“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits” — Amy Beatie

Screen shot from Peter McBride's video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is
Screen shot from Peter McBride’s video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is

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

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board unanimously agreed Thursday to approve a $45,000 grant to help the East Mesa Water Co. repair an irrigation ditch on the Crystal River as long as the ditch company agrees to talk with the county about ways to leave more water in the river.

The grant comes with the condition “that the shareholders of the East Mesa Ditch agree to engage with the river board and consider working with Pitkin County on matters of irrigation efficiency and measures to protect instream flows and the free-flowing nature of the Crystal River.”

The condition was left broad, as there are no routine ways in Colorado to improve an irrigation system and then leave any saved water in a river despite the fact that 86 percent of the water diverted from Colorado’s rivers is for agriculture.

On Friday, Dennis Davidson, a consultant helping East Mesa secure funding for the ditch-repair project, said the 12 shareholders in the ditch company would likely accept the county’s condition.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” said Davidson, who had not conferred with the shareholders yet. “There is no reason for them not to talk with them.”

After presenting to the river board Nov. 20, Marty Nieslanik, president of East Mesa Water Co., said, “I think all of us we want to see the river healthy, too. I mean, it’s not like we’re trying to hog all the water; it just takes water to do what we do.

“We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

The East Mesa Ditch repair project includes shoring up a collapsing tunnel and installing 1,200 feet of new pipe. The project is still being engineered, and the projected cost is now $700,000.

East Mesa has raised $410,000 for the project from state and federal sources so far. That does not include the river board’s $45,000 grant, which still must be approved by the Pitkin County commissioners, who are set to review it Jan. 6.

The repairs to the ditch are not expected to result in more water for the river, but other improvements, such as piping or lining more sections, installing high-tech control gates and using sprinklers in fields, could likely save water.

The 8.5-mile-long ditch irrigates 740 acres of land southeast of Carbondale. Of the 740 acres, 180 acres are under a conservation easement either through Pitkin County Open Space and Trails or the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

East Mesa is the second-largest diversion on the Crystal River, which in summer can run well under the environmental minimum set by the state of 100 cubic feet per second.

The ditch has two water rights that allow it divert as much as 42 cfs of water. One right is from 1904 and is for 32 cfs. The second is from 1952 and is for 10 cfs.

Pitkin County’s river board, created in 2008, is funded with a 0.1 percent sales tax, which is expected to generate $850,000 in 2015. The board has budgeted $150,000 for grants next year.

The board is charged with “improving water quality and quantity” in the Roaring Fork River watershed and “working to secure, create and augment minimum stream flows” in conjunction with nonprofits and government agencies. The board also can improve and construct “capital facilities.”

While the vote to award East Mesa the grant was unanimous, some board members questioned whether fixing an irrigation ditch was consistent with the board’s mission.

“Our job isn’t supporting ag and open space,” said Andre Wille, the chairman of the board. “Agriculture and healthy rivers are two different things.”

But board member Bill Jochems supported the grant, saying it could increase support among irrigators for federal protection of the upper Crystal River.

And board member Dave Nixa suggested that East Mesa talk to the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, which works with water-rights owners to find ways to leave water in rivers.

“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the water trust, who was pleased Friday with the river board’s decision.

Rick Lofaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, is working with irrigators in the Crystal River Valley as part of developing a management plan for the river.

“The goodwill and the momentum this could create could really be precedent-setting,” Lofaro told the river board Thursday.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Meanwhile, he East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for dough to pipe the ditch, according to this article from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism:

The East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for a $45,000 grant to help cover the $550,000 cost of installing 1,450 feet of new pipe in the 8.5-mile-long East Mesa Ditch.

The irrigation ditch can divert up to 42 cubic feet per second of water out of the Crystal River 9 miles above Carbondale, but it typically diverts about 32 cfs.

The proposed East Mesa Ditch project entails installing 48-inch plastic pipe on a failing section of the irrigation ditch that includes an 80-year-old, 650-foot-long tunnel and a hillside that often sheds rock and mud down toward the ditch.

The work will keep the ditch functioning but won’t result in more water being left in the Crystal River, which is a goal of the county river board.

“As a board, with our mission, we’d like to keep as much water in the river as we can,” Andre Wille, the chair of the county river board, said Nov. 20 during the review of the East Mesa application. “If we can improve the efficiency of that ditch, and leave the rest in the river, that would be in our interest.”

Dennis Davidson, a consultant for East Mesa Water Co. with more than 40 years experience at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said there would be “minimal” water added to the river from the repair project, as it only included adding 1,450 feet of pipe to a 8.5-mile-long ditch.

But, he noted, if the ditch were fully piped, which he said would cost $20 million, there would be water savings.

“If we lined the East Mesa Ditch from beginning to end, we would probably get by diverting 50 percent of the water that we divert,” Davidson told the river board.

