The Backstory – Longmont Water and Our Future – Part 1
(Below is a transcript of the video recording at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STes0_R6zgo – the transcript has been edited for clarity)
Tim Waters Longmont City Council member
Ken Huson Water Resources Manager – City of Longmont
Jeff Drager Director of Engineering – Northern Water (which administers the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District)
Dale Rademacher Deputy City Manager – City of Longmont
Tim Waters 0:09
Hello, and welcome to The Backstory. Today, The Backstory is on all things water-related in Colorado and, more specifically, in Longmont, Colorado. My name is Tim Waters. I am your host for The Backstory.
I’m joined today by three experts on water policy, water conservation, water usage, and water rights. Water rights may be the biggest of all the water-related issues regarding water today. I’m going to introduce the speakers as you see them on the screen.
Ken Huson is Longmont’s Water Resources Manager. Ken has been in these conversations before. Ken, welcome. We know that you’re in the middle of all those issues for us as a community.
Jeff Drager is Director of Engineering for Northern Water. Jeff, thanks for joining us today.
And people in Longmont will recognize the face of Dale Rademacher, our Deputy City Manager, with his fingerprints on all things public works and natural resources related in Longmont for decades.
So, thanks to all three of you. I know you have a lot to do. And I know this is a big issue and you probably are immersed in these issues day in and day out. So, please take a step back and educate the rest of us. I think an education on water supplies is a real gift to the community.
I know, for me, just in my role in the community and the various conversations I find myself in, the question about water, especially as people have heard about the declaration of a shortage on the Colorado and its implications for the Lower Colorado Basin states. That’s triggered many questions for folks about what that means. What does it mean for the Upper Colorado River? What does it mean for Longmont?
And so, what we’re going to do in this first segment (or the first episode of a two-part here) is kind of drill down on some of those issues with these experts. And then we’re going to come back in a second episode, which we’ll record in a week or so. So, you’ll get answers to questions about what does it really mean to you or to us in Longmont both near term and long term?
So, we have water policy, water rights, water portfolio, and then implications. So, on the issue of what’s happening right now, what’s happening on the Lower Colorado River and Upper Colorado River, I’m gonna defer to you guys. Jeff, are you the first one to pick this up? Or is it one of our Colorado or Longmont experts?
I think I got the short straw here. [Laughter]
I got a little nervous when I saw your questions. I think we passed this around to about three different people here trying to find someone who’s willing to answer these questions. These are hard questions. And there are difficult times on the Colorado River now. As I said, it’s a hard subject. Our board hasn’t made any real final decisions on this, but I’ll try and give you my personal opinion on what’s going on here.
You asked about the shortage on the Colorado River that was declared by the Bureau of Reclamation. As your listeners might know, the Colorado River is really governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact which allocated water in the Colorado River between the Lower Basin states which are California, Arizona and Nevada. And they got 7,500,000 acre-feet. And the Compact implied that the Upper Basin would get 7,500,000 acre-feet. But the Upper Basin had a requirement to make sure that they delivered 7,500,000 acre-feet to the Lower Basin every year. So really our requirement in the Upper Basin is to deliver 7,500,000 acre-feet downstream. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are the Upper Basin states that have to do that. So, Colorado is governed by the Colorado River Compact.
It gets more complicated. There are other agreements. There’s an Upper Colorado River Basin Compact [of 1948] for the Upper Basin states that has more rules about what happens in the Upper Basin states.
And then there have been some other things that happened that are more related to the shortage.
In 2007, the seven basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation entered into interim guidelines that would allow them to operate the Colorado River and it really talked about sharing water between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two big storage reservoirs on the Colorado River. It had requirements in there for when water level in Lake Mead was low and it was high in Lake Powell, Lake Powell would deliver more water downstream. If it was the other way around, then Lake Powell would reduce their diversions.
But also in that document (kind of hidden in there that people didn’t talk about much) were these requirements for shortages. So, there was a requirement in the interim guidelines that said if water levels get below a certain point in Lake Mead, the Lower Basin states will be required to take a shortage. We haven’t hit those water levels yet, but Bureau of Reclamation computer models projected we will hit that water level next year. And so, based on those water model results, they have said that Arizona and Nevada will need to have a shortage in their deliveries next year.
