Drought/snowpack news: Eagle County moves up to D1, Oy Vey, Rio Grande Basin #COdrought




Click on the thumbnail graphics for the current US Drought Monitor, the current drought outlook from the Climate Prediction Center and the current statewide snowpack map from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

From the Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

During a week in the middle of this month, the snow-measurement site on Vail Mountain recorded 5 feet of heavy, wet snow. The snowfall through March and April, and especially in April, actually moved the needle on a drought scale that for more than a year has pointed resolutely toward dangerously-dry conditions. That needle in Eagle County has moved in just the past couple of weeks from D3 — “extreme” drought — to D1 — “moderate” drought…

“When we moved into moderate drought 15 months ago, it was a wake-up call,” Eagle River Water and Sanitation District spokeswoman Diane Johnson said. “Now, at least temporarily, the situation has improved.”

The improvement in the west’s water situation led one participant in a weekly conference call about drought conditions to wonder if the region might not be on the verge of a repeat of 1983, when late spring snow and a fast melt-off led to the first, and only, use of the overflow system at the Hoover Dam. That isn’t likely — snowpack in the region is just barely reaching or exceeding normal levels — but the speed of the seasonal warm-up could lead to some flooding…

Forecasts aside, the drought’s effects continue to linger, particularly soil moisture. Soil moisture is a key element of fire danger because once vegetation dries out, re-moistening those plants can be time consuming. Dry ground also means that snow on hillsides doesn’t always end up in streams and reservoirs, since ground takes its share first.

More from the Daily:

Until snow on the mountains melts, area streamflow is still very low. Here’s a look at Friday’s report from several measurement stations in the valley:

• Black Gore Creek: 26 percent of the historic median for that date.
• Gore Creek near Minturn: 28 percent of median.
• Eagle River near Milk Creek, west of Wolcott: 31 percent of median.
•Eagle River below Gypsum: 40 percent of median.
• Colorado River at Dotsero: 46 percent of median.

Remember, “median” is not “average.” Median is the middle data point in a set of numbers, average is the sum of those numbers, divided by the number of data points.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Thanks to a snowy April, Denver Water will no longer need to close Antero Reservoir in order to move the water and store it in Cheesman and Eleven Mile reservoirs during the ongoing drought.

“Managing water supplies through a drought is an ever-changing process,” said Dave Bennett, water resource manager for Denver Water. “While we are still in drought and need our customers to save water, the recent snow has helped our supply situation. Keeping Antero open will be a benefit to Park County and those who love to fish there. If we drained the reservoir, it would take about three years to refill.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages the fishery and says effective immediately, the regular bag and possession limit — two trout per angler — at Antero will be reinstated.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

At mid-April, the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s snowpack was only 66 percent of normal. “We are anticipating we are not going to have as much water this year as we did last year, unfortunately,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten reported to water leaders during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s recent quarterly meeting.

Stream flow forecasts for this year’s irrigation season are as low as 26 percent of average for the San Antonio River at Ortiz and 29 percent on Sangre de Cristo Creek to only 64 percent of average as the highest prediction on the Rio Grande at the Thirty Mile Bridge and 56 percent on the Rio Grande at Del Norte. Trinchera Creek is only expected to run at 44 percent of average this year.

Forecasts for the annual index flows on the Rio Grande have decreased each month to a current prediction of about 335,000 acre feet. Last year, which was not a stellar water year, the Rio Grande produced 470,000 acre feet. Of the 335,000 predicted to run downriver this year, 82,700 acre feet will have to be delivered to the downstream states of New Mexico and Texas to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations. To get the necessary water downstream to meet that obligation, the water division will have to curtail irrigators about 6.5 percent during the irrigation season, Cotten explained.

Currently there is zero curtailment on the Conejos River system, and that is not expected to change, according to Cotten, because the winter deliveries and credit from last year will ensure the Conejos meets its annual compact obligation. Cotten said zero curtailment is both good and bad news because ditches will not have to be curtailed during the irrigation season, but they may not have any water either. “We do have a dry river at Los Sauces on the Conejos right now,” he said. “No water is making it to the Rio Grande right now, and it will be like that through the summertime.” He said rivers that normally run 750 cubic feet per second (cfs) are only running about 300 cfs and those that should be running about 300 cfs are at about 100 cfs…

Adding even more pressure to an already difficult situation are the urgent requests from downstream states to send more water their way to help keep endangered species like the silvery minnow afloat. “We have told them we don’t have any water to send down,” Cotten said.

