Category Archives: Instream Flow

Change Brings Hope


Photo Credit: Riverhugger

By the Colorado Water Trust staff

In October 2016, The Durango Herald carried a modest story sporting the headline, Trout Discovered in Creek Long Devoid of Fish.  In the southwest corner of Colorado, where abandoned mines and contaminated streams have long been a part of the otherwise magnificent mountain landscape, this is encouraging news—especially for a community that, just two years ago, saw the Animas run yellow.

The San Antonio Mine complex, north of Silverton, Colorado, has been a fixture on the flanks of Red Mountain Pass for over 100 years. While most active mining ceased in the 1940s, the spoil piles and orange drainage from the Kohler Tunnel remained, contaminating streams with high concentrations of copper, lead, cadmium and zinc, and eliminating the fishery resource in Mineral Creek.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several entities joined together with the hopes of improving water quality and restoring the natural function of the watershed. The Animas River Stakeholders Group, whose mission is to improve water quality and aquatic habitat in the Animas Watershed, determined that drainage from the Kohler Tunnel contributed the largest amounts of metals to the upper Animas Watershed. As a result, the stakeholders group designated the tunnel drainage as its highest priority for remediation.


Photo Credit: USGS

Hydrogeological studies and other research conducted by the stakeholders group identified the Carbon Lake Ditch as the likely source of water seeping into the mine and the Kohler Tunnel, impacting water quality. The 50-year-old irrigation ditch diverts from the upper Mineral Creek Basin and winds its way across the mine complex to deliver water to the other side of Red Mountain Pass. Winter ice buildup in the ditch and heavy summer rains caused occasional breaches, resulting in erosion and surges of mine drainage from the tunnel. The obvious solution was to eliminate the source of water infiltrating the mine, so the stakeholders group targeted their efforts on the ditch.

With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Animas River Stakeholders Group purchased the entire 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) Carbon Lake Ditch water right from the owners who were willing to part with their water right in favor of reliable, local water supplies. The stakeholders group removed the physical structures from the streams, completed ecological restoration of the ditch and plugged the Kohler Tunnel to prevent future drainage into the stream.

Discontinuing diversions and removing the headgate did not guarantee that the restored flows would stay in Mineral Creek to benefit the environment—legally, that water would be free for other uses under Colorado’s prior appropriation system. The next challenge was to find a way to protect those restored flows. The Animas River Stakeholders Group and project partner the San Juan Resources Conservation and Development Council reached out to the Southwestern Water Conservation District and a local law firm where the attorney consulted was a former Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) member with a wealth of knowledge about Colorado’s Instream Flow Program.

Colorado’s Instream Flow (ISF) Program was the linchpin in the stakeholders group’s success. In the early 1970s, the Colorado Legislature pioneered protections for the water-dependent natural environment by creating the ISF Program.  An instream flow is a statutorily recognized type of water right that protects a natural stream from an upstream point to a downstream point. These water rights are administered like any other water right in the state, with a priority date confirmed by water court decree. At the time, the program provided the CWCB with the exclusive authority to appropriate or acquire water for instream flows to preserve the natural environment.

The CWCB can appropriate new junior instream flow water rights or acquire senior water from willing water rights owners for instream flow use. Under this acquisition authority, once an agreement is reached with the willing owner, the CWCB changes the water right through the water court change process to instream flow use. The water right is then legally protectable in the river with its original priority date. It is CWCB’s acquisition authority that the stakeholders group sought to secure instream flow protections for the newly-purchased Carbon Lake Ditch water right.

In March 2001, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the San Juan Resource Conservation and Development Council presented the CWCB with an offer to donate the Carbon Lake Ditch water right to the Instream Flow Program to protect restored flows in Mineral Creek and two tributaries. However, in the course of conducting routine investigations, CWCB staff identified a significant program limitation. The original statutes passed in 1973 placed sideboards on the CWCB’s authority, limiting water appropriations and acquisitions to the minimum amounts required to preserve the natural environment. In the case of Mineral Creek, the amounts required to preserve the environment were determined to be between 2.5 and 6.6 cfs.  Yet, the Carbon Lake Ditch water right was decreed for 15 cfs, and under the existing law, there was no way to protect all of the restored water with an instream flow right.

