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COVID-19 shutdown reduces budget for Eagle County Schools

The Eagle County School District adopted its budget for the coming school year at the June 24 Board of Education meeting. The impact of the prolonged shutdowns across the state dramatically reduced funding for public education.

The school district’s budget stabilization reduction more than doubled, from a $4.6 million subtraction last year to $9.6 million being subtracted this year. In addition, the state’s share of funding declined nearly $4 million ($3.9M). The school district’s conservative planning and spending, plus the consolidation of an east end elementary school have allowed the district to adjust while preserving current staffing levels. COVID-19 related stimulus funding is earmarked for COVID-related expenses and cannot be used to backfill budget shortfalls. The district’s operational budget is down a total of $3.9 million, a 4.5% reduction.

“The amount subtracted by the budget stabilization factor is the largest it has ever been, exceeding the annual reductions from the previous recession,” explained Chief Operating Officer Sandy Mutchler. “The way in which TABOR works means it will take a decade or more to return to last year’s funding level and we will never see the $75 million taken from our funding since the 2009-10 school year.”

The budget stabilization factor is an accounting tactic that state legislators invented during the recession that started in 2008. The School Finance Act and Amendment 23 create a funding formula that determines each school district’s per pupil revenue level. When the prescribed amount exceeds the state’s investment threshold for public education, it subtracts the amount it withholds. The amount on a statewide level exceeds $1 billion since the recession. The amount withheld from Eagle County School District is $75.9 million.

The 3A mill levy passed in 2016 by local voters helps offset the state’s decline in funding. When passed, the mill levy included a sunset in 2023, in part because it was thought state funding would stabilize and return to pre-recession levels. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. The philosophy at the state is to shift more of the funding requirement to the local level. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, several bills had been introduced for mill levy standardization and maximization.Currently, a few initiatives, endorsed by the Board of Education, are up for voter consideration that could help stabilize public education funding.

“To balance our budget, all departments in the district reduced their budgets by an average of twenty percent,” Mutchler said. “We consolidated an east end school, adjusted policy on our required reserves, delayed or suspended programs and projects, and managed to maintain staffing levels. These are significant belt-tightening measures.”

The budget includes the annual negotiated agreement with the Eagle County Education Association as required by the collective bargaining agreement. In the agreement, staff contributions to PERA increases by 1.25%. To offset this increase, staff pay will increase 1.9% (the Consumer Price Index of Denver) which keeps take home pay fairly even with last year. The district will also have increases in the employer PERA contribution share and will absorb any increase in insurance expenses.

Government entities use fund-based accounting principles where each fund is designated for a specific purpose. The General Fund includes the on-going operational expenses of the district and is the focus here.

Mind Springs Health resumes in-person therapy

Mind Springs Health outpatient offices, with locations in Vail, Eagle and Glenwood Springs, will once again offer in-person therapy sessions to new and existing clients in need of mental health support.

After launching virtual therapy sessions in March, Mind Springs Health has found that many clients are preferring telehealth over in-person therapy due to convenience and efficiency.

Anyone seeking an appointment, whether in-person or virtual, is asked to contact their local Mind Springs Health office. Office locations and phone numbers can be found at MindSpringsHealth.org/treatment-services/locations. 

During in-person sessions, social distancing and infection protocols will take place, per guidance from the State of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mind Springs Health offices will undergo stringent disinfecting and cleaning procedures and employees will be required to wear masks while in the workplace. Patients will also be asked to wear a mask during their sessions.

Obituary: Shelley Miller Sharp-Lohrman, Oct. 15, 1951 – June 22, 2020

Shelley Miller Sharp-Lohrman passed away on June 22, 2020, in the arms of her loving husband, Ernie Lohrman, and into the arms of her beloved God. Shelley fought a courageous battle against cancer and never lost her strong faith. Until the very end of her life, Shelley sent inspirational messages to friends and clients, and her philosophy was “life is full of change, and you must accept it to grow.”

