Beyond the Buzzword

More than a trendy cliché, collaboration as demonstrated by these boots on the ground proves its worth.

For years, it was a training ground in the art of war, a high elevation base in the Eagle River Valley where an elite World War II fighting force called the 10th Mountain Division learned winter survival skills and the CIA groomed Tibetan guerrilla fighters in the 1960s. Yet today, Camp Hale northwest of Leadville is a training ground in the art of collaboration. A group led by the National Forest Foundation is spearheading a restoration project there aimed at undoing some of the damage caused during the camp’s construction in 1942, when wetlands were filled and the channel of the Eagle River straightened. The effort has united a wildly diverse group of more than 40 stakeholders, from Front Range water providers to mining interests, historical preservation groups, conservation organizations, and even a local sheepherder. Since 2012, these strange bedfellows have been meeting to draft a restoration master plan, now under review by the U.S. Forest Service, that calls for between 200 and 300 acres of wetland restoration and five to seven miles of river improvements.

“Our goal is to design a project that restores the area, preserves the history, and meets the water needs of the Eastern and Western slopes,”says Marcus Selig, Southern Rockies regional director for the National Forest Foundation, who oversaw the drafting of the management plan.

The effort is emblematic of a changing water climate in Colorado. Whether driven by increasingly scarce water supplies, looming and expensive state and federal regulations, competition for limited grant funds, or common interests, Coloradans are collaborating to solve their water problems like never before. The innovative and sometimes unlikely partnerships springing up around the state are well suited for a future of increasing scarcity, where water is stretched between climate change and population growth. Here’s an examination of what’s driving some of the most progressive water-based collaborations around the state.

 Give a little. Take a little

Although the disparate stakeholders that came together at Camp Hale agreed on the need to repair the ecosystem, differences emerged on how to accomplish that work, and the solutions the group crafted are textbook examples of compromise. Some groups, for instance, argued for the preservation of the existing narrow stream channel as a historical artifact, despite its lack of ecological value. To appease them, the group devised a way to dewater the channel and leave it in place while restoring the river to meander around it. “We also made sure that the river’s meanders will miss some of the existing artifacts, like the remnants of the field house, the rifle range and an ammo bunker,”says Selig.

Another challenge for the group was designing a restoration project that accounts for future diversions from the river’s headwaters above Camp Hale by cities like Aurora and Colorado Springs or the Eagle Park Reservoir Company, all of which own water rights that could enable such diversions. Because many of these rights are conditional, Selig says, it’s difficult to determine how much lower the river could be in the future, but his team will work closely with water right holders to ensure that the restoration project squares with their plans. “We have to design the project in a way that won’t impact potential upstream development,”Selig says, “and in a way that works with the amount of water that will actually be flowing through there in the future.”

The Camp Hale case shows that collaboration can be expensive: Once the Forest Service concludes its environmental review of the Camp Hale restoration plan—likely by the summer of 2016—the stakeholder group will begin restoration work that’s estimated to cost more than $10 million. (Developing the plan alone has cost around $450,000, raised from a mix of nonprofits like the Gates Family Foundation and the 10th Mountain Division Foundation, corporations like the Climax Molybdenum Mine, and government agencies like the Colorado Water Conservation Board.) The restoration work will be paid for using wetland mitigation fees that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers imposes on developers for damage to wetlands elsewhere, along with corporate, nonprofit and private donations. The group’s ambitious goal, Selig says, is to begin restoring the Camp Hale ecosystem by the spring of 2017.

The devil you know: Local solutions over state mandates

Diverse stakeholders have worked on a restoration master plan for Camp Hale since 2012. The group blends water utilities, historical preservationists, conservationists and mining interests.
Photo by Steven Dewitt, Jr.

Collaboration between groups with diverging interests is tough, but even when interests are aligned it doesn’t always come easily, and it’s particularly hard to swallow when it requires paying for something that used to be free.

Beginning in 2003, that’s precisely what David Robbins found himself asking rooms full of San Luis Valley farmers to do, as they confronted the precipitous decline of their groundwater brought on by overuse and years of drought. “Our engineers told us that we were overusing the hydrologic system in dry times,” Robbins recalls. “We needed to find a way to reduce the amount of irrigation that was occurring.”

