History of the Water District
The Colorado River District was formed in 1937 in direct response to the Colorado Big Thompson Project. This venture was near Granby, Colorado and shipped Colorado river water to northeast Colorado. Montrose resident Judge Dan Hughes was instrumental in creating the River District due to concerns of landowners on the Gunnison River. They observed trends towards trans mountain diversions leading to the Eastern Slope and to the headwaters of the Gunnison, which would affect agriculture in Montrose. Judge Hughes and Judge Stone of Gunnison County corroborated and formed the Colorado River District. The mission of the River District was to protect and develop water resources on the Western Slope, for the inhabitants. This task could become complicated by Front Range entities that intend to draw water to the eastern side of the State. The second part of the undertaking was to protect Colorado’s share of the Colorado River within the entire basin which involved 7 (seven) states and included Indian Reservations. All these groups had various water rights with different concepts of how to use the water. Property owners in Montrose County paid a small mill levy to the River District, allowing the district to function. The Western Slope had 15 Counties that were represented by this board. The Southwest Water Conservation District was also a part of Montrose County and represented 8 (eight) Counties. Between the two districts, 70% of the water originated inside these boundaries which covered the entire Western Slope. Due to the larger population on the Eastern Slope, there were constant demands to provide water for the growing population there. There was an overuse problem on the lower basin, specifically by Arizona, Nevada and California. The Colorado River District was a small agency, with a budget of $6 M. They had significant dealings with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona project and the Cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Los Angeles. From the east there was Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Greeley & Boulder; all of which used massive amounts of Colorado River water. For 81 years these cities had espoused the perspective that their use of the water was of higher value and a better use of water, than the agricultural use in Western Colorado.
The water year ends September 30th of any given year. In a dry year, such as this past year, the inflow into Lake Powell was just over 4.5 M acre feet of water. 9.1 M acre feet of water was released from that reservoir which caused the water level to drop another 36 feet this year. Currently it was holding about 45% of its capacity and comprising approximately 10 M acre feet of water. This year there was a 4.5 M acre feet deficit of which water was spent out of the reserve, because of the requirement to deliver that amount of water to the lower basin. The issues were looming. The River District, in conjunction with the State of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), (including the states of Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado), calculated the hydrology models as to what was developing. This district was instrumental in attaining the science and the modeling at the UCRC to accurately reflect where this was headed and what type of trouble could arise in the basin. This was designed to gather information for the policy makers, and for the water users on the Western Slope, to be apprised of potential problems. The River District obligation was to forecast 10-30 years ahead. This would be to ascertain what was on the horizon, and how to best protect the communities that were dedicated to agriculture and water use of the west side of the mountain, 50 years from now. Thousands of different climate strings could be run through models to observe incredibly wet to incredibly dry years. If the hydrology repeated what was seen in the past 18-19 years, it could be proven that the reservoir in Powell would be unable to deliver water to the lower basin unless significant changes were made. It could not sustain if it kept being drained. The lower basin was allowed to use too much water. Although labeled a structural deficit, it was simply overuse of the allotment at 1.3 M acre feet a year. The entire Western Slope of Colorado and all the irrigated agriculture, yearly used 1.3 M acre feet of water. The over use was equal to regular use that kept the agricultural economy afloat. This was a significant issue to the upper basin, because there was operating criteria in terms of how the reservoirs function. Authority was sanctioned through the original 1922 compact on the Colorado River between 7 states and the Federal government. Several Federal laws were passed since then to authorize the construction of reservoirs, the establishment of the central Arizona project, creation of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, and the development of the Gunnison tunnel. Each customized delivery of water to the lower basin. Essentially, there were interim operating guidelines that triggered delivery of more water than was permissible, which dropped the reservoir lower than it should be. This year illustrated various issues with a supply problem. Less water was flowing to Lake Powell than historically had in the past, and it was not building back up the resources. Significant science and modeling studies had been completed. The warming climate affected the growing season, whether it was agriculture, native 1riparian vegetation or non-native riparian
1 riparian – relating to or situated on the banks of a river, the interface between land and a river or stream.
