Water leaders across Colorado stepping up efforts to educate public about resources

Members of the Colorado River basin roundtable raise their hands during a tour of the Windy Gap Reservoir in September. Water education, on both the Western Slope and the Front Range, often involves tours of water storage and transport facilities.

By Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism

COLORADO RIVER BASIN – Developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and presented to the governor in November 2015, the state water plan recommended creating a data-based water education plan, creating a new outreach, education and public engagement grant fund, and improving the use of existing state education resources.

While many water professionals are beginning to understand the importance of education, one Colorado River Basin Roundtable member has long understood the importance of an education and communications strategy. At-large roundtable representative Diane Johnson is also the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

In this position, she works in a variety of ways to engage the community, including through weekly spots on local radio station KZYR to talk about things like the preventive maintenance of drain cleaning, safe drug disposal (not flushing them down the toilet) and other issues the district faces. The district also staffs a water station at the farmers market, which Johnson said is a fantastic opportunity to talk with people about how the district brings safe drinking water to the masses.

“We all have much more ability to get our message out to people directly via social media or to your inbox,” Johnson said. “It’s great to have the e-news thing, but you’re not growing the engagement pie. So that’s the whole thing. You get that by having your voice in different places.”

A group of rafters in Fruita preparing for a river trip on the Colorado River this summer. Many water professionals in Colorado are working to educate people about water, and many people’s interest in the subject is formed on recreational river trips.

Communicating with the public

The Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs, has not formally “gone pro” in terms of hiring a specialist. Johnson said she sees the benefits of the Colorado roundtable having a position focused on education, but there are currently no plans to hire anyone. The roundtable is working on launching and updating a website as a means to get information to the public about its message, goals, and projects.

“I certainly understand why you would want to have someone that [education] is their focus and will keep getting information out about all this work and conversations that are going on every month,” Johnson said. “So much information is competing for our attention, and we know people care about things they are connected to, so whatever we can do to get more people to care, it just creates an informed citizenry in the state.”

The nine basin roundtables were established in 2005 to facilitate discussions on water management and encourage local solutions. While there is information about each basin roundtable on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website, some roundtables have created their own website, including the Gunnison and Arkansas roundtables.

Two Front Range roundtables have created a position that will help implement their education action plan, their basin implementation plan, as well as Colorado’s Water Plan.

The South Platte and Metro roundtables, which meet in Longmont and Denver, respectively, joined forces this fall and hired Lacey Williams as their first-ever education coordinator. The two basin roundtables (the Metro Basin is located entirely within the South Platte Basin) first combined their resources in 2014-’15 to provide educational outreach activities, but this is the first time a position has been dedicated solely to education.

Williams, who has worked with the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association and American Water Works, will provide information on water projects and studies and encourage community and stakeholder participation in discussion of issues and solutions.

“Most people don’t know where their water comes from, so they take it for granted,” Williams said. “They don’t necessarily always use it carefully or appreciate or value it. We’ve got to be cognizant of the future and planning appropriately to handle the supply gap that is coming.”

Williams will be paid $44,000, and her contract runs through 2018. A Water Supply Reserve Fund grant provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and administered through the Colorado Watershed Assembly funded the position.

Executive director of the Colorado Watershed Assembly, Casey Davenhill, said the sheer number of new people moving to the Front Range is a main reason the education coordinator position is needed.

“I think most of the roundtables have come to see that the task of engaging the public and keeping a robust volunteer group functioning at a high level requires some extra work,” Davenhill said. “New people coming into the community from outside Colorado may not understand about how [water] is used and how important it is and how they can be engaged in decisions that are made around water.”

Casey Funk, the senior water attorney at Denver Water, speaking in Grand Junction this summer about the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a copy of which he is holding in his arms, during a water education tour put on by Colorado Mesa University. The agreement took years to negotiate between Front Range and Western Slope interests and is one key to understanding how water is managed in Colorado.

Water Education Colorado

The statewide, nonprofit group Water Education Colorado is also prioritizing the importance of educating the public and has rebranded itself to help achieve that. Created by the state Legislature in 2002, the organization was previously called the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. In October, it rolled out the new name to match its new ambitions.

“Colorado Foundation for Water Education was very long, people can’t remember the acronym, and the word ‘foundation’ was tripping people up,” said Stephanie Scott, Water Education Colorado leadership programs manager. “We wanted to eliminate that confusion. Our new brand is moving toward being a new resource in Colorado.”

