State water board, conservation group team up to create innovative new water rights agreement

FRISCO — For thousands of years, the Little Cimarron River trickled out of the snowfields of the San Juan Mountains, coursing unimpeded through steep alpine canyons and rolling sagebrush foothills before merging with the Gunnison River.

That changed when European settlers arrived in the region. Eager to tame the rugged land, ranchers and farmers took to the hills with shovels and picks, diverting part of the river’s flow to water hayfields and pastures. The back-breaking work brought the imprint of civilization to the area, but just as surely wrought huge changes to natural systems that had been self-regulating themselves since the end of the last ice age.

Like nearly every other river in Colorado, the Little Cimarron was free-flowing no more. Below the McKinley Ditch diversion, it dwindled to a meager trickle, even drying up completely in the late summer during dry and warm years. For 10 miles downstream of the diversion, the stream is too warm for fish and too murky for the little water bugs and plants needed to sustain a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

For decades, the Little Cimarron sang a sad song, and no one seemed to care, but that’s about to change. Last week, conservation-minded ranchers and river advocates signed a state-sanctioned and groundbreaking water-sharing agreement that will revive the river. It’s the first time ever in Colorado that a water right will be formally decreed for both for agriculture and environmental purposes — a model what Colorado will need to do to ensure sustainable water supplies in the decades ahead.

Up to five cubic feet per second of water that was traditionally diverted from the Little Cimarron River will now be left in the river starting in mid-summer when stream flows drop, preventing the river from going dry. Much of the river is managed as a wild trout stream by Colorado Parks and Wildlife for much of its length.

Trying to balance water for environmental needs with diversions for agriculture, municipal use and energy development is a holy grail for Colorado water planners, and the Little Cimarron River deal shows — at least on a small scale — that it can be done, said Colorado Water Trust director Amy Beatie, whose nonprofit organization lent its technical and legal expertise to make the deal happen.

“Most folks in Colorado are aware of the fact that we have an issue where we are seeing competing demands for water. We have increased population growth with more and more demands for this limited resource,” Beatie said. “We have an increased ethic for protecting rivers and a significant recreation economy,” she said, explaining that the Little Cimarron agreement fits into discussions taking place around the state’s evolving water plan.

To meet all the competing demands will require that any project proposed by the final plan serves as many users as possible. On a larger scale, similar water-sharing arrangements coordinated among multiple water rights owners could have a big benefit for struggling rivers around the state, she said.

“What the water plan is doing is going to make it easier to find these types of opportunities and identifying where environmental flows are needed,” said Linda Bassi, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s instream flow program. “It’ll help make these deals bubble to the surface,” Bassi said, explaining that the Little Cimarron agreement establishes a sharing mechanism that becomes part of the way the state administers water rights, paving the way for similar deals in the future.

In the past, CWCB instream flow rights have been used only for instream flows. On the Little Cimarron, the water will be used first by the agricultural water rights owner to irrigate pastures. Together, the various players will then decide when to bypass the diversion and use the water to enhance flows downstream, based on environmental needs. The instream flows will extend the stretch of river where trout can thrive, Bassi said.

“This permanent, split use of an instream flow is distinctive because it acknowledges and preserves the value of irrigated agriculture as well as the value of restoring flow to a local river,” she explained.

Although it’s only a drop in the bucket, the Little Cimarron agreement will boost overall water supplies for Gunnison Basin, and by extension, the Colorado River. When the diversion is shut off in late summer, the water that normally would have been absorbed by the soil and vegetation on the ranch will now be available farther downstream.

NUTS AND BOLTS

The CWCB and the water trust have facilitated similar deals to boost flows, but they’ve all been temporary, like short-term leases on tributaries to the Upper Colorado that helped protect flows in 2012, during Colorado hottest summer on record.

The Little Cimarron agreement was made easier by the fact that the ranch where the water is used for irrigation is owned by Western Rivers Conservancy, a nonprofit specializing in conservation purchases of riparian lands in the West. In future deals based on this model, agricultural water rights owners could be compensated for sharing their water and the resulting loss of productivity. Giving up water in the late summer could mean foregoing a second or third crop of hay, or cutting the number of cattle grazing a given patch of land.

In January of 2014, the Colorado Water Trust purchased the water rights from the conservancy with donated funds and started crafting the sharing agreement with the CWCB. In 2014, the trust and the state agency jointly filed an application to Division 4 Water Court in December 2014 asking for a decree that will honor both uses – irrigation and instream flow.

The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold instream flow water rights to preserve and improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Under its Water Acquisition Program, the CWCB can acquire water from willing water rights owners by donation, purchase, lease or other arrangement to include in Colorado’s instream flow program.

The water trust and the CWCB have partnered on agreements to support instream flows. All the agreements are market-based and voluntary, according to Bassi.

“This permanent, split use of an instream flow is distinctive because it acknowledges and preserves the value of irrigated agriculture as well as the value of restoring flow to a local river,” said Linda Bassi, chief of the stream and lake protection section at CWCB.

Summit County Citizens Voice
Bob Berwyn