Quenching Our Future: Southwest water issues are complex and critical — The El Paso Times #RioGrande #ColoradoRiver

From the El Paso Times (Marty Schladen):

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Last year, when my boss, Bob Moore, mentioned a project about water, I thought the outlines were clear: We live in the desert. There’s not much water. We waste too much. Instead of managing the Rio Grande Basin as a whole, Texas and New Mexico usually just sue each other.

Each of those is true, but they don’t begin to describe the profound importance of this particular molecule or the size of the challenges it places before us. Thanks to some special good luck, I’ve been able to spend the past few months getting to know just how much I don’t know about them.

Las Vegas circa 1915
Las Vegas circa 1915

Bob connected with Keith Hammonds at the Solutions Journalism Network and secured a grant that will enable us to study the issue long-term and help grope for ways to solve it. It enabled me to travel to a conference of water managers in Las Vegas, where I got to hear some really smart people discuss ways they’re working to ensure taps never run dry in some of the largest, driest metropolitan areas of the country.

But it was on side trips that the long-term difficulty of water management were manifest. I drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the Colorado River gashed through 2 billion years worth of rock and 6,000 feet of geologic time.

Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News
Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News

When I drove to Hoover Dam, I saw another view of the Colorado.

Look over the concave side, and you see how humans have harnessed a mighty Western river to generate thousands of megawatts of electricity.

Look over the convex side and into Lake Mead, and you see nature not bending so easily. There’s a giant, white “bathtub ring” where the people of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles — as well as California’s Imperial Valley — are draining the vast reservoir faster than the Colorado is willing to fill it.

Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full
Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full

The Rio Grande on which we depend is in even worse shape. Less than 10 percent full, its main reservoir at Elephant Butte is unable to provide its customers with anything like their full annual allotment.

Scientists tell me population growth is driving thirst while the weather is reverting to drier historic patterns. Climate change, they say, will only make things worse.

I’ve read that we’re in a trap of our own making. We’ve dammed Western rivers, encouraged growth and sought outcomes that ran not only against nature, but also common sense. In “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner writes how in the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation spent billions building dams and flooding important natural habitat so it could open western lands so farmers could grow crops the government was paying other farmers not to grow back east, where rain fell reliably.

The Southwest is old and it’s seen painful versions of this tale before.

Farview Reservoir Mesa Verde NP
Farview Reservoir Mesa Verde NP

Great Indian cultures thrived for centuries, only to disappear when the weather changed or their irrigation practices ruined the soil.

We’ve made lots of mistakes when it comes to water, but one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned is that this is a story without many villains.

Who can blame farmers, businessmen or the politicians who represent them for wanting the prosperity reliable water promises? Decades on, though, our prosperity jeopardizes that reliability.


As part of this project, we got to travel to arid Australia, where the government has a similar history of ill-advised, well-intentioned water projects. A recent, devastating drought terrified the faraway nation and forced it to undertake sweeping reforms that many believe are working.

I don’t know enough to say whether any are applicable here. But I’m pretty sure we need to start planning a new water framework — now.

Marty Schladen is the El Paso Times’ Austin bureau reporter.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

Basalt filmmaker McBride wins award at Banff Mountain Film Festival — The Aspen Times

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Basalt filmmaker and photographer Pete McBride received the Best Short Film Award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Banff, Alberta, on Sunday for “Delta Dawn.”

His 16-minute film documented the temporary rejuvenation of the Colorado River in the Mexican delta in March and April. The U.S. and Mexican governments, as well as conservation groups in both countries, negotiated a release of water that allowed the Colorado to reach the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998. The river usually dries up at the border near Yuma, Arizona.

The Colorado River is near and dear to McBride’s heart. His 2011 film “Chasing Water” followed the Colorado from the headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to the dry delta. Stunning still photos and video from that film drove home the point that “the Colorado is one of the hardest-working rivers in the world.” It nourishes industrial agriculture, feeds desert golf courses and provides drinking water to millions of people. But “Chasing Water” also raised plenty of questions about the ecological damage humankind was causing by draining the river.

In contrast, “Delta Dawn” celebrates what happened when the river “kissed the sea,” McBride said.

“It shows we can have environmental successes,” he said.

He and his fellow river rats made their way down the last 90 miles of the river after a dam at the U.S.-Mexico border was opened. They traveled most of the way by paddleboard and documented how the water interacted with the dry environment and nearby inhabitants.

McBride captured footage of amazed scientists scooping up wet sand that was teeming with tiny crustaceans that were waiting for the river’s return for 16 years. Mexican residents rejoiced in the return, as well, with children playing in the water, equestrians riding their horses through it and families throwing fiestas on the riverbank.

“It’s restoring spirit and connection to the river,” McBride said…

Minute 319 signing
Minute 319 signing

McBride wanted to send a message with “Delta Dawn” that the restoration effort is worthwhile.

“If we put our minds to it, we can save rivers,” he said. “We can save a lot of things.”

More Minute 319 coverage here.

Berthoud: CWCB Board poised to approve draft #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

A nearly final draft of the Colorado Water Plan, which cites demand for new water projects, is on the agenda Wednesday for approval by the Colorado Water Conservation Board at a meeting in Berthoud.

In May of 2013, Gov. Hickenlooper called for a draft statewide water supply plan to be his desk by Dec. 10, which is three weeks from Wednesday.

“The state faces the possibility of a significant water supply shortfall within the next few decades even with aggressive conservation and new water projects,” the draft plan states.

