A rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room…

By Christina Medved, Watershed Education Director and Heather Lewin, Watershed Action Director at Roaring Fork Conservancy in Basalt, CO.

Mighty Mountains

Spring at Mt Sopris Colorado. The Roaring Fork River is in the foreground and located just outside Carbondale CO. Credit: Steve Wiggins

A rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room… “Wait a minute,” you say, “I’ve heard this one before! Something about water being for fighting, right? Remind me the punchline again?” Well, this isn’t the same old story with the same old punchline. Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), currently in its 20th year, is working with an empowered group of stakeholders to rewrite the story of water in the Roaring Fork Valley. The privilege of living with ready access to cold mountain streams, abundant trout, vibrant agriculture and spectacular scenery is one we do not take for granted which is why we continue to work to bring together the diverse groups invested in their protection.

If you have not encountered us before, RFC is a local watershed organization, bringing people together to protect our rivers from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork high above Aspen to its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, from the Gold Medal waters of the Fryingpan River, to the banks of the free-flowing Crystal River, we continually assess and work to improve the health of our rivers, and we empower the community and next generation to do the same—reaching over 100,000 individuals since our inception.

2014.05.01 BMS 5 Coal Basin Placita Geomorphology Field Trip by C. Medve...

A geomorphology field trip with the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Credit: Christina Medved

Inspiring people to take action requires not only scientific knowledge, but also experiential knowledge and a common ground, or common water in this case! Through our work with the recreational and agricultural communities, our knowledge is enhanced. Learning from the people who are working the land and on the rivers each day (as sometimes we wish we could be!) provides insights that might not be documented anywhere except the mind of the water user. By working with these stakeholders, we are able to craft studies to address real needs with real benefits to the river. In turn, we are able to share our learnings with the greater community through adult and school programs throughout the year.

Through proactive science and watershed planning, RFC helps inform decision-makers at the municipal and county levels and direct on-the-ground improvement and restoration projects. All of RFC’s endeavors—scientific studies, restoration project, policy work and educational campaigns—are rooted in the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan published in 2012, and focus on water quantity and quality and riparian health. The thread through all of our projects is building relationships with each stakeholder. Here are some examples of RFC’s work in action:

Crystal River Management Plan: During the 2012 drought, the Crystal River experienced significantly low flows, to the tune of 1 cubic foot per second (cfs) in the lower reach where the instream flow right is 100cfs. The Crystal Valley, mecca for both ranching and recreation, was feeling the demand gap of the drought. How could it be possible to look out for the interests of all water users involved, including the river? You listen to the concerns from stakeholders and work together to answer the tough questions about how to efficiently and fairly use and share the invaluable water resource. To tackle this complex issue, RFC partnered with Public Counsel of the Rockies and Lotic Hydrological to produce the Crystal River Management Plan, one of the first stream management plans in Colorado.

The Crystal River Management Plan relies on a robust science-based and stakeholder-centered approach to consider complex interactions between the physical components driving watershed structure; the biological components of riverine ecosystems; the social context of competing perspectives, needs, and values; and the existing legal and administrative frameworks governing water use in an effort to identify and evaluate management and structural alternatives that honor local agricultural production, preserve existing water uses, and enhance the ecological integrity of the river.

Stakeholder meetings held throughout the planning process served to clarify outstanding questions, summarize results from previous studies, refine planning goals and objectives, and evaluate the feasibility of various management alternatives.

The Plan combines river science and community values to offer feasible and effective water management alternatives for improving ecological health of the Crystal River recognizing the competing demands for water to sustain agricultural and municipal needs as well as other environmental and recreational values in the community.


A12 - Fryingpan Dawn by Mark Fuller

The Fryingpan River. Credit: Mark Fuller.