Robbins is the attorney for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the main agricultural water provider in a high, rural southern Colorado valley where potatoes, barley, wheat and other crops underpin the local economy. Capitalizing on the ethic of self-reliance that predominates there, he made a simple pitch to farmers: Reduce pumping and bring the aquifer into balance on your own, or the state will intervene to do it for you.

It was hardly an idle threat. In the spring of 2006, responding to the owners of surface water rights in the South Platte Basin who complained that over-pumping of tributary groundwater wells was depleting their water supply, state regulators shut down more than 400 wells whose owners had not filed formal augmentation plans—court documents showing how they would buy water to replace out-of-priority depletions.

‘We have to design the project in a way that won’t impact potential upstream development …” says Marcus Selig, Southern Rockies regional director for the National Forest Foundation.”

Farmers in the San Luis Valley were determined to avoid a similar fate. “What happened in the South Platte wasn’t a rational economic approach to solving the problem, it was just based on whether or not you had enough money or water to do an augmentation plan,” Robbins says. “Some people had neither and went out of business. In the San Luis Valley, we wanted to manage the transition away from irrigation so we didn’t dry up some areas entirely while others continued to farm.”

By 2012, after two rounds of litigation and a seemingly endless series of meetings spent cajoling reluctant farmers, a solution emerged: establish a system of regional groundwater subdistricts, defined by geography, that charge annual fees to farmers within their boundaries for each acre of land cultivated and each acre-foot of water used. Those funds are then used to buy water to offset groundwater depletions, either by injecting it back into the ground, sending it to users downstream, or paying cash to farmers injured by groundwater pumping. The subdistricts also pay farmers to fallow some of their marginal land, lightening demand on the aquifer as a whole.

Whether this inventive strategy will bring the San Luis Valley’s water supply into balance remains to be seen. The first subdistrict (six others are now forming) began operating in 2012 in the highly productive agricultural area around the town of Center. Its goal is to take 40,000 acres out of production over 20 years, to stabilize the aquifer at levels somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 acre-feet below where they were in 1976, when record keeping began. A combination of wet weather and reduced pumping through fallowing agreements and efficiency improvements has put about 200,000 acre-feet of water back into the aquifer since 2012, but conservation district program manager Rob Phillips says it will take about 700,000 acre-feet of additional recovery to bring the aquifer into balance over the next 16 years. Still, farmers are collectively paying to help save their own aquifer, a prospect that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

Getting out ahead: The specter of federal regulation

Remnants of the ammo magazines at the rifle range at Camp Hale are reminders that the site was once a training ground for war rather than collaboration, as it is today. Photo by Steven Dewitt, Jr.

If state regulation is viewed with suspicion in a local-control state like Colorado, the prospect of new federal regulation can inspire outright fear and trembling. Thankfully, that fear can lead to collaboration between unlikely allies, as it has in recent years in the Colorado and Dolores river basins as groups have formed to devise local alternatives to federal jurisdiction under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

This 1968 federal law, designed to protect rivers with “outstandingly remarkable” natural, cultural or recreational values (ORVs), is supported in principle by many conservation and recreational interests. In practice, though, many view the additional federal oversight that accompanies a designation—along with the possibility that the federal government could acquire a “reserved water right” to protect the river—as cumbersome and potentially threatening to local water management. Pulling together, the stakeholder groups in the Colorado and Dolores river basins are dedicated to convincing federal land management agencies that the rivers can be managed locally in a way that protects their ORVs while also safeguarding water rights.

“The real concern in Colorado is that an extra layer of federal oversight makes everyone’s jobs even harder,” says Rob Buirgy, project manager for the Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Alternative Management Plan, which governs a 84-mile reach of the Colorado River from Kremmling to Glenwood Canyon that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management nominated for potential Wild and Scenic status in 2007. With a Wild and Scenic designation, Buirgy says, “it’s harder for the water providers to manage their apportionments and plan for drought or population growth, and it’s harder for the recreation and environmental communities to get their needs met at the local level. People tend to rally around local management for local needs.”

