Snowpack news: 2014 is shaping up to be a big runoff year for much of Colorado #COdrought

From The Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):

It’s a short walk through deep snow to what the federal government considers the headwaters of the Colorado River. Some years it’s deeper than others. Technically speaking, station 05K14 sitting at 11,300 feet atop the Berthoud Pass Summit and measures the snow that first feeds the Fraser River before eventually trickling into the Colorado. But from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s perspective, this is the highest measurement point in the river basin still worth walking to every month. Some months more than others.

As the Colorado River basin edges closer to its typical early-April snowpack peak, last Friday’s manual measurements of snow depth and water content at the Berthoud Summit site offered ample insight into what we can expect of our state’s namesake river this spring. With the assistance of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and a group of water watchers that included the USDA’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie, NRCS scientists B.J. Shoup and Mage Hultstrand measured snow and water at the site at about 143 percent of the median for that date.

As a result, water managers have already begun making arrangements to accommodate an above-average runoff in the Colorado River. Similar scenarios have begun to play out elsewhere across the state.

“This week, we know we’ve got a very impressive snowpack here at the headwaters of the Colorado River. We’re at about 40 percent above normal for this time of year. We’re already above our average peak, so we know we’re going to have a good runoff,” said Chris Treese, external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “So we look at these data and begin to manage. Already this week we’ve made some decisions about reservoir operations. Reservoirs have already begun releasing more water than they would typically at this time of year to make sure they have some space for this snow as it comes down.

“The goal of any reservoir operator is to fill without spilling, and that’s a lot more art than science, but this is the science part of that equation.”

From the practical perspective ranging beyond drought relief and flood control, Colorado fishermen would do well to take a page from the whitewater boating playbook and put some of that science to use. The NRCS Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program has been around since 1935, and the public data it produces ( serves as a sort of seasonal scouting report for all things water-related.

“This is a program that I really didn’t know much about until there was an attempt to cut the budget, and all of the sudden I knew a lot about it,” Sen. Bennet said after volunteering to collect a snow sample Friday. “I heard from people all over the state that relied on this data for so many years for so many different things.”

The NRCS snow survey data and resultant forecasts are generated in two different ways in Colorado, through 102 manually measured snow courses and 114 automated Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites situated throughout the mountains. Both budget-threatened programs provide critical information to a Data Collection Office in Denver, offering historical record of snow and water throughout the West and current measurements used to forecast and prepare.

About 80 percent of Colorado’s water supply comes from mountain snowpack that accumulates from October to April. Led by the South Platte River Basin at 144 percent, statewide measurements as of Tuesday showed the snowpack at 115 percent of normal, despite only 85 percent of median in the Rio Grande River Basin.

“They’re not making any more water,” Bennet said. “We’re standing on a place right now where we’ve had a really good snowpack this year. Southwest Colorado, southeast Colorado, they’re still facing significant droughts, and our farmers and ranchers in those regions are going to need this data in order to be able to plan, so it’s an important deal. When you’ve got to make something as precious as our water go further, it’s important that we have as informed a view as we can.”

The same insight applies to all things outdoors in Colorado.

“We use water, especially on the Western Slope, in a variety of ways. It’s consumptive — the traditional ag and municipal — and it’s non-consumptive,” Treese said. “But they all add to the economic value of the river and our lives out here.”

Announcement: State and Division One Engineers forum, April 15

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

The State and Division One Engineers will be hosting a forum on Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at the Southwest Weld County Services Building (4209 Weld County Rd 24 ½, Longmont, CO 80504) from 8:30 am to 11:30 am. Water professionals, attorneys, engineers and the general public are invited to attend.

This forum will provide an opportunity to hear personnel from the State and Division offices talk about current issues regarding engineering practices for establishing historical consumptive use in change of water right cases, summary of consultation changes and participation with the Water Court, and new policy. The goal of this forum is to generate awareness among the water community and provide a discussion on issues, including a question and answer session with personnel from the State and Division offices.

Please plan to attend! Space is limited. Please RSVP by Wednesday, April 9th, via email to or by calling Linda at (970) 352-8712 if you plan to attend.

