The 2019 water season is healthy, as indicated in this photograph, but last year the city arranged a buyout of the Wheeler Ditch Diversion to maintain stream levels in the Roaring Fork River.

The city of Aspen has been awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board as part of an effort to increase water conservation throughout the state.

On Monday, the city announced that it is the recipient of $186,356, which will go toward establishing “alternative transfer methods” with area farmers. ATMs allow water-right holders to share a portion of their claims without giving them up entirely. The state has a goal to assist in 50,000 acre feet of water transfers through the use of ATMs by 2030.

The program allows creative solutions to water sharing in a way that was not previously accessible, according to Margaret Medellin, city of Aspen’s utilities portfolio manager.

“Traditionally in Colorado water law, if you don’t use your water right you'll eventually lose it,” Medellin said, “so before this ATM concept came about you would want to use your water rights as much as you can at all times.”

This tactic is counterintuitive to what the state needs from its water holders, though. Colorado’s population growth projections show that the demand for water will increasingly outmatch the supply. By 2050, the state’s population is estimated to reach 10 million — double 2008’s figure — creating a water shortage for about 2.5 million families.

In attempting to preserve its own water rights on Castle and Maroon Creeks, the city found itself headed to state water court with 10 separate opponents last year. It was during those pretrial negotiations that the city decided to partner with two plaintiffs to explore the ATM solution locally.

“This project is one of a few good things that came out of that effort,” Medellin said. “It really is just us as different advocates for different parts of the community coming together to try and get creative.”

Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates have assisted the city in seeking out partners who would be willing to forfeit claims on diversions at different times. Over the last year, the city has held stakeholder meetings and consulted with experts, but they realized they would need assistance in identifying good partnerships.

“The thing we realized is that there was no clear project up here,” Medellin said.

The state grant allows the city to hire outside consultants who can continue the work of finding water-rights holders who would be willing to temporarily divert their claims to the city in exchange for fees.

Todd Doherty is the president of Western Water Partnership, the consultant who helped the city with the grant application and will continue to work on securing ATM agreements. He has identified 2,800 irrigated acres that use water diverted at or above the city. His team will be reaching out to farmers to explain the program and gauge interest.

He stressed that ATMs don’t permanently transfer water rights.

“The original owner would still be the owner. It would be a contract, an agreement with the city to be able to use (water rights) at certain times for some payment,” Doherty said.

He said this could mean a contract that only kicks in during extreme drought years, like 2018.

“It operates in a way that is suitable for the [agricultural] producer,” he said, “and if the price is right, which should be higher than what the producer is making through his regular operations.”

On the Front range, cities are able to convince landowners to fallow a field of crops like alfalfa for a year and let the city keep the water that would have been diverted to irrigation. Medellin said the crops that grow in the high Rockies and Western Slope are more complicated.

“We don’t have a lot of crops that you can fallow easily. Especially if you are looking at things like peach orchards, you can’t do that,” Medellin said.

The city already has one ATM in place at the Wheeler Ditch Diversion east of Aspen. Last year they were able to negotiate with the owner to bypass the diversion and keep water in the Roaring Fork River as water levels became dangerously low for fish and the watershed ecosystem.

Once Western Water Partnership has identified willing agricultural partners, they will have to facilitate individual deals with each user that can range in what would trigger the water sharing and how much the farmer would get compensated. 

“This is all voluntary, it’s through a willing lessor, it’s temporary in nature. We are not taking any [agricultural] land out of production. This is trying to preserve ag land through these water-sharing agreements,” said Doherty.

Medellin is hopeful that the number of partners involved thus far will result in new relationships that can help address Aspen’s public and ecological water needs.

“I think the more that we can work together to protect our community, to protect our environment, the better we are,” she said.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.