A brief history of Water in Colorado

#COdrought news: Wet monsoon season?

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

The Plains

Heavy rains fell across western, northern and eastern Nebraska last week, leading to significant improvements in the Panhandle, where D0-D2 have been pushed back to the east and from the north to the south. The biggest improvements, however, were seen in east-central Nebraska, where the storms dumped anywhere from 3 to 5 inches or more, leading to reduction of drought and a pocket that is now drought-free with short-term and lingering long-term dryness/drought concerns eased for now. The recent wet trend continued across southeastern South Dakota as well, bringing more improvements with the reduction of D0-D1 there and across the border into Minnesota as described above.

Farther south, Kansas also saw a mixed bag this week with heavy but narrow bands of storms putting a small dent in the drought there, particularly in central Kansas where the D3 was trimmed, leaving D2 behind. Elsewhere in Kansas, though, the drought strengthened its grip and was accompanied last week by well above normal temperatures, leading to an expansion of D4 into the extreme southwestern reaches of the state to the Oklahoma border.

Oklahoma also felt those hotter temperatures along with some below-freezing readings late in the period, leading to more damage to the winter wheat crop, which has felt the brunt of a cold winter and coinciding drought. However, heavy rains did fall across the southeast corner of the state, bringing some 1-category improvement there.

In Texas, scattered totals of 2 to 4 inches fell across northeastern and eastern counties this past week, leading to some relative improvement with a push west and south of D0-D3 in these areas. In fact, the area of D3 located just off the coast in southern Texas has been removed this week. Some slight trimming of the D4 was also seen this week in south-central Texas. Deep south Texas also shared in the improvements with the elimination of D2 and trimming of D0-D1. The southeast coastal region continued to miss out on the rains (although rains were falling in this region just after the cutoff time for the USDM production), leading to a push of D2 eastward into southwest Louisiana on this week’s map…

The West

Most states in the West saw below-normal temperatures last week, helping preserve the precious liquid cargo contained in the upper elevations and reservoir systems. A mixed bag of improvements and deterioration is noted on this week’s map. In Colorado, storms continue to avoid the southeastern corner of the state, leading to an expansion of D3 westward along with D0-D2 south of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. Notable improvement in the moisture situation in northwestern Colorado also leads to a reduction of D0, which also pushed improvement west into east-central Utah.

In Arizona, continued dryness leading up to the monsoon season means an expansion of D2 in the northwest, northeast and southern regions of the state.

A very favorable precipitation pattern for the calendar year-to-date (10 to 50% above the average) continued this past week, which has led to gradual improvement in the Pacific Northwest region as a whole. In Washington, the remaining dryness and drought has been reclassified to long-term (given the larger-scale wetness on the year-to-date) as denoted by the “L” and a resultant shift in the “L” impact line area found in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as these areas are now connected. Most of the Willamette Valley improves to D0 from D1 this week and more of northeastern and north-central Oregon has also improved to D0. The southern half of Oregon remains unchanged.

All of California is now depicted as being in severe drought (D2) or worse this week, with the D3/D4 areas remaining unchanged. Attention this week turns to the heat wave settling in, which will only serve to exacerbate and accelerate drought impact concerns across the state. Increases on water demand and the increased risk of fire will ramp up as the heat does…

Looking Ahead

Over the next 5 days (May 14-19), the National Weather Service is calling for a strong system to bring widespread and locally heavy rains to much of the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. West of the Mississippi River looks to be pretty dry for the most part except for Arkansas, where an inch or so is expected across the eastern half of the state. As for temperatures, most of the West can expect temperatures to run 3 to 6 degrees (or more in the Great Basin) above normal. For just about everybody else east of the Rockies, temperatures are looking to stay cooler than normal at 3 to 10 degrees below normal.

This week’s 6-10 day (May 20-24) day outlook from the Climate Prediction Center is showing a tilt in the odds toward above-normal temperatures in all but the interior of Alaska, the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, central Plains and Midwest, with below-normal temperatures expected in the Four Corner region and into the central Rockies as well as along the western Gulf Coast. As for precipitation during this period, above-normal precipitation is more likely in southeastern Alaska, most of the West Coast from central California up to Canada, southern New Mexico, the lower Mississippi Valley, the Southeast and the southern Mid-Atlantic region. Above-normal precipitation is looking favorable across the northern Great Lakes and Plains regions along with the Great Basin, central Rockies and western reaches of the southern Plains.

