You are invited to attend our next Partners meeting on Wednesday, January 16th, 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM, at the offices of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, located at Canyon Creek and I-70 (Exit 109).
On the agenda are two presentations (see the attached flyer or refer to the website):
“Healthy Rivers Sustain Rural Communities” – presented by Richard Gytenbeek of Colorado Trout Unlimited – linking healthy rivers to Colorado’s economy through agriculture, recreation, and tourism.
“Wild Things in the Watershed—All About Fish and Other Wildlife” by Lori Martin, Jenn Logan, and Kendall Bakich, Aquatic Biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife – recognizing the unique diversity of habitat in our watershed that fosters a host of fish species and other aquatic wildlife – what we know, what we don’t know, and what we would like to find out.
As the legislative session is about to kick off, state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, has drought and renewable energy on her mind.
For her first bill of the 2013 session of the Colorado General Assembly, Schwartz will introduce legislation that would allow farmers to implement water-conservation measures without fear of endangering their water rights.
The bill, which would enact safeguards against the normal “use it or lose it” rules governing Colorado water rights, was defeated in a summer water committee, where a supermajority is required to move forward. But in the normal session, Schwartz, who is the chair of the Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, would need just a majority to pass the bill. The idea, Schwartz said, is to protect farmers who choose to cut down on water use, since not taking the full allotment can expose water rights holders to abandonment claims.
“Given the drought circumstances, we need to do things differently,” said Schwartz, 63, who is halfway through her second and final term as a state senator.
The drought and heat had their origins during the prior winter. A fast storm track over northern Canada during the winter of 2011-2012 prevented cold air from making many visits into the U.S. and kept the frigid air locked up near the Arctic Circle.
According to Expert Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson, “This pattern, in turn, resulted in mild Pacific air over much of the U.S. and southern Canada. Additionally, a lack of snow cover over southern Canada then allowed any air coming southward to further warm up before entering the U.S.”
The lack of cold air in the U.S. then greatly limited the intensity of storms during the winter and influenced the form of precipitation. Many stream and river systems are fed by the melting of snow cover and the release of frozen water in the ground through the spring and early summer.
The warm start to the spring allowed some crops to be planted early in the Midwest. However, the soil also dried out very quickly. As the days lengthened and the angle of the sun increased, temperatures climbed much higher than average over the Midwest and occasionally spread into the East as a result of the dry landscape. Many cities over the middle of the nation had weeks of 100-degree temperatures.
Drought contributes not only to wildfires but to the massive pine beetle epidemic that’s raged through the West for more than a decade, as detailed in last June’s feature “The Beetle and the Damage Done.” It’s hardly the only factor involved — warmer temperatures, the beetles’ accelerated reproduction cycle, decades of fire suppression policies, and other forces have contributed to the problem — but drought weakens the trees’ ability to fight off beetle invasions by oozing resin. And that means that, while the epidemic has slowed somewhat because it’s already devoured many of the lodgepole pines the beetles prefer, it doesn’t require that many beetles to take down a drought-weakened host.
A healthier snowpack can help limit the beetle invasion, as well as reduce the fires that are altering the forests around the state. Forest officials are learning how to think long-term about the epidemic and its aftermath, planning for new forests that won’t have quite the vulnerability of our current trees, but that’s a solution decades in the making.
From the Associated Press via the Soo Evening News:
The federal government says preliminary figures show that Lakes Michigan and Huron reached record low water levels in December. Keith Kompoltowicz of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers tells The Detroit News that the measurements are expected to be made official later in the week. All of the Great Lakes have had lower water levels in the past year because of light snowfall in the winter and light rainfall in the spring. The previous all-time low mean level was set in 1964 at 576.2 feet above sea level. The preliminary mean for December 2012 is 576.15 feet.
