#crwua2015 Feds: Fix Colorado River problems or we will — The Arizona Daily Star

From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

For the second time in a decade, the feds are warning that if water interests in Arizona, California and Nevada can’t find a fix for the Colorado River’s problems, the interior secretary will find it for them.

Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor implied that was the department’s position in a talk Friday to hundreds of water officials, farmers and others gathered in Las Vegas for the 70th annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association. After his speech, Connor came right out and said it in response to a reporter’s questions.

Connor talked of the need to prevent Lake Mead, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas, from falling to dangerously low levels — potentially low enough to force Draconian cutbacks in water deliveries to cities and Indian tribes in Arizona, as well as to farms. The solutions haven’t been easy to find, in large part because they would require water users, particularly cities and farms in Arizona and California, to accept smaller cuts in water deliveries soon to stave off more severe cutbacks later.

The lake has dropped more than 120 feet since 2000. It’s expected to close 2015 at 1,082 feet elevation, 5 to 6 feet lower than a year ago. The first shortage in the river would be declared at 1,075 feet, but its effects would be far less drastic than shortages declared at lower lake levels that Conner raised concerns about.


The death of the Super Hopper — The High Country News


This is a fascinating article about the Rocky Mountain Locust and the species’ demise from Jeffrey Lockwood writing for The High Country News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

How early settlers unwittingly drove their nemesis extinct, and what it means for us today

Picture swirling snow as far as the eye can see — in the middle of summer. Now, imagine this blizzard of flakes transforming into a swarm of locusts. This isn’t just any swarm, but the largest congregation of animal life that the human race has ever known. Picture yourself in Plattsmouth, Neb., in the summer of 1875.

A swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts streams overhead for five days, creating a living eclipse of the sun. It is a superorganism composed of 10 billion individuals, devouring as much vegetation as a massive herd of bison — a metabolic wildfire that races across the Great Plains. Before the year is up, a vast region of pioneer agriculture will be decimated and U.S. troops will be mobilized to distribute food, blankets and clothing to devastated farm families.

I came across an account of this staggering swarm in the Second Report of the U.S. Entomological Commission, published in 1880. By clocking the insects’ speed as they streamed overhead, and by telegraphing to surrounding towns, Dr. A.L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps estimated that the swarm was 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide. This suffocating mass of insects was almost large enough to cover the entire states of Wyoming and Colorado.

Swarms like this — albeit usually on a smaller scale — are part of the life cycle of locusts around the world. At low population densities, these insects behave like typical grasshoppers, to which they are closely related. But when crowded, this insectan Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde. Chemical cues from their feces and frequent disturbance of tiny hairs on their hind legs set off the changes. The changelings aggregate in unruly mobs, feed in preference to mating, grow longer wings and a darkened body, and irrupt into rapacious swarms…

The break in the case [ed. determining why they are extinct now] came during my teaching. In an effort to work some interesting (i.e., nonmathematical) elements into my Insect Population Biology course, I dug into the ecology of the monarch butterfly. Much like the locust, this species distributes itself across the face of the continent. And much like the locust, the monarch is poised on the edge of extinction in North America.

How could a butterfly that fills roadsides and fields from Texas to Maine be in jeopardy? After migrating northward each summer, this species returns to overwinter in the remote mountains of Mexico. Its populations stretch across North America, only to collapse back into a few shrinking pockets of forest. Loosed on these pockets, a logging crew armed with chain saws could put an end to this magnificent butterfly in a matter of weeks.

There was the answer, staring me in the face. Like the monarch butterfly, the Rocky Mountain locust was tremendously vulnerable at certain times in its life. Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming.

By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries. They destroyed the locust’s equivalent of Mexican forest wintering grounds. They doomed the species.

#ColoradoRiver: Down by the [Hoover] dam, as you might never have seen it before — The Las Vegas Review-Journal

Check out this photo gallery from Hoover Dam and vicinity from the Las Vegas Review-Journal Thanks to @refriedBrean for the link.

