#Runoff news: The Big Thompson has peaked, Yampa flows too high for tubing

From The Estes Park Trail Gazette (David Persons):

It may not look like it as the Big Thompson River and Fall River continue to race through the middle of town and a very noticeable snowpack still looms in the high country, but experts believe the peak runoff for this current season has just occurred and that we should soon see the water levels dropping.

“Right now what we can say is that it (the seasonal runoff) is comparable with previous years and we are pretty certain that it has already peaked, probably two days ago,” said James Bishop on Wednesday afternoon. Bishop is the Public Involvement Specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Colorado…

The flow of the Big Thompson River at Moraine Park peaked at 755 cubic feet per second (cfs) at 2:15 a.m. Sunday morning. Since then, the flow has dropped significantly to 613 cfs on Monday to 267 cfs by late Wednesday afternoon…

Checking U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources charts finds that the Big Thompson River flow just below Lake Estes peaked at 804 cfs at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday while the Big Thompson River flow at Loveland peaked at 492 cfs at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

From Steamboat Today (Matt Stensland):

It is hot and the river looks tempting, but it is still too early to safely tube the Yampa River…

Not only is the water currently very turbulent, but it is also very cold. Steamboat Flyfisher was reporting a water temperature Wednesday of 54 degrees.

#ColoradoRiver: Forecasted inflows to Lake Mead drop #COriver

Lake Mead from Hoover Dam December 13, 2016.

From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly prediction for Colorado River reservoir levels says the lake could drop to 1,076.53 feet by the end of 2018 or Jan. 1, 2019. That would be a foot and a half above where a Central Arizona Project water shortage would be declared. Last month, the forecast for the end of the year was 1,096.77 feet.

A shortage declaration would cut river water deliveries to Central Arizona farmers and Arizona Water Bank recharge projects. Tucson gets most of its drinking water from CAP but wouldn’t be affected by a shortage declaration at this point — only when and if the lake drops much lower.

The forecast is down sharply from the bureau’s May 2017 prediction because this spring’s river runoff levels are less than expected a few months ago although still above normal. That means the amount of water to be released from Lake Powell downstream to Mead this year won’t be as much as was thought a few months ago. The prospect of lesser releases from Powell has been known for some time, but the 20-foot-decline in the 2019 forecast was just released.

“The severe drop-off in anticipated flows into Lake Mead represents a shocking turn-around in expectations for the near-term health of the great reservoir,” said the Arizona Department of Water Resources in an article on its website.

The abrupt forecast change underscores the need for agreement on a near-term “drought contingency plus” plan for the state to reduce the risk of shortages, Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said Thursday. CAP officials have opposed that plan as unneccessary in light of earlier, more favorable forecasts, leaving negotiations stuck for months. CAP officials weren’t available for comment Thursday on the latest forecast.

At the same time, Mead’s bad January 2019 forecast doesn’t mean an immediate crisis. The forecast doesn’t take into account already planned water conservation efforts by the CAP that, if carried out, will push the lake up by a few feet compared to what the bureau is forecasting, a bureau spokeswoman said.

It does, however, take into account 350,000 acre feet that California users and Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community have pledged to leave in the lake in 2017. Lesser amounts are committed for 2018 and 2019.

The Phoenix City Council added to the conservation push this week by unanimously approving a deal to pay the Gila River Indian Community $2 million to leave 40,000 additional acre feet in the lake for a year. Arizona is spending $2 million. The non-profit Walton Foundation and the Bureau of Reclamation are kicking in another $1 million apiece.

The agreement isn’t a done deal yet because CAP must approve it. But it’s already being hailed by backers as a prime example of how cooperation among users can boost the lake’s levels.

The January 2019 forecast could rise or fall later, depending on the weather over the next 18 months, reclamation officials noted.

“We offer our best projections to help our water users plan, but the hydrology is extremely variable,” bureau spokeswoman Rose Davis said Thursday.

Fountain Creek: CDPHE has stopped testing of Widefield aquifer plume

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

“Pueblo County has not been notified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Environmental Protection Agency or the Air Force that they have stopped monitoring, testing or sampling groundwater to track the plume,” county commissioner Terry Hart said. “If they have indeed stopped, we would most definitely be interested in learning why they stopped.

“Pueblo County is concerned about any and all groundwater contaminants. We are working aggressively to ensure that any waterway, but particularly Fountain Creek, is clean so they can be assets to our community instead of being a problem.”

State tests for PFCs in drinking water have not been done since November 2016, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records show. And CDPHE hasn’t measured PFCs in groundwater since February, the records show.

