Guest Column: Colo. River District working to keep West Slope water here

RBC | At the Colorado River District, we are working to ensure that whatever the future holds, there’s water on the West Slope to support our way of life. Whether you grow food, rely on clean water from your kitchen tap, or recreate on our rivers, the River District is working to develop every tool possible to ensure that West Slope water users are represented and protected.

In fact, the District recently received a $315,000 “WaterSMART” grant, which we will use to analyze many of the risks that we face on the West Slope in an uncertain water future.

Despite the optimism from recent snowfall, Colorado is still amid a prolonged decline of flows in the Colorado River — and facing more variable weather conditions and snowpack with each passing year. When you combine that with growing population in the Colorado River basin, both in Colorado and downstream, we’re looking at an uncertain water-supply.

Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are required to keep a certain amount of water flowing to states in the Lower Basin. But declining flows have signaled a risk to that obligation. And continued drought could mean water users in the Centennial State might have to reduce water use in the future without compensation in order to meet this compact commitment.

As part of a multi-state plan to avoid that, Colorado is exploring the feasibility of a program called demand management, which would pay farmers, industry and cities to voluntarily and temporarily reduce water use in order to bank it in reservoirs for use in preventing an uncompensated call.  At the Colorado River District, we have concerns about if such a program is advisable or necessary, but even as we seek answers to those concerns, others are looking at how such a program will be structured.

Right now, there are a lot of questions. As Colorado decides if and how demand management would be implemented, we want to advocate for rules that are the best possible for West Slope water users. We are studying the hypotheticals and talking to a broad set of water users to understand what might work in Western Colorado.

The Colorado River District received a $315,000 WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a federal water planning program. We will be working with the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, The Nature Conservancy, Basin Roundtables, the state of Colorado and others to study risks to our water supply. Leveraging these federal funds and partnerships allows us to do more to protect West Slope water users.

Agricultural producers play a critical role in our local economies, whether its equipment repairs at a local mechanic or a ranch hand buying a burger at the local diner. Our main street businesses could see changes if farmers, even temporarily, aren’t farming.

To understand how our local economies might be affected by demand management, the River District is sponsoring a study of the potential secondary economic impacts that such a program could have on the businesses and communities that West Slope agriculture supports.

The grant will also fund the next phase of a multi-year study to understand the risk to Colorado’s water users if a call under the Colorado River Compact requires that we use less water. This study is designed to give us all an idea of what water rights might be curtailed by a compact call, giving water users across the West Slope a better idea of what could happen to their water.

Finally, the WaterSMART grant will help us bring West Slope water users together to understand how to create a program that makes sense for them. While we can’t get the thousands of water users in the Colorado River District in a room to decide what demand management should look like, we’ll be working with a broad cross-section of water users from different industries and communities in the District to do just that. We want to be sure that if demand management is implemented, it works for ranchers, towns, and rivers in Western Colorado.

All these studies and conversations will give West Slope water users the information and tools they need to decide if they should take part in demand management. They will also better allow the Colorado River District to advocate for those users and protect water on the West Slope in an uncertain future.

Andy Mueller

By ANDY MUELLER | General Manager, Colorado River District

Note: Andy Mueller will join other water experts at the Second Annual White River Water Expo and the White River Conservation District Annual Meeting set for 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at the Fairfield Center in Meeker. Call the White River Conservation District for details, (970)878-9838.

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