Last week’s Youth Education blog post, Youth and water – our future depends on it, focused on watersheds, where the journey of water begins within Denver Water’s collection system. Watersheds are only a small portion of the complete water cycle, however, so this week we’ll look at the water cycle in its entirety.
Week two: Journey of water – the water cycle
How does water move through the water cycle? The Project Wet Foundation’s chapter on The Water Cycle provides information, activities, vocabulary and much more around the never-ending movement of water.
The U.S. Geological Survey provides an interactive graphic highlighting how Earth’s water is always changing form and moving around the Earth. Start with the beginner diagram and work your way up to the intermediate and advanced diagrams for a comprehensive study of the complete water…
Colorado’s challenging environment has shaped the state’s history and its people, and perhaps the greatest shaping factor has been water. Water has largely determined where people lived and how they survived, and water continues to challenge Coloradans today. The Living West exhibit at History Colorado invites visitors to explore three water-related chapters of Colorado’s history: Mesa Verde, the Dust Bowl, and Colorado’s Mountains. Water abundance and shortages shape all three episodes. The residents of Mesa Verde harnessed water for crops and livestock, only to experience severe drought; drought, fragile soil, volatile prices, and debt devastated many Baca County farms in the 1930s; and today we see many environmental changes in the mountains while we struggle to provide enough water for all.
Lovers of water and Colorado’s history (and present and future) will find a lot to enjoy in this exhibit. Here are seven things you won’t want to miss:
With the water outlook now drastically better than it was in 2013, many Front Range cities in Colorado, which leased little or no water to ag users last year due to shortages, are now saying they will have extra water to lease out this year.
Harold Evans, chairman of the city of Greeley Water and Sewer Board, said board members officially decided at their recent meeting they would have extra water to lease to agriculture this year, although they would have to examine requests from farmers and take other things into consideration before deciding how much they would lease out.
Officials with the city of Loveland, too, said this week they will have extra water to lease to agriculture.
Snowpack on Tuesday in the South Platte River Basin — which supplies northeast Colorado — was 130 percent of historic average, according to NRCS figures, and reservoir levels in the basin are also above normal, sitting at 108 percent of historic average on April 1.
While the outlook has been good for months in northern Colorado, many city officials in the area were waiting to see how much water would be released this year from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Colorado-Big Thompson Project, the largest water-supply project in the region, before giving the official yay or nay on leasing to agriculture.
The Northern Water board set its spring quota for the C-BT Project on April 11, and even though the board set it at a below-average 60 percent, it was enough to give most cities the green light to lease to ag.
While the C-BT quota played a large part in determining how much water most northern Front Range cities can lease out this year, the situation is a little different for the city of Longmont. Ken Huson, water resources administrator for Longmont, said that because some of its water-delivery systems are still under repair from September’s flooding, the city likely won’t be renting any water out this year.
Evans noted that while Greeley has plenty of water to lease this year, cities typically get fewer requests in years of good snowpack like this year, because so much snowmelt makes its way down the mountains, filling irrigation ditches and reducing the farmers’ needs of supplemental water from cities.
But even with plenty of snowmelt expected to fill ditches this spring, farmers still like to have water available to lease from cities as a back-up supply, if nothing else. Local farmers say they never know how fast the snow is going to melt and flow by, or how dry it’s going to get later into the summer.
At the beginning of last year, the state was coming off the 2012 drought, during which reservoirs were drained to low levels, and snowpack in the mountains was also historically bad.
As early as January of 2013, a number of cities — like Greeley, Pueblo, Longmont, Fort Collins and Loveland, each of which typically lease thousands of acre-feet of excess water each year to producers across eastern Colorado — were telling local farmers they would have little or no water to lease to ag users.
Back in 2011, which was a historically wet year, the city of Greeley — located in the most ag-productive part of the state — leased 25,427 acre-feet of water (nearly 8.3 billion gallons) to ag users, but last year, could only honor its long-term ag agreements of about 5,000 acre-feet.
Water officials from cities around the state said last year marked the first time in about a decade, longer in some cases, that they’d had such little water to lease to agricultural users.
This year is different.
Even in the southeast part of the state, where cities have less water compared to their neighbors to the north, it’s looking like those municipalities will have enough extra for agriculture.
According to NRCS figures, snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin that supplies southeast Colorado was at about historic average Wednesday and reservoirs were only filled to 60 percent of average on April 1.
