Book review: Traversing the mighty #ColoradoRiver — @HighCountryNews #COriver

From The High Country News (Adrianne Kroepsch):

The funny thing about the newest book on the Colorado River is that it is not actually new at all.

Yes, it is true that Where the Water Goes has a 2017 copyright, plus a forward-looking author in New Yorker contributor David Owen and a dust jacket decked in praise from contemporary writers including Bill Bryson. But it is also true that the story within the book’s pages is an old one. It is the story of a Colorado River novice setting out to make sense of this great and imperiled Western river by tracing its length from source to sea and pondering, along the way, how its waters are divvied up to serve roughly 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico. Which is to say that it is also the story of Frank Waters (1946), Philip Fradkin (1981), Colin Fletcher (1998), Jonathan Waterman (2010), Pete McBride (2011), William Stauffer-Norris (2011), and others.

Like these previous writers, Owen decides to make his way down the river because he has experienced a hydrologic awakening. Recalling his college days in Colorado Springs, Owen realizes how oblivious he was as a young man to the provenance of the water that came out of his tap — especially the endless gallons he applied to people’s lawns at a summer job. “All I knew was that every time I attached a hose to a spigot and turned it on, I could run it full force until it was time to go home,” he writes.

Decades later, now an established environmental writer, Owen sets out on a journey of self-education designed to decipher, from top to toe, the “vast and intricately interconnected system” that is the Colorado River. He starts in a chartered airplane over the river’s Rocky Mountain headwaters, ends in a borrowed truck in its delta in Mexico, and proceeds in spurts by rental car in between.

A lone boat sits next to a trickle of the Colorado River, Mexico.
National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

If Owen knows that his journey echoes those of other source-to-sea storytellers, he does not let on. And that’s too bad, really, because Owen’s telling would gain from acknowledging these kindred spirits and explaining what sets his own work apart from theirs. (For starters, Owen’s account is the most accessible for Western water newbies; he deftly explains oddities that range from “wet” water versus “paper” water to the trade-offs involved in boosting agricultural water efficiency.)

Owen’s method has its strengths. Because his narrative runs geographically rather than chronologically, it jumbles the typical order of a Colorado River tome. Rather than starting in the abstract with famous historical figures, Owen grounds us immediately in the “audacity of the Grand Ditch,” one of the river’s first major diversions, hand-dug in the late 1800s to send water from alpine streams to farms on Colorado’s Front Range. Owen’s road-trip framework also gives him room to ponder topics that don’t always make the pages of Colorado River books, including the hard-to-believe history of the Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear fracking experiments in the river’s headwaters.

Most importantly, the source-to-sea structure helps the reader see the Colorado River as a whole, and to grasp the complexity of our cumulative impacts upon it. By the time Owen meets an Imperial Valley lettuce farmer, we have already contemplated flood irrigation in a Grand Junction vineyard. By the time Owen digs into Las Vegas’ water challenges, we have already heard about Denver’s. And by the time Owen explains water-quality issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, we have already learned about salinity as far upstream as the Dolores River. That makes it more difficult to blame any individual irrigator, city or tributary for the woes at the river’s terminus, and it shows that solutions to the river’s overuse will not come easily or unilaterally.

It is a bit odd, however, that Owen traces the Colorado River without ever spending much time in a boat. By skipping the depths of the Grand Canyon and other protected stretches, Owen never experiences the river wild. Unlike other source-to-sea chroniclers, he also does not physically struggle through rapids, reservoirs, tamarisk or mudflats to follow its path. Perhaps as a result, Owen expresses no grief when he reaches the spot where the once-mighty Colorado disappears into the sand long before reaching the Gulf of California. Instead, he writes matter-of-factly, “ATV tracks ran back and forth across the streambed, and there were many places where we could step from one side to the other without getting our feet wet.”

Still, by the river’s end, Owen has accomplished what he set out to do. He has figured out, literally, where the water goes. He has also explained it to the rest of us in clear and compelling terms. In a final chapter, he even goes one step further and ponders a handful of potential remedies to the river’s overuse. Along the way, Owen maps out a self-guided field trip that others can follow virtually (as I did, via Google Earth) or in a vehicle. And that’s a path toward a greater hydrologic awakening that we would all benefit from following.

Another Step Closer for High Line Canal’s Vibrant Future — Phase II Planning Happening Now!

