Water is different than other industrial raw materials, but how, and why? — John Fleck

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

Should we be planning for our economic future by including water, and its ebbs and flows, in the equation? Here’s report from John Fleck writing for inkStain. Here’s an excerpt:

Here’s my question: Why is the societal conversation about the ebbs and flows of one natural resource (water/drought) so different from the other at issue here (oil production)? In both cases you have communities dependent on the resource that rise and fall in response to its availability, and adjust to its presence or lack.

2014 Legislature was hip deep in water bills — Glenwood Springs Post Independent #COleg

Colorado Capitol building
Colorado Capitol building

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

The legislative session that just wrapped up featured more significant water bills than 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 bills introduced, 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 Gov. John Hickenlooper is being lobbied to veto some of the measures. Here’s a quick summary of some of the more high-profile bills that were considered and their fates.

Lawn limits: 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 unless lawns are limited to 15 percent or less of the total area of the residential lots. The bill was passed after being converted into a study of ways to limit municipal outdoor water use.

Agricultural savings to benefit streams: 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 lend 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 apply only to water that was not consumed under pre-efficiency practices, but rather lost in transit, and would be allowed only if it wouldn’t damage someone else’s water right.

Senate Bill 14-023 had a similar intent but ran into trouble in the 2013 session. 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 Hickenlooper, and rumors were swirling that he was being lobbied to veto it.

Phase out inefficient plumbing fixtures: 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 passed, but is still waiting for Hickenlooper’s signature. Opponents say the bill inappropriately calls for a “one-size-fits-all” approach to conservation, wouldn’t be effective and would limit consumer choice.

Flood Relief bills: These offered both money 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.

Flexible Water Markets: 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 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 acted on them at http://www.leg.state.co.us/.

Runoff news: Pretty much every river on the map is indeed stomping down the side of a mountain at the moment — Scott Willoughby

Arkansas River at Salida gage water  year 2014 year to date via the Division of Water Resources
Arkansas River at Salida gage water year 2014 year to date via the Division of Water Resources

From The Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):

The head shaking and head scratching and ice cream headaches will arrive soon enough as well. That tends to be the typical reaction, anyway, from those who have decided that whitewater rafting, kayaking and river swimming are not for them. Except for the ice cream headaches, that is. Those belong to the Eskimo rollers and, of course the swimmers.

For the record, no one in their right mind swims a cold Colorado creek or river on purpose during a Memorial Day weekend with conditions like this. Pretty much every river on the map is indeed stomping down the side of a mountain at the moment, and swims from rafts and kayaks are both unwelcome and unintended.

That’s where the head shaking comes in, as dismayed passersby stare at boaters riding rivers resembling fire hoses and wonder, “What in the Sam Hill is wrong with you people?”

It’s a loaded question. And the only way to answer it accurately is to encourage the askers to experience it for themselves.

Despite a tendency toward wild mountain weather, Memorial Day weekend serves as the kickoff to Colorado’s whitewater celebration season, as a string of river festivals make like Creedence Clearwater Revival and start rolling from now through the summer solstice.

They’re not just for card-carrying river rats. Events like the CKS PaddleFest, which continues in Buena Vista through Monday, offer on-water educational courses and pool sessions for budding kayakers taught by Rocky Mountain Outdoors Center. Clinics offer pointers for Stand-Up Paddlers (SUP) looking to transition from flat water to the rivers and introduce kids to both kayaking and SUP in the friendly confines of the Town Pond. They’ll even show you what to wear.

There’s invariably a competitive component as well, be it a freestyle kayak rodeo, downriver race or SUP surfing contest. Typically the action spills out into other adventure sports like mountain biking, rock climbing, trail running and maybe slack-lining too. Spectating is equally encouraged, and there’s always a live music soundtrack.

Here’s a general rundown of river festivals chooglin’ through the state in the coming weeks:

CKS Paddlefest, Buena Vista (Sunday-Monday): A family-friendly, hands-on paddling and adventure sports experience spread between the Arkansas River and the nearby Town Pond in McPhelemy Park. Info: http://ckspaddlefest.com or 719-395-8653.

Lyons Outdoor Games, Lyons (Saturday):Sports ranging from obstacle courses, BMX/MTB riding, slack line and, of course, kayaking. Info: http://Lyonsoutdoors.com.

