Arkansas water managers want to talk more about transmountain diversions

Pueblo Reservoir, where much of the water diverted from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan river winds up, at least for awhile.
Pueblo Reservoir, where much of the water diverted from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan river winds up, at least for awhile.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

PUEBLO — Two members of a committee dedicated to the “equitable division of the state’s waters” from the Arkansas basin want to talk about moving more water from Western Slope rivers to thirsty towns and farms east of the Continental Divide.

“I think the discussion needs to be pushed,” said Jeris Danielson, who is director of the Purgatoire River Water Conservancy District in Trinidad and a former Colorado state water engineer.

Danielson is one of two representatives from the Arkansas basin roundtable on the 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee, set up by the Legislature in 2005 (HB 05-1177) to bring together stakeholders representing all the state’s river basins to talk about the “equitable division” of water in Colorado.

Jay Winner, the other Arkansas roundtable member on the IBCC, also spoke about his desire to keep transmountain diversions on the table when the committee meets next.

“I think it’s time we have that hard conversation,” said Winner, who is the director of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District.

Winner and Danielson made their comments at an Arkansas roundtable meeting in Pueblo on Feb. 10.

After the meeting, Winner said the IBCC was set up to talk about transbasin and transmountain diversions— where water is collected in one drainage and sent underneath a ridge of mountains to another — and should use its recently drafted “conceptual framework” to do just that.

The framework spells out the conditions a new transmountain diversion would have to meet to gain support on the Western Slope, including not increasing the risk of a compact call from states on the lower Colorado River.

“My take on the IBCC was that it was to have those difficult conversations for the benefit of Colorado,” Winner said. “And it seems the IBCC at times has turned into a coffee and donuts club. We sit around, talk about a lot of warm and fuzzy stuff. But the IBCC is about that adult conversation.”

Many IBCC members may feel they just had the “adult conversation” as they spent the last two years talking about transmountain diversions while developing the conceptual framework. (See related story).

But Winner is not fazed.

“We’re supposed to be talking about water, we’re not the finance guys,” said Winner. He was referring to the fact that the next IBCC meeting, in Broomfield on Feb. 23, is slated to focus on funding options for new water projects in Colorado.

The IBCC includes two members from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, plus six governor’s appointees, two legislative representatives and one director of compact negotiations, also appointed by the governor.

High country diversion

Water to the east

When two IBCC members from the Arkansas roundtable say they want to talk about transmountain diversions, it’s worth listening, especially for the Roaring Fork River watershed.

Each year an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water is taken out of streams in the Hunter Creek and upper Fryingpan River basins via 16 diversion structures. The water is collected and sent east through the Boustead Tunnel, the core of the Fry-Ark project, to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.

And an average of 41,000 acre-feet of water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork is sent each year through a tunnel under Independence Pass, to Twin Lakes Reservoir and beyond.

An increasing amount of the water from the Fork and Pan is owned by and used in cities, including Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West. But most of it is still used on fields stretching east of Pueblo on either side of the Arkansas River.

On the way down the Arkansas, the water also helps float the basin’s rafting and fishing economy.

The 2015 Arkansas basin implementation plan makes it clear that “new transbasin diversions” are on the table.

“The unmet demands for both municipal and agricultural future demands will have to be met from better management of existing supplies including reuse of transbasin water supplies to the maximum potential along with consideration of new transbasin diversions from an IBCC approved project,” the Arkansas plan states.

The Twin Lakes Reservoir in Twin Lakes, Colorado plays a key role in moving water from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers to cities on the Eastern Slope.
The Twin Lakes Reservoir in Twin Lakes, Colorado plays a key role in moving water from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers to cities on the Eastern Slope.

Checking with Southeastern

Jeris and Winner, during their brief IBCC committee reports at the Arkansas roundtable meeting, did not go into specifics about what they wanted to discuss.

And James Broderick, who sits on the Arkansas roundtable executive committee with Jeris and Winner, said he wasn’t sure what the two IBCC members were referring to.

