Colorado Water Trust to fund short-term water leases to protect stream reaches that could take a hit from low flows, warm temperatures this summer
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A record-low spring snowpack and continued dry and warm weather doesn’t bode well for Colorado’s rivers and streams this summer, but a few critical reaches could get a boost thanks to the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust.
After the 2002 drought, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Division of Wildlife created a list of critical stream segments where low flows and warm temperatures posed a potential threat to aquatic ecosystems.
Based in part on that list, the water trust proposes to facilitate short-term leases of water from agricultural users to keep flows at levels deemed adequate to ensure stream health.
“We are testing totally new waters here,” said Colorado Water Trust director Amy Beatie. “We have our own cash we’re willing to put into the program and our goal is to raise $500,000,” she said, explaining that funding comes exclusively from private sources, with no state money going toward the program.
Scott Hummer, special projects manager for the water trust, said the Eagle River Basin is one of the priority areas, as are the headwaters streams above the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers.
The ability to lease water short-term for environmental purposes was authorized by the State Legislature after the 2002 drought but hasn’t been used widely yet. The law was passed with broad bipartisan support and enables water users to bypass the long “change of use” process in water court and temporarily loan their water to streams within a matter of weeks through a state administrative approval process.
In some cases, agricultural users could decided to grow only one hay crop this summer, and then lease the water rights they would have used for a second crop to help maintain stream flows in the late summer and fall.
Instream flow water rights are treated in Colorado’s water allocation system just like any other water right, but are decreed for no-nconsumptive, in-channel use in order to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.
“We intend to put this statute to work to make a difference both to water users facing what could be an uncertain summer if conditions don’t improve, and to the state’s rivers,” Beatie said.
“We’re putting out a ‘Request for Water’ to give water users the opportunity to both protect Colorado’s natural heritage and generate revenue this year. Lease your water for instream flow use and grow a crop of fish habitat,” Beatie said.
CWT will work with water right owners and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) on a voluntary basis; CWT will facilitate and pay for pilot program leases under the state statute. The law provides several protections for those who choose to lease their water. It also protects other water users from injury when short-term leases are implemented.
The trust hopes to raise up to $500,000 for this year’s pilot program, and has identified priority areas where aquatic habitat is at risk.
“We are very excited about working with CWT and water users to use this tool to benefit the State’s streams and give water users another option in a potentially difficult year,” said Linda Bassi, who administers the CWCB’s Instream Flow Program.
The leasing program has support from institutional water users, who recognize that the program is set up to work within the state’s complex legal water framework.
“This is a great pro-active effort to address the challenges brought about by reduced stream flows in this low run-off year,” said Eric Wilkinson, general manager for Northern Water.
The Colorado Water Trust is already working on a lease with Winter Park Ranch Water and Sanitation District, and several other parties are interested in working with CWT to lease their water this year.
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Filed under: climate and weather, Drought, Environment, rivers, Summit County Colorado, water Tagged: | Colorado, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Water Trust, drought, stream flows, water leasing