Water districts: Cooperation, not conflict, rules local use

Greg Trainor
Greg Trainor

Water wars are as infamous as battles between sheep and cattle ranchers in Western Colorado lore. But while opponents in livestock conflicts rarely resort to fisticuffs any more, negotiations over water rights can still come close to resembling

old-fashioned street fights.

Water companies in the Grand Valley have a different tale to tell, though. The City of Grand Junction District, Ute Water Conservancy District and Clifton Water District work under a three-way agreement to help one another in times of need. If one district runs short of water, the others pitch in to ensure there’s enough. It’s the only agreement of its kind in Colorado.

“One of the basic principles is that a water shortage for one entity would be a water shortage for all of us,” said Greg Trainor, utility and street systems director for the City of Grand Junction.

The cooperative effort doesn’t happen only during a drought. Should the city shut down a water pipe for repair, it might ask Ute Water or Clifton Water to send extra water to the city, Trainor said. And because the Colorado River provides water for the Clifton system, the system can be a little short of water during the winter due to lower flows. By contrast, the city system derives its water from the Grand Mesa; so, the city can be short of water during the summer. Such dynamics dictate that each system relies on the other depending on the season.

And should one water system become so short of supplies it rations water, the other water districts agree to join in.

In addition to water, the districts also need money to flow to meet expenses. And the depressed local real estate market affects revenues.

“The biggest challenge is the effect that foreclosed properties are having on the revenue stream,” said Dale Tooker, manager of the Clifton Water District.

Each vacant property represents a loss of utility fees. The Clifton area has been hard hit by the soft economy — 180 vacant living spaces were added to the mix in the Clifton district last year. Many of the energy workers who were laid off in 2009 lived in Clifton and commuted to natural gas fields in Garfield County.

The water districts can legally collect property taxes, which would produce revenue from the owners of foreclosed homes. But, Clifton has been reticent to seek property taxes, Tooker said. Besides, property tax revenues in Mesa County are due to decline in 2012 because taxes will be based on the depressed valuations of 2010 and early 2011.

The alternative is to hike water rates. The Clifton district did just that in 2010, its first increase since 2004. The average homeowner now pays about $24 a month, Tooker said.

The three districts provide domestic drinking water, but many users of Ute and Grand Junction city water also use water for irrigation. The water districts and multiple irrigation companies in the Grand Valley encourage people to use untreated river water for irrigation when possible. But most people who live in the city limits don’t have access to ditches that carry irrigation water. Domestic water is more costly to produce than irrigation water. That’s one reason city government emphasizes water conservation, especially in the summer. Water officials are trying to head off water shortages that could result from a growing population in the Grand Valley combined with increased demand for Western Colorado water from the Front Range and other Colorado River basin states.

“There are some conflicting dynamics,” Trainor said. “Population is increasing. Water supplies are decreasing.”

A report issued by the Colorado Water Conservation Board suggests strategies to brace for a doubling of the Colorado population over the next 40 years. The report recommends the construction of more dams and reservoirs to store water.

“We expect that there will be a transfer of water from agriculture to cities,” Trainor said. Western Colorado farms and ranches in particular face threats from the growing population in Colorado and other states.

State water experts say there are two additional factors to track: water use by the energy industry and the effects of global climate change. Average temperatures have warmed over the past two decades and could affect future precipitation levels.