Swimming upstream

The Colorado River runs extremely low Monday near the Redlands Parkway in Grand Junction.

The Colorado River District's board endorsed a new state policy that largely incorporates the Western Slope protections the district wants to see included in any program to reduce water demand, if needed to address falling reservoir storage levels in the river basin because of drought.

The board in a conference call Monday also supported in concept the passage of federal legislation that would be needed to implement drought contingency plan agreements that have been reached among states in the Colorado River Basin.

But it is withholding full support until it gets a chance to see an actual bill, which has yet to be formally proposed.

The board's actions come as Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states consider ratification of agreements aimed at protecting water levels in Lake Powell from the threat of continued drought so the states can continue to meet their water obligations to Lower Basin states under a 1922 compact.

James Eklund, Colorado's representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, is ultimately responsible for approving, or not approving, the agreements on Colorado's behalf.

Officials in October made public a suite of tentative agreements resulting from negotiations up and down the river basin. These include a drought contingency plan for Upper Basin states including Colorado for protecting Powell water levels, and a second such plan in Lower Basin states, aimed at shoring up water levels in Lake Mead.

The Upper Basin drought contingency plan includes a provision that would allow that any water conserved through possible demand-management efforts could be stored in Powell or elsewhere specifically for use in complying with compact obligations to Lower Basin states. That means it wouldn't be subject to release under a 2007 agreement that seeks to balance water levels in Powell and Mead.

The river district was initially alarmed about the idea of reaching an agreement for storing water from a demand management program without the parameters of such a program first being made clear.

The district's concern has been that such a program could end up disproportionately impacting western Colorado, drying up agricultural land that provides food and open space and supports rural economies.

Earlier this month, the Colorado Water Conservation Board adopted a policy that in large part responded to the river district's concerns.

Among other things, that policy says that in considering any demand management program that might be developed, it would investigate voluntary, temporary and compensated reductions in water use.

The state policy also commits to prioritize "avoidance of disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single subbasin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water rights holders."

River district General Manager Andy Mueller said that latter language isn't exactly what the district had asked for, but is close.

District staff want water saved in any demand management program to be roughly proportional to the amount of depletions of Colorado River water by both Western Slope and Front Range water users in the case of water rights subject to the compact, rather than the Western Slope bearing the full burden.

"We did not and do not want to see the West Slope producing all of the water for Colorado's share of an Upper Basin Demand Management Program," Mueller said in a memo to the district board.

But he said in that memo that the conservation board clarified in its hearing on the matter "that the intent of the language is that water should be contributed equitably from users from both the west and eastern sides" of the Continental Divide.

Mueller recommended that the river district board endorse the conservation board's demand management policy, saying that it addressed most of the issues the district raised. The river district's endorsement includes the caveat that its understanding is the state policy is meant to result in equitable contributions from West Slope and transmountain users.

River district board member Martha Whitmore worried that the state policy could open the door to Front Range interests simply being able to buy consumptive water uses on the Western Slope rather than having to curtail some transmountain diversions to meet their proportionate share requirement.

"I want the Front Range to actually have to turn off the spigot, so to speak," she said.

At her urging, the resolution the river district approved Monday contains the condition that the district will continue to advocate for Western Slope water users on a demand management program.

Glenn Porzak, an attorney representing two domestic water providers in Eagle County, objected to the state policy.

In part, he contends that it fails to acknowledge Colorado's prior appropriation doctrine that governs water rights based on seniority, instead seeking to protect the junior water rights of entities diverting Colorado River water to the Front Range.

"We believe the Colorado River District can and must do more to protect the vested rights of senior West Slope users," he wrote to the district.

Mueller doesn't share Porzak's concern, in part because the state policy says any demand management program would be consistent with state law, which he says contains prior appropriation as a bedrock principle.

Russ George, a conservation board member from Rifle, was in attendance Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Basin Roundtable stakeholders group as they listened in remotely on the river district board's deliberations.

He said the policy the conservation board adopted was weakened by the need to strike a compromise after hearing from various entities.

"We tried to referee and so that's what you see here is what happens when a referee tries to draw up a document when everybody's yelling at him," he said.

But he said it will be a positive step if the water-conservation storage space can be created in Lake Powell, and the conservation board supports what the seven states are trying to do to address the threat posed by the long-term drought.