#Drought/#snowpack news: It was a dry week for the Nation as a whole, sorry #Colorado

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

Summary

It was a dry week for the Nation as a whole. Widespread heavy precipitation was restricted to the central and northern West Coast from the Cascades and northern Sierra Nevada westward. A few patches near the coast recorded 6 to 12 inches of precipitation. Across the remainder of the contiguous states, only a few small areas reported over 1.5 inches, with most locations observing little or none. As a result, short-term dryness continued to develop and expand across the south-central and southeastern U.S. as 30- to 90-day precipitation deficits continued to steadily increase, overcoming the wet weather that had squelched dryness impacts in much of these regions several months ago…

High Plains

Cold weather, accompanied by little or no precipitation, kept dryness and drought unchanged across the Dakotas and Montana, with extreme drought persisting in portions of western South Dakota and northeastern Montana…

West

Dryness continued to slowly improve east of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, eliminating D1 in north-central Washington and restricting D0 to areas recording less than 1.5 inches of precipitation during the past 30 days. Farther south, no measurable precipitation has fallen for at least the last 30 days on the central and western Four Corners States, Nevada, and the southeastern half of California. This is not unusual here in late autumn, and while notable impacts are lacking, increasingly impressive dryness over the past few months induced some D0 expansion in southeastern Monterey County, CA and in the drier areas of southwestern Utah, southeastern Nevada, and part of southeastern California…

Looking Ahead

During the next 5 days (November 16-20), Moderate precipitation at best is expected for most of the country. Amounts of 0.5 to locally approaching 2.0 inches are expected in the Northeast, the northern and central Appalachians, the eastern Great Lakes, and the central and northern sections of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Farther west, more than 0.5 inch is forecast from the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades westward to the Pacific Ocean, with heavy amounts anticipated in the typical orographically-favored areas, specifically along the coast and on the windward (western) slopes of the mountains. Between 5.0 and 8.5 inches could fall on the Washington Cascades, northwestern Washington, the northwestern and west-central California Coast, and the Sierra Nevada. In addition, 0.5 inch or more is expected in some of the higher elevations of western Colorado, western Wyoming, central and north-central Utah, northeastern Nevada, and parts of Idaho. Isolated amounts of 2.0 to 4.5 inches could be dropped on the highest elevations and windward slopes.

During the 6-10 day period (November 21-25), odds favor above-median precipitation only across the Florida Panhandle, the northern Intermountain West, and the northern half of the West Coast States. Below-median precipitation is anticipated elsewhere except in the southern half of the High Plains, the northern Plains, most of the Great Basin, and the Southwest, where neither abnormal wetness nor dryness is favored. Warmer than normal weather is expected from the Pacific Coast eastward into the upper Mississippi Valley, the central Great Plains, and central Texas, with subnormal temperatures favored in most areas from the eastern Great Lakes and southern half of the Mississippi Valley eastward to the Atlantic Coast.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map November 16, 2017 via the NRCS.

@ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

Upper Colorado River Basin month to precipitation through November 13, 2017 via the Colorado Climate Center

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

Jerry Sonnenberg awarded Colorado Livestock Association’s Legislator of the Year Award

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, the Republican who represents Senate District 1 of northeast Colorado, told the Colorado Livestock Association’s Northeast Livestock Symposium on Tuesday that he’ll work to keep the Environmental Agricultural Program alive because it gives agriculture a voice in state environmental concerns.

The program, administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, oversees air and water quality protection regulations specific to animal feeding operations. That includes permitting, conducting site inspections, developing and implementing policies and regulations, providing technical assistance and initiating enforcement actions in coordination with the CDPHE’s Air and Water Quality divisions.

“A lot of people thought, when this program started, that it was just another way for CDPHE to hammer on us, and that’s why it’s sunsetted,” Sonnenberg said. “But it’s turned out to be one of those programs that actually uses a lot of common sense, and it gives (livestock producers) a voice when it comes to making regulations and policies.”

The senator said that, with the program’s track record, there is talk of removing the sunset requirement of the program, or at least moving it to a seven-year interval, and that he would support that move.