One of the main water repositories for Rio Grande Compact water is Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico. Currently it contains only about one-tenth its total capacity…

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver reported that San Luis Lake was still dry with not much promise of it filling this year, given the low run off expected from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains this year.

From The Mountain Mail (Mike Potter):

Antero Reservoir will remain open this summer. Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson said enough snow fell in April to cause the company to reverse its early March decision to drain the reservoir. “The amount of snow that we received wasn’t projected in the forecast,” he said.

When Denver Water decided to drain Antero Reservoir, South Platte Basin snowpack was at 49 percent of average. Recent snowfall improved the snowpack to 88 percent of average as of Monday.

When the original decision was made, Colorado Parks and Wildlife suspended the bag limit for fish at the reservoir. Now that Antero will remain open, Parks and Wildlife reinstated the bag limit of two trout per angler. No decision has been made about when motorized boats will be allowed on the water.

Because Denver Water had decided to drain the reservoir, it did not begin hiring inspectors to check boats to make sure they weren’t harboring aquatic nuisance species. Thompson said Denver Water would work with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to get inspectors in place before any motorized boats would be allowed on the water. “Hand-launched vessels such as kayaks, canoes and belly boats will be allowed, but no trailered or motorized boats will be permitted until details about aquatic nuisance species inspections can be determined,” he said.

Thompson cautioned that although the reservoir would be open during the summer, things could change, forcing the closure in the future. “We don’t expect to have to drain Antero this year, but if conditions change drastically, we are always prepared to reassess our situation,” he said. “We are still in drought conditions.”

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

Officials with Denver Water announced Wednesday that the reservoir, a popular spot for anglers, will remain filled and will not be drained into Eleven Mile and Cheeseman reservoirs as originally planned. The reservoir provides water to Denver, and is one of two drought reserves tapped by Denver Water when the area is in a severe dry period.

Eleven Mile, also in Park County, is the other drought reserve, and Denver started to tap into its flow last month.

In early March, after facing low snowpack and dismal prospects for a wet spring, the utility decided to drain Antero for the second time in its history, and store its water in neighboring reservoirs.

Greeley Children’s Water Festival recap: ‘In fifth grade you get to do’ — Armando Valladares


From The Greeley Tribune (Sherrie Peif):

It was clear walking around Island Grove Regional Park on Wednesday that most fourth-graders could survive on a very limited vocabulary. “Whoa,” one boy said as an employee of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District blew a giant bubble all around him. “Whoa,” another girl yelled out as water fell all around her in the 100-year flood exhibit. “Cool” and “Oh yeah,” could also be heard throughout the Island Grove Events Center, the Exhibition Building and the 4-H Building as more than 1,000 students from 15 schools across Adams, Morgan and Weld counties filled the buildings for the 23rd annual Children’s Water Festival.

The day long event is a collaboration among the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, the city of Greeley, the West Greeley Conservation District and the city of Evans, along with numerous sponsors. It is designed to teach young children about water conservation and its uses. The “Whoas,” “Oh yeahs” and “Cools” were for good reason; each activity was designed with kids in mind and meant to be hands-on and interactive. “We want to reach kids early to teach them that water is a limited resource and things can be done to take action,” said Kathy Parker, public information/education officer for the CCWCD.

The event consisted of dozens of booths that tested children’s awareness of water use and conservation.

At one booth, students spun a wheel to answer either a water knowledge question or a fun facts question such as at what temperature does water freeze? What saves more water, a shower or a bath? And what is the longest river in the United States? If they answered the question correctly, they won a bracelet.

Another “just for fun” activity, that attracted students more than most, was the bubblelogy booth, where giant bubbles were blown up around the student.

The bubbles were made from water, dish soap and cooking oil. Students stood on bricks in a plastic swimming pool while a large hula hoop type device was dunked in the mixture and stretched around them.

All the kids were given free T-shirts and schools that could not afford the transportation were given money for their busses to make the trip. Schools from as far away as Brush and Fort Morgan were in attendance.

Also helping with the event were students in the fifth-grade leadership class from Dos Rios Elementary School, who taught how to pan for gold and when and why it was done in Colorado history. “It was buried here and ended up in the rivers from when the mountains grew up,” said Kenia Morales, 11.

