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How water rights work in Colorado — and why severe drought makes them work differently

Parched residents’ questions answered, from how much water the Front Range takes from the Western Slope, to how a power dam near Glenwood Springs saves Colorado River fishies

Little Snake River seen on Thursday, July 1, 2021, near Maybell, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Whether you’re a kayaker or an angler or a hard-core gardener in Colorado, we get that this water thing is confusing.

If the eastern half of the state is getting plenty of water and the western half is literally burning up, why are we still pumping so much water east over the divide to already-green Front Range communities? Why did Colorado River supervisors at state Parks and Wildlife tell us to stop fishing the river one week, and then say the next week, “No problem, go ahead, we found some water”? 

Why does the Arkansas River look so full in so many places if this 20-plus year drought is really that bad? And now that the drilling rigs are starting up again as oil prices rise, will fracking make this water supply problem even worse? 

Why should Colorado River anglers thank the owners of a big hydroelectric dam near Glenwood Springs?

What’s a “junior right”? What’s a “call?”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The drought and the overarching impacts of climate change have already generated multiple stories in 2021 and will be a big part of news coverage from here on out. We get reader questions along the way about the severity of the drought and what it means for Colorado residents — here are a few of those questions, and some answers from some key experts. 

Q: How much Colorado water west of the Continental Divide, that would otherwise flow into the Colorado River and the Pacific Ocean, does the Front Range “take” for its own use? And since the Front Range is not in drought, is it taking less out this year? 

A: Huge amounts. And yes.

Denver Water alone has said about 60% of the water originating from the high country in Grand County, the Colorado River’s headwaters, is sent to the Front Range instead of into the river as it flows west. Denver Water says that on every fifth glass of water you drink, you should toast the tolerant people of Granby, Fraser and Winter Park. 

More water flows into the Colorado River downstream from Grand County as the Blue, Eagle and Gunnison rivers and other streams join the West’s most important waterway. But more gets taken out, too, with Denver using Blue River water collected in Dillon Reservoir to run under the Continental Divide and dump into the South Platte River at the Roberts Tunnel outlet, for example. 

Dean VanWinkle checks on the drinking station for the cows on a western Colorado ranch on Friday, June 11, 2021, near Whitewater. The water is fed from a small spring found in the higher elevation; ranchers may have some of the oldest and most senior water rights in Colorado, but others are cut off if they have junior rights, or are under pressure to sell their water to users with more cash.. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Pick a river, find a big diversion to the east. Trout Unlimited attorney Mely Whiting wrote us about some other streams: “According to the Roaring Fork Conservancy, 38% of Roaring Fork headwaters above Aspen and 41% of Fryingpan headwaters above Meredith are diverted on average, each year, across the Continental Divide.” 

Aurora also takes water from the Western Slope, even though a larger portion of its supply comes from the east-flowing Arkansas and South Platte Rivers. Aurora says about 25% of its supply comes from the Colorado River basin, through Homestake Reservoir.

Why? It’s developed that way over time as part of the 80/20 reality of Colorado’s human settlement over time. The Front Range has 80% of the population but only 20% of the natural water. How we beg, borrow and steal the rest of it only gets more interesting as the drought deepens. 

The Front Range is giving some back this year, though no one should hold their breath for a big pat on the back from conservationists who oppose any new intermountain diversions. The reservoirs that supply Denver, Aurora, Fort Collins and other northern Front Range cities are largely full, and water managers are heeding calls to leave more water on the parched Western Slope. (See below under “fishing.”) 

Q: Why did the state say “don’t fish!” on the Colorado River one week in July, and then say, “Go ahead, it’s fine, we found some water for the poor trout” the next? 

A: Because they literally found some water in storage that the owners were willing to put back in the river. It’s true that the voluntary or mandatory closures of popular fishing stretches in Colorado River have come early and furious this dry year. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials did say in early July that water was getting too low and too warm to protect long-term fish health in stretches of the Colorado. 

Biologists were seeing fish die-offs, and water temperatures kept climbing as the disappointing spring runoff rolled meekly toward Utah, said Lori Martin, a state senior aquatic biologist and a specialist for the northwest region. A flurry of emails went out to managers at Denver Water, Northern Water and state engineers. 

Water Denver reservoirs pipes delivery system drought
A detail from a Denver Water map of its collection system shows how in just one watershed Denver draws on multiple pipes and delivery methods to bring water from the west side of the Continental Divide into Gross Reservoir and other catchment basins. The Moffat Tunnel brings over water that Denver has purchased rights to and collected from the Fraser River, a Colorado River tributary. (Detail of Denver Water delivery system map, from website.)

