H.B. 09-1174, Exempt Pre-1974 Well Depletions

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We missed it but Governor Ritter signed H.B. 09-1174 (pdf) which would let groundwater irrigators off the hook for pre-1974 well depletions on March 25, 2009. Here’s a report from the Associated Press (Steven K. Paulson) via Forbes.

A quick look at the sources for Front Range municipal water supply

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Here’s a primer of sorts dealing with municipal water supplies for Front Range cities, from Doug Nichols writing for the Berthoud Recorder. From the article:

Here in Berthoud, our municipal water supply comes from the Western Slope (where at least the snowfall was consistently good). It is piped to Carter Lake, and from there to a reservoir where it is treated before heading to our homes.

Denver also gets its water from mountain snows, but some metro suburbs are facing a great dilemma as their supplies, which come not from the mountains but from groundwater pumped from wells, are becoming increasingly scarce. People sometimes visualize groundwater as existing in underground pools or lakes, which deep wells can tap. That is not at all the real situation. Groundwater is present in buried layers of rock called aquifers, where it exists in a manner similar to what it would be like if you filled a bucket with sand and then added water to it. Furthermore, the aquifers beneath Denver and its suburbs are not great tabular bodies of rock extending throughout the region, as once thought. Recent research is showing that some of Denver’s aquifers are essentially buried alluvial fans with limited geographic extents. An alluvial fan is like a river delta on dry land and formed at the base of the mountains that existed to the west of the present-day Denver metro area millions of years ago. The aquifers are now buried as much as 760 m (2,500 ft) below the present land surface. They contain finite amounts of water, which have been there for tens of thousands of years. These supplies are rapidly diminishing as municipal pumps work to provide water to homes and lawns.

Jim Hibbard named to lead Little Thompson Water District

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From the Berthoud Recorder (Sandy Barnes): “Hibbard officially began his new position at the water district office Monday, April 6. ‘The first couple of days have been exciting,’ he said. ‘There is an excellent staff here. My hope is to contribute to the success of the organization.’ After an extended search for a new district manager, the Little Thompson Water District Board of Directors selected Hibbard, who has extensive experience with water treatment and distribution systems and a professional background in engineering.”

Flaming Gorge pipeline update

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Here’s an update on Aaron Million’s Flaming Gorge pipeline (Regional Watershed Supply Project), from Kevin Duggan writing for the Fort Collins Coloradoan. From the article:

The EIS process includes a series of “scoping” meetings during which members of the public may ask questions of the project’s proponents and Corps officials and submit comments on environmental issues that should considered during the study, said Monique Farmer, spokeswoman for Corps. Meetings are scheduled in six communities that would be affected by the project, including Vernal, Utah; Green River, Wyo.; and Pueblo. The Fort Collins meeting is scheduled April 20 at Fossil Ridge High School. An EIS is required for the project under the National Environmental Policy Act for it to receive federal permits…

The pipeline could fit in with several communities’ efforts to secure water for future growth, including the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP, proposed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Million said. The pipeline could be used to fill Glade Reservoir, which would be built near Ted’s Place as part of NISP, or the Cactus Hill Reservoir proposed east of Fort Collins that would be an alternative to Glade…

Northern Water officials have spoken with Million but have not taken a position on the project, said district spokesman Brian Werner. The proposal “has a lot of hurdles to clear” before it could be built, he said…

Northern Water wants to learn the results of a state survey on the availability of water before weighing in on Million’s project as well as other pipeline proposals, Werner said. “We would agree there is need for additional water supplies for the Front Range of Colorado,” he said. “We’re a long way from endorsing any of those projects.”

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Colorado-Big Thompson project quota set at 80%

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From the Loveland Reporter Herald: “Eleven of the 12 [Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District Board] members voted for the 80 percent quota — a number recommended to the staff by agricultural users and about 10 percent higher than the amount recommended by several area cities. That means the cities, towns and other project participants can draw from the system 0.8 acre-feet of water for every share of Colorado-Big Thompson water they own.”

More coverage from the Northern Colorado Business Report: “At its meeting Friday, April 10, the Northern Water Board set the C-BT Project quota at 80 percent, a 20 percent increase from the initial quota of 60 percent set in October. The board reassesses the initial quota each April, based on updated data and information, including snowpack, water available in local storage, soil moisture conditions, runoff and estimated diversions, as well as the need to maintain C-BT Project storage reserves. The project’s reserves, as measured on April 1 of each year, have been below average every year since 2000. Although the reserves are recovering, they are again below average this year, but farmers are facing low soil moisture conditions and the Board hoped that the 80-percent quota would help.”

