Happy Birthday, Salt River Project #ColoradoRiver

2014 #COleg SB14-017 (Sodbuster Bill) passes out of committee 4-3, now on to the full Senate

Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum
Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum

From The Durango Herald (Joe Hanel):

The bill, dreamed up by local water engineer Steve Harris, has grabbed the attention of homebuilders, local governments, water suppliers and farm advocates. His plan breaks several taboos, offending proponents of private-property rights, local control by cities and people who simply enjoy big lawns.

Despite the controversy, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed Senate Bill 17 on a 4-3 vote. It now goes to the full Senate.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is the sponsor. Win or lose in the Senate, Roberts said her goal is to get people talking about the connection between water and land use…

As of 2016, Roberts’ bill would require any new development that relied on buying agricultural water rights to limit the lawn area of its lots to 15 percent. However, parks and open space would be exempted.

“I didn’t want to get between soccer moms and soccer fields, so I thought we should leave the common areas out of the bill,” Harris said.

Developers, however, said most new lawns are small, but open-space areas can be large.

“We can’t sit here and tell you as a homebuilding community that this bill will result in water savings,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Homebuilders. “It isn’t really the backyards that are the issue.”

Carlyle Currier, vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, urged senators to support the bill so it could at least get a vote in the full Senate.

“There are few proposals that actually do anything to save ag water. This bill does,” Currier said.

But some Front Range water utilities opposed the idea.

Pat Ratliff, a lobbyist for the South Metro Water Supply Authority, said the utility is a leader in conservation efforts.

“We have one of the lowest use rates. We’re not going to get any credit for all of the work we have done over the last 25 years to conserve,” Ratliff said.

The south metro area recently struck a deal to use recycled water from Denver and Aurora.

“We’re going to be drinking sewage. I don’t know how much more conservation-conscious you can get,” Ratliff said.

The state’s leading water lobby, the Colorado Water Congress, also opposed SB 17.

The hearing proved once again that the usual partisan politics don’t apply when it comes to water. Roberts has a Democrat as her fellow sponsor, Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton.

Roberts called on the senator she ousted in 2010, Bruce Whitehead, as one of the star witnesses for her bill. Her chief foe on the committee was a fellow Republican, Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch.

“You’re destroying the rights of the private homeowner to do what he wants with his property,” Harvey said.

Front Range Democrats were the swing votes. Sen. Matt Jones, D-Boulder, voted no, while Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, voted yes.

“I would like to see the entire Senate have a discussion about water, about Colorado, about irrigated lands, about ag,” Guzman said.


More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

The latest One World One Water Center newsletter is hot off the presses

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is looking for up to 40 volunteer notetakers for the March 6, 2014 Basin Roundtable Summit. Volunteers will be needed from 7am-2pm, will need to bring their own laptop, and will receive complimentary breakfast and lunch. This is a wonderful opportunity to network and learn more about the Colorado water community, CWCB, and the important role basin roundtables play in their communities.

If interested, please contact Kate McIntire no later than February 12, 2014.

More education coverage here.

Snowpack news: Weld County supplies looking good, so far

Snow Water Equivalent as a percent of normal February 6, 2014 via the NRCS
Snow Water Equivalent as a percent of normal February 6, 2014 via the NRCS

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

A month deeper into the year, the water supply outlook for northeast Colorado keeps getting better. Snowpack on Feb. 1 in the South Platte River Basin was 126 percent of historic average — an improvement from a month ago, when snowpack was right at about normal, sitting at 99 percent of historic average, according to figures released Thursday by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Additionally, reservoir levels were above normal as of Feb. 1, according to this morning’s report. Collective reservoir levels in the South Platte basin were at 111 percent of historic average, also an uptick from Jan. 1, when reservoirs were at 105 percent of average.

There’s a long way to go before the irrigation and lawn-watering seasons begin, but water providers and users in the region can’t help but be a little optimistic, with water supplies much better at this point than during the past couple years.

A healthy water supply is vital for northeast Colorado’s large agriculture industry that, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, uses about 85 percent of the state’s water.

And it’s especially critical for Weld County, where the ag industry makes about a $1.5 billion economic impact annually and ranks eighth nationally.

The recent NRCS report also showed that water supplies are in good shape on the western side of the state, which has an impact locally.

The Colorado River Basin — which flows in the opposite direction of Greeley and Weld County, but still supplies a large chunk of the region’s water needs through transmountain tunnels that cross the Continental Divide — had similar numbers to those of the South Platte Basin.

Snowpack for the Colorado Basin was 116 percent of average on Feb. 1, while reservoir levels were 98 percent of average.

Many have stressed that with reservoirs already full in northern Colorado, the snowpack in the mountains should make a more direct path downhill in the spring, possibly allowing farmers to get an early start on irrigating.

There’s also optimism that cities will be more willing to lease some of their extra water to farmers and ranchers this year, if the water situation still looks good down the road.

In 2013, most cities leased little or no water at all to ag users, because cities had to refill their reservoirs, which had been depleted during the 2012-13 drought.

Thanks to significant early-season snowfall across Colorado, the state as a whole is enjoying the best start to a winter season since 2011, according to the NRCS report.

