The Colorado Supreme Court upholds water court groundwater Sub-district #1 operating plan decision

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The Colorado Supreme Court turned back four challenges Monday from San Luis Valley surface water users who objected to the operations of a groundwater management subdistrict.

The court’s opinion written by Justice Monica Marquez upheld rulings from the Water Division No. 3 Court in 2012 and 2013 that, among other points, allowed Subdistrict No. 1 to use groundwater from a federal reclamation project to mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping.

In 2012, the subdistrict, which takes in 3,400 wells in the north-central valley, issued its first annual plan on the steps it would take to eliminate injury to senior surface water users and restore the aquifer.

The plan, which was approved by the Office of the State Engineer and the local water court, included the proposed use of 2,500 acre-feet from the Closed Basin Project as a source of replacement water. Objectors argued that the project itself caused injury to users along the Rio Grande, because the groundwater it draws from is tributary to the river and any withdrawals in the overappropriated basin is presumed to cause injury.

The state Supreme Court ruled against that argument, noting that objectors offered no proof that the project’s water was tributary to the Rio Grande.

Further, the court found that the use of project water did not violate its initial decree, nor interfere with the state’s ability to meet its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.

The court also ruled that the subdistrict’s annual plan to replace injurious depletions did not have to be set aside pending the resolution of objections.

Moreover, its handling of augmentation wells in the annual replacement plan was legal.

Objectors included the San Antonio, Los Pinos and Conejos River Acequia Preservation Association, Save Our Senior Water Rights, Richard Ramstetter and the Costilla Ditch Co.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.

May rains bump John Martin Reservoir storage to 295,000 acre-feet

John Martin Reservoir back in the day
John Martin Reservoir back in the day

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

While high water has shut down parts of Lake Pueblo, it has opened up new opportunities at John Martin Reservoir 100 miles to the east.

“The reservoir hasn’t looked like this in a long time,” said John Martin State Park Manager Dan Kirmer. “If you haven’t been to the reservoir before or haven’t been in a while, you definitely need to come check it out.”

John Martin, which has been at extremely low levels for the past 15 years, now has more water than Lake Pueblo. As of Monday, John Martin had about 295,000 acre-feet, the most water it has seen since 1999, while Lake Pueblo contained about 284,000 acre-feet.

There are 200 campsites and 5 miles of hiking trails to explore, and nearly 400 species of birds at John Martin Reservoir as well.

The water level continues to rise as the reservoir is storing more water than is being released because of snowmelt, upstream flood control at Lake Pueblo and heavy precipitation so far this year.

Water levels in Lake Pueblo are slowly dropping, as water releases continue at a high level, while inflows from the Arkansas River to the west have slowed down. Many areas of Lake Pueblo State Park, including the south shore boat ramp, are closed until the high water subsides.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas River through Pueblo remains closed because of dangerously high water levels. Water stored during earlier floods is being released as quickly as possible from Pueblo Dam to reserve capacity if more flooding occurs this summer.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

The Lower Ark is borrowing $2.5 million to buy Colorado Canal shares

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

he Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District Wednesday voted to apply to the state for a $2.5 million loan to purchase Colorado Canal shares.

The district purchased 408 shares of Colorado Canal water from Ordway Feedyard in November and was working with the company to finance the deal.

The goals were to keep the financially troubled feedlot in business and to keep the water in the Arkansas Valley.

However, the feedlot continued to fall on hard times and will be auctioned in July, so the Lower Ark district needs to finalize the sale.

The district is seeking the loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board at a 1 percent interest rate, which is an improvement over a 4 percent bridge loan from an area bank, General Manager Jay Winner explained.

The Colorado Canal once irrigated 50,000 acres in Crowley County, but has largely fallen into the hands of Colorado Springs and Aurora through purchases made in the 1980s.

More Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District coverage here.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable hands out $1 million to 4 projects

Horizontal water wells via
Horizontal water wells via

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable Wednesday approved four area water projects totalling about $1 million.

