Business in Colorado? Just add water. #COWaterPlan

From the Public News Service (Stephanie Carroll Carson):

If the Colorado economy were a glass, water makes the glass half full. That was the message heard on Wednesday by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Pueblo. Business leaders across the state spoke on behalf of the state’s water plan and its importance to business development.

John Le Coq, co-founder and co-owner of the Denver-based companies Fishpond and Lilypond, said water has everything to do with his business plan.

“I see it as more of an economic driver that’s pulling people to the state because of the playground we have in our backyard,” he said. “It’s bringing quality people. ”

Le Coq delivered a letter on Wednesday to the Water Conservation Board signed by more than 100 Colorado companies that share his opinion. They want to make sure the state and the governor prioritize Colorado’s rivers and streams because of their economic benefits.

According to the business coalition, Protect the Flows, the Colorado River supports $26 billion in recreation and 240,000 jobs in six states.

Craig Mackey, Protect the Flow’s co-director, said with the state’s population projected to double by 2050, Colorado should commit to reducing municipal water usage by 35 percent in that time period.

“If we want to have a healthy, diverse economy in the state of Colorado, we need to make sure that we have ample, healthy, natural resources, including water and rivers,” he stressed.

Mackey said because more than 80 percent of water diverted from area rivers goes to farms and ranches, an investment in agricultural infrastructure is key.

“We certainly don’t want to see our farms dry up and go away,” he explained. “We certainly don’t want to see that part of the ranching and farming tradition of Colorado dry up and blow away, and we need that part of our economy.”

Maximizing water storage systems is also seen as important to protect water supplies when record snowfall – as seen this season – creates an excess of the precious resource.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Drought news: Who generates all the cool state by state drought maps? #COdrought

Click on a thumbnail graphic for a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor. Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Summary

This US Drought Monitor week was dominated by a weather system that moved across the Southern Plains and Midwest and through the South and Mid-Atlantic. The system brought damaging wind and hail throughout the impacted area and tornadoes in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Widespread areas of three to four inches of precipitation fell while areas of eastern Texas received over seven inches…

The Plains

Locally heavy rain came to the South early in the Drought Monitor week. Areas of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas benefitted. Areas of Abnormal Dryness (D0) were removed from southern and eastern Texas, northern Louisiana into southern Arkansas, and northern Arkansas into southern Missouri. Mounting deficits saw degradation of drought conditions in western and central Texas. Areas of Exceptional Drought (D4) expanded in central Texas where lake and stream levels are exceptionally low, water supplies are dwindling, and water restrictions are the norm. With some places going months without appreciable precipitation, degradation was in line in most locations in Oklahoma, with the exception of the extreme southeast part of the state. Areas of Exceptional (D4), Extreme (D3), Severe (D2), and Moderate Drought (D1) and Abnormal Dryness (D0) expanded eastward this week in Oklahoma…

The West

Conditions remain very dry across the West as much of the West moves into its dry season. Areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded in western and eastern New Mexico, as did Exceptional Drought (D4) in eastern New Mexico as precipitation deficits mount. The state overall experienced its seventh driest Year-to-Date (January to April) and 12th driest Water Year (October 2013 – April 2014) on record. The rest of the West remained unchanged.

Wildfires remain a problem in parts of the West. According to the US Forest Service, the current large incidents are all in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The fires around San Diego, CA resulted in at least one death, approximately 125,000 evacuees, and millions of dollars in property damage. So far this year nationwide, there have been 22,863 fires that have burned 471,875 acres which is below the 10-year average (2004 – 2014 average, year to date, is 27,895 fires and 1,053,217 acres according to the National Interagency Fire Center)…

Looking Ahead

During the May 21-26, 2014 time period, precipitation is expected across the Plains, from South Dakota to northern Texas, and into eastern Colorado and Wyoming. Additional precipitation is expected around the Great Lakes and into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Precipitation is estimated to approach two inches in select locations during this time period. At the same time, below normal temperatures are expected in the Southwest, east of the Rockies and into the Southern Plains. Above normal temperatures are expected along the West Coast, through the Central US, and into the Southeast.

