“I hate to see it,” [Allen Keeten] the 58-year-old truck driver from Kenesaw, Neb., says, peering over the side of the massive concrete dam on the Colorado River. “Nowadays you’ve got to be careful when you are out on a boat because of all the exposed ground.”
Like a giant measuring stick in the desert, the dropping water level of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir, provides a vivid representation of the drought that is gripping the Southwest and much of the West…
Only a fraction of the river’s flow makes it to Mexico as millions of acre-feet leave the Colorado River system through pipes and aqueducts for use by farms, businesses and homes of the southwestern United States — the water rights apportioned by decades of court cases, contracts and legislation.
Now that measuring stick is drier than ever. Federal water managers say Lake Mead is just 39% full. The water level fell in July to its lowest level since 1937, when water began backing up to form Lake Mead after the dam was completed…
As the water recedes, left behind is a broad white stripe of mineral deposits on the lake’s shoreline, as visible as a dirty bathtub ring. New islands poke through the lake’s lowered surface, and buoys stand amid desert scrub.
Entire coves and miles of lake fingers have dried up, forcing boat landings and marinas to close or relocate. Marina operators who want to stay in business have had to move their floating docks — and the fuel, electricity, water and sewer lines that serve them — in a costly chase to stay on the water…
Lake Powell is down, too, though not as badly at 52% of capacity. The entire Colorado River system of four impoundments, ending with Lake Havasu in Arizona, has just over half the water it is capable of holding this summer.
Still, federal water managers are optimistic that they can avoid reducing agreed-upon amounts of water to all who depend on it, at least until next year. Beyond that, much depends on how long drought continues…
Water from the Colorado River makes up about a quarter of all water that flows from Southern California taps, and water from the Sierras makes up about 30%, with the remainder coming from local sources, groundwater and reclaimed water…
An especially wet winter would help. A big snowpack in 2011 raised Lake Mead nearly 50 feet in one season.
“We need several above-average years to replenish the storage,” Bunk says.
But the trends are worrisome. While California is in the third year of drought, Bunk says Colorado River data suggests this is the 15th year of a broader regional drought, interrupted by an occasional wet year.
Scientists studying tree rings for clues to past water seasons calculate that the period since 2000 is one of the driest in centuries. Bunk says the evidence shows the past 15-year period ranks in the driest 1% of the past 1,200 years.
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Amy Hadden Marsh):
[Mike Kishimoto], a civil engineer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which cosponsored the tour, told over two dozen participants that Smart Ditch is basically a corrugated plastic liner that stops leaks and allows water to flow through a ditch unimpeded by plants, rocks, sediment and other debris. He said this particular segment, part of a county road project south of Silt, captures tail water from sprinkler irrigation and brings it back to the fields.
“You can’t get tail water to go into a pipe,” he explained. “So this is a perfect use for Smart Ditch.”
The Smart Ditch demo was part of a five-hour tour, which began with a stop at the 3,200-acre Porter Ranch, along Alkali Creek south of New Castle, and ended at Eagle Springs Organic Farm south of Rifle.
Kishimoto and other district staff and board members joined the tour to point out various projects and answer questions about the district’s mission, services and history…
Colorado State Rep. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), was a tour participant, along with Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. Rankin took particular interest in a small-scale, hydro-power generator at the Porter Ranch, which produces six kilowatts of electricity. Water comes from Alkali Creek through a 7,000-foot pipe.
A small, metal wheel acts as a turbine. As the water turns the wheel, electricity is generated, which powers Terry and Mary Porter’s home and a nearby cabin. Excess electricity is sold to Holy Cross Energy. The water is reused for irrigation.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service designed the irrigation system with the hydro-power generator in mind, aid Scot Knutson, an engineer with the agency. Funding for the project came from the conservation service and the federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which pays incentives for conservation practices.
“There are approximately 100 small-scale hydro-power projects statewide and a dozen in [House District 57],” said Rankin.
He also praised U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s Hydro-power and Rural Jobs Act, which went into effect last summer.
“Tipton simplified Congressional approval for small-scale hydro-power,” he said. “In my view, it’s a great, untapped source for renewable energy.”
