Grand Mesa mudslide before and after photos

Grand Mesa mudslide before and after via The Denver Post
Grand Mesa mudslide before and after via The Denver Post

It’s O-fish-al, Federal Dams Ramp up River Flows to Benefit Endangered Fish on the Gunnison River — WRA

Aspinall Unit
Aspinall Unit

From Western Resource Advocates (Bart Miller):

It was a snowy year in the upper Gunnison River basin. With high temperatures this week, snowmelt is accelerating fast. The roar of the river is back. Thanks to a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation two years ago, river flows now help improve the health of the Gunnison River.

Late last week, spring flows began to ramp up as did releases below reservoirs at the Aspinall Unit, in an attempt to meet target flows that will benefit endangered fish species in the lower Gunnison river. Western Resource Advocates supported the federal decision in 2012 that changed reservoir operations at the Aspinall Unit to increase river flows, and is excited to see the benefits that will result.

”The Bureau of Reclamation is doing a great job under the new reservoir operations plan,” said Bart Miller, Water Program Director at Western Resource Advocates. “This year is a real test of the Bureau’s ability to make good on their commitment to get the river back into balance. So far, they’re passing the test with flying colors.”

The Bureau projects that, on June 2, 2014, flows through Black Canyon will be around 9,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). This will serve key functions like maintaining the river channel in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In the lower Gunnison River, near its confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction, flows may reach as high as 14,000 cfs, a target developed by scientists to benefit federally endangered fish.

As WRA posted on a blog last week: “Colorado now has a water-based recreation industry that—on the West Slope alone—is responsible for 80,000 jobs and over $9 billion in revenue each year. We have deeper knowledge of how essential water is for native fish and wildlife species, national parks, and other irreplaceable treasures. We want to continue to provide for resilient and profitable agriculture and communities, but not at the expense of recreation, tourism, and the environment.”

“Improving flows in the Gunnison is emblematic of what should be done in the Colorado Water

Plan and through each river basin’s own water planning: re-assess how we meet the needs of Colorado residents while protecting the environment and a growing river-based recreation economy,” says Drew Beckwith, Water Policy Manager at Western Resource Advocates.

More endangered/threatened species coverage here.

Today is the anniversary of the last concrete pour at Boulder (Hoover) Dam #ColoradoRiver

#COdrought news

Click on a thumbnail graphic for a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor

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


This US Drought Monitor week was dominated by a weather system that moved across the Rockies, into the Southern Plains and Midwest and through the South and Mid-Atlantic. The system brought damaging wind, hail, and tornadoes. On May 21, a widespread area of Colorado was impacted by an associated supercell thunderstorm which spawned multiple tornadoes and dumped golf ball-sized hail on Colorado Springs. This storm continued eastward dumping much needed precipitation in the Southern Plains through the end of the Drought Monitor week…

The Plains

Locally heavy rain came to the Southern Plains during the Drought Monitor week. Areas from New Mexico and Texas up into western Nebraska benefitted. Texas experienced widespread improvements in Exceptional (D4), Extreme (D3), and Severe (D2) Drought largely throughout the central part of the state and the Panhandle. Moderate Drought (D1) and Abnormal Dryness (D0) also decreased, mainly in the eastern part of the state. Oklahoma likewise experienced an improvement mostly in Exceptional (D4) and Extreme (D3) Drought throughout the center of the state. Conversely, limited improvement in drought conditions in western Nebraska was more than offset by degradation of Extreme (D3), Severe (D2), and Moderate Drought (D1) and Abnormal Dryness (D0) in the central and eastern part of the state…

The West

Little precipitation fell west of the Rockies this week. Conditions remain very dry. Areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded slightly in western New Mexico, while precipitation in eastern New Mexico alleviated small areas of Exceptional (D4), Extreme (D3), and Severe (D2) Drought there. Northeast Colorado experienced an improvement in Moderate Drought (D1). Statewide, California, at 75%, and New Mexico, at 72%, lead the nation in percent of pasture and rangeland in Poor or Very Poor conditions. 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 Alaska. So far this year nationwide, there have been 23,339 fires that have burned 710,011 acres which is below the 10-year average (2004 – 2014 average, year to date, is 28,631 fires and 1,139,433 acres according to the National Interagency Fire Center)…

Looking Ahead
During the May 28-June 2, 2014 time period, precipitation is expected across the Northern and Central Plains and into the Southeast. At the same time, below normal temperatures are expected along the Mid-Atlantic Coast and in the states along the western Gulf of Mexico. Above normal temperatures are expected in the center of the country and along the West Coast.