For the ensuing 5 days (May 27-31, 2014), the odds favor normal to above-normal temperatures across the entire contiguous US and southern Alaska, with the exception of the western Gulf Coast. Below-normal temperatures are favored in northern Alaska and along the aforementioned area around the Gulf of Mexico. Above-normal precipitation is likely across the Eastern half of the US and in the far Northern Plains and northern Alaska. Below-normal precipitation is expected in the Southern Plains, the Pacific Northwest, as well as in southern Alaska.

So, who generates the cool maps in the gallery above? Here’s a report from Brett Walton writing for Circle of Blue. Here’s an excerpt:

A record-setting drought grips the United States, and the foremost tool for measuring its severity is the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly national assessment of moisture levels written by 10 federal and academic scientists. Led by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the Monitor is a collaboration that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and experts around the country. The Monitor’s slowly shifting galaxy of red and orange warning splashes is regularly cited on the Weather Channel and in Corn Belt newspapers. Federal agencies use it to make disaster determinations.

The latest Drought Monitor, released on July 19, revealed that drought has been declared for 63 percent of the contiguous U.S., a larger area of the country affected by pervasively dry weather than any time since 1956. All of this means that Mark Svoboda — a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, and one of the writers of the Drought Monitor — is a busy man.

“This is my fifteenth interview today,” he told Circle of Blue near the end of office hours on a mid-July afternoon…

“No one person could do this job,” Svoboda said with a laugh. “I’d give them a month on it before they’d lose their sanity.”

Writing the Monitor, which publishes every Thursday, is demanding extracurricular work, requiring its authors to consider oodles of data, attend conference calls, and be the arbiter of classification disputes. That is why scientists from the three collaborating agencies take a two-week rotation at the helm.

When he is in charge, Svoboda looks at 50 to 75 data sets — data on streamflow, reservoir levels, soil moisture, precipitation, and vegetation — before submitting a first draft on Monday. The draft is circulated through a protected email list-serve comprising more than 350 experts from around the country.

List members are “our eyes and ears on the ground,” Svoboda said, and they will bandy recommendations and offer first-hand observations.

“The local people bring a lot more to the table than me trying to cover 50 states in two days,” said Svoboda, who will post revisions on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, each iteration going through another round of criticism.

When the Drought Monitor began in 1999, it was rather rudimentary, an experimental product that was suddenly and unexpectedly expedited. You see, a drought that summer hung over the nation’s capital, said Svoboda, and policymakers, seeing the effects themselves, wanted better information quickly.

“At first, we were thinking this would be a quarterly or monthly thing,” said Svoboda, who has been on the writing team since the beginning. “But then the drought hit the Northeast and Washington, D.C., and NOAA administrators said ‘You’ll do this weekly, starting in six weeks.’”[…]

Understanding the scale is essential to understanding the Drought Monitor. The categories are based on the question ‘How rare is this event?’ Moderate drought, a D1, means that conditions happen on average once every five to 10 years. At the top end, a D4 ranges from a once-in-50-years event to a record-setting drought.

The designations refer to local conditions. So, a D2 in Georgia and a D2 in Arizona do not mean that the hydrology is similar; rather, it means that the current conditions in each state are occurring there with the same historical frequency.

Because the Monitor pulls in data from multiple indices, in addition to gleaning in-person observations, assigning a drought classification is never as simple as just looking at the numbers. The National Drought Mitigation Center says that the Monitor is a blend of art and science — that was certainly on display during one of the regional climate discussions that Circle of Blue sat in on earlier this week…

On Tuesday morning, 26 people dialed into the weekly drought assessment conference call for the Upper Colorado River Basin (which ended up covering the entire state of Colorado). The author of this week’s Drought Monitor, Richard Heim of the National Climatic Data Center, was on the line and the half-hour discussion would inform his report.

After various experts presented recent data on precipitation, streamflow, soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and reservoir levels, the debate centered on two points: whether to expand an area of D4 in southeastern Colorado and whether to downgrade a D4 zone in the Yampa River Basin.

“We’ve had several ranches near Pueblo that liquidated their herds in the last week,” said Chuck Hanagan, describing what he saw in Otero and Crowley counties. Hanagan works for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in southeastern Colorado.

