The basis for the body of law that governs water rights in the Southwestern United States was codified in 1922. At the time there were no major dams on the Colorado River. There were some diversion points, such as the one that fed the Alamo Canal from the river to the Imperial Valley and Mexican farmland, just south of the border.
The city of Los Angeles had a population of close to 600,000. Phoenix was about 50,000. Tucson counted roughly 32,000. And Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada had 2,304 souls living in middle of a desert.
The untamed Colorado River ebbed and flowed as it had for millennia. The assumption is that it would always do that. But, then came the idea that if we controlled it and put it to work for us, things would be more predictable. In theory it was not a bad idea. But here we are almost 100 years later and we have a mess on our hands.
Over the century that the 1922 compact between the states bordering the river has been in force, the law had been massaged, tweaked, bent, litigated, amended, and ignored.
That happened because the population changed. Los Angeles County has about 10 million people calling it home. Phoenix has grown to 1.7 million, with a metro number coming in at 4.4 million. Las Vegas is now home for nearly 700,000 with the metro area total at about two million. As those numbers became reality, changes in the way we used the river were forced on the already distressed channel. Each time the action required an army of lawyers and years of court proceedings to massage the old compact and make it fit the growing need for water, pretty much everywhere but where is all begins — the mountains of Colorado.
Now, the Western Slope of the Centennial State faces an uphill battle once again, as more and more pressure is exerted on local agriculture to drink the hemlock and allow a management plan that could kill the economic base for Montrose, Olathe, Delta and other Western Slope communities.
Here is the problem. Under the 1922 Compact and the family-sized box of Band-aids that have been applied to it, the folks in those burgeoning cities, enumerated above, could all call for water they allegedly haven’t used that was afforded them under the Compact and its litigated offspring. If you think otherwise, here is a clip from part one of our story from last week:
One California water official recently told Dave Marsten, publisher of the Writers on the Range syndicate, “We’ll never give up that right — our first priority among all Colorado River water. That is our fallback position, though we’ll set it aside for now and try to work out a solution.”
The California authorities, especially the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, have always been aggressive in their use of Colorado River water.
The river’s production has fallen in recent times, due mostly to smaller snowpacks. The two main storage pools, Lake Mead and Lake Powell (the primary pool), have fallen to dangerous levels. Some entities such as Las Vegas have lowered their take. But that has not been the case for California or Arizona. The Lake Powell pool has been drawn down to a point where the ability for the power station to produce energy is in danger. The power produced by the Powell station goes primarily to Arizona and in particular, Phoenix.
The matter here on the slope is serious enough for Steve Anderson, manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, to make the statement, “If we don’t get some snow this winter, we will be in trouble.”
With the potential call for unused water rights hanging over the Upper Basin states and in particular Colorado, one of the answers is to manage our water to fill the need of the lower basin states. (See Montrose Daily Press “Study: Water demand management to hit ag” and “The Salton Sea is drying up.”) The question comes to mind, how exactly do we do that?
If you read the latest update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) (https://cwcb.colorado.gov/focus-areas/supply/demand-management), it becomes painfully obvious that the demand to which the name applies is the future demand by of the Lower Basin users. But not the demand of folks who make the world go around with agriculture in places like the Uncompahgre Valley.
Here is part of the definition of demand management from the July update from the CWCB under the title Demand Management Storage Agreement (DMSA): “The DMSA authorizes the storage of up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in the Colorado River Storage Project Act Initial Units if and when a Demand Management program is set up in the Upper Basin.”
That storage pool referenced would exist in several Upper Basin reservoirs, including Lake Powell. The reference to Glen Canyon is a sticking point for people like 58th District Rep. Marc Catlin, who see the water going down the hill to a place where the people who made it available by their conservation have no say as to where it goes or what it is used for.
There is also a matter of trust. Decades of overuse and no accountability in the Lower Basin sets the Upper Basin up for abuse. One irrigation pro says, “They have a horrible history of water conservation, especially the Imperial Valley, who voted against demand management and are in court over the agreement. There is no trust because of the history of overuse.”
The demand management plan now under discussion places nearly all the burden on the agriculture community in Colorado. Everything suggested under the plan is as it states, “temporary, voluntary, and (provides) compensated reductions in consumptive use.”
“You know, there was a time when those who wanted our water thought they could regulate the water that ag uses so they could have more elsewhere,” said Catlin. “That didn’t work. Now their plan is to just buy it.”
The proponents of demand management may be doing a little bit of bait and switch as well. The whole idea of demand management centers on supposedly preventing buy-and-dry from happening here and in other western Colorado communities, and impacting towns and the economy. But, paying farmers for fallowing land and hedge funders looking to buy rights, seems to tell a different story.
