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Colorado River Water Conservation District

The Colorado River Water Conservation District covers 15 West Slope counties comprising a large portion of the Colorado River Basin in the state of Colorado.

This includes Moffat, Routt, Grand, Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Gunnison, Rio Blanco, Garfield, Mesa, Ouray, Delta, and portions of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties.

The district covers approximately 29,000 square miles, roughly 28 percent of the land area of Colorado, and is supported primarily by property taxes.


During the spring, Eric Kuhn can look out his office window in Glenwood Springs and watch runoff from the Colorado River rise and peak, foretelling a plentiful or parched summer ahead. After 22 years, the rhythm of the river is like a second heartbeat to Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Established in 1937 by the state legislature, the river district was created as a water policy-making body to promote ‘the conservation, use and development of the water resources of the Colorado River and its principal tributaries’ and to safeguard ‘all waters to which the State of Colorado is equitably entitled under the Colorado River Compact.’ Later, two other water conservation districts, the Southwestern and Rio Grande, were created to serve the San Juan, Dolores and Rio Grande basins.

Today, the district's staff of 23 engineers, lawyers, lobbyists, educators and other professionals, are involved in all aspects of water policy and management, including: construction and management of water storage projects; lobbying state and federal officials to support West Slope water interests; filing for water rights to benefit present and future water uses; marketing water; negotiating cooperative arrangements with out-of-basin diverters; and monitoring interstate and federal actions that have impacts on water use in Western Colorado, among other activities.

o both safeguard and develop the waters of the Upper Colorado River Basin is an on-going challenge. Over the years, the river district has pioneered the concept of basin-of-origin protection which requires mitigation or compensation for negative impacts resulting from out-of-basin water transfers. Negative impacts may include reduced recreational opportunities, changes in water quality, or simply less water available to meet future needs, among other impacts.

Compensatory storage is one form of mitigation which involves providing funds to construct reservoir storage for use by effected basin(s).

Compensation may also include payment to counties in lieu of lost tax revenues, or adjusting infrastructure to accommodate for new, lower water levels. Minimizing environmental impacts or timing water releases to enhance recreation are other forms of mitigation.

The district is involved in multiple compensatory storage projects, including Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River which helps compensate the West Slope for losses of water from the Colorado Big-Thompson transmountain diversion. Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River east of Basalt provides compensatory storage for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project that diverts West Slope water into the Arkansas River Basin.

Wolford Mountain Reservoir is one of the district's latest cooperative water storage projects. Owned and operated by the district, the reservoir is located on Muddy Creek, a tributary to the Colorado River north of Kremmling. Some 60 percent of the water the reservoir holds is designated for West Slope use and 40 percent for Denver Water. Built in 1992, Wolford Mountain Reservoir was financed with funds from Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy's Municipal Subdistrict. Currently, Wolford provides agricultural irrigation water, recreation, drinking water, and water to be used in the recovery of endangered fish species. In addition, the district is in the early stages of applying for permission to generate hydroelectric power from normal water releases.

The river district is a powerful force in deciding how West Slope water is managed. During the intense drought year of 2002, the river district played a key role in preserving upstream water stores, maximizing short supplies, and negotiating water exchanges. Among their many cooperative efforts, the river district negotiated with water users in the Grand Valley to reduce springtime demand and convinced Redlands Water and Power Authority to reduce and later eliminate their call on the Gunnison River. Both efforts were designed to maintain upstream storage and minimize the number of junior water users whose deliveries might have been cut off entirely. Donations of unused stored water were also solicited from entities such as ExxonMobil and others to meet the needs of those left dry by drought.

The river district is currently involved in a number of cooperative studies and partnerships outside the Colorado River Basin. For example, the district recently teamed up with Douglas County, Denver Water, and others to conduct the ‘South Metro Water Supply Study.’ The study investigates how to meet the water supply needs of the south metro area through 2050, and also looks at the concept of ‘conjunctive use,’ which might involve storing water from the South Platte and Blue Rivers in aquifers during wet years, for pumping as needs or drought require.

In the ‘Upper Colorado River Basin Water Supply Study,’ the district is partnering with Denver Water, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Colorado Springs, and others to look at existing hydrologic and water quality conditions in Grand and Summit counties, and investigating how increased water diversions may impact these conditions.

This district is also involved in numerous other projects exploring expansion at Elkhead and Wolford Mountain Reservoirs, as well as a feasibility study with Denver Water concerning the proposed new construction of Wolcott Reservoir.

Working to satisfy competing water interests not only within the state but within its own basin is one of the district's main responsibilities. Dave Kanzer knows this role well. One of the district's senior water resource engineers, he spends his days tracking river flows, juggling calls for water deliveries and monitoring reservoir releases. From his desk covered in newspaper clippings, Kanzer also monitors the ebb and flow of public opinion.

He visits with the Olathe Sweet Corn farmers, municipal water providers, kayakers and environmentalists. With so many different interests in its 15 counties, it can be difficult to keep everyone satisfied. Kanzer and the other river district engineers try to anticipate problems before they happen, and work out innovative compromises.

With so many different concerns on the horizon, what is in store for the future? According to Kuhn, in the short-term with most of the ‘easy’ reservoir sites already developed, urban areas will be trying to optimize use of existing water storage and transfer projects. This means that one of the district's main challenges in the coming years will be to fashion mutually beneficial and cooperative projects that benefit both sides of the Continental Divide.

In the long-term Kuhn predicts, ‘We're headed for at least 10 to 20 years of precipitation and runoff below what we experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. If dry conditions continue, the perception that there is surplus water available for Colorado and the other upper basin states may, in fact, be dead wrong.’

Compacts Resources

Guide to Interstate Compacts explore how our water-sharing compact agreements were first created, how they succeed and fail, and how they have fostered enduring relationships among bordering states. Read or purchase the Citizen's Guide to Colorado's Interstate Compacts.

2ndeditioncoversmallCompact Articles Over time WEco has published a variety of articles on different compacts. Browse the selected articles below to learn more about:

Water History Resources

Guide to Colorado's Water Heritage Explore how water shaped Colorado history, culture and identity. Read the water heritage guide.

water heritage guide

Guide to Colorado's Environmental Era Continue the journey through time to explore more recent years and see how the environmental movement has shaped Colorado's culture, communities and landscapes. Read, download, or purchase the environmental era guide.

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CO River Report & Webinar


On April 14, CFWE, in partnership with CoBank, hosted a webinar "Managing the Colorado River in the 21st Century." Access a recording of the webinar here or download a PDF of the presentations here.


A report on the Colorado River Basin released in partnership between CFWE and CoBank's Knowledge Exchange Division is available to read and download here

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