STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Colorado’s agricultural-water users have concerns about how exactly the state would fairly implement a voluntary water-use reduction plan known as demand management.
That was the takeaway from some of the first meetings organized by the Colorado Water Conservation Board as part of its investigation into how a demand-management program might work in the state. Water managers discussed the issue of equity at the first meeting of the agricultural-impacts workgroup in Delta in early August and again at Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs on Thursday.
If Western Slope agricultural-water users don’t see cuts being taken by water users in municipalities, on the east slope and in the lower Colorado River basin, they won’t want to participate in a demand-management program, said Ken Curtis, chief of engineering and construction for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“If (Western Slope users) don’t see that question of fairness, they don’t even want to open the conversation,” he said at the meeting in Delta.
Social and cultural perceptions
This sentiment is not surprising to Colorado State University doctoral candidate Kelsea Macilroy, who spent last spring interviewing about 40 irrigators and water managers on the Western Slope. At CWC on Thursday, she unveiled her Nature Conservancy-funded research on the social and cultural perceptions of demand management.
There are three key conclusions of the report: Awareness and understanding of demand management vary greatly, defining what demand management is and how it will work is not straightforward, and conversations about demand management are connected to other tensions that create a general sense of vulnerability and fear.
“People don’t see this as a discussion about feasibility,” she told Thursday’s audience. “It feels like something that’s going to happen.”
The CWCB has formed nine workgroups, each tasked with helping to identify and solve one of the following issues: agricultural impacts, law and policy, water-rights administration, environmental considerations, economic considerations and local government, funding; education and outreach, monitoring and verification, and tribal interests. The workgroups began meeting this summer.
At the heart of a demand-management plan is a reduction in water use by agriculture on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis, all in an effort to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to meet Colorado River Compact obligations. Under pilot programs, the state could pay ranchers and farmers to leave more water in the river.
But the description “voluntary, temporary and compensated” also is the crux of the problem for many water users.
“Compensation is one of the stickiest and hardest to define,” Macilroy said. “It’s not just a number; it’s an idea and a value. Is it even truly possible to compensate for reductions in water use? Water is more than just a commodity.”
Water and agriculture on the Western Slope are tied to Colorado’s rural identity, culture and landscapes. Demand management provokes an emotional response for some who fear that without irrigated, green fields, a community’s way of life is threatened.
Some said they feared that demand management is a back door to “buy and dry.” Several people invoked the tough lesson of Crowley County, a formerly agricultural hub on Colorado’s southeastern plains. Many of the county’s agricultural-water users sold off their water rights to Front Range municipalities. As irrigated farmland dried up, so did the county’s economic base.
“I’ve been worried about this because these communities are smaller and ag-dominated,” Cindy Lair, program manager for the State Conservation Board of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said at the Delta meeting. “They don’t have the resiliency for decreased water. They don’t have the buffering capacity.”
Macilroy’s results also revealed a complicated relationship between “voluntary” and “parity.” Water managers want to ensure that a demand-management program would spread the burden across different user groups and basins in the name of fairness. But that conflicts with the requirement that participation in any program be voluntary.
“A voluntary program appeals to people,” Macilroy said. “It also has some major weaknesses. Because it is voluntary, it serves as a direct challenge to implementing parity. You can’t have voluntary and parity at the same time.”
Brent Newman, head of CWCB’s section on Colorado River issues, said the research findings were not surprising. Helping people understand demand management is a key part of the program, he said.
“I think that’s a question all the workgroups have identified as one of the key threshold questions: How do you have a voluntary program but also disincentivize negative proportionate impacts to basins?” he said. “We are just starting to wrap our heads around that.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this article on Aug. 27, 2019 and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent published it on Sept. 3, 2019.