“Our grass is dormant,” Hanagan said later in the day during an interview with Circle of Blue. “It is not growing. We got a couple inches of rain last week, but you can’t even tell. The cattle should be grazing right now, but ranchers are already using hay.”

Hanagan said the value of the Drought Monitor comes from these interactions that allow the instrumental data to be validated and augmented by people working in the field. It gives the scientific observation a “ground-truth,” as he put it…

When the discussion moved to the Yampa, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Pueblo, Colorado, said that he would like to see the D4 dropped down to a D3. Some rain had fallen recently, and he did not believe D4 was warranted. Other observers, however, said the situation was so tenuous that if more rain did not come in the next week, circumstances would flip again.

In the end, the group recommended the status quo, though this week’s Drought Monitor author had the final say. “We’ll leave it up to Richard Heim,” said the call moderator, “But we’re leaning toward waiting a week and seeing if those rains come.” For southeastern Colorado, the group recommended a slight expansion of the D4 area…

These kinds of debates may seem trivial, like baseball scorekeepers arguing a hit versus an error, but the designations do matter — for drought scientists and regular Joes, alike.

Just last week the USDA revised its disaster declaration process. Any U.S. county in a D2 drought for more than eight consecutive weeks is declared a primary disaster area, which makes farmers eligible for low-interest loans. As soon as a county gets a D3 drought label, it is immediately declared a disaster area. The department also makes it easier for areas in D2 or D3 to get a waiver for developing farmland placed in a conservation reserve.

Weld ag industry pleased with EPA outreach, but still questioning proposed water rules — The Greeley Tribune

longspeak

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

Weld County farmers and ranchers appreciated federal officials traveling here recently to explain portions of rules proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers in March. However, they say, there are still questions and concerns, and some will likely push for an extension of the July 21 deadline to comment on the complex proposal. Ag organizations across the country have been taking seriously the “Waters of the U.S.” rule.

The purpose of the rule, EPA officials say, is to clarify protection under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands, since determining Clean Water Act protection became confusing and complex following Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006. For years, members of Congress, state and local officials, agricultural and environmental groups and the public asked for a rulemaking to provide clarity.

But some who requested such clarification — particularly the ag industry — aren’t satisfied now, and instead see the rule as a possible expansion of the federal government’s reach.

EPA officials recently toured Greeley-area ag operations and others around the state, holding meetings with local producers and representatives of ag organizations. There, they stressed all of the exemptions provided to the ag industry now in the EPA’s rules still would be in place under the new rules, along with emphasizing other points.

But local producers, and others, say they’re still concerned about “unintended consequences,” largely because Colorado’s state water laws are so much different and much more complex than those of other states, and the EPA’s rules might conflict with them, or continue leaving questions for farmers trying to comply, when doing things such as building fences or using pesticides to control bugs and weeds along “Waters of the U.S.”

“We just have a totally different way of doing things here, but the EPA tries making one-size-fits-all rules for farmers across the country,” said Dave Eckhardt, a LaSalle-area farmer, whose farm was toured by EPA officials last week. “I’m just not sure it can work that way.”

A very basic difference, for example, is that many farmers on Colorado’s Front Range and plains, because of the limited precipitation, divert water onto their fields for irrigation, while farmers in other areas — like the Midwest, which sees much more precipitation — set up their fields to divert excess water off of them.

“We’re all so different,” Eckhardt said.

Under the new rules, certain irrigation ditches that carry water to “Waters of the U.S.” actually would become “Waters of the U.S.” — that includes two ditches Eckhardt and his family use, he said, along with many other ditches in Colorado. Eckhardt said those irrigation ditches that would become “Waters of the U.S.,” on paper, still shouldn’t be impacted because of the current ag exemptions that are expected to stay in place.

“But you can’t help but wonder what issues might pop up due to these other changes,” he said. “Or what might happen down the road as agriculture changes.

“We’ve been burned more than once on this. Farming is complex, and every operation is different. I’m afraid we’ll end up doing what we’ve been doing already — constantly checking with the Corp (of Engineers) to make sure we’re not violating anything.”

