MORE DAMS: Mead proposes new reservoirs, cites concerns for future — Casper Star-Tribune #ColoradoWater

Wyoming Rivers map via
Wyoming Rivers map via

From the Casper Star-Tribune (Christine Peterson):

Every spring, John Joyce watches as thousands of gallons of water in the Nowood River rush by his ranch in northern Wyoming. It’s water that eventually moves into the Bighorn, Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.

In his mind, and in the minds of other ranchers in his area, it’s wasted water that could help their fields. The answer, they believe, is a 7,500-acre-foot reservoir.

“The Nowood might run somewhere between 500 and 800 cubic feet per second, but in the spring it might run as high as 5,000 cfs, so all of that water goes to Montana,” Joyce said. “We would like to capture a little bit of it and use it ourselves.”

Joyce said the off-channel Alkali Creek Reservoir is a way to keep irrigation late into the season for farms and ranches without damming a major creek or river.

The project is one of a handful the Wyoming Water Development Commission has been studying and could be proposed by Gov. Matt Mead as part of his new water strategy to be released in January.

“We will be building reservoirs,” Mead said at a water conference in October in Casper. “New ones as well as looking at the ones we have.”

Mead argues that storing Wyoming’s water is one of the best ways to preserve the state’s resource for the future and use what is legally ours…

Wyoming sends millions of acres feet of water out of its borders every year that it could use on its fields or in its towns, said Nephi Cole, Mead’s water policy advisor. The Colorado River basin alone sends down about 200,000-acre-feet of extra water each year – roughly enough water to fill Fontenelle Reservoir.

“Water, more than anything, is tied to everything we do in the state,” Mead said. “It’s tied to everything we have done in the state, and it is going to be tied to everything we do in the future.”

In May 2013, Mead decided to do something. His staff held nine formal listening sessions across the state to gather ideas from the public on what ranchers, businessmen, conservationists and others would like to see for the future of Wyoming’s water. They came up with more than 50 ideas ranging from improved irrigation to putting a large, main-stem dam on the upper Green River northwest of Pinedale.

The state received more than 7,000 emails and 600 surveys. The results quickly narrowed some options, Cole said.

Damming the upper Green River, for example, was unpopular and didn’t rise to the top, he said.

Other ideas, including finishing Fontenelle Reservoir and changing management of Glendo Reservoir, are still being considered. So are measures to improve 100-year old irrigation infrastructure and restore stream systems.

Mead’s 10 in 10 proposal, which calls for 10 small reservoirs in 10 years, will move forward, Cole said.

“You think about what storage would do in mitigation of floods, and you think about what storage would do in mitigation of drought, and we have the ability to do that,” Mead said. “And that would include some small, medium and maybe even large reservoirs.”

Some of the projects could be expensive and controversial and take years, but the state must act now, he said.

“We’re talking about water that is Wyoming‘s water,” Mead said. “We worry what will happen long-term.”[…]

“Reservoirs are very expensive and can have obvious environmental impacts,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Off-channel reservoirs, ones that divert water from a creek or river rather than damming the entire stream, are better than mainstem projects, he said. “But they need to be evaluated in the broader cost-benefit context.”

Each reservoir comes with a price tag of between $1,000 and $10,000 per acre foot, said Jason Mead, deputy director of the Dam and Reservoir Division for the Wyoming Water Development Office. One reservoir the Water Development Office is analyzing could be about 14,500 acre feet with a cost of about $113 million.

Wyoming is not facing a water crisis, Fosburgh said. And the state should be smarter and more creative about its water management.

The Cowboy State should focus on conservation projects such as improving irrigation systems, which are both cheaper and quicker to complete, said Stoecker, the DamNation producer and co-creator.

“The beauty of storing water in the ground is there’s no evaporation loss or filling in from sediment,” Stoecker said. “It’s far less of a cost over the long term.”[…]

Developing a plan for Wyoming’s water will be controversial, Mead said, and people will disagree.

“We have to do this as a state,” he said. “As expensive as it is, it’s much more expensive in every way, not just dollars, for the state not to do it.”

Ranchers like Joyce in Manderson agree.

Water flowing through Wyoming that rightfully belongs to the Cowboy State should be used. Extra water in the late season could allow farmers and ranchers to grow more sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and grass hays and malt barley.

Most important, Joyce wants to see that water stick around instead of watching it rush downstream.

