Aspinall Unit Spring operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service
Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The March 1st forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 580,000 acre-feet. This is 86% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently 94% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 557,000 acre-feet which is 67% of full. Current elevation is 7487 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.

Black Canyon Water Right

The peak flow and shoulder flow components of the Black Canyon Water Right will be determined by the May 1 forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir. If the May 1 forecast is equal to the current forecast of 580,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the peak flow target will be equal to 4,188 cfs for a duration of 24 hours. The shoulder flow target will be 354 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25. The point of measurement of flows to satisfy the Black Canyon Water Right is the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the peak flow and duration flow targets in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be determined by the forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir and the hydrologic year type. At the time of the spring operation, if the forecast is equal to the current forecast of 580,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the hydrologic year type will be set as Average Dry. Under an Average Dry year the peak flow target will be 8,070 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days.

Projected Spring Operations

During spring operations, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The magnitude of release necessary to meet the desired peak at the Whitewater gage will be dependent on the flow contribution from the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries downstream from the Aspinall Unit. Current projections for spring peak operations show that flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon could be in the 5,000 to 5,500 cfs range for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. If actual flows on the North Fork of the Gunnison River are less than currently projected, flows through the Black Canyon could be even higher. With this runoff forecast and corresponding downstream targets, Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an elevation of around 7513.0 feet with an approximate peak content of 772,000 acre-feet.

Big T district asks Larimer for money for forest health — Loveland Reporter-Herald

Big Thompson River near RMNP
Big Thompson River near RMNP

From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):

The Big Thompson Conservation District has asked Larimer County for $31,470 to continue two programs and launch a new healthy forest initiative.

The conservation district hopes to use $16,000 of that total to hire a forester to facilitate forest health projects on private forest land within Larimer County through a partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation District.

The idea is to create healthy forest land on private property that will cut down on the severity of damage from wildfires and other disasters, which would then cut the risk of damage to public roads, water systems and other infrastructure, according to information presented to the county commissioners during a work session on Monday.

“You’re investing in something that future generations are going to benefit from,” said County Commissioner Steve Johnson, one of three elected officials who will decide whether to spend $31,470 of county money on the conservation district projects.

“It really is investing in the future. The investment is really small compared to the benefits. We’re getting 10 times our investment.”

Johnson stressed that it is essential that communities and governments start making sure forests are healthy because past neglect has resulted in massive pine beetle infestations and devastating wildfires…

Last year, Larimer County contributed $16,000 to the effort, and the district was able to leverage that to $157,314 in grants and other funding to benefit the land.

This year, the conservation district asked the county for nearly twice that amount to continue those existing programs and launch the forest health initiative.

The first piece of the healthy forests would be to hire a forester, which would be shared with the Fort Collins Conservation District, to look at the 150,000 private forest acres in the county for potential priorities, to create some demonstration projects and to begin thinning.

The entire budget for that forest health initiative is $270,450. The bulk of that would be provided by the NRCS in funding and equipment ($141,250), but additional dollars would come from Northern Water, the land owners in fees for the service as well as Loveland, Fort Collins, Greeley and a share in the forester from Fort Collins Conservation District, according to the presentation Monday.

“There are lots of partners, and it leverages our money quite well,” said Lori Hodges, the county’s emergency management director.

“This kind of work is exactly what is envisioned in our hazard mitigation plan.”

If approved, the conservation district would work as the connection between the landowners and the NRCS. The federal agency would advise on what work needs to be done and provide equipment and assistance, while the conservation district would step in to handle grant requests and hire contractors on behalf of the property owners. That would alleviate the complexities for willing land owners and help facilitate healthy forests, officials said.

Sam Adams, district conservationist with NRCS, estimated that there are 6,000 property owners with acreages that range from 10 to 40 acres the program could help as it continues. He believes up to 1,000 acres per year could benefit through this partnership.

“It’s going to be a long term thing,” conservation board member Kevin McCarty said before the work session. “If we go out and do 50 acres in the first year, that isn’t going to have a huge impact as far as fire mitigation or the other factors, but cumulatively over time it could make an impact.”

This request would cover just the first year, but in future years, more of the cost could be recouped by landowner fees, noted Gordon Gilstrap, president of the Big Thompson Conservation District.

