| PostIndependent.com

Ganaderos recibirán compensación de hasta $8.000 por cabeza perdida por la depredación de lobos, según CPW

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) vendrá a Rifle la próxima semana para discutir y recopilar comentarios del público sobre el polémico plan del estado para restaurar los lobos grises en su ecosistema.

La reunión está programada de 8:30 a.m. a 3:00 p.m. el martes en la sede de Colorado Mountain College de Rifle, en 3695 Airport Road. Cualquiera que no pueda asistir a la reunión en persona pero que esté interesado en hacer un comentario público puede completar un formulario en línea, en engagementcpw.org. La fecha límite para completar y enviar este documento de comentario público es el 22 de febrero.

La oficial de información pública de CPW, Rachael Gonzales, dijo que las personas que se presenten en persona a la reunión de Rifle podrán hablar en orden de llegada.

“Aparecerán, se registrarán y el orden en que se registren será el orden en que proporcionarán comentarios públicos,” dijo.

La reunión será moderada por Reid DeWalt y Eric Odell, dos funcionarios de CPW encargados de crear el Borrador del Plan de Gestión y Restauración de Lobos. Este plan, que se encuentra en la página CPW’s Wolves – Stay Informed detalla exactamente cómo CPW va a regular una población autosuficiente de lobos grises en Colorado. El Gerente de CPW Game Damage, Luke Hoffman, también asistirá.

“El plan se basa en la gestión de los lobos en Colorado utilizando un marco basado en el impacto,” dijo DeWalt, Director Assistente de Recursos Acuáticos, Terrestres y Naturales de CPW, a la Comisión de CPW el mes pasado.

“Esperamos que la gran mayoría de los lobos no se vean afectados por ningún tipo de conflicto en ninguna parte del estado.”

El plan en sí surge de una petición creada en el 2019 por el Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, un grupo liderado por ciudadanos con sede en Louisville. El esfuerzo recibió suficientes firmas (215.370) y, en las elecciones de noviembre del 2020, los votantes de Colorado aprobaron por poco la Proposición 114: La reintroducción de lobos.

Desde entonces, el esfuerzo ha generado varias preocupaciones de ganaderos y ambientalistas tanto a favor como en contra del plan. Algunos ambientalistas aún se muestran escépticos sobre el plan de CPW para potencialmente acabar con los lobos que atacan al ganado. Mientras tanto, una de las principales preocupaciones de los ganaderos es que los lobos puedan afectar sus ingresos.

La presidenta comisionada de CPW, Carrie Besnette Hauser, dijo el mes pasado que el objetivo es desarrollar un plan que la mayoría del público apoye y que represente un compromiso razonable.

“Esto es histórico para Colorado,” dijo. “Y lo haremos bien.”

Hasta ahora, CPW ha tenido dos reuniones sobre el plan de reintroducción, una en Colorado Springs el 19 de enero y otra en Gunnison el 25 de enero. Además de Rifle, se llevarán a cabo dos reuniones más: Una virtual y otra en persona en Denver

Cada uno aborda cuestiones como la mitigación de conflictos no letales, así como la posible compensación que proporciona CPW en caso de que un lobo ataque al ganado.

Odell, Gerente del Programa de Conservación de Especies y líder biológico del proyecto de lobos, dijo que CPW está ofreciendo hasta $8.000 por cabeza perdida directamente debido a la depredación de lobos.

“CPW ha desarrollado opciones de compensación adicionales para abordar la falta de terneros y ovejas,” dijo el mes pasado.

CPW proporcionará un borrador del plan final con las regulaciones propuestas en Steamboat Springs el 6 de abril. La Comisión de CPW votará sobre el plan final del 3 al 4 de mayo en Glenwood Springs.

Traducción por Edgar Barrantes.

Si decides ir:

Qué es: Reunión de CPW para revisar el Borrador del Plan de Manejo y Restauración del Lobo.

Cuándo: 8:30 a.m. a 3:00 p.m. el martes 7 de febrero.

Dónde: Sede en Rifle de Colorado Mountain College, en 3695 Airport Road.

State officials draft bill regulating stream restoration

Colorado officials have drafted a bill aimed at addressing a tension between stream restoration projects and water rights holders. 

