‘Back then, we used computer punch cards’ — Bruce Smith

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From The Mountain Mail (Joe Stone):

Salida resident Bruce Smith recently retired as Colorado Division of Water Resources district water commissioner after 40 years with the division, including 34 years as commissioner in the Upper Arkansas River Valley.

The Division of Water Resources, also known as the Office of the State Engineer, administers Colorado water rights, and as the Division 2 (Arkansas River Basin) District 11 (headwaters to Salida) commissioner, Smith oversaw two deputy commissioners and approximately 1,400 water rights.

He said he knows of only one other commissioner in the state who has done the job longer; in fact, he said, “When I started, river calls came by postcard. Now, with the Internet, people want (river) calls administered instantly.”

Colorado water rights are administered according to the Prior Appropriation System, which dictates when water can be used based on water-right seniority – “first in time, first in right.”

Water commissioners work within their respective districts to ensure the system is followed, enforcing Colorado water laws and decrees, sometimes by cutting off an irrigator’s water in order to meet a call on the river by the holder of a senior water right. Senior rights holders file river calls with the division engineer when they fail to receive all of the water they have been decreed. A call on the river is essentially a request for the division engineer to curtail all upstream water rights junior to the calling right until the senior right is satisfied.

Once the division engineer’s office receives a river call, it becomes the responsibility of the local water commissioner to ensure the call is met by curtailing water diversions by junior rights holders.

Smith said a typical day as water commissioner starts with a check of real-time gauges to see if the river is rising or falling.

The next order of business is to go to calling rights holders’ ditches to see how much water they have. “To put a call on the river, (rights holders) have to take all available water at their headgates,” Smith explained. If the calling ditches really are low, Smith said the water commissioner must then figure out how much water is needed to meet the call, based in part on how much the river is rising or dropping.

Smith said it then becomes a matter of shutting irrigation headgates of junior upstream water rights to try to get enough water to the calling ditch.

If the calling ditch still does not receive its decreed amount of water, Smith said, “you go out and do it again” until the ditch receives its decreed amount.
“It takes up to 3 days to get a dropping river set,” Smith said. “Sometimes you have to cut off three to five times as much water as the calling ditch needs” because of factors like evaporation.

“I always tried to be fair – hit a medium ground – and give people the benefit of the doubt,” Smith added.

Smith said he grew up around water. His father was deputy state engineer, but Smith planned to be a teacher and earned his education degree at the University of Northern Colorado.

While attending college in the early ’70s, Smith said, he took a job filling in for the Laramie River water commissioner. The job helped pay for college and gave Smith his start working for the State Engineer’s Office.

But Smith still had no plans to pursue a career in water until discovering that he could not land a job as a teacher. At that point, Smith accepted a deputy commissioner position on the Cache La Poudre River, where he worked until 1979. “Back then, we used computer punch cards,” he said.

Even after accepting the job as District 11 commissioner, Smith said, the state provided no supplies for years. “I didn’t have a state truck for 15 years. But since I was using my own truck, I took the kids with me a lot, which was great for them growing up.” Smith said “the kids” – Don, 36, and Erik, 34 – still talk about those experiences.

The downside back in those days, Smith said, was all the phone calls at home.
“Before cell phones,” Smith recalled, “I had an answering machine. I would get home in the evening, play messages and have to go back out. And for 5 years I didn’t finish a video with my kids without getting a water phone call.”

During the ’80s, Smith said, he would make a weekly trip through Bighorn Sheep Canyon to deliver an old 5¼-inch floppy disk to the Division Engineer’s office in Pueblo. “The first time I did that, the disk got corrupted. Eventually, I started making three disks. One would usually make it, but something in the canyon would corrupt those disks.”

Smith also recalled the first time he made the trip up the steep, rocky jeep trail to Boss Lake. “I went up with Doc Hutchinson in the back of his truck,” Smith said with a look of dismay. “Later, people would tell me, ‘Nobody rides with Doc up there.’”

Overall, Smith said he thinks he had the best commissioner job in the state here in the Upper Ark Valley. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I definitely have mixed feelings about retiring.”

Colorado Division of Water Resources coverage here and here.

The latest United Water newsletter is hot off the presses

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Click here to read the newsletter.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

Big Thompson Flood — July 31, 1976 — remembered

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From the Loveland Reporter-Herald:

Residents of the Big Thompson Canyon and others who remember the July 31, 1976, flood there gathered at the flood memorial Wednesday night for an annual memorial service. The flood happened after a thunderstorm stalled over the area and dumped more than a foot of rain. Pounding rain caused a wall of water to roar through the canyon, 19 feet high in places.

It destroyed homes, businesses, U.S. 34 and, worst of all, took 139 lives. Six more people were never found.

More Big Thompson River flood coverage here and here.

Drought news: Denver Water draws down Chatfield Reservoir to help fulfill downstream obligations #COdrought

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From 9News.com (Marty Coniglio):

Rain and average July temperatures have helped bring reservoir levels up, but even more moisture is needed. Stacy Chesney of Denver Water reports that total reservoir storage is 94 percent of the average. But water managers are aiming to decrease water use by 10 percent in an attempt to completely fill as many storage facilities as they can…

Chatfield Reservoir has generated a lot of interest by being so low. Denver water manages 40 Percent of the water in that lake, while the Army Corps of Engineers controls 60 percent of the water to be used exclusively for recreation. This year, senior water rights holders downstream from the Front Range have needed a lot of water and Denver Water has used Chatfield to fulfill that legal obligation.

