Grant launches local Colorado Water Plan implementation

Needs assessments to focus on agriculture, starting in Ohio Creek, Lake Fork of the 

Gunnison, and East River

by Crystal Kotowski

In January the Colorado Water Conservation Board granted the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) and partners $175,000 to begin local watershed management planning efforts. The funding will support the gathering of baseline information, initial stakeholder outreach, and future needs assessments in three Upper Gunnison tributary basins from 2017 to 2020.

The goals of the Upper Gunnison Basin Watershed Management Plan are to protect existing water uses and water quality, and improve relationships between different water users. The plan also seeks to understand whether there are gaps between available water and future uses, and how to best manage that water moving forward. Water experts predict that the Colorado population will rise exponentially, putting more stress on the Front Range’s limited water supply and thus the  Western Slope, and changing temperatures will reduce water availability.

The planning framework developed by the UGRWCD includes needs identified in the Colorado Water Plan, but also focuses on agricultural and municipal uses. Irrigated hay and pasture meadows have rights to approximately 95 percent of the basin’s water resources. “Our planning process distinguishes between ‘watershed management’ and ‘stream management,’” explained UGRWCD board member and outreach coordinator George Sibley.

“’Stream management’ in the Colorado Water Plan focuses almost entirely on environmental and recreational needs. Watershed management covers our interactions with all of the water resources in the entire watershed, including groundwater, and water removed from streams for human purposes,” said Sibley.

The need for planning

Stream management plans grew out of the Colorado Water Plan, mandated by Governor Hickenlooper to address projected water shortages, and the need is clear from changing flows. From 2000 to 2014, the river’s flows declined to only 81 percent of the 20th century average; from one sixth to one half of the 21st century reduction in flow can be attributed to the higher temperatures since 2000.

Increased temperatures are expected to reduce Colorado River flows by more than another 30 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, new research from the University of Arizona and Colorado State University confirms. The research, “The 21st Century Colorado River Hot Drought and Implications for the Future,” released online February 17, is the first to quantify the different effects of temperature and precipitation on recent Colorado River flow.

Demographers project between three million and five million new Coloradoans by 2050—and though 75 percent are expected to reside in the Front Range, projections note a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in population in the Upper Gunnison Basin.

Demographic changes will further tilt Colorado’s water imbalance, as currently about 80 percent of the state’s water supplies sits on the Western Slope, but 80 percent of the population lives on the Eastern Slope.

Gunnison River watersheds encompass over 8,000 square miles of western Colorado and are critical headwaters of the Colorado River. “The Upper Gunnison River Basin is a headwaters basin, which means it is not yet really a river, but many flows of water becoming a river. Most of those streams organize themselves into seven main watersheds, each unique in its natural and human cultural geography,” said Sibley.

The Gunnison and other Western Slope tributary basins produce 70 percent of the entire Colorado River water supply. By 2050, the Gunnison Basin is projected to increase in municipal and industrial water demand from 16,000 acre feet to as much as 32,000 acre feet, with passive conservation included.

In addition to planning for those changes, this process will also quantify environmental needs. “The Colorado Water Plan highlighted the need to quantify environmental needs to manage for healthy stream ecosystems,” said water program director for the High Country Conservation Advocates Julie Nania. “Watershed management planning will provide an opportunity to better understand these needs while identifying projects that can help protect ecosystems while still satisfying existing uses.”

Local planning efforts

Locally, the assessments will begin with the Ohio Creek, East River and Lake Fork watersheds, providing a framework for the other four watersheds over the next four years.

Each watershed study begins with a needs assessment inventory of known and anticipated needs stretching out to mid-century from industry, recreation, agriculture, and human settlements in general—while subsequently identifying areas with significant environmental concerns.

The studies will seek to understand ecosystem function needs, river flows, infrastructure in need of improvement, water quality impairment issues, and ensuing legal frameworks. This first phase will also address information gaps and develop pilot projects to demonstrate best management practices. Pilot studies and demonstration projects in each watershed will look at options to reconcile instream and diversion needs. Potential demonstration projects include ditch repair, stream channel reconfiguration, wetland enhancements, coordination irrigation or other conservation practices.

The UGRWCD will be the coordinating agency for the watershed management planning processes, working with other water-related agencies and organizations within the Upper Gunnison Basin, including but not limited to the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, the seven municipal/domestic water suppliers in the Upper Gunnison Basin, Trout Unlimited, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition, the Lake Fork Conservancy, recreational organizations, and federal and state land management agencies.

“We must emphasize that this will be an adaptive management planning process,” the UGRWCD fact sheet reads. “All we know for sure is that relentless population growth and climate changes will make the future of water in the west different from the past, so what we are planning for is ways to make our water use as efficient as possible, our watershed and stream ecosystems as healthy as possible, and our approach to the future as fully and creatively aware as possible, in order to adapt to whatever the future brings us with as much of our current mix of water uses still operational as possible.”

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