The Colorado River is seen from the Eagle Rim pedestrian bridge looking west near the River Park at Las Colonias.

State water officials are hoping early next year to roll out a draft demand management proposal to help in evaluating the concept as a possible response to managing Colorado River water supplies in times of drought.

Creating a framework of what the program could look like isn’t meant to tie hands and say what the Colorado Water Conservation Board thinks it should look like, CWCB staff member Amy Ostdiek told the board in its meeting earlier this month. Rather, it’s aimed at giving everyone involved the ability to have something to respond to, with the hope of perhaps creating a better draft or a new concept, she said.

“It’s just a starting point for this discussion,” she said.

Demand management was identified as a possible measure in a drought contingency plan finalized by Colorado and other Colorado River Basin states in 2019. Upper Colorado River Basin states including Colorado are seeking to head off the possibility that they might be forced to curtail water use to keep river flows below Lake Powell above the minimum amount called for under a 1922 interstate compact with Lower Basin states. The drought contingency plan authorizes Upper Basin states to store water conserved by demand management in Lake Powell specifically for meeting the compact’s requirements.

The CWCB, which sets state water policy, says demand management would involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in consumptive use of Colorado River Basin water. This is expected to entail use reductions in municipal, agricultural and other uses, with agricultural cuts resulting from measures such as short-term fallowing of fields.

The idea is drawing particular scrutiny from entities such as the Western Slope’s Colorado River District due to concerns about potential economic impacts on agriculture-based communities. A recent study commissioned by a work group including the district found that the secondary economic impacts of paying western Colorado farmers to temporarily fallow fields could be similar to the secondary benefits from the spending of those payments. But it said the dollars from payment spending would flow to different businesses, perhaps shifting to larger towns and cities from smaller, ag-based towns.

Among other criteria for going forward, a demand management program would have to be found to be feasible by every Upper Basin state. This means looking at things such as availability of funding, whether a program would comply with state and federal laws, how it would be administered, etc.

The CWCB began evaluating the concept by establishing work groups involving experts and stakeholders from around the state looking at issues surrounding demand management.

With their input now in hand, the agency is taking the next step in investigating the concept. That will entail considering if it is achievable in terms of things such as funding, worthwhile when it comes to questions such as how much water would be stored, and ultimately advisable to pursue in Colorado.

CWCB plans to continue its evaluation in a public, collaborative way, involving water users, tribal entities, nongovernment organizations and other stakeholders in commenting on the draft proposal, Ostdiek said.

Becky Mitchell, the CWCB’s director, told the board at its meeting that fires and drought affected every Coloradan this year.

She said that with the climate changing and drought becoming more frequent and intense, it would be irresponsible for the CWCB not to look at every tool available to respond, including demand management.

“We have to look and determine if this is achievable and right for Colorado, and I think this is the next right, appropriate step,” she said of the second phase of evaluating demand management.

Dan Gibbs, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, agreed.

“I think we need to look at this program and see whether or not it’s achievable, and really, it has a very important tie-in to climate change,” he told the board.

He added, “There’s so many stakeholders around the state, frankly … people that love this idea and people that hate this idea, and that’s where you sometimes find the best kind of sweet spot. And so everyone around the state that put in an enormous amount of time, I think that’s really important, so let’s continue this discussion forward.”