The roundtable’s decisions clear the way for the Colorado Water Conservation Board to consider funding the projects through its Water Supply Reserve Account. The account is funded through mineral severance taxes.

The Fort Lyon Canal is seeking $500,000 to replace the Horse Creek flume, a 392-foot-long, 10-foot diameter steel pipe constructed in 1938 that is at risk of failing after years of repairs.

The pipe is designed to carry the full volume of the Fort Lyon Canal, up to 1,800 cubic feet per second, over Horse Creek.

If it failed, hundreds of people’s homes could be flooded.

The full project would cost $2.2 million and is expected to be complete by next April.

The Box Springs Canal Co. in Crowley County, mostly members of the Markus family, is seeking $200,000 to restore a system of wells built in the early 1900s to support research by the D.V. Burrell Seed Co. and later companies looking at plant genetics.

There are five reservoirs in the system that now irrigates 240 acres, compared with 6,000 acres originally.

Garrett Markus, a water engineer, explained three horizontal wells are needed to replace 15 vertical wells that failed or are not producing.

Lamar is seeking $160,000 to redevelop two wells that were taken out of use. The new purpose of the wells would be for nonpotable water that could be used to irrigate Lamar’s cemetery and golf course. The total cost is about $400,000.

A $250,000 study would look at a study of collaborative storage in the Cucharas River basin. While there are numerous reservoirs in the basin, many are under state restrictions, Sandy White of the Huerfano Conservancy District explained.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.

Restoration: There’s been a lot of progress on the Alamosa river, late season flows deal in the works


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A river once left for dead by mine-polluted runoff in the southwestern corner of the San Luis Valley is coming back to life.

The Alamosa River, which once included a 17-mile dead-zone thanks to the Summitville gold mine, has seen the return of fish and a local group is seeking to keep it that way by adding to the river’s flows.

“We still have a ways to go but we’ve done a lot,” said Cindy Medina, head of the Alamosa Riverkeepers.

The group is close to finalizing a pair of in-stream water rights in court that could add as much as 550 acre-feet per year to the river below Terrace Reservoir where it runs to the valley floor.

That amount, which translates to roughly 180 million gallons, would be stored in the reservoir and released during times of the year when flows are low to nonexistent.

Last week, the Colorado Water Trust honored Medina for her work on the Alamosa with the David Getches Flowing Waters Award.

Key to the in-stream flows, which also would boost groundwater levels in the area, was the cooperation of the Terrace Irrigation Co., which has made storage space available in the reservoir.

Medina also credited landowners along the river like Joe McCann and Rod Reinhart.

“Both of them have been instrumental in this project,” she said. Reinhart, who grows alfalfa and barley north of Capulin, said he came to understand the importance of riparian habitat and how the in-stream flows could help.

But the importance of how they might help the aquifer also was important given the looming groundwater regulations that might face the valley.

“I think that is huge,” he said. “That’s a big help.”

The need for the restoration on the river and part of the means to do so, stem from the legacy of the Summitville gold mine, which sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet on a tributary.

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

In 1986, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company began operation of an open-pit mine on 1,200 acres and used a cyanide formula to extract gold from ore.

A faulty liner meant to contain the cyanide and a company-installed water treatment plant that was far too small ensured high levels of pollutants migrated downstream.

By 1990, fish were gone from the reservoir and the stretch of river above it.

After six years of operation, the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to take over emergency management of the property.

The mine was designated a Superfund site in 1994.

Prosecution of the mining company led to a $28.5 million settlement, $5 million of which was set aside for restoration work in the watershed.

The work of the riverkeepers to increase stream flows is one of the legacies of that funding.

Water quality on the river improved after the Superfund designation, enough so that state wildlife officials began stocking trout in the reservoir in 2007.

In 2011, a permanent treatment plant was built with $19.2 million in federal stimulus funding.

“That improved the water quality significantly,” Medina said.