Shelley Miller was born in Wray, Colorado, and grew up on an 800-acre cattle ranch in Edwards that her parents, Ruth, and Ray Miller, purchased in 1953. The family initially moved into a wooden structure on the property, which was built in 1892 and had no indoor plumbing. In 1958, Ray Miller built the family’s home where the Miller children grew up.

At the time, the elementary school in Edwards was a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher. Shelley and her four classmates attended grades K-4 there, and Shelley always reflected on that time with love and vivid memories. She later attended junior high and high school in the Eagle Valley with her siblings along with others from the area. They traveled on the school bus 28 miles each way to Gypsum. After high school, Shelley studied Fashion Merchandising.

Thirty-five years ago, Shelley joined Mary Kay Cosmetics where she was an award-winning sales director. She loved her work transforming women’s lifestyles. Shelley was also a talented baker who worked at the Westin Vail Cascade for years. When the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort opened in 1988, she was hired as a pastry chef and worked the 1 a.m.-noon shift preparing breakfast pastries often using her own recipes. Shelley’s passion for cooking and baking started at an early age while helping her mother feed their large family. She was well-known for her homemade jams and jellies and would often gather rhubarb from the riverbed and make pies much to the delight of friends and neighbors who teased “she knew where the rhubarb and the horseradish grew wild”. Shelley loved to garden too and knew the name of every plant and flower growing in the valley.

Shelley was married to Ernie Lohrman for 28 years and he is also well-known in the valley. The couple is recognized for their hard work, generosity, and love of life. Forty years after Shelley originally moved to Edwards, she and Ernie purchased a lot on the same acreage where Shelley lived as a child. That land is now Singletree and Shelley loved being part of the community and always took pleasure in seeing so many others enjoy the special place and beautiful views that were a part of her entire life.

In addition to her husband, Ernie, Shelley is survived by siblings Gary Miller of Eagle, Steve Miller (Marguerite) of Glenwood Springs, Marilyn Pope of Wray, Marty Miller of New Castle, and Laura Kinney (Rob) of Silt, Colorado, and many loving nieces and nephews. Shelley’s parents Ruth and Ray Miller and sisters, Carol and Billie Lou preceded her in death.  Ernie and the family wish to thank everyone who walked beside them during this challenging journey.  They plan a private celebration of life later in the summer.

Vail Town Council to discuss e-bikes on Vail Pass

The Vail Town Council will discuss its preferences regarding the use of e-bikes on Vail Pass and bicycle dismount zones in the village pedestrian areas at its afternoon meeting on Tuesday. The meeting begins at 1 p.m. in the Town Council chambers with social distancing protocols in place. The meeting will be live-streamed at www.highfivemedia.org/live-five.

During the busy summer months, there is much activity on Vail Pass and on town bike paths which coincide with many pedestrian areas. Tuesday’s discussion will present an opportunity to review what is currently allowed and to collect feedback from the Town Council regarding Vail’s position in allowing e-bikes on Vail Pass as well as ideas to reduce congestion in the pedestrian areas.

To review the staff memo or for information on how to forward public input on these agenda topics, please access www.vailgov.com/town-council or email publicinput.vailtowncouncil@vailgov.com by noon Tuesday.

The Vail Pass Recreation Trail is operated and maintained by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Like Interstate 70 on Vail Pass, much of the trail is located within an easement with the U.S. Forest Service.

CDOT’s general position is that the trail is a transportation route constructed as part of I-70, providing a continuous non-interstate bicycle route through Colorado, and that it should be managed under state law which allows Class I and Class II electric-assisted bicycles on paved recreation trails. The USFS general position is that e-bikes are motorized vehicles, and therefore not allowed on this trail per the White River National Forest Travel Management Plan.

Because the trail holds a USFS Trail designation, the current understanding is that e-bikes are prohibited. The town has been asked to provide its input into CDOT’s more formal process to occur on July 16. The overall goal is to come to an agreement with the USFS that would allow e-bikes on the Vail Pass Trail. The Vail Town Council has supported the use of e-bikes on town owned recreation trails. Recreation, guest experience and commuting opportunities were a few of the reasons the Town Council cited for supporting e-bikes on paved trails.