Still, the range of interests involved in local management—from environmentalists to water providers to ranchers—makes crafting a local alternative a daunting task. The difference between success and failure hinges on factors as diverse as the personalities involved, the availability of funding for a dedicated facilitator to keep negotiations going, and the willingness of stakeholders to understand and respect divergent points of view.

The Upper Colorado group formed in 2008 to develop an alternative plan for the river that would enable local management to continue while safeguarding its fishing and boating values. The group’s membership is broad, including representatives from Front Range utilities like Denver Water, government agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and nonprofit groups like American Whitewater and Trout Unlimited. In 2013 the group worked with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to appropriate three instream flow water rights on the river. With a priority date of 2013, these rights are junior to pre-existing senior rights, but when in force they ensure a flow of between 500 and 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the river year round to protect fish like trout and flannelmouth and bluehead suckers.

Scouting a stretch of the Catamount section of the Colorado River in 2014, the Upper Colorado Wild and Scenic Stakeholders Group is prepped by Rob Buirgy to consider the historical and environmental values they’re working to protect.

“The Colorado River is such a busy river with so many interests on it,”says Linda Bassi, section chief of the CWCB’s Stream and Lake Protection Section, who worked on the instream flow case. “We never would have appropriated flows on the mainstem of the Colorado without this stakeholder process, because some of these same interests [in the stakeholder group] probably would have come out and opposed it.”

In 2015, the group scored an even bigger victory when it convinced the BLM to adopt its management plan as a “preferred alternative” for the 84-mile stretch of river, deferring a decision on Wild and Scenic suitability. Going forward, the stakeholder group will advise the BLM on the status of the river’s boating and fishing ORVs, using a series of guides and indicators to quickly detect any changes in river health and gauge their plan’s effectiveness.

Buirgy attributes the group’s success in part to having well-defined goals and a clear purpose. “If you want to protect the diversity of life on this planet, that’s a little harder to sink your teeth into than goals like maintaining or improving the fishing and boating on one stretch of river,” he says.

Given their differing goals—from protecting fishing and boating opportunities to watering cities—Buirgy is proud of how the stakeholders in his group have come to see one another’s perspectives over seven years of working together. “I think one of the major hurdles was everyone had to be able to step back and look at this joint commitment through each other’s eyes,” he says. Yet as the group begins implementing its management plan, many challenges loom, including passing the torch from retiring members to new members and establishing an endowment to secure the group’s long-term funding.

In the Dolores River Basin, concern about another potential Wild and Scenic designation helped motivate a similar collaborative group whose members have been working since 2008 on a more locally influenced form of federal protection. An entity called the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group, which consists of agricultural and domestic water districts and management entities, representatives of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, conservation groups, boaters, anglers, energy interests, private property owners and others, has proposed establishing a National Conservation Area (NCA) on the Dolores River below McPhee Dam. The proposal would require congressional approval and would allow the continued use of McPhee Reservoir for irrigation, power generation, municipal and industrial use, and other purposes while banning new oil and gas exploration or new dams within the conservation area. It would also authorize the Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team, an existing local entity formed in 2011 and staffed by working group members, to monitor the status of whitewater boating flows and the health of native fish in the river. The team would continue working to prevent fish from being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act—designations which could threaten local water rights.

The NCA idea would not involve the appropriation of any new water rights; in fact there is no unappropriated water left on this stretch of the lower Dolores. A legislative sub-committee of the working group released a draft federal bill in early 2015 that, in the words of working group facilitator Marsha Porter-Norton, “does not have any kind of mandated water right associated with it, but would give federal recognition to a local collaborative effort to protect the river.”

Still, some local irrigators were concerned that the NCA proposal did not go far enough to protect their water rights, prompting the board of the San Juan Basin Farm Bureau and the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners to vote against the idea in early 2015. To resolve their concerns, the counties and water providers involved in the NCA proposal agreed to hire David Robbins to conduct an independent legal review of the draft bill. He found that failing to craft a local solution could leave the door open for more federal restrictions on the river, including Wild and Scenic designation, Endangered Species Act protections, or even the designation of a National Monument in the area by President Barack Obama before he leaves office. That conclusion has helped restart negotiations over the final wording of an NCA bill, which Robbins himself is helping to facilitate.

