From the Field: Willow Creek Update

Our project on Willow Creek was the first use of a Water Conservation Program created under Senate Bill 13-19. It conserves flows and protects the fishery in Willow Creek and the Colorado River by ceasing diversions at two irrigation ditches during certain low flow conditions. 

Willow Creek
Photos of Willow Creek in Grand County, July 2022, by Alyson Meyer Gould

The project first came to us in 2015 when a rancher with rights to divert on Willow Creek saw that the riverbed was going dry in the late summer months and reached out to us to see if his water could help. Senate Bill 13-19 allows some Western Slope water right holders to reduce their water use in up to five out of ten years without it affecting their historic consumptive use. It had come into law in 2013 but had not been used yet.

Colorado Water Trust saw that SB 13-19 could be a great tool to help restore flows to Willow Creek while also protecting the rancher’s water rights against the “use it or lose it” disincentive for conservation in Colorado water law. The rancher agreed and we went to work to implement the first flow restoration project in the state using SB 13-19.

“Colorado’s water system created an incentive to use our water even in times when it’s not absolutely necessary. When you’re under that pressure to use it or lose it, you’re almost forced to abuse it. That’s to the detriment of all.” – Witt Caruthers, Rio Colorado

Willow Creek
Willow Creek is brown in color due to the release of silt from Willow Creek reservoir.

The project ran for the first time in 2016 when water flows in Willow Creek were down to only 7 cfs. Then after a few good hydrological years, it ran again in 2021 when flows dipped below 10 cfs. This year, the ranch still hasn’t opened its headgates as they have received enough rain to produce hay without irrigating so decided to keep their water in the river. 

Rewatering the river not only helps fish and invertebrates living in the river, but riparian habitat along the waterway. After the East Troublesome fire in 2020, the ranchers have been working to restore the riparian habitat and have seen not only an increase in the fish population but also in wildlife to the area, such as moose and bears. Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney and Policy Director, recently visited the project and noted, 

“It’s incredible to see how the land is flourishing following the East Troublesome fire, it looks as healthy and vital as ever. The creek winds its way through a lush stand of native cottonwood and willow, following the alignment restored to its original course, and thanks to this project, with flows that help support the natural environment.”

The project restores a fairly small amount of water to the stream, but because there are no other diverters immediately downstream, that additional water helps to keep Willow Creek connected to the Colorado River. In turn, flows on over 4 miles of the upper Colorado are sustained, keeping the river healthy for fish and other wildlife.

In addition, this project paved the way for other SB 13-19 projects, such as our Fraser Tributaries, Roaring Fork, Tomichi Creek, and Crystal River projects.

Since 2016, the Willow Creek project has restored nearly 1,276 acre-feet (or 416 million gallons) of water to Willow Creek and the Colorado River, protecting the fishery and restoring habitat for wildlife. And with the SB 13-19 tool, the ranchers’ water rights are protected even when they don’t use their water.

If you’re a water user on the Western Slope and are interested in seeing if a SB 13-19 project is right for you, contact us today! All inquiries are non-committal and confidential.