In southwestern #Utah, unceasing growth means increased tension — @HighCountryNews #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From The High Country News (Jessica Kutz):

Access to public lands have caused St. George to become one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country.

In 1861, Mormon Church leaders dispatched 309 families from Salt Lake City to the arid southwestern corner of Utah, telling them to grow cotton. The plan to settle this inhospitable desert region was part of a larger church-led effort to colonize the southern part of the state. The water-intensive crop never took off, but the community of St. George did, and today it is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. In the past two years, St. George has added nearly 12,000 new residents to a population of approximately 153,000 people, many of them drawn by the city’s mild climate and access to public lands. But all this growth has stoked some rising tension over water and land in this former farm town.

ST. GEORGE, UT – SEPTEMBER 27: New single-family homes and others under construction are shown on a ridge September 27, 2013 in St. George, Utah. Housing starts on single-family rose at a faster pace in August, and building permits rose to a five-year high, according to published reports this week. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

And many of the resulting problems will land right in the lap of Adam Lenhard, the new city manager, who started his job in February. On a warm summer day not long ago, he gazed over a seemingly endless expanse of newly shingled rooftops. “In some ways, St. George is just being discovered,” he told me. “A lot of us have been coming here for decades, and now it really feels like there is this spotlight and people are really just moving in.”

We were overlooking the community of Little Valley, where, as in many of St. George’s neighborhoods, rapid development is one of the challenges facing Lenhard. Alfalfa fields have been dug up for baseball diamonds and pickle-ball courts, and former ranchland is now covered by new tract homes.

One of these homes, Lenhard said, was being built for his family, which will be moving soon from Layton, Utah. Lenhard said he’d thought about relocating to St. George ever since he spent several vacations exploring nearby Zion National Park — one of Utah’s “Mighty Five” — and the red rock formations of Snow Canyon State Park, just 23 miles from the city center. Such places are a big draw here, in a county that is 75 percent public land, and, as a newcomer himself, Lenhard is deeply sympathetic to the motivations of many of his constituents. “Growth is a two-edged sword,” he said. “It brings jobs, quality of life, better amenities. But we have to preserve what has brought people. … We have to find the right balance as we grow.”

Source: University of Utah Policy Institute. Compiled with data from U.S. Census Bureau, Utah Population Estimates Committee and Utah Population Committee.

While amenity-driven growth in the West is most often associated with ski towns like Telluride, Colorado, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, places like St. George have discovered that access to public lands — from slickrock deserts to mountainous wilderness to national parks and monuments — has become a migration magnet. This trend is playing out in communities across the region, according to John Shepard, director of programs for the Sonoran Institute. In the Old West, people’s migratory patterns were driven by jobs created by mining, timber and other resource-based economies, but today, people are moving because of the region’s “natural amenities, great outdoors, open space and wild lands,” he said. It’s no surprise that Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Oregon and Nevada are all seeing a spike in the number of new residents.

While retirees still make up a large percentage of new arrivals, St. George’s diversified economy is also attracting a new workforce, with employment in construction, hospitality, health care and manufacturing seeing the biggest upticks, according to a report compiled by the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “We’ve got growth pervasively across all age groups, mostly fed through migration,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. The city is also preparing to become the state’s next high-tech hub, with the creation of Tech Ridge, a mixed-use development designed to attract companies from across the country.

County-to-county migration-flow data from 2015 show that nearly 30 percent of new residents come from Utah’s crowded Wasatch Front, according to a report from the institute. The highest numbers of out-of-state residents are coming from California and Nevada, largely because they can take advantage of St. George’s lower cost of living. “The dynamic of being able to cash in your equity in California and move into other places … St. George has definitely been a beneficiary of that type of migration,” Perlich said. If this keeps up, the county is expected to house more than half a million people by 2065. That’s a lot of people struggling over limited resources of water and land — to say nothing of the preservation of the area’s agricultural heritage. Not surprisingly, this has added to the tension.

ON A LATE AFTERNOON IN JUNE, parents watched as their children splashed in a moat-like water feature in St. George’s Town Square Park, wading through channels and jumping between jets of water. Amid the watery revelry, one could almost forget that St. George is located in one of the driest states of the country; Washington County has an annual rainfall of just 16 inches per year. A majority of the county’s water comes from the Virgin River. Now, with droves of new residents moving in, long-term residents are worried that this precious and vulnerable resource could be drained, leading to water shortages.

