Drought news: Another dry year for the San Luis Valley? #COdrought

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

It’s still early in the snowfall season, but at this point water administrators are predicting another below-average year.

“Most of our stations in the Valley are 80-90 percent,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Division Engineer Craig Cotten reported this week. The San Antonio site is at 66 percent, while Ute Creek is 99 percent of normal, he said, “but every day we don’t have snow that goes down.”

He added, “We are projecting another below-average year at this point for most of the rivers and streams here in the Valley, but we do have some months still to go. If we do get some moisture, we can definitely get above that 100 percent.”

Cotten said both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems were below average last year. The Conejos system produced about 152,000 acre feet or about half of the 300,000-acre-foot average, and the Rio Grande ran at 460,000 acre feet, also substantially less than the long-term average of 650,000 acre feet annual index.

The good news was that Colorado met its obligation to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact, Cotten said. The state ended the 2013 year with a credit, he said. The exact numbers will be finalized during an engineer advisors’ meeting next month and ratified during the annual Rio Grande Compact meeting in Santa Fe in March.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released its first water forecast for the year. The NRCS is predicting limited water supply west of the Continental Divide and normal water supply east of the Continental Divide.

“Right now the West Coast is all red,” NRCS Hydrologist Tom Perkins said. “Early indications are it will be very dry in the western part of the West, but wetter as you travel east. There are some exceptions to this, as New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Utah and southern Colorado are also expected to be dry.”

He added, however, “But that could all change by the end of the season. This is early in the season who knows? It always changes.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal forecast is calling for a milder and somewhat drier winter for much of the West.

As of the first part of this month, the Rio Grande basin snowpack was in the 80 to 100 percent of normal range according to NRCS, with the same range in most of the basins in the state. The Upper Rio Grande basin currently has some of the lowest forecasts in the state. San Antonio River at Ortiz is forecast to flow at 66 percent of average for the April to September period and the Los Pinos River near Ortiz is expected to run at 77 percent of average for the same period. However, the Rio Grande at Thirty Mile Bridge is expected to run at 94 percent of average.

Snow accumulation in the mountains was above normal during October, November and early December, with the second half of December much drier.

NRCS State Conservationist Phyllis Ann Philipps was encouraged by the early winter moisture.

This is a great start to the 2014 water year,” she said. “As we saw in 2012 and ¦ See DRY page 3 2013, early seasons deficits are difficult to make up later in the season; so being right where we should be this time of year gives us a head start compared to the past couple of years.”

Snowpack totals for January 1 for the Rio Grande basin were at 99 percent of the median, an improvement over last year when the snowpack was just 67 percent of median on January 1.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver was also encouraged by moisture last fall that provided some recovery in the Valley’s aquifers.

The unconfined aquifer study prepared by Davis Engineering for many years reflected a recovery during the August-October time frame last year. Vandiver said there’s only been one other year, 2006, in quite some time that showed that same type of recovery. The unconfined aquifer study area reflected a jump of 80,000-85 ,000 acre feet, Vandiver said.

This proves “the aquifer can recharge if we have the water and we reduce the pumping,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):

The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District Directors listened to a report from Water Resource Engineer Rick Parsons and a report on snowpack and storage from Roy Vaughan of the Bureau of Reclamation; also the Board passed three resolutions…

Water Resources Engineer Rick Parsons is working on a model of the Lower Arkansas River Basin, as all-inclusive as possible, to be used as a tool by the LAVWCD and the general public to see where water is stored, how much is stored, recharge water to the river and the amount of water in use at each location allocated. The district is interested in quantifying returns from recharge ponds and groundwater to the river, important for well users and the Super Ditch program. The information, paid for by the state, is also to be public information. “It must be clear to water users in the basins that programs may occur without harm to their operation,” said Parsons. All information has been made available to him except the Southern Delivery System concerning Colorado Springs, which is confidential. Much of the data appears to be conflicting, so rough approximations are necessary. “If the state pays, the information must be available to all,” said Parsons.

Bureau of Reclamation Engineer Roy Vaughan of Pueblo reported that snowpack is about average so far and the storage water as of Jan. 13 is as follows: Pueblo Reservoir, 151,919 acre-feet; 109,143 a/f project water; 21,735 a/f of excess capacity water; 18,630 a/f of winter water. There are 147,806 a/f of Project space in Pueblo and 42,130 a/f of Project space in Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake.

More Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District coverage here.

Redlands Water and Power Co. is asking shareholders to approve an increase in share assessments

Gunnison River
Gunnison River

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Low summertime flows in the Gunnison River and wintertime ice floes in the river have combined to grind down Redlands Water and Power Co.‘s finances. The squeeze has officials preparing to ask shareholders in the company to pay $20 a year more for their irrigation water, up to $145 from the current $125. That’s a 16 percent increase, but it also comes on the heels of four consecutive years with no increases, officials said.