More Colorado Division of Water coverage here.

Buena Vista: Colorado Parks and Wildlife grant serves redesign of Silver Bullet Rapid

Silver Bullet Rapid via the Chaffee County Times
Silver Bullet Rapid via the Chaffee County Times

From The Mountain Mail (Kim Marquis):

If a redesign of the Silver Bullet rapid on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista works as planned, both boaters and fishermen could benefit. The rapid, known as the Dam, Boat Chute and Silver Bullet in boating circles, had previously been a Class IV rapid at certain water levels, which prevented some boaters and kayakers from making the run. The rapid is south of town and due east of the Buena Vista Correctional Center.

Wilderness Aware owner Joe Greiner, a longtime commercial rafting outfitter, called the former rapid “spicy” for its steep drop and consistent waves downstream. The rapid caused some private boaters to skip the section, starting trips at Greiner’s river put-in at his property in Johnson Village, instead of using the Buena Vista River Park in town.

The redesign completed in February changes the rapid into three smaller drops instead of one, possibly reducing its rating to Class II or Class III, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area Park Manager Rob White said.

AHRA managed the $400,000 project, which was paid for by a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and contributions from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, the Arkansas River Outfitters Association and individual river outfitters.

The new design adds a drop both upstream and downstream of the original rapid, making the overall experience more gradual, White said. Construction included a fish ladder built into the smaller drops so that trout can conceivably travel upstream to spawn. The former 8-foot drop was likely too high for fish to navigate, creating a barrier to their movement upstream.
The rapid is located within a 102-mile stretch that was designated Gold Medal trout waters by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in January.

The Silver Bullet is a 1970s-era dam built to divert water for agriculture. A boat chute allowing rafters passage was changed several times, and a portage added on the right side of the river to enhance the experience. The new project could help more boaters stay on the water, rather than choosing the portage.

While the level of technical difficulty for boaters might drop due to the changes, the nature of the rest of the run from Buena Vista south to Johnson Village will remain the same. The section includes Beaver Falls, which grows to a Class III rapid at certain water levels, as well as significant drops created by the town’s river play park.

“It’ll still be too scary for rank amateurs,” Greiner said of the river section. “There will be a certain segment choosing it that was not able to do the boat chute in the past, but that’s not going to be a large number of people.”

River runners doing an afternoon run typically choose Fisherman’s Bridge or Ruby Mountain, both near Nathrop, to end their trips. Commercial trips and private boaters on an all-day excursion get off the river past Browns Canyon.

Outfitters have traditionally run the section including the Silver Bullet, so Greiner said he did not anticipate changes in commercial use because of the redesigned rapid.

The project included broader changes at the dam, also called the Helena diversion structure. Work that began in November included a replacement of the ditch’s concrete head gate, a larger concrete canal and a new bypass gate.

Both White and Greiner cautioned boaters that the Silver Bullet’s new rating will be unknown until higher flows can be observed on the river this spring and summer…

River Ratings

These ratings are published by Colorado River Outfitters Association, in accordance with the International Scale of River Difficulty.

Class I: Fast-moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight.

Class II: Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels that are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers.

Class III: Rapids with moderate, irregular waves that may be difficult to avoid. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties.

Class IV: Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids or rest. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down.

Class V: Extremely long, obstructed or very violent rapids that expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult.

Class VI: These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only.

More whitewater coverage here.

Colorado Water Stewardship Project: March Webinar Ballot Initiatives 2014 — Water and Related Issues

Justian I first codifier of riparian rights
Justian I first codifier of riparian rights

Click here for the details:

The CWSP is currently monitoring three proposed ballot initiatives which have the potential to significantly impact Colorado’s water allocation system. Join us March 25, at 12pm for this month’s webinar: Ballot Initiatives 2014- Water and Related Issues.

Doug Kemper of the Colorado Water Congress, Steve Leonhardt of Burns, Figa & Will P.C., and Floyd Ciruli of Ciruli Associates will present an overview of the recently proposed ballot initiatives related to a Public Trust Doctrine in Colorado, and will identify a few other proposed initiatives that may be of concern. They will provide understanding of the impact such initiatives might have and information on how you can take action to advance a sustainable water future for Colorado.