A concern expressed by people like Catlin and others is that if there are no controls with the process, then the amount of money, say $200 per acre foot like was quoted (in tests), many farmers would not deficit-irrigate but would fallow the fields indefinitely. That is because the $1,000 per acre most farms would draw is way more money than any crop would net, except maybe onions or sweet corn.
For farmers to meet the conservation levels that the demand scheme calls for, it is going to be expensive. Some may not want to make a costly investment, especially those with no family chain to hand off to. That again could play into the pay-for-no-play idea.
Demand management, as outlined, could easily make the transition from payment for non-farming to water rights traded on Wall Street seem likely. For a farmer who owns his land and the senior water rights that go with it, the cash offer from a hedge fund manager could be a welcome relief after a lifetime of hardship. Some folks on the Ward Creek and Surface Creek watersheds have already taken the plunge. Others in the Grand Valley and Mesa County have followed suit, after being approached by a hedge fund (water assets management).
A former hedge fund boss told this reporter this week that the arena on the Western Slope is exactly what fund managers are looking for. “They will buy farms, do what they need to do to maintain it, and wait for the water price to go up.” And it will, he said.
Depending on how tough something like demand management becomes, if implemented, the idea of selling the farm may become more attractive. The water brokers are buying and selling farms now that have priority rights, or pre-compact water rights, based on anticipation that the values will really increase if the concept is adopted widely. Then, how many farms will be kept as farms?
Why is agriculture the target of water managers and brokers?
“There is a myth that we have more water than we need,” Catlin said. “People see the water we turn out into a ditch and into the field and it flows through the furrows. The plants take what they need, and the rest flows out the other end of the field and become tail water. My tail water becomes your head water downstream.”
That 200 or 300 feet per second at one point could water several fields.
Catlin adds, “People see all this water flowing here and there and assume it is being wasted.”
But what happens is, the water flows through the multiple fields with each using a part of it, and what is left goes back into streams like the Uncompahgre River. That is how gravity-controlled irrigation works and has for millennia. What the demand management crowd says is that irrigators in places like the Western Slope need to become more efficient so that more water flows downstream to pools like Lake Powell. It is that exact gravity process that has kept the Salton Sea full. When the tailwater from the Imperial Valley growers (which was originally taken from the Colorado River) was diverted to San Diego County, the tailwater became a useful commodity.
Catlin thinks perhaps we need to be looking at some storage (to keep the water on the hill) and delivery management ideas that could cut our water use, although it will cost money. He and others think that more storage here, with releases when needed, might keep the accounts more in balance.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley have already invested in closing open ditches and replacing them with gated pipe. Others have gone to side-roll sprinklers or pivot systems. Jerry Allen, NRCS irrigation specialist, who helped farmers all over Montrose County with irrigation issues said that the gated pipe is a 50% efficient, while the sprinkler and drip systems are 70 to 90% efficient.
Some farmers, like David Harold, have been successful with drip irrigation on sweet corn, onions, and other vegetables. Hops farms like Misty Mountain and some of the vineyards are now doing drip.
While NRCS does cost sharing on all systems, it is not as generous with the drip and sprinkler system as it is with the gated pipe installations.
How do we protect our water?
Fortunately, there are a lot of people working hard on doing everything they can to “keep the water on the hill.” One of the organizations is the Colorado River District. Another is the Gunnison River Basin. Also, in the fray are the Farm Bureau, cattle growers, wool growers and others.
Anybody who uses water, whether for farming or domestic use, needs to stay abreast of the situation. The Colorado River District (CRD) board produces a plethora of materials, including regular webinars to help keep users informed about issues, such as have been outlined in this article. One of the popular and easy to access tools is the “Water With Your Lunch,” a Zoom webinar. If you are registered with the District, they will send an email telling you when webinar events occur. To become a supporting member of the community. you can go to the district’s website https://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/take-action/. Once part of the community, you will receive regular mailings from the district. The webinars are open to everyone and viewers can submit questions to the speakers.
One of the major problems for the water users on the Western Slope is the deep pockets of virtually anyone seeking changes in the water laws. The CRD board, feeling pressure as an underfunded defendant of the water resources, passed a resolution in July to place a $1.90 (per $100,000 assessed valuation) property tax levy increase on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would affect the counties that make up the Colorado River District.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the board’s resolution asks for taxpayer support for the river district work directed at:
- Fighting to keep water on the Western Slope;
- Protecting adequate water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers;
- Protecting sustainable drinking water supplies for Western Slope communities;
- Protecting fish, wildlife, and recreation by maintaining river levels and water quality.
The levy would cost the median property about $7 per year. For more information about the levy, see the CRB website.