That’s why in 2006, the Washington County Water Conservancy District announced plans to pursue a controversial pipeline connecting Lake Powell to southwest Utah. The nearly $1.5 billion project would divert 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell over 140 miles of desert into the county. The pipeline, which has yet to be approved, would provide security for the community’s future, said Ron Thompson, the district’s general manager. Supporters say the county needs to diversify its water sources. “Right now, our growing population is dependent on this one water source, which is really variable,” said Karry Rathje, the district’s public information manager.

Opponents of the project point out that even as the city’s population has grown, water use has actually gone down. According to figures released in June, the county decreased its consumption of potable water by over 1 billion gallons between 2010 and 2015, thanks to conservation measures and the conversion of irrigated agricultural land into housing developments. Groups like Conserve Southwest Utah, a local nonprofit, say even more can be done. That includes raising the county’s water rates, which remain some of the lowest in the United States.

Farm Security Administration members post on a cooperative pipe line used for irrigation in Saint George in 1940. Contributor Names Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer Created / Published-1940 Oct.-Subject Headings – United States–Utah–Washington County–Saint George

All this growth is having a serious impact on land use. The region’s post-settlement character is rooted in an agricultural tradition, but agrarian outposts like Little Valley are rapidly being erased. In response, local resident Nicole Hancock, who grew up in what she calls her “beloved fields,” started the Washington County Agricultural Development Committee. The county committee, which will be composed of 18 to 20 members, was approved for funding in May, with its mission to preserve farmland and promote agriculture education.

Eventually, it might help people like Sherrie Staheli, a fourth-generation farmer from Washington Fields who has seen her farm, once 1,500 acres, encroached on by subdivisions and retirement communities. “Never in a million years would I think we’d have houses this close to us,” said Staheli. Yet the pressure to sell the land has been unrelenting; Staheli’s own family sold some parcels for profit and others because more and more road easements through the property were being approved. “People built out here because of the beauty of these fields,” Staheli said, “but they don’t like what comes with it.”

EVEN MORE DEVELOPMENTS are being planned in other parts of the county. One of them, called Desert Color, will eventually house an estimated 30,000 residents on state trust lands. The plans include a lot of “smart-growth principles,” such as xeriscaping and walkable amenities to reduce driving needs, said Jane Whalen, a resident of nearby Hurricane and a community organizer.

In 2006, Whalen and other residents worked with officials to create a set of principals to guide the region’s growth. Other master-planned communities being built by the new St. George Airport, south of the city, will eventually run up to the Arizona state border, site of some of the last developable land within city limits. Such developments mean less open space for wildlife migration corridors and fragmented habitat for mule deer, quail and pheasants.

Even where it isn’t directly overtaking habitat, St. George’s sprawl puts pressure on wildlife. The 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, for example, was established in 1996 to protect the Mojave Desert tortoise, a federally listed threatened species. The reserve is governed by a county conservation plan, part of a compromise that unlocked over 300,000 acres of protected habitat for the development of housing, freeways and shopping centers.

In another sign of the times, state lawmakers are now reviewing that agreement. A new bill, the so-called “Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act,” was introduced by Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in April. If passed, that “conservation” bill could transform the tortoise’s habitat — a stark landscape of lava flows, cinder cones and desert brush — into a five-lane highway. No one doubts that if it’s built, more traffic will come.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

@WaterEdCO: Recovery to Resilience Flood Tour-September 18, 2018, Loveland, CO

Big Thompson Canyon before and after September 2013 flooding. Photo credit: Flywater.com

Click here for all the inside skinny:

Join Water Education Colorado on September 18 for a 5th anniversary, full-day tour of the 2013 flood-affected zone along the Front Range (to begin and end in Loveland). Jump on the bus with lawmakers, water managers, attorneys, engineers and members of the public to get an up-close look at various recovery projects. Participants will learn about the initial actions that were taken to protect lives and property as well as the subsequent projects that were undertaken to recover and build resilience. View the draft agenda here, then hurry and reserve your spot today. Seats are limited!

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@USFSRockyMtns opposes Fry-Ark conditional water rights in Holy Cross Wilderness — @AspenJournalism

Pristine Halfmoon Lake, shown here under hazy skies in August 2018, is on Lime Creek within the Holy Cross Wilderness and is near the location for a potential diversion dam and tunnel back toward the existing Fry-Ark Project to the south. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The U.S. Forest Service is questioning whether the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District ever will be able to get approval to build six potential diversion dams and related tunnels and conduits in the Fryingpan River basin that are located on USFS land above 10,000 feet within the Holy Cross Wilderness.

