@ColoradoStateU: Groundwater pumping drying up Great Plains streams, driving fish extinctions

A Google Earth image of the crop circles in the lower Arikaree River watershed, highlighting the river reaches that were dry (red), disconnected pools (yellow), and flowing (blue) at the lowest water in late summer 2007. Only one segment of 9 miles of flowing river remained as habitat for fish. The river flows from left to right. Image created by Jeff Falke, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University:

Farmers in the Great Plains of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and the panhandle of Texas produce about one-sixth of the world’s grain, and water for these crops comes from the High Plains Aquifer — often known as the Ogallala Aquifer — the single greatest source of groundwater in North America. A team of researchers, including Colorado State University Professor Kurt Fausch and Jeff Falke, a CSU alumnus and an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have discovered that more than half a century of groundwater pumping from the aquifer has led to long segments of rivers drying up and the collapse of large-stream fishes.

If pumping practices are not modified, scientists warn that these habitats will continue to shrink, and the fish populations along with them.

The research team combined modeling from the past and future to assess changes in Great Plains streams and their fish populations associated with groundwater pumping from the High Plains Aquifer. The findings have implications for watersheds around the world, because irrigation accounts for 90 percent of human water use globally, and local and regional aquifers are drying up.

A ‘train wreck’

The Arikaree River in 2000 in early summer, when water is near its maximum extent. Photo: Kurt Fausch

Fausch said the study results are sobering. Based on earlier observations and modeling by Falke and a team of graduate students and faculty at CSU, the Arikaree River in eastern Colorado, which is fed by the aquifer and used to flow about 70 miles, will dry up to about one-half mile by 2045.

“You have this train wreck where we’re drying up streams to feed a growing human population of more than 7 billion people,” Fausch said.

Fausch described the situation as a “wicked problem,” one with no good solution. “More water is pumped out every year than trickles back down into the aquifer from rain and snow,” he said. “We are basically drying out the Great Plains.”

Pumping has dried up streams, small rivers

Since the 1950s, pumping has extracted nearly as much water as what exists in Lake Erie — about 100 trillion gallons — and almost none of it trickles back into the aquifer.

“This pumping has dried up long segments of many streams and small rivers in the region,” Fausch said. From 1950 to 2010, a total of 350 miles of stream dried up in the large area the team studied in eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. “Our models project that another 180 miles of stream will dry up by 2060,” Fausch said.

An orangethroat darter, one of the nine remaining native fish species in the Arikaree River. Photo: Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated.

The loss of fish in the area is also a concern. “What we’re losing are the fishes that require habitat found only in the rivers and large streams of the region, and replacing them with those that can survive in the small streams that are left,” Fausch said. “We are losing whole populations of species from rivers in that region because there’s no habitat for them.”

As an example, seven of the 16 native fish species that were once found in the Arikaree River have disappeared since the first surveys were done in the 1940s. These fish include small minnows, suckers and catfish, species that the CSU scientist said are not among those that are currently federally endangered or threatened, so there’s little regulatory authority to preserve the habitats.

“We’re losing fish that people really don’t know about,” said Fausch. “They are cool and very beautiful, but not charismatic.”

Losing a river means losing more than fishes

Effects from the groundwater pumping will extend beyond the fishes and streams, too. Farmers in that area hope to conserve enough water so that future generations can continue to work on the land. And the everyday places that benefit from water could also disappear.

“If they lose the river, they’ll not only lose fishes, but they’ll also lose water for their cattle, and cottonwoods that provide shade,” Fausch explained. “They also lose the grass that grows in the riparian zone, which is critical forage for cattle in summer. Some of that’s your livelihood, but it’s also the place you go for picnics, and to hunt deer and turkeys. If you lose the river, you lose a major feature of what that landscape is.”

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains aquifer.

Fausch said that there are some signs of progress, despite the grim findings. Local officials have put meters on wells to ensure that farmers pump only the amount of water allowed under their permits. And farmers are always experimenting with new technology that will allow them to optimize the amount of water they use to achieve the highest crop yields, since it takes electricity to pump the water from deep underground and this is an important cost to them. This doesn’t mean that the groundwater levels that feed streams are not declining, but instead are declining at a slower rate than in the past, he said.

Growing dryland crops an option

One additional option, though it might be a hard sell, is for farmers to grow dryland crops, meaning that they rely only on rainfall each year, instead of pumping water. The problem is the crop yields then vary widely from year to year, depending on the rain.

“Every farmer understands that eventually they will no longer be able to afford to pump as much water,” said Fausch. “Farmers are amazing economists. New options such as economical drip irrigation are being discussed, and farmers will likely switch to these options when they become available.”

Fausch, who has studied rivers throughout his entire career, grows wistful when talking about the research. “When we lose these rivers, we will lose them for our lifetime, our children’s lifetime, and our grandchildren’s lifetime,” he said.

Even if all pumping were stopped tomorrow, the aquifer would refill very slowly, over the next 100 years or more, said Fausch. As the groundwater table rose, rivers would start to flow again.