Yampa River Fest, Steamboat Springs (Friday-Saturday): Slalom and downriver races, freestyle competition, SUP events, river dog contests, kids’ games and more. Info: http://Friendsoftheyampa.com.

GoPro Mountain Games, Vail (June 5-8): The nation’s largest celebration of adventure sports, art and music. Info: http://Mountaingames.com.

66th annual FIBArk Festival, Salida (June 12-15): The nation’s oldest whitewater festival may just be the top outdoor family festival in Colorado. Info: http://fibark.com.

Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival, Cañon City (June 20-21): Two days of kayak, raft and inner tube races, SUP sprints, fly-casting contests, triathlon, disc golf, live music, kids Fun Zone and more. Info: http://royalgorgewhitewaterfestival.com or 719-275-1578.

Gunnison River Festival, Gunnison (June 20-22): Boat tours of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, whitewater contests for all ages (and dogs), fly-fishing and art. Info: http://Gunnisonriverfestival.com.

More whitewater coverage here.

From email from Reclamation (Kara Lamb):

The large rain storm up in Estes Park tonight has created additional rain and snowmelt runoff into Lake Estes. As a result, we shut down the Adams Tunnel (the West Slope diversion for the C-BT) a day earlier than planned so we can take more Big Thompson River runoff water through the Olympus Tunnel . We are now diverting a full 550 cfs of Big Thompson River runoff over to Horsetooth Reservoir.

However, 550 cfs is the maximum capacity of the Olympus Tunnel, so we are sending the rest of the river’s runoff inflows on through Olympus Dam to the Big Thompson Canyon. This raised the outflow through the dam by 100 cfs.

Olympus Dam outflow to the canyon is now 300 cfs. Although the gage does not yet reflect the change from 200 to 300 cfs, you can track Oly’s outflow at the State’s gage webpage.

It is worth noting that other tributaries to the main stem of the Big Thompson River through the canyon have also gone up. The gage below where the North Fork enters the canyon has been up closer to 400 cfs tonight, meaning below the dam, but before the Narrows section, the canyon is picking up an additional 200 cfs–or there-about. This gage can also be tracked on the State’s webpage.

Draft plan for state’s water future released — Aspen Journalism #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver

From the Aspen Daily News (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The Colorado River Basin Roundtable has released its draft Basin Implementation Plan.

I know, I can hear you going “Yawn. What-ev-er.”

But, I can also hear you saying something today like, “Honey, the lawn looks a little brown, could you turn the sprinklers on and bring me some ice water before we go fishing? Oh, and remind me to pick up some local grass-fed beef for dinner.”

In other words, you may not care about water, but you probably should, given that your Colorado lifestyle largely depends on it.

But given that the plan laboriously prepared by consultants at SGM in Glenwood Springs for the Colorado roundtable includes 89 dense pages in an unwieldy 11-by-17 inch format, and that it takes a day to fully decipher and absorb, it’s hard to blame someone for not digging into it.

On the other hand, the plan could well be the key to whether your grandchildren, should they live in Colorado, have clean water to drink, healthy rivers to fish in or float on, and scenic working ranches to gaze upon.

As the plan notes, “water = tourism, recreation, sustainable ecosystem, agriculture and resource development.”

At a minimum, the draft “basin implementation plan,” or BIP, is full of compelling facts, figures, projections and projects. It also explores and explains broader themes and lists important projects in the Roaring Fork River watershed, including potential dams on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

On the defining-factoid front, consider that 80 percent of the water in Colorado originates on the Western Slope, while 80 percent of the state’s population lives east of the Continental Divide, mainly in cities on the Front Range.

This explains much of the underlying tension in the plan between shipping more water to the Front Range versus leaving it in rivers, or using it, on the Western Slope.

The Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park and it, or its tributaries, run through Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties on the river’s journey out of the state and onto Utah, Arizona, California and Mexico.

Before the river reaches Glenwood Springs, though, there are more than a dozen tunnels under the Continental Divide that take between 400,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Colorado River and its tributaries to cities and farms on Colorado’s Front Range.

An acre-foot of water, by the way, is equal to an acre of land covered by a foot of water. Ruedi Reservoir holds about 100,000 acre-feet. Paonia Reservoir holds about 15,000 acre-feet. The abbreviation “AFY” means acre-feet-per-year.

When people water their lawns in Denver or Colorado Springs, they are likely using water from the Fraser, Blue, Roaring Fork or Fryingpan rivers, all tributaries to the Colorado River.

