Water commissioners primer


Here’s a great primer of sorts about the role of water commissioners in the administration of diversions on Colorado streams, from the University of Northern Colorado (Joshua Zaffos). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

As the District 4 water commissioner for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, [Jason Smith] is doing his monthly check of reservoir levels within the Big Thompson River Basin to help him prepare for the upcoming spring snowmelt and runoff. The task is as old as the post of water commissioner, which dates back to 1879, when Colorado officially began recognizing water rights and managing the flows that pulse through streams and irrigation ditches.

Smith is among 114 commissioners across the state, each patrolling a district covering part, or all, of a river basin. Their job of administering water rights based on legal priority and the decrees of the state’s water courts is both straightforward and nebulous. Depending on climate and weather, runoff rates and stream volumes, commissioners say when cities can fill their reservoirs, or irrigation companies can open their diversion ditches. Sometimes known as water cops, they are also faced with telling people when they must limit their diversions to protect senior, or older, water rights.

Smith finds Green Ridge Glade and other reservoirs sitting at relatively high and steady levels through early February. But the dry and windy Colorado winter serves as a forewarning. Smith has heard from plenty of colleagues and ditch riders that the seasonal conditions so far are reminiscent of the brutal drought of 2002 — supported by media reports in May that statewide snowpack totals were tracking at 19 percent of the 30-year average.

Working long hours and often tramping through the field, or buried under paperwork, water commissioners are unsung heroes in keeping water flowing to farm fields and household faucets. In many ways, the job hasn’t changed much in 130 years — except for the pickup trucks and stream-gauge technology that greatly reduce uncertainty and delays.

More Colorado Division of Water Resources coverage here.

Snowpack news: Areas in the San Juans get 15 inches of snowfall



From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A winter snowstorm Friday gave a small boost to a lagging snowpack Friday, dropping as much as 15 inches on the San Juan Mountains and blanketing lesser amounts across the San Luis Valley floor…Weather service spotters also reported 6 inches near South Fork, 3 inches in Alamosa and 2.8 inches outside of Crestone…The snowfall was a welcome sign to irrigators who were greeted with news earlier in the week that the Rio Grande basin’s snowpack stood at 31 percent of average.

‘However the report [Colorado River Supply and Demand Study] does not reach a specific conclusion’ — Theo Spencer



From the Switchboard (Theo Spencer):

The Interior Department earlier this week released a long-awaited study on future water supplies from the Colorado River Basin. The news was not good…

The report identifies drought/climate change and population growth as the main causes of the water shortage (good Los Angeles Times story here). Droughts obviously lead to less water and droughts are connected to/made worse by climate change…

However the report does not reach a specific conclusion, instead it kicks the can down the road. But the good news is cities and states are already taking action to address water shortages. Cities like Las Vegas and states like California offer good example of how to deal with shrinking water supply through cost-effective and expeditions practices like efficiency and regional planning. California has the single largest allocation of water from the Basin.

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

The landmark study — the most comprehensive water study in the department’s history — revealed a “troubling trajectory,” Salazar said. The arid basin, which provides water to an area in which 40 million people live, will become drier, more densely populated and — even with new supply projects — more vulnerable in terms of water reliability, hydroelectric power generation, recreation, and river flows.

The median gap between supply and demand is 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060, or nearly 25 percent more than the forecasted annual flow when accounting for climate change, and most of the growth in demand will come from cities and industries.

“There is no one solution,” Salazar said. “We need to reduce demand and we need to consider increasing water supply through practical measures.”

The mix of solutions — and what makes one “practical” — is the most disputed section of the study. The Bureau of Reclamation, the lead agency, evaluated 30 options and slotted them into four “portfolios” based on water supply reliability, technical feasibility, and energy- and carbon-intensity.

Excluding the projects with low reliability or tremendous technical challenges, the basin could increase its water supply by 7 million acre-feet by 2060 at an annual cost, in 2012 dollars, that ranges from $US 2 billion to $US 7 billion. Those cost estimates are quite uncertain and are best used as a relative figure to compare options, not as an absolute number for what the actual cost might be, said Carly Jerla, a study co-manager and an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado office.