Meanwhile the Climate Prediction Center is predicting a wet summer over Colorado.

June, July, and August precipitation outlook via the Climate Prediction Center
June, July, and August precipitation outlook via the Climate Prediction Center

Weekly River Report – River flows throughout the Roaring Fork Watershed are significantly lower than normal for this time of year

Many eyes are watching the #ColoradoRiver to see if it reconnects with the ocean today

Photo via the National Geographic
Photo via the National Geographic

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean @RefriedBrean):

The blue of the river could spill into the brown of the Gulf of California’s tidewater channel during high tide Thursday, based on projections from conservationists and federal officials who are tracking the experimental flood unleashed in late March. It would mark the first time in 20 years that the Colorado has reached the sea, though such a re-connection was never guaranteed. It wasn’t even really the point of the so-called “pulse-flow,” said Jack Simes, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The goal of the two month, 34-million-gallon experiment was to send water down the river’s historic channel to five restoration sites in Mexico and one in Arizona where researchers are trying to bring back the flood-adapted willow and cottonwood forests that once lined the Colorado’s banks.

“That’s been achieved,” Simes said. “The bonus I guess is if (the water) made it to the sea.”

If that’s going to happen, it needs to happen soon. The pulse flow is scheduled to end Sunday, when Morelos Dam will close its gates and return to its usual role as the Colorado’s last stop…

Simes said regular water flow to the Gulf of California ended in the 1960s with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. The last significant release of water to the delta came in 1983, when record flooding on the Colorado caused Lake Mead to spill for the first time. The last time the river reached the sea was in 1993, during heavy flooding on the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado in southern Arizona.

The pulse flow was made possible by a 2012 amendment to a 70-year-old treaty between the United States and Mexico. Known as Minute 319, the amendment spells out how Mexico will share in shortages and surpluses on the river while allowing that nation to store water in Lake Mead for future use, just as Nevada, Arizona and California do.

The initial pulse of water to the delta eventually will be followed by a small but steady stream of “base flows” totaling about half of the current flood and designed to keep the channel wet during the growing season as the riparian habitat struggles back to life.

A coalition of nonprofit groups on both sides of the border will secure the water for the base flows by buying up temporary water rights from willing sellers in Mexico.

Jennifer Pitt is Colorado River project manager for one of those nonprofits, the Environmental Defense Fund. She considers what man has done to the Colorado “a fundamental disruption of nature,” so seeing the river reach the sea again certainly has symbolic value, even if it wasn’t why the pulse flow experiment was undertaken.

“We’ve been missing that connection for a long time,” Pitt said. “It does feel meaningful. What it will mean from an ecological perspective will be up to the researchers to figure out.”

If the river does reach the gulf on Thursday, the connection will be fleeting. As soon as the flow through Morelos Dam is halted this weekend, there will be nothing left in the river downstream to keep the delta from drying up once more.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

7News finds polypropylene microbeads in samples from the South Platte River

Polypropylene microbeads via CBS Chicago
Polypropylene microbeads via CBS Chicago

From TheDenverChannel.com (Theresa Marchetta, Catherine Shelley, Marianne McKiernan):

In the first known test for the small plastic beads in the river, CALL7 Investigators hired experts to test water samples. The results confirmed that the plastic microbeads from toothpastes, face washes, body washes, shampoos, eyeliners, lip glosses and deodorants had indeed made it through the state’s filtration systems and into the river…

Before our test, Greg Cronin, an aquatic ecologist and professor of integrated biology at CU Denver, told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta, “I’m sure if you went downstream of the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, where basically the sewage system for Denver, where all these microbeads pass through…you would probably be able to find these microbeads.”

He added, “People might not have just looked yet.”

Cronin was correct. We found no one is testing for microbeads in Colorado. So we did our own test, sending water samples collected from the South Platte River to a specialized lab in Marietta, Ga., where they confirmed “polypropylene,” or plastic was floating in the water.

Polyethylene and polypropylene are the same types of plastic used to make milk jugs, bottles and other common household containers.