vegetation. The summer growing season was longer and the days were hotter and longer. The nights were warmer and the plants used more water. There was no clear indication as to how to repair this problem. The lower basin was the most complicated but deliberation on a drought contingency plan was evolving, involving small steps towards rectifying the structural deficit. In the driest and most dangerous shortages years, the reservoir would be at about 1.1 M acre feet less, than the overage in critical years. Other years, an extra 500,000 less would be left in the reservoir. Mr. Mueller noted this would be nearer to solving the problem, but should be done every year in keeping with the required minimums. If this was done, Lake Powell would most likely stop dropping due to equalization criteria. The certainty was it was being addressed, and the team at the River District, on a small budget, always had an oversized effect on these river issues. Discussions were being held amongst the State, the Upper Colorado River Commission, and the lower basin states. It was being made clear that as these guidelines were renegotiated, policies were going to change and needed to change because there was still a hydrology issue at hand. It was unpredictable if it would snow and rain or not. The responsibility of the River District was to plan for the worst and hope for the best. The upper basin drought contingency plan was discussed and envisioned. Others in the River District were displeased that it wasn’t being done publicly as it had the potential to impact private water rights.
Mr. Mueller noted there were several potential options discussed:1. Augmentation of the water supply involving cloud seeding. The district was currently engaged in this method throughout the Western Slope. Attempting to measure the exact amount of water that got to the river off the cloud seeding events was difficult to calculate. From the average storm, an additional 5-15% of moisture came out of the storm event and was questionable if that water added to the river. This also resulted in non-native vegetation removal along the rivers and in the highland areas, involving the removal of Tamarac, Russian Olives and other non-native vegetation that was leaching water out.
2. Reservoir reoperation. There were 3 (three) major upper basin reservoirs above Lake Powell that were operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, but were built to be a resource for the upper basin. Those were Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navaho Reservoirs. Blue Mesa did not have the ability to be a resource this year. There were certain levels in Powell that were critical. Powell produced an amazing amount of energy through hydroelectric, which provided cheap energy to the Western United States and helped keep rates lower. The revenue generated from that process made it possible to fund entities like the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program in which the River District had been involved since its inception. Having that program in place protected the water users, and relieved water users from having to go to the Fish and Wildlife Service to apply for permission to take their state decreed water right out of the river. This was the primary program that depended on these funds. If that program was kept in place, water user compliance would be satisfied. The power level was important, and the funding came from the power generated at Glen Canyon Dam. Other money produced from the power generation was used to rehabilitate Bureau of Reclamation projects. The River District worked very closely with the UVWUA (Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association) to bring $8-10 M of power money into this valley to transport through pipes, and change the way the system operated. This helped make it more efficient for the growers on that system. Dave Kanzer, Colorado River District staff member did an amazing job of bringing federal money into this valley and into the Northfork, attempting to help with those issues. The reservoir reoperation would bring about $2 M acre feet to Lake Powell to sustain power levels. It becomes difficult to comply with the compact if the levels drop. If enough water could not be delivered through the bypass tubes, then circumventing the power generation cylinders was also a problem. This would make it difficult to get water downstream and the compact would be violated. If Senior rights don’t get water in the lower basin, then the upper basin bears the risk, which could develop into Supreme Court litigations interpreting how the compact reads and was defined. The compact was written quickly with the assumption that there would be a lot more water than actually was. The compact was open to interpretation. Impact would be huge on Western Slope communities if the water level got too low, causing economic uncertainty: i.e. If someone wanted to sell agricultural land to another grower and the water right was under question, there was a problem. If the city planner or water conservancy district needed to provide water to people’s domestic residences and the water rights were Junior to the compact, you would be at risk of having them cut off.
Every trans mountain diversion going to the front range was junior to the compact. Those cities would be without water and could use the power of condemnation to keep water coming to their taps and fire hydrants. They would acquire a firm supply of water through their power of voluntary transactions and under the power of condemnation. The water would come from 1.1 M acre feet of pre-compact water on the Western Slope. It would be dried up and the junior rights would be taken over there. The River District would not be comfortable with reservoir reoperation, but could comprehend the potentially dire circumstances.
