Despite snowy winter, growing water concerns for Western Slope

“We’re in a different era with water.”

By Cayla Vidmar

Current snow water equivalents show Gunnison County in pretty good shape for the season, but that doesn’t mean the Western Slope is out of the weeds in terms of water woes. Local rancher and Colorado River District board member Bill Trampe sat down with the Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners at the end of the winter to discuss recent developments with Western Slope water. He spoke about the lack of affordability in voluntary water demand management, the value of agriculture on the Western Slope and private entities buying up ranches in Mesa and Delta counties.

State, and particularly Western Slope, water entities have been trying to find solutions to voluntary water demand management, which would give ranchers more control of their water rights. As Colorado continues to go through a historic drought that began in 2000, and with the largest reservoir in the state, Blue Mesa, having reached nearly record lows in 2018, stakeholders are scrambling to find solutions to a future with less water.

One such solution is paying ranchers to fallow hay fields, but finding the money has been only one hurdle the state has been trying to get over. As John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, explains, “The program would provide a rancher with a per-acre-foot compensation for the amount of consumptive use saved.” This means that a rancher would fallow a hay field to reduce consumptive water use, and the voluntary demand management program would pay him per acre-foot of conserved water. McClow says this payment averages about $180 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use.

But as explained in previous reports, fallowing hay fields in the upper Gunnison River basin “is difficult to do because the crop is grown on a sandy base, and when you take the water off, it may take several years for the crop to recover,” says McClow.

Another indirect cost of fallowing hay fields, McClow explains, includes ranchers having to incur the cost of hay they would otherwise have grown. So a voluntary demand management program can be expensive, and cost-prohibitive for ranchers.

“The question is, how can we participate [in demand management] without totally ruining ourselves?” asked Trampe. “It doesn’t matter to the east slope—they’re looking for cheap water, and when you put pencil to paper, our water isn’t that cheap,” Trampe says, referring to the cost of paying ranchers to fallow fields.

“If we can’t make the voluntary system work, two things will happen. The state will come in and pass around demand management, or the demand for water will happen so quickly if we stay in this long-term drought, the Front Range will come over and buy farms for water,” Trampe said.

A “watered down” explanation of Colorado water law summarizes that Colorado uses a water allocation system based on priority of appropriation, according to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources guide to water rights.

“An appropriation is made when an individual physically takes water from a stream or well, and puts that water to some type of beneficial use,” the article states. This appropriation deems whether a water right is junior or senior.

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact was signed, defining the relationship between the upper basin states (where the water originates typically as snowfall) and the lower basin states (where the Colorado River flows), according to a summary by the Bureau of Reclamation. The upper and lower basin states were given the right to each develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually.

The 18-year drought plaguing Colorado has been a concern, particularly as it relates to sending enough water downstream to satisfy the Colorado River Water Compact.

Both of these things—senior and junior water rights, and the required allocation of water to the lower basin states—could impact water rights on the Western Slope and is raising concerns for those working on water management.

As McClow explains, if a Front Range entity with junior water rights wants to avoid having to “curtail” (or reduce) their use so that, say, Western Slope ranchers with senior water rights have enough water to irrigate their hay fields, it might behoove the junior water right to buy up ranchland on the Western Slope and shut down ranching operations, to avoid having to curtail their own use—a tactic called “buy and dry.”

If the ranch with the senior water right doesn’t need the water, junior water rights won’t have to curtail use.

There have been situations like this for decades across the state. The city of Fountain, south of Colorado Springs, has conducted a mix of “buy and dry” and innovative water leasing to expand their water rights portfolio to accommodate their growing community.

City of Fountain utility director Curtis Mitchell explained during a phone interview that the city, along with Widefield Water and Sanitation, purchased a 480-acre ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in a traditional “buy and dry” scenario to expand their water rights portfolio.

Fountain has also participated in an innovative water-leasing scenario in the Arkansas River Valley called the Superditch Project, in which water rights owners pooled their water rights, and lease a portion of their water yearly to municipalities such as Fountain, according to Mitchell. The ditch owners do rotational fallowing in order to continue farming with less water. “They’re able to get something from that water, while continuing to farm. It’s a win-win,” says Mitchell.

One issue that tends to raise hackles is whether these municipalities which are “buying and drying” farms are tackling water conservation. Mitchell has seen water use in Fountain go from 210 gallons per capita per day to under 80 gallons per capita per day. He says the city has “been very aggressive in the area of conservation,” with full-time staff working on public education, rebate programs, and giving people tools and knowledge to reduce their water consumption.

But, Mitchell says, in a growing community, there will always be more need. However, thanks to the Superditch lease, he says Fountain has another 30 to 40 years before the city has to look at adding more water rights to its portfolio.

McClow says there’s a risk that “buy and dry” tactics could take place on the Western Slope, but “How soon that could happen is highly speculative. On paper, it could technically happen. In reality, it’s difficult to say how it could turn out.”

At the BOCC meeting, Trampe said two ranches in Delta and Mesa counties have been purchased from outside entities—the New York hedge fund Water Asset Management and the Boulder-based real estate investment and management company Conscience Bay Co.—referring to the concern of this land-grab scenario already taking place.

In a January memo, Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, writes regarding the acquisition of these two ranches by outside entities: “It is clear that increasing water demand, reduced supply, and the potential risk of compact curtailment have put a more direct focus on West Slope irrigated agriculture. Stated another way, reality has caught up with our historical paranoia about the acquisition and potential dry-up of West-Slope agricultural rights for speculative purposes.”

In the face of this, Trampe told the board, “I hope what we can do is stay united on the Western Slope, and say that we don’t want agriculture killed, and we want to see it going forward into the future. Agriculture is really important for a variety of reasons.”

Concluding the conversation, BOCC chairperson Jonathan Houck said, “We’re in a different era with water. We’re going towards aridification instead of just drought. We live in a different world around water.”

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