The Water Quality Control Division declined our request for an interview, but an email from Meghan Trubee, spokeswoman for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said,

“Drinking water treatment would capture and remove microbeads during the treatment process eliminating them from drinking water supplies. At this time, our work has not focused on this emerging issue nor have microbeads been brought to our attention specifically. Our research regarding microbeads reveals that this is an emerging issue.”

Some of the microbeads are easy to identify, like the ones found in face scrubs or toothpastes. Crest says the plastic is added to several of that brand’s toothpastes as “a safe, inactive ingredient used to provide color.”[…]

“Plastics don’t degrade. They actually just break into smaller particles of plastics,” said Cronin, the aquatic ecologist and biology professor. “The particles can be as small as a micron, the size of a bacterial cell, so that you wouldn’t be able to see them with the naked eye.”

According to Cronin, these plastics by nature attract toxic compounds like pesticides, and, ironically, are often used to remove harmful chemicals from water, which leads to other concerns.

“That same property causes these plastics to absorb these same toxins in the environment, so when an animal ingests it they’re getting extremely high concentrations of these pesticides and other industrial chemicals,” said Cronin. Then humans consume the toxins when they eat the fish or animals who have ingested the plastics.

Manufacturers using the microbeads in toothpaste readily admit the plastic serves no real purpose. There’s no flavor, nor any cleaning benefits. Lobbying efforts have created a greater awareness of this issue and some manufacturers set timelines to remove the plastics from their products.

Procter and Gamble, the manufacturer of Crest, stated in an email to CALL7 Investigators, “We are discontinuing our limited use of micro plastic beads as scrub materials in personal care products as soon as alternatives are qualified.”

Cronin says if you’re not thinking about microbeads, you should be.

“Yes we should care,” said Cronin. “What we should do is stop using them in the products, especially products that get flushed down the sink, immediately.”

More water pollution coverage here.

Animas River: e.Coli is a culprit in water quality

E.coli Bacterium
E.coli Bacterium

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The main focus of the San Juan Watershed Group research is E. coli and nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus. Certain strains of the former can cause nausea, fever and vomiting. The latter, in excess, robs water of oxygen needed by aquatic life.

The group tested only for E. coli last year. This year, nutrients were added. So far this year, the E. coli level has been well within limits at the New Mexico line, May said.

A Colorado partner, the Animas Watershed Partnership, which works on water-quality projects in New Mexico and with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, also is following the work of May’s group, now in its second year, said Ann Oliver, coordinator of the Colorado project.

Oliver said her group is searching for funding for similar research at two points upstream – on the Animas upstream of the Florida River and on the Florida before it reaches the Animas, she said…

The hope is to get enough money to test for E. coli and nutrients at the Animas and Florida sites and pay for genetic testing at Bondad to determine the source of E. coli contamination, Oliver said. May’s volunteers measure the amount of E. coli and nutrients at the site here, but the organization can’t afford the cost of source analysis.

Last year, May’s volunteers sampled water once a week from April through October on the Animas at the state line (Bondad), Aztec and Farmington and on the San Juan River at Farmington and Hogback Canal, the point where the San Juan enters the Navajo Nation…

Laboratory tests can determine through DNA analysis if E. coli bacteria come from animals – and which animals – or from human sources. Tests last year in Colorado showed that E. coli met the state’s standards, indicating that contamination was originating downstream in New Mexico.

In fact, all 40 samples collected at Hogback Canal tested positive for human bacteria found in feces, the report said. Nearly all 40 samples from Farmington and 26 from Aztec tested positive for the human bacteria.

A story in the The Daily Times of Farmington quoted Mike Stark, the San Juan County operations officer, as saying that officials know that aging septic systems and illegal septic dumping are potential problems.

David Tomko, retired from the New Mexico Environment Department, now the San Juan Watershed Group coordinator, is cautious. Tests for human fecal matter in the Cimarron and Rio Grande rivers found no human waste, so conclusions about the Animas and San Juan readings require confirmation, he said.

The heavy metals leaching from shuttered hard-rock mines around Silverton present no problem at the state line because of dilution, Tomko said. The level of those metals never has exceeded the limit, he said.