For the ensuing 5 days (June 3-7, 2014), the odds favor normal to above-normal temperatures across the entire contiguous U.S. and southern Alaska, with the exception of the western Gulf of Mexico Coast. Below-normal temperatures are favored in northern Alaska and along the aforementioned area around the Gulf of Mexico. Above-normal precipitation is likely from the Central and Northern Plains, through the Midwest and into the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Below-normal precipitation is expected from the Southern Plains through most of the West. Alaska is likely to see above-normal precipitation to the north and below-normal precipitation in the south.

Meanwhile, below is the Seasonal Drought Outlook map from the Climate Prediction Center.


Runoff/snowpack news: Reclamation plans releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir for endangered fish #ColoradoRiver

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Lisa Iams/Heather Patno):

Above average snowpack in the upper Green River Basin will enable Reclamation to increase the overall duration of the planned temporary increase in releases from Flaming Gorge Dam to benefit endangered razorback sucker in the Green River below the dam.
Scientists have detected the presence of larval razorback sucker in critical nursery habitat in the flood plains in the Green River which is the ‘trigger’ for increasing releases from Flaming Gorge Dam. Beginning Monday, June 2, 2014, flows will increase to powerplant capacity 4,600 cubic-feet-per-second for approximately 14 days or until the flows in the Yampa River decrease to between 12,000-13,000 cfs. Bypass releases from the dam will then be initiated to support a total downstream release of 8,600 cfs for another 14 days to maintain the desired total flow in the river of 18,600 cfs at target locations.

Flows from Flaming Gorge Dam have been temporarily increased during the spring since 2011 as part of a multi-year cooperative experimental program to benefit the endangered razorback sucker. Flaming Gorge Reservoir is expected to receive 135 percent of average inflow volume this year supporting a longer increased release period.

Scientists have been monitoring the critical habitat to detect the first emergence of razorback sucker larvae as a ‘trigger’ for an experiment being implemented by Reclamation in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. A major purpose of the experiment is to transport as many larval fish as possible into critical nursery habitat which exists in the floodplains along the Green River downstream of the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers. This nursery habitat connects to the river at flows at or above 18,600 cfs, which is the targeted flow this year with the above average hydrology. The increased releases from the dam combined with the Yampa River flows will provide the maximum possible flow to transport the larval fish.

Current projections are for the Yampa River to reach at least 16,400 cfs this Friday, May 30, and for flows to remain elevated between 15,000 to 16,000 cfs through June 5. The projected peak at Jensen, Utah, resulting from the combined flows of the Yampa River and Flaming Gorge releases is approximately 20,000 to 22,000 cfs.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has been consulted concerning the impacts of the releases to the rainbow trout fishery below the dam. While releases during this period will make fishing the river more difficult, no adverse impacts to the fishery are expected.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Cooler temperatures in May and recent storms have prolonged snowpack in the Rockies, but spring runoff has begun in earnest. Arkansas River levels were consistently above average for the last week, as warmer days and some showers over the weekend contributed to the flows.

“We saw the snow melt and start to run early, but then there was a cooling spell,” said Roy Vaughan, Fryingpan-Arkansas Project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. “Now, we’re looking at everything running later.”

The Fry-Ark Project already has brought 12,000 acre-feet (3.9 billion gallons) through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Reservoir. It’s expected to bring in a total of 60,000 acre-feet over the next few weeks.

“We’ve reached the peaks at the Boustead Tunnel, and we’re meeting all the minimum flow requirements (for the Fryingpan River),” Vaughan said.

In order to move water across the Continental Divide, stream flows have to be supported on the Western Slope. With the delayed snowmelt, there is about twice as much water as usual tied up in the snowpack for this time of year.

Statewide, snowpack was at 189 percent of median Tuesday, with the South Platte at 265 percent. Snow is heavier in the northern part of the state, while lagging in the south.