3.‘Demand management’ was the intentional reduction of consumptive use, to use less water so more could be sent to Lake Powell. The concept that Western Colorado would have to reduce water use in order to supply the lower basin, would be difficult to conceive. Hydrology would play a part in this matter. The River District was adamant that if demand management was established, it should be:
d) should not injure any other existing water rights: i.e. if your neighbor dried up their ranch and was being paid to send water downstream, but you were not getting the return flows that would normally irrigate your property. You have been damaged and not getting paid. These downstream users need to be protected, as they depend on return flow. It would be very complicated as each would be site specific.
If demand management was introduced, there would be an excess pool in Lake Powell, sitting on top of what was there, that wouldn’t be subject to being drawn down the river to the lower basin. It would be under the control of the upper basin and would be used and released only at times when it was close to violating the compact. Additional water would be stored there. It would be impossible to accumulate 1 or 2 M acre feet of water in a years’ time. Western Slope agriculture uses only 1.3 M acre feet per year. Our cities use 77,000 acre feet a year on the Western Slope. The Western Slope could not produce that, and it would ruin the communities. The Eastern Slope diverted about 450,000 acre feet per year for agriculture and cities. If you joined the two allotments together, and the State of Colorado didn’t use any water, you could not recoup very quickly. It would be unrealistic to think everyone would turn off all their river supplies in the State.
Banking water slowly was studied, and agriculture users would be paid to temporarily stop their water use. The River District was apprehensive that this would be equitably distributed, in proportion to post compact water rights of 1922, with both entities using 50% a piece. It was the intent to have the Front Range keep to an equal contribution. There was a continual concern as to how much of any community could be fallowed and still survive: i.e. the tractor dealer had to be able to stay open, or the granaries and hemp oil processing thrive. If you cut back on those crops, problems develop to the vertical industry in the State. The potential of the rancher fallowing his hay crop and unable to feed his cattle, could result in the rancher having to sell some off. The economic profits on the Western Slope would be diminished.
It was questionable if the Western Slope should even be discussing the reduction of consumptive use. There were strong opinions related to this. The River District chose to remain in the conversation, to ensure the Western Slope interests were represented, and as much as possible, subsequently protect the communities that depended on this. This dialog had been conducted behind closed doors, until the River District exposed it in September 2018 at a seminar. Several Front Range entities that control those trans mountain diversions did not want to see a voluntary program or a compensated program. They wanted to have a mandatory, non-compensated curtailing of water at 10-20% in post compact water rights. That would wreak havoc on the Western Slope, if it was a non-compensated program: i.e. sending 100,000 acre feet out of Colorado to the excess pool, each year, for 5 (five) years. If it was reduced from the most Junior post-compact water rights, farmers, ranchers, and cities that depended on those post-compact Junior water rights would go out of business. This mandatory concept alternative was alarming. Mr. Mueller noted that theoretically, there were ways that a mandatory uncompensated program, if done correctly could result in more water coming off the Front Range. The fallowing of more property for one year only, could be successful and produce more water. This would be better than 5 (five) years of misfortune that would put small farmers out of business. The method in which this would be structured was uncertain because it hadn’t been studied.
Currently the River District was in phase 3 (three) of a risk study, reviewing what water rights would be affected under a voluntary scenario, under a direct prior appropriation call, or under pro rata calls. Many other variables in the water rights realm would be discussed by comparing the San Juan basin to the Yampa, to the Gunnison and whose water rights would be affected. The water users of the Western Slope needed to have this information, and to realize there were groups in Salt Lake City and Denver discussing their water rights with consideration of turning them off. These kinds of discussions needed to be public. The citizens would benefit from this being transparent.
Commissioner Hansen queried and Mr. Mueller noted his intent of this presentation was to make the Commissioners aware of the water issues. There was a huge push to get the drought contingency plans approved by the Upper Colorado River Commission with representative James Eckland. It would require that both the lower and upper basins be authorized by Federal legislation to approve this pool. The River District informed the State that the Southwest would oppose the Federal legislation, unless there were: protections of equity, clarity of where the water would from, and how the process would occur. The details of the program have not been defined but certain entities had resolved to get this Federal legislation passed as soon as the lame duck session began in November. Many citizens had grave concerns. If the River District could not get what they wanted, they would oppose this, and requested Counties to support this stand in their exchanges with Federal representatives.
