U.S. House set to take up Rep. Scott Tipton’s water rights legislation

Copper Mountain snowmaking via ColoradoSki.com

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

The Water Rights Protection Act, H.R. 2939, will be heard Tuesday in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Tipton’s previous efforts to pass the measure — prompted by the experience of new ownership at Powderhorn Mountain Resort — have passed the House only to become stymied in the Senate.

This time, “I’m cautiously optimistic” that the bill will pass both houses, Tipton said, noting that it has support from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as well as Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming.

The measure would require federal agencies to recognize state water laws and prohibit them from requiring ski resorts to surrender state water rights in exchange for leases to operate on federal lands.

The Forest Service required the new owners of Powderhorn Mountain Resort to surrender water rights they obtained when they took over the resort to get permits to operate the ski area.

“It’s important to codify this” as directives requiring Agriculture and Interior department agencies to obtain water rights and exercise control over groundwater remain on the books in those agencies and can’t be halted without congressional action, Tipton said.

The Water Rights Protection Act would “recognize the longstanding authority of the states relating to evaluating, protecting, allocating, regulating, permitting, and adjudicating water use.”

[…]

“We need to be able to give certainty and stand up for state law, private property rights and the priority-based system” of water law, Tipton said.

#ColoradoRiver: “Our family’s irrigated meadows and livestock operation depend on it” — Paul Bruchez @HighCountryNews

Here’s a look at a collaboration effort to improve the Colorado River near its headwaters from Paul Bruchez writing in The High Country News. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado River runs through the heart of my family’s ranch near Kremmling, Colorado, where I live and work, so we have firsthand knowledge of the importance of water. Our family’s irrigated meadows and livestock operation depend on it, and it’s the common currency of both our local agriculture and recreation economy…

A few years ago, I saw an opportunity to fix our irrigation problems while also improving river and wildlife habitat. My family’s ranch is in one of the most intact traditional agricultural communities remaining in Colorado. Like most ranchers, we’re independent folks. In a pinch, though, we know we can count on each other, so when those of us on the land got together to talk about the river, we agreed on the need for action, and we started looking for partners.

We applied for some grants, and 11 private ranches along with the Bureau of Land Management and a group called Irrigators of Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling, or ILVK for short, received funding for a pilot project to restore a riffle-pool structure on a stretch of the river. It was an exciting start. But given the scale of the problems, we needed to think bigger.

We gradually added a variety of partners, including Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, the Colorado Basin Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Grand County Government, Northern Water, Denver Water, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Upper Colorado River Alliance, the Colorado River District and other river stakeholders.

All of them helped us to see new opportunities and think bigger.

These partners were working to build the Windy Gap reservoir bypass and restore habitat immediately downstream of the reservoir. For our part, the ILVK partners put together an ambitious proposal for restoring a significant stretch of the Upper Colorado River in our valley. All of these were pieces in the larger puzzle of restoring the Upper Colorado River.

Last December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recognized that big vision, awarding the partners $7.75 million under its Regional Conservation Partnership Program. That money will help build the bypass and move forward with the ILVK project, improving irrigation systems and reversing the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Under the plan, the ILVK group will install several innovative in-stream structures designed to improve water levels for irrigation while enhancing critical river habitat by rebuilding riffles and pool structure. Our efforts will have greater impact in concert with our partners’ river projects upstream. A crucial piece will involve restoring approximately one mile of the Colorado River’s former channel currently inundated by Windy Gap Reservoir. This ambitious bypass project will reconnect the river — for the first time in decades — and improve riparian habitat in the headwaters area. An additional project, the Colorado River Habitat Restoration Project, will improve the river channel downstream of the reservoir.

Together with our ILVK Project, these projects, when fully implemented, will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands. They will also make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions.

#Runoff news: Low-head dam hazards

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Alicia Stice):

In the past 10 years, more than 15 people have drowned on the river from various accidents. Lopez’s death was the first in years involving a low-head dam.

These [weirs] dot rivers across the country, including in Fort Collins, where there is one low-head dam every 1.5 to 2 miles along much of the Poudre.

In Colorado, there is no agency in charge of overseeing safety at these dams. Instead, the Division of Water Resources has a team charged with overseeing the risks associated with large dams at sites such as Horsetooth Reservoir that could pose a hazard if they failed, Colorado Division of Water Resources Dam Safety Chief Bill McCormick said.

“I think these are some of the most dangerous type of structures we have in the country because most people are unaware of the dangers,” said Bruce Tschantz, a Knoxville, Tennessee, water resources engineer who has studied low-head dams extensively. “People tend to overestimate their ability to overcome the current and underestimate the dangers.”

General currents upstream and downstream from a low-head dam. Graphic via Bruce a. Tschantz

In much of the country, low-head dams have been in place for more than 100 years to serve now defunct mills. In Colorado, many of these dams are still active, diverting water into irrigation ditches for agricultural use. While the structures are old, the danger is relatively new.

“The problem of safety around them is more a recent phenomenon as people are using the rivers more,” McCormick said.

The dams slow water upstream and divert it away from the main channel. The water that flows over them creates a rapid on the downriver side that mimics the hydraulics of a washing machine. The water can force victims underwater and spin them around, making it nearly impossible to swim back up to the surface.

“These structures are often very deceiving,” said Kenneth Smith, Indiana Department of Natural Resources assistant director…

Simple engineering solutions can make low-head dams built today much safer by breaking up the flow of water as it moves over the dam. Solutions could include a set of concrete stairs or large rocks on the downstream side of the structure. In many cases, those solutions could be added to existing dams, but that can be costly, and it can be difficult to track down the owners of these century-old structures.

Poudre Fire Authority has been in discussions about what might be done to make sure people know about the dangers of the dams, including the possibility of installing signs along the river warning people of where they are.