The tiny power plant that shapes the Colorado River — merely by existing — @HighCountyNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

Head east from Glenwood Springs in western Colorado today, and you’ll encounter an isolated stretch of I-70 hugging the curves of the Colorado River. But 110 years ago, you would’ve hit “a thriving little city” of hundreds of people living in tents, nestled there between the high walls of the river canyon so its residents could build a hydroelectric plant.

That facility, the Shoshone power plant, still adds energy to the grid, but its true importance lies elsewhere: Shoshone is a cornerstone of the elaborate complex of water rights, laws, agreements and relationships that shape the management of the upper Colorado River. Because of the water rights it holds — and because it returns the water it uses to the river channel — the diminutive plant dictates how the river is managed in Colorado. “It’s an interesting historic relic with huge implications for the ecological health of the river,” says Brent Uilenberg, a manager in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region, “and (for) providing a reliable water supply for East and West Slope human uses.”

Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism

The water system Shoshone has shaped irrigates crops, supports endangered fish and keeps a nearly $8 million rafting industry afloat. Merely by existing, the plant helps keep the demands of Denver and other thirsty cities in check.

In what has long been a source of conflict and compromise among Colorado’s water managers, most of the state’s precipitation falls west of the continental divide, on the Western Slope, separated from the majority of the population by the Rocky Mountains. Since the early 1900s, a series of tunnels and ditches have addressed that mismatch by ferrying water out of the Colorado River basin, supplying cities and irrigating fields east of the Rockies. “The Shoshone power plant has played a dominant role on the river since it first came online,” says John Currier, chief engineer at the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

But Shoshone, because it predates those diversions, keeps some water that might otherwise cross the backbone of the continent in western Colorado. In the world of Western water, older rights get first dibs: So Shoshone gets priority, even if that means managers must let water flow past their tunnel intakes. Less water for eastern Colorado means the river keeps rushing downstream toward Shoshone, and people and ecosystems that depend on it.

Downstream communities draw drinking water from the Colorado, and growers near Palisade and Grand Junction use it to irrigate peaches and other crops. Keeping water in the river has also been fundamental to a collaborative program to recover four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River. “It comes back to, fish need water,” says Tom Chart, the director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Downstream of Shoshone, just above where the Gunnison River empties into the Colorado, there’s a stretch of river where endangered Colorado pikeminnow lay their eggs after spring floods have cleared the cobbles of silt. But human demands on the river tax it so much that during drought, it can get close to drying up. To prevent that, water users and managers work within a tangled web of agreements and rules, looking for ways to keep the river wet. The flows that come down from Shoshone anchor that effort. “I always view Shoshone as our first line of protection,” Reclamation’s Uilenberg says.

But that protection hasn’t always been assured: If the power plant needs maintenance or shuts down, it wouldn’t be allowed to exercise its water rights, because water must be put to “beneficial use” under Western water law. To preserve Shoshone’s influence on the Colorado River — to protect the wildlife, farms and economies that depend on it — water districts from both sides of the continental divide formalized a plan in 2012. They agreed upon a protocol for releasing water from upstream reservoirs that would mimic the Shoshone flows should the power plant go offline, effectively preserving the plant’s influence for the long term. Short shutdowns at the aging facility aren’t uncommon, and “hav(ing) that protocol in place to bridge those gaps is key,” Chart says.

A separate deal, however, allows reductions in the Shoshone flows. Xcel Energy, the owner of the plant, has agreed to allow more water to go to Denver during dry periods by running just one turbine — cutting the plant’s water needs in half — when certain conditions are met. But crucially, that “relaxation” of Shoshone’s water rights is typically limited to the season when it would be least impactful to others: mid-March through mid-May, when the Colorado is beginning to run high with snowmelt but irrigation and rafting seasons have yet to begin.

For its part, Xcel says their interests lie simply in running the plant, not in negotiating battles over water, according to Richard Belt, a water resources senior analyst for Xcel based in Denver. “Shoshone has sort of been a neutral third party there, kind of minding its own business,” he says, a role it has played for decades, through deluges and droughts, major repairs and evolutions in water management — and one which the tiny, century-old plant will likely hold for years to come.

@NOAA_Climate: 2017 was 3rd warmest year on record for U.S.

From NOAA (Brady Phillips):

2017 will be remembered as a year of extremes for the U.S. as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, fires and freezes claimed hundreds of lives and visited economic hardship upon the nation. Recovery from the ravages of three major Atlantic hurricanes making landfall in the U.S. and an extreme and ongoing wildfire season in the West is expected to continue well into the new year.