“My guess is they are referring to transmountain diversions globally, not specifically,” said Broderick, who is also the executive director of Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which controls the water rights tied to the Fry-Ark project.

Southeastern holds conditional water rights in the upper Fryingpan basin on Lime and Last Chance creeks, in what the district called in a 2010 plan the “unbuilt portions of the Northside Collection System.”

Asked if Southeastern was working on developing those conditional water rights, Broderick said, “We’re looking at our conditional water rights, as we do all the time. Those are pieces that were originally negotiated and are still viable.”

Southeastern’s strategic plan for 2010 to 2015 does include as objectives “maximize Fry-Ark diversions to the limit of Southeastern’s water rights” and “ensure conditional water rights are absolute.”

The cover of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable's Basin Implementation Plan, completed in April 2015. Each of the basin roundtables developed a "BIP," but the Ark's is one of the most in-depth and complete.

A plan with a man

The Arkansas roundtable is now the first of the nine basin roundtables to secure a state grant to hire a professional water manager for a year.

It received the $98,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September and asked Gary Barber, an experienced Arkansas basin water developer and manager, to work on projects included in the 2015 Arkansas basin implementation plan.

An appendix to the plan includes 576 possible project description sheets, but the plan itself refers to “over 200 projects. “

It also declares that “new, interbasin supplies are a potential alternative to long-term agricultural dry-up” and that “new storage vessels are needed to meet all demands.”

But Winner said that Barber has not been directed to work on new transbasin projects.

“He’s not working on any transmountain diversion,” Winner said. “He is just working on what’s in the basin implementation plan and trying to get these smaller projects put together.”

“We have a lot of these aging infrastructure projects,” he added. “They could help meet the gap if they could actually fix their problems. Our big problem is finding the dollars to fix problems.”

Holding water. The Ruedi spillway and dam on the Fryingpan River above Basalt.
Holding water. The Ruedi spillway and dam on the Fryingpan River above Basalt.

So, uh, TMD?

Asked if he had a specific new transbasin diversion project in mind that he wants to discuss with the IBCC, Winner said, in a bit of curveball, “I do not believe there will ever be another transmountain diversion.”

“I remember Fryingpan-Arkansas,” said Winner. “I remember the protesting going on back then, in the ‘70s. It was ugly. What would it be like today if you tried to do a transmountain diversion? But I do believe the IBCC can start looking at projects.”

Winner suggests, for example, that a new dam on the lower South Platte River to store East Slope water would be beneficial to the state.

“I don’t think we need a transbasin diversion, but I think we need to better utilize what we have running into the state of Nebraska,” Winner said. “So I’d like to see the IBCC put their minds together and figure out a big project that could possibly solve problems that we have here in the state of Colorado.”

Winner also said he understands the West Slope’s perspective on transmountain diversions.

He went to high school in Kremmling and worked for three summers laboring to build Ruedi Reservoir, as his father was a manager on the Fry-Ark project, which was built between 1964 and 1981.

“I lived in Aspen when Aspen was nothing but a hippie town,” Winner said. “I understand what happened on the Western Slope. Not that long ago, the East Slope came to the West Slope and ran everybody over. We need to get past that. And we need to look at what’s going to be the best benefit for the state of Colorado.”

“And although the West Slope would love to say, ‘We got ours, leave us alone,’ the West Slope still needs the East Slope,” Winner added. “A lot of the dollars come from the East Slope.“

And even before Winner lived in Aspen, that sentiment was heard in the community.

In an editorial on June 9, 1961, The Aspen Times came out in support of the Fry-Ark project, after railing against it for years.

This was at a stage in the project when a large compensatory West Slope reservoir was to be built on the Fork just east of Aspen, not up on the Fryingpan as Ruedi Reservoir is today.

“We in Aspen are not living in a vacuum,” concluded the editorial, which was either written by Bil Dunaway as editor or George Madsen as assistant editor. “We enjoy the benefits of many government projects. We are also sensitive to the welfare of the state as a whole. It would be selfish to oppose the Fry-Ark project because it results in more benefits to others than it does to us. But we feel the benefits to us, both direct and indirect, would be considerable.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers in Colorado. The Daily News published this story on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, as did Aspen Journalism.