Snowpack news

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From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide): “[Colorado Division of Water Resources Acting Division Engineer for Division III Craig Cotten] told water groups this week that the basin is doing fairly well with snowpack although recent winds had diminished the snowpack from 101 to 97 percent in a short time. He said most of the snow measurement sites around the basin are reading 90-100 percent with the highest readings in the Conejos River area which is tallying 103-104 percent. Cotten said the Natural Resources Conservation Services forecast for the Rio Grande is 91 percent of average at this point with an approximate projected annual index of 600,000 acre feet. About 500,000 acre feet of that total for the Rio Grande is forecast to occur during the irrigation season between April and September.

“The Rio Grande will owe about 162,000 acre feet of its total flow to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact. Although about 100,000 acre feet of that obligation comes from flows during non-irrigation months, from Closed Basin Project contributions or from carry-over credits from last year, the Rio Grande will still have to run 61,800 acre feet of water downstream during the irrigation season to meet the compact. Cotten said that would translate to about a 12-percent curtailment on irrigators on the Rio Grande to make sure the state delivers its water obligation to New Mexico and Texas…

“The annual forecast for the Conejos River systems is 330,000 acre feet, Cotten said. With the system owing 80,000 acre feet of that during the irrigation season alone, irrigators will face curtailments of about 29 percent, he added.”

From the Loveland Reporter Herald (Pamela Dickman):

On April 1, the water content in the mountain snowpack was just below 100 percent of average in the Big Thompson and Colorado River basins, according to the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District…As of April 1, the amount of water in that snow for the Big Thompson River was 98 percent of average…For the Big Thompson River, they estimate streamflow will drop to 75 percent of average for April through July. At that level, the city should be able to pull 8,000 to 9,000 acre-feet of water from the Big Thompson, [Larry Howard, senior civil engineer for city of Loveland water resources] said…The forecast from Northern Water for streamflow in the Colorado River from April through July is 95 percent.

San Luis Valley: New groundwater pumping rules

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Over 400 groundwater irrigators in the South Platte River Basin have been shutdown in recent years following shutdowns and curtailments in the Arkansas River Basin after Kansas sued Colorado. The state is trying to convince Nebraska that a proposed pipeline releasing into the Republican River at the border will meet Colorado’s requirements under the Republican River Compact. The nexus between groundwater and surface water is becoming well known if not entirely understood.

In an attempt to avoid heavy-handed top-down regulation of groundwater pumping in the San Luis Valley, State Engineer Dick Wolfe, has formed a committee to come up with inclusive rules for pumping that are acceptable to everyone in the valley. The new rules — it is hoped — will satisfy senior surface rights holders, compensate them for past injury, allow most groundwater irrigators to stay in business and keep Colorado on the positive side of the Rio Grande Compact ledger. The state engineer’s office unveiled the first draft of the new rules this week. Here’s a report from Matt Hildner writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

“You’ll see throughout this document there’s a number of places where we’ve put question marks,” Wolfe said. “We thought we need to address those but we weren’t quite sure how we should actually articulate that in these rules.” Wolfe expects a final draft of the rules to be submitted for water court approval by the end of the year, which would most likely come after the court has completed its review of a voluntary plan to limit groundwater pumping in the north-central part of the valley. Should the court approve the plan for Subdistrict No. 1, the engineer’s rules will include a way to accommodate operation of the subdistrict. Subdistrict membership would allow for pumping under the rules as would a court-decreed plan for augmentation.

But the framework regarding the timing of compliance with the rules included a host of questions: How long after approval of the rules will curtailment take effect? What if the court were to remand a subdistrict plan? The framework also raised questions about whether some geographic areas should be phased in, citing, for example, how little information the state had on the aquifer beneath southern Costilla County. “I think we all recognize we don’t want to inadvertently take too much of an extreme one way or another of either not handling them or restricting them too much when we don’t know enough about them,” Wolfe said.

A key component of both the rules and the operation of subdistricts will be the state’s Rio Grande Decision Support System, a computer model planners will use to predict when and where future groundwater use might harm senior surface water users or compact obligations. Kelly Sowards, one of the objectors to the subdistrict plan now under review by the court, raised the question of how the computer model’s results would be released in relation to the start of irrigation season. “It’s important for us to know quickly,” he said. Tim Buchanan, an attorney who represents Sowards and other objectors in the subdistrict trial, urged the engineer to write a procedure into the rules on when modeling would occur and how the public would be notified.