“We probably should have had moderate increases for the last five years,” Redlands board Chairman Chuck Mitisek said.

Instead of increasing rates, Redlands used much of its fund balance, leaving the nonprofit company with about $100,000 in cash reserves. Redlands also has about $250,000 in emergency reserve, but it’s now time to rebuild cash reserves, Mitisek said.

Redlands Water and Power was founded to supply water from the Gunnison River to orchards on the Redlands, some 300 feet above the river. To get Gunnison River water up to its shareholders, Redlands employs a series of pipes and pumps, as well as a hydropower generator on Power Road that powers the system. Redlands Water and Power also relies on the generator to generate cash in the winter by pumping electricity into the grid, resulting in payments by Xcel Energy Co. back to the company. The generator, which was installed in 1933, is aging, but is still in operation. Ice can slow or stop it, resulting in reduced revenues, Redlands Superintendent Kevin Jones said.

Redlands Water and Power spent $27,000 more than budgeted last year to buy electricity from Xcel to operate its system while low water levels and ice took a share of electricity revenues, which were $83,000 below the amount the company took in 2010, company officials said.

To make up the difference, Redlands had to eat into its cash reserves. Officials will ask shareholders to approve the increase, amounting to $3.33 per month per share, at a meeting on Feb. 11 at the Redlands Community Center, 2463 Broadway.

The change doesn’t affect domestic water to the Redlands, which is supplied by the Ute Water Conservancy District.

Even with the increase, the irrigation water supplied by Redlands Water and Power is a bargain, Jones said, noting the amount of water it supplies over a six-month irrigation season.

“We’re asking for 145 bucks for a million gallons of water,” Jones said.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Udall Helps Secure Critical Arkansas Valley Conduit Funding in Bipartisan Budget Deal


Here’s the release from US Senator Mark Udall’s office:

Mark Udall, a strong advocate for smarter water conservation and storage, heralded the inclusion of $1 million for the Arkansas Valley Conduit in the bipartisan budget deal the president is expected to sign into law. The funding, which Udall has championed in Congress, is a down payment on the completion of this water project, which will improve water quality for the counties along the Arkansas River.

The Arkansas Valley Conduit is the final component of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, a water diversion and storage project in the lower Arkansas Valley. Once constructed, the Conduit will deliver clean drinking water to families, producers and municipalities throughout Southeastern Colorado.

“Water forms the very foundation of Colorado’s agricultural economy, our quality of life and rural communities throughout southeastern Colorado. This funding, which I helped secure in the bipartisan budget deal, will ensure that this final component of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is up and running as quickly as possible,” Udall said. “I will keep fighting to ensure the Bureau of Reclamation continues robust funding for this project, while we work to develop and smartly conserve Colorado’s most important resource — its water. We must make every drop count.”

“Given the budget battles and constraints of late, I am glad to see the full $1 million appropriation for this fiscal year,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “We are at a critical juncture with the completion of environmental compliance and moving forward with next steps of design and engineering, which will require significantly higher funding in fiscal year 2015 and beyond. We are grateful for the support of our congressional delegation, which has been and will continue to be key to getting the project under construction, completed and providing safe drinking water in compliance with federal mandates. The lower Arkansas Valley has been waiting a long time for this final but important piece of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.”

Udall has been a tireless advocate for Colorado’s water users, water managers and communities. He helped broker a deal last year to maintain funding for the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program, which monitors snowpack in Colorado’s mountains and helps water managers forecast supply issues before they occur. Udall also worked with the U.S. Forest Service in November 2013 to end the agency’s effort to transfer ski area permit holders’ water rights. Udall also has been the leading advocate of protecting the Colorado River and finding innovative ways to better manage water to meet rising demand throughout the West.

Denver Water: Ashland Reservoir — Treated Water Tank Replacement

El Paso County: ‘Once you have built a structure, you have to maintain it’ — Andre Brackin

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

While needed capital stormwater projects that benefit Fountain Creek top $750 million, El Paso County still is lagging in maintaining its current infrastructure. El Paso County needs to be spending at least $5 million a year more to maintain the stormwater structures it already has in place, County Engineer Andre Brackin told elected officials Thursday.

“There has been a lack of long-term maintenance and monitoring these structures over time,” Brackin said. “Once you have built a structure, you have to maintain it.”

In addition, many of the older structures in Fountain Creek are the wrong type because they move water faster to the stream rather than allowing it to infiltrate as it did before development, he said.

New structures have to be able to handle intermediate floods rather than the 100-year or 500year monsters that cause extensive damage. To do that, El Paso County has to put more emphasis on regional planning and time projects for the most benefit.