Johnson and fellow commissioner Lew Gaiter seemed supportive of the idea. However before it comes to vote, they noted that they would need to look at where the money would come from and consult with the third commissioner, Tom Donnelly, who was not at the Monday [Feb. 29th] meeting.

Groundwater subdistrict plan advances in San Luis Valley

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The second groundwater management subdistrict in the San Luis Valley cleared an initial hurdle earlier this week.

Rio Grande County District Court Judge Pattie Swift approved the formation of Subdistrict No. 2, although the finalization of a water management plan remains.

There were no protests or objections filed with the court, according to Swift’s order.

The subdistrict lies roughly along the Rio Grande between Alamosa and Del Norte, and only includes landowners who volunteered to join.

It takes in 230 groundwater wells. As with its larger predecessor — Subdistrict No. 1 in the north-central part of the valley — the primary goal is to mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping on surface water users.

The valley’s groundwater is hydraulically connected in varying degrees to the region’s streams and rivers, meaning that pumping can cause losses to surface water users.

The subdistrict’s parent organization, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is seeking to organize as many as four other subdistricts around the valley.

The mechanisms used to raise funds from members have yet to be determined, but the subdistrict’s annual revenue will not exceed $4 million in 2014 dollars.

The subdistrict’s petition for formation included a draft water management plan, but it will be subject to public hearing and approval of the Colorado Division of Water Resources before it can be finalized.
Should objectors remain after those steps, the subdistrict’s water management plan could also be subject to water court review.

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

Nominations open for Bob Appel “Friend of the Arkansas Award”

From the Arkansas Basin Water Forum via The Pueblo Chieftain:

Nominations are being sought for the Bob Appel Friend of the Arkansas Award, which will be presented at the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum in April.

The award has been presented each year at the forum to an individual who has demonstrated commitment to the Arkansas River over the years.

Contributions in the areas of development, preservation, conservation and leadership are considered.

The forum will be April 27-28 at the Steam Plant in Salida, with a special dinner for decision-makers on April 26.

Past winners of the award are Mike Conlin, Denzel Goodwin, Paul Flack, Reed Dils, Carl Genova, Allen Ringle, Bud O’Hara, Alan Hamel, Steve Witte, Greg Policky and Lorenz Sutherland.

Nominations may be sent to Jean Van Pelt, ARBWF, P.O. Box 11295, Pueblo, CO 81001, or

Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth
Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

2016 #coleg: League of Women Voters of La Plata County’s Legislative Lowdown recap

George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South
George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South

From The Durango Herald (Ann Butler):

“We need to have a grown-up conversation about what we can afford,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who was joined by Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, at the event. “When we took $450 million from the severance tax, which was set up to help local communities affected by the oil and gas industry and support water-storage construction, it was just one more attempt to delay a tough conversation. We need to figure out what our priorities are and make our revenues and expenses match up.”


About 40 people filled the room at the Durango Recreation Center, including all three La Plata County commissioners. Attendees asked questions about all of the hot topics in the news, such as the desirability of the Superfund to clean up the Animas River, moving the hospital provider fee from under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights cap, a single-provider health care system and funding for K-12 education.

#Snowpack news: Snowpack above Middle Park = 104% of avg. #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Westwide SNOTEL map March 6, 2016 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL map March 6, 2016 via the NRCS.

Good timing for today’s storm, all basins have dipped below 100% of median.

From the Natural Resources Conservation Service via the Sky-Hi Daily News

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Kremmling Field Office snow surveyors Mark Volt and Vance Fulton took the March 1st. snow survey measurements during the last days of February. Even with the recent warm weather, the survey shows that the county is in pretty good shape up high, they said.

Valley snowpack has decreased significantly during February.

Snowpack in the high elevation mountains above Middle Park now ranges from 86 percent to 125 percent of the 30-year average, with the overall average for Middle Park at 104 percent.

“Last year at this time we were at 102 percent of average,” they said.

Snow density is 28 percent, which means that for one foot of snow there is 3.4 inches of water, which is normal for March 1st.

