The Colorado River Water Conservation District staff plans to present its own framework for a water-savings plan — separate from one the state of Colorado is developing — at its October board meeting.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District undertook its own investigation of a plan — known as demand management — that would pay water users to consume less and send the saved water downstream to Lake Powell. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is currently investigating the feasibility of such a program for the state, but the River District convened its own workgroup, made up of Western Slope water users, to look into the issue. Many of the workgroup’s stakeholders represented agricultural interests.

River District staffers will come up with their own market structure and rules for demand management to present to the board, according to general manager Andy Mueller.

“What we are presenting is not something we are necessarily as staff endorsing, but we are going to present more specifics than what the CWCB or our stakeholder group has come up with so far,” Mueller said.

The framework will incorporate some of the findings and recommendations of the River District’s stakeholder group, which were released in an August report. Among these was the unanimous recommendation that the state not rely solely on a demand-management program as a solution to water shortages in the Colorado River basin.

“It was recognized that demand management can’t be the only way in which the state successfully handles the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “It may be a component of that, but the state needs to be really looking at conservation in all water segments.”

At the heart of a demand-management program is paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to avoid a Colorado River Compact call. Instead of being spread across hayfields, the water would be sent downstream to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, which was established as part of 2019’s Drought Contingency Plan.

A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.

The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable demand-management program, but the report highlights several reasons this may prove challenging. Stakeholders expressed a strong distrust of decision-making and programs driven by state government and fear that Western Slope agriculture will be sacrificed to meet the Front Range’s and lower basin’s urban interests.

“Many do not view the state as representing the best interest of agriculture on the Western Slope and instead are making decisions that are driven by east slope and municipal interests,” the report reads.

These fields of the Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale are irrigated with water from the Crystal River. The Colorado River Water Conservation District released a report that recommends the state of Colorado not rely solely on a demand management program to address water shortages. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

TMDs in conflict

Other findings of the report are consistent with what River District and agriculture representatives have been saying since the state began its demand-management discussions in 2019: A program must not lead to the permanent dry-up of Western Slope agriculture, and additional diversions to the Front Range are in direct conflict with asking Western Slope water users to save water.

“The committee finds it inconceivable that under a demand-management program, the West Slope could work to conserve 25,000-50,000 acre-feet per year only to see the east slope simultaneously increase water diversions to the Front Range,” the report reads. “This situation would be antithetical to the goals of a demand-management program and efforts to prevent a future compact violation.”

The report says that transmountain diversions — in which Front Range water providers take water from the headwaters of the Colorado River and bring it under the Continental Divide to growing cities — are a driving factor in a potential compact violation. Most water managers agree that water rights that date to before the 1922 compact would be exempt from mandatory cutbacks in the event of a call. Post-1922 water-rights use would fuel a compact violation.

According to numbers from a previous River District study, 57% of Colorado’s post-compact water use is on the Front Range. Therefore, the report says, the Front Range should contribute 57% of the water to a demand-management pool.

“We don’t want to have West Slope water users conserve water and then see it go to the Front Range,” Mueller said. “Why would we save and conserve water for major junior users to start taking that water that was conserved?”

Front Range municipal water providers Denver Water, Northern Water and Aurora Water declined to comment on the River District’s report.

“We are looking at what’s going to come out of the state process, and we will plug into the process that emerges at the state level,” said Northern Water spokesperson Jeff Stahla.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has said publicly that the municipal water provider would participate in a demand management program using wet water and not just pay Western Slope agriculture to fallow fields.

Mueller presented the findings of the report to the CWCB board in August. According to Amy Ostdiek, deputy section chief for the CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section, the River District’s report will help inform the CWCB’s decision-making process. At its September meeting, the board adopted a decision-making road map as the next step in its investigation into whether a demand-management program is right for Colorado.

The CWCB, a state agency responsible for developing and protecting Colorado’s water, is using the input from eight workgroups — composed of 74 water experts and managers from around the state — in the creation of a potential program framework.

The River District board is scheduled to meet Oct. 19-20.

This story ran in the Oct. 2 editions of The Aspen Times, Vail Daily and Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Oct. 4 edition of the Summit Daily News.

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...