The legislature also will likely get involved with the Gilcrest high water table problem, which is causing property damage in and around Gilcrest as well augmentation practices — necessary to maintain the health of the South Platte River aquifer — have raised the water table during the irrigation season. A pilot program allows irrigators to pump without augmenting locally, but putting water in the river from other sources.

Sonnenberg said it might be better to store the augmentation water in reservoirs further away from Gilcrest so release of the water into the river can be better timed to the need for water downstream…

Sonnenberg said that, while he remains absolutely committed to the ideals and values of the Republican party, there is a certain efficiency and effectiveness that comes from split ownership of the General Assembly. He said it tends to moderate the extremes on both sides of the aisle in both houses and forces members of the parties to work together. The senator said he didn’t see the balance changing much in the 2018 elections.

And, he said, as long as he is in the legislature, he will represent all of agriculture…

Because of that representation, Sonnenberg was later awarded the Colorado Livestock Association’s Legislator of the Year Award for his work on behalf of farming and ranching families and the industries that support them.

“Senator Jerry Sonnenberg is a real-life farmer and rancher who has a deep-rooted understanding of and passion for agriculture in Colorado. This is most evident in his actions as he represents not just his constituents in Senate District One, but all of Colorado agriculture in carrying out his duties in the Colorado Senate,” Bill Hammerich, CEO of Colorado Livestock Association, said in an announcement. “Because of his commitment to and support of agriculture in the legislative arena the Colorado Livestock Association is proud to recognize Senator Jerry Sonnenberg as the CLA 2017 Legislator of the Year.”

Algae bloom primer

Satellite imagery of a toxic algal bloom on Lake Erie in 2011. The image is gorgeous, but microcystis aeruginosa, the green algae pictured here, is toxic to mammals.
NASA Earth Observatory via Popular Science.

From the Associated Press (John Flesher) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

Harmful algae blooms have become a top water polluter, fueled by fertilizers washing into lakes, streams and oceans. Federal and state programs have spent billions of dollars on cost-sharing payments to farmers to help prevent nutrient runoff, yet the problem is worsening in many places. Here’s a look at the algae menace and what’s being done:

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ANCIENT ORGANISMS, NEW THREAT

Among the oldest life forms, algae are simple aquatic plants that form key links in food chains. Some types of bacteria are also considered algae, including cyanobacteria, or “blue-green algae,” which is increasingly common across the U.S.

Scientists believe a combination of factors can trigger large blooms, including warm temperatures, slow water circulation and excessive nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus. Among nutrient sources are runoff from farms and urban lawns as well as industrial wastes and sewage.

Some blooms generate toxins such as microcystin, which can cause nausea, fever and liver damage in humans and kill animals. A federal study detected microcystin in nearly 40 percent of lakes sampled around the nation, although mostly at below-harmful levels. Even when blooms aren’t toxic, they can turn waters ugly shades of green or other colors, stink like rotten vegetables, foul beaches and kill fish by sucking oxygen from the water as they decompose.

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A WORLDWIDE PROBLEM

The U.S. isn’t alone.

Many countries are experiencing “disturbing trends of increasing bloom incidence” and growing economic losses, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.

China’s largest blooms on record washed onto beaches in 2013 from the Yellow Sea, as bulldozers scraped up rotting mats by the ton. A bloom the size of Mexico spreads across the Arabian Sea twice a year.

In Australia, blue-green algae extended more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) on the Murray River in 2016.

A European Commission study says blooms in Greece, Italy and Spain cost the economy $355 million (300 million euros) annually.

University of Alberta researchers say microcystin has been detected in more than 240 Canadian water bodies. Lake Winnipeg algae blooms are so large that they’re visible from space.

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IS CLIMATE CHANGE BEHIND THIS?

Many scientists believe global warming is making conditions more favorable for algae blooms, primarily by raising water temperatures and causing heavier rainstorms that wash more nutrients into waterways.

A study in the journal Science this year said nitrogen runoff into lakes, rivers and bays could increase 19 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising.

Climate change research in the journal Environmental Science and Technology predicts the number of days U.S. reservoirs are infected with blue-green blooms could triple by 2050.

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PLAYING CATCH-UP

Congress first enacted legislation to deal with harmful algae in 1998 and has updated it several times, with another version pending. Critics say it’s too little and too slow.

