This is part one of a two-part series by General Manager, Ralph "Terry" Scanga
Most discussions involving water supply or quality require a good examination of historical perspective of water development. For this reason, understanding the system by which water is and has been allocated in Colorado since statehood is a good starting point.
Water in Colorado is allocated as a private property right through a system referred to as the Appropriation Doctrine. It is the only arid Western state that utilizes a pure form of this doctrine called the “Colorado Doctrine”. This doctrine is enshrined in the State’s constitution. It is a constitutional right for the citizens of Colorado to an appropriation of water based on its beneficial use. Although many legislative statutes deal with water appropriation and use these all rely upon and must comport with the basic constitutional right granted the citizens of the state. This article is not intended to delve into the Doctrine except to point out that water rights and decrees are granted as a private property right. In fact, this system is automatically designed to apportion available water supply without undue interference from government except for the administration of the existing water decrees or through the water court.
In 2005 legislation was passed creating the inter-basin compact committee and the nine basin roundtables. The basins utilized the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (A project to calculate the available water supply compared to demand --a needs assessment) to identify the projects and processes needed to address any water supply gap out to the year 2050 for all uses- municipal, industrial, irrigation (agricultural), environmental and recreational. Water entities and individuals were involved in each basin throughout the state to develop these plans. Projects were identified and some were funded in part with grants from the state’s Colorado Water Conservation Board. The Colorado Water Plan was developed from these plans and processes. These projects have gone a long way to make available the necessary water supplies for the future. Many of the projects are ongoing and more will be needed to meet future needs.
Colorado is an arid state with future shortages forecast in the higher growth regions. In the Arkansas Basin many junior water rights were established during high precipitation periods. Due to this the Arkansas Basin today is considered an over-appropriated basin; meaning that on average there are more decreed water rights than water available. Most of these junior water rights are decreed for irrigation use in agriculture. In the Arkansas Basin shortages are forecast for all water uses.
The Colorado Water Plan is a collection of the ideas and projects on how we can meet future water demands. Meeting the future need revolves around developing new Colorado River Supplies and Alternative Agricultural Transfers coupled with storage. The Colorado River normally has water that is unused and could be utilized to fill the gaps in the higher growth regions. Presently Colorado is well ahead in meeting its Compact obligations on the Colorado River despite unsubstantiated claims from some state politicians and the administration that Colorado may be unable to meet its obligations. Agricultural irrigation uses 80 percent or more of the available supply statewide. Some of these uses could be temporarily interrupted through court approved Lease-Fallowing agreements, and the water owner compensated, to meet shortages in drier years. In wet years existing storage and new storage could be utilized to save the excess for drier times. Storage projects including alluvial storage need to be built to meet the future needs. Through the existing Appropriation System, the above plans and others are underway to meet this future need. Water storage operations could be adapted to meet multiple uses for stream management to meet increased demands for the environment and recreation. All this can and should be completed through the Colorado Doctrine of Appropriation, a strong legal framework to guarantee the security, reliability and flexibility in the development and protection of water resources.
In our next “Water Talks” article we will explore the various threats to our water supply.
By Ken Baker - Board Consultant
The Colorado General Assembly is in session and the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is closely monitoring water-related legislation. In our March legislative update I have highlighted some of the issues we are closely following.
Change in Republican River District Boundaries
HB19-1029 will require a larger number of water users to pay for well pumping in the newly enlarged district.
Water Loans for Stream Use
HB19-1218 will amend the existing statute that grants authority to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for loaning water for in-stream purposes. Provisions state that the loaned water is to be used for preserving the natural environment of a stream reach that is subject to a decreed in-stream flow right and preserving or improving the natural environment to a reasonable degree for a stream reach for which the Colorado Water Conservation Board does not hold a decreed in-stream right. The bill would increase the number of years of the loan from three years to five years of a ten-year period.
Study of Blockchain Technology in Water Uses
This bill, SB19-184, is in response to the rapidly emerging technology of blockchain. Governor Polis has announced a major long-term commitment by his administration to make Colorado a hub for the technology of blockchain. Blockchain technology most often associates with crypto-currency, but it has a vast array of uses with respect to asset management, inventory control, product safety, and other applications where security of interchanges is a high priority. SB19-184 authorizes the Colorado Water Institute to study potential uses of blockchain technology in various water applications such as recording and monitoring water rights, developing market exchanges of water, the creation and operation of water banks, aquifer storage retrieval and other applications. When the Institute has completed the study, it will report back to the General Assembly.
