Snowpack news

Westwide Snotel  Current Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) percent of normal November 23, 2014
Westwide Snotel Current Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) percent of normal November 23, 2014

From InkStain (John Fleck):

We’re about 20 percent of the way into the fall-winter-spring snow accumulation season in the Colorado River Basin, and the current snowpack upstream of Lake Powell as estimated by the CBRFC is 61 percent of average:

Colorado River Basin Forecast Center Lake Powell Group November 2014 via John Fleck
Colorado River Basin Forecast Center Lake Powell Group November 2014 via John Fleck

Fountain Creek: Working out the kinks — The Pueblo Chieftain

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Fountain Creek for years ate away at its banks about 15 miles north of Pueblo on a site that never fully recovered from decades of raging floods.

“There were 15-foot drop-offs,” explained Mark Pifher, a consultant with Colorado Springs Utilities who coordinates Southern Delivery System permits. “That railroad bridge acted as a dam every time there was a flood.”

Utilities restored the 28-acre site on its Clear Springs Ranch property as one of the conditions of Pueblo County’s 1041 permit for SDS.

Tied into a trail system that could one day connect Pueblo with Colorado Springs, the site features an interpretive sign that explains the ecosystems of Fountain Creek. The project also created about 6 acres of wetlands designed to absorb some of the punch from future floods.

“In the 2013 floods, we lost a couple of acres of land here,” Pifher said. “Now, Fountain Creek has a more meandering bank. It’s cut down on the constant destruction we saw before construction and improved the habitat for numerous species.”

More than 27,000 rocks 2 feet or larger in diameter were installed under the wetlands, with a foundation of 6,500 larger than 3 feet in diameter. That prevents the bed of the creek from being chewed out by floodwaters.

“Most of the investment we made, you can’t see,” Pifher said. “In August, it held up well to a flow of about 8,400 cubic feet per second. It worked like it was supposed to.”

Keyway structures — basically ridges of rock — were added to guide the creek within its channels. The area is designed to hold up to a 15,000 cfs flood.

Crews hand-planted more than 50,000 plugs of plant species, 144,000 willow stakes and 5,000 cottonwood or ash poles on the grounds to help dampen storm effects.

The project was included in Pueblo County’s 1041 permit both to improve one of the worst sections on Fountain Creek and to demonstrate methods that might be used elsewhere.

It’s not the type of flood control structure that would protect Pueblo from a monster flood such as the one in 1965, but it does prevent smaller floods from causing even bigger problems downstream if left unchecked.

At a cost of more than $4 million, it’s not the type of project that could be easily replicated by other landowners along the creek, Pifher acknowledged. But it does provide an example of what can be done.

Utilities is committed to providing broader flood protection as well, Pifher said.

Another condition requires $50 million to be paid by Colorado Springs to the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District when SDS comes online. That money would help build the more significant flood-control structures that protect Pueblo. For that to occur, questions concerning whether holding back water could occur without injuring water rights have to be answered.

“We want to make that happen, and CSU is providing technical assistance to the district,” Pifher said.

More Fountain Creek coverage here and here.

Arkansas Valley Super Ditch update: 500 af to Fountain, Security and Fowler

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Arkansas Valley Super Ditch is hoping the third time will be a charm. The group is preparing a proposal to lease up to 500 acre-feet of water (162 million gallons) from the Catlin Canal to Fountain, Security and Fowler under 2013 state legislation, HB1248. Fowler would get about half of the water.

The legislation allows pilot programs that demonstrate the effectiveness of temporary transfers of water by drying up irrigated fields.

The application for the program was accepted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September, but the proposal was altered to include Fountain and Security, which had expressed interest in leasing water in 2012, when the Super Ditch program was aborted due to drought.

The 2012 lease failed partly because of a late start and numerous conditions that would have been imposed under a substitute water supply plan.

In 2013, the Super Ditch planned to lease water to Fowler, but the deal fell through when farmers backed out.

A little more than 1,100 acres of Catlin land could be dried up on a rotating basis over 10 years. No parcel could be dried up for more than three of those years.

Water attorney Peter Nichols said he is optimistic that the program can be completed this year if the CWCB approves it at its January meeting.

“This meets the goal of leasing water within the Arkansas River basin,” Nichols said.

More Arkansas Valley Super Ditch coverage here and here.

Farming the Ogallala — Radio Colorado College #RepublicanRiver

From KRCC (Shelley Schlendler):

Ever since the Ice Ages, the Ogallala’s been slowly accumulating water. Modern farmers, though, pump so much water that this “timeless” aquifer is starting to run out. Someday up ahead, Northeast Colorado may have to curtail some crops, and some farm towns might become ghost towns.

