The federal under-reach on water

westernriverlaw

OK, so it’s been a while.  It appears my last post was in July 2015.  I would like to say I was out of contact that whole time–maybe a 57-week river trip–but I don’t have an excuse nearly that good.  I did spend a fine four months in Alberta (at the University of Lethbridge), learning about water law and policy issues in a part of Canada that shares many water management challenges with the western U.S.  And I have been spending a LOT of time thinking about reservoir operations in both countries; I will be writing more on that topic in this space, and if all goes well, it won’t take me another 13 months to do it.

One of the more notable moments of my past year was testifying before Congress.  In what has become something of an annual event, the House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee (of the Natural Resources Committee)…

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New kids on the block — on tour!

Mile High Water Talk

I joined my fellow newbies to get a first-hand look at Denver Water’s collection system.

By Kristi Delynko

Employees board a pontoon boat and head out across Dillon Reservoir to see operations from the water. Employees board a pontoon boat and head out across Dillon Reservoir to see operations from the water.

Did you know the town of Dillon used to be located right underneath where Dillon Reservoir is today? Or that Williams Fork Dam’s hydroelectric plant generates enough electricity to help power the remote mountain communities that surround the reservoir?

These are just a few of the fun facts I learned last week on a tour of Dillon and Williams Fork reservoirs. Not everyone gets to see the inside of a hydroelectric plant, or go behind the scenes at a reservoir, but as a newbie at Denver Water, I was able to join 41 other employees to get a special look inside Denver Water’s operations.

Denver Water offers training programs and tours to help employees through…

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Warmer world may not impact Upper #ColoradoRiver groundwater — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #COriver

Groundwater movement via the USGS
Groundwater movement via the USGS

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A new U.S. Geological Survey finds groundwater levels in the Upper Colorado River Basin may hold steady over the rest of this century despite a warming climate.

The revelation comes just months after another study by the same agency found that groundwater accounts for 56 percent of streamflow in the Upper Colorado basin.

The studies offer some hope of groundwater helping mitigate other water-related impacts of a changing climate in coming decades. Perhaps most importantly, groundwater could help maintain later-season streamflows at a time when snowpack runoff is expected to occur earlier in the year, resulting in additional strains on water supplies and reservoir storage during the summer months.

The climate-change study is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. It finds that increased precipitation predicted by climate-change models should be enough to offset the impacts of warmer temperatures on groundwater levels in the basin.

Fred Tillman, a USGS scientist and the report’s lead author, said researchers considered how groundwater outputs and inputs would be affected by climate change. Earlier snowmelt as temperatures warm will mean native vegetation greens up and begins using water through a process called transpiration earlier each year. This and more evaporation of water from soils and water bodies will increase water loss from the basin.

“We knew that we had more going out from the higher temperatures. What we found was, well, we actually had more precipitation coming in too, according to these (climate-change) models,” Tillman said.

Researchers view the base flow of streams as a proxy for the groundwater discharge into them, apart from surface flows from snowmelt and rain.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, said one thing water managers have been concerned about is that future late-summer base streamflows will be extremely low as the climate changes. He said he hasn’t yet read the new study, but it may be that groundwater levels will hold up better than expected due to higher precipitation.

“Perhaps the late-season, low-flow period will not be as bad as we once thought it would be,” he said.

“With a little more groundwater it offers a little more help” late in the season, Kuhn said.

However, Kuhn also said climate models generally suggest that precipitation will increase in the basin in more northern and eastern regions, while dropping off to the south and west.

Tillman noted the same thing, and said a follow-up study by the Geological Survey will break down its groundwater projections by sub-regions, and will likely show that some sub-regions to the south will show losses in groundwater, while some in the north will gain.

The study also doesn’t try to factor in how changes in future land use and human activities could affect groundwater levels, something Tillman said would require accounting for a whole other set of projections. Kuhn said increased transpiration will occur not just for native vegetation but things such as lawns, parks and crops.

