From Reservoirs to Corduroy: Snowmaking at Winter Park Resort

By Fiona Smith

Skiers around the state (and world) enjoy the benefits of snowmaking.

During the 2013-2014 ski season, Colorado saw 12.6 million skier visits. The ski industry across the United States alone generated around $12.2 billion during the 2009-2010 season. What makes it tick? What lies beneath that fresh corduroy and is responsible for Arapahoe Basin’s October open dates? Snowmaking. According to Winter Park Resort’s Slope Supervisor, Ron Richard, “Every other year we wouldn’t be able to open the way we do without snowmaking.”

In 1976, Winter Park became one of Colorado’s first resorts to use snowmaking. The tool is credited with saving the resort during one of the driest winters ever seen in the region. Winter Park’s snowmaking infrastructure now covers 300 acres across the resort.

While many ski areas in Colorado use automated equipment for their snowmaking, Winter Park continues to operate a manual system. “We have some guns you could operate with an app on your phone,” says Bob Dart, Winter Park’s Mountain Maintenance Director, “but most of our guys like to check them manually anyway.”

Bob Dart and his team run their snowmaking operations from the second week in October until the end of December. 28 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number that allows their guns to make water into snow. Dart’s eight employees, many of whom boast 20 years of seniority, work 24-7 shifts during peak snowmaking times to earn their season pass.

Bob Dart, Winter Park’s Mountain Maintenance Director, displays a map of the resort’s snowmaking system. Each dot on the map represents one of the hydrants which connects 80,000 feet of buried pipe.

Winter Park primarily uses air-water guns, which pressurize the water they spew with air that is adjusted from a control center low on the mountain. These guns pump water at 100 gallons per minute. One person manages the control room, turning on the water and adjusting the air pressure. The other seven work in groups of two out in the field, checking on and adjusting the guns. Through calculated gun placements, the team makes numerous piles of snow along the high-traffic trails. When they are big enough, a snow cat comes through and moves the snow wherever it needs to go.

“Our goal is to make snow as quickly as possible and have enough coverage to last all season in the high traffic areas.” –Bob Dart, Winter Park Mountain Maintenance Director

This control panel in the control center powers and adjusts the air pressure for all of Winter Park’s hydrants.

Every two hours, Dart’s team checks on the guns stationed around the resort- altering their position or changing the pressure of the gun. 80,000 feet of buried water and pipes wind under the snow around Winter Park and Mary Jane. Connecting those pipes are the hydrants, which are in turn connected to the hoses that run to the guns (some of which stretch 300 feet). As often as they are checked, it is inevitable that a hose will freeze. Dart explained, “The snow you want will bounce off your jacket. If you see its sitting on your coat, you know that something needs to be checked.” The only way to fix a hose is to haul all 300 feet of the culprit into the Control Center and let it thaw.

Winter Park’s total water consumption last year was 72 million gallons or around 220 acre feet of water. Most of this is pumped from the Vasquez Canal and returned to the canal when it melts at the end of the season. Through a series of agreements, including the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, Winter Park has an annual allotment of 550 acre-feet of water from Denver Water to use for snowmaking as long as all return flows can be returned to or recaptured by Denver Water’s collection system. This water is primarily reservoir yield from the Clinton Reservoir. Dart explains, “As long as I have three inches of water in the canals, we can pump at least 1000 gallons per minute.” 20 percent of the water is lost to evaporation but for the most part, the system is closed-what they take they return. The only situation in which Winter Park cannot use its full allotment of water for snowmaking, is in the event that Green Mountain and Dillon Reservoirs do not fill. Read more about the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, this transbasin diversion system and others in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Transbasin Diversions.

While the equipment might be old-school, Winter Park’s snowmakers are looking toward improvements. They are currently in the process of replacing their piping, a project they must attend to at least every five years. Additionally, as a benefit of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, the Resort has the opportunity to build a Fraser River pipeline that will allow recapture of more snowmaking water and a forty acre-foot holding pond on the resort. This will revolutionize the snowmaking schedule since they will no longer be solely dependent upon diurnal fluctuations.

