Environment: Feds release final study on Denver Water’s proposed new transmountain water diversions

Dust on snow, earlier runoff? #COdrought

Dust streaming across Four Corners April 29, 2009 via MODIS
Dust streaming across Four Corners April 29, 2009 via MODIS

Here’s a look at the problem of dust on snow affecting the timing of runoff, from John Peel writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

The issue is this: During the last two decades, an increasing amount of dust, mostly blown via storms from northeast Arizona and southeast Utah, has landed on Colorado during the winter and, more often, spring. This dust settles on the snowpack, causing the snow to lose much of its ability to reflect the sun…and escalating the rate of melt drastically.

It’s a situation everyone from water managers to river runners, biologists, botanists and climate-change scientists is concerned about. The dust is speeding up the spring snowpack melt by days or weeks. As a result, hydroelectric dams can’t generate power as long. Rafting season ends early. Plants dry up or have shorter pollinating seasons…

They want to learn just how badly the blown dust has sullied the snow surface. To do this, they measure albedo – the amount of solar radiation an object reflects. An albedo of 1.0 means that 100 percent of the sun’s radiation is reflected. If there were no dust, the albedo of spring snow would be about 0.8, Landry says. Last year, the albedo here reached an extremely low 0.35. At that number, snow can absorb double or triple the amount of solar energy as clean snow; it’s not unusual for melt rates to roughly double at low albedos, Landry says. The center’s 11 sites scattered around the Colorado mountains from Rabbit Ears to Wolf Creek all showed low albedos in 2013.

“That’s a gigantic bonus of energy going into the snowpack,” Landry said. “What we’re measuring across Colorado is severe drops in albedo because of dust.”

There’s a common misconception that snowmelt rate is based on air temperature. But it’s much more related to solar-energy absorption, making albedo a crucial factor, Landry emphasizes.

“The conventional wisdom is hard to overcome,” he said.

Senator Beck Basin is the “sentry” study area, the front line for the Colorado Plateau dust as it blows across Colorado…

So much science and data. Who needs it? For starters, the Bureau of Reclamation, the cities of Grand Junction and Denver and water-conservation districts around the state. All are stakeholders that help fund the center. Researchers also take advantage of the data, much of which is accessible at http://www.codos.org.

Ken Curtis, engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, says that although dust has been blowing into Colorado for millennia (Great Sand Dunes is an obvious example), it’s become apparent that since drought years of the early 2000s, dust storms are getting worse. And the dust “does affect how the snow comes off during runoff.”

The immediate data help in knowing how quickly snow will melt, but Curtis says that the bigger value may be in the long-term data. For water managers, big-picture questions loom: Is the dust, indeed, a result of drought? Is it human-caused? Is there a way to control it?[…]

Although “climate change” isn’t a point of emphasis, it’s something that the data might show.

“We know what we’re doing here will contribute to understanding global change,” Landry says.

The Southern Delivery System has been a long time coming

Southern Delivery System route map -- Graphic / Reclamation
Southern Delivery System route map — Graphic / Reclamation

Here’s part one of an in-depth look at the Southern Delivery System from John Hazlehurst writing for the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Contending that the denial [of Homestake II] had been arbitrary and capricious, the two cities [Aurora and Colorado Springs] appealed the decision to the courts. In a comprehensive description of the city’s water system and possible future sources of supply given to City Council in 1991, CSU managers said that “extensive litigation is expected to continue.”

Denied by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court, the cities appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

City officials were stunned. They couldn’t believe that a coalition of Western Slope “enviros” and ski towns had prevented them from developing water to which the city had an undisputed right. They had believed the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1990 decision to scuttle Denver’s proposed Two Forks Dam near Deckers on the South Platte River was an outlier, not a sign of things to come…

Slow to recognize that mountain communities now had the power to kill their water development plans, Utilities officials looked at another alternative. Instead of taking water directly from the wilderness area, the city proposed to build a dam on the mainstem of the Arkansas at Elephant Rock, a few miles upstream of Buena Vista.

A grassroots rebellion against the project was soon evident, as hand-lettered signs appeared along U.S. Highway 24, which parallels the Arkansas. The signs carried a simple message: “Don’t Let Colorado Springs Dam this River!”

