Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view snowpack data for your favorite basin.
From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Daily News:
The board of directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave conceptual approval Wednesday to a $90 million loan to help finance the $400 million Windy Gap Firming Project, which will divert more water from the Colorado River.
The CWCB, charged with facilitating water supply projects in Colorado, has both a loan program and a grant program. And while its grant program is being challenged by a sharp drop in severance tax revenue from the oil and gas sector, the agency’s loan program remains robust, especially as Aurora just repaid a $70 million loan ahead of schedule.
The $90 million loan to Northern Water, which is developing Windy Gap, is the largest in the agency’s history. It will help facilitate a project that is more popular on the Eastern Slope than the Western Slope, given it will increase the level of water sent under the Continental Divide.
The loan, which still needs final approval from the CWCB board, will be part of a financing package for a new reservoir near Loveland called Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which will cost $400 million to construct.
Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of Northern Water, said he expects the project to be approved in 2017, that test drilling has begun at the dam site — next to Carter Lake Reservoir in Larimer County — and design work is well underway. Gov. Hickenlooper has also endorsed the Windy Gap project, even though final federal approval is still outstanding.
Wilkinson also said that the prospect of a CWCB loan has galvanized financing discussions among the 12 different entities – including 10 cities from Broomfield north to Greeley — who are involved in the project as members of the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict.
“The difference that this has made cannot be overstated,” Wilkinson told the CWCB board about the loan.
Savings needed to backfill drop in severance tax funding
The $90 million loan makes up a big chunk of this year’s “projects bill,” which is submitted annually by the CWCB to the state Legislature for approval. This year’s projects bill is $165 million in all, which makes it the largest annual spending request in the history of the CWCB, which dates back to 1937.
Another big part of the projects bill is $55 million for an array of grants and loans spurred by the Colorado Water Plan, which was approved a year ago by the CWCB board and presented to the governor.
Of the $55 million, $10 million is for projects to be funded at the discretion of the CWCB directors, and $5 million is specifically for watershed restoration efforts and stream management plans, which is a nod to environmental interests in the state.
Another $10 million is used to fund the agency’s Water Supply Reserve Fund, which helps fund local water supply projects identified and approved by the nine basin roundtables around the state, including the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs.
Funding for roundtable projects is supposed to come from severance taxes paid by oil and gas producers in the state to the tune of $10 million a year. But the combination of the slowdown in the gas patch and property tax rebates given to the industry means that the CWCB is only going to see about a quarter of the severance tax revenue this year that it normally receives.
As such, the CWCB is asking the Legislature to let it spend severance tax revenue it has tucked away from the good years. That approach, however, is fraught with danger, as the Legislature is busy trying to figure out how to fill a $500 million to $800 million hole in the state’s budget, which must be balanced each year by law.
James Eklund, director of the CWCB, said the Legislature will be looking in all nooks and crannies for funds, but he’s hopeful that the approval of the state water plan last year will help convince lawmakers that the CWCB has a legitimate need for the money it has set aside for future projects.
Also in the $55 million bucket in the projects bill is a $30 million “loan guarantee fund” to help water suppliers with varying credit ratings to gain better interest rates when funding new projects together.
Eklund is sensitive to criticism that not enough has been achieved after the publication of the Colorado Water Plan a year ago, which itself was the product of an intense two-year collaborative effort among water interests in the state.
On Wednesday, he told the CWCB directors that while the Water Plan was now a year old, it was “only five days old in water years.”
“We are moving forward aggressively,” Eklund said. “And I don’t think slowly at all, especially if you look at it in water time.”
Board renews Ruedi fish-water lease
Also at last week’s CWCB meeting, Eklund said that the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction has offered to once again lease 12,000 acre-feet of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to the CWCB, so the agency can help maintain flows in the Colorado River, as it has done the last two years.
While the water from Ruedi benefits endangered fish in a critical 15-mile reach of the Colorado, it has also kicked up river levels in the lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir in the late summer and fall to the consternation of some anglers.
The CWCB board also approved a $1.7 million loan for improvements to the Grand Valley Power Plant, which controls one of the senior water rights that make up the “Cameo Call” on the Colorado River above Grand Junction.
The loan to the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will help cover the costs of a $5.2 million project to modernize the hydropower plant, which was built in the 1930s.
