Opinion: Colorado River District working to keep West Slope water on the Western Slope | SteamboatToday.com

Opinion: Colorado River District working to keep West Slope water on the Western Slope

Andy Mueller
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

At the Colorado River District, we are working to ensure that whatever the future holds, there’s water on the West Slope to support our way of life. Whether you grow food, rely on clean water from your kitchen tap or recreate on our rivers, the River District is working to develop every tool possible to ensure that West Slope water users are represented and protected.

In fact, the District recently received a $315,000 “WaterSMART” grant, which we will use to analyze many of the risks that we face on the West Slope in an uncertain water future.

Despite the optimism from recent snowfall, Colorado is still amid a prolonged decline of flows in the Colorado River — and facing more variable weather conditions and snowpack with each passing year. When you combine that with growing population in the Colorado River basin, both in Colorado and downstream, we’re looking at an uncertain water-supply.

Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado must keep a certain amount of water flowing to states downstream. Declining flows have signaled a risk to that obligation and continued drought could mean water users in Colorado might eventually have to reduce water use — without compensation — to meet this commitment.

As part of a multi-state plan to avoid that, Colorado is exploring the feasibility of a program called demand management, which would pay farmers, industry and cities to voluntarily and temporarily reduce water use to bank it in reservoirs to prevent an uncompensated call. The Colorado River District has concerns about if such a program is advisable or necessary, but even as we seek answers to those concerns, others are looking at how such a program will be structured.

As Colorado decides if and how demand management would be implemented, we want to advocate for the best possible program for the West Slope. We are studying the hypotheticals and talking to a broad set of water users to understand what might work in Western Colorado.

The River District received a $315,000 WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a federal water planning program, which, working with numerous partners, we will use to study risks to our water supply. Leveraging these federal funds and partnerships allows us to do more to protect West Slope water users.

Agricultural producers play a critical role in our local economies, whether its equipment repairs at a local mechanic or a ranch hand buying a burger at the local diner. Our main street businesses could see changes if farmers, even temporarily, aren’t farming.

To understand how our local economies might be affected by demand management, the District is sponsoring a study of the potential secondary economic impacts that such a program could have on the businesses and communities that West Slope agriculture supports.

The grant will also fund the next phase of a multi-year study to understand the risk to Colorado’s water users if a Colorado River Compact requires that we use less water. This study is designed to give us all an idea of what water rights might be curtailed by a compact call, giving water users across the West Slope a better idea of what could happen to their water.

Finally, the WaterSMART grant will help us bring West Slope water users together to understand how to create a program that makes sense for them. We’ll be working with water users from different industries and communities across the West Slope to decide what demand management should look like. We want to be sure that if demand management is implemented, it works for ranchers, towns, and rivers in Western Colorado.

These conversations will give West Slope water users the tools they need to decide if they should take part in demand management, and it will better allow the Colorado River District to advocate for those users and protect our water in an uncertain future.

Learn more by visiting ColoradoRiverDistrict.org.

Andy Mueller is general manager of the Colorado River District.

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