The organization has two main goals: developing skills and knowledge through its water leaders program and publishing a variety of news and information, including Headwaters magazine. The organization is looking to hire a content manager to organize all the published information from the last 15 years to make it searchable on the website, as well as a water reporter.

“I think the water industry as a whole is starting to value what outreach can do for them,” Scott said. “This burst of education in the state is long overdue and very much needed.”

Editor’s note:  Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily News, The Aspen Times, and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, in both its print and online editions. The Summit Daily News published it online on Dec. 27. And The Aspen Times published it on Dec. 30.

Aspen working to use reclaimed water on its golf course

The turf on the city of Aspen's golf course requires 190-acre feet, or 62 million gallons, of water a year to irrigate, and the city would like to use treated water from the regional sanitation plant to meet some of that demand.

By Brent Gardner-Smith and Allen Best, Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – City of Aspen officials hope to begin using water reclaimed from treated effluent at the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District to irrigate the city-owned golf course in 2018, but first the city and the district have to obtain a permit from the state.

The city wants to use as many as 1 million gallons a day of reclaimed, or reused, water from the sanitation district to irrigate the course, freeing up more water from Castle Creek to meet other needs of customers in the city water department’s service area.

“It does take some of the pressure off the system, giving us some flexibility in maybe using that water elsewhere,” said Margaret Medellin, utilities portfolio manager for the city of Aspen. But she also said, “This doesn’t eliminate the need for water storage.”

It takes 62 million gallons, or 190 acre-feet, of water a year from Castle Creek to irrigate the 109 acres of turf on the city’s golf course, according to Steve Aitken, the city’s director of golf.

Aspen filed for a water right from the state of Colorado for its reuse project in 2005. The conditional water right was granted in 2011.

The water right allows the city to pump 3 cubic feet per second of treated municipal effluent from the sanitation district’s treatment pond 2 miles up to a 19-acre-foot lined pond on the city’s golf course.

The water right allows for irrigation of 132 acres on the city’s golf course, 80 acres on the Maroon Creek Club’s golf course, 21 acres of open space at the Burlingame housing complex and 12 acres along Highway 82. It also allows use for snowmaking on 156 acres of terrain at the Buttermilk ski area.

But while the city has the water right in hand, and has constructed most of the pipeline to the golf course, it lacks a required permit from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

Medellin is confident the city will obtain the permit, as is a consultant for the city on the project, John P. Rehring, an engineer at Carollo Engineers, a large firm specializing in water projects.

“The engineering for this system is relatively simple, and I think there is still time to implement and begin reuse in 2018,” Medellin said. “The pieces that are more complex are the regulatory requirements and arrangements between the city of Aspen and the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District to operate the system. The CDPHE has remained hopeful that we can complete regulatory requirements in 2018.”

Bruce Matherly, the manager of the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, along with the city’s Aitken, filed a letter of intent to use reclaimed water and a user plan to comply with CDPHE in March 2016 for Aspen’s reuse system.

Matherly and Aitken told the state that the city and the sanitation district “would like to investigate the possibility of using reclaimed wastewater produced by [the district] to irrigate the landscape associated with the [city’s] municipal golf course.”

They also told the state “the small amount of nutrients in the reclaimed water would benefit the turf grass at the golf course” and “the reclaimed water supplied would offset the water that would otherwise be taken from side streams from the Roaring Fork River.”

Today, the city irrigates its golf course with water diverted from Castle Creek via the Holden and Marolt irrigation ditches.

The city of Aspen is still working on plans to pump water from this pond at the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District treatment plant up to its golf course to use for irrigation. The water treatment plant is located on the banks of the Roaring Fork River below the Aspen Business Center.

State concerns

Officials at CDPHE raised some areas of concern in response to the application from the city and the district and asked for additional information.

Maureen Egan, an environmental protection specialist at CDPHE, asked Matherly to clarify how state water-quality standards would be met and measured at the golf course pond.

“It would be important for you to provide information demonstrating your ability to meet the E.coli limit,” Egan, wrote in an email to Matherly in April 2016.

Egan also asked, in another email, “is the impoundment at the golf course a water hazard or are there other instances where golfers or other members of the public may have contact with water in the impoundment?”

“The golf course pond is a water hazard as well as a private fishery,” Matherly told Egan, noting the city would like to retain both uses.