The primary concern for the resort right now and an issue Bill Baum, General Counsel for Intrawest Colorado which manages Winter Park, has spent countless hours addressing, is that of the Federal Ski Area Water Rights Directive. This 2011 directive required ski areas applying for a permit to use Forest Service land, to assign or convey water rights to the Forest Service. The directive conflicts with Colorado’s Prior Appropriation system as it requires that private water rights be handed over to the federal government without just compensation. Since these water rights are crucial to maintaining the recreational and economic benefits of skiing in Colorado, this is an important and ongoing issue.

Attendees of the Colorado Water Congress POND Ski Day pose at the base of Winter Park Resort.

Supported by the Colorado Water Congress, Colorado State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg is sponsoring a 2015 bill (SB15-064), which would develop certain protections for ski area water rights against these federal taking claims. The bill was drafted and is primarily represented by the Boulder-based water law firm Porzak, Browning and Bushong LLP.  To learn more about SB15-064 please click here.

This post was written as a summary of the tour and presentations during the Colorado Water Congress Professional Outreach Networking and Development (POND) Committee’s 2015 Ski Day at Winter Park. For more information on the Colorado Water Congress and its upcoming events, please visit:

Fiona SmithFiona Smith is the Member Outreach and Relations Manager for the Colorado Water Congress, a membership organization established in 1958 to provide leadership on key water resource issues and serve as the principal voice of Colorado’s water community. Prior to moving to Denver in 2013, she taught environmental education in her native state of Washington and spent three years in Telluride. There, she lived a double-life, managing an energy conservation program and ski patrolling. She received her BA in Geology from The Colorado College.


next stepWant to learn more about snowmaking? Listen to this story focusing on snowmaking at Aspen and Snowmass produced in partnership with Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations and CFWE as part of our Connecting the Drops series.  Then read “Bring on the Snow” and “Nature’s Reservoir at Risk” in the Winter 2013 issue of Headwaters magazine.


Filed under Recreation, Water Supply

Call it a compact: Why examining the limits of Colorado River sharing is key to a successful state water plan


The declining water level of Lake Powell, shown in April 2014, is evidenced by the white bathtub ring on rock walls that were once underwater. Photo by Mike Jones

By Greg Trainor

As Colorado’s Water Plan moves forward through a year of revisions, there remains in the background a larger, most-worrisome issue of diminishing supply across the wider Colorado River Basin. This is evident from the dropping water levels of lakes Powell and Mead during the last 13 years. In 2014, these two major water storage reservoirs for the arid West reached all-time lows.

Colorado’s Water Plan is partially made up of eight individual river basin plans that hope to settle water supply allocations among themselves for various uses. However, like the interstate compacts that govern the use of Colorado’s rivers crossing state lines (there are nine such compacts between Colorado and adjacent states), the Colorado River Compact, on a larger, river-basin scale, already divided the waters of the Colorado River in 1922 among seven states that share the Colorado River Basin, and, in doing so, set the limits of water usage that those states have to live with in times of drought and short supply.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 is an agreement among the states whose boundaries lie within the Colorado River Basin in the western United States. The idea for the compact was to insure water would be available for states experiencing slow economic growth even as other states were experiencing strong economic development. The water of the Colorado River, less a portion of water for Mexico, was divided in half—half going to the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and parts of Arizona, and half to the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divides the flows of the Colorado River Basin between the four upper and three lower basin states.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divides the flows of the Colorado River Basin between the four upper and three lower basin states. The upper basin can not cause the annual flow measured at Lee Ferry, Ariz., to fall below 7.5 million acre-feet or 75 million acre-feet over a 10-year running average. 

Failure of the upper basin states to maintain the required volume of water to the lower basin could result in the lower basin states “calling” for their half of the water, with the upper basin being required to temporarily forego diversions. The volume required to reach the midpoint between the upper and lower basins at Lee Ferry, Arizona, is 7,500,000 acre-feet per year or 75,000,000 acre-feet over a 10-year rolling average.

