The latest newsletter from the Water Center at CMU is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver

Colorado River Basin
Colorado River Basin

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

A low snowpack across the Upper Colorado River Basin has led to projections of below-average inflows into Lake Powell, but management guidelines indicate releases from Powell of at least 8.23 million acre feet, back up from last year’s historically low 7.48 million acre foot release. The most recent Bureau of Reclamation discussion of current data, projections & operations can be found here.

Other river basins face same challenges as the Arkansas — The Pueblo Chieftain #COWaterPlan

Basin roundtable boundaries
Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Around the state, water planners are trying to save agriculture and the environment while accommodating existing urban growth rates.

At the same time, there is no new water and there may be less to work with in the future.

It’s a puzzle that the Arkansas Basin Roundtable has struggled with for 10 years, since its formation in 2005 with the charge to work out water problems within the basin and with other basins.

This week, the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum heard from four other roundtables and learned their conundrums sound a lot like ours.

Without some sort of alternative plan, the South Platte River basin could dry up half of its irrigated acres in agriculture as the population increases to 6 million from 3.5 million by 2050, said Joe Frank, chairman of the South Platte Basin Roundtable.

“We definitely have a target on our back, just as you have for several years in the Arkansas basin,” Frank said. “We have existing ag shortages, and most of what we’ve done is to try to find a way so upstream projects don’t affect downstream users.”

John McClow, who represents the Gunnison River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the basin wants to protect its current water uses — both from changes in weather that could lead to a declining supply and from export to other basins.

The water is the basis for both agriculture and recreation, the main industries of the basin.

“We don’t say ‘not one more drop’ anymore. Well, some still do. But we’ve come a long way. We urge responsible development,” McClow said.

While the Rio Grande basin no longer is a target for water export, it is struggling to deal with declining groundwater levels and predictions that its surface water supply will decrease by 30 percent in the future, said Mike Gibson, chairman of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

“We need to live within our means and recognize that agriculture is critical to our economy,” Gibson said.

The Colorado River basin also is concerned about climate change, and for years has tried to draw a line against more exports.

Transmountain diversions total 450,000-600,000 acre-feet (146-195 billion gallons) of water every year — decreasing both the initial supply and return flows for Western Slope rivers, said Jim Pokrandt, chairman of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.

“We think conservation should be a high priority,” Pokrandt said, adding that Western Slope municipal users need to cut back, too. “We want to create solutions in-basin to achieve the maximum degree possible.”

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.

Westminster’s Answer to a Catch-22 of Water Conservation — National Geographic


From the National Geographic (Sandra Postel):

A few years ago, the town of Westminster, Colorado, just north of Denver, came eye-to-eye with an issue many water-conserving cities face when a resident posed this question at a public meeting, “Why do you ask me to conserve, and then raise my rates?”

With droughts dotting the country and a growing number of areas facing water shortages in the years ahead, conservation is a core strategy for meeting present and future water demands.

Yet water utilities often find themselves in a conundrum: how to encourage households to reduce their water use without (1) losing vital revenue to maintain their water systems or (2) facing a public outcry over the raising of water rates.

Much of the money needed to expand and upgrade water infrastructure – from pipes and pumps to treatment plants – comes from selling water. By some estimates, fixing and expanding the nation’s water infrastructure will require at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

It seems like a catch-22. Rivers are running dry and groundwater is being depleted, so conservation is an imperative. But conservation means a drop in the volume of water sold, which can cause a utility’s revenue to drop.

The obvious answer is to lift water rates, the price charged per gallon used. But that’s not always easy. Even though U.S. residents typically pay a lot less for water than they do for their cell phones or cable television, raising water rates by even a small amount can risk a public backlash…

So, to provide a satisfactory answer to the customer’s question at the public meeting, two of Westminster’s analysts, Stuart Feinglas and Christine Gray, along with water conservation consultant Peter Mayer, dug in and undertook some research. They presented their results last fall at the WaterSmart Innovations conference in Las Vegas, as well as in a report published by the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency.

The results were illuminating — and a resounding endorsement of the economic benefits of water conservation.

Between 1980 and 2010, water use person in Westminster had dropped from 180 gallons per person per day to 149 gallons, a decline of 21 percent.

The staff attribute the drop in part to the national plumbing codes passed in 1992, which reduced the water used by new toilets, faucets and showerheads, and effectively built conservation into new homes and offices. The utility’s own conservation efforts also played an important role. Inclining block and seasonal water rate structures, for example, motivated conservation and discouraged high water use at peak times, such as hot summer days.

The research team then asked, what would water rates be today if that 21 percent reduction in per capita water use hadn’t occurred?

The answer: without conservation, water rates would have nearly doubled.