Dismount zones in pedestrian areas

The topic of dismount zones has been discussed in recent years; however, there has not been a decision to create or enforce dismount zones for various reasons and somewhat related to the complexity of solving the problem as issues really arise only during the busy times of year. There is currently one dismount zone on private property near Arrabelle in Lionshead.

In addition, bikers are asked to dismount on some stairways in Vail Village. There are many challenges in pedestrian ways with much congestion between pedestrians, bicycles, electric bicycles and other new forms of transportation such as Segways, scooters and hoverboards as well as the speed variation of bicycles, etc. that can create what feels like less-than-safe conditions.

It has been suggested that “dismount zones” in village areas could offer a solution. The discussion will offer an opportunity to review what is currently allowed in pedestrian areas and put forth some questions and ideas that may help generate solutions as to how to mitigate these issues created by many types of transportation uses in these areas.

For more information, email Gregg Barrie, senior landscape architect, at gbarrie@vailgov.com.

Mountain Youth keeps a pulse on the community with surveys

A proverb says, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Every day feels very much the same as we live in the times of COVID-19, but things may never go back to the “same.” We’ve heard, seen and been part of learning experiences over the past four months — and know families are working to find their way in life with coronavirus.

One of Mountain Youth’s fortes is tracking behaviors and perceptions, taking a pulse on the community and collectively assessing our fear, anxiety, joy, failure, and success. As with any program, the work cannot be done in a vacuum. Recently, Mountain Youth endeavored to conduct a parent survey that would allow us to understand the changing landscape, and identifying needs and gaps during COVID-19. This was a great enhancement to the community parent survey administered by Mountain Youth back in November.

Mountain Youth received feedback from almost 700 parents from around the Eagle River Valley to find out what challenges families faced, how they were either able to meet these challenges, or how they felt overwhelmed by them. Before we dig into our findings, we thank all the parents who took the time to answer the questions honestly. Sometimes it’s hardest to admit to ourselves where we are struggling.

“Collecting this honest and timely information from parent stakeholders is critical in ensuring we deliver the most impactful educational programming,” said Amy Baker, Family Education Manager at Mountain Youth. The November parent survey was sent to PTAs, shared in local newsletters and newspapers as well as on social media. Brush Creek Elementary, Battle Mountain High School and Homestake Peak School were the three top responding schools, and their PTAs, along with 21 other schools, received donations from Mountain Youth. These incentives were generously supported by Communities That Care and local safe driving initiatives.

Once we saw the quickly changing roles during COVID-19, Mountain Youth again reached out to the trusted adult community in April 2020 to see how they, and their families, were faring during quarantine and how they can be supported. During the height of the quarantine, parent survey respondents revealed the following:             

  • 58% found the home school situation “stressful but managing”
  • 81% practiced social distancing all the time
  • 45% reported unemployment as an external stressor regarding their family’s mental health

Even though quarantine has ended, mental health issues, anxiety and stress related to employment, child care, virtual learning and the unknown, certainly has not. Mountain Youth continues to work with families, helping provide resources and answer questions.

From this most recent parent survey, we learned families are spending more time together, getting outside for walks and hikes, eating dinner together, watching movies, playing board games, and conversing more. These healthy moments together create opportunities to discuss what’s important to us, our value systems, and how we support each other through tough times. Celebrate this time with your child and use it to improve your relationship and lines of communication so they know you’re listening and hear them and their needs.

Mountain Youth reintroduced the parent survey in 2017 after a several year hiatus, and administered it again in 2019 during the same administration window as the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Times are certainly different, but some of the needs are the same. During quarantine, the biggest challenges were finding time for self-care, establishing a working routine and finding the right words and advice for senior students who are missing out on important rituals. There’s a thirst for learning. Almost half (42%) of respondents wanted more opportunities for virtual learning, shared resources and ideas for establishing a routine.

