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

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

“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.

#Snowpack #Runoff news: Yampa, White drainage holds 224 percent of last year’s May 1 snow — The Rio Blanco Herald Times

Westwide SNOTEL May 16, 2016 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL May 16, 2016 via the NRCS.

From the NRCS via The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:

For the first time during 2016, statewide snowpack improved over the previous month as opposed to the declines that have occurred each month since Jan. 1, including in the Yampa and White River Basin.

April weather conditions yielded a 7 percent improvement in snowpack, which now stands at 104 percent of normal. Mountain precipitation across the state of Colorado during April was the best of the 2016 calendar year, at 110 percent of normal. Now, water year-to-date precipitation is exactly at 100 percent of normal.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the snowpack and reservoir storage as of May 1 along the Yampa and White River drainage, the snowpack is at 106 percent of normal, is 224 percent of last year’s snowpack for the same date, is at 115 percent of the average reservoir storage level and is 120 percent of last year’s average reservoir storage level compared to last year on the same date.

Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey Supervisor, illustrates how fortunate the Colorado water situation is.

“At this time last year, the water supply outlook was grim at best,” he said. “Colorado’s current snowpack and precipitation levels are right where we want to be this time of year. Elsewhere in the Western United States, seasonal snowpack during 2016 succumbed to early spring warming and did not recover as Colorado did from recent storms.”

The seven major mountain watersheds in Colorado all received 90 percent of normal April precipitation or better. Special mention is warranted in the Arkansas, Upper Rio Grande and combined Yampa, White and North Platte Basins because these areas received 120 percent of normal or better precipitation.

The seven major watersheds also have 90 percent of normal or better water year-to-date precipitation.

Snowpack metrics indicate that the North and South Platte River basins have the best snowpack in the state at 114 percent of normal. The Arkansas saw the greatest improvement in April, while the Upper Rio Grande and combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan Basins saw little change.

It is fortunate those basins saw little change downward given that snowpack there is now 77 and 85 percent of normal respectively. Although not reflected in snowpack values, it is also fortunate that rain was abundant, most particularly in the Upper Rio Grande, which added to the greater water budget.

Statewide reservoir totals increased 1 percent since April 1, ending the month at 112 percent of normal, with declines occurring in the Rio Grande, Arkansas and combined Yampa, White and North Platte watersheds.

From (Jessi Mitchell):

The local Swift Water Rescue Team has a message about safety for everyone looking to make a splash.

Every year the reminder is the same; be careful near rivers and wear a life jacket if you are going to be getting in the water. As the snow pack starts to melt, it is leading to some very dangerous conditions.

The US Geological Survey shows the Arkansas River spiked by 600 cubic feet per second on Monday through Pueblo, deepening one stretch by a whole foot. Now running at nearly 900 cfs, taking on the water in the kayak course in particular will not be a walk in the park. “The kayak course…was designed for people who are used to kayaking or boating, who know what they’re doing and have more river experience,” explains PFD engineer Ryan Moran, who is a member of the SWRT. “This is not a place for just inner-tubing leisurely.”

The SWRT is already gearing up for a busy season. They have not had any river emergencies yet, but just last week two children drowned in northern Colorado. The local team keeps that in mind as families start to hit the shores without life jackets or shoes, fishing and climbing on treacherous rocks.

Moran says, “You may not know that an hour ago they released more water. You could be standing in what you thought was a safe place when it starts washing over you at that point and washes you off the rocks.”

Firefighters emphasize that parents teach their children water safety early on, and keep kids away from the worst of the waves. “As a parent myself, my children wonder why we can’t go play on the river, too, and I have to explain to them that’s just not safe,” says Moran. “We’ll go play some place in the water that is safe.”

The SWRT is currently in training mode, and say they expect to start getting emergency calls as the school year ends. City ordinance does require you to wear a certified life jacket any time you are in the rivers.

2015 Arkansas River boating season economic impact = $62 million


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

Arkansas River rafting companies are expecting another busy spring and summer as turnout continues to rebound from the Great Recession and the damaging 2012 and 2013 wildfire seasons.

Last year, commercial rafters provided trips to 196,998 thrill seekers, the fourth straight year of increased ridership on the state’s most rafted river, according to recently released Colorado River Outfitters Association statistics for the 2015 season.

The overall economic impact of last year’s Arkansas River rafting season was estimated at $62 million, including $24.4 million on direct spending on rafting and $37.6 million on lodging, gas and food and other related expenses, the industry group said.

Among the factors that contributed to the busier season was the late spring snowpack that grew to above average levels and created a high water season for most of Colorado.

Also, no major wildfires broke out, which contributed to stable use patterns, said Joe Greiner, who compiles the use report for the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

“Part of the increase use on the Arkansas River is due to recovery from the Royal Gorge fire that burned much of the infrastructure of the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in 2013. The park was open the entire 2015 season, contributing to solid increases in rafting use,” Greiner said.

This year’s rafting season begins with “a lot of positive elements” that point to another great year for outfitters, Greiner said.

“I think everything is now in line. The Royal Gorge Bridge has been reopened a full year. The Brown’s Canyon National Monument has now been designated for a year and is starting to show up in guidebooks and on state maps. Plus the snowpack is perfect,” Greiner said.