“What got us through that difficult spot was having someone look at some specific concerns from a legal perspective,”says Porter-Norton. “Eventually, if you’re working in the worlds of water and federal legislation, you will need a legal expert to take a look at how your proposal impacts water rights, water supplies and other interests.”

Brother, can you share a dime? Defraying the expense of regulation

No Chico Brush project participant and the largest sweet corn grower in the Uncompahgre Valley, John Harold has championed the local soil health movement and is now pushing for improved irrigation water use.
Photo by Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy

Even when federal regulations—the Clean Water Act, for instance—are viewed as both inevitable and beneficial, they can also be expensive to abide by, and that cost inspires its own form of collaboration. In the field of wastewater treatment, communities have long banded together to share expensive infrastructure, meet regulatory requirements, and reduce risk. Now, some drinking water providers are beginning to follow suit.

“Collaboration in the wastewater arena has been happening for a long, long time, and the [drinking] water treatment arena is just starting to catch up,”says Barbara Biggs, former government affairs officer at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver, who left in 2014 after working for the district for 23 years. Metro was created in 1964, when Denver area governments recognized that they could capitalize on economies of scale, attract more skilled employees, and reduce their individual liability by sharing costly wastewater treatment infrastructure. Today, Metro contracts with 60 governments along the Front Range for wastewater service, charging each member by the gallon for its wastewater and assuming all liability for treatment-related mishaps.

As our scientific understanding of how to keep riparian ecosystems healthy has improved, Biggs contends, the regulations that govern wastewater treatment and releases into rivers have tightened accordingly. Today, it’s nearly impossible for small communities to afford the equipment to meet those standards, so they often join forces and share the costs.

Until recently, fierce competition to acquire and develop new water supplies has mostly kept water providers in growing cities on the Front Range from collaborating in the same way. Yet with the growing popularity of potable reuse projects, Biggs points out, one person’s wastewater is increasingly another’s water supply, and the expense and regulatory burden of those reuse projects—along with the expense of new reservoir construction projects meant to store water in wet years—is forcing water providers to ramp up collaboration. Still, working together won’t be easy for drinking water providers—they’ll have to resolve differences in strategy, timing and risk tolerance and devise new and creative ways of financing and permitting projects backed by multiple water entities.

Common goals, uncommon reasons: When interests overlap

Developing a water management plan to stabilize the declining aquifer in the San Luis Valley’s first groundwater subdistrict has been a priority for the Subdistrict #1 Board of Managers. Photo by Christi Bode

Agricultural interests and environmental groups have a long history of distrusting each other in Colorado and across the West. For years, farmers have blamed conservationists for pushing policies that protect species but restrict land use, while environmentalists have begrudged farmers for the ways that overgrazing, pesticide runoff, and other side effects of agriculture impact the environment. Yet in recent years, as drought has impacted streamflows and as utilities have combed the state for new water to serve growing populations, farmers and environmentalists have begun to find common cause on water conservation.

Whether it’s piping ditches, improving diversion structures, or moving from flood to sprinkler irrigation, “the farmer’s interest is preparing for a future in which there may be more scarcity,” says Drew Peternell, Colorado River Program director for Trout Unlimited. Environmentalists, for their part, favor efficiency because it conserves water, improves water quality by reducing nutrient runoff, and dampens the need for new diversion projects. “Conservation and agricultural groups are realizing that when water is in short supply, their interests are going to lose out before the interests of cities, so they are finding ways to build their power by partnering up,”Peternell says.

Across the state, farmers and environmentalists are teaming up with recreational groups to write grants for projects that serve the interests of all three. In a climate of scarce water resources and even scarcer grant dollars, these multi-purpose efforts often have a competitive edge over one-dimensional projects, says Heather Dutton, executive director for the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, a multi-stakeholder group working to restore the Rio Grande between South Fork and Alamosa. “Collaborative projects that serve a diverse range of interests do seem to catch funders’eyes more readily than single-stakeholder projects,” she says. “Collaboration for us is in finding that sweet spot where interests overlap. I have never heard a farmer say that they want to improve their headgate, but they don’t want to help fish in the process.”