Towns are few and far between vast expanses of short grass prairie in Northeastern Colorado. This semi-arid desert gets on average only 17 inches of precipitation every year.

But near the farming community of Wray, there’s a feedlot that depends on plenty of water. A few miles further away are mounds of freshly dug up potatoes and conveyor belts that hoist the spuds into trucks.

Around another bend, dinosaur-sized pivots watch over cornfields. Next spring, those giant sprinklers will spray enough water to grow row after row of leafy green stalks.

“Yuma County is one of the top two counties in the state, and sometimes ranked in the top 10 in the nation, for corn production,” says Deb Daniel, General Manager for the Republican River Conservation District.

This river basin springs from streams that bubble up from the Ogallala aquifer then flow east, starting in Northeastern Colorado around Sterling and Wray, and also around Burlington, near the Kansas border.

Daniel says the aquifer is how farmers in this area get their water.

“We don’t benefit from the snowmelt and the runoff that a lot of the South Platte and the Colorado River benefit from,” says Daniel. “All of our water here is stored underground and very very little of it is recharged.”

This region’s aqueous gold is the Ogallala Aquifer. Stretching from South Dakota down to Texas, the Ogallala is one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs. Think of it as an enormous bowl that’s hundreds of feet under ground, filled with sand, gravel and water that’s been drip-dropping in for thousands of years.

Daniel says she thinks of it as water within a sponge. “And we have all of these straws poked into this sponge from all of these irrigation wells, municipal wells, commercial wells for feedlots and hog confinement, so all of these straws are poked down into this sponge of water.”

Those “straws,” slurping the ancient Ogallala, add up to an enormous gulp. Colorado’s Deputy State Water Engineer Mike Sullivan says that if you think of how much snowmelt it takes to supply Denver, Boulder, Greeley, Fort Collins—the northern Front Range cities—that’s also how much farmers pump from the Ogallala in the Republican River Conservation District.

“They’re both withdrawing or diverting about 700,000 acre feet of water in an average year,” says Sullivan.

But there’s a big difference between snowmelt and the slow-to-recharge Ogallala. “One’s a renewable supply, and the other is a static supply that is being consumed,” adds Sullivan.

Legal battles over just who gets to “use up” the Ogallala have led the state to monitor pumping rates. A well house near a center pivot houses pipes, a pump, and a fist-sized dial, called a flow meter.

“Each year,” says Deb Daniel, “all the growers have to send in an annual water use report.”

According to water engineer Mike Sullivan, the goal is to get more stewardship tied to water use.

“You got a tremendous economy out there, and we don’t want to see that basically dry up and blow away.”

In shallower areas, the Ogallala already is drying up – in Southern Kansas, Texas, and in a small town near I-70, called Stratton, Colorado, where Tim Pautler lives and farms. Pautler is secretary of the board for the Republic River Conservation District.

“My domestic well, 50 years ago, probably had 50 to 60 to 70 feet of water,” says Pautler. “I’m down to 17. You go west of here, you can find farmsteads that are actually out of water.”

Pautler wants to save enough of his local part of the Ogallala so that maybe his grandkids can farm around Stratton someday. To keep this in mind, he shares what an old-timer told him about how to fill a glass of water:

“He says, before we had running water in the house, you had to go outside and hand pump your water, and the glass was right there,” Paulter says. “You didn’t rinse your glass. You just filled your glass. And you didn’t put anymore in the glass than what you could consume, because you didn’t want to throw it away. Things are going to go full circle. At some point we’re going to be going, gosh I wish I just had some of the water that I wasted in the last 50 years.”

Pautler has retired irrigation wells in exchange for government conservation money. His family is now growing drought tolerant wheat and dryland corn.

Mike Sullivan says that if flow meter monitoring leads to more water conservation, the Ogallala might change from an aquifer that’s drying up to one that can last.

Connecting the Drops is a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more about water in the state at

More Republican River Basin coverage here.

Secretary Jewell, Gov. Hickenlooper, Colorado Congressional Delegation Announce Landmark Settlement for Colorado’s Roan Plateau

From the High Country News (Sarah Gilman):

on Friday, November 21, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took the podium at the state capital building to announce that the parties involved had reached a landmark settlement that seems to make everyone happy. Under its terms, 16 of the 18 leases issued on the top of the plateau will be canceled, effectively protecting about 90 percent of its 38,000 acres of federal land — and the bulk of the plateau’s sensitive resources — from future energy development. One lease will also be canceled at the plateau’s base. Companies will be able to persist with plans for the remaining 16,000 acres of leases there, albeit with provisions prohibiting surface disturbance on about half the area to protect wildlife. Bill Barrett Corp., which holds the cancelled leases, will receive a $47.6 million refund.