In a statement of opposition filed last month in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs, attorneys for the USFS said it “cannot authorize development of these six conditional water rights … because they lie within a congressionally designated wilderness. Only the president has authority to approve water developments within the Holy Cross Wilderness.”

The USFS statement of opposition, which was the only one filed in the case (18CW3063), also said “as currently decreed, the subject water rights raise questions as to whether they can and will be perfected within a reasonable time.”

The opposition statement was submitted July 31 in response to a periodic diligence application filed with the water court by Southeastern on May 28.

Southeastern is seeking to maintain its conditional water rights that are part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. The rights were decreed in 1958. Six of the rights are within the Holy Cross Wilderness, which was designated in 1980, but most are outside of it.

Southeastern, which is based in Pueblo, owns and manages the water rights for the Fry-Ark Project, which was built by the Bureau of Reclamation.

A detail of map of the Fry-Ark Project prepared by the Colorado River District, showing potential diversion points as purple circles. The map does not show the wilderness boundary.
A map prepared as part of a study by Wilson Water Group showing the locations of six potential diversion dams in the Holy Cross Wilderness, shown in light purple. The diversion points would be connected with tunnels and conduits and connected to the existing Fry-Ark Project system at Carter Creek, the most northern dam and tunnel in the existing system.
A map filed as part of Southeastern’s diligence application that shows the extent of the Fry-Ark Project. On its southern end, it diverts water from creeks near Aspen. The conditional rights within the Holy Cross Wilderness are on its northern end.

375 cfs

The six diversion dams inside the Holy Cross Wilderness would allow for the diversion of 10 cubic feet per second from an unnamed tributary of the North Fork of the Fryingpan River, for diversion of 135 cfs from Last Chance Creek and for 10 cfs from an unnamed tributary to Last Chance Creek, for 85 cfs from a creek called Slim’s Gulch and for 85 cfs from an unnamed tributary of Slim’s Gulch, and for 50 cfs from Lime Creek.

In all, the six conditional rights in the wilderness would allow for 375 cfs of additional diversions in the Fry-Ark Project.

The diversion structure on Lime Creek would be near pristine Halfmoon Lake, which is above Eagle Lake.

Chris Woodka, who is the issues management coordinator at Southeastern, said the conditional water rights in the wilderness “are like a bargaining chip that we really don’t want to give up.”

“If they could be developed at some point, we would still be interested in developing them, as far as getting the yield from there,” Woodka said. “But can we get more of a yield from the system using the mechanisms we have in place? Probably.”

The entrance to the Chapman Tunnel on the creek in Chapman Gulch, part of the existing Fry-Ark diversion system.

Maximizing limited yield

The Fry-Ark Project today includes 16 diversion dams and 26 miles of tunnels and conduits on the Western Slope that move water from the Hunter Creek and Fryingpan River basins to the centrally located Boustead Tunnel, which can divert as many as 945 cfs under the Continental Divide.

The water is sent to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville and then farther into the Arkansas River basin for use by cities and irrigators.

The six potential dams and tunnels in the Holy Cross Wilderness would connect to the existing Fry-Ark Project at the Carter Creek dam and tunnel, which is the most northerly point of the system. It was completed in 1981.

James DuBois, an attorney in the environment and natural resources division at the Justice Department and who filed the USFS statement of opposition, said he could not discuss the case.

DuBois filed a similar statement of opposition in a 2009 diligence filing for Southeastern’s conditional rights.

In that case, the USFS eventually agreed, in a 2011 stipulation, that Southeastern would study “the potential for moving its conditional water rights off of wilderness lands” during the next six-year diligence period, which ended in May.

It also would look at other ways to increase the project’s “authorized yield.”

A view of the Slim’s Gulch area in the upper Fryingpan River basin. The Lime Creek basin is on the other side of the jagged ridge in the background, and a tunnel under the mountain would move water from Lime Creek to Slim’s Gulch.

Yield limits

Under the project’s operating principles, the authorized yield of the Fry-Ark Project is limited to diverting 120,000 acre-feet in any one year, and to diverting no more than 2.35 million acre-feet over a 34-year rolling average, or an annual average of 69,200 acre-feet.

From 2010 to 2015, the project diverted an average of 63,600 acre-feet, indicating there is more yield to be gained.