Snowpack levels are a little above normal, which is right where rafting outfitters like to see them: not so high that they cause flooding and not so low that the river is flat.

“We should have excellent flows all the way through the summer,” he said.

Other favorable indicators are a more stable stock market and increased housing prices, factors that help people feel they have more money to spend on vacation.

“The gas prices are certainly affordable, too. Our bookings are now a little bit up, but we are finding that as people get more and more comfortable with computer booking, there are more last minute bookers,” Greiner explained.

A new music festival set for early August in Buena Vista, the Vertex Music Fest, should lead to more rafting business with 20,000 people expected to visit the region..

“So all the elements are there for an awesome season,” Greiner said.

The face of rafting is changing as the number of rafting companies diminishes — “very slowly,” Greiner said — and may eventually dwindle down to 25 outfitters.

“In the early ’80s, when I started (his company, Wilderness Aware Rafting), there were over 80 companies and today we have 47 permit holders. I would say 25 is about the most any river in the country has and through attrition we should get there,” he said.

The Arkansas River remains the most rafted in Colorado with a statewide market share of 39 percent last year.

The river’s biggest year ever was 2001 when 252,213 boaters floated its waters.

City water supply could be tested by climate change — The Aspen Daily News

Smuggler Mine back in the day via
Smuggler Mine back in the day via

From The Aspen Daily News (Curtis Wackerle):

If climate change renders the Western Slope warmer and drier, and if historic growth rates keep up, then Aspen’s water utility could have trouble meeting consumer demand without depleting minimum in-stream flows in Castle and Maroon creeks over the next 50 years.

Aspen City Council on Monday heard a presentation from consultants hired to evaluate the adequacy of the municipal water supply. Wilson Water Group put together a report forecasting demand and available supply over a 50-year outlook, and found that in the worst-case climate change scenario, the city could miss in-stream flow targets on Castle and Maroon creeks by between 4 and 9 cubic feet per second during the “irrigation months” of June through September.

The city has committed to a 13 cfs minimum flow in Castle Creek, and 14 cfs in Maroon. Both creeks are tapped to feed municipal needs through diversion structures that send water to Thomas Reservoir, a holding bay for the city’s treatment plant.

Even if the worst-case scenario projections come to pass in terms of climate change and population growth — demands on the city’s water system historically have risen by about 1.2 percent a year, according to special projects utilities engineer Phil Overeynder — the city has other ways to shore up its water supply.

One project that has been on the drawing board for years would pump treated wastewater uphill from the sanitation plant to irrigate the city’s golf course.

The city also controls three wells in town drawing from the local aquifer. If irrigation for city parks increasingly relied on those wells, then more water could be left in Castle and Maroon creeks.

Combined with more water conservation, or restrictions in drought years, depletion of in-stream flows could be avoided, consultants report.

City council agreed to adopt the 2016 Water Supply Availability Study, and continue monitoring hydrologic conditions.

Council also heard a presentation on Monday from another consultant that analyzed threats to the water supply and water quality. Given that Aspen’s water originates in high mountain valleys, wildfire poses perhaps the most imminent and hazardous threat. A bad fire in the Castle or Maroon watersheds could be detrimental to water quality in those streams, and subsequent mudslides could also cause problems.

There is also the abandoned Pitkin Iron Mine above Ashcroft that drains into Copper Creek, a Castle Creek tributary.

The Colorado Rural Water Association conducted a study for the city assessing the best ways to mitigate these threats.

Creating a buffer zone against wildfire near the diversion structures on Castle and Maroon creeks, while continuing to develop plans to limit wildfire debris flow into Thomas Reservoir, were among the study’s top recommendations.

More work to control erosion at the Pitkin Iron Mine site was also recommended. However, the consultant noted that the Pitkin Iron Mine did not make the list of the state’s 200 most pressing mine cleanup needs.

CMU: 23rd Annual Children’s Water Festival recap


From KKCO (Carly Smith):

About 2,500 Fifth graders from all over Western Colorado flooded Colorado Mesa University for the 23rd Annual Western Colorado Children’s Water Festival.

“Water is an important resource because we wouldn’t be here without it,” Micah Smidt, geotechnical engineer, said.

Water conservation was a key subject at this year’s water festival.

“While it may be a rainy season this year, five years from now, we could be in a drought,” water resources engineer, Tracy Onowen said.

If Colorado is in a drought that means several other states downstream from our rivers are in trouble as well.

“The kids are not only learning about the value of water here in the state of Colorado, but also downstream to our neighboring states,” Joseph Burtard said.

Burtard is the Ute Water Conservancy District external affairs manager. He is the master mind behind the planning the event.

He wanted to make sure the students had the opportunity to experience three key things, higher education, hands on learning, and water careers.

The festival took place at Colorado Mesa so students as young as fifth grade can become excited about college.

“The third goal that we utilize when planning this event is to kind of introduce the students to water related careers. Whether it’s a firefighter or a water resource engineer,” Burtard said…

Water is an important part of everyday life. Organizers hope students leave ready to protect our greatest resource for the rest of their lives.

“Information that I think they’ll remember in years to come because it is filled and blended with the fun,” Taylor Elementary teacher, Cindy Cooper said.

Conservation can be as easy as turning off your faucet while you brush your teeth.