For the Arkansas River basin, that works out to 131 percent of median, but only because snowpack is so heavy near the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

In the Rio Grande basin, snowpack is at 32 percent.

It was never great this year, and now mostly has melted.

Flows in the Upper Arkansas River increased by 2 feet in the last week, with flows at 2,500 cubic feet per second as of Tuesday — significantly higher than normal for the end of May.

Fountain Creek has been up and down, increasing by a foot or more at times as storms hit El Paso County. Locally, heavy rains of up to 2 inches fell in the area from Friday to Sunday.

The Arkansas River at Avondale also climbed a foot over the weekend, and was flowing at about 2,800 cfs Tuesday.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

The swollen Poudre River this week surpassed peak runoff levels for the past three years, even though high snowmelt season has yet to hit Northern Colorado…

The deep snowpack in Northern Colorado’s mountains has yet to melt away, meaning the runoff season and higher river levels are still yet to come. The forecast for Fort Collins this week is for summer-like temperatures, which could jump-start the runoff.

“It’s all going to be really driven by the temperatures this week,” said Wendy Ryan, the assistant state climatologist. “With that much water still in the high country, it’s definitely not time to forget about snowmelt. At least, not yet.”

Still, U.S. Geological Survey data indicates the river has a long way to go before it reaches September 2013 flood levels.

The river has been running higher than normal since the September floods, and high snowpack levels and recent rains have further elevated the flow. At its highest point on Monday, the river measured at 7.2 feet, just barely below the flood stage at 7.5.

The river reached its peak flow around 5:30 p.m. on Monday, when it measured 4,900 cubic feet per second, of cfs, at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon. One cubic foot per second is equal to one basketball floating down the river every second. The flows have been lowering since Monday, and the peak was well past by Tuesday afternoon.

The river measured 10,000 cfs at its peak during the September floods…

The full-fledged runoff season has yet to really get started along the Poudre, but this week could be one of the first of consistently higher temperatures that melt snowpack.

There has been little runoff from the mountains west of Fort Collins to date, said Ryan. The Natural Resources Conservation Service measures snowpack throughout the winter in Colorado and takes snow water equivalent measurements, showing how much water is in the snow.

At a Joe Wright reservoir measuring point, NRCS measured a peak of 32 inches of the snow water equivalent. Only two inches of that has run off.

Rain has created runoff from the lower elevations, specifically over the High Park Fire and Hewlett Fire burn scars along the Poudre Canyon.

This week, temperatures in the 70s and 80s are expected to cause snowmelt, but the National Weather Service is not predicting serious floods along the river. The river is forecast to slowly rise throughout the week.

From The Denver Post (Monte Whaley):

One of 411 state highway bridges bruised by September flooding got a once over Wednesday by a small group of state inspectors who aim to pinpoint structural problems before a big spring runoff.

A swollen Little Thompson River caused some erosion under the bridge, which spans southbound Interstate 25 just south of Johnstown. But it’s not known yet how much bolstering the bridge needs, said Joshua Laipply, state bridge engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“We’ll review the data and make some decisions depending on what we see,” said Laipply, who quickly pointed out the bridge currently doesn’t pose any danger to motorists. “Bridges like this one, have foundations all the way to bedrock. “It’s perfectly stable now.

“But, if we had another 500-year storm now, then I’d be worried.”

At least four teams from CDOT, as well as bridge consultants hired by by the agency, are examining the 411 bridges through June. They hope to discover and fix any safety and structural woes before high temperatures prompt mountain runoff, CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said.

Most of the bridges are in the Denver-metro area and got tagged with minor damage during the flood. They were inspected shortly after the flood waters receded and deemed drivable with the idea they would get more attention this spring, Laipply said.

In all, about 1,000 bridges from Colorado Springs to Sterling were damaged in some way by the flooding with the most severe getting immediate work, Laipply said.

Bridges in Colorado are inspected every two years, but the flooding meant that schedule had to be moved up.

“These are what we call ‘event inspections,’ ” Laipply said. “So far, what we’ve seen has not been a surprise to us.”

Many of the bridges have seen plenty of “scour” — water flow that takes soil from a bridge’s foundation and moves it downstream. Crews will likely apply rock to make bridge foundations stronger. The crews will have to take into account the changes in river flow and channel elevation caused by the surging water, Laipply said.

