The Runoff newsletter from Aspen Journalism's Water Desk
Letter from the Water Desk

I think it was Charles Dickens who described a March day as summer in the light, and winter in the shade. This year there’s been a lot more of winter in the shade, a welcome circumstance for water managers. All those overcast days could even be part of the reason for more snow accumulation at low-elevation SNOTEL sites, as we reported last month. As of March 29, the snowpack in the Upper Basin stands at 133% of median. Locally, the Roaring Fork is at 146%, boosted by March snowstorms that just won’t quit. Water managers have so much confidence in above-average runoff this year that they suspended releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which were aimed at propping up Powell, two months early. We should hit peak snowpack in the next week or two, at which point forecasters will have a better idea of inflows for this year. But regardless of Powell elevations, this winter has been good to recreationists. It’s been a great ski season and promises to be a great rafting season too, both bright spots on a beat that usually features quite a bit of doom and gloom.

Thanks for reading, and supporting, Aspen Journalism!

Heather Sackett
Water Desk Editor

The Briefing

Yampa/White/Green position paper

The Yampa/White/Green Roundtable’s Big River Committee has drafted a position statement on the Colorado River crisis. The main points are consistent with what we have been hearing from Colorado and Upper Basin water managers: the Lower Basin needs to get a handle on over-use; river operations need to be based on hydrology (size of snowpack/runoff in any given year) instead of reservoir levels; buy and dry is bad and a system conservation program needs to be approached with caution. Yampa Roundtable members have been presenting this position paper to the other eight basin roundtables, with the hope of getting their support and fostering collaboration between roundtables. Ken Brenner and Jeff Meyers presented to the Colorado Roundtable on March 27. “In our little corner of Colorado, we are ready to do our part,” Meyers said. “We realize we are going to have to work together and we are ready, but there has to be focused conservation in the Lower Basin to stay within its apportioned limits or nothing we do in the Upper Basin is going to make a difference.” Point #3 in the paper says that any movement of water under a system conservation program should be subject to approval by CWCB and the River District. But as we reported, CWCB head Becky Mitchell walked back her commitment to letting the River District and Southwestern Conservation District play a role in evaluating and approving projects within their boundaries; the UCRC will make the sole determination based on its own criteria. And the CWCB also had a limited role in approving the overall program, not the individual projects.

No-flush wipes bill sent to governor’s desk

A no-flush wipes bill, sponsored by Western Slope State Senators Dylan Roberts and Perry Will has passed the House and Senate and is headed to Gov. Polis, where it will become law after his approval. The bill requires labeling “Do Not Flush” on wipes that are made from plastic-derived fibers and are not designed to be flushed down the toilet. Eagle River Water & Sanitation District helped initiate the legislation. “We are thrilled to be almost to the finish line,” Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for ERWSD said in an email. “We know that simply having a Do Not Flush label doesn’t stop people from flushing wipes, but it’s an important step that provides clear direction for consumers. We hope that once people understand the risk to their own plumbing and potential sewage backups in their home or business, that they’ll at least put wipes in the trash.”

Bringing back beavers

Trunks of aspen trees cut by beavers at Maroon site

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers is spending $50,000 on a program aimed at eventually releasing North America’s largest rodent into suitable habitat in the headwaters of the White River National Forest. The first step will begin this summer with two seasonal U.S. Forest Service workers who will conduct an inventory on public land of where the engineers of the forest are currently thriving and where they might be reintroduced in the future. Once seen as a nuisance, there is a growing recognition of beavers’ benefits to ecosystems. Learn more about what Pitkin County is planning.

Three new CWCB appointments

On March 1, the governor’s office announced it had filled three vacant seats on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Roundtable member Barbara Vasquez will serve as the representative of the North Platte River basin; Lorelei Cloud, vice chair on the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council will represent the San Miguel-Dolores-San Juan river basin as the state’s first tribal council member; and fourth-generation San Luis Valley farmer Nathan Coombs will represent the Rio Grande basin. The CWCB’s mission is to conserve, protect, develop and manage Colorado’s water. 

Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force

Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and CWCB have created an urban water conservation-focused task force. The goal of the task force, which is supposed to meet four times between now and January 2024, is to find ways to advance outdoor water conservation and landscape transformation by extending beyond turf removal to find ways for lasting water savings. The 21-member task force includes representatives from all the big Front Range water providers, as well as some West Slope representatives: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Durango Water and Ute Water. Reducing the amount of irrigated turf has been a popular approach for urban water providers; Aurora, Denver Water and Colorado Springs Utilities were among a group of water providers in the Colorado River Basin that signed a memorandum of understanding last year, committing to reducing nonfunctional turf grass by 30%. But for some water providers, getting a handle on outdoor water use has been tricky. For example, outdoor water use represents 70% of the City of Aspen’s total annual water use, where single-family residences rank among the top 10 water users. Interestingly, Ute Water provides nearly all in-home, domestic water; most of their customers use water from ditches if they do any outdoor irrigation. The first meeting of the task force is scheduled for late April.  

Healthy Rivers bylaws amendments

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers is trying to amend its bylaws to relax residency requirements. The way the bylaws are currently set up, five of the seven board members must be Pitkin County residents and a quorum must include three of the five Pitkin County residents. It also requires the chair and vice-chair be Pitkin County residents. But this has resulted in the cancellation of two recent meetings, and numerous other meetings in past years, which makes it difficult to get everything done when the board only meets once a month. “We were not getting enough Pitkin County residents to make up a quorum, which is really problematic for the program,” said Healthy Rivers staffer Lisa Tasker. “I literally lived in three different counties when I was on the board and it was only the years I lived in Pitkin where I could be chair of the board.” Although the money that funds Healthy Rivers comes from Pitkin County taxpayers, the funds are spent throughout the watershed, including on projects in Eagle and Garfield counties. “We all think a little bit more valley-wide,” Tasker said. The bylaw amendments must be approved by the BOCC and would also allow (but not require) the chair to request the removal of a board member if they miss more than three regularly scheduled meetings. 

Division 6 measurement rules

Div 6 measurement rules

The water court case involving the measurement rules for Division 6 (Yampa, White, Green, North Platte rivers) appears to be headed to trial. Division Engineer Erin Light and water commissioners have spent the last few years trying to get water users in the northwest corner of the state to install measurement devices on their ditches. The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls, which had been unheard of in the past, are becoming more common. Light has said that during a call, those water users without measurement devices will be shut off. The rules were filed with the water court in October and several entities filed statements of opposition, including the City of Steamboat Springs and Colowyo Coal Company

Living River: The Promise of the Mighty Colorado

Living River
The Promise of the Mighty Colorado
by Dave Showalter.

Colorado-based conservation photographer Dave Showalter has a new book out this month that argues that despite its many challenges — overallocation, climate change, drought — that the Colorado River is not dying as many-a-news-story has claimed. On the contrary, it’s vibrant, dynamic and life-sustaining. The stunning photos remind us that for all the politicking, squabbling among water users and emphasis on using it simply as a delivery system, the river at its core is a living ecosystem. 

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:

Field of hay irrigated with water from Colorado River tributary
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Eight of the proposed projects are in the southwest corner of the state, within the bounds of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, and get their irrigation water from the Dolores Project.

Blue River with snowy river bank, blue skies, and dogs in the water.
Credit: Liz Copan/Summit Daily News

Colorado Springs Utilities has been mired in water court since 2015, fighting for its conditional water rights, which date to 1952 and are tied to three proposed reservoirs.

Low-elevation snow stacks up this season

Heather Sackett | March 4, 2023

SNOTEL site on McClure Pass.
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

What more snow at lower elevations means for the timing of this spring’s runoff is also unclear, but forecasters say runoff volume should be above average.

The Government Highline Canal
Credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

The Grand Valley Water Users Association (GVWUA) is rejecting the concept of paying farmers based on an amount of unused water, even as the association’s board voted to participate in the rebooted program.


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...