Tribal nations hold some of the best water rights in the West — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

Tens of thousands of people on the Navajo Nation lack running water in their homes. But that could change in the coming years, as the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project goes into effect. It’s expected to deliver water to the reservation and nearby areas by 2024, as part of a Navajo Nation water rights settlement with New Mexico, confirmed by Congress in 2009.

Survey work begins for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via The High Country News

Three other Native water settlements currently await congressional approval. They arise from federal legal decisions recognizing that many tribes in the West hold water rights that largely pre-date — and therefore override — the water rights of non-Native settlers.

Many tribal nations are currently asserting those rights as a way to ensure economic vitality, affirm sovereignty and provide basic services that some communities lack. In many places, however, Native water rights have yet to be quantified, making them difficult to enforce. Settlement is usually the preferred remedy; it’s cheaper, faster and less adversarial than a lawsuit, and can include funding for things like pipelines or treatment plants. With settlements, “the tribes are able to craft solutions that work for them and that can be more flexible than anything that could be achieved through litigation,” says Kate Hoover, a principal attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice water rights unit.

Once negotiations are complete, Congress has to confirm the settlements. Here are the three introduced in the Senate this session:

Pipes are laid for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments via The High Country News

THE SETTLEMENT: Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement allocates 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year from the Central Arizona Project to the 2,300-member Hualapai Nation. It also authorizes federal spending for a water pipeline to Peach Springs, the reservation’s main residential community, and Grand Canyon West, an economically important tourist destination featuring a horseshoe-shaped “skywalk” jutting out over the canyon.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: The legality of Native water rights settlements stems from a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court case involving agricultural irrigation. Winters v. United States established that when reservations were created, they included an implied right to water.

Subsequent legal decisions confirmed that so-called “reserved water” could also be used for livestock, drinking water and even commercial purposes. That’s crucial for this settlement, because the Hualapai Nation plans to use a portion of their water to expand Grand Canyon West — and their economy. “We have done everything possible to provide jobs and income to our people in order to lift them out of poverty — but the lack of a secure and replenishable water supply on our Reservation is our major obstacle to achieving economic self-sufficiency,” wrote Damon Clarke, chairman of the Hualapai Nation, in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

THE SETTLEMENT: Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement affirms the Navajo Nation’s right to 81,500 acre-feet of water each year — enough to serve about 160,000 households — from the Utah portion of the San Juan River, a Colorado River tributary. In addition, it would establish funds for treating and transporting drinking water.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: In many Native water rights settlements, tribes agree to give up a portion of the water to which they’re entitled — often allowing other groups to continue using that water, which might otherwise have been cut off — in return for expensive water projects, typically built by a federal agency.

The Navajo Utah settlement is different: It would transfer money directly to the tribe for water infrastructure. During a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in December, Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, explained why the tribe, rather than the U.S. government, should lead the work: “It’s important as a sovereign nation that we are able to do that — employ our people, use our laws — in order to build and construct any kind of construction that may take place.”

THE SETTLEMENT: Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas Water Rights Settlement

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement confirms the right of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas to pull 4,705 acre-feet of water per year from the Delaware River Basin in northeastern Kansas. It would be a milestone in resolving long-standing disagreements over how to ensure the tribe has reliable water, even during droughts.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Kansas, like much of the West, is prone to drought. This settlement would help the Kickapoo deal with dry periods by allowing the tribe to store more than 18,000 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that has yet to be built, but that has been contemplated for at least 40 years. A dispute over how to acquire the private land that the reservoir would flood led to a 2006 lawsuit, and, eventually, to settlement negotiations, which concluded in 2016.

Experts say it’s not unusual for settlements to take years or even decades to complete, and that securing congressional approval requires balance. “Ultimately, these settlements are political instruments,” says Steven Moore, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and an advisor to the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. “You really have to work these settlements out so that it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News.

This article was published in the June 22, 2018 print edition of High Country News.

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

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

Back to the Future: Building resilience in Colorado Front Range forests using research findings and a new guide for restoration of ponderosa and dry-mixed conifer landscapes

Paired historical and current photographs of the Cheesman Reservoir landscape (near Denver CO) illustrating the general increase in forest density and loss of openings that occurred from the late 1890’s to 2000. These types of paired photos can help us to give scientists a broad idea of how forests have changed over time (photos from 2000 by M. Kaufmann) via the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Click here to read the January/February Bulletin from the Rocky Mountain Research Station. Here’s the summary:

Historically, the ponderosa and dry mixed-conifer forests of the Colorado Front Range were more open and grassy, and trees of all size classes were found in a grouped arrangement
with sizable openings between the clumps. As a legacy of re suppression, today’s forests are denser, with smaller trees. Proactive restoration of this forest type will help to reduce fuel loads and the risk of large and severe wild res in the Colorado Front Range. Using the best-available information on the historical conditions of these forests to develop “desired conditions” for restoration, the Rocky Mountain Research Station has published Principles and Practices for the Restoration of Ponderosa Pine and Dry Mixed-Conifer Forests of the Colorado Front Range (RMRS-GTR-373).