The draft clarifies that restoration projects do not fall under the definitions of a diversion, storage or a dam and do not need to go through the lengthy and expensive water court process to secure a water right. 

But before a project begins, proponents would have to file an information form with the state Division of Water Resources showing the project will stay within the historical footprint of the floodplain before it was degraded and doesn’t create new wetlands, the draft bill proposes. These forms would be publicly available, and anyone could then challenge whether the project meets the requirements by filing a complaint, which would be taken up by DWR staff. 

If stream restoration projects were required to secure a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions it causes, it could discourage these types of projects, something the state Department of Natural Resources wants to avoid.

“We are trying to make it clear that stream restoration projects do not fall under the definition of diversion,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the state’s assistant director for water policy. “However, we put limits on what a restoration project is or isn’t and the restoration project has to fall within the historical footprint of the stream system.” 

Slowing the flow

A beaver dam on Maroon Creek near Aspen. The state of Colorado has a draft bill to resolve tension between stream restoration projects that mimic beaver activity and downstream water rights holders.| Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Restoration projects on small headwaters tributaries often mimic beaver activity, with what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.

The goal of process-based restoration projects like these is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.

In these now-simplified stream systems, water, sediment and debris all move downstream more quickly, said Ellen Wohl, a fluvial geomorphologist at Colorado State University. 

“Natural rivers have all these sources of variability,” Wohl said. “They have pools and riffles, meanderings, obstructions like wood and beaver dams. All those things can help slow the flow, which leads to less bed and bank erosion. It allows sediment to be deposited gradually along the channel, and you increase biological processing and recharge of ground water and soil moisture.”

Although these projects benefit the environment, improve water quality and create resiliency against wildfires and climate change, keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially have impacts to downstream water users. Under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — which nearly always belong to agriculture — have first use of the water. 

Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, meaning irrigators may not get their full amount of water. 

John McClow is an attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and is chair of a Colorado Water Congress sub-committee studying the bill, which will make suggestions to the bill’s sponsors. He said there have been wet meadow restoration projects in the headwaters of the Gunnison River that have harmed water rights holders.

“We had some examples of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects,” he said. “In each case we worked with water rights holders and removed the obstruction so their water rights were not impaired.” 

McClow said he would like to see the bill set a standard to avoid problems at the outset of projects. 

This beaver dam analogue, with posts across the creek and soft, woody material woven across, was built by environmental restoration group EcoMetrics, keeps water on the landscape by mimicking beaver activity. Some water rights holders worry that these types of projects could negatively impact them.| Photo by Jackie Corday

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, who represents District 8 and is chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said part of the bill’s urgency is so that Colorado can take advantage of unprecedented federal funding for stream restoration from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“If we can demonstrate to the federal government that we have a streamlined process for stream restoration projects, then we will make Colorado significantly more eligible for those federal funds,” Roberts said. “We are trying our best to position our state to receive the resources that we deserve.”

Roberts, a Democrat whose Western Slope district includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties, expects the bill to be introduced later this month.

Romero-Heaney said the state’s system of water law works well because it is adaptable to the evolving needs of Coloradans. The stream restoration legislation aims to reduce barriers to projects while still protecting water rights.

“We are at that moment where we need to make a decision: Do we want to have a future with healthy streams that are providing all those environmental services, or do we want to make that future pretty difficult to achieve?” she said. “It’s a soul-searching conversation for the water community.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. For more information, go to www.aspenjournalism.org.

Crystal River Wild and Scenic designation effort gets a guide

The Wild and Scenic Feasibility Collaborative selected a facilitator to organize stakeholder interests and community engagement in the effort to explore — and potentially win — a Wild and Scenic designation for a portion of the Crystal River.

Consultant groups Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and P2 Solutions were chosen for their expertise in community engagement. 

Jacob Wornstein, the founder of Wellstone, and Wendy Lowe, the owner of P2, boast “strong backgrounds in natural resource issues and direct knowledge of the Crystal River,” according to a press release.

The companies are based in Denver and Loveland, respectively.

The facilitators will create a stakeholder group to compile interests and viewpoints on protection for the Crystal River, including the Wild and Scenic designation. 

In the 1980s, then re-affirmed in 2002, the White River National Forest designated 39 miles of the Crystal River across Pitkin and Gunnison counties as eligible for a federal Wild and Scenic designation. Certain stretches qualify as wild and others scenic.