To be more specific about the magnitude of the threat of little water, Colorado depletes about 2.5 million acre-feet annually from the Colorado River system, which equates to just under half the water used across the entire state. Of this amount, 1.1 million acre-feet is pre-1922 Compact water, while 1.4 million acre-feet, or 56 percent, is post-1922 Compact water. Post-1922 water would be the portion of Colorado’s water usage that would be most vulnerable in the event of a “call.” Ceasing those diversions would amount to a large reduction in use, not only on Colorado’s West Slope, but also along its Front Range, as water for transmountain diversions moving from west to east of the Continental Divide make up 43 percent of those post-1922 depletions.

It is certain that suspension of use would be mitigated or avoided if at all possible. However, long-term avoidance would have to be predicated on a rising supply and measurable reduction in demand across the entire upper Colorado River Basin, providing evidence that shortages would not be permanent.

In years of drought, the Compact minimum flow obligation poses a problem. A diminishing supply would have to be shared among not only upper basin users but also the lower basin users making the “call.” To thwart the contingency of the upper basin states having to cease or seriously curtail their water use, Lake Powell was constructed to store water in years of abundance and, then, in times of want, to supplement the 75,000,000 acre-foot requirement.

In the late 1990s, Colorado Basin water planners discussed the issue of how water surpluses could be shared and allocated. Then came the drought of 2002, and discussions changed focus to shortages. In 2005, the Secretary of the Interior directed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop additional strategies for improving coordinated management of the reservoirs of the Colorado River system. In response, Reclamation initiated a process to develop operational guidelines that can be used to address the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead during drought and low reservoir conditions.

Signed by the Secretary of the Interior and representatives of the seven basin states, the agreements were designated as “Interim Operational Guidelines” and included water level targets in lakes Mead and Powell to insure that various activities could continue unabated, such as the production of hydroelectric power. The parties recognized that as time marched on, the guidelines and their underlying hydrologic assumptions would have to be re-examined to account for changing climate, supply and demand conditions, and shortages.


Lake Mead, created by Hoover Dam, is a major storage supply on the Colorado River for the lower basin states. Shown in Feb. 2014, it was on its way toward reaching a historically low water level.

Simple observation of water levels in lakes Powell and Mead show us that lake levels are not “filling or spilling” but continue to drop. A conclusion? Current supply to the lower basin, and therefore the upper basin, is at risk. To date, the winter of 2014-2015 has produced snowpack at below-average levels. Additionally, as one attempts to look into the future by using past evidentiary data (paleohydrology), the conclusion is that future water supplies could be at risk as well. The evidence shows that it was common for drought to extend for decades.

Further complications arise. Colorado’s Water Plan is being developed today, in 2015. Review and modification of the Interim Operational Guidelines for Powell and Mead, affecting the Compact, are targeted for 2026-2030, 11 years hence. So how does one plan the wedding when the guest list isn’t drawn up until right before the ceremony? Or said another way, the review of the guidelines will include discussion of how to handle shortages of water, water that Colorado’s Water Plan may have already divided up. Envision the state policy makers and the guideline negotiators with their fingers in the same pie, each at their own party.

Ironically, the lower Colorado River Basin is the most vexing part of Colorado’s state water plan. Discussion of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and its conceptual criteria for the development of additional transmountain diversions from the state’s wetter West Slope to its urbanized East Slope addresses the Colorado River Compact in this way: “continued conversations and negotiations among the Basin States…are sensitive “ and “Colorado does not want to pre-judge the outcome of these discussions.” The developers of Colorado’s Water Plan know there could be sensitive interbasin outcomes in 2026 that are at cross purposes to the state water plan of 2015. The solution for now, it seems, is to kick the can down the road and hope that things “work out”—more water, less demand.

At least one basin roundtable has recognized the problem and is wrestling with the numbers, many numbers. This is a good sign that others are working on the problem. The 1922 Compact is not the only constraint on the Colorado River System. There are others that could restrict Colorado’s water usage. For example, how does Colorado measure up against the state’s percentage allocated in the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948, which divides the upper basin’s share between the four upper basin states? How does Colorado reconcile the Bureau of Reclamation’s determination of a 6-million acre-foot limit for the upper basin (compared with what was once assumed to be 7.5 million acre-feet)? What about depletion caps for recovery of endangered fish?