One year later, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lifted restrictions on the consumption of trout in Terrace Reservoir.

Medina is among those who have eaten trout from the reservoir.

“They’ve come out fine,” she said.

But the riverkeepers hope to add more water to the river, by buying water rights from others.

Their goal is to reach 2,000 acre-feet of in-stream flows.

“We’re always looking for more water for the river,” she said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.

Comments on new Cotter Mill plan due August 1

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

State and federal health officials are inviting the public to submit informal preliminary comments on the Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill’s Draft Quality Management Plan.

The 53-page plan outlines quality assurance, training, implementation of work, record keeping, response and corrective action protocols for the now-defunct mill as it moves toward decommissioning. The mill has been an EPA Superfund site since 1984 due to the seeping of uranium and molybdenum contamination into groundwater and soil which was caused by the use of unlined tailings ponds.

The draft plan can be viewed on the state’s Cotter website at

Comments can be sent to state health department project manager Jennifer Opila at Deadline is Aug. 1.

More Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site coverage here.

Spring runoff two weeks later than ‘usual’ this year — The Pueblo Chieftain

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of Basin High/Low graphs for the snow season.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka) [June 3, 2015]:

Now that the rain, snow and cold temperatures have eased up, at least until the weekend, it’s time for spring runoff.

The runoff is about two weeks later than usual, although “usual” is becoming more difficult to define. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration models show that cooler, wetter weather is expected in Southern Colorado through the summer and into next fall.

Rafting companies are anticipating a good season, according to news releases from the Arkansas River Outfitters Association that called current flows “optimal” for every skill level. Flows on the river at Parkdale, west of Canon City, were at 2,300 cubic feet per second and climbing on Tuesday.

“I would say we are in a runoff pattern now,” said Division 2 Water Engineer Steve Witte. “We’re seeing those peaks and valleys in the data. In those years where we have a cool, wet May, it can delay the peak runoff until the end of May.”

Gauges on high-mountain tributaries of the Arkansas River are showing diurnal flows that pick up until about midnight as afternoon snow melts and then drop off during freezing temperatures in the night.

Flows on the Arkansas River are picking up, partly because of the runoff that started in the last week and partly because of the balancing of reservoirs.

The Bureau of Reclamation is making more space in Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes for anticipated imports, meaning some additional water is moving through the Arkansas River to Lake Pueblo. About 10,000 acre-feet is being moved. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.

The Army Corps of Engineers released the last bit of 12,000 acre-feet of stored flood water from Lake Pueblo on Saturday.

Some canal companies are beginning to take water — it was too wet during May for most farmers to start planting, other than some small windows of opportunity.

The result is that John Martin Reservoir has reached its highest point since April 2001, and was storing about 175,000 acre-feet as of Tuesday.

“It looks like we will be in conservation storage for a while at John Martin,” Witte said. “Water is also flowing into the Great Plains Reservoirs (located in Kiowa County and owned by the Amity Canal in Prowers County), which is something of an anomaly.”

Levels at John Martin were just 6,300 acre-feet in November, and had increased to 53,000 acrefeet by the end of winter storage in early April. But those levels dropped to 45,000 acre-feet by May 7. Since then, 3,00010,000 acre-feet daily have been stored in the reservoir.

The snowpack followed a similar pattern. April was a dismal month for accumulation, and it looked like the snowpack would be puny until the first of May.

Because of locally heavy snows in February, however, Reclamation was still forecasting a nearly average year for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project on May 1. That’s improved considerably.

“Unofficially, we think it’s going to be 20 percent more,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fry-Ark Project. “One of our biggest concerns is that it could come off too fast.”

Snow peaks throughout the state are well above normal, because of additional late snow in May. However, the mid-April peaks that usually occur never came because of the earlier dry conditions.

The Fry-Ark Project brings water from the upper reaches of the Roaring Fork watershed through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Lake, but if snow melts too quickly, the tunnel can’t capture all of the water that might be available.

