“We kind of just grew and grew together to realize we are neighbors” — Ralph Curtis

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

When State Engineer Dick Wolfe turned in a set of proposed groundwater rules and regulations to the division water court on Sept. 23, he channeled Yogi Berra.
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” he said, quoting the Hall of Fame Yankees catcher who passed away the day before.

But for nearly four decades, the San Luis Valley’s water users avoided any path that involved giving the state engineer the authority to shut down or limit pumping by the valley’s roughly 4,500 irrigation wells.

Two aquifers supply the water for those wells and help farmers irrigate valley staples such as potatoes, barley and alfalfa.

The shallower of the two, the unconfined aquifer, is fed by streams, seepage from irrigation canals and return flows from fields, and some upward leakage from a deeper aquifer.

The deeper aquifer, known as the confined aquifer, is fed by streams at the rim of the valley and is under artesian pressure.

Both aquifers are hydrologically connected to the valley’s surface streams to varying degrees, a fact that underlies complaints from surface-water users that their rights are injured by groundwater pumping.

Wolfe’s predecessor had proposed rules in 1975 only to see them shelved as the valley’s water users looked for another way to mitigate the impacts of well pumping on surfacewater users. And while this version still will have to gain approval from water court, enough had changed in the intervening decades to prompt a second stab at rules and regulations.

To begin, the federal Closed Basin Project, which pumps groundwater from the eastern edge of the valley for delivery to the Rio Grande, has been ineffective.

The valley’s water user groups signed an agreement in 1985 that divvied up how the project’s water would apply toward Colorado’s obligations to the Rio Grande Compact.

The move was regarded as an olive branch to surface-water users on the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers, since they alone carried the burden of complying with compact obligations.

Without the policing powers rules could give the state engineer, groundwater users faced no such burden.

The pact, commonly known as the 60-40 Agreement, also included a provision that kept valley surface-water users from going to court to shut down groundwater wells.

But since 2000, the amount of water produced by the project has never exceeded 20,000 acre-feet — far below envisioned amounts of up to 100,000 acre-feet when it was authorized by Congress in 1972.

Another change since the last rule proposals involved a pair of unsuccessful efforts in the 1990s to ship large amounts of the valley’s groundwater to the Front Range.

The proposals from American Water Development and later the Stockmen’s Water Company put all of the valley’s water users in the same boat, said Ralph Curtis, who managed the Rio Grande Water Conservation District for 25 years.

“We kind of just grew and grew together to realize we are neighbors,” he said.

Moreover, less was known in the 1970s about the two major groundwater bodies that sit beneath the valley floor. When the 1975 rules were proposed, a monitoring network that could measure levels in the unconfined aquifer in the north-central part of the valley still was a year away.

Exactly how much was pumped from the aquifers was not known either until 2006 when the engineer’s office implemented well-metering requirements.

Mac McFadden, who was the division engineer for the valley in 1975, and Steve Vandiver, who later would serve 24 years in the same post, both pointed to the development of the state’s groundwater computer model as an important advancement.

While that model could be a point of contention in court hearings for the current version of rules, it provides the basis for estimating how much instream losses are caused from well pumping Lastly, both Curtis and Vandiver point to the drought that began in 2002 as a pivotal point in the valley’s water politics and one that would pave the way to a new version of state rules.

“The drought of 2002 just tipped over the bucket of worms,” Vandiver said. “It was obvious then what the impacts of wells were on the (Rio Grande) — river just went away.”

The lowest flows ever recorded on the Conejos and the Rio Grande rivers where they enter the valley floor came in 2002.

And much of those meager flows were lost to aquifers that were being drawn on heavily by irrigators that had no surface supplies.

The division engineer’s annual report for that year estimated stream losses on the Rio Grande were as high as 40 percent at times, while on the Conejos they peaked as high as 60 percent.

“That provided the impetus for the surface-water users to say we’ve had enough,” Vandiver said.

Vandiver credited Manassa rancher Kelly Sowards and other surface-water users for creating the subsequent push to regulate wells.

Two years later, state lawmakers would pass a bill that created the framework for the current version of the rules and groundwater management subdistricts.

The first such subdistrict, which buys water to return to the Rio Grande and also pays ditch companies for losses caused by pumping, went into operation four years ago in the north-central part of the valley.

Fountain Creek: Kansas is keeping a watchful eye on potential dams

Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District
Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Kansas has concerns that the effects of a large dam on Fountain Creek are not adequately modeled in a study of flood control and water rights that is nearing completion.

But comments from Kevin Salter of the Kansas Division of Water Resources indicate the modeling done by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District is “reasonable” when it comes to side-detention ponds.

Kansas is an important player because its 1985 federal lawsuit over the Arkansas River Compact raised storage issues along with wells. The Supreme Court ruled in Colorado’s favor on the storage questions, but new dams would be untested waters.

