Snowpack news: Colorado River basin — 63 percent of average, Rio Grande basin — 95 percent of average

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Click on the thumbnail graphic to the right to view the current snowpack map from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Meanwhile Boulder snowfall is doing just fine. Here’s a report from Eric Metzler writing for the Boulder Daily Camera. From the article:

[A] Weak La Niña pattern, other oscillations mean more snow for Front Range, less for mountains…

Boulder has received more snow already this season than it did all last season and is well above average, despite this being another La Niña year in which many meteorologists expected similar patterns to prevail…

Boulder has received 53.4 inches of snow so far this season and 33.3 inches in December alone, according to meteorologist Matt Kelsch. In a typical year, Boulder will receive 34 inches by the end of December and 88.6 inches by the end of the snow season…

This year’s La Niña is weaker than last year’s, and weather patterns also are being affected by two other oscillations — the Arctic Oscillation and the Madden-Julian Oscillation — that are less predictable and that fluctuate more rapidly.

One of the effects has been to push storms to the south, with southeastern Colorado getting walloped by several blizzards already this year and New Mexico and Arizona seeing above-average snowfall, [Joel Gratz, of opensnow.com] said.

Kelsch said weather patterns in the Atlantic also have affected the west-to-east flow of storms coming in from the Pacific. Last year, storms sped through and dropped most of their moisture on the mountains, leaving only winds for the Front Range. This year, storms have moved more slowly, with counterclockwise winds that leave more snow on the eastern slopes, Kelsch said.

More coverage from John Ingold writing for The Denver Post. From the article:

The first manual snow sampling of the season Thursday confirmed what automated sensors have been suggesting for weeks: that the water available in Colorado’s snowpack is about a quarter below average. Statewide, snowpack is 73 percent of normal. That ranks as the fourth-driest measurement in the last 30 years, according to the conservation service.

No year in the last three decades that has started this far below average has recovered to record normal snowpack by the start of spring, said Mike Gillespie, the snow survey supervisor for the service. “It’s pretty evident that this is one of the drier years,” Gillespie said. “It’s not looking like a good start at all to the year.”[…]

The snowpack measurements are closely watched by Colorado water managers, who use them to determine how much water will be available in the spring and summer. Gillespie said one bright note this year is that last season’s glut of snow kept reservoirs full throughout the summer and fall — providing water suppliers with extra cushion for a dry year.

The Aspen Art Musuem is evaluating geothermal potential at new building site

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From the Aspen Daily News (Curtis Wackerle):

With excavation and construction for the 30,000-square-foot building set to begin this spring, museum officials are trying to determine if they can tap a geothermal energy source to make the structure more efficient and environmentally friendly…

In the case of the art museum site, the contractor is drilling down to about 425 feet. Drilling is expected to take a week, and contractors should know within a few weeks whether there is any geothermal potential, according to museum officials.

“The use of geothermal technology is a key tactic in our overall efforts to construct an environmentally sensitive and sustainable building,” museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson said in a statement. “We look forward to reporting on our findings from this initial testing, and on our overall progress toward these goals.”

More geothermal coverage here.

2012 Grand County budget includes nearly a million bucks for water rights protection

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From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Tonya Bina):

The Water Protection budget of the county’s Dec. 13-approved 2012 budget reflects $927,954 set aside. Nearly half of that total is for legal fees, the rest for monitoring, “learning by doing,” and engineers.

The water budget reflects “the board’s determination to stay in the game and continue to be counted as a key player” in water negotiations, said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran.

More Colorado River basin coverage here.

National Ski Areas Association promises lawsuit over USFS rule intended to keep water rights with the land on ski hills

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From ESPN (Jason Blevins):

After intense lobbying — which included stern letters from a host of congressman and senators — last week the Forest Service rebuffed the calls for a moratorium and issued the new rule as an 18-month moratorium. The resort industry, led by the 121-resort National Ski Areas Association, answered with a promise to sue the agency, which hosts nearly 90 percent of all U.S. ski areas.

