Drought task force to consider conservation programs


Navajo Bridge spans the Colorado River downstream from Lake Powell near Lee Ferry, the dividing line between the upper and lower basin. Legislators introduced a bill that would create a drought task force to come up with recommendations on a voluntary, temporary and compensated water conservation program. Photo: Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett | Aspen Journalism

Colorado legislators on Thursday introduced a bill that would create a drought task force with the aim of providing recommendations about how to implement water-conservation programs and avoid a compact call. 

A draft of Senate Bill 295 says the purpose of the task force is to provide recommendations for state legislation to develop programs that address drought “and interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries through the implementation of demand reduction projects and the voluntary and compensated conservation of the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries.”

District 8 State Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat, is a sponsor of the bill, along with other Western Slope legislators: District 5 Sen. Perry Will, who is a Republican; District 13 Rep. Julie McCluskie, the Democrat speaker of the house; and District 58 Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican. 

The bill resurrects a yearslong, ongoing and controversial conversation about a potential “demand management” program, which would pay water users to cut back on a temporary and voluntary basis. 

“We absolutely want them to consider what a demand-management program would look like,” Roberts said. “If we can create a voluntary and temporary program that is well compensated, I think it will be much more successful and less damaging to Western Slope agriculture interests and Western Slope economies.”

The task force would have 15 representatives from a wide swath of the Colorado water world, including the Department of Natural Resources, the state engineer’s office, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Front Range water providers, environmental groups, agricultural producers and industrial water users.

The task force would begin meeting no later than July 31 and may hold up to 12 meetings throughout the rest of the year. Members must submit a written report that includes recommendations and a summary of their work to the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee no later than Dec. 15. Roberts said the task force meetings will be open to the public.

Demand-management redux

The option for demand management was laid out in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and established a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, where the upper basin states could store water to protect against a compact call. If the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, it could trigger involuntary cutbacks in water use. 

With climate-change-fueled hotter temperatures robbing the upper basin of streamflows, the possibility of a compact call becomes more of a looming threat each year.

The state of Colorado spent over two years investigating the feasibility of a demand-management program, forming eight work groups that considered various aspects and challenges of a potential program. But the Colorado Water Conservation Board shelved the investigation last year in favor of exploring a drought resiliency toolkit. 

Demand management has many skeptics, especially in western Colorado where some worry that temporarily compensating irrigators to use less could be a slippery slope toward “buy and dry,” stripping communities of their water. 

In response to the federal government’s announcement in June that basin states needed to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water use, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled its 5-Point Plan. One leg of that plan is implementing a program that is conceptually the same as demand management (paying water users to cut back), but with one important difference: it does not have a specially designated pool in Powell to store the water. Any water conserved under the System Conservation Program, which is being funded with $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act, just stays in the stream and can be picked up by the next water user.

Head of the CWCB and Colorado’s Commissioner to the UCRC Becky Mitchell had promised the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District they could have a say in approving projects within their boundaries. But with an announcement in March that applications would be considered solely on criteria developed by the UCRC, Mitchell walked back her commitment, effectively cutting the conservation districts out of the process. The UCRC is in the process of finalizing contracts with selected project applicants. 

Senate bill 295 explicitly instructs the task force to include the CWCB and districts in its process, saying it must specify their respective roles and obligations in the development, implementation and operation of any conservation programs. 

The River District, based in Glenwood Springs, has not taken a formal position on supporting or opposing the creation of a demand-management program, but the organization has been a leader on the topic, producing reports and studies, such as one on the secondary economic impacts of a program on communities. River District leaders have said that if a demand-management program comes to pass, it must be done with careful guidelines to prevent harm to water users and to ensure that conservation doesn’t happen disproportionately in one geographic area. 

River District board members Wednesday voted unanimously to support Senate Bill 295. 

Zane Kessler, River District director of government relations, said the bill codifies a collaborative path forward.

“This is a broad-based and bipartisan effort with support from Speaker McCluskie and Representative Catlin, senators Roberts and Will. That’s about as balanced as it gets,” Kessler said in an email. “We believe it provides an important seat at the table for agricultural producers, West Slope communities, and the conservation districts charged with protecting the Colorado River’s water resources, and for engaging and working with other interests across the state to navigate a complex and rapidly evolving water future.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau supports the bill. Environmental groups are also supporting the bill, including Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates, but they want to ensure that any water saved through conservation programs could also benefit the environment by boosting streams at certain times of year.

“We are very encouraged that a task force is being set up to address one of the most challenging issues we are facing as a state,” said Bart Miller, director of healthy rivers at WRA. “We are looking forward to being part of that discussion and to make sure as that’s happening we are keeping rivers, recreation, local economies and all the things that depend on flowing streams in mind.”

The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both on the Colorado River, have plummeted to record-low levels, threatening the ability to make hydropower. In order to keep the system from crashing, the federal government has issued warnings to the seven basin states to cut their water use. Throughout the basin, there is a growing recognition that those cuts will come from agriculture, by far the largest water-use sector. 

Roberts said the current crisis on the river, coupled with an unprecedented amount of federal funding, brings new urgency to conservation discussions.

“We are now in a situation where the Bureau of Reclamation and the federal government are looking at the Colorado River and forcing the states to try to figure this out like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “There is significant federal funding available, and we want the task force to come up with recommendations on how we can maximize Colorado’s benefit from that federal funding to make a demand-management program incredibly well compensated and successful.”

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization that covers water, the environment and social justice. To support this work or learn more, go to aspenjournalism.org.