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Water Education Colorado

CWCB's Role in Colorado's Water History

by Jerd Smith

On a warm Sunday evening in Meeker in 2003, the Colorado Water Conservation Board was arriving for a three-day meeting. Hotel rooms were nearly sold out. There were lines at the restaurants.

Typically about two dozen or so people comprise the CWCB’s formal entourage as it travels around the state, meeting every two months to conduct the public’s water business. In Meeker, the tiny, rustic Sleepy Cat Ranch resort just outside of town had the only conference room large enough to accommodate the ranchers, attorneys, environmentalists and other citizens who also attended.

That meeting’s agenda would include two controversial issues at the time: the onset of the state’s pioneering effort to plan for future water supply statewide and its involvement in recreational water rights. It drew a large crowd, but it wasn’t the first time the CWCB’s role in establishing policy related to the state’s water would do that.

Formation of the Colorado Water Conservation Board

Selling out small town venues is something the CWCB has been doing since its inception 72 years ago, when state and federal officials hoped the new agency would help calm Colorado’s fractious water community. When Colorado’s General Assembly created the Board back in 1937, the nation was mired in the Great Depression. Colorado farmers were watching the Dust Bowl sweep away thousands of acres of what had once been valuable farm land.

North of Denver, a controversial federal plan to bring water from the West Slope to farmers on the northern Front Range—the Colorado-Big Thompson Project—was about to be approved by Congress. And the rancorous split between West Slope and East Slope communities over water was poised to explode.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District was forming to oversee the Colorado-Big Thompson, and the Western Slope Protective Association would soon organize and become the Colorado River Water Conservation District. But the job of bringing balance to the state’s often unruly water community would be handed to the new Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“It was a grand political compromise,” says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District who served on the CWCB Board of Directors between 1992 and 2001. “These three entities were all part of the same political package that made it through the state legislature in 1937.”

“At the time [1937], there was no umbrella organization within the state that could facilitate discussions on water matters, and a lot of it had to do with the development of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project,” says Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and current CWCB Board member.

Once the CWCB was established, then-Gov. Tellor Ammons appointed nine members to represent each of the state’s eight major river basins and Denver on the CWCB’s Board of Directors. The Board would have its own staff and would also give seats to some of the most powerful people in state government: the attorney general, the agricultural commissioner, the directors of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the Division of Wildlife, and the State Engineer. In its early days the governor was chairman of the Board.

Always the Board traveled, careful to listen to the constituents of each basin. “Everyone was supposed to put their geographic concerns aside and represent the interests of the whole state,” Kuhn says. Water officials were to serve “without fear or favor from local communities,” language from a Colorado River District oath of office but which embodied the even-handed spirit meant to govern each of the newly created water agencies, including the CWCB.

From the beginning, the CWCB’s mission—to conserve, develop, protect and manage Colorado’s water—has been daunting. Colorado sits at the headwaters of some of the country’s mightiest rivers, feeding streams that eventually become the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Rio Grande and of course, the Colorado, among others. The CWCB is responsible for protecting Colorado’s water supply entitlements under two Supreme Court decrees and nine interstate water compacts, powerful legal agreements that dictate how Colorado must share its supplies with other states.

Conservation, a utilitarian view

Not long after its creation, the CWCB was immersed in negotiations not only with the federal government over the Colorado-Big Thompson, but with other western states on compact issues and with dozens of entities within Colorado’s own borders. Over time, despite the conflict that often brewed at the Continental Divide, the Board was able to marshal a broad consensus resulting in strategically placed reservoirs across the state—including the McPhee, Dallas Creek and Animas-La Plata reservoirs in the San Juan Basin; the Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Gunnison Basin; the Green Mountain, Granby and Ruedi reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin; the Carter, Horsetooth and Boulder reservoirs in the South Platte River Basin; and Pueblo Reservoir in the Arkansas River Basin. The reservoirs, largely federally-funded, would help the state “conserve” water by storing it before it was lost downstream, protecting Colorado’s ability to use its compact entitlements and providing much-needed water to arid agricultural regions and growing communities.