From The Washington Post (Brad Plumer):

There’s a fair bit of uncertainty here — climate models still disagree on how sharply annual flows will drop in the future. And population growth is hard to predict. Some environmental groups have even suggested that states might be exaggerating their projected growth to qualify for more federal money for big infrastructure projects.

That said, the best estimates suggest that demand will continue to outstrip supply, much as it has in the past decade. By 2060, the report says, the median shortfall could reach 3.2 million acre-feet (or about five times as much water as Los Angeles uses each year). The amount of irrigated farmland is also expected to shrink.

When scientists talk about the need for “climate adaptation,” this is what they mean. So how are these states going to deal with the water problem? The report has an in-depth analysis of different adaptation options, grouped into a few broad categories:

–Importing water from elsewhere. The report examined a bunch of zany proposals for bringing more water to the basin. One idea is to build a massive 600-mile pipeline from the Missouri River down to Denver. Sure, it would cost many billions of dollars and require large new power plants to pump the water, but why not? Or maybe ships could tow freshwater icebergs from the Arctic down to Southern California! Sadly, the report concluded that many of these schemes are unfeasible for now.

–Desalination. Another idea: If the fresh water’s running out, why not set up some desalination plants to treat brackish water or seawater? There’s already a $150 million desalination plant operating in Yuma, Ariz., to recycle salty irrigation water. The report doesn’t rule this out, though these plants are pricey and would likely only be built in severe shortages. (What’s more, desalination plants use a lot of energy, which means more carbon emissions, which worsens the problem… )

–Conservation and reuse. This is the option environmental groups tend to prefer, and there are dozens of different strategies here. Cities can recycle their “grey water,” (say, using old bathwater to flush toilets or water golf courses). Land managers could kill off thirsty plant species like the tamarisk. Water managers could slow the pace of evaporation by placing covers over reservoirs and irrigation canals. Governments could even set up a system in which users trade water permits.

From The Kansas City Star (Dave Helling) via McClatchy:

Among the study’s conclusions: Importing billions of gallons of water from the Missouri River, as an anonymous Westerner suggested nearly a year ago, would be massively expensive and take decades to pull off. The report didn’t rule out the option, giving it high marks for the amount of the water it would provide and its “technical feasiblity.” But high electricity costs and a 30-year permitting and building schedule prompted the Bureau to give the idea a low rating compared with other water-generating and water-saving possibilities.

Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the trans-Kansas pipeline hurdles were likely too high to overcome. Instead, in a conference call Wednesday, he urged thirsty westerners to focus on “solutions that are out there that will help us.”

The Bureau’s report, and Salazar’s comments, are likely to bring a sigh of relief from officials along the Missouri River basin, and as well as several “I told you sos.”

Almost to a person this week, interests along the Missouri River said the political, legal and practical problems associated with the pipeline made its construction highly problematic. “The political hurdles to overcome are gigantic,” said former Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden, now director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes. “The likelihood is very, very slim.”

The trans-Kansas water pipeline was one of dozens of suggestions submitted last winter after federal officials asked westerners for advice on their region’s chronic water problems.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

Western Resource Advocates releases a new report — ‘A Better Future for the Poudre River’


Here’s the link to the webpage where you can download the report. From the executive summary:

A Better Future for the Poudre River Alternative is a solution for meeting future water demands in northeastern Colorado. This report outlines a better approach than the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), a proposal by Northern Water that would cause significant harm to the Poudre River. A Better Future provides a strategy for meeting the water needs of 15 towns and water districts while also preserving the Poudre River and the communities and businesses that depend on a healthy river.

