Cooperation keys latest pact to protect Lake Mead — Las Vegas Review Journal

Arizona Navy photo via California State University
Arizona Navy photo via California State University

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):

Eighty years ago, Arizona sent national guard troops in commandeered ferryboats to try to stop California from diverting more water from the Colorado River.

A lot has changed since the days of the “Arizona Navy.”

Now the two states have joined with Nevada on yet another cooperative effort aimed at saving drought-stricken Lake Mead by giving up some of their own hard-fought water resources.

The latest pact calls for the three states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to set aside 740,000 acre-feet of water over the next three years and up to 3 million acre-feet by 2020 to slow the decline of the shrinking reservoir.

If successful, the series of “pilot drought response actions” could keep the reservoir from dipping below a critical shortage line that would require Nevada and Arizona to cut their Colorado River use.

But the effort is about more than staving off the first-ever shortage declaration on the river, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. It’s part of what he called a “major evolution on the river,” which was once governed by bitter infighting and self-interest. Today, he said, water users seem to recognize “everybody’s stake in maintaining a healthy river system.”

“We’re all in this together,” Entsminger said, and keeping Lake Mead from shrinking too far “is good for everyone.”

“That mindset has been building over the past decade, in my opinion,” he said.

The new agreement was signed in Las Vegas late last week during the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association. Entsminger said it provides a basic road map for more specific plans that will be developed and negotiated starting early next year.

Arizona has committed to leaving 345,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next three years, while California would leave 300,000 acre-feet and Nevada would leave 45,000 acre-feet. Another 50,000 acre-feet will come from the Bureau of Reclamation through efficiency improvements, mostly at the southern end of the river where much of its flow is diverted for agriculture near the U.S.-Mexico border.

That initial 740,000 acre-feet of so-called “protection volumes” represents enough water to supply the Las Vegas Valley for more than three years. The larger goal of the new pilot program is to sock away 1.5 million to 3 million acre feet in Lake Mead over the next five years.

One acre-foot is enough to supply two average valley homes for more than a year. As a general rule, the surface of Lake Mead rises about one foot for every 100,000 acre-feet of additional water, so the program could restore 30 feet or more to a reservoir that has seen its surface drop by 130 feet since record drought took hold on the Colorado River in 2000…

Entsminger said Nevada can meet its 45,000 acre-foot commitment under the agreement without pumping a drop, since the Las Vegas Valley only consumes about 220,000 acre-feet of the state’s annual river allotment of 300,000 acre-feet. The authority also could pump some of its groundwater holdings in Coyote Springs Valley or use its surface water rights on the Virgin and Muddy rivers to help meet Nevada’s 45,000 acre-foot share.

The authority has left a portion of its unused Colorado River water behind to help boost Lake Mead for the past several years, he said.

Keeping Lake Mead from dropping is of particular concern in the Las Vegas Valley, which draws 90 percent of its water from the reservoir through two intake pipes that will stop working should the lake level fall below 1,000 feet above sea level.

The water authority is on track to finish a new, $817 million deep-water intake at Lake Mead by next summer. Authority board members signed off last week on plans to build a $650 million pumping station that will allow the new intake to continue working even if the lake drops more than 200 feet from where it is now.

The new agreement comes on the heels of another water-saving pact struck in July by the four largest communities fed by the river. The Colorado River System Conservation Program will pay farmers, cities and power plant operators to conserve, keeping the unused water in Lake Mead.

That program was seeded with $11 million from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Denver Water and the Bureau of Reclamation.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Lake Mead water levels via NOAA
Lake Mead water levels via NOAA

Snowpack news: Thanks Ullr, keep it coming, all basins up since last week

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal December 29, 2014
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal December 29, 2014

Small Hyrdo Is Renewable Energy The New Congress Might Just Get Behind — KUNC

Micro-hydroelectric plant
Micro-hydroelectric plant

From KUNC (Dan Boyce):

In the rugged peaks outside Silverton, Colorado sits a prime example of the future of hydropower. It’s not a behemoth new dam blocking one of America’s rivers, it’s a humming generator no bigger than a wheelbarrow, pulling in water from a mountain stream and making enough power for about two hot water heaters.

A fledgling industry is taking shape, focused on putting small electricity generation on already existing water infrastructure – known as small hydro. It’s a flurry of new economic activity Congress can take a lot of credit for and it’s an issue with opportunity for further political compromise as Republicans take control in the U.S. Senate.

