@ColoradoStateU: ‘Most important water manager in the Western U.S.’ on campus

From Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

The Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, Mike Connor, will headline an evening of water-related discussions as part of the Dr. Norm Evans Endowed Lecture Series. Connor will offer his reflections on eight years as the water leader for the Interior Department at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 9 in the Lory Student Center Theater. The evening is sponsored by the Colorado Water Institute, a part of CSU’s Office of Engagement, and the CSU Water Center.

Connor, who is a former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, is a key leader in implementing the Administration’s priorities for the Department of the Interior, including water policy and relations in the face of an unprecedented Western drought. He serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the Interior Department, an agency of more than 70,000 employees with an annual budget of approximately $12 billion.

Important Western water manager

“Having Interior Deputy Secretary Connor as our first distinguished speaker in the Norm Evans Endowed Lecture Series is a rare opportunity for the CSU community to learn and interact with the most important water manager in the Western U.S.,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute.

Prior to joining the Department of the Interior, Connor served as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 2009 to 2014, where he led efforts to promote the sustainable use of water to effectively address current and future challenges associated with water supply and power generation in the American West. Connor helped to forge major Indian water rights settlements and worked to resolve water conflicts in California, New Mexico, Oregon and other western states. He led the Department of the Interior’s efforts and completed two major binational agreements with Mexico on the Colorado River that have received international attention and acclaim.

Left to right: Four of the five current and former Colorado Water Institute directors – Reagan Waskom, Norm Evans, Neil Grigg, and Robert Ward. Photo by Lindsey Middleton.
Left to right: Four of the five current and former Colorado Water Institute directors – Reagan Waskom, Norm Evans, Neil Grigg, and Robert Ward. Photo by Lindsey Middleton.

Recognition of former directors

Left to right: Four of the five current and former Colorado Water Institute directors – Reagan Waskom, Norm Evans, Neil Grigg, and Robert Ward. Photo by Lindsey Middleton.
Left to right: Four of the five current and former Colorado Water Institute directors – Reagan Waskom, Norm Evans, Neil Grigg, and Robert Ward. Photo by Lindsey Middleton.

The evening will also include a special recognition of former Colorado Water Institute director Norm Evans along with former directors Neil Grigg and Robert Ward. The Evans Endowment, established by Ken and Ruth Wright of Boulder, sponsors an annual lecture on water management education and policy, and honors the longest serving director of the Colorado Water Institute.

The evening will conclude with four CSU water experts discussing western water issues and tradeoffs. Stephanie Kampf, associate professor of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability; Kelsea Macilroy, doctoral candidate in sociology; Pete Taylor, professor in the Department of Sociology, and; Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist/scholar with the Colorado Water Institute, will cover topics such as public shifts in attitudes toward water, changing notions of beneficial use, climate effects on water supply, water security, and possible approaches to governance for multiple water uses. Waskom will moderate the panel.

The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://watercenter.colostate.edu/NormEvans_Lecture.shtml.

CFWE “Water for Commodity Production Tour” recap

Agratech.com photo via Todd McPhail
Agratech.com photo via Todd McPhail

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Plants need water.

Simple, right?

Until you begin to decide which kind of “plant.”

Pinto beans or cannabis? Steel or electricity?

While water is vital for life, it’s also a commodity, and determining the “highest and best use,” as water lore terms it, is a complicated proposition.

The Colorado Foundation for Water Education hosted a tour of about 50 people through history, farms and industry to show how water is used in Pueblo County.

“It’s a real blending of traditional and contemporary, where the Old West meets the New West,” said Kristin Maharg, of the foundation, which was formed by the state Legislature to provide impartial water information.

Most of the participants in the day-long tour were not from Pueblo County, which met the foundation’s goal of educating people from all over the state about the needs of the Arkansas River basin.

From the traditional side, Avondale farmer Tom Rusler explained the inner workings of the Bessemer Ditch and his own 1,600-acre farming operation that grows everything from onions and pinto beans to alfalfa hay and corn for livestock.

“On March 15 each year, water starts flowing in the Bessemer Ditch. It has to come 40 miles and takes about 40 hours to get here,” Rusler told guests as they enjoyed a lavish spread of Mexican food at tables in a farm shed. “We go up to the ditch and have a pizza party as we watch the water come in. From that point on, water dominates every conversation we have. It’s water all day, every day. It’s all we think about.”

