Busy week as CWCB, Colorado Water Congress meet in Denver

The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, in Sept. 2014.
The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in September 2014.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

DENVER – One of the busier weeks in Colorado water policy began this morning as the Colorado Water Conservation Board opened a two-day meeting at the Hyatt Regency hotel in the Denver Tech Center.

The CWCB meeting will be immediately followed at the same hotel by the three-day Colorado Water Congress annual meeting.

All winter water meetings go better with news of a healthy snowpack and this morning the statewide snowpack is at 157 percent of normal, with more snow in the forecast.

The CWCB meeting opened, as usual, with a series of reports from directors, most of whom sit on the board in a non-voting capacity.

Highlights from the report included:

John Stulp, the governor’s point person on water issues, updated the board on the activities of the Interbasin Compact Committee, which last met in November at a larger meeting focused on alternative transfer mechanisms. Stulp reported that having water storage in the right place was seen as key toward making new water leasing arrangements work. (Also see Jan. 2 memo on the IBCC meeting from the Colorado River District);

Stulp also reported on a survey taken in August by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association that showed a third of ag producers are open to new ways of leasing water, another third want more information, and a third are not in favor of it;

Don Brown, commissioner of the Colorado Dept. of Agriculture noted that prices for corn and wheat are down 50 to 60 percent compared to the 1980s but that prices for farm tools are up significantly. He said that a tractor in the 1980s cost $50,000 and today a tractor costs $350,000;

Brown also said that a recent survey showed the people now value ag in Colorado more for the open spaces it preserves than the food it produces, which he suggested means that people need to better understand food production issues;

James Eklund, CWCB director, said that recent efforts to update a treaty minute with Mexico on the Colorado River was not completed by Jan. 20 and that there are “obviously different dynamics at play” under the Trump administration;

Eklund told the CWCB board he has recently taken a leadership position in trying to get water interests on both sides of the Continental Divide to agree on an “risk” study that Western Slope interests are working on to better understand the risk of water levels in Lake Powell dropping below several benchmarks. (For more, see River District memo on the study);

Eklund noted that the System Conservation Pilot program is entering a third year (the program was originally set up for two years) and has $1.8 million to spend this year on paying ranchers and farmers to fallow land and instead send the “saved” water downstream toward Powell;

Eklund said that Kirk Russell, the section chief of CWCB’s finance section, has been named interim deputy director of the CWCB, and that other section chiefs are going to rotate through stints serving as the CWCB’s interim deputy director. Eklund said it was a way to take advantage of the expertise of the agency’s various section chiefs, and that he expected Russel to remain as interim deputy director through the legislative session;

Eklund made a joking reference to “alternative facts” and to statements made by President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday, and said that “facts are important.” He then noted that the CWCB has “great facts” regarding progress being made on new storage facilities in the state and on developing alternative transfer methods, or ways to use ag water for municipal purposes without hurting the ag sector;

Bob Broscheid, the director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, then updated the CWCB board. He said while a big snowpack is a positive in terms of water supply, the deep snow has caused some wildlife in the state to congregate along roads and highways, which can be a hazard to both drivers and the animals;

Broscheid said Parks and Wildlife is considering “baiting operations” to try and encourage the animals to move away from roadways. Those operations are different than “feeding” efforts to try and influence animal populations, and those are under consideration depending on snowpack;

Broscheid said about 1,200 pronghorn antelope were recently seen walking single file along a roadway north toward Wyoming. “They send us wolves and grizzly bears, and we send them antelope,” Broscheid said of Wyoming;

Broscheid also discussed the likelihood of legislation this year that would significantly increase fees charged to Colorado residents for hunting licenses for all species, perhaps as high as nearly 100 percent. “We’ve laid the groundwork” for such an increase, he said, noting there is a need for $38 million a year in the face of state funding challenges;

Broscheid also said the agency is considering charging a new invasive-species-inspection fee for non-motorized watercraft using state reservoirs, including “canoes, kayaks, paddleboards – those kinds of things.” He said there is a working group weighing the issue as part of a fee program (PDF) dedicated to preventing aquatic nuisance species from spreading throughout the state. And he said to date such efforts have been relatively successful;

The meeting then moved into executive session to discuss the following items, per the memo to the board from the attorney general’s office:

Rio Grande Compact Issues

Colorado River Issues; including

• Negotiations on Minute 32X with Mexico
• Drought Contingency Planning
• Glen Canyon Dam Long Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) — Final Record of Decision
• System Conservation Pilot Program

Case No. 14CW3096, Division 5: Application of Stillwater Ranch Open Space Association; and the Busk-Ivanhoe case.

The Stillwater Ranch case is based in Aspen, where a group of landowners are working to solidify diversion rights from the Roaring Fork River. The CWCB is an opposer in the case, which has been set for a trial in March.

The Busk-Ivanhoe case has sent ripples throughout the state, and a number of transmountain diverters are checking to see if their water rights might be impacted by the decision, especially as it relates to decreed storage rights for water from the Western Slope. (Also see recent memo from the legal counsel at the River District on the case.)