Members of the collaborative involved in selecting the facilitators include the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, American Whitewater, and landowners in unincorporated Gunnison County and the Pitkin County Crystal River Caucus.

A dam proposal on the Crystal in the early 2010s ignited the discussion over the protection of the Crystal River. The process stalled around 2016, but picked back up in 2021 when Pitkin County Healthy Rivers granted $35,000 to Wilderness Workshop for a public outreach campaign to educate the community on the Wild and Scenic designation.

This map shows the sections of the Crystal River that could be designated wild, scenic and recreational, according to the finding of eligibility by the U.S. Forest Service.
Courtesy Roaring Fork Conservancy

And Pitkin County Healthy Rivers allocated at least $100,000 in the past year and a half to the designation effort, said Francie Jacober, chair of the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners.

Many of the stakeholders in this process already have a long history of supporting a Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal River, which would prohibit future dams and diversions along the designated stretch. 

“Wild and Scenic designation primarily would prevent any dams or diversions from taking water from the river Watershed into another basin. And we are woefully over allocated in terms of the Colorado River. So, I think we can be fairly certain that they’re going to start coming back to the Roaring Fork Valley and looking for more diversions from our area,” Jacober said. “Keeping our water in our basin is really important for the people who live here for many reasons: cultural, recreational, scenic, house uses, well permits. All those things that we use our Crystal River Basin Water for, we prefer not to have threatened by taking our water somewhere else.”

Another feature of the designation is its ability to customize the act to fit individual rivers’ qualities.

Bill Argeros lives in Redstone along the Crystal River and is a member of the Crystal River Caucus. He has been an advocate for the Wild and Scenic designation for years.

“I’m excited to move forward with the selected facilitation groups in order to engage in a stakeholder process that will result in a Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal River that is tailormade for our community,” Argeros said in a press release. “Such a designation will prevent in perpetuity any dams or diversions of our precious water while maintaining the integrity of individual property rights. It will ensure the Crystal River will remain free-flowing and ecologically balanced.”

The Wild and Scenic Rivers System, created by Congress in 1968, is meant to preserve a river’s qualities that caused it to receive designation. 

“Designation neither prohibits development nor gives the federal government control over private property,” according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website.

The designation does not affect existing valid water rights or interstate water rights, either. 

The county posted a request for proposals seeking a facilitator in October 2022 and closed it in November. 

Facilitators will need to prove widespread community support for the designation in order for Congress to approve Wild and Scenic designation. 

Both Carbondale and Glenwood Springs’ municipal councils passed resolutions in the past year in support of the designation for the Crystal River. 

Costs for the facilitation services and expenditures of the stakeholder process are to be shared through both monetary and in-kind contributions from the town of Marble, Gunnison County,Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, and American Whitewater, according to the press release. 

Collaborative members said they hope to see federal action on the designation within the year, with stakeholder group work set to start in early 2023.

“In order for this to pass in Congress, we’re  going to have to prove that the local people are very supportive of it. So, that would be something that we’d like to strive for,” Jacober said. 

jtaris@aspentimes.com

Public meeting Dec. 14 on proposed Thompson Divide mineral-leasing withdrawal

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are hosting an informational public meeting on Dec. 14 in Carbondale regarding the proposal to withdraw approximately 224,704 acres of federal lands in Garfield, Gunnison and Pitkin counties — encompassing the area known as Thompson Divide — from future mineral leasing. 

According to a USFS news release, the meeting is to include two sessions of up to one-hour, beginning at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., at the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, 300 Meadowood Drive in Carbondale.

The meetings can also be attended virtually by advance registration at: blm.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_kOqvlqQ7R_Kjo4dgFypoJg

On Oct. 12, the Department of the Interior announced steps to protect the Thompson Divide area, and the BLM published a notice in the Federal Register, announcing the withdrawal proposal — available online on the Federal Register website. The announcement came at the same time the Biden Administration announced the establishment of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.

Next week’s info sessions are to consist of a short presentation explaining the Thompson Divide withdrawal proposal and process, followed by an opportunity for questions and answers. Information about how to provide written comments will be provided. The 6 p.m. session will include Spanish interpretation. 

