#ColoradoRiver: Where the river ran dry: A little water restores sliver of nature in Mexican delta — Arizona Central

Here’s a report about the conservation efforts in the Colorado River delta country from Brandon Loomis writing fo the Arizona Central. Click through for the whole article and the great photos. Here’s an excerpt:

The work of maintaining a little nature along a thoroughly re-plumbed Colorado River is, in fact, never-ending.

Little more than a year ago these cottonwoods, willows and cattails were absent. Non-profit groups from both sides of the border have worked or paid to plow, plant and irrigate some 650 acres so far, essentially farming nature where it once grew wild.

They’re using canals to put some of the river back into its channel in strategic places.

Both countries are working to reverse some of the ecological damage, even as the growing population causes officials to seek new water supplies through reuse and saltwater desalination before the Southwest’s thirst leaves even less of a river for nature.

These woodland strands — tiny replicas of the river’s creation — are emblematic of the realities facing a 246,000-square-mile watershed, upstream to its mountain origins in Wyoming and Colorado. Anything that requires more water from a climate-stressed source won’t come easily….

An earthquake creates an opening for change

Riverside restoration — both along a dry channel south of the border and a wet one north of it — is an ambitious undertaking given how little the river has left to give. Without intensified water conservation or supply augmentation, the U.S. government predicts the Southwest will be short 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. That gap is larger than Arizona’s share of the river.

Beyond aesthetics, this restoration is a start on securing the futures of about two dozen creatures whose existence the dams and canals built throughout the Colorado River Basin threw into jeopardy.

Negotiations between the nations and states that use the river allowed Mexico to store water in Lake Mead for ecological flows after a 2010 earthquake destroyed canals supplying Mexican farms.

The U.S. released about 105,000 acre-feet over several weeks last year. That’s more than enough to supply Tucson for a year, but less than 2 percent of annual supplies out of Lake Mead. On a small scale, it mimicked the sort of springtime floods that poured across the delta before Hoover Dam’s construction in the 1930s.

U.S. interests including the Central Arizona Project will recover some of the water long-term because the deal trades American-funded canal repairs for Mexican water left in Lake Mead.

The flood soaked the roots of newly planted cottonwoods, which in this climate can grow 10 feet or more in a year. Some of the new trees sank roots deep enough to tap groundwater; others will need continuing irrigation.

When the river dried up again, conservation groups who bought both permanent water rights and short-term leases from Mexican farmers began moving water through Mexico’s canals to periodically wet their restoration sites. The international agreement allows them to use up to 50,000 acre-feet — each acre-foot equaling 325,851 gallons — over five years, ending in 2017.

New negotiations next year are expected to produce an agreement for what happens after 2017.

The 2014 flood, officially labeled a “pulse flow,” was effectively an experiment to see how much water the delta needs to rebuild some biologically meaningful patches of bird and fish habitat.

It turned out that such a big flood of water all at once may not be the most effective restoration tool.

Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute
Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute

Snowpack news: Arkansas Basin best in state = 119%, Yampa & White = 78%

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low graph is omitted, the data has not updated.

Upper #ColoradoRiver Endangered Fish Recovery Program update

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From KUNC (Laura Palmisano):

It all started in 1988 when the federal government signed an agreement with Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, establishing what’s called the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Endangered fish at various stages of development can be found at the Colorado River Fishery Project, a national fish hatchery in Grand Junction, Colorado. Right now, the hatchery is home to two species, the endangered razorback sucker and the bonytail.

“Back when I first started, pikeminnow were probably doing better,” said Dale Ryden, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “There were more big fish throughout the [Colorado River] basin. I had worked here for four years before I ever saw a razorback sucker out of the wild. They just weren’t around anymore. Same thing with bonytail. Bonytail were extremely, extremely rare.”

The recovery program includes federal and state agencies, environmentalists, hydropower associations and water user groups. Unlike some efforts to conserve other species, it hasn’t involved litigation.

“Working toward the same goal of recovering the fish, while allowing water development to continue… those two at first blush don’t seem to go together,” Ryden said. “But they actually work together very well.”

Just to the south of town on the Gunnison River, a tributary of the Colorado, sits a diversion dam built in the early 1900s. It blocked fish from traveling upstream for nearly 100 years, until Ryden said, they put a fish ladder on the dam.

“It goes up and around the Redlands Dam and provides upstream fish passage for native and endangered fish.”

