Forecast news: Strong spring storm heading our way, heavy mountain snow, strong thunderstorms east #codrought #cowx

From the National Weather Service Pueblo office:

The weather will become more active across Colorado early next week. A strong area of low pressure will move across the southern half of the state Monday and Tuesday. Heavy mountain snows and strong to severe thunderstorms across the eastern plains are possible Monday afternoon and evening. After a strong cold frontal passage on Tuesday, snow may be possible across the San Luis Valley, I-25 corridor, and the eastern plains. Some forecast uncertainty exists in the track of the low pressure center.

From the National Weather Service Grand Junction office:

Another wave will move across the area this afternoon and evening bringing some clouds, rainshowers, and thunderstorms. The big story though is the area of low pressure off the coast of British Columbia that will start dropping to the southeast today. By Monday, widespread precipitation is expected ahead of the cold front depicted for all mountainous terrain and maybe some northern valleys. This unsettled weather will continue through early Wednesday morning. After that, two more disturbances are expected Thursday evening and again Friday evening.

Snowpack/drought news: 2 inches of fresh snow at Vail Mountain #codrought

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From the Denver Business Journal (Cathy Proctor):

In the last six years, Denver Water’s customers have reduced water use by 20 percent. Now, faced with a severe “Stage 2” drought, the state’s largest water utility wants its business and residential customers to cut that by another 20 percent in the next 12 months. “This is going to affect all our customers,” said Jeff Tejral, manager of conservation for Denver Water. “For our commercial and industrial customers, we’re expecting them to be leaders in the community. We want them to see this as a challenge and opportunity.

From The Denver Post (Betty Cahill):

Water restrictions have both good and not-so-good consequences. First, sprinkler clocks and run times need to be adjusted (not easy for some folks). Second, restrictions prompt us to pay closer attention to landscape care. Whether you garden using containers on a patio or live on an acre, now is the time to think through your game plan.

NRCS: The April Colorado Basin Outlook Report is hot off the press, read it and weep #codrought

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Click here to read the report. Here’s the introduction:

Summary

Unlike last year, the month of March continued to bring snow to Colorado. Unfortunately the state’s snowpack, as of April 1, only showed a nominal increase from last month’s report. Beneficial storms and relatively cool temperatures helped maintain the snowpack in the mountains but were not able to bring it closer to normal conditions. This marks the fourth consecutive month of below average snowpack for the state as well as the third consecutive month of below average precipitation in the mountains. Forecasts for spring and summer streamflows are well below average across the entire state with many streams expected to see volumes that are below 50 percent of average. We are also still feeling the ill effects of the previous year’s paltry snowpack and the resulting streamflow runoff, in our reservoirs. The majority of the state’s major river basins are reporting well below average reservoir storage. Judicious use of our existing supplies will be critical in minimizing impacts this season and there is always the potential for unexpected late season snowfall and above average spring precipitation to help ease impacts.

Snowpack

Overall the snowpack percentage for the state inched up during March. Current readings are now are 74 percent of median; up 1 percentage point from the report on March 1. On the bright side, the current snowpack is 130 percent of last year’s April 1 snowpack report. By this time last year the statewide snowpack had already peaked and was melting rapidly. This year snow continued to accumulate in the mountains during March; however the storms were more focused on the northern mountains and the Front Range and missed the southwest portion of the state. While the snowpack percentages did increase in most basins, not all watersheds showed improvement, and some saw a substantial decline. The Upper Rio Grande basin dropped 9 percentage points from the March 1 readings and the combined San Juan, Animas, Dolores, and San Miguel basins lost 10 percentage points. The lowest snowpack percentages in the state occur in the Upper Rio Grande and the South Platte basins which are both at just 69 percent of median. The state’s best snowpack percentage occurs in the North Platte basin which is at 81 percent of median; the Yampa and White basins are close behind with a snowpack at 78 percent of median. All basins currently have snowpacks that are better than those reported last year at this time; but comparing bad to worse could be considered a moot point.