It soon became clear that Chaffee County commissioners would not issue a construction permit for any such project, dooming it before the first planning documents were created…

If trans-mountain diversions or dams on the Arkansas were no longer feasible, that left a single alternative for developing the city’s water rights. CSU would have to let its water flow down to Pueblo Reservoir, construct a diversion structure on the dam, and pump it uphill to Colorado Springs.

It would be, water managers believed, the easiest project to build and permit.

“It was just a pipeline,” said CSU water resources manager Gary Bostrom, who has worked 35 years for Utilities. “What could go wrong?”[…]

“We didn’t really understand the importance of partnering with and involving the public in decision-making,” said [Gary Bostrom], “until the Southern Water Project.”[…]

The plan for the Southern Delivery System was presented to City Council in 1992. Among the material submitted to councilmembers was a comprehensive description of the city’s existing water system. Water managers made sure Council was aware of the importance of the task before them.

“The massive scope of this project,” CSU staff noted, “requires a very long lead time to allow for complexities of numerous permitting processes, land acquisition, litigation, design, financing and construction.”

Of all the variables, CSU managers and elected officials gave the least weight to those that may have been the most significant…

“We weren’t worried about hydrology,” said Bostrom. “The years between 1980 and 2000 were some of the wettest years on record. The water was there for the taking. Shortages on the Colorado weren’t part of the discussion.

“We knew about the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922 (which allocated Colorado River water between Mexico and the upper and lower basin states), but it wasn’t something we worried about.”

Then as now, 70 percent of the city’s water supply came from the Colorado River. SDS would tap the city’s rights on the Arkansas, diversifying the portfolio.

“We have to plan for growth,” said Bostrom. “That’s what history tells us. We know that it will be expensive, but the cost of not building a system well in advance of need would be much greater. People complained about the cost of the Blue River (trans-mountain diversion) project in the 1950s, but we wouldn’t have a city without it — we wouldn’t have the Air Force Academy.”

But even as the project moved slowly forward, the comfortable assumptions of a wet, prosperous future began to unravel.

“Exactly 15 years ago today (April 29, 1999),” said Bostrom, “we were in the middle of a flood — remember? We didn’t know it, but that was the day the drought began.”

More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.

The latest newsletter from the Western River Action Network is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver

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

This summer, Audubon will be releasing FlightMap, an interactive Google Earth-based tool that enables users to take a virtual bird’s-eye-view fly-over of rivers in the Colorado River Basin.

Along the flight, users will encounter interactive pop-up boxes with important information about each river—from birds and other wildlife to conservation stories, from on-the-ground volunteer opportunities to action alerts. Audubon’s FlightMap will enable users to see what is happening on our rivers and learn what they can do to help protect them.

You embody the passion that drives the Western Rivers Action Network, and we want to share that passion to engage new activists and advocates. We invite you to share your stories about the rivers you care about for possible inclusion in FlightMap before May 16th.

Whether it’s just one sentence or longer, we hope you will share your stories and information about our rivers, the wildlife and people that depend on them, the threats to our rivers’ futures, and the actions we can take to protect them.

More education coverage here.

Well augmentation enforced by the Colorado Division of Water Resources

Typical water well
Typical water well

Domestic and irrigation well pumping both come with augmentation requirements under Colorado Water law. Here’s a story about augmentation education and enforcement in the Blue River watershed from Alli Langley writing for the Summit Daily News. Here’s an excerpt:

As water commissioner for District 36 of the state Division of Water Resources, [Troy Wineland] manages water rights in the Blue River basin. This runoff season, he will focus on getting residents using “exempt wells” illegally to change their ways.

“I’m just continually optimistic,” he said, that “if given the information people will make better choices, the right choices.”

Of the county’s 2,500 wells, three-quarters are exempt, meaning the prior appropriation system that governs Colorado water rights doesn’t apply to them…

Exempt wells aren’t shut off during shortages because they require special sewage systems that return used water to the ground. If done properly, the water loss is about 5 percent, which the law says isn’t enough to impact those with senior water rights.

Permits for exempt wells say water must be used only inside the walls of a single-family housing unit and restrict the amount used per year. Owners can pay to use water in ways that violate their permit as long as they augment the water, or ensure that the used water won’t affect the surrounding watershed and senior water rights.

