Drought news: ‘The lack of snow continues to heighten concern across much of the West’ — Mark Svoboda #codrought



From USA Today (Doyle Rice):

There was some good and some bad news in Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal website that tracks drought.

The good news is that nationally, the percentage of the USA that’s considered either abnormally dry or in a drought dropped below 70 percent for the first time since June of last year. Recent rain and snow has helped ease drought conditions in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Midwest, according to the monitor.

However, very dry conditions continued in parts of the Plains and the West. 100 percent of the states of Colo., S.D., Neb., Kan., Okla., and Iowa remain in a drought.

“The lack of snow continues to heighten concern across much of the West,” according to climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.

Colorado in particular is extremely dry, he says.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

“These are just based on computer models, nothing is guaranteed,” said Mark Wankowski, a meterologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. “Right now it’s not looking the best.”

Colorado is one of 10 states in the midst of an exceptionally severe drought, and more than half of the state is in the second-worst level of drought, according to a weekly report released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Last January, during what was the start of an already dry year, only a fraction of a percent of the state was in “extreme drought,” the second-driest classification used by the center after “exceptional drought.” This January, however, 58.6 percent of Colorado is painted red for “extreme” on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s map.

El Paso County is among those now plunged into a dry-spell that could mean disaster come wildfire season — all of the county is in extreme drought except for the southeast corner, which is “exceptional,” according to the report. It’s been a common theme this winter, said Wankowski…

The three-month prognosis, put together last week, is not good. Precipitation from February through April is expected to be lower than average, while temperatures should be higher than average, Wankowski said…

The record high temperatures and low precipitation for 2012 helped fuel one of the most devastating wildfire seasons on record, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Last year, 67,000 wildfires consumed acreage and homes across the country.

Forecast news: Heavy snow expected in the eastern San Juan and La Garita Mountains #codrought #cowx

Leadville: Water rates to jump ten percent


From The Leadville Herald-Democrat:

All Parkville Water District rates in 2013 will be increased by 10 percent across the board. This decision was made by Parkville management and the board of directors at the regular meeting in December.

More infrastructure coverage here.

San Luis Valley: Aquifer levels are moving in the wrong direction #codrought


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The shallow groundwater aquifer leaned on heavily by farmers in the north­central part of the San Luis Valley continued its drought-driven slide in 2012. Allen Davey, engineer for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, released calculations showing the aquifer declined by 123,000 acrefeet from 2011. Since the district began monitoring the section of the aquifer in 1976, its volume has dropped by 1.2 million acre­feet.

The drop comes despite the fallowing of nearly 30,000 acres and a roughly 20 percent decline in groundwater pumping from wells in Subdistrict No. 1. Subdistrict No. 1, which includes roughly 3,400 irrigation wells in the north­central valley, assesses fees on its members to take farm ground out of production and reduce pressure on the aquifer also while providing mitigation to other water users who are harmed by the pumping.

Steve Vandiver, the district’s manager, pointed to a sustained history of poor flows on the Rio Grande as the cause of the decline. “The problem as I see it is the recovery rate, whether we’re pumping or not, is dependent on what the river runs,” he said. “If we’re in sustained drought, we’re going to have little or no diversions and little or no recovery.” The main source of recharge for the shallow, or unconfined, aquifer comes in the spring when ditches divert from the Rio Grande and deposit that water on farmers’ fields where it waters crops, then filters down. Once the river’s flows dwindle in summer, many valley farmers then turn on their groundwater pumps to pull water from the aquifer and finish their crops through the remainder of the growing season.

“If we don’t have runoff to support this system we have to do more and more to get this turned around,” Vandiver said. He said the subdistrict would have more money to pay for fallowing in 2013.

Travis Smith, who represents the valley on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said expanded regulation of pumping through the rest of the valley was needed to help recover the aquifer.

More Rio Grande Basin coverage here.

Forecast/snowpack news: Another winter storm heading to western Colorado tonight #codrought #cowx

South Platte Basin: ‘It [oil and gas operations] was something we should have thought of, but didn’t’ — Reagan Waskom


From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

The expanding oil and gas industry has been good for Weld County’s economy, but it’s doing little to help with what’s already a “very complex” groundwater study in the South Platte River Basin.