Lower Fryingpan River Comprehensive Study: Citizens and angling guides approached RFC with concerns about low winter flows, formation of anchor ice, and an abundance of algae, we would later come to name Didymosphenia geminata—better known as didymo or “rock snot”—on the Gold Medal waters of the Fryingpan River. Concerned about these potential impacts on the river resource, interested citizens along with RFC voiced these concerns to the Bureau of Reclamation, who manages the flows on the Fryingpan. From these encounters, RFC partnered with the Natural Resource Management Program at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Dr. Bill Miller, Delia Malone, and the Economics Department at Colorado State University to develop a scientific study to evaluate the macroinvertebrate population, water temperature, didymo, American Dipper population, and the economic impact of the Fryingpan Valley.

Here are a few highlights from the study:

  • The macroinvertebrate population indicates a healthy river system.
  • Didymo prefers oxygenated (moving) water and its presence declined after high flows.
  • The Fryingpan Valley is sustaining 28 mating pairs of American Dippers. Their success is dependent on 50m of undisturbed riparian habitat upstream and downstream of nesting sites.
  • The economic impact of fishing the Lower Fryingpan River is $3.8 million annually and contributes to 38.3 jobs to the region!

For details about this study and additional results, please click here.

So, a rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room… with a shared love and desire to protect western Colorado’s most precious resource: water. Please join us on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s tour of the Roaring Fork watershed on September 12 to see these one-of-a-kind areas for yourself and learn about the benefits of RFC’s work and partnerships. Learn more and register here.

For additional details about Roaring Fork Conservancy please visit www.roaringfork.org .

Medved HeadshotChristina Medved, Watershed Education Director
Christina calls Cleveland, OH, her hometown and the infamous Cuyahoga River her home watershed. Having spent a lot of time on lakes as a child, she quickly fell in love with rivers while working as a Field Instructor within Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, OH. She then became the Education Programs Manager and Leaf Pack Network® Administrator at Stroud Water Research Center, near Philadelphia, PA. During that time she coordinated two watershed treks which gave high school students a full-immersion experience in tracing the drinking water supply of New York City and Wilmington, DE, and, had the opportunity to teach stream ecology workshops across the United States as well as in villages of Costa Rica and Peru. Christina has a B.S. in Environmental Science from Ashland University in OH and an M.A. in Communication Studies from West Chester University in PA. When not teaching or on the river, Christina enjoys cooking, biking, snowshoeing and dabbling in photography.

Heather Lewin photoHeather Lewin, Watershed Action Director
Heather has worked with Roaring Fork Conservancy in the areas of land conservation and policy since 2010. She has B.S. in biology from Providence College and a Master’s in Environmental Science and Policy from Johns Hopkins University. She has also completed a residency in environmental education at Teton Science School. With Roaring Fork Conservancy, Heather is working on Colorado 303d water quality listings, land conservation efforts, and policy issues. Heather is also a certified raft guide and ski instructor.

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FLOWS: Conserving Water and Empowering Communities

According to the Citizen’s Guide for Colorado Water Conservation, upgrading your toilets, showerheads, and faucets to WaterSense-labeled models can save a boatload of water and a nice chunk of change on your water bill. However, for people who have trouble affording rent and other necessities, upgrading to more efficient water fixtures can be cost-prohibitive, even if it would save money in the long run. There are many water conservation audit and assistance programs around the state that can help, including the CU Environmental Center’s new FLOWS program. The Foundation for Leaders Organizing for Water and Sustainability or FLOWS seeks to partner with low-income communities in the City of Boulder to conserve water, energy, and money.

“FLOWS is a partnership between community members and students,” says Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish, the program manager. “We’re working together to build capacity in low-income communities around green jobs and engage community members in sustainability. The idea is not to come into the community to provide for them but work with them instead.