State Representative Marc Catlin and Montrose farmer noted he strongly voiced his opinion recently at a district meeting in the area. The Attorney General’s office and the CWCB (Colorado Water Conservation Board), needed to understand that water was unpredictable from year to year. There was a shortage this year, and a year that more was needed because plants took more. Consultants were unclear in their theories, and did not have the power to authorize a mandatory anticipatory call. If this were to be instated, local growers who were carrying too much debt, would be informed by the State that they were going to have their head gates cut to 20%. They would have already planted their crops and this would destroy their business. These growers struggled to keep those ranches and farms in the family: i.e. Their wives and kids went to work to get insurance and keep the place. This type of lack of crisis would open up opportunities for farms to be purchased by corporate agriculture and they would not be discerning of about keeping the farm together, or protecting the water right on that piece of land. When the balance sheet indicated the water right was a valuable asset, it would be sold.
Mr. Catlin noted that the Uncompahgre region was fairly well protected due to water rights that were tied to the land, through the Uncompahgre Water Valley Water Users. This was a Federal Bureau project. When this first began, it was unclear how it would work financially so the title merged the water and the land. If the water wasn’t paid for, the government could repossess the land. That decision saved growers a lot of concern in this area. The 80,000 acres of land in Montrose and Delta counties could be the target of consideration with 1,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) delivered through the Gunnison Tunnel, 24 hours a day, from the end of March to the end of October. There were many people that believed the Western Slope didn’t need that much water. There will be pressure put on the Secretary of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation if the State of Colorado pursues this pool in Lake Powell. This legislation would also allow water to be stored in Blue Mesa, at no cost. Communities may be able to fallow some ground, but should store our water there, and have some control over it. It was a Western Slope decision that we must mandate that it was voluntary. The theory of fallowing the ground would have a ripple effect on the economy of Montrose businesses. The content of the agreement must address the consequences it may have: i.e. If you pay a farmer $400-500 to not farm his ground, that money would go straight to the bank, for debt repayment or for savings in case next year was bad. This creates no economic activity with it. To raise an acre of grow crop ground costs between $300 and $500. If 20% of the Uncompahgre Valley was not farmed it would impact the whole area, and the entities down river were overusing their water. More limitations needed to be put on those abusing this, first.
Commissioner Caddy concurred that driving down the strip of Las Vegas confirmed a waste of water.
Mr. Catlin noted the River District had done an exceptional job on this effort and had a great staff even though they were small in numbers. The County Commissioners needed to be aware of this and all the discussion that had been going on at the State level about this, 7 (seven) City water suppliers asserted that mandatory requirements needed to be included. The Western Slope was making every effort, when this mandatory element was suggested, to join together for a productive dialogue. Congressman Scott Tipton had been apprised of the situation. The River District and the Southwestern district were both championing this effort. Mr. Catlin pointed out he represented Montrose County on the Colorado River District Board but represented the Commissioners in the State House of Representative’s district.
The people on the Western Slope needed to ban together, but they needed reinforcements. When the River District first began transporting water over the mountain, the effort was impressive. The Southwestern District started similarly in 1941. This was an era in history of fighting for the water rights. The Junior water rights did not have enough water to be effective. The bulk of the water was addressed in the Senior water rights of 1909: i.e. the Uncompahgre. The Senior rights need to be considered, as they could be at risk. Ditches like McDonald, Pinon, and Ouray were at the most risk.
Mr. Mueller concurred that there was an extra layer of protection in the Uncompahgre Valley and the project, because they were Federal rights tied to the land. Liberal pressure was being applied to the Secretary of Interior and his authority, to potentially cut back on that project if there were legitimate risks in the cities, fire hydrants and taps. There was reason to be paranoid about the protection of the Uncompahgre Valley Water. The reason the River District needed such a strong outreach within the basin and Federal government, was because of potential power plays that may occur by the Front Range or downstream users.
Mr. Catlin noted that our urban cousins should to be reminded that if they’re going to continue to sell permanent water taps on rented water, there were significant issues involved. It was understandable to keep the fire hydrants from running dry, but responsible planning must be the focus when using water, renting water and selling taps.
Commissioner Caddy noted that Santa Fe, New Mexico cut the taps off and quit selling them due to water issues. The public needed to consider xeriscaping, and rethinking lawns.