However, the 358-page draft plan does not include a list of specific water projects the state sees as necessary to meet a projected water supply gap in the year 2050. [ed. emphasis mine]

Instead, for project specifics it points to eight “basin implementation plans,” or BIPs, developed in the last year by members of the Conservation Board’s nine regional river basin roundtables and written with the help of professional water planners.

But the BIPs from each of the roundtables are not expected until April, as the roundtables are still fine-tuning their initial drafts, which were submitted to the Conservation Board staff in July with over 400 projects listed between them.

“In 2015, CWCB will review the BIPs to develop a list of priority projects,” the state plan says. “The criteria for a priority project include funding, if it is multiple-purpose, if it has multiple partners, or if it has shared uses.”

Meanwhile, the basin implementation plan submitted jointly by the South Platte and Metro river basin roundtables has put forward the clearest call for new water storage and diversion projects.

“A good Colorado plan needs a good South Platte plan,” is one key point cited in the draft South Platte/Metro basin plan.

In the short term, the South Platte plan calls for projects already in the works, such as the Windy Gap Firming Project, the Moffat Collection System Project, and the Eagle River MOU project, to be swiftly completed. Together, those three projects would add 58,000 acre-feet of water to the 400,000 acre-feet that already flows from the headwaters of the Colorado River to the South Platte River basin.

The South Platte/Metro basin plan also calls for a conceptual review of a 400-mile pipeline to move 150,000 acre-feet of water a year from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River for use on the Front Range.

Other conceptual projects mentioned in the plan include a 250-mile pipeline to move water from the Yampa River near Maybell, and an 81-mile pipeline to move water from Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River to the east.

“A point has been reached in our state’s development where a state water project needs to be considered in order to minimize impacts of buy and dry,” the South Platte plan states. “This is the essential trade-off that Colorado’s Water Plan must recognize and address.” [ed. emphasis mine]

“Buy and dry,” or “agricultural transfer,” is when municipal water suppliers buy irrigated land – from willing sellers – so the irrigation water can be used for municipal purposes.

“The South Platte and Metro roundtables seek to develop solutions to use new Colorado River supply and agricultural transfer in a coordinated manner to reduce recreational, environmental and social impacts to equitably spread project benefits and impacts between the East and West slopes,” the South Platte/Metro plan states. “The roundtables are proposing the building of projects that develop dual sources of supply – from new Colorado River supply and agricultural transfers – rather than focusing on either as a single source.”

On Oct. 10, the Colorado River District sent comments to the Conservation Board about the forthcoming draft of the state water plan, voicing its concerns about using West Slope water to slow up the pace of dry-up of Front Range fields.

“It is clear from reviewing all of the draft BIPs that, at this stage, while they share many common goals, there are vital components that simply cannot be reconciled,’ the district told the Conservation Board. “The issue of a new transmountain diversion is of course paramount among those differences. [ed. emphasis mine]

“If a new transmountain diversion results in overdevelopment under the (Colorado River Compact), West Slope agriculture will be at risk of buy and dry,” the district said. “Thus, in attempting to solve one problem on the East Slope, the potential exists to create the same problem on the West Slope.”

The Conservation Board will get more feedback on its draft plan on Wednesday afternoon, when it is set to hear eight public presentations. The state agency has already received 13,000 comments to date on the draft water plan, which is online at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.

Aspen Journalism is an independent, nonprofit news organization collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Land trust closer to purchasing 1,000 acres in Ark River Valley — The Mountain Mail

Arkansas River near Leadville
Arkansas River near Leadville

From The Mountain Mail (J.D. Thomas):

The Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas is closer to its goal of purchasing 1,000 acres scattered throughout the valley, thanks to its fifth annual fundraising event. The land trust raised a net total of $16,990 Friday at Salida SteamPlant.

Andrew Mackie, executive director, said 120 tickets were sold for the event, with tickets ranging in price from $35 for land trust members to $45 for nonmembers.

“The event is open to anyone who wants to come out and support what we do,” Mackie said. “We are limited to the amount of people who can attend because of the size of the venue.”

Of the $16,990 raised, $6,230 went to the $10,000 goal for the land trust to purchase 1,000 acres scattered throughout the Arkansas Valley, said Mackie. “We did pretty solid,” he said. “Over the next few weeks we will be seeking to reach our goal.”

Mackie said he couldn’t be specific as to the locations of the various properties because he wanted to protect the confidentiality of the landowners and is still negotiating the deals.

Mackie said the fundraiser typically raises between $8,000 and $10,000.

The event included a light dinner provided by Kalamatapit Catering, a cash bar, silent auction and a program, “Rivers Are More Than Water: Linking Land and Water in Colorado’s Water Plan.”

Items such as alcohol, guided trips and outdoor gear were included in the silent auction.

The program was presented by Ken Neubecker, associate director for the Colorado River Basin Program with American Rivers. Neubecker said he hoped his informative talk would advance the discussion of Colorado’s Water Plan.

Mackie said people who wish to find out more about the organization and to donate to Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas can visit http://ltua.org or call 539-7700.

More conservation easement coverage here and here.

The Fall 2014 issue of Headwaters magazine is hot off the presses from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education

Headwaters magazine Fall 2014 cover
Headwaters magazine Fall 2014 cover

Click here to go to the Colorado Foundation for Water Education website to read the issue. Well researched articles by great writers.

While you’re there join the crew to support water education.