In a seasonal outlook released Thursday [December 20], the Climate Prediction Center said extreme to exceptional drought was likely to persist across the Plains for the next three months. “Most of the annual rainfall for the High Plains really occurs in the springtime and early summer, so that is going to be the critical period. They really do need a wet season this year to make any kind of dent in the drought,” Miskus said…
In its three-month outlook, the Climate Prediction Center said continued drought improvement is possible across the Midwest and in northern tier states including Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana…
Drought conditions eased in the South after storms brought two to four inches of rain from eastern Texas to the Carolinas, the Drought Monitor report said. In Alabama, about one-third of the state remained in moderate to extreme drought but the rain eliminated the “exceptional” drought category that had covered about 3.7 percent of the state a week earlier. However, the report cautioned that long-term moisture deficits persisted in the region, and dry weather continued across much of western, central, and southern Texas.
A snowy December was the perfect Christmas present for a parched Colorado, which ended November suffering from desiccated soils, depleted reservoirs and anxious ski resorts. A series of storms over the past few weeks made the state start to look like its proper winter self.
So the Drought of 2012 must be over, right? Not quite yet.
The Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment Summary for the Upper Colorado River Basin, released by the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) on Jan. 1, notes that the water picture improved markedly in December, but the amount of water in the snowpack in western Colorado river basins is still only between about 70% and 85% of normal for this time of year.
The snowpack for the Upper Colorado River Basin as a whole (the area that drains into the Colorado River above Glenn Canyon dam) is doing better, at about 94% of average, because of higher accumulations in northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming river basins.
The NIDIS report also notes that as of Dec. 30, soil moisture levels were below 30% of average across all of western Colorado and eastern Utah, with an exceptionally dry area in southwestern Wyoming.
Looking more closely at the river basins that meet in Grand Junction, the Colorado River Basin snowpack in Colorado had 69% of its average water content for this time of year on Jan. 2. For some historical perspective, there’s more fluffy, frozen water in the hills now than there was at the beginning of 2012, and just about the same amount as at the beginning of 2002. The picture is similar in the Gunnison Basin…
So, with all this data, what’s the take-home for western Colorado?
It’s too early to panic about next year’s water situation, given that early spring is when we typically get most of our water, and large-scale, long-range projections aren’t terribly reliable for forecasting local conditions. But it’s also too early to breathe sighs of relief.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):
As the House and Senate wrangled over the fiscal cliff, Democrats and Republicans found agreement on the four endangered fish of the Colorado River. The Senate on Monday unanimously approved a measure reauthorizing the recovery program for four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River basin. Once it’s signed by President Barack Obama, the measure will remove a “significant uncertainty” for water users in the basin, said Chris Treese, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
The recovery program allows for the continued development of the river and its tributaries for irrigation, storage and other uses with the cooperation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state officials and other agencies.
“This is milestone legislation that ensures western Colorado’s two endangered fish recovery programs continue to shield present and future water users from the worst consequences of the Endangered Species Act,” Treese said.
Reauthorization clears the way for $25 million in spending on efforts to restore populations of the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and the bonytail. Extending the authorization for the Upper Colorado and San Juan fish recovery programs includes reforms to reduce overhead costs and eliminate inefficient agency spending to ensure the success of the programs while minimizing the taxpayer investment, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., a cosponsor of the measure, H.R. 6060, said in a statement. He also said he was “optimistic that these programs can reach their goals in the coming years, recover the species at issue, and safeguard the economic well-being of our communities and jobs connected to these efforts.”
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the measure, which he co-sponsored in the Senate, is “welcome news for Colorado’s rivers, wildlife, sportsmen and our economy.”
Extending the recovery program will ensure that hundreds of water projects in Colorado and other Western states will remain in compliance with federal law, Udall said.
The recovery program operates several facilities in the Grand Valley, including fish ladders on the Gunnison River south of Grand Junction and on the Colorado River in De Beque Canyon, recovery ponds in Horsethief Canyon and a fish passage at the mouth of De Beque Canyon.
Water providers along the Front Range that rely on transmountain water from the Colorado River Basin are looking closely at the possibility of a future call on the river from the lower basin states as most transmountain diversions are junior in priority to the Colorado River Compact.
A recent study released by the Bureau of Reclamation predicts future supply shortfalls some 3.2 million acre-feet.