#Snowpack news: Gunnison basin and the San Juans tied = 173% of normal

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

And here’s the Westwide basin-filled map from January 21, 2017 from the NRCS. Today’s maps have not updated yet.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 21, 2017 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 21, 2017 via the NRCS.

@COWaterPlan implementation update

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

Engaging with the Colorado River Basin States
CWCB Director James Eklund represents the State of Colorado in water-related discussions with the other six Colorado River Basin states and the federal government. Most recently, he has been working with Colorado’s fellow seven Basin States on drought contingency planning. Efforts within the Upper Basin include negotiation with the Department of the Interior on reservoir optimization to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, exploring the feasibility and opportunities for demand management through voluntary conservation such as the System Conservation Pilot Program, and encouraging additional supply augmentation through weather modification and phreatophyte removal.

In addition, Director Eklund has played an active role in negotiations regarding “Minute 32X,” a sub-agreement to the 1944 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico regarding the waters of the Colorado River. The U.S. and Mexico are seeking a Minute that will extend the environmental protections and infrastructure-maximizing provisions of Minute 319, with new drought response measures that help share the burden of stressed supplies. Discussions will continue through the end of 2017 with Colorado engaged and active at the negotiating table.

Say hello to the first images from GOES-16

Click here to go to the GOES-16 image gallery from NOAA.

Jan 15, 2017 This 16-panel image shows the continental United States in the two visible, four near-infrared and 10 infrared channels on ABI. These channels help forecasters distinguish between differences in the atmosphere like clouds, water vapor, smoke, ice and volcanic ash. GOES-16 has three-times more spectral channels than earlier generations of GOES satellites.
Jan 15, 2017
This 16-panel image shows the continental United States in the two visible, four near-infrared and 10 infrared channels on ABI. These channels help forecasters distinguish between differences in the atmosphere like clouds, water vapor, smoke, ice and volcanic ash. GOES-16 has three-times more spectral channels than earlier generations of GOES satellites.

CPW recycles Christmas trees for fish habitat

Frisco's town Christmas tree is aglow in the holiday season.

From the Longmont Times-Call (Amelia Arvesen):

Rather than running them through a chipper, the sunken trees recycled by Longmont Natural Resources will create habitats for the lake’s fish varieties so they can spawn, hide out and grow to eventually be caught, regional fish biologist Ben Swigle said.

“We kind of know how long an angler can cast their bait, so we set the trees just outside of that distance so lures don’t get snagged in the brush,” he said.

Swigle estimated that crews dropped about 160 trees in McCall and about 70 trees in Golden Ponds No. 2 on Friday. He said next year, they’ll drop trees in other bodies of water before rotating back to replace habitats in the two chosen this year.

“They have a four-year shelf life and then pretty much you’re going to have one big stick,” he said, adding the needles go first before the branches.

Swigle, who said he looks after all public waters between Fort Collins and Boulder up to the Continental Divide, said one bundle of trees could provide habitats for “thousands of small fish or a handful of adults.”

He said they stock McCall — a public 35-acre impoundment located at N. 66th St. and Colo. 66 in Boulder County — with more than 10,000 12-inch catchable fish every spring and fall. It is home to bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish, wiper and trout.

The tree bundles tied to cinder blocks were perched on the shore Thursday, when fisheries technician Alex Wooding said they discovered they’d need to return with boats Friday.

Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):

[Roy] Vaughan’s information confirmed what the directors and audience already knew: the snowpack is super and the water supply in reservoirs way above average. Vaughan wasn’t sure the drought was broken, but Director Leroy Mauch said the breaking of the drought has been announced on the radio. As of January 11, 214,296 acre-feet were stored in the Pueblo Reservoir and 134,442 a/f of project water, 41,694 a/f of excess capacity water, 38,158 a/f of winter water. There are 110,931 a/f of project space in Pueblo and 38,928 a/f of project space in Twin and Turquoise. The collection system has been winterized. Mt. Elbert conduit is presently running 350 cubic feet per second. 205 cfs are moving from Twin to Pueblo. The Bureau intends to move an additional 40,000 a/f from the upper reservoirs. The movement of water will be adjusted according to the forecast and customers’ needs.

Manager Jay Winner is working on pilot programs. In one, some ponds will be sealed to prevent loss through seepage. “We have already shown how much water is lost through evaporation and seepage in present ponds,” said Winner. The base line is established. Another pilot program will test the feasibility of trading water pollution downstream. This may lead to a solution of the problem of certain naturally-occurring pollutants in this area, notably selenium.

Mark Holmberg’s study of hydrology and geospatial analylsis of water table changes in the Lower Arkansas Valley will produce poster-sized maps of the bedrock, alluvial plain and average water levels in the Arkansas River Valley from the Pueblo Reservoir to the Colorado-Kansas Line. His study revealed a drop in water level of approximately 3 percent, presenting figures from 2001, 2008 and 2015. The study is now in the editorial division for finishing touches and will soon be published.