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The FLOWS Team. Top row (left to right): Sesha Pochiraju, Kamyria Coney, Roberto DeMata, Magdlena Landa-Posas, Michelle Romersheuser, Henry Torres, Sadie Witt, Leomar Mendez, and Mike White. Bottom row: Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish, Robin Eden, Angela Ortiz, and Pablo Cornejo-Warner. Not pictured: Shino Ferguson

The initial FLOWS pilot project wrapped up earlier this summer and involved two main aspects: an intercultural focus group in addition to water and energy audits. The former sets FLOWS apart from similar initiatives in Colorado. The focus group brought a diverse group of community members together to discuss sustainable traditions from cultures around the world, highlighting tenants’ existing water conservation knowledge. “The goal was to help people see how they’re already sustainability leaders,” says Gabrieloff-Parish. “In these discussions, we looked at native water traditions in Colorado and the Americas; India; Bali; and others. Some ingenious water conservation techniques are already out there; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” In addition to watching the Watershed documentary, the group covered topics like the use of ollas (pronounced oy-yahs) for efficient irrigation in arid landscapes and the recognition of the importance of trees for watershed health in the Chipko movement of India. “I’ve talked about (these topics) in my classes where a lot of students come from various indigenous communities,” says Angela Ortiz, a FLOWS technician and urban agriculture educator in Denver. “They have a lot of knowledge that has just gone dormant because when you migrate, it can be easier to forget.”

What makes FLOWS special is that it’s an initiative that comes from within the community, empowering neighbors to build community around sustainability. “In the classroom training (to be a FLOWS technician), it wasn’t only CU Boulder students but also my neighbors. Talking about global issues and how to come up with local solutions has helped us get to know each other on a deeper level, which builds a stronger community,” says Ortiz. “I hope in the future FLOWS will be able to provide more training and opportunities for us to exchange knowledge within the community.”

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FLOWS Leaders (left to right): Mike White, Pablo Cornejo-Warner, Leomar Mendez, Roberto DeMata, and Sesha Pochiraju

The other part of the pilot program involved water and energy audits that were conducted in a 35-unit housing complex that belongs to Boulder Housing Partners (BHP), an organization that builds, owns, and manages affordable housing for low and moderate income residents in Boulder. BHP is currently FLOWS’ main partner. The team of FLOWS technicians, which included seven community members and seven students, finished training workshops followed by several days of installations within the complex. Interested tenants could sign up for an audit, which involved discussing their sustainability habits with a technician, while another technician checked for toilet leaks; insulated hot water pipes; and checked faucet water temperatures. Technicians installed water efficient showerheads and aerators; CFL and LED light bulbs; and more. Tenants were also provided with a green cleaning product and a Zip It drain cleaning tool, both of which can save tenants valuable time and money while keeping harmful cleaning substances out of the water supply.

While we are still waiting for the numbers from the FLOWS pilot to show how much water and money the upgrades will save tenants, SCORE, the program that FLOWS is modeled after, already has a proven track record. SCORE is a service that offers similar benefits to CU Boulder and Naropa University students in rental properties in the City of Boulder. The installations implemented in the spring 2016 semester through that program will save approximately 506,144 gallons or 1.5 acre feet of water annually and thus significantly reduce tenants’ water bills.

In addition to Boulder Housing Partners, FLOWS has also partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and Kohler for funding. BEF provided most of the seed funding for the pilot program and Kohler recently donated seventy-five of their WaterSense-labeled High Efficiency Toilets (HET). The toilets will be available to 75 households through FLOWS as the program grows.

Since the program is still in its infancy, FLOWS is only available for residents living in BHP properties in the City of Boulder during the rest of 2016. Starting next year, they hope to offer this resource to other low-income communities within Boulder beyond BHP properties. With more community involvement and more technicians, the program will have more flexibility to offer a wider range of scheduling options. That is, audit appointments will be available throughout the week and not be limited to the span of a few days per month for each housing complex.

WatersenseLabel (1)Although FLOWS is unique, several other organizations in Colorado offer similar programs to help low-income households increase their water efficiency and save money. One example is Colorado Springs Utilities. In 2013, they partnered with several organizations “to help low-income and non-profit housing providers improve efficiency with WaterSense retrofits.” They have continued to help their community lower its water footprint by “supporting apartment owners and managers in property upgrades, helping builders incorporate WaterSense certification, and educating customers through events, classes, and a K-12 education program.” In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named Colorado Springs Utilities one of its WaterSense Partners of the Year in recognition of their water conservation accomplishments. To learn more, check out  Patrice Lehermeier’s blog post on Colorado Springs Utilities.