Half of the 14 employees at Rusler Produce have the last name Rusler, including his sons Tommy and Nick. He joked that one of his young grandsons was quickly becoming the youngest farm manager in history — the sixth generation to work the land.

Rusler said he is blessed that his own sons have chosen to follow in his footsteps and at the same time excited that new technologies like sprinklers, GPS and drones are improving the efficiency of irrigation.

“It’s hard to make a farmer,” said Rusler, illustrating with his hands the basic equation of using soil, water and seeds to make a crop. “We would like to give young farmers a chance to see if they like it.”

On the modern side of farming, cannabis has become the hot new crop for Pueblo County, whether it’s marijuana or hemp.

“We’re getting an influx of people from out of state who know nothing about how Colorado water works,” said Kevin Niles, manager of the Arkansas Groundwater Users Association.

AGUA, like Pueblo Water, has set aside some of its water for growing hemp or marijuana. The association augments depletion from wells, and meets its members’ needs first. This year, it will set aside 250 acre-feet for cannabis grows, close to its limit of 300 acre-feet.

Growers explained their own particular challenges.

“We’re under a microscope,” said Jeff Ayotte of the Southern Colorado Growers Association. He is using some of his water to grow marijuana near Boone.

He explained that marijuana is far more profitable than other crops, but that the paperwork associated with all aspects, including water, makes things difficult.

His farm uses 250 acre-feet of water, but only 5 acre-feet for marijuana. The water for marijuana is treated and reused eight times because it is so valuable.

Tony Adza, of Notis Global, is working with a company that plans to grow hemp east of Pueblo.

“We’re facing competition all over the world,” Adza said.

Because hemp is treated like marijuana — both are forms of cannabis and still illegal under federal law, but legal in Colorado — hemp growers have overpaid for water, he said. The hemp grown here has only minuscule amounts of THC, and is used to make oil claimed to have therapeutic benefits. The fiber from stalks could be used for things such as textiles or biofuel.

On the industrial side of things, Tim Hawkins, executive director of the Steelworks Center of the West, explained the history of CF&I Steel, now known as EVRAZ, while Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte outlined the company’s extensive water rights.

Founded in 1872, CF&I’s story covers the spectrum of American industry. Built from scratch, the company sopped up water, coal and iron ore resources in three states initially to supply rail for the Old West. Many of those resources — including some, but not all, of the water — were sold off as the U.S. steel industry weathered storms of global competition.

The New West use for industrial water comes with Xcel Energy’s Comanche Station southeast of Pueblo. First constructed in the 1970s, and expanded in 2005, the behemoth of a power plant is Pueblo Water’s largest customer using more than 10,000 acre-feet annually.

Lauren Nance, Xcel water resources analyst, explained how the newest addition, Unit 3, is a hybrid type of generation facility that cools and recirculates water to reduce consumption.

Finally, the connection between past and future uses was addressed by Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart, who said the county is still coping with an outdated comprehensive plan when it comes to blending water planning and land use.

That comes into play on both land use decisions in the county and multicounty projects like the Southern Delivery System, he said.

“Rapid growth is going to put more and more strain on limited resources, both land and water,” Hart said, saying the county has to be zealous in keeping water in the Arkansas River basin. “If you look at Crowley County, it was devastated when the water was taken. Water is connected to economic development.”

Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through February 27, 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.
Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through February 27, 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

#Snowpack news: Statewide snowpack dips below median

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Colorado’s statewide snowpack has dipped below its median level for the first time in 2016 as a warm, dry spell keeps storms at bay.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service says the snowpack as of Tuesday was 97 percent of normal and 94 percent of the average.

Compared to the same time last year, the snowpack is 14 percent greater.

Westwide SNOTEL map March 2, 2016 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL map March 2, 2016 via the NRCS.

Fort Collins hopes to augment instream flows through town

From the Fort Collins Coloradan (Kevin Duggan):

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution directing the city manager to work with several entities to develop a plan for adding water to the river and keeping it from being diverted.

The city has been talking about augmenting in-stream flows on the river below the mouth of Poudre Canyon and through Fort Collins for about 45 years, said John Stokes, director of the city’s Natural Areas Department.

If an augmentation plan comes to pass, it could serve as a model for river systems across the state, Stokes said.

