@Colorado_TU: Colorado River restoration project secures $7.75 million grant

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Here’s the release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Drew Peternell, Matt Rice, Paul Bruchez):

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today announced $7.75 million in funding for an ambitious slate of projects to address the impacts on the Colorado River of trans-mountain diversions of water from the West Slope to the Front Range. Fisheries conservation group Trout Unlimited is the lead partner on the grant application.

The Colorado River Headwaters Project received $7,758,830 from the NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to improve irrigation systems and reverse the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Led by an array of partners representing conservation interests, agriculture, local government, water providers, state agencies, and landowners, the Headwaters Project will create a bypass channel to reconnect the Colorado River at Windy Gap Reservoir, make channel and habitat improvements downstream of the bypass near Kremmling, Colorado, and improve irrigation systems as well as soil and water quality.

When fully implemented, the Headwaters Project will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands that provide sage grouse habitat and make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions.

“This is a huge win for the Colorado River,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project. “We’re seeing an exciting and ambitious conservation vision for the upper Colorado become reality. With this funding, we’ll be able to put the ecosystem pieces of the upper Colorado River back together and restore the river and its trout fishery to health.”

“The Colorado River Headwaters Project is a great example of how municipal water providers, ranchers, conservation organizations and others can work together to restore an important reach the Colorado River for both the environment and agricultural operations with benefits downstream,” said Matt Rice, director of American River’s Colorado River Basin Program. “A collaboration like this would have been unheard of 10 years ago. It’s a win for everyone in Colorado.”

At present, transmountain diversions divert over 60 percent of the upper Colorado River’s native flows across the Continental Divide for use in the Front Range and northern Colorado. The resulting low flows in the river have seriously undermined the operations of irrigation systems and the health of the Colorado River in the project area. Low flows make it difficult for irrigators to divert water, especially during drought, and also raise water temperatures and hamper the river’s ability to transport sediment, leading to sediment buildup on the riverbed that degrades aquatic habitat.

Local ranchers wanted to address these irrigation problems as well as river health, said Paul Bruchez, a Kremmling-area rancher who organized his neighboring landowners into the Irrigators of Land in Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) group, a key project partner. The project will install several innovative instream structures designed to provide adequate water levels for irrigation while also improving critical fish habitat. This will be the first project in the country to demonstrate these stream engineering practices on a significant scale.

“This news is life-changing for the headwaters of the Colorado River and those who rely on it,” said Bruchez. “Years ago, water stakeholders in this region were at battle. Now, it is a collaboration that will create resiliency and sustainability for the health of the river and its agricultural producers. Healthy ranches need healthy rivers, and the RCPP funding will help sustain both.”

The Windy Gap Reservoir bypass and the Kremmling area river improvements address several pieces of the puzzle in a long-term, regional effort to restore the upper Colorado River. Other pieces include agreements that TU helped negotiate with Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water District that contained significant river protections as well as an innovative, long-term monitoring and adaptive management process (called “Learning by Doing”) that requires stakeholders to work together to ensure the future health of the river.

That progress and collaboration is all the more remarkable coming after years of conflict between West Slope interests and conservation groups concerned about the health of the river, and Front Range water providers seeking to divert more water across the Divide.

“What’s happening on the upper Colorado shows that water users can work together to ensure river health while meeting diverse uses,” said TU’s Peternell. “This project is a model of what cooperation and collaboration can achieve in meeting our water challenges in Colorado and the Colorado River Basin.”

Other Headwaters Project partners who will provide assistance include the ILVK, Northern Water Conservation District, Denver Water, Colorado River Conservation District, Middle Park Soil Conservation District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Grand County, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

#Drought news: Recent snowfall = no change in depiction for Colorado

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:


Streaks of heavy precipitation fell from the Ohio Valley into the Northeast and across the lower Southeast. Stormy weather also prevailed in the West, particularly in California and southwestern Oregon—but also extending inland to the Rockies. Amid the active weather pattern, an Arctic outbreak peaked on December 17-18, sending temperatures as low as -40°F across northern portions of the Plains and Intermountain West and below 0°F as far south as the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas…