In the beginning, however, the agency had no money to invest in such projects itself. In 1971, under Republican Gov. John Love, state lawmakers created a Construction Fund that gave the CWCB new power to help communities develop water. “Prior to that, the Board’s primary role was as a wheeler and dealer,” explains Jennifer Gimbel, director of the CWCB. “It was always trying to facilitate conversations among parties and trying to eke out whatever we could seek out from the federal government. But legislators finally realized we needed some money to help farmers improve their systems. We were then able to parcel out that money. It was enough to be helpful and that’s still the need we meet today.”

For decades, the Board was known for its ultra-conservative stance on water. Its members were almost exclusively water rights holders, representing farmers or the state’s biggest cities and water projects. These “water buffaloes” were strict disciplinarians, intent on sticking to the state’s prior appropriation doctrine—the first-in-time, first-in-right rule that governs the West’s scarce water supplies.

“When the Board was formed, conservation meant to harness water to use it to build the West,” says Gimbel. “So I think the Board was predominantly made up of folks interested in developing the state economically, especially during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.”

During that time, the Board also lobbied for passage of such legislation as the Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1956, which authorized the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Navajo Reservoir and the Aspinall Unit in Colorado. The CWCB director, as Colorado’s Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner, would represent Colorado in the development of annual operating plans for those reservoirs in order to maintain Colorado’s ability to manage its water resources independently from the other Colorado River Basin states.

Conservation, as in environmental protection

It wasn’t until the 1970s and the advent of the environmental movement that the more modern concept of conservation—to save and protect water in streams, rather than to divert and store—began to take hold. The era would bring major changes. In 1973, Colorado became one of the first Western states to allow water to be kept in streams for the benefit of the environment through the Instream Flow Program. The CWCB was charged with developing the program. It was a radical departure from the way water had been managed since mining days, when the only beneficial uses recognized were those by miners, farmers and city dwellers.

“The instream flow statute was monumental,” says Wilkinson. “It was a whole new thing, and there was resistance from the more traditional water users. The Instream Flow Program was adding another beneficial use that didn’t involve water leaving the stream.”

Still, the Board had little cash to buy water rights for environmental purposes. It wasn’t until 2008 that lawmakers allowed it to use $1 million annually to purchase senior water rights for instream flows, rights old enough to ensure there will be water for fish even in dry years.

By the 1980s, it was apparent that several declining fish species native to the Colorado River system would receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In order to protect water users’ ongoing ability to develop water from the Colorado and other rivers, the CWCB helped establish a series of recovery programs designed to provide adequate flows for the fish.

The Upper Colorado Recovery Implementation Program was signed first in 1988. Four years later, the San Juan Recovery Implementation Program was added, and in 2007, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program with Wyoming and Nebraska officially began. “The importance of these programs often gets overlooked,” says Randy Seaholm, chief of the CWCB’s Water Supply Protection Section. “But they are critical to Colorado’s ability to utilize its water resources without an overabundance of federal involvement.”

According to Seaholm, the Upper Colorado Recovery Implementation Program has resulted in more than 1,500 successful Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultations—a favorable consultation allows a project to go forward—from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that determines whether the programs are making “sufficient progress” toward recovery of the species. The current target for recovery of the four Colorado River endangered fish is 2023.

Water for recreation

Soon, in addition to loaning money, negotiating compact issues, implementing flood protection plans and managing water for the environment and endangered species, the Board would be faced with one of the biggest battles in its history—allocating water for recreational purposes, for kayaking and rafting.

towns and battled aggressively from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s to secure water rights for kayak courses for such communities as Golden, Vail, Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs.

Most of the applications for those rights, known as recreational in-channel diversions, or RICDs, were opposed by the CWCB, but Porzak and the resort towns prevailed in court again and again. “The CWCB appealed all but one of the cases all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court and lost at the trial level and the Supreme Court level,” Porzak says. Even at the Supreme Court, however, the issue was divisive. The justices deadlocked in a three-three vote, with Justice Greg Hobbs recusing himself, in the Golden, Vail and Breckenridge cases, leaving the original water court decisions—to uphold the RICDs as valid—intact.

Bitterness still lingers over those cases, but Gimbel and others say the Board was in a tough position, with few guidelines from lawmakers on how to implement a controversial, progressive law. “The RICDs were thrust upon us by the legislature, and it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth,” Gimbel says. “Our mission is to balance, and we are responsible for the population, to ensure there is water for everyone. We have to protect those rights and we take our job very seriously.”