Folks on the Western Slope are diverting plenty of water out of Western Slope rivers, too, mainly to grow hay.

Agriculture uses 85 percent of the water diverted from rivers in Colorado, and the most senior water rights are usually tied to ag land.

The Colorado River Basin has 268,000 acres of land under irrigation, or 8 percent of the irrigated land in Colorado, resulting in a consumptive use of 584,000 acre-feet-per-year of water.

So, in rough terms, of all the water diverted from rivers and streams in the Colorado River Basin, almost half goes to Front Range cities and farms and almost half goes to irrigate fields and crops in the basin.

Some of the water goes toward “municipal and industrial” uses, which includes residential use.

There are 54 water-providing utilities and organizations in the Colorado Basin.

In 2008, those providers delivered 68,480 acre-feet to houses, factories and ski areas.

That demand for “municipal and industrial” water is expected to double, or more, to between 129,940 to 179,440 AFY by 2050, according to the draft plan from the Colorado roundtable.

Local water, state water

While it may not be obvious, the development of a basin-wide and a state-wide water plan is indeed a local story, as the Roaring Fork River valley is in the thick of the debate over the future supply of water for the state’s growing population.

Water from the Roaring Fork River watershed, which includes the Fryingpan River, is diverted east each year to Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo through the Fryingpan-Arkansas and Twin Lakes projects.

“On average, 37 percent of the upper Roaring Fork watershed (40,600 AFY) and 41 percent of the upper Fryingpan watershed (61,500 AFY) is currently diverted annually to the Front Range,” the plan notes. “These are the 5th and 3rd largest transmountain diversions, respectively, in the state.”

These diversions mean that about 100,000 AFY of water does not flow each year down to the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers in Glenwood Springs as nature intended, but instead flows east, as water managers intend.

There are eight other river basins in Colorado, and the appointed roundtables in each basin, meeting under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, are also developing their own BIPs.

Each plan is supposed to inform the state of the needs and potential water projects in each basin, and the basin plans will be incorporated into a statewide Colorado Water Plan.

The roundtable in the South Platte River Basin on the Front Range, and another roundtable representing metro Denver, are both likely to mention in their plans that new supplies of Western Slope water — meaning more dams and reservoirs — must be developed to meet the water needs of the state’s growing population.

Colorado’s population is expected to grow from 5.1 million today to between 8.6 and 10 million by 2050, according to state estimates, with most of that growth happening on the Front Range.

But the population on the Western Slope and in the Colorado River Basin is also expected to grow significantly, especially along the Interstate 70 corridor. The population in the Colorado River Basin was 307,000 in 2008. It is expected to climb to 661,000 to 832,000 by 2050.

The state has estimated that by 2050 there could be a “gap” between water demand and water supply of some 500,000 acre-feet in the state. Many members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs, question the validity of the size of the gap.

Even without a big new water-supply project being developed, the plan from the Colorado roundtable points out that many other smaller projects already in the works will divert even more water from the Colorado Basin. Many existing diversions could take more water, and may do so in the future, in a process known as “firming up yields.”

“It is currently estimated that an additional 150,000 AFY will be diverted in the future as Front Range diverters firm up yields in the future,” the plan states. “These additional planned firming projects include: the Moffat Collection System Project, Windy Gap Firming, Eagle River memorandum of understanding, Future Dillon Reservoir diversions, firming in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Rivers, and Colorado Springs Utilities expanded diversions from the Upper Blue River.”

Both the Fry-Ark project and the Twin Lakes project own conditional water rights that could be developed in the future, meaning more water could be diverted from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan headwaters.

And yet, the Colorado Basin Roundtable’s plan is adamant that there is no more water to divert from the basin.

Tapped out?

“The Colorado Basin has played more of a role in solving Colorado’s water shortage than any other basin in the state,” the plan states. “These transmountain diversions have had a dramatic impact on the health of our ecosystems, economy and culture of the headwater counties of the Colorado Basin. The headwaters are tapped out.”

The plan, in another section, also plainly says that “there is no more additional water to support other basins into the future.”

The basin roundtable has also articulated a set of “Western Slope Principles,” chief among them is that “Colorado Water Plan solutions should originate first in the basin in which the problem exists.”

In other words, if the Front Range wants to keep growing, it has to find water in its own basin, not look to the Western Slope.

