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Western Slope tackling issues of statewide water demands

Future is uncertain for demand management impacts for Western Slope

By Cayla Vidmar

As water levels in Colorado decline, the long-term impact on the Western Slope are concerning to area water experts. The worry is that water demands down river and on the Front Range will dry up the Western Slope and change the character of this area of Colorado.

Last fall the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) released a policy statement on water demand management and compact administration, which addresses the way in which water in Colorado will be managed to meet downriver demand requirements. The document is a response to the “worst hydrologic cycle in the historic record,” which began in the year 2000, and a need for drought contingency plans to meet Colorado water compact demands, according to the policy statement.

This work comes at a time when the local reservoir, Blue Mesa, which serves as a storage for meeting downstream water demands, has remained steady at the lowest point it’s been at all year, coming in at 7,438 feet, or just eight feet above the 1977 record low.

Bill Trampe, board member for the Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD), shared concerns with the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners last month about demand management for the Western Slope, and potential implications for all industries that utilize water on this side of the Rocky Mountains—especially in the face of Front Range expansion and its financial abundance.

Chief of these concerns was the threat of involuntary, uncompensated demand management—Front Range entities buying up water rights on the Western Slope or municipal condemnation of Western Slope agricultural operations, both of which would “change Western Colorado,” according to Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the CRWCD.

The CWCB policy statement explains that “continued drought or worsening water supply conditions in the Upper Colorado River Basin could increase the risk” of Lake Powell storage declining below critical levels for operation, and “mandated curtailment of the exercise of water rights to maintain compliance with the Upper Colorado River Basin and Colorado River Compacts.”

In response to this risk, the CWCB worked with myriad stakeholders and government entities to develop a “drought contingency plan that can help minimize and mitigate the risks associated with consistently below-average water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.”

“What the West Slope is adamant about is that a voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management plan be created,” Pokrandt says. “The alternative is uncompensated, forced curtailment [for water users].” The biggest concern facing voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management is a lack of funding.

An example of voluntary, compensated demand management is paying ranchers to fallow hay fields for a season or more, but as previously reported in the Crested Butte News, this isn’t a great deal for ranchers because it can take years for the quality of hay to return to what it was pre-fallow.

But as Pokrandt says, “Colorado will need to find a source for demand management compensation.” He explains that without compensation, “We would see many current agricultural [entities] go out of business and their water rights sold. In other words, we would have a massive shift in water rights ownership that would not be in the best interest of western Colorado.” However, Pokrandt writes that the Gates Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation contributing to the quality of life in Colorado, “just funded and facilitated a discussion on dedicated Colorado Water Plan funding to cover this subject.”

The point Pokrandt makes is that Front Range utilities can “wave around their checkbooks and buy out Western Slope producers who could not resist the money,” which as he explained previously, would cause a shift in water rights ownership on the Western Slope. For those who do resist, Pokrandt says, the “Colorado Constitution allows for municipal condemnation of agriculture,” meaning a government agency can forcibly buy property for fair market value for a public purpose, according to the law of eminent domain.

“This would change the face of western Colorado from an economic, landscape, cultural, recreational and environmental perspective,” says Pokrandt.

While the CWCB policy states it will “prioritize avoidance of disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water rights holders,” there is concern among Western Slope water entities that this language creates a lot of wiggle room.

“The language about equitable sharing of demand management is equivocating and inexact…that’s where western Colorado would have liked stronger language,” says Pokrandt. Included in a memo from the CRWCD regarding the CWCB policy document is a letter from the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District attorney’s office. It calls to question the intent of policy number six, stating, “This language is an obvious effort to protect transmountain diverters with junior water rights and should be alarming to all senior West Slope water managers, owners, and organizations charged with protecting those rights.”

Water entities are coming together now to work through and understand many of the issues, and Pokrandt says, “Now is the time for finding a solution for a fair, equitable, compensated demand management program.”

This work will involve organizing stakeholders, water entities and the public in tackling specific problems, including: federal legislation to create a demand management pool in Lake Powell where saved water can be stored; finding money to pay producers to not use water that can be sent to Lake Powell; legal protections to make sure water is actually getting to Lake Powell, also known as “shepherding,” a way to account for the water so amounts are known and recognized; and understanding what temporary fallowing does to the economy, particularly secondary impacts from producers earning money without paying for seed purchases, equipment, etc.

For these reasons and more, we can all be thankful for the water coming into the valley this week as white fluffy stuff.

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