Film: The River of Sorrow

I had the pleasure of viewing the new documentary “River of Sorrow” from the Dolores River Boating Associates yesterday at the eTown Hall in Boulder. The Colorado Water Trust hosted the event. River Network President Nicole Silk, CWT Executive Director Amy Beattie, and filmmaker Cody Perry introduced the film by detailing their personal experiences which led them to a life working with water.

In the film a farmer in Montezuma County detailed the necessity, from her point of view, for McPhee Reservoir. She acknowledged that she understood the motivation of those that want higher releases from the dam for recreation and the environment and the conflict it causes with the irrigators in the Montezuma Valley.

This is the main message: There are too many straws in the Dolores River, or as one person in the film, says, “Yeah, the Dolores River is very iconic, but it’s really a river no more.”

One of the highlights was the rare film footage of boatmen and enthusiasts from the heyday of boating in the years leading up to first fill. Even after first fill the boating survived until the diversion structures were built and started delivering water from the Dolores Project to the San Juan Basin.

The reservoir filled during a wet time and for a while there was a gold medal trout fishery below the dam. Then dryness hit the region (and is still around).

Now, organizations are attempting to reconcile competing views, learning that water rights are in control, and trying to find recreation and environmental water for the river.

Here’s a review from Dennis Webb writing for The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

A new documentary film on the Dolores River is to some degree a lament to a river lost, or at least transformed to a degree that it’s hardly recognizable to people with long memories.

“River of Sorrows: Inheriting Today’s Dolores River,” … documents the changes wrought on the river first by the construction of the dam at McPhee Reservoir near the town of Dolores in the 1980s, and then by drought.

While it’s a story about one waterway, it’s one that echoes in river canyons across the West that face challenges similar to the one on the Dolores when it comes to competing demands for scarce water supplies.

“You could say that the Dolores is the canary in the coal mine,” said filmmaker Cody Perry of Rig to Flip, a film production company based in Steamboat Springs. “You could say that the Dolores is potentially the future of every river in the Colorado River Basin in terms of if we have intentions to further develop every drop.”

The Dolores originates in the snowfields of the San Juan Mountains, heads southwest to Dolores and then north along the Colorado border to Gateway before crossing into Utah and its endpoint, the Colorado River.

Perry’s company contracted with the group Dolores River Boating Advocates to tell the river’s story, and particularly describe its life before and after McPhee Reservoir.

The reservoir project provided an important supply of water to agricultural users, as the film shows. But, except for in the wettest of years, it went far in decimating whitewater rafting on what was coming to be considered one of the nation’s best stretches of whitewater, below the reservoir. The river had been growing in renown for its rapids and pristine, slickrock-studded scenery.

For the first five years or so after the dam’s construction, the stretch below it did prove to be a prime trout fishery. But then drought hit, flows dropped below the dam to as little as 20 cubic feet per second, the water warmed and many fish died along the stretch of the river above its confluence with the San Miguel River in Montrose County.

The film quotes Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla about the passions boaters, anglers, farmers and others feel regarding the river, and the fact that each group feels threatened.

“But in reality everybody owns that river,” Suckla said.

From the farmers’ perspective, the fear is that they will get less water if more water is released downstream for the fish, he said.

“All the water is already allocated. There is no extra water that is available to send down the river,” Suckla says.

“It’s going to be hard to get this fixed,” he adds later.

The comment succinctly sums up the challenge faced by water managers and the competing interests when it comes to the Dolores, which got its name from the Spanish “El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores,” meaning “The River of Our Lady of Sorrows.”

For whitewater enthusiasts, the film’s high point also is bittersweet. The filmmakers developed contacts with river guides who dug up film footage from the old days of the Dolores when the rapids sometimes raged, including in 1983, the epic spring runoff year when Lake Powell almost overflowed.

Immediately after showing this footage, the film cuts to the lower Dolores today below the dam, barely trickling with water. An unnamed voice provides narration.

“Yeah, the Dolores River is very iconic, but it’s really a river no more. It needs to be seen and supported and it needs to be a river again,” says the voice, which Perry said is that of Andy Hutchinson, a famed Grand Canyon river guide who serves on the board of Dolores River Boating Advocates.