But throughout this planning process, Front Range interests have generally said it would not be a good idea to take any long-term options off the table.

The Colorado Basin plan also calls for the state of Colorado to remain neutral in the grand east-west fight over water.

“The state should act as a facilitator — not an advocate — in inter-basin conversations surrounding transmountain diversions,” the plan states.

The plan also makes a strong call for growth control in the Colorado Basin and the state.

“A strong link should be made between land use patterns and water use together in a meaningful and binding way,” the plan states. “Land use and growth should be directed within urban growth boundaries where water supply plans are currently in place. Land use planning across the basin should recognize the shortage and limits of water supply.”

It also notes, in an apparent dig at Front Range lawns, that “the land use policies of the future must recognize that preserving water for streams and rivers and maintaining agriculture is more important than watering outdoor landscapes.”

New reservoirs?

The Roundtable’s “basin implementation plan” clearly recognizes the need for new reservoirs to meet the needs of both agricultural and municipal needs, and it provides a list of potential new dams and reservoirs, albeit relatively small ones, across the sub-regions in the basin.

It also recognizes that building new reservoirs is going to be challenging, especially for municipal water utilities.

“Many of these water providers’ long term water supplies are based on conditional storage rights for on-stream reservoirs,” the plan states. “Today’s regulatory and permitting climate makes the construction of channel reservoirs virtually impossible.

“Even if they can be permitted as an off-channel reservoir, the expense for any one small utility is cost prohibitive,” the plan states. “Therefore many utilities are discontinuing the diligence filings on these on-channel reservoirs.”

The city of Aspen’s water utility, however, is not walking away from its conditional water rights for dams and reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

In fact, the city has been advocating for the two potential dams and reservoirs to be included in the basin’s draft plans and it has stated in the past it intends to keep the option open to build the reservoirs.

The dams on Castle and Maroon creeks are indeed mentioned in the draft basin plan, which was released by SGM on May 16.

The dams are listed in regional tables that SGM describes as “examples of projects that each region identified from the full list as being a top candidate for the Colorado Basin Roundtable.”

The table for the Roaring Fork region is on page 71 of the plan.

Under the column entitled “themes and supporting vulnerabilities,” it lists “Storage for supply assurance during low flow periods” under the subhead of “Secure Safe Drinking Water.”

The next column over is called “methods,” and here the plan recommends that the city should “investigate the development of storage reservoirs in both Maroon and Castle creeks if no better alternative is discovered.”

And under the column heading of “Projects,” it recommends the city “continue due diligence for the preservation of the 1972 storage rights on Maroon and Castle creeks by giving true consideration to all other potential options.”

Aspen is required in 2015 to file a diligence report with the state showing it is making progress toward building the dams and reservoirs.

While the statements in the draft basin plan would seem to give support for the idea of building a dam within view of the Maroon Bells, the plan also throws plenty of cold water on the idea of new dams in the high country to meet municipal needs.

“Water providers in the upper reaches of the basin are dependent upon direct flow stream intakes and are susceptible to extended drought periods,” the plan notes about water utilities in the Roaring Fork River watershed.

“Because the watersheds above these intakes are primarily located on U.S. Forest Service lands and because of the strong environmental ethics present, the likelihood of construction of reservoirs above intakes is small.

“These water providers should seek redundancy through other means including: enlargement of existing reservoirs, interconnects between regional water providers, development of well supplies and reliance upon multiple stream water supplies,” the plan states.

While the Castle and Maroon creek dams are mentioned in the section of the report that focuses on the Roaring Fork watershed, the primary emphasis in that section is about the lack of water in certain sections of local rivers.

“The primary need of the Roaring Fork watershed is to protect, maintain, and restore healthy rivers and streams,” the plan states. “Almost 140 of 185 miles of streams surveyed in the Roaring Fork watershed have moderately modified to severely degraded riparian habitat.”

The plan further notes that “there are three critical reaches of main streams that have been targeted for restoration 1) the Roaring Fork River below the Salvation Ditch through the city of Aspen; 2) the Roaring Fork River upstream of the confluence of the Fryingpan River, and 3) the Crystal River upstream from Carbondale.

“These three main reaches do not include all the smaller tributaries in the upper Fryingpan and the upper Roaring Fork that have been dried up due to transmountain diversions,” the plan states.

The plan then lists many water projects, some physical and some policy oriented, for the Roaring Fork basin and the five other sub-basins in the Colorado Basin.