From email from the High Line Canal Conservancy (Connie Brown):

The High Line Canal Conservancy has launched the second phase of significant planning for the High Line Canal, a beloved 71-mile regional trail. This multi-jurisdictional planning initiative follows on the heels of the completion of the Community Vision Plan in early 2017. The nationally recognized planning team includes Denver-based Livable Cities Studio led by Meredith Wenskoski, and Agency Landscape + Planning along with Sasaki Associates out of Boston, led by Gina Ford. The team will focus on developing a Framework Plan, which is anticipated to be complete in the fall of 2018 and result in a multi-year implementation plan. It will include complete plans for signage and wayfinding, as well as landscape guidelines for all 71 miles.

“Cities across the country are grappling with how to deal with 20th century infrastructure. The High Line Canal Framework Plan will advance the community-driven vision into tangible physical ideas that will become a regional treasure and a national model of best practices.” – Gina Ford, Agency Landscape + Planning

The Conservancy’s unprecedented community outreach effort in 2016, which engaged over 3500 people, led to an inspired long-term Community Vision for the High Line Canal that will be used as inspiration to develop the Framework Plan for the entire 71-mile system. The community-driven plan, endorsed by Denver Water and 10 governmental jurisdictions along the 71 miles, outlines a set of guiding principles – that the Canal remain a natural, connected and continuous, varied, managed and enhanced resource for the region.

Guided by these principles, the final Framework Plan will further ensure the Canal reaches its greatest potential as an environmental, recreational, social, historic and economic asset. The plan will focus on:

  • Additional open space/parks and trailheads with user amenities
  • Canal branded directional and interpretive signage
  • Crossing safety and trail gap design solutions;
  • Environmental guidelines for landscape, tree planning and stormwater
  • Health and education programs for increased access and use
  • Long-term permanent protection and maintenance
  • PUBLIC INPUT: There will be multiple platforms for public input throughout the year, including four public open houses at the end of March and September. Continued support and engagement from the citizens of the region is vital to ensure the future of the Canal is reflective of the public vision.

    “Throughout this next phase of planning for the High Line Canal, we have an incredible opportunity to develop creative planning and design solutions that are community-specific, but reflective of the Community Vision Plan for all 71 miles of the Canal. One of the keys to success will be inclusive and authentic engagement among all the jurisdictions.” – Meredith Wenskoski, Livable Cities Studio.

    In 2017, the Conservancy kicked off its first ever membership campaign. To date more than 750 members have heeded the call to Be A High Line Hero. In addition to membership, other ways to get involved include:

  • Be a High Line Hero. and support what you love!
  • Sign up for monthly updates through the High Line Canal newsletter to stay up to date with Canal
  • happenings and opportunities to engage in the planning process.
    Follow the High Line Canal’s social media channels (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram).
    Visit the High Line Canal Conservancy’s website to learn more:


    The High Line Canal Conservancy is a tax-exempt nonprofit that was formed in 2014 by a passionate coalition of private citizens to provide leadership and harness the region’s commitment to protecting the future of the High Line Canal. With support from each jurisdiction and in partnership with Denver Water, the Conservancy is connecting stakeholders in support of comprehensive planning to ensure that the Canal is protected and enhanced for future generations. For more information, please visit

    The 71-mile High Line Canal has long been a beloved asset across our region, but now its future is uncertain because of changing needs. The High Line Canal Conservancy is working to preserve, protect and enhance this ecological and recreational resource. Don’t take it for granted, the Canal needs your help. Become a High Line Hero today and support what you love!

    Stream management planning offers promise, complications — Hannah Holm

    Summary of Observed Wet & Dry Surface Water Hydrology via SCW

    From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

    On a bright, early fall day in 2017, members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable stood on the banks of the Colorado River watching water slide smoothly over the Bill and Wendy Riffles near Kremmling. Willows glowed gold on the banks, and new sprouts poked up through the cobble at the water’s edge.

    Most riffles don’t have names, but then most riffles aren’t constructed as part of a multi-million dollar plan to remake a damaged river. The Bill and Wendy Riffles, named after the resident ranchers, were designed to raise the level of the river back up to where it used to be so that irrigation pumps, left high and dry by a depleted river, could function. Trout habitat and riparian vegetation have also benefited.

    Upstream, plans are afoot to reshape Windy Gap reservoir, which currently blocks the free movement of fish, sediment and water. The construction of a new channel around the reservoir is planned to reconnect those reaches of the river and breathe new life into the ecosystem.