R.I.P. Bob Raymond

Sugarloaf bassist Bob Raymond (far right) passed away last week. A photo from Sugarloaf's 2012 induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. -- Courtesy of Colorado Music Hall of Fame
Sugarloaf bassist Bob Raymond (far right) passed away last week. A photo from Sugarloaf’s 2012 induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. — Courtesy of Colorado Music Hall of Fame

From Westword (Jon Solomon):

During bassist Bob Raymond’s stint with Sugarloaf, he played on each of the Denver-based band’s four albums, including the 1970 self-titled debut that included the hit single “Green-Eyed Lady.” Raymond, who was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame with Sugarloaf in 2012, died on February 11, at the age of 69, after a seven-month battle with lung cancer.

Early on, Sugarloaf, which had previously been known as Chocolate Hair, included three other musicians named Bob – guitarist Bob Webber, drummer Bob MacVittie and singer/guitarist Bob Yeazel — as well as keyboardist Jerry Corbetta. It was a seven-song demo that got the band signed to Liberty Records, which wanted to use the demo as the band’s debut.

Mesa water, sewer project gets state funding — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

Water infrastructure as sidewalk art
Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Paul Shockley):

Customers of the Mesa Water and Sanitation District will benefit after Colorado recently announced funding for upgrades to the entity’s drinking and wastewater systems.

The local entity is to receive $221,700 combined from the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment, among the 32 drinking water and wastewater systems in small communities getting some $9.4 million in total funding, state authorities said in a release.

Burt Dole, president of the Mesa district, said Westwater Engineering has already started design work on the project. They aim to break ground this spring, he said.

“The funds we have been granted should allow us to get completion of the entire project,” he said.

The Mesa Water and Sanitation District serves Mesa and an area stretching to KE Road and Colorado Highway 65.

Governmental agencies, nonprofit public water systems and counties representing unincorporated areas with fewer than 5,000 people were eligible to apply for up to $850,000 in funding, which was provided by the Legislature under Senate Bill 09-165 and SB14-025.

Three entities in Delta County, Stucker Mesa Domestic Water Company, Cathedral Water Company and the Coalby Domestic Water Company, also received funding.

Wolf Creek Reservoir for the White River Basin?

From The Rio Blanco County Herald-Times (Reed Kelley):

While there are as yet no approvals, project advocates are looking at a site on Wolf Creek, approximately 20 miles east of Rangely just north of Highway 64 and the White River, an area that extends into Moffat County.

With a footprint of at least 1,500 surface acres and a holding capacity of up to 90,000 acre-feet of water, the reservoir would be the largest in the region. Costs are projected to be from $71 million to $128 million.

The reservoir would be expected to meet municipal and energy development needs with use to include all types of water recreation, including motorized activities that Better City claims are increasingly restricted in other places across the state. In addition, the facility would provide water management that would benefit endangered fish recovery in the White River and beyond.

Better City further states that the proposal has already received support from multiple interests, including water conservation agencies, environmental groups and recreation enthusiasts.

Better City suggests interested citizens look at the “White River Storage Feasibility Study” done for the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in 2014. Further information can be obtained from the Conservancy District office at 2252 E. Main St., Rangely, or 970-675-5055…

Based on visitation data from other reservoirs in the region, the Wolf Creek impoundment is anticipated to attract 125,000 to 160,000 visitor days annually, generating direct expenditures in Rio Blanco County of $6.1 million to $7.8 million.
Such economic activity would be very beneficial to existing small businesses in the county and job creation—complementing development activities being recommended by Better City for Meeker and Rangely.

Alden VandenBrink, the new Conservancy District manager, said the project has the endorsement of the Yampa/White/Green River Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It is included in the recently released State Water Plan.
VandenBrink confirms that at least $400,000, including $25,000 from Rio Blanco County, have been invested by the Conservancy District in exploring the possibilities for the reservoir.