Meanwhile, Fountain Creek in Pueblo was running at about 830 cfs Tuesday, about 20 times the normal rate.

Meanwhile, managing streamflow to prevent flooding was a balancing act a couple of weeks ago along the Arkansas River. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Lake Pueblo is just a couple of weeks from completely filling, if current weather patterns continue.

That could mean water stored in the reservoir could begin spilling — on paper at least, but in reality as well.

Water is being stored to prevent flooding downstream of Pueblo Dam. It boils down to a simple math problem that seeks to keep the Arkansas River flow at Avondale below 6,000 cubic feet per second. That satisfies most downstream direct-flow rights, while protecting downstream Because of high flows on Fountain Creek, unmeasured flooding on Chico Creek and occasional downpours over the St. Charles River, releases from Pueblo Dam have been cut back.

“We have been conservative because we don’t have advance warning of other water that might be coming in,” Steve Witte, Division 2 engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday.

Normally, the same amount flows out of Lake Pueblo as flows in. But during this period, about 6,000 cfs has been flowing in each day, too much to add to the Arkansas River below.

The result: About 30,000 acre-feet of water are backed up in Lake Pueblo.

An additional 4,500 acrefeet continues to be stored daily. Flood storage tops off at 90,000 acre-feet, or about 14 more days at the current storage rate, said Roy Vaughan, Fryingpan-Arkansas Project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Lake Pueblo had about 275,000 acre-feet of water stored Thursday. Its physical capacity is about 350,000 acre-feet. (An acrefoot is 325,851 gallons.) “We’re trying to evacuate the water as quickly as possible,” Witte said.

That could take some time, because more water is being stored than released.

Pueblo Dam releases were stepped up Thursday after being cut on Tuesday to accommodate a wall of water moving down Fountain Creek from overnight rain in the Colorado Springs area. That followed a similar cutback a week earlier. About 5,000 cfs can be safely released, if conditions remain dry.

The National Weather Service predicts generally hot, dry weather through at least next Wednesday.

At the same time, spring runoff continues to run full throttle from the mountains in the Upper Arkansas River basin, pushing flows above the 6,000 cfs figure. There still appears to be ample snow in the mountains to prolong the peak.

On top of that, more water is being brought in by the Fry-Ark Project, which is now filling Turquoise Reservoir. Other transmountain diversions, by Twin Lakes, Colorado Springs and the Pueblo Board of Water Works are shut down because there’s no place to put the water.

Even if Pueblo is not completely filled, some non-project water could spill if Reclamation imports more than the 70,000 acre-feet now projected or if its Arkansas River basin water rights come into priority. Right now, there are about 57,000 acre-feet of excesscapacity water and 40,000 acre-feet of winter water that could spill under the right set of circumstances.

Water officials are working to keep the water moving and avoid that scenario, however.

Things are wet in the San Luis Valley also. Here’s a report from Matt Hildner writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

For the second year in a row, local water officials have seen more water come down the Rio Grande and Conejos River than winter snowpack measurements predicted.

While that made for a pleasant early June as irrigators got more water than they expected for their pastures and crops, the Colorado Office of the State Engineer has since had to increase curtailments to meet the Rio Grande Compact. Under curtailment, a percentage of the river is sent past headgates downstream to New Mexico.

On the Conejos, which had only a 5 percent curtailment in May, it was 43 percent as of June 22.

“Hopefully we’re at the point where we don’t have to do it anymore,” Craig Cotten, division engineer said.

At the beginning of May, streamflow forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service had called for an annual streamflow total of 145,000 acre-feet of water on the Conejos where it enters the San Luis Valley floor.

Now that forecast is 275.000 acre-feet, which raises the bar for how much the state must send down stream to New Mexico for the remainder of the year.

“That really highlights the need to have better forecasting and that’s definitely something that we’re working on,” he said.

This year a pilot project funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has flown a plane with Lidar technology over both the Conejos and Rio Grande basins to determine its effectiveness in measuring in snowpack.