Eagle Springs Organic farm, the final stop of the tour, generates its own power from a solar array that offsets all electricity used on the 1,600-acre farm.
Owner Ken Sack led guests through a two-acre complex of production rooms, coolers and greenhouses, including a tropical grow room, replete with banana, fig and citrus trees, and a fish farm. Sack, whose wife and children are vegan, raises Highland Angus beef, sheep, goats, poultry and pigs on the property, along with vegetables, herbs, flowers and hay. All food products are sold at the farm’s store or served at the café and steak house in Rifle.
Here’s the release from Conservation Colorado (Chris Arend):
Colorado Students, local elected leaders, Denver Water officials, water educators and conservationists, rallied for Colorado River Day to highlight Colorado’s progress on water conservation and reuse and work left to protect communities and meet future water needs.
The West is facing increasing water challenges and the future of Denver, our businesses, agriculture and the West depend on the health of the Colorado River. Colorado is currently drafting a statewide Water Plan to manage our water future. The Denver Colorado River Day rally had diverse leaders calling attention to local, common sense solutions that should be expanded and included in our community’s approach to managing and providing water.
Below are highlighted quotes from the rally:
“I love joining my friends and making a difference for the Colorado River,” said Lizabeth. “Whenever we do outreach or take adventures it makes me want to do more. It feels good to know I am helping my community and protecting things that are important to me. It is cool to know one day I could have kids that will benefit from the work we are doing.”
– Lizbeth Sandoval Serrano, 9th Grade Student, Escuela, describing rafting down the Colorado through youth program.
“The Latino community has a long legacy of being stewards of our natural resources, including water. The caucus will continue to work on a policy level to protect the Colorado River and other rivers across the state. We understand we must do all we can for our people today and future generations tomorrow.”
– Joe Salazar, State Representative and Latino Water Caucus member
“Half of Denver’s water supply comes from the Colorado River, so we have a direct interest in the health of the entire Colorado River system. As part of our approach to creating a healthier system, Denver Water is committed to encouraging and maintaining a culture of conservation — through aggressive programs and campaigns — which thus far has led to Denver area citizens using 21 percent less water than they were before 2002, despite an increased population.”
– Angela Bricmont, Denver Water’s Director of Finance
“When we talk about needing diverse voices and stakeholders, that includes all members of society. Water flows into every aspect of our life, and educating all community members about water conservation and stewardship is the key to creating the water future we need.”
– Tom Cech, Director of One World One Water
“Under existing water policies, demands on our water outstrip the supply. But we can be part of the solution. We can use less, conserve more. So to celebrate Colorado River Day, we urge residents to tell our water leaders we need common sense solutions that conserve water so our communities and businesses thrive. We learned today there is a lot being done to conserve water in Denver, but we need to do more.”
– Theresa Conley, Water Advocate, Conservation Colorado
Jamestown has re-established running water to about 40 percent of homes in town, a major step for a community that may still be years away from restoring normalcy after September’s flood.
As of July 7, Mayor Tara Schoedinger confirmed, 48 out of the town’s 115 homes have water service, though residents are being told to boil first until quality tests confirm potability.
The foothills town of 275 suffered immeasurable losses — one resident was killed, half of all roads were either washed away or badly damaged, and the town square and fire station need to be rebuilt from scratch.
Schoedinger said fixing the water system took precedent on the flood recovery wish list.
“The water system is our first priority because that’s what’s going to bring people home,” she said. “We want people to be able to bring their families back home and get settled before school starts.”
Flooding stripped away 50 percent of the town’s water distribution system, plus the entire underground infrastructure at its water treatment plant, and those who stuck it out in Jamestown went nearly 10 months without running water.
Those who stayed relied on above-ground water filtration systems, for which about $60,000 was raised through donations from the local Rotary Club, Salvation Army and Red Cross.
While the donations covered the cost of installation — about $1,700 per system — residents have had to pay out of pocket for $150 refills.
As for drinking water, the Red Cross has sent a truckload of Eldorado Natural Spring bottles up to Jamestown once every two weeks.
Schoedinger said the entire town will likely have running water by some point next month. She hopes it’ll draw back the 50 percent of residents who still haven’t returned.
“Everybody who can come home will come home,” she said. “But people who don’t have systems or town water can’t live in their homes.”