This guide was produced and reviewed by a range of scientists and managers from federal agencies, environmental non-pro ts, and academia to address the unique forest structure and re regime of this area as well as synthesize current Front Range forest science. It aims to help the management community understand the desired conditions for these forests, the principles behind the restoration recommendations made, and steps for implementing the principles. The guide is being released with a companion document, Visualization of Heterogeneous Forest Structures Following Treatment in the Southern Rocky Mountains, (RMRS-GTR-365) which allows users to “see” what the recommended treatments may look like at the stand level.

“Bergen Park” was painted by John Frederick Kensett circa 1870. The painting illustrates the open, spatially-variable structure of a ponderosa pine stand with an open understory typical of some Front Range forests at that time. (Bergen Park, at an elevation of 7800 ft., is located near Evergreen, CO, 25 miles west of Denver.) via Rocky Mountain Research Station

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

Take a moment to picture Colorado in your imagination. You’re probably seeing mountain vistas with postcard-perfect evergreen forests. There’s a good chance what you’re imagining looks like Hall Ranch — a 220-acre carpet of pointy green trees flooding the landscape in Boulder County.
Ecologists who know the state’s forest history say it wasn’t always this way. Colorado’s lower elevation vistas have become too crowded.

“The first thing I see is we’re missing the meadows. Where are the meadows?” asked Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University.

Euro-American settlement in the 1860s dramatically changed Colorado’s lower elevation forests. Before 1860, there would have been plenty of large open meadows. Small stands of ponderosa pines of various ages would have broken up the negative space. And low intensity wildfires would have moved through the stands of trees far more regularly.

Compare that to today where some crowded forests haven’t seen wildfire in more than a century. When fire comes it’s more likely to burn hot and intense, killing off all the trees.

Researchers care about this historical range because they want to make landscapes like Hall Ranch more wildfire friendly. Workers who manage forests now have specific guidelines on how to manage trees based on this framework. A new paper, published in April in Forest Ecology and Management, gives metrics to help guide and evaluate restoration projects.

“We’re not trying to exclude fire,” Cheng said. “We’re actually trying to set the landscape up to receive fire.”

Cheng, along with Peter Brown of the Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research organization, looked into the ranch’s historical forests and found that it’s pretty crowded today. Brown said, “there’s 10 times as many trees in these stands as there were historically.”

The latest Intermountain West Climate Dashboard briefing is hot off the presses from the Western Water Assessment #ColoradoRiver #COriver

West Drought Monitor June 5, 2018.

Click here read the briefing (scroll down). Here’s an excerpt:

The latest monthly briefing was posted today on the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard. The highlights, also provided below, cover current snowpack and drought conditions, runoff and reservoir conditions, May precipitation and temperature, and ENSO conditions and outlooks.

  • Below-normal precipitation for May and early June in most areas has clinched an extremely poor runoff season for Utah and southern and western Colorado. Meltout and peak runoff occurred 3-6 weeks earlier than normal in most of those basins. The low winter and spring precipitation and warm May temperatures have led to very high wildfire risk, with multiple large fires currently burning in Colorado and Utah.
  • As of June 11, snow remains at less than 10% of the SNOTEL sites in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, and the current SWE is well below normal at nearly all of those sites. Even in those areas that had near-normal or above-normal peak SWE this spring, the snowmelt since mid-May has been unusually rapid.
  • Observed monthly flows for May were around or below the 10th percentile for most gages in central and southern Utah and southern Colorado, with record-low May flows at a handful of gages in those areas. Observed flows in northern Colorado and northern Utah have been generally closer to average, while Wyoming had above-normal to record-high May flows in most basins. Due to the low May inflows, June 1 reservoir storage in Utah and Colorado has slipped compared to May 1, but is still slightly above average overall.
  • May precipitation was below normal to well below normal for western and southeastern Colorado, western and far southern Utah, and south-central Wyoming. The rest of Wyoming, northeastern Colorado, and northwestern Utah had wetter-than-normal conditions. May temperatures were much warmer than normal across the region, with some parts of western Colorado experiencing the warmest May on record.
  • Since early May, drought conditions have worsened in northeastern Utah and southeastern Colorado, while improving in north-central Colorado. D4 conditions persist in the Four Corners region and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The total area in the region affected by drought is similar to one month ago. As of June 5, 60% of Utah is in D2 or worse, and the remainder in D0 or D1; in Colorado, 51% is in D2 or worse, and 24% in D0-D1; and in Wyoming, only 14% is in D0-D1, with no D2-D4.
  • The La Niña event has finally petered out and ENSO-neutral conditions prevail in the tropical Pacific. The majority of models predict ENSO-neutral conditions to continue through fall 2018, with 50-50 odds for the emergence of El Niño conditions by winter 2018. The CPC seasonal precipitation outlooks for the June-August and July-September periods show slightly enhanced chances for an above-normal monsoon season affecting southern Utah and western Colorado, which would be most welcome if it occurs.
  • @COParksWildlife closes some state wildlife areas near #Durango; others and state parks remain open #416Fire #BurroFire

    From email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

    To assist federal and local agencies during the current dangerous fire conditions and recently enacted public land closures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced that some State Wildlife Areas in southwest Colorado are now closed to all public access. But in addition, several other water-based wildlife areas and two state parks remain open to the public.