The ditch “loses as much as 35 percent of the water in the ditch due to seepage through the course and rocky soil,” according to a feasibility study from East Mesa submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in a funding application.

The East Mesa Ditch typically runs the first two weeks of May until about mid-October. It sends water to 740 acres of land between 1 and 5 miles south of Carbondale, most if it with big views of Mount Sopris and some of it protected with conservation easements.

The water is used for cattle ranching, and growing nursery trees, forage crops and hay.

On paper, the East Mesa Ditch is the second biggest diversion on the lower Crystal.

The largest diversion on the river is the Sweet Jessup Canal, which can divert 75 cfs. It is located about a mile-and-a-half upstream from the East Mesa diversion structure.

When the Sweet Jessup, the East Mesa and the Lowline Ditch, which is just downstream of East Mesa, are all diverting, water levels in the Crystal River often drop well below the environmental minimum of 100 cfs set by the state.

According to a study done by consultant Seth Mason in 2012, the river below the diversions dropped to 4 cfs Sept. 4 and to 1 cfs Sept. 22, 2012.

“Near complete dewatering of the stream channel was observed through much of September at Thomas Road and near the Garfield/Pitkin County line,” Mason, with Lotic Hydrological, LLC, said in his 2012 report.

Need to divert all the water?

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior water right for 32 cfs that dates back to 1894 and a second water right for 10 cfs from 1942.

Davidson told the river board that in his experience in the Roaring Fork River Valley, 20 cfs is usually enough to irrigate 800 acres of land.

As the East Mesa Ditch typically diverts 32 cfs to irrigate 740 acres, does that mean there is as much as 12 cfs of water that could potentially be left in the river and still allow for adequate irrigation?

No, according to Marty Nieslanik, president of the East Mesa Water Co.

He said the full 32 cfs of water needs to be diverted today to act as “push water” to convey water to the end of the long irrigation ditch.

“We figure we lose two feet of water from our head gate to the last person who takes it out,” Nieslanik said.

He also said that some of the diverted water also returns to the river.

“After it dumps out at our ranch, it comes down the draw and drops in right below the fish hatchery,” Nieslanik said. “So that’s why you see the big difference as you drive down the Crystal, it’s almost dry and then all of a sudden there is a lot of water there.”

Nieslanik told the river board that the company was “trying to make our water go further.”

“If we can get that whole mesa irrigated with 25 feet of water, we may let six or eight of water go by to help the river maintain its levels,” he said.

“It would be good to understand the benefits,” river board member Lisa Tasker told Nieslanik about the project. “We are very interested in the natural hydrograph and trying to mimic that as best as possible.

“Speaking for myself, I would love to leave a little bit of water coming down the river to help the river out, if we could somehow make that happen,” Neislanik said after the meeting. “We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

Money for water

The East Mesa Water Company is on track to raise $410,000 toward its ditch-repair project, whether or not the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board agrees to a grant.

The company will receive a $300,000 grant from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service when the work is complete.

It has secured a $60,000 grant from the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado River District. And it has requested a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Soil Conservation Board.

The company also has obtained a $375,000 loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is to serve as a bridge loan until the project is complete and grant funds come in, Davidson said.

There are 12 shareholders in the East Mesa Water Co., and 1,003 shares have been issued to them, based on the size of their land holdings. Owners are assessed an annual fee of $15 a share, which brings in $15,000 a year. The company has no debt.

“The East Mesa Water Co. operates on assessments of the water users,” according to the feasibility study given to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “For many years, the ditch company has kept the assessments as low as possible as many of the users are just getting by.”

The largest shareholders in the company include Paul Nieslanik, who owns 200 shares, John Nieslanik, who owns 185 shares, Tom Bailey, whose Iron Rose Ranch owns 185 shares and Richard McIntrye, who owns 168 shares.

Marty Nieslanik told the county the hay grown with water from the East Mesa ditch was worth about $500,000 a year under a calculation of four tons of hay per acre, on 740 acres, at $170 per ton.

At the end of Nieslanik’s presentation, the members of the Healthy Rivers and Stream Board agreed to meet in December to continue to review East Mesa’s application.

The Healthy Rivers and Streams Board will next consider the East Mesa application Thursday at 4 p.m. in Pitkin County’s Plaza 1 meeting room.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

More Crystal River coverage here.

Snowpack news: The Westwide SNOTEL is showing blue and green hues in the central and north basins

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal December 26, 2014 via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal December 26, 2014 via the NRCS

Click here to explore the Snow Map Products available from the National Water and Climate Center (NRCS).

Northern Water plans hydropower plant at the base of Granby Dam

Granby Dam via Reclamation
Granby Dam via Reclamation

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Hank Shell):

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District plans to construct a hydropower plant at the base of Granby Dam.