“Groundwater declines are linked to changes in Great Plains stream fish assemblages” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Falke received his doctorate in fisheries biology from CSU in 2009. The research team includes scientists from Kansas State University, Tennessee Technological University, U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Westar Energy and The Nature Conservancy.

Local officials travel to D.C. to lobby for Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site funding

On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Durango Herald editorial board:

Good representatives, at every level of government, are willing to go the extra mile.

In mid-June, Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie, La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake and San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier did just that, both literally and figuratively, by traveling to Washington, D.C. with Ty Churchwell of the Durango office of Trout Unlimited.

Armed with letters and messages from counties and town councils, chambers of commerce and other Animas River stakeholders, their aim was to meet with Environment Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt. Their goal: to lobby for priority status and adequate funding for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund project, now in its investigative stages.

Heading east, the four were worried. While Pruitt had announced that Superfund projects – there are 1,300 across the country – would be a top priority of the agency under the Trump administration, the preliminary 2018 federal budget released in March showed a 25 percent cut in funding for the program.

To their chagrin, the first part of the mission failed. Pruitt was out of the country and could not keep his appointment.

But good representatives are by nature persistent. And optimistic. Instead of a meeting with Pruitt, the four met with eight high-ranking EPA officials and were joined via phone by more staff members in Denver intimately familiar with the Bonita Peak listing.

Churchwell came away convinced that the cleanup and mitigation of acid mine drainage contaminating the headwaters of the Animas River is at the top of the agency’s list.

“The response was that Bonita Peak is a stated priority of the EPA,” he said. “We feel confident that the agency is deeply committed.” More proof of that statement is evident in the work now being done. While many Superfund sites sit idle, Churchwell said, the Bonita Peak project is underway.

That Brookie, Blake and Fetchenhier came away convinced as well is due in no small part to the negative publicity generated by the Gold King Mine spill in August, 2015. The EPA’s role in causing the disaster is well known, and the visitors to Washington were not about to let the agency off the hook. As Brookie reminded EPA staff, “You had your hands on the shovel.”

That played into the other message the group wanted to convey, Churchwell added, that this project can be the agency’s “opportunity to shine, and demonstrate how a federal agency can respond and do it right.”

All indications are that the agency agrees.

Before leaving Washington, the four also met with Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton to ask the trio for a coordinated and united show of support for the project.

We are both fortunate and thankful for the efforts made by our local elected officials to ensure the EPA makes good on the promise the Superfund program holds for a restored Animas River watershed.

Thanks also go to Churchwell for organizing and finding the means to fund the journey; no taxpayer money was used for the trip. In return, he would like to see sustained local interest and community oversight of the project. More opportunities to participate arrive next month with a series of informative meetings followed by a tour of the mining district in September.

We should all capitalize on the momentum generated by the visit; find details at http://wearetheanimas.com.

New manager says public boating, fishing to continue at Lonetree Reservoir

Lonetree Reservoir near Loveland, Colorado | Photo credit photokayaker via Flickr.

From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson) via The Denver Post:

The new lease holder for Lonetree Reservoir says that public access for boating and fishing at the reservoir southwest of Loveland will continue after Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s lease expires.

The state agency that has managed recreation at the reservoir since the 1970s announced last week that it was outbid for the lease, starting in June 2018, and claimed in a news release that public access to the reservoir would end at that time.

Tuesday, Berthoud Heritage Metropolitan District, which won the new lease, announced that they will not only continue to allow fishing and boating but have plans to improve the reservoir. Details of that access and any planned improvements have not yet been released, the district reported in a press release.

“We are thrilled to have been awarded the lease of Lonetree Reservoir,” John Turner, president of the district, said in a press release.

“We will keep this amenity open to the public. We have the resources to improve, manage and maintain this reservoir to an elevated level in which we have not seen with the current lessee.”

Gross Reservoir Expansion Project update

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

From The Summit Daily News (Kevin Fixler):

The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers officially threw its support behind the proposed expansion of Denver Water-owned Gross Reservoir, aka the Moffat Collection System Project, to triple capacity of the storage facility this past Friday. The review process has been nearly a decade and a half in the making as the Front Range tries to keep pace with population and expected water consumption growth by pulling more of the resource off the Colorado River in headwater communities along the Western Slope.

Just to reach the milestone and obtain buy-in from the region, Denver Water spent six years in negotiations with Summit, Grand and Eagle counties and 14 other stakeholders, as well as several other subsidiary entities. The result was the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which gave way to the impacted counties accepting the terms to allow the metro area’s municipal water agency to remove water to which it already owned the rights.

“While some may say 14 years is too long, I believe complicated issues deserve thorough study,” Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO and manager, said in a news release. “In accordance with other agreements we’ve implemented along the way, Denver Water will provide millions of dollars to improve watershed health in the critical Colorado and South Platte River Basins. The project enjoys broad, bipartisan support from lawmakers, major environmental groups, chambers of commerce and water interests on both sides of the Continental Divide.”