Even during times of uncertainty and anxiety, we want to celebrate successes. This year, we applaud the parents and caregivers who have taken the time to take either or both surveys. They told us that 80% can recognize when their child has a mental health need, up from 50% in 2017 and more parents are monitoring their child’s social media and phone use. 

We know these positive changes often come from, and lead to, a better dialogue within families. From awkward conversations sprout gems that help families learn and grow together.

And we know there is always room to grow and improve. Here’s an easy one: fewer parents now tell their kids they are proud of them. Stop reading and go tell them now — because kids probably need to hear it just a little more today than in the past.

An area where we need to work — together — is regarding alcohol consumption and the laws around serving young people. The majority of parents are still “not sure” if other parents knew about the laws of providing alcohol to teens; and if parents knew the consequences if it would keep them from hosting teen parties where alcohol is served.

Almost 50% of parents surveyed support a social host ordinance, which is good since it is a felony to serve or give minors alcohol, unless they are your own child under your direct supervision and on your property or with the private property owner’s permission. However, alcohol and other substances interrupt the developing brain and sharing alcohol with your child sets unclear expectations about when and why it should be consumed. We support keeping family time sacred and healthy by keeping it substance free.

A safe family environment encourages honest dialogue and real conversations with resources that can help with even the most challenging topic. According to the 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, overseen by Mountain Youth, 83% of high school youth say they can go to parents or guardians with a problem and 55% reported that parents/guardians have talked with them about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. In the coming weeks, Mountain Youth will share more results from the biennial HCKS. This is a chance for the community to learn what young people see, feel, hear on a daily basis… and how we can all work together to provide support and growth. 

“I’m excited to see the progress we made in the community and to get clarity on ways we can help families find resources and learn together, creating a stable home life,” Baker says.

Please join us on this journey by visitig www.MountainYouth.org to learn about parent education opportunities, as well as more information on youth behaviors, attitudes and perceptions.

Incident resolved at mile marker 154 near Wolcott on Highway 6

Eagle County’s alerts system issued an alert just before 9 p.m. on Saturday reporting that there was fire and law enforcement activity at mile marker 154 near Wolcott. An alert just before 11 p.m. reported the incident had been resolved.

Also, at 10:39 p.m., an alert went out stating both lanes of westbound I-70 are blocked. Both lanes are back open.

Open for Business: Minturn Country Club

Name of business: Minturn Country Club

Physical address: 131 Main St, Minturn, CO 81645

Phone number: 970-827-4114

Website: minturncountryclub.com

What goods or services are you offering at this time? 

The Minturn Country Club is a “you pick it, and you grill it steakhouse” type of restaurant offering a full menu of USDA choice and prime steaks, seafood and chicken.

How have you adjusted to serve your customers during these unprecedented times? 

Per Eagle County guidelines, we provide All U Can Eat Salad, in lieu of our salad bar. We provide poly gloves and your personal tongs for grilling.

How can the community support you?

We are open and have dine-in seating and are operating per state and county guidelines.

What’s the best source to keep up to date with your offerings?

Look for our ad on the back page of the Vail Daily for nightly specials. Please visit us on the web, Google Minturn Country Club or check us out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

What’s the response been?

Our employees and customers both have been ecstatic that we are back open. It’s unfortunate that events, such as the Lacrosse Shootout have been canceled. Lost revenue can never be made up, which hurts us all, especially our servers.

What are your plans going forward as the “new normal” evolves?

We plan to continue to open more seating and getting back to normal as permitted by the state and county.

Far fewer people in Vail for Fourth of July 2020

VAIL — Independence Day observances had a much different look and feel this year, with a more subdued atmosphere and far fewer people.

Vail usually sees more than 1,000 cars spill out of the parking structures and onto the overflow parking areas along the South Frontage Road on July 4th. This year, the structures did not fill, and while Vail parking supervisor Ethan Arnold said there was still a chance those lots could fill for the fireworks set for Saturday night, “I think that is a long shot,” he said.