Perry said the archival footage is both thrilling and a reminder of what’s been lost.

“There’s generations of kids who have no idea about this river, and we don’t have that piece of whitewater anymore. It’s a cultural loss, and the generations of people who ran it — there’s a massive gap to today’s river runners who have no idea that was down there,” he said.

He said he’s shown the film to schools, groups of so-called “water buffaloes” and others. He said he was surprised that water managers in particular thought it does a good job of describing the players and issues at hand.


While the film is sympathetic to boating and environmental interests, he said some more extreme environmentalists wish it was edgier. But he feels the film’s job was to educate more than advocate.

“Seven of 10 people in Colorado have never heard about this river, let alone the issues that are specific to it yet also common to other rivers,” he said.

Perry said he’s concerned about the future of agriculture, too. His hope that in the case of the Dolores River, agricultural, recreational and other interests can be willing to show more flexibility in their discussions with each other, and that legal tools can be provided for permanent transfer or long-term leasing of agricultural water for instream flows.

The various interests “need to stop digging in their heels and we have to start meeting each other halfway,” he said.

Go see the film then take in the sights of Four Corners and see the country and the Dolores River for yourself.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

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

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through April 10, 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.
Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through April 10, 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.

#AnimasRiver: Gov. Hickenlooper, members of federal delegation send letter to #EPA requesting additional support

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of Colorado’s federal delegation yesterday sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking for additional support for the Bonita Peak Mining District. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Congressman Scott Tipton joined Hickenlooper on the letter in support of the local communities including the Towns of Silverton and Durango, San Juan and La Plata Counties.

“As part of Superfund designation process, we reiterate the importance of addressing the concerns expressed by the Town of Silverton and San Juan County and that cleanup moves forward in a way that works for all affected localities,” said Hickenlooper.

Specifically, the letter urges the EPA to expand the scope and planned timeline to operate the temporary water treatment plant on Cement Creek as well as provide adequate funding and collaborate with local governments, tribes, and the state to conduct long-term monitoring along the Animas River and at sites of specific concern to each community. The letter also reiterated support for an expedited claims and reimbursement process for the communities.

Click here to read the letter.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton this week asked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for extra support — emphasizing the EPA role triggering the Aug. 5 Gold King disaster.

They’re demanding that the EPA ensure sufficient funding for cleanup as promised, that Silverton and nearby communities get a seat at the table as promised, and robust interim cleanup of creek water as promised.

“We urge you to prioritize funding for this project as soon as possible to restore the health of the Animas River watershed, protect public health, and maintain the local recreation and tourism economy,” Hickenlooper and the lawmakers said in a letter to McCarthy.

While EPA officials have proposed a priority listing of mine sites around Silverton and say they’ll treat the Gold King cleanup like any other site, the Colorado leaders insisted that “the EPA must recognize its role in the most recent spill and its subsequent obligation to this community.”

They contend a temporary treatment plant on Cement Creek “may not operate” beyond this fall and that “this facility has the ability to treat more of the acid mine drainage in the watershed.”

They asked EPA officials to expand the scope of those water-cleaning operations, to be continued until overall cleanup is done, and to speed up reimbursement of costs that towns, counties, tribes and businesses incurred due to the 3 million-gallon deluge — caused by botched EPA efforts to drain the Gold King Mine.

“We also have heard significant concerns from local communities that the current water quality monitoring on the Animas River is not sufficient,” the letter said. “It is likely that spring runoff will remobilize the sediments and metals deposited during the spill. … The EPA must provide adequate funding. … The funds pledged to date by EPA for these needs are insufficient.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress continue to harass the EPA. Here’s a report from Matthew Daly writing for the Associated Press via

Senate Republicans vowed Tuesday to issue a subpoena to force the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to appear at a field hearing in Phoenix next week on a toxic mine spill that fouled rivers in three Western states and on lands belonging to two Native American tribes.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso said the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will vote Wednesday on a plan to subpoena EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Barrasso chairs the Indian Affairs panel, which is conducting an April 22 hearing on the 3-million gallon spill at Colorado’s abandoned Gold King Mine. The Aug. 5 spill contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as in the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Reservation.

