Coca-Cola, Upper Colorado River irrigators, water agencies join forces in Grand County

Coca-Cola, several Colorado nonprofits, as well as Denver Water, the Colorado River District, and a group of irrigators have launched a new instream flow effort to help keep the scenic headwaters of the Fraser River wetter in the fall, aiding fish and habitat in the stream near Winter Park.

The Colorado Water Trust is a nonprofit that works to match distressed streams with water right holders interested in selling, donating or leasing water that can be used to boost streamflows. It spearheaded the Fraser’s 10-year instream flow agreement. Participants also include Learning By Doing, an East Slope-West Slope partnership that works on local stream restoration projects

Coca-Cola Corporation, as well as one of its bottlers and distributors, Swire Coca-Cola, have pledged $24,000 annually to pay for the water and the restoration work, according to Tony LaGreca, Colorado Water Trust’s project manager for the Fraser program.

Erica Hansen, external communications manager for Swire, said the Coca-Cola companies have 35 environmental water projects across a 13-state region, including 10 in Colorado that are completed, underway or pending.

“We operate in several states that are high drought risk,” Hansen said. “Any drop we use we’re putting back into nature. The Fraser River project is one of the ways we do that.”

LaGreca said the new initiative represents an important step forward in restorative water management in Grand County and Colorado.

“There was a time,” he said, “when we did not have irrigation companies coming to us to find ways to put water into the river for fish. But more and more we are having successful partnerships to increase flows as part of a larger water management strategy.”

Grand County is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River and the Fraser River, one of its tributaries. Both waterways are heavily diverted to the Front Range to serve residents and farms from Denver up to Fort Collins and out to the Nebraska border.

Over the years, as droughts have become more common and climate change has sapped flows, Grand County’s rivers have become increasingly stressed.

To help solve the problems, two of the largest transmountain diverters, Denver Water and Northern Water, among others, signed on to the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013. The agreement gives the water agencies some leeway to develop new water supplies to which they have water rights, while also funding efforts to keep rivers and wetlands in the headwaters region healthier, and to ensure mountain tourist economies have enough water to thrive.

Mike Holmes is president of the Grand County Irrigated Land Company. As part of the restorative work underway, he and his shareholders agreed to sell a portion of their water stored in a small reservoir to benefit the river. Each year the program operates, the ranchers will deliver about 50 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons of water, the amount used by two to three average households in a year. Holmes said the growers have been working to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems, freeing up water for the river.

“This year, with the abundant snowpack, we had the water available, and so we worked with the water trust to execute a lease and then went through a review by the Colorado River District. It’s a pretty streamlined process,” Holmes said.

Though 50 acre-feet is not a lot of water, it should make a difference in the Upper Fraser, where Denver is allowed to divert even when the river’s fall flows are already shrinking, LaGreca said.

Denver Water’s role in the restoration effort is to allow the Colorado Water Trust to use the utility’s collection system to put water into distressed stream segments in the headwaters. In turn the irrigators give Denver Water access to water stored in Meadow Creek Reservoir, farther downstream, according to Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s water supply manager.

Work on the program for 2023 wrapped up earlier this month and will begin again next September.

Scott McCaulou is director of the corporate water stewardship program at Business for Water Stewardship. The Portland-based nonprofit is funded by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and helps connects corporations to environmental water restoration initiatives.

“This first year of the agreement between the [irrigators] and the water trust is a small step but the hope is that it grows into a longer-term partnership and helps develop more flexible water management tools in the Upper Colorado,” McCaulou said. “We see it as a good contribution to something that could grow if it is successful this year.”

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