Lidar is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light.

By flying in both winter and summer months, the difference in distance measured by the Lidar can offer information about the extent of the snowpack.

Cotten said local and state officials are also forming a steering committee that will look at the feasibility of using, Lidar, radar and additional snow gauges.

Cotten said NRCS is also investigating how fire burn scars and beetle-killed trees in the San Juan Mountains may be impacting runoff.

The forecasting hiccups also hit the Rio Grande this year but its 16 percent curtailment is less severe than on the Conejos.

The river is expected to see an annual total of 630,000 acre-feet at the Del Norte gauge, up from a May forecast of 445.000 acre-feet.

Despite the unexpect­ed bumps in flows, this year will likely be the fifth year in a row below the historic average on the Conejos and the seventh on the Rio Grande.

Fountain Creek: May rainfall was not kind to the stream

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Large chunks of the bank plunked into Fountain Creek Wednesday evening as Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart got a close-up look at the damage to Overton Road.

Two large wooden utility poles floated in the muck below, as the river cut back from the west base of the old Pinon Bridge, which washed out in the 1999 flood. After it slammed back into the east bank, it ran along the channel into a clump of trees. By morning the trees and part of the road would be gone.

“This is unbelievable,” Hart said. “The engineers tell us that Fountain Creek acts like a firehose, the way it moves around.”

Neighbors soon gathered at the spot. One of them was Tony Faxon, bringing his two children home to his 90-acre farm on Overton Road. He was worried about his well, which he had fortified a few days earlier after the last round of floods.

“It looks like the Washington Monument now,” Faxon said on Friday.

He explained the well is now a pole sticking 30 feet into the air — about half of its total depth.

He’s lost a chunk of land 80 by 500 feet and 30 feet deep so far this year.

While the house is on higher ground, he’s now faced with putting in a new well.

The Faxons have lived on Overton Road for four years.

“It’s been an ongoing struggle, but this has been the worst year,” Faxon said. “We couldn’t have anticipated this would happen.”

He’s not alone.

‘We need help’

At Friday’s meeting of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, which Hart chaired, a litany of damage was recited.

“We need some sort of help,” said Tracy Tolle, who farms for Frank Masciantonio in Pueblo County and Clear Springs Ranch in El Paso County.

“That’s our livelihood.”

Tolle has fought Fountain Creek for years and has seen it through higher water than what was flowing last week.

But the sustained midrange flows for weeks on end and saturated ground are taking their toll.

From his perspective, the actions of one landowner to wall off water just moves the river to the other bank, where the damage is amplified.

John Browning, who has a place on the east side of Fountain Creek in El Paso County, agrees.

He said fortifications on the west bank have created 50-foot cliffs where children play on the other side.

“You need to take care of both sides of the creek,” Browning said.

“Something needs to be done several decades ago.”

Jane Rhodes, Masciantonio’s sister and a Fountain Creek board member, brought pictures and descriptions of damage at a dozen places along Fountain Creek in Pueblo and El Paso counties.

Irrigation headgates are gone, acres of pasture and fields have vanished and wells wiped out by the whipsaw motion off the water over the past few weeks. Water snaked around one end of the new Pinon Bridge, setting up the possibility of future erosion.

Down the drain?

Up in El Paso County, a demonstration project sponsored by the Fountain Creek district — a showpiece that would show landowners how to use natural materials to turn the current — is gone, landowner Ferris Frost said.

Barriers set up to protect an organic gardening spot are washing away.

“The main channel is cutting through our headgates,” Frost said.

“It’s huge and fast . . . really extreme.”

The Fountain Creek board had few answers for landowners seeking help.

The district has no money, as it is awaiting $50 million from Colorado Springs Utilities when Southern Delivery System goes online. Ironically, SDS has permit issues ahead related to Colorado Springs’ failure to provide a stable source of funding for stormwater control.

Three weeks of rain have also cast clouds over some of the district’s activities, not just the Frost Ranch demonstration project.