This year, a dry year, about 39,000 acre-feet was diverted. In 2011, the last really wet year, 98,900 acre-feet was diverted, according to an annual report on the Fry-Ark Project prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation.

A view of the Last Chance Creek basin in the upper Fryingpan River basin. The main stem of Last Chance Creek wraps around the forested mountain in the middle of the photo, and a tributary to the south is off to the right, just out of view in the photo. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

Improving existing facilities

In accordance with the 2011 stipulation, a study on how to get more water out of the system was done by Wilson Water Group and presented to Southeastern in April.

In the presentation slides, Wilson Water told Southeastern’s board of directors that “analysis indicates contemplated project yield could be met through existing infrastructure and software upgrades.”

Another option studied was to move the six rights in the Holy Cross Wilderness downstream and out of the wilderness. However, Wilson Water said it would require pumping stations to lift the water back up to Fry-Ark system and the “cost per-acre feet is likely prohibitive.”

Despite the finding that improving the existing system would increase the yield on the project, Southeastern voted in April to file for diligence on the six conditional rights within the wilderness, along with other conditional rights, telling the court that “while the construction of certain conditionally decreed project features has not yet been started, there is no intent to abandon these features or any of the conditional water rights … .”

A sign marking the boundary of the Holy Cross Wilderness in the Last Chance Creek basin. The trail up the basin does not see a lot of hiking traffic. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

‘Inappropriate location’

Upon learning of the diligence application this week, Will Roush, the executive director of Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, said “the Holy Cross Wilderness is a completely inappropriate location” for the development of the conditional water rights.

“Lime Creek, Last Chance Creek and the surrounding lands and tributaries provide amazing opportunities for solitude and the rare opportunity to experience a landscape and alpine watershed free of human infrastructure and without the diversion of water,” Roush said.

An informational memo on the diligence case was presented to the Southeastern board of directors on Aug. 16, and there was no discussion of the case by the board.

An initial status conference in the diligence case has been set for Sept. 18.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering the Roaring Fork and Colorado river basins in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Saturday, August 19, 2018. This version of the story corrected the date of the earlier stipulation between Southeastern and USFS, which was reached in 2011, not 2012, when the case was closed.

#AnimasRiver: “We’ve got years’ worth of investigations to do” — Rebecca Thomas #GoldKingMine @EPA

On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Project to clean nearly 30 mines in 5 years has drawn criticism

The Environmental Protection Agency will not release public comments before it makes a final decision on a proposed plan to clean up 26 mine sites over the next five years in the Superfund area near Silverton.

In June, the EPA released the proposed plan, which identified quick action projects the agency wants to take while it comes up with a long-term plan for improving water quality in the upper Animas River. The proposed plan is expected to cost about $10 million.

“We’ve got years’ worth of investigations to do,” Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager, said in a previous interview. “These early actions are not intended to be a final remedy. They’re no-brainer activities to help get the water clean and reduce the amount of loading.”

The release of the plan kicked off a 30-day public comment period, which was extended another month in response to requests by the public. The comment period ended Wednesday.

When The Durango Herald asked EPA officials to review public comments, spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the public comments and the EPA’s response won’t be made available for review until the EPA makes a final decision.

“All significant comments, and EPA’s responses to those comments, will be compiled in a responsiveness summary. The responsiveness summary will be included in the final decision document – the Interim Record of Decision. The Interim Record of Decision will be published once the agency has had a chance to review and consider all comments received.”

Withholding of public feedback and the agency’s replies until after a final decision is made is in contrast with other comment periods the EPA has held. In 2015, for example, comments were posted in real time for the listing of the Superfund site.

“In some instances, such as federal rule-makings, comments can be made available in real time,” Peterson wrote. “However, significant comments on a site-specific Record of Decision are released in a responsiveness summary with the decision document.”

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Despite ash flows and mine waste, the river is resilient

It’s been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.

This weekend marks three years since the river, which runs through the heart of Durango, endured a massive mine waste spill from a blowout at the Gold King Mine. The waterway turned an electric orange and gained international attention.

The Aug. 5, 2015, spill brought to the forefront the longstanding issue of toxic metals leeching into the Animas River from legacy mining in its headwaters around Silverton.

This year has been an especially vicious dagger into the Animas.