Still, Sharon Carleo, water resources coordinator with the Board of Water Works of Pueblo, said they could lease in the range of 6,000 acre feet of water this year to farmers.
From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):
On his farm just outside of Mead, [Kent Peppler] relies both on irrigated water and spring runoff. While water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado-Big Thompson Project can be an integral part of keeping his crop alive, Peppler only gets that water through cities like Fort Collins, which regularly lease extra water to irrigators and Front Range farmers.
“We’re hoping to rent some Big Thompson water this year, absolutely,” he said on Tuesday.
But this year it’s unlikely that Peppler, who lives well outside the Poudre basin and is on the city’s lowest priority rung, will get water from Fort Collins. When the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District announced two weeks ago how much water customers will get from the reservoir system — 60 percent of their full allotment — city officials were concerned that amount would minimize the water leasing market. While “domestic” customers like homeowner associations will be able to lease water from the city, others like Peppler most likely will not.
Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, rentals make up one of three water leasing markets the city runs. Fort Collins Utilities also leases water to the North Poudre Irrigation Co. and the Water Supply and Storage Co. in Fort Collins. C-BT leases have garnered the city the least money of the three since 2009. Last year, the city made $74,585 from the leases, down from $227,920 in 2009.
While not a huge moneymaker for a city with a nearly $500 million annual budget, C-BT leases can be cruicial for farmers like Peppler, who has leased water from Fort Collins sporadically over the past 30 years.
“We do depend on rented irrigation water,” he said. “We don’t have enough water rights to get us through.”
The city normally takes half of its water from the Poudre River and the other half from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, a network of basins and reservoirs that brings water from the Western Slope to the Front Range. While the bulk of the water serves the daily needs of city residents and businesses, some fills city irrigation ditches, is channeled to homeowners associations, or feeds city parks. Fort Collins leases any leftover water to farmers like Peppler, who put in requests every year for a certain number of acre feet.
Leasing water from Fort Collins Utilities has been tricky after burn-scar debris from the High Park Fire polluted the Poudre River, forcing the city to rely more on reservoir water. The city is also partially reliant on the C-BT water when spring runoff and late-summer monsoons reduce Poudre River water quality.
High snowpack years like this can be mixed a blessing to those hoping for more C-BT water, as a plentiful snowpack doesn’t translate into a higher quota of water.
“It’s just the opposite,” said Susan Smolnik, a water resources engineer for Fort Collins Utilities. “Colorado-Big Thompson is a supplemental system. In the higher snowpack year, we will not get as much CB-T water.”
To manage the water it does receive, Fort Collins Utilities keeps strict priorities, dividing lessees into tiers. The first tier, made up of HOAs, city ditches and parks, had all its water requests fulfilled this year, worth about 80 acre feet, said Smolnik. Poudre basin farmers in the second tier had only about 25 percent of their requests for water fulfilled, although customers have requested leases for all 10,480 acre feet potentially available to the tier.
Peppler is among those in the bottom tier of users living outside the basin, who have no prospects of getting water from the city yet. Thus far, that group has requested 4,664 acre feet of water from the city.
Despite this year’s plentiful snowpack, Utilities has been “conservative,” Smolnik said, when it came to meeting regional water needs, because it will mostly rely on C-BT water until it is satisfied with the quality of Poudre River water.
“We planned that we are not going to treat more Poudre water until we know more about fire effects,” she said.
Ultimately, if city demands for C-BT water is less than expected, Utilities will be able to release more acre feet of water to those who seek leases.
For now, Peppler, who is president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, hopes that a good spring runoff season will help fill the ditches that irrigate his corn, wheat and barley. Like most farmers he has crop insurance, which could help if planting season doesn’t turn out to be as lucrative as expected. But falling back on insurance is hard to justify during a year with a deep snowpack, even if that doesn’t translate into more water for Peppler’s fields.
Last week, the regular meeting of the Animas River Stakeholders Group took on the feeling of a jolly, if intellectually fraught, Nobel Prize committee debate.
Scientists, government employees and mining officials huddled around a long table in the cold basement of the Miners Union Hospital grading innovative, sometimes preposterous proposals for addressing metal removal from mine drainage.
The ideas came from InnoCentive, a Boston firm that has hundreds of thousands of individual problem-solvers eager to take on challenges in chemistry, food production, business, engineering, information technology and the life sciences.