“We know a lot today compared to what we knew 30 years ago,” he said. Wolfe’s office hopes to gather all of the committee’s comments on the framework by April 24. The advisory committee will meet again May 13.

More coverage from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier:

Wolfe hopes to get to a final draft by the end of the year and told the advisory committee that by working through questions and objections upfront he hoped to avoid objections to the final rules when they are submitted to the water judge later this year. “I come today with not being biased by the past,” Wolfe said. He was not involved in attempts years ago to develop groundwater rules, he said, and believed the state and water users have more information now than was available then. He stressed it was important to him that these rules be developed with input from those who would be affected by them. “Progress is going to be slow,” he said. The complex issues involved in this basin will take several months to work through, he said. “I know this process will be successful,” he added…

He asked the numerous members of the advisory committee to begin sending comments to the state regarding the initial draft in the next couple of weeks so the next draft version may be sent out to the committee before its next meeting in Alamosa on Wednesday, May 13. The committee will meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with educational items presented in the morning and the afternoon focusing on the rules themselves…

Wolfe reminded those present that all well owners would have to comply with the state’s rules governing groundwater withdrawal in Division 3 (the Valley) unless they are exempt. Exempt wells might be domestic wells, for example, or wells already under an augmentation plan, Wolfe explained. Otherwise, well owners will have to obtain an augmentation plan or substitute water supply plan, be part of a water management sub-district or face curtailed pumping…

The San Luis Valley has about 3,000 wells that would potentially fall under these rules…

The rough draft Wolfe presented this week is somewhat of an outline of the various topics that must be addressed in the rules. The draft includes 14 sections from the title (“Rules Governing the Withdrawal of Ground Water in Water Division No. 3”) and authority (state statutes) to the effective date (60 days after publication, if there are no objections.) In between are sections regarding the purpose of the rules, definitions, requirements, standards for review of applications (namely the Rio Grande Decision Support System groundwater model), compliance plans and timing for compliance, geographic scope (nearly the entire Valley) and irrigation season. The determination on when the irrigation season will begin and end according to the rules is one of the items Wolfe said would require much discussion and probably the establishment of a sub-committee. In addition to the sections Wolfe included in his first draft, he questioned whether the rules should also include sections for variances and appeals. Wolfe said the section in the rules defining their scope and purpose was one of the most important. That was the portion most fleshed out in his initial draft. He said he incorporated comments from the advisory group’s first meeting.

Objectives he included in the initial draft included: optimally use water “consistent with preservation of the priority system of water rights and protection of Colorado’s ability to meet its interstate compact obligations;” regulate aquifers to maintain a sustainable water supply; recognize the aquifers as underground storage reservoirs; maintaining artesian water pressures consistent with those experienced in the years 1978-2000; and recognize the obligations to replace injurious stream depletions and fulfill obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.

Here’s a look at the technical challenges for modeling the hydrogeology of the valley, from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier:

Before presenting the first draft of the proposed well regulations this week, the state engineer’s office provided background on subjects such as the Valley’s hydrogeology and the Rio Grande Decision Support System. All of these subjects play a part in the well regulations. Geologist Eric Harmon described the Valley’s hydrogeology as a 100×40-mile three-dimensional, multi-layered jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the puzzle box to guide those trying to put it together. The fact that changing one puzzle piece can affect many more or even the entire picture is one of the challenges of those trying to put together well regulations that are equitable. Folks have been studying the Valley’s hydrogeology since the 1890’s, and although the tools to study it are more advanced now than then, the experts still do not have it all figured out, Harmon explained. In the last decade the state spent about $8 million developing the Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS), a model of the Valley’s hydrology…

Harmon said the Valley consists of very different and complex geological regions that make efforts to define it difficult. He said underneath the Valley’s seemingly uneventful surface lie faults, inter-bedded layers of clay and sand, gravel, basalt, rocks and water flowing among all of that. Harmon said the RGDSS computer model has five layers and 51,000 cells, but “even that model cannot show all the geological complexities of the Valley.” He said in certain areas the model still requires refinements to reflect the realities of the Valley’s hydrology. He added that in some areas the model works very well and other areas it does not accurately reflect what is happening in the real world.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Ag to urban transfers

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Last year a subcommittee of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable presented a report detailing a blueprint for transfers of agricultural water to urban use. Chris Woodka (Pueblo Chieftain) has written a detailed analysis of the model’s application to current projects in the basin, well actually, the non-application of the model to current projects in the basin. From the article:

The model, Considerations for Agriculture to Urban Transfers (pdf), was developed by a committee of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable over two years of meetings…