    These projects in Grand County are part of a multi-pronged effort to compensate for the impacts of drastic flow reductions resulting from diversions from headwaters streams across the Continental Divide to the Front Range. On average, around 300,000 acre feet of water per year crosses the divide from Grand County, dropping average annual flows at Kremmling by more than 60 percent. These numbers will go up further with the completion of a pair of recently approved projects to increase these diversions.

    The prospect of increased diversions, while exacerbating the overall problem of less water in the river, also provided the leverage for Grand County to demand the resources to address problems created by decades of previous trans-mountain diversions, as well as the new ones. This involved both negotiating for more water to be left in streams at certain times and the resources to reshape portions of the river’s channel.

    Early on, Grand County commissioned a detailed Stream Management Plan to define environmental flow needs. This study then guided its negotiations and project prioritization. Since the completion of the study, projects to improve flows for both irrigators and the environment, such as the Bill and Wendy Riffle project, have drawn funding from numerous sources. These include the Colorado Basin Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), as well as the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Denver Water and Northern Water have also contributed. Local irrigators have played a leading role in developing and guiding projects, as have conservation organizations such as Trout Unlimited.

    The Grand County example has demonstrated that water management does not have to be a zero-sum game, with some interests benefiting only at the expense of others. The approach has inspired related efforts across Colorado, a goal in the Colorado Water Plan, and a statewide grant program to promote stream management planning.

    Stream management plans exist or are underway currently for the Poudre River, the Crystal River, the Roaring Fork River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Upper Gunnison Basin, and the San Miguel River. New planning efforts have been proposed for the Yampa River, the Eagle River, Ouray County, the Upper San Juan River, and the middle section of the Colorado River.

    In addition, the Colorado Basin Roundtable has initiated a framework project to provide tools and guidance for such efforts across the basin. The author of this article is coordinating the framework project.

    As these initiatives have spread, it has become clear that environmental and agricultural water needs don’t always align as neatly as they do in Grand County, where all local water interests were affected by reduced flows. Each river basin has its own dynamics, both hydrologically and socially, that affect the approaches taken and prospects for success.

    The guidance for the CWCB’s Stream Management Planning grant program focuses on assessing environmental and recreational flow needs, which have historically been less well-understood than needs for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. However, any plan to address environmental water needs will likely require cooperation from other water users, as well. These water users need a reason to come to the table.

    A growing recognition of the importance of addressing the interests of all water users from the beginning of the planning process is reflected in the names of several projects funded through the Stream Management Planning grant program. The Colorado Basin Roundtable chose the term “integrated water management plan” rather than “stream management plan” for its framework project, and the Upper Gunnison project is called a “Watershed Management Planning” project.

    Inclusive labeling is not enough to bring and keep diverse stakeholders at the table, however. In order to achieve that, agricultural water users and others that rely on stream diversions need to trust that their interests are genuinely being respected. They also need a sense of common cause with their planning partners. Current planning efforts appear to be attempting to respond to these needs.

    Trust levels are influenced by who leads the project as well as the stated project goals. On the middle section of the Colorado River, between Glenwood Canyon and De Beque, local conservation districts have decided to take the lead on gathering information on agricultural water needs, in order to ensure that their constituents are adequately represented. The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which kicked off the planning effort, has welcomed their involvement.

    Cultivating a sense of common cause, the Upper Gunnison Watershed Management Planning Group asserts that its mission is “to help protect existing water uses and watershed health in the Upper Gunnison Basin as we face growing pressure from increased water demands and permanent reductions in overall water supply.”

    The Crystal River Plan sought to “identify, prioritize and guide management actions that honor local agricultural production, preserve existing water uses, and enhance the ecological integrity of the river.” The completed plan includes a detailed accounting of agricultural water shortages along with information on the ecological state of the river. The project on the North Fork of the Gunnison River has assessed opportunities for diversion structure upgrades that could benefit irrigators and improve safety for boaters.

    These are complicated processes, with many opportunities for conflict and failure. However, the potential payoffs of healthier streams and more water security, as well as enhanced mutual understanding across the whole community of water users, could make these projects well worth the effort.

    Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Learn more at

    #Snowpack news: Good snow for a lot of #Colorado, South Platte = 90% of avg.

    Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS. Note that the Basin High/Low graphs may not reflect all of the snowfall from the weekend storm.