A winter that never showed up in the San Juan Mountains resulted in one of the lowest snowpack years in recorded history. Then, through spring and early summer, extreme drought tightened its stranglehold on Southwest Colorado.

The Animas River saw its third lowest peak flow in more than 100 years of recorded history, and one of its earliest, hitting a high of about 1,000 cubic feet per second in May. Typically, the river peaks at about 4,700 cfs in early June.

Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when ash runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar came tumbling down north of Durango.

The dark-chocolate colored waters suffocated fish, which desperately washed ashore seeking oxygen. Though an official population survey won’t be conducted until this fall, it’s estimated thousands of fish died.

A raw sewage spill last week at Santa Rita Park was an extra twist of the dagger.

A river without fish
For some perspective, it’s likely aquatic life is either all but gone or dramatically depleted through the entire 126-mile stretch of the river from the headwaters in Silverton, down through Durango to the Animas’ confluence with the San Juan River in Farmington.

In recent years, the river from Silverton to Bakers Bridge (about 15 miles north of Durango) has been basically considered a dead zone because of toxic metal-loading from leeching mines.

The ash flows during the month of July killed most of the fish in the river through Durango. Even the most tolerant species – carp – was found dead along the river’s banks.

Fish in this stretch of the Animas River have been unable to reproduce because of a combination of factors, such as high water temperature and mining pollution. The fish that do live in the river are stocked by Colorado Fish and Wildlife.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe declined to comment about how fish are doing in the Animas through tribal lands. Attempts to reach a biologist with New Mexico Fish and Game were unsuccessful. The Animas, however, has all but dried up before it reaches the San Juan River.

“It’d be unusual if everything was dead, but it’s probably to the point where it’s virtually that way,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But despite the onslaught of doom and gloom, there is reason to be optimistic: Rivers are resilient, and steps are finally being taken to make significant strides in the cleanup of the Animas River.

Improving water, habitat
After the Gold King Mine spill, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (which triggered the blowout while working at the inactive mine) declared a long-awaited Superfund listing, which will clean up nearly 50 mining sites around the Animas River headwaters.

Already, a temporary water-treatment plant built in 2015 has shown improvement in water quality downstream, said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson, though it’s too soon to know its effect on aquatic life…

While ash flows have decimated fish populations, research has shown aquatic species rebound quickly after wildfires, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist for Mountain Studies Institute.

Gubernatorial hopefuls, other candidates to tackle #drought at @COWaterCongress Summer Convention

Vail Colorado via Colorado Department of Tourism

From ColoradoPolitics.com (Marianne Goodland):

Note: I will not be at the conference Tweeting away this year. I’m depending on all you other Tweeters to keep me informed.

The three-day conference, which starts Wednesday at the Hotel Talisa in Vail, is expected to draw more than 300 water policy experts as well as local, county and state officials who handle water issues…

Drought issues will be a key discussion topic this week, said Doug Kemper, the group’s executive director. Drought has hit the southern half of the state pretty hard, Kemper said.

“You’re looking at record low flows in some areas,” especially around Gunnison, he said. “We came into this year universally above average in every river basin, but will exit this water year in a different condition.”

Negotiations with the six other states that draw water from the Colorado River are at a critical point, Kemper said, even as a new governor and attorney general are coming to Colorado.

The conference will hear from the major candidates for both offices, marking the first time that many in the water community will meet them. They’ll likely be asked how they view the state water plan, whether the next governor will have a special water adviser, as Gov. John Hickenlooper has, and how they view the work of the basin roundtables, which carry much of the workload for the water plan.

Funding for the plan also is in question. Kemper said it’s still unclear whether funding will come from grants or loans and whether it will be spent on infrastructure, wastewater treatment or environmental protection.

The congress will meet Wednesday with Republican attorney general candidate George Brauchler, followed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton.

Thursday, Democratic attorney general candidate Phil Weiser will speak to the congress.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is to address the group Friday.

Congressional candidates also will visit: Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton will be at the congress Thursday, and Democratic opponent Diane Mitsch Bush will address the congress Friday.

Thursday, the Legislature’s interim water resources review committee will hold its August session at the congress. The committee is to review funding for the state water plan, the Colorado River compact and drought contingency plans for the Colorado River.

Thursday’s keynote address, “A New Culture of Certainty at EPA,” will be delivered by Doug Benevento, the EPA Region VIII administrator, and comes on the heels of a federal court order Thursday that the Trump administration reinstate the Obama administration’s “Waters of the USA” rule.