Climate Fix Blog

Climate change is always, well, changing. Stay updated on how you can protect the West.

New water sharing agreement helps boost stream flows

Declining stream flows can have cascading impacts on communities, fish, and wildlife. WRA is supporting policies and agreements to put water back into the rivers that sustain the West.

Laura Belanger

Senior Policy Advisor


Healthy rivers are the foundation of the West, but climate change and growing water demands have stretched our rivers thin. Across the region, low flows have resulted in cascading impacts to communities, fish, and wildlife. Drying streams become disconnected from the rest of the river system. Low water levels inhibit fish passage, cause harmful algal blooms, result in higher water temperatures that are dangerous to fish, and increase the spread of invasive species. Communities feel the effects of these low flows as water supplies decline and popular outdoor recreation spots close.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem – add water. But unfortunately, water is in short supply in the West. In many cases, much of the water flowing in our rivers is already spoken for, having been legally allocated to cities, farmers and ranchers, industry, and other water users. Under state law in Colorado, water users have long been incentivized to use their full water allotment or risk losing it – a huge deterrent for water conservation.

Thankfully this is changing, as new policies are adopted that promote conservation while protecting water rights. For example, in 2013, a law was passed that allows water users who participate in water conservation programs to leave water in rivers and streams while still maintaining their full water rights. This helped open the door to innovative water sharing agreements to boost river flows.

In 2020, WRA worked with a team of partners to compile a list of high priority streams across Colorado that could benefit from such agreements. Among these streams was Slater Creek.

Located northwest of Steamboat Springs, the picturesque Slater Creek watershed supports numerous ranches, sustains habitat for native fish, and is a popular destination for camping, hunting, and boating. But in the hot summer months, flows in Slater Creek often drop below what is needed to maintain a healthy stream for fish and wildlife.

Seeing this, WRA sprang into action and met with members of the local ranching community to discuss a water sharing project to restore Slater Creek. We built relationships within the community, listened to their concerns, and assured them that any project would be protective of their water rights, and any water sharing agreement would be voluntary, fairly compensated, and mutually beneficial to participants and the river. Through these conversations, we were introduced to a rancher who was interested in working with us. We connected with the Colorado Water Trust, an organization with expertise in water sharing agreements, to get the project off the ground.

Ditch headgate that will be closed under the agreement to leave water in Slater Creek

Under this new agreement, WRA and the Colorado Water Trust will lease water from the rancher this summer to boost flows in Slater Creek. The rancher will be paid to stop irrigating from mid-July through October, when the river needs water the most. This will benefit 32 miles of Slater Creek, including reaches with instream flow water rights, and will put up to 130 million gallons of water back into the stream. WRA will be monitoring stream health and documenting river flows over the course of the lease. State law limits such leases to five out of every ten consecutive years to preserve agricultural lands. WRA and the Colorado Water Trust plan to continue working in Slater Creek to lease water in the years when it is most needed.

The water sharing agreement in Slater Creek is a prime example of how we can work together to implement solutions that both protect rivers and benefit communities in the face of drought and climate change.

Across the West, WRA is supporting agreements and policies that put water back into the streams that sustain our communities, fish, and wildlife.


Important updates from WRA’s experts – straight to your inbox.

Western Resource Advocates