Another example is the Center for ReSource Conservation’s (CRC) Slow the Flow program. The CRC has partnered with twenty-four Front Range water providers to offer free indoor water and outdoor sprinkler consultations to qualifying customers. You can check which water programs you qualify for here.

A lot of great work is being done in Colorado to help communities understand and lower their water footprints while saving money on their bills. FLOWS brings some new elements to the field by encouraging participants to recognize and use water conservation wisdom that they already have through its neighbors-helping-neighbors model. It will be exciting to see how the program grows in the coming years. “It helps to be reminded that there are more people like me pushing for change and it’s nice to see people from all walks of life working for this unique purpose,” says Ortiz.

CitizensGuideToColoradoWaterConservation2016 (1)Learn more about water conservation and conservation programs in CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.



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South Denver Metro Shares Lessons on Path to Sustainable Water Future

By Eric Hecox

This month the South Metro Water Supply Authority, with our technical consultants CH2M, released a comprehensive assessment of the South Denver Metro region’s water future.

The study shows we have come a long way from the days of front-page headlines decrying the region as “running dry.” We can now say with confidence that we are on the path to a secure water future. We know where we’re going, and we know how to get there.

The results are summarized in recent newspaper articles (“The Future Looks Bright for Local Water Sources”) and on our website. In short, we have accomplished three major goals:

  • We have made significant progress in transitioning to a renewable water supply that will continue to become more balanced over time. By 2065, renewable water sources will account for 85 percent of our water supply, up significantly from just 12 years ago.
  • We have determined our future needs and what we need to do to meet them. While there is still work to be done, we are on the right path.
  • We have established an ethic of conservation with a 30 percent reduction of per capita water demand over the last 12 years, and a commitment to do even more.

For regions facing their own water challenges, there are lessons to be drawn from our work in the South Denver Metro region.

First is the importance of partnerships. By working together, the 13 water providers that comprise SMWSA have made a much larger impact than they could working in isolation. Partnerships with other regional water entities – including Aurora Water and Denver Water on the WISE Project and other initiatives – have been instrumental to our success. Similarly important are collaborative working relationships with entities such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board, other basins and their roundtables and many others.

Second, none of this is possible without investment. Our progress is a result of a number of significant projects. In addition to WISE, they include the ACWWA/ECCV Northern Project, the Rueter-Hess Reservoir, the Chatfield Reallocation Project, and many more.

Lastly, conservation and efficiency play a critical role in our success. By aggressively pursuing conservation strategies and becoming a leader in the state in water reuse, we have put the South Denver Metro region on a path to a sustainable water future.

If you would like to learn more about our efforts to date and plans moving forward, feel free to get in touch by sending me an email at erichecox@southmetrowater.org. M
ore information is available on our website: SouthMetroWater.org.

You can also read more about the WISE Project and other regional collaborative effHW SUMMER coverorts in “Linking Up: The Case for Regionalization” from the summer issue of Headwaters magazine, published by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education:  And explore CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation for a comprehensive overview of the most current and effective strategies to improve water efficiency at an individual and community scale.


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Eric Hecox is executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a regional water authority comprised of 13 water provider members that collectively serve about 80 percent of the population of Douglas County and 10 percent of Arapahoe County. SMWSA was established in 2004 to develop and execute a plan to provide a secure and sustainable water future for the region. Eric is also president of the board of directors for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. 