That shortage got increased a little more a couple of years ago, as this drought has continued to drag on and the water levels have dropped. The Upper and Lower Basin states also entered into what’s called a drought contingency plan. And that plan increased the levels of shortage that were in those interim guidelines.
So, it gets pretty complicated. But in essence, what happened here is the Bureau of Reclamation looks at water levels. This year is a very bad year. I think they think the inflows into Lake Powell are only about a third of normal. When the Bureau of Reclamation runs their computer models, they see very low water levels in Lake Mead next year. And that requires the shortages. So, in essence, the shortages are declared by the Bureau of Reclamation, and it’s based on Lake Mead water levels and those agreements that I discussed.
So, it’s the Bureau that is authorized to make that call.
And then all the parties to the Compact must adapt to what those implications are.
Right, but it’s different.
I’ll say real quickly, in the Lower Basin, those three states get their water delivered out of Lake Mead, and the Bureau is essentially in charge of that. And they make those deliveries and they do what happens.
In the Upper Basin, it’s a little bit different. We don’t have a reservoir above us to have the Bureau make deliveries out of and so we have requirements in the Compact, but really our water rights are allocated and authorized by the states themselves. So here in Colorado, we’re authorized by the states, but we have commitments based on that Compact
In some of the news reporting in the days following that declaration, there have been a couple of newspaper articles (I think probably forecast – maybe it’s speculating rather than forecasting) on what the implications will be for certain members or populations in those lower states – farmers, residents, you know, other commercial ventures if you’re, you know, landscaping business or those kinds of things. What have you heard about what those implications might be for them? Because as we hear about those here in Longmont, you know, people start to worry about, well what does that mean for me? And I know we’re going to get to that later. But what will we be hearing? Just kind of help people anticipate the kind of speculation.
I think what we’re going to be hearing – Nevada is probably pretty easy. Nevada doesn’t use their full allocation right now anyway, so even though they are required to take a shortage, they really won’t be seeing any less water delivered to Nevada. But Arizona is gonna see maybe about 500,000 acre-feet less water than their allocation on the Colorado River. And they’ve tried to figure out a way to make that work, but in essence, they are going to reduce water deliveries mostly to agriculture. So, they have different levels of agriculture. Arizona has agriculture that’s operated by the Indian tribes down there. They have a regular other agriculture, as well. And they’re going to see shortages to agriculture. They are going to move some water around. They have ways to transfer water from the Salt River Project in Arizona into some of those farmers but in essence, you’re gonna see farmers take the biggest hit on those reduced water deliveries to Arizona.
There will be water flowing through that ditch, but it will be less than it has been in the past, and most of that shortage is going to the Central Arizona Project. And, you know, what’s interesting about that project, to get that authorized they had to cut a deal with California to get their legislator to vote for the project. And that deal was that Arizona would be the first one to take shortages on the Colorado River in advance of California. So, that’s why, when you see these low water levels, Arizona is the first one that’s being hit.
Well, there’s the basis for it. Do you suppose anybody in those days ever anticipated what we’re experiencing now?
I don’t know if they did or not. I think they didn’t. And I think even, you know, I mentioned these interim guidelines that came out in 2007. And those kind of came around after the 2002 drought. And people said, well we ought to think about what might happen if the water supply, you know, stays low like this. And they came up with these rules. But I don’t think even then they expected it to get as bad as it has over the last 20 years. I think they’re surprised. And I think Arizona has always known that they were the first to take a shortage. And they’ve always been very carefully keeping track of the rules and what’s going on to make sure they get as much water as they can.
Yeah, well, having grown up there, there were lots of folks who wondered about all that residential development around manmade water features, right, around lakes, and canals, and it’s like, how sustainable is that? And I think they’re having to answer that question probably now, all these decades later.
So, there’s also the Upper Colorado, right? Headwaters in the state of Colorado. And there are then implications for us in terms of what gets diverted, how much gets diverted, where it gets diverted, how it gets measured, all those kinds of things. Who wants to kind of pick up that storyline in terms of the Upper Basin states and Colorado in particular?
I guess I can start. You guys jump in if you want. You’re being very quiet over there. So, you’re welcome to jump in, if you want.