That point was made by an attendee at a public meeting Thursday in Gilcrest regarding the ongoing groundwater study in the region. Reagan Waskom, a CSU engineering professor and director of the Colorado Water Institute, agreed that the growth of the region’s oil and gas industry will require more underground pipeline, and that continually increasing amount of pipe will create “barriers and drains” in the soil that could affect how groundwater moves and how quickly it returns to surface streams.

The groundwater study was approved when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1278 into law this spring, and is now in progress — under the direction of CSU’s Colorado Water Institute.

Waskom said Thursday’s meeting was the first time he had been told the increase in pipelines should be factored into the study. “It was something we should have thought of, but didn’t,” Waskom said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re having these meetings with the public.”

The meeting in Gilcrest was the last of three public meetings this month regarding the study. The other two were in Longmont and Sterling. Much of the push for the groundwater study came from area farmers who own curtailed or shutdown groundwater wells, along with residents who’ve had flooded basements in recent years because of high groundwater levels. Some of them believe the state’s well augmentation requirements are too stringent. That has prevented farmers from being able to pump some of their wells, and that has caused the aquifer to overflow in recent years, they say.

Others, though, believe different factors, such as historically wet years in 2010 and 2011, have contributed to the rising groundwater levels, and they say the stringent augmentation requirements are needed.

Waskom has the task of studying the South Platte basin’s groundwater to better find out what’s going on, and then giving a full report to state legislators before they convene for their 2014 session. In addition to groundwater pumping and underground pipe, Waskom’s study also has to factor in cities that are conserving more water, which affects return flows to the river; farmers shifting to more efficient irrigation systems and the growth of non­native vegetation along the streams and rivers.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

Complete rewrite of state regulations governing septic tanks/leach field systems in the works


From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The state is going to scrap current regulations governing septic tanks/leach field systems and start anew, San Juan Basin Health Department board members were told Thursday. Greg Brand, the department’s newly hired director of environmental health, characterized the changes as sweeping. They will apply to all new dwellings not covered by a municipality or independent metro district, Brand said. The health department will have a year to bring its regulations into conformity. “My reading is that the new regulations will apply more to site evaluation – soil quality and size – than to installation,” Brand said. “Installers will be following a plan.”

Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said by telephone that the new regulations will constitute a complete overhaul, a major revision. “We’ve been working on this for three years, with involvement of environmental health officials, health departments, developers and system installers,” Gunderson said.

“We were being hammered by local officials because current regulations are too rigid,” Gunderson said. “What applies in the Eastern Plains may not fit in the mountains.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Sun Resources is pitching 17,500 acre-feet per year of Denver Basin Aquifer water to El Paso and Douglas customers


From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Two test wells drilled deep beneath Douglas County-owned open space, between Denver and Colorado Springs, found abundant water and good pressure, consistent with 1995 estimates by the state engineer. Permanent facilities — including pump stations — are being installed so that the aquifers can be tapped. Project leaders at Sun Resources Inc. said they could pump up to 17,500 acre-feet a year and are talking with municipal and private parties in Douglas and El Paso counties — but haven’t signed contracts.

Pumping more from aquifers “should not be ignored as a partial solution to a lot of people’s problems,” said Gary Pierson, president of Sun Resources, a company owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz. “Water is becoming a problem in Colorado, Kansas, Texas, California, Nevada and across the country. People need to be sensible and have well-thought-out plans.”

Along the Front Range, proposed new housing developments increasingly face water constraints as local governments push developers to show they’ve lined up enough water to sustain residents at maximum build-out — in line with a recent court ruling. And leaders warn that underground water levels in recent years have fallen by as much as 30 feet a year.

“We’ve got to get out of aquifers. That’s not a sustainable source of water. We’ve got to move to renewable sources,” Douglas County Commissioner Jack Hilbert said. “If I had my preference, I’d love the water to stay under Greenland Ranch. But it is a private-property right,” he said…

The amount of water under the county’s Greenland Ranch open space was estimated 18 years ago using a formula. A state water court decreed that there are 3.8 million acre-feet available. Applying the state law that says pumping must not deplete aquifers sooner than 100 years, the decree said about 38,000 acre-feet a year could be pumped. Sun doesn’t own rights to all that estimated quantity.

