‘For over 10 years, water use out of the #ColoradoRiver and its tributaries…has exceeded inflows’ — Hannah Holm

Colorado River Basin via Rand JIE
Colorado River Basin via Rand JIE
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

Presentations from the conference are available on the web at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/watercenter/UpperColoradoRiverBasinWaterForum…

For over 10 years, water use out of the Colorado River and its tributaries for farms and cities has exceeded inflows from rain and snow. One wind storm in 2013 left 419 pounds/acre of snow on the San Juan Mountains, part of a trend of increasing dust falling on snow, which speeds melting. Mountain snowpacks are melting out up to six weeks earlier than they did historically. On the human side, subdivisions are encroaching on farms, and river-based recreation now economically dwarfs agriculture in some areas. Many of the growing cities that rely on the river lie outside the river basin, using pipes and canals to transport water across mountain ranges.

The weather influencing our environment, and the people who inhabit and rely on it, just aren’t behaving the way they did 50-100 years ago, or even 20-30 years ago. While conditions are changing, the legal apparatus and much of the infrastructure we use to manage water are old. The “first in time, first in line” prior appropriation doctrine was established during the early days of mining in Colorado, and many of the ditches that still convey water to hayfields and orchards aren’t much newer. The Colorado River Compact, the cornerstone of the “Law of the River” that apportions the water resources of the Colorado River and its tributaries between the headwaters and down-river states, dates back to 1922.

A central issue of debate among scholars and water managers is whether this legal apparatus, and the physical apparatus that grew up alongside it, is adequate to address our changing natural and social conditions. Both were designed to help communities withstand the variability of our region’s climate, with reservoirs to capture runoff from wet years to meter out during dry years, and rules to handle scarcity in an orderly way, as well as transfer water rights as demands changed.

As a result, the security of access to water for millions of people and millions of rows of lettuce, alfalfa, cotton and peaches has greatly increased. But in helping our communities survive and thrive, despite the variability our climate has dished out over the past 100 years, it has left us even more vulnerable to the larger swings that both ancient tree ring studies and climate change models tell us could be in our future.

On a large scale, proponents of our existing systems point to their flexibility. The states involved in the Colorado River Compact meet regularly and have refined the agreement in numerous ways. These include allowing the lower basin states and even Mexico to bank saved water in Lake Mead for future uses, and to help support a project to reconnect the Colorado River to the sea. The parties also cooperated on the Bureau of Reclamation’s massive Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, released in December 2012, which raised the alarm about an intensifying supply-demand imbalance. Stakeholders from each state are now working together to study solutions in the areas of curbing urban demands, enhancing agricultural efficiency, and protecting flows to serve environmental and recreational purposes.

On a smaller scale, farmers and conservation advocates across the basin are increasingly working together to fix leaky canals and headgates in order to improve water management options for farmers while improving streamflows for fish and recreation. Habitat restoration projects are also underway, from small streams and wetlands in the headwaters to industrial contamination sites on the Colorado main stem. On the urban demand side, water providers are helping thousands of homeowners be more efficient with their water use through individual water audits.

Will these efforts be enough to enable our region to smoothly adapt to future conditions? This is an open question, to be answered in part by what the climate dishes out, and in part by the perseverance and creativity of scientists, water managers and stakeholders across the region.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

Durango: Construction has begun on improvements to the whitewater park as Smelter Rapids

Planned improvements for the whitewater park at Smelter Rapids via the City of Durango
Design for the whitewater park at Smelter Rapids via the City of Durango

From The Durango Herald (Vanessa Guthrie):

The construction at Santa Rita Park near Durango’s wastewater-treatment plant will result in a temporary diversion of the river trail while a crew restructures the riverbed, which will allow for more control over the intensity of the rapid.

The in-stream work is slated to be completed by March, just in time for the spring runoff.

Scott McClain, landscape architect for the city of Durango, said the riverbed will be grouted and rocks will be moved to maintain river-flow consistency. During major water runoffs, the rocks can move, changing the rapids, he said, and every so often, the rocks have to be rearranged. This structure is intended to be more permanent, he said…

After a long process of applying for a recreational in-channel diversion right through the water courts, a conditional water right was given in 2007. The water right will not be permanent until the boating park is complete, she said.