WildEarth Guardians have not backed off from seeking more water from Colorado to keep fish afloat in New Mexico. This week the environmental group wrote to U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor asking the department to become more actively involved in management of the Rio Grande to protect endangered species like the silvery minnow and provide water for wild and scenic river and recreational uses as well as bolstering bosque and wildlife refuge areas in New Mexico. The group specifically asked, for example, that the department “engage” the states of Colorado and New Mexico “in order to find a way to ensure the Rio Grande receives its fair share of water.”
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) is watching the WildEarth actions closely since they could ultimately affect water use in Colorado. The group maintains that downstream states are already receiving their “fair share of water” through Rio Grande Compact requirements that have been in place for decades.
RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told the water district’s board of WildEarth’s latest move this week and said although the environmental group acknowledges the compact, it does not agree with it.
“There is no panacea that will right the wrongs of the past century on behalf of the Rio Grande,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians . “The fate of the river, however, depends on the willingness and leadership of state and federal agencies to create a water right that belongs to the Rio Grande ” The wild west approach to managing water in the Rio Grande Basin cannot continue without further serious consequences for flows in the river. Interior is in a unique position to implement and navigate new strategies and to reform the archaic system of water management under which it currently operates.”
WildEarth in its letter to the Department of Interior recommended: 1) expanding “the scope of the solutions” by engaging the states of Colorado and New Mexico in order to find a way to ensure the Rio Grande receives its fair share of water, 2) providing funding so the Bureau of Land Management can determine the flows necessary in the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River to preserve recreational , scenic and other values of the designated reach in central New Mexico, and 3) investigating and planning to remove or modify the dams and reservoirs that segment the Rio Grande to reconnect isolated habitat.
Robbins said the water district needs to keep track of this situation.
“We are going to have to pay more attention. We are going to have to be more involved. We are going to have to be sure the state of Colorado protects compact apportioned waters for beneficial use within Colorado.”
Robbins said it was ironic that within a few days of Gary Boyce’s video presentation on the internet proposing to take San Luis Valley Water north WildEarth Guardians sent a letter to the Department of Interior proposing to send more water south.
“We are going to end up having to deal with a proposal to take water north for the metro area, Front Range and demands that federal agencies take an active role trying to force more water out of the Valley going south,” Robbins said.
He said there have been efforts by people in New Mexico to buy senior water rights in Colorado to try to send more water downstream, but the compact that governs how much water goes downstream is between states, not individuals. If someone were to buy water rights in Colorado and retire them in hopes of sending more water downstream, it would just mean that the next water right in line would get to use the water, and it would not affect the total volume sent to downstream states.
RGWCD Board Member Cory Off said it is interesting the WildEarth group wants to improve the bosque in New Mexico but does not seem to care about Colorado’s scenic areas. Robbins said the cooperation the Valley and Colorado have experienced in protecting riparian areas in this state does not exist in the same manner in New Mexico, but Colorado should not have to “disassemble what’s good in Colorado because they would like to see that happen in New Mexico.”
For more than four decades, Colorado has followed the letter of the law that dictates how flows on the Rio Grande are divvied up with downstream neighbors New Mexico and Texas.
But a New Mexico environmental group concerned with the survival of an endangered fish says that is not enough. WildEarth Guardians told Colorado officials in January it intended to sue the state over its management of the Rio Grande, claiming that the miserly flows that cross the state line in May and June of dry years were not enough to preserve the Rio Grande silvery minnow. Last week, the group wrote to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which has the responsibility of preserving the fish and also plays a large role in managing the river in New Mexico, asking that it exert more influence over Colorado.
“We just see the federal government playing some role in making the conversation more broad,” said Jen Pelz, an attorney for the guardians who specializes in water issues.
Pelz said she has not gotten a formal response from the state regarding the January notice.
But David Robbins, an attorney for the Alamosa-based Rio Grande Water Conservation District, was clear in his review of the letter to the Interior with the district’s board.
“It’s wrong and it deserves to be resisted strenuously,” he said.
Water users in the valley have lived up to the compact’s obligations and aren’t required to go beyond it, he said.
