Panel discusses Western water needs and challenges

The Sopris Sun (April 17, 2024)—On the evening of April 10, The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) hosted a panel discussion titled “Hanging in the Balance: Competing Needs for Water in the West.” The event was presented under the auspices of Aspen Journalism (AJ) and the Denver-based Colorado Water Trust (CWT), who partnered to produce it with TACAW and Aspen Public Radio.

The panel of water-resources experts included Kate Ryan, CWT’s executive director; Hattie Johnson, restoration director for American Whitewater’s Southern Rockies Stewardship Program; Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD); and Mark Harris, senior water resources consultant for the engineering and consulting firm SGM. The discussion was moderated by Heather Sackett, AJ’s Water Desk editor and reporter, who has written numerous articles on water issues relating to the Roaring Fork and upper Colorado River watersheds.

Sackett set the tone for the evening by stating, “Informed citizens make better decisions,” noting that there are too many demands on Western water and not enough water to go around. Each panelist then briefly summarized some of their activities. Ryan described how water rights were established beginning in the 19th century, and how CWT has been “working on a lot of water-sharing projects” aimed at keeping more water in the region’s rivers. She gave as an example the agreement with local ranchers Bill Fales and Marj Perry not to exercise their water rights at times but to be reimbursed for leaving unused water in the Crystal River.

Mueller, noting that “We represent everybody,” explained that CRWCD is a government agency encompassing 15 Western Slope counties (“conservative and liberal”). Among examples of the agency’s activities, he cited the release of “clean, cold water” from Ruedi Reservoir in the unusually warm summer of 2018 to save fish in the Fryingpan River.

Johnson described how her stewardship program has been promoting policies that improve water recreation opportunities, though she mentioned how two such measures introduced in the Colorado legislature have yet to pass. She did note the “robust” recreation on the Arkansas River (on the eastern side of the Continental Divide), which Mueller humorously quipped was possible “with Roaring Fork water” diverted across the divide.

Finally, Harris described his role working to protect water rights for agriculture and to help the wider community “understand what agriculture is doing currently.” He added that he is working to “make a more nuanced approach that agriculture brings to the other needs” (like streamflow protection). He pointed out that farmers and ranchers “serve as caretakers for a good deal of the American West.”

Much of the ensuing discussion focused on the concept of instream water conservation — employing methods by which water that could be removed from rivers or streams is left flowing. One approach is reimbursing water rights owners for not using their water, as in the Fales/Perry example. Another strategy is to purchase water rights from a holder, a method widely used by the CWT, CRWCD and others.

Notable in this latter regard has been the effort underway by those organizations and others to secure from Xcel Energy the Shoshone hydroelectric station’s senior water rights on the Colorado River. The plant does not remove water from the river but instead diverts water upstream of the station to run the turbines before returning it to the river. Thus, the intent of the project is to ensure that that water allotment stays in the river rather than potentially being diverted by another entity that purchases the rights.

In a Q&A period at the end of the evening, an audience member asked if speculation of water rights — i.e., acquiring rights to treat them as fungible commodities — was a problem. All panelists responded that it was a potential problem, with Ryan noting, “Speculation is a threat to our work.”

Mueller pointed out, “You can’t hoard a bunch of water if you’re not going to use it,” but cautioned that speculation could have “huge losses, especially for small communities.” He added, “Once the water leaves the community, you see your future floating down the river.”

More information on the panelists’ organizations can be found at; and

The Sopris Sun
Author: Ken Pletcher
Read the original article here.