Yeah, you guys didn’t draw that long a straw. You’ve got short straws, too. So, you got to get into this. [Laughter]
You know, in the Upper Basin, we don’t have any shortage requirements or anything right now, but you are seeing newspaper articles and you’re hearing people with these perceptions. Water users in Lower Basin are saying, “Hey, we have to take shortages. You guys should take shortages in the Upper Basin.” So, we’re setting up this kind of negotiation that’s going on right now. We don’t have any requirements to take shortages now. We must, as I mentioned earlier, deliver 75,000,000 acre-feet per year (on average) down to the Lower Basin. And we’re well over that number. And so, because we’re well over that number, we’re a few years away from having the Compact tell us that we might need to have reduced deliveries or reduce water use. So, from that perspective, there’s not a likelihood in the next couple of years anyway, that that’s gonna happen.
But there is pressure for people to start using less water and, related to the shortage down in Lake Mead, you might have also seen another story that the Bureau of Reclamation required some releases out of some Upper Basin reservoirs. So, they released some water out of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo Reservoir that’s going to go down to Lake Powell and try to increase the water levels in Lake Powell. And I think that number is (I had it written down here) it’s 125,000 acre-feet out of Flaming Gorge, 36,000 out of Blue Mesa, and 20,000 out of Navajo.
So, the Bureau’s already, you know, been acting from that type of thing and saying we’re going to start taking some actions in the Upper Basin, maybe to keep Lake Powell water levels high. There are concerns that if Lake Powell gets below a certain level, it’s harder to generate power. And I’ve also seen an article this week that power generation in Lake Powell will be lower than previous years. So, those type of impacts are gonna hit us right now. But at least right now we don’t see in the next few years any legal requirement for the Upper Basin states to cut their usage.
But there is a lot of discussion going on in states looking at things called demand management. Is there a way for the Upper Basin to reduce their demand to make sure they deliver that water downstream? There are a lot of discussions ongoing in that regard.
If you think about it a little bit, the Lower Basin gets their water delivered out of Lake Mead and they get it every year. The Bureau delivers it to them every year.
Up here in the Upper Basin, we take shortages all the time. If your water rights are on the St Vrain and if the hydrology is low, you take a shortage. We have a water right on the Colorado River and if there’s not enough water in the river, we take a shortage. So, we do take shortages all the time, even right now. And I don’t think people in the Lower Basin recognize that or really want to admit that that’s going on. But we are taking shortages. And I think, ultimately, there is going to be a stronger push to conserve more water, be more efficient with water. And we’ll see what happens. If the water supplies continue to be as low as they have the last few years because of climate change or whatever else, we may then see some legal requirements for what might happen here.
So, Jeff, I think you bring up a really excellent point on, in particular, Colorado versus the lower states. And you’ll probably remember when we were on that tour, a year or two ago, where we toured all the way down to the Imperial Valley in California.
Frankly, what I came away with from that tour, I was struck by, frankly, the ease with which they were able to receive their water in any given year, and the certainty that they had to receive their water. As you mentioned, they were far less dependent upon Mother Nature or the hydrology in any given year, as we are. And, secondly, I don’t know about you, but I was not real impressed with the level of conservation, or even the desire to conserve, in some of those different users on the Lower Colorado. The one that sticks with me, and I can’t get out of my head, was at the Imperial Valley where, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they’re using anywhere between 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 acre-feet of water out of the Colorado every year.
And I think that compares … Is that about the same amount as the entire state of Colorado takes out of the Colorado River or is it even more than what we take out?
I mean, that’s a good point, Dale. Our numbers, right now, is that I think Colorado takes about 2,500,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River.
So, we have one irrigation valley, the Imperial Valley. Granted it’s a large irrigation district.
Unfortunately, what I also observed was that one of the primary crops that they were growing down there was alfalfa. Do you remember that?
Yes, I do. And they were growing grasses that they were then exporting to Japan or to China …
Or China. Yes
… to feed cattle.
If there’s a need to conserve, which I believe there is, and I believe we all have a duty to conserve, down to each of our taps, right? Each of us have that responsibility. It’s pretty clear to me there’s a lot of opportunity for conservation that can happen in those lower states. It really comes down to the will to do it, the desire to do it, and then, of course, the legal reasons to either do it or not do it. And it’s all embroiled and tied up in these long-term agreements that, frankly, no one’s willing to let go of. Right. And I’m hopeful (you know, I tend to be an optimist) that wise-minded people will look at the reality of what’s happening on the ground and make some good decisions, such that we’re not putting individual homeowners or people into needing to worry about whether or not they’re going to have water at their tap anytime in the future, so …
I would like to follow up on both Jeff’s and Dale’s explanations with some data.
