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Water trust plan detailed

Conservation-minded landowners and groups have been protecting open space for years through land trusts.Now it’s time to do the same for streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands, say the backers of a new organization, the Colorado Water Trust.”Where are the real environmental needs in Colorado? That’s where we should prioritize our efforts,” said Peter Nichols, a Carbondale water lawyer and director of the Colorado Water Trust.He unveiled the Colorado Water Trust concept Tuesday in a presentation to the Colorado River Water Conservation District board, which was meeting Tuesday and today in Glenwood Springs.Although the private, nonprofit Colorado Water Trust was formed last September, it’s been under wraps while a controversial instream flow bill, Senate Bill 156, makes its way through the state Legislature.In its original form, SB 156 would have opened the door for private parties and government agencies to file for and hold instream flow water rights – a privilege presently reserved to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.State officials saw the bill as a threat, and the fledgling Water Trust was at risk until the bill was watered down. At the same time, Water Trust leaders aligned their conservation group’s mission to complement, rather than compete with, the state water board’s role.It will act as a middleman in acquiring water rights from willing sellers, and will then donate rights to the state water board, Nichols said.As a result, the Colorado Water Trust can move forward regardless of what state legislators decide on the instream flow bill.”The Water Trust is apolitical,” Nichols said Tuesday. “We haven’t taken a position on SB 156. We don’t care about the bill. Whatever position the Legislature takes, we’ll live with it.”Nichols and the Water Trust’s 12-member board, comprised of some of the state’s top water and environmental leaders, including Glenwood Springs lawyer Jim Lochhead, are eager to get started. They plan to spend $2 million a year acquiring water rights and water conservation easements to put water back into dry streams and lakes and preserve wildlife-rich wetlands.The trust comes on the state water scene as the state water board’s instream flow program nears its 30th anniversary. It has secured instream flow and natural lake level water rights on 8,000 miles of streams and in 475 lakes.”The problem with instream flow protection in Colorado is that by the time the state got into the game, much of the water was already appropriated,” said Nichols.In streams and rivers already under heavy use by irrigators, cities or industry, the state agency could only claim the little bit of water remaining. That was often far less than biologists said was needed to truly protect the stream or lake and the fishery and wildlife habitat it supports.”Think of Colorado as Swiss cheese,” Nichols suggested. The state’s instream protections are the cheese, but there are big holes throughout, where instream flows aren’t large enough, or don’t last through the whole year.”We’re looking for the holes, where there are true, legitimate needs for water,” he said.Nichols said the Water Trust will work within existing property and water law.The conservation group could buy water rights from irrigators or industrial users, converting them from an out-of-stream diversion to an instream flow.It could acquire water rights that could be used to preserve wetlands, donating such land-based uses to a wildlife group such as Ducks Unlimited.The Water Trust recognizes that farmers and ranchers use their water rights to create irrigated wetlands that provide good habitat for wildlife, and could use a conservation easement approach to preserve that use.”We want to give agriculture another option, so farmers and ranchers continue to irrigate,” Nichols said. If irrigators sell out to housing or commercial developments, those artificial but prolific wetlands are lost forever, he added.Craig rancher T. Wright Dickinson, a Moffat County commissioner and River District board member, questioned the trust’s commitment to preserve agriculture.”We have created more wetlands than anybody,” he said of the West’s farmers and ranchers. “It may not be natural, but the wildlife damn sure appreciates it.”But if the Water Trust doesn’t recognize the dual purpose of that water, Dickinson said, then it’s not going to be the “middle of the road organization” that Nichols described.”You have to work to support the natural ecological processes on one side and the man-made on the other,” Dickinson said.Nichols agreed, but said the Water Trust won’t get involved in a sale if irrigation is not creating environmental benefits.Nichols said the Water Trust will also serve as a water rights advisor to the state’s 35 land trusts. They protect 340,000 acres of land in Colorado, according to Pam Nicholls, program associate for the Land Trust Alliance in Grand Junction.The Colorado Water Trust hopes to achieve at least five demonstration deals by 2004. They could include:-Buying a water right and donating it to the state to boost instream flows.-Securing a conservation easement on a water right to boost flows during dry times.-Using technology to free up irrigation water for instream flows.-Buying water stored in a reservoir to release downstream for environmental purposes.-Partnering with a city and the state water board to keep unused municipal water rights in a stream, except in times of need, without risk to the water right.River District board member Tom Dunlop of Pitkin County asked Nichols where the money would come from.Nichols said the group has already raised $55,000 in its first six months, and plans to seek grants from foundations and sympathetic governmental agencies.”We want to raise a revolving fund, so if an agricultural right comes on the market that needs to be sold quickly, we’d have a pot of money to enter into an option until we can raise the money to buy it,” he said.


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