“We are grateful for the efforts of the BLM and the support of our elected officials and our host community to see this agreement realized,” Scot Woodall, CEO of Bill Barrett Corporation, said in a statement. “The settlement ends a long period of uncertainty that has limited our ability to invest in development and to bring the Roan’s natural gas to market.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are lauding the agreement as a model that could be exported to other high conflict public lands, demonstrating the kind of effective compromise that could have staved off a lawsuit in the first place. The preemptive approach has been increasingly in vogue in recent years. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, for example, has struck compromise deals in northeastern Utah with Bill Barrett and another company called Anadarko, protecting wilderness-quality lands from development while allowing drilling to go forward unchallenged in other spots – an approach to avoiding future litigation that SUWA staffers say was enabled by its successful record of past litigation. The group has also been actively engaged in an effort led by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop to execute a similar compromise on a much broader swath of contentious public lands in the state.

But just as that issue has yet to be settled, the Roan conflagration could flare up yet again. While the BLM has agreed to analyze the settlement as one if its possible approaches to managing the area, that doesn’t mean the agency has to select it. And if it doesn’t, any of the litigants could pile back on. Still, EarthJustice attorney Mike Freeman is optimistic. “Given the broad support from both industry and conservationists, I have hope that the BLM will adopt it,” Freeman told me shortly after the settlement was announced. Now six years into representing environmental interests in the case, Freeman’s not sure what he’ll be tackling next. “I don’t doubt something will come along that demands our attention,” he says with a chuckle. “But I’m going to have a beer tonight first.” No word on whether he plans to do so in a hot shower.

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenloopers office:

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today joined Governor John Hickenlooper and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet to announce a landmark settlement agreement that will help protect the Roan Plateau near Rifle, Colorado, while also encouraging natural gas development. The settlement helps protect wildlife and supports opportunities for outdoor recreation and energy development, all of which play an important role in Colorado’s economy.

Local county commissioners and representatives of the conservation and energy communities were also in attendance for today’s announcement.

The settlement agreement, reached with conservation groups and oil and gas leaseholders, cancels 17 of the 19 leases issued on the plateau in 2008 and refunds approximately $47.6 million in bonus bids and annual rental payments to the Bill Barrett Corporation. The remaining two leases on top of the plateau and 12 leases located at the base of the plateau will remain in place.

“This is great news for the State of Colorado and for the local community who has worked hard to strike a balance between protecting open space and energy development,” said Secretary Jewell. “The Roan Plateau is an extraordinary place, and this settlement is a model for what can be accomplished when we all come to the table and work to find solutions.”

“We are thrilled to see resolution for this decade-long controversy over one of Colorado’s most special places,” said Hickenlooper. “This settlement will protect the valuable fish and wildlife resources atop the Roan Plateau, while clearing the way for orderly development to take place elsewhere in the planning area. We applaud the parties for setting aside their differences and charting a productive path forward. It really is the Colorado way.”

“Coloradans understand that we have a special responsibility to protect places like the Roan Plateau for today’s recreationists, outdoorsmen and hunters and future generations. I am proud the U.S. Department of the Interior heeded my call — and that of a growing bipartisan coalition — to support an end to the longtime dispute over the future of the Roan Plateau,” said U.S. Senator Mark Udall. “This collaborative settlement is a Colorado-based solution. I have fought for a balanced solution to the Roan Plateau since my time in the U.S. House of Representatives, and this agreement underscores how Coloradans truly are rugged collaborators.”

“Our local communities and the leaseholders have worked out this compromise. They’ve agreed to it because it balances a variety of needs and interests by allowing for some development while also establishing crucial environmental and wildlife safeguards,” said U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. “Secretary Jewell has recognized the significance of this locally-led agreement, and we’re thankful she has signed off on the settlement.”

“This agreement is the result of a diverse group of stakeholders joining together to find a solution to the long-running dispute that has prevented responsible energy production from moving forward on the Roan Plateau,” said Congressman Scott Tipton. “We worked to ensure that protections are in place to hold local communities harmless for any royalties that may need to be paid back. As a result, impacted communities including Garfield and Mesa Counties voiced their support and helped push the agreement across the finish line.”

The Roan Plateau is considered one of Colorado’s most ecologically diverse landscapes. It is a popular destination for hunting, fishing, and backcountry recreation. The dramatic topography of the plateau hosts an array of game and sensitive species. The landscape is known for its spectacular cliffs, waterfalls, and box canyons.

