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Colorado: Voluntary water lease program gains momentum

Colorado Water Trust hopes to expand Call for Water program this year

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The nonprofit Colorado Water Trust wants to expand a voluntary short-term leasing program that helps protect Colorado streams during dry conditions. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Piece by piece, the Colorado Water Trust is stitching together a program that’s helping to protect some streams in the state from drought impacts by using water where and when it’s needed most.

This year, the water trust wants to try and expand the voluntary Call for Water. Building on last summer’s success, the short-leasing program — authorized by a 2003 state law — could once again help maintain flows in drought-vulnerable streams.

Details on the 2013 Call for Water will be posted this week at this Water Trust web page. 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.

An audit of last year’s program showed that water users wanted more time to consider the short-term leasing option. As a result, the water trust is launching the 2013 program this week, well before the irrigation season begins.

Essentially, the water trust uses donated funds to lease water rights that might otherwise be used for irrigation or simply stored upstream. Under those leases, the streams benefit from added flows in sections that might otherwise come close to drying up.

Last summer, for example, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District leased 4,000 acre-feet of stored water in Stagecoach Reservoir in one-year deal that helped boost flows in the Yampa by as much as 26 cfs during the driest parts of the summer. The lease enabled flexible management if conditions on the Yampa improved or deteriorated.

Along with helping fish, the release increased the number of days people could raft and fish, helping to sustain the local economy in a year when the Yampa’s snowpack had dwindled to just 6 percent of average by June 1.

By late June, the Yampa was running at just 40 cfs, just 5 percent of average and barely enough for fish to survive and well below the level at which fishing and rafting have to be curtailed along some sections of the river.

But a few days later, water leased under the Call for Water program began flowing down the Yampa, raising levels back as high as 71 cfs.

“We found working with the CWT on the lease of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to be professional, detailed, and collaborative,” said Kevin McBride, general manager for Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. “They also provided prompt payment … The water provided a multitude of benefits to Yampa River water users,” McBride said.

The water from Stagecoach Reservoir was available because a contract with another downstream user wasn’t consumated, so the conservancy district agreed to lease the “spare” water for $35 per acre foot ($140,000 total), in part funded by donations from National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

That enabled releases (as needed) of 26 cfs right through September, essentially saving the Yampa from the damage it suffered during the 2002 drought, when flows dropped to a trickle, at 17 cfs.

The 2012 releases helped significantly, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Billy Atkinson, who carefully monitors fish populations in the Yampa. The added flows helped maintain deeper and cooler pools for trout, and also for native whitefish and even the aquatic insects at the base of the food chain in the river. Read more about the Yampa project at this Colorado Water Trust web page.

Along with private water users, the trust also worked cooperatively with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to lease 3,000 acre feet of water from Big Beaver Reservoir on the White River.  Flows held steady on the White last summer, so the lease was not used. But the lease’s term is for 10 years, so if White River flows drop within the next decade, an emergency supply of water will be ready.

In another ground-breaking deal, the water trust facilitated the first-ever lease of direct flow rights to benefit the beleaguered Upper Colorado River last summer.

Last summer’s pilot program helped water users reach a comfort level with the innovative water management tool. To reach a bigger audience, the trust will hold several presentations across the state, including information sessions at a series of spring meetings held by Colorado Division of Water Resources.

CWT will also host a webinar about the Request for Water program. Details will be posted this week on CWT’s website at http://www.coloradowatertrust.org/campaigns/request-for-water-2013.

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