West Slope water managers say they are being cut out of the process to review and approve applications for a federally funded conservation program, even though a state official had previously promised they could participate.
Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Executive Director and Colorado commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) Becky Mitchell had assured the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District that they would have a say in reviewing and approving projects for the rebooted System Conservation Program within their boundaries. But it now appears that the districts’ role will be limited to providing input to the UCRC on the applications, for which limited public information has been released.
A Dec. 6, 2022 email from Mitchell to Southwestern’s General Manager Steve Wolff and River District General Manager Andy Mueller said that in the event a “prospective applicant’s SCPP project is located within the boundaries of the district, enrollment in the SCPP will be subject to approval of the application by both the CWCB and the District.”
Mitchell had also said publicly at meetings and conferences that the conservation districts would have a say on projects within their boundaries, and a Jan. 23 CWCB memo says that “Commissioner Mitchell and staff will work closely with the conservation and conservancy districts within which projects are located in the project approval process.”
In anticipation of reviewing project applications, the River District developed its own set of criteria on which to evaluate them. Those criteria go further than the UCRC’s in specifying who would benefit from the SCP program payments and preventing too much participation in a single basin. The River District works to protect and develop water within its 15 Western Slope counties.
But in a March 10 letter to both conservation districts, Mitchell walked back her promise of their significant involvement. She said only the UCRC’s criteria — not the criteria developed by the River District — can be used in considering project approval.
“I recognize the attention that the Colorado River District staff and the Southwestern Water Conservation District staff have given to these issues,” the letter reads. “However, to ensure compliance with reauthorizing federal legislation, the only criteria that may be applied are contained in the Funding Agreement and Request for Proposals. Further, it is the UCRC that is required to determine whether a project meets those criteria.”
The River District discussed the issue at a board meeting Thursday.
“I think that was disturbing to us because it was a reversal of a commitment that had been made in early December by the commissioner,” Mueller said. “There is a complete lack of process within our state reviewing this program or the potential impacts to other water users. … There is no analysis done whatsoever to protect communities.”
Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities.
River District staff said they have still not seen any completed SCP applications for projects within their boundaries.
The River District board on Thursday voted that if and when the project applications become publicly available, the River District will review them and provide feedback that the UCRC criteria does not go far enough to consider the impacts within the state of Colorado. The board also voted to provide a response to Mitchell’s March 10 letter.
Wolff replied to Mitchell’s letter asking her to reconsider her position and reaffirm her commitment to the districts that they would have a meaningful role in the approval process.
“(We) have not found anything to support the position described in your letter,” Wolff’s response reads. “To the contrary, the UCRC Facilitation Agreement and related documents appear to provide a robust role for each state for evaluating projects within its boundaries…”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to designate projects that are participating in the rebooted SCP as falling under the umbrella of a “state-approved water conservation program.” That means that water users who choose to get paid to cut back won’t see their water right affected for participating. Under Colorado’s abandonment or “use it or lose it” principle, water rights holders must continue to put their water to beneficial use if they want to keep their water right.
The System Conservation Program was restarted as part of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations in the nation’s two largest and depleted reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead. The program will be paid for with $125 million in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and will pay water users in the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — to cut back.
The UCRC is a Salt Lake City-based interstate water administrative agency established by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. Its role is to ensure the appropriate allocation of water from the Colorado River to the upper basin states and compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The UCRC unveiled its 5-Point Plan in July in response to calls for conservation from the federal government to address the crisis on the Colorado River and plummeting reservoir levels that threaten the ability to make hydroelectric power. The Bureau of Reclamation designated the UCRC as the administrator of the rebooted conservation program and it began accepting applications in December.
The scope of what CWCB approved this week was narrow; they did not approve the individual applications for the SCP. That responsibility for final approval, as Mitchell’s March 10 letter notes, lies solely with the UCRC.
Mitchell said at Wednesday’s CWCB meeting that although the conservation districts would not be approving projects, she would still take input from them. Her March 10 letter invites the districts to participate in the approval process under the same narrow scope as CWCB by designating the SCP as a “state-approved water conservation program,” which protects against abandonment.
Mitchell added that she has requested that the meeting where the UCRC makes the decisions about which projects to approve be open to the public and that the applications be made publicly available, with personal information of applicants redacted. The status of that request was unclear as of Friday afternoon.
“If we were to do this again… I would ask that the applications be transparent from the beginning with the personal information redacted,” Mitchell said. “That is not the way we did it this time.”
At Wednesday’s CWCB meeting, River District General Counsel Peter Fleming asked the board to postpone the approval that protects water users from abandonment by two weeks. He added that there were “heated controversies” about system conservation in western Colorado and that the tight timeline has put everyone in a pressure cooker.
He said the criteria the UCRC is using to evaluate applications is focused on getting water downstream, not on preventing issues within Colorado like potential injury to other water users.
“Our view is that both the water conservation board and the districts have a higher level of input and activity than simply the determination as to whether the proposed system conservation projects fall within the (definition of a state-approved conservation program),” he said. “The delay would give us a little time to work that through in cooperation with the CWCB for the benefit of the entire state and our shared constituents.”
Beth Van Vurst, counsel for Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the district needs additional information on the project proposals.
“We haven’t seen the applications, we haven’t seen any operating plans, we haven’t seen any details,” she said. “Without that information, I don’t know how the Southwest board could determine whether or not these projects warrant protection under state law.”
Crop switching proposals
The CWCB released some details related to the 36 Colorado project applications that are currently being reviewed by the UCRC. Those which have preliminary approval from UCRC could save up to 9,618 acre-feet of water, according to a March 15 memo. Of the 36 proposals, 19 propose to halt irrigating for the entire season and nine propose to stop irrigating for part of the season, according to a CWCB breakdown.
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. These projects are proposing switching crops from thirsty alfalfa to other forage crops like Sudan grass that use less water. Altogether, the eight projects are estimated to save 791 acre-feet of water. Most of them will fallow fields for one year, overgraze the land to make sure the old perennial grass is dead, and then replant with the new perennial crop the following year.
Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag-Water Alliance, organized the Dolores projects and helped irrigators submit applications. He said they are asking for $200 per acre-foot of water, which is calculated to represent the cost of switching crops. If the new forage crops end up being as profitable or more profitable than alfalfa, irrigators will probably make the switch permanent, Peterson said.
“If they can go back and look at the costs and revenues associated with it, they don’t need to be paid again to do this,” he said. “They will just do it because it’s profitable for them. We are paying for them to take a risk.”
Some irrigators with the Dolores Project, which delivers water stored in McPhee Reservoir to the Dove Creek area, Montezuma Valley and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, have experienced water shortages in recent drought years. In 2021, some farmers received only 10% of their water allocation. Switching to less thirsty crops helps them to adapt to an increasingly water-short future under climate change, Peterson said.
“They are in a pretty rough situation,” Peterson said. “Long-term it’s looking like you might not get the water in that system that you’re used to. In the southwest particularly it’s become a really rough climate for alfalfa if you don’t have the water.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the March 19 edition of The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the March 20 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Vail Daily, and the Craig Press.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that most of the projects under the Dolores River Project propose to fallow for one year as part of the crop-switching process.