Because the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (“Northern Water”) established simple mechanisms to allow trading of Colorado-Big Thompson (“CBT”) Project water, CBT units have been trading widely for nearly 60 years. The CBT Project is a federal water diversion project that brings water from the Colorado River headwaters on the West Slope to the Big-Thompson River, a tributary to the South Platte River, to provide a supplemental source of water to Colorado’s Front Range—supplying 925,000 people and 640,000 acres of irrigated agricultural lands in Northern Colorado.
The project facilities and water rights are owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but Northern Water, a quasi-municipal entity and political subdivision of the State of Colorado, manages the project.
The average price for CBT units ranged from $26,076/unit to $27,200/unit during the third quarter of 2017. The low point was driven down by a large transfer between Larimer County and the City and County of Broomfield that was negotiated below the current market rate. With that transaction excluded from the analysis, the average price ranges from $27,030/unit to $27,200/unit. In the second quarter of 2017, prices ranged from $26,500/unit to $27,289/unit—and the third quarter of 2016 saw prices ranging from $25,900/unit to $27,301/unit. (See chart) (For additional information on the transaction between Larimer County and the City and County of Broomfield see, “Larimer County and the City and County of Broomfield Enter Innovative Water Sharing Agreement,” JOW Summer 2017).
During the 3rd quarter of 2017 a total of 580 units changed hands, with monthly volumes ranging from 241 units to 143 units. This is an increase in volume when compared to the first and second quarters of 2017 when 444 units and 333 units changed hands. The third quarter of 2016 saw transfers total 846 units. (See chart)
The Northern Water Board of Directors approves transfers of CBT units and sets quotas to determine the yield of each unit. The project has 310,000 units. The board sets an initial quota each November and revisits it the following April. The April quota allows all CBT Project water users to plan for their water supply needs. The board began setting an initial quota in November 2001 to allow municipal and domestic water users access to CBT water in the winter months without incurring a negative balance when the quota is set in April. The board considers both the availability of water and the water needs in the region when it determines the quota. If conditions warrant, the board will announce a supplemental quota. The annual quota has a historic average of 74% (0.74 AF/unit). At its October 2017 meeting, the Northern Water Board of Directors set the 2018 initial quota at 50%, matching the initial quota for the past several years.
CBT activity has decreased significantly since the late 1990s and early 2000s, with total annual volumes now coming in at one-third to one-half the annual volumes traded in those earlier years. According to local water brokers, development and a shift in the demographics of who owns CBT units have caused this change in market activity. Past drought conditions and uncertainty over water supplies may also be playing a role. When the CBT project began operating in 1957, 85% of the units were owned by agricultural water users. Now agricultural users own only 30% of the units. In addition, there are now fewer and larger agricultural operations—so the supply is limited to stronger hands that generally do not sell, except for estate settlements and retirement.
With the overall trend showing volume dropping and prices climbing, where is the limit on how high prices will go?
(For more extensive background on the history of the CBT Project, see “Trading Federal Project Water: The Colorado–Big Thompson Project,” WS, October 1990).
Written by Marta L. Weismann