Attorney Martha Whitmore pointed out that the entire central Arizona project that was approved in 1968, knew at the time it was approved that they were the Junior users on the river. This did not stop Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Tucson from building houses on these rivers. It was unconscionable that Southwest Colorado had the historic drought they had this year, but Los Angeles or Denver had no water restrictions.
Mr. Mueller noted he was promoting conservation on the eastern slope, but locals needed to be probed about water preservation as well. Agricultural land being converted into residential zoning needed to be evaluated, regarding what that consumptive water use was. Agricultural land needed to have the water priority designated to them instead of watering 40 acres of turf that couldn’t produce food.
Commissioner Rash questioned why more water was released than was supposed to be, who was demanding this water and why was it allowed? Mr. Mueller noted that in the strict reading of the compact states, we only had to release 7.5 M acre feet a year. Changes in the law between 1922 and today, (the Boulder Canyon Project Act) and the 1968 act, authorized the central Arizona project, creating a balancing equalization criteria between Lake’s Powell and Mead. The lower basin concern at the time was the upper basin reservoirs were being built and all the water would be kept there. One should only be allowed to keep what was needed for protection from violating the compact. There was a complicated mathematical formula that originally governed that. The driving force was to equalize the two reservoirs. If water users stayed within the limits of their use, equalization was not difficult, but Lake Mead was draining quickly.
Commissioner Rash queried and Mr. Mueller indicated the Secretary of the Interior was allowing the overuse. Attorney Whitmore noted this was not a new problem. In 2004-2005 under Secretary Norton, the new operating criteria was put into place, which started requiring the lower basin and California to cut use, but it had not been cut back sufficiently. Over the past 10-11 years, the upper basin sent a total of 11 M acre feet more that was required. The prerequisite sent was 8.23 M acre feet with the 7.5 release, plus the share for Mexico of 11 M acre feet was sent. If that extra amount had been left in Lake Powell and hadn’t been over used, Powell would not have a shortage.
Commissioner Caddy noted that he and Commissioner Rash learned at the meeting of the River District in September that 75 M acre feet over 10 years was the rolling average. Mr. Mueller confirmed the current rolling average was approximately 91 M acre feet. The rolling average requirement under Mexican treaty and the compact, was 82.3 M acre feet. This was well above and over delivering and it had been used up. Litigation was an option and the district would possibly be considering that. Only 4.5 M acre feet went in and 9.1 M acre feet went out. The Federal government authorized the extra because of the 2007 equalization criteria. The lower basin cut back a portion of their use, but it was still required that these releases took place because Lake Mead was so low.
The lower basin could assert that the upper basin was contributing approximately 1.1 M acre feet of evaporative transit loss when it was actually a loss to the system. It was clear under the Lake Mead requirements, that part of their consumptive use was evaporation off Mead. No one claimed responsibility that, so they don’t feel they have a problem.
Commissioner Caddy pointed out it would be better to have that water stored in Blue Mesa Reservoir at 50 degrees rather than running at a temperature at Lake Mead of 110 degrees. Mr. Mueller confirmed that the higher the elevation, the less evaporation takes place.
Mr. Mueller clarified that if Federal legislation was to be enacted, and was customized to the River District satisfaction, the River District would support it as it would be beneficial to store water in Blue Mesa. It was important to note that when Blue Mesa fills and spills the water, the water it spills first would be demand management water, spilling into Lake Powell. Then Lake Powell would hold it. If Lake Powell spills, it would be a good sign of weathering the drought.
Commissioner Rash questioned why would we trust them when the rules were not being followed and why extra water would be released to them?
Montrose County Manager Ken Norris pointed out this was reminiscences of the 2Rolly Fischer days. Club 20 had a water symposium and Rolly was the speaker, of which all the western Colorado people were very supportive. After the meeting a California politician asked “What the Western Slope people were so troubled about? When California needed the water they would take it, because they had the votes”. Mr. Mueller noted that this type of attitude still prevailed. There were legal strategies and political strategies. It was important to be aware of where the votes in Congress were, and where the political power within the State lies. It used to be calculated that 80% of the population lived on the Front Range. There had been an incredible growth wave there, and now 85% of the registered electors reside in the metro area. Mr. Catlin noted the dilemma with that was that 85% of the water in Colorado was owned by agriculture.