For a fuller picture of just how extreme last year was, let’s dive into our U.S. year-end recap:

Climate by the numbers

Full year 2017 | January-December
The average U.S. temperature in 2017 was 54.6 degrees F (2.6 degrees F above average), making 2017 third warmest year in 123 years of record-keeping, according to scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. In fact, the five warmest years on record for the U.S. all have occurred since 2006.

2017 was also was the 21st consecutive year that the annual average temperature exceeded the average. For the third consecutive year, every state across the contiguous U.S. and Alaska experienced above-average annual temperatures.

Precipitation for the year totaled 32.21 inches (2.27 inches above the long-term average) ranking 2017 as the 20th wettest year and the fifth consecutive year with above-average precipitation. The national drought footprint (total area) began and ended with about one quarter of the Lower 48 states in drought. The drought footprint reached a low of 4.5 percent in May, the smallest drought footprint in the 18-year period of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

December 2017
The month of December ranked near the warmest third of the record, with an average temperature across the contiguous U.S. of 34.8 degrees F, 2.1 degrees above average. Much-above-average temperatures were observed across the Southwest with record warmth in parts of California and Arizona, while near- to below-average temperatures were observed across parts of the Great Plains, Midwest and Northeast. The month ended with record and near-record cold temperatures for many locations in the East. The precipitation total for the month was 1.55 inches (0.80 of an inch below normal), making it the ninth driest December on record and the driest in nearly three decades.

Here’s a U.S. map plotted with 16 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that occurred in 2017. (NOAA NCEI)

Billion-dollar disasters in 2017
Last year, the U.S. experienced 16 weather and climate disasters each with losses exceeding $1 billion, totaling approximately $306 billion — a new U.S. record.

Far more tragic was the human toll. At least 362 people died and many more were injured during the course of the disasters that included:

  • 1 freeze;
  • 1 drought (affected multiple areas);
  • 1 wildfire (affected multiple areas);
  • 2 floods;
  • 3 major hurricanes (Harvey, Irma and Maria); and
  • 8 severe storms.
  • The biggest newsmakers include the western U.S. wildfires that caused damages tallying $18 billion — triple the previous U.S. record. Losses from Hurricane Harvey exceeded $125 billion, which ranked second only to Hurricane Katrina, the costliest storm in the 38-year period of record. Hurricanes Maria and Irma had total damages of $90 billion and $50 billion, respectively. Hurricane Maria now ranks as third costliest weather and climate disaster on record for the nation, with Irma coming in close behind as fifth costliest.

    Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 219 weather and climate disasters that have exceeded $1.5 trillion in overall damages to date.

    R.I.P. Ray Thomas

    Ray Thomas via the Daily Star.

    From Billboard:

    Ray Thomas, flautist and vocalist for British rock group The Moody Blues, has died at 76.

    His music label, Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records, says Thomas died suddenly Thursday at his home in Surrey, near London.

    No cause of death was given Sunday (Jan. 7), but Thomas disclosed in 2014 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

    Born in 1941, Thomas founded The Moody Blues in 1964 with fellow musicians including Mike Pinder and Denny Laine.

    The band soon swapped blues roots for a more orchestral sound that came to be called progressive rock. Thomas’s flute solo was a key ingredient on one of its biggest hits, “Nights in White Satin.”

    The band is due to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in April.

    Ray Thomas sings “For My Lady” at Red Rocks in 1992.

    #Snowpack news: Early season SWE way below average

    Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

    And here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for January 8, 2018 via the NRCS.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 8, 2018 via the NRCS.

    Dillon’s Frosty: The fairest of them all – News on TAP

    Colorado’s snowpack numbers are the worst they’ve been in 33 years, but Denver’s water supply is still in good shape.

    Source: Dillon’s Frosty: The fairest of them all – News on TAP

    Tons of steel on the move in Grand County – News on TAP

    What it takes to remove and restore a 5-ton steel gate buried deep inside Williams Fork Dam.

    Source: Tons of steel on the move in Grand County – News on TAP

    Gilcrest: High groundwater levels update

    South Platte River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

    From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

    Underneath Gilcrest lies an aquifer, and the water in that aquifer should slowly make its way north, underground, to the South Platte River.

    When it didn’t, at least not at the rate some say it should have, downstream surface water rights holders weren’t too happy and blamed the newer wells in this area as the culprit.

    Irrigation wells were first put into Colorado’s prior appropriation system following legislation in 1969. Prior appropriation is a fancy way of saying water rights, and water rights are organized by the date a farmer or ditch owner or reservoir owner or well owner first used the water. People who first diverted water have senior water rights as early as the 1850s.

    So, when farmers across Gilcrest began digging wells in the early 1900s, they were infringing upon longstanding senior surface water rights downstream, because that well pumping affected downstream flows in the river.

    Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of well pumping, and how it depletes river flows even years later. But for farmers around Gilcrest, the court solutions and augmentation decrees are out of balance with well owners’ perceived wrongdoings and even with Mother Nature…

    The impacts of less well pumping are many:

    » Less well pumping means less water for crops during crucial times, such as when Strohauer had to deal with weeds in a potato crop because he couldn’t pump enough water to treat the fields with weed killer early in the season.

    » High groundwater leaves mineral deposits, including salt, near the surface, rendering portions of fields useless and stunting crop growth…

    Glenn Fritzler, owner of the famed Fritzler Corn Maze, used to plant one-third of his land in onions, another third in carrots and the final third in corn. Apparently, carrot and onion mazes haven’t yet taken off.

    But there’s a problem. Carrots and onions need a lot of water – about as much as corn. They’re also quite sensitive to salty soils, something exacerbated by high groundwater, which deposits salts near the surface once they recede, and by less well pumping, because over-watering is one way of dealing with salty soils.

    So Fritzler has changed crops. He’s now planting a quarter of his land in onions, a sixth in carrots and the rest in corn and winter wheat, which uses less water.

    Winter wheat isn’t a money maker, certainly not when compared to produce, which, when healthy during a strong market is a farmer’s lottery, capable of paying off farm equipment and setting aside a nice chunk of dough.

    “You’re probably breaking even at best; probably minimizing your losses,” Fritzler said of winter wheat. “It’s better than not growing anything.”

    Jan. 1, 2006.

    At least half of the wells along the South Platte River Basin were either reduced or shut down. Thousands of wells, built to get farmers through dry years, couldn’t be operated without an augmentation decree from water court.

    Such a decree requires farmers to replace portions of what they pump.

    Even farmers who obtained such decrees saw the face of farming change overnight thanks not only to requirements that well pumpers replace portions of what they pump, but that they replace what they had pumped since 1976.

    It’s called augmentation, and there are a variety of ways to do it.

    One such way is called artificial recharge, and typically it involves digging a shallow pond, filling the bottom with rock or sand to make it more porous, and then filling that pond with water as often as possible.

    Artificial recharge, essentially putting water back into the underground aquifer well pumping has drained, pays dividends for farmers.

    Almost every acre-foot of water poured into an artificial recharge pond can be claimed to allow well pumping in the future.

    It’s why Randy Ray, executive director for Colorado Central Water Conservancy District, says farmers in the LaSalle-Gilcrest area are better off today than they were in 2006.

    But it has come at a cost. Some farmers weren’t able to pump their wells for seven years, including the drought year of 2012, when farmers dried up hundreds of acres of corn.

    Strohauer doesn’t like to look upon his eastern neighbors with envy. But he does notice things. He has his pilot’s license, and when he was taking potato samples to Imperial, Neb., to get tested for pests in 2012, he noticed something…

    For farmers, the formulas used to determine how long recharge water takes to get to the river and how many days they’re able to pump are a headache-inducing mess.

    In 2010, when Strohauer’s field was full of rotting potatoes, Stulp recommended Strohauer put in a de-watering well. Essentially, he wanted Strohauer to dig a well, pump water out of that, put it in a pipeline or ditch and send it back to the river.

    Strohauer threw up his hands, pointing to his existing irrigation well on the property, the one the courts shut down…

    “I looked at John, and I said, ‘John, right there’s your de-watering well. It’s right there. Let us pump the stupid well, and we’ll let the surface water go down the river, and it doesn’t cost the state a single dime. It will cost us some power, and somebody receives some extra water down the river. How hard is that?'”

    It’s quite hard, actually, because things are never simple when it comes to water.

    If a farmer here sends that water downstream, that will affect the flow of the river, and believe it or not, even the senior water rights holders may not want that extra water all the time. For instance, those rights holders out east may not want extra water coming downstream in March because they don’t have the reservoir capacity to store it.

    The formula, called the Glover formula, was first used in the 1950s, and it tells everyone how much that well pumping will affect the river and when. Nearly 70 years later, we’re still using the formula, and Ray, Strohauer, Fritzler and countless others don’t know why.

    Bob Longenbaugh, who once worked in the state engineer’s office, and has spent decades studying groundwater, is one of those others.

    Longenbaugh said the Glover formula overestimates the impacts of pumping on the aquifer, meaning farmers around Gilcrest are forced to push more water downstream than Mother Nature says.

    Further, the formula makes too many assumptions, Longenbaugh said. Among the assumptions are no precipitation, the idea none of the water used to irrigate crops soaks into the soil to recharge the aquifer and an assumption the geology underground between any farm and the river is completely uniform.