With the annual Vail America Days parade canceled this year, visitors enjoyed exhibits instead. Many of the exhibits were the same vehicles often seen in the Vail parade, giving kids a chance to get up close with attractions like the “The Colorado River Queen” miniature steam ship, while remaining within their group.

And yes, candy was still being handed out by groups like Youth Power 365, which gave away lollipops.

Face coverings

Face coverings were a common sight among kids who didn’t have lollipops in their mouths as groups attempted to keep their space but found it difficult at times.

For many businesses, where face coverings became mandatory indoors earlier this week by orders of county officials, the sight of people in town for the Fourth of July was a welcome one.

Adam Pena and his wife Kristin opened Rocket Fizz candy shop in Lionshead about a week ago. They said they had deliberately set their sights on being open by July Fourth and set out to capture some Americana imagery with metallic pinups for sale featuring muscle cars, Route 66 signs, Betty Boop, Spiderman, Batman & Robin. Alongside classic American products like Dad’s Root Beer, red, white and blue rock candy sticks, and cherry mash candy — invented in 1918 in Missouri — Pena had indeed achieved the proper July Fourth theming in time for the store’s debut.

“We want it to feel like when you were a kid,” he said.

Hail storm

Pena said everything was going well until the rain hit. A downpour, which lasted hours with the intense weather turning to hail at times, canceled musical acts and caused exhibitors to pack up and leave early.

Social distancing was still being observed beneath store awnings and building overhangs, as groups attempted to wait out the storm.

Visiting from Denver, Jeffrey Rodriguez and Misha Schryer said they came in for the weather and were happy to wait out the rain as they knew the area could use it.

The pair found shelter in an old Lionshead gondola car.

“We’ll take whatever we can get,” Rodriguez said. “Even hail.”

Fire danger still high

Meteorologist Dennis Philipps with the National Weather Service said the storm that came through was a bit different than the typical afternoon showers Vail sees in the early summer as high pressure over the western plains of the U.S. forces tropical moisture up to the area. During a typical summer morning, surface temperatures are cooler and the air remains calm. But as the ground heats up in the afternoon, that moisture rushes upward, creating afternoon showers.

Philipps said on Saturday, however, the storm that hit Vail was “a little more organized.”

While the timing may not have been the best for local businesses which had set up displays in town, the timing may have been good in other ways, with fireworks planned for later in the evening.

“Any time you can wet things down before you start lighting stuff, that’s good,” Philipps said.

Moving forward, however, there’s probably little headed our way to reduce the need for the stage 1 fire restrictions that went into effect in the White River National Forest in Eagle County on Thursday.

“We’re looking at a windy and hot week behind this (storm system from Saturday)” Philipps said.

Vail Farmers’ Market and Art Show: What to know to shop in Vail Village for summer 2020

For the past two weeks, the Vail Farmers’ Market and Art Show has adopted a virtual format. While that will continue throughout the 2020 season, this week is the first week the market will offer an in-person event.

Starting Sunday, July 5, and running through Sunday, Oct. 4, guests will be able to enter the market on a free, ticket-based entrance policy. To reserve shopping times, visit vailfarmersmarket.com. The market is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Vail Farmers Market & Art Show take place on Sundays through Oct. 4 and is a great place to find local food. Entrance will be based on a free ticketing system this year, to provide for social distancing.
Max Phannenstiel | Daily file photo

All shoppers should wear masks and comply with social distancing protocols. Avoid handling products before purchasing to ensure safety for vendors as well as other customers. Hand sanitizing stations will be placed around the village, and guests should use them before entering and after exiting vendor booths.

The Farm To Table dinners, happening July 10, July 21, Aug. 7, and Aug. 21, will continue as well this year. There are limited tickets available to account for social distancing, so reserve soon as these events will sell out. Tickets for these can also be purchased at vailfarmersmarket.com.

Here’s a look at some of the vendors selling produce, artisanal food products and more at the Vail Farmers’ Market 2020.

Cole & Danier

Why they’re awesome: The blankets, a Vail staple, are crafted with care and attention to detail.

