Water conservation

Crystal River rancher and Water Trust try again to increase flows

Cold Mountain Ranch owner Bill Fales stands on the banks of the Crystal River. Fales entered into a second agreement with the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily reduce diversions of the Helms Ditch to increase the river’s low flows. Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
Bill Fales 1

A Crystal River Valley rancher and a nonprofit are teaming up for the second time to try to let more water into a parched creek.

Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have signed a six-year agreement with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily reschedule their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River at the end of the year. summer and early fall, when the river often needs it. more. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, breeders will be paid $250 per day for up to 20 days, for every cubic foot per second (cfs) they don’t divert, for a maximum payout of 30,000 $.

The water is said to come from the reduction of diversions from the Helms ditch and could carry up to an additional 6 cu. ft. into the river. The agreement would become active during the months of August and September whenever flow rates drop below 40 cfs and would extend through October once active. The agreement will be lifted if the debits exceed 55 cfs.

The Helms Ditch, which takes 6 cfs from the Crystal River and has a water right that dates to 1903, irrigates the lands of Cold Mountain Ranch. Ranchers Bill Fales and Marj Perry signed a deal with the Colorado Water Trust that would pay them to reduce diversions from the Helms Ditch when the river needs water. | Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The aim of the program is to use voluntary market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users – who often hold the largest and oldest water rights – to put water back into the rivers. of Colorado during critical times.

The program has the characteristics of demand management, a concept much discussed in recent years at the state level: it is temporary, voluntary and remunerated. Other pilot programs that focus on agricultural water conservation typically involve fallowing fields for the whole season or for part of the season, but with this agreement, Fales still intends to obtain his usual two cuts of hay.

“The idea is to find something that is a flexible way for water rights holders to use their water in years when it makes sense for something other than strictly agricultural practices,” said Alyson Meyer-Gould. , policy director of the Colorado Water Trust. “It’s another way to use their water wallet.”

Flows will be measured by a gauge at the Thomas Road Bridge, which is operated by the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The Helms ditch is located just upstream from the bridge.

This flow gauge at the Thomas Road Bridge is maintained by the Roaring Fork Conservancy. When Crystal River flows drop below 40 cfs in August and September, it triggers an agreement between Cold Mountain Ranch owners and the Colorado Water Trust that would pay ranchers to reduce diversions. | Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

According to the Conservancy’s 2016 Crystal River Management Plan, the river below the Thomas Road bridge often suffers from low flows and high temperatures, especially in drought years, due to extensive agricultural diversions. The Crystal River also has a 1975 state reserved flow right of 100 cfs on this stretch, intended to preserve the environment to a reasonable degree, but is rarely reached during the late irrigation season.

Fales has often been a prominent spokesperson for causes that combine agricultural and environmental interests, such as preventing oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale where he grazes cattle.

“Obviously we’re like everyone else – we hate to see the river go dry,” Fales said. “Also, Marj and I are quite convinced that if there are going to be problems and controversies about the water, we would rather try to find solutions ourselves than have someone impose one on us. ‘other.”

Crystal River rancher Bill Fales stands at the entrance gate to Helms Ditch, with Mount Sopris in the background. Under a deal with the Colorado Water Trust, Fales could be paid to reduce his ditch diversions when the river is low. | Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Second Agreement

This is the second attempt at a voluntary non-diversion agreement. The timeline and terms of the original three-year deal, signed in 2018, never worked out. That year, flows were so low that closing the Helms Trough would have made no difference; The heavy snowpack in 2019 meant flows never dropped enough to trigger the deal until October, which was not a month included in the original deal; and during the 2020 drought year, Cold Mountain Ranch couldn’t spare any water.

“Three years isn’t exactly a huge sample of data, so we’re still optimistic we can make the project work,” Meyer Gould said.

This time around, the Water Trust is offering Fales and Perry more money to encourage them to reschedule irrigation: $250 for each cfs, up from $175 last time, plus the $5,000 signing bonus, so that there was no such incentive attached to the 2018 Accord.

“It’s a huge amount of time and effort on their part,” Meyer Gould said. “We wanted to show our appreciation for the thought and effort that has gone into it on Cold Mountain Ranch’s part.”

Pitkin County also had to approve the deal because it co-owns a conservation easement on the property, which limits development, preserves open space and retains water rights attached to the land.

During negotiations for the original agreement, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely expressed concerns about the abandonment: if Fales produced the same amount of hay using less water than he would historically had any, could the unused portion of its water entitlement be subject to Colorado’s “use-it-” rule. principle of the loser or the loser?

But Cold Mountain Ranch’s water rights are protected. Senate Bill 19, signed into law in 2013, provides protection from abandonment if water rights are enshrined in an approved conservation program, such as the agreement with the Water Trust.

Additionally, instead of reducing his total annual water consumption as with most agriculture conservation programs, Fales will simply alter the timing of his diversions to align with the crystal’s needs. Ely said his concerns have been resolved.

“It’s not a classic situation where you have a farm property drying up,” Ely said. “It really protects its operations.”

As demand for water increases in the Colorado River Basin and climate change reduces the amount available, Fales recognizes that something has to give. And with agricultural users at the center of water issues, they must participate in the search for creative solutions.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Fales said. “But we prefer to be at the table than on the plate.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in conjunction with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. For more go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.