The ladder is a selective passage. Biologists use it to trap fish traveling upstream. Then they hand-sort them so only native fish can continue up the Gunnison River. Two similar ladders have been installed along the Colorado and another is in the works on the Green River in Utah.

Fish ladder at the Redlands diversion dam via KVNF
Fish ladder at the Redlands diversion dam via KVNF

The ladders might help fish get to their upstream habitats, but water levels also matter.

Brent Uilenburg with the Bureau of Reclamation said there is some recognition that “the dams and canals we operate that take water out of the Colorado River Basin have contributed to the decline of the species.”[…]

The bureau is also the largest single source of funding for the conservation program. States, water developers, and hydropower associations also contribute, totaling more than $350 million over the past 25 years.

That funding helped the Grand Valley Water Users Association in Grand Junction optimize its system. Before, said Kevin Conrad, the association’s operations manager, they diverted more water than necessary.

“Whatever they weren’t using, it went out through spillways on the canal back to the river, but it was below a point where the fish couldn’t benefit from it.”

Conrad said the upgrades also help conserve water and keep it in place for the fish.

The ultimate goal of the recovery program is to remove the fish from the endangered species list. Biologist Dale Ryden said habitat restoration, water flow improvements, hatchery programs, and invasive fish removal are helping the fish rebound.

“Probably the biggest star in terms of recovery prospects is the razorback sucker,” said Ryden. “Bonytail are really doing much better with the really robust stocking program.”

Humpback chub seem stable, but Ryden said questions remain about the Colorado pikeminnow.

This story comes from ‘Connecting the Drops’ – a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at http://cfwe.org.

USGS national water census: #ColoradoRiver Basin geographic focus area study

Click here to read the fact sheet from the United States Geological Survey. Here’s the introduction:

The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) concept of a national census (or accounting) of water resources has evolved over the last several decades as the Nation has experienced increasing concern over water availability for multiple competing uses. The implementation of a USGS National Water Census was described in the USGS 2007 science strategy document that identified the highest priority science topics for the decade 2007–17. In 2009, the SECURE Water Act (Public Law 111–11, subtitle F) authorized the USGS to create a Water Availability and Use Assess­ment Program for the Nation, and in 2012, the Department of the Interior WaterSMART initiative provided funding to begin implementation of the USGS National Water Census (NWC).

Generally, the USGS NWC approaches water-availability assessment in terms of a “water budget.” The water-budget approach seeks to better quantify the inflows and outflows of water, as well as the change in storage volume, both nationally and at a regional scale and, by doing so, provides critical information to managers and stakeholders responsible for making water-availability decisions. The NWC has two primary components: Topical Studies and Geographic Focus Area Studies. Topical Studies do research on methods that can provide nationwide estimates of particular water-budget components at the subwatershed scale. Some examples of NWC Topical Studies include estimation of streamflow at ungaged locations; periodic quantification of evapotranspiration; and water use related to development of unconventional oil and gas. These efforts are planned to include additional topics in the future. Geographic Focus Area Studies (FASs) assess water availability and use within a defined geographic area, typically a surface-water drainage basin, to increase the understanding of factors affecting water availability in the region. In the FASs, local stakeholder input helps the USGS identify what components of the water budget are in most need of additional understanding or quantification. Focus Area Studies are planned as 3-year efforts and, typically, three FASs are ongoing in different parts of the country at any given time.

The Colorado River Basin (CRB) and the Delaware and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basins were selected by the Department of the Interior for the first round of FASs because of the perceived water shortages in the basins and potential conflicts over water supply and allocations. After gathering input from numerous stakeholders in the CRB, the USGS determined that surface­-water resources in the basin were already being closely monitored and that the most important scientific contribution could be made by helping to improve estimates of four water­-budget components: evapotranspiration losses, snowpack hydrodynamics, water­-use information, and the relative importance of groundwater discharge in supporting streamflow across the basin. The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide a brief summary of the CRB FAS results as the study nears completion. Although some project results are still in the later stages of review and publication, this fact sheet provides an overall description of the work completed and cites the publications in which additional information can be found.

The Colorado River Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin is outlined in black.
The Colorado River Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin is outlined in black.

Acequia activism: Men and women help protect a vital network — The Albuquerque Journal

From The Albuquerque Journal (T.S. Last):

Water rights and urban development are the two biggest impediments to the acequia system that has been a part of New Mexico’s unique history since shortly after the Spanish arrived in the American Southwest more than 400 years ago.