If we believe the data that reveals a future gap in Colorado’s municipal water supply of up to 538,000 acre-feet, should we not be including in Colorado’s Water Plan the most aggressive solutions to closing the gap? These could include the talked-about “insurance policy” to avoid the risk of Lake Powell dropping below minimum levels that would trigger a “call,” moving up re-negotiations of the Interim Operational Guidelines to gain more clarity of future requirements, serious discussion of importation of Mississippi River Basin water from beyond the state, desalination for fulfilling the U.S. Colorado River water obligation to Mexico, and land use mandates to decrease domestic water consumption to a certain maximum gallons per capita per day. Even legislative integration of a water component in local land use planning and development codes ought not to be dismissed as we look for solutions.

Until we see Powell and Mead water levels increase, the success of Colorado’s Water Plan rests on reduced demand. Decisive action is needed to solidify this policy. Increasing supply only works when climate favors us and water is available. Decreasing demand works both ways. In times of increased supply, decreased demand is a dividend and maintains water in storage. The rest of the time, decreased demand is the only way of staying within our ever-decreasing water supply.

City ID Photos

Greg Trainor retired as the public works/utility director for the City of Grand Junction in March 2014. He was actively engaged in many water issues relative to his work: utility construction, endangered species, parks and trail development, storm water and sanitary sewage discharges, use of compressed natural gas as an alternative fuel for public works vehicles, water rights development, kayak park development, and active engagement in Colorado’s State Water Plan (2015). Greg has also been a member of the River Management Society for 15 years. He is the vice-president of the SW Chapter and has edited and authored submissions for the RMS Journal, organized and participated in the RMS Ranger Rendezvous, planned Chapter floats, and volunteered for the BLM in Desolation Canyon during the 2013 and 2014 river seasons. Greg served as town manager of the Town of Rangely in the late 1970s, worked on the development plans for the Battlement Mesa New Town with ARCO Coal Company’s community development group, and was project manager with the Colorado River Water Conservation District for the Taylor Draw Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, located on the White River in western Rio Blanco County.

waterplancoverwebCheck out the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s newest issue of Headwaters magazine, covering the development of Colorado’s Water Plan, a roadmap for managing the state’s limited water resources in the face of drought, climate change and rapid population growth. And read up on the Colorado River Compact and the state’s other water-sharing agreements in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts.

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Filed under Colorado River, Colorado's Water Plan, Headwaters Magazine, Water Supply

Colorado water education pilot project expands nationally

By Lydia Hooper

What does it take to empower today’s youth to change their watershed? An entire community, says Donny Roush, Director of Uncommon Collaboratives and Program Director for Keep It Clean – Neighborhood Environmental Trios (KIC-NET) at the non-profit Earth Force.

“Young people are natural problem-solvers,” he said. “To better support them, KIC-NET seeks to bridge and address the needs of both urban stormwater and STEM education. The kids do the rest.”

For the past four years, Roush has leveraged funding from the EPA’s Urban Waters program and partnered with Denver Public Works to develop this transferable urban watershed education program.

KIC-NET aims to fulfill the city’s water quality requirements while also engaging students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning and supporting them to become life-long stewards of the South Platte River and other local bodies of water.

Truman Middle School students begin a day of water quality testing at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge by carrying waders into the Rio Grande bosque.

Truman Middle School students begin a day of water quality testing at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge by carrying waders into the Rio Grande bosque.

KIC-NET has been so successful in Denver that the program is now expanding from 10 to 25 schools in the metro area – and it’s going national (read about the program’s beginnings in this 2012 post) . Last fall, KIC-NET was adopted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where partners have empowered 300 students at five schools to take ownership of the Middle Rio Grande watershed.

