Snowpack news: Moderate runoff flooding possible in the Upper Colorado River and North Platte basins

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view the gallery of snowpack conditions from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

From 9News.com (Belen De Leon):

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Boulder have already issued a spring snowmelt flood potential outlook. Many of the places that were affected by the September 2013 floods could see minor flooding this spring.

In the South Platte Basin, the potential for minor flooding this spring is moderate to high. The risk is moderate in the headwaters of the Upper Colorado and North Platte Rivers.

A couple of factors that will contribute to this potential flooding is the snowpack. It’s already above average with near record snowpack at some locations near the divide. The early March percent of average mountain snowpack in the South Platte River basin this year is similar to the high snowpack in 2011…

How fast the snow melts and when, will also be very important. Ideally you want a gradual snowmelt, when the temperatures get in the mid and upper 50s in the mountains and still see freezing temperatures at night which will stall the snowmelt and slow it down. But if we have a very rapid warm up, temperatures in the 60s or warmer and no freezing at night, the snow can melt and runoff very quickly. That would deepen and increase the flow and the potential for minor flooding.

Runoff usually starts in early April. For more flood preparedness tips visit http://www.crh.noaa.gov/bou/?n=flood_wildfire_awareness_2014.

From Fox21News.com (Aisha Morales):

Spring is here and this is when we expect mandatory water restrictions, but that may not be the case this year for folks in Colorado Springs.

“Our resevoirs are about 10% higher than they were last year and so we’ve really benefited form the high mountain snow that we’ve received,” said Steve Berry, spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities.

Even though they don’t anticiptate any restrictions, CSU is recommending “involuntary restrictions” from it’s customers. Berry said, “What that means is we strongly encourage our customers to water no more than three days a week.”

Innovative Water Technologies of Rocky Ford is part of the #WorldWaterDay shindig today in Washington D.C.

worldwaterday2014logo

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A company that makes water purification equipment for use in remote locations will sponsor an exhibit in Washington, D.C., today for World Water Day. Innovative Water Technologies of Rocky Ford was invited by the U.S. Department of State to attend the event, which highlights potential solutions to world water problems.

“We’ve been getting the word out for the last five or six years at trade shows, but this is really a big step forward,” said Jack Barker, president of the company.

The company makes the Sunspring, which combines membrane technology to remove particulates from water with solar power. A recently developed hybrid version also uses a small turbine to harness wind power to charge batteries. In addition to providing clean water, the Sunspring can be used to charge electronic devices where power is not available, Barker said.

More than 200 units have been manufactured at Rocky Ford since the company opened in 2008. Sunsprings are in use in a dozen countries, including during the Haiti earthquakes and last year’s typhoons in the Philippines.

During last year’s flooding in Northern Colorado, Sunsprings were employed to provide clean water when flows overwhelmed traditional treatment plants.

More water treatment coverage here.

Most Weld County water suppliers are ready to divert having repaired the damage from the September #COflood

New Saint Vrain River channel after the September 2013 floods -- photo via the Longmont Times-Call
New Saint Vrain River channel after the September 2013 floods — photo via the Longmont Times-Call

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

The predictions made in recent months by water providers are holding true. Many are at different stages of recovery, but most ag water providers across northeast Colorado believe they’ll have needed irrigation-system repairs done in time for the rapidly approaching growing season, and be able to deliver water to farmers. However, some are still up against the clock, with work left to be done — particularly in Boulder County and in far west Weld County.

Following September’s historic flood, a number of representatives from irrigation ditches, reservoir companies and other water providers were reporting damage along their systems — ditches, dykes, gravel pits, canals, head gates and other diversion structures that needed repairs, or even to be rebuilt. Many of the large water providers near Greeley and Sterling and the surrounding areas, though, said around Jan. 1 that they were progressing well with their repairs. And many reported this past week they’re now done.

That’s good news for those massive ag-producing regions (Weld, Morgan and Logan counties, all of which experienced flood damage, represent three of the four largest ag-producing counties in the state).

Randy Ray, executive director for the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley that saw $1.8 million in damage from the flood, and Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District that oversees the largest water-supply project in the region (the Colorado-Big Thompson Project), each said this past week that their systems are ready to go. As did Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District, among many others.

