The Runoff, a monthly newsletter from Aspen Journalism's Water Desk
Letter from The Water Desk Editor
The Fetcher Ranch in northwest Colorado
The Fetcher Ranch in northwest Colorado was started by John Fetcher in 1949. His son, Jay, says his dad was passionate about water issues.
CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Welcome back to The Runoff! We promised a monthly water-focused newsletter and we are delivering. 

We are sending this second edition to subscribers of The Roundup, our regular weekly newsletter covering all things Aspen Journalism, as well those of you who signed up for The Runoff. If you haven’t, please subscribe to The Runoff here because, eventually, we plan for this newsletter to stand on its own.   

Here, you’ll get briefings on happenings in the water world you won’t read anywhere else and behind-the-scenes analysis from our journalists, while we catch up on all the Colorado River basin and regional water news you may have missed from our award-winning Water Desk.

But this isn’t a one-way street. We are also hoping readers will let us know what they think and what they would like to see more of in the way of water coverage. So please email me at heather@aspenjournalism.org.

Thank you for reading and supporting Aspen Journalism.

— Heather Sackett, Water Desk Editor 

The Briefing
Lake Powell just upstream from dam
Lake Powell just upstream from dam. Water levels hit a target elevation set out in the drought contingency plan of 3,525 feet on March 4, 2022.
CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Lake Powell to dip below 3,525

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water managers have known this day was coming and issued a press release about it on March 4, but it’s now official: Lake Powell will hit a target elevation set out in the drought contingency plan: 3,525 feet. As of March 14, it was at 3,525.08 feet. Federal water managers tried to avoid this by an emergency release of water from upper basin reservoirs (including Blue Mesa in Gunnison County). The dip is expected to be temporary and levels will rise again with the spring runoff. If the releases were meant to keep Powell above this critical threshold, it seems they failed. But if they were meant to remind upper basin states just who is actually in charge of the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs (the federal government) and spur state water managers to action, then maybe they worked. Representatives from upper basin states and Reclamation are working to hammer out an annual drought response operations plan, with the aim of keeping Powell levels up and also avoiding a repeat of last year’s emergency releases. The DROA plan is expected to be completed in April.

Crystal River Ranch

Crystal River Ranch, the huge expanse of irrigated land just west of Carbondale owned by Sue Anschutz-Rogers, a member of one of Colorado’s wealthiest families, is applying for another water right. This time, the ranch is asking for 5 cfs of water from the Crystal River for stockwatering. The majority of the 5 cfs would be to keep the water in the ditch ice-free so the cattle can drink from it in the winter. CRR pulls water from the Crystal via the Sweet Jessup Canal, and although it’s the first major agricultural diversion out of the lower Crystal, the land it irrigates is several miles downstream. The Sweet Jessup is also one of the biggest diversions on the Crystal and one of the oldest, with a water right dating to 1905. Its three water rights can pull a combined 74 cfs from the river. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the city of Aurora have both filed statements of opposition to the application. In 2020, Crystal River Ranch filed to maintain a conditional water right for dams and reservoirs on the property, which a water court later granted.

CRR beauty sign, elk, Sopris, fence
A herd of elk graze on Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale in spring 2020. The ranch is applying for a new stock watering water right.
CREDIT: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Colorado Problem: A River in the Red

Come watch me self-consciously sweat under the bright stage lights as I participate in a discussion with filmmaker Sam Denby after a screening of a new film by Wendover Productions, The Colorado Problem: A River in the Red. The event is on Wednesday, March 16, at the Isis Theatre in Aspen and tickets are $15. Proceeds benefit Aspen Film and the Roaring Fork Conservancy. I’ve watched the documentary and it presents an excellent and nuanced explanation of an endlessly complex problem: There is more demand than there is supply on the over-tapped Colorado River.

State of the River

After two years of remote meetings due to Covid, the Colorado River Water Conservation District will resume its State of the River meetings. River District staff take their show on the road first to Ouray County, with an event in Ridgway on March 16, then to Craig on March 23 and Steamboat on March 24. The free events partner with local organizations and are an opportunity for people to learn about Western Slope water. They also include free food.