On December 27 the Bureau of Land Management gave the go ahead for the 234 mile pipeline and collection system. Here’s their release:
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will publish a notice in the Federal Register on Friday, Dec. 28, announcing the availability of the Record of Decision (ROD) for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project. The notice is available on the Federal Register electronic desk on Thursday, Dec. 27. The purpose of the project is to construct a groundwater delivery system to the Las Vegas Valley.
The Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-424), directed the Secretary of the Interior to issue a right-of-way grant on Federal land in Lincoln and Clark counties, Nev., to construct a groundwater delivery system.
After extensive environmental analysis, consideration of public comments, and application of pertinent Federal laws and policies, the Department of the Interior has decided to grant the SNWA a right-of-way for the construction, operation, maintenance, and termination of the mainline water pipeline, main power lines, pump stations, regulating tanks, water treatment facility and other ancillary facilities of the project.
The decision authorizes the BLM to issue a right-of-way grant to the SNWA for the preferred alternative as analyzed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued in August 2012. The BLM will conduct subsequent environmental analyses for the future facilities and groundwater development.
The Nevada State Engineer is the authority for approving or denying water right applications. Up to 83,988 acre-feet per year (afy) of groundwater could be transported through the proposed facilities from the SNWA’s water rights in Spring, Delamar, Dry Lake, and Cave valleys, and up to 41,000 afy of water rights from the SNWA’s private ranches and agreements with Lincoln County. No water would be developed in Snake Valley.
The ROD, signed by Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, constitutes the final decision of the Department of the Interior. Any challenge to the decision must be brought in Federal district court.
Click here to go to the BLM webpage for the EIS. You can download a copy of the ROD there.
From the Associated Press (Sandra Chereb) via MSNBC.com:
“This is a huge milestone for southern Nevada,” said Patricia Mulroy, the water authority’s general manager. She said being able to “draw upon a portion of our own state’s renewable groundwater supplies reduces our dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River and provides a critical safety net.”
The Colorado River flows into Lake Mead, southern Nevada’s main water source. A recent study projected moderate to severe water shortages over the next several decades. Lake Mead’s surface level has dropped about 100 feet since 2000 because of ongoing drought and increasing demand from the seven states and more than 25 million people sharing Colorado River water rights. “What the study really told us was that we must prepare for a much drier future and that we can’t count on the Colorado River to sustain our community in the way it once did,” Mulroy said.
Environmentalists decried the decision, which comes two decades after the concept began to take shape and after years of litigation. More lawsuits are expected to follow.
Nevada’s state engineer, Jason King, granted the water authority permission in March to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of land with water 12 inches deep — about 326,000 gallons. King’s rulings are being challenged in state court.
The pipeline approved by the BLM Thursday is needed to deliver that water to the southern Nevada’s population center.
Simeon Herskovits, an attorney in Taos, N.M., representing a coalition of ranchers, farmers, rural local governments and environmentalists, said the BLM decision was being reviewed but added that unless “serious deficiencies” in an earlier environmental study have been corrected, the decision to approve the pipeline cannot “be scientifically, economically or legally sound.”
The BLM’s decision follows findings made in November by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the project would not significantly affect about a dozen threatened or endangered species. Environmentalists say otherwise. “Some of Nevada’s rarest, most unique species rely on wetlands and springs,” said Rob Mrowka with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and drive them extinct in the blink of any eye.”
BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said the decision authorizes the “main conveyance and support facilities” to be built on federally owned land. It’s the last administrative ruling by the federal agency, and further challenges will be handled by the courts.
WHAT western water managers preach and what western water managers do is often contradictory. This much can be relied on: inconsistency starts at the top. Only this month a long-awaited report issued by the federal Bureau of Reclamation emphasized the need for conservation over big infrastructure projects. And we can trust its conclusions in that pointlessly hyped McGuffin projects such as diverting the Mississippi to the dry West or towing Alaskan icebergs to San Diego will not happen any time soon. However, only weeks after the release of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, during the dead time between Christmas and New Year, Reclamation’s parent agency, the US Department of Interior, green-lighted the driving of a massive pipeline from Las Vegas hundreds of miles north into the Great Basin. This is the opposite of conservation over big infrastructure and its approval comes in spite of clearly devastating implications for thousands of square miles across the Great Basin.