CDOT design engineers Scott Huson and Tom Moss each took measurements of the Little Thompson as morning traffic zoomed over their heads. At one point, the river was chest-high to Moss.

“It can get interesting for us out there in the water,” Huson said, “but it’s a job has to be done.”

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

The Poudre River height near Greeley reached nearly 9 feet Tuesday afternoon, topping its flood stage of 8 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service forecasts were calling for the river to peak at 9 feet that afternoon or in the evening, then gradually fall to below the 8-foot flood stage by early Thursday morning and stay there through the end of the week.

“We anticipate seeing it crest pretty soon, for now,” Eric Reckentine, city of Greeley deputy director of water resources, said Tuesday afternoon. “But we don’t expect this to be the last time we see high water during this run-off season. We’ll keep monitoring it.”

In addition to having high water levels, the Poudre River near Greeley was also moving fast on Tuesday.

Flows at the Greeley gauge at 3:30 p.m. were at about 3,100 cubic feet per second. The historic average is at that measuring point is about 300 cfs.

From KREX (Jacklyn Thrapp):

Recent warm weather melting mountain snowpack prompts dangerous water levels on the Colorado River. According to the National Weather Service, the current flow of the Colorado River is dangerous, quick, cold and strong. The river in Grand Junction is close to bankfull, meaning it’s close to overflowing.

By this weekend, there’s a chance local water levels will be above bankfull, which may cause floods.

Collbran: Residents below Grand Mesa mudslide are leaving ahead of possible additional problems

Grand Mesa mudslide May 2014 via The Denver Post
Grand Mesa mudslide May 2014 via The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Nancy Lofholm):

Residents along Salt Creek Road were loading up horses Wednesday, lining up a moving truck for a 127-year-old grand piano, boxing up baby pictures and reassuring anxious relatives by phone that they were keeping a close eye on the huge landslide on the mountain above them. About 35 of them were warned by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday night that they should be prepared to leave at any time. A lake of trapped water is building up behind a huge earthen slab at the top of the slide and could send another torrent of mud down Salt Creek and into this neighborhood of ranches.

The unusually massive slide, which is three miles long and half-mile wide, first let go Sunday afternoon. It roared down a north face of Grand Mesa at an estimated 170 miles per hour, moving like cement down a concrete-truck chute, burying three local men and now threatening to inflict more damage.

The county has declared a state of emergency for the area, and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office has promised help. Federal and state government slide experts are on the ground and in the air studying and monitoring the unstable mass in hopes they can issue a timely warning if it begins to move again.

Some who live along Salt Creek Road and have Salt Creek running at capacity in their backyards aren’t waiting any longer for that warning. They are getting out now.

“We rode up to the slide area on horseback, and I seen what I need to see,” said Shelby Ehart, who was packing up his wife, Jennifer, and their four children and the Salt Creek Ranch livestock and heading for a friend’s house in nearby Molina. Ehart said he grew up hunting in the area of the slide and was shocked when he found ravines he knows were 800- to 900-feet deep now brim full of mud and debris.

“We don’t want to overreact,” said Jennifer Ehart as her husband loaded horses, “but we also don’t want to take chances.”

Across Salt Creek Road, Shannon Murphy cradled her 10-day-old baby and said she has put together a plan to get out if need be. But she is waiting for word from experts before she gets out.

“We’re just paying attention to the people who know the land, know the water and know the topography,” she said.

One of those is her father, Tom “Pudge” Cox, who was a state water commissioner for 27 years. If he decides it’s time to get out, Murphy said she will. Her next-door neighbor Celia Eklund also has been consulting with her son, James. He is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. She and her husband have plans to go to Arvada and stay with a daughter if the experts say go.

Authorities have handed out fliers advising residents to have evacuation plans while the experts puzzle over a slide that is unusual in its size and in its formation of what is essentially a poorly dammed lake at the top.

The search for the three local men presumed buried — Wes Hawkins, 46, Danny Nichols, 24, and his father, Clancy Nichols, 51 — remains suspended because of the unstable area.

