#ColoradoRiver District wants state policy on potential water-use cutbacks — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification @ColoradoWater @CWCB_DNR

A big beach on the lower Green River in late September is indicative of the low flows in 2018, which have caused water levels in Lake Powell to continue to drop. Plans to bolster flows in the reservoir by sending water down the Green and Colorado rivers is raising hard questions for Western Slope irrigators.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Before the Colorado River District will support pending federal legislation allowing drought contingency plans in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins to proceed, it wants the state of Colorado to adopt a policy putting limits on a new water-use reduction program designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.

That was the clear message from the River District board that general manager Andy Mueller said he received during a passionate discussion during a district meeting Tuesday.

“Most of the board is saying that at a bare minimum we have to have the state, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, affirm that there are in fact some sideboards and protections from the risks we face,” Mueller said, in summarizing the board’s discussion. “We’ve got to have some principles that guide the way this program is set up, and its consistency with the state water plan.”

Mueller said the program has to be consistent with the state water plan, there has to be an equitable distribution of wet water coming from both the Front Range and the Western Slope, and the program has to be voluntary, temporary and compensated.

“This board is not OK with the idea of a mandatory curtailment to fill a demand management pool,” Mueller said. “We don’t feel that there is legal or statutory authority for such a program.”

The concerns of the River District directors stem from an ongoing multi-state effort to create and gain approval for “drought contingency plans” in the lower and upper basins.

The lower basin states include California, Arizona and Nevada, and the upper basin states include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

And as part of the regional “DCP” effort, it is anticipated that federal legislation will be required to implement changes to how water is managed in the upper and lower basins, with the goal of keeping enough water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to keep those massive reservoirs functioning in the face of an ongoing 18-year drought.

The proposed changes include modifying the current regulations that guide how much conserved, or saved, water can be stored in Lake Mead by lower basin entities.

The changes include developing a plan to release water in a coordinated fashion from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, which can send water down the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers, respectively, to Lake Powell.

And the changes include creating a legally secure pool of water in Lake Powell to be filled with water conserved after fallowing fields, primarily, in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

Officials from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City who are working on the drought contingency plans say legislation will be submitted to Congress during the lame-duck session after the midterm elections.

And it’s widely assumed that such legislation will pass only if there is no opposition from entities that would be affected, such as the Colorado River District, which represents 15 Western Slope counties.

Mueller said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the CWCB, a state agency that manages water planning, will adopt a guiding policy at its November board meeting about the creation of a demand management program.

And a senior CWCB official Wednesday offered reasons for Mueller’s optimism, including that such a policy is now being drafted for the board’s consideration.

“The policy statement will be informed by the public testimony, letters received, and the feedback we’ve heard from stakeholders around the state in the past year of aggressive public outreach,” said Brent Newman, who is the section chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section and the state agency’s point person on Colorado River issues. “Because we’re hoping to respond and provide CWCB leadership to concerns that our partners and stakeholders have raised, it will likely address these issues.”

Newman also emphatically told the river district’s directors Tuesday that the state is not working on a mandatory curtailment program to avoid a call on the river system under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“Not myself, not the CWCB staff, not our board, not the Attorney General’s Office, not the division of water resources, not the state engineer, none of us at the state are assessing or recommending any kind of mandatory anticipatory curtailment scenario,” Newman said. “That is not in our books. Yes, we’ve had some water users say that if voluntary, temporary and compensated isn’t sufficient, you may have to look at this. We are not doing that.”

It was also made clear during the river district’s meeting that “anticipatory mandatory curtailment” of water rights in Colorado is seen as a direct threat to family-run farms and ranches on the Western Slope.

“If we want to push the Western Slope to the brink, where people start to actually sit down at the kitchen table and consider whether or not they ought to sell the farm to some outside-the-Western-Slope interest, this is how we get there,” said Marc Catlin, who represents Montrose County on the River District’s board, and also represents District 58 in the Colorado House.

After Catlin’s comments, many other River District board members said they agreed.

“This just shows how important it is to get the demand-management program right, and that we don’t rush into a demand-management pool in Lake Powell before we’ve had this discussion and before we’ve agreed to a policy and principles to guide us,” said Tom Alvey, the current president of the district’s board, who represents Delta County. “From all the perspective of water users on the Western Slope, there is huge concern about this.”

Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.

“It happened stunningly fast…From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape” — John Dahlke #ActOnClimate

From National Geographic (Hannah Nordhaus):

As the morning light grows over the eastern mountains, the outlandish mating ritual comes into view. The knee-high males strut around, puffing their white-feathered chests and splaying their tails. They chase one another and spar in a flurry of beating wings, heaving chests, and loud thunking. Meanwhile the females—smaller birds with brindled gray feathers that blend with sage and soil—stand around looking bored. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, and the human analogies are inescapable: singles bar, Venice Beach boardwalk, Senate hearing.