What to get: Baby and toddler blankets are the best sellers.

coleanddanier.com

Eat A Peach Farms

Palisade peaches are a staple of the area’s offerings when in season.
Ella Srholez | Special to the Daily

Why they’re awesome: The Palisade peach farm also sells heirloom tomatoes, peppers, pears, plums and more.

What to get: Peaches, duh.

Eat A Peach on Facebook

Eli & Mort’s Epic Adventures

Why they’re awesome: These children’s books written by local authors Elyssa and Ken Nager send young readers on adventures through the Vail Valley and other Colorado ski towns.

What to get: “Eli & Mort’s Epic Adventures: Vail” is available in English y en Español.

eliandmort.com

Helga’s Homemade Organic Pies

The Helga’s team is composed of Helga and Ira Wyatt, who have been married for 13 years.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Why they’re awesome: All the pies are homemade, and the family-owned operation uses in-season Colorado ingredients whenever possible.

What to get: A 9-inch pie to take home, or mini pies to enjoy at the market.

Helga’s on Facebook

Hygge Life

Why they’re awesome: Local owners Alexandra Gove and Koen van Renswoude curate hygge – the Danish art of creating coziness and comfort in the home.

What to get: A cozy throw blanket – it’ll come in handy once summer is over.

hyggelife.com

Jeffreezz’s Jelato

The tent’s Local Honey sign is to-the-point and easily recognizable.

Why they’re awesome: Owner Jeff Isaacson has been making gelato for 48 years and makes up to 63 flavors.

What to get: The gelato stand works in partnership with the Local Honey Colorado honey stand, so get the honey gelato to get truly local flavor.

jeffreezz.com

Kirby Cosmos

Why they’re awesome: Fresh barbecue smoke wafting through the air as the chefs cook up some deliciousness in Vail Village is quite difficult to resist.

What to get: Pulled pork with mac and cheese, fried green tomatoes and hush puppies.

kirbycosmos.com

Left Bank

Why they’re awesome: The classic Vail Village French restaurant serves lobster rolls with Maine lobster.

What to get: Pair your roll with Left Bank’s out-of-this-world lemon ice cream.

leftbankvail.com

Loredana’s

Loredana’s Torta pesto is a 3-layer creation of pesto, mascarpone cheese and sundried tomatoes.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Why they’re awesome: The artisanal cracker toppings – olive oil-marinated cheeses, pesto dip with mascarpone and sundried tomatoes and more – are based on business owner Loredana Ottoborgo’s family recipes from Northern Italy.

What to get: Siena, the flagship product with asiago and parmesean cheese with olive oil, garlic and spices. Go fancy with the Torta, the pesto-mascarpone-sun dried tomato layered dip to pair with crackers or bread. Go vegan with the Fra Diavolo spicy Italian dry rub and seasoning mix.

loredanas.com

Pastamore

Why they’re awesome: The family-owned operation sources ingredients either locally or direct from Italy.

What to get: The rosemary and roasted garlic olive oil is a perfect topping or ingredient for pretty much any dish.

pastamore.com

Rocky Mountain Taco

Rocky Mountain Taco Truck offers four different fillings, which can be served in tacos, burritos, quesadillas or torta sandwiches.
Rachel Zimmerman | Special to the Daily

Why they’re awesome: The taco truck is a local favorite, with plenty of options for meat-eaters and vegetarians/vegans alike.

What to get: Carne asada tacos with avocado and pico de gallo. Go vegan by getting the Hippie Crack minus cheese and the mild crema. Try new menu creations at the new Minturn brick-and-mortar restaurant.

rockymountaintaco.com

Smith & Truslow

Why they’re awesome: The all-organic spices are jarred to order – meaning they’re way fresher than typical grocery store spice racks. There are blends and pure spices.

What to get: Cinnamon, which packs a spicy-sweet punch unlike any other cinnamon you’ve had. Black truffle sea salt, which is great on popcorn and French fries.

smithandtruslow.com

Vail Meat Company

An escaped cow waiting by the fence for her ranch owner to bring her back in the pasture. Vail Meat Co. sells products from local ranchers.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Why they’re awesome: Get USDA certified, all-natural, non-GMO, and hormone- and antibiotic-free meat from Eagle County ranchers. They also have fresh, pasteurized eggs.

