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A well-attended presentation by the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) featured a spirited panel discussion moderated by EDC Executive Director Jake Rishavy. It revealed that when it comes to water, local experts can disagree as much as anyone else on what is working, and what needs to happen, but not on how serious the water issues of the West have become.

As to solutions, there was some good-hearted but sincere disagreement about how “simple” the solutions really are.

The event hosted at Mt. Princeton Conference Pavillion, was part of the EDC’s quarterly feature series that focuses on some of the region’s economic issues. This session shined a spotlight on water and the West.

The EDC quarterly session focused on water with a panel discussion. From left to right Greg Felt, Dan Niemela, Moderator EDC ED Jake Rishavy, Terry Scanga, and Will Sarni. Photo by Jan Wondra.

Sharing their perspectives were four of the foremost water experts in Chaffee County, including:

Terry Scanga, General Manager, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District

Greg Felt, Board of County Commissioners, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Upper Ark Water Conservancy District Board

Dan Niemela, Principal/Hydrogeologist, Bishop-Brogden Associates, Inc. (BBA)

Will Sarni, Founder and CEO, Water Foundry

Sarni noted that while private companies and startups can move fast, “they don’t have scale. The private sector is a stakeholder group.”

Scanga has lived in the valley for more than 70 years, and the Scanga family has been in ranching here since 1885, as well in local business.

“The Upper Ark Water Conservancy District was formed in 1979 to protect water rights,” he began. “In Colorado water is a private property right and we work on the doctrine based on scarcity of water. We live in a desert — the district covers 3,000 square miles in three counties. In 1994 we developed first-ever umbrella augmentation plan to protect water rights from out-of-use calls, so individuals would have the ability to put in wells.”

Dan Niemela pointed he is probably one of the county’s newer full-time residents. “My first big project in 2011 was the last big dry-up in Park County. We changed the ag use to municipal. We drove through South Park, and dropped into the lush Arkansas River Valley … the fun part is water planning. Chaffee is in a unique position. There haven’t been a lot of water transfers out of the valley … we can envision our future of keeping our water rights in the valley.”

Felt, who is on several water boards including as the leader of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, came from a family where water and boating were integral to his family culture and he arrived here to work as a river outfitter. “I used to say I was a boatman who went to college in the off-season. My wife Susan grew up here, we started a rafting company and then developed Ark Anglers … this has been a golden age of recreation on the Arkansas River.”

Felt noted that the flow program, for the size of the river and the water available from the flow augmentation, has changed it. “This river went from being the tailwater of a mess chemically in Lake County, following the era of mining, we had a $200 million superfund project, and it worked. We are the longest stretch of gold metal [fishing] water in Colorado.”

He added that early on, he was fortunate to be one of those working with a lawyer to preserve the water right and the water flow for the FryArk agreement, and learned from that.

Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Executive Director Jake Rishavy. Courtesy photo

Addressing the Threats

Rishavy asked panelists to address the biggest threats to the valley’s water supply.

“So many rely on groundwater, so I’d say managing our groundwater supply,” replied Felt. “The Upper Ark Water augmentation plan is critical; we have to be sure we don’t injure existing water rights and ensure that we HAVE water out of the taps.”

He added that the valley benefits from several transmountain diversions … “the Frying Pan, Eagle, the Blue – the Twin Lakes Tunnel and the Homestake … it gives us one-fourth of our water down the river –and they are all from the Colorado River Basin…They are all junior water rights … a threat isn’t imminent, but we are part of that 40 million people relying on the Colorado. River.” He added that while “we have a diversified portfolio, we are subject to a wider range of threats and challenges. We’ll probably talk more about climate… it’s a thing.”

Scanga pointed out that this is a fairly small headwaters river/drainage area, but its geographically the biggest basin in the state. “The Arkansas Basin is the largest land mass basin and the least amount of water. It’s probably one of the driest basins in terms of the climate and weather.”

“In Salida, we get 12 inches of moisture a year,” he added. “But 20 inches of precipitation is required to grow a crop if the moisture comes at the right time … there is a line on the map that delineates precipitation amounts. That line is the 100th Meridian through the middle of Kansas – east of that line you don’t have to irrigate. West of it — you’re irrigating.”