The Plains

With much of the region heading into a “deep freeze” during the weekend of December 17-18, there were only small changes in the drought depiction. Much of the nation’s mid-section received snow in advance of the Arctic outbreak, but liquid totals were relatively light in areas affected by dryness and drought. In the last week, some of the most significant deterioration was noted in eastern Oklahoma and neighboring areas, where drought signals were apparent in both long- and short-term indicators and where both agricultural and hydrological impacts continue to mount. The Arctic outbreak resulted in a multitude of daily-record lows, shortly after a brief burst of warmth had spread across the southern Plains. In South Dakota, consecutive daily-record lows were set on December 17-18 in locations such as Aberdeen (-32 and -37°F); Watertown (-29 and -37°F); and Mobridge (-28 and -26°F). Other places on the Plains setting consecutive record lows included Valentine, Nebraska (-27 and -31°F); Pueblo, Colorado (-19°F both days); Tribune, Kansas (-14 and -13°F); and Dalhart, Texas (0 and -8°F). Dalhart’s record-setting lows followed a daily-record high of 73°F on December 16. Similarly and elsewhere in Texas, December 16 daily-record highs of 85°F in Childress, 78°F in Lubbock, and 76°F in Borger were followed 2 days later by daily-record lows of 7°F, 4°F, and -3°F, respectively…

The West

Recent colder storms have significantly improved Western snowpack, especially across the northern Great Basin, Intermountain West, and Pacific Northwest. As a result, areas where the heavy snow has overlapped with dryness or drought—such as northwestern Wyoming and parts of Utah—have experienced some improvement—although it is still early in the season. Meanwhile, California weathered some impressive storminess, although high-elevation snowpack continues to lag normal for this time of year. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the average water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack stood at 5 inches on December 20—roughly two-thirds of average but less than 20% of the typical April 1 peak. At the same time, basin-average precipitation since October 1 in the Sierra Nevada watersheds has totaled roughly 150 to 200% of normal. Some of the discrepancy is due to the barrage of “warm” storms that hit northern California during October. Despite the lagging snowpack, there has been ongoing drought recovery in much of northern California. Areas not dependent on snowpack, such as California’s northern coastal ranges, have seen the greatest recovery from long-term drought. Even before December’s precipitation, California’s 154 reservoirs held 18.5 million acre-feet of water by November 30, an improvement of nearly 7.6 million acre-feet from a year ago. The end-of-November statewide storage was 88% of the historic average (for this time of year) of 21.1 million acre-feet…

Looking Ahead

Mild weather will continue in many areas of the U.S., following the recent cold snap. During the weekend, however, colder air will engulf the West and return to the northern High Plains. For Thursday, precipitation highlights will include light snow spreading into the Northeast and rain developing in the Southwest. Precipitation associated with the Southwestern storm will overspread portions of the southern and eastern U.S. by Saturday. Meanwhile, a much more potent storm should arrive in northern California on Friday and reach the central High Plains by Christmas Day. Significant precipitation, including high-elevation snow, should occur throughout the West. Wind-driven snow can be expected late in the holiday weekend across the northern and central Plains and upper Midwest.

The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for December 27 – 31 calls for the likelihood of below-normal temperatures in the West, while warmer-than-normal weather should prevail across the South, East, and lower Midwest. Meanwhile, near- to above-normal precipitation in most of the country will contrast with drier-than-normal conditions across the lower Southeast and portions of the Rockies and High Plains.

#Snowpack news: “I always caution people…the only numbers that count are at the end of April and early May” — Marty Coniglio

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map via the NRCS.

From 9News.com (Maya Rodriquez):

Expected snow in the mountains this weekend means the potential for improvement in the state’s snowpack numbers — and it’s already picking up from what we saw earlier this month.

“We were looking at snowpack of about 20 to 25 percent of average. In the past couple weeks, things have started to shift. We started to see a little bit more an accumulation of snow in the high country and that’s really helped to boost those numbers,” Becky Bolinger, Colorado Climate Center Climatologist, told 9NEWS earlier this month.

At the start of December, Colorado’s statewide snowpack numbers averaged about 61-percent.

“It was extraordinarily dry, starting in August,” said 9NEWS meteorologist Marty Coniglio. “August 1st was when things dried up and that stayed the case, really through November and we have turned on the spigot in a big way here in December.”

What a difference it’s made: our snowfall of late is pushing the state’s snowpack to above average: 103-percent.

So what changed? The emergence of La Nina, which is a cooling of the waters in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator.