“After many years of discord and disagreement, this settlement represents a path forward for the people of Colorado, for the oil and gas industry, and for those that seek to protect critical wildlife habitat,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “A broad coalition of local, state, industry and conservation leaders came together to make this possible.”

In August 2008, BLM Colorado hosted a lease sale that included parcels located on the Roan Plateau based on a Record of Decision that was later challenged in U.S. District Court. In January 2013, the BLM announced it would prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Roan Plateau to address deficient environmental analysis in the 2008 decision. As part of this settlement agreement, the BLM has agreed to consider a “Settlement Alternative” to the ongoing SEIS that would make the lands covered by the canceled leases closed to new leasing while keeping open for exploration and development the lands covered by the retained leases.

“We are grateful for the efforts of the BLM and the support of our elected officials and our host community to see this agreement realized,” said Scot Woodall, CEO of Bill Barrett Corporation. “The settlement ends a long period of uncertainty that has limited our ability to invest in development and to bring the Roan’s natural gas to market. We look forward to working with BLM as they complete the analysis necessary to start drilling.”

“Conservationists, hunters, anglers and wildlife advocates welcome this settlement and the opportunity it provides to conserve an area rich in wildlife and unparalleled scenic vistas,” said Pete Maysmith, Executive Director, Conservation Colorado. “The Roan Plateau’s lush valleys and pristine waterways are important to herds of mule deer, elk and genetically pure Colorado River cut throat trout, significantly enhancing the regions outdoor recreational economy. This settlement helps us achieve the goal of preserving important natural areas like the Roan Plateau in Colorado while oil and gas development continues in Colorado and across the West.”

The settlement agreement was approved by the U.S. Department of Justice and can be found on the BLM website at:

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Seventeen of 19 oil and gas leases owned by Bill Barrett Corp. on top of the Roan Plateau will be canceled and the company will be reimbursed about $47.6 million for the costs of acquiring and making annual rental payments on the canceled leases under a lawsuit settlement announced today.

The Bureau of Land Management also has agreed to pay $400,000 to settle all claims to attorney fees, expenses and costs by the conservation groups that brought the lawsuit.

Those are among the terms of a deal to resolve a lawsuit challenging the BLM’s management plan leading to the leasing of some 55,000 acres on and around the Roan Plateau west of Rifle in 2008.

Another notable part of the deal is that it doesn’t guarantee that the acreage where the leases were canceled will be off-limits to leasing in the future. Rather, the BLM simply has agreed to consider the settlement agreement as one alternative in an ongoing supplemental environmental impact statement re-evaluating its prior Roan Plateau plan due to a 2012 court ruling in the lawsuit. If the BLM chooses to lease the 17 canceled parcels, the conservation groups could sue again or otherwise challenge the decision.

The BLM has agreed to do its best to complete its new planning effort within two years.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Gov. John Hickenlooper and other officials were scheduled to announce the Roan settlement in a 1 p.m. press conference in Denver today.

“This is great news for the state of Colorado and for the local community who has worked hard to strike a balance between protecting open space and energy development,” Jewell said in an Interior Department news release. “The Roan Plateau is an extraordinary place, and this settlement is a model for what can be accomplished when we all come to the table and work to find solutions.”

Hickenlooper said in the same release, “We are thrilled to see resolution for this decade-long controversy over one of Colorado’s most special places. This settlement will protect the valuable fish and wildlife resources atop the Roan Plateau, while clearing the way for orderly development to take place elsewhere in the planning area. We applaud the parties for setting aside their differences and charting a productive path forward. It really is the Colorado way.”

The Roan Plateau rises from the Colorado River Valley to some 9,000 feet in elevation and is noted for its biodiversity. It provides important habitat to deer and elk, is home to rare plants and provides important habitat for native Colorado River cutthroat trout, which now occupies less than a tenth of its historic range. The settlement cancels all the leases in the Trapper and Northwater Creek watersheds, which conservationists say holds the best cutthroat trout habitat on the Roan.

Bill Barrett Corp. once had projected drilling more than 3,000 wells on its Roan leases.

“This settlement helps us achieve the goal of preserving important natural areas like the Roan Plateau in Colorado while oil and gas development continues in Colorado and across the West,” Pete Maysmith, executive director, of Conservation Colorado, said in today’s joint news release.

Said Scot Woodall, chief executive officer of Bill Barrett Corp., “The settlement ends a long period of uncertainty that has limited our ability to invest in development and to bring the Roan’s natural gas to market. We look forward to working with BLM as they complete the analysis necessary to start drilling.”