That’s because the city would have had to find and deliver an additional 7,295 acre-feet (2.38 million gallons) of water a day, necessitating a capital investment of nearly $219 million.

It would also have had to satisfy a much higher peak demand. Back in 1980, before the conservation efforts began, peak water use was 3 times higher than average use. Conservation measures, including effective pricing, brought that ratio down to 2 to 1.

Building the additional water treatment and other infrastructure to meet that higher peak demand would have required an additional capital investment of $130 million.

Since water used indoors for showering, flushing toilets, other uses then goes to a wastewater treatment plant, using less indoors means less water to treat. Conservation saved the city an additional $20 million in avoided capital costs for wastewater treatment.

Adding in avoided debt financing expenses, the conservation program saved Westminster a total of $591,850,000 in new infrastructure costs. It also reduced water and wastewater operating costs by more than $1.2 million per year.

Bottom line: single family rates and fees in 2012 would have been 91 percent higher without conservation than they were after all the conservation efforts– $1,251 per household versus $655.

More conservation coverage here.

Troubling Interdependency of Water and Power — The New York Times

Hydroelectric Dam
Hydroelectric Dam

From The New York Times (Felicity Barringer):

In Modesto, Calif., utility records chart an 18 percent rise in farmers’ energy use in 2014 compared with 2013. No evidence shows exactly why this happened, but California’s drought, now in its fourth year, sent many farmers to their wells to pump from hidden aquifers water that normally would be found at ground level.

Such measures are a timely illustration of the way water needs power — not just to move it, but to clean it and even, with desalination, to create it from brine. A large desalination plant being built to provide 7 percent of San Diego’s water will require about 38 megawatts of power, enough for more than 28,000 homes. And it is no coincidence that primary owners of the 2,250-megawatt, coal-fired Navajo generating station near Page, Ariz., are water managers; they need the power to move water.

The converse is also true: Water is required for power — for hydropower; for extracting oil, natural gas and coal; and, most of all, for cooling power plants. A report from the Congressional Research Service projects that 85 percent of the growth in domestic water consumption from 2005 to 2030 will come from the power sector.

More energy policy coverage here.

Water may reach San Luis Lake this year — the Valley Courier

San Luis Lake via the National Park Service
San Luis Lake via the National Park Service

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

San Luis Lake may see some changes in the future and hopefully some water.

The lake, located west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, has been dry in recent years with not enough snowmelt to float a boat.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Vandiver, who served as division engineer in the Valley for many years, said the lake was dry when he came to the Valley 40 years ago, and since that time it has filled and gone dry more than once. He said it’s been dry now for a number of years “primarily because there hasn’t been any natural inflow into the lake.”

He added that San Luis Lake is a terminus lake, and if there isn’t inflow from a natural source, there’s no way to fill it up otherwise. The lake relies on inflow from sources such as Sand Creek to fill up the reservoir. Vandiver added that losses from evaporation are also significant.

He said generally the water from Sand Creek hits the wetlands area first , then Head Lake and then the excess goes into San Luis Lake. He said this year Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans to allow more of the water from the creek to get to San Luis Lake.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Rick Basagoitia explained that part of the lake is a state park and another portion is a state wildlife area, with each managed by different entities. There’s a move, he said, to make the entire lake part of the state wildlife area. He said boating, fishing and camping would still be allowed, although that is not the primary focus of a wildlife area, because the San Luis Lake campground is an overflow camping area for the dunes.

“We would probably still accommodate some of that but not to the extent Parks did,” he said.

He said the biggest attraction for recreation is the lake, but in recent years there has not been enough water to get to the lake.

With more water diverted to the lake, and water already running at the dunes, folks are hopeful the lake might start to recover.

Sand Dunes Superintendent Lisa Carrico said with the additional snow on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains recently, park staff are hopeful Medano Creek will provide a good flow through the dunes.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District board meeting recap


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

One of the major efforts to stop the San Luis Valley’s aquifer depletions drew both questions and support on Tuesday during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s quarterly meeting in Alamosa.

Some questioned whether the district’s first water management sub-district was working and recommended ways it might work better.

Others defended Sub-District #1 and commended the owners of the hundreds of wells in the portion of the Valley encompassing the sub-district for their volunteer efforts to replenish the aquifer and make up for the injuries they are causing surface water users. Background

Sub-District #1 is the first of as many as six sub-districts to be formed under the direction of the sponsoring district, Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD.)

The sub-district has used various means to accomplish its goals including: paying irrigators to fallow farmland, first directly through the sub-district and now as supplementary compensation to CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program); purchasing water/land that could be retired from irrigation ; and paying ditches and canals through forbearance agreements to allow some of the water rightfully owed them to replace depletions the sub-district owes.