From river conservation organization Amigos Bravos and the Valle del Oro Wildlife Refuge to the City of Albuquerque and Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District, partners are collaborating to achieve the common goal of healthier waters and communities.

“The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge strives to maintain the reputation of being an outdoor classroom for Albuquerque’s youth and the KIC-NET program is doing just that,” says Julia Bernal of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. “We love hosting Albuquerque’s young students and educators to promote environmental education and awareness.”

MSLA students by finished construction at Denver’s Huston Lake Park.

MSLA students by finished construction at Denver’s Huston Lake Park.

KIC-NET schools use nearby waterways and parks as outdoor teaching opportunities to both investigate and make plans to improve their neighborhood waters themselves. For example, last year fifth-graders at Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), in Denver, CO, created and distributed brochures about a city water quality improvement project to neighbors in the watershed of their Huston Lake.

KIC-NET schools also benefit from utilizing the experts and resources provided by partnership. Educators receive training and an activity guide that provides 32 place-based lessons aligned to the Earth Force Process, a six-step instructional model that combines the best of action civics, service-learning, and STEM learning. Using the Process, students work together to design and implement a project that addresses an issue that they care about in their school or community.

Through KIC-NET, students begin to understand the importance of their role as a leader in their community. “I think [our KIC-NET project] was [important] because if we didn’t go door-to-door then maybe Huston Lake would have even more trash,” said Eric Montez, a student at MSLA.

KIC-NET is not only expanding beyond urban Denver to the suburban areas surrounding Cherry Creek and Bear Creek, but cities as far away as Youngstown, Ohio are interested in reaping the mutual benefits of this model.

“For the past three years, we have been sharing the concepts behind the KIC-NET model with the Colorado Stormwater Council and surrounding communities,” says Darren Mollendor, KIC-NET co-creator and engineer at Denver Public Works. “We are encouraging cities across the state to capitalize on existing assets and infrastructure to use them not just as a feature in the environment but as an environmental learning tool.”

Earth Force is hosting a free KIC-NET workshop for educators on March 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. Those interested can contact Program Coordinator Erika Rodriguez at You can find more information on KIC-NET here.

lydiahooperLydia Hooper has been a “Keep It Clean” communications consultant for Earth Force in partnership with Denver Public Works since 2012. As a freelance creative strategist, she helps mission-driven organizations connect and engage by creating strategic, meaning-rich content. With a multidisciplinary background and versatile skills, she specializes in presenting complex ideas and information in ways that create real impact.


Interested in water education? Check out the Winter 2014 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Fine (and Fun!) Art of Engaging People Around Water” and register for the Water Educator Symposium the afternoon of March 11, 2015 for more examples of successful educational programs and opportunities to collaborate with water educators around the state. If you aren’t a member already, look at the resources available and join the Water Educator Network here.


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Filed under Events, Water Education and Resources

Colorado’s vulnerability and preparation for climate change

U.S. drought monitor from February 10, 2015 shows an increasingly dry Colorado.

Colorado’s record-breaking warm temperatures along with massive snow dumps on the East Coast, drought in California and the Pacific Northwest’s Pineapple Express rains have people across the country focusing on climate.  Globally, negotiators are working on a draft deal at the U.N. climate talks in Geneva to address climate change right now.

And here in Colorado a new report “The Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study” was just published, analyzing the challenges that state residents and leaders face as climate change continues to expose Colorado to various vulnerabilities.

The report looks at many state sectors individually and among other findings, a press release on the report points to the following:

  • Water: The state’s reservoirs can provide some buffering against some expected increases in water demand and decreases in flow, but entities with junior rights or little storage are especially vulnerable to future low flows.

  • Agriculture: Rising temperatures, heat waves and droughts can reduce crop yield and slow cattle weight gain. Colorado farmers and ranchers are already accustomed to large natural swings in weather and climate, but may find it especially challenging to deal with expected changes in water resources.

  • Recreation: Climate projections show that Colorado’s springtime mountain snowpack will likely decline by 2050, with potential impacts on late-season skiing. Spring runoff season may also be earlier and shorter, which could affect rafting. But the recreation industry and some Colorado communities are already making changes that could help them adapt to a warmer future. For example, Telluride ski area now markets itself as Telluride Ski & Golf.