Statewide water plan taking shape — Pine River Times

Cortez early 1900s via Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Cortez early 1900s via Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

From the Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

Prospects are for the state’s population to double by 2050, while the state’s water supply does not increase – and it could even decrease with climate change.

That’s driving creation of the Colorado Water Plan, which was initiated in May 2013 by an executive order from Gov. John Hickenlooper. The draft plan is due in December, with the final plan in December 2015.

Eight drainage basin roundtables are creating their own implementation plans to be part of the statewide plan.

Members of the Southwest Basin Water Roundtable hosted a Nov. 19 meeting in Bayfield to give an update and take comments. They also hosted a meeting last week in Pagosa Springs. They will have meetings in Mancos on Dec. 1 and Placerville on Dec. 9.

The Southwest Basin has nine sub-basins, with eight rivers that flow out of state, including the Pine, Piedra, Animas, San Juan, and La Plata Rivers. They are all part of the multi-state Colorado River Basin…

“A significant part of the plan is to prevent buy and dry, to balance water needs around the state,” [Carrie Lile] said.

Roundtable member Bruce Whitehead said the state plan has focused on four things: water conservation (such as lawn watering); already identified projects and processes (IPPs) that could be completed (such as Front Range storage projects); “new supply,” which means more trans-mountain diversions; and buy and dry.

Whitehead said the Southwest Basin Roundtable and another entity called the Inter-Basin Compact Committee (IBCC) are pushing conservation and water projects to take pressure off ag and trans-mountain diversions. They also are adamant about preserving the state’s prior appropriation system and private water rights.

Whitehead cited consumptive use of water versus the preferred non-consumptive use where all or most of the water theoretically returns to the stream. From the West Slope perspective, trans-mountain diversions are 100 percent consumptive, he said. None of that water comes back.

“Our basin is more focussed on (the idea that) we can’t afford to continue to do business the way we have in the state,” Whitehead said.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

CWCB: Arkansas Basin decision support system development update

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A water resources planning tool for the Arkansas River basin continues to move ahead. Called a decision support system, the plan by the Colorado Water Conservation Board would give water users a common knowledge base to analyze the impacts of water projects and transfers.

The Arkansas River basin is behind the other three large basins in the state in developing the plan, because work was put on hold during the 24-year Kansas v. Colorado U.S. Supreme Court case over the Arkansas River Compact.

The Colorado River and Rio Grande decision support systems are in place, while the South Platte River model is nearly complete.

At its November meeting, the CWCB voted to ask the Legislature for $1 million toward the decision support system.

Previously, $1.25 million has been spent, including several projects looking at water modeling that came through the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, Fountain Creek projects and work by the state Division of Water Resources.

Total cost of the plan is estimated to be $7.59 million.

More CWCB coverage here.

Officials: Bach’s Fountain Creek plan falls short — The Pueblo Chieftain

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach’s solution for stormwater control falls far short of what Pueblo was promised in the years leading up to the approval of Southern Delivery System, local leaders say.

“I think it’s tragic and sad the city of Colorado Springs would treat its neighbors this way,” said Jay Winner, executive director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which is planning to sue Colorado Springs following the defeat of a regional drainage fee in the Nov. 4 election.

Bach on Monday proposed an extension of tax revenue bonds that would provide $40 million for stormwater over five years. That’s short of the critical $160 million and total $535 million in stormwater needs identified by Colorado Springs.

“The regional drainage fee would have raised nearly $40 million in one year,” Winner said.

Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart agreed that the amount is not sufficient. Bach’s proposal just aggravates the situation, given the mayor’s opposition to the regional drainage question, he said.

“Under his proposal, stormwater is lumped in with other issues. Our critical needs get lost in the excitement of other projects,” Hart said.

The commissioners hold the fate of Colorado Springs’ 1041 permit for SDS in their hands. Those conditions, written in 2009, are predicated on the existence of a stormwater enterprise to address flows on Fountain Creek.

“It’s too little money,” Hart said. “The ballot question was too little for the amount of work that needs to be done, but it was a good compromise.” Both Winner and Hart said Pueblo City Council needs to get involved as well, given that it is a party in a 2004 intergovernmental agreement that obligated Colorado Springs to support Pueblo issues if SDS were built.

“Where is the city of Pueblo during this? They have the most to lose from the continued mismanagement of Fountain Creek,” Winner said.