Most of the snow courses around Middle Park have been read since the 1940s. Snow course readings are taken at the end of each month, beginning in January and continuing through April. March is historically the snowiest month and the April 1 readings are the most critical for predicting runoff and summer water supplies, as most of our high country snowpack peaks around that time.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

[The blue] skies and warm days have contributed to Colorado’s snowpack falling to below normal, at 98 percent of median as of Monday, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data.

That comes after what had been a strong start for snowfall accumulation in the state in recent months. But a drier midwinter also was expected by forecasters as part of this year’s El Niño weather pattern. And the good news from a snowpack perspective is that the experts also believe the odds are that moister weather lies ahead this month and next based on past El Niño patterns.

“Right now it does look like that we are looking toward a change in (weather) pattern right around the seventh of March,” said Joe Ramey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

He said that in recent weeks, a ridge of high pressure west of Colorado has weakened storms coming in from the Pacific Ocean…

Painful as a weather change might sound to some, it would provide a welcome boost for the state’s water supplies. Statewide snowpack is down 19 percentage points from 117 percent as of Feb. 2. The Colorado and Gunnison river basins were respectively at 116 and 122 percent of median then, but by Monday both had fallen to exactly 100 percent of median, with the Upper Rio Grande and South Platte basins also at that amount.

The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins dipped to 98 percent of median, the Yampa/White basins are at 93 percent, the North Platte is at 92 percent and the Arkansas is at 99 percent.

Colorado’s winter so far has been doing pretty well at following the script for El Niño winters, a reference to winters with weather dictated by above-normal water temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. That script called for an above-average start precipitation-wise in the state, followed by a below-average period and then a wet end to the snowfall accumulation season, if a strong El Niño persists long enough, which Ramey said it’s doing.

Ramey said he had expected the dry period to arrive in January, but it showed up a little later.

“We’re still thinking that March and April overall have a tendency to be wet during especially strong El Niños,” he said…

Ramey is uncertain how long the moister trend next week may last, however, pointing to signs that the high-pressure ridge to the west could rebuild beyond March 10 and lead to a drier pattern again.

Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office, said he’s expecting Blue Mesa Reservoir to fill this year.

“Some of that is based on hoping the storms return in March and April,” Knight said.

He said it has helped that recent problems and maintenance work at power plants downstream from the reservoir led to reduced water releases from the reservoir and let it carry more water through the winter.

As of Feb. 1, reservoir storage across the state was at 110 percent of average. Storage was at 108 percent of average in the Upper Colorado basin and 109 percent in the Gunnison basin.

Knight said that outside of a storm at the start of February, “things have been pretty dry, not a whole lot of extra snow accumulation up there” for the month.

“Now we’re just kind of banking on El Niño producing in March and April, and if it does we’ll be good and if it doesn’t we might struggle to fill the (Blue Mesa) reservoir,” he said.

All of the snowfall in Grand Junction in February came at the start of the month, including 4 inches on Feb. 1 and small amounts on Feb. 4 and 6, Ramey said. The 4.7 inches in total amounted to above-average overall snowfall for Grand Junction for February, he said…

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a wet spring,” Ramey said.

Mineral owners assert property rights #keepitintheground

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation
Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From The Denver Post (John Aguilar):

At a contentious meeting in Adams County in January that carried on until the early-morning hours, several mineral rights owners stood up before the commissioners and lambasted a proposed 10-month drilling moratorium as an abrogation of their property rights.

In late February, a group of mineral owners appeared before a state House committee to support HB-1181, a bill that would require communities that ban drilling to compensate mineral owners for lost royalties.

And on Tuesday, those who own minerals are being encouraged to attend a Greeley City Council special meeting in which the council will consider an appeal from Extraction Oil & Gas to drill up to 22 wells on the city’s west side. The plan was turned down by the city’s planning commission earlier this year in the wake of strong public resistance.

“It’s all about protecting the economic foundation of our country, which is private property rights,” Smith said. “The issue is this is my property, and I have every right to realize the benefit of that property right.”

That right, she said, is enshrined in the very fabric of the state constitution and reflected in Colorado’s long history of mining.

No simple line

But Rep. Michael Foote, D-Lafayette, said the issue is not that cut and dried. Where one person’s property right ends, he said, another’s begins.

Foote was one of five Democratic legislators on the State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee to vote to kill HB-1181 on Feb. 24.