What to get: Grab a cut to barbecue at home, on a grill in a public park or at a condo or hotel.

vailmeatcompany.wordpress.com

Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea

Why they’re awesome: The local coffee roaster and loose-leaf tea provider operates out of Minturn and the cofounders have been working together since 1989.

What to get: A bag to enjoy at home, or a cup to enjoy at the market.

vailcoffee.com

10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirits

10th Mountain Whiskey has a variety of spirit options for all types of drinkers.
Charles Townsend Bessent | Daily file photo

Why they’re awesome: Vail’s most famous distillery honors the history of the 10th Mountain Division, a batallion of skiers-turned-soldiers that trained just south of Vail before heading to Europe for World War II. They also converted their equipment to manufacture hand sanitizer at the beginning of quarantine.

What to get: Pick up a bottle of bourbon, rye, vodka or something else to enjoy at home.

10thwhiskey.com

Colorado’s oldest water rights get extra protection from state engineer

For the second time, the state’s top water cop has directed the Western Slope’s oldest and most valuable water rights to be left off the once-a-decade abandonment list. That means hundreds of these mostly irrigation water rights have been granted immunity — even though they are no longer being used — from the threat of “use it or lose it,” further enshrining them in the state’s system of water administration and dealing a blow to the validity of the well-known adage.

Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If it hasn’t, it could end up on the decennial abandonment list, which is scheduled to come out in July.

But a November 2018 email from state engineer Kevin Rein to all four Western Slope division engineers instructs them to not include pre-compact rights on the abandonment list. That includes all the water rights in the Yampa/White/Green, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan/Dolores river basins.

“Since the nature of the pre-compact water rights is unique in Colorado when it comes to administration of the Colorado River Compact, and in recognition of the fact that the value of the rights could benefit all water users in Colorado, as opposed to only the owner of the water right, I will ask that you direct your staff to do no further investigation of pre-compact water rights and to not include them in the Division Engineers Proposed Abandonment list for 2020,” the email reads.

A primary job of the state and division engineers is to administer Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.

Rein said he talked with major water providers and managers along the Front Range and on the Western Slope before making the decision, but he would not say which ones or anything about the nature of those conversations.

Former state engineer Dick Wolfe issued a similar directive regarding the 2010 abandonment list, meaning Colorado’s water rights that date to before June 25, 1929 — when Congress ratified the Colorado River Compact — have enjoyed an extra level of protection from state-led abandonment for two decades.

“We need to allow for the fact that if those water rights are abandoned and taken off the tabulation, then that amount of water is no longer available to Colorado,” Rein said.

But what exactly the value of unused, pre-compact water rights could have to all Colorado water users remains unclear. Post-compact water rights, meaning those after June 25, 1929, are still eligible for the abandonment list.

According to Rein, the decision to include water rights on an abandonment list is administrative one and he has statutory authority to revise the list.

Colorado River Compact

A major fear of Colorado water managers is what’s known as a “compact call.” If the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — don’t deliver the required 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years as specified in the Colorado River Compact to the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — it could lead to a compact call. This scenario, which looms larger each year with the increasing effects of drought and climate change on an over-allocated river, could trigger involuntary cutbacks for Colorado water users.

But water rights that had been perfected before the compact was ratified are exempt from these cutbacks. And now the state is adding unused, pre-compact water rights to this exempt category. In Colorado, many of these oldest water rights belong to Western Slope agriculture.

Like moving a pawn early in a chess match, it is unclear exactly how this directive from Rein could help Colorado in the future. Nobody really knows whether or how a compact call (or negotiations among states to avoid one) might play out. Therefore, no one can say exactly what value these pre-compact water rights have to Colorado.

Water experts and managers throughout the upper and lower basin were reluctant to talk about the issue and gave diplomatic responses to questions about the sensitive political issue of interstate compact compliance.