Peter Butler, former chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Board and a coordinator of the group looking for a solution to the toxic waste draining from Silverton mines, said heavy metals are diluted enough to be below limits by the time the Animas River reaches Durango.

Even heavy-metal contributions from Lightner Creek don’t push Durango over the limit, Butler said.

May’s group also tests water for turbidity, pH, optical brighteners (detergent additives that brighten colors) and total dissolved solids.

On Monday, the Animas River water didn’t look as cloudy when May poured it from the dipper into sample bottles as it did flowing in the channel.

Last year at about the same time – the spring runoff – the Animas water registered 13.5 turbidity units, May said. During the later monsoon season, she found upward of 600 units.

Turbidity is measured by a nephelometer, an apparatus that records size and concentration of particles in a liquid by analyzing the refraction of light beamed into it.

More Animas River coverage here and here.

Snowpack news: Statewide snowpack above 100% of average, south dry, north wetter #COdrought

Statewide Basin High/Low graph May 13, 2014
Statewide Basin High/Low graph May 13, 2014

From CBS Denver:

The Mother’s Day snowstorm that hit Colorado put the state’s snowpack well over 100 percent of normal.
Before the storm snowpack measured at 93 percent of normal on average across the state.

“Statewide totals went from 94 percent of normal on Friday to 120 percent as of today,” said Snow Survey Assistant Supervisor Mage Hultstrand…

“We had over an inch of water added to the state,” said Hultstrand.

It’s that additional water that’s raising concerns of how it will impact this year’s flood risk.

“The stage is set for potential flooding because we do have a high snowpack and because damage to stream channels from the flooding last September,” said meteorologist Chad Gimm.

The recent storm may have been more helpful than hurtful.

“We don’t want to continue adding to an already large snowpack but the cooler temperatures and the additional fresh snow does delay the melt,” said Hultstrand.

2014 Colorado legislation: The recently concluded session had a big focus on water bills #COleg

Colorado instream flow program map via the Colorado Water Conservation Board
Colorado instream flow program map via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

The Colorado legislative session that just wrapped up featured more significant water bills that the Colorado General Assembly has considered for several years. They ranged from a proposal to limit lawn sizes in new developments relying on agricultural water to technical tweaks to Colorado’s complex system of administering water rights.

Promoting efficiency and flexibility were common themes in the introduced bills, along with programs to help repair infrastructure damaged by last fall’s floods. Some were passed and some weren’t, and the water gossip network is buzzing with rumors that Governor Hickenlooper is being lobbied to veto some of the measures that made it to his desk. Here’s a quick summary of some of the more high-profile bills that were considered and their fates.


Senate Bill 14-017, in its original form, sought to limit the replacement of irrigated farmland with irrigated lawns. The bill would have prohibited approval of new subdivisions that buy agricultural water rights to serve their residents unless lawns are limited to 15 percent or less of the total area of the residential lots. The bill was passed after it was converted into a bill to require a study of ways to limit municipal outdoor water use.


Senate Bill 14-023 sought to remove “use it or lose it” disincentives for irrigation efficiency improvements that could benefit streams. The bill would allow irrigators west of the Continental Divide who reduce water diversions through increased efficiency to transfer or loan the rights to the “saved” water to the state to benefit streams. It would also ensure that those rights are not legally abandoned. This would only apply to water that was not consumed under pre-efficiency practices, but rather lost in transit, and would only be allowed if it wouldn’t damage someone else’s water right.

Senate Bill 14-023 had a similar intent to a proposal that ran into trouble in the 2013 legislature. The 2014 measure won much broader support. It was crafted through an extensive process of stakeholder consultations between environmental and agricultural interests, and it was ultimately passed by both the House and Senate. The bill remains controversial, however, due to concerns that it could deprive upstream junior water users of access to water no longer needed by downstream senior users, as well as concern that it would increase the amount of time and money water users have to spend defending their interests in water court. As of this writing, the bill had not yet been signed by Governor Hickenlooper, and rumors were swirling that he was being lobbied to veto the measure.


Senate Bill 14-103 would phase out the sale of plumbing fixtures that don’t meet the “WaterSense” standards for efficiency developed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It was passed by the General Assembly, but is still waiting for Governor Hickenlooper’s signature. Opponents of the measure say it inappropriately calls for a “one-size-fits-all” approach to conservation, wouldn’t be effective and would limit consumer choice.