Commissioner Caddy asserted and Mr. Mueller confirmed that agriculture had to be protected, as it was the biggest industry in most of Western Colorado. It also was the backbone for the recreation, fishing, and the tourism industries. The object for people vacationing on the Western Slope was because of the working landscapes that people like Mr. Catlin maintained. It was a beautiful place because people work very hard to grow crops. Agriculture supported all of those other industries, but those other industries were unaware of this.
Commissioner Hansen queried and Mr. Mueller clarified that the plan was to achieve what was needed in the demand management agreement currently on the table, and to renegotiate the interim guidelines to provide the firepower for those negotiations.
2 Rolly Fischer was the longtime head of the Glenwood Springs – based Colorado River District from 1968 until 1996. He was described as a ‘visible, creative and often controversial leader for the West Slopes traditional water users through his 28-year tenure including a truce with Denver, resulting in construction of the Wolford Mountain reservoir near Kremmling using Denver money for joining East and West Slope storage.
Commissioner Caddy concurred that it needed to be done sooner than later.
Mr. Catlin pointed out that the CWCB representatives needed to be informed how badly their vote was needed for the Western Slope issues.
Mr. Mueller noted that after the September meeting, the River District sent a letter to the CWCB including a resolution with conditions for the agreement. They noted their intent to assist with what was needed on the Western Slope, and wanted to be confident that the CWCB was protecting it. The Western Slope representatives at that meeting refused to back the plan. Anyone wishing to contact the Gunnison Representative was encouraged to do so. It was clearly defined what was needed in November. Staff was directed to draft a policy that would reflect what was requested by the River District. Specific language was suggested in this draft, to ensure clarity. There was much apprehension whether the Western Slope would succeed in obtaining what was requested. If it was not successful, tension could rise, as the River District would be opposing Federal legislation. Senators Gardner and Bennet and Representative Tipton had been informed of the legal posture of the River District, if not granted.
Commissioner Caddy noted that those 4 (four) Western Slope representatives needed to be contacted by the Board, and advised of the reasons for this request. Mr. Mueller pointed out that those four positions were appointed by the governor.
Commissioner Caddy pointed out that the Commissioners would do whatever was needed to safeguard the communities. Water from the Pinon, McDonald and Carbon Lake ditch on Red Mountain flowed through his property, as a child. It was clear that if water was restricted, those head gates would have been shut down.
Mr. Mueller encouraged the Commissioners to contact his office, if there were any inconsistencies observed regarding protections of the Western Slope. The board of the River District had historically hired engineer’s in his position, but hired a litigator strategically, to be the General Manager. There were other lawyers on staff as well.
Commissioner Hansen queried and Mr. Catlin pointed out that the local growers needed to be informed regarding water issues as there appeared to be a disconnect. If local elected officials voted against the protection of the water rights of the Western Slope, the growers needed to be informed.
Mr. Mueller noted there was a meeting recently where larger local growers were invited, hosted by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. It was the intent that the State inform the growers what was being done with their water. The State had a panel presentation in the morning along with the Upper Colorado River Commission. The River District and local water users presented in the afternoon, to disclose the State’s position. Mr. Mueller offered the staff of EUWA (water treatment solutions) to hold seminars to give information, as this kind of forum was good.
Commissioner Hansen noted that the Commissioners had discussed conducting a water forum in January to alert people of the conditions. Mr. Mueller noted his office would be happy to help facilitate that.
Commissioner Rash noted that the Commissioners were going to Washington DC in March and would be happy to contact key people in regards to the water issues of the Western Slope. Mr. Mueller encouraged the Board to contact Senators, Congressmen, the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner and the Secretary of the Interior.
Mr. Catlin noted that Gunnison County would have the same concerns regarding water issues. There were 100 growers that attended the Water Conservation District meeting recently. It was important that the Montrose County Commissioners were personally informed by the person that would represent them from the River District, and how seriously the district was taking this.
Commissioner Hansen noted there were a lot of new residents moving to the Montrose area, that did not understand the potential water crisis.