If approved, the subpoena would be the first issued by the Indian Affairs panel since 2004, during the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff was a prominent Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in the purchase of gambling cruise boats. He spent 3 and 1/2 years in prison…

Barrasso said the EPA has been “reckless,” first in causing the spill and then in failing to address it.

“They took their eye off the ball,” Barrasso said of the EPA. “They caused this toxic spill and now they are still not focused on cleaning up the mess they caused.”

An EPA spokeswoman said Tuesday that McCarthy was never invited to attend the hearing; an official who oversees emergency management was asked to testify.

In a letter to the committee, the EPA said it will make two high-ranking officials available to testify, including Mathy Stanislaus, an assistant EPA administrator who originally was invited to testify. Stanislaus initially said he had a scheduling conflict. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter Tuesday night.

Spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said earlier that the agency has agreed to provide written testimony for the hearing, scheduled for Earth Day.

McCarthy testified before the Senate Indian Affairs and Environment committees on the spill last year.

Barrasso called the agency’s initial response another indication that the EPA “has grown too big, too arrogant, too irresponsible and too unaccountable” to the American people.

“On Earth Day, the EPA ought to be there to confess the failures of the (Obama) administration” to those affected by the spill and specify “what they are going to do to correct it,” Barrasso said.

Barrasso cited news reports indicating that McCarthy is likely to be among U.S. officials joining Secretary of State John Kerry in New York at an Earth Day ceremony to sign a global climate change agreement reached in Paris last year. The agreement calls for the U.S. and nearly 200 other countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

McCarthy would rather be in New York “talking about what happened in Paris instead of going to Arizona to face the people who her agency has abandoned,” Barrasso said. “That’s what she thinks is more important.”

McCarthy plans to spend Earth Day in Washington, Harrison said.

The EPA recently announced it would spend $157,000 to help the Navajo Nation recover costs incurred during the response to the Gold King spill. The money is in addition to more than $1.1 million spent by the EPA in response costs for the Navajo immediately following the spill.

The EPA has awarded the Navajo more than $93 million in grants to develop environmental and infrastructure programs, Harrison said.

Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed

#Colorado Springs gets serious as storm clouds pile up — The Pueblo Chieftain

The confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River in Pueblo County -- photo via the Colorado Springs Business Journal
The confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River in Pueblo County — photo via the Colorado Springs Business Journal

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A proposed agreement between Pueblo County and Colorado Springs related to the Southern Delivery System took a year to pound out and centers on Colorado Springs’ failure to control stormwater.

Last April, Pueblo County commissioners were moving toward a compliance hearing for the 1041 permit that allowed Colorado Springs to build its $825 million pipeline project from Pueblo Dam to Colorado Springs.

At the time, Colorado Springs claimed it had spent $243 million on stormwater projects from 2004-14, but Pueblo County officials were skeptical.

A memo to commissioners from staff called the Colorado Springs accounting “conflicting and inconsistent.”

That launched a more thorough investigation that has taken as many turns as Fountain Creek itself toward reaching a final agreement.

Newly elected Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers last summer proposed spending $19 million annually on a year-to-year basis to make up for the Colorado Springs City Council’s decision to abolish its stormwater enterprise in 2009. For just three years, the enterprise had generated about $15.2 million annually.

But a scathing EPA audit released in November revealed Colorado Springs had failed to meet even the minimum conditions of its state stormwater permit, opening the door for more mitigation.

“It elevated our status by showing that what people in Pueblo had been saying for years was true,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart.

In January, Suthers offered Pueblo City Council and commissioners a 10-year, $19 million plan, which was met with little interest.

Council’s resolution asked for $500 million over 10 years, and commissioners questioned how projects would be verified. In early March, Suthers went public with Colorado Springs’ proposal to put a minimum of $460 million into projects over the next 20 years. He indicated that Colorado Springs Utilities was anxious to get SDS on line by April 27 to assure that warranties on water pumping and treatment are in place after testing concludes.