“There is debris everywhere,” Hart said, telling the Fountain Creek board he has been watching the damage daily. “There is a lot of destruction going on and this is just the beginning.”

The city of Pueblo was getting ready to fire up its sediment collector again before the rains hit. The collector, installed four years ago when Fountain Creek was behaving itself, ran for a few weeks before a big wave buried it. It’s now under about three feet of sediment.

“We wanted to see if we could make it work without having to build coffer dams,” said Jeff Bailey, stormwater superintendent for the city of

Pueblo. The district also pushed for a demonstration project behind the North Side Walmart, where a detention pond and wetlands was constructed. The pond’s embankment partially washed out in the 2013 flood — and is probably eroding this time around — it’s been difficult to check. The pond has not had an impact on really large flows through Pueblo.

“Right now, it’s a money pit for us,” Bailey said. The city has to augment water stored in the area as well as maintain the pond.

There have been some things that work on Fountain Creek.

Things that work

At Clear Springs Ranch, which is owned by Colorado Springs Utilities on the east side of Interstate 25 near the Ray Nixon Power Plant, a ditch diversion structure across Fountain Creek was built in the 1970s. It survived the 1999 flood, but posed a problem for small native fish. A million-dollar fish ramp was constructed to help the fish get through.

In Pueblo, the city built rock jetties several years ago behind the Target Store on the North Side after Fountain Creek cut perilously close to the area in 1999. Those have held up through high water events as well.

The district still is studying construction of a dam or series of detention ponds along Fountain Creek to hold back the water and release it at more opportune times, but that effort is mired in a study of how to satisfy downstream water rights. In the meantime, Fountain Creek is playing ping-pong with land along its banks. Shoring up one side sends the water to the other and new channels are constantly being cut. While cities and counties have applied for disaster aid as roads, parks, trails and homes are threatened, the farmers are losing ground they’ll never get back. There’s no clear path for financial aid to the property owners.

“There’s a domino effect,” Tolle said, saying he thinks a multimilliondollar project built by Colorado Springs at Clear Springs Ranch may have breached in recent flooding. “Those ponds are not going to work.

You’ve got to give us help or there won’t be any farms.”

Meanwhile, Colorado Springs is looking at changing building codes to help minimize runoff into Fountain Creek. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

After the recent stomping by Mother Nature, the Fountain Creek technical team dug out the playbook Wednesday.

Like any team, the group is focused more on future victories and overcoming challenges than dwelling on past mistakes.

The team in this case is the technical advisory committee of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. It includes planners and engineers from Pueblo and El Paso counties, including the cities of Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

A big part of reducing future damage from flooding on Fountain Creek will be requiring future development — whether it’s a new project or redeveloping areas — to make sure flooding is not intensified by new hard surfaces such as streets, parking lots, sidewalks and roofs that prevent water from soaking into the ground.

“So often the developers design the development and tell the engineers, ‘Here, make it work.’ But urbanization almost always spurs the need for channel stabilization,” Steve Gardner, of the Colorado Springs stormwater department, told the group.

Gardner was explaining a drainage criteria manual Colorado Springs has developed in response to years of meetings that have improved understanding of Fountain Creek’s destructive nature. The earlier versions of the drainage manual supported projects that dumped water as quickly as possible into the waterway from flooded streets.

The new approach is to mimic natural conditions with techniques that encourage infiltration, move water through wetlands where possible and build detention projects that will handle a full spectrum of floods, Gardner said.

But it’s difficult to make up for the mistakes of the past, when many of the hills in Colorado Springs were paved as the city grew. One of the tough realities is that stormwater detention projects require land. Apparently, the government will take ground so the water won’t.

“Land allocation is a critical component,” Gardner said. “To get the water to spread out, you need more land. Urbanization results in taller peaks.”

That was seen during the May floods on Fountain Creek, the most recent of events where the creek turned into a river that ate banks, ripped away roads and changed course. With the ground saturated by weeks of rain, there was no opportunity for infiltration.