“BV is the driest point as you move east – then it gets 40 inches on top of the mountains, which is why the old timers built reservoirs,’ added Scanga. “Climate has been variable forever – we still get 12 inches in Salida, and BV is drier. What has changed is it’s more difficult to build reservoirs.”

The best place to put them is in the forest where there is heavy snowpack, and good runoff … but Scanga said, to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to build a reservoir is difficult because of federal land use policies.

“The greatest challenge is  – getting permits from the U.S. Forest Service – and second is trying to fill those reservoirs. We have to work with that challenge. We need them to have water on the mainstem of the Colorado for the voluntary flow program.

While listing challenges came readily, there was a small pause when asked about the valley’s water assets. Scanga filled the pause saying “Our assets are the transmountain diversions — we have reservoirs because of that, like Twin Lakes. While there are reservoirs at the bottom for the Frying Pan diversion, having reservoirs at the top is a great value. We maximize the water we have for the benefit of our people. That’s what water augmentation does for us – gives us flexibility to use the resources.”

Explaining Water Augmentation

A 1969 Colorado law merged tributary groundwater with surface water under the prior appropriation system … “first in time – first in right”. Until then, wells weren’t in that system.

Water is what is called a“fully consumable” water right.

Before 1969, if you bought a piece of property and wanted to build 100 homes, you had to go out and find land with a water right; typically by buying a ranch and changing the agricultural (irrigation) water right to a fully consumable water right to get their subdivision approved, then had to dedicate that ranch water to go down the stream, and that gave you the right to build homes.

“Many of those failed,” said Scanga. “Upper Ark had to come on the scene and rescue those plans that mostly failed…. an irrigation water right runs for like 180 days/year … but the trouble is that if you have a well and home, you use water every day … under the augmentation time you replace water based on time – today we make these by time and location because we’ve got the augmentation.

These days, a homeowner expects to pay around $4,300 for a well, and for that right, the water augmentation agreement can be arranged in around 100 days, instead of years.

The Value of Water

Water is finite, and there is a need to recognize that and manage it accordingly. While some might say that water is priceless, Rishavy asked the panelists about whether water is undervalued or overvalued.

” Water is complicated,” said Sarni. “It’s local, my work is international and national work, but I only do local work for the private sector. I’d say that in general water is undervalued. Other industry sectors are beginning to value water like the ag sector does…. chips, smartphones, cars, what I’m seeing is other industry sectors are valuing water now.”

He paused and added, “The consumer believes water comes from the tap and believes they should pay nothing for access, treatment, and delivery.”

“In actuality, we’re all in this together … water is a common pool resource – from reservoir, watershed, or another watershed – what other watersheds are facing might impact this community. Declining groundwater levels, declining surface water – people are going to be hunting for water and we need to address the demand side with the economy – or build smart water homes. Right now we have dumb water homes. It is lunacy to flush a toilet with well water….. A smart water home is now possible based on technology…. so is smart agriculture.”

Niemela pointed out that he works at the intersection between public and private water sources, which means it is both valued and finite.

“A big focus of the work I do is certainty. The water court’s ruling is final. There is a whole legal framework based on this… changes in access, and philosophy … I look at water in the valley with a long-term planning mindset – 50-year planning is acceptable for public entities, and the question is can current and future visions can be supported by water supplies.”

We are uniquely blessed here,” added Niemela. “The Upper Ark is like Denver Water – they’ve been planning carefully since the 1970s… the work that that entity has done is a real contrast to other basins or other parts of the Arkansas Basin. We can all learn a lot from them.”

He did take issue with the idea of water being complicated. “I work by individual communities and organizations looking to advance a certain vision – people say water is complex — but it flows downhill, it’s limited, there’s an appropriation in place. People need to recognize this amazing scarce resource we still have in this valley and not take it for granted.”

Sarni pushed back saying “I disagree. Water is complicated… in the U.S. We have no shortage of federal, state, and local regulations that govern water. Here in Colorado, it keeps consultants busy; it can be simplified if we focus on it as a finite resource but it CAN be managed if we address the demand side of the equation.”

The value of water globally in 2021 was $56 trillion, said Rishavy, “Could we assign a value to it here …figure out what the value of a gallon of water is here – maybe it’s ag – maybe it’s homes … and make strategic choices based on that value of the water? That, he added is different than current views of water here.