The river district has been involved with another study on how vulnerable Lake Powell may be to drought in coming decades. Upper Colorado River Basin states rely on water stored in the reservoir to meet water delivery obligations to downstream states under an interstate compact, so they can avoid a so-called compact call that would affect water users in Colorado. Powell also is a sizable source of hydroelectric power in the region.

Kuhn said that while average precipitation may go up in the region, climate models also suggest a warming atmosphere would lead to more severe dry and wet periods. The preliminary findings of the study the river district is leading are that another drought like the one that occurred in the early 2000s could empty Powell if it’s half-full, as is now the case.

As water officials try to figure out how to address future supplies, Geological Survey researchers believe the findings of their studies point to the importance of thinking about surface water and groundwater in the Upper Colorado basin as a single resource, and managing water accordingly. Tillman said hydrologists know that generally speaking, groundwater and surface water are all the same water, originating from precipitation, but it’s good to get that message out.

He said researchers on the two Geological Survey studies weren’t working together, but their results dovetail in terms of helping people understand the importance of groundwater in the basin and then looking at how that groundwater might change in the future.

The earlier study evaluated water chemistry and streamflow data at 146 sites to help separate out what role groundwater plays in streamflows in the basin. It found that a greater percentage of streamflow is from groundwater lower in the basin, with a greater percentage of snowmelt and precipitation directly contributing to streamflows in the high-elevation headwaters.

It also estimates that 82 percent of groundwater that discharges to streams in the basin is lost to factors such as evaporation, plant transpiration and water diversions, and it points to the threat that groundwater pumping poses to groundwater levels.

Kuhn said that in Colorado, almost all groundwater in the Colorado River basin is considered tributary groundwater that originates as snow and ice and rain and makes its way out of the ground and into streams within months or years. Such groundwater is different from deep groundwater supplies in places like eastern Colorado, and Kuhn said that from a management perspective, tributary groundwater already is subject to surface-water-type appropriation laws in the state.

“That groundwater, basically it is Colorado River water,” he said.

#Kansas, #Nebraska, #Colorado reach consensus on Republican River

Photo: The commissioners of the Republican River Compact Administration sign the long-term resolutions on August 24: (from left) Commissioner David Barfield, Chief Engineer, Kansas Department of Agriculture; Commissioner Dick Wolfe, State Engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources; Commissioner Jeff Fassett, Director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, via Governor Hickenlooper's office.
Photo: The commissioners of the Republican River Compact Administration sign the long-term resolutions on August 24: (from left) Commissioner David Barfield, Chief Engineer, Kansas Department of Agriculture; Commissioner Dick Wolfe, State Engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources; Commissioner Jeff Fassett, Director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, via Governor Hickenlooper’s office.

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

Gov. John Hickenlooper today announced Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska established an agreement this week in the longstanding conflict over water from the Republican River basin, as the Republican River Compact Administration signed two resolutions.

Representatives from the three states have been meeting monthly for over two years, in an effort to change the approach and improve how they manage interstate water matters. This effort has created a new focus on transparency and certainty as all three states work to serve their water users. The intent of these resolutions is to replace the need for annual reviews and instead provide long-term surety to water users.

“We are proud to be part of this historic agreement,” said Hickenlooper. “For the first time since signing the Compact, the three states have worked together to resolve their issues without litigation and have brought certainty to the water users in the basin. This is how we do our best work in Colorado and defines our approach to addressing our water challenges — cooperation and collaboration.”

“Signing these resolutions shows the commitment from all three states to engage in open and transparent dialogue for the past two years,” said Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. “This long-term agreement will ultimately improve water management for water users in Kansas as well as Nebraska and Colorado.”

The resolutions signed this week will provide flexibility and greater certainty to all water users in the region, while remaining consistent with the terms of the Republican River Compact and the Final Settlement Stipulation of 2002. The three states have been involved in various litigation and arbitration for the past 15 years over administration of water in the Republican River basin, and this agreement is a significant and positive step forward, with the next steps focusing on working with the basin’s water users to implement these agreements.