“The idea is to identify a stretch of the river and protect that water in that reach,” he said.

State water law allows in-stream flow augmentation, but the city and its various partners would pursue a novel approach to the concept, Stokes said.

It would allow water-rights holders to dedicate water to the augmentation program. The proposal ultimately would have to be approved through the state Water Court.

Crafting an agreement involving players such as Fort Collins, Greeley, Northern Water and irrigation companies that tap into the river would be the first in a three-phase process of creating an in-stream flow program, Stokes said.

How long the three-phase process will take and how much it will cost is not clear. The first phase of the project is expected to cost Fort Collins about $20,000, with partners contributing similar amounts…

A clause was added to Tuesday’s resolution stating any agreement accepted by the city for in-stream augmentation program does not indicate support for NISP.

Council members said the proposed augmentation plan was innovative. Councilmember Gino Campana said he hopes the pieces come together and “it actually happens.”

Poudre River Bike Path bridge over the river at Legacy Park photo via Fort Collins Photo Works.
Poudre River Bike Path bridge over the river at Legacy Park photo via Fort Collins Photo Works.

CRRG report calls #ColoradoRiver environmental efforts disjointed

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Washington Post:

Environmental protection for the Colorado River — the lifeblood of the Southwest — is disjointed and too often gets a low priority in the management of the waterway, independent researchers said in a new report.

Four, multimillion-dollar conservation programs do valuable work but would have more impact if they treated the entire 1,450-mile river as a single, integrated system, the report said.

“We can have something different and better than the existing patchwork of programs,” it said…

“I would assert that we can meet water supply needs and have a much healthier and restored river,” Jack Schmidt, a professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University and a member of the research group, said in an interview…

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery program, the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program and the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program focus on saving endangered species in the river and its tributaries.

The Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program concentrates on mitigating environmental impacts in the Grand Canyon and other areas downstream from Lake Powell in Utah.

Combined, the programs spend about $54 million a year. The money comes from federal, tribal and state governments and from conservation groups.

The programs are administered by federal agencies with guidance from various partner agencies.

The report didn’t suggest who should be in charge of coordinating conservation work. Agency officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.

Bart Fisher, president of the Colorado River Water Users Association, which represents utilities, irrigators and others, said he agrees that collaboration is helpful and that his group supports many environmental programs.

Ken Neubecker of the conservation group American Rivers also advocated a more unified approach toward the river environment.

Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon Dam

#ColoradoRiver: “You have to invoke temperatures to explain the current #drought” — Brad Udall

While Lake Powell entered 2002, when this photo was taken, with a pretty healthy amount of water stored, by 2004 the bathtub rings had expanded as drought deepened. Photo/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
While Lake Powell entered 2002, when this photo was taken, with a pretty healthy amount of water stored, by 2004 the bathtub rings had expanded as drought deepened. Photo/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Invoking rising temperatures to explain drought in Colorado River

The drought in the Colorado River Basin in the 21st century has been phenomenal. There was that harrowing year of 2002, which broke records for low streamflows going back 150 to 300 years. Even now, the levels of water in the two big reservoirs on the river, Powell and Mead, continue to decline.

And then there’s California, epic in its drought.

But here’s something to confuse the storyline. Precipitation in these droughts alone fails to explain the droughts, as we conventionally think about them. California’s Sierra Nevada last winter got 40 to 90 percent of normal precipitation. That would suggest a drought, yes, and a memorable one. But this drought was defined as the worst in 1,200 years.

Declining reservoir levels in the Colorado River Basin this century similarly can’t be explained simply by lack of precipitation. There have been some good snow years, too. Yet Lake Mead has fallen from 91 percent of capacity in 2000 to just 35 percent of capacity now.

What’s going on? Global warming, say scientists. The story is of rising temperatures. In the Sierra Nevada last winter, the average temperature was above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the first time in 120 years of recorded history. This, in turn, influences —and reduces—runoff.

The increased warmth results in more moisture sublimating directly out of the snowpack into the atmosphere, more water in creeks, lakes, and reservoirs evaporating, and plants requiring more water because they transpire moisture at higher levels into the atmosphere.

“Repeat after me: precipitation is not runoff,” instructed Brad Udall, a climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute, at a recent presentation.


A hydrologist by training, Udall has been boring down at the intersection of water and climate change in recent years. He pays particular attention to the Colorado River, where he once was a river guide in the Grand Canyon. But he points to the Rio Grande as probably the most stressed river in the West.