    In and near Durango the Bodo, Perins Peak, Haviland Lake, Devil Creek and Williams Creek state wildlife areas are closed until further notice. In Bayfield the Lion’s Club shooting range, managed by CPW, is also closed.

    West of Durango in Dolores and Montezuma Counties, Lone Dome and Fish Creek State Wildlife Areas are also closed.

    “We regret having to enact these closures, but we do so in an effort to protect the public and protect natural resources. These measures will also help with compliance to the recent closures enacted by the U.S. Forest Service and La Plata County,” said Adrian Archuleta, a District Wildlife Manager with CPW.

    CPW also wants area residents and visitors to know that there are several other State Wildlife Areas and State Parks that remain open for recreation. CPW asks that people comply with any current local fire restrictions so that these areas can remain open for recreation.

    The areas that are open include: Echo Canyon SWA in Archuleta County; Pastorious SWA in La Plata County; in Montezuma and Dolores counties — Summit, Puett, Narraguinnep, Totten, Twin Spruce, Dolores River, Joe Moore and Ground Hog Reservoir state wildlife areas.

    Also open are Navajo State Park in Archuleta County; and Mancos State Park in Montezuma County. Both parks offer campsites, hiking, fishing and other water recreation.

    Halligan Reservoir expansion update

    Reservoirs NW of Fort Collins

    From Kevin Duggan writing on the opinion pages of The Fort Collins Coloradoan:

    The cost of a water-storage project Fort Collins has been pursuing for more than a decade continues to float higher and higher.

    But even at its current estimated cost of $74.1 million — $27.3 million more than estimated just a few years ago — city officials say expanding Halligan Reservoir along the North Fork of the Poudre River remains the city’s best and most affordable option for securing future water supplies that would be needed in the event of drought.

    That’s a big-ticket item by any measure. The cost would be covered by reserves in a fund that gets money from water rates paid by Fort Collins Utilities customers and fees charged to developers for tapping into the city’s water system.

    Those development fees could go up 23 percent in coming years to help pay for Halligan, according to a memo to City Council…

    Part of the reason for the project’s rising cost estimates is the uncertainty that comes with going through the National Environmental Policy Act process. The current projected cost includes $16.3 million in contingency funds to cover potential surprises in federal and state requirements for permitting and mitigation.

    Fort Collins has been working on and paying for an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for the proposed expansion of Halligan for 12 years. The latest estimate for when a draft EIS for the project will be released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is April 2019, said Adam Jokerst, the city’s project manager.

    Construction costs have gone up over the years and continue to rise. If the project is permitted, construction on the expansion, estimated to cost $31.3 million, could begin in 2023 and be completed in two years.

    It would be quite an effort. The city has proposed enlarging Halligan’s capacity from 6,400 acre-feet to about 14,525 acre-feet by raising its concrete dam 25 feet…

    The Halligan project has faced a lot of issues over the years. For a time, the EIS process included the city of Greeley’s proposal to expand its Milton Seaman Reservoir, which also is on the North Fork of the Poudre. Greeley wanted to expand its 5,000-acre-foot reservoir to 53,000 acre-feet.

    The Halligan-Seaman project included the cities in partnership with North Poudre as well as the Fort Collins-Loveland, East Larimer County and North Weld County water districts, also known as the Tri-Districts.

    The Tri-Districts backed out of the project in 2009, citing mounting costs and a lack of progress on environmental studies. North Poudre withdrew in 2014 over the same concerns.

    Those withdrawals required scaling back the project, changing its environmental impacts and adding time to the review process, Jokerst said. There’s also been a lot of turnover at the Corps over the years with personnel overseeing the EIS.

    The Seaman project was separated from Halligan in 2015 because of changing scopes for the projects and differing time frames. Greeley is now proposing to expand Seaman to 88,000 acre-feet to meet its water supply needs to 2065, according to the Corps’ website.

    Fort Collins officials maintain the Halligan project still makes sense for the city even with its escalating costs. It makes use of an existing reservoir and could potentially improve flows on the North Fork through mitigation. The city has the water rights it needs to fill the reservoir, Jokerst said.

    And Halligan is still less expensive than other water supply sources, according to the city. The going rates for an acre-foot of firm yield from the Colorado-Big Thompson project is $60,000. Under current estimates, water from the Halligan project would cost $8,800 per acre-foot.

    So far, Fort Collins Utilities has spent $12.6 million on the project. The city has appropriated $37.4 million for it and would have to come up with another $36.7 million under current projections.