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New Colorado Drought Task Force buckles down to work

Rancher Bryan Bernal jumps across a water filled irrigation canal and is silhouetted against a blue sky that has mountains in the background. The field is near Loma, Colorado
William Woody
Fresh Water News
Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. A new drought task force will begin meeting this year to discuss
how waters within Colorado's borders will be regulated.

A new state Colorado River Drought Task Force will meet nine times between now and early December, and hold two public hearings to develop recommendations on how the parched river’s supplies will be managed inside state lines as its flows continue to decline.

At its first meeting Monday, 100 people joined the virtual session as the 17-member task force began planning the work it must conclude by Dec. 15.

“We are at a truly historic moment in Colorado River history,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County Commissioner who is non-voting chair of the group.

“We are tasked with providing recommendations for programs addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin. … It’s a tall order but I am confident we can deliver. … My hope is that we can reach a broad consensus. My concern is the time crunch … 4.5 months in water time is a blink of an eye.”

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force in May when they approved Senate Bill 23-295. The 17-member task force includes representatives of environmental groups, urban and agricultural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. Its task: to recommend state legislation that would create new tools and programs to address drought and declining flows on the Colorado River.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two regions, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.

But it is in the Upper Basin and in Colorado, specifically, where roughly two-thirds of its flows originate.

Colorado is home to eight major rivers, four of which are major tributaries to the Colorado River on the West Slope. They are the Yampa/White/Green, the Gunnison, the San Juan/San Miguel/Dolores, and the Colorado River itself. Four river basins, the Colorado, Yampa/White, Gunnison and Southwest would participate in a demand management program that eventually will include the entire state.

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government are beginning on how to manage and protect the river now and beyond 2026, when many of the existing Colorado River management agreements expire.

Overuse in the Lower Basin is considered to be the largest issue to resolve, but Upper Basin states may be called on to reduce their agricultural water use as well. One proposal, known as demand management, is to create a new drought pool in Lake Powell by having farmers and ranchers fallow their fields in return for cash payments. And the state’s urban water users may also be called on to cut back.

Colorado water users on the West Slope and Front Range are concerned that changes to the river’s seven-state management system could harm their water rights.

Mike Camblin, a task force member representing agricultural water users, said it would be critical to find ways to ensure farmers’ and ranchers’ lands remain healthy and their operations profitable. Agriculture uses 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies across the basin and the agricultural industry is deeply worried that it will take the hit if and when reductions are required.

“I hope we can come up with a plan. I would hate to see our ancestors cuss us down the road,” Camblin said.

Melissa Youssef, a task force member who is also mayor of Durango, said her city is already seeing its water supplies reduced. She said she was glad to have a seat on the task force and to have a say in how her community should be protected.

“My hope is that we can come together, making our positions abundantly clear. We have senior water rights on two rivers, but we are exposed to a reduction in water supplies through drought,” Youssef said.

Alex Davis, assistant general manager of Aurora Water, is a task force member representing Front Range water users. She said urban reliance on the Colorado River is significant.

Roughly half of water supplies for Aurora and Denver, among others, come from the Colorado River.

“My concern is that people will bring very specific agendas from different entities that will benefit their constituents but may not be beneficial to the state as a whole,” she said.

The group will meet at sites around the state, with one meeting each month slated to be in-person and the others designed to be virtual. The next meeting is Aug. 10 in Denver. It is in-person. A location has not yet been determined. All meetings are open to the public.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.