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Scott Valley Protect Our Water – POW – in Siskiyou County, California
Apr 27, 2012
Posted: 04/26/2012 01:00:00 AM MDT
Updated: 04/26/2012 12:10:34 PM MDT
Looming drought has prompted a new push to prevent harm to streams and rivers: temporarily leasing water normally diverted to household taps, farms and ranchland and letting the water flow.
State water authorities and private conservation groups say deals to ensure sufficient water in streams and rivers will mean the difference between life and death for fish, bugs, wild animals and riparian vegetation.
But Colorado agricultural leaders this week warned that — with mountain snowpack 39 percent of average — spare water for environmental purposes will be hard to find.
Drought worries have intensified. Denver Water on Wednesday issued “Stage 1 drought” measures, asking 1.3 million customers to voluntarily limit watering on lawns.
While reservoirs are at normal levels, “the conditions we’re seeing are similar to those in the 2002 drought. Reservoir levels can drop very quickly without much rain and snow,” utility spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said.
The Colorado Water Trust this week issued a notice seeking people interested in the voluntary leases. Trust leaders have been working on protecting tributaries to the Colorado, Eagle, Fraser and Gunnison rivers and may be able to devote as much as $400,000 to fund leases. The Nature Conservancy also is exploring possibilities on the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins and the Dolores River down from McPhee Reservoir in western Colorado.
“This is not about taking water away from people. This is about keeping our rivers whole — and sharing water between people and the environment,” said Nature Conservancy state director Tim Sullivan.
“There are values associated with the flows in rivers — recreation, riparian benefits, water quality” — not fully captured in Colorado’s prior appropriation use-it-or-lose-it system of allocating water, Sullivan said. “Drying up rivers is not a good way for us to manage our water in the West.”
During the severe 2002 drought, some streams and rivers were so warm and depleted that state wildlife crews trudged with buckets to rescue fish from isolated pools.
State agencies have been working since 1973 to ensure minimum “in-stream flows” to prevent irreversible environmental degradation. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, working through state water courts, has established minimum flows — from half a cubic foot per second to 300 cfs — on 1,581 segments of rivers and streams covering 9,120 miles.
Private-sector funding could boost the government efforts.
“We appreciate the help for our partners and think this can result in additional protection this year,” said Linda Bassi, the CWCB’s chief for in-stream flow. “This is something that potentially could do a lot.”
The new approach relies on a 2003 law that lets water-rights holders loan water temporarily — without going through court. The law hasn’t been tapped until now.
Lease deals to prevent dry-ups this summer would pay people entitled to water from rivers not to use it for up to 120 days.
“We’re asking them to just grow a different crop this year — a crop of water for fish and habitat for fish,” said Amy Beatie, director of the Colorado Trust. “Rivers benefit. And they get cash.”
Trust officials calculate that $400,000 in donations could fund leases to guarantee flows of 41 cfs around the state, Beatie said.
But commodity prices — for corn, wheat and cattle — remain relatively robust, with development devouring more Colorado farmland and pastures. That means excess water may be scarce.
“Hopefully, we’d have enough people wanting to do this to make it worthwhile. We have to think about food production as well,” Colorado Farm Bureau vice president Troy Bredenkamp said. “It’s going to be a challenge with commodity prices where they are and the lack of water.”
Winter Park Ranch homeowners along the Fraser River have expressed interest. Their 1,500-home subdivision has surplus water currently used to flood a field where horses and cows sometimes graze, said Kirk Klancke, manager of the development’s sewage and sanitation operations.
Closing headgates to keep water in the Fraser River would help dilute sewage to meet state discharge standards, Klancke said.
“We want to do an in-stream flow lease so we can leave those headgates closed, leave that water in the Fraser River. We’re talking a couple cfs,” he said.
Along the Colorado River at Dotsero, “we actually have more than we use. That’s why we still flood some of our property,” said Karl Berger, 55, who grows alfalfa and responded to the Colorado Trust initiative.
“I don’t think I’d recapture all my income. I need to figure labor costs from flooding — guys moving the ditches. Then I have to weigh the benefits of returning that water to the river,” said Berger, an avid fisherman who hosts an annual tournament. “I’d rather put it in the river.”
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/finleybruce