Contracts were also finalized this week with a bevy of water consultants to prepare the next edition of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, which is a more technical version of the state water plan.
The SWSI plan is slated to be finished by December 2017 and is designed to inform regional water plans created by the basin roundtables, known as “basin implementation plans,” as well as provide a base of data for the next version of the more policy-driven Colorado Water Plan.
Also, State Engineer Dick Wolfe informed the CWCB board he’ll be retiring in June 2017 at age 55, after nine years in his role as the state’s top water cop.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best) via The Aspen Daily News:
After several years of warm-and-fuzzy talk, water leaders in Colorado are on the verge of a squabble. At issue is just how much water in the Colorado River remains to be developed and under what terms.
The Continental Divide again divides the protagonists as well as the waters. Two water districts representing the water-rich but more sparsely populated Western Slope in January launched the Joint West Slope Roundtable Risk Study.
The idea, first hatched at a joint meeting in Grand Junction of the four water roundtables on the Western Slope, is that even now, after the drafting of a state water plan, much remains unknown about the Colorado River, the state’s go-to source for both farms and cities.
Front Range water agencies that serve approximately 80 percent of Colorado’s population challenge assumptions that were used in the study. A Nov. 9 letter from James Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water and also president of the Front Range Water Council, expresses “concern” that the assumptions “may be creating biased impressions regarding the amount of the remaining developable water under the compacts.”
Not so, responded Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation district, one of two Western Slope districts to sponsor the study. The other is Durango-based Southwest Colorado Water Conservation District. The initial phase of the study, completed this fall, looked at the risk of water levels in Lake Powell dropping below manageable levels. The river district and other West Slope entities now want to complete additional analysis of numerous supply and demand scenarios.
“The study was never intended to be a water supply availability study and shouldn’t be used in that matter,” Kuhn said. “It’s really no more than a ‘how much might we have to cut back in order to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below dangerously low levels under a number of different demand and hydrology assumptions.’”
Demand reduction would have to be “big” if drought comparable to that of 2002 or that of the mid-1950s revisits the region, he said.
In a Nov. 15 memo, Kuhn took issue with the review of the study by Glenwood Springs-based hydrologist Kerry Sundeen conducted for the Front Range Water Council.
Funding for the study, Sundeen noted in his report, “was not adequate to prepare detailed documentation of the modeling assumptions used in the study, nor the study results.” He described the hydrology and demand assumptions in the study as being in a “narrow range.”
Sundeen’s challenge to the findings came as Western Slope water groups were preparing to seek state funding for the second phase of the study. The application to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy agency, has been delayed until January or March, according to Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District and chair of the Colorado River Roundtable.
Sundeen’s report to the Front Range Water Council also warned of what that next study seeks to do. His memo says the “proposed administrative operations to assure compact compliance could place a disproportionate burden on Colorado River water supply systems essential for meeting demands on the East Slope.”
In his memo, Sundeen also warned that a Western Slope-led study might lead to “confusion as to the state’s position on Colorado River” in negotiations with other states.
Sundeen’s warnings and Lochhead’s protest reveal traditional tensions in Colorado, where 90 percent of the state’s 5.4 million residents live east of the Continental Divide, mostly at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Close to 90 percent of Colorado’s agriculture production also occurs east of the Divide. But 80 percent of the state’s water originates west of the Continental Divide, mostly in the form of snow.
Just how much of Colorado’s water remains available for development is the giant question still dangling in Colorado. The state water plan didn’t seek to answer the question. The official estimate is somewhere between none and 800,000 acre-feet. Independently, Kuhn has estimated 150,000 acre-feet.
What may be more important yet is how much water will be available if drought prevails and if the climate becomes warmer. The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires Colorado and the three other upper-basin states to allow 75 million acre-feet to flow downstream to Lee’s Ferry, at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, in rolling 10-year cycles. Lake Powell has become the bank vault for ascertaining those obligations can be met.
But how much more water can be developed out of the Colorado River without violating compact requirements? In September, at the River District’s annual conference in Grand Junction, Kuhn pointed out that the compact governing water use among the upper-basin states apportions 51 percent of their water (roughly half in the total river) to Colorado. But, in the last 10 years, Colorado has been using 58 percent.
At least two ideas for major water diversions to the Front Range have been introduced in the last decade, one from the Yampa River and the other from Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
The Front Range Water Council was first to register opposition to the Western Slope’s plan to get state funding for a new study.
