Water Manager and Restoration Specialist, Heather Dutton

Your Water Colorado Blog

This Friday, May 20th, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education will celebrate water education and water leadership at its annual President’s Award Reception.  Each year, CFWE honors recent work by a young Colorado professional with the Emerging Leader Award. This year CFWE will recognize Heather Dutton, the new manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District with this award. Join the celebration later this week. Register here to attend this Friday at 6 pm at Space Gallery. We’ll enjoy refreshments, a famous game of “Wine Toss,” exciting new activities, and a fun evening with friends.

By Justice Greg Hobbs

heather_dutton_webHeather Dutton, the newest manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, glories in the heritage of the Rio Grande River. She’s a fifth-generation daughter of the Valley’s farming and ranching community, like her father Doug, who farms in the center of the Valley. A 2008 graduate of Colorado State University, she double-majored in…

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The May 2016 E-Waternews is hot off the presses from Northern Water

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.
Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

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

State endorses the Windy Gap Firming Project
During Northern Water’s April 13 Spring Water Users meeting, Mr. John Stulp, Governor Hickenlooper’s water policy advisor, read a letter from the governor endorsing the Windy Gap Firming Project.

The governor said, “Northern Water and its many project partners have worked diligently, transparently and exhaustively in a collorabitve public process that could stand as a model for a project of this nature.” Hickenlooper continued, “This is precisely the kind of cooperative effort envisioned for a project to earn a state endorsement in Colorado’s Water Plan.”

The state’s endorsement followed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s March 25 issuance of a 401 water quality certification for the WGFP. Project Manager Jeff Drager said, “This is the next to last step in getting the project permitted. The final step is the federal 404 wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which we believe will be forthcoming in the next few months.”

This is the State of Colorado’s first endorsement of a water storage project.

What can the American Dipper tell us about the #AnimasRiver? — The Durango Herald

The habitat of the American Dipper (Cinclus americana) is usually clear, rushing, boulder-strewn, mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. Photo via http://birdingisfun.com
The habitat of the American Dipper (Cinclus americana) is usually clear, rushing, boulder-strewn, mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. Photo via http://birdingisfun.com

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It was John Muir’s favorite bird.

“He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows,” he wrote in 1894.

On and off for 30 years, Muir, regarded as America’s most influential naturalist, noted the American Dipper in his explorations of Yosemite, and saw the bird as intrinsically tied with the life of the rivers.

“They scarce suggest any other origin than the streams themselves; and one might almost be pardoned in fancying they come direct from the living waters, like flowers from the ground.”

And now, more than 120 years later, a community reeling from a mine spill that has reinvigorated questions over the Animas River basin’s health will monitor the bird to gain a better understanding of the local watershed.

“I think the spill served to highlight we live in a really contaminated watershed,” said Kimberly Johnson, a volunteer with the American Dipper Project. “So a group of us bird aficionados got together to look at the river from a wildlife point of view.”


While the spill caused no immediate die-off of fish and other aquatic life, the heavy-metal laden sediment deposited in the river has raised concerns about the long-term health of aquatic species.

University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey said the American Dipper – a bird she researched to earn her doctorate – is the “perfect indicator of water quality.”

“Basically, just the presence of dippers will indicate the suitability of the habitat. Then you can measure a lot of things, contaminate-wise, which are useful for understanding the effects of something like a mine spill.”

The American Dipper, a sooty gray bird with a tail that points upward, lives its entire life on a river, rarely straying more than a few meters from the fast-moving, cold water.

Weighing about 2 ounces, North America’s only aquatic songbird can dive and spend up to 30 seconds under water, upturning rocks for aquatic insects, such as stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies, midges and even small fish.

Yet for how stalwart the bird is – it’s been noted to withstand negative 40-degree air temperatures in Montana – the avian diver is extremely vulnerable to instability in a river’s ecosystem.

Pete Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, said if a dipper’s food source begins to decline, the bird has been known to decrease in numbers along rivers, and in some cases, completely abandon waterways.

