by Keith Krebs and Daniel Omasta
The drought of 2018 was a tough one for Colorado – especially for rural communities that battled catastrophic wildfire or watched irrigated fields go dry and saw tourists leave as the rivers were closed and fires were banned.
While this winter has brought much needed relief to our watersheds, we cannot forget how connected we are to the swings of any given water year.
The Arkansas River Valley is fortunate in its ability to develop collaborative projects that improve our collective resources and defend against the hardships of tough years like 2018. The Voluntary Flow Management Program (VFMP) in place on the Arkansas River, for example, helps stabilize flows for heathier fish populations, provides much needed water for the rafting seasons and continues to meet the demands of irrigators and downstream decrees.
In 2018, the VFMP made a big impact for our local fishing guides and rafting companies by providing flexibility and better timing of a very tight water budget. While much of the rest of the state had closed its rivers and shops shut their doors for the summer tourist season, the Arkansas River was able to remain open.
The flow management program was a major reason that our valley was able to stave off at least some of the economic and environmental sting of last year’s drought. A big reason that the program operated successfully is because water managers, utilities, irrigators, recreational users, conservationists and community leaders were able to find common ground and mutually beneficial solutions.
This spring, the Colorado General Assembly can take the opportunity to learn from our success in the Arkansas Valley and pass HB 19-1218 – the “Loaned Water for In-stream Flows to Improve the Environment” Act. This bill will expand opportunities for in-stream flow leases and the ability of water rights owners and river communities to work together.
An “in-stream flow right” (ISF) is a water right that is held by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and protects flows between specific points on a river, to preserve or enhance the natural environment. These decrees go through a similar process as consumptive rights and must prove that they will not injure a downstream user or senior water right.
Often, these ISFs are junior to most of the other water rights on a stream and therefore are last in line to get the water. In drought years, they may not see that water at all.
In 2004 state legislators passed a bill that allowed for temporary and voluntary leasing of water to ISF rights. With the approval of the local district engineer, senior water owners could lease water to ISF rights and be compensated. It was a win-win for the irrigator and the stream.
Unfortunately, provisions in that original legislation limited the ability of that water right owner to lease some of their water for no more than three years out of a 10-year period without the ability to ever renew their agreement.
The Loaned Water Bill (HB 19-1218) is not a new program but helps open the door to further collaboration among Coloradans in tough drought years. The bill increases the number of years that water can be leased to five out of a 10-year period, as well as extends opportunities for renewal within the existing ISF program.
This improvement in the 2004 legislation will allow irrigators and water managers to have more flexibility to generate revenue and protect our way of life. These important changes will also enable the Colorado Water Conservation Board and local biologists to protect streams during multi-year droughts.
Strong flows and healthy fisheries are significant economic drivers for rural communities and tourism across the state – including the Upper Arkansas River Valley. In 2017, outdoor recreation activities, such as fishing and rafting, combined to generate more than $62 billion in economic impact and supported 511,000 jobs in Colorado (from CPW for 2018).
Fortunately, water users in many areas of Colorado have already demonstrated their ability and willingness to find mutually beneficial programs that protect water rights while providing benefits to small businesses and the environment.
We have proven that these programs can work here in the Arkansas River Basin, and Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited supports our leaders who continue to support the ability of water users to work together to find local solutions.
For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter, our events and projects visit our website, collegiatepeaksTU.org.
Keith Krebs is a current board director and chair of the Youth Education Committee of Collegiate Peaks Chapter – Trout Unlimited, and Daniel Omasta is the local grassroots coordinator for Colorado TU.