Precipitation

Precipitation totals for the month of March, measured at SNOTEL sites across the state, were mostly below average. Statewide precipitation for the month was just 76 percent of average. The South Platte and the Colorado basins actually recorded precipitation in the mountains that was close to average. The South Platte reported totals at 97 percent of average and the Colorado was at 96 percent of average. The driest basins this month were the Upper Rio Grande and combined San Juan, Animas, Dolores, and San Miguel basins with precipitation totals at only 47 percent and 56 percent of average respectively. Precipitation in the remaining basins ranged from 84 percent of average in the Yampa, White and North Platte basins to 63 percent of average in the Arkansas. Water year to date totals range from only 66 percent of average in the Upper Rio Grande basin, to 78 percent of average in the Yampa, White and North Platte basins. Water year to date precipitation for the state is at 73 percent of average.

Reservoir Storage

Statewide reservoir storage was reported to be 71 percent of average at the end of March. The combined Yampa and White River basins boast the highest storage amounts in the state, currently storing 105 percent of average volumes for this date; though the basin has the fewest reservoirs and lowest capacity for storage. Storage volumes in the other major basins range from 84 percent of average in the South Platte basin, to 54 percent of average in the Upper Rio Grande basin. Statewide storage volumes are way below where they were this time last year. Last year at this time, the reservoirs in the state were storing 3,651,000 acre-feet of water which was 108 percent of the average volumes. This year the reservoirs are storing 2,421,000 acre-feet of water for agricultural and municipal use this season.

Streamflow

Colorado’s water users can anticipate very low streamflow volumes this summer. Due to extremely poor snowpack conditions spring and summer streamflow volumes may approach the minimum volumes on record in some areas. The projected inflow into Dillon Reservoir calls for 66 percent of average flows; forecasts for some areas of Colorado River basin are even lower. Clear Creek at Golden is expected to flow at 72 percent of average from April to July and the forecast for the Big Thompson River is only 52 percent of average. The Gunnison and Upper Rio Grande River basins have some of the lowest forecasts in the state. Tomichi Creek at Gunnison is only expected to see volumes that are 34 percent of average and Sangre de Cristo Creek’s forecast calls for flows that are 29 percent of average. All of these forecasts assume normal precipitation amounts throughout the forecast period.

Special Note on Interpreting Forecasts

According to the National Water and Climate Center (NWCC), “a water supply forecast is a prediction of streamflow volume that will flow past a point on a stream during a specified season, typically in the spring and summer. These forecasts are given not as a single number, but as a range of numbers to reflect risk and forecast uncertainty. Each month, five forecasts are issued for each forecast point and each forecast period. Unless otherwise specified, all forecasts are for streamflow volumes that would occur naturally without any upstream influences.”

The forecasts we typically emphasize in this report are the 50 percent exceedance probability forecasts because they are in the middle of the range of forecasts with 50 percent chance that actual volumes will be above or below the predicted volume. The 50 percent exceedance forecasts assume that typical weather patterns will prevail into the forecast season. In a water year such as this one, when conditions have been anything but typical, it is important to pay attention to the other forecasts provided. If dry conditions prevail into the rest of this spring and summer it may be prudent to use the 70 or 90 percent exceedance forecasts for management purposes this season. If we continue to receive snowfall late into the season or above average precipitation this spring, actual streamflow volumes may be more in line with the 50 or 30 percent exceedance forecasts.

Parachute Creek spill: Residents ask state to take over testing at the creek #ColoradoRiver

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From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Colson):

Area residents, concerned about the discovery of extremely high levels of the toxic compound benzene 10 feet from the banks of Parachute Creek, are calling on state officials to take over the water-sampling duties currently being conducted by a private company. That company, Bargath LLC of Oklahoma, is listed by the Bloomberg Businessweek website as a “subsidiary of Williams Companies, Inc.,” the parent company of Williams Midstream and WPX Energy. Bargath, according to statements from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has been in charge of water sampling from Parachute Creek and from two groups of water-quality monitoring wells, one group at about 30 feet from the creek and a second group just 10 feet from the creek.

