Conversation with… James Newberry, Colorado River District
Ryan Summerlin February 24, 2014
James Newberry is starting his second year as the Colorado River District board president, and has represented Grand County on the board since 2004. Through his time on the board and serving as a county commissioner, Newberry has made protecting the area’s valuable water resources a high priority.
Chief among water concerns are developing Colorado’s first water plan, which is currently being drafted, and obligations from the 1922 Colorado River Compact. As drought menaces water supplies in downstream states, those obligations could spell trouble for those living at the Colorado River’s headwaters in Grand County. Newberry spoke about the challenges facing the state’s water supply and thoughts about our water future.
What are you goals as president of the Colorado River District board for the coming year?
I don’t know it’s a goal, but what’s been laid out in front of us is the Colorado water plan, and we as a district have been involved in formulation of that plan. We’re also looking into compact calls to lower basin states, and how that integrates into the Colorado water plan. For example, how do we match up being able to divide up water on the East and West slopes within Colorado, while still managing those compact agreements? I think the Colorado River District will be a leader in advocating for different methods, such as water banking and risk-management in the different river basins. Statewide, we’re looking at what it means to develop a water plan while meeting a compact call, should it go into place. As a river district, we don’t believe it’s just a West Slope issue.
Explain the problems Grand County could face from drought issues farther downstream.
That truly is the problem with a compact call. The only water rights that wouldn’t be subjected to a compact call are those made before 1922, the very senior water rights. Some people say if we get compact calls it’s great for Grand County, because not as much water will go to the Front Range as we send it down river to meet our obligations. But there are going to be a lot of junior rights that people wouldn’t be able to use.
The bottom line is, it works in all water users’ interests to work on a water plan. That way if there is a call, we’ll have water stored up or credited, and we can work out those preexisting diversions.
One thing the Colorado River District is fighting for is to make sure whatever the risk of that future that call is, it’s not just going to be the West Slope bearing the brunt of meeting compact obligations downstream.
The West’s water future is looking grim. Is there anything that makes you feel optimistic?
We’re now taking a hard look at the water situation we’ll have in the future. When they decided the Colorado River Compact, it was one of the wettest periods in the history of the Colorado River. I don’t think that model is viable. Whether you believe in climate change and its effects or not, maybe this is making us aware of the amount of water we really do have, and it’s getting us to do a better job of managing it. Is that optimism? Maybe not, but it’s the reality we’re facing.
What projects are you advocating to increase conservation of Colorado River water?
We’re always looking at ways of conservation. In the next 30 years or so, the state projects we’re going to have a 500,000-acre-foot water shortage. One of our engineers looked at the study (the Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010), then turned around and said we could address that gap without further diversions from the West Slope, some of that through conservation. There is no ‘new water,’ and we’ll have to go back to conservation, like installing low-flow faucets and lining irrigating ditches. We’re always backing ways to better use water we have.
Are there any accomplishments you’re proud of during your time on the Colorado River District board?
I think the involvement with the Windy Gap firming project in Grand County. Without the river district, I don’t know how far we would’ve gotten back at the federal level and the Bureau of Reclamation, the heavy hitters, without their help.
The Colorado River District has also been heavily involved in Vail Ditch water shares and trying to move water to the upper Fraser River. And they’ve done a huge amount of work on the Colorado River here. The river district basically came into existence to be a watchdog on the Colorado-Big Thompson project. That’s truly the root of their existence, and we have held true to that. For example, we’re working on water clarity in Grand Lake, and the river district is helping hand-in-hand.