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Filed under Headwaters Magazine, Uncategorized, Water conservation, Water Supply

Reducing abandoned mine water pollution in Colorado

By Skip Feeney, Water Quality Scientist, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division

Recently, I stayed at the Polar Star Inn, a hut in the 10th Mountain Division Hut system. Within an hour of arriving several children reported back that they had found a large hole in the ground that went really deep! It turned out to be a mine. Actually this hut got its name from an abandoned silver mine named the Polar Star Mine. It is not hard to stumble upon abandoned mines in Colorado. In fact there are an estimated 23,000 abandoned or inactive mines in Colorado alone.

Colorado and mining have a long history together. According to the History Colorado website, “The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush brought unprecedented numbers of people into the region…culminating in the admittance of Colorado to the Union in 1876.” Most Colorado hard rock mining activity predates the passing of current environmental regulations in the 1970s and 1980s. Before this time many mining companies did not restore the mined area,  leaving physical hazards and human and environmental impacts.


Credit: Ashley Bembenek, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition

One key environmental impact to water quality is acid mine drainage. This occurs when oxygen from the air and water react with sulfide minerals, increasing the acidity of the water. The acidic solution dissolves metals and flows into streams, lakes and groundwater. Acid mine drainage is exacerbated by mining practices when excavated materials leave voids in the moutain, increasing surface area for the acid mine drainage reaction to occur.  

High levels of metals harm fish and aquatic ecosystems. These contaminants also impact drinking water and agricultural water sources. This problem is significant with 1,800 miles of Colorado streams, not meeting water quality standards due to acid mine drainage related pollutants.

Unfortunately solving the water quality issues related to abandoned mines has its share of challenges. Abandoned mines are expensive to address—often in the millions of dollars with ongoing treatment costs. Many historic mining companies are no longer in business and therefore are not able to pay for restoration costs, and existing government funding sources are not sufficient to clean up all of the abandoned mines. Plus, liability concerns over treatment of mine drainage to Clean Water Act standards prevent many agencies and environmental groups from volunteering to clean up abandoned mines.

After the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently caused a discharge at the Gold King mine, one year ago, a spotlight was shone on the statewide problem of abandoned mines. The Colorado Water Quality Control Division launched the Mine Impacted Streams Task Force to determine the extent and magnitude of abandoned mine impacts to water quality. The task force is made up of staff members from the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, the Water Quality Control Division and the Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety. The task force supports two initiatives: 1) An abandoned mine inventory and 2) a water quality study of draining, abandoned mines.  


Credit: Ashley Bembenek, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition

The abandoned mine inventory project combines and presents the existing unique and separate federal and state abandoned mine data sets. The inventory aims to better understand the number of abandoned mines and their locations and make this information available to water users, restoration professionals and the public. While prioritization of mine restoration activities is defined within each agency, the inventory will provide tools to help agencies work together to restore abandoned mines. The inventory steering committee includes the above mentioned state agencies, Colorado Geologic Survey, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, National Parks Service, Department of Energy, U.S. Geologic Survey and other organizations.

The Draining Mines Water Quality Study is a Governor directed initiative that will survey and measure the water quality of roughly 150 draining mines within the state. This study has begun and a final report will be published in 2017. Of the mines being studied, all of them that are presumed to negatively impact water quality are abandoned and lack recent investigation. The study will provide a water quality snapshot from which risk assessment and restoration prioritization can begin. The Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety and the Water Quality Control Division are partnering to execute this study.

As mentioned above there are many challenges to addressing this problem. However, the abandoned mine inventory and draining mines water quality study will provide information for all agencies, watershed groups and mining companies to make more informed prioritization and restoration decisions. This will help to maximize the money invested in reducing pollution from abandoned mines.  

HalfMoonCreekSkip Feeney holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Health. He has worked in the water quality industry for 15 years. This includes private sector work in regulatory, program and data management consulting for municipal agencies and public sector work with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division as a water quality assessor. In his role with the Division he championed the development and implementation of a Measurable Results Program to evaluate the water quality impacts derived from pollution control projects funded through the Division. Projects within this program include wastewater treatment plant upgrades and abandoned mine restorations. He is currently taking a leading role with the Mine Impacted Waters Task Force. The task force supports two initiatives: 1) An abandoned mine inventory and 2) a water quality study of 150 draining, abandoned mines.