“This has to do with water rights in general and how water rights are treated,” said Michael Berry, president of the NSAA. “We believe they have crossed the rubicon and this has the potential to be very, very impactful. We have no guarantee that they will continue to use the water for purposes of ski area business.”

Since 2004, the Forest Service has co-owned water rights secured by ski areas operating on federal land. Before that, under the 1986 National Forest Ski Area Permit Act, ski area water rights on public land were owned by the federal government. So really, said Jim Pena, acting chief of the Forest Service, “this isn’t new.”

“This permit clause is intended to clarify some of the gray areas,” Pena said. “This was a result of lots of discussion with the ski industry over the last year. This requires that water rights on National Forest System land remain with the federal government so we don’t sever that resource from the land.”[…]

Pena said his agency has already issued three new operator permits — in Colorado, Washington and California — with the new clause and those were accepted without any problems. “If a permittee develops water for the activity on (state) public land, they are required to develop that water in the name of the state. It’s the same with National Parks and the Fish and Wildlife Service as well,” Pena said. “It all goes back to wanting to make sure those public resources are kept together and we want to provide that stability for the long term.”

More coverage from Katie Klingsporn writing for The Telluride Daily Planet. From the article:

The NSAA represents hundreds of ski areas across North America, Telluride Ski Resort among them…

“Water rights in the West are part of the asset base of the ski areas that they have acquired in the marketplace and they are an important part of the balance sheet of a ski area,” Association president Michael Berry told the AP.

The Telluride Ski Resort operates under a permit from the USFS, but it currently has a 40-year permit and so is not in imminent danger of the effects of the USFS clause, said Dave Riley, CEO of Telluride Ski & Golf (Telski).

However, Riley said Telski supports NSAA’s efforts to reverse the measure…

Pena said the clause, issued as an interim directive, can be adjusted before it’s finalized and the Forest Service would work with permit holders to ensure it “works for everybody.”

Berry wasn’t persuaded.

“We have no guarantee that they will continue to use the water for purposes of ski area business,” he said. “The government could decide to use the water and apply it to other uses or even sell it to urban water systems.

More water law coverage here.

USGS: New Study Lends Insight to Decreasing Denver Basin Groundwater Availability

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Here’s the release from the United States Geological Service (Heidi Koontz):

A newly released U.S. Geological Survey study of decreasing groundwater resources in the Denver Basin aquifer provides information on water movement within the system and how it responds to changes in climatic and human activities.

The 3-D computer model of groundwater flow in the Denver Basin aquifer system was constructed to quantify and offer a “big picture” view of the hydrologic system. It will serve as a useful tool for analyzing past and present groundwater conditions, predicting future aquifer response to continued development, and guiding hydrologic monitoring and assessment in the Front Range urban corridor of Colorado.

The Denver Basin aquifer system is an essential water resource for growing municipal, industrial, and domestic uses. Continued population growth along the Front Range and the resulting increase in pumping for additional water supplies has resulted in water-level declines and storage depletion in the aquifer system.

“The Denver Basin aquifers are a critical, but declining, drinking water resource for tens of thousands of residents along the Front Range in Colorado,” said Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of the Interior. “This model and the associated data sets are essential tools for local governments and water suppliers to achieve sustainable water supplies in the future.”

Developed by scientists at the USGS, the groundwater flow model will provide a better understanding about the effects of continued pumping and climate variability on groundwater availability and storage depletion in the Denver Basin. A professional paper detailing the Denver Basin groundwater flow model and study results, “Groundwater Availability of the Denver basin aquifer system, Colorado,” is available online.

“Many communities rely on groundwater resources for municipal, industrial, and agricultural water supplies, and yet unlike the situation with streams and reservoirs, citizens cannot readily assess for themselves whether they are unsustainably depleting this valuable resource,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Studies such as this by the USGS provide important information on the current status of the groundwater aquifer and its future potential so that communities can plan for their long-term water needs.”