Mike Weber of the LAVWCD gave an overview of conservation trusts. During the year, LAVWCD closed on three easements: Leonard Joseph Proctor, Rex Reyher and Stan Cline. LAVWCD also participated in four easements with the Palmer Land Trust. At the end of 2016, LAVWCD has closed a total of 56 conservation easements (not counting Palmer Land Trust work). LAVWCD now holds easements in the following counties: Bent, Crowley, Custer, Fremont, Huerfano, Otero, Prowers, Pueblo and Teller, and under the following eight ditches/canals: Bessemer, Catlin, Colorado, Fort Bent, Fort Lyon, Highline, Holbrook and Otero.

Conflict of interest — @DenverWater watershed funding for forest health in Boulder County?

St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park
St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park

From the Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan):

Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in the city and county of Denver and surrounding communities, is currently waiting for a permitting decision to be issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir, located in southwestern Boulder County.

The USFS has filed extensive past comments critical of the Gross Reservoir project, but now says all of its concerns about that project have been resolved.

Critics, however, point to a five-year, $4.5 million contract providing Denver Water funding for the original Forsythe project as well as numerous other Colorado forest management efforts — talks are now underway for a new five-year pact for Denver Water to help subsidize projects, including Forsythe II — and they challenge the level of transparency surrounding that wildlands management initiative.

Denver Water touts its relationship with the Forest Service on its website, billed since 2010 as the “From Forests to Faucets” program. That partnership called for Denver Water from 2010 to 2015 to match a $16.5 million investment from the Forest Service, for a total of $33 million, for forest treatment projects seen as critical to protecting water supplies and water quality.

A memorandum of understanding was signed by Denver Water in December for a similar new agreement between the two, setting up a new one-to-one matching effort totaling another $33 million, to cover 2017 to 2021.

The Colorado State Forest Service was also a partner to the previous pact, and will be to its successor, along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Colorado saw a dramatic example of the healthy forests-healthy water link following the June 2002 Hayman fire, which filled Cheesman Reservoir — the oldest reservoir in the Denver Water system — with mud, ash and other debris.

Denver Water was forced to spend more than $27 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, reclamation techniques and infrastructure projects in the wake of the Hayman Fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.

But Magnolia-area resident David Bahr sees the Denver Water-USFS relationship as “absolutely” representing a conflict of interest, specifically as it applies to the controversial Forsythe projects in western Boulder County.

“How can it not be?” Bahr asked. “The fact that (USFA) employees and goods are being paid for by Denver Water means that if they weren’t doing this, those employees wouldn’t be getting paid. The Forest Service has to be aware of this, so it has to influence any decisions that they make.”

Vivian Long, president of the Magnolia Forest Group, has long been vocal in opposition to the original Forsythe project and its planned successor, Forsythe II, which calls for thinning and controlled burns on 2,855 acres of national forest land within the nearly 19,000-acre project area, to be carried out over 10 to 15 years.

“While they’re saying, ‘We’re taking money from Denver Water, but they have no input on what we do,’ I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Long said. “When we have asked about them taking money from Denver Water, they have tried to either downplay it, or deny, or just say they don’t know anything about it. So we’re left wondering, whose opinion is more important here: the public’s or Denver Water?”

Paperwork documenting the Denver Water-USFS relationship was obtained by Magnolia Forest Group member Teagen Blakey through Colorado Open Records Act requests…

Forsythe II critics point out that in March 2010, the Forest Service filed 142 pages of comments on the Gross Reservoir project with the Corps of Engineers highlighting many concerns, including the adequacy of Denver Water’s consideration for habitat and wildlife issues in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

That same year, the Forest Service signed off on the five-year operating plan for Denver Water to pitch in $4,479,251 toward improving forest and watershed health on national forest lands in numerous Colorado watersheds designated as Denver Water “Zones of Concern,” including the St. Vrain Watershed, home to Gross Reservoir.

To date, $660,000 of that Denver Water money has gone toward Forsythe work, according to Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests spokeswoman Tammy Williams.

On Oct. 17, the Forest Service and Denver Water agreed on a lengthy agreement settling any concerns over Gross Reservoir, which it states “resolves all issues raised by the Forest Service during the consultation process” relating to the Gross Reservoir expansion

Clark Chapman, vice president of the Magnolia Forest Group, is among those wondering why the Forest Service is seeming now to soft-pedal habitat concerns around both Forsythe II and Gross Reservoir…

Tammy Williams, the USFS spokeswoman, said there is no conflict of interest inherent in Denver Water’s pushing for Gross Reservoir and funding Forsythe forest work at the same time.

“Gross Reservoir was independently analyzed and considered separate and apart from the Forsythe II project,” she wrote in an email. “These projects are being proposed by different agencies, these are independent processes, with independent timelines and different decision makers.”

[…]

The western half of Gross Reservoir, as it is currently configured, is encompassed by the southeastern corner of the Forsythe II project area. But despite their proximity, the Forest Service maintains that its evaluation of Forsythe II is not influenced by its relationship with Denver Water.