Protecting the public’s recreational access to the river was a long process, Metz said. The Animas River Task Force, a group of residents who wanted to obtain the water rights for recreation, were the initial spark commencing the project in 2005, she said…

The initial estimate for Whitewater Park was about $1.3 million, but Metz said that might be high. She said the project is contracted for about $850,000, with additional money available as a safety net in case of any unforeseen financial hiccups…

Scott Shipley, the engineer and mastermind behind the current project, is looking forward to bringing Durango back on the map as a major river-running location. This type of project is not a first for Shipley, whose company developed the hydraulic features in the whitewater course for the London Olympics. An avid competitive kayaker, Shipley is thrilled to be working on the project even though he’s far away from his home in Lyons…

Phase 1 of the project will be completed in the spring, and the river then will be open to the public. The entirety of the fully developed park with amenities will not be completed until the end of 2014, Metz said.

More whitewater coverage here and here.

Snow survey (SNOTEL) program future uncertain as funding declines, key positions remain unfilled

From the Northern Colorado Business Report (Steve Lynn):

Farmers, water managers, ditch-irrigation company representatives and local government officials rely on the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service program to forecast water supplies. The agriculture department, however, has proposed eliminating some sites where scientists manually measure snowpack in Colorado and throughout the West.

Because of looming budget cuts, the agriculture department is uncertain about how it can maintain the traditional, manual measurements that began in the late 1930s. The agency also has automated snow stations scattered throughout the West, including in the Larimer County high country.

“As a climatologist, our strengths reside in the quality of our long-term data for tracking variations and changes,” Colorado State University climatologist Nolan Doesken said. “We don’t want to see any of those long-term records interrupted.”

The manual measurements done by scientists cover more territory than the automated snowpack sites, giving scientists a better grasp of snowpack depth and water availability than if they relied only on the automated sites, he said.

“That really allows improving on the forecast of what the future water supply is going to be,” he said.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton entered the fray this week, urging the agriculture department to maintain the snowpack monitoring measurements.

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

State water providers, lawmakers and others have long pushed for more detailed snowpack and river-flow data in anticipation of population growth, increased demands and climate change. But now they’re fighting just to keep in place the data system they have. Because of budget cuts, the state’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has fewer dollars this year to devote to its Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program.

However, Colorado State Conservationist Phyllis Ann Philipps said she’s “actually optimistic” for the program this year, after a number of representatives from water providers, conservation districts and other operations across the state have stressed that they’ll provide whatever resources are needed — technical assistance, dollars, staff, all of the above — to make sure the data-collection system is fully functional this year.

“There’s no doubt we need more data than we have now,” said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees operations of the region’s largest water-supply project, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that provides water to about 640,000 acres of irrigated farmground and about 860,000 people in portions of eight counties. “To take a step in the other direction certainly isn’t the way we want to go.”

The snowpack program consists of automated “Snotel” measurement devices in the mountains, and also of manual snow readings done by NRCS staff. With the data collected, water officials each year estimate what river flows will be when snow melts in the spring, and also how much of that water will run off into the region’s reservoirs.

Based on those forecasts, farmers — who use about 85 percent of the state’s water — decide what crops they’ll plant and how much. Cities, too, decide whether they’ll have enough water, not only to meet their own needs, but also whether they’ll have enough water left over to lease to local farmers during the growing season.

In addition to providing water projections, some of the data-collection system dates back to the early 1900s, and continuing that historic data is critical, water officials say.

While important, the snowpack-measuring program’s future has been uncertain recently. Philipps explained that, with its budget this year, the NRCS’s automated Snotel system would still be up and running as normal, but 47 of the 104 sites where manual measurements are taken wouldn’t be operational. She added, though, that state water officials, experts, providers and others are doing what they can to prevent that from happening.

“If we can get all of the support we think is out there, we’re optimistic our data-collection system will be fully functional this year,” Phillips said Tuesday night.

She noted that a meeting will take place Thursday between NRCS staff and water officials from across Colorado. At that time, discussions will be had about what’s needed to keep the snowpack-data system fully functional this year.

She said further discussions will have to take place down the road about how the data-collection system will function beyond 2014.

This week, Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., joined the cause, writing a letter to U.S. officials, urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which oversees NRCS functions — to prioritize funding for snow forecasts.

Local farmers, too, are stressing the future of the program is critical for the future of farming.

“We make basically all of our decisions based on those numbers and those forecasts,” said Robert Sakata with Sakata Farms, which grows produce and other crops in Weld and surrounding counties. Sakata also sits on the board of directors for two irrigation ditches that provide water to farmers.

The difference in just a few hundred acre feet of water coming down the river can make a big difference in how farmers operate, Sakata and other farmers stressed. The accuracy of the forecasts needs to be precise, he continued, so opportunities aren’t wasted for farmers still in production, who already face future uncertainty when it comes to water supplies.