Flood relief bills offered both funding and regulatory streamlining. HB 14-1002 sought to appropriate $12 million for a new grant program to repair water infrastructure damaged by a natural disaster. After bumping the amount up to $17 million, the General Assembly passed the bill. HB 14-1005 sought to reduce legal hurdles for rebuilding irrigation diversions in cases where flooding changed the stream in such a way that the original diversion point would no longer work. The bill allows water-right holders to relocate a ditch headgate without filing for a change in water court, as would normally be required, as long as the change won’t damage someone else’s water right. The General Assembly passed the bill.


A bill seeking to make it easier for agricultural users to lease some of their water right to other users as an alternative to permanent “buy and dry” did not fare as well. HB 14-1026 would have allowed irrigators who free up water through fallowing some land, deficit irrigation (giving crops less water than they really want) or planting less thirsty crops to ask the state engineer for permission to change the use of that water without having to designate exactly what the new use will be. Water court wouldn’t have been involved unless there was an appeal. The bill passed the House, but got hung up in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Energy.

You can trace the history of bills through the legislature, and see whether the Governor has signed them yet, at http://www.leg.state.co.us.

More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Arkansas Basin Roundtable meeting recap #COWaterPlan

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A series of community meetings on the development of a state water plan appears to be raising some lingering water issues. The Arkansas Basin Roundtable is sponsoring the meetings throughout the area in an effort to encourage more people to participate in a statewide water planning process.

Although the roundtable has met nearly every month since 2005, with ample opportunities to participate, there has been concern from the state Legislature that meetings have not been inclusive enough statewide. More than 20 non-members typically attend the Arkansas Basin Roundtable meetings.

In March, the roundtable redoubled its efforts to reach out, and already has held a dozen meetings, including the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum in April. At least six more meetings are planned, including one in Pueblo — no date or place have been set. Information can be found at the website, http://arkansasbasin.com.

Meetings so far have attracted anywhere from a handful to 60 people. The largest was at Primero during a snowstorm. Reactions have ranged from acceptance to resistance by some who believe the water plan will mean more regulations.

In Lamar, the biggest issue seemed to be the impact of a dam on Fountain Creek on downstream water rights, said Henry Schnabel, Prowers County commissioner. The dam is favored by some in Pueblo to contain increased flood flows caused by development in Colorado Springs. Farmers in the eastern part of the state fear that would change the timing of flows that reach the Arkansas River and reduce the amount of water they receive from Fountain Creek storms.

“A lot of times, we feel like we’re left out,” Schnabel said. “If you stop the water on Fountain Creek, we need to come up with a solution.”

Roundtable members were grateful for the turnout witnessed so far.

“It’s good to see the level of involvement, because we’ve reached out,” said Alan Hamel, former chairman of the roundtable and the basin’s representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Urban water conservation measures could be difficult to measure in the Arkansas River basin, where size and scope matter. The Arkansas Basin Roundtable confronted the issue Wednesday as it continues toward developing a basin implementation plan by July. The basin plan is part of a broader effort to develop a state water plan.

Most roundtable members resisted a preliminary approach by consultant Mark Shively that sought to create a “point system” that would identify best practices to save water.

The only part of the proposal that truly resonated was the statement: “One size does not fit all.”

“The conservation plan does not take into account things like our wise use campaign or economic forces within communities,” said Terry Book, executive director of the Pueblo Board of Water Works. “Demographics make a difference. I believe each community has the obligation to define good, better or best.”

Pueblo’s per capita water use has dropped as much as other Colorado communities with aggressive conservation campaigns since 2002. Some of that is because of the downturn in the economy, but a 2007 survey found customers’ habits have changed as well.

In Crowley County, the per capita use is higher because domestic water supplies overlap with water for horses or other livestock, said Rick Kidd, who represents the county on the roundtable.

Communities that already have lowered water use could be penalized under a point system, said Dave Taussig, who represents Lincoln County.

The danger of voluntary guidelines is that they could, over time, become mandatory, said Joe Kelley, superintendent of La Junta water.

“The first thing you know, everybody’s regulated,” Kelley said. “Then you have to spend money you don’t have to get money for grants.”