Colorado: Water ‘bank’ eyed for future drought protection
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – Colorado’s West Slope water users are making progress toward establishing a “water bank.”
The aggregation of senior water rights could provide an insurance policy for the region in the worst-case drought scenario. If downstream states like California were to call on their full share of Colorado River water, allotted under a 1922 interstate compact, it could cut into water needed by Front Range and Western Slope towns.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwest District met in Durango last week to discuss details of the plan, which would put senior water rights into a bank where they could be tapped in case of such a compact call.
Water users with pre-1922 rights (those senior rights are not affected by a downstream call) would be compensated for offering their senior water rights to junior users for temporary critical uses like drinking water and firefighting. The temporary use would only be permitted if a compact call were in effect or imminent.
Under the 1922 interstate contract, Colorado is obligated to deliver an average of 7.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water downstream annually. In a worst-case scenario, Colorado water users could be forced to cut some of their existing uses if the downstream states demand their full allotment. Water rights established before the compact was signed are not subject to the agreement.
Most of the water rights available for such a bank are held by ranchers and farmers.
A significant amount of water would have to be amassed to make a dent, Boulder water attorney Glenn Porzak said in an interview last year, speculating that it might be possible to put together a 100,000 acre-foot portfolio.
Porzak said there already are water users in Eagle and Summit counties who are buying up pre-1922 water rights to hedge against future shortages. But the river district’s vision is for a collective arrangement that would provide some security across the Western Slope.
According to a press release from the river district, the idea is still in its formative stages. The boards of the two organizations met to talk about the opportunities and benefits, as well as the costs of operating such a program. They resolved to continue working toward creation of a water bank for this purpose.
According to the river district, interviews with potential “customers” of the bank indicate that those with water rights junior to 1922 – especially municipalities on both sides of the Continental Divide – would be interested in participating.
The Colorado River Basin is the primary source of water not just for those within the basin but also for a majority of Colorado’s Front Range users that divert water from the headwaters across the Continental Divide to the East Slope, primarily for municipal use. The Colorado River provides between 25 percent and 75 percent of the total water supply for cities ranging from Fort Collins to Pueblo.
About 1 million acre feet of senior pre-1922 water rights exist on the West Slope, mostly held by agricultural users. Not all, however, can be safely or economically interrupted by the bank for one or more years and then be returned to their historical use. Irrigation water for fruit trees, for instance, would not be appropriate for participation in this sort of water bank.
Officials at the meeting stressed the benefits of such a program, including possible delay or prevention of a compact call or mitigation of impacts for an interstate call. More input from potential participants, both senior and junior water rights owners, is needed, the water experts said.
Bruce Whitehead, general manager of the Southwest District, said, “Western Colorado has an obvious interest in addressing this issue proactively. We don’t want to see an uncontrolled market in buy up and dry up of western Colorado’s senior water rights.”
Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.
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