Restructuring of State Regulations of Oil and Gas Exploration and Extraction
HB19-181 proposes major restructuring of the regulatory treatment of the oil and natural gas exploration and extraction industry.
Concerning the Expansion of Agricultural Chemical Management Plans to Protect Surface Water
SB19-186 is a plan that CSU has worked on with the Department of Agriculture. The word groundwater has been replaced with the term “state waters”.
By Ken Baker, Board Consultant - Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District
The Colorado General Assembly convened on January 4, and the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is closely monitoring water-related legislation. I have highlighted in our January legislative update below, some of the issues being considered by state legislators that we are following.
In the coming months, I will continue to update you on their progress and in the meantime, I hope that you find our legislative updates beneficial and informative.
The State Plan
The Colorado Governor’s Office has promoted a bill called The State Plan. The plan is basically a theme to develop a water sharing program in which agricultural water rights would be changed to municipal use to be exported to the northern front range of Colorado to supply future water needs of an anticipated population growth. The plan does not contain specifics with respect to water uses to be changed, but at the same time does not specifically include water resources available on the northern front range.
Encourage Use of Xeriscape
In recent years the General Assembly has passed laws limiting the authority of homeowner’s associations requirements to plant lawns. A current bill will encourage the use of xeriscape in Common Areas. The Upper District will encourage such water rationing promotions. Water exports from rivers in Division No. 2 and Division No. 5 have historically been sources of the historic consumptive use of agricultural appropriations to be transferred to the northern front range. Rationing of water uses within the municipal uses may not represent a complete answer to resolution of water supplies under The State Plan, but it could represent some relief for water managers in the front range communities and in the mountain river valleys asked to satisfy the objectives of The State Plan.
Senate Bill 037 is being introduced to authorize the county commissioners or a private not-for-profit organization to clear the State or Federal lands, within the county, from materials that represent fire hazards.
The County of Chaffee has a voter approved tax revenue base to support this proposition. The bill as presented protects the County from liability, unless an employee is negligent or willful in creating damage.
The Upper District, through a blanket augmentation plan, provides water resources to address fire hazard prevention projects. The District supports the bill introduced in the Senate.
Concerning the Rights of a Water Rights Easement Holder
This bill is prompted by ditch owners who want to clear trees along the ditch right-of-way.
The bill provides a right to line the ditch to prevent seepage. This could include a pipe in the ditch. Some of the objections to the bill include Amended Rules and Regulations created by Court order to protect return flow rights of the State of Kansas in the Arkansas River under the 1948 Treaty Agreement.
A special committee of the CWC State Affairs Committee has been appointed to review and clarify language in the bill.
Concerning the Protection of Water Quality from Adverse Impacts Caused by Mineral Mining
This bill was presented last year and then withdrawn. The bill is complex. There should be continued discussion on bill language, the roles of water quality and mining entities need to be better defined.
Colorado State University and Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Team Up on Water Use Efficiency Study Project
by Blake Osborn - Southern Colorado Water Resources Specialist for the Colorado Water Institute and CSU Extension
Think back to 3rd grade. Remember learning about the water cycle? It looked good on paper, didn’t it? Water moves through different environments (the soil, plants, atmosphere, streams) and it all ends up in the ocean. Well, in Colorado we’re a long way from an ocean. We are best characterized as a “headwaters” environment. With Mother Nature’s help, we are given a certain amount of water every year, a budget, if-you-will. It’s our job as water users and water stewards to make the best use of this water, all within the framework of our administrative king-pin called the Prior Appropriation Doctrine.
As scientists, we use a number of different tools and methods to estimate the amount of water in each of the different environments. How much water is in the soil? How much is left in the mountain snow fields? When will it melt, and what is the streamflow going to be? Further, these questions can be broken down into more nuanced questions like ‘how much water is within the plant’s rooting zone, and how much is below the root zone and “immune” to evaporation?’ If we are to make the best use of our water we need to know exactly where the water is located and how much is there.