The San Juan County Historical Society operates that small generator in Silverton. It’s attached to a water pipeline at a historic mill that the group was given about 15 years ago. Mill workers used the pipeline in the early 20th century to help process gold and silver ore mined in the neighboring mountains. When Society Chair Beverly Rich wanted to use the pipeline to generate electricity, the project originally stalled when she was told her generator would have to go through a federal licensing process akin to what would be required to build a new Hoover Dam.

Back in summer 2013, the Silverton mill project was a poster child in hearings on legislation meant to showcase an overly-burdensome federal regulatory process for small hydropower. It turned out to be persuasive to lawmakers.

“Incredibly enough, in this horrible time of gridlock, it passed unanimously,” Rich said of the bill.

President Obama went on to sign that and another major reform bill for small hydro. These laws dramatically streamlined the federal licensing process for projects like the mill. Cameron Brooks, a Boulder-based energy analyst, said the package of legislation hit a rare bipartisan sweet spot. For lawmakers on the right, the legislation shrank federal bureaucracy. On the left, it meant a win for renewable energy without building new dams on America’s rivers.

Fans of small hydropower are actually happy with Congress right now. Still, they are looking for more. Kurt Johnson, a Colorado-based hydropower consultant who testified at a congressional hearing for the 2013 bills, agrees that the bills have been very helpful in spurring more development of small hydro. Yet, he describes them as a kitchen knife gently cutting the government’s red tape, when what is really needed is a machete.

“If the projects are tiny and noncontroversial,” he said, “why is the federal government involved at all?”[…]

At the base of Button Rock Dam near Longmont, Colorado, there’s a surging jet of water launching from an outlet at least 50 feet into North St. Vrain Creek. Kurt Johnson, the hydro consultant, points to that as a “great example of an enormous amount of mechanical energy which is currently being completely wasted.”

There is no generator hooked up at the outlet of Button Rock Dam. If there was, it could power 500 homes. Ironically, a project of that size is still considered small hydro; in fact, a project more than double that size would be still be labeled as such. Johnson said a developer for Button Rock is in the early stages of the federal application process set out under the 2013 bills.

The Department of Energy estimates that if generators were put on all existing non-powered dams in the U.S., like Button Rock, it would create about as much power as a dozen large coal-fired power plants – or, put another way, enough electricity for at least four million homes.

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here.

New Mexico to add national park: Valles Caldera — the Associated Press

East Fork Jemez River Valles Caldera New Mexico via the Associated Press
East Fork Jemez River Valles Caldera New Mexico via the Associated Press

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Pueblo Chieftain:

The management experiment at Valles Caldera National Preserve is coming to an end as the National Park Service prepares to take over the 140-square-mile property in northern New Mexico.

The transition is among dozens of public land measures squeezed into the half-trillion-dollar defense bill signed by President Barack Obama on Friday, but details about how things will change at the preserve remain unclear.

The Park Service is taking on Valles Caldera and numerous other properties at a time when the agency is struggling with more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance at existing parks and monuments and is looking to boost entrance fees at parks across the nation to generate more revenue in advance of the agency’s centennial.

Can the agency afford what amounts to its largest expansion in nearly four decades?

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn says no. The Oklahoma Republican said on the Senate floor that expanding the park system was “a disastrous idea” and that the nation’s existing parks were falling apart.

Since Congress already authorized the new parks, Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said last week the agency’s job now is to find money within its existing budget as it investigates what resources will be needed to get the parks up and running. Those needs will be reflected in next year’s budget request.

Olson said the challenge of adding seven new parks in eight states is “part of what we do. We’re in the business of preserving special places for people to enjoy.”

At Valles Caldera, the transition is expected to take six months.

The preserve is home to vast grasslands, the remnants of one of North America’s few super volcanoes and one of New Mexico’s most famous elk herds. It’s also held sacred by Jemez Pueblo, a Native American community fighting in federal court to reclaim the land.

While Park Service officials say their job is to protect Valles Caldera and the new parks for future generations, the agency has acknowledged it’s facing a large backlog of maintenance projects and equipment shortages.

About 90 percent of all paved roads in the park system are in fair to poor condition, 28 bridges are considered structurally deficient and more than one-third of trails — about 6,700 miles — are in poor or seriously deficient condition.

At the same time, visits are up and the agency is dealing with more traffic and congestion.

Valles Caldera Executive Director Jorge Silva-Banuelos had his first meeting with regional park officials last week to discuss a master plan for trails at the preserve. Opening the property to more hiking, biking, snowshoeing, hunting and fishing was already in the works and Silva-Banuelos hopes that continues under the new management.

“It really is to me one of the most impressive landscapes in the Southwest, something that almost looks out of place,” he said. “It’s awe-inspiring.”