In an e-mail to Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC, Silt resident Carl McWilliams pointed out that Bargath in late 2012 was fined $275,000 for violations of the state’s stormwater-management regulations in its operations in Garfield County…

“Please notice the ‘joined-at-the-hip’ association Bargath LLC has with Williams,” wrote McWilliams. “Based upon the unthinkable environmental devastation benzene has to aquifers and ground water, and the totally unacceptable track record of Bargath LLC and Williams Production on water issues in Garfield County, this email to you is a formal demand that the COGCC immediately implement laboratory water testing of the ground water and aquifer (in the area of the plume).”

Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, disagreed with McWilliams’ concerns. “Certainly, this pipeline leak is a significant and serious situation,” Gunderson said. But, he continued, “It’s an apples-and-oranges type of thing” compared to the stormwater violations in Bargath’s 2012 violations.

From the Northern Colorado Business Journal (Steve Lynn):

A benzene spill that contaminated groundwater near Parachute Creek on the Western Slope has renewed calls by conservationists for increased buffers between oil and gas facilities and streams, rivers and lakes. Such spills could have a major impact in heavy production areas such as Weld County, which lies in the heart of the South Platte River Basin. Weld, with 20,000 wells, is the most active production area in the state…

“This was one of the things that was still outstanding, the riparian setback issue,” said Bob Meulengracht, Colorado coordinator of Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development. “The (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) was supposed to convene a stakeholder group to look into this.”

The state of Colorado said it has instead focused on buffers between oil drilling and buildings, which regulators expanded from 350 feet in urban areas and 150 feet in rural areas to a uniform 500 feet earlier this year. Drilling cannot take place within 1,000 feet of buildings housing large numbers of people, including schools, nursing homes and hospitals, without a hearing before the commission. Regulators also passed stricter groundwater monitoring measures, though those rules do not pertain to streams, rivers and lakes.

The state passed some regulations protecting fisheries and drinking water infrastructure in 2008. It adopted a rule to create setbacks and mitigation requirements near areas with drinking water infrastructure as well as a 300-foot buffer from streams designated as “gold medal” streams and those containing cutthroat trout. But environmentalists believe the regulations do not go far enough, saying that oil and gas spills could contaminate water supplies and harm wildlife. “Right now, other than gold medal trout waters and cutthroat trout waters, we have virtually nothing to protect our riparian areas,” Meulengracht said. “We all know that accidents happen; we’re seeing that up in Parachute.”

The Colorado Wildlife Federation believes oil and gas companies should adopt “reasonable” setbacks from water ways, said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the environmental group. “We don’t believe one size fits all, because there are a lot of factors that would go into it,” she said.

In Gunnison County, elected leaders did not wait for the state to overhaul its water-way setback regulations. County commissioners last year passed 150-foot buffers between oil and gas development and bodies of water. The regulations also call for another buffer from 150 to 500 feet where elements of the operation can occur. However, companies must take additional steps, such as building two-foot-tall berms around the edge of the well pad facing a body of water. “The goal is to allow the operators to extract the resources that they own, but to do that in a way that’s environmentally safe and safe for humans,” County Manager Matthew Birnie said…

Williams had removed nearly 4,300 barrels of groundwater and 140 barrels of hydrocarbons from the spill near Parachute Creek, discovered last month. Samples taken by the state oil commission had shown no evidence that the creek was contaminated.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Authorities on Wednesday installed and sampled three new monitoring wells within 10 feet of Parachute Creek, one day after high benzene levels were reported within the same distance of the creek. The results of those samples, along with another round of samples taken from the surface of the creek itself, were not available.

