In July, Cold Mountain Ranch and the Colorado Water Trust penned an agreement they hope will improve the Crystal River’s streamflow in dry years. The contract compensates the ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for adjusting the timing of their water diversions when late summer flows dip.
The Crystal River has its headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but as the river descends through the wide pastures above the town of Carbondale, more than 30 agricultural diversions, representing around 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water rights, pull water from the Crystal and its tributaries to irrigate around 4,800 acres of land. In drought years, which are becoming more frequent, sections of the Crystal River run dry.
“A river is like a circulatory system,” says Alyson Meyer Gould, staff attorney and policy director for the water trust, “if you have a point where the circulatory system doesn’t work, it can have negative effects both upstream and downstream.”
A 2016 report on the Crystal River found there are specific stretches of the lower Crystal River that are most impaired, primarily after major ditches divert water from the river and before their return flows rejoin the Crystal downstream. This change to the river’s hydrology can impact water temperature, habitat quality and habitat availability, diminishing the ecosystem.
Cold Mountain Ranch is right next to one such beleaguered section of the Crystal River. The property has been in Marj Perry’s family since 1924. A cow-calf operation, the ranch irrigates several hundred acres for pasture and hay, utilizes grazing permits on nearby public lands and leases pasture nearby. In a typical year, Fales flood irrigates from early May through early October, moving water via ditches around his property in a three-week cycle. Fales gets two cuttings of hay, and spring and fall pasture with their water rights.
Under the new six-year agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, when river flows dip to 40 cfs or below, Cold Mountain Ranch will decide whether to enact the diversion coordination agreement. The ranch will be paid a $5,000 signing bonus for entering the updated agreement, an acknowledgment of the time and effort required to negotiate such a contract.
In addition to the bonus, for each cfs per day — up to 20 days total per year in up to five years — that they don’t divert during the contract period, they will be paid $250. The agreement will lift when flows hit 55 cfs. If the ranch is able to enact the agreement for their maximum decreed flow rate for the 100 potential days in the agreement, they could be paid $150,000 over five years.
Says Fales, “It’s the right thing to do. I’m not sure it’s a perfect thing to do, but I try not to let perfect be the enemy of the good. We’ll try it, we’ll see if it works and see what we learn from it.”
This is the second time that Cold Mountain Ranch and the Colorado Water Trust have entered such an agreement. The first ran from 2018 to 2020 but was never implemented. In 2018, flows in the Crystal were so low that “there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream,” according to the water trust. In 2019, flows were high enough that the threshold was never met. In 2020, heat and drought meant the ranch couldn’t afford to give up any water and still grow the hay and pasture they needed to feed their cows.
The water for this agreement will come from the Helms Ditch, which can divert up to around 6 cfs. In late summer this can be about 30% of the ranch’s available water. About half those rights were adjudicated in 1903 and the other half in 1936, making the diversion significantly more senior than the environmental instream flows on the river, which date to the 1970s. Cold Mountain Ranch uses water from three ditches, but the Helms Ditch is not shared with any neighbors, which makes it an easier candidate for an agreement with the water trust.
Bill Fales pulls debris from the Helms Ditch, which diverts water from the Crystal River. Photo by Olivia Emmer
One barrier to in-stream water conservation is the fact that water voluntarily left in the river can simply be diverted by another user downstream. In this case, the agreement is designed to alleviate drought stress on a concise stretch of stream, an area that in the dry year of 2012 was completely dewatered. If the water stays in the river for as little as a mile or two, it can make a big difference. As Heather Tattersall Lewin, director of science and policy at the Roaring Fork Conservancy explains, “As little as 6 cfs can make a difference in temperature resiliency, the existence of a cool pool versus a shallow riffle, or the ability for a fish to move from pool to pool or not.”
This agreement with Cold Mountain Ranch is not the only one of its kind for the Colorado Water Trust. In 2012, when much of the state was in a severe drought, there were insufficient laws in place to protect water users who wanted to conserve. In 2013, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 13-19, allowing some water users to temporarily reduce their water use without jeopardizing their legal rights. Without that protection, a water user who conserved could legally be considered to be abandoning their valuable rights to water, a rule often referred to as “use it or lose it.”
Senate Bill 13-19 was first used by the Colorado Water Trust and a rancher on Willow Creek in 2016. Willow Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park. The rancher had noticed Willow Creek sometimes ran dry during the late summer months and reached out to the water trust. That agreement has been used to restore flows in 2016, 2021 and 2022.
According to the water trust, “The project restores a fairly small amount of water to the stream, but because there are no other diverters immediately downstream, that additional water helps to keep Willow Creek connected to the Colorado River.” This style of agreement has since been drawn up by the water trust for four other projects, including Cold Mountain Ranch.
Climate change is impacting both the supply and timing of flows in streams like the Crystal River. Average peak runoff is moving to earlier in the season, extending the amount of time in late summer when streams run low. Warmer temperatures make the soil thirstier, so more snowmelt gets absorbed by the land instead of turning into runoff, even when snowpacks are typical, increasing the frequency of low-flow years.
“The Colorado Water Trust sees diversion agreements as one of many tools in the toolbox to improve flows in Colorado Rivers in the face of climate change,” says Blake Mamich, water transactions coordinator for the water trust.
For some water users, dry years will make changing their diversions more challenging — many agricultural water users on the Crystal River and its tributaries already experience water shortages in dry years. But, continues Mamich, “these agreements may be advantageous to agricultural producers in sub-optimal production years, as a way to diversify income while supporting the health of the river.”
Agriculture represents the majority of water use in Colorado, so ranchers and farmers will need to be part of any major water conservation strategy. But it’s not as simple as just buying agricultural water rights. Farms and ranches around the state are a significant part of the state’s economy and lifestyle — permanently drying them up can have profound negative effects on local communities.
That’s why the water trust is trying these voluntary and temporary agreements, hoping to find a solution that benefits both the environment and agriculture. But, in the quest to improve flows around the state, the water trust uses many statutory tools to get more water in rivers, including purchasing and leasing water rights, creating agreements around the timing of reservoir releases, and more.
For the Crystal River, water from Cold Mountain Ranch is just a start. The Crystal River Management Plan cites a need for 25 cfs during severe drought to meet goals for maintaining the ecosystem. The agreement between the water trust and the ranch will, at most, contribute 6 cfs for just 20 days of the year. To continue to build the river’s resilience in the face of climate change, Mamich says it will likely take a combination of various tools, from new infrastructure to additional diversion agreements with more water rights holders in the watershed.