To develop the model, scientists compiled information on aquifer geometry, aquifer properties, land use, pumping history, and climate from 1880 through 2003. Among their findings:

For predevelopment (pre-1880) conditions, recharge, or water entering the aquifer, from precipitation and agricultural irrigation return flows was the primary source of water (94 percent of inflow) to the Denver Basin bedrock aquifers, and evapotranspiration was the primary component of groundwater discharge from the bedrock aquifers (72 percent of outflow). Flow between the bedrock aquifers, the alluvial aquifer, and streams accounted for the remaining components of the predevelopment water budget.

Changes in land and water use have altered the groundwater flow system compared to predevelopment conditions. The expansion of urban/suburban land use and/or irrigated agriculture since the 1950s has increased water use on the landscape, which has increased recharge, evapotranspiration, and streamflow in connection with shallow parts of the aquifer system.

Groundwater pumping was estimated for the period 1880-2003 on the basis of permitted wells using previously published methods. About 55,000 permitted pumping wells were included in the analysis, of which about 44,000 wells were completed in the bedrock aquifers and about 8,000 wells were completed in the alluvial aquifer.

Groundwater pumping from the bedrock aquifers has increased steadily since the 1950’s, primarily in response to increased municipal water-supply needs, which has reduced natural discharge from the aquifer, lowered water levels in the bedrock aquifers, and removed water from aquifer storage.

The model developed by this study is a necessary tool for evaluation of groundwater resources in the Denver Basin. The results provide quantitative estimates of system changes through time consistent with a conceptual model of limited groundwater resources. However, ongoing monitoring and updates to the model are considered necessary for continued assessment of groundwater availability

The report was funded by the USGS Groundwater Resources Program, and information derived from this and future studies of more than 30 regional aquifers will provide a collective assessment of U.S. groundwater availability.

Here’s the abstract from the report:

The Denver Basin aquifer system is a critical water resource for growing municipal, industrial, and domestic uses along the semiarid Front Range urban corridor of Colorado. The confined bedrock aquifer system is located along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain Front Range where the mountains meet the Great Plains physiographic province. Continued population growth and the resulting need for additional water supplies in the Denver Basin and throughout the western United States emphasize the need to continually monitor and reassess the availability of groundwater resources.

In 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey initiated large-scale regional studies to provide updated groundwater-availability assessments of important principal aquifers across the United States, including the Denver Basin. This study of the Denver Basin aquifer system evaluates the hydrologic effects of continued pumping and documents an updated groundwater flow model useful for appraisal of hydrologic conditions.

More Denver Basin Aquifer System coverage here and here.

Palmer Lake: 2012 budget includes a seven percent increase in water rates and includes a ten percent capital improvement fee

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From the Tri-Lakes Tribune (Norma Engelberg):

The council’s water trustee Max Stafford explained that, starting Jan. 1, a 7 percent increase will be added to the base rate every water customer pays regardless of their amount of usage.
“We’re sorry that people didn’t know about the increase but it isn’t a secret process — it is part of the budget process we go through every year,” he said. “We (the water fund) barely broke even in 2011 and we have a lot of expensive testing coming up in 2012. We have to prove to the state that the new plant performs as it was engineered.”

Stafford said that water bills will also include a 10 percent capital improvement fee.

“The capital improvement fund is based on water-tap sales but the town is basically built out and the fund is dwindling every year,” he said. “We have pipes that were installed in the 1930s and our dam is 100 years old. … It makes more sense to fix things as we go instead of waiting until they break.”[…]

He assured residents that water money stays in the water plant. “The water fund is not a cash cow for the town,” he said.

Another worry that has to be planned for is a continuous drop in the local water table. “Think of it as an underground river that more and more people are tapping into,” he said. “Our city well is 1,000 feet deep, almost at bedrock at the edge of the aquifer. If the underground river dries up, we’re going to feel it first.”

More infrastructure coverage here.