From the Summit Daily News (Kelsey Fowler):

Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow survey supervisor, said the southwest basins and the Upper Rio Grande basin were especially in need of the boost from the recent storm, having received very little snow since early in December.

Summit County is part of the Colorado basin, which reported snowpack 116 percent of the median. That’s 177 percent over the snowpack at this time last year. The reservoir storage in the Colorado basin is at 98 percent of average, better than last year’s 66 percent of average storage.

Across Colorado, the Feb. 1 snowpack was reported to be 107 percent of the median.

“The snowpack is above where it typically is this time of year,” Hultstrand said. “So 107 percent statewide just means it’s up 7 percentage points from the median. It’s not a lot above where we normally are.”

Across the rest of Colorado, the Feb. 1 snowpack ranged from 100 percent of median in the Arkansas basin, to 126 percent of the median in the South Platte. The reservoir storage in Colorado has improved since the last measurement; statewide storage is currently at 90 percent of average…

The snowpack is measured two different ways — the first is 120 automated SNOTEL sites, mostly at higher elevations, functioning as weather stations and generating hourly reports. The stations can weigh the snow to see how much water is in the snowpack, Hultstrand said.

There are also 102 manual sites people travel to once a month, to fill in the gaps from the SNOTEL sites. They stick a hollow metal tube in the snow, and weigh the core to get the snowpack. The type of snow can also drastically affect the snowpack measurements: A light fluffy snow doesn’t contain as much water as the heavy, denser snow, Hultstrand said.

In areas like Upper Colorado, the current percentage is higher than the state average, 121 percent of the median, Hultstrand said. That’s a comfortable number, she said, so that the next few months don’t have a lot to make up for.

“Having this early season be really good so far — and this last storm really helped — that good base will help us not go into February and March worried about a deficit,” Hultstrand said.

However, there still has not been enough snow to bring the snowpack in some regions back to normal. Two basins, the Upper Rio Grande and San Juan, were the only ones in the state to report below-normal snowpack: 82 percent of median for Upper Rio Grande and 79 percent for San Juan basin.

The latest ENSO discussion is hot off the presses, El Nińo by next winter?

Mid-January 2014 plume of model ENSO predictions via NOAA
Mid-January 2014 plume of model ENSO predictions via NOAA

Click here to read the discussion. They are forecasting ENSO neutral through spring.

CWCB: The next Water Availability Task Force meeting is February 13

Burlington Ditch
Burlington Ditch

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):

The next Water Availability Task Force meeting is scheduled for Thursday, February 13, 2014 from 9:30-10:45am & will be held at the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Headquarters, 6060 Broadway, Denver in the Bighorn Room.

The agenda has been posted at the CWCB website.

More CWCB coverage here.

Water needs of minnow not met, environmentalists say — Albuquerque Journal

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

The “notices of intent” allege violations of the federal Endangered Species Act and start a 60-day clock ticking toward possible litigation. The notices highlight growing tensions between human water use and the Rio Grande’s natural ecosystem in what is shaping up to be the fourth consecutive year of drought, and set the stage for potentially bruising litigation this summer.

Human water diversions have left the Rio Grande ecosystem with too little water to maintain the minnow and other species that depend on the river’s flow, including the valley’s iconic cottonwoods, said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program coordinator for WildEarth Guardians.

Last year, the group filed a formal “notice of intent” that triggered negotiations with federal officials over environmental issues and river management, without litigation. Asked if WildEarth Guardians plans to actually file suit this time, Pelz on Tuesday said, “Yes.”

Spokesmen for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two agencies named in the new filings, declined comment.

Human management of the Rio Grande, with dams upstream to regulate the river’s flow and levees to confine it to a narrow channel, have substantially changed the habitat for the minnow. The fish once lived from Española to the Gulf of Mexico, but is now only found in central New Mexico.

Low river runoff has caused minnow populations to crash further in recent years, according to data collected for the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative program, a joint effort by local, state and federal water managers and users.

The potential for a fourth straight drought year poses serious risk for the endangered species, Pelz said in an interview. “The minnow has not spawned in the last three years,” Pelz said, “which is crucial to their recovery and survival.”

More than 95 percent of the fish found in surveys last summer came from hatcheries, which are being used to augment the dwindling natural fish population…

While the Endangered Species Act focuses on specific species, especially the minnow, more is at risk than just a single kind of fish, Pelz said. “The cottonwood forest is reliant on flood flows, and there being enough water in the river,” she said.

Water managers say they have been doing their best to meet the needs of the environment and farmers and other human water users, given the limited supply nature has to offer.

“We’re trying to find creative ways to get everyone what they need,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the valley’s largest farm irrigation water provider.

Among the possibilities is the use of upstream dams to manage flows to create high flows in late spring for spawning, according to Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Rio Grande basin manager for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. But no decisions about that can be made until April or May, Schmidt-Petersen said…

With a 60-day clock now started, WildEarth Guardians’ filings raise the possibility that key late spring water management decisions will be made in the midst of federal litigation, University of New Mexico law professor Reed Benson, an Endangered Species Act expert, pointed out. But it is not clear whether there is time for the court fight to influence how much water is used by humans or left in the river for fish in 2014, Benson said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.