Meanwhile, a district dedicated to protecting Fountain Creek likely will bring up the topic at its Dec. 12 meeting in Pueblo.

“I don’t even call it a plan. It’s not even touching the problem,” said Larry Small, a former Colorado Springs City Council member who now is the executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. “The mayor’s proposal is absolutely irresponsible and does nothing to address the needs of the city.”

The district supported the regional drainage question and works with both Colorado Springs and Pueblo in flood control projects. The drainage fee was needed not only to meet the identified $700 million in backlogged projects, but new projects that are being identified on Monument Creek,” Small said.

“We’re still interested in a regional solution,” Small said. “The mayor’s proposal goes after non-needs, not prospective needs of the city.”

Last week, Colorado Springs City Council member Merv Bennett told the Lower Ark board that the council also is interested in reviving the regional approach.

Former Lower Ark board chairman John Singletary said Colorado Springs’ attempts to smooth the waters ring hollow. Singletary pushed the Colorado Springs Council in 2005 to institute a stormwater enterprise, then to fund it in 2007 and finally tried to urge the council not to abolish it in 2009.

“What their mayor’s talking about is a joke,” Singletary said. “It’s the same old problem. They need to be responsible and make sure the water quality is acceptable to Pueblo and everyone else downstream to the Kansas state line. This is just insulting to Pueblo.”

More stormwater coverage here.

Aspen puts the skids under proposed hydroelectric plant — council pulls funding for penstock

Micro-hydroelectric plant
Micro-hydroelectric plant

From the Aspen Times (Karl Herchenroeder):

The Aspen City Council reversed its decision to spend $750,000 on an emergency drainline associated with the controversial Castle Creek Energy Center on [November 9] after city staff admitted mistakes in communicating the issue to officials and the public.

To date, the city has invested about $7 million in the estimated $10.5 million hydro project, which was halted in 2012 when 51 percent of Aspen voters shot it down during an advisory election. The 3,900-foot drainline, which was originally intended to source the hydroelectric plant with water from Thomas Reservoir, is about 91 percent complete but is currently capped and inoperable.

On May 27, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources conducted a scheduled inspection, which found the reservoir to be a “significant hazard,” meaning damage is expected with a dam failure while the reservoir is at the high-water line. Aspen’s Utilities Manager Dave Hornbacher admitted Monday that he misrepresented the issue to the council in October, when he gave officials the impression that it was a safety issue and state recommendations called for the drainline.

“Clearly, I could have done a better job, and I sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or confusion or lack of diligence,” Hornbacher said.

Hornbacher explained that staff presented its recommendation as if it were based solely on the dam inspection, when in fact, officials also considered opportunities to address the potential for property damage near the drainline.

Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, who also admitted mistakes in his delivery to the council, made the case that staff was blinded by the opportunity to address two issues at once. He said that a question from the council that staff failed to respond to was, “How do we minimally meet the dam inspector’s requirements?”

More background from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism:

David Hornbacher, the city of Aspen’s director of utilities, acknowledged Friday he may have oversold the impact of a May 27 state dam safety report to the city council on Oct. 21, when he successfully convinced elected officials at a budget work session to approve $750,000 to complete the tail end of a big pipeline running from the bottom of Leonard Thomas Reservoir toward Castle Creek.

Hornbacher left the council with the distinct impression that the state was now requiring the city to complete the pipeline, originally envisioned as a penstock to a proposed hydropower plant, and now primarily seen as an “emergency drain line” for the city reservoir.

But, as it turns out, the state is not specifically requiring the city to finish its big pipeline, nor has it ever told the city the pipeline is required to safely operate the reservoir.

Erin Gleason is the state dam safety engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources who inspected the dam and reservoir in May. She wants documentation that the city can slowly draw down the reservoir through its existing low level outlet, which today directly feeds the city’s adjoining water treatment plant, or whether a bypass of the plant will be required.

“It might just be that I need information,” Gleason said.

After talking with Gleason on Friday, Hornbacher said he now intends to research whether the city can meet Gleason’s concerns by either using the reservoir’s current low-level outlet system, or if it can do so after some level of modification. He said he would prepare a range of options that compare cost and risk and bring them to council to discuss.