Colorado climate and drought update for March

Water managers continue to hold their breath while we wait and see how the snow year will shake out. With about a month to go before the mountain snowpack typically peaks for the season, SNOTEL sites in the mainstem of the Colorado River basin hover near normal for the amount of water the snow holds or snow-water equivalent (SWE). SWE is still lagging in the northwest corner of the state in the Yampa/White/Green river basins. In their March update webinar, scientists from CSU said it has been very dry on the Western Slope the past 60 days and that soil moisture (or lack thereof) is still a concern for spring runoff. The April streamflow forecasts for the Colorado River basin should start to give us a pretty good picture of what inflow into Lake Powell might look like this year. Fingers crossed for more March snowstorms!

Water manager interviews

In my last newsletter I reported that officials with the Division of National Resources said they would be sticking to Q&A with the media via email only on Colorado River issues. DNR Communications Director Chris Arend pointed out that this policy applies only to “big river” issues like the Colorado River Compact and Upper/Lower Basin politics and legal issues, for example. DNR has been very helpful in granting interviews about other topics, especially when it comes to the state engineer’s office, and I certainly didn’t mean to make it sound like they were stonewalling me on all subjects. And CWCB Director Becky Mitchell did speak with me over the phone earlier this week for our story on dropping Lake Powell levels, so maybe the policy has some flexibility now?

Powell behind dam
Lake Powell just upstream of Glen Canyon Dam in December 2021.
CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Worst drought in 1,200 years

In February, many national — and international — media outlets pivoted to covering the world of drought and climate change in the southwest when they all reported the same story: The current drought, dubbed the “millennium drought” by some, is the worst in 1,200 years. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change found this is the driest period since 800 AD, fueled by human-caused climate change. 

Here is a list of the outlets that covered it, and by no means is this exhaustive. These are just the household names Google turned up in the first four pages of a search: NBC News; NPR; Scientific American; Smithsonian Magazine; The Guardian; USA Today; LA Times; New York Times; Washington Post; PBS; Associated Press; CNN; BBC; Bloomberg; ABC News; Axios; Time. 

To be sure, the findings of the worst drought in 1,200 years is big news, but I question the need for so many national news outlets to write essentially the same exact story. It might serve the public better to spread the journalism resources around. There are so many water, drought and climate change stories and plenty of communities that need coverage of these important topics on a local level.

Since the last edition of The Runoff, Aspen Journalism’s Water Desk has reported the following stories. If you haven’t, please subscribe to The Runoff here because, eventually, we plan for this newsletter to stand on its own.

Turf replacement bill gains ground
Outdoor landscaping is largest use for some Western Slope water providers

Heather Sackett | March 4, 2022

Golf course view from Red Butte
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A turf replacement bill, which passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee, would require the state water board to develop a statewide program to provide financial incentives for the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise, drought-resistant landscaping. Cutting back on outdoor water use will have a much bigger impact and result in more water in local streams than cutting back on indoor use. In outdoor watering, grass sucks up the water and it’s gone. With indoor water use, it essentially just runs through your home and pipes on its way to the wastewater treatment plant and about 95% of it goes back to the river.


Rancher grapples with abandonment listing
10-year state process asks: What is the value of water that is not being used

Heather Sackett | February 27, 2022

Fetcher cows
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

A big thank you to Clark rancher Jay Fetcher for showing me around his family ranch. After calling many (so many!) numbers listed on objection forms filed with the state, he was one of just two people with water rights on the abandonment list who agreed to talk with me. A big — and as yet unanswered — question posed by the state’s 10-year process is: What is the value of water that is not being used?


Groups try again to secure water for recreation
Proposed legislation would create ‘recreation in-channel values reach’

Heather Sackett | February 19, 2022

A kayaker runs the 6-foot drop of Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River in June 2021. River recreation and conservation groups are pushing a bill that aims to establish a recreational in-channel values reach designation, which would create a legal mechanism to lease water for river recreation.
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The proposal is an attempt to carve out a spot for — and recognize the importance of — Colorado’s outdoor-recreation economy in the hierarchy of water uses, which prioritizes the oldest water rights, usually belonging to agriculture and cities. By giving up the push for a water right, proponents are hoping to have more success than an effort they tried last year.


Kremmling rancher picked to replace Schwartz on state water board
New basin rep Bruchez sees water scarcity as top Colorado River issue

Heather Sackett | February 15, 2022

Paul Bruchez
Credit: Photo provided

Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez will now represent the Colorado main stem on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Paul seems well-liked and highly regarded in the Colorado water world. Also interesting is that Schwartz stepped down after just one term. In comments to Aspen Journalism she said it was too hard to be as effective as she wanted in the position, especially when it comes to the issues of climate change and aridification. 

Heather Sackett

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...