At the current rate, Colorado cities buying water from the state’s farmers to meet their needs is expected to dry up an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmground by 2050, according to a statewide water supply study, released in 2010.

“We have to make the most of everything,” Sakata said. “We need the data to do that.”

Governor Hickenlooper and US Rep. Jared Polis differ regarding Colorado regulation of hydraulic fracturing

From The Denver Post (Allison Sherry):

On the U.S. House of Representatives floor Tuesday, Rep. Jared Polis ripped Colorado’s state regulations involving hydraulic fracturing, saying the growth of fracking in the state “without common-sense federal guidelines, without common-sense state guidelines” has caused friction for his constituents.

Polis, a Boulder Democrat, represents three municipalities — Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins — whose voters earlier this month approved moratoriums on the deep horizontal drilling technique. A fourth town, Broomfield, also had a moratorium proposal on the ballot, but officials are recounting that measure because the vote was so close.

Polis never took a position on the fracking bans, but Tuesday he said fracking “is occurring very close to where people live and work and where they raise families.”

“Yet our state doesn’t have any meaningful regulation to protect homeowners,” Polis said in a floor debate on a series of energy measures. “Unfortunately, the fracking rules are overseen by an oil and gas commission that is heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry. They don’t have at their disposal the independence or the ability to enact real penalties for violations of our laws and their charge is not first and foremost to protect homeowners and families and health.”

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office disagreed, saying ” the Colorado Constitution protects the rights of people to access their property above and below ground.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

Pueblo Board of Water Works storage recovers from #COdrought

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Mission accomplished. The Pueblo Board of Water Works increased its storage levels by 10,000 acre-feet after cutting off spot-market water leases this year.

“It was a good year for recovery of our storage reserves,” Water Resources Manager Alan Ward told the board Tuesday.

At the end of the October, the water board had 37,500 acre-feet of water stored in four reservoirs, up from 27,500 acre-feet the previous year at the same time. Pueblo has long-term storage in Lake Pueblo, Clear Creek Reservoir, Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake.

“Our spot market leases typically total about 10,000 acre-feet,” Ward said.

There were other factors to the quick recovery, but they played a smaller role, he said. After drenching rains in August and September, water customers cut back use by about 1 billion gallons — roughly 3,000 acre-feet. But most of the water supplied to the city’s potable system comes from direct-flow water rights on the Arkansas River, rather than storage, Ward explained. Part of the reduction also came from reduced use in city parks, water that is provided at no charge. Water use was down at the Xcel Energy’s Comanche power plant, and good snows late in the season aided natural storage levels, he added.

The new water year is looking more promising than the past two, with 93 percent snowpack in the Arkansas River basin and 123 percent in the Colorado River basin.

“It’s still early in the season, and you can’t draw conclusions,” Ward said. “But it’s encouraging that we are near average and the Colorado is above average.”

Click here for this morning’s snowpack report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

More coverage of the board meeting from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Tastes great, less money. That was Tuesday’s mantra at the Pueblo Board of Water Works monthly meeting as the board approved its 2014 budget. The board was slightly distracted because it was basking in the glory of capturing second place in an American Water Works Association regional water quality taste test earlier this year. But it was also proud of maintaining the lowest water rate among Front Range cities. Only Louisville has a lower base rate, but charges more as use increases.

“Our rates are reasonable compared to surrounding communities, and it’s a heck of a buy,” said board member Nick Gradisar. “The average household will spend about $400 per year on water, and that is among the lowest on the Front Range,” said Seth Clayton, director of administrative services. “With all this, we’re still able to produce a product that is among the best in the state.”

Pueblo rates will increase 3 percent next year, funding about 70 percent of the $34 million budget. Metered sales are expected to total $23 million, and will be supplemented by $8.2 million in leases of raw water. The remainder of the revenue will be generated by various fees and a transfer of $1 million from reserves. The bottom line for water users will be an average $1.02 increase per month for strictly indoor use, and $2.63 per month more during lawn irrigation periods, Clayton said.

On the expenditure side of the ledger, 41 percent will go toward personnel services, 30 percent to operation and maintenance, 17 percent to capital projects and 12 percent to debt service. Major expenses include $3.37 million for utilities, mostly electricity; $1.03 million for the next round of automated meters; $2.4 million for main improvement and expansion; and nearly $1 million for water tank improvements.

In other business, the board re-elected Mike Cafasso as president and Nick Gradisar as secretary­treasurer for the coming year.

More Pueblo Board of Water Works coverage here and here.