A White House report last year said progress had been made in forecasting blooms and issuing warnings. The Governmental Accountability Office said 12 agencies had spent $101 million on studies and monitoring between 2013 and 2015.

But only in 2014 was the law updated to make inland waters a priority; the focus previously had been on coastal areas and the Great Lakes. Even then, no funding was included for inland water study.

And the law sidesteps the nutrient runoff problem, with no limits and no enforcement provisions.

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WHAT ABOUT GOVERNMENT CONSERVATION MEASURES?

The Associated Press obtained data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the costliest of several programs that help farmers avoid pollution.

The agency awarded $1.8 billion between 2009 and 2016 for use of 45 practices intended to prevent fertilizer runoff.

The five most heavily funded included upgrading irrigation systems; managing brush growth; planting “cover crops” in fall and winter that hold soil in place and absorb fertilizers; stabilizing erosion-prone areas used by livestock; and developing plans for applying fertilizer in ways that will minimize runoff. Another popular measure is planting grass or other vegetation between croplands and streams.

Farmers in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Nebraska were pledged the most funding between 2009 and 2016.

Farmers in Sussex County, Delaware, a top chicken-producing area, received $17 million over the seven years, the most of any U.S. county.

View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)

From the Associated Press (John Flesher and Angeliki Kastanis) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

Competing in a bass fishing tournament two years ago, Todd Steele cast his rod from his 21-foot motorboat — unaware that he was being poisoned.

A thick, green scum coated western Lake Erie. And Steele, a semipro angler, was sickened by it.

Driving home to Port Huron, Michigan, he felt lightheaded, nauseous. By the next morning he was too dizzy to stand, his overheated body covered with painful hives. Hospital tests blamed toxic algae, a rising threat to U.S. waters…

He recovered, but Lake Erie hasn’t. Nor have other waterways choked with algae that’s sickening people, killing animals and hammering the economy. The scourge is escalating from occasional nuisance to severe, widespread hazard, overwhelming government efforts to curb a leading cause: fertilizer runoff from farms.

Pungent, sometimes toxic blobs are fouling waterways from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay, from the Snake River in Idaho to New York’s Finger Lakes and reservoirs in California’s Central Valley.

Last year, Florida’s governor declared a state of emergency and beaches were closed when algae blooms spread from Lake Okeechobee to nearby estuaries. More than 100 people fell ill after swimming in Utah’s largest freshwater lake. Pets and livestock have died after drinking algae-laced water, including 32 cattle on an Oregon ranch in July. Oxygen-starved “dead zones” caused by algae decay have increased 30-fold since 1960, causing massive fish kills. This summer’s zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the biggest on record.

Tourism and recreation have suffered. An international water skiing festival in Milwaukee was canceled in August; scores of swimming areas were closed nationwide.

Algae are essential to food chains, but these tiny plants and bacteria sometimes multiply out of control. Within the past decade, outbreaks have been reported in every state, a trend likely to accelerate as climate change boosts water temperatures.

“It’s a big, pervasive threat that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to solve,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan environmental scientist. “If we increase the amount of toxic algae in our drinking water supply, it’s going to put people’s health at risk. Even if it’s not toxic, people don’t want to go near it. They don’t want to fish in it or swim in it. That means loss of jobs and tax revenue.”

Many monster blooms are triggered by an overload of agricultural fertilizers in warm, calm waters, scientists say. Chemicals and manure intended to nourish crops are washing into lakes, streams and oceans, providing an endless buffet for algae.

Government agencies have spent billions of dollars and produced countless studies on the problem. But an Associated Press investigation found little to show for their efforts:

—Levels of algae-feeding nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are climbing in many lakes and streams.

—A small minority of farms participate in federal programs that promote practices to reduce fertilizer runoff. When more farmers want to sign up, there often isn’t enough money.

—Despite years of research and testing, it’s debatable how well these measures work.

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DEPENDING ON FARMERS TO VOLUNTEER

The AP’s findings underscore what many experts consider a fatal flaw in government policy: Instead of ordering agriculture to stem the flood of nutrients, regulators seek voluntary cooperation, an approach not afforded other big polluters.