CaptureAs highlighted in CFWE’s spring 2004 Headwaters Magazine issue, “Changing Times, Changing Uses”, societal values change. In 2002, the legislature passed Senate Bill 156, allowing CWCB to acquire water rights to preserve and to improve the natural environment. This amendment, the first significant change to the Instream Flow Program in more than 30 years, broadened the CWCB’s authority and created statewide opportunities to restore streamflow to dewatered streams and to improve existing environmental conditions. After the bill was signed into law, the CWCB clarified the water right donation and changed the full 15 cfs of the Carbon Lake Ditch water right for instream flow use to preserve and improve the natural environment. Roughly 15 years after the legislative change and the CWCB’s acquisition of the Carbon Lake Ditch water right for instream flow use, we see tangible results.

“This is the first time in recorded history of a report of fish existing in the headwaters of Mineral Creek,” said Bill Simon, retired coordinator for the stakeholders group, in the 2016 Durango Herald article. “We are a bit surprised by the great results so soon after remediation.”


Mineral Creek     Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa

The presence of a resident brook trout population with diverse age ranges is indicative of the dramatic improvement in water quality within the reach where flows were restored and are now protected by the CWCB’s instream flow right. The Durango Herald reports an amazing 70 percent reduction in zinc and copper, and a 50 percent reduction in cadmium in Mineral Creek since completion of remediation and flow restoration.

“We knew that water quality in the upper part of Mineral Creek had dramatically improved,” said Peter Butler, Animas River Stakeholders Group coordinator, “but we didn’t expect it to support trout.”

The fantastic success story for Mineral Creek and the stakeholders group is a testament to the possibilities when local communities, state agencies and the legislature work together to solve problems. With CWCB’s ability to acquire water to improve the natural environment, this is a success story for the entire state of Colorado. The benefits achieved in Mineral Creek can, over time, be realized on many other streams, too.

Colorado’s ISF Program, now in its 45th year, operates statewide and the acquisition tool is available to any water right owner interested in donating, leasing or selling all, or a portion of, their water to preserve or improve the natural environment. The Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit created in 2001 to restore flows to streams and rivers in need, works closely with the CWCB and can help facilitate temporary and permanent water transactions throughout the state.

Learn more about how to use water to benefit the natural environment by visiting the Colorado Water Trust and Colorado’s Instream Flow Program websites.

The Colorado Water Trust is a non-profit organization created in 2001 to restore flows to Colorado’s rivers in need.  The Water Trust uses voluntary, market-based tools to develop projects with water right owners to help keep Colorado’s rivers flowing. The Water Trust works closely with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s Instream Flow Program to ensure flows are protected. For more information about the Water Trust or completed projects, please visit


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Filed under Colorado River, Environment, Instream Flow, Water Legislation, Water Quality, Watershed Groups

From Vine to Wine on tour in Palisade, Colorado

By Kelsea Macilroy

Here in Colorado, we all know where the best peaches come from: the Grand Valley. Enjoying some of the most temperate weather in Colorado, the Grand Valley of Western Colorado is one of the few places peaches and grapes can be grown reliably in abundance. For over a century viticulture has been practiced in the Grand Valley and the impressive variety of wines has been growing steadily with 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes grown here. Integral to the growth and continued vitality of both industries are the irrigation companies and management partnerships that deliver Colorado River water to support crop production.

Straight off, I should offer a disclaimer: I love wine and I love peaches. From the moment the announcement of CFWE’s Vine to Wine Tour arrived in my inbox, I knew I needed to attend. What could be better than learning about the various ways Colorado water is managed to bring people together around tasty, delicious things? Not only did this tour combine two of my favorite things, it also explored the intersections between managing water for multiple uses, irrigation efficiency, local agriculture and how they support our wine and orchard industry in Colorado.

Managing Water for Multiple Needs

Dale Ryden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teaches tour participants about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River.

Dale Ryden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teaches tour participants about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River.