“It’s economically feasible to put a little power plant on the outlet structure there, so we’re going to move forward with it,” said Brian Werner with Northern Water.

The Granby Hydropower Project could generate a maximum of 7 million kilowatt-hours per year, Werner said.

Revenues from the station could reach $390,000 annually, according to documents from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The project will use existing releases from Granby Dam to the Colorado River.

Northern Water plans to sell the power generated at the station to Mountain Parks Electric Inc., Werner said.

“This fits in well with those producers that have to have green power,” he said…

Construction on the new plant could begin in summer of 2015, Werner said.

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here.

Water Values podcast: Advocating for Water Efficiency with Mary Ann Dickinson

Silt water plant to be powered by sun — Rifle Citizen Telegram

Silt water plant solar array photo via the Rifle Citizen Telegram
Silt water plant solar array photo via the Rifle Citizen Telegram

From the Rifle Citizen Telegram (Heather McGregor):

Crews are setting foundations, erecting racks and installing solar panels in a wave of activity at the Silt Water Treatment Plant. The 234-kilowatt solar array is slated to be in service and powering the plant by Dec. 31, according to Katharine Rushton, commercial sales associate for Sunsense Solar.

The new solar array will offset 100 percent of the plant’s electrical use on an annual basis.

It’s being financed with a power purchase agreement and renewable energy credits from Xcel Energy, so it cost the town just $3,500 in upfront fees.

The solar system will save the town an estimated $102,000 over the next 20 years, or about 15 percent of the plant’s total annual electric costs, and it will lock in electric rates for 20 years.

Work on the project started Nov. 3. It’s the first of three major solar energy systems being installed in Garfield County in 2014 and 2015 by Sunsense, a Carbondale solar developer and contractor. Together, the systems will add up to 1 megawatt of renewable energy capacity.

Next up after the Silt project are arrays that will power the Battlement Mesa Metro District water treatment plant and Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.

The Silt array includes 756 solar panels, each capable of generating 310 watts of electricity. A bank of eight inverters will convert the direct current electricity to alternating current, so the power can be used by the plant’s equipment or fed back onto the Xcel Energy power grid.

Facing a tight, two-month timeline, the crews are closely following each other for all three phases of building the ground-mounted array, Rushton said.

The foundation contractor, Lyons Fencing of Rifle, set the footers. The Sunsense crew erected the framework and solar panels, and is now finishing off the electrical wiring. Expert Electric of Rifle is handling the alternating current aspects of the project.

Sunsense is also partnering with Garfield Clean Energy to install an energy data logger at the plant as part of the project. It will measure electricity use and solar production in 15-minute intervals for display on the Garfield Building Energy Navigator website.

More water treatment coverage here.

Top NatGeo photo of 2014 is from Colorado — Jeremy Moore

Another wild year in water: Droughts, dust and fighting future floods all played a role — The Pueblo Chieftain

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The year began with towering tumbleweeds and dust storms as drought gripped Southern Colorado for the fourth consecutive year.

By late spring the snow was piling up and a decent runoff was expected for a change. Thunderstorms arrived in July, washing out three large canals in the Arkansas Valley. Weather began to follow more typical patterns and snow started falling by mid-October.

At year’s end, precipitation was slightly below the long-term average.

Whether the weather is back to “normal” remains anyone’s guess.

While it’s easy to talk about forces of nature, the news on the water beat usually occurs from the human response and preparation for future events. Here are the top stories of 2014 from a water reporter’s perspective:

1. Fountain Creek and stormwater woes

The festering issue of flood control on Fountain Creek gushed forth after El Paso County voters rejected the proposed Pikes Peak Drainage district in the November election. The district would have tackled regional stormwater projects with a 20-year funding stream of $37 million per year.

Pueblo County commissioners, District Attorney Jeff Chostner and the Lower Arkansas Valley Conservancy District reacted angrily to the outcome because El Paso County officials had assured them for the past two years that voters would be receptive to the idea. At least one lawsuit is in the works.

There were no major floods on Fountain Creek this year, although the logs and debris from past floods still leave the creek “logged and loaded” for the next flood.

The Fountain Creek Flood Control and Greenway District continues to study building either a dam or a series of detention ponds to protect Pueblo from floodwaters that will surge more violently because of upstream development.

On a positive note, the district sponsored the first community cleanup of Fountain Creek this year, which yielded 6.7 tons of trash thanks to the efforts of 625 volunteers in Pueblo and El Paso counties.

2. Arkansas River levee to be rebuilt

The Pueblo Conservancy District set in motion a plan to rebuild and lower the Arkansas River levee, a $15 million project that could be completed in three years. The levee, built 90 years ago, is starting to fall apart. Because Pueblo Dam was built about 40 years ago, the levee no longer has to be as tall.

The new levee will be about 12 feet shorter.

The project comes with some side issues.