Colorado also has unique augmentation requirements. For someone to legally pump water out of the ground in Colorado, most wells must have an approved augmentation plan to make up for depletions to the aquifer. The pumping of that groundwater draws down flows in nearby rivers and streams — surface supplies owned and used by senior water rights holders. A common augmentation method is building recharge ponds, which allow water to seep into the ground over time to replace groundwater depletions. Some, like Colorado Farm Bureau Vice President Brent Boydston, questioned how recharge ponds would fit into the rules, but said after the meeting he didn’t get the explanation he was looking for.

“It seemed like they just kept telling us to include it in our comments,” Boydston said. “They couldn’t explain a lot of this to us.”

John Stulp, who serves as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special adviser on water, said during a recent meeting in Greeley that the state might push for an extension to comment on the rule.

EPA officials there said Colorado wouldn’t be the first to make that request.

Still, many who took part in the conversations in Greeley said they think the waters have calmed some, thanks to the EPA’s recent outreach efforts.

“I’m very confident now in that the more aggressive criticism of the rule was not well-founded,” said Mark Sponsler, executive director and CEO with the Colorado Corn Growers. “This isn’t at all an effort by the EPA to regulate every drop of water that hits the Earth.”

Meanwhile, others still have their concerns.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is pushing its “Ditch the Rule” campaign.

Additionally, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., earlier this month joined 45 members of the Senate and Congressional Western Caucuses in sending a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, calling on the EPA to put a stop to the rule proposal that “will radically expand federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act.”

“During an exchange I had with Administrator McCarthy … she testified that she was not familiar with Colorado water law as compared with other states’ water laws,” Gardner said. “It is appalling that the EPA is pushing out rules to control Colorado’s water without taking into account previous state actions.”

More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.

Cottonwood & willow seedlings have sprouted up along the #ColoradoRiver in the Delta

Colorado Water Trust: 6th Annual River Bank, June 3

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

From email from the Colorado Water Trust:

Guess what’s just around the bend… RiverBank! We’re thrilled to host our 6th annual RiverBank celebration on Tuesday, June 3, from 5:30 – 8:30pm at the McNichols Civic Center Building in Denver. We hope you’ll join us for good company, a silent auction, appetizers, and an open (beer & wine) bar. Please visit our website for additional information.

Solving the supply gap problem #COWaterPlan

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (James Hagadorn):

There is cause for concern because Colorado is growing. A lot. Which means more baths, more grass and more thirsty crops. Yet the Rockies’ runoff-capturing system is nearly all claimed. In some years there is some water left untapped in the system, but in drought years there isn’t enough.

Sometimes heavy floods help the system catch up by filling reservoirs that buffer demand. But multiple dry years or less-than-average snowpack years, coupled with steady population growth, means that the system is at its tipping point.

The days of prospecting for more Rocky Mountain water are essentially over. Thus, viable solutions include improving efficiency or “buy and dry” – a strategy employed by cities such as Aurora where water is taken from farmland and used to slake suburbs.

Within our water distribution system, there are minor efficiencies to be gained, including reducing evaporative water losses in canals and reservoirs and fixing leaking pipelines and tunnels. But these losses are not sizeable enough to satisfy future demand.

Fortunately, there are opportunities to improve our individual water usage efficiency. This is illustrated by the great variation in the amount of water used by like-kind Coloradans. For example, over the course of a year, Colorado Springs residents use about 100 gallons/day, whereas Denverites use about 85 and Fort Lovely residents use about 130. Yet in the same cities, there are folks with similar homes and lifestyles who use much less water.

Pumping, cleaning and maintaining water consumes lots of energy. And this costs money. To put things into perspective, our family uses between 4,000 gallons per month in the winter and 11,000 gallons per month in the summer. We pay as little as $2.58 per 1,000 gallons. In contrast, Colorado Springs and other Front Range communities pay more – $4 to $5 per 1,000 gallons. It could be worse, though. Los Angeles residents, who divert mountain and agricultural water just like we do, pay $6.31 per 1,000 gallons.

So as we look to the future, perhaps we ought to think about water in the context of energy and with an eye toward balancing economic and population growth with needs for water for farming, forests, wildlife, recreation and tourism.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Boulder County: It will take years for some farmers to recover from the September #COflood

St. Vrain River floodplain November 2013 via the Longmont Times-Call
St. Vrain River floodplain November 2013 via the Longmont Times-Call

From 9News (Eric Egan):

Farming is still a foundation, a livelihood for people in Colorado. But that foundation was stripped and broken down after the floods.