Find the draft water plan at to read through and submit your input

Although Colorado is vulnerable to a changing climate in more ways than those listed, the state has been preparing for an uncertain future through various long-term planning undertakings. That planning includes the development of Colorado’s Water Plan, currently in draft form, to be completed in December 2015.  The water plan prepares the state for varying degrees of probable climate change, citing water supply availability as one of the primary drivers that decide how much water Colorado will need for the future. From the plan:

Water Supply Availability may similarly trend “lower” or “higher” depending on climate change, watershed hydrology, legal constraints associated with Colorado’s interstate compacts, water law, and environmental regulations. Water Supply Availability will also be assessed as trending lower or higher over time as compared to earlier versions of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative.

Learn more about climate at CFWE’s Climate and Colorado’s Water Future workshop March 13, 2015

On March 13, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s annual Climate and Colorado’s Water Future Workshop will take a look at climate in Colorado, global climate data tracked through ice core samples, future risks to Colorado’s watersheds, and water supply planning in the face of climate change. Participants will also hear about and receive access to tools to better teach and communicate about climate. Register for the workshop to learn more about climate in Colorado.

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Filed under Climate and Drought, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Colorado's Water Plan, Events

Talking about drought: drought management and policy webinars with the Western Governors’ Association

Western drought is in the news and Coloradans are well versed after 2002 and 2012. But it isn’t behind us, the state is always readying itself for future water shortage. The Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan prepares us for drought while the Water Availability Task Force monitors conditions on a monthly basis. Regionally, many Coloradans have shared their perspectives on how to respond to drought during a series of Drought Forum workshops coordinated by the Western Governors’ Association over the past six months, including emphasis on ways that drought response differed in 2012 compared to 2002.  From the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Denver Water, and from Badger Creek Dairy in Northern Colorado and Xcel Energy, Coloradans have played a significant role in the Drought Forum discussion. Now, through educational public webinars, there’s a new opportunity to get involved in regional drought preparedness.

By Carlee Brown, Policy Advisor, WGA

With drought conditions plaguing California, Nevada and other states – and with the widespread drought of 2012 that dramatically affected Colorado and 16 other western states still in mind – drought management and response is taking center stage across the West.

California Governor Sandoval created the WGA Drought Forum

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval created the WGA Drought Forum for regional best practice sharing on drought.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, created the Western Governors’ Drought Forum as a framework for states, communities and industry to share best practices on drought policy, preparedness and management.

Now, WGA is opening the discussion to a broad audience through the Western Governors’ Drought Forum Webinar Series, which will offer five in-depth discussions on drought management and policy topics. Each of the webinars will include a 40-minute panel discussion by three expert panelists followed by a 20-minute opportunity for questions and discussion for all attendees. Webinars will be recorded and made available online.

The webinar series is free, but pre-registration is required so sign up now!

WGA will issue a final report in June of 2015 summarizing the key findings of the Western Governors’ Drought Forum.  By attending the webinar series, participants will get a preview of the central policy issues identified through the Drought Forum.

Read more through the following CFWE resources:

508-JHO_6092Carlee Brown is a policy advisor for the Western Governors’ Association.  Carlee’s work focuses on drought and water regulatory issues that uniquely impact the West. She graduated from Stanford University with a BA in American Studies and a MS in Earth Systems, both with a concentration on agricultural policy.


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Filed under Climate and Drought, Events, Water Education and Resources, Water Supply

View from the Grand Valley: Municipal and agricultural partnerships


Part of Grand Junction as seen from the Colorado National Monument and sandwiched by the Book Cliffs on the northern horizon. Photo by Ed Fiske Photography

By Greg Trainor

“In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” —Eric Hoffer

The search for pure water is a staple activity of Colorado municipalities. Historically and contemporaneously, this search has followed the trail directly to the door of agriculture. “Mountain water…at any price” was a directive of the City of Grand Junction in the late 1890s and resulted in the city acquiring, via its powers of eminent domain, the most paramount water right from ranchers along Grand Mesa’s Kannah Creek. Called the Paramount Water Right, it was only a sliver of each farm’s water right but the lesson was clear: When threatened with the absence of water, cities have the power to get it, by whatever means, even if by condemnation.