“It can’t just be that someone has mineral rights and they say they can exploit those rights any way that they see fit,” he said. “You have surface property owners who are losing value in their homes when drilling is done right next door.”

Foote characterizes the clash of property rights revolving around oil and gas activity as a “big issue” playing out across the state. It has even reached the Colorado Supreme Court, where the high court is set to decide in the coming weeks on how far a local community can go in limiting oil and gas development.

Emily Hornback, a community organizer with the Western Colorado Congress, has spent the past few years advocating for residents of Battlement Mesa. They worry about the impacts of a plan by Ursa Resources to drill 53 natural gas wells in the neighborhood.

In December, the company got special use permits from Garfield County but still must get approval from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission before moving forward.

Hornback said residents of the 5,500-person community, many of whom are retirees, fear for their property values in the face of heavily industrialized activity on their doorstep.

But they don’t have the political power as an unincorporated community to do much to mitigate the impacts, she said.

“For the adjacent landowner, the world appears against them and they don’t have much legal recourse,” Hornback said. “Whose property right is winning and whose property right is losing?”

Doug Saxton, a retiree who has lived in Battlement Mesa for 11 years, said his wife has asthma that is exacerbated by emissions from oil and gas activity.

Saxton said with the dramatic advances in horizontal drilling technology in the last few years, Ursa should be able to get to the natural gas deposits under Battlement Mesa — and in turn pay the mineral rights owners for their assets — from a much farther distance.

“They have tremendous technology they like to brag about,” he said, “and they ought to be using it when they’re going to impact this many people.”

Key issue

Lance Astrella, a Denver-based attorney who has represented landowners and mineral owners alike, said providing “reasonable” access to minerals beneath the surface is the key issue under Colorado law.

That’s because the state operates under a “split estates” rubric, in which the surface rights and the subsurface rights are often owned by different parties.

Under state law, the mineral estate is considered the dominant estate and operators cannot be prevented from “entering upon and using that amount of the surface as is reasonable and necessary to explore for, develop and produce oil and gas.”

But that dominance isn’t unbridled.

Astrella helped draft a 2007 state statute that introduced the concept of “reasonable accommodation” for a surface owner affected by nearby drilling activity. The law states that an operator shall conduct its operations in a manner that minimizes “intrusion upon and damage to the surface of the land.”

The industry insists that it has made numerous accommodations to surface owners and communities over the years, buffering noise with berms and walls and reducing pad size through the use of directional drilling.

In some communities, oil and gas operators have agreed to abide by memorandums of understanding, which are specific agreements between companies and local governments spelling out stricter standards of operation than what the state mandates.

But Astrella said the people who own the oil and gas deposits that the companies are trying to extract find it hard to prevail in the court of public opinion.

“The ones who have the intrusion and negative effects of oil and gas drilling — their situation is obvious and they have the public’s attention,” he said. “The mineral owners are less likely to have that benefit.”

Smith, with the National Association of Royalty Owners, said that’s because the conflict is between a property you can see — a home — and one you can’t — a pocket of natural gas.

“We don’t have the same voice because the legislature will take care of the property right on the surface rather than the property in the mineral estate,” she said. “It’s out of sight and out of mind. However, it’s a property right you can buy and sell like any other property right.”

Paying the bills

Minerals rights can also be inherited. That’s how Mike Paulsen, a wine and spirits deliveryman in Denver, obtained his minerals in Weld County. He said he used to get $200 a month from his holdings, but the industry’s recent price and production drop means he now gets a $50 check every few months.

It’s harder for him to keep up on his bills and pay off his debts.

“I not only used it to pay my bills but to have something to pass on to my kids,” said Paulsen, 53. “There’s not going to be anything left by the time I get my bills paid.”

He worries about the rising movement to limit oil and gas operations spreading to where his minerals are and impinging on his property rights.

“It really bothers me,” Paulsen said.

The total amount of royalty income in Colorado is hard to determine, Smith said, because agreements between oil and gas companies and mineral owners are privately negotiated. But based on the $475 million in royalties paid out in 2014 on state and federal lands, Smith extrapolates that total payouts statewide were around $1.1 billion.