“We believe these investigations are best conducted in a statewide or upper basin manner with all interested water users represented, rather than by particular sub-regions or individual roundtables,” said Lochhead’s letter.
The letter went on to hint at the depth of concerns. The Western Slope’s proposed second study “proposes to assess various involuntary compact curtailment alternatives that could be imposed on existing uses … ,” Lochhead’s letter stated. “Some of the proposed involuntary curtailment alternatives” in the next study “potentially favor limited special interests.”
Other water providers on the Eastern Slope have also talked about the Western Slope study.
Meeting in Longmont, along the St. Vrain River, the South Platte Basin Roundtable took no formal position because the Colorado River Roundtable’s formal request for state funding had been withdrawn. But speakers, including Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, said that if the study is to be applicable to all of Colorado, then it needs to be a state-supervised study.
In an interview the next day, Joe Frank, chair of the South Platte Roundtable, reiterated the belief that “we need one voice” about Colorado River water.
“I think the metro and the Eastern Slope hopes that state takes the lead in looking at this issue of risk analysis and curtailment and everything,” he said.
He also suggested concerns among existing diverters of Colorado River water about the impact of future diversions.
“They have as much issue with a new transbasin diversion as the Western Slope would,” Frank said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Kevin Fixler):
Even proponents for the first-of-its kind strategy — a non-binding set of goals and guidelines that prepares for the year 2050, when Colorado’s population is anticipated to more than double to 10.5 million — acknowledge it’s gotten off to a slow start. But after all of the excitement, and with it some friction, surrounding the water plan’s unveiling last November, the biggest steps to come revolve around its actual execution…
The water plan calls for some lofty objectives on that 35-year timeline. They include achieving an additional 400,000 acre-feet of urban conservation, attaining that same amount in new storage, and using alternative methods to share 50,000 more acre-feet of water designated for agricultural needs. Such techniques entail approaches like long-term rotational fallowing and short-term leasing and supply agreements to keep the water with farmers and ranchers as needed to continue raising the crops we all eat, but through procedures that also provide for the Front Range’s growing populations as available…
“The ability to lessen the pressure on rivers, and also give agricultural and recreational economies certainty, is some of the biggest value that the water plan provides,” said Sinjin Eberle, communications director of the Intermountain West chapter of water advocacy group American Rivers. “The river connects all of us all across the Southwest. All that water comes from up here, and how we manage it up here sets the tone all the way down the basin.”
Colorado’s water year in 2016 was about average, which experts see as a strong season. Year to year, there can be serious volatility, with the Upper Colorado River Basin — made up of Colorado, Wyoming and parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — seeing record lows over the past 15 years in 2002 and both 2012 and 2013 for water available to the Lower Basin of California and Nevada, as well as the other portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The inflow into northern Arizona’s Lake Powell, where the Colorado River runs before terminating at Mexico’s Gulf of California, is the ultimate determining factor.
Those totals for the past year mean almost nothing for the one upcoming, however, with drought always a possibility in the Southwest. It’s another reason why settling on a comprehensive state plan that satisfies all of its needs, including the recreation and wildlife economies of places like Summit County and throughout the Western Slope, is so pivotal.
“All the reasons we created the water plan a year ago are still prevalent in Colorado,” said Beckwith. “The underlying issue is if we don’t act and we don’t change, we end up drying up our rivers, we don’t provide a sustainable water supply to our cities and we leave agriculture in the dust.”
At present, the biggest strides for the plan have been made with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) producing proposals for the allocation of grant money from its annual Water Supply Reserve Fund. The account, created from legislation passed by the state’s General Assembly in 2006, is spread across various water projects that theoretically align with those goals of the water plan. To date, the fund has provided more than $27.5 million for projects spanning the nine water basins.
The focus of late for how to spend those dollars consists of funding stream management plans and forthcoming water efficiency programs. At its bimonthly meeting in September, the CWCB also updated its eligibility criteria for what qualifies recipients to receive those funds based on a checklist. The focus of this month’s meeting, scheduled for Nov. 16 and 17, will now be on how to carry on financially supporting projects at levels of the past given momentous shortfall in revenues that fund the account.
The Water Supply Reserve is supported by severance taxes produced from energy purchases. With a weighty drop off in production of gas, oil and coal, on top of unremarkable sales, the CWCB will need to come up with a way to backfill millions of dollars in losses in the interim, while also finding a solution for the future, if it hopes to hit some of those targets in the state water plan along the named time frame.