In that case, the drainage criteria manual recommends detention ponds to hold back the water, which also require land. A series of smaller ponds on tributaries would cost less to build and require less maintenance, Gardner said.

Such a system would allow localized storms to be contained, while reducing the cumulative effect on the creek. Among options studied by the U.S. Geological Survey, that system does not provide as much protection to Pueblo as larger detention ponds or a big dam.

Like any game plan, it has to be executed well to work. Issues still remaining include incorporating the drainage criteria manual with site planning, floodplain management on a larger scale, project phasing to make sure each project fits with others and adopting the same criteria throughout the entire 932-square-mile Fountain Creek watershed. Colorado Springs also faces challenges for funding a backlog of more than $500 million in stormwater projects in a way that satisfies Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

But standards for future development are an important step. Gardner said some developers are talking with the city and finding that things like natural infiltration channels can become amenities that increase property values.

“A lot of folks are stuck in the old way of doing things,” Gardner said.

It’s going to take a lot of dough and some big projects to fix problems on Fountain Creek. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

It’s going to take big projects to tame Fountain Creek. Even a $4.2 million project by Colorado Springs Utilities to redirect Fountain Creek into a less damaging course suffered damage from the June 15 storm surge after holding up reasonably well during relentless rain in May.

But a series of smaller attempts to protect property by armoring it with piles of concrete or a living shield of plants were swept away in the raging waters.

And the district that was formed to find the best way to fix Fountain Creek has no money and unfinished plans on how to mend the monster.

“There’s good news and bad news,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart. “The good news is that the district has the authority to handle the entire watershed. The bad news is that there’s a lot to study and we’re still trying to understand how this works.”

Even when the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District figures out the best way, there remains the question of money.

“There isn’t an unlimited source of money,” said Pueblo City Councilman Dennis Flores. “Our task is to find out what will work with the amount of resources we have.”

So far, not much is working, the Fountain Creek board learned from presentations Friday.

As part of its commitment to the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo County for the Southern Delivery System, Utilito ties is required to restore wetlands, and its $4.2 million Clear Springs Ranch project was the way to achieve that. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers certified the work in January, said Allison Moser, an engineer for Utilities.

The project covered 6 acres, fixed a past erosion cut and routed Fountain Creek away from the bluff to the west, which it had been undercutting. Thousands of plants were just getting established after being planted last year. The spreading wetlands were designed to handle the overflow of Fountain Creek during high water without sacrificing ground.

But the May storms deposited silt over much of the area and began to damage the bank of a channel that had been reinforced with 2-foot boulders.

“We really saw a lot of sedimentation, but the wetlands were designed to handle sedimentation,” Moser said. “The intention was to have the plants fill in over 10-15 years, but it took it in just two weeks (of high water). It left a lot of debris.”

The June 15 storm, which caused peak flows of 20,000 cubic feet per second at Fountain the next day, ripped through the new bank and left the river in its old course and sent the main flow of Fountain Creek to the west bank again.

“There’s still some evidence the structures held,” Moser said. “We have not been able to get our guys back down there to look at it.”

Utilities has the kind of resources unavailable to most landowners to undertake such a large project, and from Moser’s description it may not be enough to keep Mother Nature under control.

“One of the things we learned is that you need a big footprint to make a difference,” Moser said.

That was borne out by comments from Ferris Frost, whose family’s ditches and a district demonstration project were destroyed in the May floods. The June flooding added more silt to injury.

She showed slides of the damage, as well as how concrete rip-rap installed by her neighbor Jane Green after the September 2011 flood was obliterated this year. Green had put in the bank armor after a 2011 flood cut through an old levee and added even more material when the 2013 flood took a second bite.

Some of the slides showed a large island with mature cottonwoods that had developed years ago from the constant erosion of a 50-foot bluff that Frost calls “The Great Wall.”