“When we use the word ‘we’, people think that there is this ability to take collective action and have some sort of overarching system to drive the future course of events. That might be possible, but we don’t have it now,” declared Felt. “We have to find ways to incentivize people to cooperate and collaborate… we do with some others in the state — we coordinate how we deliver the water – for instance, on the high flow times on the river, or the opposite … the greater “we” is a combination of collaboration and incentives. Benefits can also accrue to the system not just the individuals.

“The prior appropriating system was built with the economy in mind, but we have subsidized the delivery of water… it has been changed from a strictly market price determination – we said, ‘oh, people can’t afford that – and they change the rate structure in town. They said I’m not going to pay that much for water -we have subsidized water – if we did what Will [Sarni] suggested, we’d be valuing the water at the right price.

He compared people’s views about water to the air they breathe — as if it should all be free. “But water is not air; there is the cost in the storage, delivery, and treatment. At Upper Ark, it’s not what we pay for that water that renews every year, it’s the cost of storing it and delivering it. It used to be $4 to $5 per acre-foot – now it’s $20-50 per acre-foot of water.” He reminded the audience “In Colorado, if you don’t use that water right, it moves to the next users.”

“Prior appropriations isn’t going to go away, but it has to evolve. There have been changes to accommodate the aridification of the American West,” said Sarni. “But we have less supply, and increasing demand – stupid demand. Because water is hidden, the value of water isn’t understood – people don’t value it and don’t want to pay for this finite resource.”

“My clients in the lower Ark Valley take water rights as seriously as the Second Amendment,” said Niemela. “The money and the threat is coming from the Front Range … Water is undervalued in the county and throughout the Mountain West. In the next decade, people are coming for our water rights. We have to compete with the Front Range. First, we have to lock down water rights for agriculture. Second, we have to work with Upper Ark, and third, we have to set up conservation easements and keep water in agriculture. There are legacy opportunities in this valley — ways to keep water on agriculture and locked to the land.”

Felt pointed out that one leg of Envision Chaffee County, the CommonGround effort has been to support ag, to keep families on their land, “Their first preference is that the land stay in the family, the second that the land stay in ag, and if they can’t do that, to keep the water on the land.”

“Does that high-value water inventory exist?” asked Rishavy.

 “I think it does in Terry’s mind,” said Felt, to general laughter.

Rishavy next asked about “frictionless water inventory”.

First to respond was Scanga, who said that every land parcel has a different value. “With Upper Ark, we have an umbrella plan of augmentation that says we can use water in about 3,000 square miles for a group of use types.”

Niemela noted that from his work in Park County, that there the South Platte has only 10 acre-feet of unallocated water left. (Each acre-foot for irrigated land equals water for three to 10 homes for a year.) “That’s three to 10 homes that will never be here. Once the water is gone – it’s gone. Image Salida buying water from Colorado Springs.”

The group pointed out this last truth: during irrigation season in the Arkansas. all the water in the basin is appropriated, because it was spoken for in the 1880’s. “We are in the most over-appropriated basin in the state. We need to understand the threat,” said Niemela, who added that he sees little risk in overdevelopment based on groundwater.”

He is however worried about the valley fulfilling its Comprehensive Plan vision. “On the current path, the towns will look like Aspen and no one wants that.”

Rishavy ended the session by asking the panelists what the business community should be doing to “drive clarity around what we’re hearing on water?”

“I think you should quantify the value of water to this community – both the public and private sector and integrate [this] into a community strategy,” said Sarni. “I believe this could be a sustainable thriving community that honors property rights.”

“It would help us to know what the business community wants to build – so I can plan, how much water is required to do that,” said Scanga. “But there’s more going on than trying to use water as the reason for everything. The problem in Chaffee County is the cost of land and the unavailability of labor. In the 60s, the farming economy was almost destroyed… the ranching community needed grazing permits…. that’s what created the great ranching community here. Now, the grazing allotments are smaller, the recreation industry is being pushed in the U.S. Forest Service.”

“The biggest challenge with water is thinking it’s a problem too hard to solve, too complex,” concluded Niemela.

“As a commissioner, most of the problems I’ve been asked to work on have been caused or made worse by growth… at the same time, you said your mission is to grow into a more successful community. They aren’t in opposition to each other, but they often play out that way in the Mountain West,” said Felt. “The unique asset is the unique landscape we have here… When [former Commissioner] Dave Potts agreed to support Common Ground he said it’s a business case – we can’t kill the golden goose.”