Leaves and flowers of Artemisia tridentata.
By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4424733

The greater sage grouse is “unquestionably the most comical-looking bird I have ever seen,” ornithologist Charles Bendire noted in 1877. Back then there were millions of sage grouse across the American West. Native peoples and Anglo settlers alike hunted them for feathers and food. Camping in one Wyoming valley in the 1880s, naturalist George Bird Grinnell found it so crammed with grouse that it became a “moving mass of gray.”

Such scenes are hard to find today. Less than 10 percent of the bird’s original population remains, about half a million birds scattered across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. Sage grouse need undisturbed sagebrush; the tough, drought-resistant shrub feeds the birds, especially in winter, and shelters them and their nests. But sagebrush is in retreat everywhere. Massive overgrazing a century ago cleared the way for invasive grasses that now fuel devastating fires in the western part of the bird’s range. Roads and subdivisions, transmission lines, farms, gas fields, and wind turbines—all disrupt what was once an unbroken sea of sage.

Preserving sagebrush for grouse would help other animals that depend on the same habitat, such as pronghorn, mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and burrowing owls. But it might prove costly to ranchers, miners, oil and gas developers, and real estate brokers. In 2015 then President Barack Obama’s administration brokered what it hailed as a historic collaboration among those competing interests. Now President Donald Trump’s administration is weakening provisions that steered oil and gas drilling away from areas that had been reserved for sage grouse.

It’s the age-old battle between those who want to preserve western lands and those who want to extract a living from them—only in this case, the burden falls on a comical, knee-high bird. As the sage grouse goes, so goes the West.

One of the biggest factors in the grouse’s decline these days may be the astonishing increase in natural gas production in places such as the Green River Basin, south of Pinedale, Wyoming. In 1984, when biologist John Dahlke first visited, the basin contained sagebrush, a few fence posts, some two-track roads, and not much else—except the largest known winter concentration of sage grouse. They would lift from the sage in lumbering waves, Dahlke recalls: “The sky was full of them, bumping into each other, falling down.”

That basin is now home to one of the most productive gas fields in the region. Called the Jonah Field, it’s crisscrossed with roads and cluttered with chugging, groaning infrastructure: gas wells, drill rigs, pipelines, sage-camouflaged service huts. Nearly all of that is on federal land.

“It happened stunningly fast,” says Dahlke, who works as a wildlife consultant in Pinedale. “From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape.”

The breakneck change has proved particularly hard on sage grouse because of their fidelity to ancestral mating and nesting grounds. Males return each spring to the same leks—clearings where they do their mating dances. Females usually nest within 500 yards or so of the previous year’s nest. Their chicks settle nearby.

“Sage grouse are very poor pioneers,” Dahlke says. Rather than set off for better habitat—which is more and more limited—they dance doggedly on and nest among the bulldozers and flaring gas wells. Most birds survive in the short term, Dahlke says, but “incremental impacts” take their toll. The number of leks has dwindled. “The enormous winter flocks are now gone from the Jonah Field,” Dahlke says. “They are gone.”

Only in the early 1990s did scientists start to realize the extent of the sage grouse’s decline across the West. In 1999 conservation groups filed the first petition requesting that the bird be protected under the Endangered Species Act. But for years the federal government, hamstrung by tight budgets and pressure from business interests, put off a reckoning. Listing sage grouse as endangered would sharply limit economic activity on the 173 million acres of public, state, and private land where sage grouse live.

Greater sage grouse range map via the USFWS.

But the threat of a listing motivated states to take action. In 2007 Wyoming, which houses more than a third of the remaining sage grouse and has an economy that depends on fossil fuel extraction, brought together a broad coalition—ranchers, industry representatives, conservation groups, land managers, and politicians—to create a policy to halt the bird’s decline.

“We battled it out mightily,” says Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, which operates on the Jonah Field. “And then we put our interests aside and asked, ‘What is best for Wyoming?’ ”

The group ultimately agreed to limit any development and restore disturbed areas within “core” grouse habitat—not including the Jonah Field, where the grouse population was already diminished—while allowing more intensive development elsewhere.

The Obama administration’s $60 million federal plan was modeled on Wyoming’s. No faction got everything it wanted. But, Ulrich says, “it’s demonstrably working.” Industry got certainty: The administration promised it wouldn’t list sage grouse as endangered. Conservationists, says Brian Rutledge of the Audubon Society, got limits on development in important habitat. “Do we have issues?” Rutledge asks. “Of course. But we set standards and are measuring impacts. To me this is the future of conservation.”

Not everyone agreed. Groups on left and right filed suit, arguing, respectively, that the plan would not adequately protect grouse or that the restrictions were “draconian.” “The certainty of not being able to develop is not the kind of certainty we want,” says Kathleen Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.

The Trump administration agrees: For the sake of energy independence and not “destroying local communities,” as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed lifting some restrictions on development in key sage grouse habitat. Under another proposed policy, which could affect many species, the administration would allow regulators to consider not only the science but also the economic impact of listing species as endangered.