East Mesa Ditch owners open to leaving water in Crystal River

A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.
A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The East Mesa Water Co. has told the Colorado basin roundtable it could potentially leave in the Crystal River about a third of the water it now diverts in late summer if enough improvements are made to its 8.5-mile-long irrigation ditch.

Today about 30 to 40 percent of the water sent into the antiquated East Mesa Ditch is lost to evaporation and ditch leakage. But adding pipes and improving structures could reduce those water losses and allow more water to flow down the often de-watered lower Crystal River.

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior 1902 water right to divert 31.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal, as well as a 1952 right to divert another 10 cfs. The diversion structure for the ditch is nine miles south of Carbondale, on river right.

“A 30 percent savings could mean, potentially, 10 (cubic) feet of water back into the Crystal River system,” said Richard McIntyre, the treasurer of East Mesa Water Co., during a grant application presentation to the Colorado roundtable on March 28.

The ditch company is currently seeking $60,000 from the roundtable to improve three sections of the ditch as part of a $114,000 project planned for this year.

McIntrye, representing the 12 owners in the East Mesa Water Co., also read a prepared statement to the roundtable as part of the grant presentation.

“The ditch company believes that there are avenues becoming available to us that may assist in easing some pressures on the Crystal River system and benefit the shareholders as well,” McIntrye said. “However, before we are able to intelligently assess and address the issues it is essential that we make our delivery system efficient.”

The biggest shareholders in the East Mesa Ditch include McIntrye, Paul and John Nieslanik, Tom Bailey of the Iron Rose Ranch, Hal Harvey, Tom Turnbull and Willa Doolan. Marty Nieslanik is the president of East Mesa Water Co.

“Although we have made concentrated efforts to rehabilitate the infrastructure on the ditch recently, it remains in poor to satisfactory condition,” McIntrye continued.

McIntrye said the ditch company was developing a five-year plan to “rehabilitate failing aspects of the ditch” and a 10-year plan to “pipe much, or even all” of the ditch.

Last year the Colorado roundtable gave East Mesa Water Co. $60,000 to help fund what turned out to be a $760,000 project to repair a 450-foot-long tunnel and install 1,200 feet of pipe in the ditch. East Mesa also received a $300,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the work.

“With irrigation efficiencies made by managing shareholders, combined with an effective delivery system, we hope to be a contributor to resolving the pressing issues that we all face in maintaining substantial water flows in the Crystal River and beyond,” said McIntrye, concluding his prepared remarks.

The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.
The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.

‘The four questions’

A member of the roundtable then asked McIntyre if East Mesa was involved in the ongoing process to develop a stream management plan for the Crystal River.

“We’ve attended a lot of the meetings,” McIntrye said. “And over years of attending those meetings we keep asking the four questions, as they obviously want some of our water: one, when do you want the water; number two, how much water do you want; number three, what’s the water worth to you; and number four, who is going to pay us? And it’s been impossible to get any one of those questions really answered, but we still attend the meetings.”

McIntyre said East Mesa is forming an association of diverters on the Crystal River to gather information on its own and to possibly present an offer to the community.

There are 12 irrigation ditches on the lower Crystal River and collectively they divert about 171 cfs of water from the river each day during irrigation season, according to Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado roundtable.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds an instream environmental flow right of 100 cfs on the Crystal, but the river often drops far below that level in late summer, at least in the section below the bigger irrigation ditches,

East Mesa is the second largest diverter on the Crystal, behind the Sweet Jessup Canal.

According to Ransford, the East Mesa ditch has diverted an average of 9,626 acre feet of water annually from 1952 to 2014. In 2014, it diverted 8,774 acre feet.

According to records gathered and maintained by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, East Mesa irrigates 383 acres of hay fields, which Ransford notes in his minutes of the March 28 roundtable meeting works out to “25 acre feet for each of the 383 irrigated acres.” In a follow-up email, Ransford notes it typically only takes two acre feet of water to grow an acre of hay.

The East Mesa Water Co., in its grant application to the roundtable, says the ditch has a service area of 740 acres.

And it says the hay grown on that 740 acres is worth about $500,000 annually, assuming a yield of four tons per acre and a hay price of $170 a ton.

The ditch company, however, also says there is more value in how the hay fields look to tourists than in the hay itself, saying the economic value is “closely related to recreation and tourism.”

“The effect on overall commerce would be significant if one of the most scenic views in the valley, that approaching Mt. Sopris, were to be brown and dry rather than green and lush because this ditch failed,” East Mesa’s grant application states.

