The Runoff, a monthly newsletter from Aspen Journalism's Water Desk
Letter from The Water Desk Editor
Lake Mead intake
This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. California, Nevada and Arizona recently penned a deal to keep 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead to boost the declining reservoir levels. Photo: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Briefings from behind the scenes 

For over a decade at Aspen Journalism, we’ve been covering public agencies and traveling to all corners of Colorado to see for ourselves and meet the players involved in the most critical water management issues. This kind of dedicated beat reporting always produces more interesting information than we can fit into each story, so we’ve created this monthly dispatch to share more of what we’ve learned on the beat.

We are excited to share this concept with you, our valued readers, and we are sending out this first edition of The Runoff this week in place of our regular edition of The Roundup (which will continue its regular Tuesday publication next week). We invite you to subscribe to what will be a monthly email newsletter, where 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

CWCB staff are part of the Great Resignation. In the last few months, the Colorado Water Conservation Board — the state organization charged with protecting and developing Colorado’s water — has lost former section chief for water supply planning Greg Johnson to Denver Water, former agricultural water resources specialist Alex Funk to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partners and former endangered species policy specialist Jojo La to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Climate risk management specialist Megan Holcomb is also leaving.

Is demand management on ice? The January CWCB report on the state’s progress on its exploration of a temporary, voluntary and compensated water savings program that would pay irrigators to not use their water and send it downstream to prop up Lake Powell, was short. In September, the board approved a decision-making roadmap for the demand management investigation. Since then, staffers’ talking points have turned to developing a drought resiliency toolkit and weather modification (cloud seeding). All four upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah) would have to agree on implementing a program and state officials say Colorado is much farther along in this process than other states. Perhaps Colorado is hitting pause to let other states catch up?

Iconic Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River, just downstream from Glen Canyon Dam and Page, AZ. Photo: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

In December, top state water engineer Kevin Rein issued a report on a release of water by Front Range water providers from Homestake Reservoir in the Eagle River watershed. Western Slope water managers, like the Colorado River District weren’t happy about the release at the time, which they said could injure other downstream water users. But the final state report said the release did reduce actual water deliveries to the Front Range (a requirement) and did not result in injury to any water users. 

At its shortened January meeting, the River District decided to move forward with spending a lot more money on a problem dam it operates: Ritschard Dam at Wolford Mountain Reservoir. Built in the ‘90s and upstream from the town of Kremmling on Muddy Creek, the dam is settling more than normal. The River District voted to spend $100,000 on geotechnical lab testing of drilling samples and $91,534 on a three-year contract for continued surveying. 

Speaking of the River District, their board voted unanimously at another meeting on Tuesday to file a statement of opposition to the CWCB’s filing of an instream flow right on Cow Creek in Ouray County. Ouray County had asked the CWCB to delay the filing, but the state water board declined the county’s request. Here’s where it gets interesting: The River District (along with Ouray County) are the applicants for a water right for a dam and reservoir project on Cow Creek, which the CWCB opposes. So the state is opposing the River District’s plans and the River District is opposing the state’s plans on the same stream. 

Is it just me or are some water managers harder to talk to these days? CWCB Marketing and Communications Director Sara Leonard said the Division of Natural Resources would be “sticking to Q&A with the media via email only for the near term on Colorado River issues” and assured me this is the policy for all media, not just Aspen Journalism. In my opinion, an email interview is not nearly as good as phone or in-person. Via email, the interviewee can simply shrug off the questions a journalist asks and use it as a chance to promote their talking points. It also poses a challenge for attribution since there could be a team of PR executives in a room huddled over a laptop, carefully crafting a neat, diplomatic response to my questions for all I know. Anyway, we will keep asking for a chance to actually talk to state officials and hopefully this policy will change in the future. 