“We don’t have to let the water go downstream,” Robbins said. “We’re entitled to use it in our state and we always want to remember that.”
Colorado has complied with the 1939 Rio Grande Compact for more than four decades after settling a lawsuit brought by New Mexico and Texas. Following the 1968 settlement, Colorado’s state engineer initiated the practice of curtailing surface water rights — even those that predate the compact — to ensure that enough water made it downstream to satisfy compact requirements.
The delivery requirements vary from year to year, depending on the size of Colorado’s water supply. When the Rio Grande has a wet year, more water must be sent downstream. In dry years, water users in the San Luis Valley keep a bigger share.
But there are no requirements that dictate what time of year the water has to be delivered. When the irrigation season begins April 1 in the valley, irrigators divert water for nearly 600,000 acres of potatoes, barley, alfalfa and pasture. Moreover, what the plants don’t soak up in late spring and early summer, often percolates down to the unconfined aquifer, which many water users then tap to finish their crops after the stream flows have dwindled.
But for Pelz, the compact, with its emphasis on the role of the states, is not enough to solve the river’s problems.
“No one really looks at it as a whole river,” she said.
The timing of Colorado’s diversions are a problem, WildEarth Guardians argued, because in dry years the compact allows Colorado water users to take nearly all of the river’s flows. The group’s letter to interior officials noted that on May 18 of last year, the Rio Grande reached its peak flow and Colorado was diverting 98 percent of the river before it crossed the state line. That leaves an insufficient amount of water left over when the minnow enters breeding season in May and reduces the chances of the fish’s survival, the group said.
And the dry years in which this scenario occurs are likely to become the norm as climate change advances, the group said in the letter.
Pelz estimated that shutting down irrigators for three days would produce the flows needed to clean out sediment and produce the habitat needed for the minnow.
“It doesn’t take shutting down the San Luis Valley for two weeks,” she said.
But Robbins pointed to a host of problems in New Mexico that could be solved before asking Colorado to send additional water downstream.
For example, New Mexico has five dams that hinder the minnow and Colorado has nothing to do with their operations.
Moreover, Robbins said that as early as 1916, the minnow was effectively healthy despite the fact that Colorado already had reached its peak use along the Rio Grande.
And the conservation district has undertaken its own plan to preserve habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher, a federally endangered species that also is of concern to WildEarth Guardians.
The demands from the south for more water out of the valley also come just as valley rancher Gary Boyce has developed a new proposal to export water to the Front Range.
The timing of the two developments was not lost on Robbins.
“If everybody in the room and all of your neighbors are starting to feel a little bit pulled asunder or under threat of being drawn and quartered, you’re probably awake and your senses are working,” he said.
The Pandora water treatment project at the east end of the valley is on schedule and should be complete by this fall, ending more than three years of construction.
The project, which fired up in 2011, has been in the works for more than 20 years, and it will pipe water from Upper Bridal Veil Basin to a new treatment facility at the east end of the box canyon. And while there have been many hurdles, including engineering challenges and budgetary issues, the project should be complete by October and stay within the town’s 2014 budget, according to Telluride Public Works Director Paul Ruud.
“We keep making progress on the building and the water plant itself,” Rudd said. “The building is almost completed. We’re just outfitting the internals. There are aspects of the project that are done. We’ve tied in both the raw waterline coming in from Bridal Veil [Falls] and the treated line that’s going towards town, into the plant.”
Ruud said crews are also working on a physical water diversion out of Bridal Veil Creek as well as a number of other components involved with the diversion. If things go as planned, the plant will go online in early October.
“We haven’t really had any issues,” Ruud said. “We did have fairly substantial soil stabilization right at the treatment plant. That ended up being quite a substantial undertaking. But as of right now we are within the approved budget for this year and we expect the project will be completed with our existing budget.”
The facility will also contain a micro-hydro component that is expected to be operational when the plant goes live, which will boost the town’s generation of renewable energy. But the main purpose of the plant is to boost the town’s water capacity. Telluride’s current system, which relies primarily on the Mill Creek Water Plant, has been strained by high demand and other issues in recent years.
Rudd said construction has been making good progress this summer. With the good weather there have been a lot of people in the area going up to Bridal Veil Falls. But disturbances from construction are nearing an end.