The proposed $114,000 ditch improvement project pitched to the Colorado roundtable last week includes replacing the measuring device at the headgate and replacing two failing sections of the ditch where it crosses Nettle and Thomas creeks. East Mesa says the improvements could save 150 acre feet of water a year.

The 12 shareholders in the ditch company plan to put up $19,000 of the $114,000 project and are hoping to get a $35,000 from a grant from the Colorado River District and $60,000 from the Colorado roundtable.

The roundtable gets its funds from the state’s Water Supply Reserve Account program. In turn, that account is funded with oil and gas severance taxes, which are down sharply this year.

The Colorado roundtable now has $353,327 in its account for 2016. On March 28 the roundtable was presented with four grant requests totaling $263,500, including the $60,000 request from East Mesa.

A next steps meeting has since been set for April 11. The roundtable is expected to vote on East Mesa’s application at its May meeting.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado and the West. The Daily News published this article on Monday, April 4, 2016.

CWCB: March 2016 #Drought Update

West Drought Monitor March 22, 2016.
West Drought Monitor March 22, 2016.

Click here to read the latest update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Here’s an excerpt:

Statewide precipitation, as of March 25, is at 97% of average. A warm and dry February delivered only 55% of average precipitation statewide and coupled with a warm and dry start to March resulted in the introduction of abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions across the southeastern portion of the state. Late March storms have helped to keep snowpack up by bringing 92% of average precipitation to the state to-date; northern basins have received markedly more precipitation this month than basins in the southern portion of the state. Reservoir storage remains strong and water providers have no immediate concerns.

  • Three percent of the state is currently classified as experiencing moderate drought conditions according to the US Drought Monitor, while 31 percent of the state is classified as abnormally dry. This is predominantly concentrated in the southeastern portion of the state.
  • Statewide SNOTEL water year-to-date precipitation is 97 percent of normal. The Upper Rio Grande has the lowest year-to-date precipitation at 83 percent of average, while the South Platte has the highest at 109 percent of average.
  • The March 23rd snowstorm along the Front Range resulted in a “March” worth of precipitation in some areas but missed southern Colorado where conditions have been drier.
  • Combination of above average temperatures in the first half of the month and seasonally expected strong March winds led to rapid drying at low elevations and on the eastern plains.
  • Reservoir storage statewide remains above normal at 110 percent. The Arkansas basin has the highest storage levels in the state at 124 percent of average; the Upper Rio Grande has the lowest storage levels at 93 percent, just slightly below normal.
  • The Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) as of March 1st is near or above average across the majority of the state, with the southern half of the state faring better than the northern half. The lowest SWSI value is -1.69 in the Upper White Basin. At this time of year the index reflects reservoir storage and streamflow forecasts, given recent precipitation in the northern half of the state these values are likely to change going forward.
  • Streamflow forecasts have fallen and now range from 107 percent to 65 percent of average with most forecasts near 90 percent of normal runoff expected this spring & early summer.
  • The long term experimental forecast calls for above average probability of precipitation through spring, with eastern Colorado favored more than the rest of the state. The strong El Nino event is likely to dissipate over the coming months.
  • The Colorado Flood Threat Bulletin will provide detailed 24 hr and long range 15 day forecasts April 1st through September 30th at http://www.coloradofloodthreat.com/
  • The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment — EPA

    Click here to read the report. Here’s the summary:

    Climate change is a significant threat to the health of the American people. The impacts of human-induced climate change are increasing nationwide. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations result in increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. These climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow.

    Current and future climate impacts expose more people in more places to public health threats. Already in the United States, we have observed climate-related increases in our exposure to elevated temperatures; more frequent, severe, or longer-lasting extreme events; degraded air quality; diseases transmitted through food, water, and disease vectors (such as ticks and mosquitoes); and stresses to our mental health and well-being. Almost all of these threats are expected to worsen with continued climate change. Some of these health threats will occur over longer time periods, or at unprecedented times of the year; some people will be exposed to threats not previously experienced in their locations. Overall, instances of potentially beneficial health impacts of climate change are limited in number and pertain to specific regions or populations. For example, the reduction in cold-related deaths is projected to be smaller than the increase in heat-related deaths in most regions.

    Every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change. Increased exposure to multiple health threats, together with changes in sensitivity and the ability to adapt to those threats, increases a person’s vulnerability to climate-related health effects. The impacts of climate change on human health interact with underlying health, demographic, and socioeconomic factors. Through the combined influence of these factors, climate change exacerbates some existing health threats and creates new public health challenges. While all Americans are at risk, some populations are disproportionately vulnerable, including those with low income, some communities of color, immigrant groups (including those with limited English proficiency), Indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.

