With the statewide snowpack sitting at 73% of average on April 1, and reservoir storage at 71% of average - a mere 39% of full capacity - this is going to be a difficult year for all water users in the state.
In eastern Colorado, farmers are talking about cutting back the acreage they will plant, and Denver has already announced 2-day/week watering restrictions. Closer to home, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association delayed opening up the Gunnison Tunnel by two weeks to April 1, and will at least initially provide irrigators only 50% of the water they normally receive.
By the time this article goes to press, Grand Valley water providers will likely have announced whether they will enact mandatory restrictions. They have been asking customers to voluntarily cut back since last summer.
Just as those taking water out of the streams are facing significant challenges this year, creatures living in streams are likely to be stressed by low flows. Low flows raise water temperatures and drop oxygen levels, harming trout in mountain streams. Low flows on the Colorado River and major tributaries like the Gunnison and the Yampa make it difficult to operate fish passages around dams, constraining the habitat available to endangered native fish species like the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
Last year, the Colorado Water Trust pioneered a new tool to benefit both water users and the environment in drought years. The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization that works to restore and protect streamflows using market-based, voluntary methods.
The new tool, the "Request for Water" program, involves short-term leasing of water for streams to protect the environment. It is operated in close cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board's In-Stream Flow Program, the only entity in the state authorized to hold water rights for flows to benefit the environment.
The "Request for Water Program" has been activated again this year, and the Colorado Water Trust is accepting offers to lease water until May 3.
Those who lease water through the program are financially compensated for the temporary use of their water rights, and they suffer no penalty in their consumptive use records (the "use it or lose it" provision of Colorado water law). These short-term leases can be handled administratively, without having to go through a lengthy water court process, as long as there is no injury to other water rights.
Despite the expedited leasing process, limitations on the program prevent it from being a good fit for all interested parties. For instance, the program may only be used to fill an existing, but water-short instream flow water right. Of 94 water rights offered to the program for lease in 2012, only 6 were ultimately leased. These augmented flows on 190 miles of stream in western Colorado, including the Yampa, the White and areas of the Upper Colorado basin. The enhanced flows provided important recreation benefits, as well as environmental benefits.
For more information on the "Request for Water" program, see: http://www.coloradowatertrust.org/campaigns/request-for-water-2013
The website includes links to a recording of a webinar broadcast March 22, and a link to a webinar planned for April 22.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.