West Slope water managers will not review or approve applications for the conservation program

Raymond Langstaff irrigates his fields outside Rifle in May 2022. A water conservation program that pays irrigators to use less Colorado River water will have little oversight from West Slope water managers.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

West Slope water managers say they are being excluded from the process to review and approve applications for a federally funded conservation program, despite a state official previously promising they could participate.

Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Executive Director and Colorado Commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), Becky Mitchell, had assured the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District and to the Durango-based Southwest Water Conservation District who would have a say. in the review and approval of projects for the System Conservation Program restarted within its limits. But now it appears that the districts’ role will be limited to providing information to the UCRC about applications, for which limited public information has been released.

A December 6, 2022 email from Mitchell to Southwestern General Manager Steve Wolff and River District General Manager Andy Mueller said that in the event that “a prospective applicant’s SCPP project is located within district boundaries, enrollment in SCPP will be subject to application approval by both the CWCB and the District.”

Mitchell had also said publicly at meetings and conferences that conservation districts would have a say in projects within their boundaries, and a January 23 CWCB memo says that “Commissioner Mitchell and staff will work closely with conservation districts. conservation and conservation within which the projects are developed”. located in the project approval process.”

In anticipation of the review of project applications, the River District developed its own set of criteria on which to evaluate them. Those criteria go beyond those of UCRC. on specifying who would benefit from SCP payments and avoiding too much involvement in any one basin. The River District works to protect and develop the water within its 15 Western Slope counties.

But in a letter dated March 10 to both conservancy districts, Mitchell went back on his promise of meaningful participation. She said only UCRC criteria, not criteria developed by the River District, can be used when considering project approval.

“I acknowledge the attention that Colorado River District staff and Southwest Water Conservation District staff have given to these issues,” the letter reads. “However, to ensure compliance with federal reauthorization legislation, the only criteria that can be applied are contained in the Funding Agreement and Request for Proposals. In addition, it is the UCRC that must determine if a project meets those criteria”.

The River District discussed the issue at a board meeting on Thursday.

“I think that made us uneasy because it was a reversal of a commitment that the commissioner had made in early December,” Mueller said. “There is a complete lack of process within our state to review this program or the potential impacts to other water users. … No analysis is done to protect the communities.”

Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial in the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary, voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming communities and livestock.

River District staff said they have yet to see any completed SCP applications for projects within their boundaries.

On Thursday, the River District board voted that if the project applications are publicly available, River District will review them and provide feedback that the UCRC criteria do not go far enough to consider impacts within the state of Colorado. . The board also voted to provide a response to Mitchell’s March 10 letter.

Wolff responded to Mitchell’s letter asking him to reconsider his position and reaffirm his commitment to the districts that they would play a significant role in the approval process.

“(We) have found nothing to support the position described in your letter,” Wolff’s response reads.. “To the contrary, the UCRC Facilitation Agreement and related documents appear to provide a robust role for each state to evaluate projects within its boundaries…”

CWCB approval

This hayfield near Rifle is irrigated with water from a tributary of the Colorado River. West Slope water managers are being left out of the process for reviewing and approving applications for a water conservation program.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously Wednesday to designate projects that participate in the reinitiated SCP as part of a “state-approved water conservation program.” That means that water users who choose to be paid for making cuts will not have their water right to participate affected. Under Colorado’s abandon or “use it or lose it” principle, water rights holders must continue to use their water for beneficial use if they want to keep their water right.

System Conservation Program restarted as part of UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, which aims to protect critical elevations at the nation’s two largest and most depleted reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The program will be paid for with $125 million in federal Reduction Inflation Act funds and will pay water users in the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming) to reduce.

UCRC is an interstate water administrative agency headquartered in Salt Lake City established by the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948. Its role is to ensure the proper allocation of Colorado River water to the upper basin states and the compliance with the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

UCRC released its 5-Point Plan in July in response to calls for conservation from the federal government to address the crisis on the Colorado River and plummeting reservoir levels that threaten the ability to generate hydroelectric power. . The Office of Reclamation designated UCRC as administrator of the restarted conservation program and began accepting applications in December.

The scope of what the CWCB approved this week was limited; individual requests for the SCP were not approved. That responsibility for final approval, as Mitchell’s March 10 letter notes, rests solely with the UCRC.

Mitchell told the CWCB meeting on Wednesday that even though conservation districts would not approve projects, she would still accept their input. Her March 10 letter invites districts to participate in the approval process under the same limited scope as the CWCB by designating the SCP as a “state-approved water conservation program,” which protects against neglect.

Mitchell added that he requested that the meeting where UCRC makes decisions about which projects to approve be open to the public and that applications be made publicly available, with applicants’ personal information redacted. The status of that request was not clear as of Friday afternoon.

“If we were to do this again…I would ask that requests be transparent from the start with the personal information redacted,” Mitchell said. “That’s not the way we did it this time.”

At the CWCB meeting on Wednesday, River District Attorney General Peter Fleming asked the board to postpone the approval that protects water users from abandonment by two weeks. He added that there has been “hot controversy” over conservation of the system in western Colorado and that the tight timeline has put everyone in a pressure cooker.

He said the criteria UCRC uses to evaluate applications focuses on getting water downstream, not on preventing problems within Colorado, such as possible injury to other water users.

“Our view is that both the water conservation board and the districts have a higher level of involvement and activity than simply determining whether proposed system conservation projects fall within[the definition of a state-approved conservation program]. the state),” he said. . “The delay would buy us a bit of time to work on that in cooperation with the CWCB for the benefit of the entire state and our shared constituents.”

Beth Van Vurst, counselor for the Southwest Water Conservation District, said the district needs additional information on the project proposals.

“We haven’t seen the applications, we haven’t seen any operational plans, we haven’t seen any details,” he said. “Without that information, I don’t know how the Southwest board could determine whether or not these projects deserve protection under state law.”

Crop change proposals

The CWCB released some details regarding the 36 Colorado project applications currently being reviewed by the UCRC. Those with preliminary approval from UCRC could save up to 9,618 acre-feet of water, according to a March 15 memo.. Of the 36 proposals, 19 propose stopping irrigation for the entire season and nine propose stopping irrigation for part of the season, according to a breakdown by the CWCB.

Eight of the proposed projects are located in the southwestern corner of the state, within the boundaries of the Southwest Water Conservation District, and obtain their irrigation water from the Dolores Project. These projects propose shifting thirsty alfalfa crops to other forage crops like sudan grass that use less water. In total, the eight projects are estimated to save 791 acre-feet of water.

Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag-Water Alliance, organized the Dolores projects and helped irrigators apply. He said they are asking for $200 per acre-foot of water, which is calculated to represent the cost of switching crops. If the new forage crops end up being as profitable or more profitable than alfalfa, irrigators will likely make the switch permanent, Peterson said.

“If they can go back and see the costs and revenue associated with this, they don’t need to get paid again to do this,” he said. “They will just do it because it is profitable for them. We are paying for them to take a risk.”

Some irrigators from the Dolores Project, which delivers water stored in McPhee Reservoir to the Dove Creek area, the Montezuma Valley and the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, have experienced water shortages in recent years of drought. In 2021, some farmers received only 10% of their water allocation. Switching to less thirsty crops helps them adapt to an increasingly water-scarce future under climate change, Peterson said.

“They’re in a pretty tough spot,” Peterson said. “In the long run, it seems like you might not get the water in that system that you’re used to. In the Southwest in particular, it has become a very harsh climate for alfalfa if you don’t have water.”

Aspen Journalism

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in partnership with The Aspen Times. For more information, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.