SUMMIT COUNTY—Tumbling down from the craggy heights of the Gore Range, Boulder Creek is a typical Colorado mountain stream, all mossy boulders and full of flashing brook trout darting under shady banks.

But the small creek, which pours into the Blue River a few miles north of Silverthorne, is also a model for a new type of water rights transaction aimed at bolstering the environment.

In a groundbreaking deal finalized last week, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust spent $130,000 to buy 800 acre-feet of water from Howard (Scotty) and Jeanette Moser, owners of the Slate Creek Ranch. The water will be dedicated to meeting instream flow requirements in Boulder Creek and the Lower Blue, instead of being diverted for irrigation. Flows in Boulder Creek will now be significantly higher during the late summer and early fall.

The trust will then resell the water to the Colorado River Water Conservation District for use farther downstream. The deal still requires final approval from state water courts. It’s the first transaction of this kind in Colorado, and the first deal coming to fruition for the trust, formed in 2002.

“We’re happy it went so well in the end,” said Jeanette Moser.

“Hopefully they’ll get it through court. Now that that’s done, we hope to live here happily ever after,” the longtime local rancher said with a laugh.

The water rights were associated with a 160-acre chunk of the Slate Creek Ranch that was sold to the U.S. Forest Service several years ago, Moser said. The irrigation diversion from Boulder Creek had a long history of typical water shenanigans, including illegal diversions by neighbors.

“Now it’s going to stay in Boulder Creek and that’s going to make a lot of people happy,” Moser said.

“We marketed the water rights separately,” she continued, explaining that they fielded several other offers for the water from various interested parties until finalizing the conservation-oriented deal with the water trust.

Win-win Moser said the sale of the water rights doesn’t affect existing ranching and hay growing at the Slate Creek Ranch, which still has irrigation water available from Slate Creek.

“From our standpoint, it’s a win-win for the West Slope,” said Colorado Water Trust president Mike Browning. “We get water for instream flows and still get to put it to beneficial use. We’re not taking water out of consumptive use. We’re using it for instream flows in an area where flows are critical and redirecting the consumptive use to an area where flows are not so critical.”

The deal is significant in part because it helps provide water in an area where the Colorado Water Conservation Board determined that required instream flows are not being met, Browning said.

“The impact on Boulder Creek will be the greatest,” said Jay Skinner, instream flow coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Boulder Creek flows peak at about 50 to 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) during spring runoff, but flows drop down as low as 3 to 5 cfs during the late irrigation season, in August and early September, Skinner said, explaining that the stream suffered from those low flows in late summer.

The Slate Creek Ranch diversion gulped up to 8 cfs for irrigation, and the water was transferred out of the Boulder Creek drainage with no return flows.

“That was 100 percent depletive, and the effect was profound,” Skinner said, explaining that the increased flows will benefit brook trout populations in the stream.

The fledgling water trust was formed in 2002 with specific purpose of acquiring water rights for conservation purposes—an endeavor made more challenging by Colorado water law, which stipulates that only the conservation board can own environmental instream flow rights.

It’s also the first use of a recently passed state law that enables the conservation board to buy water rights not just to meet minimum flow requirements, but to improve stream flows for the benefit of the environment, and specifically fish, said Melinda Kassen, attorney with the Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project.

It’s significant because it’s the first time the CWCB has signed on to a deal authorizing this kind of transaction, involving the water trust, perhaps opening the door for similar arrangements in the future, Kassen said.

“We think there’s a need and we have a good model,” said Browning.

The Boulder Creek deal serves as an illustration that the water trust’s voluntary conservation approach can work. The trust is actively exploring several other projects across the state, hoping to establish models in each of the major river basins, according to trust director John Carney.

Water trusts are more common and more active in the Pacific Northwest, where they have been involved in leasing agricultural water from year to year for conservation purposes, Carney said.

The Boulder Creek deal was funded in part by the Gates Family Foundation and Colorado Conservation Trust.

Summit Daily News
Bob Berwyn