Benzene levels as much as 800 times more than the federal drinking water standard were found Tuesday in shallow groundwater in a monitoring well just 10 feet from the banks of the creek at the site of a liquid hydrocarbon leak. State officials continue to say that testing of the creek water continues to show no signs of contamination from the leak. Sampling results from well completed Tuesday show benzene levels of 1,900 to 4,100 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum allowable level for benzene, a carcinogen, in drinking water is 5 ppb. Readings from three other wells farther from the creek and closer to the contamination site have shown readings ranging from 5,800 ppb to 18,000 ppb.

The highest reading is near a recovery trench dug as part of the leak cleanup. That trench, and the area around an above-ground valve set for a 4-inch-diameter natural gas liquids line from Williams’ nearby gas processing plant, are being investigated as possible sources of what investigators think may have been historic releases of hydrocarbons. No active leak sources have yet been found.

Williams spokeswoman Donna Gray said Tuesday the 4-inch line went into service in 2008. The contamination was discovered by Williams in a pipeline corridor March 8 as it was doing location work. Some 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons were recovered.

Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman said the new monitoring well is about 325 feet southeast of the valve set and recovery trench. Investigators for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission believe groundwater is flowing from the creek toward the contamination site, rather than vice versa, which is helping protect the creek from contamination.

Parachute Creek provides irrigation water to the town of Parachute. Town Administrator Bob Knight said Tuesday the town usually releases water from the creek into its irrigation reservoir on April 15. “We are hoping this matter is resolved long before that. But I have no intention of turning water into the reservoir until it is cleaned up and the leak has been found or whatever is causing that,” he said.

He said some residents probably will use the town’s domestic water system for irrigation, which will put more strain on the system’s treatment plant. “But we believe we can handle it for the interim,” he said.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A federal agency is looking at plugging a hole in the regulation of oil and gas gathering pipelines. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, is considering regulating all gathering pipelines, which would close a loophole applying to many lines in Colorado and other states.

Gathering lines deliver oil, gas and associated substances from production areas to processing facilities.

For gas gathering lines, the agency’s pipeline safety regulations currently don’t apply to low-population areas, leaving only about 10 percent of 200,000 miles of natural gas gathering lines nationwide regulated by it. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration now regulates about 4,000 of the 30,000 to 40,000 miles of hazardous liquids gathering lines in the country. Its rules for hazardous liquids lines apply to lines that are in communities, cross waterways used for commercial navigation, or in the case of certain rural lines come within a quarter-mile of environmentally sensitive areas.

The federal agency typically has agreements with state agencies for regulations and enforcement within a state, but those agencies may not impose safety rules on federally unregulated gathering lines. It has a regulatory agreement with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for gas lines, but although the PUC imposes some minimal safety rules on rural gathering lines, the more extensive rules that PHMSA requires for those gathering lines it does regulate do not apply.

The rules of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration cover areas such as pipeline design, construction, testing, operations, maintenance, and corrosion detection and prevention, agency spokesman Damon Hill said.

Williams site

Pipeline regulations associated with oil and gas development in Colorado have garnered increased attention in light of a leak of some 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons, discovered in a pipeline corridor near Parachute Creek northwest of Parachute last month. The investigation into that leak continues, but it is focusing in part on a valve set for a natural gas liquids pipeline that runs from Williams’ nearby gas processing plant to tanks on the other side of the creek.

Williams has said that pipeline is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Hill said his agency continues to look into the situation, but that it doesn’t appear to regulate that pipeline. He said certain pipelines within a plant might not be considered transportation lines for regulatory purposes.

Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has said he expects his agency to review its own pipeline rules in light of the Parachute situation to see if changes might be warranted. Its rules currently apply to flow lines running from wells to metered points at which the oil or gas joins gathering lines, and cover areas such as piping materials that must be used and requirements for pressure-testing.

Williams has said the regulations apply to a liquids line that runs from the tanks by Parachute Creek to another processing plant in Rio Blanco County.