In a reverse situation, after a dam in Washington was removed, Marra said a flailing population of dippers almost immediately rebounded as salmon were able to reach upstream and reproduce, thereby providing an essential food source for the bird.

“We used dippers to show how rapidly a river system can rebound,” Marra said. “But they can also be used as evidence of how contaminant releases affect ecosystems.”

A 10-month study on aquatic bugs, which are known to accumulate metals over time, will be released later this week, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, which is part of a multi-year monitoring program on the Animas.

And while the institute and others look below the surface, a group of self-organized volunteers operating under the name The American Dipper Project will keep a lookout above this summer.

The project extends along the Animas from behind Home Depot all the way to Silverton. Volunteers are assigned a stretch of the river and asked to visit three times throughout the summer, for a minimum of 20 minutes.

“Not long enough to disturb but long enough to observe what they’re doing,” said Kristi Dranginis, an organizer and owner of Bird Mentor.

Dranginis said the project’s first-year goal is to identify where nests of the American Dipper are located along the Animas. And then in following years, since the bird is non-migratory, behavior such as reproduction can be further analyzed.

“There was a feeling after the spill of what can we do?” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which is supporting the effort. “This project offers people who are not scientists, or even really skilled bird watchers, to get involved and contribute.”

With no historical data on the bird, Dranginis hopes to correlate the dipper’s habitat with state and federal findings on metal levels. If a particular dipper’s behavior takes a downturn, the group would ultimately like to test the bird – either through blood or its feathers – for any abnormalities or bio-accumulations.

But that’ll be difficult, Morrissey said. Field studies are almost never sufficient to pinpoint the effect of contaminates on a species, she said, and other environmental factors further entangle research.

“That said, it’s additional evidence that’s supposed to get regulators info that can give some clues,” Morrissey said. “And if the pattern holds, even with variations, then you have a greater support for your hypothesis that it’s whatever the disturbance is that’s caused the problem.”

NOAA: #LaNiña coming? Deep pool of cool water is making its way across tropical Pacific


From NOAA (Rebecca Lindsey):

One of the strongest El Niños on record has been dominating the tropical Pacific Ocean for the past year. But beneath the surface, a deep pool of cool water has been sliding slowly eastward for the past couple of months. This massive, slow-motion wave is a favorable sign that La Niña—the cool phase of the ENSO climate pattern—might develop.

This animated gif [above] shows where temperatures in the top 300 meters (~1,000 feet) of the Pacific Ocean at the equator were warmer or cooler than average during 5-day periods centered on three dates this spring: March 14, April 13, and May 3.

As the weeks pass, the layer of warm water at the surface contracts to the central Pacific and becomes very shallow, a sign that the current El Niño is on its way out. By the final frame of the animation, the cold pool is just breaching the surface of the eastern Pacific off South America. (You can see these cool-water breakthroughs in our map of April 2016 surface temperatures.)

ENSO (which scientists pronounce “en-so,” like a word) is short for El Niño-Southern Oscillation. ENSO is a natural climate pattern in which the central-eastern tropical Pacific swings back and forth between a warm and rainy state (El Niño) and a cooler and drier state (La Niña).

ENSO’s impacts on wind, air pressure, and rain throughout the tropics can have cascading side effects around the whole globe, including shifting the location of the mid-latitude jet streams that guide storms towards the United States. El Niño and La Niña also tend to have seesawing impacts on the Atlantic and eastern Pacific hurricane seasons.

The influence of ENSO on temperature and precipitation in the United States is weakest in summer and strongest in winter. Last week, NOAA continued the previous month’s La Niña watch, indicating that conditions were favorable for La Niña to develop by fall. Read more about it on our ENSO blog.

Bugs offer clues on #AnimasRiver health — #Colorado @TroutUnlimited

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

From Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

If you want some good clues about river health, check out the bug life.

Trout Unlimited, Mountain Studies Institute and partners today announced plans for a multi-year monitoring of the Animas River in southwest Colorado to gauge the overall health of the Animas River and whether the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 is impacting aquatic health in the world-class trout waters through Durango.