Later in the same week, on March 11, commissioners wrote to the Bureau of Reclamation updating 1041 permit compliance in anticipation of beginning SDS operations. Stormwater management on Fountain Creek was the major unresolved issue that could keep SDS from being turned on.

A month later, Pueblo County had obtained what commissioners and lawyers say are enforceable provisions to make sure Colorado Springs complies.

“This is a contract,” Hart said. “It has specific actions Colorado Springs has to meet, and gives us a seat at the table.”

Hart said the proposed IGA provides an additional layer of enforcement, on top of the 1041 provisions, which remain in place, and the federal Department of Justice enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

The proposed IGA also benefits Colorado Springs because it provides evidence of tangible steps toward compliance with the federal law, Hart said.

“Fixing the stormwater issues that we inherited stemming from the dissolution of the stormwater enterprise has been a top priority for me and the (Colorado Springs) City Council,” Suthers said in a statement released Monday. “Sustainable stormwater funding and management is not optional — it is something that we must do to protect our waterways, serve our downstream neighbors and meet the legal requirements of a federal permit.”

More coverage from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Protecting Pueblo from Fountain Creek flooding will take projects in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and everywhere in between.

A proposed intergovernmental agreement for Southern Delivery System between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County will kick-start projects in all areas, Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

“This agreement allows the communities to get moving and tackle projects,” Hart said. “Lots of elements have value to all of the communities.”

Commissioners will hear public comments on the proposed agreement at a work session on Monday with a possible vote scheduled for April 25. There’s a lot to take in.

Last year, the county hired Wright Water Engineers to document the issues on Fountain Creek in the most comprehensive study to date. The Wright study connected the dots between Colorado Springs growth and deteriorating conditions on Fountain Creek, finding that 370,000 tons of sediment annually are stranded between Colorado Springs and the confluence with the Arkansas River each year.

That build-up is decreasing the ability of levees installed nearly 30 years ago to protect Pueblo.

“One of the best recommendations tions we had was to retain Wright Water Engineers,” said Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen. “I don’t think we’d be here without the work they did.”

One of Wright’s findings was that projects up and down Fountain Creek are needed to correct problems and protect Pueblo.

That includes the 71 projects within Colorado Springs that are covered under a $460 million, 20year commitment in the proposed IGA. Of those, 61 benefit Pueblo, so it was important for Pueblo to have a place at the table to determine timing of the projects, Hart said.

Under the proposed agreement, Pueblo’s engineers would be able to annually review progress of the projects, which over time will make up about two-thirds of the total Colorado Springs stormwater budget.

The 2013 sediment transport study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed there is some benefit to Pueblo from detention ponds in Colorado Springs. Those are among the first structures to be built under the proposed agreement. Work already has started on one in Sand Creek.

That study also showed the biggest benefit to Pueblo, both for controlling high flows and trapping sediment, would be a large dam between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

“To build a dam, we have to get going now.

We need to know where it goes and what it looks like,” Hart said.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District is prepared to start working on those issues, but lacks funds. The IGA would provide $20 million from Colorado Springs in the next nine months to begin work on the dam question.

Those would be the first of five $10 million annual payments that were earlier negotiated by Pueblo County as part of its 1041 permit for SDS.

The district’s budget includes $2.5 million this year to continue a study of whether one or several dams could be built and to evaluate the relative cost effectiveness of alternatives.

The proposed agreement is important because the money might otherwise not start arriving until January 2017 at the soonest, and possibly even later if SDS were to be delayed in court, Hart said.

It also provides $125,000 for routine administrative tasks of the Fountain Creek district as a patch until more permanent funds are lined up.

Finally, work on the Pueblo levee system along Fountain Creek is the most important way to protect Pueblo in the short term, according to the Wright report.

The city of Pueblo has the primary responsibility for maintaining the levees and the new agreement would add $3 million over the next three years for that purpose. Pueblo would have to match those funds.
Pueblo County already is holding about $1.8 million, so Pueblo’s share would be $1.2 million, or $400,000 annually to leverage $6 million or more in improvements.

“We know $50 million isn’t going to be enough to build a dam,” Hart said. “We’re counting on the communities to bring in other grants or other funding for all the other projects as well.”