After the district established a fee and expanded boundaries to include the whole county, the state Legislature in 2014 expanded its board to nine members and changed how they were appointed.

Rebuilding the levee will mean that the world’s largest mural, some parts more faded than others, will be destroyed. The district has undertaken efforts to preserve it in a visual record with high-resolution photography.

3. State water plan action

It seemed like everyone had an opinion on the future of Colorado’s water as 13,000 comments and 11,000 form letters were collected on the state’s water plan.

The plan also got input from nine basin roundtables, which developed implementation plans to address more local impacts. The Arkansas Basin Roundtable hosted 17 meetings in every region of the basin.

In early December, the draft state water plan was presented to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Lawmakers, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Interbasin Compact Committee and the roundtables will work to finalize the plan by December 2015.

4. Summer rains return

Rain replaced fire as the major summer hazard in 2014.

At least 15 drownings were reported in the Arkansas River basin that occurred as a result of high water. The Colorado Canal, Otero Canal and Catlin Canal all broke during heavy rain that sheeted off the prairie into already full ditches.

Rain on the Southern Delivery System pipeline scar across Walker Ranches caused heartburn for rancher Gary Walker.

Rain, of course, is always welcome. Farmers reported better crops, but lower prices in a business that always finds a way to achieve equilibrium. The prairies looked green for the first time in four years, even if much of it was weeds.

For city folks, lawn watering became less problematic.

5. Lake Minnequa revival

Take one depleted lake, add 68 million gallons of water, 12,000 bluegills and 1,000 channel catfish; mix thoroughly with a fishing pole. Voila!

You’ve got a fishing hole.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, EVRAZ Steel and the city of Pueblo teamed up to bring water and fish to the lake, which had shrunk during the drought. The action came through the persistent advocacy of former City Councilman Ray Aguilera, who worked for years to make the area a city park.

Many features of the park already are in place, thanks to a Great Outdoors Colorado grant awarded in late 2004 and subsequent local action.

The lake itself was once filled by the steel company, but now relies chiefly on stormwater from the city’s South Side. A pipeline completed in 2013 from the St.

Charles Reservoir to the south now gives the city an easier way to replenish the lake and keep it from running quite so dry.

6. Dust and tumbleweeds

It’s easy to forget how 2014 began. Let’s face it, most of us want to. Snow and rainfall stayed just about average for the entire year, but the damage from past years was evident.

Until April, there were constant dust storms: Sometimes daily, sometimes all-day. While the term “haboob” technically applies to perennial storms in North Africa, Arabia and India, such dust storms have become so common in Southeastern Colorado that term is catching on locally. The National Weather Service began issuing dust storm warnings this year in recognition of the phenomenon.

You can still see mile after mile of tumbleweeds along area roadways. La Junta even fashioned some of its bounty into a Christmas tree.

Pueblo County spent more than $250,000 removing them, while landowners smashed, hauled and burned tons of the invasive vegetation.

7. Southern Delivery System

When Pueblo West had the opportunity to turn on its new source of water from SDS early, it was a real turn-off for three newly elected metro board members.

A draft agreement raised the hackles of board members in May when former Pueblo West manager Jack Johnston proposed discussing it executive session. Board member Mark Carmel said the proposal apparently required Pueblo West to do some of the heavy regulatory lifting under Pueblo County’s 1041 rules for its SDS partner, Colorado Springs. Lew Quigley and Judy Leonard agreed with him. The three voted in August to fire Johnston, without much public explanation.

Meanwhile SDS marched toward completion, with nearly all of the underground pipeline installed through Pueblo County and work continuing on the Juniper Pump Station below Pueblo Dam.

8. Water for marijuana

Even water got a buzz off marijuana in 2014, the first year for recreational sales in Colorado.

Because marijuana remains a federal crime, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued rules requiring its managers to report instances where federal water is used to grow weed to the Justice Department. It also pointedly excluded water that is commingled in federal facilities like Lake Pueblo.

By year’s end, Pueblo West, Pueblo and St. Charles Mesa all allowed some of their supplies to be used to grow pot. Pot growers also filed substitute water supply plans with the state that allow wells to be pumped on pot farms.

9. Arkansas Valley Conduit

After delays caused by the 2013 government shutdown, the $400 million Arkansas Valley Conduit got final approval from Reclamation in February.

Now the trick is to get funding from Congress for the project, which will serve 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo. Funding totaled $2 million for the 2014 fiscal year.

10. Pueblo’s water rates

Water rates in Pueblo will go up 3.25 percent in 2015, keeping them lower than any major Front Range city. The low rate is possible because of nearly $9 million in water leases, roughly one-fourth of the total revenue.

Major projects of the Pueblo Board of Water Works in 2015 will include continuation upgrades to automated meters, large main replacements Downtown and legal work to change the use of Bessemer Ditch rights the board purchased in 2009.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.