Planning for and meeting the water needs of NISP participant communities is critical, as is ensuring the health of the Poudre River and the numerous benefits it provides. Through the recommendations outlined in the Better Future report, Northern Water and NISP participants can chart an innovative path forward that differs from the traditional approach of building large reservoirs. The Better Future for the Poudre River Alternative (“Better Future Alternative” or “Better Future”) relies on a combination of supplies from conservation, reuse, water transferred as a result of growth onto irrigated agricultural lands, and voluntary agreements with agriculture. We encourage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to incorporate elements of the Better Future Alternative into its No Action Alternative when completing the NISP Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which is anticipated sometime in 2013. Western Resource Advocates (WRA) offers the following key recommendations that Northern Water, NISP participants, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should consider carefully in planning for the region’s future water needs:

  • Meet projected demands with balanced strategies that are the least environmentally damaging, in contrast to large traditional reservoir and pipeline projects.
  • Use reliable and up-to-date population data and projections
    from the State Demography Office.
  • Implement more aggressive water conservation strategies. Conservation is often the cheapest, fastest, and smartest way to meet new demands; NISP participants have significant opportunities to boost their existing water conservation efforts.
  • Integrate conservation savings—passive and active—into water supply planning.
  • When calculating future water supply projections, include all existing supplies, supplies from growth onto irrigated lands, as well as NISP participants’ water dedication requirements.
  • Maximize the role of water reuse in meeting future needs. Include NISP participants’ existing and planned reuse—as well as additional Better Future reuse supplies—in any analysis.
  • Include increased cooperation between agriculture and local communities in the form of voluntary water sharing agreements that benefit both NISP participants and the agricultural community—without permanently drying up irrigated acres. Alternatives to “buy and dry” transfers present excellent opportunities for meeting future municipal demands.
  • More Northern Integrated Supply Project coverage here and here.

    U.S. Representative Gardner plans to introduce legislation to speed up the permitting process for NISP


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    n light of a federal study showing shortages in the Colorado River system, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., plans to introduce legislation that would promote increased water storage. Gardner hopes to work with the Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers to gain approval of water projects already on the drawing board.

    This week, he released a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo Ellen Darcy, which explains the critical need for storage during times of drought, such as Colorado is experiencing.

    “The Colorado River Basin Study highlights that demand will outpace supply in the near future, making it imperative we start construction on new water storage infrastructure immediately,” Gardner said. “There are many projects far along in planning and permitting stages, including projects like the Northern Integrated Supply Project in Colorado, that are simply waiting for approval.”

    State water planners have embraced storage as a way of equalizing river flows between high and low years. The Colorado River basin historically has seen wide variability in rainfall, and climate projections show this will continue. The issue is important to the Front Range of Colorado, including Pueblo, because much of the water that supports the state’s cities is brought over from the Western Slope.

    A study released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation predicts a shortfall of 3.4 million acre-feet annually by 2060 in the Colorado River basin, which covers parts of seven Western states.

    More Northern Integrated Supply Project coverage here and here.

    Southern Delivery System update: Outlet works and pipeline work mostly complete in Pueblo County


    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    The Southern Delivery System work at Pueblo Dam and pipeline through Pueblo County is substantially complete, and work will begin next year on the pump station below Pueblo Dam. “There are a lot of moving parts, but actually we are ahead of schedule in getting pipeline in the ground,” Allison Mosser, an engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, told the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District board Friday.

    About 14 miles of 51∕ 2foot diameter pipeline through Pueblo West and Walker Ranches is in the ground, as well as some connections that will be needed for the North Outlet Works and Juniper Pump Station. Work is beginning on the pipeline in El Paso County, as well. Some distribution lines already are in the ground. In all, 28 of 50 miles of pipeline are complete, Mosser said.

    Ground will be broken for a water treatment plant in northern Colorado Springs next year and SDS should be in operation in early 2016, Mosser said.

    The district will be asked next month to decide on pipelines and power lines that will cross Fountain Creek on the east side of Interstate 25 near the Pikes Peak International Speedway.

    Mosser also updated the board on progress of Fountain Creek wetlands and realignment work at Clear Springs Ranch, south of Fountain, that is required under Pueblo County 1041 regulations for SDS. That sparked a sharp reaction from board member Jane Rhodes, who lives and farms on Fountain Creek in Pueblo County. “This organization was formed four years ago,” Rhodes said. “A little more ought to be be done to help us. We need projects further down south.”

    Carol Baker of Colorado Springs Utilities stepped in and explained that $50 million has been earmarked for use on Fountain Creek when the project is completed in 2016. “The design (for the Clear Springs Ranch project) is part of the master plan, and will help lots when we’re designing projects further downstream.”

    More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.