The roundtable, in its review of the report, was divided on whether it should have “teeth” or remain a voluntary document. Whether the teeth should be the sharp fangs of state enforcement or the grinding molars of county review was also debated. If the document remains voluntary, it could just be a set of quaint dentures on the shelf. At the Colorado Water Congress meeting in January a water project developer – Aaron Million, who wants to bring water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming to the Front Range – asked a water provider who served on the roundtable committee – Wayne Vanderschuere of Colorado Springs Utilities – why the Front Range Water Council had not adopted the document. The council comprises the major importers of Western Slope water, including Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Twin Lakes and the Northern and Southeastern water conservancy districts. Vanderschuere said the report was too preliminary to actually be used…

[Last Wednesday the Arkansas Basin Roundtable]…talked about how to get more water from the Western Slope, how to increase municipal water conservation; how to protect the investment value of ag water rights; how to meet environmental, wildlife and recreation needs; and even why the impacts of SDS on agriculture were not more fully discussed. “We need to put in projects to give alternatives to water rights owners besides a sale,” said Beulah rancher Reeves Brown. All of those questions are addressed in the water transfers document, which was virtually ignored in the discussion…

Gary Barber, chairman of the roundtable and an agent for El Paso County water interests, said the way deals are going forward is like the situation described in the Tragedy of the Commons, a 1968 scientific paper by Garrett Hardin that dealt with population problems. Hardin basically described how unbridled self-interest could destroy a shared resource. “I think what’s happened is that the environmental and recreation communities have entered the conversation, and we have to find an equitable way to satisfy that interest,” Barber said. There are other efforts to incorporate outside interests, even those who may not know they have a stake in the decisions being made today.

Pueblo: New FEMA floodplain map

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Here’s an update on the new FEMA floodplain map for Pueblo, from Chris Woodka writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

“We’re in the business of assessing risk and formulating maps that reflect that,” said Ryan Pietramali, FEMA regional risk analysis chief.

Pueblo City Council, in a workshop this week, learned that the new maps could widen the 100-year-flood plain shown on current maps, which date from 1986, primarily because of conditions on Wild Horse Dry Creek. The creek has levees built 80 years ago, but the problem may be deeper than that, since the levees don’t cover the length of the creek, which drains a wide area northwest of Pueblo, including parts of Pueblo West and a corner of Fort Carson. Levees also are on the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek. The levees must be certified in order to be included on FEMA maps, but FEMA does not do the certification. That responsibility rests with the Army Corps of Engineers, at the expense of local agencies. Engineers are assessing the hydrology, or volume of water, and hydraulics, or structures in the flood plain, to determine the probability of future floods…

By fall, FEMA hopes to have a preliminary map, which could be changed with scientific evidence. “These are preliminary maps,” Pietramali said, saying FEMA would use whatever engineering data is available from the city of Pueblo, Fountain Creek study groups or the Pueblo Conservancy District, which operates the Arkansas River levees. “One of the things we want to do is accurately convey the risk.” Pietramali said the intent of the newest effort, launched by Congress in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is to digitalize FEMA maps. The digitalization will allow FEMA to reflect future changes, meaning Pueblo would not be stuck with outdated information even after maps are finalized. After the preliminary maps are presented, there will be several opportunities for more public input, he added. There also is a formal appeals process that has been used sparingly, so far – one appeal out of 180 current projects, Pietramali said.

Bessemer Ditch postpones vote to change bylaws

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From the Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka): “The special meeting of shareholders of the ditch will be at 5 p.m. May 11 at the Pueblo Convention Center, board member Leonard DiTomaso said Friday. DiTomaso, who was elected to the board in January, said he is gathering support to fight changes that would allow water to be used outside the ditch’s boundaries. He farms on the Bessemer and wants water to stay in the ditch for future generations. ‘People on the mesa are on a rampage,’ DiTomaso said. ‘In Colorado, people do have a right to sell water, but we’ll be damaged if they transfer it out.’

“The proposed changes in the bylaws have been substantially altered, mainly at the request of the Bessemer board, said Executive Director Alan Hamel. The meeting was delayed in order to provide shareholders more time to consider the changes, as well as allowing the water board and the St. Charles Mesa Water District board an opportunity to review them. Those boards entered an agreement last month that would allow certain changes in the bylaws…

“The Pueblo water board is looking to buy at least 5,000 shares of the Bessemer Ditch, about 25 percent, at $10,150 per share, but contracts are contingent on obtaining a change of bylaws.”

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.