Exciting Changes at the Water Trust

I hope you read the letter from our new Water Trust Board President, Emily Hunt, earlier this week. We are so pleased that she is stepping into fill the big shoes of Anne Castle, who has left the Presidency for a new challenge at the Upper Colorado River Commission.

But that isn’t the only change we are navigating. This past year, the Water Trust engaged in an extensive process to write our newest strategic plan. For our first 21 years, the Water Trust showed, repeatedly, that it is possible to craft arrangements with water rights owners that are beneficial to both the water right owners and the environment. And we began to bring those lessons to scale by returning more water to Colorado’s rivers than ever before.

In 2021, and despite all the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presented, we returned no fewer than 10,000 acre-feet of water to Colorado rivers and streams, a record for us. The Colorado and Yampa were the big volume headliners, but we also worked on the Roaring Fork and the Alamosa, Tomichi Creek and many others. Some are small projects that benefit local streams, while one, our long-term project on the upper Yampa, at times was responsible for half the water flowing through Steamboat.

We stand today at the threshold of a new era in Colorado water administration. With numerous legal and administrative tools to keep more water in our rivers and streams without causing harm to consumptive users, we have the ability to impact the future of our natural world at a much greater scale than we have in the past. And we must do so, as the challenge of climate change has already accelerated to a crisis point. As a state and a region, we simply have to become more resilient, better adapted, and more fluid (in all senses of the word).

Our new strategic plan builds upon our past work to do just that, and go even further. It envisions doubling our impact in terms of volume of water and miles of rivers protected with more new professional staff, and expanded geographical reach for both staff and board.

As part of this expansion, we have shifted our perspective to thinking of ourselves as a community focused group, in addition to an environmental one. We have always worked with communities to help restore flows to their local river while protecting livelihoods and now we are prioritizing that part of our work in our mission. We will always strive toward improved environmental flows as our #1 goal, but we realize that people care about rivers to the extent they know and love them, and often that happens when a river flows through a community.

Under our new strategic plan, we will identify, develop, and implement at least one significant multi-purpose community-based project each in an urban and rural area. Both are important, and we are consciously trying to expand interest in our work to all Coloradans, no matter where they live, or what they do, or what race they are. There can be no solving of the water crisis in our state unless all – or at least most – of us pull on an oar.

Another major initiative is expanding our reservoir release program to a coordinated effort among reservoirs state-wide. We pioneered our first market-based reservoir release for the environment in 2012 when we leased water from Stagecoach Reservoir for the Yampa River. We’ve also used reservoir releases to restore flows to the Alamosa, the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado Rivers. We will aim to scale this work by finding matches between available water or capacity, stream need, and downstream use. We will use various legal mechanisms to make coordinated releases with a pool of resources available for compensation as we move forward.

These two new programs join our existing program areas and will characterize our work through this strategic plan that extends to 2027.

This expanded work will cost us money, but we have hit above our weight for years. It amazes some of our admirers when they see that our core budget is below $1,000,000, despite all we do. While our efficiency in spending donor dollars is a source of pride here, the numbers are going to go up. We’re going to ask you all to dig deep for our rivers and streams, believing, as we do, that a big part of resilience in the face of the climate-driven water crisis will be sharing water through well-functioning markets.

Welcome to a new Water Trust: re-engaged with the communities we work in and more impactful across the board. We are the pre-eminent environmental water transactions expert in Colorado, committed to a future where water is used efficiently and shared with low transactional cost or friction, allowing rivers and streams to flow more strongly. It is a future that climate change has forced our state to embrace, and we will lead the way. So glad you’re along for the ride!

Read a summary of our latest Strategic Plan.