“This is really a preliminary meeting to discuss the process moving forward,” Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests Deputy Supervisor Anthony Edwards said in the news release. “We will be conducting a thorough environmental review of the proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act, which will include additional opportunities for public comment.”

The notice initiated a two-year segregation period, which prohibits any new federal mineral leases within the proposed withdrawal area. The segregation does not apply to pre-existing leases or private minerals. If approved, the withdrawal would be over a 20-year period, subject to valid existing rights, the release states.

The initial comment period will close Jan. 16, 2023. Comments should be sent to State Director, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office, 2850 Youngfield Street, Lakewood, Colorado 80215 or email to: BLM_CO_Thompson_Divide@blm.gov.

Tree-thinning work aimed at forest health resumes along Fourmile Road this month

White River National Forest officials advise that winter recreationists using Fourmile Road above Glenwood Springs may encounter logging traffic Monday through Friday starting this month, as two projects aimed at improving forest health begin.

An aspen-regeneration project across four areas, totaling 109 acres, is underway east and south of Fourmile Park, the local forest agency said in a news release. Aspen stands need periodic disturbance, and clear-cutting and removing mature aspen stimulates their root system to vigorously regenerate, the release states.

Trees are to be felled, chipped on site and trucked to the biomass plant in Gypsum.

In addition, a spruce-fir regeneration project is under way farther up Fourmile Road in the Countyline area. There, small (0.5-2 acres) patches of spruce-fir will be cut from seven units, totaling 823 acres, the release states. The logs are being trucked to a mill in Montrose.

Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir respond well to these smaller area cuts, forest managers explained.  

“This work will help ensure the long-term health of forests in this area by creating size and age diversity,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said in the release. “The work will also improve wildlife habitat.”

The work is expected to result in up to 20 heavy trucks a day traveling Fourmile Road (FSR 300) on weekdays. The road remains open to the Fourmile Park gate and kiosk, but parking will be only be allowed along one side of the road to ensure enough room is available for large trucks and other vehicles.

The snowmobile parking area near the U.S. Forest Service boundary will be open this year. Snowmobilers will be able to access an alternate, groomed trail across Black Hills Energy property to bypass the plowed portions of Fourmile Road.

The projects are anticipated to continue through the winter. Additional units will be cut in the area over the next several years. 

“This is a very popular area for a variety of recreational activities year-round, and it is an important area for other multiple uses on the Forest, including timber work and summer grazing,” Warner said. “We appreciate everyone’s patience and willingness to respect all the different activities occurring.” 

For more information, call the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, 970-963-2266, or visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver.

Four things to know about the lower Colorado River basin

Staff and board members from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, along with other water managers from across western Colorado, this month visited the lower basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — on what they called a fact-finding trip. 

The tour took participants by bus from Las Vegas though the green alfalfa fields of the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation, past the big diversions serving the Central Arizona Project and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and to the hot, below-sea-level agricultural expanse of the biggest water user on the river: the Imperial Irrigation District. Among the about 50 participants on the three-day tour were Kathy Chandler-Henry and Steve Beckley — River District board representatives from Eagle and Garfield counties. Pitkin County representative John Ely did not attend.

The River District’s mission is to protect, conserve, use, and develop the waters within its 15-county area of western Colorado and to safeguard the water to which the state is entitled.

With the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which store Colorado River water — at record-low levels that threaten hydropower production and calls for conservation coming from the federal government, it’s more important than ever for western Colorado residents to understand how water is used in the lower basin, said River District general manager Andy Mueller. 

“We have to be able to understand (lower basin) interests and their needs, so that we can find ways to meet their interests while protecting our own,” he said. “There’s a system at risk of collapse, and we are an integral part of that.”

One in 17 people

An often-repeated fact about the Colorado River is that it provides water to 40 million people in the Southwest. But, perhaps an even more salient statistic is that 1 in 17 people in the United States — about 19 million — get their water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. About half of that comes from the Colorado River. 

Since 1941, MWD’s Whitsett Pumping Plant has taken water from Lake Havasu and pumped it into the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it then travels 242 miles to urban Southern California. The water district spans 26 municipalities and six counties.

The future of providing enough water to all these urban customers may be something called direct potable re-use — MWD calls it raw-water augmentation — which would allow them to recycle wastewater into drinking water instead of discharging it into the ocean. MWD is testing this concept with its Pure Water Southern California demonstration facility in Carson, Calif., which was the last stop on the tour. 

