Colorado River District hosts annual State of the River meeting in Granby
The Colorado River District, an organization dedicated to protecting western Colorado water, holds State of the River meetings across its 15-county district each spring. Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains in Granby hosted the Grand County event May 22, and speakers gave presentations on all things Colorado River, from interstate negotiations to county-level projects.
To kick off the evening, Lindsay DeFrates of the Colorado River District and Grand County Commissioner Rich Cimino welcomed attendees. Cimino said he appreciated representatives from many Grand County water groups attending the event, showing the level of cooperation Colorado governments and organizations have had on water in recent years.
“Those of you who know the saying, help me, ‘Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting,'” Cimino said with the help of some audience members. “But no longer. Years ago, Grand County, we buried the hatchet. And within Colorado, we don’t fight anymore.”
Cimino said Colorado’s water infrastructure harms Grand County the most, as water is pumped out of the county to the Front Range, although he understands the need for that to happen. Cimino believes working with Northern Water and Denver Water, as well as other organizations, will help the county repair and maintain the rivers and lakes that help drive its economy.
The river district’s Public Relations Director Marielle Cowdin spoke about the district’s work. She highlighted the Colorado River’s crisis, saying that the increased precipitation over the last year will not save the river.
Cowdin talked about the water consumption differences between the upper and lower basin states, highlighting that upper basin states make cuts more effectively because they do not have massive reservoirs like Lake Mead or Lake Powell to rely on in drier years.
“Between 2020 and 2021, the four upper basin states cut our water consumption by 1 million acre-feet — just on our own because the water wasn’t there,” Cowdin said. “Instead of about 4.5 million acre-feet of water use, in that year timeframe, we only used 3.5 (million).”
The lower basin states’ 2020-21 consumption went up 600,000 acre-feet from their average use, Cowdin said. The annual water usage split between the states has been about 60%, or around 8.8 million acre-feet, used by the lower basin versus 30%, or around 4.4 million acre-feet, used by the upper basin, with the remaining water going to Mexico.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced in June 2022 that Colorado River Basin states needed to cut 2-4 million acre-feet in consumption to protect the water levels in lakes Mead and Powell.
Cowdin talked about strategies the district supports to achieve that goal, like part of the six-state plan from February that would start accounting for evaporation and transportation losses in the lower basin states’ usage, saving around 1.5 million acre-feet per year.
Two other conservation strategies, the System Conservation Pilot Program and Demand Management, are voluntary, temporary programs that compensate water users for saving water but could have long-term negative impacts on Colorado agriculture, Cowdin said. The pilot program was a key measure in the upper basin’s 5-Point Plan from July 2022, and Cowdin said the somewhat controversial strategies are not likely to go away anytime soon.
On a more local level, Cowdin briefly spoke about the Community Funding Partnership, which provides over $4 million per year in funding for Western Slope water projects.
The next speaker, Rebecca Mitchell, the Colorado Water Conservation Board director and Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, was the special guest at the event. She spoke about the Bureau of Reclamation’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and news that broke about it the day of the meeting.
Mitchell explained that the bureau’s SEIS came after the lower basin states did not respond to the bureau’s June 2022 announcement that states needed to cut 2-4 million acre-feet. That announcement, she said, was not a surprise to those working on the Colorado River.
“A lot of folks were like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?'” Mitchell said. “This was not news to us. Those that are working in the river, on the river, and for the river know that the numbers don’t add up, when you’re talking about what’s being used and what is available — what Mother Nature provides us.”
Differences between the upper and lower basin states came up several times in Mitchell’s talk. She mentioned that the six-state plan, which included all states besides California, acknowledged that the upper states have shortages annually because, unlike the lower states, they do not have huge reservoirs from which to draw.
“When we take shortages in the upper basin, we become flexible,” Mitchell said. “Our communities are flexible, we respond with each other and say, ‘This year some are going to get (normal amounts of water), some are not.”
Mitchell said she hopes the upper basin states can teach the lower basin states how to be flexible and effectively save water. She highlighted that the bureau’s SEIS requires water cuts to come from the lower basin states and includes two options to do so — proportional cuts or strict appropriation. She said the best option is somewhere between those two extremes.
On May 22, the day of the meeting, the bureau announced a pause on the SEIS. Mitchell explained that the lower basin states had presented a plan which included temporary cuts that would amount to 3 million acre-feet from 2024-26 but provided few details on how cuts would be enforced.
“Instead of coming up with 2-4 million on an annual basis, they were like, ‘Hey, there’s all this money … we can kick the can a little bit more, and we can use this money and make some temporary changes,” Mitchell said of the lower basin states.
When upper basin states asked where the water cuts would come from, the lower basin states replied, “We can’t tell you that, but we promise it’s going to happen,” Mitchell said. The lower basin also did not provide financial details on how much water compensation would cost.
Mitchell said the lower states have the right intentions, but she decided not to sign onto their plan because she did not think they could show how the plan would be enforceable and make a difference in the river system before the May 30 deadline for comments.
On May 19, Mitchell and other upper basin state representatives decided to do something to show that the basin states can work together. Mitchell said the upper and lower basin states asked the Bureau of Reclamation for time to analyze the lower basin’s plan.
“What we decided over the weekend is that, while we can’t support a plan because we don’t have the details,” Mitchell said. “We will support the analysis of that because it’s incredibly important that anything that anybody is trying to do better, needs to be analyzed and it needs to be measured.”
The bureau approved the states’ request, implementing a pause on the SEIS on the day of the State of the River meeting.
Neal Misbach, the lead water commissioner for the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ Glenwood Springs office, gave the first presentation of the night, showing the audience current conditions of rivers in and around Grand County.
After Misbach’s talk, Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie and State Senator Dylan Roberts spoke shortly about their commitment to protecting the Colorado River through their legislative work.
“The Colorado River is much more than a waterway,” McCluskie said. “It is the embodiment of what it means to be a Coloradan. It is our spirit, our romance, our religion, and it is so incredibly important that we protect this river for decades, if not generations, to come.”
The final two talks at the State of the River meeting both covered local issues. Isabel de Silva, a Rocky Mountain National Park ecologist; Kayli Foulk, a Grand County water quality specialist; and Kimberly Mihelich, a Northern Water source water protection specialist, presented about the Kawuneeche Valley Ecosystem Restoration Collaborative.
The collaborative works to restore water quality and river habitats along the Colorado River from its headwaters to Shadow Mountain Reservoir. While it plans to expand throughout that whole region, its current work focuses on Rocky Mountain National Park — specifically restoring beaver and willow habitats.
Foulk rounded out the presentations with a short talk about Grand County Learning By Doing‘s update of the county’s Stream Management Plan. Look for involvement opportunities related to the management plan on GrandCountyLearningByDoing.org.
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