The ol’ Western Slope vs. Front Range animosity was revived at the January Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting, all over one little word, which dominated the conversation for nearly two hours: could vs. will. Each of Colorado’s river basins have submitted updates to their Basin Implementation Plans, which lay out all the water projects they would like to do in the coming years. As part of theirs, the Colorado Roundtable had the following header: “Diversions from future transmountain diversions will deplete downstream flows along the Colorado River mainstem when the TMDs are in priority and diverting.” The Colorado Attorney General’s office apparently took issue with that language, wanting instead to say TMDs COULD deplete Colorado River flows. Not sure what political maneuverings are behind the AG’s insistence with the wordsmithing, but it’s a fact that transmountain diversions take water off the top of many Western Slope river systems over to the fast-growing Front Range, leaving less water in local streams. Future diversions would do the same. For example, about 40% of the Roaring Fork’s headwaters are diverted over (or under, if you like) the mountains. I think roundtable chair Jason Turner said it best: “If you’re taking water out of the river, the result is less water in the river.”

Since the new year began, 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:

Popular ditch inventories remain private, despite being publicly funded
Is Colorado’s most precious resource a public good or a private property right?

Heather Sackett | February 6, 2022

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

This story was the result of months of work and also the next chapter of a story we reported in 2018. These increasingly popular ditch inventories are often shrouded in secrecy; they are shown just to the irrigators and not available to the public. Some say that agriculture has an obligation to use Colorado’s most precious and dwindling resource efficiently, but it’s hard to tell if that’s happening when the public can’t see the inventories. Like Ken Ransford said: “If you can’t see how 80% to 90% of the water is being used, then you will never be able to say whether you’re using water efficiently or not.”


River District addresses controversial water speculation bill
Amendment says getting paid to not use water could result in abandonment

Heather Sackett | February 4, 2022

The Government Highline Canal
Credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

The River District is attempting to fix a bill that no one seems to like and which most, including even its sponsors, say is problematic. By tweaking rules regarding abandonment, the River District’s amendment says that if someone is getting paid to not use their water, they could be punished by losing their water right. We’ll see if legislators consider the River District’s idea, but like a game of whack-a-mole, it seems that every proposed solution creates another problem. We have been covering this speculation issue for the past couple of years, probably best summed up in this story from 2021.


Green light for sustainability
Lower-basin 500+ Plan fits in window of opportunity

Heather Sackett | January 15, 2022

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

In December, water managers from California, Nevada and Arizona came together to sign an MOU laying out a plan to save water in Lake Mead. Some Colorado River scholars say the agreement, which took only about four months to hash out, is the perfect example of how the crisis conditions have created a small window of opportunity for innovative policy decisions that move the river system toward sustainability. 


Water ’22
Climate-focused initiative is funded in part by fossil fuel company

Heather Sackett | January 28, 2022

Gov. Jared Polis announcing '22 water campaign
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

For decades, a mainstay of the fossil fuel industry and governments has been placing the blame and responsibility for climate change on individual consumers by encouraging us to “lower our carbon footprint” (drive less! turn your heat down! recycle!) while opposing meaningful changes to policies that would lead to a quicker transition to renewable energy. It seems to me the state of Colorado’s new Water ‘22 campaign takes a page from this playbook. An education and engagement campaign aimed at water conservation that emphasizes the role of individual consumers in their everyday, in-home water use, (water your lawn at dusk and dawn! turn the tap off when you brush your teeth!) the program is not designed to result in measurable water savings. This program was unveiled at the Colorado Water Congress conference in January and it was hard for me to find anyone who would talk candidly on the record about it. Seemingly everyone, from Front Range municipal water providers to the usual environmental nonprofits in the water sector, were participating and many were wearing a button that said Water ‘22. To be sure, there is value in educating Coloradans where their water comes from and how important of an issue it is in a drought-stricken, arid state, especially new transplants to the Front Range who might not understand the realities of living west of the 100th meridian. But Water ‘22 is not the solution to Colorado’s water shortages or climate crisis. Oh, and the campaign — which makes the connection between climate change, drought, wildfires and water shortages — is funded in part by fossil fuel giant Chevron.

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...