Direct potable re-use takes sewage, treats it using sophisticated — and expensive — filtering and disinfection techniques and returns it to taps as drinking water without first diluting it in a larger body of water. Last month, Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission gave preliminary approval to regulate direct potable reuse. 

MWD is working toward using the recycled water for industrial purposes and groundwater recharge, and it eventually hopes to deliver it to residents’ taps. The water provider could have a preliminary portion of the project online by 2028. This new supply of recycled water could meet about 10% of MWD’s demands, according to Rupam Soni, MWD’s community-relations team manager.

“It provides us with so much operational flexibility and water reliability because this supply is available to us rain or shine, it’s climate resilient, and that’s really important to us right now, with climate change and the challenges it’s imposed on our imported supplies,” Soni said. 

Forage crops are No. 1

Although it’s true that much of the country’s winter produce, especially lettuce, comes from lower basin farmers, the No. 1 thing grown with Colorado River water is forage crops: alfalfa and different types of grasses to feed livestock.

The Imperial Irrigation District uses 3.1 million acre-feet a year of Colorado River water. By comparison, the entire upper basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming) uses between 3.5 and 4.5 million acre-feet per year from the Colorado River. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot and is enough to supply one or two families for a year. 

IID’s No. 1 crop is alfalfa and represents almost 31% of the acres grown. Bermuda grass and Sudan grass are second and third, respectively. These top three crops account for about 56% of the acres grown in IID. 

The All-American Canal conveys water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in Southern California. The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest user of Colorado River water.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Forage crops comprise the majority of what is grown in the upper basin, too. But, growers in Colorado’s high-elevation valleys can expect about two cuttings a year, while much of the lower basin grows hay year-round, getting seven to nine cuttings. That means switching to less-thirsty forage crops in the lower basin could have a greater impact on the amount of water used. 

In Colorado, some irrigators are experimenting with growing forage crops that use less water in an effort to adapt to a hotter, drier future. 

Kremmling rancher Paul Bruchez, a representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is trying out test plots on his family’s ranch. He’s growing sainfoin, a legume with a nutritional value similar to that of alfalfa. Bruchez, a participant on the tour, said some lower basin water managers and growers have expressed interest in meeting with him to learn more about growing less-thirsty crops.

Bruchez stressed that switching forage crops in the upper basin is not about propping up Powell and Mead with water saved from agriculture, especially since there isn’t currently a demand-management program in place to account for that water savings. It’s about survival. 

“People just don’t have enough water to irrigate the way they used to irrigate,” he said. “They are just trying to make a living and stretch their water to go further.”

Upper basin bears brunt

Over the past two decades, the Colorado River has lost nearly 20% of its flows. Part of that is because of the ongoing drought, the worst in 1,200 years, which means less precipitation. But, according to researchers, about one-third of that loss can be attributed to hotter temperatures driven by climate change. Decreased river flows mean that less water ends up in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

These reduced streamflows in the upper basin mean water users may have to adapt their operations because less water is available to them. If there’s less water in the stream, junior users may get cut off, and senior users may not be able to take their full amount. Streamflows can be particularly inadequate during the late-summer and early-fall irrigation season, and some water users are at the mercy of dry local conditions.

Upper basin water managers like to point out that this isn’t the case in the lower basin. Although western Colorado has thousands of small-scale water users diverting from dwindling rivers, the lower basin has just a handful of large-scale water users who have the benefit of two, huge upstream storage buckets that release the water exactly when it’s needed. 

“Our farmers in particular live within that hydrology in flux, and we have learned how to adapt to climate change,” Mueller said. “In the lower basin, their agriculture and outdoor landscaping are absorbing more water because of the hotter temperatures, so they just call for more from the reservoirs.”

Evaporation loss

The thing about building giant reservoirs in the desert is that a portion of the water evaporates into the hot, dry air. In the upper basin, these evaporative losses from the reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project are accounted for and charged as part of the consumptive use to each state depending on their allocation of water. 

For example, as laid out in the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact, Colorado’s allocation of upper basin water is 51.75%. Therefore, the state takes 51.75% of the evaporative losses for Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge, and Lake Powell. Such is not the case in the lower basin, where evaporative losses in reservoirs remain unaccounted for. 