As part of the competition, the stakeholders described the environmental calamity in the Upper Animas Basin and offered $45,000 to the top problem-solver. (They raised the prize money from 12 organizations, including the International Network for Acid Prevention, Freeport-McMorRan Copper and Gold, Sunnyside Gold Corp., National Mining Corp., Goldcorp, New Mexico Coal and Trout Unlimited.)
As water quality in the Animas River has deteriorated over the last seven years, there has been insufficient money to build and operate a limestone water-treatment plant, which would cost $12 million to $17 million to build and $1 million to operate annually. Stakeholders are hoping that one brilliant solution could at least bring down the sticker price of river cleanup. (In the absence of an answer, the town is re-evaluating whether it should seek Superfund status.)
InnoCentive’s problem-solvers submitted online more than 50 proposals, with some more far-fetched than others, involving everything from absorption through plants, salting out metals, magnets, artificial river settling, cement, yeast, eggshell lime, plasma, brown coal, algae and Voraxial filtration…
As the stakeholders moved through the ideas, poring over a spreadsheet that had different stakeholders’ assessments of the schemes, expert opinion diverged many times.
While Kirsten Brown of the Colorado Division of Mining and Safety and Steve Fearn, mining specialist and co-coordinator of the stakeholders’ group, liked one proposal that involved removing heavy metals with magnets, Peter Butler thought “scaling and clogging would be an issue.”
Butler, co-coordinator of the stakeholders’ group, was more supportive of another proposal, artificial river settling, writing, “Could be an effective alternative to settling ponds. Separates metals somewhat.”[…]
They hope to choose the winner by May. When the winning idea might be implemented is unknown.
Meanwhile there was a meeting Wednesday in Silverton to discuss potential Superfund designation to bring in federal dough and expertise. Here’s a prequel from Chase Olivarius-Mcallister writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:
For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to designate parts of Silverton a Superfund site. Yet for years, many locals have considered the word “Superfund” dirtier than Cement Creek…
A series of abandoned mines in the Upper Animas Basin has been spewing toxic metals into the local water system for more than 20 years. Scientists say it’s the largest untreated mine drainage in the state, and problematic concentrations of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and aluminum are choking off the Upper Animas River’s ecosystem.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said Silverton’s environmental calamity is “huge, affecting so many jurisdictions and communities. But it has felt like we were sort of at a stalemate.”
Lachelt said San Juan County commissioners now are leading the issue, not ignoring it.
“The La Plata County commissioners stand by the San Juan County commissioners in seeking out all of this information and seeking a rapid solution to this long-lingering problem,” she said. “I don’t think there’s one single reason it’s taken so long, and we’re certainly not there yet. But I think we’re seeing a lot of folks come together and realize we really don’t want to lose any more species of fish. We can’t afford to, and we have to act.”
‘Objections worn thin’
Since last summer, political pressure to find a solution in Silverton has escalated.
Rob Robinson, who used to represent the Bureau of Land Management within the Animas River Stakeholders Group, sent a letter and petition with 15 signatures in December to the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment urging a Superfund listing in Silverton. Robinson said for years he had kept faith that the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s collaborative process would work.
“I was a member of (the stakeholders) for many years and believed strongly in what they were doing: community-based, watershed-based cleanup. I guess it’s not gone so well,” he said. “In fact, it’s really disastrous when you compare the situation with what’s happened at other Superfund sites.”
Steve Gunderson, director of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division, said he was “appalled” by what he saw when he toured the Red and Bonita Mine in 2012.
“This site, even though it’s complicated and remote, is in an incredibly beautiful part of the state. It may take a Superfund designation to bring the resources to bear,” he said.
But Gunderson said he doubts the EPA will “move forward with a Superfund designation unless there’s support with the local government because Superfund can be fairly controversial, and the first reaction is often angst about what the economic ramifications might be.”
Many Silverton residents interviewed by The Durango Herald last summer feared a Superfund designation would stymie tourism and soil the prospect of mining’s return.
“Superfund isn’t the answer,” said Steve Fearn, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and a town resident. “I want to see Silverton become a successful, vibrant community again. Right now, it isn’t, and mining is the one thing we have.”
But Robinson said such objections had worn thin.