Much of the repair work still taking place is along the St. Vrain River in Boulder County and in far west Weld County.

Sean Cronin — executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont — explained that water providers farther upstream had more time to take precautionary measures before the floodwaters arrived, helping minimize some of the damage to their systems. He added that the floodwaters had more room to spread out once they made it to the plains, meaning they weren’t carrying the same intense pressure as they did in his neck of the woods, where the velocity wiped out much more infrastructure.

The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District encompasses about 80,000 acres. Cronin — who also serves as chairman for the South Platte Roundtable, a group of water experts from the region who meet throughout the year to address the region’s water issues — said the district endured about $20 million in damages. The district includes 94 irrigation ditches, 43 of which sustained damage. Of those 43 ditches that were damaged, Cronin explained this week:

» Four ditches are repaired.

» One is under construction and was projected to be repaired by March 1.

» 19 are under construction and are projected to be repaired by April 1.

» Five under construction and projected to be repaired by May 1.

» Three are under construction, though the projected completion dates were yet to be determined.

» 11 are not yet under construction.

Of the 11 not yet under construction:

» Three cited lack funding for the work needed.

» Three were still in discussions on designs.

» Two were waiting for repairs of another ditch to be done first.

» One was waiting for a FEMA project worksheet.

» One was listed as “not a priority.”

» One was still finding a contractor.

Cronin stressed that the Highland Ditch Company — which supplies about 40,000 acres, and is by far the biggest ditch in the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District — is ready to go for the growing season. The other 93 ditches are much smaller, supplying much fewer farm acres.

“There’s definitely a success story there,” Cronin said. “In the couple weeks after the flood, I wouldn’t have ever thought we’d be in as good of shape as we’re in now.”

Cronin said there will still be challenges for some farmers, certainly those where repairs are still taking place, or haven’t even started. Even for ditch repairs still in the works, those water providers might miss the peak of spring runoff, and could take in less water as a result.

“It’s shaping up to be a good water year, so hopefully those who aren’t done (with repairs) in the near future will still have water coming into their systems later in the year,” he said.

One of the major concerns initially was that the river changed locations in some spots, moving away from diversion structures. All sides have agreed to put the river back in its previous locations to help water providers, Cronin said, and those efforts are coming along well, although there’s still uncertainty regarding how the river will respond in those areas.

And even where work is nearing completion or is complete, there’s some uncertainty regarding payments of the repairs, and how much money they’ll see in reimbursements from FEMA, and how much might be coming out of shareholders’ pockets.

Cronin said one ditch in the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District has already increased its fees from $5 per water share to $200 per water share to pay for repairs, waiting to see how much FEMA kicks in.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know, and a lot that still needs to play out,” Cronin said. “But overall, I think we’re very happy to be in the position we’re in, compared to how things looked a few months ago.”

Scott Tipton takes the case for H.R. 3189 to the people

Trail map for Powderhorn Ski Area via liftopia
Trail map for Powderhorn Ski Area via liftopia

Here’s a guest commentary from US Representative Scott Tipton arguing the need for his bill, H.R. 3189, from The Denver Post:

Over the past decade, the federal government has attempted to take privately held water rights in Colorado and in other Western states, disregarding state water law that has been in effect for over a century.

Because of this, I introduced legislation to uphold long-held state water law and protect these rights from the federal government’s water grab. The Water Rights Protection Act, which passed the House with bipartisan support, prohibits the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior from violating the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by taking private water rights without providing just compensation.

This legislation is supported by Colorado and national stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Ski Areas Association, American Farm Bureau, Colorado River Water Conservation District, and over 20 Colorado counties and water districts.

We’ve seen such diverse support because protecting our water rights isn’t a political issue. It’s a Colorado issue. Like these stakeholders, I believe Coloradans are better stewards of their water rights than Washington bureaucrats would ever be.

One of the recent federal efforts to take Colorado water involved the U.S. Forest Service. In 2011, the agency began to require ski areas to relinquish legally purchased and developed water rights — used to make snow — to the federal government as a condition for permits to operate on public lands. The administration claims the condition was necessary to ensure that water stayed with the land and rights weren’t improperly sold off.