Hornbacher also said he would clarify things by describing two types of potential emergencies at the reservoir. The first is some type of structural threat to the dam, which would require the use of a low-level outlet to slowly draw down the reservoir. The proposed emergency drain line, if finished, would serve as a low-level outlet.

The second type is a a hydrologic event, such as losing control of the two feeder pipes that can bring up to 52 cfs of water to the reservoir, which requires the use of a spillway or an emergency drain line to deal with more water coming into the reservoir than it has the capacity to contain.

“We look forward to having a greater depth of discussion to solutions to a low-level outlet and a hydrologic event, and we look forward to a follow-up to have a detailed discussion about the options,” Hornbacher said.

Hornbacher said on Friday that he did not try to mislead the city council about the reservoir.

“My intent is to try and be factual and accurate and convey the information in an open and honest way,” Hornbacher said, pointing out that his answers were to questions at a budget work session, and he did not make a formal proposal.

And it’s fair to note that it is Hornbacher’s standing professional opinion that the city should complete the last 360 feet of the 4,000-foot-long pipeline installed before the proposed hydropower project ran into political turmoil and was mostly shelved by the city council.

He has consistently pointed out that the pipeline is a better way to move a lot of water out the reservoir than running it down the hillside just to the east of the reservoir. However, the city does routinely run 3 to 4 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water down the hillside toward the creek, but Hornbacher is concerned that a flow of 52 cfs could damage Castle Creek Road.

A water tight case?

At an Oct. 21 budget work session, Hornbacher was asked by council to answer questions about the $750,000 line item in the 2015 budget. (On meeting video, start at 26:52).

There was no staff memo on the topic and the May 27 dam inspector’s report was not in the public packet, nor was the last inspector’s report from April 2012.

However, the discussion turned toward the May report from Gleason.

“The report requires that we complete, or provide some level of a low-level drain line, or outlet, to this reservoir,” Hornbacher told the council. “Completing the drain line does provide that low-level outlet to the reservoir. So we do have an action item required by the dam safety division. If we do not comply with that in a method that is acceptable to them, then they are forced to take action. “

At another point, Hornbacher told the council, “We need a have plan in place, something that we can demonstrate within the next several years, 2017, that you know, we’ve got something already done or that we’re taking this tangible action,” Hornbacher said. “And certainly completing the drain line is that action. If we were to try to look at other mechanisms, that would either require us to make modifications at the reservoir or provide other types of facilities that could drain that reservoir.”

With that, and other statements, Hornbacher consistently backed-up to his professional recommendation that the city complete the pipeline. And he only mentioned in passing the existing low level outlet.

During public comment at city council on Oct. 27, Maurice Emmer, a former Aspen mayoral candidate and staunch opponent of the city’s hydro project, told the council that they should conduct their own research and not trust staff to give them all the information they might need to make a decision on projects such as Thomas Reservoir.

“Staff makes a proposal, then it gives city council information to support the proposal,” Emmer said. “It doesn’t give council information that might undercut the proposal.” (Meeting video starts at 19:01).

For example, Emmer pointed out that Hornbacher did not tell council that the dam had been inspected in 2012, or elaborate on how the existing low-level outlet might satisfy the state.

And Hornbacher did not know, when asked by Councilman Dwayne Romero, how often the state inspects dams.

“I was going to look that up and I didn’t,” Hornbacher said. “I would say it is somewhere between two to five years, I’m thinking it’s around three, which is why you know, we’ve got this report in 2017.”

The state historically has inspected dams classified as “high hazard” dams, which pose a threat to human life, every year. It inspects significant hazard dams, which only pose a threat to property, every other year, as in 2012 and 2014 in the case of Thomas Reservoir, which has been classified as a significant hazard dam since at least 2012.

It’s not clear why Hornbacher is citing a need to act by 2017, as Gleason, the dam inspector, said she would need proof of a low-level outlet by the next inspection, which is slated for 2016.

Hornbacher, when asked, also did not cite the date of the last dam inspection, which was April 4, 2012.

Thomas Leonard Reservoir was completed in 1966, although water had historically been stored on the site in wooden structures to feed an old hydro plant in the same location as the proposed plant.

In 1989, the state concluded the city’s dam was under 10 feet tall, and didn’t meet its definition of a “jurisdictional” dam. So they stopped inspecting it. At the time it was classified as low hazard dam.

Inspection reports in the early 1980s mention that the reservoir’s low-level outlet drains to the water treatment plant — and was considered acceptable.

