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Short-term water lease to boost Colorado River flows

The headwaters of the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley. Photo via Wikipedia and the Creative Commons.

Colorado Water Trust breaks new ground with first direct-flow lease

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Even after wet winters, the Upper Colorado River can run perilously low in late summer and fall due to numerous diversions, and in this drought year, high demand threatens the state’s namesake river even more.

But thanks to a deal brokered by the Colorado Water Trust and sanctioned by the State Engineer’s Office, the Colorado will get a measure of relief. Some “extra” water historically used for irrigation will help boost flows in some critical reaches of the Colorado.

In addition to the Colorado Water Trust and the State Engineer’s Office, the complex deal involves the Colorado Water Conservation Board; CLP Granby, LLC; and Aspen Shorefox LLC, a financial partnership on the Western Slope that were lenders in a proposed development and own 40 cfs of water on Willow Creek, a Grand County tributary to the Colorado River.

The water trust, privately funded primarily through donations, will pay to for the short-term lease. No public money is being spent on the lease.

“Instead of that water being used for irrigation it will be used for instream flows just downstream of where it would have been diverted,” said Colorado Water Trust attorney Zac Smith. “We’ve proposed there are four instream flows that could benefit from the lease: Granby to the Fraser, Windy Gap to the Williams Fork, Williams Fork to Troublesome Creek and Troublesome to the confluence with the Blue River,” Smith said.

“This water right will essentially operate as if it were being used for irrigation … the rest of it will then be put into the state’s instream flow program,” he explained.

The short-term lease is authorized under a 2003 law enacted in response to the state’s last serious drought. With all the pieces of the complex legal puzzle now in place in place, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has now started using

“We were pleased when this water, which is typically diverted from Willow Creek, was offered for lease through Request for Water 2012,” said water trust attorney Zach Smith. “We believe the lease will bolster the existing junior instream flow water rights held by the CWCB on the Colorado River, which were all short in 2002,” Smith said.

“Aspen Shorefox is pleased to be able to help put more water into the Colorado River in such a dry year,” said Aspen Shorefox manager Howard Cohen. “Also, under the water lease program, we still get full credit for the use of our water rights this year so the deal is a win for us, a win for the state, and a win for the local river environment.”

Under the 2003 state statute, parties may temporarily lease or loan their water rights only to contribute water to fill existing instream flow water rights. There are several such instream flow water rights on the Colorado River below its confluence with Willow Creek to which this water will be delivered.

The lease is the first “direct flow” water right to move forward in the process. The first two short-term water leases have been for storage water in reservoirs.

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