In the case of natural gas gathering lines, the federal agency doesn’t regulate lines in areas with fewer than 10 buildings intended for human occupancy within 220 yards of a line per mile — what are called Class 1 areas.

State rules dropped

Under the Colorado PUC agreement with Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the state enforces Colorado safety regulations of gas pipelines when lines are entirely within the state. It regulates transmission lines, distribution lines to customers and other lines including gathering lines.

However, in the case of Class 1 gathering lines, it only mandates pipeline markers at roads and railroad crossings; telephone reporting of incidents such as leaks along with immediate, documented repairs; and other notification in certain instances.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had some gathering pipeline rules in place but eliminated them in 2008 out of concern over possible duplication of, or conflict with, rules the PUC was working on. The PUC adopted its gathering rules in 2011. According to a commission rulemaking document, its past rules apparently involved requirements only to notify the commssion and affected local governments and provide construction plans when companies plan to build gathering lines subject to federal pipeline agency rules.

While leaks from gas lines can threaten the environment, a primary concern is the danger of explosion. Part of the reason the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration hasn’t regulated gas gathering lines in rural areas is because they historically have been generally small and have had relatively low pressures. However, diameters and pressures of gathering pipelines have been increasing in the case of some lines being installed for drilling in gas-rich shale formations. Some local energy companies have begun exploratory drilling in shale.

On its website, the agency said that it “recognizes that the state of onshore gathering pipeline safety is evolving, and is in the process of collecting new information about gathering pipelines in an effort to better understand the risks they may now pose to people and the environment.”

Garfield County has about 10,000 gas wells, generally in the less-populated western part of the county, including in many areas commonly referred to as rural-residential. It also said that while most gathering lines nationaide previously were built in minimally populated areas, populations are spreading to once-rural locations as the nation grows, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said.

Hill said the agency will have to consider the costs and benefits of regulating unregulated gathering lines, and will consult with other regulators, the industry and the public. “There’s a lot of things that are looked at and weighed when we consider developing new regulations,” he said.

WPX Energy, which has more than 4,400 gas wells in Garfield County and surrounding areas, has said it treats all of its lines as flow lines subject to COGCC rules and tests them beyond what that agency requires.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

State regulators and an energy company said Thursday they’re still mystified as to the origins of a hydrocarbon leak near Parachute. And it’s what the industry doesn’t know that concerns some area residents.

“This is a really serious event and I am really scared and upset,” Richard Votero of Carbondale said at the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting. “… I know the industry is being diligent and I know (they’re) using all best practices, all those things are going on, and they don’t know where it’s coming from.”

A handful of residents expressed similar concerns after Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director Matt Lepore and an official with Williams updated the status of the investigation into the leak of about 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons near Parachute Creek about four miles northwest of Parachute. The contamination was found in a pipeline corridor with lines servicing a Williams gas plant. Officials have identified what they call the “hot spot” for the contamination as being beneath an above-ground valve set for a 4-inch-diameter natural gas liquids line running from the plant to tanks on the other side of the creek.

“We’re concerned, I’ll be honest,” said Dave Keylor, vice president and general manager in the Piceance Basin for Williams. “We’re concerned and we want to prevent this from getting into the creek. We know how important water is in the West. We know how important this creek is as a supply.”

The creek is used for downstream purposes including as the irrigation water supply for the town of Parachute, and it also is a tributary of the Colorado River.

Williams has taken the 4-inch line out of service and repeatedly tested it under high pressure using water, at pressures above 600 pounds per square inch, more than three times its normal operating pressure. “We put a very robust test on it and it held so we feel confident that that pipe does not have a leak,” he said.

While the valve set isn’t showing signs of leakage now, Keylor revealed that a pressure gauge above-ground in the valve area had been discovered to have been leaking Jan. 3. He said Williams removed the gauge and plugged the pipe rather than installing another gauge, and did testing at the time that indicated it likely leaked less than 25 gallons—a lower amount than it was required to report to the COGCC, and far less than has been recovered since. He said the leak also wouldn’t explain dissolved benzene being found now in a groundwater monitoring well more than 300 feet away.

