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.

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