“I don’t know the answer,” Rein said. “I think there’s general agreement that these water rights may have value in a compact-call scenario. I don’t know because of the complexities of it.”

Some water experts say preserving these pre-compact water rights, even though they aren’t being used, could give Colorado stronger footing in potential negotiations with lower basin states by propping up Colorado’s consumptive-use tally on paper.

“I would say it’s a conservative approach and it might help in your negotiations with other states,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress. “You would be making the argument that we have this portfolio of water rights, these are still on the books. But again, you’re trying to forecast how a negotiation might proceed, and I think to meaningfully comment on that would be almost impossible right now.”

Preserving these irrigation water rights also means they would be available to transfer to other users in the future, such as Front Range water providers — whose water rights are mostly post-1929 and therefore vulnerable to cutbacks under a compact call — as the state continues to urbanize.

In a prepared statement, Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the water provider, which supplies water to 1.4 million people, “is supportive of the state’s efforts to protect Colorado’s pre-compact rights. This approach will benefit and help provide additional security for Colorado River water users on the West Slope and Front Range.”

Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University, agreed that hanging onto those pre-compact water rights could be in the state’s best interest.

“The idea of holding as many of those pre-compact rights in place makes sense from a purely Colorado-centric point of view,” said Waskom. “We still don’t know what a compact call or curtailment would look like, so we are going to stay as conservative and protective as we can.”

The Colorado River Water Conservation District is in favor of Rein’s directive, according to general counsel Peter Fleming. The Glenwood Springs-based River District works to protect water rights on the Western Slope, which often means advocating for agriculture interests.

But Fleming brings up an interesting point: The value of water rights in Colorado is based on them being used. If these water rights still exist on paper but haven’t been used in a decade — in some cases, two decades — what is their value?

“There’s this notion that pre-compact water rights are sacrosanct and very important, and that’s true if they have continued to be used and historically consumed,” Fleming said. “But you don’t just make water available by saying these rights that haven’t been used for X number of years still exist. So, I guess I would say it’s a risk-avoidance strategy, but it’s an unproven strategy.”

Abandonment

Rein’s directive also helps debunk the adage “use it or lose it.” While the pre-compact rights are not being used, they also are no longer in danger of being lost. The threat of the state taking away a water right has now disappeared for Western Slope pre-compact irrigation rights.

The often-misunderstood tenet “use it or lose it” is embodied by the abandonment process.

Some water users believe that if they don’t divert the full amount they are entitled to — even if they don’t always need that much — the state will take it away and it will be available to another water user. But the concept is much more nuanced than that.

Colorado water law says abandonment is “the termination of a water right in whole or in part as a result of the intent of the owner thereof to discontinue permanently the use of all or a part of the water available.”

Just not using the water will not lead to abandonment; there must be an intent to abandon the right.

For a water user to keep their water right, they must put the water to “beneficial use,” which in the case of irrigation water means growing crops. If the water has not been used for 10 years — meaning there are no diversion records and the local water commissioner does not see evidence of water use on their site visits — division engineers could presume that the water right has been abandoned. They put it on the state’s initial abandonment list, which is updated every 10 years and published in local newspapers.

Water-right holders then have one year to file an objection to their listing in writing with the division engineer.

“We don’t like close calls, so if they diverted the water 11 years ago, we are going think, ‘Eh, I don’t know,’ because we are talking about somebody’s property right,” said Alan Martellaro, Division Engineer for Water Division 5.

After working through the objections with water-right holders, the division engineer publishes the revised abandonment list. If a water-right holder still protests their placement on the list, they can go to water court to argue that they did not intend to abandon the water right.

For the 2010 Division 5 abandonment list, Martellaro said the pre-compact rights comprised easily half the list before Wolfe instructed division engineers to take them off. The 2011 revised Division 5 abandonment list included about 75 water rights, one-third of which were related to the now-defunct Mid-Continent mine on Coal Creek near Redstone where a 1981 explosion killed 15 miners.

The 2020 abandonment list is expected to come out in July.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.