Aspen Journalism: New head of state water board talks conservation programs

Ris says CWCB shares concerns on spreading out impacts

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism
New director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board Lauren Ris and board president Greg Felt speak to the Colorado River Water Conservation District board at its quarterly meeting in Glenwood Springs this past week. Board members had questions and concerns about two water conservation programs that could impact the West Slope.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The newly-appointed director of the state water board visited the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs this past week, and their conversation focused on a topic that has long been a concern for the district: temporary, voluntary, and compensated water conservation programs.

Lauren Ris, who took over as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) in August, replaces former CWCB director Becky Mitchell, who is turning her full attention to her position as the Colorado representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission and negotiating on behalf of the state on how to operate the Colorado River system. Ris, a water policy expert, had been deputy director of CWCB since 2017. 

At the River District’s quarterly meeting, held Wednesday, she talked with board members about two water conservation programs, both of which have long been contentious and critical issues for the district. In 2018, the CWCB adopted a policy statement about demand management that said it would aim to avoid disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region in Colorado. She assured the River District that was still the case.

“I don’t think anything has changed about our board’s position on that,” Ris said. “That has been our mantra all along.”

At the heart of a demand-management program would be paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to boost Lake Powell’s levels, which have fallen to historic lows as a result of overuse, drought, and climate change. The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable program, but the River District has said propping up the Colorado River system cannot come solely at the expense of its constituents; impacts must be spread equitably across the state.

The mission of the River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and spans 15 counties in western Colorado, is to lead in the protection, conservation, use, and development of Western Slope water. Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. With roughly 86% of the state’s water use in agriculture, irrigators often say they “have a target on their back” when it comes to finding places to cut water use.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District spans 15 Western Slope counties. The district has long had concerns about voluntary pay-to-fallow programs that pay irrigators to cut back on water use.
River District map

In 2019, the state of Colorado undertook a two-year investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program, convening nine workgroups, but the investigation has been tabled, and so far, the state has not created a program. The River District also conducted its own parallel study of demand management.

“I think it’s still a question out there whether it makes sense for the state at this time with what we have available to us right now and the information we have, given everything that’s going on at the federal level, if it makes sense to pursue that,” Ris said. 

System conservation

Although a state demand-management program may not be on the immediate horizon, another upper basin water conservation program — which is conceptually similar — will take place for a second year, in 2024: system conservation. Administered by the Upper Colorado River Commission and funded by the federal Inflation Reduction Act, system conservation pays water users in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico to cut their water use, typically by drying up fields, for one season.

The River District had sought to have a say in the project approval process, going so far as developing its own criteria for projects within its boundaries. But in March, water managers said that the UCRC had sole authority over the program and that the River District could not be involved in approving 2023 projects after all. 

A recent study makes the case for River District involvement and points out what many already know: Water users in the Colorado River basin have a preference for local approaches to water conservation and do not trust formal programs run by state or federal officials — such as the UCRC. But despite this evidence, there probably won’t be an oversight role for the River District in system conservation again in 2024.

“Is there a role for the conservation districts to help them in that process of looking at applications?” River District Board President and Eagle County representative Kathy Chandler-Henry asked Ris. “We feel like we’re one level closer to the users on the ground and able to support that process.”

This hayfield near Rifle is irrigated with water from a tributary of the Colorado River. Creating a workable water conservation program for Colorado must involve West Slope agriculture, but the River District has concerns about potential impacts and injuries.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Ris replied that system conservation is being run by UCRC and that even the CWCB’s role is fairly limited. 

Greg Felt, CWCB chair and representative from the Arkansas River basin, accompanied her at the River District meeting. The CWCB will consider whether to approve system conservation again for 2024 at its November meeting. He said he does not like the idea of paying people not to farm, but the 2024 program will have a narrower scope that explores demand-management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis.

“What we were presented with was an additional layer, which was to prioritize projects that either helped enhance drought resiliency or conservation,” Felt said. “All of a sudden, I saw a value there that I hadn’t seen before. … I can get behind this because I think it will really help agriculture.”

Ris said that, going forward, the process would have more transparency, echoing a promise made by Mitchell. 

For the 2023 program, the UCRC released few details about the individual projects. Payment amounts, the exact location of projects, names of participating ditches and information about water rights, including priority dates and decreed amounts of water, were redacted in the publicly available contracts between irrigators and the UCRC. 

“We’re committed to making some changes based on the feedback that we heard,” Ris said. “We are planning on making as much information as possible available to interested parties. … We will still redact personal identifying information but are going to try and go light on the black pen.”

River District General Manager Andy Mueller said transparency for SCP 2024 was imperative, but he also pushed for a process to protect the district’s water users.

“I know (demand management and system conservation) are two different programs, but they may potentially have the same effect inside of our state, and that is reducing consumptive use and potential injury,” he said. “We’d love to work with you to continue to improve both protections on injury and how we address proportionality. We think those are really important to our water users. This board has voiced great concern.”

Ris said the CWCB shares that concern and that the two agencies should continue to talk about it as they go forward.

Aspen Journalism
Aspen Journalism

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