The next step for the BIP is for the members of the Roundtable to review it at meetings in June. Then the draft is to be sent in July to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for its review.

In the meantime, if you want to dig deeper into your water future, go to SGM’s website at http://coloradobip.sgm-inc.com/ and look for the plan under the “Resources” tab.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Water Information Program: Colorado water history, law and infrastructure

Smith Ditch Washington Park, Denver
Smith Ditch Washington Park, Denver

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Denise Rue-Pastin):

The history of the Colorado River mirrors the history of the American West. Competing water uses from the Colorado River system have defined Colorado history for more than 100 years. As people around the state discuss how to manage water resources into the future, it is instructive to look back at the formation of the practices that govern allocation of the state’s water. This overview is provided by the Durango-based Water Information Program, on the Web at http://www.waterinfo.org.


The legal right to divert and use water in Colorado has been deliberated and defined from before the time of statehood in 1876. As stated in the state Constitution, “Prior appropriation shall give the better right as between those using the water for the same purpose …” This is the basis for the first in use, first in right doctrine of water appropriation, which is one of the legal foundations upon which water is managed in Colorado.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) oversees water issues in the State of Colorado, and the Colorado Division of Water Resources administers water allocation in accordance with court decrees and state legislation. The State Engineer’s office has maintained meticulous records on water usage, diversions and streamflows for many years. Two-hundred professional staff members work together to administer Colorado’s water according to the doctrine of prior appropriation, state law, water court decrees and interstate compacts.


Colorado has the enviable position in the West as being a water-producing state, with numerous mountain ranges capturing the winter snows that feed our streams and rivers. The seasonal nature of streamflows is not consistent with the demand by Colorado citizens for domestic, agriculture and industry uses. Nearly two-thirds of the annual water flow occurs during the late spring/early summer runoff. During the winter months of December, January and February only 3 percent of annual flows occur.

Colorado reservoirs store the spring runoff from mountain snowpack for use in the late summer and low-flow winter months. This “reserved” water is stored for use throughout the year by downstream users. In addition, water storage units along the Colorado River system provide flood control, recreational sports, excellent fishing and hydro-electric power.


Water leaving Colorado on an annual basis exceeds 10 million acre feet. The Colorado River west of Grand Junction provides nearly 5 million acre feet of that amount for downstream users. The Colorado River Compact is the ruling document that was established after long negotiations between the seven states along the Colorado River in 1922.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the waters of the Colorado River would be governed according to the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, the Upper Basin states (Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado) became concerned that the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) would be at an unfair advantage if this doctrine was applied across state lines due to the Lower Basin’s more rapid development of water resources.

As a result of complex negotiations between the states in a forum called the Colorado River Commission, the elements of the famous Colorado River Compact were forged between the seven states along the Colorado River system. Under this compact, the Upper Basin states are required to allow an average of 7.5 million acre-feet per year flow downstream from Lake Powell to the Lower Basin States — theoretically splitting the rights to the river’s total flow in half, although in recent decades the total yield of the river has typically been considerably lower than the amount assumed by compact.

Although the Colorado River Compact formed the basis for the “Law of the River,” much debate and deliberation was to follow the historic 1922 treaty. For example, Wyoming challenged Colorado’s right to divert headwaters streamflow from the west to east slope of Colorado.

In 1944, a treaty was signed with Mexico providing our neighbor to the south with 1.5 million acre feet annually from the Colorado River system. In 1948, the Upper Basin States agreed to a percentage appropriation of their share of the waters of the Colorado River System. Colorado’s share was set at 51.75 percent.


In 1902, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) was created. Ever since, the USBR has been coordinating the planning, construction and implementation of numerous water diversion and storage projects in the western United States. Irrigation projects throughout the West are based on contracts between the water users and the USBR. Hydro-electric power revenues are used to offset some of the costs of irrigation projects and repayment contracts. The USBR manages existing water reservoirs in the Colorado River System that were constructed with federal financing.

Present and future generations will continue to wrestle with the issues of how to allocate the Colorado River between competing demands. Indian water rights, endangered species, water quality, interstate conflicts and environmental legislation are among the factors that must be considered. Over the past 100 years, the history of water in Colorado has helped shape the “Law of the River” throughout the Basin and our state. How we manage, conserve, store and distribute water will remain one of Colorado’s most pressing policy challenges, with implications beyond our borders.