The upper Roaring Fork River and the lower Crystal River are two of 19 sections of river in Colorado that the Colorado Water Trust has identified as high priority reaches for its 2013 water leasing program.
This marks the second year in a row the nonprofit organization is seeking to work with water rights owners who might be willing to lease some of their water to the benefit of a river’s ecosystem.
Both the upper Fork and the Crystal rivers have designated environmental instream flow rights held by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), and the Water Trust is eager to act as a facilitator between water owners and the CWCB in order to get more water flowing down the state’s rivers.
This summer is expected to bring drought conditions to Colorado’s rivers for the second year in a row.
The statewide snowpack was at 78 percent of average this week and the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin was at 69 percent of average on Friday.
“We need something like 8 feet of snow to catch up to the average peak, which is at the beginning of April, so it is not looking great,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust.
Both the Fork and the Crystal rivers have “pinch-points” where large diversions cause the rivers to run nearly dry for short sections — even in a wet year — so both rivers are potential candidates for the Water Trust’s leasing program.
Last year, no local owners of water rights reached leasing agreements with the Water Trust.
The leasing program is centered on a 2003 state law that allows water rights owners to lease water to the CWCB for environmental purposes for three out of ten years, without it lowering the value of a water right’s “historic consumptive use” calculation — which is the basis for determining the economic value of a water right.
Last year, the Water Trust was offered 94 water rights for lease and 56 of those rights made it through the organization’s initial screening for suitability in the program.
Ultimately, the Water Trust packaged six water rights into four different water leases and as a result, more water flowed down 190 miles of river than would have otherwise.
The most visible of those leases was on the upper Yampa river. A lease agreement with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District resulted in an average of 26 cubic feet per second of water flowing down the river over 75 days — which helped the fishing and tourism industries in and around Steamboat Springs.
Beatie declined to say whether local irrigators in the Roaring Fork River watershed might be interested in leasing water this year.
“Any conversations we’re having about the leasing program are confidential,” Beatie said. “The confidentiality of the program is a really good feature of the program. It makes people who maybe feel uncomfortable about having someone poke around in their water rights feel more comfortable, so we don’t disclose any conversations we’re having.”
Many owners of water rights are loathe to subject their water rights portfolio to scrutiny, as there is little upside in doing so.
The Water Trust leasing program does not require changing a water right in water court, but does require some level of public scrutiny at the end of the process.
The Water Trust is working hard to gain the trust of the agricultural community, Beatie said.
Last year, two leases were set up to allow irrigators to put water on their crops as normal in the early season, and then stop diverting in the late season — to the benefit of the river and their bank accounts — as the Water Trust leases water at fair market value.
“The program provides a potential opportunity for farmers and ranchers to realize economic value for their water assets without having to sell those assets,” said Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, in a prepared statement. “The prospect of temporarily leasing water rights in conjunction with the state’s existing instream flow water program is especially beneficial during times of critical drought.”
The Water Trust raises funds to cover the cost of the water leases and last year the Gates Family Foundation in Denver provided seed funding for the program.
The Water Trust has set an early deadline this year of March 29 for initial expressions of interest in the leasing program. And it is offering a small signing bonus for parties that come in early. A secondary deadline of May 3 has also been established.
An information “webinar” on the program will be held on Friday, March 22 from 1 to 3 p.m. and more information is on the Water Trust’s website.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of water issues in Pitkin County.