    And, here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for January 22, 2018 from the NRCS.

    Westside SNOTEL basin-filled map January 22, 2018 via the NRCS.

    From The Durango Herald (Mia Rupani):

    A winter weather advisory remained in effect until 2 p.m. Sunday for the San Juan Mountains, where a winter storm dumped about a foot of snow overnight…

    Meteorologist Julie Malingowski of the National Weather Service in Grand Junction said the high country could see an additional 1 to 3 inches of snow Sunday afternoon before the storm moves out of the region.

    The Fourth Industrial Revolution can lead us to a zero-carbon future – if we act now #ActOnClimate

    From the World Economic Forum (Johan Rockström):

    I can’t give you a precise date, but some time in the past two years the world crossed a threshold and incremental action on climate change was off the menu. To keep temperatures below 2°C, we now need exponential action.

    Earth is now 1.1℃ warmer owing to our emissions of greenhouse gases, and the latest scientific assessment, presented in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that if we would get rid of all life-threatening air pollution, like black carbon, sulphates and nitrates, some of which lower temperatures, we would very likely bump up global temperatures another 0.5–1.1°C. The message is dire. One global bad – global warming – is camouflaged by another global bad – air pollution. This is a reminder that we are really, very late arrivals to the solution space.

    The 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report makes this crystal clear. Three global environmental risks now dominate the report both for likelihood and impact: extreme weather, natural disasters and failure to act at the necessary speed to mitigate climate change. This message was reinforced recently by Mark Carney, chair of the G20 Financial Stability Board, who said: “Once climate change becomes a clear and present danger to financial stability it may already be too late to stabilize the atmosphere at two degrees.”

    How fast do we need to act? As a general rule of thumb, staying below 2°C above pre-industrial levels means halving emissions of greenhouse gases every decade if we want a high probability of success. We call this exponential pathway the Global Carbon Law, inspired by Moore’s Law in the IT industry – the observation that computers double in speed about every two years.

    The Global Carbon Law framing is a useful way to look at the Paris Agreement. It turns a distant goal of reaching carbon neutrality sometime beyond 2050 into a short-term target for the next decade. In this way, it works on timescales relevant to businesses and politicians. It also means that anyone following this pathway, from countries, businesses and organizations, to households and individuals, is automatically “in” the Paris Agreement. This could be useful to cities and states in the US who want to remain “in” if the US president follows through on his decision to exit the agreement.

    More importantly, the Global Carbon Law pathway is achievable. In many sectors, businesses can halve their emissions every decade. Indeed, companies like Apple, Google and Intel are cutting emissions much faster and the ICT sector has peaked emissions while driving up value and prosperity. Since we published this Carbon Law roadmap last year, a Swedish network of leading businesses, the Haga Initiative, has shown that even companies outside of ICT can beat the Carbon Law. And now Sweden’s WWF is adopting a similarly ambitious pathway for its science-based targets for businesses.

    We now need Carbon Law thinking to go exponential. The solution is on the horizon. Later this year, San Francisco will host the most important event since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015: the Global Climate Action Summit. Our aim for the summit is to move from incremental action to exponential and harness the power of the most innovative, disruptive part of the global economy – the digital sector.

    At this year’s World Economic Forum, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and myself will have an open dialogue with leaders of the tech community to drive this level of ambition. Together with the most disruptive industry in the world, we will explore pathways to expedite and amplify a global transformation to a decarbonized future that follows the Global Carbon Law.

    The rationale is simple: in the next three decades, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things, will transform everyone’s lives. At the moment the compass direction for this transformation is unclear. We need to ensure this transformation is towards a prosperous and resilient zero-carbon future.

    Rapid innovation cycles ensure the tech sector stays on its phenomenal and exponential Moore’s Law trajectory. This is what we now need for the Global Carbon Law and, for this, the industry needs a roadmap to coordinate as a sector to deliver on these innovation cycles.

    With Davos 2018 as the launchpad, we will bring together a coalition of the leading tech companies to launch a disruptive roadmap in San Francisco to change the course of history. Our goal is to turn 10 million entrepreneurs and engineers and others working in the tech sector into planetary stewards. Whatever these great minds are working on, the stability and resilience of our climate for future generations must be the compass course.

    Steve Jobs once said he wanted to put a dent in the universe. He did just that. Right now, we need to put a dent in our world. The world needs nothing less.

