RIDGWAY – Increasing demand for Western Slope water to supply a burgeoning Front Range population could put the squeeze on Ouray County water users, according to Andy Mueller, Ouray attorney and vice-president of the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Directors. That is, if ranchers and local officials don't take a more aggressive approach to managing their water rights. Mueller warned that impacts could be felt sooner rather than later if a severe drought of one or two years' duration was to occur.
Speaking to the Ouray County Board of Commissioners at their Sept. 22 meeting, Mueller provided an eye-opening report on potential water shortage scenarios and presented some ideas about how to protect water rights, including the creation of a water bank. As participants in a water banking system, ranchers could voluntarily lease their water, thereby preventing their water rights from being condemned by the state due to non-use.
“Establishing a water bank with proper safeguards for our West Slope farmers and ranchers would protect our local economy and help the entire state get through severe periods of drought," said Mueller. That's because the engine driving this train is the potential Compact Call, or demand from the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada made under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact. The 1922 agreement imposed an obligation on Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver a set amount of water to the lower basin states. A severe extended drought, such as the type predicted by many climate scientists studying climate change, could trigger such a call in the relatively near future, according to Mueller.
Should a call be issued, the State of Colorado may be required to curtail the diversion of all post-1922 water rights. "Many of our cities in Colorado depend on post-1922 rights to provide water for home use and fire protection. As a result of a call, or in anticipation of such a call, municipal water providers both on the Front Range and the Western Slope will most likely look to the mass condemnation of pre-1922 water rights. Many of the pre-1922 water rights in the Colorado River basin are agricultural, and if we allow the outright condemnation of those rights we will see the very fabric of the Western Slope change in an irreversible way,” said Mueller. “That is why the Colorado River District and the Southwest Water Conservation District are exploring a framework to establish a water bank.”
The entire Western Slope of Colorado as well as municipal providers who depend on Colorado River water should be concerned about the abandonment of pre-1922 water rights, according to Mueller. "As generations change and land use changes on the Western Slope, we are seeing the non-use of historically valuable water rights. Non-use in our state can lead to abandonment."
The River District and the Southwest Water Conservation District are actively exploring ways to assist the owners of pre-1922 water rights with the continued use and preservation of these rights. Some of the options include creating an accurate inventory of these rights, providing funding to restore head gates and diversion structures, and lobbying for legislative changes to prevent needless harmful abandonment of pre-1922 water rights.
‘Buy and Dry’
The compact obligations involving the lower basin states influence the amount of water available to each state from the Colorado River. The guiding principle of the compact is the binding promise by the upper basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water per year at Lee's Ferry in a 10-year running average. The upper basin states cannot impact this average through water development, and to date the upper basin states have always met their compact requirements.
The compact also allocates a certain volume of water for each state, but those calculations in 1922 were made during an historically wet time, with the compact currently appropriating more than the available water in the basin in recent years, according to Mueller. The upper basin states have not developed their allocations fully so the over-appropriation has not triggered any compact curtailments, at least not yet.
"The river district and the Southwest Water Conservation District have been studying this potential problem which, if left unaddressed, will lead to rampant buying of pre-1922 water rights on the West Slope, particularly agricultural rights, by the Front Range providers and the permanent drying up of those ranches and farms in our valley and other valleys on the West Slope," stressed Mueller. The common phrase to describe this process is "buy and dry."
Consequences of Inaction
The consequences of inaction and the resulting buy and dry could be devastating for Ouray County. "If we allow the buy and dry mentality to prevail, we will lose our irrigated valleys and the agricultural community which depends upon them. It's not only about visual or economic impacts, but a complete change to the county. It would be a completely different river and valley,” said Mueller. “The economic system is dependent on the flood irrigation in our fields. The riparian environment as we know it today is dependent upon the delayed return flows from agriculture. For instance, the salmon and the eagles depend on it.”
Mueller said that absent intervention, “You'll see Colorado Springs and Douglas County buying up all of the pre-1922 irrigation water rights on the West Slope and even in the Uncompahgre Basin. If they use this power, they can release our water downstream to California during times of interstate compact calls and divert an equal amount through their tunnels to the Front Range cities.
“This is obviously not an acceptable outcome for the West Slope as it will destroy or drastically alter our agricultural community, our small towns, our industries and suppliers which depend upon the agricultural community and our tourist economy."
Mueller's message is based in part on discussions held at a joint meeting of the Colorado River District and Southwest Water Conservation District held in Montrose on Sept. 18. He noted that the River District was prompted by a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation from Harris Sherman, the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and his chief deputy assistant for water matters, Alex Davis, who asked for 200,000 acre feet for storage out of the Blue Mesa Reservoir for the people of Colorado.
"I bluntly asked at this meeting, ‘Are you prepared to put a straw in the Blue Mesa Reservoir and take it to the Front Range?’” Mueller said.
Assurances were given by the Colorado Water Conservation Board's Jennifer Gimble, who serves under the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, that the state was not committed at this time to any one project, but nonetheless felt it was necessary to put this "marker in the game.”
“She would not rule out the use of this water on the Front Range and invited the Colorado River District to attend meetings on this issue in the coming months," said Mueller.
Mueller said that there is no legislation available to prevent condemnation of water rights by a municipality, but that they would have to pay fair market value. The river and conservancy districts have been pushing for the creation of a water bank to allow for a regulated market between willing sellers, particularly West Slope owners of pre-1922 water rights, and the municipalities that buy them.
"This will allow the temporary fallowing of crop land through rotation and appropriate compensation for the water rights owners and the communities which will be impacted," said Mueller.
The bank would serve as a legal framework to put safeguards in place and would not necessarily result in any new reservoirs or water development projects. "The water bank concept is purely theoretical and at the beginning stages at this point,” said Mueller.
Front Range cities would, as a condition for receiving more water, cease all non-essential uses of water. "They would not be irrigating golf courses, yards, fountains, or frivolous uses," Mueller said. He also said Denver would reuse all of the water. "This is 10 years out before it's in place."
The commissioners asked Mueller what steps the county could take to address the water issues. Raising the level of awareness among the ranchers would be a start, Mueller said. He also asked that the county develop an action plan to preserve pre-1922 water rights.
At the municipal level, Mueller has already met with City of Ouray Administrator Patrick Rondinelli, Lee Dennison from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable for Ouray County, and Town of Ridgway Manager Greg Clifton to familiarize them with the issues.
County Commissioner Don Batchelder asked if funding might be available to repair and preserve ditches. "What I've been doing is to encourage those districts, ditch companies and individual ditch users subject to call to realize there is funding available to implement the right augmentation plan,” he said. “They need to do it faster."
Mueller cited the Colorado River District Small Grants Program, which recently provided $15,000 assistance to the Fisher Ranch and the Arys to reinstall their head gate.
Another step comes in the form of 2002 state legislation that created a statewide network of "roundtables," with one allotted for every major river basin in the state; Ouray County is in the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.
The Inter Basin Roundtables help study the current and future consumptive and non-consumptive water needs in each basin, evaluate local water supply improvement projects and recommend projects to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for funding. Mueller added that there are several projects that have been funded statewide through this process and the Town of Ridgway is also developing a water supply improvement plan.
Mueller's three-year term on the District Board of Directors will end in December, and he told the commissioners that he would like to serve in that capacity for another term.