The decree also says state officials retain jurisdiction to reassess the amount of water based on hard data once wells are drilled. State officials will do that “when the time is right,” deputy state engineer Kevin Rein said. “Just with two wells, spaced very close together at one side of the land,” he said, “we’re not really able to use those to extrapolate” how much is there.

More Denver Basin Aquifer System coverage here.

‘We will create incentives instead of disincentives in terms of creating efficiency in agriculture’ — Gail Schwartz


From the Durango Herald (Joe Hanel) via the Cortez Journal:

Legislators are considering changes to Colorado water law that would take the first serious legal steps toward encouraging conservation instead of maximum use of water. But their ideas are controversial. “We need the ability to respond to the drought,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who is sponsoring a bill to allow more year-to-year water storage in reservoirs to save for the next dry spell.

Currently, Colorado water law takes a “use it or lose it” attitude, and other legislators want to make a big change to the legal doctrine that dates back more than a century. “This is really the first time that we will create incentives instead of disincentives in terms of creating efficiency in agriculture,” said Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The law is at once simple and maddeningly complicated. Basically, people can claim a water right by being the first to use unclaimed water on a stream, and they can keep the right as long as they’re still using the water. But the law doesn’t allow users to save for a non-rainy day. Courts can partially revoke a water right if the owners don’t use it. Schwartz’s Senate Bill 19 would forbid water judges from reducing farmers’ water rights after they install more efficient irrigation.

In the House, Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, is sponsoring House Bill 1044, which allows people to capture graywater – used water from showers and washing machines – for reuse.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling…farms in Northeast Colorado, and he and his neighbors depend on water that’s “wasted” upstream in the Front Range cities. “That’s why when I’m in Denver, I always flush twice,” Sonnenberg said.

He represents another side in the debate – one that looks to more reservoir storage as a solution to drought. “We’ve got to keep Colorado’s water in Colorado, and the only way to do that is water storage,” Sonnenberg said.

Sonnenberg is a sponsor, along with Roberts and Fischer, of Senate Bill 41, which takes on Colorado Supreme Court decisions that future drought mitigation and firefighting cannot be used to justify a water storage right. Roberts said the law discourages prudent planning for droughts. “The idea of it is to push back on those court cases and say, no, you can store water for firefighting and drought mitigation,” Roberts said.

Water bills typically attract intense lobbying, and Sonnenberg said his ideas aren’t popular at the influential Colorado Water Congress. “We have legislators trying to make water policy and lawyers who represent the Water Congress trying to stop water legislation,” Sonnenberg said…

The House Agriculture Committee will hear four water bills Monday, including the graywater bill. Roberts’ storage bill has its first hearing Thursday.

Also Thursday, Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, has the first hearing for his bill to make it easier for gas and oil companies to use produced water for dust suppression.

And finally Thursday, the Water Congress holds its annual convention, which will attract the state’s most powerful water lawyers to Denver.

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

The interim Water Resources Review Committee sent six bills and two resolutions to lawmakers for the 2013 legislative session. That committee was co-chaired by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), then chair of the House ag committee. Its ten members also included Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray).

Monday, Sonnenberg will ask for ag committee approval on two measures from the interim water committee. They are: House Bill (HB) 13-1013, on protecting water rights for lease holders, and House Joint Resolution 13-1044, which opposes efforts by the US Forest Service to obtain the water rights on lands leased to ski areas and other permitted uses. Both measures are tied to problems with the Forest Service, which wants the water rights of the state’s 22 ski areas that lease national forest lands. The Forest Service changed a long-standing policy last year that allowed the ski areas to use the water rights as they saw fit. The new policy, now the subject of a federal lawsuit, requires lease holders to turn over their water rights to the Forest Service…

More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Pueblo: Stormwater rates to increase 20% in February


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Pueblo stormwater fees will increase 20 percent next month, after action earlier this month by Pueblo City Council. For most homes in Pueblo, that will mean between $2.40 and $4.20 per month. “We still aren’t up to the average rate in Colorado, which is $5 per month,” said Earl Wilkinson, Pueblo director of public works. “We haven’t had an increase in fees since they began in 2004.”

