#ColoradoRiver: A new way of doing business on water — Scott Yates #COriver

Here’s a guest column from Scott Yates that is running in The Salt Lake Tribune:

This year has given us a glimpse of our potential water future in the Colorado River Basin — and it’s not pretty. So far this winter, much of the Intermountain West is seeing below average snowpack in the mountains, where most of our water in the Upper Basin originates.

Even if we end up with a good snow year, the long-term trend is clear: drier and hotter and less predictable.

Left unaddressed, these trends could pose a perfect storm for both municipalities and agricultural producers who depend on healthy flows in our rivers. That’s why a few years ago, the Bureau of Reclamation, municipal utilities, conservationists and other river stakeholders banded together to launch an innovative, market-based program, called the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP).

The goal of the pilot program was to answer this question: Would ranchers and farmers, landowners and other water users in the Upper Colorado Basin be willing to be paid for voluntary, temporary reductions in water use — and, by doing so, help shore up water supplies in Lakes Powell and Mead while providing side benefits like increased flows for fisheries?

We are happy to report that the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Trout Unlimited has a long track record in the West of working with the farm and ranch community on water and habitat projects. We found strong interest among agriculture producers for leasing their water on a voluntary, short-term basis to boost healthy river flows and water supply levels.

Typically, these deals involve split- or late-season fallowing — ranchers and farmers agree to irrigate for only part of their irrigation season. Season-long fallowing is also an option. The conserved water is left in the stream, undiverted, and producers receive payments for the temporary conservation use of that water.

Here in Utah, for example, six members of the Carbon Canal Company on the Price River agreed to SCPP projects that have conserved nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water and helped keep healthy flows in the Price River. The SCPP payments have created a positive buzz among other farmers and ranchers in the area. They’re seeing this as an exciting new way to use their water “crop.”

For agricultural producers, income from these temporary water transactions can boost their bottom lines and help spur investment in upgraded and more efficient irrigation systems. At the same time, these water deals send more water downstream, enhancing local fisheries, shoring up municipal water supplies and protecting hydropower capacity.

Everybody wins. Moreover, innovative tools like SCPP reduce the risk that states will fight over allocations and see every drop of water that crosses a state’s border as an economic loss.

SCPP has launched an exciting new water market for the agriculture community in the Colorado River Basin. But these new approaches will require smart, sustained investment if they’re to take root and grow.

SCPP is funded (by the Bureau of Reclamation, municipalities and others) through 2018, but beyond that, its future is uncertain — despite the popularity and proven water savings of the program.

Our organization, and our broad array of partners in the Colorado River Basin, call on our state and national lawmakers to step up and help secure long-term, sustainable funding for commonsense programs like SCPP — or this promising idea could wither on the vine.

Many river stakeholders have realized that we’ve entered a new water era that calls for cooperation, not conflict, if we want to meet our diverse water needs, such as preserving a vibrant and viable agricultural lifestyle while meeting water demands from growing cities and sustaining healthy rivers.

SCPP shows that farm and ranch country can be a collaborative part of the solution. Working together, we can keep the Colorado River and its tributaries flowing, and our farm and ranch communities healthy and productive.

#AnimasRiver: Federal Judge denies contractor’s motion in #GoldKingMine spill

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

A federal judge in Albuquerque ruled Monday that certain claims can proceed in consolidated civil lawsuits filed against a contractor for the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill.

U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo dismissed part of a motion filed by Environmental Restoration LLC, one of the companies contracted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct environmental remediation at the mine.

The St. Louis-based company was among those named in separate lawsuits filed in 2016 by the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

The state and the tribe claim environmental and economic damages have occurred due to the EPA and its contractors releasing more than three million gallons of acid mine drainage and 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animas River watershed as the result of a breach at the mine.

The state and the tribe are seeking compensation for the claims filed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA.

Environmental Restoration sought to dismiss the complaints and argued it was not liable for damages because it was not an operator, arranger or transporter as defined under CERCLA.

