CWCB: Drought update

January 1, 2015 SWE forecast via Klaus Wolter
January 1, 2015 SWE forecast via Klaus Wolter

Click here to read the current update. Here’s an excerpt:

Warm and dry conditions persisted throughout October and early November, with October 2014 the sixth warmest on record. However, recent precipitation and below average temperatures have resulted in improved snow accumulation across the state. The Arkansas basin, which has been the hardest hit by the drought, has received significant beneficial moisture this fall, and is no longer classified as experiencing extreme drought conditions; however severe conditions remain. Along the Front Range, water providers indicated that storage levels are at, or near, record levels, the South Platte basin is experiencing the largest positive departure from average in storage since records began in 1992.

  • Year-to-date precipitation at mountain SNOTEL sites, as of November 18th, was 82% of normal statewide. The Arkansas basin had the highest snowpack at 99% of normal, while the Yampa/White basin had the lowest at 73% of normal. This time of year it does not take much to increase snowpack levels and below average numbers are not of great concern.
  • The short term forecast calls for the mountains to get a good snowstorm this weekend into early next week. The plains will remain mainly dry, with a chance of snow on Thanksgiving.
  • Reservoir Storage statewide is at 105% of average at the end of October 2014. The lowest reservoir storage statewide continues to be the Upper Rio Grande, with 59% of average storage. The South Platte has the highest storage level at 147% of average.
  • In the South Platte Basin, Halligan Reservoir is spilling, which is unprecedented. While Carter Lake, Lake Granby and Horsetooth Reservoir have the highest combined November 1 levels that Northern Water has ever seen. Flows along some portions of the Poudre River are forty times higher than average.
  • The Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) for the state is near normal or abundant across much of the state. The lowest values in the state reflect very low reservoir levels in Green Mountain and Platoro reservoirs.
  • A weak El Nino is expected to continue into early next year. If the event continues into spring, more widespread moisture is possible, starting in March. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts slightly favor a wet late winter for Colorado.
  • For Colorado River runoff, the end-of-season snowpack on the ground in the Gunnison basin will be the best indicator for the runoff next spring.
  • Water wise: Book explores culture of irrigation-dependent communities


    From the Sante Fe New Mexican book review of Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the land, knowledge of the water:

    “Few people have learned to use water as wisely as those who rely on the acequias,” writes Juan Estevan Arellano in his new book, Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water. Released by the University of New Mexico Press, the book examines acequias — those gravity-driven, open-air irrigation systems of reservoirs, channels, and locks — that are found all over the dry regions of the world. Acequias include the ancient water-sharing systems of the Romans, Incans, and Toltecs and the newer sustainable-agriculture communities in Spain and Mexico. Fittingly, the narrative begins with a personal account of Arellano’s upbringing in Northern New Mexico, where he was steeped in acequia culture.

    “I’ve been in acequias since I was a little kid, even before I was allowed to be in the river,” Arellano told Pasatiempo.

    More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

    Say hello to the Headwaters Pulse newsletter from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education

    Headwaters Pulse cover November/December 2014
    Headwaters Pulse cover November/December 2014

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s the introduction from Nicole Seltzer:

    CFWE is proud to bring you our new e-newsletter, Headwaters Pulse. We’ve been working hard to find new ways to deliver engaging, balanced content on water. CFWE doesn’t just do print anymore! This is where we will pull together our latest great content in a modern, readable, online format. While this will never replace Headwaters magazine, we have a limited printing and mailing budget, so sharing stories electronically will grant more people easy access to relevant coverage of Colorado water issues.

    In this monthly e-news, you’ll find features from Headwaters magazine; recent content from our blog, our members and our staff; upcoming events from CFWE and its partners; radio stories; and eventually interviews, videos and much more. We’ll share not just news stories, but our other important programs such as tours, Water Leaders, online instruction, as well as the good work of our partners and members.

    CFWE recently invested in our website to make it easier to sign up online and manage your communication preferences. This allows you to tell us what kind of information you want, and how often. Feel free to share Headwaters Pulse with your peers and encourage them to sign up so they, too, can begin to “speak fluent water.” CFWE aims to be the first stop for balanced, accurate information and education on Colorado water issues. I hope you agree this is a step in the right direction.