Hoover Dam photo via the US Bureau of Reclamation
Hoover Dam photo via the US Bureau of Reclamation

The latest briefing is hot off the presses from the Western Water Assessment

Click here to go to the Western Water Assessment Dashboard (Scroll down for the latest briefing). Here’s an excerpt:

Latest Monthly Briefing – December 17, 2015


  • November saw wetter-than-average conditions over the majority of the region, especially in Colorado, though some key mountain areas were on the dry side.
  • Snowpack conditions continue to lag behind normal in northern and central Utah, northwestern Colorado, and most of Wyoming. Snowpack conditions in the rest of Colorado, southern and eastern Utah, and southeastern Wyoming are near normal to well above normal.
  • The current El Niño event has likely peaked but remains very strong. El Niño conditions are very likely to continue through the spring, with varying influences on weather across the region.
  • Upper Colorado River Basin November 2015 precipitation as a percent of normal via the Colorado Climate Center
    Upper Colorado River Basin November 2015 precipitation as a percent of normal via the Colorado Climate Center

    Reclamation Releases a Draft Environmental Assessment for the Lake Durango Water Pipeline

    Lake Nighthorse via the USBR
    Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

    Here’s the release from Reclamation (Justyn Liff):

    The Bureau of Reclamation has released a draft environmental assessment for the Lake Durango Water Pipeline Project.

    The La Plata West Water Authority is proposing to construct a 4.6 mile water pipeline from Lake Nighthorse, part of the Animas-La Plata Project to Lake Durango in La Plata County, Colo. The purpose of the water pipeline is to meet the current and future needs for domestic water supply in western La Plata County.

    The proposed project includes 4.6 miles of pipeline, an access road to the intake structure, a new 40×40-foot building around the existing intake chamber, a parking area, and a booster pump station. Currently, there is no way to pump water out of Lake Nighthorse. The pipeline and associated facilities will provide access and a way to deliver Animas-La Plata Project water.

    The draft environmental assessment is available online at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/progact/animas/index.html, under the Environmental Compliance tab or a copy can be received by contacting Phillip Rieger at 970-385-6515.

    Reclamation will consider all comments received prior to preparing a final environmental assessment. Written comments can be submitted by email to prieger@usbr.gov or mailed to Phillip Rieger, Bureau of Reclamation, 185 Suttle St. Ste. 2, Durango, CO 81301. Comments are due by Monday, January 10, 2016.

    Colorado Springs Overflows with Stormwater Projects — KRCC

    Fountain Creek Watershed
    Fountain Creek Watershed

    From KRCC (Matt Richmond):

    Next year’s budget in Colorado Springs includes $16 million for stormwater repairs. Colorado Springs Utilities will also spend $3 million. Much of those funds are likely to go toward improving the Fountain Creek Watershed, which runs through Colorado Springs and down into Pueblo; and the list of projects that need to be done along Fountain Creek is long and expensive.

    The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District funds projects in watersheds in El Paso and Pueblo Counties. Executive director Larry Small holds up a building under construction near Monument Creek, which is part of the Fountain Creek watershed, as an example of damages that seem to go unchecked.

    “That development has created runoff, comes down the slopes, carries with it sediment,” says Small. “It’s more pronounced down here in this cut bank where the stream gets higher, undercuts the bank and the bank collapses into the creek.”

    Up until 2010, Colorado Springs had a stormwater fund that was used to pay for damage like this. But the fund was eliminated and projects stopped. Small says that’s created an enormous backlog.

    “[The Monument Creek watershed] is the largest watershed in the Fountain Creek watershed… Many streams are tributaries to Monument Creek and each of these have issues.”

    For the entire Fountain Creek watershed, the needed work compiled by the district has a price tag of about $1 billion. Small says about half of that is in Colorado Springs.

    In front of a Colorado Springs Utilities wastewater treatment plant downstream are projects completed by the utility. Small says they’re the same sorts of projects that were completed before the stormwater fund was eliminated.