“God, they’re the same positions they took 25 years ago! I think ‘Gee-whiz, it’s like a broken record, going on and on,’” Robinson said. “People like Steve Fearn argue a Superfund site will discourage mining investment. But the pollution is discouraging people from mining.
“What Steve Fearn says is immaterial. What’s important is that the Clean Water Act promises to clean up the nation’s water, making it all swimmable, fishable. That’s the goal, and the people administering … Superfund aren’t doing their job,” he said. “That’s the problem.”[…]
In the absence of a Superfund designation, for years, the stakeholders group has tried to work collaboratively with the EPA and Sunnyside Gold Corp. to improve water quality in the Animas River.
However, water quality recently has gotten much worse in the river.
Between 2005 and 2010, three out of four of the fish species that lived in the Upper Animas beneath Silverton died. According to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, the volume of insects and the number of bug species have plummeted. And since 2006, USGS scientists have found that the water flowing under Bakers Bridge – then downstream, into Durango – carries concentrations of zinc that are toxic to animal life.
The technology to clean the dirty water exists: a limestone water treatment plant. But the stakeholders group has no money to pay for it, and the EPA estimates it would cost between $12 million and $17 million to build and $1 million a year to run – in perpetuity.
Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last mining company to operate in Silverton, denies all liability for cleaning up the worsened metal pollution. It has offered $6.5 million in return for being released from all liability. Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate, bought Sunnyside in 2003. The company generated nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2013, according to its fourth-quarter report…
On Monday, within hours of commissioners announcing that most of their Wednesday meeting would be dedicated to discussing Superfund with the EPA, Larry Perino, Sunnyside’s representative in the stakeholders group, sent co-coordinators Fearn, Bill Simon and Peter Butler a letter proposing the company’s “game plan” for cleaning up the Animas River.
The plan centers on all parties continuing to work through the stakeholders group, bulkheading the Red and Bonita Mine and using the money Sunnyside already has promised – with compound interest. The plan does not include pursuing Superfund listing…
More Animas River watershed coverage here and here.
A team of paragliders won’t cut it out of a glacier with a chainsaw. A ski patrol can’t bring it down from the top of a snowy mountain. Deep-sea divers won’t blow up an iceberg to get at it. In other words, no Silver Bullet for the state water plan. But it will provide options, said James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“If you want to do planning, you have to do it before the crisis hits,” Eklund told the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum at Otero Junior College on Wednesday. “We’re not going to luck into what we want for our kids. We have to be intentional.”
The state water plan occupied all of the attention at the first day of the forum, along with the Arkansas Basin Roundtable’s basin implementation plan. The forum continues today with the focus on preserving irrigation for farms. The basin plan will be part of a draft state water plan that will be submitted to the governor in December.
“I can’t tell you what will be in the plan,” Eklund said. “It has to come from the grassroots up.”
The basin roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee and the CWCB have been talking about the core issues of a water plan — alternatives to ag dry-up, urban conservation, new supply, storage and environmental needs — for 10 years. New meetings are pushing to include more people in the statewide conversation, with about a dozen more planned in the next three months.
Eklund stressed the need to preserve watershed health to prepare for drought, floods and fires that have plagued the state for the past two years. While there will be measurable outcomes, the state water plan likely will not contain blanket solutions for filling the needs of cities on the Front Range as more people move into the state, he added.
“There may be tough decisions in the future,” Eklund said, speaking about some climate models that show reduced snowpack in coming years. “If climate change occurs, at that point dramatic steps will be taken. We have to be comfortable as a state.”
The Arkansas River basin is no stranger to the troubles of overdevelopment of water resources. But its neighbors also have complaints as they develop their part of the state water plan. Experts from four other basins shared some of those Wednesday at the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum at Otero Junior College.
September’s record floods were a mixed blessing for the South Platte basin, said Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District.
“While some reservoirs filled, it wiped out the infrastructure to deliver water to ditches,” Cronin said.
The Rio Grande basin has been in drought since 2002, and will provide little help in meeting the state’s water gap because it’s struggling to fill its own needs, said Mike Gibson, general manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District.
“We’re an ag-based economy, and we have a gap already,” Gibson said.
He jokingly suggested moving Interstate 70 — the dividing line for the state’s wet and dry weather — 300 miles south to solve state water problems.
