River District considers criteria for water conservation program
Contracts approved only if no new projects take water to Front Range
A Western Slope water conservation district has released a draft of the rules it plans to use to guide a program paying water users to cut back.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Directors discussed the policy at its quarterly meeting last week. In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled details of a rebooted water conservation program, which originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water.
Along with state officials, it will be up to the River District to approve or deny applications for the restarted program within its 15-county boundary, with the aim of preventing speculation and permanent damage to the Western Slope’s agricultural communities.
“While we didn’t come up with the idea of system conservation and certainly didn’t ever endorse the idea that $125 million should be made available for this particular system conservation program, we recognize that we need to act to protect our communities and our water supply here,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the River District.
According to the River District’s criteria, an applicant must prove saving water will not injure other water users. In a given year, no more than 30% of the land owned by a single person or entity can be dried up and no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any sub-basin can be dried up.
The policy says that Front Range water providers — which in total take about 500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across the Continental Divide to growing cities and for agriculture — must also contribute their fair share of water. The River District will only approve contracts so long as there are no new transmountain diversion projects or expansion of an existing one — at all.
“We are not going to ask our water users to cut back when what that means is essentially making room for new transbasin diversions,” Mueller said.
The policy also recommends that if the farm operator is not the owner of the land, that 40% of the federal payments go to the operator.
“Should all the funds go to landowners and not the farm operators, we may see families leave the area or be forced to switch professions,” Mueller said. “That’s a real potential negative of a program like this.”
The restarted System Conservation Pilot Program — which the River District is referring to as just the System Conservation Program, dropping the “pilot” since it’s no longer new — will pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water. It will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. The deadline to submit applications is Feb. 1 and the Upper Colorado River Commission expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.
The goal of the System Conservation Program is to reduce Colorado River water use in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) to lessen the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs. The program is one arm of the commission’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydro-electric power at the dams. Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada) to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.
River District board members will provide feedback on the policy and could approve a final draft at a meeting in two weeks.
The original System Conservation Pilot Program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over four years. Upper Colorado River Commission officials have repeatedly said they cannot put a number on how much water they expect to be conserved in the new iteration of the program.
The the commission held a webinar on Wednesday to provide additional information to applicants and walk through the review process and timeline. According to the commission’s executive director Chuck Cullom, the webinar had more than 120 participants.
Cullom said the Upper Colorado River Commission, which has just three employees, will be looking to contractors and state leaders to get the program up and running.
“In order to engage in something as regionally diverse as system conservation requires a team,” he said. “So we are engaging with a consultant who will provide technical and administrative support work as well as the leadership and work from each of the four states.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. For more information, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
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