Geologists, hydrologists and engineers have been working with local experts such as Pudge Cox to try to get a better handle on how the slide might behave from here on out. A big unknown affecting that is how deep the lake is at the top. They are using sheriff’s office drones that have the capability to survey the slide to see if it is moving and the lake to see how deep it is. The team of experts was joined Wednesday by U.S. Geological Survey geologists who had worked on the slide that killed 41 people in an Oso, Wash., subdivision in March.

Collbran interim manager Davis Farrar said town officials are meeting with the experts and the sheriff’s office nightly to assess the dangers and to plan for worst-case scenarios. The experts have said that it is possible another slide could bring mud and debris all the way into Collbran if it hits Plateau Creek where it intersects with Salt Creek and builds up debris at a bridge in the middle of this town of less than 400. Farrar plans to call a community meeting Thursday night so that residents can get the latest information and know, as close as anyone can tell, what the true threat is.

Kaden Ehart, the 14-year-old son of Shelby and Jennifer Ehart, said he doesn’t need experts to tell him.

“It has to come down here,” he said of the lake filling above their home. “There ain’t no other place for it to go.”

Rodney Hewitt’s home is the closest to the slide. It stopped about 300 yards from his house as he watched television inside and thought he was just hearing thunder. The slide also registered as a magnitude 2.8 earthquake, according to the USGS. But Hewitt isn’t leaving yet. He said he will know it is time to go “when I look up and see trees falling. Then I’ll fire up the pickup and get the hell out of Dodge.”

Those who stay for now won’t be resting easy. Celia Eklund said she no longer feels safe in the home she grew up in and that has always been her “place of comfort and safety throughout my life.”

“Come on mountain,” she said as she stood in her front yard shaking a fist toward the slide area and fighting back tears. “Stay where you’re at.”

Proposed clarification for what constitutes “Waters of the US” worry some in agriculture

Sheep Herders on the Uncompahgre Plateau back in the day
Sheep Herders on the Uncompahgre Plateau back in the day

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Stroud):

New rules meant to clarify the types of waterways protected under the federal Clean Water Act and create more certainty for agricultural water users could leave things as ambiguous as ever, area ranchers told a leading EPA official here Wednesday.

“I think this just muddies the waters, and does not make it more clear,” Carbondale-area rancher Bill McKee said during a presentation by EPA water programs officials, including Nancy Stoner, the agency’s acting assistant administrator. Stoner is helping to oversee a rewrite of rules governing protected waters under the landmark 1972 law aimed at cleaning up the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams…

Irrigation systems typically found in the Rocky Mountains, where water is shared by multiple ranchers and other users to irrigate fields, and even golf courses and lawns, via ditches that eventually return water to the river system, seem to qualify as protected waters by the revised definitions under review by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, they said.

But Stoner said the new rules are intended to preserve existing agricultural exemptions, and even make it easier for ranchers to carry out certain types of conservation practices such as building stream crossings for livestock or making wetland or riparian enhancements without a permit.

“The goal is to make it as clear as we can which waters are protected, and to make it easy to figure out if you are complying,” she said during the meeting, held at the El Jebel firehouse.

Stoner was invited by the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy to speak on the proposed rule changes with ranchers and other area water users and government officials…

The 90-day public comment period on the proposed new rules remains open until July 21. Details about the rule changes and instructions on submitting comments can be found at…

The new rules do not expand the types of water protected under the Clean Water Act, explained McCarthy, but further clarify what qualifies as “navigable waters of the U.S.” under the law, she said.

That primarily applies to protecting headwaters, wetlands, major waterways and their tributaries, as long as they have an established streambed, bank and “ordinary high water mark.”

Some ditches are regulated if the source point and discharge are on a regulated stream, McCarthy said. But the agricultural exemptions for routine operations remain.

“The comments we are seeking are really important, and we want a Western perspective to make sure these definitions make sense for the types of resources we see here,” she said.

The proposed new rules also expand exemptions to 50 types of agricultural conservation practices involving waters without having to notify the Army Corps or obtain permitting.

“Farmers and producers will not need a determination of whether the activities are in ‘waters of the United States’ to qualify for this exemption, nor will they need site-specific pre-approval from either the Corps or the EPA before implementing the practices,” according to an information sheet distributed by Stoner at the meeting.

The proposed rule also does not regulate ground water, tile drainage systems or expand regulation over ditches, Stoner also explained.

More EPA coverage here.