    In recent years, scientific understanding of how climate change increases risks to human health has advanced significantly. Even so, the ability to evaluate, monitor, and project health effects varies across climate impacts. For instance, information on health outcomes differ in terms of whether complete, long-term datasets exist that allow quantification of observed changes, and whether existing models can project impacts at the timescales and geographic scales of interest. Differences also exist in the metrics available for observing or projecting different health impacts. For some health impacts, the available metrics only describe changes in risk of exposure, while for others, metrics describe changes in actual health outcomes (such as the number of new cases of a disease or an increase in deaths).

    This assessment strengthens and expands our understanding of climate-related health impacts by providing a more definitive description of climate-related health burdens in the United States. It builds on the 2014 National Climate Assessment and reviews and synthesizes key contributions to the published literature. Acknowledging the rising demand for data that can be used to characterize how climate change affects health, this report assesses recent analyses that quantify observed and projected health impacts. Each chapter characterizes the strength of the scientific evidence for a given climate–health exposure pathway or “link” in the causal chain between a climate change impact and its associated health outcome. This assessment’s findings represent an improvement in scientific confidence in the link between climate change and a broad range of threats to public health, while recognizing populations of concern and identifying emerging issues. These considerations provide the context for understanding Americans’ changing health risks and allow us to identify, project, and respond to future climate change health threats. The overall findings underscore the significance of the growing risk climate change poses to human health in the United States.

    The graph shows recent monthly mean carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii.
    The graph shows recent monthly mean carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii.

    Consultant recommends that the Town on Fraser stand pat of fee structure

    Fraser Colorado
    Fraser Colorado

    From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Hank Shell):

    A financial consulting firm has recommended that the Town of Fraser keep its current water fee structure.

    Ehler’s Inc. conducted a study on the town’s water fees to determine what rate structure would best suit the town’s goals of promoting attainable housing, providing affordable water to year round residents and maintaining a consistent source of income.

    Paul Wisor with Ehler’s, speaking at the Fraser Board of Trustees’ March 16 meeting, said his firm had examined at two possible alternatives to the town’s current structure, which comprises of a quarterly base fee of $153 and an additional $1.50 per every 1,000 gallons used.

    Because 92 percent of revenue from the current structure comes from the base fee, it’s more stable for the town and predictable for residents, Wisor said.

    Grand Valley: Drainage fees collection update

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    The Grand Valley Drainage District has collected $10,000 so far in stormwater collection fees, even before most district residents have opened their invoices, the drainage district said.

    The bills mark the beginning of the district’s effort to collect about $2.5 million this year for stormwater management projects.

    A significant chunk of that money will come from outside Colorado, district General Manager Tim Ryan said.

    The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, raised questions about whether the fees are legal under the Colorado Constitution.

    “We want you to know there are still numerous questions about the GVDD’s process, in particular whether the bills are even legal: rather than a ‘fee,’ this may actually be a ‘tax’ that must be voted on by those affected before the money may be collected,” the chamber wrote this week to its members.

    The district has maintained the fee is indeed that and points on its web page to a 2015 decision in which an Adams County judge upheld a stormwater fee after finding that the county’s stormwater utility was a government-owned business that receives less than 10 percent of its funds from state and local authorities combined and is consequently exempt from the requirements of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

    In the ruling, the court also found that the fee was “reasonably related to the overall cost of providing services related to water drainage and water-related activities in the service area.”

    The chamber is considering withholding payment on its drainage district bill until it’s clear the district has the authority to demand the fees on top of the property taxes they pay to the district.

    The state constitution requires that businesses pay higher property tax rates than residences.

    “We encourage all of our members to review the information provided so that they may make an informed decision on how to proceed with the invoices,” the chamber wrote to its members.

    The district also maintains that the legislation that established it more than 100 years ago allows it to charge a fee.

    The district is billing residents and businesses $3 a month for every 2,500 square feet of impervious surface for stormwater improvements. Those improvements are needed because rain and snowmelt runs off surfaces such as roofs and parking lots, potentially exposing government agencies to fines for failing to control pollutants contained in the runoff.

    Most — 78 percent — of the bills sent out to commercial and industrial landowners went to addresses in the Grand Valley, but the 22 percent of bills sent outside the state account for about 50 percent of the revenue anticipated from that sector, Ryan said.

    That breaks down to about $500,000 coming from outside Mesa County and an equal amount from within the county, Ryan said.

    In many other places, stormwater improvement fees are a “part of the cost of doing business,” Ryan said.