Sitting under the outside pavilion at the Wine Country Inn with the sun warm on our backs and the promise of a beautiful day ahead of us, Dale Ryden of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started off educating us about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River. Armed with a 6 foot long life-size cutout of a Colorado pikeminnow he was joined by Brent Uilenberg of the Bureau of Reclamation. Together they explained how, due to decreased river flows in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River outside of Palisade, four native fish species—the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker—were identified as endangered. With some historic collaboration among key water interest groups, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has assisted multiple projects designed to improve fish habitat and instream flows through the 15-Mile Reach, all while continuing to support local agricultural production. This includes modernizing the Government Highline Canal to reduce water diversions, installation of fish passages at dams and fish screens at turnouts. Acquisition of floodplain habitat has also been instrumental in providing fish nursery areas.

The Orchard Mesa Check Structure

The Orchard Mesa Check Structure

Guided by Max Schmidt of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Mark Harris of Grand Valley Water Users Association, our next stop was a tour of some of the infrastructure that makes irrigation and fish recovery possible. In a massive coordinated effort among the reservoirs upstream of the 15-Mile Reach—called the Coordinated Reservoirs Operations—flow releases are timed to provide optimal flows for both fish and humans. These coordinated releases and “checks” in irrigation canal systems provide additional support of the Recovery Program and intentionally create surplus from the Historic Users Pool. In operation informally since 1926 and adjudicated in 1996, the Orchard Mesa Check Structure is part of a complex arrangement that dictates when and how the check is operated as well as other contingencies involving the Historic Users Pool in Green Mountain Reservoir. Orchard Mesa Irrigation District consumptively uses only 170 cubic feet per second of water, but withdraws more in order to operate their power plant. In order to most efficiently use water, the check structure diverts water that runs through the power plant to be released upstream of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company diversion, which is senior to the power plant.

Irrigation Efficiency & Local Economy

Over 18,000 people receive water to irrigate around 81,000 acres from one of six irrigation companies or districts in the Grand Valley. Riding through Palisade in our horse drawn carriage, the stark contrast between the lush, fertile valley floor and the dry, high mesas of the area made it clear how heavily the local economy and community depend on water. Perry Cabot and Horst Caspari both work for the Colorado State University Experiment Station in the Grand Valley searching for ways to increase irrigation efficiency and crop production—improvements in these areas mean a more efficient use of water and a better crop for producers.

During the tour, we had the privilege of visiting two farms. With peach harvest season just getting started, the Talbott Farms processing plant was humming with activity. Here, Bruce Talbott shared with us the importance of agriculture for the local economy as well as the large amount of peaches that go to waste because they are considered “imperfect.” Up to 40 percent of food grown in the United States never gets eaten. Much of that is due to marketplace demands that require food to be a certain size or weight and a particular appearance. The peaches that are culled never see the market, and Talbott Farms takes a hit as they still invested water, land, and time to those peaches. Fortunately, many of the tour participants were able to help prevent a few peaches from going to waste.

Red Fox Vineyard

Red Fox Vineyard

The day concluded with a stop at Red Fox Cellars, a family owned vineyard with a tasting room, where Scott and Sherrie Hamilton guided us through a selection of their delicious wines. Part of what makes Colorado wine unique is its terrior—the environmental effects of the place where it is produced. The way the sun shines on the valley; the quality and quantity of water applied to the plants; the particular composition of the soil; and the fact that Colorado wines are grown at the highest elevations in North America. All of these things come together to shape the particular taste of the wine.

After learning about all the passion and effort expended to support agricultural operations, endangered species habitat, and improvements in crop production and irrigation efficiency all I wanted was a glass of wine—I highly recommend Red Fox Cellars Bourbon Barrel Merlot. Here’s to Colorado water and all the people who work hard to meet the many demands for it. Cheers!

Kelsea is a PhD student studying Natural Resource and Environmental Sociology at Colorado State University where she prefers to read and write while sampling one of Colorado’s many delightful foods or beverages. She is currently working with the Colorado Water Institute on a project that engages with agricultural water use and the opportunities and barriers for conservation in the Colorado River Basin. Growing up in southern Arizona, attending Gordon College in Massachusetts where she studied history, and living in Alamosa for six years, gave Kelsea an interest in the ways water has been historically managed and how that has shaped its use today. In her free time Kelsea enjoys exploring parts of Colorado new to her with her husband and cross-eyed dog. She also really likes peaches.