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Putting the thinking into water education with ThinkWater

By Jeremy Solin

I’ve worked as an educator in both formal and informal settings for nearly 20 years. Throughout those years, I asked my students (adults and youth) to think critically about the topics I presented. Not too long ago, though, I realized that I really had no idea what I was asking them to do. What does it mean to think critically about something?

I was reminded of this realization this past Easter when my 10-year-old daughter was doing an Easter egg hunt. She knew how many eggs were hidden for her. After about 15 minutes of hunting, she came up to me and said “I can’t find half of my eggs!” I responded, “you need to look harder.” She stopped, looked at me and asked “What does that mean? How do I look harder? Do I scrunch up my eyes and stare at things?” I was amused by this, and also realized I had just asked her to look harder without providing any support or skills for her to accomplish this. This was the same thing I had been doing to my students when asking them to think critically.

Fortunately, scientists have been exploring the process of thinking and offer some effective strategies for how to think about something. One of these cognitive scientists, Dr. Derek Cabrera, has developed a framework for thinking that we use in ThinkWater. (We explain ThinkWater below.) DSRP-making Distinctions, understanding parts and wholes of Systems, identifying Relationships, and taking different Perspectives-provides the four simple rules of systems thinking/metacognition that are the basis for the work that ThinkWater does. For a bit more of an introduction to systems thinking, check out this short article and a 12-minute video.Copy of DSRPPosters


ThinkWater is a national movement of educators, students, managers, stewards, scientists, and citizens who think and care deeply about water. They know that future water security and sustainability starts with deeper learning, understanding, and caring, and that true understanding and behavior change requires more than new information. That’s where systems thinking comes in. For a short, 2-minute introduction, check out this video.



Educators in an Arizona Project WET workshop practice DSRP.

ThinkWater has generated a host of resources including online trainings, concepts and paradigms, instructional materials, software, and a community forum for water thinkers.

As water educators, integrating systems thinking into our program design and delivery will improve our efforts to engage our audiences in water topics. Too often, we provide information expecting our audiences to make meaning of it (through thinking) without providing the structure or skills to do so. That’s what ThinkWater resources can help us do better—put the thinking into water education.

ThinkWater will be offering a half day, pre-conference workshop at the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference on October 11th. If, like me, you’re interested in integrating thinking into water education, I hope you’ll join me there. For more information about the workshop and to register, visit CFWE’s Water Educator Network website.

jeremy_solin_headshotJeremy Solin has worked in the environmental and sustainability education fields for nearly 20 years in programs across the country. Currently, Jeremy is the Wisconsin Coordinator and National Program Manager of ThinkWater.  He has a bachelor’s degree in water resources (UW-Stevens Point), a master’s degree in environmental education (University of Minnesota, Duluth) and a doctorate degree in sustainability education (Prescott College).


Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Events, Water Education and Resources

No Chico Brush: Collaboration for Colorado’s Water Future



Official opening of the Gunnison Tunnel by President Taft at the west portal, Montrose, Colorado, September 23, 1909. Photo by Almeron Newman.

Before irrigated agriculture in the Uncompahgre and North Fork Valleys, there was chico brush. These woody desert plants covered vast swaths of land in southwestern Colorado until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when works like the Gunnison Tunnel diverted water that was used to transform these valleys into the agricultural hubs they are today—leaving chico brush on the dusty sidelines.

As water resources in the region have grown more stretched in recent decades, many stakeholders recognize the need to update operations to improve their odds in the face of future water scarcity. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 dictates that water from the Colorado River must be shared between seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico. Further, this compact “obligates the upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to not not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry, Arizona to be depleted below 75 million acre feet over any period of 10 consecutive years,” according to the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts. So far, this obligation has always been met.