It is said that acequias, which refer both to the irrigation infrastructure itself and the organizational structure of the water-sharing network, formed one of the first democracies on the continent. Then, as they do now, the parciantes, or acequia members, elect the mayordomo, who is in charge of managing the acequia.

To be sure, Native Americans used a channel system to irrigate crops prior to the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico. But it was the Europeans, who learned from the Moors of North Africa – “acequia” actually an Arabic word meaning “canal” – who developed expansive irrigation systems and a system of governance that has stood the test of time.

“The fact that they are still flowing, and are governed through ancient customs and modern law, through the Spanish-colonial period, and territorial period, to statehood, speaks to their resiliency,” said Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a nonprofit organization that, according to its mission statement, works to protect water and acequias, grow healthy food for families and communities, and honor the cultural heritage.

Part of that cultural heritage involves the annual spring cleaning of the acequias. That’s when the parciantes are mobilized to clear the ditches of debris, make any repairs to “compuertas,” or turnouts, and get the irrigation system ready for the growing season.

Acequia cleaning prior to running the first water of the season
Acequia cleaning prior to running the first water of the season

“That’s an event of great cultural importance and it serves a practical need because there’s always a need to have people clean ditches,” Garcia said, adding that family members who have moved away often come home to pitch in. “It’s a part of someone’s identity to come home and help clean the ditches in March and April.”

It’s not just Hispanic families anymore. She said that members of other ethnic groups who have purchased property tied to acequias typically embrace the system.

“Today, it’s more multi-cultural,” she said.

Garcia said there are approximately 700 acequias currently operating in New Mexico, a good many more in southern Colorado and only a few left in Texas…

El agua es vida

The motto of the state acequia association is “el agua es vida,” water is life. It is what sustains us and, without it, we would not survive.

Each year, the acequia association holds a Congreso, its annual convention, at which there are workshops, seminars and an awards ceremony.

An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Colorado mountain towns to world leaders: Help us save snow — The Denver Post #COP21

Snowpack measure winter park -- photo via Denver Water
Snowpack measure winter park — photo via Denver Water

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Colorado recreation industry and mountain town leaders spoke at the world climate summit in Paris on Sunday, pressing for a strong deal to preserve winters long enough for snow sports.

Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron told of efforts to adapt to shorter, slushier winters, joined by others on a panel, including Olympic snowboarder Seth Wescott.

“I urge world leaders to finish strong in Paris to keep the world below the tipping point and save the winter lifestyle for the world,” Wescott said in an e-mail.

They’re part of the intensifying push around the United Nations-convened talks involving 195 nations. The negotiators’ goal is to make and agree to a plan that will limit global warning to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the future…

Over the past year, mountain town leaders in Colorado and neighboring states have been making the case that rising temperatures, inconsistent river flows, shrinking snowpack, drought and catastrophic wildfires are worsening problems they must deal with at increased expense…

In Paris, the panel of athletes, elected officials, industry leaders and activists — coordinated by Aspen-based Snowriders International — discussed impacts on communities that depend economically on winter recreation and snow. They presented a petition with more than 1,500 signatures to leaders.

Water Storage a Critical Question for Climate Adaptation — Circle of Blue #COP21

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

Water advocates have repeatedly clamored for recognition that climate adaptation is about shifting hydrological cycles. In Paris, they are beginning to see results. But Paris is not where adaptation will take place. Fortifying modern society against the destructive potential of a new climate falls on the shoulders of public officials in countless cities, counties, and districts in countries rich and poor. In Denver and Dallas just as in Delhi and Dhaka.

Water managers have much to think about, and the considerations vary by region. Indian cities are still trying to provide 24-hours-a-day water service to their citizens, while American counterparts are encouraging residents to use less. Still, one issue more than any other is likely to dominate the water adaption discussion in the coming decades: storage. That is, how to smooth out climate irregularities into a reliable, steady water supply.

Storage is a “huge topic,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a research group. Huge, because the stakes are so high. There are billions of dollars in public and private investment and engineering contracts in play. California voters, for instance, approved $US 2.7 billion last year to spend on storage projects. There is potential conflict between old practices and new ideas. Dams and reservoirs are the tried-and-true storage method. A suite of alternatives is available but they have been tested in only a few parts of the world.