“The funding has just been hammered by low energy prices and cutbacks in productions,” explained the Colorado River District’s Jim Pokrandt. “That’s in the short term. And in the long term, the CWCB will need to come up with a funding stream dedicated to these water projects. Because even with full funding, the fund wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface of some of the work that needs to be done.”
A proposal to help allevaite investment strains includes a loan guarantee fund that would back regional project requests with state dollars to ensure cash advances are obtainable to complete water ventures moving forward. Sales and container taxes, mill levies and water tap fees are other mechanisms the CWCB will explore — all of which would either need to come through possible legislation with the General Assembly or from future voter approval — to come up with the assets needed to resume with the implementation phase of the overall plan. But with both education and infrastructure accounts also impacted by the severance tax downturn and competing for the same funding, no easy answers currently exist.
It’s only after new dollars are discovered that further implementation of the water plan can occur. According to the state water roadmap, that means bolstering those stream management plans and applying additional scrutiny to potential large-scale water developments down the road, if deemed necessary. More emphasis on conservation and increased water efficiency will also be a large part of purported success.
The one thing that is certain, though, is that those who contributed to helping shape the framework of the water plan will keep at it given the promise the state spawned with its release. Holding decision-makers accountable and ensuring the plan does eventually have real impact across Colorado persists as their focus.
“The water plan really does create this full-on recognition that the environment and healthy, flowing rivers are important to Colorado’s brand, to our economy, to us as a state,” said Beckwith. “So many people spent a lot of time working on this plan that no one wants it to just sit on the shelf.”
From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Joey Bunch):
The Colorado Water Conservation Board voted last week to seek the funding in next year’s budget to get going on the $20 billion statewide water plan unveiled a year ago…
At the heart of the plan is the idea of urging state water consumers to wean themselves from about 1 percent of their usage per year.
If all goes well, it’s still a tall order…
Of the $55 million requested for next year, $30 million would go into a loan fund to help cities finance repairs and other projects to help save water, and $25 million would kick-start other parts of the plan.
The budget legislators will consider next session, however, is projected at $28.5 billion, which envisions $500 million in cuts and delayed spending for such programs as transportation, health care and education.
The governor’s budget proposal also calls for the state to hang on to an estimated $32 million in severance taxes from mineral extraction that usually would go to local governments to pay for such projects as water conservation.
Severance taxes have been eyed as a way to pay for a part of the components of the water plan, including replacing leaky pipes, raising the height of dams to expand reservoirs, restoring watersheds and allowing water deals between rural and urban areas to still help preserve agriculture.
The 1 percent statewide water-saving target would represent 130 billion gallons a year, according to the plan. The savings target could eventually accommodate more than 1.1 million additional households, the plan envisions.
The $20 billion price tag includes water projects and river restoration programs across the state by 2050, with most of the money coming from local governments that benefit from individual projects, federal sources, private enterprise and environmental foundations. Statewide, taxpayers are expected to pony up about $3 billion over the next 34 years.
“In my view it’s a really important conclusion that after the first year we have a lot of objectives; we have a good first year of figuring out what we need to do, and now we have a commitment, at least by the board, to start spending resources to implement the plan,” said Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers program director for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates…
“In the world of water, much of the issue is and should be bipartisan,” he said. “If you’re talking about water in the West it feels to me that that’s an issue that transcends individual people or individual parties. It’s kind of a basic thing we all need to work together on.”
Miller and other conservation leaders used the one-year anniversary of the plan’s unveiling to urge leaders to continue to progress, despite short-term budget hurdles.
In addition to the fast expanding state population, climate projections show hotter and drier conditions in the American Southwest, including Colorado, which could lead to more drought.
Abby Burk, Western Rivers Program lead for Audubon Rockies, said that while implementing the plan would not be easy, the issues are pressing.
“Now more than ever, Coloradans must continue to work together for implementation of the plan and reach for smart bold actions now in order to secure our water future for people and the environment,” she said.
Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director with American Rivers, called the sweeping conservation effort “an example of people across Colorado, and across a wide array of interests, coming together to forge this important plan for our state’s water future.
“But any good plan is only as good as its implementation, and now we must urge our leaders to continue working toward fully implementing the principles developed in the final plan.”