This raw power carries with it the responsibility for domestic providers to seek alternatives to “buy and dry” before turning to the use of the district courts (“buy and cry”).

KC Intake

Grand Junction acquired water from the Kannah Creek diversion, west of the Grand Mesa, between 1907-1911 by condemnation.

By today’s arithmetic, new future population may represent the “have-nots” in terms of water supply. The numbers tell the tale: Estimated supply minus projected demand equals deficits. These deficits point to statewide supply gaps in Colorado that range between 538,000 and 813,000 acre-feet of water by the year 2050. New uses, population growth, political power, and climate change are pressuring the demand, and that demand is pressuring supply. With these deficit numbers, who or what will fill the gaps? Agriculture, some say. Assuredly Colorado’s draft state water plan is maintaining options to go to ag in the coming times of want.

At the West Slope four-basin roundtable meeting on December 18, 2014, in Grand Junction, preserving agriculture in the draft water plan was a recurrent theme of discussion. Why preserve agriculture? “We have to eat” goes without saying. Agriculture is also part of our economic foundation. Historically, it is an enterprise of small business. Basin water planners want to give the little guys a chance against the juggernaut of large cities, large oil shale and energy, and large recreation. Agricultural water use is not 100 percent consumptive and, as such, contributes to other important values, such as recreation, instream flows, and wildlife habitat. Agriculture accounts for more than 86 percent of the water used in the state and is the logical bank to meet future water demand. Finally and ironically, agriculture and cities share assets that are good for both enterprises, offering the use of water from the agricultural side and the use of financial capital from the municipal domestic side. It is a simple fact that cities can raise large amounts of money through their utility enterprises. This urban treasury can be used to insure the longevity of agriculture.

The Ute Water Conservancy District, servicing the greater part of the Grand Valley in western Colorado, is the state’s largest municipal water supplier west of the “Divide.” Although Ute Water has supplies from the Federal Collbran Project of the early 1960s, it is acquiring additional agricultural water rights from the slopes of the Grand Mesa. This is an essential insurance policy against projected “gaps” between growing demand and existing water supply. Ute’s agricultural program purchases ranch lands and leases properties back to ranchers until Ute needs the water. This same template is employed by the City of Grand Junction and has been in effect since the earliest decades of the last century. Although the demand for water has not overshot supply from the Kannah Creek area, the city maintains its option to share supply between its treated water system and the agricultural operations of its own ranch lands. Through physical interconnections between Ute Water and the city’s delivery systems, it is also possible for Ute to benefit from the city’s surplus ag resources.

In other cases, Ute acquires the ag water only, leasing water back to ranchers, and then, when Ute needs the water, it takes the water off the land. Both arrangements allow the rancher capital and operating funds to continue a ranch operation without immediately drying up the land and maintaining diligence on the agricultural water decrees without threat of abandonment. But these two methods beg the question: What happens when Ute’s demand becomes permanent and the transfers of water result in the “dry,” many years after the original “buy?”

“We need agriculture,” says Larry Clever, general manager of Ute Water, referring to the many benefits agriculture brings to our communities. He continues, “Our buying needs to profit agriculture from now until 2050, and a hundred years beyond that! We have a long-term relationship with ag and we plan to maintain that.”

Others add that we need water for habitat and instream flows and we need a compatible relationship that takes what agriculture has to offer (water) and gives what a domestic water rate base has to give (money). With water and money in play, alternative agricultural transfers and assets can be developed. This is so that water is available for both agricultural and municipal uses through conservation on both sides of the equation: improved water delivery methods and alternative watering practices on the ag side, and demand-side reductions on the urban development side.