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

The cost of deferred maintenance came into sharp focus Monday when Pueblo County and the city of Colorado Springs announced a 20-year, $460million deal to correct the Springs’ neglected flood-control system and pave the way for good relations over activating Springs Utilities’ $825million water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir.

The agreement will cost the city an average of $23 million a year — 53 percent more than the $15.2 million raised by the city’s previous Stormwater Enterprise fee. The fee, adopted in 2007, was abolished in 2009 to comply with Issue 300, a ballot measure mounted by anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce as a way to end the “rain tax.” That action infuriated Pueblo County, which issued a construction permit in April 2009 for the Southern Delivery System pipeline in part on spending made possible by the stormwater fee.

Now, the city will pay considerably more.

“This IGA requires Colorado Springs to commit much more than [the Stormwater Enterprise] for stormwater mitigation to address the past practices of overlooking the stormwater problems and to address future issues,” Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace said in a release.

Mayor John Suthers told City Council on Monday it’s the city’s problem “regardless of the level of public support.” Besides opposing the enterprise in 2009, voters in 2014 rejected a regional drainage authority and fees, a measure opposed by former Mayor Steve Bach.

“This is not a problem that those of us in this room created,” Suthers said. “I’m not going to point fingers. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a problem we inherited. It’s a problem we have to deal with.”

He also noted that while city general funds and Springs Utilities rates will fund the agreement, nothing precludes developing a different funding source, such as fees or special taxes. Suthers also pointed out the IGA will “go a long way” toward resolving negotiations with the Justice Department over the city’s 2013 and 2015 Clean Water Act violations, which could bring fines and/or a court decree mandating levels of spending.

As outlined by Pueblo County, the intergovernmental agreement’s terms:

• Colorado Springs will spend $460 million during the next 20 years on 71 stormwater projects.

• If those projects aren’t finished by 2035, the IGA renews for five years at another $26 million per year.

• Pueblo County will play a “significant role” in timing, prioritization, selection and verification of mandated projects under a “strong mechanism for enforcement.”

• Utilities will pay the city of Pueblo $3 million ($1 million a year for three years) to protect its levees, in addition to $2.2 million already paid for that. But the money must be spent in the year in which it’s given, said David Robbins, outside attorney representing the Springs.

• Utilities also will make a one-time $125,000 payment to the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District to help fund operations and studies, including whether to dam Fountain Creek.

• Utilities’ previously agreed-to payments to the Fountain district of $50 million over five years will be accelerated; the first payment of $9.6 million is due within 30 days of IGA approval. Then, four equal payments of $10 million will be made annually starting in January 2017. The money will fund erosion and flood control.

While the IGA’s funding is subject to annual appropriations in compliance with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the IGA is guaranteed by the Utilities enterprise, which can commit to a multi-year agreement, a city spokeswoman says.

Council and Pueblo County commissioners are expected to approve the IGA in coming weeks in advance of the April 27 scheduled activation of SDS.

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

2016 #coleg: HB16-1256 (South Platte Water Storage Study) advances

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

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, has pushed for the bill for several years, pointing to looming water shortages and pressure on agricultural communities.

The bill would require the Colorado Water Conservation Board to study the amount of water that has been delivered over 20 years to Nebraska from the South Platte River in excess of the amount allowed under the river agreement.

“The Front Range is depending on the Western Slope for water and there just isn’t any there to bring over,” Brown said.

The bill could receive a final vote in the House as early as Wednesday, before moving to the Senate for consideration.

Having survived an earlier appropriations hearing in the House, the bill stands its best chance yet of making its way through the entire legislative process. The $250,000 to pay for the study would come from existing severance taxes.

In addition to studying water leaving the state, the measure would examine possible locations for a reservoir along the river between Greeley and Julesburg.

Water officials would report back to lawmakers with findings…

There are 25 transmountain diversions across the state, in which water from rural Colorado is used for municipalities along the Front Range. Brown would like to avoid any more diversions.

“We cannot afford to go ahead and waste this water out of the state of Colorado,” Brown said. “There are all kinds of benefits to water storage, as we can see of the reservoirs all over the state of Colorado.”