It’s unclear how far the PFCs contamination has moved in groundwater. Back in April 2016, groundwater samples taken south of Fountain, along Hanover Road north of Pueblo, showed PFC contamination higher than 100 parts per trillion — well above the federal EPA health advisory limit of 70 ppt.

CDPHE officials on Thursday confirmed they stopped sampling water and told The Denver Post that’s because EPA funding that enabled the tests ran out. They could not say whether the agency is still monitoring other contaminated groundwater plumes, such as those spreading PCE from dry cleaning.

“The Water Quality Control Division is not conducting any further PFC sampling. ​We expended the funds from the EPA to complete sampling,” CDPHE spokeswoman Jan Stapleman said.

EPA officials in Denver said state water sampling stopped but that the U.S. Air Force still is monitoring PFCs contamination as part of a military investigation at Peterson Air Force Base. That base is strongly suspected as a source of PFCs, a family of chemicals found in aqueous film-forming foams that firefighters use to douse fuel fires.

Water markets, prior appropriation

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From Water Deeply (Mark Squillace):

AS WESTERN STATES grapple with the best way to allocate dwindling water resources to meet multiple needs, water markets have emerged as one tool. But the idea is not without critics, such as Gary Wockner, who wrote a recent op-ed for Water Deeply about his skepticism that water markets will protect Western rivers.

Wockner raises three concerns with water markets: They commodify nature, there’s a lack of information about how much water they can really save and they skew funding to larger advocacy groups at the expense of others.

I see things differently.

Water markets don’t commodify nature. Rather, it is the prior appropriation system of “first in time, first in right” used through much of the West that gives private water users vested property rights in water. That is the root cause of this problem. It is entirely fair to criticize the prior appropriation system and if we could do it over I would advocate for a temporal permit system that protects the public interest in water from the outset and allows for periodic adjustments to these water permits as new information becomes available as to how to better protect the public interest in water resources. But that is not the world that we live in and it is unrealistic to think that will change – at least in the short term.

When it comes to information, we know enough already to show that the potential for marketing is vast. Current law – not lack of information – is the main obstacle to moving water efficiently. I have written on this topic and so perhaps have my own set of biases, but I believe that incentivizing crop switching, deficit irrigation and rotational fallowing by streamlining water transfers could yield vast quantities of water for new consumptive uses as well as non-consumptive ecological needs.

With regards to funding these projects, we should all be wary of the role that private foundations play in displacing the traditional role of government, ostensibly to promote the public good. And while we should be grateful for the positive work that private foundations have done to benefit our world, we must also acknowledge that private foundations have their own agendas, and their priorities may or may not reflect the public interest as that term might be defined by public agencies.

Nonetheless, so long as government fails or refuses to fund and address public needs adequately, foundations will have an important role to play. That does not mean that we must simply accept the choices that foundations make. On the contrary, we should demand that they be transparent and operate under standards that are fair. But we should judge the work of foundations on the merits and not be unduly suspicious of their motives. (To be clear, my work on water markets has not been funded by private foundations.)

This leads me to the broader point that Wockner raises about the need to reform our laws to protect “the rights of nature.” While I share a passion for protecting the ecological health of our water systems, I am skeptical about the prospects for an Ecuadorian-style constitutional provision.

The good news is we do not need it.

For the most part, we have the tools under our existing law that would allow us to protect the public values associated with water. We just need to use those tools in more creative and effective ways. Most prominently, in every state with positive water law (statutory and constitutional law), water is understood to be public property and, in most states, that translates into a trust responsibility on the part of the state to manage water for the benefit of the public.

Most states further demand that water resources be managed to protect the public interest. (The only state to have denied this responsibility is Colorado – the home state that Wockner and I share.)

Properly understood and properly applied, the public interest/public trust obligation offers the prospect that the communal values in water that we all share – to meet basic human needs, and to protect aesthetic, recreational and ecological needs – must be met first, before private rights are protected. Viewed in this light, and subject to these constraints, water markets are simply a mechanism for reallocating private water rights once public rights have been fully protected.

To be sure, many states have effectively ignored their obligation to manage water resources in the public interest. Other states have defined the public interest in ways that allow for balancing public values with private rights, as if they can be placed on an equal footing. This approach misconceives the nature of the public interest in water resources management. Only by first protecting those shared, communal values in water can we truly protect the public interest.

Rather than chasing a constitutional right of nature that seems unlikely to be realized, we should use the tools that we already have to rethink our approach to managing water resources. This will pose its own serious challenges; but because it is grounded in existing law, it stands a far greater chance of success. Let the hard work begin.