The questions are many: build new dams, increase the capacity of existing facilities, or change how they are managed? Emphasize small dams or large ones or none at all? Is underground storage an option? Where are the best locations? Must laws and policies be altered? How does conservation fit in? The questions are not only a matter of engineering. They also reflect deep and serious debates about social, environmental, economic, and political values.

Dams Set the Stage

In the beginning all storage was natural. Groundwater reserves were built up over millennia. Lakes formed and reformed. Domestic and economic life was molded on the seasonal cycles of rain, snow, and heat.

Soon enough, the demands of the modern era overwhelmed the natural order, in the United States in particular but also in other large economies. For settlements to grow into cities and pioneer farm plots into vast commercial enterprises, the need for regular and predictable water supplies was an urgent matter.

Manmade reservoirs were the answer. An era of dam building began in earnest in the United States in the 1930s. Fifty years later reservoir storage capacity had increased by a factor of 10. China, India, South Africa, and other countries followed. Worldwide, dams radically altered watershed ecology, drove millions from their homes, and became flashpoints for environmental and social justice movements.

Despite the drawbacks, reservoir storage helps in several ways. It provides a long-term buffer against extended drought. Dams in the Colorado River Basin, for example, hold four times the river’s average annual flow. Storage also protects communities against floods. The Portland, Oregon, waterfront would be washed away every few decades if not for the dozens of dams upstream on the Columbia River in British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, and Washington.

Storage is a critical issue today because natural systems are faltering. Groundwater reserves are being drained. Mountain snowpack is shrinking and melting sooner, leading to drier conditions later in the summer. A U.S. Geological Survey study published last month found that the peak spring river flows in the northern U.S. plains moved one to two weeks earlier over the last century.

“Climate change is going to destroy snowpack storage,” Gleick told Circle of Blue. A large body of scientific research supports the claim. Watersheds in the American West, southern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia that supply 2 billion people face declines in snow storage, according to a study published last month in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The snow season for several basins in the American West could shrink by two months by 2050, according to a 2014 University of Idaho study.

No single action will replace the storage that will be lost, according to Paul Fleming, manager of the climate and sustainability group at Seattle Public Utilities. That means communities must discuss the menu of options and agree on the order that works for them.

“It’s fair to say that any decision on storage needs to be rooted in the values of the location and of the people who reside there,” Fleming told Circle of Blue. Fleming was also a lead author for the adaptation chapter of the 2014 National Climate Assessment. “It’s important to think of storage not in isolation but as part of an overall strategy.”

Some regions need more storage than others — places that rely primarily on natural storage and are more exposed to the whims of weather.

“There are places where we’ve under-invested in surface storage,” Gleick said, mentioning sub-Saharan Africa as one such area. “These are places where there is a higher risk of drought and flood because they don’t have the protection that reservoirs provide.”

Dams need not be the behemoth structures that flourished in the last century and continue to be built today. Small dams can slow down rivers that are swollen from a heavy rain, hold back the water, and allow it to soak into the soil. The 2015 Stockholm Water Prize, considered the Nobel for water, went to Rajendra Singh for using such methods to restore groundwater tables in India. Singh’s organization has helped build or inspire the construction of more than 8,600 johads, or small earthen dams, in his home state of Rajasthan in the last two decades…

Using Old Dams In New Ways

Communities are also adapting by renovating old dams. Denver officials want to raise the height of Gross Reservoir, to boost storage capacity. Officials in Washington state plan to link two reservoirs in the Yakima River Basin by pipeline, to maximize storage.

Gleick points to Folsom Dam as another example of how an existing reservoir can be retrofitted to match a new climate reality. The dam, on the American River, east of Sacramento, was completed in 1956 and is operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Like all dams that trap snowmelt to limit flood damage, Folsom is operated according to a set of formulas called rule curves. The curves tell managers when to transition from flood control mode, when reservoirs are emptied, to water storage mode. The shift happens in the spring, but decisions are often made with old data, Gleick said.

“We have to change those curves to reflect that the nature of storms is changing,” Gleick said.

Louis Moore, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, told Circle of Blue that Folsom’s rule curves have been updated and that there are ongoing discussions about additional changes, to match new conditions. Paul Fleming said that Seattle is also changing how it manages its reservoirs.

Rule curves are an operational change. Reclamation is also altering Folsom’s physical structure. The agency is collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a $US 900 million upgrade to the dam’s spillway. This will allow managers to dump water more quickly during a flood and thus store more water behind the dam.

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water
Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water