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

The latest “e-WaterNews” is hot off the presses from Northern Water

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

Snowpack and streamflow update
From now until the beginning of May, Northern Water will issue monthly snowpack and streamflow forecasts, which are available here. The Feb. 1, 2016, forecast showed Colorado’s statewide snowpack at 112 percent of average. The two river basins that Northern Water watches for forecasting are the Upper Colorado and South Platte, which were at 109 and 97 percent of average, respectively. Most basins throughout the state are near or above average for this time of year.

2016 spill?
Last year was the third largest spill from Lake Granby in Colorado-Big Thompson Project history. But will we see a spill in 2016? Maybe. Right now our water resources forecasters say it is a “bubble year,” meaning there is a 50/50 chance of a spill. Overall, it will depend on how much precipitation the higher elevations receive between now and spring runoff.

Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water
Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water

Upper Ark develops lease-fallowing model

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A way to beat plowshares into databases has been found.

A lease fallowing tool, developed by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District using a state grant, was explained to the Arkansas Basin Roundtable last week.

The tool is designed to streamline and standardize the evaluation of historic use of irrigation water and return flows to streams.

“It’s conservative, so a water rights holder can be assured their rights are not being injured,” said Terry Scanga, executive director of the Upper Ark district. “It’s a streamlined process, but conservative to make sure we don’t hurt the river.”

Determining the consumptive use and depletion factors when water rights are changed can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Usually it requires a trip to water court to face objectors who will argue to the last drop. The combination of those factors determines how much water can be moved out of a system without injuring water rights.

By using formulas that have been applied in other cases, such as the Hydrologic Institute model and Irrigation System Analysis Model, and maximizing presumptions about variables, a common platform for water transfers can be reached, said Ivan Walter, the lead engineer for the tool.

Water users are still responsible for ensuring the data are accurate.

Water users would still be free to hire their own engineers if they did not want to use the tool. The tool requires the user to fill in information including the location, type of crop and weather conditions. It can also be modified depending on how the information will be used.

The math in the model already has been applied to the Super Ditch pilot program last year, which dried up parts of six farms on the Catlin Canal to lease water to Fowler, Fountain and Security.

The lease is a pilot project under HB13-1248.

A working version of the model, which can be adapted to the South Platte and Rio Grande watersheds as well, is available online at the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Department of Natural Resources decision support system or Colorado Water Conservation Board websites.

2016 #coleg: Lower South Platte district meeting and current legislative proposals

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

From the Sterling Journal Advocate (Bryson Brug):

First up was a bill for ag water protection in governing the use of agricultural water. Currently, changing the intended use of agricultural water requires that a specific use be identified and designated. This bill will allow the owner of an agricultural water right to seek a change in use without designating the specific use. However this option is also subject to strict conditions, including approval by the state engineer. The remaining portion of the water from the water right must be used for agricultural purposes and the water cannot be transferred out of the water division that has jurisdiction over it.

Frank cautioned the bill might have too many protections in it.

“This bill has a lot of protections,” Frank said. “In fact it has so many protections that I’m not sure a lot of people will want to use it.”

The other bill introduced was a bill concerning the use of rain barrels being used to collect rain water from a residential rooftop. The bill allows for a maximum of two rain barrels with a capacity of 55 gallons each. Frank advised that this bill has a lot of support behind it. The problem, according to Frank, is that many view the bill as a conservation measure when it actually isn’t. According to the math, rain water collected in barrels is water not collected into rivers or natural water sources.

The Water Banks Administration bill, a third bill Franks mentioned, was not discussed because it has not been introduced yet. It is still in draft form and needs more work, Frank said. It will be discussed at the next meeting.

2016 #coleg: HB16-1005 rain barrel bill, sponsors downplay downstream injury

Rain barrel schematic
Rain barrel schematic

From KOAA.com (Andy Koen)

“When you fill up your rain barrel with rain that comes off of your roof and you use that to water your garden instead of turning your hose on and leaving it water for an hour with treated water, you realize where are your water is coming from,” [Daneya Esgar] said. “You might think a little bit differently about it and might help conserve the water that we need in Colorado to make sure that we maintain our great resource.”