Lake Powell in Arizona. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt.

However, delivering this promised water may become much more difficult in the near future. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of the reservoirs that store water destined for lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) and Mexico, reached record low levels this year, highlighted by ominous bathtub rings in the lake sediments. This is indicative of how low the Colorado River has been recently due to steadily increasing demand for a variety of municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses. According to the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, “the gap between water supply and demand for municipal and industrial uses alone could reach 560,000 acre feet by 2050 absent proactive measures…these future gaps in municipal and industrial water supply will likely be met by voluntary transfers of water out of irrigated agriculture, as lucrative offers are made by urban utilities and industrial operators.” If this economic pull were to slowly dry up agriculture in southwestern Colorado, it would deal a significant blow to the state’s economy and heritage, not to mention the cornucopia of delicious, Colorado-grown produce that we enjoy.  

“If we don’t do something then other people are going to think we aren’t taking this seriously and then the water will be gone,” says Tom Kay, a farmer and co-owner of North Fork Organics. Without irrigation water to cultivate crops and the agricultural lifestyle in the valleys, irrigators fear that nothing will be left but chico brush.

That’s why some of those folks in the Uncompahgre and North Fork Valleys came together in 2010 to form No Chico Brush (NCB), a farmer- and rancher-led group of interested citizens who are working together to look at future water availability and irrigation efficiency. The group consists of an array of interests including county commissioners; water organizations; special interest groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited; citizens; and more , according to Steve Schrock, the coordinator of NCB.

John Harold holding a piece of the drip irrigation tape that gets laid in the field.

John Harold holding a piece of the drip irrigation tape that gets laid in the field. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

With diverse interests come diverse objectives. “I wanted to find ways to educate and encourage farmers to understand that we have to modernize irrigation practices because of the pressures on water,” says John Harold, one of the farmers who brought the group together. NCB aims to keep their lands for agricultural purposes (and thus, free of chico brush) far into the future by implementing more efficient irrigation practices, which will also increase in-stream flows to benefit recreational economies and wildlife habitat. This will ensure that local communities, crops, and ecosystems continue to flourish, even in years when little water is available. It’s a natural partnership between environmental interests like Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy and local farmers and ranchers. However, not all of the farmers and ranchers in NCB agree on the necessity of updating irrigation infrastructure, pointing out that the current system has worked well for over a century. Having a diverse range of opinions within the group has helped to more accurately represent community needs and interests.

We don’t agree on everything but we have a lot of common goals,” says Aaron Derwingson with The Nature Conservancy. Given the sometimes unpleasant history between environmentalists and farmers, tensions were a bit high at first and the path toward partnership wasn’t easy. Despite their differences, these stakeholders do agree that working together is imperative. “(Collaboration) takes more time and more effort but for us it’s the only way we’re going to build a lasting conversation,” Derwingson says. “I think the main benefit is we can speak with a strong voice. People are going to listen to that more than any one of us individually.”

To facilitate greater adoption of water efficiency practices, the group is focusing on research on the Western Slope. Research has been done elsewhere in the state but NCB has emphasized the importance of collecting region-specific data. NCB partnered with Colorado State University and successfully acquired two grants that have helped fund this ongoing research

Sweet corn near Olathe, CO.

Sweet corn near Olathe, CO. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

Further irrigation efficiency financing has been hard to come by recently and current funding may not be enough to meet farmers’ needs in the future, Schrock says. However, some larger programs to incentivize the switch to more efficient irrigation systems are underway. In 2014, a group of municipal water providers throughout the Colorado River Basin, including Denver Water, partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation to address Colorado River water shortages and created the Colorado River System Conservation Program. This program has provided funding for water conservation pilot programs. One of these pilot programs is the Organic Transition Program, designed by Derwingson and Kay, which pays farmers to grow cover crops for three years, thereby using a third of the water they would otherwise. This also helps farmers get that land certified as organic, since one of the requirements is that the land “must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years.” Thus, farmers will save water and then be able to grow a higher value crop. “I’m looking for ways to help farmers expand their economic horizons and organic is a way to do that,” says Kay.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

All of us have a lot to gain when Colorado farmers and ranchers shift toward more water-efficient systems. By conserving what they can now, they are doing their part to ensure the continuation of agriculture in southwestern Colorado and the overall prosperity of our state. “Agriculture is a huge part of our heritage, economy, and history. We (in NCB) are preserving agriculture. real farms, real farmers, and not having our agricultural economy move toward hobby ranches and farms or subdivisions,” says Schrock.

