Community Ag Alliance: With water, nothing is simple | SteamboatToday.com

Community Ag Alliance: With water, nothing is simple

Nothing in water is simple — it's local and regional. It's legal, political, and cultural. We use it for nearly everything. So when we have conversations about moving water from its original use to a new use, we certainly hit all those complex notes.

The Colorado Water Trust's work in the Yampa Valley has, in the grand scheme of water, been generally straightforward. Thanks to available water for lease from a reservoir owned and operated by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a supportive community of partners including the city of Steamboat Springs, Tri-State Generation & Transmission, Catamount Metro District and lots in between, we've learned that sometimes, restoring streamflows takes as little as some creativity, money — and a contract with Upper Yampa.

The Colorado Water Trust, a statewide nonprofit, restores water to Colorado's rivers in need using only voluntary, market-based means. And so we work with water suppliers and water users to purchase, lease, or otherwise encourage willing partners to share water with our rivers.

But not every stream in need of a boost sits below a reservoir with available water. So conversations with water users, particularly agricultural water users, about doing a streamflow restoration project quickly become extremely complex.

A portion of that complexity comes from our allocation system – the prior appropriation system. Traditionally, permanently moving water from one use to another required the permanent cessation of the original use. In the Water Trust's earliest years (the early 2000s), our founding board pushed for permanent deals for permanent water in rivers. But as the state has grappled with the effects of large-scale removals of water from agricultural communities to urban areas, and as the hard edges of the law in Colorado on how to transfer water from one use to another began to soften with new ideas and the creation of innovative legal tools, such deals began to seem anachronistic.

Understanding that some permanent deals will still happen – a water right owner may want to sell out completely or some low-production land may not be worth continuing to irrigate long into the future – the Water Trust looked for those soft edges, the opportunities in the prior appropriation system to find other alternatives to permanently removing water from agriculture. Are there ways, in the words of our current board, to keep rivers blue and fields green?

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We believe the answer is "yes," and I'll offer two examples here of this work:

  • In Gunnison County, with our partners the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and Western Rivers Conservancy, we are close to obtaining the needed approvals that will allow for the permanent sharing of water between a ranch and a local river. Each year, a predictive tool will suggest to the ranch owner, the Water Trust, and the CWCB at what time during the summer to switch from irrigation use of the water right to leaving that water in the river. Adjustments to the timing can be made along the way to meet agriculture's or the river's needs.
  • In the Crystal River Valley, the Water Trust is near to kicking off a pilot project to pay an irrigator to consider his local river's needs as a part of his ranch management calculus. Below a certain critical streamflow threshold in the Crystal, funding becomes available to the rancher if he shifts his irrigation schedule to accommodate the conditions of his local river — and not take water during the river's driest times. Payments from the Water Trust increase if his neighbors cooperate in the same program.

Both projects will entail significant monitoring — by everyone involved — to look at effects on the river and on agricultural operations. There will certainly be bumps ahead, and we anticipate a learning process. But we hope projects like these will be successful enough to demonstrate that partnerships between agriculture and the environment are compensated, and not all-or-nothing propositions.

Zach Smith is a Colorado Water Trust staff attorney.