Denver Water said it has given up diverting about 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County “to help keep more water in the Colorado and Fraser rivers. That’s roughly enough water to supply over 44,000 residences for one year.”

The releases are carefully targeted. Denver says it times its twice-a-day extra releases from Williams Fork Dam near Parshall to hit the portions of the Colorado River near Kremmling at the hottest time of day, when fish in that area have been most impacted by shallow, stagnant water. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Nonprofits sometimes team up to rescue river stretches in the short term. 

“Sometimes entities like the Water Trust can find a way to buy the water and have it released from a reservoir,” Schulteiss said. “This boosts streamflow from where it is released from the reservoir, all the way down to wherever it is used downstream.”

Q: Why should anglers also thank a certain hydroelectric dam on the Colorado River?

A: This is where we start talking about “junior rights” and “calls.” Colorado water rights work on a “first in time, first in right” system. Eastern U.S. rivers have so much water that most areas operate under something called “riparian rights,” meaning that if you have land next to the river, you get to take what you need. In dry Colorado, nearly every major stream is now “over-appropriated,” meaning somebody has claimed or bought the right to every drop of water in a wet year, and in a drought year, those who filed first are the ones who get to use theirs. They have “senior” rights, going back as far as putting the “prior appropriation” doctrine in the first Colorado constitution in 1876. 

Xcel Energy’s Shoshone hydroelectric dam on the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs holds a senior right. It demands a certain level of river flow to spin the turbines and make electricity. It’s not a big power supply in the grand scheme of things, but as hydroelectric dams go in Colorado, it’s big. So when water runs low, they put a “call” in to state water engineers. People up river with more junior water rights have to let their water flow by and make it to Shoshone. 

Now pull out a map. When Shoshone puts in a call, the Colorado River is the delivery channel. And that means fish and other wildlife along every mile from Shoshone north and east toward Kremmling are going to enjoy riding out that delivery. 

Another call came from a group of farm irrigators with senior rights, called CAMEO, whose ditches near Grand Junction were not seeing enough river flow to get their share. Calling those rights down the river also helped the Colorado for those in-between miles, Martin said. When things get this hot and dry, Martin said, state officials are always on the hunt for “more water we can get that we didn’t get from Mother Nature.” 

Q: If things are so bad everywhere to the west, why does the Arkansas River look perfectly normal when driving through Buena Vista, Salida or Cañon City? 

A: It’s true that much of the mountain portion of the Arkansas in Colorado doesn’t see the crazy dry-ups you see on the Yampa River, the Dolores, or even stretches of the Colorado. The Upper Arkansas is a heavily regulated river, meaning it’s essentially a controlled pipeline between high country storage reservoirs and agricultural interests to the east of Pueblo and Colorado Springs. 

“The Arkansas River transports water stored at its headwaters in Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes to Pueblo Reservoir, providing high flows in between. Flows are not natural and have had an impact on the fisheries,” Trout Unlimited’s Whiting explained. 

The rafting industry in the upper valley has also historically lobbied for regular reservoir releases to support recreation after spring runoff slows down. Still, much of the upper Arkansas is suffering from overall dry conditions in the West, with the stream gauge at Parkdale, near the Royal Gorge, registering 963 cubic feet per second Friday, against the historical median for the day of 1,390 cfs. 

How healthy you think a river is depends a lot on where you stand to gaze at the water, said the Colorado Water Trust executive director Andy Schulteiss. Water managers can take so much out of a river that by the time the flow hits a spot where lots of people are watching, it’s down to a trickle. 

“This happens regularly on the Cache La Poudre river in northern Colorado, for instance, despite the river running strong higher up,” Schulteiss said. 

Q: Will the slow return of fracking by Colorado’s oil and gas industry cut even further into water supplies and stream flows in the state? 

A: Some Sun readers are convinced that fracking for oil and gas is another major culprit alongside drought in reducing the Colorado water supply. The fluid mix forced underground with great pressure to crack the earth and loosen up petroleum does include a lot of water — from 1.5 million gallons per well, to more than 10 times that amount, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  

Activity is picking up, sure, as oil returns to the $70 a barrel range, well above break-even marks. The drilling rig count in Colorado for the first week of July was 12, up from five at the same time last year. 

But in the grand scheme of things, not that much water is used to produce oil. State estimates in recent years show agriculture using more than 80% of the available water in Colorado, and city water systems using 5% to 6%. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, in figures supported by state charts, says oil producers use about one-tenth of 1% of the state’s water. For comparison, the charts peg snowmaking by ski areas at about one-third of that amount.


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