“This is terrible,” said Jane Rhodes, a Pueblo County landowner who sits on the Fountain Creek board. “It looks this way all down the creek.”

Pueblo County is still assessing the damage to see if disaster aid is available, Hart said in response to questions from Frank Masciantonio, Rhodes’ brother and one of the owners of land that has been severely eroded.

The district has master plans for Monument Creek and Fountain Creek south of Colorado Springs, and is in the process for developing another for Upper Fountain Creek, which has its own set of problems stemming from the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, General Manager Larry Small explained.

What it does not have is money. It will begin receiving $50 million in five annual installments in 2016 if SDS comes on line. That’s on schedule, but Pueblo County commissioners are lining meetings later this year to determine if Utilities is complying with all of its commitments under the county’s 1041 permit for SDS.

“What we’re trying to get our minds around are these two projects (Clear Springs Ranch and Frost Farms) and how well they survived or didn’t survive,” Hart said. “The question is whether we stabilize stream banks or do we need to look at the source of the water?”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

“On a stream, one cubic foot a second can make a big difference” — Amy Beatie #ColoradoRiver

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

For 139 years, state enforcers have said farmers, cities and ranchers who don’t use all the water they are entitled to could have their rights curtailed. Critics have said that discourages conservation.

A first deal in the works, made possible by a 2013 law, lets a ranch owner near Granby leave water in Willow Creek, a tributary of the overtapped Colorado River, without facing penalties.

A second deal would leave more water in the Roaring Fork River, another Colorado River tributary, in Aspen.

Colorado Farm Bureau leaders said they’re watching to make sure water left in rivers by those who don’t exercise their senior rights stays available to next-in-priority irrigators.

“We’re definitely taking a wait-and-see approach,” CFB president Don Shawcroft said. “We had a certain understanding when the law was passed, but it’s certainly up to the interpretation of the court and lawyers.”

The Colorado law says not using water won’t diminish or cancel a water right if the owner is enrolled in a conservation program with local approval.

Colorado River District officials last week approved the Willow Creek deal. Water saved initially will be small, flows of a few cubic feet per second into stream channels.

But the emerging alternative to Use It Or Lose It — developed by the Colorado Water Trust — marks a milestone in modernizing the state’s first-come, first-serve system for allocating water.

“We can look at the local water rights and determine if leaving water in a particular section of a river would create environmental benefits,” said Amy Beatie, director of the trust, devoted to saving rivers.

“The benefits could be significant,” Beatie said. “On a stream, one cubic foot a second can make a big difference.”[…]

Given the water pressures in the West, Louisiana-based ranch owner Witt Caruthers this year decided to try the new approach at his head-gates along Willow Creek.

“Colorado’s water system created an incentive to use our water even in times when it’s not absolutely necessary. When you’re under that pressure to use it or lose it, you’re almost forced to abuse it. That’s to the detriment of all,” Caruthers said.

He and his partners turned to the Colorado Water Trust to take advantage of the new law. Without it, he said, “You’re caught between taking what you need and taking what you are entitled to.”

When drought nearly dried up the Roaring Fork River a few years ago in Aspen, city officials began thinking about how to ensure a minimal flow by leaving water they divert from their Wheeler Ditch to irrigate parks and feed fountains.

Yet their efforts to leave water in the river led to legal challenges by competing users, who claimed the city’s senior rights must be reduced if it stops diverting its full allotment, said Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer for special projects.

“Aspen is interested in doing this. Leaving a little water in that stream is what we are trying to accomplish,” Overeynder said.

Agricultural irrigators are wary of changing Colorado water law, said John McKenzie, director of the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance. Yet the system causes many to flood fields with more water than they need for fear that government will list their water as abandoned, McKenzie said.

“We want to protect ditch company water rights,” he said. “But if there’s a mechanism where a ditch company that doesn’t need the water could allow it to flow down a river, and there was no ‘abandonment’ of that water, it could help a ditch company. There are costs to diverting water.”

More SB13-019 coverage here.