Where, you might wonder, were our vaunted environmental regulations in all this? The short answer is that these laws and the agencies meant to enforce them are every bit as successful protecting our natural resources as the Securities and Exchange Commission is policing Wall Street. The Southern Nevada Water Authority deputy general manager who for many years fronted the Vegas pipeline once bragged to a local television reporter that she could get anything permitted. To judge by this week’s Record of Decision, she appears to be right. Watch enough projects go through environmental impact review and it’s hard not to conclude that this notionally protective scrutiny is nothing more than a line item on an infrastructure project budget. While reviews too rarely protect the environment, the expense turns out to be valuable to prospectors such as Las Vegas. Feigning diligence proves a useful inoculant against liability.
From the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial staff:
Although the plan has been in the works ifor 25 years, congratulations may still be premature. Ms. Mulroy has little doubt more anti-development lawsuits are on the way.
In fact, the water authority would just as soon not build this project, which comes with a price tag variously estimated from $2 billion to $15 billion. Unfortunately, changing the law of the Colorado to allow interstate water purchases at market rates – the best solution – is still not politically feasible. Though certainly, if that day ever comes, it will help Nevada’s case to be able to say everything else has been tried.
Initial briefs are scheduled to be filed Jan. 31 in lawsuits attempting to block the Southern Nevada Water Authority from building a pipeline to siphon water from Northern Nevada to Las Vegas.
The lawsuits seek to overturn a decision by state Engineer Jason King to allow pumping 83,988 acre feet of water a year from four rural Nevada valleys.
The Bureau of Land Management last week permitted the Water Authority to build the $15 million proposed pipeline on federal lands.
Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the authority, said a vote to start construction won’t be taken until conditions on the Colorado River dictate it. He said earlier that 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply comes from the river, which is subject to drought.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the decision to allow the pipeline, says oral arguments in the lawsuits are scheduled for June 13-14 in District Court in Ely.
The suits say the pipeline will interfere with existing water rights and damage the environment.
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s groundwater development project would siphon more than 27.4 billion gallons of groundwater per year from at least four valleys in central Nevada. According to environmental groups, the project would imperil dozens of species dependent on precious surface and groundwater in the driest state in the U.S.
“The federal government’s own scientists are confirming this Las Vegas water project would be an epic environmental disaster,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“It’s really no exaggeration to say that the natural, cultural and social heritage of central Nevada is at grave risk from this project.”
Mrowka said the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations will challenge the approval in court, claiming it violates the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act and Clean Air Act.
The BLM’s environmental study for the project discloses that more than 137,000 acres of wildlife habitat would be permanently destroyed or changed as the diversions lowers groundwater levels by up to 200 feet in some areas.
According to Mrowka, the loss of water will result in declines of species like mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, sage grouse and Bonneville cutthroat trout. At most urgent risk will be species associated with the springs and wetlands that will dry up as the water beneath them is sucked away.
“Some of Nevada’s rarest, most unique species rely on wetlands and springs,” said Mrowka. “They’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years in response to isolation and fragmentation of habitat that occurred after ice ages. The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and drive them extinct in the blink of an eye.”
Many of these species are often found in only one or two springs on Earth. As the springs are dewatered and flows are altered and eventually stopped, at least 25 species of Great Basin springsnails will be pushed to, or over, the brink of extinction. Also affected will be 14 species of desert fish, including the Moapa dace and White River springfish; frogs and toads will fare little better, with four species severely threatened by the dewatering.
Other impacts from the project, disclosed in the BLM’s impact statement today, include ground-level subsidence in excess of five feet on more than 240 square miles, as well as tens of thousands of tons of new dust generated from de-watered and denuded lands.
Thanks to Coyote Gulch reader Kara for the heads up and the reminder that all the Colorado River Basin states have a stake in solving supply problems in the basin. As Wayne Aspinall famously said, “In the west, when you touch water, you touch everything.”