In a recent project in the Sevenmile Plaza area between Monte Vista and Del Norte, Dutton’s group raised funds to replace a diversion dam in the Rio Grande owned by farmers of the McDonald Ditch Company, moving it upstream and installing a new structure that allows for passage by fish and boats. The project will improve farmers’ability to divert their full water right, while alleviating their concerns about liability for boaters injured by the antiquated dam or fish species harmed by its impassibility. “The existing dam is really inefficient—it’s made from piles of rubble, concrete and rebar, and it’s a bottleneck that causes flooding in the community,” Dutton says.  “Removing that will be a huge improvement.”

Northwest of Alamosa in the Gunnison Basin, a similar effort called the No Chico Brush project is uniting farmers and conservationists to install irrigation efficiency improvements. The group’s more than 30 member entities include The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Colorado State University, and the Colorado River District, along with between 25 and 30 farmers and ranchers. They won an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in early 2015 to improve efficiency both on and off farms in the Gunnison Basin.

With irrigated agriculture in the basin more than 100 years old, the soils in many areas are severely depleted. By improving irrigation efficiency, farmers and ranchers there hope to build soil health by slowing the flush of nutrients and reducing the leaching of salt and selenium, which harms endangered species like the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. Efficiency measures like piping ditches also reduce seepage of irrigation water, enabling farmers to stretch water supplies further during drought. “Because there are so many benefits to efficiency, we found partners who didn’t care about fish but cared about agricultural sustainability and vice-versa,”says Sonja Chavez, who administered the USDA grant for the Colorado River District as a consultant before recently joining the district’s staff. “Everyone was able to find something they liked.”

“Collaboration for us is in finding that sweet spot where interests overlap,” says Heather Dutton, executive director for the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.

No Chico Brush project participant and the largest sweet corn grower in the Uncompahgre Valley, John Harold has championed the local soil health movement and is now pushing for improved irrigation water use.
Credit: Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy

While the No Chico Brush and Rio Grande Headwaters projects unite farmers and conservationists to improve water delivery infrastructure, another collaborative project in the Gunnison Basin is bringing the two sectors together to share water itself. About 20 miles east of Montrose near the foot of the San Juan Mountains, farmers and ranchers divert water from the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison, into the McKinley Ditch. A five-mile stretch of river below the ditch diversion point often runs dry in late spring and early summer, degrading an ecosystem that supports brown, brook and rainbow trout at higher elevations. In 2012, the nonprofit Western Rivers Conservancy bought a 214-acre ranch irrigated with McKinley Ditch water after the bank foreclosed on the rancher who had owned it. The conservancy then sold the water rights associated with the land—just under six cfs, or about 18 percent of the water decreed to the McKinley Ditch—to the Denver-based Colorado Water Trust. The Trust, in turn, partnered with the CWCB in 2014 to create the state’s first water-sharing agreement between agriculture and instream flows. The plan is to allow a farmer leasing the land to use the water right for irrigation during the early part of the growing season, but to redirect the water—now protected by an instream flow right held by the CWCB—back into the river later in the season if the Little Cimarron River threatens to run dry.

“I think we recognized that the tools already existed to try this, and you can use the water court system to your advantage and it can be flexible if you ask it to be,” says Colorado Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith. The proposal is still working its way through water court, and the Trust is in discussions with other irrigators on the ditch to determine how to accurately gauge the water they divert back to the Little Cimarron. If successful, the idea of splitting a water right between agricultural and instream flow uses could have broad statewide implications.

“There is so much energy now around finding alternatives to buy and dry,” says Colorado Water Trust executive director Amy Beatie, “and around finding solutions that are not zero-sum in the sense that they simply take water from one use and give it to another.”

Today, that energy permeates Colorado’s water landscape, as everyone from urban water providers to environmentalists and ranchers seems willing to pursue multi-purpose, multi-partner projects to meet their diverse needs. The state’s water users don’t agree on everything, but they are coalescing around a central fact: In the face of growing water scarcity, collaboration is a must.

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