“It has been a priority of the states to collaborate on interstate water matters to ensure each state’s water users are protected while also maintaining a positive working relationship between the compacting states. “These resolutions represent a long-term strategy for representing each state and ultimately improving water management for water users in all three states,” said Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts.

The Republican River basin begins in the plains of eastern Colorado and flows through northwest Kansas and southern Nebraska, ultimately returning to Kansas. The Republican River Compact was negotiated during the early 1940s with participation by the states of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska and a representative of the President of the United States. The Compact was formally signed in 1942. Its purposes are to provide for equitable division of such waters, remove all causes of controversy, promote interstate comity, promote joint action by the states and the United States in the efficient use of water and the control of destructive floods, and provide for the most efficient use of waters in the Republican River basin.

The state official in each of the three states who is charged with administering water law serves on the Republican River Compact Administration. For more information about the Compact, go to the following websites:

Colorado: http://water.state.co.us/SurfaceWater/Compacts/RepublicanRiver/Pages/RepublicanRiverHome.aspx
Kansas: http://agriculture.ks.gov/divisions-programs/dwr/interstate-rivers-and-compacts/republican-river-compact
Nebraska: http://dnr.nebraska.gov/iwm/republican-river-compact-2

Colorado Water: The importance of ditch riders — 9News.com

Turning a handwheel, photo by Havey Productions via TheDenverChannel.com
Turning a handwheel, photo by Havey Productions via TheDenverChannel.com

From 9News.com (Maya Rodriguez):

They are a big part of the Colorado Water story, with a long tradition in the state. Hundreds of ditch riders work every day to make sure needed water gets to farms and ranches, among other places.

In the quiet reflection of the morning is where ditch rider Randy Ebert does much of his work every day, to make sure a precious resource keeps flowing across Colorado.

“There’d be a lot of dry land around here without the water,” he said. “I mean, there’s a lot of it right now.”

He works for the Farmers Independent Ditch Company, which ensures water rights are properly administered to their clients through the flow of water.

“If they order water in, I open it up, give them their share of the water,” Ebert said…

“It’s really rewarding when you drive around and see the crops that you delivered water to and then the guys work hard to raise and they do a great job of it with what they have,” he said. “It’s really rewarding.”

For Ebert, it’s a reward in and of itself.

William Henry Jackson’s history-making photos — The High Country News

The Georgetown Loop in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado, by William Henry Jackson. Photo via Colletors Weekly.
The Georgetown Loop in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado, by William Henry Jackson. Photo via Colletors Weekly.

From The High Country News (Lyndsey Gilpin):

On U.S. Geological Survey expeditions through the American West in the 1870s, William Henry Jackson took the first photographs of the Yellowstone region’s thermal springs, craters and geysers. Those images helped persuade Congress to protect Yellowstone as a national park — America’s first — in 1872. Jackson also took early pictures of Yosemite in California and Wyoming’s Devils Tower, and was the first to photograph the ancient cliff dwellings at Colorado’s Mesa Verde, decades before it became a national park. Long before color film was available, he used the photochromic process to colorize black-and-white photos, which he sold as postcards. To celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday this month and Jackson’s role in its history, his rare photographs will be displayed at the FAD Gallery in Mancos, Colorado, until the end of September. The exhibit showcases 10 original black-and-white postcards of Mesa Verde and over a dozen vivid color photos of other Western landmarks.

William Henry Jackson Photos, Exhibit of rare, original photochromes and cabinet cards at FAD (Furniture, Art & Design) Gallery, 107 Grand Ave., Mancos, CO.

#ClimateChange: The Anthropocene epoch could inaugurate even more marvellous eras of evolution — The Guardian

Another pool of melt water over sea ice, as seen from an Operation IceBridge flight over the Beaufort Sea on July 14, 2016. Scientists have found that formation of melt ponds early in the summer reduces the ability of sea ice to reflect solar radiation, which leads to more melt. Credit: NASA/Operation IceBridge.
Another pool of melt water over sea ice, as seen from an Operation IceBridge flight over the Beaufort Sea on July 14, 2016. Scientists have found that formation of melt ponds early in the summer reduces the ability of sea ice to reflect solar radiation, which leads to more melt. Credit: NASA/Operation IceBridge.