    Drainage district employees, meanwhile, are already dealing with questions as bills arrive.

    One person complained to The Daily Sentinel that payments are to be sent to Denver.

    The address is to the ANB Bank processing center — the same one used by Mesa County to process property-tax payments, Ryan said.

    Most callers were cordial on Thursday and Friday, Ryan said, with many just wanting to be sure that the bill wasn’t a scam.

    Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com
    Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

    #Snowpack news: #ElNiño fails to deliver good snow in S. #Colorado

    Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

    Fort Collins received a whopping 67 inches of snow between October and March, more than 20 inches above the seasonal average and the third-most snow the city has seen during that period in a quarter century.

    Yet snowpack in the South Platte River Basin — the mountainous area that feeds Northern Colorado’s rivers, reservoirs and farmland — was mostly unfazed by the storms that have secured the 2015-2016 season places in the Fort Collins record books.

    As of April 2, South Platte River Basin snowpack was 107 percent of average. The Poudre River Basin snowpack sat at 106 percent of average and the Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack was 104 percent. Not too shabby, but those aren’t numbers we’ll tell our grandkids.

    What gives?

    The answer starts with an “El” and ends with a “Nino.”

    More specifically, an El Nino strong enough to land the nickname “Bruce Lee” among forecasters didn’t impact Colorado quite as much as some people predicted it would. More on that later.

    Fort Collins receives on average 47 inches of snow annually, so a few big snows can have a huge impact. Here’s proof: Between October and March, Fort Collins received nine storms that yielded more than 2 inches. The three biggest storms — 13.7 inches on Feb. 1-2, 13.4 inches on March 23, and 7.4 inches on Dec. 15 — accounted for more than half of the total snowfall.

    Same goes for precipitation from snow and rain. Fort Collins received 8.18 inches between October and March, close to double the average of 4.61 inches during the last 25 years. A few especially wet snows made all the difference.

    Experts measure snowpack using a metric called “snow water equivalent.” For example, Rocky Mountain National Park’s Bear Lake on April 1 bore a 53-inch blanket of snow that contained 17.5 inches of water.

    So it’s not just mountain snowpack but the moisture in the snow.

    Enter El Nino — or so forecasters thought. The irregular warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean was supposed to bring storms into the southern and southwestern U.S., making for cooler, wetter winters in the South and warmer, drier winters in the North.

    Instead, explained National Weather Service meteorologist and resident El Nino aficionado Mike Baker, the Pacific jet stream that carries storms into the U.S. from the west set up further north than expected. That resulted in the Pacific Northwest getting straight-up clobbered with rain and snow.

    “They were getting pelted with flooding rains, gale force winds,” Baker said. “That’s not what you usually see with a strong El Nino.”

    At times, the jet stream wiggled southward, and the Pacific Northwest’s problem shifted to the Southeast.

    But alas, the jet stream never really got comfortable in the south and southwest, where it would have had a greater impact on Colorado’s storms…

    As for why that happened, climatologists have a few theories.

    Perhaps chief among them is a phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which causes warming of the Pacific Ocean farther north of the equator, all the way up to Alaska. It only happens every 20 years or so.

    Baker theorized in a September Coloradoan article that the combination of the PCD and the historically strong El Nino could produce unstable winter weather. That’s because the jet stream that brings storms settles on a temperature gradient, where the Pacific shifts from warmer to colder.

    “It likes to latch onto the warm water,” Baker said. “Well, we had warm water everywhere. Maybe it was confused.”


    Baker emphasized the jury’s still out on what exactly happened this winter. But for mountain snowpack, the story is far from over.

    Snowpack generally peaks around the end of April, said Sarah Smith, water resources engineer with Northern Water.

    Northern Water, which supplies water to Fort Collins and other parts of northeastern Colorado, keeps a close eye on snowpack because it impacts their water users. Local snow is great for soil moisture in municipalities and farmland, but mountain snowpack plays a bigger role in reservoir and river levels, Smith said. Horsetooth Reservoir, a primary water source for Fort Collins fed by the Colorado River, held 116 percent of average levels on April 1.

    Although local officials say they’ll focus on water conservation no matter what, Smith noted spring rains and wet snows in particular can boost runoff and curb demand for supplemental water from reservoirs. So snowfall and rain in April and May — Fort Collins sees an average of 6.2 inches of snow in April and 0.7 inches in May — will be ones to watch.

    The April 2016 “Water News” is hot off the presses from @DenverWater

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

    New rate structure in effect

    Beginning April 1, your water bill reflects Denver Water’s new rate structure. This new structure will begin to shift our revenue from such a heavy reliance on usage to a more stable fixed fee over the next few years, which means that future rate increases will be less subject to bigger jumps because of unpredictable weather.