Leadership will be needed to visualize the complicated mechanisms that will preserve agriculture. Rather than simply paying money, taking water, and drying land, the municipals have the obligation to craft solutions that keeps water flowing through the system. Those in a similar position as Clever is at Ute Water may not like this, but the water utility manager becomes the urban land use manager, perhaps seen as a demotion by long-time utility managers who would rather leave the politics of land development to others. But water is politics.

This transition may have already happened in Ute’s case. Like its partnership with agriculture in the watershed, a second relationship has developed between Ute Water and the six major irrigation providers in the Grand Valley. The Grand Valley has a unique dual water system. As agricultural lands transition to urban development, the ag water is required to be used on the property for outdoor irrigation unless, of course, the development is xeric or absent water completely. If a developer does not have irrigation water shares, he has to go into the market and purchase those shares, a miniature “buy and dry.” This has the effect of causing development to ponder its costs and where it wants to invest its money. This ag irrigation water reduces the demand on Ute’s treated water system.

One wrinkle occurs when irrigation water is in short supply and the demand on Ute’s treated water system increases. People have less irrigation water for outdoor use, so increase their use of treated water to make up the difference. To suppress this rise in treated water demand, Ute increases charges for treated water: conservation via the water rate.

Ute is making use of the agricultural water without actually acquiring it. By taking advantage of water that is no longer being used for agriculture but, rather, is associated with land being purchased for development, Ute is able to maintain its domestic infrastructure without investing in expensive enlargements.

Each municipal/agricultural relationship requires a unique, local solution. Ute Water is an excellent example of crafting local solutions based on local characteristics. Each stream segment, drainage, canal system, and reservoir has its own distinct geographic fingerprint, its own water rights “genealogy,” its own historical water use, and, as a result, its own return flow characteristics. For example, some positive ideas to conserve agricultural water may result in reduced water availability to others downstream. The converse may also be true. “Preservation of agriculture” demands that suppliers and users mine their collective thinking for workable, local solutions.

hwcover29To learn more, see the annual “Water Course” sponsored by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, February 11, 18, and 25 6 to 9 p.m. This year’s focus is Water for Agriculture. And check out past coverage from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education in Headwaters magazine’s Fall 2012 issue, “Rooted in Colorado,” which explored agricultural efficiency, soil health, and the economics of ag.

City ID PhotosGreg Trainor retired as the public works/utility director for the City of Grand Junction in March 2014. He was actively engaged in many water issues relative to his work: utility construction, endangered species, parks and trail development, storm water and sanitary sewage discharges, use of compressed natural gas as an alternative fuel for public works vehicles, water rights development, kayak park development, and active engagement in Colorado’s State Water Plan (2015).

Greg has also been a member of the River Management Society for 15 years. He is the vice-president of the SW Chapter and has edited and authored submissions for the RMS Journal, organized and participated in the RMS Ranger Rendezvous, planned Chapter floats, and volunteered for the BLM in Desolation Canyon during the 2013 and 2014 river seasons.

Greg served as town manager of the Town of Rangely in the late 1970s, worked on the development plans for the Battlement Mesa New Town with ARCO Coal Company’s community development group, and was project manager with the Colorado River Water Conservation District for the Taylor Draw Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, located on the White River in western Rio Blanco County.

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A statewide conversation on Colorado’s Water Plan: tune in on the radio or online this Sunday

Join radio listeners around Colorado for a statewide conversation on Colorado’s Water Plan during a live call-in discussion this Sunday January 25th from 5-6 pm. Hear from James Eklund, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Jim Pokrandt with the Colorado River Water Conservation District; and Chris Woodka with the Pueblo Chieftain. Listen online or on the radio with KGNU, KRCC, KDNK and other community radio stations across the state. Your calls and questions will be welcome at 800-737-3030, engage online by emailing or join the discussion on Twitter using #cowaterplan.   Hear about the basics of the water plan, how you can get engaged, what input is still needed and phone in to ask your questions and direct the discussion. Don’t forget, that’s this Sunday January 25th from 5-6 pm, part of Connecting the Drops, a collaboration between the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations.

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