While the administration insists this Forest Service permit condition was in the best interest of Coloradans, the devil was in the details, and it reeked of a massive federal water grab.

There was no language in the proposed Forest Service permit condition to guarantee that the agency could not divert water to other locations or direct water for another purpose altogether. Furthermore, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified in a congressional hearing that there hadn’t been any instances of private water rights on these lands being improperly sold off. There is, in effect, no basis for the administration’s concerns that these private water rights are being abused.

This raises significant questions about the administration’s true motives. Regardless of motives, by using the federal permit, lease, and land-management process to extort water rights from those who hold rights under long-held state law, the federal government is overreaching — violating private property rights and the U.S. Constitution.

Federal attempts to seize water rights aren’t limited to ski areas. The same tactics have been used by both the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to take water rights from family farms and ranches that rely on state-granted water for their cattle and crops. There are also circumstances in which water rights held by irrigation and sanitation districts and municipalities have been threatened by these uncompensated takings.

Colorado should be concerned about heavy-handed attempts by the government to gain control of private water rights. Because of the significant percentage of water that originates on National Forest System lands in Colorado, this issue could impact all users that have water rights passing through lands administered by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. If adopted by other federal agencies, the scope of that impact could be even broader.

Those potentially impacted by this type of federal authority over water rights originating on public lands include cities, counties, water districts, conservation districts, owners of private residences, marinas and summer resorts, and other businesses such as ranching, mining or utilities.

The implications for Colorado are significant and severe, which is why I will continue to fight to keep control of Colorado’s water in the hands of Coloradans, regardless of President Obama’s veto threat.

‘The BLM plays in the same sandbox as every other’ [water rights owner] — Paul Tigan #COWaterPlan

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From the Valley Courier (Paul Tigan):

This is the sixth article in the series from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, regarding the implementation of the Basin Water Plan. ing of the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, what comes to mind? Is it livestock ranching? Oil and gas development ? Maybe it’s rock climbing at Penitente Canyon , or watching wildlife and birds at Blanca Wetlands. Perhaps it’s a trip to BLM lands every fall to sight in your rifle in the hopes of dropping a trophy bull on the opening morning of the first elk season.

“The mission of the BLM is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations”. This mission is remarkably complex. As the San Luis Valley Field Office Manager likes to say “it’s not rocket science it’s more complicated.”

It requires the BLM to not only balance “multiple uses” in the present day, but also consider how the American people may need those resources far into an unknown future.

Here in the San Luis Valley, the BLM manages just over 500,000 acres of land according to this mission. Dozens of livestock ranching operations depend on the health of the BLM land; so too dozens of threatened, endangered, and special status wildlife and plant species. Some public lands have been set aside to be studied for future preservation, such as the San Luis Hills, while others have been designated for development as solar energy sites to serve future energy needs for the nation. And many uses share the same acre of public land like the new gravity-assisted mountain bike trail at Zapata Falls, but keep an eye out for the cattle on the same trail. And wear a helmet!

But like every other person or entity that manages land in the San Luis Valley, there is one resource in short supply for the BLM water. It may surprise some to learn that the BLM (and every other federal land management agency) is required by federal law to adhere to the state-managed water appropriation systems. When it comes to water management, the BLM plays in the same sandbox as every other farmer, rancher, city, and conservation district.

Many people might think of the BLM’s water needs as “non-consumptive ,” that is, resources need water but don’t “use” it the way a farm might use it. For some areas, this is true. People who enjoy float-boating on the Rio Grande depend on water to get from Las Sauces to the Lobatos Bridge, or further south into the Rio Grande Gorge. Similarly, aquatic species, such as trout, depend on certain water conditions at particular times of the year to breed and sustain their populations. People who enjoy fishing depend on the water as well. But the San Luis Valley Field Office also uses water, within the appropriation system, to support a diverse array of habitats and uses. The BLM holds dozens of water rights across the SLV for the benefit of livestock grazing operations. These rights generally stem from natural springs and utilize small infrastructure systems to make them useful. Perhaps more dramatically, the BLM also irrigates thousands of acres of land for the benefit of many plant and wildlife species. That management not only sustains those critical species habitats, but also leads to incredible recreation opportunities , such as wildlife viewing and waterfowl hunting.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Blanca Wetlands, a habitat restoration effort that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. The BLM uses more than 40 wells and some water from the Closed Basin Project to wet and dry about 2000 acres of historic and restored wetland playa habitat. These acres support 13 threatened, endangered, and sensitive species and over 160 species of birds. The wetlands are also an important calving and fawning area for big game species. Blanca Wetlands maintains Colorado’s largest population of western snowy plover and supports a number of waterbird species of regional, national, and even hemispheric importance.

