Drought task force has big ideas for Colorado River, but its senate sponsor questions its work

New ideas to help the drought-stressed Colorado River, including big changes to water rights tied to coal-fired power plants in the iconic Yampa River Valley and elsewhere, and new funding for tribal water systems that could bring much-needed flexibility to river management are being offered up by a special task force. But observers aren’t sure the panel solved the tough problems it was presented with.

The suggestions come as part of the final report issued by the Colorado River Drought Task Force, and were included along with eight formal recommendations that the 17-member panel approved and sent to legislators to consider Dec. 15.

The formal recommendations include new funding for removing thirsty lawns, fixes to water-wasting delivery systems in cities and on farms, and an expansion of a law increasing water in streams that is dedicated to the environment. The task force included representatives of environmental and agricultural groups, as well as industrial, urban and rural water users and tribal communities.

Its job was to provide lawmakers with new policies and tools to help save water and ensure neither the environment nor Colorado water users are adversely affected by any new federal agreements designed to protect the drought-strapped river.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, said he was disappointed that better solutions to the state’s complex water woes weren’t forwarded on to the General Assembly. Roberts was the primary sponsor of the bipartisan measure creating the task force.

“I don’t think it was a failure by any means,” Roberts said, “but I was hoping for some more substantive recommendations that would help Colorado well into the future.”

Among the new ideas the task force examined, and which may be further evaluated in coming months, was whether electric utilities could hold onto water rights once they close down coal-fired power plants, leaving water once used to cool turbines in the river for the environment and future green power projects.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which had a seat on the task force, asked that water rights it controls and uses to help run its coal plants in the Yampa River Valley, be preserved once the plants are shut down, a process that is scheduled to occur between 2025 and 2028. The recommendation isn’t specific to Tri-State, but could include other utilities with water rights tied to coal-fired power plants.

Under Colorado law, a water right that is no longer used must be transferred or sold to another user, or the water must be returned to the river. Traditionally, the idea has been to prevent water right holders from hoarding water they are not using. But Tri-State is asking that its water be protected and left in the river through 2050, even if it is not being used, just in case it is needed for future green power projects.

Tribes at the table

In a historic first, a tribal subcommittee representing the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, issued its own recommendations for improving their water systems and helping level the playing field between tribes, and state and federal water agencies. 

Tribes, as sovereign nations, have been excluded from state and federal Colorado River negotiations and decisions. But because the 30 tribes throughout the seven-state basin legally control roughly 25% of the drought-stressed river, their influence is growing as state and federal governments search for solutions to the crisis.

A list of requests to state lawmakers includes one to fund a study on how tribal water should be valued and how tribes should be paid so that they can participate in water conservation programs like other water users do now.

The tribes also asked that Colorado broaden its definition of an environmental water right. Environmental flows — where water is left in streams, rather than being diverted — now are defined primarily as those that protect fish and habitat, but because water is so deeply embedded in tribal traditions, the tribes have recommended that their cultural values also be included in the definition.

“It was important to have a separate committee because tribal water rights are absolutely unique, and it is important to understand how they work,” said Peter Ortego, general counsel to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Among the key differences is that tribal water rights are older than most on the river and can be used, in some cases, with more flexibility, he said.

Integrating the tribal water into the seven-state system could benefit the river, he said. “We believe it should make water management easier.”

Mired in a severe drought believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years, the river’s two major storage vessels, lakes Powell and Mead, have dropped to dangerous new lows. If the river’s flows continue to decline, as most expect they will, the federal government has the authority to order users across the basin to cut back.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two sections, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin. The federal government has already ordered cutbacks in the Lower Basin. Colorado water users remain concerned that something similar could happen here. That’s one of the reasons the task force was formed, to help Colorado prepare for the future.

Another proposal that may receive more attention next year is an effort to outline the principles and tools the state would use if it is forced to cut back its use of Colorado River water to comply with federal orders.

But Josh Kuhn, senior water campaign manager at Conservation Colorado, said he had hoped the task force would get more done on tough issues, such as how Colorado would implement future water cuts.

“We’re in the worst drought in modern history,” Kuhn said. “I don’t think it moved with the urgency that was needed.”

Task force chair Kathy Chandler-Henry said some of its final recommendations will help Colorado River water users cope with a drier future. “There was unanimous support to provide more funding and easier-to-get funding for aging infrastructure. That seems obvious. But there is some real water savings to be achieved by fixing leaky pipes, and there was also broad support for removing invasive species (that guzzle water) and for new tools for measuring water. That is valuable.”

How many of the eight task force recommendations will become bills next month when the General Assembly convenes isn’t clear yet.

But Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County Commissioner, said task force members are standing by to help lawmakers if they move forward new legislation.

“State legislators are going to be taking a hard look at this,” Chandler-Henry said. “If we need to jump back in, we are ready and willing to help.”

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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