“We’re lucky that our community’s Gold Medal trout fishery wasn’t immediately damaged by the Gold King spill,” said Ty Churchwell, TU’s San Juan Mountains coordinator, in a release. “But long-term, it’s unclear what the effects of the spill might be. Trout Unlimited wants to make sure the aquatic health of the river—and specifically, its bug life—is closely monitored in coming months and years.”

Why look at bugs? Scott Roberts, aquatic biologist with MSI, pointed out that aquatic macroinvertebrate orders—such as mayflies, caddis and stoneflies—provide the foundation of the aquatic food chain, not just for trout but for a range of wildlife, from birds to mammals.

“Aquatic bugs are widely considered an excellent indicator of water quality,” said Roberts. “That’s because they live in the water column as well as river sediment. We’re going to learn a lot by seeing which bugs are doing well and which aren’t.”

Salmonflies (Pteronarcys), for instance, are present in the lower Animas watershed—a good sign because they are considered sensitive to pollution.

TU is committed to following up on the Animas spill in coming months and years and making sure the EPA and others in charge of cleanup don’t lose sight of the health of this amazing recreational fishery.

For more info, check out http://www.WeAreTheAnimas.com.

“Fountain Creek is not a dead stream…It’s rich in biota” — Scott Herrmann

Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District
Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Two researchers say Fountain Creek has a rich aquatic environment that would benefit from flood control structures such as a dam.

“This is an extremely diverse biological stream and needs to be continuously studied,” said Scott Herrmann, a retired biology professor from Colorado State University-Pueblo.

“A large dam could provide better understanding of what’s happening in the watershed, and be a good recreational benefit to the entire watershed of Fountain Creek,” said Del Nimmo, who has worked with Herrmann on Fountain Creek projects for the past decade.

The pair presented a suite of studies to Pueblo County commissioners, who have funded their recent work, last week.

Those studies began in 2007 and continued for five years, providing a baseline of conditions before the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, and the growth impact of the Southern Delivery System. They track selenium and mercury concentrations moving through the food chain in plants, insects and fish.

“A large dam on Fountain Creek would give us the flood control capability that we need, but also provide recreational opportunities that are primary, with a pool of water as well as a tailwater. So we would have a fishery and fishing benefits from such a structure,” Her- rmann said.

The studies began in 2007 when the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District purchased equipment for CSU-Pueblo that allowed measurement of minute concentrations of contaminants in tissues.

Herrmann led a team that identified how bryophytes (moss) absorbed selenium.

“What it told us was that selenium is there and available (to life forms), and there is more of it as you go downstream,” Nimmo said. “But not too many people care about bryophytes, so we began to look at fish.”

Further studies looked at the impact on fish and insects, particularly chironomid midges.

Some of the studies have only been published in the last six months.

“One of the surprises was that we also found mercury in all but one of the 111 fish we tested,” Nimmo said.

Selenium may act as a protection against harmful effects of mercury for the fish, because it reduces toxicity, Herrmann said. But the presence of both elements points to the need to monitor levels in species to measure how development in El Paso County is affecting the creek.

The main reason Nimmo supports a dam on Fountain Creek is to reduce erosion, which is the primary reason for selenium making its way into the water. The Pierre shale that underlies Fountain Creek is known to contribute selenium when it comes into contact with water.

“We’re on a selenium dome,” Nimmo said.

“Nobody has tied selenium to erosion, but every time it floods there is not only damage by erosion, but to water quality.”

The studies found that Fountain Creek exceeded EPA selenium levels at all measuring points.

The insects, which provide food for the fish, are the subject of the most recent study, and the most fascinating for Herrmann.

“Fountain Creek is not a dead stream,” Herrmann said. “It’s rich in biota.”

Scientists found at least 150 species of insects on Fountain Creek, including 24 new species. The same methodology — pupal exuvia, or identifying casts left behind by adult males as they hatch — was used in an earlier study of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and found just 38 species, Herrmann said.

“The question is what effects will increased SDS return flows and runoff have on the species diversity of midges?” he said.