The prevailing theory currently keeping Colorado homeowners from using rain barrels is that run-off from residential homes eventually flows through storm sewers into creeks and drains that feed interstate rivers. So, trapping that water at the source could harm cities and states downstream.

Esgar thinks that theory is flawed. She carried a similar bill last year that was defeated in the State Senate. During the interim session, State Senator Ellen Roberts asked Colorado State University to study whether residential rain barrel use causing any downstream injury.

“CSU came and did a great presentation to the interim water committee basically saying this is absolutely no injury this doesn’t hurt downstream users so once we heard that report we decided to go ahead and try again this year,” Esgar said.

House Bill 16-1005 would limit consumers to using just two rain barrels per household, for a maximum storage capacity of 110 gallons. The water must be used for irrigating lawns and gardens.

Esgar thinks the bill has a better chance this time around because of the CSU Study and bipartisan support already shown in the House.

“We’ve really been working since September with the opposition, the few people that were opposed to it, to really see if we could come up with a way to change the bill language a little bit that protects the downstream users without really infringing on the integrity of what we want the bill to be,” she said.

The Rain Barrel Bill will be introduced into the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee next Monday where it is expected to pass.

Nitrogen pollution in #Colorado

Nitrogen illustration via the Hubbard Foundation.
Nitrogen illustration via the Hubbard Foundation.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Fewer alpine wildflowers and shifts in the biology of mountain lakes are among the changes occurring in Colorado’s high country due to increasing levels of atmospheric nitrogen, a scientist studying the issue says…

The problem of nitrogen pollution in air and water serves as a reminder that climate change isn’t the only kind of global change, she said last week at the weekly winter Naturalist Nights speaker series. Things such as land-use changes and nitrogen pollution can wreak havoc on things such as biodiversity as well.

Nitrogen pollution comes from numerous sources, from livestock manure to overfertilization to fossil-fuel combustion, and is generally worse in the eastern United States than in the West. It’s a potent greenhouse gas, a contributor to ozone pollution, and excess amounts in drinking water cause cancer and blue-baby syndrome, Baron said. In surface waters it can result in low-oxygen biological “dead zones” due to excessive nutrients contributing to rampant algae growth.

Fortunately, water in Colorado’s mountains isn’t threatened by runoff from agricultural-related operations because the mountains sit higher than ag operations, she said.

“What we have is what falls out of the sky,” Baron said.

This has led to higher nitrogen levels in places like Rocky Mountain National Park, as warming morning air rises into the mountains from the Front Range and draws up nitrogen from the abundant human sources there. Nitrogen can be deposited in rain during afternoon storms that often follow. Unfortunately, Baron said, Colorado’s relatively poor soil and short growing season means there’s little vegetation to take up and store nitrogen.

Excess nitrogen acts as a fertilizer in the alpine environment, and that means some plants are winners and some are losers. She said grasses and sedges take advantage of the fertilizer to grow faster than wildflowers and crowd them out. Likewise, invasive cheatgrass at lower elevations responds well to higher nitrogen levels, she said.

Increased nitrogen in needles can make evergreens more attractive to insects that like to eat needles, but fortunately that hasn’t been a problem to date in Colorado, she said.

Increased nitrogen in soils makes it more acidic and changes soil fungi and bacteria, and as a result what eats them, such as nematodes, mites and springtails. That can affect snails, birds and other animals farther up the food chain, she said.

Baron said that while Rocky Mountain National Park lakes are awash in nitrogen, Western Slope ones are not.

But she said adding nitrogen to lakes with little nitrogen can quickly result in a lot of algae, and also lead to algae species being replaced by different ones, some of which are poor in nutrients and invertebrates don’t like to eat as much.

She said global nitrogen pollution levels have been high for many decades, but scientists believe the effects are being amplified by global warming, in this “perfect intersection of two global changes.”

Baron takes heart in an effort between state and federal agencies to try to address nitrogen levels in Rocky Mountain National Park through pursuing reductions in vehicle emissions, and a switch from coal to natural gas and renewable power sources.

“It’s all very encouraging that people want to solve this problem,” she said.