Register at:

More public trust doctrine coverage here.

South Platte River: CH2M HILL Spring RiverSweep, April 26th


Click here to register. Click here for the pitch from The Greenway Foundation. Here’s an excerpt:

We will host the Spring RiverSweep and Ceremonial Groundbreaking on Saturday, April 26th 2014. This exciting day will bring volunteers of all ages from across the city to help improve our urban greenways and celebrate the $22 million in improvement projects to be completed along the South Platte River over the next two years. Learn more about the South Platte River Master Plan HERE.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

Notable Colorado floods #COflood

Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280
Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280

From CBS Denver:

June 3, 1921 – The city of Pueblo was devastated after a cloud burst west of town produced a major flash flood along the Arkansas River. Heavy rain north of town sent massive amounts of water rolling down Fountain Creek, which added insult to injury. The death toll was in the hundreds, with some estimates around 1,500. There was roughly 20 million dollars in damage. In some places, the water was 15 feet deep in the downtown area.

May 30-31, 1935 – Widespread slow-moving thunderstorms produced extensive flooding along Monument Creek in the Colorado Springs area. The water was estimated to be 32 feet deep near America the Beautiful Park. At least 18 people lost their lives. Record flooding also occurred along the Republican River of eastern Colorado with 6 people killed.
June 14-20, 1965 – Widespread flooding took place along the Arkansas River and South Platte River, claiming at least two dozen lives and causing millions of dollars in damage. The event changed the face of Denver as we know it and prompted huge upgrades to flood control, including the construction of Chatfield Dam.

July 31 – Aug. 1, 1976 – A catastrophic flash flood swept out of the mountains, through Big Thompson Canyon and onto the adjacent plains, killing at least 139 people and causing over 35 million dollars in damage.

July 28, 1997 – Six weeks of hot, dry weather gave way to a weather pattern that produced thunderstorms with torrential rains that unleashed a deadly flash flood in the city of Fort Collins.

April 29 – May 2, 1999 – Over a foot of rain created a major flood in southeast Colorado that impacted communities from Colorado Springs to La Junta.

Sept. 9-16, 2013 – A complex weather pattern produced torrential rain along the Front Range of Colorado, unleashing deadly flash floods in and near the foothills, which lead to a major river flood event for the South Platte River valley of northeast Colorado. Entire towns were cut off from the outside world for days, with many rescued by helicopter. Hundreds of miles of state highways were damaged or destroyed.

Arkansas Valley: Employing sprinklers or drip irrigation on the rise

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

An increasing number of farms are being included in group plans that replace water in the Arkansas River under rules adopted by the state in 2010. The so-called Rule 10 plans set out guidelines for replacement of water to account for on-farm improvements like sprinklers or drip irrigation that use surface water.

“We expect to see more over time,” said Steve Witte, Water Division 2 engineer. “That’s the way farmers are wanting to go. It seems to be a more effective way of utilizing water.”

The rules are set up to avoid depletions to the river through increased consumptive use, both for downstream users in Colorado and to satisfy Kansas under the Arkansas River Compact.

This year, three Rule 10 plans covering 129 farms have been filed with the state, an increase from two plans covering 109 farms in 2013. The state Division of Water Resources has until May 1 to approve or deny the plans, based on verification of engineering.

About 2,200 acre-feet (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons) of water is needed to replace depletions based on calculations by engineers using state models. Those calculations could be changed this year as a study of leakage from storage ponds is completed.

Two plans were filed by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. One covers 80 farms on the Fort Lyon Canal. The other covers 45 farms on other canals from Pueblo to Prowers County. A third plan was filed by the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association for four farms owned by GP Irrigated Farms LLC in Prowers County.

The state is looking at well augmentation plans as well, under Rule 14 of the 1996 groundwater rules for the Arkansas Valley. The validity of those plans should be decided by the end of this month.

Well plans include the three large groundwater associations (LAWMA, Colorado Water Protective and Development Association and Arkansas Groundwater Users Association) and some smaller plans for prisons, golf courses, cities and conservancy districts.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here and here.