“We lost about 65 percent of the ground,” Longmont farmer Jim Roberts said.

When the water receded, lush soil had nearly turned to sand. Roberts, working the land since 1994, has had maybe his worst eight months as a farmer.

“Most of those are just gravel bars. I doubt there will be any grass or feed for livestock,” he said.

Roberts’ farm was the first stop of a farm and flood tour held by Boulder County Parks and Open Space. He took questions from the tour group at the bed of his pick-up, alongside Boulder Creek. The spot was underwater last fall.

From the Longmont Times-Call (Scott Rochat):

A thundering wall of water shoots from the outlet for 50, 75, 100 feet, a current designed to take the “kick” out of the water leaving Button Rock Reservoir, dissipating its energy in a nearby pool. This is what 225 cubic feet per second looks like.

“We will be doubling this over the next two weeks,” said Dale Rademacher, Longmont’s public works director, over the roar. “We hope that’s all we need to do.”

If it’s not — well, the outlet can take it. Almost four times over. And that was part of the larger message Wednesday during a city-led tour of the off-limits Button Rock Preserve: the St. Vrain is ready.

“It’ll take the runoff,” said Ken Huson, Longmont’s water resources administrator.

The next week or two may put that to the test. Levels in the St. Vrain have been rising as a delayed snowmelt hits the creek. Near Lyons, the river lingered on either side of 450 cfs for much of the day— the “warning” level is 1,250, with capacity at 2,500 — with the possibility of thunderstorms every day through Sunday to add still more.

But in the Button Rock area, two facts grab the attention. The first is how clear the St. Vrain’s water is, free of the chocolate murkiness that would indicate choking debris. The second is the number of places where the water isn’t — the stream-molded boulders where a channel used to be, or the receded banks of Ralph Price Reservoir, lowered by city workers to clear flood-swept trees from the lake.

That reservoir now holds 12,000 acre-feet of water. When full, it can carry 16,000. On first arriving on its shore, three large piles of wood can be seen, last remnants of the logjam that once plugged the inlet. Some wood remains, Huson and Rademacher said, but not enough to interfere with runoff.

That doesn’t mean the river is perfectly safe, especially as more water comes into the channel.

“Stay back away from the streambed itself,” Huson urged, noting that parts of the banks may be less stable than before and break away without warning. “You just don’t know how the streambed is going to react to the increased stream flow. And you don’t know what might be coming down the stream.”

The flow of money has been just about as uncertain. City officials have estimated the total cost of flood-related work at $152 million. So far, Rademacher said, Longmont has about $11.5 million in projects deemed eligible for aid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About $7.5 million has been spent by the city. But of the FEMA-approved money, only about $250,000 has been released by the state.

In March, the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management hired Deloitte, one of the “Big Four” accounting and audit firms, to help break the bottleneck. City Manager Harold Dominguez said Deloitte has now set up an electronic system for reimbursements and that Longmont has turned in a number of submittals.

“They said we should see something in 30 days,” Dominguez said. That clock started about two and a half weeks ago.

“We’re thinking Christmas in June,” Rademacher joked.

The city has also become part of a FEMA pilot program introduced during Hurricane Sandy. Normally, the city would lay out a project, and get money that could be used only for those expenses. Under the “alternate procedures” program, some of that money can be reassigned for other flood needs by city officials.

The tradeoff? It’s a one-time payout.

For example, it’s currently estimated that removing granular debris from Ralph Price Reservoir will cost $4.5 million. FEMA can reimburse up to 75 percent of an eligible expense, which in this case, would be $3.375 million. If the city applied for that amount through traditional channels, it could only be spent on that debris — but if the estimates were off and the cost came in higher, FEMA could reimburse more.

By contrast, if the project were submitted under the pilot program, Longmont could get that $3.375 million and spend some of it on other flood-related needs. But that price estimate is final; if Ralph Price’s cleanup proved more costly, tough; it can’t be resubmitted.