Summit well owners can buy augmented water through the county or Vidler Water Co.

In the next six weeks, Wineland will knock on hundreds of doors where people without the right permits are irrigating, filling hot tubs or using water in other illegal ways. If the well owners are home, he’ll talk with them about the rules and why they’re important.

“You have to back out from the micro level. ‘Oh, this is my own little fiefdom, and what I do here is not going to affect anyone else,’” he said. Remember the long-term drought and projected shortages, he said. Think about the hundreds of nearby wells and cumulative impact on local streams and rivers. They feed the Colorado River, which supplies seven states.

He’ll explain the options: Stop the illegal use or get an augmentation contract. Most people are responsive, he said. They just didn’t know or didn’t think it was important.

In a couple of weeks, if well owners haven’t done anything, he’ll issue a courtesy warning and deadline. After that deadline, violators will receive an injunction and be fined for unpermitted uses: $500 a day.

People who contact Wineland by July 1 with the necessary information will have until June 1, 2015, to get into compliance.

“I’m going to put it in their hands and say, ‘Hey, you can do this on your own time line,’” he said, “‘or if I come and knock on your door, you can adhere to my time line,’ which is much tighter, more than likely 30 days.”

Meanwhile groundwater sub-district 1 implementation rolls on, with state approval of their augmentation plan, in the San Luis Valley. Here’s a report from Ruth Heide writing for the Valley Courier:

Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe approved the 2014 Annual Replacement Plan for Subdistrict No. 1 on Monday. The state decision will be submitted to the Division No. 3 Water Court today, April 29. Wolfe determined the plan adequately identified sources and amounts of replacement water and remedies the subdistrict would use to make up for injurious stream depletions this year.

The sub-district plans to use up to 2,806 acre feet of transbasin water; up to 5,608 acre feet of Santa Maria Reservoir water; up to 2,500 acre feet of Closed Basin Project water; and up to 4,300 acre feet of forbearance water to meet its obligations this year.

The forbearance agreements are with the Rio Grande Canal Water Users Association (up to 2,000 acre feet); San Luis Valley Irrigation District (up to 1,000 acre feet); San Luis Valley Canal Company (up to 400 acre feet); Prairie Ditch Company (up to 100 acre feet); Monte Vista Water Users Association (up to 300 acre feet); and Commonwealth Irrigation Company-Empire Canal (up to 500 acre feet.) Water currently in storage will be released from the Rio Grande, Santa Maria and Continental Reservoirs at the direction of the division engineer to replace injurious stream depletions in time, location and amounts that they occur, beginning May 1.

Wolfe approved the annual replacement plan with about a dozen terms and conditions including daily replacement water accounting every month to the local division office and replacement water deliveries in a manner acceptable to the division engineer.

The terms also excluded the use of “Big Ruby” water, water purchased from Navajo Development Company (John Parker II) in the last two years and held in Rio Grande Reservoir but previously stored in Big Ruby Reservoir. Wolfe stated his office had not yet received all of the information it required to approve a Substitute Water Supply Plan application so he was denying the use of Big Ruby water in the Annual Replace Plan.

“The approval of this ARP is made with the understanding that if the ARP proves insufficient to remedy injurious stream depletions, the State Engineer has the authority to invoke the retained jurisdiction of the Division No. 3 Water Court,” Wolfe stated.

Wolfe’s approval followed approval locally by the subdistrict board of managers and the board for the subdistrict’s sponsoring district, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The plan is required each year to show how the water management sub-district will replace injurious stream depletions caused by well pumping in the sub-district area. The sub-district encompasses more than 3,400 wells pumping about 230,000 acre feet annually on about 163,500 irrigated acres. The amount of pumping in the sub-district has decreased from nearly 308,000 acre feet in 2010 and nearly 325,000 acre feet in 2011 to about 259,000 acre feet in 2012 and approximately 228,500 acre feet last year.

The Annual Replacement Plan anticipates well pumping this year to be about what it was last year.

