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Colorado River Water Conservation District to perform demand management study

November 14, 2019
In The News

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has awarded the Colorado River Water Conservation District nearly $316,000 to develop a Western Slope water marketing strategy tied to a potential demand management plan, the agency announced Monday.

With an additional $361,000 in non-federal funding, the Colorado River District will develop a water marketing strategy pertaining to the lease, sale or exchange of water rights. A press release noted that the plan will “evaluate the risks of participating in demand management efforts in the Upper Colorado River Basin, [and] develop market parameters and rules to mitigate those risks.”

The Colorado River District controls the contracting for water in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“Demand management, reduction in consumptive use, is an incredibly threatening concept to western water users, and certainly to West Slope water users,” the district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, told the Colorado Water Congress earlier this year.

The potential for a demand management plan comes from the agreement made earlier this year among the seven states that tap into the Colorado River for water: the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California). That agreement, known as a drought contingency plan, is intended to ensure that water levels at Lake Mead (which serves the lower states) and Lake Powell (which serves the upper states) stay high enough to provide water into the future for the 40 million residents who rely on Colorado River water.

Demand management, which applies to the upper basin states, is the next step. A demand management program, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has three main facets: that it is temporary, compensated, and voluntary, meaning water users — such as agricultural, municipal or industrial — would voluntarily give up some of their water.

But it is far from a done deal.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) assembled a batch of working groups to look at various aspects of demand management, including water rights, economic impact, environmental considerations, funding, education and outreach, and agricultural impact. The last is important because 80% of the water used on the West Slope is for irrigation.

Under the terms of the agreement, all the Upper Basin states have to agree to a demand management program. If even one state says no, it’s a no-go.

But the Colorado River District is also doing its own look at demand management, a study intended to focus exclusively on the views of the West Slope. That's where the Bureau of Reclamation grant comes in. 

Sonja Chavez, a water resources specialist with the Colorado River District, wrote the grant. She told Colorado Politics that the River District has been doing its own work on the potential of a compact curtailment, which is what would happen if water levels drop so low that the river (and Colorado) is out of compliance with interstate agreements that require a certain amount of Colorado River water be sent to downstream states.

The River District’s study will look at how the West Slope would guide and provide input into a demand management program, Chavez said.

“Rather than letting someone else define what demand management looks like, we should be analyzing and evaluating various scenarios," she said.

That could include, for example, whether curtailment would be tied to adjudication of water rights, or spread out geographically (and that would include Colorado’s Eastern Slope, including Denver) so that local economies on the West Slope would not be so impacted.

Lest you think the Colorado River is only a West Slope issue, think again. The Colorado, through a series of tunnels and reservoirs, supplies about half of the water used by Denver Water and its 1.4 million customers, or one out of every four Coloradans. 

Under the grant, the River District will do risk modeling, such as examining water banking (a type of water leasing) or reservoir storage, how much water could the West Slope come up with, and whether water savings could be spread out over five or 10 years instead of in one year, Chavez said.

A third component focuses on education and outreach specific to the West Slope.

Once all that is done, Chavez said the information will be forwarded to the CWCB for its consideration as it looks at whether the entire state would embark on a demand management program.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez applauded the efforts of the River District and the awarding of the grant, calling it "welcome news for Western Colorado water users."

"I look forward to seeing the results of the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s important work to study the impacts of demand management efforts on the Upper Colorado River Basin and recommendations on how to ensure Western Colorado water users needs are met, water rights are upheld, and the environment is protected.”

In addition to the River District, the grant will involve the Grand Valley Water Users Association, Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Tri-State Generation, the CWCB and The Nature Conservancy.