    Residential customers will continue to be charged on a tiered structure — the more you use, the more you pay. Now, however, the rate structure is based on three tiers instead of four. The first and least expensive tier is based on indoor use. This rate is calculated by averaging your monthly water consumption reflected on January, February and March bills each year (beginning in 2016), which is a way of determining indoor water use (also known as your average winter consumption).

    Because the majority of our single family residential customers’ indoor water use is 5,000 gallons or less in the winter months, the minimum average winter consumption allowance is 5,000 gallons, and the maximum is 15,000 gallons. The minimum helps ensure customers aren’t penalized for low water usage in the winter.

    Each month, the amount of water you use up to your average winter consumption in tier 1 will be charged at the lowest rate. In tier 2, customers will be allotted 15,000 gallons in addition to their average winter consumption — what it takes to water an average-sized yard efficiently — for outdoor use, which falls into a higher-priced tier. Any use above that will fall into the third, highest-priced tier.

    Fixed monthly charge

    For residential customers, the fixed monthly charge has increased to $8.79 each month. The fixed monthly charge varies by meter size, but the majority of single-family residential customers have 3/4-inch meters.

    The costs to collect, store, treat and deliver water are expenses that have to be paid regardless of the amount of water customers use every year. No matter how much water customers use, we still need to maintain and operate more than 3,000 miles of pipe, 19 reservoirs, 22 pump stations, 30 underground storage tanks, four treatment plants and much more.

    Wait — don’t irrigate!

    When it comes to lawn watering, April is too early to go automatic. Set aside plans to program your sprinkler system for later months, when the ground is less likely to retain wintertime moisture.

    But you can still dig in and start preparing for the planting season.

    Here’s how:

  • Start from the bottom up and aerate your lawn. If you can, aerate after a rain or snow shower provides moisture, which helps prepare soil for the process.
  • Then take a top-down approach by checking the height and width of your trees, shrubs and perennials.
  • Prune any overgrowth — which makes excellent compost when shredded.
  • Watch your mail for a detailed explanation on Denver Water’s summer watering rules, which go into effect May 1.
  • Save water, get a rebate

    Here’s a simple springtime project that pays off: earn a rebate for installing a new water-efficient toilet.

    We offer rebates of up to $150 for purchasing a WaterSense-labeled toilet that uses an average of 1.1 gallons per flush or less. WaterSense is a national program that makes it easy to choose quality products that use less water. Makes sense to us!

    Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum
    Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum

    Arkansas Valley: Wetter conditions = fewer tumbleweeds

    Below is a video from 2013 when they were plowing tumbleweeds in Crowley County:

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    It rained so much in 2015, that you would expect another stampede of tumbleweeds by this time.

    But that hasn’t happened.

    There’s not a whole lot of rolling and tumbling going on.
    “We’ve seen less, but we’ve had a lot in the pastures,” said Gary Walker, whose 63,000acre ranches border Fort Carson in northern Pueblo County. “My biggest problems are from Fort Carson and the prairie dog towns.”

    Walker thinks a combination of more moisture, the timing of the rains and grazing contributed to a decline in the Russian thistle, the primary tumbleweed culprit.

    Typically, the plants can grow up to 5 or 6 feet before breaking off and blowing in the wind. During the drought of 2011-13, they clogged ditches, skirted up against fences and blew into piles across most of Southeastern Colorado. In some areas, there were stacks up to the eaves of houses.
    But there has been a lull this year.

    “We’ve seen some, but with the winds we’ve had in recent weeks haven’t created the big piles we were seeing,” said Bruce Fickenscher, rangeland specialist for Colorado State University Extension. “In Crowley County, we mowed them and grazed them more. There have been some places where the weeds blow in, but they’re staying put, more than in the past few years.”

    Walker said the plants grew with deeper roots, and also credits more cattle with cropping them closer to the ground earlier.

    “In the past, when we were moving more cattle, there were fewer tumbleweeds,” Walker said. “When we get back to a more normal deal, we’ll be able to graze more cattle.”

    But the natural conditions also play a role.

    “By and large, it’s because of the way the rains came and the size of them,” Fickenscher said. “The weeds provided some protection for the native plants underneath. With Russian thistle and kochia, the taproot is deep and brings nutrients up.”

    As long as the moisture continues, the tumbleweeds might not be as big a problem.

    “We’re sitting better this year than we have been in a while,” Fickenscher said. “After a couple years of rain, we have more moisture in the subsoil.”