The settlement contains restrictions on how Bill Barrett Corp. can develop its two remaining Roan Plateau leases, including limiting it to seven well pad locations altogether on the leases.

Twelve other Roan Plateau leases issued under the 2008 lease sale would remain in place under the settlement agreement. Those are owned by WPX Energy, Oxy USA and Ursa Resources. But the agreement requires that before drilling on those leases, the companies submit proposed master development plans, and include within them conditions to minimize impacts on wildlife and other resources, identified through consultation with the BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The federal government shares about half of its oil and gas lease revenues with the state of Colorado, which will be responsible for reimbursing its portion of the revenues Bill Barrett Corp. will be receiving under the deal. That could occur by the federal government withholding future distributions to the state. Hickenlooper has promised to support state legislation that would ensure refunding the canceled leases has no financial impacts on local governments, with which the state shares federal lease revenues.

The state and local governments expect revenues associated with developing the remaining Roan Plateau leases will more than offset the costs of canceling the 17 leases.

The plateau-top leases initially were acquired by Vantage Energy for $57.6 million. In 2009, Bill Barrett Corp. obtained a 90 percent interest in those lease under a $60 million deal.

Altogether, the 2008 Roan lease sale netted $114 million, which for the BLM at that time was the largest ever in total dollars in the continental United States.

In 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that the BLM failed to adequately consider keeping drilling off the plateau top by requiring use of directional drilling from surrounding lands, and failed to sufficiently consider air quality issues.

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Stroud):

The landmark deal protects most of the public lands on top of Roan from drilling, at least for the foreseeable future, while allowing development to continue on other leases in the area, including those at the base of the Roan.

The settlement was announced Friday afternoon at a joint press conference at the state Capitol called by Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

“This is great news for the state of Colorado and for the local community, who have worked hard to strike a balance between protecting open space and energy development,” Jewell said in a formal news release.

“The Roan Plateau is an extraordinary place, and this settlement is a model for what can be accomplished when we all come to the table and work to find solutions,” she said.

Hickenlooper reacted to the formal release of the settlement by the Bureau of Land Management, Bill Barrett Corp. and a coalition of environmental groups, saying, “We are thrilled to see resolution for this decade-long controversy over one of Colorado’s most special places.

“This settlement will protect the valuable fish and wildlife resources atop the Roan Plateau, while clearing the way for orderly development to take place elsewhere in the planning area,” the governor said.

More oil and gas coverage here.

Castle Rock is looking at ag water in Weld County

Flood irrigation -- photo via the CSU Water Center
Flood irrigation — photo via the CSU Water Center

From The Greeley Tribune (Kayla Young):

…the town of Castle Rock has begun making plans for two southern Weld County farm properties in an $81 million pipeline project that would connect the Box Elder Creek Basin to the town’s faucets by 2030. Still in its early stages, the project already is stirring debate in Weld County over the drying up of productive agricultural lands.

According to preliminary planning documents, Castle Rock would divert 2,500 acre feet of water annually from the South Platte tributary’s aquifer, supplying up to 10,000 homes a year.

While the transfer is just a drop in the bucket for the metro-area’s total needs, the pipeline plan represents the growing pressure on Weld County to provide water for burgeoning communities upstream. Castle Rock, for instance, sits atop the non-renewable Denver Basin Aquifer and faces the difficult task of securing water supplies that do not exist on its home turf.

With calls from the Western Slope declaring “no more water across the Divide,” Weld County could play an important role in providing those supplies, said Jim Witwer, a water attorney who represents clients in Northern Colorado.

“It probably seems innocuous when it happens little by little and under the radar,” Witwer said. “But if you get out a map and start to show which entities are acquiring water where and draw arrows, it would start to look a little like a WWII battlefield map of Europe. People are swooping in all over Weld County with cash jingling in their pockets.”

For many farmers, water rights serve as their retirement plan, creating pressure to sell assets to the highest bidder. In many cases, Weld County communities and individual farmers have not had the available funds to compete, said Brian Werner, communications director for Northern Water…

Former Weld County Commissioner Bill Jerke projected that 20 to 30 years from now, “the vast majority of water that had been used, owned and put to beneficial use in Weld County may not be owned and put to beneficial use in Weld County any more.”

The potential impacts on Weld water users range from environmental to financial.

“That’s a major concern for our economy, as well as for land use. Water adds value to property, adds value to our quality of life and adds income to farmers and ranchers,” Jerke said.