In 2010, when the city went to install its new penstock/emergency drain line, it had to rebuild the north side of the reservoir to a height of 19 feet, which put the dam back under the state’s jurisdiction.

At that time, regulators saw that the dam, if breached, would damage some property below the reservoir, but not threaten any lives, and gave it a significant hazard classification. That did not change at the May inspection, as Hornbacher implied on Oct. 21.

As to the overall damage that would be caused if the dam failed, a 2011 report by the city’s consulting engineers, McLaughlin Water Engineers, stated that “it is unlikely that buildings or roads would receive extensive damage as a result of a dam breach at Leonard Thomas Reservoir.”

No other options?

By the time Hornbacher was through discussing the completion of the emergency drain line with council on Oct. 21, it was clear he had persuaded them that his proposal was the only safe and correct course of action for the city to take to meet the requirements of the May inspection report.

“So, summing it up for my purposes, this is a state-mandated action to put in this drain line?” Councilman Art Daily asked Hornbacher at the end of the discussion on Oct. 21.

In response to Daily, who is an attorney with Holland and Hart, Hornbacher seemed to choose his words carefully.

“The state mandates that we must have a low-level outlet,” Hornbacher said. “What we have available is a nearly completed low-level outlet, and that would meet the state requirements. So they are telling you, you have to do it. They don’t necessarily go and say this, this and this, is how.”

“But some sort of drain line has got to go in?” Daily asked.

“Yep, a low-level outlet has got to be established in there for emergency, you know, release of water or draining the reservoir,” Hornbacher said.

“I guess, then the last question that comes to my mind is, are there any more equally efficient but more cost effective means of resolving the state requirement versus … this is the best solution?” Daily asked.

“This is a really enduring and complete solution, and by that I mean that you’ve got this hardened route that takes it to the stream and empties into the stream without further erosion or damage there at the stream, you’ve sort of dissipated the energy,” Hornbacher said. “Any other option that you might pursue to get water out of that reservoir does not have such a direct route, so you’d be either placing that water in an unimproved, sort of drainage-like way, and movement of such water would then … start to erode, and cause other types of damage, and then … basically recovery costs or other impacts we can’t even foresee today.”

However, it is also possible that there may be simpler and less expensive ways to meet the state’s requirements for a low-level outlet, without completing the emergency drain line — which the state has never required the city to install. And that’s what Hornbacher said on Friday he is now looking into.

In fact, as Hornbacher briefly alluded to early in his remarks on Oct. 21, and confirmed on Friday, there is a low level outlet already in place at the reservoir, and it sends water to the water treatment plant, where it can then be released down to Castle Creek.

All the state is requiring of a low-level outlet at Thomas Reservoir is that it be able to move 1 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water out of the reservoir over a five-day period, which would lower the water level by five feet — a state standard that technically doesn’t even apply to reservoirs as small as Thomas Reservoir.

Under the “Outlet” section of her May 27 dam inspection report, Gleason wrote “it is our understanding that the only active outlet(s) discharge into the water treatment plant. According to Rule, a low-level outlet is required to draw down the reservoir under emergency conditions. Please either provide documentation of an existing bypass for treatment plant flows, or provide a low level outlet for the reservoir.”

May was the first time Gleason had inspected Thomas Reservoir. She inspected another 60 dams this summer and said she will review issues identified in those inspections throughout the winter.

As a state dam safety engineer, Gleason said she has wide latitude to work with dam owners, such as the city, to come up with reasonable solutions to concerns raised during inspections.

According to a safety manual published by the state in 2002, “follow-up of the inspection often includes reviewing questionable conditions on site with the dam owner, explaining the problems and suggesting the best and/or most economical way to proceed in assuring the dam’s safety. Frequently, further studies by a consulting engineer are recommended.”

“We work with the owner to make sure we are not requiring something that they can’t afford,” Gleason said. “The city could propose having a stand-by generator, a pump and a hose on site. Our office would typically accept such a solution.”

Hornbacher, in his response to Daily or other council members, did not bring up the pump-and-hose option.

Editor’s note: The Aspen Daily News collaborated with Aspen Journalism on this story and published in Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. Aspen Journalism was responsible for an error in the printed version of the Daily News story, as well as the initial digital version, as we said David Hornbacher is a licensed engineer, and he is not.

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here.