Farmers are asked to take steps such as planting “cover crops” to reduce off-season erosion, or installing more efficient irrigation systems — often with taxpayers helping foot the bill.

The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, says it has spent more than $29 billion on voluntary, incentive-based programs since 2009 to make some 500,000 operations more environmentally friendly.

Jimmy Bramblett, deputy chief for programs, told AP the efforts had produced “tremendous” results but acknowledged only about 6 percent of the nation’s roughly 2 million farms are enrolled at any time.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency provided data about its biggest spending initiative, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, which contracts with farmers to use pollution-prevention measures and pays up to 75 percent of their costs.

An AP analysis shows the agency paid out more than $1.8 billion between 2009 and 2016 to share costs for 45 practices designed to cut nutrient and sediment runoff or otherwise improve water quality.

A total of $2.5 billion was pledged during the period. Of that, $51 million was targeted for Indiana, Michigan and Ohio farmers in the watershed flowing into western Lake Erie, where fisherman Steele was sickened.

Yet some of the lake’s biggest algae blooms showed up during those seven years. The largest on record appeared in 2015, blanketing 300 square miles — the size of New York City. The previous year, an algae toxin described in military texts as being as lethal as a biological weapon forced a two-day tap water shutdown for more than 400,000 customers in Toledo. This summer, another bloom oozed across part of the lake and up a primary tributary, the Maumee River, to the city’s downtown for the first time in memory.

The type of phosphorus fueling the algae outbreak has doubled in western Lake Erie tributaries since EQIP started in the mid-1990s, according to research scientist Laura Johnson of Ohio’s Heidelberg University. Scientists estimate about 85 percent of the Maumee’s phosphorus comes from croplands and livestock operations.

NRCS reports, meanwhile, claim that conservation measures have prevented huge volumes of nutrient and sediment losses from farm fields.

Although the federal government and most states refuse to make such anti-pollution methods mandatory, many experts say limiting runoff is the only way to rein in rampaging algae. A U.S.-Canadian panel seeking a 40 percent cut in Lake Erie phosphorus runoff wants to make controlling nutrients a condition for receiving federally subsidized crop insurance.

“We’ve had decades of approaching this issue largely through a voluntary framework,” said Jon Devine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Clearly the existing system isn’t working.”

Farmers, though, say they can accomplish more by experimenting and learning from each other than following government dictates.

“There’s enough rules already,” said John Weiser, a third-generation dairyman with 5,000 cows in Brown County, Wisconsin, where nutrient overload causes algae and dead zones in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. “Farmers are stewards of the land. We want to fix the problem as much as anybody else does.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says indirect runoff from agriculture and other sources, such as urban lawns, is now the biggest source of U.S. water pollution. But a loophole in the Clean Water Act of 1972 prevents the government from regulating runoff as it does pollution from sewage plants and factories that release waste directly into waterways. They are required to get permits requiring treatment and limiting discharges, and violators can be fined or imprisoned.

Those rules don’t apply to farm fertilizers that wash into streams and lakes when it rains. Congress has shown no inclination to change that.

Without economic consequences for allowing runoff, farmers have an incentive to use all the fertilizer needed to produce the highest yield, said Mark Clark, a University of Florida wetland ecologist. “There’s nothing that says, ‘For every excessive pound I put on, I’ll have to pay a fee.’ There’s no stick.”

Some states have rules, including fertilizer application standards intended to minimize runoff. Minnesota requires 50-foot vegetation buffers around public waterways. Farmers in Maryland must keep livestock from defecating in streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay, where agriculture causes about half the nutrient pollution of the nation’s biggest estuary.

But states mostly avoid challenging the powerful agriculture industry.

Wisconsin issues water quality permits for big livestock farms, where 2,500 cows can generate as much waste as a city of 400,000 residents. But its Department of Natural Resources was sued by a dairy group this summer after strengthening manure regulations.

The state’s former head of runoff management, Gordon Stevenson, is among those who doubt that the voluntary approach will be enough to make headway with the algae problem.

