West Slope eyes ‘water bank’
September 4, 2008
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Colorado water users could avoid drought shortages by pooling resources to buy or lease senior water rights and hold them in a new Western Slope “water bank,” according to officials with the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Those collective water rights, established prior to a 1922 interstate agreement, would be an insurance policy against downstream demand from California, Arizona and Nevada, said Jim Pokrandt, education specialist with the river district.
“It would be an aggregation of pre-1922 water rights that could be used in case of a compact call,” Pokrandt said, explaining the potential for downstream states to “call” on their water rights at the expense of Colorado’s water users.
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.
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Stored in a water bank, those senior rights could be used to provide water for Western Slope municipalities ” even if the downstream demands cut into Colorado’s allotment of water, said Boulder water attorney Glenn Porzak.
Most of the water rights that are 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, Porzak said, speculating that it might be possible to put together a 100,000 acre-foot portfolio.
Rather than buying the water outright, towns and other water providers and users could agree to leases that would kick in during dry periods, when the potential for a compact call looms greatest.
That would fit with the river district’s vision for a water bank, which is intended to be a buffer against shortages in a crisis situation, according to a recent edition of the district’s newsletter.
“If we know we’re getting close (to a shortage) we could use that pool to put water in the river,” Pokrandt said.
Banking senior water rights is not a new idea in and of itself.
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.
“Their idea would go one step farther. It’s a great idea, but the devil is in the details,” Porzak said.
Amassing those pre-compact rights could trigger competition by Front Range utilities like Denver Water and the Northern Water Conservancy District, as they go after the same senior rights, he explained.
A downstream call on water allocated by the compact would likely spur Front Range water users to go after Western Slope water, regardless of seniority.
Given political realities, it’s unlikely that water use on the Front Range would be cut in a drought, even if those municipal rights are junior to West Slope agricultural uses.
A water bank could help the river district and the West Slope “protect its flank” in a drought situation, Porzak concluded.