But the Blanca Wetlands isn’t just for the birds. One of the great joys of the BLM staff is watching the public engage these incredible resources just 20 minutes from Alamosa. Whether it is a kindergartener walking out into a playa barefoot to catch a fairy shrimp in a bucket, or a high school student receiving national recognition for her research, a living laboratory like the Blanca Wetlands connects people to the natural world in ways that no iPad app can.

But like every water user who pumps groundwater to stay in business, the BLM faces an uncertain future with augmentation requirements from the State of Colorado. The BLM is not currently a party to any of the subdistricts but has worked with the state to define its augmentation responsibilities for groundwater pumping and will meet those responsibilities. These habitats are too important to dry up. They serve not only the diversity and health of the public lands, but also the American people.

As the Rio Grande Basin goes through an era of unprecedented change, the BLM is committed to partnering with other water managers to ensure the Rio Grande Basin of the future enjoys the same broad array of natural resources that contribute to quality of life and a strong and diverse economy. The habitats and resources we manage will be as important 100 years from now as they are today, and water will continue to be the defining feature of these resources.

The BLM is and active partner in the Rio Grande Basin Water Plan, to become a part of the stakeholder process get involved in one of three ways: 1) attend the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable monthly meetings (held the second Tuesday of each month at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 Fourth Street in Alamosa) or; 2) send comments directly to http://www.riograndewaterplan. com and; 3) attend any one of the BIP subcommittee meetings that can be found on the BIP website. The lead consultant and local liaison from DiNatale Water Consultants is Tom Spezze. Tom can be contacted at tom@ dinatalewater.com. To be considered, submit input to the Basin Roundtable by March 31.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Alamosa: Water infrastructure funding is in short supply

The water treatment process
The water treatment process

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Treating Alamosa’s water is becoming more expensive. With more rigid arsenic standards coming into play several years ago, the City of Alamosa was forced to build a water treatment plant. Recently, Alamosa Public Works Director Don Koskelin said arsenic standards might tighten up again, which could force the city to revamp its treatment system, resulting in an expensive adjustment.

This week Koskelin informed the Alamosa city council of another more immediate problem with the city’s water treatment plant, and the council authorized funding for a pilot treatment system. Koskelin said for six years the membranes that filter out the arsenic in the municipal drinking water supply provided excellent performance. Then all of a sudden in the last year the city started having problems with the membranes. The manufacturer recommended a more stringent cleaning schedule, which meant using more chemicals, which in turn meant more expense. Koskelin said the cost increase for the chemicals alone is nearly $290,000 a year.

Another option would be to replace the membranes, but that would cost threequarters of a million dollars or so. Koskelin said the life of the membrane system was supposed to be 15 years but it has only lasted about six years.

Another solution, which hopefully will be less expensive , will involve lowering the pH of the water, which should improve the filtering process and arsenic removal.

Koskelin recommended that the city enter into a pilot project to test this theory for three months with Clearlogx. He said the city has a threemonth permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to test this system. If it works, the city could buy the system and 90 percent of the money the city paid during the three-month trial would count towards the purchase price. The total purchase price of the system is $175,000. The city will be leasing it for $4,500 a month.

“We need to do something,” Koskelin told the council.

He estimated the pay off on this system would be about two years, and the life of the system should be about 15 years.

Addressing the water treatment situation will result in a budget adjustment, Koskelin added, primarily from enterprise fund surpluses. Koskelin said this solution might also help the city meet stricter arsenic standards when/if they come down in the future.

“If it doesn’t drop lower than 2 parts per billion we should be able to meet those new standards,” he said. The current standard is 10 parts per billion, set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment is considering a stricter standard, which Koskelin estimated at an earlier council meeting would likely not take effect for a couple of years, if the state moves forward with it.

More infrastructure coverage here.