“Those best-management practices are a far cry from the treatment that a pulp and paper mill or a foundry or a cannery or a sewage plant has to do before they let the wastewater go,” he said. “It’s like the Stone Age versus the Space Age.”

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QUESTIONABLE RESULTS

Do the anti-pollution measures subsidized by the government to the tune of billions of dollars actually work?

Agriculture Department studies of selected watersheds, based largely on farmer surveys and computer models, credit them with dramatic cutbacks in runoff. One found nitrogen flows from croplands in the Mississippi River watershed to the Gulf of Mexico would be 28 percent higher without those steps being taken.

Critics contend such reports are based mostly on speculation, rather than on actually testing the water flowing off fields.

Although there is not a nationwide evaluation, Bramblett said “edge of field” monitoring the government started funding in 2013 points to the success of the incentives program in certain regions.

Federal audits and scientific reports raise other problems: Decisions about which farms get funding are based too little on what’s best for the environment; there aren’t enough inspections to ensure the measures taken are done properly; farm privacy laws make it hard for regulators to verify results.

It’s widely agreed that such pollution controls can make at least some difference. But experts say lots more participation is needed.

“The practices are completely overwhelmed,” said Stephen Carpenter, a University of Wisconsin lake ecologist. “Relying on them to solve the nation’s algae bloom problem is like using Band-Aids on hemorrhages.”

The AP found that the incentives program pledged $394 million between 2009 and 2016 for irrigation systems intended to reduce runoff — more than on any other water protection effort.

In arid western Idaho, where phosphorus runoff is linked to algae blooms and fish kills in the lower Snake River, government funding is helping farmer Mike Goodson install equipment to convert to “drip irrigation” rather than flooding all of his 550 acres with water diverted from rivers and creeks.

But only 795 water protection contracts were signed by Idaho farmers between 2014 and 2016, accounting for just over 1 percent of the roughly 11.7 million farmland acres statewide. Even if many farmers are preventing runoff without government subsidies, as Bramblett contends, the numbers suggest there’s a long way to go.

Goodson says forcing others to follow his example would backfire.

“Farmers have a bad taste for regulatory agencies,” he said, gazing across the flat, wind-swept landscape. “We pride ourselves on living off the land, and we try to preserve and conserve our resources.”

But allowing farmers to decide whether to participate can be costly to others. The city of Boise completed a $20 million project last year that will remove phosphorus flowing off irrigated farmland before it reaches the Snake River.

Brent Peterson spends long days in a mud-spattered pickup truck, promoting runoff prevention in eastern Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River watershed, where dairy cows excrete millions of gallons of manure daily — much of it sprayed onto cornfields as fertilizer.

The river empties into algae-plagued Green Bay, which contains less than 2 percent of Lake Michigan’s water but receives one-third of the entire lake’s nutrient flow. Farmers in the watershed were pledged $10 million from 2009 to 2016 to help address the problem, the AP found.

Peterson, employed by two counties with many hundreds of farms, has lined up six “demonstration farms” to use EQIP-funded runoff prevention, especially cover crops.

“This is a big step for a lot of these guys,” he said. “It’s out of their comfort zone.”

And for all the money devoted to EQIP, only 23 percent of eligible applications for grants were funded in 2015, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Funding of the incentives program has risen from just over $1 billion in 2009 to $1.45 billion last year. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposes a slight cut.

“It sounds like a lot, but the amount of money we’re spending is woefully inadequate,” said Johnson of Heidelberg University.

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ALGAE PLAGUE SPREADS

While there’s no comprehensive tally of algae outbreaks, many experts agree they’re “quickly becoming a global epidemic,” said Anna Michalak, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.

A rising number of water bodies across the U.S. have excessive levels of nutrients and blue-green algae, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey. The algae-generated toxin that sickened Steele in Lake Erie was found in one-third of the 1,161 lakes and reservoirs the agencies studied.

California last year reported toxic blooms in more than 40 lakes and waterways, the most in state history. New York created a team of specialists to confront the mounting problem in the Finger Lakes, a tourist magnet cherished for sparkling waters amid lush hillsides dotted with vineyards. Two cities reported algal toxins in their drinking water in 2016, a first in New York.

More than half the lakes were smeared with garish green blooms this summer.