RGWCD has hired two full-time staff Rob Phillips and Cleave Simpson whose sole duties are sub-district administration.

Sub-District #1 submitted its annual report on March 1 and its annual replacement plan, detailing how it intends to replace injurious depletions this year, on April 15.

Phillips said much of the variable fees paid by subdistrict participants in the last couple of years have gone to forbearance agreements, “acquiring wet water.” He said in 2014 70 percent of the sub-district’s injurious depletions to the Rio Grande were remedied through forbearance agreements with six of the area’s major canals between Del Norte and Alamosa . This year, the district has agreements with nine canal/ditch companies.

Phillips added that more than 3,900 acres of crop land are being taken out of production through CREP, 40 percent of that permanently and the remainder through 15-year contracts. Sub-district #1 has committed about $1 million for additional CREP incentives.

In addition, the sub-district is holding $3.8 million in escrow for replacement water to cover lag depletions, the depletions that have accrued over time. The water court is requiring the sub-district not only to replace current injurious depletions to surface water rights but also past “lag” depletions, and there must be a way to guarantee those will be replaced in the future even if the sub-district ceases to exist.

Concerns, support

“It’s not working,” William Hoffner said during Tuesday’s public comment portion of the meeting. Hoffner said he appreciated what Sub-District #1 was trying to do but something needed to change to make it work.

“Do we really care about the underground aquifer and do we really care about the Valley as a whole?” he asked.

Phillips told Hoffner he totally disagreed with him. From 2010-2013 , irrigators in Sub-district #1 reduced pumping by 100,000 acre feet, Phillips said.

“We have not seen any reduction of pumping like that anywhere else in the San Luis Valley,” he said. “This is purely volunteer based. The state does not have groundwater rules going right now. Those people came together as a community to try to make things better, and they are doing that.”

He said the sub-district has helped replenish the unconfined (shallow) aquifer. A portion of that aquifer lying in the closed basin area of the Valley, approximately the area where the first subdistrict sits, has been monitored through a series of wells for more than 30 years. That study has reflected a total decrease in the underground aquifer of about one million acre feet from the 1970’s to the present.

Phillips said that between September of 2013 and September 2014 the aquifer came back up about 71,000 acre feet, in his opinion due to the efforts of sub-district participants , “all through one of the worst droughts in the history of the Rio Grande Basin and keeping the agricultural economy sustainable.”

The group discussed the need to increase the subdistrict’s variable fee, which has been $75.

RGWCD Board Member Cory Off commended the sub-district for its accomplishments but said, “there are other problems out there.”

He said between 2011 and 2014 the number of irrigated acres actually increased, and although total pumping between 2011-14 decreased 90,00 acres, pumping actually increased 8,000 acre feet between 2013 and 2014.

He added that even though the aquifer storage in the study area rose 70,000 acre feet last year, between 2011 and 2014 the aquifer in that area declined 423,000 acre feet.

Off said the goal of the subdistrict from the beginning was to make sure the Valley did not experience the catastrophe of the state stepping in and making everyone develop augmentation plans, but another catastrophe would be the aquifer going dry.

Off said if the sub-district is 50 percent successful, that is only 50 percent successful, “and if we go dry because we are not willing to take the next step, that’s illogical.”

RGWCD Board Member Peggy Godfrey added, “if your rent is $600 and you pay $300 on a regular basis, you are going to get evicted.”

The next step is raising the sub-district variable fee enough to get people to stop pumping as much water, Off said.

Godfrey also suggested raising the CREP fee charged Sub-district #1 participants.

Other RGWCD board members and RGWCD Board President Greg Higel defended the sub-district .

“I commend these guys for trying,” Higel said.

He said the sub-district board of managers has put in a tremendous effort to try to make this work. Sub-district #1 Board President Brian Brownell said, “We are just the first [subdistrict ] and we are the only one providing water to the river. I think we are closer than we ever have been to figuring a way that gets us where we need to be.”

Sub-district #1 Board Member Lynn McCullough said the sub-district board has had 36 meetings in 2 1/2 years and has constantly talked about sustainability, so it is not like the board has not been trying to get the job done.

Higel suggested maybe the sub-district board and RGWCD board should meet more often together.

At the conclusion of the water district’s meeting, Great Sand Dunes Superintendent Lisa Carrico told the board it was people like them who made this Valley such a great place. She had lived here as a child and was fortunate to come back after 40 years of seeing a lot of the world, she said.

“This remains for me one of my very favorite places in the world. Part of it has to do with the people that are here. You guys are doing an incredibly hard work ” The complexity of the issues you deal with here and the way you deal with each other is commendable. I believe you are creating a better place for all of us.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.