Water deal aims to keep city faucets flowing
New agreement among major users could avert interstate conflicts over Colorado River by paying farmers and ranchers to let land lie fallow
FRISCO — An $11 million dollar water deal announced last week could help keep faucets and sprinklers flowing in big western cities in the face of continuing drought and global warming.
The money will primarily be used to buy or lease water rights from ranchers and farmers in the Upper Colorado River Basin, including Colorado. Instead of being diverted for irrigation, the water will flow to Lake Powell, the giant desert reservoir in southeast Utah.
Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California want to boost flows to Lake Powell, because if the reservoir’s water level drops below a certain threshold, it changes everything.
In a worst-case scenario of extended drought, Denver Water might have to send water from its reservoirs down to Nevada and California, cutting the amount of water available to water bluegrass suburban lawns.
Under the deal announced last week, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District, Denver Water and the Southern Nevada Water Authority pledge to work cooperatively with farmers and ranchers to find new and flexible ways of managing existing water supplies to avert a crisis.
Conservation is one of the ways to manage water supplies, and includes everything from fixing rusty, leaking irrigation pipes to installing high-tech soil moisture monitors that ensure efficient irrigation. The new agreement also specifically aims to pay farmers and ranchers in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico to stop irrigating some of their land, at least temporarily, and letting it lie fallow, or uncultivated.
Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the agreement is not a water grab by cities.
“This is about water security,” Lochhead said, explaining that, in times of shortages, it’s important to manage the existing water supply as efficiently as possible. “We have to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “Part of this is to try and determine really how much water we can obtain for the system through programs like this.”
A key principle of the agreement is demand management, which means focusing on water use rather than on building new diversions or dams. It can include using water more efficiently, and the sale or temporary lease of water rights. Since water managers only have a finite amount of water to work with, shifting around uses within the system is one of the few options for avoiding interstate conflicts while meeting projected gaps in supply.
The $11 million will pay for a set of pilot projects during the next two years. The timing is critical because if the current dry spell in the Colorado River Basin persists, low water levels in Lake Powell could trigger a compact call, requiring the Upper Basin Colorado River states to send more water downstream.
The Lower Basin states are legally entitled to about half the Colorado River’s total volume under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That deal is based on river flows from nearly 100 years ago; during the past few decades, the Colorado hasn’t delivered close to that amount.
Up to now, stored water in Lake Powell buffered those annual variations in flow. The reservoir is a water savings account that is replenished with runoff each spring and early summer. In years when the Colorado River doesn’t deliver the amount specified in the 1922 compact, water from Lake Powell is used to make up the difference and pay out what is owed to the Lower Basin.
But if the regional dry pattern persists and demand for water continues to grow, Lake Powell could be depleted to the point where it can’t make up that difference sometime in the next three to four years, and that’s a point nobody wants to reach — thus the effort to bolster Colorado River flows by paying farmers and ranchers to leave some of the water they’re entitled to in the river.
The agreement looks good on its surface but raises a slew of thorny new legal issues, said Mark Squillace, a leading water law scholar at a University of Colorado natural resource think tank.
According to Squillace, agreements reached under the new program could violate state laws that govern water allocation. Participants to voluntary agreements can bind each other legally with a water contract, but the new multi-state program doesn’t address what happens if those deals affect other water users not party to the agreement, Squillace said.
At this point, the transfers envisioned under the agreement are probably more of a Band-Aid than the major surgery that may be required to equitably distribute Colorado River water during times of shortage, according to some water law experts.
Along with colleague Douglas Kenney at CU-Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment, Squillace has been advocating for revisions to the basic legal framework to reflect 21st-century realities, including climate change and shifts in the demand for water away from agriculture and to municipal use.
And with agriculture using so much of the water, those changes would mainly have to address concerns related to water use by farms and ranches. Squillace said the governing laws need to give farmers more flexibility to save water without losing their water rights.
“Right now, the incentives are for agriculture to use as much water as they can,” Squillace said. Instead, there should be incentives that would encourage farmers to switch to crops that use less water, he explained.
For example, if a farmer switches from growing alfalfa to growing a less water intensive crop like barley, he or she shouldn’t lose their water rights, which is the way things are under the existing use-it-or-lose-it doctrine. Instead, that farmer should be able to market the “extra” water, Squillace explained.
Once the basic laws have been revamped, market-based transfers of water like those envisioned by the new agreement have a much better chance of succeeding, he concluded.
The deal doesn’t include provisions for any direct water grabs that would transfer water directly from farms to cities. But the mere mention of agricultural water transfers — even if they’re voluntary — is enough to send shock waves through some farming communities in Colorado. The concerns often center around loss of community and the traditional culture and way of life associated with farming and ranching.
“The concern, of course, is that agriculture is on the menu … that people aren’t thinking about what that means for communities and the dinner table,” said Colorado Water Institute director Reagan Waskom, alluding to the perpetual fear that cities will eventually buy up all the water now used by farms and ranches.
That process is already under way, and nobody is forcing farmers to sell their water — they are lining up, seeking big city prices for water that was allocated to them for irrigation at a much lower price. In fact, some Front Range water providers have said at public meetings that they could easily avoid projected shortages by making deals with willing agricultural sellers.
Waskom said farmers and ranchers need to take a holistic view to figure out what to do in the face of shortages. They need to develop a systematic approach to how they use water for agriculture and also how to keep water flowing to cities at the same time.
“We need some institutional mechanisms, like really robust water banks … it’s really the dry years that are the big worries,” Waskom said. “There are things that can be done, absolutely, but it is going to cost money. Who is going to pay for that?”
For now, at least, it looks like some of the region’s biggest cities will take a step in that direction.
Update: An Aug. 6 press release from Denver Water includes more details on the agreement not previously available.
The release emphasizes that the program is intended only as emergency short-term drought relief and would end if Colorado River flows increase to levels that can refill and sustain Lake Powell.
Upper Colorado River Basin partners include major conservation groups, showing how the envisioned water reallocation will help protect native and recreational fisheries in the Upper Colorado Basin and maintain critical Lake Powell water levels at the same time.
“Without collaborative action, water supplies, hydropower production, water quality, agricultural output, recreation and environmental resources are all at risk in the next several years in the upper basin, if Lake Powell reaches critically low levels,” The Nature Conservancy’s Doug Robotham said in the release.
In the Upper Colorado River Basin, partners to the agreement so far include The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District.
“Our interest is to protect water users in Colorado and the upper basin. We know that if there is a compact call, agriculture is the first area that will be looked at for the solution,” said Don Shawcroft, Colorado Farm Bureau. “A crisis is bad for everyone — especially agriculture. It is vital that we have a voice at the table,” Shawcroft said in the release.
[Big western cities are creating an $11 million fund that will enable them to continue irrigating long swaths of bluegrass along highways and roads, like this section of Tower Road near DIA. Photo by Bob Berwyn.]
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