    More Colorado Foundation for Water Education coverage here.

    Proposed improvements along the #SouthPlatte in Englewood

    From the Englewood Herald (Tom Munds):

    “The open house tonight was held to let people know about the proposed river improvements,” said Jerrell Black, parks and recreation director. “We invited representatives of all the businesses adjacent to the river along the area so they will see the river improvements that are planned.”

    He said the proposal is made possible by a partnership of the cities of Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan, the Army Corp of Engineers, South Suburban Parks and Recreation District and the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District.

    John Kent’s family owns Oxford Recycling, located on Oxford Avenue adjacent to the west bank of the river.

    He said he attended the session because he wanted to see what improvements were planned along the river near his business.

    “I think these are great plans,” he said. “I particularly like the plan to add an additional bike path on the east side of the river. I walk and ride a bike on the bike path on the west side of the river, and it gets quite busy.”

    Kent said the family-owned business allowed developers to use some of the company property to build the Mary Carter Greenway Bike Path, which runs along the west bank of the river from Chatfield Reservoir to downtown Denver.

    “The land south of Oxford sloped to the river and we didn’t use it, so we leased it to South Suburban for $10 a year for 10 years and is automatically renewable,” he said. “We also worked with the officials on the 10,000 trees project. Planting those trees improved the whole area.”

    Laura Kroeger, project manager for Urban Drainage, said River Run is part of the proposed project, involving major work to revitalize a seven-mile stretch of the South Platte River from the southern border of Littleton to the northern border of Englewood.

    One aspect of the proposal is to extend the pedestrian-bike path on the east bank of the river and to create a trailhead just north of Oxford Avenue. The new east-side trail would lead into the trailhead that would be adjacent to the Broken Tee golf course. Improvements would include expanded parking, a 125-seat pavilion and a playground.

    Kroeger said the Army Corp of Engineers has given permission to soften the banks of the river in that area by planting landscaping and create a handicapped-accessible path leading down from the trailhead to the river amenities.

    “The plan is to start work in the fall of 2015 and complete the improvements by the spring of 2017,” she said. “Of course, everything depends on obtaining the financing for the project, and that is a major challenge.”

    The entire project is an expensive proposal, with a price tag of about $12 million. The funding got help when Arapahoe County pledged $5 million toward the project.

    More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

    Lack of augmentation water may dry up three ponds near Buena Vista

    Buena Vista
    Buena Vista

    From The Mountain Mail (Maisie Ramsay):

    Ice Lake’s calm waters have been a Buena Vista fixture for generations. Records of the man-made lake go back almost as far as Buena Vista itself. Farmers used its ice to chill lettuce and other crops before the invention of refrigerated transportation. Migratory birds flock to the lake, whose waters provide much-needed riparian habitat in times of drought. An entire community has been built around Ice Lake to appreciate its beauty.

    Now, Ice Lake’s very existence is being threatened. Two nearby lakes, Yale Lake and Harvard Lake, face a similar dilemma.

    The problem is water rights. The lakes are using water in a quantity and manner not covered by legal decrees. As a result, Yale Lake and Harvard Lake will begin to dry up this spring. It is unclear when, or if, they will be refilled. Ice Lake will also begin to shrink, state officials say.

    Legal issue arises between decreed and actual water use

    The problems with Yale Lakes Estates’ water usage went unnoticed until water commissioner Brian Sutton began investigating issues with the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District’s water rights on the Thompson Ditch.
    UAWCD can’t use the water rights for augmentation without drying up land once watered by the Thompson Ditch, a problem since the land still appears to be irrigated.

    Sutton’s search for the land’s water source prompted him to look into the decrees related to the Thompson Ditch, including those for Yale Lake and Harvard Lake, where he found inconsistencies between the decreed water use and actual water use.

    Once Sutton noticed problems at Yale Lake and Harvard Lake, he checked on decrees for nearby ponds and Ice Lake as well. Sure enough, there were discrepancies between the water rights and the water usage.

    Ice Lake was especially problematic. Though the man-made lake has been there since the late 1800s, the water rights weren’t adjudicated until 1942. Water rights in the Upper Arkansas River Valley date back to the mid-1800s, so Ice Lake’s late decree date meant its rights were rarely “in priority.”