Egan also told Matherly that reuse might pose a challenge to the status of the golf course as a “certified Audubon sanctuary.”

“Reclaimed water, depending on nutrient content, may contribute to growth of blue green algae, which may in some instances produce toxins,” Egan wrote. “It is really difficult to predict what, if any, impact this could have on the bird population.”

In August 2016, the city and the district pulled their application.

“Still working on details of proposed reuse plan,” Matherly wrote in a notice of withdrawal of permit application filed with the state.

The city of Aspen is hoping to store treated water in a pond on its municipal golf course that has been pumped up from the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, but has yet to secure a necessary state permit. There are a number of ponds on the golf course, and the biggest would be used to store reused water.

Next steps

In December 2016, the city signed an $8,000 contract with Carollo so that engineers there could study Aspen’s reuse project and prepare a new application to the state. The city is working on details for an additional contract with Carollo along with CH2M, an engineering firm.

In May 2017, consultants with Carollo and city staff met with CDPHE officials “to discuss the next steps for securing a permit for applying reuse water on the golf course.”

A new application is being developed, Medellin reported. Asked if there is doubt as to whether the sanitation district’s level of treatment for E. coli is sufficient to meet state standards, she did not respond. However, she did suggest that regulatory requirements of reuse are challenging.

“Rightly so, the regulatory agencies are being thorough and robust in their reviews,” she wrote. “Additionally, as experience with reuse grows, many of the regulations and interpretations of regulations are changing.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The Times published this story on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017.

#Snowpack news: Low elevation SWE in the #RioGrande Basin is sparse

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map December 27, 2017 via the NRCS.

From The Las Cruces Sun-News (Diana Alba Soular):

The snowpack is “bleak” at this point, said Gary Esslinger, manager of the Las Cruces-based Elephant Butte Irrigation District. He noted it’s still early in the winter, but said the outlook isn’t rosy.

“It looks like it’s just going back into a stronger La Niña, which means less snowpack in the southern Rockies,” he said.

The La Niña pattern, characterized by cooler water in the Pacific Ocean, tends to mean drier winter weather for the Southwest, including the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico that feed runoff to the Rio Grande.

La Niña conditions strengthened in November and have an 80 percent chance of lasting through the winter, according to an advisory from Climate.gov.

“It is expected to continue in full force for at least the winter months,” said Larry Walrod, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Pueblo, Colorado office. “For the spring months, it’s a little more uncertain.”

Snowpack is lagging behind average at peaks throughout southern Colorado that feed into the Rio Grande, Walrod said.

At one of the high-elevation sites known as Wolf Creek Summit, there would normally be about 14 inches of water contained in the snowpack at this point in the winter, Walrod said. But there is only 5.3 inches — 38 percent of normal. Other high-elevation sites are posting similar percentages.

Lower-elevation mountains are seeing very low amounts of snow, Walrod said. In addition to less snow falling due to La Niña, any snow that does fall is more likely to melt because of warmer weather.

Upper Rio Grande River Basin High/Low graph December 26, 2017 via the NRCS.

@GovofCO ready to fight feds over changing state oil and gas and other environmental rules

Natural gas flares near a community in Colorado. Federal rules aim to lower risks of natural gas development. Photo credit the Environmental Defense Fund.

From The Aspen Times (David Krause):

“We’re still the only state that has such rigorous regulations. Some half-cocked official in Washington might decide they want to make an example of that and say it’s too much regulation,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve worked hard to go through all the regulations to get rid of all the deadwood, the red tape, the bureaucracy and have lean, efficient regulation that actually helps businesses to succeed.

“I don’t want the federal government to come in and tell us what we created between business and the nonprofit communities isn’t good anymore because it doesn’t fit their political paradigm.”

He said states no longer can wait on the federal government for help, especially as the county grows economically and in population.

“I’m not sure the federal government is going to be much of a partner as we look at solving all the problems of our growth,” he said. “We’re going to have to solve them ourselves.”


From now until the next governor is inaugurated on Jan. 8, 2019, Hickenlooper said his administration will work to be a leader on the state level. After that, he just wants to be useful.

“There is a wonderful poem by a woman named Marge Piercy called ‘To Be of Use.’ I’m going to look for a good way to be of use,” he said of life outside the governor’s office. “I’ve got another year or 370 days or something like that. We’re going to finish strong. We’re going to push on the places where we think Colorado should be a national model.