Box Elder Creek

For the town of Castle Rock, resources from the South Platte, and tributaries such as Box Elder Creek, will play an important role in achieving 75 percent renewable water supplies by 2030.

Castle Rock water broker Walraven Ketellapper of Stillwater Resources identified the Box Elder Creek property, as well as an accompanying farm off of U.S. 34 near Riverside Reservoir. This second property, commonly referred to as the Rothe Recharge, would fulfill the city’s legal obligation to offset its footprint. The groundwater from this property naturally flows back into the South Platte, serving as “recharge” credit and replenishing water levels in the river.

While the Box Elder Creek property remains under option for Castle Rock, the recharge property has already been purchased by the city for the sum of $5.2 million from Union Colony Agriculture, LLC, an affiliate of San Diego-based company Summit Global Management.

Castle Rock Utilities Director Mark Marlowe said the city had yet to evaluate the environmental impact of the pipeline project, pending the final decision on how the properties will be managed. While much of the initial engineering plans have been outlined, the water purchased by Castle Rock will need to pass through the state court for final approval.

“An important thing to remember with this project is that it is very preliminary. We don’t know yet how we’ll get it to Castle Rock and we certainly don’t want to adversely impact the people of Weld County,” Marlowe said.

The effect of developing well fields to pump groundwater out of he Box Elder Creek Basin has provoked concern among some Colorado water developers.

Randy Ray, executive director of Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, based in Greeley, questioned the logic behind replenishing water downstream, rather than at the source of pumping. He said the current option could potentially dry up the basin.

“The right location would be directly on the creek. Replace it where you pump it,” Ray said. “Rothe would go to the South Platte downstream of the confluence of the South Platte and Box Elder Creek, not a long way downstream, but still downstream. They would not be able to replace water where it had been pumped, unless they piped it.”

Ray expressed concern that recharge downstream would diminish the Box Elder Creek area’s groundwater resources and leave users of shallow, alluvial wells without access to water.

“They would mine the aquifer down and create a situation where current water users wouldn’t have any water to pump,” he said. “It’s more of a closed type of basin and if you pump it out and don’t replace it, you’re just mining it down.”

Werner expressed concern over such “buy and dry” strategies that reduce available resources for future generations.

“Anytime you are looking at your base supply leaving the region, you are looking at fewer opportunities for those communities that are growing. That’s one of the concerns. The biggest problem is that when you start doing that — and water runs uphill to money — growing cities will find the water,” Werner said.

Castle Rock’s most recent analysis on the project indicated no intention to relocate the recharge point.

“Our consultants feel there is significant risk to the project if the town is required to replace depletions by delivering augmentation water to Box Elder Creek,” the city’s 2012 Legacy Water Projects report said.

An alternative option would be a 25-mile pipeline connecting the creek to the South Platte River. With an estimated $30 million price tag for such an addition, the town declined the option.

A separate Stillwater project on Box Elder Creek in Arapahoe County provoked similar debate about drying up ag land, particularly among local cattle ranchers. They feared the plan to pump 500 acre feet from the basin would dry wells and pools used by livestock, according to local media reports. The proposal would have pumped one-fifth of the quantity under consideration by the Castle Rock plan.

Ketellapper said that although the concepts for the two Box Elder Creek augmentation projects coincide in many regards, the Weld project is entirely separate. He did not acknowledge the same environmental concerns as those expressed in Arapahoe County but did say the Weld property would likely be converted to dryland agriculture.

“It will be 10 or 15 years before the water is going to be needed in Castle Rock. In the short term, that water would continue to be used in Weld County. In the long term, that farm would be repurposed into dryland agriculture or grazing from irrigated agriculture,” he said.

For future water sales, Werner proposed Weld County consider forming a fund to allow quicker action and improve competitiveness when water rights come up on the market.

“We’ve talked for a while about creating a water bank in Northern Colorado so that the farmers who are going to sell for whatever reason have somewhere to go. We’ve talked about the idea but have never come up with a way to fund it,” he said. “You need a chunk of money in order to pay these people. Instead of selling to East Cherry Creek Valley, or whoever it is, we could keep it here.”

Werner said that although the idea of creating a water bank is generally well-received, the difficult task would be to secure funding, possibly through a tax measure…

Speculation concerns

The $5.2 million Rothe property, located off of U.S. 34 near the Riverside Reservoir in eastern Weld County, came to the town of Castle Rock through Union Colony Agriculture, LLC, an affiliate of San Diego-based Summit Global Management. The hydro-commerce company has been active on the Colorado water market since 2008, sparking concern of water speculation due to its ambitious plans to purchase and resell water rights at a premium price.