The Las Vegas wash is a 12-mile-long channel that returns the valley’s excess water to Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has recommended that lower basin contractors be charged for evaporative losses, something upper basin water managers have been saying for years.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Upper basin water managers have long said this accounting is unfair and enables overuse in the lower basin. 

“We are asking for (the lower basin) to be treated the same way we are, so the system and the playing field is even,” Mueller said. “Once we are on an even playing table, then we can address the way we work in the future, but it’s really hard to do that when the rules they play by down here enable so much more water use than what we have in the upper basin.”

The upper basin may finally be making progress on this point, for at least one lower basin water provider has taken up the rallying cry. In an August letter to federal officials, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s John Entsminger recommended that each lower basin contractor be charged for evaporation losses, so that “the lower basin can reduce its reliance upon excess water from the upper basin to balance reservoirs.” 

A subsequent study by SNWA found about 1.5 million acre-feet in evaporation and transit losses each year downstream of Lee Ferry, the dividing line between the upper and lower basins that is just downstream of Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam. 

“We divorced the water use in the lower basin from the hydrology,” Mueller said. “When you have 50 years of reliable water supply, you don’t think about the fragility of the natural system that’s providing that water.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post Independent. For more information, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org

Western Slope water managers ask: What authority do the feds have?

The Bureau of Reclamation made emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County last year to help prop up Lake Powell. Blue Mesa is one of the four initial Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs that contains “system water” specifically used to help the upper basin meet its water delivery obligations to the lower basin.| Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action. 

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall. 

“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”

Paonia Reservoir, seen here in May 2022, has ties to the Bureau of Reclamation, and its stored water is used for irrigation in the North Fork Valley. Some Western Slope water managers say it’s unclear what authority the federal government has over projects like these.| Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th-century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more. 

In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation, and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component. 

“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the bureau, and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine-tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the bureau has.”

Last year, Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance, their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin. 

But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties. 

At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials, without much luck. 

Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal. 

A boat floats past bathtub rings showing how low Lake Powell levels have dropped Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Page, Ariz.| Brittany Peterson/AP

“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water … down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”

Rein did not know the answer.

“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.

Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin assistant regional director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.

“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”

River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river. 

The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones —  from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries. 

“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.” 

Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin. 

“At the end of the day, I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement, and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said. 

Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs. 

Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.

If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said. 

“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”

Aspen Journalism is an independent, nonprofit news organization that covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Post Independent. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org

Yale Law School Invites Ranch Group CEO to Present at Upcoming Antitrust Conference

 

Billings, Mont. – Yale Law School has invited R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard to submit an academic paper on antitrust issues in the U.S. cattle industry and participate in the school’s upcoming conference, “Big Ag & Antitrust: Competition Policy for a Humane and Sustainable Food System.” The virtual conference will take place online on Saturday, January 16, 2021 from 9:15 am – 5:00 pm EST.

According to its Website, the conference is intended to discuss what kinds of reforms are needed in antitrust enforcement and regulations to improve America’s food system. It is intended to serve as a focal point for academics, enforcers, policymakers, practitioners, and journalists.

Bullard was invited to submit an abstract that was ultimately selected by the conference’s organizers. His abstract described how he would update his earlier paper, “Under Siege: The U.S. Live Cattle Industry,” which was published in the 2013 South Dakota Law Review. His law review article cautioned that without rigorous antitrust enforcement and other legal actions to protect market competition, the cattle industry as it is known today will be lost for future generations.

Bullard’s abstract stated that conditions in the U.S. cattle industry have worsened since his 2013 article. “In 2015 the nation experienced an inexplicable, long-term cattle-price collapse while consumers continued paying record and near-record beef prices. Since 2017 beef prices have reached new historical highs, while cattle prices trended downward, a phenomenon evincing a disconnect between the value of the raw product (i.e. cattle) and the value of beef. In 2019 a beef packer’s temporary shutdown caused another inexplicable, nationwide price collapse. And, in 2020, for the first time in recent memory, consumers could not buy the beef they needed for their families because grocery store beef counters were bare.”

The virtual conference will consist of a keynote welcome address and six hour-long panels, with each panel featuring three speakers and a moderator. The conference is free and open to the public and will be recorded over Zoom. The public can register for the conference here: registration link.

–R-CALF USA