An environmental group that does not share in the reverie, however, is Save The Colorado, a nonprofit water advocacy organization against the project to divert 15,000 more acre-feet of water from the Colorado River…

Save The Colorado’s attorneys are presently reviewing the Army Corps’ record of decision in anticipation of a suit to be filed in federal district court in Denver as part of a larger coalition that may include Boulder homeowners who live around the reservoir’s perimeter. A requested injunction may be part of the legal strategy should Denver Water begin construction on the 131-foot heightening of the existing 340-foot dam wall if a few other smaller-scale permits are secured, but the aim is preventing it from ever coming to fruition.

“Our goal is stop the project, not slow it down,” said [Gary] Wockner…

Summit’s Board of County Commissioners believes the complex deal is a fair one, considering what the area’s water future may have looked like without it in place. Aside from other considerations to keep Denver Water’s appetite in check in the years to come, $11 million in cash — $2 million of which has already been paid — will ultimately be split evenly among the county government and its four major towns of Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne for future water and other environmental enhancement projects.

Various county entities, including Summit’s four ski resorts, also stand to receive access to a combined 1,700 acre-feet (approaching 570 millions of gallons) of water annually not previously available out of Denver Water-owned Dillon Reservoir. Grand County is to receive $6 million in payments upon the bypassing of possible legal barriers and final execution of all permits, on top of additional water and adaptive management assistance, while Eagle received some legal assurances of its own.

“This agreement provides for our economy, our environment, our way of life and are things we could have never gotten had we fought Denver Water in court,” said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson. “Denver Water already had these water rights, and that was something we from the Western Slope had to keep reminding ourselves of. Each side had to give up or give in on things they felt very passionately about not wanting to give up.”

With some exceptions, the compromise also better defines Denver Water’s service area to help prevent the expansion of those boundaries and the thirst for even more regional waters. The agency has committed to maintaining conservation activities and increasing reuse of water from the Blue River to reduce the need for more Western Slope water as part of these efforts. A guarantee to hold Dillon Reservoir at an accepted level for ideal aesthetic and recreational purposes from June 18 to Labor Day is a guarantee written into the agreement as well.

With the Army Corps’ endorsement as follow up to a prior certification granted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Division, Denver Water next needs a few remaining approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Forest Service and most likely a permit from Boulder’s Board of County Commissioners.

Denver Water is seeking approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state of Colorado to expand Gross Reservoir, which is southwest of Boulder. The 77,000 acre-foot expansion would help forestall shortages in Denver Water’s water system and offer flood and drought protection, according to Denver Water.

From The Denver Post (Danika Worthington):

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the project, which was approved late Friday, was important to add balance and resiliency to the agency’s system. The dam expansion still needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to increase its hydropower capacity.

“It’s been a long haul,” Denver Water Board President Paula Herzmark said of Friday’s decision. “We are just ecstatic, just elated that this permit is now in place and we can begin. To have the insurance that we’re going to have this additional source of supply as our community grows.”

[…]

Colorado Trout Unlimited was happy with the news. The group has been working with Denver Water to make the project environmentally friendly, Trout Unlimited counsel Mely Whiting said.

The project includes an environmental pool to divert water to streams that need it. It also led to the Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort that brings together groups to monitor stream conditions and quickly take action when needed. Denver Water is also giving about $25 million to Grand County and other counties for environmental advancements…

Lochhead countered that the extra water will be needed as current conservation efforts won’t be enough to cover the growing population and effects of climate change. He added that Denver Water has been working with environmental groups and local and federal governments since the start to not just mitigate damage, but rather improve rivers.

Lochhead acknowledged that the five years of construction will be hefty, especially the three years of intensive concrete placing. He said Denver Water worked with the local residents to mitigate impacts and said an onsite quarry will be built to reduce truck trips.

“With a warming climate and with growth and other issues in our system, we need to make sure that our system is resilient in the long term,” he said.

From The Jackson Hole News & Guide (Allen Best):

Denver Water finally has a key permit that it needed to begin raising Gross Dam, located in the foothills northwest of Denver. The purpose is to triple the amount of water that can be stored there, including greater volumes of water diverted from the Winter Park area.

But the city still needs several more federal permits and may get caught in a legal fight. Unlike some water battles of the past, however, this one will come from elsewhere along the Front Range…

Denver Water has been working on this plan since the great drought of 2002 caused city water officials to realize the vulnerabilities of their system. The agency provides water not only to Denver, but many suburbs — altogether about a quarter of all Colorado residents.

“While some may say 14 years is too long, I believe complicated issues deserve thorough study,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water chief executive.

Denver has diverted water from the Fraser River and its tributaries since 1936 through the pioneer bore of a railroad tunnel under the Continental Divide. The water is impounded at Gross Dam. The dam already stands 340 feet tall, and Denver wants to raise the dam another 131 feet, to accommodate increased diversions.

Grand County, whose water will be diverted, has not opposed the project…

These diversions were mostly engineered in the 1930s. “Denver had a vision; we had none,” summarized Lurline Curran, who is the now-retired county manager of Grand County, at a water conference about a decade ago.

This time, Grand County sat down with Denver and brokered a deal. Denver gets more water, but it also agrees to work with Trout Unlimited and other local groups to try to take the water in ways that are least impactful to fish and other components of the ecosystem.