From the Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

It seems like July has been a wet month, but it actually wasn’t much more moist than July 2012, when the region was gripped in drought. Still, everything from streamflows to fire danger is better off this year than last, thanks, still, to a wet April and May…

…this summer is notably better than last summer, despite the fact that June of this year was virtually as dry as June of 2012. The SnoTel snow and rain measurement site on Vail Mountain recorded just 0.1 inch of precipitation in June, just a few drops better than 2012, when that site received no measurable precipitation at all between May 24 and July 1. The same site has recorded just a half-inch more rain in July than it did in 2012.

But that site is up to about 24 inches of precipitation recorded for the current “water year,” which starts in October, a significant improvement over the 20 inches recorded at the site at the end of July 2012.

From the Arizona Daily Sun (Eric Betz):

The Glen Canyon Dam shook to its very foundations as engineers scrambled to find ways to hold back the waters of the fast melting and massive Colorado snowpack. It was July 15, 1983, and there were concerns the dam would not stand the force of the swelling Lake Powell. Below, at Lees Ferry, streamflow gauges recorded more water than at any point since the dam was erected. The dam held, but large-scale reconstruction was required to repair the washed away rebar and concrete. It was 30 years ago this week that Lake Powell reached the highest level in its history. But those days seem hopelessly far off.

This year, the combined storage of Lakes Powell and Mead — and the total system storage of all 10 major reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin — is expected to reach its lowest point since Lake Powell was filled.

Lakes Powell and Mead are projected to hit just 45 percent of their combined capacity this water year, according to the most recent 24-month Bureau of Reclamation study. Hydrologists define a water year as starting on Oct. 1 and ending Sept. 30.

Based on the most recent numbers, the Bureau of Reclamation will release roughly two times more water from Lake Powell than the Colorado River will provide to it for the current period. The projections also indicate that next year Lake Powell will [be operated under the 2007 Shortage Sharing Agreement]…

While the combined storage system will hit the lowest point in history, Lake Powell’s elevation was significantly lower in 2005 following a prolonged period of drought. “We’ve been seeing it for about two months,” said Katrina Grantz, a hydraulic engineer for Glen Canyon Dam. “It’s just barely below what we saw as the combined 2005 period … It’s of concern; I wouldn’t say alarming.”

“Since 2005, we’ve recovered quite a bit, but we’ve had two back-to-back dry years,” she added.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jesse Byrnes):

Colorado Springs residents and businesses used 600 million gallons of water July 22-28, compared to 963 million gallons for the same week last year. It was also 6 degrees cooler and the city got .08 inches more rain for the same time frame.

The lowest water consumption point of the summer came a week earlier, July 15-21, when households used only 556 million gallons of water after getting drowned in more than 2 inches of rain. Until then, residents were using about 600-700 million gallons of water per week.

Colorado Springs has gotten 4.51 inches of rain for July, 1.89 inches above normal for the month, according to the National Weather Service in Pueblo…

The city needs to save as much as possible during summer months – when people typically use more water – because it has collected as much from snow runoff as it can expect to see this year, city officials say. As of July 28, Colorado Springs was at 57.1 percent in its water system storage compared to 61.4 percent at the same time last year. The normal system storage level is 84.8 percent.

Two bills targeting forest health and rural economies (via timber harvesting) clear the US House Natural Resources Committee

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Legislation that would improve forest health and assist rural economies advanced Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two bills were combined to reduce the threat of wildfire and to increase timber harvest revenues to schools and other local services cleared the House Natural Resources Committee.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., is the sponsor of HR818, which sets priorities to reduce fuels in forests in order to reduce the risk of fire. Tipton’s bill directs the Forest Service to prioritize hazardous fuels reduction projects proposed by governors, affected counties and tribes.

The other bill, HR1526, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., addresses the shortfall in county revenue for schools and critical services caused by lack of timber harvest. It requires the Forest Service to produce at least half of the sustainable annual yield of timber required under law since 1908 and to share 25 percent of those receipts with rural counties.

To expedite locally based healthy forest projects, the Hastings-Tipton package builds on the positive streamlining procedures implemented under the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. “Our package would allow greater state and local involvement in wildfire prevention on federal lands in order to expedite hazardous fuels reduction projects and reduce litigation,” Tipton said. In 2012, 9.3 million acres burned, while only about 200,000 acres of timber were harvested. Several of the most destructive fires were in Colorado.

This year, fires again struck the state, including the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires and numerous other blazes in the Arkansas and Rio Grande watersheds. “Time is of the essence and we cannot afford to wait for more fires and more devastation before Congress acts,” Tipton said.

From The Durango Herald (Joe Hanel):

The bill also sets mandates for the Forest Service to produce higher timber harvests and to share its revenues with rural school districts.

Tipton said his bill will help prevent forest fires, bring back rural jobs and funnel more timber royalty money to schools.

“We have fallen short of the benefits that can be provided to our classrooms, our communities and the ecosystem, and we should return to active forest management,” Tipton said.