Lepore said the investigation is expected to provide information on how fast groundwater travels in the area. Once it’s determined how far the contamination plume extends from the concentration point, investigators can then determine how long contamination has been there.

Investigators are considering the possibility that more than one event caused the contamination. Asked to speculate as to possible sources, Lepore said, “It seems sort of obvious that the location of the release we’ve got pinned down. Historical malfunction that got fixed, that nobody told us about? Don’t know. Truck spill? Could be a very slow, slow leak over a long period of time that somehow the current hydro tests aren’t showing us—I don’t know. The process to get us there isn’t self-evident to me either. We’re going to keep chipping away at it.”

A prime focus of the work continues to be trying to protect the creek, which investigators say so far doesn’t appear to be contaminated despite benzene in nearby groundwater. But Lepore and Keylor said attentions also are turning toward developing a long-range remediation plan for the site, which Keylor said will be made public.

Energy Advisory Board member Bob Arrington, a retired engineer, suggested that Williams should investigate the possibility of a temporary leak associated with the liquids line during this winter’s extreme cold snap.

Karen Meskin, who lives in the heavily drilled subdivision on Grass Mesa outside Rifle, told officials water quality is always a concern there. “Now you’ve scared me,” she said after hearing the presentation, before urging officials to “pay attention to our public health.”

Benita Phillips, president of Western Colorado Congress of Mesa County, said it’s time that companies show that their operations are safe. “I don’t think that they really understand what they’re doing,” she said.

A.J. Hobbs of Carbondale suggested doing water quality monitoring in the Colorado River as well as in the creek. He added, “I think it’s important that we step back and not progress (with oil and gas development) at this constant speed that will lead to inevitable leaks here … .”

Keylor said Williams has “a lot of business in this basin and we have between 90 and 100 employees and their families who live here so we are as concerned if not more concerned as anybody in this room” about the contamination.

In an apparent reference to criticism over the limited notification and communication it provided early after the contamination’s discovery, Keylor said Williams learned that “maybe we weren’t quite as responsive as we need to be with our stakeholders, so it’s a lesson learned and something that we’re going to endeavor to fix.” He added, “Our sense of responsibility here and our diligence is at the highest level that we can offer.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

2013 Colorado legislation: SB13-019 still alive #coleg

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A controversial water bill that would give the state engineer authority over water transfers for up to 30 years was discussed Thursday in the Senate Agriculture Committee. Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, who chairs the committee, scheduled a vote for next Thursday after about three hours of testimony for and against the bill. She had concerns that the bill could be used to increase diversions from one basin to another. She added that the bill should be laid over to allow sponsors time to make amendments based on testimony, but did not call for a vote.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulfur Springs, are sponsoring the bill after Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, removed her name as a sponsor.

The bill would expand current legislation on interruptible supply agreements. Currently, cities may lease water for three years out of 10 from farms without changing use of a water right. The bill extends the arrangement for two additional 10-year periods.

Opponents of the bill, mostly water interests in the South Platte basin, objected to the legislation because it could allow injury to senior water rights without due process in water courts.

The bill was supported by Aurora, farmers from the Rocky Ford area, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. They argued the 30-year period would facilitate lease agreements between cities and farmers and prevent permanent dry-up of farmland. “I support it because it eliminates re-engineering and rediscussion,” said Alan Frantz, a Rocky Ford farmer who participated in a 2004-05 lease to Aurora. “We don’t pay any more to prove that it didn’t hurt anybody down the stream.”

Schwartz asked Kevin Rein, deputy state engineer, if farmers and cities could simply apply for an extension now. Rein said the current statute prohibits extending an application, but added that a completely new application would require less engineering work after going through the process the first time.

More water law coverage here and here.