    “They would put in rip-rap like this to stabilize the banks,” says Small. “So those were capital improvements they would make. They would also maintain areas that had been eroded, where they had facilities and they’ve been damaged – for instance sediment collection ponds may have been filled in need to be cleaned.”

    There is pressure on Colorado Springs to get back to work on these projects. The permit authorizing the Southern Delivery System, a pipeline carrying water north from Pueblo Reservoir, requires that Colorado Springs do more to control stormwater runoff before water deliveries begin. Pueblo County nearly voted to find the city in violation of that provision earlier this year, potentially closing down the whole pipeline. The Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment will also review the city’s stormwater plans. The city faces a court injunction and fines.

    Denver: 25th Annual Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture, February 18, 2016


    Click here to go to the website. Click here to register.

    Water stakeholders discuss best practices — La Junta Tribune-Democrat

    From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):

    A very thoughtful and knowledgeable group of water stakeholders met Wednesday at Otero Junior College with representatives from the Colorado Water Conservation Board subcommittee on the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative. The hope is that interests of southeastern Colorado and agriculture, somewhat synonymous, and those of the rest of the state can be worked out to the mutual advantage of all parties. Behind the meeting were Jay Winner of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, Caitlin Hansen of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the CWCB and Arkansas Basin Roundtable. Assisting Deb Phenicie as moderator of the group was Mark Shea of Colorado Springs. Phenicie works under Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte and Coalitions & Collaboratives Inc…

    The water quality issue and the flood control projects dovetail with the issue of junior water rights, which depend on water captured from flood events. Winner and other farmers and conservationists hope that some solution can be worked out that will benefit both southeastern Colorado/agricultural interests and water quality, without the disastrous buy and dry witnessed in Crowley County, now overcome by tumbleweeds and dust after its irrigation water was sold to interests in metropolitan Colorado.

    The situation has been intensified by a 10-year drought, said one speaker. The past two years of adequate rainfall have not yet overcome the damage of the drought. Farmers and ranchers have sold off their livestock and are now reluctant to buy it back until they see the direction the market will take. Some have been good stewards of their land by replanting with cover crops and native grasses, but some have allowed weeds to take over. Weeds hold down the dust, said one speaker, but also lead to the scourge of tumbleweeds, which block roads and pastures and pile up against houses and barns. Tumbleweeds, along with salinity, were identified as major problems of the area.

    District Forester Donna Davis of the Colorado State Forest Service saw diversified revegetation as a helpful improver of water quality by the slowing of sediment deposited in primary streams and also the filtering effect of roots.

    Schweizer pointed out that the problem of fertilizer nutrients contaminating the watershed will be widely erased by the increased use of sprinklers rather than flood irrigation. Several of the stakeholders agreed that rotational fallowing, with or without the Super Ditch plan, was the best practical answer to prevent disastrous buy and dry projects.

    Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
    Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

    Past dry-ups should be a lesson for restoring land — The Pueblo Chieftain

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    When large tracts of land are disturbed, it takes more than good intentions to return it to something approaching a natural state.

    The recipe includes water, seeds, know-how and — most importantly — time.

    Those lessons have been learned in the most painful way over time in the Arkansas Valley as farmland has been taken out of production, sacrificed for pipelines, scorched by drought or ravaged by fire.

    Fears that those lessons have not been learned well enough have surfaced this month as a patchwork plan for farm dryups was revealed by Arkansas River Farms. The company plans to dry up about 6,700 acres of the 14,400 acres it owns on the Fort Lyon Canal, using it to support wells on farm ground elsewhere.

    The most painful lesson came for Ordway in 2008, when a fire ripped through dried-up farms in Crowley County that were no longer the responsibility of those who took the water off the land. The fire, started by a controlled burn fanned by winds, claimed two lives, 16 homes and 9,000 acres of mostly former farmland.