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Filed under Agriculture, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Colorado River, Environment, Instream Flow, Water Supply

A New Way of Doing Water Business: The Rio Grande Cooperative Project

By Christi Bode

So common and so fierce is the push-and-pull over water rights, it is the way residents define their communities and their relationship to the rest of the West. There have always been winners and losers; now that water scarcity is the new reality, collaboration is key in finding innovative ways to conduct water business that benefits all. Water for wildlife, for agriculture, for municipalities is too important to lose.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a major water rights holder in the San Luis Valley, and the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, owning the Rio Grande Reservoir, determined that their water could be shared more effectively for mutual benefit. Moving water around effectively in the upper Rio Grande has always been a complex exercise, especially during critical low-flow periods combined with dam safety issues. The Rio Grande Cooperative Project has been pivotal in repairing, restoring and sustaining the basin in a time where water storage is more critical than ever. This private-public partnership shows a spirit of flexibility and shared sacrifice. With the support of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the General Assembly, these coordinated efforts are possible through the repair of two critical reservoirs that optimizes the yield of basin water resources. It is creating secure storage and timely releases of water, which is essential to meeting diverse water right holdings in the basin as well as fulfilling compact obligations.

These stories reflect a rising tide of collaborative efforts in communities all over Colorado, as it takes big ideas to sustain us into the future. Here, their story is illustrated with the intent to inspire more meaningful and united action.


Rio Grande Cooperative Project from Christi Bode on Vimeo.


Christi Bode, photo credit: Dave Neligh Photography

Christi Bode, Denver-based film producer and photographer, finds her favorite stories in the some of the most unsuspecting places. From editorial assignments involving unicyclists on Independence Pass to documentary work in the headwaters of the Rio Grande, Bode is inspired by how people are shaped by their surrounding environment. Part documentarian, part producer – a contrast that lends her work a sharp point of view with an approachable feel full of context and story.

Christi always enjoys a good drive to the Middle of Nowhere that tends to evolve into Absolutely Somewhere. IG: @christi_b

Read more about the Rio Grande Cooperative Project as well as other efforts and issues in the basin in the Headwaters magazine issue, Valley with a View. And find Christi’s previous blog posts:

From Runoff to Peak Flows: The Rio Grande
Then There’s the Water: The Rio Grande Basin

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Instream Flow, Water Supply

Colorado Water Trust working to marry instream flow protection and ranch production on Little Cimarron River

Colorado fall colors 10-13-11

The San Juan Mountains backstop this valley, home of the Little Cimarron River, to the south.

By Zach Smith

When standing on the ranch, you can’t quite see the river. If it’s a good autumn, the snowy peaks of the San Juan Mountains within the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area backstop the narrow valley to the south, and the tops of the turning cottonwoods peek out of a ravine to the west. Just standing there among the cow pies you’d suspect, and be correct, that the river nearby but just out of sight is renewed by those melting snows each spring. The cottonwoods betray the river’s path below the ranch.

During most springs, runoff on the Little Cimarron River that meanders through those cottonwoods fills each water right’s claim to its flows to the brim and then some. Water taken out at the McKinley Ditch headgate upstream winds along the steep slopes and eventually to this tableland, where acres irrigated since federal government patent and first appropriation in 1886 produce hay and cattle. Back at the river, water flows down the Little Cimarron to the Cimarron and eventually to the Gunnison River, upstream of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and then, finally, to the Colorado River.

As the summer turns to fall, though, the Little Cimarron can often run dry for more than a mile as the mountains stop producing water and diversions from the river lap the very last drops from the stream. Fish, both upstream and down, lose passage or get trapped in pools in the middle.

The challenge is figuring out how to keep the cow pies fresh and the fish wet, the fields green and the rivers blue. Colorado is asking broad iterations of this question all over the state, boiled down to something short with no uniform answer: How can we get the most out of every drop of Colorado’s water?