“Climate change is water change. The two go hand in hand,” he said in a lecture at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder, Colo. “Heat drives the water cycle.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported all kinds of observations that are consistent with climate change. Seven of 10 were water-recycle related. For example, sea-surface temperatures have gone up by about 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. Water vapor in the atmosphere has increased by about 5 percent, consistent with projections.

Greenhouse gas emissions, he said, exacerbate existing drought sequences. One report, by Benjamin Cook and others, found that probability of a drought lasting 35 years or longer in both the Central Plains and the Southwest exceeds 80 percent in the 21st century.

Brad Udall via CSU Water Institute
Brad Udall via CSU Water Institute

Udall, working with Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, has been studying runoff in the Colorado River, to understand the broader story of supply and demand, droughts, and falling reservoirs.

The current 15-year drought in the basin, he says, has had only 40 percent of the precipitation decline associated with a similar drought of the 1950s.

Why isn’t the water in the river? It’s because of rising temperatures.

“You have to invoke temperatures to explain the current drought,” Udall said.

It’s 1.6 degrees C warmer already, and climate models show that every degree C increase in warming will see about a 6.5 percent decrease in flows.

“Over the course of a century, you are looking at 20 percent to 30 percent losses (in river volume) due to temperature, and some models show up to 80 percent,” he said.

The Rio Grande looks to have the largest threat to flow reductions in the United States, perhaps 50 percent. It has a small collection basin in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado before flowing south into arid New Mexico and along the border of Texas and Mexico.


Climate change will slam the Rio Grande. One study projects annual reservoir storage in the basin will drop 55 percent by century’s end.

Udall also had this to say:

  • Dams are not the entire answer, or maybe even much of an answer, to the need for storage. “There is a logical limit to what you can do to dams,” he said. “It’s like building more highways in Denver or building more interstates.”
  • The United States has 98,000 dams, including 8,000 big ones, and while they store water, they have adverse consequences: they inundate riparian areas, they waste water, they change the river flows, and they hold back sediments.

    Udall sees aquifers as a preferred place to store water. Arizona already has a robust aquifer recharge program, and water districts in the southern part of metropolitan Denver have also started recharging aquifers.

  • Rain barrels probably make sense. In Colorado, it’s still illegal to capture rain falling off your roof. That’s because Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine requires that all water diversions, no matter how tiny, be adjudicated through courts. This astounds people, as the barrels don’t capture all that much water. The value of rain barrels, said Udall, is that they can cause people to think about water.
  • Desalinization can be done, but is extremely expensive. Cloud-seeding may offer just a sliver of increased snowpack. There are no magic bullets.
  • Undergoing severe drought, Australia upended its entire water allocation system. Will Colorado and other Western states ever upend their prior appropriation doctrine? Probably not, Udall said.
  • 2016 #coleg: HB16-1005, rain barrels to State Senate

    Rain barrel schematic
    Rain barrel schematic

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Support is pouring in for a bill that would make rain barrels legal in Colorado.
    HB1005 passed the House on a 61-3 vote Tuesday and now goes to the Senate. Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo, was one of the three votes against the legislation.

    Reps. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, Jim Wilson, R-Salida, also voted against it.

    “We amended the legislation so that it has broader support,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo.

    The bill allows homeowners to collect water in two 55-gallon barrels for later use on lawns and gardens.

    She provided a list of supporters that includes Trout Unlimited, the Farm Bureau, Denver Water and other diverse groups across the environmental spectrum. Pueblo Board of Water Works President Nick Gradisar personally supported the bill as well.

    The amendments came after 10-2 approval from the House ag committee, and all of the committee members voted for the final product.

    The amendments included a clear statement that having a rain barrel is not a water right, that the state engineer can curtail rain barrel use if necessary and a review of any allegations of injury to other water users by the state engineer in three to six years.

    Esgar is optimistic the bill will get a hearing in the Senate this year, after Senate ag committee chairman Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, spiked a similar bill that passed the House in 2015.

    “I’m hoping with the work that we’ve been doing on the bill he’ll support it,” Esgar said.

    Colorado is the only state where rain barrels are largely illegal, but studies by Colorado State University show there would be no additional impact to water rights than from simply allowing water to flow from downspouts onto lawns.