    Water was first taken off farms in Crowley County in the 1980s, when water owned by a cattle feeding operation was sold to Colorado Springs, and most remaining Colorado Canal shares were snapped up by Aurora. By that time Colorado Springs and Pueblo had bought Twin Lakes shares that had provided supplemental water for Crowley County farms for decades.

    Water courts insisted on revegetation plans when the Colorado Canal shares were converted in the late 1980s, as well as for the dry-up of farms on the Rocky Ford Ditch by Aurora. Those plans appeared to be complete, only to fall apart.

    Shortly after the 2008 fire, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District sighted in on the dry-up as an important contributing factor.

    Not long after, the district was successful in obtaining tougher court provisions for the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association purchase of nearly half of the Amity Canal. Annual reports on all dry-ups, temporary or permanent were required in perpetuity. It has been successful in applying it in other water cases since then.

    And this year, Aurora returned to lands dried up in its 1999 purchase of Rocky Ford Ditch shares even after revegetation was certified by a panel of experts. The drought had damaged some of the vegetation, so Aurora used some of its water to try to reestablish the grasses.

    Aurora in 2000 had to come back to Rocky Ford land that was improperly revegetated from its first purchase.

    All of which feeds into continued concern about the announced dry-ups on the Fort Lyon.

    “Who’s going to have long-term responsibility to make sure this gets done?” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark district. “We are looking at assuring revegetation in perpetuity, and it should be the responsibility of those who are moving the water.”

    Winner pointed to contracts when water was sold to the Lower Arkansas Water Management Authority that required landowners who had sold their water to protect the land. That led to large dust storms blowing across the landscape – even across highways — during the recent drought. “When you see that — people have died from that — you realize that it should be the responsibility forever of those who are using the water,” Winner said.

    One of the questions posed to Karl Nyquist, a partner in Arkansas River Farms, last week was whether water could return to lands that were dried up. The answer was uncertain.

    Two conservation districts in Bent and Prowers counties are proposing a plan to monitor revegetation efforts in the Arkansas River Farms dry-up.

    It’s modeled after Aurora’s most recent efforts, trying to incorporate all of the lessons which have been learned so far. They have pitched it to county commissioners before an application to change the use of water has been filed.

    “What I told them was to not be in such a hurry,” said Bill Long, Bent County commissioner.

    Fort Lyon Canal’s shareholders will have a hearing about the Arkansas River Farms plan on Jan. 28-29. But Long said the issues should be hashed out in water court, rather than predetermined.

    On revegetation, Winner agrees.

    “I believe the water court needs to be the policeman,” Winner said.

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

    Creede waits, faces daily toxic flow, yet pines for mining comeback — The Denver Post

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    Three million gallons a week of some of the West’s worst unchecked acid mine runoff — laced with lead, cadmium and fish-killing zinc — drain into headwaters of the Rio Grande River. A 270-gallons-a-minute flow from just one source, the collapsing Nelson Tunnel, led to a federal “environment disaster” Superfund designation in 2008.

    But neither federal nor state environmental agencies did any cleanup work this year.

    Or last year.

    Or the year before. The federal cleanup, like most Superfund cleanups, is stuck in seemingly endless study.

    And rather than rely on the government, which has documented tens of thousands of draining inactive mines, Creede is clinging to what residents hope will be a faster solution. They’re working for a comeback of mining, anathema at Colorado’s former mining towns that became elite resorts, but still much-loved here.

    Creede has a unique opportunity because a nearby closed silver mine — the Bulldog — is connected to the Nelson Tunnel underground.

    Mining engineers have determined that if Rio Grande Silver Inc., owned by mining giant Hecla, can restart silver mining at the Bulldog, the required pumping and treatment of pent-up wastewater would have the side effect of emptying the Nelson Tunnel and stopping the leak.

    “If we want to get this cleaned up, and not have taxpayers pay for it, we should be encouraging mining, not prohibiting mining,” said Zeke Ward, chairman of the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee, a local watershed group.