A groundwater model is used to calculate depletions the sub-district must remedy each year. The only river for which the groundwater model predicts depletions from Sub-district No. 1 is the Rio Grande. This year the estimated total depletions affecting the Rio Grande due to past and projected pumping is 3,971 acre feet. The total lag stream depletions from prior and projected pumping total more than 30,000 acre feet. The sub-district is required to make up those depletions over time in addition to the ongoing depletions.

The state is holding the sponsoring water district financially responsible to make up those lag depletions if Sub-district No. 1 goes under. In previous years Subdistrict No. 1 has offered fallowing programs, with more than 8,200 irrigated acres fallowed to some extent last year. This year the sub-district is not offering that program but is relying on other measures such as the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) re-authorized in the new Farm Bill and administered through USDA Farm Service Agency offices. FSA offices have informed the sub-district that sign-up for the Rio Grande CREP would resume sometime in May.

More groundwater coverage here.

Priorities have changed in water management — Charles Wilkinson

Landsat view of Colorado River pulse flow in Mexico April 2014
Landsat view of Colorado River pulse flow in Mexico April 2014

Here’s a guest column from Charles Wilkinson writing about water management in the West that’s running in the Albuquerque Journal:

One of the best developments for the environment in the West has been the quiet but deep revolution in federal water policy. Over the course of the past quarter century, we have moved from a dam-and-reservoir, build-at-any-cost mentality to a multifaceted approach that respects all that we need from, and love about, rivers.

Floyd Dominy, the charismatic long-serving U.S. Commissioner of Reclamation, epitomized the old approach. Dominy passionately supported the giant dams that created hydropower and stored water for irrigation and municipal use.

Up to a point, he was right. In the arid West, the scant rainfall was too little for farming and the cities needed projects to reach distant rivers.

In Dominy’s era, views on water were steadfastly utilitarian. Nature had to give way to progress.

Rivers were engines of development; recreation, wildlife, and beauty were of no moment. After rafting down the Grand Canyon, Dominy exhorted, “It was boring! You can’t see out from the bottom of a canyon.”

Westerners’ views began to change. Water projects were too expensive and the public chafed over sacrificing rivers and canyons.

Dominy mostly got his way, but when he left office in 1969 his plans to dam the Grand Canyon and build other grandiose projects lay on the shelf.

A fit embodiment of the change in the Bureau of Reclamation is Mike Connor, Reclamation Commissioner from 2009-2014. Earlier this year, he was elevated to Deputy Interior Secretary, the second highest position in the Interior Department. He will carry most of his water portfolio to his new job.

Connor grew up in Las Cruces, graduated from New Mexico State University, and obtained a law degree at the University of Colorado, where he published an important article on Colorado River water flows.

After serving as a lawyer in Interior, he spent several years on the Senate Energy Committee staff.

A listener, he earned respect for his careful, fair work. Eventually, also known for grasping the big picture in the complex arena of Western water, Connor was named commissioner.

Connor’s collaborative leadership at Reclamation was notable.

In a time of low flows in the West, he emphasized conservation, rather than traditional projects, as a source of “new” water. Planning was needed to respond to climate change – extreme warming is predicted for the Colorado River basin.

He was instrumental in securing a comprehensive package of water and energy conservation grants in Colorado and other basin states.

Connor also was a leader in achieving a great initiative, “Minute 319,” a 2012 amendment to a U.S.-Mexico treaty on the Colorado River.

The Colorado River Delta, the lower 100 miles of the river, has long been a metaphor for over-development of water in the Southwest.

By the mid-20th century, the delta, once a wonderland of green lagoons lush with vegetation and rich with wildlife, had gone dry due to massive U.S. diversions. Minute 319 addresses many concerns on both sides of the border, including a return of flows to the delta.

U.S. and Mexican scientists and policy makers worked feverishly to find a way to overcome legal and institutional obstructions.

The effort to revive the delta, and perhaps even the Sea of Cortés beyond it, began last month when gates at Morelos Dam opened to release a “pulse” designed to mimic high spring flows.

For days, the flow made slow progress as much of the water sank into the dry riverbed. Doubters worried that water would never reach the heart of the delta.

Then, on April 9th, it did.

To rousing cheers, sweet nourishment arrived at Laguna Grande, a key restoration site.

Can water regularly reach the delta and the sea? We don’t know yet. But we do know that hardly anyone would have even thought to ask the question 20 years ago.