A conversation with Chris Treese on demand management in the arid West

Recently retired after 28 years at the Colorado River District, Chris Treese is a longtime WEco board member. While working at the River District, Chris was responsible for legislative and regulatory lobbying, as well as water education and information efforts. In 2010, the River District, along with stakeholders across the state, began the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup to study and pilot a voluntary and compensated approach to temporarily reduce consumptive uses of Colorado River water in Colorado. That experience is now providing some understanding as stakeholders grapple with whether and how to develop a demand management program to keep more water in the Colorado River. We talked with Chris to hear about demand management and the basin’s future.

What was your role with the Colorado River District?

My role has been constantly evolving, but my title has really never changed. I’ve been the manager of external affairs, which I believe is a deliberately vague title. When I started, I was a manager of a department of one. Now it’s a department of four. I am very proud of the similar growth that the River District has had in its commitment to public outreach, communications, public education, involvement, collaboration, and the board’s recognition that a project like this takes a lot of time. They’ve been patient and understanding in their recognition that collaborative efforts are not as immediate as many would hope. They’ve made a commitment of both time and human resources, and that just one person cannot provide that involvement with the many different programs that have arisen.

What is the River District’s connection with the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan?

The River District, around 10 years ago recognized that with the drought, that has now extended for twice what is was 10 years ago, that something needed to be done. The best approach was to be proactive, so we began looking at and talking about some kind of compact water bank, and we formed a water bank working group. This involved the state, Front Range, West Slope, environmental community, and the agricultural community, in hopes of exploring what might be done. We looked at what is now called demand management from the inception. We sponsored pilot studies to better understand the actual application of demand management programs. Our pilots involved a variety of producers in a variety of crops, soils and altitudes.

The River District, along with the Southwestern District, sponsored various phases of the Risk Study, examining the actual likelihood of a “compact call” on the Colorado River under various future scenarios.

As a result, much of today’s focus on various aspects of demand management is not entirely new to us, and all of our information is available for us and others to learn from.

Who needs to be involved in demand management?

For a demand management program to be successful, it is going to take a full array of stakeholders. The state is going to have to be a principal player for the administration, financing, and the technical accounting of how it all works. It has to involve the other three upper basin states, and it has to involve all seven basin states in order to develop a level of acceptance of how it works and for its monitoring. It also needs to involve the managers, the individual users, specifically agriculture, but not ag alone. Agriculture has been very clear that this can’t be agriculture alone; agriculture already feels as though they have cross hairs on their back and this is one more bullet in the clip. They are not anxious to see the arsenal loading up.

The question is, how does the West Slope fit into a larger context of demand management that is state wide geographically, spanning across water user groups, and that doesn’t ask or require a disproportionate amount of burden from any single user group of geographical region. It also needs to involve local conservation. There are definite benefits that must be quantified and compensated, and there will be impacts and those should also be quantified and compensated.

How might this change as the climate becomes more volatile?

Climate change has been included in our plan, but the need [for demand management] may become more immediate. Ultimately, we may not enjoy the luxury of time and study, and regrettably we may end up addressing this to implement [demand management] programs on a permanent and semi-permanent basis. Hopefully, the demand management program we develop is not permanent as in perennial, but permanent as in a program we can take off of the shelf when compliance is at risk and as we see certain conditions on the Colorado River. These programs have proven to be effective, and beneficial, not just to the river and the compact compliance, but also to the participants in the demand management study and the environment. We need to build on these positives.

How does drought on the Colorado River look in your vision for the future?

The reality of drought is what we, as water managers, are focused on. As we plan for a drier future, we have to balance how we judge water uses and values. I have a vision of a Colorado that has fully come to grips with drought as an increasingly frequent reality. This means sharing the water resource as well as any shortages, “the pie of pain.”

What motivated you to become a WEco board member?

I had been involved with the organization of the Foundation from inception. More recently the Water Congress thought that I would be an appropriate representative of the water community and appointed me to the board.

With your time on the board, what would you say has been the most rewarding aspect?

Really since the inception of WEco, it has been tremendously satisfying to see the growth and diversification, the different directions that WEco has taken in terms of the breadth and depth of the fulfillment of the mission. I think WEco has done a wonderful job creating new and approachable information through the variety of media.

What would you say to anyone looking to get involved with WEco?

I would encourage anyone who is considering any affiliation with WEco to better understand, realize and capitalize on everything that WEco has to offer. Obviously, the full range of what WEco offers isn’t appropriate for everyone at every point in their career and personal water education, but I think there is plenty to plug into and to be become very familiar with.

Read interviews with other WEco board members:

A conversation with Greg Hobbs on water equity, March 2020
A conversation with Amy Moyer on the “lean” facilitation process, June 2019
Countering climate change, Q&A with Jorge Figueroa, March 2019
A WISE approach to water reuse, Q&A with Lisa Darling, October 2018
River and stream planning, Q&A with Dan Luecke, June 2018
SWCD: The weight of water on public land, Q&A with Laura Spann, March 2018

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