Armijo ruled Environmental Restoration cannot be released from the lawsuit, and the state and the tribe’s claims can proceed.

She also denied the company’s motion to strike the tribe’s request for punitive damages…

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Butch Tongate issued a joint statement on Wednesday regarding the court decision.

“We are pleased that our lawsuit against EPA’s contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, will proceed and we look forward to continuing to work alongside the Navajo Nation to recoup the damages done to our environment, cultural sites and our economy,” the statement said.

The tribe called the decision “victorious” in its press release on Wednesday.

@WaterEdCO: 2018 Water Fluency Program Registration is NOW OPEN!

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

What is Water Fluency?

Our Water Fluency program is a professional development course for non-water professionals. Learn the language of water and develop tools for navigating water management and policy issues so you can lead with confidence.

Water is critical for every aspect of community vibrancy, from industry to commerce to agriculture, tourism, health, and the environment—but it isn’t always clear how policy and management decisions around water trickle down to affect other sectors or vice versa.

This comprehensive program will help you make those connections.

Now in its fourth year, the program has rotated around the state. This is the first year it will be hosted in the southern Front Range…

Format

Four in-person classroom days; water-focused site visits; and online discussions and homework between classroom days. The scheduled program dates are:

May 22 and 23 in Pueblo

June 22 in Colorado Springs

July 20 in Fountain

The online portion of the program is provided through a partnership with Colorado State University using their online campus to provide participants unique access to the same lectures, discussions and quizzes that degree-seeking students have.

Renewable energy tops 18 percent of U.S. electricity grid, rivaling nuclear

Chron.com (James Osborne):

Solar farms, wind turbines and hydroelectric dams are getting close to surpassing nuclear power plants contribution to the U.S. electrical grid, according to a new report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Last year 18 percent of electrical generation came from renewable energy sources – more than double what they did a decade ago – the report said. Nuclear power plants represent 19.7 percent of the generation on the grid, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, surpassed only by coal and natural gas plants.

“The massive and historic transformation of the U.S. energy sector clicked into a higher gear in 2017, despite some new headwinds including policy uncertainties,” the report entitled “Sustainable Energy in America: 2018 Factbook” read. “Renewable deployment grew at a near- record pace.”

The growth comes even as the Trump administration has curtailed or eliminated restrictions on greenhouse gas restrictions while also trying to expand fossil-fuel production in the United States.

But so far it has done little to turn investors away from renewable energy, which is widely seen as an area of growth in the decades to come as countries try to limit the damage of climate change.

Investment in wind, solar and other renewable technologies totaled $333 billion in 2017, the second highest level on record, according to the Bloomberg report.

The impact on the atmosphere can already be seen. The expansion of renewables, as well as the shift away from coal to natural gas, has sent the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to their lowest level since 1991, according to Bloomberg.

#Snowpack news: Folks should be dusting off their drought management and water conservation plans and hope for a wet Spring

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 15, 2018 via the NRCS.

From the Environmental Defense Fund (Brian Jackson):

La Niña has wreaked havoc on weather systems around the country, sending storms to Baton Rouge, San Antonio and Boston, while Colorado, California and pretty much the entire Southwest United States stay dry. Colorado is at 68% of normal snowpack with the southwest Rockies in even worse shape. The Sierra Nevada snowpack – a key source of California’s water supply – is at 30% of average. Many parts of New Mexico have received less than a half inch of rain, making it one of the driest starts to a water year on record in the state.

In fact, it’s really not looking good for the entire Colorado River Basin. Earlier this month NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center released its first forecast for 2018, predicting that spring runoff into Lake Powell would only be 54% of average. According to Jeff Lukas, who studies long-term climate shifts at the Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado’s snowpack is “well below normal, halfway through the snow accumulation season. Essentially, time is running out to make up that deficit.”

Statewide snowpack Basin High/Low graph February 15, 2018 via the NRCS.

Is Colorado ready?

It’s certainly been a rough start to winter. And while the lack of snow is bad for snow-dependent businesses now, what does it mean for water supplies as we move into spring and summer?