Check out this Trout Unlimited video for more insight on the work of No Chico Brush.

CitizensGuideToColoradoWaterConservation2016 (1)Learn more about efficient water use in agriculture by reading CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Colorado River

Preserving Water for Agriculture with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance


By Greg Peterson

While I was raised in Littleton, I grew up hearing stories from my family about their farm. They were farmers and ranchers along Bear Creek until their land was taken under eminent domain for the Bear Creek Reservoir. I have a hard time picturing an agricultural community in an area that is now suburbs, golf courses, and a park. To create a metropolitan area like Denver, the landscape has changed completely and will continue to change. Today, many other communities are concerned how much longer their way of life can persist in the wake of such change.

By 2050, Colorado’s population will almost double to 10 million, bringing with it a water shortage of more than 500,000 acre feet per year. Municipalities will look to agricultural water as a source of supply. In that same timeframe, the irrigated acreage in the South Platte Basin may decrease by half.

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Agricultural producers come together with the Colorado Ag Alliance to discuss the future of irrigated agriculture in the South Platte Basin.

Much of the Colorado Water Plan directly and indirectly discusses agriculture, and the Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA) is hosting a series of meetings around the state to give agricultural producers the opportunity to take an active role in the implementation of the Water Plan. CAWA is comprised of leaders across the state representing major industries of production agriculture. Their goal is to preserve Colorado’s irrigated agriculture through education and constructive dialogue.

The most recent meeting was hosted in Brush for producers and ditch company representatives to discuss the future of irrigated agriculture in the South Platte Basin. The discussion covered the Colorado Water Plan, alternative transfer methods (ATMs) to “buy and dry,” how farmers can participate in such programs, and other topics.

ATMs include interruptible supply agreements, rotational fallowing, water leasing and banks, reduced crop consumptive use, and the purchase and leaseback of water rights. According to the Colorado Water Plan, ATMs are supposed to supply 50,000 acre feet per year by 2050.  John Schweizer, a farmer in the Arkansas River Basin, described the effect “buy and dry” has had on the region and talked about the success of their rotational fallowing ATM project, the Super Ditch.  A panel of various ATM projects in the South Platte Basin exchanged questions and comments with the audience on the opportunities and obstacles surrounding these projects.

However, future storage will still make up most of the future water supply. Joe Frank, of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, discussed how most of the water gap in the South Platte Basin will be mitigated with already Identified Projects and Processes (IPPs) outlined in the South Platte Basin Implementation Plan. Mike Applegate, of the Northern Water Board, discussed the status of current storage projects.

Other presentations discussed motivations among producers to conserve their water for other uses, the results of a survey on producers’ opinions of ag water leasing, and a presentation of the “use it or lose it” mentality toward water rights by the Colorado State Engineer, Dick Wolfe.

This workshop was only a part of a much larger conversation. These ideas take time and multiple discussions, but agricultural producers provide invaluable knowledge and necessary input if these ideas are to become more widespread.

CitizensGuideToColoradoWaterConservation2016 (1)Learn more about efficient water use in agriculture by reading CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.

bio picGreg Peterson has recently been involved in water issues in Colorado after receiving a Masters in Political Economy of Resources from The Colorado School of Mines and working as a teacher before that.  He has worked as a research associate at the Colorado Water Institute and is currently working with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and enjoys learning about economics, agriculture and rural Colorado. 


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