As lawmakers’ Colorado River task force convenes, sharp criticism from state advisor

As a high-profile Colorado River task force created by the state legislature prepares to start work next month, a prominent water lawyer and advisor sharply criticized the task force, saying it wasn’t capable of doing the work.

John McClow, a veteran Colorado water attorney who is one of Colorado’s two alternate commissioners on the interstate Upper Colorado River Commission, said the task force is likely to further deepen divisions between West Slope and Front Range water users. And it could also weaken the state’s position as it prepares to enter negotiations on finding new, more sustainable ways to operate the river in partnership with the six other states, the 30 tribes, and Mexico, which also use it, he said.

“We need to halt this process,” McClow said this week.

Whether that will happen isn’t clear yet. But Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, one of the sponsors of the bill creating the working group, said the notion that the task force should be halted in some way doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t understand that logic,” Roberts said. “Lawmakers did not want to leave [the capitol] without doing something. And it’s not a good idea to rush into anything without full buy-in.”

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force last month when they approved Senate Bill 23-295. The task force will include representatives of environmental groups, urban and rural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. It is charged with finding new ways to save water within state boundaries, and ensuring neither water users nor the environment are adversely affected by any new Colorado River programs and agreements. The task force has until December of this year to make its recommendations.

Four river basins, the Colorado, Yampa/White, Gunnison and Southwest generate the majority of Colorado River flows within state boundaries. Source: Colorado River District

Colorado is home to eight river basins, four of which are major tributaries to the Colorado River within state boundaries on the West Slope. They are the Yampa/White/Green, the Gunnison, the San Juan/San Miguel/Dolores, and the Colorado River itself. McClow represents the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District in Gunnison.

The seven-state Colorado River system starts in Rocky Mountain National Park. As it flows west, Colorado’s massive mountain snowpack generates roughly two-thirds of the water that eventually serves cities from Denver to Los Angeles and thousands of acres of productive farmland from Colorado to California.

But a 22-plus-year drought, widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years, as well as a sharp decline in flows due to climate change nearly drained the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead. The crisis prompted the federal government to order the states to dramatically cut back their water use.

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government are set to begin on how to stabilize the river, and suggestions include farm fallowing programs.

Within Colorado, two major West Slope water districts, including the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, are responsible for overseeing the river and protecting the interests of major agricultural water rights holders and others who reside within their borders.

Andy Mueller, manager of the Colorado River District, did not respond to a request for comment.

Mueller and others worked for months earlier this year, coming up with guidelines and rules for how federal water-saving programs in their districts would work. Yet this spring, when a federal effort known as the System Conservation Pilot Program led farmers and ranchers to submit proposals to temporarily stop irrigating their land in return for federal cash payments, the water conservation districts were not included in the approval process between the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Upper Colorado River Commission, a move that disturbed some on the West Slope.

Sen. Roberts said the conservation districts’ concerns provided some of the motivation for the new task force.

“The bill was not a direct response [to the CWCB’s action],” Roberts said. “But there is a reason to fear whether there is enough local input into future decisions so we can ensure our water users feel they are being heard.”

In an email, Chris Arend, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the CWCB, said that the agencies look forward to participating in the task force.

“The State of Colorado is acutely aware of the issues on the Colorado River and what is at stake for our economy, communities and environment. With the current round of negotiations about to begin, it is critically important to speak with one unified voice as a state and to call attention to where the problem lies – uses exceeding supplies downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell and a disregard for living within the means of the river. Colorado is strongest at the negotiating table when it stands together.”

McClow reiterated that theme in a speech before hundreds of water users at the Governor’s Drought Summit earlier this month in Denver, where he blasted the formation of the task force, saying it would not have enough time or expertise to address the complex problems it is being asked to solve.

“The idea that this small group of people, however well-intentioned in their West Slope bubble, is going to untie the Gordian knot of demand management in five months is wishful thinking at best,” McClow told the audience.

The term “demand management” refers to a much-studied effort by the CWCB and the Upper Colorado River Commission to find ways to pay farmers to fallow fields, leaving that water in the river to create a new drought pool in Lake Powell.

Ken Brenner is a board member at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Steamboat Springs. He has long advocated that the public roundtables that represent Colorado’s river basins be given a larger role in determining how the waters generated in the state are managed and in crafting solutions that will work inside state boundaries and outside as well. He said his concern is that the state’s team isn’t broad-based enough and won’t include the perspectives of the affected water users.

“This is a rather complex problem that we need to solve. To think that only two or three people (at the CWCB) are going to be able to figure this out isn’t realistic,” Brenner said. “Look at what happened in 2007.”

Brenner was referring to a set of Colorado River operating rules OK’d in 2007 that are known as the interim operating guidelines. Many now believe those rules hurt the Upper Basin and accelerated the draining of lakes Powell and Mead in recent years.

The interim guidelines expire in 2026 and negotiations over a new program are set to begin this summer.

But McClow said he feared the drought task force would introduce confusion and uncertainty into Colorado’s negotiations and rekindle historical battles between Colorado’s Front Range cities and powerful West Slope water districts. Front Range cities, including Denver and Aurora, rely on the river for roughly half of their annual water supplies.

In recent years, the two sides of the state have worked reasonably well together, McClow told the audience at the drought summit.

“But in recent months, that solidarity is beginning to crumble, aided and abetted by the creation of the Colorado River [Drought] Task Force,” he said.

McClow acknowledged the concerns with how West Slope water districts are being affected by state decisions, but he said he had full confidence in the CWCB and its ability to craft deals that will protect everyone’s interests.

Sen. Roberts said the CWCB appeared to be doing a good job on matters involving the other basin states,

“But my concern is what happens inside state lines,” he said. “I want [task force members] to have really hard conversations. I hope it does not turn into a forum to run out the clock. It is a unique opportunity.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect subsequent comments by John McClow.

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