Here in Colorado the dry start to winter is a sobering reminder of the importance of drought management and water conservation to maintain our quality of life and preserve our beautiful natural places. Thankfully, we’ve got the Colorado Water Plan which maps out solutions to deal with these scenarios as we move toward a warmer, drier, more populated future. Now we just need to ramp up its implementation.

Doing more with less

One advantage Colorado water managers have is flexibility. Meaning there are tools in place that can be deployed to move limited supplies of water around to where it’s needed most. During a dry year like this, that might mean moving water away from farms to meet demand in thirsty cities. Historically this would lead to farmland being pulled out of production, harming rural economies. But nowadays we have the opportunity to use flexible and innovative tools called Alternative Transfer Mechanisms (ATMs).

ATMs enable farmers to keep land available for agricultural production, while temporarily moving their water to cities, the environment or other users. This helps to maintain farmland viability in the state and introduces a new source of income for agricultural producers. This flexibility enables the state maintain a healthy agricultural economy and more easily meet water demands, even during times of drought.

The Colorado Water Plan sets a measurable objective to share at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water using voluntary ATMs by 2030. Our estimates show that approximately 16,000 to 17,000 acre-feet of water is now moved annually using ATMs. That’s one piece of the puzzle, but we’ll need more rapid implementation to weather future weak snow years (and yes, they’re becoming more frequent). And we’ll certainly need to explore additional solutions if we’re going to support the projected population growth that Colorado is headed towards.

There’s still time

There is still time left in the season, and it is possible that precipitation may increase. I’m keeping my eye on a storm moving through the northern Rockies this afternoon. Maybe I’ll go skiing.

Either way, I’m thankful water managers in Colorado are ahead of the game and have taken precautions to keep reservoirs full. So far this winter has been a reminder of just how important this sort of long-term planning is. But planning isn’t enough. Now we have to actually start bringing ATMs and other solutions to fruition.

Upper Rio Grande River Basin High/Low graph February 15, 2018 via the NRCS.

From The Alamosa News:

Basin snowpack as of Tuesday was 45 percent of normal, not quite the lowest in the state but close, according to Pat McDermott, Colorado Division of Water Resources, who updated members of the Rio Grande Roundtable during their February 13th meeting. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas basin is a percentage lower, with the best snowpack in the state 95 percent of normal in the South Platte River Basin on Tuesday, with other basins everywhere in between…

Putting perspective on both ends of the spectrum, last year the snowpack was 152 percent of normal on February 8, but the drought year of 2002 was 25 percent of normal, McDermott pointed out. He said he realistically expected a year in the range of 2003 with about 45-50 percent of average annual runoff…

Currently the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is forecasting an annual flow of the Rio Grande at Del Norte at 340,000 acre feet with 83,800 acre feet obligated to downstream states as part of the Rio Grande Compact, requiring about 5 percent initial curtailment to meet that obligation.

McDermott said Colorado is currently in a debit status with the Rio Grande Compact for the first time in 30 years, with about 1,300 acre feet under delivered. Considering the abundant water year that 2017 was, however, that is a minimal amount, he added.

The NRCS current forecasted annual flow on the Conejos River systems is 160,000 acre feet or about 54 percent of normal, which would require 25,000 acre feet to be sent downstream and a curtailment of only about 1 percent at the beginning of the irrigation season.

The irrigation season could start early on the Conejos so the system does not over-deliver, McDermott said. The irrigation season is set from April 1 to November 1, but the water division office has some latitude, and Division Engineer Craig Cotten has granted a few one-time variances due to low snowpack and warm weather, McDermott said. Farmers must submit written requests to be considered for irrigation season variances…

The National Weather Service’s forecast for March, April and May (and through the summer) is warmer for this region with precipitation below normal at least into the summer.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (J. Adrian Stanley):

…the experts say it’s not time to panic. Yet. There’s still two months ahead that could bring more snow, and that could be enough to lower fire danger until the area’s June monsoon rains come. But that’s assuming that normal weather patterns start kicking in, and you know what they say about assumptions…

There are many factors that lead to massive, destructive wildfires. There’s the moisture level in everything from “flashy” fuels like grasses and shrubs to large-diameter trees. There’s wind. Humidity. Daily highs and lows.

