Drought news gallery: Five years of early February Drought Monitor maps

Click on a thumbnail graphic for a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

Upward is the only recent direction for C-BT share prices

Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities
Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities

From BizWest (Steve Lynn):

Prices of Colorado-Big Thompson water have reached an all-time high, selling for nearly three times more than just two years ago.

Shares of the water went for more than $26,000 apiece at an auction Jan. 23, according to Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the equivalent of $52,000 an acre foot. An acre foot equals 326,000 gallons, enough water to serve 2.5 households annually.

The water was bought for industrial and municipal uses, said Brian Werner, spokesman for the district. The identity of the buyer has not yet been disclosed.

The high prices are likely to cause concern in the agricultural world, where farm water traditionally has been lower priced. Residential homebuilders also are likely to feel the squeeze, as fees for new water taps rise.

“It’s fairly expensive water these days, if you can find it,” Werner said. “Some people can’t even find it.”[…]

Built originally in the 1930s to serve the region’s massive irrigated agriculture economy, shares in the C-BT gradually have been acquired by fast-growing cities and energy companies. Now the water is largely owned by cities, and leased back to farmers or others who seek to use it on a temporary annual basis.

How much water is associated with each share in the system changes each year and is based on how much water is derived from snowpacks and precipitation. This year, a share of water equals six-tenths of an acre foot since the Northern Water Board of Directors declared a 60 percent quota last April, meaning water-rights owners can use only 60 percent of the resource they own.

The high prices for water come despite record levels of water storage in October in the district’s reservoirs, which span Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley.

“Storage remained high throughout this year and through the winter,” Werner said.

As of Jan. 1, Colorado-Big Thompson had 665,000 acre feet of water in storage, 45 percent above normal, Werner said.

The higher levels stemmed from above-average snowpack, increased precipitation and less water delivered to water users. Flooding in September 2013 also replenished groundwater supplies in many areas.

Higher water storage may mean more water available to rent, but it may not affect water-rights prices, said Tom Cech, director of One World One Water at Metropolitan State University.

“The price of (Colorado-Big Thompson) water and other water rights in the region are directly tied to demand such as from energy development, water for fracking purposes, and then urban development,” Cech said. “Those are the two big drivers.”

Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water under high pressure deep underground to free oil and gas from dense shale formations. As energy companies benefit from the water, Cech said, agriculture has faced increasing challenges because of the high water prices.

“Irrigated agriculture is generally short of adequate water supplies,” he said. “In the wet years, there’s enough, but you always have the dry years around the corner.”

Slowing energy development because of lower oil prices could temper high water prices in the next year or so, he said. Oil and natural-gas drilling permits approved in Weld County remained flat during the third and fourth quarters amid falling oil prices, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Urban development, however, has shown no signs of abating. The population of Weld and Larimer counties is expected to grow from 580,000 to more than 1 million people by 2040.

“You have to have water supplies for the new residents, so developers and municipalities have to go out and acquire more water rights,” he said. “That should drive the price of water up.”

Developers in Northern Colorado cities such as Greeley already face higher tap fees when they have to rely on Colorado-Big Thompson water.

\If developers do not have water to supply their developments, they instead pay cash to use Greeley’s supply. Here also, rates have skyrocketed, with Greeley charging $25,000 per share in recent months, nearly triple the $9,000 per share it was charging in October 2012, according to Eric Reckentine, the city of Greeley’s deputy director of water resources.

Mike DiTullio, district manager for the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, said the higher prices are making new homes increasingly expensive. He said he closed a deal in January for 200 units of Colorado-Big Thompson water – for about $5 million, at $25,000 per share.

The higher water prices will not affect rates of existing residential customers, DiTullio said. Instead, new homeowners and developers will foot the bill. The water district serves about 16,000 customers in Larimer County.

“That increase in raw water costs is paid for by new houses,” he said. “There’s no such thing as affordable housing in Larimer and Weld counties.”

Snowpack news: South Platte Basin = 103% of normal (best in state), Rio Grande = 62%

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal via the NRCS

From Aspen Public Radio (Marci Krivonen):

In the dry month of January, snowpack levels in nearly every river basin in Colorado declined. In the Roaring Fork Valley, not only did the amount of snow diminish but drought conditions returned.

The U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday puts the Western Slope in the “abnormally dry” category, including the majority of Eagle and Pitkin Counties and all of Garfield County. “Abnormally dry” is the least severe of five categories.

The latest snowpack report shows the Roaring Fork Watershed sits at 90 percent of normal – less than last year at this time, but significantly more snow than two years ago. Sarah Johnson is with the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

“It’s important to remember that even though our snowpack numbers are behind right now, I think the high country is holding the snow that it’s received and I think the warm temperatures are mostly affecting our valley floor. The snow that we have received is sticking around, which is really important because that snow in the high country determines our streamflow later in the spring and summer.”