The Gunnison River basin is softening its hard line against taking water out of its basin, but would demand tough conservation measures and no Colorado River Compact complications before agreeing to any further diversions out of the basin, said John McClow, attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. It’s still not a popular idea.
“We’re an untapped basin and intend to keep it that way,” McClow said. “And, we’re paranoid.”
The Colorado River basin is also resistant to more transmountain diversions, said Jim Pokrandt, an education and communication specialist for the Colorado River District. The Front Range already takes 450,000-600,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River each year, so there is no excess water. Pokrandt applauded cooperative agreements with the Denver Water Board and proposals by the Northern Water Conservancy District as examples of moving ahead collaboratively. The Colorado River basin is cautious because of the types of problems the Arkansas River and Republican River basins already have faced.
“What happens when you overdevelop?” Pokrandt asked. “The Colorado River Basin Roundtable does not want that kind of future.”
An aquatic biologist who worked to establish a high-quality fishery on the Upper Arkansas River was honored Wednesday. Greg Policky, who works for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, received the Bob Appel Friend of the Arkansas River award at the 20th Arkansas River Basin Water Forum. The award is named for the late Bob Appel, who was a farmer and conservationist who helped found the forum 20 years ago. Policky has been the state’s primary biologist for the Upper Arkansas River for more than 20 years and has worked to improved the brown trout fishery.
“His attention to detail and collection of objective fishery data has provided numerous benefits to the river’s fishery,” said Jean Van Pelt, in introducing him at the forum.
In addition to programs and studies, his ability to provide public education about fisheries was cited.
“His goal is to increase the public understanding of aquatic ecology and fishery management,” she said. “He has actively targeted angling organizations and land resource agencies, but he finds his most rewarding beneficiaries in school-age children.”
Policky was humble in accepting the award, thanking members of the Arkansas River basin forum for working together on the voluntary flow program, which modulates reservoir releases for the benefit of fish.
Past winners of the Appel award are Mike Conlin, Denzel Goodwin, Paul Flack, Reed Dils, Carl Genova, Allen Ringle, Bud O’Hara, Alan Hamel and Steve Witte.
More Forum coverage from Bette McFarren writing for the La Junta Tribune-Democrat:
The 20th Arkansas River Basin Water Forum “Planning and Planting for the Future” got under way on Tuesday evening at Otero Junior College. Welcoming the group was La Junta Utility Board Chairman Lorenz Sutherland.
The first session was “Landscaping for Drought Tour of Otero Junior College Campus,” an informative session on selecting drought tolerant plants, xeriscape principles and growing drought tolerant trees, conducted by Genia Short of Otero Junior College, Liz Catt of Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and Shelly Simmons of the Colorado State Forest Service. The group urged use of drip irrigation and showed the simple and inexpensive tubing needed to accomplish the job. Also stressed were weed barrier material which is water permeable, gravel for mulch and edging to keep out encroaching grass. Also, look at your neighbors’ yards for good drought-tolerant plants. Anything with a bulb or tuber, such as irises and tulips, are drought-tolerant. Also, the old-fashioned bushes like spirea and rose of Sharon are good. Many other design suggestions and tree selection pointers made the session extremely worthwhile.
In the next session, Kevin Rein of the State Engineer’s Office explained the complications of the Colorado water rights system. It sounds simple, first in, first rights, but industrial, agricultural and municipal needs have complicated matters. Many states, in fact more than half of the United States, depend on water originating in Colorado, known as the Headwater State. “It falls as snow on our mountains,” said Rein, “melts, and runs off out of state. We try to catch a little of it as it goes by.”
La Junta’s Director of Water and Wastewater Joe Kelley led off the session on the Arkansas Valley Conduit, supported by Erin Mink, of Senator Mark Udall’s office. She recalled 20 years ago when she was warned about our drinking water while she was working at Bent’s Old Fort. Also making comments about the conduit were Doris Morgan of Congressman Cory Gardner’s office and Brian McCain, of Congressman Scott Tipton’s office. They emphasized that all of Colorado’s congressional representatives are supporting the Arkansas Valley Conduit.
On Wednesday morning, the really big crowd arrived, filling the adjacent parking lots around the Otero Junior College Student Center. Host Chairman Lorenz Sutherland, Otero County Commissioner Keith Goodwin, and La Junta City Manager Rick Klein welcomed the group. The local color guard presented the colors. The keynote speaker was James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who spoke on “Colorado’s Water Plan.”