“The headlines were basically saying, ‘Don’t go into the water, don’t touch the water,'” said Andy Zepp, executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, who lives near Cayauga Lake in Ithaca. “I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I’m wondering, do I want to take her out on the lake?”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is developing a system for compiling data on algae-related illnesses. A 2009-10 study tallied at least 61 victims in three states, a total the authors acknowledged was likely understated.

Anecdotal reports abound — a young boy hospitalized after swimming in a lake near Alexandria, Minnesota; a woman sickened while jet-skiing on Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio.

Signs posted at boat launches in the Hells Canyon area along the Idaho-Oregon line are typical of those at many recreation areas nationwide: “DANGER: DO NOT GO IN OR NEAR WATER” if there’s algae.

In Florida, artesian springs beloved by underwater divers are tainted by algae that causes a skin rash called “swimmer’s itch.” Elsewhere, domestic and wild animals are dying after ingesting algae-tainted water.

A year ago, shortly after a frolic in Idaho’s Snake River, Briedi Gillespie’s 11-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever stopped breathing. Her respiratory muscles were paralyzed, her gums dark blue from lack of air.

Gillespie, a professor of veterinary medicine, and her veterinarian husband performed mouth-to-nose resuscitation and chest massage while racing their beloved Rose to a clinic. They spent eight hours pumping oxygen into her lungs and steroids into her veins. She pulled through.

The next day, Gillespie spotted Rose’s paw prints in a purplish, slimy patch on the riverbank and took samples from nearby water. They were laced with algae toxins.

“It was pretty horrendous,” Gillespie said. “This is my baby girl. How thankful I am that we could recognize what was going on and had the facilities we did, or she’d be gone.”

#Texas v. #NewMexico and #Colorado lawsuit update

Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Torrington Register-Citizen:

Farmers in southern New Mexico, water policy experts, lawyers and others are all working behind the scenes to craft possible solutions that could help to end a lengthy battle with Texas over management of the Rio Grande.

The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and all sides say the stakes are high given uncertainty about the future sustainability of water supplies throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, Las Cruces city officials and agricultural interests provided state lawmakers with an update Tuesday.
Lawyers involved in the case say the court could schedule arguments early next year, but New Mexico is still open to settlement talks. Separately, the farmers, municipalities and commercial users that would be affected by a ruling have been meeting regularly to build a framework for a possible settlement.

Details of what that might look like are under wraps because of a court-issued confidentiality order.

Samantha Barncastle, an attorney representing the irrigation district that serves farmers from Elephant Butte south to the U.S.-Mexico border, said there’s no question groundwater will continue to be relied upon into the future to protect everyone’s access.

She said the parties are looking at managing the aquifer in ways New Mexico has never seen before. That could include more flexibility and policies aimed at avoiding the permanent fallowing of farmland…

Texas took its case to the Supreme Court in 2013, asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the river could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso.

In dry years when there’s not enough water in the river, chile and onion farmers and pecan growers in southern New Mexico are forced to rely on wells to keep their crops and trees alive. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas.

New Mexico has argued in court documents that it’s meeting delivery obligations to Texas.

The Rio Grande is one of North America’s longest rivers, stretching from southern Colorado to Mexico and irrigating more than 3,100 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) of farmland along the way. Several major cities also rely on the river’s water supply.

Depending on the outcome of the case, New Mexico could be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages. The New Mexico attorney general’s office plans to ask the Legislature for $1.5 million to handle the Rio Grande litigation for the next year.

Tania Maestas with the attorney general’s office said the willingness of New Mexico water users to work together could lead to a “dream settlement.”

State gives Aspen officials until Dec. 29 to answer dam questions

The location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, where a beaver dam now backs up water. The Maroon Bells are well within view from the dam site.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

The city of Aspen now has until Dec. 29 to provide a “substantive” response to central questions raised by state officials in water court regarding the city’s efforts to develop dams and reservoirs on upper Maroon and Castle creeks.

The questions raised by the state include whether the city can get a permit for the dams, if it can build the dams in reasonable time, if it has a specific plan to build them, and if it needs the water the reservoirs would hold.