Water for the future

Once the drought of 2002 struck, the CWCB was in the hot seat again. One of the worst droughts in modern times, the epic dry spell threatened the entire state. And it prompted the CWCB to begin a groundbreaking effort to plan for the future to ensure Coloradans would not run out of water. Known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, the survey and study aimed to define how much water existed, how much was used each year and how much would be needed in the future.

“It was probably the first time that we really reached out, basin-by-basin and to communities, and asked them to participate in long-term water planning and projects,” says Russell George, former executive director of the Department of Natural Resources who now heads the Colorado Department of Transportation.

SWSI drew fire from all sides of the political spectrum. Western Slope communities saw it as a raw attempt by Front Range policy makers to find all the water that was left and craft a way to divert it to the Front Range. Environmentalists had similar concerns—that streams would be left dry. Even Front Range water utilities viewed SWSI as the state meddling in their closely guarded water portfolios.

As CWCB staffers and water consultants fanned out, they gathered data and presented it at night meetings from Longmont to Gunnison. Though few were happy with the Board at the time, the process took the CWCB out of its narrow water world and thrust it onto the agendas of city councils and county commissions.

“SWSI gave the Board a higher profile and a broader reach,” George says. “In its earlier history, it had been a game of inside baseball, as the water business can be. This was the CWCB’s first, if not its biggest, acknowledgement of the need for outreach.”

SWSI’s data laid the groundwork for the Interbasin Compact Process, a state-funded effort spearheaded by George in 2005 that now works in parallel with the CWCB. The process includes roundtables in each of the state’s river basins, forums for public discussion of how to share water between basins and cooperate to plan for future water supply.

Back to its roots, uniting the state

Barbara Biggs, Denver’s representative on the Board since 2004, believes the work surrounding SWSI is “critical to the state thinking like a state.” The CWCB is now building portfolios of different alternatives that could meet future water demand, says Biggs, who is also government affairs officer for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District. As the process unfolds, she acknowledges some people’s frustration with the slow pace, but says, “The reality is that until we’ve tried to address everybody’s concerns, I don’t know how we get to concrete solutions, and clearly there are issues that still need to be looked at. If we don’t study them, we’re never going to stop talking about them.”

Another criticism of the process, according to the Board’s Arkansas Basin representative Reed Dils, has been the lack of cooperation exhibited between the East Slope and West Slope roundtables in the form of projects coming through for Water Supply Reserve Account funding. The reserve account, which has a $10 million annual allocation, funds projects identified through the roundtables, with final approval coming from the Board. Dils says the Board is beginning to prioritize projects that demonstrate cooperation across the divide. After 72 years, the Board is still trying to bring the state together.

Reed, Biggs, and Wilkinson, who has represented the South Platte River Basin on the Board since 2000, along with their colleagues, continue to drive thousands of miles each year to meetings and spend another 30 to 40 hours a month reading the engineering reports, the research papers and the lawsuits that comprise the Board’s work each year. A typical meeting binder is 4 or 5 inches thick.

The Board still includes more traditional water users, including water districts, ranchers and farmers. But as the state has evolved, the Board’s leadership has changed as well, with some current members coming from backgrounds in both recreation and the environment, including both Dils, who retired from the rafting business, and the Board’s chair Geoff Blakeslee, who works for The Nature Conservancy. April Montgomery, of the Telluride Foundation, is the most recent appointment to the Board and represents the Southwestern basins.

Travis Smith, the Rio Grande Basin’s representative on the Board since 2005, operates a family ranch in Del Norte and runs the San Luis Valley Irrigation District. His goal is that the Board would truly set the tone for the state in terms of water planning. “Sometimes we get bogged down in the weeds on a particular issue. Our tendency is to just react to the current situation, whatever the crisis is now. But I think the Board has to have a longer-term view, to have a plan and a vision of what it’s going to take to meet the future needs and demands.”

As the Board continues to traverse the state in its conduct of Colorado’s water business, it will have to be long-winded, says Smith. “Water projects can take over 30 years to complete. You’ve got to be able to take baby steps sometimes, because it’s a long, long race.”

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