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Horsetooth Reservoir, seen on May 17, 2022, spans 6.5 miles long with surrounding land available for recreational fishing, boating, camping, diving and more. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project is aimed to transport water from the west to the east slope of Colorado for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Northern Water has, for the first time in 12 years, lowered the initial amount of Colorado-Big Thompson supply it promises to deliver for the water year — a move multiple board members described as a cautious approach heading into winter and while negotiations over the future of the troubled Colorado River continue to play out.

“It was a difficult decision for the board,” said Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University and a member of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District board. “But many felt that we need to send the message that we have to pay attention to what’s going on to the Colorado River side of things.” 

The Colorado-Big Thompson project, commonly referred to as C-BT, is a massive water collection and delivery system owned by the Bureau of Reclamation that takes water from the Colorado River headwaters and transports it to the northern Front Range. Operated by Northern Water, the C-BT system serves as a supplemental residential and agricultural water supply for more than 1 million people and roughly 615,000 irrigated acres along the northern Front Range. 

The Northern board earlier this month set an initial quota for a C-BT unit at 40%, meaning that beginning Nov. 1 a single share of the project will equate to 0.4 acre-feet of water. Since 2010, the Northern board has set the initial quota at 50%. (An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons or enough to supply two or three households annually.)

“The board wants to make sure that all of its participants and customers are aware that business as usual will be difficult in light of things that are happening on the Colorado River,” Gimbel said. 

What’s happening on the river is that the demands for water far outpace current supplies and the country’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — have reached critically low levels. More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado River for household use and farmers and ranchers use the water to irrigate more than 5 million acres of farmland. 

What’s more, scientists believe the part of the country that includes the Colorado River Basin is experiencing the driest 22-year stretch of the past 1,200 years. There’s less moisture overall and on top of that dry soils are zapping streamflows. This summer, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton indicated that 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water use would need to be cut by the end of next year to help balance the strained system. 

Northern board member Dale Trowbridge, general manager of the Greeley Number 2 Canal, part of the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company in Weld County, said the lower initial C-BT quota is indicative of those climate challenges. 

“Both sides of the divide have been impacted by lower than average moisture,” Trowbridge said. “This is not a shock that there’s action to address what supplies we might have in the future.” 

Notably, however, relative to the rest of the Colorado River Basin, which has experienced subpar runoff, the headwaters have actually performed slightly better. 

“It’s fair to say that across all of the last three dry years, no part of the Upper Basin has done as well as the headwaters above Granby,” Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher based in Lafayette, wrote in an email. “But ‘doing well’ is all relative, and it’s a low bar.”

The amount of water flowing into Lake Granby, the main C-BT storage reservoir on the Western Slope, is still somewhat below average from 2000 to 2022, Lukas said. 

Still, as of Oct. 1, the amount of water stored in the entire C-BT system is actually above average (117%) when compared to Oct. 1 storage totals across the history of the project. The C-BT system operated fully for the first time in 1957. 

Nevertheless, the board felt it was important to respond, Trowbridge said. 

“We’re not one small island of our own,” he said. “It’s part of a larger system and so I think the effort here has been, let’s be cognizant of what’s going on around us and set the quota at 40% to try to do more of a wait and see.”

The lower initial quota would not have much impact on agriculture operations at the moment, Trowbridge said.

“We’re not running any water,” he said. 

The Northern Water board will set a final quota in April, a number that is more critical to irrigators given the time of year heading into the growing season. During the past decade, the total C-BT quota has ranged from 60% to 80%. Last year, the board set a 70% quota in April, and then added another 10% later in the summer.

In fact, the Northern board only began the practice of setting an initial November water quota in 2002, a move that came in response to the evolving nature of the C-BT project. What started in the 1950s purely as a supplemental ag water system has developed into a significant source of municipal water. Today, municipal water users own about 70% of the 310,000 C-BT shares. 

Prior to the existence of a November quota, municipal users would have to go into debt against the eventual April number, Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla said. 

“Creating this initial quota gave utility managers certainty that ‘hey, at least we’ve got this amount,’” Stahla said. “As the project has moved toward municipal water supply, this helps municipalities take care of the accounting.” 

Board member John Rusch, who runs an irrigation augmentation accounting business, feels a lower quota sends the right message. 

“I think the board just wanted to give a heads up to our allottees that depending on what goes on on the West Slope and the Colorado River Basin they may want to try to  beef up their contingency plans,” Rusch said. “I don’t think it says a lot other than to make them aware that things are tough over there and we all know that.” 

Rusch said he’s frustrated by what he views as a failure among the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to address their water use, and that the Northern board might not be in the position of having to discuss a lower quota if those states used less water. Rush stressed it was just his opinion and not necessarily that of the entire Northern board.

“I’m very frustrated that this should have been addressed a long time ago,” Rusch said, referencing Lower Basin water use. 

In 2021, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico used about 3.5 million acre-feet, 1 million acre-feet less than the previous year — water that was not available due to drought and other factors — according to provisional numbers compiled by the Upper Colorado River Commission. During the same time, according to the commission, water use in the Lower Basin increased slightly. 

The city of Fort Collins holds 18,855 C-BT shares, which accounts for about half of its water supply. Jennifer Dial, Fort Collins’ water resources manager, said the city had planned for a 50% initial allocation, but that even at 40% it will have enough water for the winter. 

“The Colorado River Basin is definitely facing some water shortages,” Dial said. “Given that’s where C-BT originates from we can understand the concern that there might not be as much supply as we’ve historically been used to.” 

Dial said the city will keep a close eye on the snowpack and what the final C-BT quota looks to be headed toward in April; she said Fort Collins does have a water shortage action plan, but that the city is not at the point of needing it.

Water managers on the Front Range and Western Slope will now shift some of their focus toward the mountains, keeping a close eye on what amount of snow starts to pile up. 

There’s a lot to be learned over the next few months, Northern Water general manager Brad Wind said. 

“This project needs to last for a long, long time, so I think our board is great about always thinking about the long term,” Wind said. “I think the decision is mostly about where is some of the dust going to settle between now and April.”

Chris Outcalt

Chris Outcalt covers Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He...