But it doesn’t take a genius to know that the winter’s snow pack is a huge factor. Russ Mann, fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Denver, says that it’s too early to know if trees in our area are low enough on moisture to increase the likelihood of a fire. They’re dormant right now, and you can’t accurately measure the levels, he says.

But other conditions look less than ideal. The region, he says, is in a moderate drought, with the areas to the south and southwest of us experiencing a severe drought (a couple steps down from the worst-case scenario).

Asked to compare drought conditions on Feb. 7, 2012 — months before Waldo — to the conditions on Feb. 7, 2018, Mann paused to pull up the maps and study them. “It’s not as bad as we have now,” he said.

Likewise, asked to compare this winter to the one that preceded Hayman, the largest fire in the state’s recorded history, Mozley noted that our region’s snow pack stood at 20 to 30 percent of the norm, with about two months left of winter to make it up. The winter before Hayman, our region saw 67 percent of normal snow pack…

Kathy Torgerson, lead forecaster and meteorologist with the NWS Pueblo, says that climate change is always a factor. Every 10 years, she says, NWS resets “average highs and lows” and every time they get higher. Likewise, as climate science would predict, heavy rainstorms still hit the area in summer, but they are less frequent. (Some may remember the once predictable afternoon showers in summer.)

But the crazy weather this year, she says, is more related to a La Niña weather pattern that’s concentrated moisture in northern states and northern Colorado, while leaving the southern part of the state parched…

While it’s notoriously difficult to predict weather far into the future, Torgerson says signals do not point to a wet spring. And even if we do get quite a bit more moisture in the remainder of winter and spring, all meteorologists consulted for this story agreed that it wouldn’t make up the deficit.

It’s too early to predict if the summer monsoon season will be particularly wet, though Mozley noted that autumn, at least, will likely bring relief. There are already signals that winter 2018-19 will follow an El Niño pattern, bringing moisture to the area.

In the meantime, locals are bracing themselves. Jim Reid, executive director of El Paso County’s Office of Emergency Management, says that with the ground hard and dry, he’s less worried about fires than he is about floods caused by hard spring rains that fail to absorb. Such storms have wiped out roads in the past, he notes.

Dave Condit, deputy forest and grassland supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, says he is concerned about fire, but he’s also worried that his teams may not be able to conduct controlled burns in spring due to dry, windy conditions and low moisture in plants and trees…

City Forester Dennis Will says he frets more about the trees in city parks dying than he does about the native trees in the city’s open spaces. We’ve had a couple wet years, he notes, and native trees are hardy enough to survive around five severe droughts in their lifespan.

From The Aspen Times (Jason Auslander):

More than a foot of snow fell atop Aspen Mountain between midnight and 4 p.m. Thursday, according to the Aspen Mountain ski patrol station located at the top of the Gentleman’s Ridge lift.

The latest e-Waternews is hot off the presses from @Northern_Water

Graphic credit: Northern Water

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Crews from Northern Water work to maintain hydroelectric plant equipment

Workers from Northern Water have taken apart some of the equipment at the Robert V. Trout Hydroelectric Plant at the outlet of Carter Lake as part of the organization’s annual maintenance program for the facility.

On Feb. 8, members of the Northern Water board of directors were told that 2017 was a strong year for electricity production at the plant. Energy is captured from the outlet at Carter Lake as water is delivered into the St. Vrain Supply Canal. That electricity is marketed through the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association to customers throughout the utility’s service area on the Front Range.

The power plant, one of two hydroelectric generation plants owned by Northern Water, has been in operation since 2012 and is authorized through a Lease of Power Privilege agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In addition to Northern’s two hydroelectric plants, Reclamation operates six additional Colorado-Big Thompson generation stations that supply renewable energy throughout the American West.

Learn more about power generation at Carter Lake