Union Colony Agriculture managers Eric Vanderhye and John McIntyre declined to comment on the Castle Rock project or provide any details on the company’s management or business plans.

United Water and Sanitation District President Bob Lembke collaborated with the company during its early efforts to build a portfolio of water properties in Colorado through Summit Water Development Group (SWDG) and its subsidiaries. Lembke shares ownership with his partners at Summit of another Colorado company, Gilcrest Reservoir, LLC. He is currently in the process of buying out Summit’s holding in the company to move forward with reservoir development plans.

Lembke said Summit has failed to find the success it had hoped for in Colorado and is currently liquidating its assets.

“Some years ago Summit came into town. They were talking to a number of folks in the water sector and they had, what was at the time, a great idea to add some capital to water. At that time, they purchased a piece of my water portfolio,” Lembke said. “I think they’ve decided they don’t have the ability to meet the goals they articulated six or seven years ago and I believe they are liquidating most of their Colorado assets.”

Among the properties purchased by Summit under Lembke’s guidance was the Rothe property. Other assets recently sold by Union Colony Agriculture include approximately 50 to 100 acre feet of water transferred to the city of Greeley. The sale must still go through the state’s water court.

In February 2012, Northern Water rejected a transfer request made by another Summit Global Management company, also managed in part by Vanderhye, called Longview Agriculture. Northern Water became concerned that the company’s plan would artificially inflate prices for Colorado-Big Thompson project water and harm the district.

The company’s intention to later resell the shares provoked concern at Northern Water that Summit meant to trade water as one might trade stocks in a company.

In 2012, Longview Agriculture was also rejected by the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in the purchase of Fulton Ditch shares.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

We called this new channel the San Powell, combining the name of the river and the lake — @JonatWaterman

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo USBR
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

Here’s an in-depth look at the current state of Lake Powell, through the eyes of Jonathan Waterman writing for National Geographic. Click through to read the article, watch his short film history of the Colorado River and the photos. Here’s an excerpt:

In early September, at the abandoned Piute Farms marina on a remote edge of southern Utah’s Navajo reservation, we watched a ten-foot (three-meter) waterfall plunging off what used to be the end of the San Juan River.

Until 1990, this point marked the smooth confluence of the river with Lake Powell, one of the largest reservoirs in the U.S. But the lake has shrunk so much due to the recent drought that this waterfall has emerged, with sandy water as thick as a milkshake.

My partner DeEdda McLean and I had come to this area west of Mexican Hat, Utah, to kayak across Lake Powell, a reservoir formed by the confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado Rivers and the holding power of Glen Canyon Dam, which lies just over the border in Arizona. Yet in place of a majestic reservoir, we saw only the thin ribbon of a reemergent river channel, which had been inundated for most of the past three decades by the lake. We called this new channel the San Powell, combining the name of the river and the lake.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

Water reuse: “It’s not a question of ‘Can we do it?’ We can do it” — John Rehring #COWaterPlan

Reverse Osmosis Water Plant
Reverse Osmosis Water Plant

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Colorado water providers facing a shortfall…are turning to a long-ignored resource: wastewater.

They’re calculating that, if even the worst sewage could be cleaned to the point it is safe to drink — filtered through super-fine membranes or constructed wetlands, treated with chemicals, zapped with ultraviolet rays — then the state’s dwindling aquifers and rivers could be saved.

Colorado officials at work on the first statewide water plan to sustain population and industrial growth recognize reuse as an option.

“We need to go as far and as fast as we can on water-reuse projects,” Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund said.

But there’s no statewide strategy to do this.

Other drought-prone states, led by Texas, are moving ahead on wastewater conversion to augment drinking-water supplies.

Several obstacles remain: huge costs of cleaning, legal obligations in Colorado to deliver water downstream, disposal of contaminants purged from wastewater, and safety.

Local water plans recently submitted by leaders in five of Colorado’s eight river basins all call for reuse, along with conservation and possibly capturing more snowmelt, to address the projected 2050 shortfall.

Front Range utilities will “push the practical limit” in reusing water, according to the plan for the South Platte River Basin, which includes metro Denver. The Arkansas River Basin plan relies on reuse “to the maximum potential.”

Western Slope authorities in the Gunnison, Yampa and Colorado river basins contend Front Range residents must reuse all available wastewater as a precondition before state officials consider new trans-mountain projects.

The emerging Colorado Water Plan, to be unveiled Dec. 10, remains a general guide, lacking details such as how much water is available. Nor does this 358-page draft plan specify how much of Colorado’s shortfall can be met by reuse.