    As a result, it was seldom within its rights to retain water from its source, the Franklin Spring.

    Just how seldom?

    According to a July 30 Division of Water Resources letter to homeowners, “The last time the Franklin rights were in priority was in 1999 and then only for about 6 weeks.”

    The 30-acre pond wasn’t just retaining water it didn’t have the rights to, it was evaporating that water into the air. A lake of that size evaporates about 30 million gallons into the air each year, according to Sutton’s estimates.

    “It’s very significant,” Sutton said.

    Together, Ice Lake, Harvard Lake, Yale Lake and nearby ponds lose roughly 140 acre-feet per year through evaporation, Sutton said. That amounts to 46 million gallons vanished into thin air.

    “It belongs in the creek to satisfy downstream water rights, and there’s an injury to those downstream water rights,” Sutton said.

    Lakeside Estates must come up with a plan to offset those depletions. Like Yale Lake and Harvard Lake, Ice Lake must stop diverting water beginning in April, a move that will shrink the lake as it loses water through seepage and evaporation.

    Division 2 engineer Steve Witte says possible options for Ice Lake include draining it, shrinking it or acquiring augmentation rights to keep the lake at its current size. Some water rights may be available for augmentation, but “it’s doubtful that would be enough to enable Ice Lake to maintain its current size,” Witte said.

    Lisa Riegel, whose father developed Lakeside Estates, says the subdivision is looking for ways to keep Ice Lake intact. The homeowners’ association has hired a water attorney and is seeking help from environmental groups that may be interested in preserving the lake’s ecological value, Riegel said.

    “We’re all very concerned about it, but I think we have some people that will be helping us that have come up with some ideas that will possibly work,” Riegel said.

    Decree worked on paper, not in reality

    The problems with Yale and Harvard lakes started with a water court decree issued 38 years ago.

    Before Yale Lakes Estates was built, it was agricultural land irrigated by water diverted from Cottonwood Creek into the Thompson Ditch. When the 50-lot subdivision was created, the water rights had to be adjusted to reflect that water would now be pumped into homes through wells, not spread over fields from the ditch. The decree allowed the subdivision to operate wells during the summer by reducing the amount of water diverted into the ditch, essentially leaving water in Cottonwood Creek to offset water pumped out of the aquifer by the residential wells. A small amount of water, just 0.2 cubic feet per second, was supposed to be diverted into the ditch to fill Yale Lake and Harvard Lake. The water was also allowed for a third lake that was never filled. Those lakes were supposed to serve a practical purpose: offsetting winter well water consumption by emptying water into Cottonwood Creek during the non-irrigation season. The problem with the decree, signed in 1976, was that it worked better on paper than it did in reality.

    “We’re frustrated because this decree should have never gone through. It’s ridiculous to say you can run 0.2 cfs for a half-mile in a ditch and then fill up three lakes. It’s impossible,” said Reed Dils, who owns a home on Yale Lake. “The state engineer at the time should have known that, and the judge that decreed the case should have understood that.”

    When Dils says it’s “impossible” to fill Yale Lake on the 0.2 cfs allocated under the decree, he’s not exaggerating. When the ditch was recently cut down to the allotted amount, the weak flow couldn’t reach the lake.

    “The water didn’t make it more than a couple hundred yards before it soaked right into the ditch,” Dils said.

    It’s physically impossible for the ditch to fill up Yale and Harvard lakes without exceeding the water allocated by the decree. While the amount of water allowed into the ditch to fill Yale and Harvard lakes was a scant 0.2 cfs, Sutton found the amount of water actually being used to fill Yale Lake was 1.2 cfs, several times the decreed amount.

    The water source for Harvard Lake isn’t clear, as it’s not being directly fed by Yale Lake. It may be filling from seepage from Yale Lake, but it also may be filling up with groundwater.

    In addition, the lakes weren’t releasing water during the winter to offset well usage, putting them further outside the parameters of the decree. Broadly speaking, the subdivision was using far more water than it was allowed to fill up Yale Lake and not properly compensating for winter water consumption. The problems extend to Harvard Lake. Now, decades after the decree was issued and an entire neighborhood has been built around Yale Lake and Harvard Lake, the glaring errors in the decree have come to light, and solving them could be painful.