One thing I think the viewers need to keep in mind, when hearing about a Lower Basin shortage, is that it’s not a water shortage, it’s a shortage of an excess allocation of water. Over the last 10-year period, we have delivered out of Lake Powell to the Lower Basin 92,500,000 acre-feet, which is an average of 9,250,000 acre-feet a year, well above the 7,500,000 (or 8,250,000 if you include the US-Mexican Treaty) that is required to be delivered. So, we have a situation where the lower states are declaring a shortage when until now, they’ve had 120% of the promised water.
That doesn’t even fit in our minds up here.
You know, a lot of our water up here is from the Colorado‑Big Thompson and Windy Gap Projects managed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and we rarely have 100%. We have years when it’s tighter and there’s less, and so water users in Colorado have learned over the years to manage their water better. And so, they don’t allocate every drop of water every single year even if it’s there, which does happen down below. And to put it in perspective, the reason they’re declaring a shortage is that Lake Mead and Lake Powell are both around 31% to 35% of storage capacity, when they’ve had over 100% delivery of water every single year, as opposed to the Upper Basin (the C-BT system) which is managed by Northern Water. It is currently sitting at 80% capacity after we just got done with our high-usage summer period. We still have 80% of capacity in storage. That’s a much better-managed system.
So, one thing I’d like to assure people around Longmont and in northern Colorado is that we have a very good water manager here. And that does help. Those two numbers, I believe, explain why our manager is so important.
What you just shared is a new perspective for me. And I feel like I’m probably paying closer attention than the average Joe (but not nearly as much as folks who are really dialed in to water rights and all these issues). The framing of consumption versus supply, and the difference between managers who are as concerned about conservation as they are about supply versus just about delivery (or over delivery) with the focus on consumption, that’s a great way to frame and understand the difference. So, we’ve all dealt with the same drought but not everybody’s managed the implications the same way. That’s what I’m hearing.
And who gets credit, Ken, for the Front Range and the Upper Colorado River Basin? Who should we credit for that kind of management?
You know, I’d like to credit the water managers and the boards (like the Northern Water board) and councils, but really, I think who gets credit are the average citizens.
I’ll just use Longmont as an example. Our citizens have a real and personal water conservation ethic that has absolutely been shown when you look at the population growth versus the demand growth, which is much lower than the population growth. It shows our citizens really do take conservation seriously. And so that really, really, really helps.
And then on top of that, you do have the managers of the systems saying, “Hey, when it’s a dry year, we’re going to look really hard at water. We’re going to provide the water we need, but we’re not going to provide excess water during wetter years, because we need to keep it for dryer years.” As opposed to the Lower Basin, where they just overdraft every year, because they have the assurance that we must send them down 7,500,000 acre-feet a year. They draft more than the Compact grants them and they have for decades.
Yeah, they have, yeah.
I know we’re gonna drill down (or get more focused) on Longmont and what people ought to know – what we all ought to be mindful of going forward. But since you brought it up, our water consumption on a per capita basis has gone down, has it not, year over year for several years? Give us just that kind of quick profile of what a graph would look like in terms of water consumption on a per capita basis in Longmont over the last, say, five years.
Yeah, probably the best example is when we first set … It’s was about 15 years ago when we first set a goal of having in the city a 10% total water conservation savings. We started tracking that 15 years ago. And we’ve just recently met that goal. And we’re going to be looking at exceeding that goal and going on past that.
But yeah, the per capita use … Probably the easiest way to put it in perspective is, Longmont’s been using treated water – around 18,000 acre-feet a year or about 22,000 to 23,000 acre-feet when you include raw water for parks and other uses. We’ve used about the same amount of water (on our current population which is close to 100,000) that we did 15 years ago when we were around 75,000. So, it’s very impressive that the citizens have responded to that request for conservation.
Alright, so let’s just get a little more specific in terms of how water … where water gets diverted to, in the in the Upper Colorado basin, that ends up in resident storage facilities like Windy Gap, which we hear about and we’ll talk more about in this series. Where’s that water get diverted? How much of it gets diverted into places like Windy Gap?
