The Runoff newsletter

The opening weeks of 2023 have been filled with legislative updates and new bills, state water board news, Colorado River happenings and new chapters for local issues. Let’s dive in.

– Heather Sackett
Editor and Reporter on the Water Desk

The Briefing

No-flush wipes bill drafted

State Senators Dylan Roberts and Perry Will, who represent the Western Slope in Districts 8 and 5, respectively, are sponsoring a bill at the state legislature that would require labeling “Do Not Flush” on wipes that are made from plastic-derived fibers and are not designed to be flushed down the toilet. The use of these wipes has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic, and more of them wind up getting flushed, clogging pipes and mechanical equipment and causing blockages and other headaches for municipal wastewater treatment plants. Eagle River Water & Sanitation District helped initiate the legislation and has created a primer on the issue.

Snowmaking bill killed

A machine blows artificial snow at the top of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain
A snowmaking machine blows artificial snow at the top of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain. A proposed bill to create a seven-member task force to study the feasibility of high-altitude snowmaking as water storage will not move forward due to the untimely Oct. 30 death of Rep. Hugh McKean (R-Loveland), the main sponsor of the bill. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism

Last fall, the Colorado General Assembly’s Interim Water Resources Committee recommended a bill for the 2023 session that would have created a seven-member task force to study the feasibility of high-altitude snowmaking as water storage. The task force would have included the state engineer, two lawmakers, representatives from the ski and whitewater rafting industries, a hydrologist and staff from the U.S. Forest Service. But the untimely Oct. 30 death of Rep. Hugh McKean (R-Loveland), who was the main sponsor of the bill, left a lot of uncertainty. The bill’s other sponsor Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango) said it has been postponed indefinitely. She said the snowpack at ski resorts is already seen as a form of winter storage and the task force would have cost taxpayers more money and created more work for already time-crunched water managers. “We didn’t have enough information; Hugh had all the information,” McLachlan said. “We unfortunately never all got to get together to talk about it.”

SC(P)P application deadline extended

Lake Powell at Wahweap Marina as seen in December 2021.
Lake Powell at Wahweap Marina as seen in December 2021 as the reservoir approached its lowest level since filling. The Upper Colorado River Commission is accepting proposals until March 1 for water conservation initiatives, funded by $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Upper Colorado River Commission extended its deadline for applications for the rebooted System Conservation Pilot Program by a month from Feb. 1 to March 1. The program aims to reduce water consumption in the upper basin by paying people to use less. It will be funded with $125 million in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. An interesting side note: The UCRC has informed Aspen Journalism that the initial applications received will not be made public, but that the commission may eventually release information on the contracts awarded once the process is complete. Given the principle that water is a public resource, one could argue that the public’s right to know how water might be used (or in this case not used) calls for transparency on the applications for public funding. But UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom called the UCRC a curious interstate organization that is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In any case, the applications and contracts that are awarded through the SCPP will have to pass through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the Colorado River District, both of which are subject to the Colorado Open Records Act, so the public should be able to see this information eventually.

CWCB approves Gunnison basin instream flow loan

The CWCB approved a temporary loan of water from a ranch on Tomichi Creek in the Gunnison River basin to the state’s instream flow program. It must now be approved by the state Division of Water Resources. The Peterson Ranch, owned by Greg Peterson and former legislator and River District board member Kathleen Curry, will reduce diversions at certain times of year so more water can remain in the stream for the benefit of the environment. The goal is to operate the lease in dry years when the stream is likely to experience low flows and high temperatures. The Colorado Water Trust will act as the middleman and pay Peterson Ranch to leave water in the stream. Curry said they developed a proposal that involves changing when they shut off certain ditches and taking water off some meadows earlier. The lease would only work in a hydrological sweet spot of a dry, but not-too-dry year. In a wet year, the river may not need any of the ranch’s water and in a very dry year, the ranch may have no water to spare. Still, Curry hopes the agreement can come together for the 2023 irrigation season. “We think it’s a positive approach to stream management,” she said. 

Crystal River Wild & Scenic facilitators hired

Bird's eye view of the Crystal River
State Highway 133 crosses the Crystal River several times as it flows downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. Proponents of a federal Wild & Scenic designation for the river have selected facilitators to mold a proposal. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Proponents of a Crystal River Wild & Scenic designation hired facilitators last month. Denver-based Wellstone Collaborative Strategies, led by Jacob Bornstein, and Loveland-based P2 Strategies, led by Wendy Lowe, will join forces to head up the effort. The two specialize in collaborative stakeholder processes and have experience with contentious land and water use issues. In the first year, the facilitators plan to hold 11 monthly meetings of a steering committee, two community summits and two rounds of community surveys and listening sessions. Read more about what they propose to do here. The facilitators will be paid $55,000, according to Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar, which will be split among Pitkin County, Gunnison County and the River District. The town of Marble will also contribute in-kind services. 

CWCB open seats

The CWCB has openings for seats representing three basins: the North Platte, Rio Grande and Southwest. Curran Trick (North Platte), Heather Dutton (Rio Grande) and Celene Hawkins (Southwest) are stepping down. Dutton and Hawkins both served two three-year terms, which is typical for the governor-appointed positions. Trick stepped down toward the end of her second term. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Gibbs said they hope to have the spots filled by the March CWCB meeting. The new director appointments must then be approved by the state Senate. The CWCB is charged with protecting and developing the water resources of the state and also doles out grant money for water projects. For more information go to

Carbondale water pump-back plan

The town of Carbondale, at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers, is planning a pump-back project that will address the issue created by a 2018 call. In the hot and dry summer of 2018, senior water rights holders on the Ella Ditch, which serves agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time ever. Junior water rights, including 46 homes served by town water on the six-mile-long Nettle Creek pipeline, were called out. Several entities are looking at options for a basin-wide replacement water supply, but in the meantime, Carbondale is planning a pump back system for its Nettle Creek water distribution line. Essentially, if and when an irrigation call is on and the Nettle Creek treatment plant has to shut down, water from the town’s other source — wells on the Roaring Fork River — will be pumped back up to the homes on the already existing pipeline. In September 2020, Carbondale trustees approved the project, which was estimated to cost nearly $400,000 and includes a hydropower generation component. Officials were hoping the project could begin this summer, but first they need an easement from adjacent property owners on Nettle Creek, which is still pending, according to Public Works Director Kevin Schorzman.

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:

State officials draft bill on stream restoration

Heather Sackett | February 2, 2023

BDA Trail Creek
Credit: Jackie Corday

Although these projects benefit the environment, improve water quality and create resiliency against wildfires and climate change, keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially harm downstream water users.

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The policy says that Front Range water providers — which in total take about 500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across the Continental Divide to growing cities and for agriculture — must also contribute their fair share of water.

Volunteers measuring snow-whatever equivalent at the SNOTEL site at the top of McClure Pass
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

According to a recent study, in 2021, “rates of snowmelt throughout April were alarming and quickly worsened summer runoff outlooks which underscores that 1 April may no longer be a reliable benchmark for western water supply.”

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...