From The Guardian (Martin Rees):

The darkest prognosis is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s potential. But there is an optimistic option.

…suppose some aliens had been viewing our planet for its entire 4.5bn-year history. What would they have seen?

Over nearly all that immense time, changes would have been very gradual: continents drifted; the ice cover waxed and waned; successive species emerged, evolved and became extinct during a succession of geological eras.

But visible change has accelerated rapidly in the past few thousand years – a tiny sliver of the Earth’s history. Now geologists have decided those changes have been so profound, so global and so permanent that our catalogue of the Earth’s history needs to change accordingly. Since the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago, human civilisation has flourished in the climatically benign Holocene. Now they believe that epoch has come to an end and we have entered a new human-influenced age, the Anthropocene.

The changes that our aliens could observe from space are not hard to spot. In just the last few thousand years, the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. These human-induced changes signalled the start of agriculture.

And human activity manifested itself in other ways that will leave traces in the geological record. Constructs of concrete and metal sprawled across the continents; domesticated vertebrates numerically overwhelmed wild ones; the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose anomalously fast; traces appeared of plutonium and other “un-natural” substances.

The imaginary aliens watching our world would have noticed something else unprecedented in geological history. Rockets launched from the planet’s surface escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

What do these trends portend? Should we be optimistic or anxious? It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict – indeed, we can’t predict as far ahead as our forebears could. Our medieval ancestors thought the Earth was only a few thousand years old, and might only last another thousand. But they didn’t expect their children’s lives to be very different from theirs. They built cathedrals that wouldn’t be finished in their lifetime.

Our time horizons, both past and future, now stretch billions of years, not just thousands. The sun will keep shining for about another 6bn years. But ironically we can’t forecast terrestrial trends with as much confidence as our ancestors could. Their lives and environment changed slowly from generation to generation. For us, technological change is so fast that scenarios quickly enter the realm of wild conjecture and science fiction.

But some things we can predict, at least a few decades ahead. By mid-century, the world will be more crowded, and our collective footprint will be heavier. World population is now 7.2 billion and is forecast to rise to around 9 billion by 2050. Experts predict continuing urbanisation – and huge growth of megacities such as Lagos, São Paulo and Delhi. Population trends later this century depend largely on what happens in Africa, where some UN predictions foresee a further doubling between 2050 and 2100.

Moreover, if humanity’s collective impact on nature pushes too hard against what Johan Rockstrom calls “planetary boundaries”, the resultant “ecological shock” could irreversibly degrade our biosphere. And if global warming reaches a tipping point that triggers melting of Greenland’s ice, coastlines a millennium hence would be drastically different. Extinction rates are rising. We’ve only identified about two million of the (estimated) 10 billion living species: we’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it. To quote the great ecologist EO Wilson, “mass extinction is the sin that future generations will least forgive us for”.

The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere. Darwinian selection would resume, perhaps leading, in some far-future geological era, to the re-emergence of intelligent beings. If this happens, or if there are aliens out there who actually visit and study the Earth, then, digging through the geological record (and applying archaeological techniques as well) they would uncover traces of a distinctive transient epoch, and ponder the all-too-brief flourishing of a species that failed in its stewardship of “spaceship Earth”.

But there is an optimistic option.

Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.

Even in a cosmic time-perspective, therefore, the 21st century is special. It marks our collective realisation that the Anthropocene has begun – and it’s a century when human actions will determine how long that epoch lasts.

From left, President François Hollande of France; Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister; and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during the climate change conference [December 2015] in Le Bourget, near Paris. (Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press)
From left, President François Hollande of France; Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister; and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during the climate change conference [December 2015] in Le Bourget, near Paris. (Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press)