    On 24 January 2018, Johan Rockström will speak at a breakfast event at the Forum to shape the vision for the Fourth Industrial Revolution with Christiana Figueres, (Mission2020 and former head of UNFCCC), Anne Finucane (Bank of America) and tech leaders.

    #Snowpack news: “Snow #droughts” are expected to increase #ActOnClimate

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 20, 2018 via the NRCS.

    From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):

    There’s a term for what’s going on right now in the Sierra Nevada and the mountains that feed the Colorado River. It’s called a “snow drought,” and Nevada climate scientists warn that Westerners had better get used to the phenomenon.

    Periods of below-average snowpack have become increasingly common in some Western mountain ranges, and more frequent snow droughts are likely as global temperatures continue to rise, according to Benjamin Hatchett, a postdoctoral fellow in meteorology and climatology at the Desert Research Institute in Reno.

    “We’re kind of seeing all these things coming together, and not just in California but all over the West,” he said.

    Hatchett and fellow DRI climate researcher Daniel McEvoy are studying trends and changes to mountain snowpack and their impact on regional watersheds and the economies in places where winter recreation fuels tourism. They hope their research will help water managers and others plan for a future that is likely to involve longer dry spells, changes in runoff patterns and an increased risk of flooding.

    A drought that’s wet
    In a paper published recently in the journal Earth Interactions, they used hourly, daily and monthly data to analyze the progression of eight historic snow droughts that occurred in the northern Sierra Nevada between 1951 and 2017. What they found were two distinct types of snow drought: the familiar “dry” variety caused by low levels of precipitation and a “wet” drought that results when mountain areas usually blanketed with snow get rain instead.

    Hatchett said the most recent drought in the Sierra was “pretty similiar” to previous dry spells in terms of precipitation, “but it was this increase in temperature that really exacerbated the severity.”

    “As the climate grows warmer and more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, we are seeing that we can have an average or above-average precipitation year and still have a well-below-average snowpack,” said Hatchett, who has noticed the difference firsthand over a lifetime of backcountry skiing.

    In November, he published research outlining a 1,200-foot rise in the average snow level — the elevation at which rain turns to snow — in the Northern Sierra over the past 10 years. Over that same period, the region was experiencing its warmest decade on record, he said.

    Snowpack is crucial even in communities that rarely see any snow. The Las Vegas Valley draws 90 percent of its water supply from Lake Mead, and nearly all of that water comes from snowmelt in the mountains that feed the Colorado River.

    Palisade: Colorado West Land Trust nears goal of protecting 1,000 acres

    Palisade peach orchard

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Katie Langford):

    As the Colorado West Land Trust nears a long-term goal of preserving 1,000 acres of farmland in Palisade, a new 22-acre conservation easement of peach and apricot orchards is moving the needle that much closer.

    Rob and Clare Talbott of C&R Farms have previously conserved 59 acres of orchards through the land trust, and Director of Conservation Iliana Moir said she was happy to hear the Talbotts wanted to do it again.

    The land trust has conserved approximately 800 acres of Palisade farmland through conservation easements since 2009. Conservation easements are an arrangement in which landowners agree not to subdivide their property and the land trust agrees to hold it in perpetuity. In Palisade, it means those 800 acres will only be used for farming.

    “That area is the only area in the Grand Valley that consistently produces good fruit, so it’s really important,” Moir said. “The winds that come through De Beque Canyon in the spring keep the frost from settling on the peach buds, and the area around Palisade has prime, unique soil that’s excellent for growing fruit trees. They have excellent water rights, so they can invest in long-term crops.”

    Colorado West Executive Director Rob Bleiberg said preserving Palisade’s agriculture industry is key for the future success of the Grand Valley.

    “We have been focused on the fruitlands of Palisade since our founding in 1980, and for the simple reason that the orchards and vineyards are an incredible asset for our community and an economic driver,” Bleiberg said. “They define Palisade.”

    The Talbotts started farming in 1979 and have long understood the need to preserve the farmlands of Palisade, said Rob Talbott.

    “Our family believes it’s important to preserve farming for future generations,” he said. “There is a lot of pressure on orchards to subdivide their land so homes can be built. Once these homes are built, the small orchard on the property can’t sustain the cost of the home, therefore putting the property out of reach of young farmers to purchase the property as an initial investment or an existing young farmer to expand. We want future generations who want to make farming their livelihood to have the ability to afford to do so.”