As the largest water user in the state, agricultural water use is necessary to support one of our worst habits: eating. How nice would it be to not have to eat? Some would argue with that statement, as eating can be a great pleasure, but it also requires a lot of inputs like water and land. And that’s OK. It’s just the nature of growing food. Because agriculture uses a lot of water, it is often difficult to know exactly how much water is applied and how much is needed. It is entirely possible that we over irrigate our crops in certain times of the year, and under irrigate in other times. Almost all farmers do the best they can to make the best use of irrigation water, but the timing and amount of water available to them is very dynamic. This is a great challenge facing farmers around the world, but new tools are being developed to help make projections about the water demands of local crops that are cost-effective and easy to use.
Currently, a research project between Colorado State University and the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is trying to get a better grip on some of the questions from above. The movement of water between one environment and another, also called water fluxes, are being measured over a three year period to better understand how water availability, environmental conditions, and management decisions impact water use in agriculture. Instruments are set-up in four agricultural fields, from Buena Vista to Westcliffe, to measure things like precipitation, evaporation, and soil moisture changes. This important data can be used to more accurately estimate the amount of water agriculture is using in the region, inform water users where efficiencies might be possible through enhanced management, and help to develop irrigation scheduling tools to give farmers cost-effective and accurate data to make these decisions.
Although we are in the middle of data collection and data processing, this research project has already uncovered some interesting results. First, if water is not a limiting factor and farmers are able to irrigate freely, they typically apply water in uniformity across the field. However, field and crop water demands can very highly variable within a field and applying water uniformly significantly impacts the efficiency of a system. This is called the “1 field, 1 number” concept. A farmer might irrigate their entire field based on the driest spot in the field, and if that spot needs 2.5 inches of water every week, then the entire field will get 2.5 inches of water every week, even if 75% of the field only needs 1.8 inches. This is entirely reasonable and a smart business decision on the part of the farmer. A big reason for this is that farmers are limited in their management decisions because irrigation technology is not flexible enough, or not cost effective, to apply water through precision agriculture. In short, understanding field conditions and how they impact the amount of water available to plants could be one of the biggest data gaps that is limiting the efficient application of water.
Another interesting finding from this study is the significant impact “sub-irrigation” has on high-mountain flood irrigated hay fields, particularly in the Wet Mountain Valley. Sub-irrigation has long been known as an important factor for growing hay in this region, but the timing and duration of the sub-irrigation is significant, even during extreme drought years. Not surprisingly, fields located near streams are more susceptible to changes in sub-irrigation compared with fields not near streams. One field site, located within feet of Taylor Creek, showed greater decreases in sub-surface soil moisture compared with a field site located nearly a mile from a stream. This surface-groundwater connection is vitally important in most regions, but is especially true in flood irrigated regions like the Wet Mountain Valley.
With 1 more year of data collection and data processing we are sure to uncover more information that can help to lead to more informed management decisions. It is much easier to manage something as important as water when we have a good understanding, and good data, to support our decision making. This partnership between the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District and Colorado State University is working to acquire this data, and use it to make better management decisions. The Arkansas River Basin is only given so much water each year, how we use and manage that water is critical to sustain healthy ecosystems, farming economies, and our cultural identities.
This time of year, Colorado’s water leaders meet in Denver at the annual Colorado Water Congress convention. Water managers, attorneys, engineers, board members of the State’s water conservation and conservancy districts, and State water officials convene around an agenda that includes the latest conversation on current water issues, projects, new concepts to optimize water use and legislative initiatives.
How the new State administration may deal with the water plan will be on everyone’s mind. New concepts of water appropriation and administration will be discussed with pro and con debate. These concepts will continue to revolve around alternative transfer methods and the perennial discussion over drought and the prospect of drought.
The culture of water use and drought are intermingled in the spirit of the West. The aridity of the Western USA is a constant condition in the thoughts of water users. I believe it is appropriate for our readers to ponder the following poem written over 70 years ago by arguably the greatest American poet, Robert Frost. Robert Frost was a farmer and he understood the dependence upon vagaries of weather that agriculturalists face.
THE BROKEN DROUGHT
By: Robert Frost
The prophet of disaster ceased to shout.
Something was going right outside the hall.
A rain, though stingy, had begun to fall
That rather hurt his theory of the drought
And all the great convention was about.
A cheer went up that shook the mottoed wall.
He did as Shakespeare says, you may recall,
Good orators will do when they are out.