Jon Isaacs of Adams County showed off a measley $102 check from Anadarko Petroleum Corp. The money represents a year’s worth of royalty payments off a 30-year-old oil and gas well on Isaacs’ property.

It’s not much, he concedes, but the real value under his 40-acre spread located just 4 miles north of Denver International Airport lies in the future. He smooths out a spreadsheet in his basement office that shows estimated royalty collections should a firm using the latest highly productive extraction methods drill new wells on his land.

At $31 per barrel, Isaacs says he’d get $19,000 in royalties a year. That rises to $37,000 annually by 2021, assuming a rebound in prices to $75 per barrel.

It’s his retirement fund, he said. No different than someone who invests in stocks, bonds or cattle futures.

“It’s so I can stay here at this house that I’ve improved and plant crops on my land and stay in Adams County into retirement,” said the 58-year-old, who bought this windswept parcel only because it came with mineral rights. “I bought this land as an investment.”

Roni Sylvester of La Salle is also looking to the future, which she now deems “uncertain” given recent anti-oil and gas efforts in the state. Her husband was planning to donate a ranch he owns in Wyoming to Colorado State University’s agricultural college.

That plan is now on hold because the couple can’t be certain their royalty income stream will remain intact.

“There’s no way you can plan,” Sylvester said. “It knocks the foundation out from underneath you. You have to plan for the absolute worst-case scenario.”

New Interior rule to protect streams in coal-mining areas draws criticism #keepitintheground

Mountain top removal for coal mining
Mountain top removal for coal mining

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A federal proposal to better protect streams from impacts of coal mining is coming under scrutiny regarding its level of necessity, particularly out West, and what benefits it would provide.

The National Mining Association is criticizing the proposal by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, saying it applies a nationwide approach to dealing with issues arising with so-called mountaintop removal surface mining in Appalachia.

“Obviously we’re very concerned about this (proposal), for the impact it will have on production,” said Luke Popovich, an NMA spokesman.

The Interior Department released the proposal last July, saying it would protect some 6,500 miles of streams over 20 years. It would replace regulations adopted in 1983, incorporating updated science and benefiting surface and groundwater, fish and wildlife, Interior said.

Companies would have to monitor stream conditions before, during and after operations, and the rule also addresses post-mining stream restoration. [ed. emphasis mine]

A rule adopted during the Bush administration in 2008 was challenged by environmental groups, who said it would weaken existing stream protections. That rule was vacated in a court ruling in 2014 and remanded for further action.

Adam Eckman, associate general counsel with the National Mining Association, said the Obama administration instead decided to develop a rule that “bears no resemblance” to the 2008 rule, which was narrowly aimed at a small set of issues in Appalachia.

“It really is confusing why this is being expanded out West to Colorado when Colorado has a nearly perfect reclamation record (by mines) and when no science related to impacts in the West has been cited at all” in support of the proposal, he said.

The NMA sees the rule, and other Obama administration moves including its court-challenged Clean Power Plan and its current moratorium on new federal coal leasing, as being part of an administration effort to eliminate coal-burning altogether.

Jeremy Nichols of the conservation group WildEarth Guardians said the proposal would impact Colorado’s underground mines only to the limited degree they have surface impacts, while having larger implications for surface mines like Colowyo and Trapper in northwest Colorado.

But he said a minimum level of such protections should apply nationally.

“Our clean water is just as deserving of protection as Appalachia’s clean water,” he said.

A study done for NMA estimates the new rule could cost up to 77,520 mining jobs, including potentially more than 10,000 in the West.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement says it could cost an average of 260 jobs related to coal production a year, which would be offset by an average increase of 250 jobs a year related to complying with the rule.

It estimates the compliance cost at $52 million a year, including $2.5 million for Colorado Plateau surface mines and $200,000 for underground mines on the plateau.

The NMA study estimates the rule could result in a 27 to 64 percent decrease in access to recoverable coal reserves, and up to $6.4 billion annually in lost federal and state revenue.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has sent the Reclamation and Enforcement office a letter supporting certain details of the proposal, but listing a number of concerns about it.

It says the rules would require extensive permit coordination between Reclamation and Enforcement, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and states, which could delay permitting.

“The proposed rules do not account for regional differences in hydrology, climate, and mining methods/practices,” the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety added.