The snowpack typically peaks in April, leading to peak river flows in June. Early season melting could lead to diminished water supplies and increased wildfire risk. There’s still time to catch up. March normally brings the wettest snow of the year.

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Last year wasn’t the hottest on record for Aspen, according to daily maximum and minimum temperature data stretching back to 1940, but data shows a definitive long-term trend toward significant warming, according to Jaime Cundiff, forest program director for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

The number of annual frost-free days has soared since the 1950s and the number of consecutive frost-free days also is trending higher, Cundiff said. Snowpack levels vary from year to year with no definitive trend, but evidence shows that the snowpack is melting out sooner in the spring, she said. And the number of winter days with temperatures at or below zero is falling, creating more mild winters.

All of those factors have consequences for the environment, Cundiff said. Frost-free days, for example, can affect the budburst of vegetation and the overall species composition of an area.

ACES is analyzing weather and snowpack data for Aspen, among other mounds of data, as part of its Forest Health Index — an ongoing project to monitor a wide range of interlocking environmental conditions that affect forest health.

As part of the study, ACES found that the number of frost-free days in Aspen increased from an average of 73 per year in the 1950s to 99 in the 1990s and 107 in the 2000s.

Aspen also is experiencing milder winters. In the 1940s, there was an average of 35 days per year at or below 0 degrees during the 1940s. That fell to an average of 15 days per year during the 2000s.

“Extreme low temperatures are understood to play an important role in forest ecology,” the Forest Health Index said. “For instance, hard freezes are believed to help control insect-related disturbances such as the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation. Changes in extreme cold also serve as a broader indicator of change to the region’s climate.”

The index also found, in general, that the Aspen-area snowpack starts melting a week earlier in the spring and reaches the half-way melt-out period about one week sooner in the summer than it did in earlier decades.

A second report, Climate Change and Aspen, prepared by the Aspen Global Change Institute for the city of Aspen, noted many of the same environmental trends.

“For Aspen, climate change will likely include longer summertime warm periods, earlier onset of spring snowmelt, more precipitation arriving as rain rather than snow, and longer dry periods with heavier precipitation events in between,” said the report, released in December. “These types of changes could exacerbate already risky wildfire conditions, place extra pressure on already stretched water providers and users, provide additional challenges to ski area operators and other winter and summer recreation providers, as well as result in other impacts to every sector important to the Aspen community.”

Cundiff said the Forest Health Index places more stock in extremes, such as number of days with high and low temperatures rather than average annual temperatures. Statistics for any given year aren’t really useful. It’s trends that the index is seeking.

Nevertheless, she analyzed maximum and minimum daily temperatures for Aspen since 1940 and found that the average annual temperature between 1940 and 2014 was 41.44 degrees. The average for 2014 alone was 42.71 degrees. However, 2014 didn’t stand out. Several other years were at or above that temperature, she said. So, climate change didn’t make 2014 the hottest on record for Aspen, but trends show global warming is stressing Aspen’s environment.

From InkStain (John Fleck):

Today’s high in Durango was 59F (15C), 18 degrees above the 1981-2010 average for Feb. 8. In the mountains to the east – the mountains that provide Albuquerque’s San Juan-Chama drinking water – the snow has already begun to melt.

The snowpack there is lousy to begin with – 62 percent of normal for this time of year at the sites measured with automated SNOTEL gauges. But the first week of February is ridiculously early for the Azotea Tunnel, which brings SJC water under the continental divide and drops it into the Rio Grande Basin, to begin flowing.

It’s not a lot of water right now, a peak of ~23 cubic feet per second this morning. But the normal for this time of year is zero, and the tunnel typically doesn’t break 20cfs until the second week in March. This is basically a month early…

The worry here is not early melt. We’ve had that pattern for a while, with more of the snowmelt coming in March-May, and less in June and July. The early melt water coming through the tunnel will end up in Heron Reservoir, part of usable supply for Albuquerque and the other SJC water users. The worry is that weather this warm, dry and early could start a round of early sublimation – snow evaporating into the dry air before it has a chance to melt.

The vast potential of small hydropower — Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Micro-hydroelectric plant
Micro-hydroelectric plant

From Inside Energy via The Durango Herald:

A prime example of the future of hydropower is perched in the rugged peaks outside of Silverton.

This is no 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 to serve 10 homes.

“I think the days of the megaprojects in hydropower are gone,” said Boulder-based energy analyst Cameron Brooks.

Instead, a fledgling industry is taking shape, focused on putting small electricity generation on already existing non-powered hydro infrastructure. It’s a flurry of new economic activity for which Congress can take much credit, 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 an 8-kilowatt plant near the historic Mayflower Mill that overlooks the Animas River about a mile northeast of downtown Silverton. The group was given the mill site about 15 years ago.

Millworkers used the pipeline in the early 20th century to help process gold and silver ore mined in the neighboring mountains.

Historical society chairwoman Beverly Rich wanted to use the pipeline to generate electricity. Yet, the project stalled when she was told her generator would have to go through a federal licensing process akin to what would be required if the historical society wanted to build a new Hoover Dam.