“The methodology in this draft report appears reasonable to protect water rights below the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River for the scenario involving side-detention facilities,” Salter said.

“As for the scenario to construct a multipurpose reservoir on Fountain Creek; Kansas is concerned.”

In an email to a committee looking at engineer Duane Helton’s draft report, Salter said more study is needed to look at the full impact of a 52,700 acre-foot reservoir that would include a 25,700 acre-foot pool for recreation and water supply and 27,000 acre-feet for temporary flood storage.

“Should the actual implementation of detained flood flows on Fountain Creek impact compact conservation storage Kansas would fully expect that those flows be restored,” Salter said.

Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek district, said a more complete evaluation would be made of water rights if a large reservoir is pursued.

“The district will complete a full evaluation of alternatives and a feasibility study of the preferred alternative in the future before any decision is made on flood control facilities, to include multipurpose facilities,” Small said in an email reply.

Helton’s study shows there would be little impacts on water rights if flood control structures allowed a flow of 10,000 cubic feet per second to flow through Pueblo during large floods. Water would be released as quickly as possible following the peak flow.

The study discounted extremely high flows, such as the 1999 or 1965 floods, saying there would be little damage to water rights because the high volume would fill John Martin Reservoir, creating a free river.

Division Engineer Steve Witte said Kansas concerns must be treated carefully, so a new round of litigation isn’t triggered.

Witte would like the 2015 flooding to be studied. Flows on Fountain Creek exceeded the 10,000 cfs mark on three occasions during six weeks of elevated flows. John Martin Reservoir did not fill, so it would be an ideal opportunity to explore how flood storage could be administered, he said.

“I think we need to be careful in any scenario to make sure there isn’t some material depletion,” Witte said.

After the 1999 flood, when Kansas and Colorado were in litigation over the Arkansas River Compact, Kansas raised questions about how such large flows should be divided. Those issues have not been resolved, Witte said.

Another downstream party, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association which owns half of the Amity Canal in Prowers County, said more study is needed to determine the damage if water is detained at lower flows and how water would be allocated after a flood.

The committee looking at the report, which includes some downstream farmers, Kansas, Colorado Springs Utilities, Tri-State and others, will meet again at 10 a.m. Oct. 14 at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District offices.

Why Colorado doesn’t create bold goals for greenhouse gas reductions — The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Colorado’s state government has produced an updated climate action plan, and it’s rich with detail about what Colorado has done in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as in addressing the challenges of rising temperatures.

coloradoclimateplancover092015

But what value does this information provide? The document, “Colorado Climate Plan: State Level Policies and Strategies to Mitigate and Adapt,” neither sets goals nor does it makes a strong case for a specific agenda. Instead, among several dozen strategies and recommendations are these:

  • Promote and encourage water efficiency and/or conservation at the local and state agency level.
  • Assist all electric utilities in incorporating all feasible efficiency activities into resource planning and the EPA air quality compliance plans, and
  • Partner with federal and local agencies to preserve and protect forest health and wildlife habitat and to reduce wildfire risk. This latter is under the tourism and recreation heading.
  • Taryn Finnessey, lead author of the document, says many of the specifics of these recommendations remain to be worked out. The next step, beginning late this fall, will be to begin having conversations with various water, business, and other interest groups.

    When possible, she says, that outreach will be accomplished using existing events, such as when the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts meets. Climate change adaptation will be on the agenda when the state’s Department of Local Affairs holds sessions on land-use planning.

    “We recognize this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end, and there needs to be more dialogue with stakeholders going forward about where we need to go from here,” she says.

    Greenhouse-gases-by-sectorcoloradclimateplanallenbest

    “But this is a really good first step, the first time when we have pulled together all we have done about climate change adaptation and mitigation and put it in one document. And it is not be understated. There are a lot of really good efforts underway, and we don’t want to slow those efforts down.

    “There’s much more to be done. That’s clear not only in our strategies and recommendations, but also in our efforts to reach out to stakeholders and the public to see how they want to take the next steps of climate change and adaptation in Colorado.”

    Other states and some local jurisdictions have proclaimed bold, even brash goals. Colorado officials aren’t persuaded that’s the way to go.

    “When you drill down into the programs they have in place to achieve those goals, you find sometimes that the math doesn’t add up,” says Finnessey.

    The document makes the case that Colorado has done much since the first climate plan was released during the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter in 2007. Much of that work has been in reduction of greenhouse gases.

    The climate plan speaks to both transportation and cooperation with local entities. Photo/Allen Best - See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/10/05/water-runs-through-colorados-climate-action-plan/#sthash.i7Y7Ea33.dpuf
    The climate plan speaks to both transportation and cooperation with local entities. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/10/05/water-runs-through-colorados-climate-action-plan/#sthash.i7Y7Ea33.dpuf

    State legislators have raised the bar of renewable portfolio standards for the investor-owned utilities and expanded the requirements to include the co-operatives and municipalities.