The increase will mean an additional $560,000 in revenue, on top of the $2.8 million generated each year under the existing fee structure.

Like Colorado Springs, Pueblo has a backlog of stormwater projects, but is tackling them in five­year bites focusing on projects which can be completed. They can be expensive, with whole streets torn up and rebuilt.

For example, a $1.6 million project is planned in the area near 29th Street and Baltimore Avenue. “There is continued high water in the area,” Wilkinson said. “While it hasn’t damaged any homes, there has been damage to streets and yards after heavy rains.”

The city’s stormwater fee also pays for employees and maintenance of more than 114 miles of storm sewers, 6,300 catch basins, 18 miles of storm channels and 31 detention basins. The stormwater fee also is repaying the Pueblo Board of Water Works $1 million over three years for a drainage pipeline from the St. Charles lakes to Lake Minnequa as part of a cooperative agreement that’s designed to keep more water in Minnequa as a new city park is developed.

In the future, fee increases will be more gradual, Wilkinson said. “We’re finally getting an idea of what kind of funding we’ve needed,” he said.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Snowpack/drought news: Beaver Creek gets four inches #codrought #cowx

From the National Weather Service Grand Junction office:







From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

With the state’s agriculture industry coming off a year of historic drought and entering 2013 with limited snowpack, Colorado Farm Show officials have little doubt as to what will be the most popular topics at this year’s event. “I think it’s safe to say the guys here will be wanting to know more about the weather and the water situation,” said Tony Miller, secretary/treasurer for the Colorado Farm Show’s board of directors that puts on the three­day event in Greeley — one of the largest agricultural trade shows in the U.S. “Everything that’s going on here is interesting. But nothing in agriculture works without water.”
Last year was the hottest and driest year on record in Greeley, according to the Colorado Climate Center, and this week, statistics from the Natural Resources Conservation Service showed statewide snowpack was 61 percent of historic average for this time of the year.

In the South Platte River Basin, snowpack was 55 percent of average. The region’s farmers and ranchers depend heavily on winter and spring snowpack in the mountains that eventually melts and provides runoff to fill irrigation ditches during the growing season.

With that in mind, Colorado Farm Show officials scheduled three programs this year devoted solely to weather and water talks. Last year, following an unusually wet 2011, there was just the annual weather­outlook program. This year’s farm show will include the Drought Roundtable Discussion on Tuesday, featuring Bill Curran, research scientist with Pioneer Hybrids International in LaSalle; Troy Bauder, a Colorado State University Extension water­quality specialist; Erik Wardle, a CSU Extension assistant water­ quality specialist; and Neil Hansen, an associate professor of soil science and cropping systems at CSU.
On Wednesday, Nolan Doesken with the Colorado Climate Center will give his annual weather outlook, and on Thursday Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar and Colorado Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Ron Carleton will give the “State of the Union Address Regarding Colorado’s Water Issues.”

In addition to weather and water talks, the Colorado Farm Show also will feature discussions on media, technology, economics, livestock welfare and other topics. But farm show officials can predict with a fair amount of certainty which experts will speak to a full house. “We expect those guys to draw the crowds,” Miller said of the weather and water experts on tap for next week. “I don’t think there’s any doubt what’s on everybody’s minds.”

From The Denver Post (Joey Bunch):

“We are, at this point, just waiting for spring,” said state climatologist Nolan Doesken, head of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “If we don’t get a big spring storm or two, summer is a problem.”[…]

Because of the three-year drought, hay now costs about $300 a ton, roughly twice the usual price. Stanger, who represented Standlee Hay Co. at the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo this week, said the long-term impact to his customers costs more than the windfall…

So far, long-term weather indicators for the West are inconclusive, Doesken said.
“That’s better than an indication for ongoing drought, but it basically says we don’t know,” he said…

Doesken finds some hope in history. In 2002, a dry, windy spring killed crops and fueled fires across the state. But farming bounced back somewhat the next year, especially after the March 2003 blizzard left 31 inches of snow on Denver, the most from one storm in 90 years…

“It’s hard to be optimistic when they can’t get a good forecast from Nolan Doesken and any of the others, who can’t give you a good forecast unless they can,” Hanavan said. “You just have to hope they’re wrong.”