    Concerns over wells, wildlife and greenery

    While Lakeside Estates is figuring out a way to salvage its property values, Yale Lakes Estates is focused on keeping water flowing from residential taps. The augmentation plan that allows homes to operate wells has failed. Yale Lake Estates must reach a permanent agreement with the UAWCD to allow residential wells to continue operating.

    A temporary agreement was recently approved by the UAWCD allowing wells to operate, but the terms require the subdivision’s namesake lake to go dry for at least 2 years, Dils said. In the long term, the subdivision may be able to restore the lake by installing a pipe in the ditch and lining the lake to prevent water losses.

    Harvard Lake is also set to go dry this spring.

    The dry-up’s ramifications could extend beyond the lake. Because Yale Lake leaks so badly, it has likely been functioning as a sub-ground irrigation system, providing moisture to willows, cottonwood trees and a meadow. With the lake set to go dry next spring, Yale Lakes Estates’ greenery may die off for lack of water.

    “We’re going to have the same problem with that meadow as we did with the Hill Ranch dry-up, where you’re going to go from a lush meadow to a weed-infested desert over time,” Dils said.

    There is a chance the vegetation is being fed by other sources, such as a shallow aquifer, so the dry-up isn’t certain. The UAWCD will monitor groundwater in the area to help identify the source of water that is irrigating land that is supposed to be dried up.

    The dry-up also has ramifications for wildlife, as the lakes have provided habitat to bald eagles, pelicans, avocets and the white-faced ibis.

    “I’m very concerned about the wildlife out there,” said Bill Lockett, who owns some property near Harvard Lake.

    The loss of the lakes means loss of habitat for migratory birds, including species that are already being threatened by habitat destruction.

    Lockett hopes Harvard Lake, like Yale Lake, can eventually be restored as a reservoir, possibly for Buena Vista. “The town is in desperate need of water storage,” Lockett said. “We have a vessel that’s already there, and it would benefit the town … I am hopeful we can come to some solution that’s beneficial for everyone.”

    More water law coverage here.

    #Onthisday in 1922, the #ColoradoRiver Compact was signed in Santa Fe, N.M

    New Mexico State Engineer replaced

    Roan Plateau drilling deal hailed as win-win — The Colorado Independent


    From The Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

    A 15 year battle over fossil fuel drilling on northwest Colorado’s remote and rugged Roan Plateau ended last week with the type of compromise that’s rare in energy showdowns.

    Under the court-approved deal, the Bureau of Land Management will develop a new plan for the Roan that would protect the most important natural areas atop the 34,000 acre plateau while enabling some drilling in other areas, especially around the base of the plateau.

    Energy companies agreed to avoid building roads and drill pads in the plateau’s most sensitive reaches. Both sides said they won’t raise any legal challenges to the deal if the BLM adopts the development option spelled out so far. Specifically, the agreement cancels 17 existing leases atop the Roan Plateau. The Bill Barrett Corporation, which bought the leases in 2008, will get a $47 million refund. Two leases on top of the plateau, as well as others along the base, will remain valid.

    The most recent wrangling over the Roan started in 2008, when the BLM leased off the parcels under a Bush administration plan that critics described as a sweetheart deal for energy companies. But the history of the Roan goes all the way back to the 1910s, when the area was set aside as a Naval Petroleum Reserve.

    That Bush-era deal was successfully challenged in 2012, when a federal court ordered the BLM to take a closer look at regional air quality impacts and other parts of the drilling plan

    The BLM estimates there are about 4.2 trillion cubic feet of gas under the top of the plateau and another 4.7 trillion cubic feet under the lands below the rim, including the cliffs of the plateau, which could generate close to $1 billion for the federal government.

    The deal has bipartisan political backing from Democratic U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, and the energy industry offered a positive response to the announcement from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

    “For the first time in decades Western Colorado’s natural gas companies are very close to securing responsible drilling on and around the Roan Plateau.This compromise will provide decades of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars for local communities,” said David Ludlam, director of West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

    “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.”

    For environmentalists, the Roan Plateau was one of several lines in the sand, similar to the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved, would bring tar sands oil from Canada across the Great Plains states.