    Already, the initiatives (including the first renewable mandate adopted by voters in 2004) have added up. Just 0.54 percent of electricity came from renewable sources in 2004 (excluding the big hydro sources); as of 2014, the percentage had grown to 14.36 percent.

    Switching among fossil fuels has also reduced greenhouse gases. State legislation incentivized the replacement of coal by natural gas at power plants in Boulder and Denver. And, in 2014, Colorado became a national leader in instituting rules to limit emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from drilling operations.

    Gov. John Hickenlooper has said Colorado will go forward with efforts to meet standards of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan for 2030. (Another statewide elected official, Cynthia Coffman, the attorney general, has a different idea. She has joined her counterparts from 22 other states in challenging legality of the Clean Power Plan).

    And in its internal operations, the state government has completed measures to reduce petroleum use by fleets by 25 percent and, more broadly, cut energy use by 30 percent.

    “We have taken an incredibly multi-pronged approach. We don’t just rely on legislative actions or just on administrative actions or actions we have taken in the past,” says Finnessey.

    A chart of greenhouse gas emissions in the report shows a rapid increase in greenhouse gases from Colorado during the 1990s and until about a decade ago. Since then, the growth has moderated and, looking forward, the state report expects emissions to essentially flatline even as population and economic growth continue.

    Climate Change in California Passes a Tipping Point — Huff Post Green

    Yosemite National Park 2012 through 2015 via the Huffington Post
    Yosemite National Park 2012 through 2015 via the Huffington Post

    From Huff Post Green (Hunter Cutting):

    With Californians crossing their fingers in hopes of a super El Niño to help end the state’s historic drought, California’s water agency just delivered some startling news: for the first time in 120 years of record keeping, the winter average minimum temperature in the Sierra Nevada was above freezing. And across the state, the last 12 months were the warmest on record. This explains why the Sierra Nevada snow pack that provides nearly 30% of the state’s water stood at its lowest level in at least 500 years this last winter despite precipitation levels that, while low, still came in above recent record lows. The few winter storms of the past two years were warmer than average and tended to produce rain, not snow. And what snow fell melted away almost immediately.

    Thresholds matter when it comes to climate change. A small increase in temperature can have a huge impact on natural systems and human infrastructure designed to cope with current weather patterns and extremes. Only a few inches of extra rain can top a levee protecting against flood. Only a degree of warming can be the difference between ice-up and navigable water, between snow pack and bare ground.

    Climate change has intensified the California drought by fueling record-breaking temperatures that evaporate critically important snowpack, convert snowfall into rain, and dry out soils. This last winter in California was the warmest in 119 years of record keeping, smashing the prior record by an unprecedented margin. Weather records tend to be broken when a temporary trend driven by natural variability runs in the same direction as the long-term trend driven by climate change, in this case towards warmer temperatures. Drought in California has increased significantly over the past 100 years due to rising temperatures. A recent paleoclimate study found that the current drought stands out as the worst to hit the state in 1,200 years largely due the remarkable, record-high temperatures.

    #AnimasRiver: Water-treatment system announced for #GoldKing — The Durango Herald

    New settlement ponds at Gold King Mine August 2015
    New settlement ponds at Gold King Mine August 2015

    From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

    The $1.78-million portable treatment facility will be located in Gladstone, according to EPA officials. It will be operational by Oct. 14 and operate during the coming winter. The contract provides for 42 weeks of treatment, with the option to start or stop treatment as needed…

    Water continues to flow from the mine at approximately 550 gallons per minute. Without the plant, officials have had to rely on a series of settling ponds to capture the dirty water before being discharged to Cement Creek.

    Authorities constructed four ponds at the mine site, which are treating water to remove as much metal loading as possible. The treatment plant will replace the ponds.

    EPA officials estimate the plant will cost $20,000 per week to operate, with another $53,200 for demobilization and bonding. EPA will use money from its Superfund coffers to pay for the project. Superfund money is used to clean up blighted areas that could be toxic to humans. Gold King still has not officially been listed as a Superfund site.

    The bidding process for the plant was conducted by St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration, LLC, the contractor that was working with the EPA when the spill occurred. The treatment-system contract was awarded to subcontractor Alexco Environmental Group Inc., which has an office in Denver.

    Officials said the transition to the plant is necessary as winter temperatures at high elevations can reach well below zero, making it unsafe to manually treat water at the mine site. The system is designed to handle up to 1,200 gallons per minute.

    “The objective of the treatment system is to neutralize the mine discharge and remove solids and metals,” stated an EPA news release announcing the facility. “Although the Gold King Mine discharge is just one of many into Cement Creek, the treatment will remove a portion of the metal loading to Cement Creek.”

    Though the system is temporary, long-term treatment will be decided after further evaluation of mine discharge, said an EPA spokeswoman.