So, let me jump on that real quick.
As Dale said earlier, we use in Colorado about 2,500,000 acre-feet out of the Colorado River. About 1,000,000 acre-feet of that came after the 1922 Compact was signed. So, one thing about that Compact, everything that was used before 1922 is not subject to being reduced by the Compact. So, there’s 1,000,000 acre-feet that we use in Colorado that is subject to being reduced by the Colorado River Compact if something happened. About 500,000 acre-feet is what we call transmountain diversions. It’s diverted from the Western Slope to the Eastern Slope. So, it’s diverted through the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap Projects through the Adams Tunnel that goes over into Estes Park, and that’s about 250,000 acre-feet. About half the transmountain diversions are the water that we use in northern Colorado, and Longmont gets a portion of that. The rest of it goes to Denver and to Colorado Springs and Aurora. So, you’ve got this water, and most of that water … those transmountain diversions are diverted high up near the Continental Divide, where it’s feasible to drill a tunnel and bring the water through to the other side.
There are some old irrigation ditches (from way back when) that actually captured water on the Western Slope and went through a low spot in the topography and brought that water to the Eastern Slope. But there aren’t very many of those and they’re a small amount of water. Most of that water comes through the big diversion projects and the big tunnels.
And so, about 250,000 acre-feet comes through the Adams Tunnel into northern Colorado that we serve through the C-BT project. If you’re familiar with our project, we capture most of that water in Lake Granby, bring it through Grand Lake into Estes Park, down the hill, and it either goes north to Horsetooth Reservoir and gets fed to Fort Collins and other cities, or it goes south into Carter Lake and gets fed to Longmont, Boulder, and the people further south.
So, that water is diverted out of Lake Granby and Grand Lake and brought through the tunnel and delivered to the whole Front Range. Generally (and this is a rough estimate but Ken and Dale, you can tell me), I think for most of the big cities it’s maybe about half of your water comes from the Colorado River [Ken nods] and the other half is coming from your local native sources. And that’s probably true for Fort Collins and Greeley and other cities, as well. Some of the smaller towns may get more of their water from the Colorado River and very little from native supplies
Well, that’s probably a pretty good place to put a wrap on this conversation.
First of all, we are in the midst of a very troubling weather pattern, right? The drought, especially in the western United States, that we’ve all heard so much about and are dealing with. You see it in the [dry] rings shown in the news at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, etc. Maybe we’ll come back and talk about what condition Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge, and Navajo are in, you know, in the next conversation.
But in the midst of a troubling weather pattern, the bad news is if you’re an Arizona farmer, you may be experience shortages. The good news is that we’ve managed well in northern Colorado, and Longmonters and other Front Range communities need not be losing sleep right now about supply.
And we’ll pick up this story in the next episode when we start to talk about supply, what exists and what’s coming with the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project that’s really focused on growing that supply.
Ken, you talked about the number of acre-feet that we consume in Longmont. When we get into the next conversation, we’ll talk about what Chimney Hollow adds to the total acre-feet in Longmont and what that means both for our portfolio and the long-term future of Longmont as we anticipate build out.
Our master plan gets us to 116,000 acre-feet, give or take a few. I’ve heard you fellas talk about – we’ll have sufficient supplies for more than that as Longmont grows out if it were to go beyond that estimate. So, we’ll get into that next episode.
Thank you so much, gentlemen, for your time today. The work you do every day is not out there in public. It’s behind the scenes. It’s in service to so many people, both on the Western Slope and on the Eastern Slope. Everybody is indebted to you guys for the work you do, they just don’t know it and don’t get to express their thanks. So, on their behalf, let me say thanks for what you do day in and day out on behalf of everybody in this state, especially in the Front Range. And I’m going to give you a chance to talk more about that in our next episode.
Longmonters, this is just the first half of The Backstory on all things water-related in Longmont. Next episode, we’re going to talk about storage, usage, future policy, and what that all means to us in the years ahead.
Thank you, gentlemen. I’m gonna see in the next episode.
Longmonters, stay tuned.
please find The Backstory – Water Shortages in Lower Colorado and the Colorado River – Part 2.
To see a list of all The Backstory episodes, please point a browser at http://126.96.36.199/video/ and check The Backstory box.