Yet in his heart he was unshaken sure
The drought was one no spit of rain could cure.
It was the drought of deserts. Earth would soon
Be uninhabitable as the moon.
What for that matter had it ever been?
Who advised man to come and live therein?
A veteran of the Civil War, John Wesley Powell, began the exploration of the arid west in 1869 to analyze its unique characteristics. At the time the Western United States was comprised of a group of territories in a landscape much of which was devoid of the lush vegetation characteristic of the Eastern part of the North American continent. This land—the Great American Desert—created developmental challenges for the US Government. Unlike the East and Mid-West water was scarce and an intricate system of water diversions and distribution canals was necessary to develop these territories into productive regions. Yet in 1890 a report from Powell to the Senate Select Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands fell on deaf ears. Based upon Powell’s accumulation of data and findings from earlier western lands explorations he recommended the development of political jurisdictions based on hydrologic divides or watersheds. He was ignored, and states were created along arbitrary boundaries devoid of any natural physical land characteristic. It would take nearly 50 years before Powell’s recommendations would be instituted, but not from the Federal Government.
Powell’s map on the left depicted with jurisdictions bounded by natural hydrologic features. Water drainages would have political jurisdictions distinctly divided by natural water courses and their corresponding water sources.
Colorado, a headwaters state which sends water to all the arid regions of the west, was the first to develop legislation authorizing the creation of political subdivisions designed to have jurisdiction over watershed regions. Powell’s recommendation would take root within a state under the legislative authority of the Water Conservancy Act. The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is one of these entities.
The Water Conservancy Act was adopted by Colorado in 1935. It charges these water districts with the responsibility to do “Works” as defined in the statute. These Works are the development of water and power resources both physical and intangible. Some of the physical structures are reservoirs and water diversions to supply water for irrigation, municipal, industrial and other uses within its jurisdiction. Intangible assets may be accumulated data on weather and stream flows, acquisition of decrees for water rights, or the creation of augmentation plans that cover large portions of a watershed.
Other political subdivisions, such as counties do not have the jurisdictional authority to conduct water activities, and because their boundaries are arbitrary and do not necessarily follow hydrologic divides, which are essential to the accomplishment of major water works. Since revenues obtained by political subdivisions must be utilized for the benefit of the citizens within that division, these revenues cannot be used to benefit a part of a watershed outside the political subdivision. Likewise, the authority to direct the use of these revenues outside a political subdivision is lacking. For example, funds spent on a project inside a county generated from a levy upon the citizens of that county cannot be utilized to benefit the watershed outside of that county. Powell recognized this reality although on a larger scale.
Water Conservancy Districts undertake watershed-wide projects authorized through the Water Conservancy Act. One of the present conundrums being discussed by some entities is how to undertake basin-wide projects—such as forest health and stream management projects. The clear answer lies in the Water Conservancy Act. It is through Water Conservancy Districts with basin-wide jurisdiction that these projects can be undertaken. Some recent articles have been written about large scale projects of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District that create benefits for large portions of the Upper Arkansas watershed. The District has the jurisdictional authority to utilize revenue from various sources including its own revenue sources and match the revenue source commensurate with a localized benefit. On a smaller scale the District has undertaken integrated water management projects with municipalities on tributary drainages such as the South Arkansas River. On a larger scale the District’s Umbrella Augmentation Plan crosses several counties, all within the same watershed. The District can combine cost share funds from several political subdivisions with state and federal grants. Other entities lack these abilities either because they lack specific legal authority or are unable to expend funds for benefits outside their jurisdictions.
As the population of the Arkansas Basin increases the challenges of providing adequate clean water supplies will increase. It is comforting to know and understand that these challenges can be met by good planning and actions of our Water Conservancy Districts. In the Upper Arkansas watershed that entity is the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. You can learn more about our projects at www.uawcd.com or by contacting the District and finding out about our Water Talks education program.
Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Responds to Hayden Fire & Flood Recovery
Home damaged during the July 2018 flood. Picture courtesy of Kate Spinelli Photography
In July 2016, a lightning strike ignited a fire that would burn over 16,000 acres of forest above the community of Coaldale in western Fremont County. Homes, businesses, critical transportation infrastructure, habitats to threatened species, and recreational areas were all located in and around the burned areas. Following the fire, monsoon rains arrived in early August, bringing the first of many flash floods and debris flows. The extreme weather events and flash floods continued in 2017 and 2018, with the worst damage to date occurring on July 24, 2018. That day due to the intensity of the rainfall, the Big Cottonwood Creek experienced an estimated flow rate of approximately 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) which caused the loss of homes, outbuildings, vehicles, and bridges, and required a helicopter rescue. Flooding continued throughout the summer and early fall as well.
Picture courtesy of Kate Spinelli Photography
Since that time, the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District has responded and began assisting with flood recovery efforts. Our focus has been to secure critical funding to complement the work of Fremont County and the Emergency Watershed Protection grant they have received from the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) which is earmarked at protecting private property along the Big Cottonwood. Working in partnership with the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative (ARWC), we received a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board that will fund a fire recovery coordinator, hydrologist, and engineer whose primary function is to coordinate fire and flood recovery efforts in the area. This team will work with stakeholders, landowners, and various residents to develop a comprehensive and inclusive drainage recovery plan along the Big Cottonwood for the long-term sustainability and safety of the area.
Outbuilding damage from July 2018 flood. Picture courtesy of Kate Spinelli Photography
We have recently applied for a second grant for the Hayden Pass fire and flood recovery efforts to develop a Watershed Recovery Coalition that will include not only the Big Cottonwood drainage, but will expand to include all areas affected by the Hayden Pass fire. The work will expand the engineering analysis and risk assessment of all of the drainages affected by the fire and will ultimately result in the development of a master drainage recovery plan. We are hopeful that the grant will be awarded and we can continue supporting the Coaldale community.
Fremont County Commissioner Dwayne McFall and County Manager Sunny Bryant speak to Coaldale residents about the EWP grant the County received from NRCS for recovery efforts during a community meeting in November 2018.
Being proactive with the health of our local forests is essential. Not only does it protect people, wildlife, the surrounding communities and infrastructure, but it also protects important water resources. The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is also working on other initiatives, including the Monarch Pass Forest & Watershed Health project helping to bring the necessary funding to this important project.
To learn more about the UAWCD and our other forest and watershed health projects, please contact Projects Manager, Chelsey Nutter.
About Water Talks
Water Talks is a monthly column published in area newspapers by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.
Entering its 25th year as one of the leading water events in Colorado, the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum is set for April 24 – 25, 2019 at the Pueblo Convention Center.
Beginning in 1995 in Pueblo, the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum was developed as a means to bring together the diverse water interests throughout the Basin and the state of Colorado to explain their views and engage in open dialogue about water issues in the Arkansas River Basin. Through this dialogue, each year the Water Forum seeks to create a greater understanding of Colorado water law, water use, and water conservation through a 2-day event complete with educational sessions, keynote speakers, presentations, scholarship program, special awards and more. The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District board and staff has been involved with the Forum since the inception and continues to sit on the planning committee. UAWCD Consultant Ken Baker was the 2018 recipient of the Bob Appel award as well.
In 2019, the Water Forum is celebrating its 25th anniversary, returning to Pueblo to commemorate this incredible milestone. Not many events last 25-years which attests to the outstanding quality and commitment to the annual Water Forum which welcomes over 200 people every year representing agricultural, municipal, industrial, environmental, recreational, and governmental interests.
The annual Water Forum generally alternates its location between the upper and lower basins, supported each year by an outstanding planning committee comprised of dedicated people who come together to sponsor and host the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum. In 2020 the Water Forum will return to Salida.
Over the years, through the annual Water Forums, a wider understanding of water issues has evolved and along with it the opportunity to find common ground. We invite you to get involved and to join the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum and the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District on April 24-25, 2019 in Pueblo at the Pueblo Convention Center. To learn more, visit: www.arbwf.org
While performing regular water management operations, the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District encountered a significant issue with Colorado Water Conservation Board staff.
The issue came to light when hydrologist Jord Gertson presented his water storage report during the district’s November meeting.
Photo courtesy of Joe Stone, Ark Valley Voice
Gertson said he received a “verbal okay” from Water Commissioner Brian Sutton to exchange water up to North Fork Reservoir, but the next day Sutton informed him that the CWCB had “called” for water to meet its in-stream flow water right on North Fork Creek.