This 214-acre ranch in the Gunnison Country, after being offered for purchase in 35-acre lots and eventually being lost to Montrose Bank, was eventually purchased, intact and from the bank, by Western Rivers Conservancy in partnership with the Colorado Water Trust. With Western Rivers specializing in conservation purchases of riparian lands in the West, and the Trust working to restore and protect flows using voluntary, market-based tools in Colorado, the project constitutes an ideal land and water conservation partnership. Included with the ranch purchase was more than 18 percent of the water decreed to the McKinley Ditch. Western Rivers sold those water rights, some very senior, to the Trust.

Shepardson property (m) 10-13-11

Western Rivers Conservancy bought this 214-acre ranch, then sold the attached water rights to the Colorado Water Trust. Under the arrangement the Trust is currently developing, the water rights will still be used to irrigate the ranch property but will also boost streamflows during dry parts of the year.

Now, with Western Rivers Conservancy and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Trust is using those water rights to build the first permanent agriculture and instream flow sharing agreement in Colorado. If successful, irrigation will occur on the ranch in most years until July or August, when the water use will switch to instream flow use by the CWCB. In Colorado, instream flows are the exclusive province of the CWCB, a state agency within the Department of Natural Resources.

In the driest of years, all the water may stay in the river for the duration of the season. In the biggest snow years, it may irrigate all season long. At the Gunnison, where flows are managed by releases from the Aspinall Unit’s Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs, upstream of the Black Canyon, the Trust plans to re-market the water to a third, downstream use.


Instream flow projects of any kind do not happen in a vacuum. To add water to a river long-term, even under a shared contract as with this project, requires a two-meeting process with the CWCB’s board of directors. In September 2014, that board approved and agreed to pay for the inclusion of this water into its instream flow program under the sharing terms. The project then requires approval from Colorado’s water court system—an adversarial process designed to protect other water users from injury resulting from a new or changed water use. The Trust entered this process in 2014. There are also infrastructure challenges, such as measurement and delivery of flows. Additionally, the Trust is just one shareholder now among several. This year, for example, the ditch blew out and we paid our share of the repair cost like everyone else.

Little Cimmarron 10-6-11

A healthy section of the Little Cimarron River

The ecological benefits to the project are sizable, and will nearly connect two existing instream flows together. One stretches from just upstream of the McKinley headgate 16 miles up to the Little Cimarron’s headwaters—a reach managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as Wild Trout Water. The other protects flows on the Cimarron River from its confluence with the Little Cimarron to the Gunnison River. These environmental protections were secured in 1984, 101 years after the first pioneer diverted water from the Little Cimarron.

Little Cimarron reach downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure

A dry reach of the Little Cimarron downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure

When used in-stream, the project’s water will add several cubic feet per second of flow to the driest reaches, but benefits will accrue to almost ten miles of river. As part of building the most complete project possible, the Trust has studied flows, fish and bugs in the river for two years to gain a good picture of the baseline conditions. When the project is implemented, we can track how those populations respond. This tracking is part of a formal Stewardship Program attached to all projects the Trust completes.

But even with all the effort put in already, there are still many unanswered questions, particularly about how the yearly operation of the project and ranch will work. We can’t truly answer that question until we have the legal right to use the water for both instream flow and irrigation. As we move forward, we will try to build enough flexibility into each step so that by the end we can manage the project according to what works, rather than what we told ourselves would work.

At that September 2014 CWCB board meeting, one board member told the Trust, “It takes gumption to irrigate.” We believe him whole-heartedly. And most importantly, we’re learning, sharing water in Colorado will require it, too.

Zach Smith has been the staff attorney at the Colorado Water Trust since 2010. After college, he did a stint as a reporter in the newspaper business, writing for such publications as High Country News and the Santa Fe Reporter. A Denver native, Zach graduated from University of Denver Sturm College of Law where he focused on environmental and water law. During school, he interned with Denver Water and the Natural Resources and Environment Section of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.  After graduation, Zach worked briefly as a water policy analyst for a San Diego City Council member before coming back to Denver to work at the Trust. He is a 2013 Colorado Foundation for Water Education Water Leader Alum and Vice President of the Colorado Watershed Assembly.

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Filed under Agriculture, Environment, Instream Flow