    #ColoradoRiver: John Fleck’s water news

    Click here to read the latest edition of John Fleck’s Water News. Here’s an excerpt:

    Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor Friday laid out the Colorado River doomsday scenario and urged basin leaders to push forward with ongoing negotiations to forge a water sharing deal to slow the decline in Lake Mead. Speaking on the final day of the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Connor said that with climate change, the risk of a rapidly dropping reservoir is rising, with a 30 percent chance that Mead could drop past the critical elevation 1,020 in the next five years. At levels that low, water managers have no clear plans for how to ensure supplies for major water users downstream, on the farms and cities of Nevada, Arizona, and California. “Risk has increased,” Connor said.

    Connor pointed to ongoing negotiations among Lower Basin water users to come up with an agreement that might slow Mead’s declines, an extension of the shortage sharing provisions worked out by the states and the federal government in 2007. But he also hinted at the difficulties ahead, which will require not only a deal at the basin scale, but one that is acceptable to the many water agencies in each state that have come to rely on an increasingly unreliable supply.

    The Colorado River supplies water to Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in terms of capacity in the United States. New research from The University of Texas at Austin has found natural variability, not humans, have the most impact on water stored in the river and the sources that feed it. U.S. Geological Survey
    The Colorado River supplies water to Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in terms of capacity in the United States. New research from The University of Texas at Austin has found natural variability, not humans, have the most impact on water stored in the river and the sources that feed it. U.S. Geological Survey

    Expanding water supplies: Report shows benefits, risks of stormwater and graywater CSU

    Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Anne Ju Manning):

    There’s a lot of potential benefit to capturing graywater and stormwater to supplement traditional water supplies, but it doesn’t make sense for everyone, and there are plenty of legal, regulatory and climate-related hurdles in doing so, says Colorado State University’s Sybil Sharvelle.

    Sharvelle, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and head of CSU’s Urban Water Center, served on a 12-member national committee charged with addressing the benefits and challenges of stormwater and graywater as supplemental water sources, as the nation faces widespread water shortages and droughts. The National Academies report, released publicly Dec. 16, was two years in the making and provides information on the costs, benefits, risks and regulations associated with capturing these alternative water sources.

    According to the report, stormwater is “water from rainfall or snow that can be measured downstream in a pipe, culvert or stream shortly after the precipitation event.” Graywater is “untreated wastewater that does not include water from the toilet or kitchen, and may include water from bathroom sinks, showers, bathtubs, clothes washers and laundry sinks.”

    The report recommends best practices and treatment systems for the use of water from these sources; for example, in many locations with heavy rainfall, it’s possible to store excess water in aquifers for use during dry seasons. In some cases, stormwater captured at neighborhood and larger scales can substantially contribute to urban water supplies.

    Graywater is best for non-potable uses like toilet flushing and subsurface irrigation. It has potential to help arid places like Los Angeles achieve substantial savings, and it serves as a year-round, reliable water source, according to the report. Larger irrigation systems and indoor reuse systems would require complex plumbing and treatment retrofits that are typically most appropriate for new, multi-residential buildings or neighborhoods for future urban planning.

    The report cites the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, which reuses graywater from showers and hand-washing to flush toilets. The facility has observed water savings of 20 gallons per day per inmate.

    Sharvelle said the need for the report arose before the onset of widespread drought in the western United States.

    “The use of these resources has been hindered by a lack of national guidance and ambiguous regulations for water quality targets,” Sharvelle said.

    Sharvelle led an analysis of residential stormwater and graywater use in Los Angeles; Seattle; Newark; Madison, Wis.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Birmingham, Ala., and calculated potential savings for conservation irrigation and toilet flushing.

    The bottom line is there’s no single best way to use these resources, because whether they’re successful or economically viable depend on a host of factors: legal and regulatory constraints, climate, and source water availability.

    The report is online, and a webinar is planned for early 2016 to further detail the findings. The study was sponsored by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation and other agencies.

    CSU’s Urban Water Center is part of the university’s One Water Solutions Institute, which seeks to connect CSU’s world-class research with real-world water challenges.