Water industry leaders urge an aggressive approach. Colorado officials should determine how much water legally can be reused and analyze how this could boost supplies, WateReuse Association director Melissa Meeker said in a letter to the CWCB. Colorado’s strategy “should be crafted to encourage innovation and creativity in planning reuse projects.”

Cleaning up wastewater to the point it can be reused as drinking water long has been technically feasible. Water already is recycled widely in the sense that cities discharge effluent into rivers that becomes the water supply for downriver communities.

Cleaning systems

In 1968, utility operators in Windhoek, Namibia, a desert nation in Africa, began cleaning wastewater and pumping it into a drinking-water system serving 250,000 people.

Denver Water engineers in the 1980s pioneered a multiple-filter cleaning system at a federally funded demonstration plant. From 1985 to 1991, Denver Water used wastewater to produce 1 million gallons a day of drinking water, which proved to be as clean as drinking water delivered today.

Delegations of engineers from Europe and the Soviet Union visited.

“There was a sense we were ahead,” said Myron Nealey, a Denver Water engineer who worked on the project.

But utility leaders scrapped it, partly out of fear that customers would object to drinking water that a few hours earlier might have been flushed from a toilet. They also were struggling to dispose of thousands of gallons a day of purged contaminants — a super-concentrated salty mix that must be injected into deep wells or buried in landfills. [ed. emphasis mine]

So Denver Water has focused instead on recycling wastewater solely for irrigation, power-plant cooling towers and other nonpotable use. An expanding citywide network of separate pipelines distributes this treated wastewater — 30 million gallons a day.

“Reuse is definitely a way to maximize the use of the water we have,” said Jim Lochhead, manager of Denver Water and former natural resources director for the state.

“We’re in the exploration stage of trying to analyze what are the options for various types of reuse,” Lochhead said. “What’s the most effective? What’s the least costly? What’s the most secure?”

Meanwhile, drought and population growth in Texas have spurred construction of water-cleaning plants at Wichita Falls and Big Spring. Engineers have installed water-quality monitoring and testing systems sensitive enough to track the widening array of pathogens, suspended particles and hard-to-remove speciality chemicals found in wastewater.

A Texas state water plan calls for increasing reuse of wastewater eightfold by 2060. The New Mexico town of Cloudcroft is shifting to reuse as a solution to water scarcity. And California cities hurt by and vulnerable to drought, including San Diego, are considering wastewater conversion for drinking water.

Costs can be huge, depending on the level of treatment. Water industry leaders estimate fully converted wastewater costs at least $10,000 per acre-foot (325,851 gallons).

By comparison, increased conservation, or using less water, is seen as the cheapest path to making more water available to prevent shortages. The most costly solution is building new dams, reservoirs and pipelines that siphon more water from rivers.

Colorado also faces legal constraints. The first-come-first-serve system of allocating water rights obligates residents who rely on diverted water from rivers to return that water, partially cleaned, to the rivers to satisfy rights of downriver residents and farmers.

However, much of the Colorado River Basin water diverted through trans-mountain pipelines has been deemed available for reuse. Western Resource Advocates experts estimate more than 280,000 acre-feet may be available. In addition, water pumped from underground aquifers — the savings account that south Denver suburbs have been tapping for decades — is available for reuse.

Indirect reuse

While nobody in Colorado has embarked on direct reuse of treated wastewater, Aurora and other cities have begun a form of indirect reuse that involves filtering partially treated wastewater through river banks. This water then is treated again at Aurora’s state-of-the-art plant. Cleaned wastewater then is blended with water from rivers to augment municipal supplies.

The most delicate challenge has been dealing with safety — making sure engineered water-cleaning systems are good enough to replace nature’s slow-but-sure settling and filtration.

While industry marketers focus on semantics to try to make people feel more comfortable — rejecting phrases such as “toilet to tap” to describe reuse — engineers are honing the systems.

They envision early-detection and shut-off mechanisms that quickly could stop contaminants left in water from reaching people. They aim for filtration and other advanced treatment sufficient to remove the multiplying new contaminants found in urban wastewater. Cleaning water increasingly entails removal of plastic beads used in personal-care products; mutating viruses; resistent bacteria; synthetic chemicals such as herbicides; ibuprofen; birth control; anti-depressants; and caffeine.

“That’s the whole job of treatment and monitoring, to remove pathogens and other contaminants to where it is safe to drink,” said John Rehring of Carollo Engineers, a Denver-based expert on water reuse.

“It’s not a question of ‘Can we do it?’ We can do it,” he said. “And because of growing affordability and public acceptance, we’re starting to see it implemented.”