They all agreed that helping was just as much fun, and more, as participating. “In fourth grade all you got to do was watch,” said Armando Valladares, 10. “In fifth grade you get to do.”

More education coverage here.

The High Park Fire burn scar will likely be a pain in the water supply in the Poudre for years to come

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Trevor Hughes):

Last fall, mudslides and rockfalls repeatedly blocked Colorado Highway 14 west of Fort Collins in the weeks following the High Park Fire. The spring runoff is poised to cause even more trouble in the coming weeks and years…

The most recent problem in the canyon came April 21, when several rocks the size of recliners tumbled off a steep embankment and onto the road, blocking the eastbound lane. CDOT workers on Friday did some emergency work to reduce potential rockslides.

And next month, state and federal workers will begin a series of projects aimed at keeping traffic moving on the road and keeping the water clean for drinking. Two major efforts launch next month: The first will improve culverts along the highway and reduce the amount of debris that can slide down hillsides. The second involves spreading straw on thousands of burned acres to help stabilize hillsides and aid in revegetation.

Wildfires burn off grasses, bushes and trees that help stabilize the ground, which is especially important on steep, rocky hillsides of the kind that flank the Poudre Canyon. Without roots, branches and fronds, water, rocks and ash can cascade down the hillsides, covering the flat road below before dumping into the Poudre River.

The river, an internationally known fly-fishing destination, ran black several times last fall as rains carried ash into it. That sludge is still visible in many areas, and its presence worries water managers.

The Poudre River is an important source of drinking water for many Northern Colorado cities, including Fort Collins and Greeley. The High Park Fire forced Fort Collins to change how it treats Poudre River water, something that helped drive a 4 percent water rate increase that took effect earlier this year. Runoff from the burn area has also caused spikes in iron and manganese in the river, and because of those and other pollutants — and treatment for increased algae in the river water — there’s a risk the taste and smell of the city’s tap water could change, affecting the city’s numerous breweries.

To help protect the supply’s quality and taste, Fort Collins has been using water from Horsetooth Reservoir to dilute or outright replace Poudre River water during periods of ashy runoff.

“We will continue to have the uncertainty of the Poudre River water,” said Laurie D’Audney, a city water conservation specialist. “We just don’t know how much of it we’ll be able to treat.”

The federal government, recognizing the impact that the fire’s lingering effects have on the water, earlier this month allocated nearly $20 million to Colorado to repair watersheds and perform flood mitigation work in the Waldo Canyon and High Park fire burn areas.

That work will help stabilize hillsides, to reduce the amount of water and debris running downhill. And CDOT’s culvert replacements aim to ensure the water that does flow down crosses beneath Colorado 14, rather than pooling atop it.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.

2013 Colorado legislation: ‘Water law doctrine in Colorado was developed in a much simpler time’ — Jim Lochhead


From TheDenverChannel.com (Ryan Budnick):

Slowly, the state legislature has been making minor changes in water accords and laws to reflect the current needs of the state. Senate Bill 41, which was signed into law earlier in April, is an example of those minor changes that can have major ramifications.

“Water law doctrine in Colorado was developed in a much simpler time,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “So this law is a very small step toward simplifying what has become an overly-complex and burdensome water law system.”

As the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Mary Hodge sees it, it was correcting an oversight. The new law designates that storing water for fighting wildfires and for drought are beneficial uses. How it is currently set up, water can not be stored unless it is for one of three purposes: irrigation, residential use and mining.

“People are concerned when you start storing water that you’re either hoarding water or you’re using it as a speculative purpose,” Hodge said.

Meaning that the resource could be monopolized and cause price gouging. That was how the state’s anti-speculation doctrine was created, said water attorney Joe Dischinger.

More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Arkansas River Basin Water Users Forum recap: ‘These are uncertain times for water financing’ — Mike Brod


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

All Colorado needs is a clear vision of where growth is heading, enough money to build the projects it needs and unconditional consent from neighboring states. Unfortunately, none of those things exist. A panel addressed the need for state water planning at the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum last week and arrived at those conclusions. “While there are big issues of statewide importance, there are a lot of things that can be done at the basin level,” Todd Doherty of the Colorado Water Conservation Board told those in attendance.

