Jan. 31. Some of what’s in the 41-page document was covered in our recent story on Aspen’s water use data. After a thorough read and talking with Aspen’s Director of Utilities Tyler Christoff, here are some interesting take-aways. 

Average total water use for metered customers has decreased, but average outdoor percentage has increased slightly between 2012 and 2019. As climate change and drought create hotter and drier conditions, outdoor landscaping and lawns will need more water, and Aspen’s outdoor use has been creeping up despite its Water Efficient Landscaping Standards, which aim to reduce outdoor use in new development. The single-family residential customer category has the most potential for outdoor water use reductions.

Aspen’s peak daily water production occurs in late June through the end of July — typically the hottest, driest time of year. The city has a second peak in November or December, which is influenced by snowmaking and holiday visitors. 

Aspen seems to have an issue with a large amount of non-revenue water. This is water produced at the city’s treatment plant but is not billed to any customers. It could include, for example, meter inaccuracies, leaks and hydrant flushing, among other things. From 2012 to 2019 non-revenue water accounted for an average of 28% of total water production. This is up significantly from the 4% it averaged from 2009 to 2013. Christoff said this jump could be partly due to the way Aspen now accounts for its data, but that the city is trying to get to the bottom of it and using the industry best practices to do so.

From 2014 to 2019, Aspen has reduced its annual total potable water use by about 116 acre-feet a year, or about 4% as compared to the city’s 2019 uses, which is on target with the 2015 WEP goal.

The WEP is based on the city’s 2021 Integrated Water Resource Plan and uses the assumptions about future demands that was outlined in Portfolio 6. That means Aspen needs to save 265 acre-feet of water annually by 2030, in addition to reducing non-revenue water to no more than 20% to meet demand-reduction goals.

The city plans to hire a full-time water conservation program coordinator who will implement and update the WEP. 

Aspen will promote the use of rain barrels to offset irrigation needs and will offer a free 55-gallon barrel to customers who complete an educational training session. 

Compact marks 100 years

Members of the Colorado River Commission in Santa Fe in 1922.
Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after coming to terms of the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada) Credit: Colorado State University Water Resources Archive

Although some CRWUA conference panels had Colorado River Compact in the title, I thought there was surprisingly little focus on the cornerstone document of Colorado River management for its centennial. Maybe it’s because the finer points have already been discussed ad nauseam over the years and water managers have bigger issues to focus on right now.

I recently read the entire minutes from the compact negotiations and something I noticed was that the actual breakthroughs where progress was made don’t appear in the minutes; those conversations happened in off-the-record meetings after hours, a tradition that continues in water management today. That makes the minutes seem disjointed, like the negotiators arrived at a resolution on topics after seemingly little discussion, which had me asking: where did that come from? Is there a page missing?

At the beginning of the negotiations, the states originally wanted to allocate water based on how much irrigated acreage they could have in the future. The upper/lower basin split came later. The Bureau of Reclamation had provided an acreage estimate, which each state then disregarded, offering instead their own outlandishly inflated estimates. More acreage would have equaled a bigger allocation had they decided to go that route. 

I talked with Colorado River expert, author and former general manager of the River District Eric Kuhn about the major things the compact negotiators got right and where they went wrong. 

“I think dividing the water between the two basins was the right decision,” Kuhn said. “I don’t think they ever could have split it up among the seven states. And the other thing they got right was having a provision in the compact that dealt with the future treaty with Mexico.”

Things they got wrong: The compact was famously silent on water for tribes, which own roughly 20% of the water but aren’t necessarily using all their rights because of a lack of funding and infrastructure. Putting fixed apportionments — 7.5 million acre-feet to each basin — on a river whose flows are constantly in flux was another failing. But Kuhn said the main thing the framers got wrong was ignoring inconvenient science and not factoring in drought years to estimates of the river’s flow.

“They refused to look at the bigger record of what was going on with the hydrology,” Kuhn said. “They just didn’t want to hear it. That they were not curious enough was the main thing they got wrong.”

Check out Kuhn and John Fleck’s analysis of each day of the negotiations, compiled here

The Recap

Since the last edition of The Runoff, Aspen Journalism’s Water Desk has reported the following stories. If you are not already, subscribe to The Roundup to get our weekly rundown of new news and insights:

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Officials said on Thursday that the SCPP program could eventually be rolled into a demand management program. 

Taylor Draw Dam
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink said in an email that the district’s full water right was not being met several months out of the year and that the call will remain on until the full water right or capacity of the turbine is met.

Crystal River with Mount Sopris in background
Credit: Dan Bayer / Aspen Journalism

A parallel study, undertaken by the River District and environmental-and-recreation advocacy group American Rivers, is looking at nature-based solutions.

Weaver Ditch in Sopris Park
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

In an effort to unify the Roaring Fork watershed, a local agency has developed valley-wide outdoor watering standards that its board members hope will be adopted by municipal water providers.

All-American Canal
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The tour took participants by bus from Las Vegas though the green alfalfa fields of the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation, past the big diversions serving the Central Arizona Project and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and to the hot, below-sea-level agricultural expanse of the biggest water user on the river: the Imperial Irrigation District.

Aspen’s water use stays steady

Heather Sackett | Nov. 14, 2022

Getting some customers to change their behavior, especially when it comes to outdoor watering, is challenging.

Wagner Park in Aspen, CO
Credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil / Aspen Journalism.

In the Colorado water world, recreation usually is lumped together with the environment as a “non-consumptive” use since both seek to keep water in the stream. But signatories to the letter say that grouping overlooks the importance of recreation to the economy.

BDA Trail Creek
Credit: Jackie Corday

If project proponents were required to spend years in water court securing a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions caused by the project, it could have a major chilling effect on projects that nearly everyone agrees are beneficial to the environment.

Aerial view of the Crystal River and streambank stabilization project area.
Credit: Courtesy photo

A Nationwide Permit 3 authorizes streambank restoration work covering up to 450 linear feet, but the current project “appears to extend significantly beyond what was previously authorized,” the letter reads.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...