“We can’t move ahead without a master plan,” Brackin said.

Besides the gap in maintenance, the revised list of flood control projects for Colorado Springs and El Paso County, finalized this month, fails to fully take into account the mitigation that will be needed for the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.

Mayors from the incorporated cities in the county began the process of discussing how costs will be shared on Thursday.

More stormwater coverage here.

2014 Colorado legislation: Ellen Roberts’ new bill, ‘addresses lawn irrigation in new subdivisions.’ #COleg


From The Durango Herald (Ellen Roberts):

My first bill has been introduced, and it addresses lawn irrigation in new subdivisions when the water used is transferred from agricultural use. It would take effect in 2016. I’ve received lots of input on the bill.

Most people understand the need to address Colorado’s water shortage, especially as our state’s population grows. It’s anticipated our population will double by 2050, yet we don’t have the water supply needed to support that growth.

It has been suggested the bill is heavy-handed, and I understand that sentiment. The bill is a work in progress, and I’m committed to as many meetings as it takes to get a variety of responses and to consider suggested alternatives on this proposal.

While some view it as being a Western Slope versus Front Range approach, it’s not intended that way. It is true, though, I’m concerned about where the new water is going to come from to support the growth projected for Colorado.

Given the private property rights’ nature of Colorado water, the bill clearly allows agricultural water transfers to occur. The focus is on municipal water – half of which goes for lawns and three-quarters of that water for lawns is consumed by evaporation. If this bill is passed, Colorado would lose less water to evaporation, which is a significant consumer, particularly given the dryness of our semi-arid climate.

My constituent, Steve Harris, a water engineer from Durango, proposed the bill idea to me, and it was developed to address the widespread concern that our state is rapidly losing land in agricultural production because of municipalities buying the water rights for their growth. Food independence is even more important than energy independence, so this proposal struck a chord for me.

From The Denver Post (Vincent Carroll)

Sen. Ellen Roberts appears somewhat surprised by herself. The Durango Republican is not used to carrying bills imposing mandates on local governments, and it makes her “personally uncomfortable” that she is doing so now.

But she’s convinced, she told me, that “Colorado needs to have a conversation” about the way cities and towns purchase water from farms and ranches and what it will do to rural Colorado as our population continues to grow. So she and three other lawmakers, two Democrats and another Republican, have filed Senate Bill 17, which bars any residential development that relies on former ag water from having lawns covering more than 15 percent of its area.

You can see how homebuilders and local governments are just going to love this unprecedented meddling in their prerogatives. I’m not so crazy about the idea, either — as a state mandate. But Roberts’ goal of a major reduction in water use by developers is worth touting, and is achievable without sacrificing homebuyer appeal.

At least that’s what Harold Smethills is banking on in his Sterling Ranch development in northwest Douglas County, which will be moving dirt this year for the first 1,000 lots of what is expected to max out over time at 30,000 residents.

Smethills and his partners have spent a fortune measuring how much water is used on traditional landscaping and testing options that use much less but still appeal to a wide swath of buyers. Those buyers don’t want a purely “rocks and cactus” look, he told me recently.

Traditional bluegrass requires 25 gallons of water annually per square foot, he said. But Sterling Ranch thinks of grass “as a throw rug rather than a carpet” and will coordinate it with perennials and shrubs, he added.

Sterling Ranch has built demonstration plots that use as little as 12½ gallons and even 7 gallons per square foot annually.

“We don’t think the market is ready for the 7,” he said. “We think it’s very ready for the 12.”

If so, Sterling Ranch will use less than half the water of a traditional development even before it counts savings from its most distinctive concept: rainwater harvesting. It plans to capture rain from rooftops and storm drainage systems to reduce landscaping needs — a practice that was illegal until lawmakers passed a bill in 2009 allowing the experiment.

Rainwatering harvesting was outlawed decades ago in order to prevent it from poaching a resource that belonged to downstream users. So Sterling Ranch is involved in complex tests overseen by state officials to determine how much water actually runs off into streams or penetrates to groundwater.

“We owe the river only the water that made it to the river,” Smethills explains, adding that surprisingly little does. Still, he says, “we’re probably five or six years” from going to a water court to establish a finding.

Yet rainwater will play a big role in the project from the outset, reducing outdoor consumption by an extra third.

Sen. Roberts says she put a ceiling for lawns of 15 percent in her bill because experts say the average lawn is 30 to 50 percent of a lot, and half of a typical home’s water is used outdoors. But if that’s the case, her mandate would probably reduce consumption by less than what Sterling Ranch is poised to achieve.

And if that proves true, it’s almost certain that local communities along the Front Range will begin pushing for similar savings on their own.

Supply side land-use planning. More 2014 Colorado Legislation coverage here.