Doherty reviewed the past eight years of water planning efforts that have been undertaken through the basin roundtable and interbasin compact committee legislation adopted in 2005. Those have developed alongside an evolving Statewide Water Supply Plan launched by the CWCB during the 2002 drought. Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked those groups to come up with a state water plan by 2016. The best the groups have come up with so far is a matrix that attempts to balance urban, agricultural and environmental needs through strategies. [ed. emphasis mine] There are triggers and signposts to indicate where water supply and demand are headed, but no manual that tells the state what to do when it arrives at any of those points.

Engineer Erin Wilson talked about the recently completed Colorado River basin study by the Bureau of Reclamation. Like Colorado’s water efforts, it does not provide any direction for any of the states. It has been widely misinterpreted so far, particularly by environmental groups that have focused on worst-case scenarios to grab headlines. While shortages on the Colorado River are predicted in many models, the main reason is that lower basin states already are using their full entitlements, she said.

Colorado should not see a shortage of water on the river in the next 35 years, and could still develop Colorado River projects, she said. “Can we conserve our way out of this problem?” she asked.

Mike Brod, executive director of the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, said cities are having a difficult time replacing aging infrastructure or building new systems because of uncertainty. Years of significant economic growth have been followed by severe economic contraction. Drought in recent years has added a cycle that means rationing, reduced water use and higher rates for urban users. “These are uncertain times for water financing,” Brod said.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

It’s probably not a good idea to try to digest an economics lecture about the price structure of Colorado water on top of a lunch that featured several kinds of pasta. Dick Brown — an economist and recovering Fountain city manager turned consultant — faced that daunting task at the Arkansas River Basin Water Users Forum last week, delivering the keynote address on his most recent paper: “Water Supply and Water Conservation: Implications of Economics on Public Policy for Colorado.” The title alone was heavier than the pasta dishes. But some parts of the report sat lightly on the tongue.

The appetizer was the author’s preface, in which Brown painted a surrealistic landscape of Colorado water policy. His grandson’s T-ball fields were bright green in the middle of the 2012 drought. He called us a nation of “canteen toters” because we carry bottles of water at all times, despite the abundance of cheap, safe public water supplies. He mocked the rigidity of Colorado water law that prohibits collecting water in rain barrels. He mused that the unemployment rate for water lawyers in this state is zero.

So, at least one member of the pasta-filled audience concluded, it might be worthwhile listening to some of Brown’s ideas during the keynote speech.

Water is scarce: “If water weren’t a scarce resource, you wouldn’t have to ration it.”

Storage is needed: “We are undervaluing water storage. You can’t use any water strategy without more storage.”

Water pricing won’t necessarily change usage: “To my knowledge, no one is out there advocating coin-operated fire hydrants.”

Economists might not know what they’re talking about: “Economics are a wonderful way of blaming your successors for things that aren’t working out well.”

And, finally, the main point: “Renewability is the key to water supply.”

Great. What’s for dessert?

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Steve Witte, Water Division 2 engineer, was given the top honor Wednesday at the Arkansas River Basin Water Users Forum. ‘‘I’m very honored to be recognized in this way, after all I’ve been involved with, to still be considered a ‘friend’ of the Arkansas,’’ Witte said after receiving the Bob Appel, Friend of the Arkansas award.

The award, named for one of the forum’s first organizers, recognizes lifetime achievements in service to the river. Past winners include Alan Hamel, Bud O’Hara, Allen Ringel, Carl Genova, Reed Dils, Paul Flack, Denzel Goodwin and Mike Conlin.

Witte joined the Division of Water Resources in 1979, and has been division engineer since 1988. During that time, he has dealt with some of the most vexing problems of water administration on the Arkansas River. Most defining his career has been the Kansas v. Colorado federal lawsuit, which was filed in 1985 and was finally settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. Witte still serves as the secretary of the Arkansas River Compact Committee, which meets annually to work out differences and assure compliance between the two states.

During his tenure, the Arkansas Valley has seen new restrictions on wellpumping and in ensuring surface water improvements like sprinklers, drip irrigation and ditch lining do not increase water consumption.

He also has had to monitor changes in water rights after Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora converted agricultural rights to municipal uses. Most recently, he has managed split river calls during an ongoing drought.

“He is well-respected in the Arkansas River basin for his honesty and integrity,” said Jean Van Pelt, project manager for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District. “He has always sought the best possible outcome for all water users.”

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here and here.