“La Nina is very much different, where you can be drier at the beginning, drier at the end of the season and then right in the heart of the winter, December/January/February, you have the solid flow from the jet stream and you get more consistent storms – not necessarily huge storms, but more consistent and more reliable,” Coniglio said.

That is good news for the state’s water supply, which relies on snow runoff in the spring to feed reservoirs tapped in the summer.

“I always caution people, though – the only numbers that count are at the end of April and early May. Those are really the only numbers that matter because that’s when the snowmelt begins,” Coniglio said, adding, “As long as you get enough during the winter season, you build up a big reserve, and you don’t melt it off too soon or too fast, you’re still in good shape for the summer.”



Wilderness Workshop is now an objector in Aspen reservoir diligence case

Site map for the proposed reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks via Robert Garcia and The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
Site map for the proposed reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks via Robert Garcia and The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

Here’s the release release from Wilderness Workshop via The Aspen Times:

Wilderness Workshop filed a statement of opposition Wednesday to the city of Aspen’s preliminary intent to build reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks, the Carbondale conservation group announced.

The nonprofit joins Pitkin County in opposition to damming the two streams to conserve water for future use. County commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to file a statement of opposition in District 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs.

“We applaud the city for its record of environmental stewardship and commitment to studying alternatives to building dams in two of Colorado’s most iconic valleys,” said Conservation Director Will Roush in a statement. “The water court process includes a pretrial settlement period which provides an excellent opportunity for us to work with the city to find a solution that both protects these two creeks and ensures Aspen has a long term, reliable water supply.”

Wilderness Workshop said building the two reservoirs would “flood portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and cause significant ecological damage to the two creeks. … The city’s conditional water rights can be used only for construction of the two dams to store water. They offer no legal protections for the two creeks. Wilderness Workshop supports increasing protections for the two creeks, including an increase in the minimum in-stream flow to include spring peak flows.”

Aspen City Council voted Oct. 10 to renew its conditional water rights on the two rivers. Its filing was made Oct. 31 in water court.

Elected officials and city officials have maintained they must renew the water rights in preparation for 50 years from now when Aspen’s population could be nearly triple what it is today, as well as climate change’s impact on the water supply. Both Maroon and Castle creeks supply the city’s drinking water.

On Monday, the city announced that it is open to exploring alternatives to reservoirs.

New Mexico acequias to benefit from $225 million water infrastructure bill

An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The federal government will spend nearly a quarter-billion dollars to finance several dozen projects aimed at easing the effects of drought in the western U.S. and restoring watersheds that provide drinking water to communities around the nation, officials announced Wednesday.

The $225 million in funding will be shared among 88 projects, from California’s Central Valley to centuries-old irrigation systems in northern New Mexico and thousands of square miles of fragmented streams in Maine. More than half of the projects specifically address drought and water quality.

Jason Weller, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the federal funding will also generate $500 million more in spending for the projects that will be provided by state, local and private partners.

“That’s important for us because no one organization has the boots on the ground, the financial resources, the technical expertise needed to deal with drought, invasive species, invasive weeds, be more energy efficient and improve the health of their forests,” he said. “It’s really incumbent upon us all to work smarter and more effectively together.”

Weller pointed to the tens of millions of trees that have died in California due to the epic drought there and other challenges faced by communities bordering public and private forests that are overgrown and unhealthy. He said the dry conditions are putting pressure on watersheds and their ability to provide abundant and clean water.

The funding also is aimed at tackling flooding problems in places such as Merced County, California, where storm runoff in recent years has forced road closures and damaged prime agricultural land.

Officials say $10 million will go toward the design and construction of a system that will better capture and use snowmelt and precipitation from foothills while protecting infrastructure in the county.

Local partners are expected to triple the federal investment in the project.

Nearly $18 million is dedicated to projects in New Mexico, where Hispanic families have been using acequias, or earthen canals, for centuries to water their crops.

Acequias are located in 12 of the most impoverished counties in New Mexico and many need repairs. Supporters say revitalization of the historic irrigation systems are a matter of social and environmental justice because of their cultural and spiritual importance for the region.

Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos
Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos

In Maine, $6 million is being invested in a restoration project that spans 25,000 square miles. The goal is to reconnect some of the state’s high-value aquatic networks that have been damaged by roads and vehicles. The Nature Conservancy group and 18 other partners will be working on that project.

In all, the regional conservation program has invested $825 million in nearly 300 projects around the country over the last three years. The program was created by the 2014 Farm Bill.