CARBONDALE, Colorado – There is a new way to put water back in Colorado’s parched rivers.
After more than a year of back and forth with Pitkin County officials, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust announced on January 23 a pilot agreement with a Carbondale rancher to increase streamflows in the Crystal River during dry years.
The three-year agreement will compensate Bill Fales and Marj Perry, who own the 600-acre Cold Mountain Ranch just west of Carbondale, for retiming their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River when it needs a boost.
Although the Water Trust has spearheaded water leasing arrangements to benefit other rivers in Colorado, the Cold Mountain Ranch deal is the first to involve the timing of irrigation diversions.
For Zach Smith, a staff attorney for the environmental nonprofit Water Trust, the pilot agreement is an important test for whether this type of conservation program can work for ranchers and rivers.
“That’s great for the Crystal itself,” Smith said, “and it’s also great for the Water Trust as we try to figure out how to design projects for working ranches.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the Water Trust will monitor flows in the river and, if flows fall to 40 cubic ft per second (cfs), the ranch may voluntarily shift its diversion scheduling. The Water Trust will then measure the changes in the ranch’s irrigation practices and pay Fales and Perry $175 per cfs per day to encourage that shift. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs, the payments would cease.
The pilot agreement can restore as many as 6 cfs per day in the Crystal River for a maximum of 20 days in August and September (no other months are included), offering a maximum payout of $21,000 per year to Cold Mountain Ranch.
The new deal is the culmination of a multiyear effort to help boost streamflows in the Crystal River, which runs from the Elk Mountains above Marble to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale.
During the drought of 2012, demand for water outpaced supply and the Crystal went dry, prompting the Water Trust to look for new sources of water for the river’s benefit.
Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board has an environmental instream flow right on the Crystal, the water right dates from 1975, far lower in priority than the major agricultural water rights on the Crystal – and thus is of little to no use when the river most needs water.
The Water Trust began consulting with local ranchers and farmers whose senior water rights could be useful during times of drought, asking whether they would be willing to lease some of their irrigation water for the Crystal’s benefit. And many were.
However, most of them, including Fales, were wary of arrangements that involved too much bureaucracy. So the Water Trust devised a more flexible deal, requiring no filings in water court.
Fales was the first to volunteer. He offered to let some of his water rights from the Helms Ditch, which dates from 1899, for the Crystal’s benefit and assumed Pitkin County would be on board, as well. (The county co-owns a conservation easement on Cold Mountain Ranch and had to approve the deal with the Water Trust.)
Instead, the rancher found himself embroiled in a frustrating disagreement with Pitkin County officials who insisted that Fales’ willingness to forgo some of his water when the river needed a boost would put his water rights at risk.
For John Ely, the Pitkin County attorney, the biggest problem was that if Fales kept producing the same amount of alfalfa with less water, his water rights could one day be diminished in water court under the “use it or lose it” principle. This was especially concerning to Ely because the county had paid $7.5 million for the conservation easement on Cold Mountain Ranch.
“If you’re preserving agricultural property, you’re not preserving much if you don’t have the water that goes with it,” Ely said.
The new arrangement addresses the county’s concerns. Instead of reducing his annual water use, Fales will simply shift the timing of his diversions to align with the Crystal’s needs.
The end result, Smith said, will bring the same environmental benefits for the river without affecting Cold Mountain Ranch’s water rights.
What’s more, the pilot agreement marks the first step toward implementing the Crystal River Stream Management Plan, released in 2016, which helped quantify the ecological needs of the river. And it means Pitkin County can finally fulfill its long-stated goal of putting more water in local rivers through the Healthy Rivers and Streams program.
For Smith, the process of working out this kind of arrangement also has broader lessons for other water conservation efforts involving conservation easements. Back in 2012, the Water Trust thought it had a leasing agreement that could be rolled out in different river basins throughout Colorado. Now, Smith said, he’s learned that what works in one community might not work for another.
“We need to be flexible,” he said.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.