In the summer of 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. The hearing proved persuasive to lawmakers.

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

President Barack 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.

Brooks 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.

Fans of small hydropower are actually happy with Congress right now. Still, they are looking for more.

Kurt Johnson is a Colorado-based hydropower consultant who testified at a congressional hearing for the 2013 bills. He agrees that the new laws 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 really is needed is a machete.

For Johnson, it shouldn’t just be a matter of reducing the licensing process.

“If the projects are tiny and non-controversial,” he asked, “why is the federal government involved at all?”

Johnson said 97 percent of the nation’s nearly 80,000 dams currently do not have hydropower, showing the scope of the opportunity. But to really make it happen will require more congressional slashing of remaining red tape.

Removing all federal oversight may be a tall order even for this new Republican-controlled Congress.

However, hydropower legislation likely will make a reappearance. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is set to be the new chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Her office declined multiple interview requests for this story, but she’s on record calling hydropower an under-developed resource, saying more hydro could support economic growth and create jobs. As far as the country’s energy needs, there is vast potential.

Johnson recently met for an interview at the base of Button Rock Dam near Longmont, where a surging jet of water was launching at least 50 feet into North St. Vrain Creek.

“This is a great example of an enormous amount of mechanical energy which is currently being completely wasted,” he said.

There is no generator hooked up at the outlet of Button Rock Dam. If there were, it could power 500 homes.

A project of that size is considered small hydro; in fact, a project more than double that size would 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., such as Button Rock, it would create about as much power as a dozen large coal-fired power plants – or, to put it another way, enough electricity for at least 4 million homes.

The Durango Herald brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Inside Energy is a reporting collaborative led by Rocky Mountain PBS. Email Dan Boyce at danboyce@rmpbs.org.

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here.

USBR: Additional FY 2015 Funding of $96.9 Million Available

From the US Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López today released the spending plan for $96.9 million provided to Reclamation in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015. The funds will go toward Western drought response and rural water projects, among other important activities.
“Reclamation and its partners are confronting a growing gap between supply and demand in river basins throughout the West,” López said. “The funding released today will help us meet immediate needs and support long-term infrastructure and environmental needs of key water projects.”

The funding is divided among six areas:

  • Western drought response ($50 million),
  • rural water projects ($31 million),
  • water conservation and delivery ($8 million),
  • fish passage and fish screens ($4 million),
  • facility operation, maintenance and rehabilitation ($2.9 million),
  • environmental restoration and compliance ($1 million).

Extreme and prolonged drought has gripped major river basins across the West. In many areas, mountain snowpack is far below average for this time of year. The $50 million provided for Western drought response will address seven projects:

  • Central Valley Project, which includes funding for the Delta Division, Friant Division, Shasta Division and water and power operations, California ($19.9 million);
  • WaterSMART Grants, Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse Program, and Drought Response and Comprehensive Drought Planning ($14 million);
  • Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Response Action Plan, California, Arizona and Nevada ($8.6 million);
    Native American Programs ($4 million);
  • Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project, Washington ($2 million);
  • Lewiston Orchards Project, Idaho ($1 million);
  • Carlsbad Project, New Mexico ($500,000).

Reclamation based its Western drought funding on a thorough review at national, regional and program levels, to ensure a balanced approach. In some cases the funding allows Reclamation to accelerate selected projects to meet high-priority needs sooner than it would in absence of the new funding. In other cases it allows Reclamation to respond immediately to many of the West’s most critical drought-related needs.

Reclamation is also advancing the completion of its authorized rural water projects with the goal of delivering potable water to tribal and non-tribal residents within the rural water project areas. A total of $31 million will go toward five projects:

  • Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program – Garrison Diversion Unit, North Dakota ($10.3 million);
  • Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Rural Water System, Montana ($6.8 million);
  • Fort Peck Reservation/Dry Prairie Rural Water System, Montana ($6.6 million);
  • Lewis and Clark Rural Water System, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota ($6.6 million);
  • Eastern New Mexico Water Supply, New Mexico ($700,000).

The remaining $15.9 million will go toward nine projects:

  • fish screen and restoration projects in the Central Valley Project, California ($2.5 million);
  • Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project at Cle Elum Dam, Washington ($1.5 million);
  • agricultural water use efficiency projects within the Central Valley Project, California ($5 million);
  • Endangered Species Recovery Implementation Program on the Platte River, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming ($2 million);
  • water conservation projects on Rogue River Basin Project, Oregon ($1 million);
  • water leasing for supplemental water on the Middle Rio Grande ($1 million);
  • rehabilitation work at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery and Keswick Dam Powerplant in the Central Valley Project, California ($1.3 million);
  • renovation of the Olmsted Powerplant, Utah ($1 million);
  • repairs on the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Project, ($650,000).

Visit http://www.usbr.gov/budget/ to view a summary of all the projects in this spending plan.