Straw Wars: The Fight to Rid the Oceans of Discarded Plastic — @NatGeo

Here’s a report from Laura Parker writing for National Geographic. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline spills into the oceans annually. Here, on a remote island in the Caribbean Sea, discarded bottles, wrappers, and straws wash ashore and cover the beach…

Of the eight million tons of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw is surely not a top contributor to all that tonnage.

Yet this small, slender tube, utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption, is at the center of a growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using straws to help save the oceans.

Small and lightweight, straws often never make it into recycling bins; the evidence of this failure is clearly visible on any beach. And although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish. Video of scientists removing a straw embedded in a sea turtle’s nose went viral in 2015.

“We were surprised to see that the streams were good sensors of long-term nutrient conditions” — Jay Zarnetske @michiganstateu

The mountainous headwaters East River catchment, located in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Credit Roy Kaltschmidt (2014), Berkeley Lab.

From Michigan State University (Layne Cameron , Jay Zarnetske):

Scientists at Michigan State University have shown that streams can be key health indicators of a region’s landscape, but the way they’re being monitored can be improved.

New research featured in Ecology Letters showcases how streams can be used as sensors to diagnose a watershed’s sensitivity or resiliency to changes in land use practices, including the long-term use of fertilizers. Using streams as sensors ­– specifically, near the headwaters – can allow scientists, land-use managers and farmers to diagnose which watersheds can be more sustainably developed for food production, said Jay Zarnetske, MSU earth and environmental scientist and co-author of the study.

“We were surprised to see that the streams were good sensors of long-term nutrient conditions,” he said. “Our methods show that we can learn much from a relatively small number of samples if they are collected more strategically than current watershed management practices dictate. This understanding is critical in protecting aquatic ecosystems and ensuring human water security.”

Human activity, especially agriculture, has polluted freshwater ecosystems across the planet, causing massive ecological and economic damage. Excess nutrients from fertilizer and fossil fuel can trigger toxic cyanobacteria blooms and expansive hypoxic dead zones, undermining the capacity of ecosystems to provide the food and water that sustains human societies, Zarnetske added.

For the study, Ben Abbott, formerly at MSU and now at Brigham Young University, led an international team in a culturally and historically important region of France. The area, which has seen nearly a millennium of agricultural activity, serves as a model as to how increasing use of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers are having lasting impacts on watersheds.

“The manipulation of phosphorous and nitrogen in the landscape is one of the greatest threats to the fate of humanity and the rest of life on this planet,” Zarnetske said. “Most people have no idea that the human manipulation of the phosphorous and nitrogen cycles is occurring, is affecting nearly every place on the planet and is one of, if not the greatest, current threat to the fate of humanity.”

There are dramatic aerial photos of algal blooms growing at the mouth of streams flowing into bodies of water, such as Lake Erie. However, most carbon and nutrients enter waterways upstream, at the headwaters. So rather than try to diagnose problems at the mouth, a more efficient way to address the issue would be to sample many areas closer to the headwaters.

“Basically, instead of standing in a large stream far from the headwaters and observing what flows past us through time,” Zarnetske said, “we illustrate that it can be much more informative to periodically travel around the region and grab samples from the smallest to the largest streams in the watershed.”

The team found that each small stream’s chemistry fluctuated widely due to changes in temperature, water flow and other factors. There was order to the variability, however, as there was synchrony in the behavior of each small stream and its role in the chemistry of the larger river system.

“That was unexpected,” Abbott said. “Somewhat surprisingly, we found that a single sampling of headwaters any time of year provides a lot of information about where nutrients are coming from and where to target restoration efforts.”

Future research will apply these methods globally, to different agricultural watersheds and forested landscapes experiencing changing precipitation patterns. For example, Zarnetske will study headwaters in the Pacific Northwest and the rapidly warming and thawing landscapes in the Arctic.

The new methods also can help direct efforts in selecting the most appropriate locations for sustainable agricultural land and development or identifying watershed responses to global warming, such as those in the Arctic.

Arctic landscapes, where soils are predominantly frozen, are rapidly thawing due to rapid climatic warming. As Arctic ice and permafrost melt, they release sediment and nutrients into rivers and seas. While the effects of these increasingly turbid waters and nutrients are unknown, their new approach can develop a baseline to begin monitoring their impact.

Additional researchers from Université de Rennes and University François-Rabelais Tours made keycontributions to this study.