    Throughout the fights over the Roan, organizations like Trout Unlimited and Conservation Colorado touted the natural resource values of the plateau and vowed to take every possible legal step to protect the area.

    The drilling industry argued that the Roan had long been foreseen as an area for energy development. In 1977, the reserves were transferred to the U.S. Department of Energy, which immediately drilled 24 natural gas wells below the plateau.

    In 1997, through a defense spending bill, the reserves were transferred to the Department of Interior. The measure also required the Department of Interior to start leasing the area “as soon as practicable.” The energy industry hung its hat on that so-called transfer act for many years as it argued for the right to pursue energy development on the plateau.

    “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,” Conservation Colorado director Pete Maysmith said in a prepared statement. “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.”

    [Image of oil and gas development on the Roan by airphotona.]

    Western Colorado’s Roller Dam approaches 100th anniversary — Grand Junction Free Press #ColoradoRiver

    The Grand Valley Diversion Dam
    The Grand Valley Diversion Dam

    From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

    Driving east on Interstate 70 though De Beque Canyon, it’s hard to miss the elegant towers and arches of the Grand Valley Diversion Dam, also known as the Roller Dam, which will turn 100 next year. Its red tile roofs stand out amid the dusty tans and greens of the canyon, and the river becomes a broken line of waterfalls as it flows over or under the dam’s roller gates, depending on how much water is being diverted.

    I recently saw the dam up close on a tour of the canal system operated by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. The association took over operation of the Roller Dam and the Government Highline Canal from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built the system.

    Our little group marveled at the massive gears and chains that move the roller gates, and also learned about features of the system that are less obvious. Just past the historic dam, canal water flows through a pair of much newer screens. Fish and small sticks are shunted back into the river, but bigger items, including small trees and the occasional bear carcass, is hauled out with an excavator.

    A few miles downstream, a small octagonal building marks the start of the Orchard Mesa Siphon, which carries a share of the canal’s water underneath the Colorado River and I-70 to the Orchard Mesa Power Canal. I drove right below the concrete wall edging the canal for years without realizing that up to 800 cubic feet per second was flowing above me on its way to a hydroelectric plant and pumping station just south of Palisade.

    This hydraulic pumping station lifts water uphill to the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District’s 30-plus miles of canals, serving orchards, vineyards, vegetable plots and subdivisions on the south side of the river. The water that runs through the hydroelectric plant can either return directly to the river or run through a short canal that ends just upstream from the Grand Valley Irrigation Company’s diversion on the other side of the river, facilitating the sharing of water between the two systems.

    Beyond the Orchard Mesa Siphon, the Government Highline Canal continues West through a 7,486-foot-long tunnel, which ends at the Price-Stub Pumping Plant near Palisade. Here, water is lifted into the canals of the Palisade Irrigation District and the Mesa County Irrigation District. These two systems pre-date the Government Highline Canal, but the Roller Dam now diverts their water because it made their original diversions from the river inoperable.

    As the Government Highline Canal continues west beyond Palisade, orchards and vineyards give way to larger acreages growing corn, alfalfa and other row crops. The Grand Valley Water Users Association uses the 55-mile-long canal to deliver irrigation water to 23,340 acres of land.

    In recent years, major upgrades to this historic system have benefited both the health of the river and the irrigators that rely on it for their livelihoods. In order to reduce the amount of water needed to carry irrigation water to the end of the system, checks were placed in the canal. These can raise water levels high enough to reach headgates without requiring the canal to be running full. Farmers still get their water, and more water is left in the river to benefit endangered fish. The checks also allow the canal to remain operational when there is less water in the river to start with.

    The checks were paid for with funding from the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which in turn gets its funding from the sale of hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam.

    The lining and piping of canals and ditches has reduced seepage, and with it, the leaching of salt and selenium into the Colorado River. This benefits both downstream farmers and endangered fish, and it has been largely paid for with federal funds.

    When the Government Highline Canal was completed in 1917, it marked the final stage of the development of Grand Valley desert lands into productive crop land. It did not, however, mark the end of the development of the irrigation system, which continues to evolve in order to maintain its historic mission and meet new demands.

    This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at or Twitter at

    More Colorado River Basin coverage here.