After a status conference on Nov. 9 in water court in Glenwood Springs regarding two due diligence applications the city filed in December 2016 for the two potential dam-and-reservoir projects, a water court referee said, for the second time since August, that the city must provide a substantive response to key issues raised by the state.

Susan Ryan, the referee in Division 5 water court, said the city must do so whether or not it is able to reach settlement agreements with the 10 opposing parties in the two cases.

“It is going to require a written response to that summary of consultation regardless of whether or not settlement is reached with all the opposers in the case,” Ryan said during the status conference. “And so I just wanted to clarify that that is what I typically require in every water case and that is what I will require here.”

A summary of consultation in water court can be a routine review of a water rights application by two state officials, the division engineer, who administers water rights, and the water court referee, who functions as an administrative judge and seeks to resolve cases, if possible, before they are sent to a water court judge.

But the twin summaries of consultation released on Jan. 23 concerning the city’s diligence applications for the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs raised threshold questions.

They said the city “must demonstrate that it will secure permits and land-use approvals that are necessary to apply the subject water rights to beneficial use” and the city must show it “will complete the appropriations within a reasonable time.”

They also said “a specific plan is in place to develop the subject water rights,” that the city “must demonstrate substantiated population growth in order to justify the continued need for these water rights” and that the city is “not speculating with the subject water rights.”

Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam and encroach on portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Castle Creek Reservoir, as currently decreed, would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam, and would also flood some land in the wilderness boundary.

In two diligence applications filed on Oct. 31, 2016, the city told the court it has “steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation” of the conditional water rights for both of the reservoirs over the past six years, and that it has done so “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner under all the facts and circumstances.”

In July, the city said it was seeking a way to transfer decreed storage rights to locations other than the decreed locations on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek.

On Nov. 7, city of Aspen voters rejected a ballot question that would have given the city the go-ahead to issue $5.5 million in general obligation bonds to purchase a 60-acre parcel in Woody Creek to use for water storage, in conjunction with the gravel pit operated by Elam Construction.

But city officials, before the vote, had stated they intended to buy the Woody Creek parcel whether the ballot question was approved or not. A recent study for the city found that between 1,000 acre-feet and 8,000 acre-feet of water could be stored using varying combinations of the land the city intends to buy and the gravel pit.

Also in July, the city filed brief responses to the summaries of consultation. But in August the water court referee said the city’s effort fell short.

A wetland that would be flooded under the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The reservoir would stand across the main channel of Castle Creek, about two miles below Ashcroft.

City not eager to file response

During the Nov. 9 status conference, the city’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell of Alperstein and Covell, told Ryan the city would still prefer not to lay out its case in a substantive response at this stage of the proceedings.

“Since the last status conference the city has been working to finalize the reports that it has needed to assist in the settlement process, including its supply-and- demand risk assessment study, and its evaluation of one or more alternative storage sites that are not located in federal wilderness areas or on Castle Creek or Maroon Creek,” Covell said.

Covell said the city has only this week received responses from all 10 of the opposing parties to a Sept. 20 settlement proposal from the city, and that the City Council was scheduled meet in executive session Monday to discuss the responses.

“So at this point, Aspen would like to devote its time and resources to seeing if we can reach a settlement by the end of the year, we hope in both cases,” Covell said.

Attorneys in the cases said in August the main sticking point in the settlement negotiations was that the city wanted to keep open its options regarding transferring rights tied to the potential Castle Creek reservoir, while opposing parties want the rights for the potential reservoirs fully removed from both valleys.

During the status conference, after determining it was still the city’s position that it would prefer not to provide substantive answers at this time, Ryan asked the opposing attorneys what they thought.

“I frankly don’t buy the argument that it’s a hiccup or roadblock in terms of settlement,” attorney Paul Noto said. “I actually feel that it may lay some cards on the table that may in fact help settlement.”

Noto is representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and the Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. in the Maroon Creek case, and the two environmental groups in the Castle Creek case.

Also opposing the city in the cases are Western Resource Advocates, Wilderness Workshop, Pitkin County, USFS, Larsen Family Limited Partnership in the Maroon Creek case, and Double R Creek Ltd. and Asp Properties LLC in the Castle Creek case.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story online on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.