Last Ditch Standing: A tale of water inequality in the West — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

My parents have a small garlic farm in Western Colorado in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. They bought the place just over a decade ago, along with a couple of shares of water from the ditch which runs through their property. It’s a nice little plot of rural Colorado with good dirt and nice views, but it wasn’t until this terribly dry summer that they realized how valuable the land is. The Farmers Ditch, diverted from the North Fork near Paonia, has some of the most senior rights in the valley. They are water-rich in an arid world.

Since white settlement began here back in the late 1800s, the communities of the North Fork have revolved around coal and agriculture. Three underground coal mines churned away for decades, their bounty loaded upon mile-long trains headed for power plants in the Midwest and beyond. Paonia and the surrounding mesas have long been renowned for fruit, vegetables and, for a time, marijuana.

After surging to a peak just over a decade ago, coal began its hasty, nationwide decline, and now only one of three mines in the North Fork is still operating. Meanwhile, small-scale agriculture has taken over as one of the main economic pillars of this idyllic valley: Cherries, peaches, hops and hemp. Agricultural interests also are a strong political force rising up in resistance to proposed oil and gas drilling because of its detrimental effect on the water, which is becoming more and more precious in a warming world.

Thanks to the dramatically sere appearance of the natural landscape, the North Fork Valley provides a stark visual reminder of the importance of large-scale irrigation in these parts. A ditch along a hillside becomes a sharp divide between the dry, sparse, dusty dobie-land above the ditch; and green, grassy, cottonwood- and cattail-strewn land below it. This is true even where no active irrigation is taking place; the ditches are generally so leaky that they create artificial wetlands in areas that are distant from fields or crops or lawns.

Most of the irrigation water comes from the North Fork, which begins at the confluence of Muddy Creek and Anthracite Creek. Paonia Reservoir sits just above the confluence, on Muddy Creek. Typically the reservoir fills up during the spring and early summer, during which the natural flow in Anthracite Creek is adequate to fill all of the downstream ditches. When Anthracite starts to wane, water is released from the reservoir to keep the ditches flowing, usually into August and sometimes even until late October. In late June or early July the river’s total flow reaches equilibrium with the volume diverted from it, causing the river through Paonia to dry to a tiny, warm trickle that is good for sustaining only crawdads and mosquito larvae.

Even more shocking than the annual desiccation of the riverbed is the way in which so many water rights holders continue to pull their maximum share from the ditch, even if it’s not needed, even if they have no crops or even lawn to irrigate. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. Meanwhile, only a handful of the small-scale farmers have bothered to install more efficient irrigating systems, and most of the ditches continue to leak like sieves. That may be fine in a time of abundance, but these are times of increasing scarcity.

Paonia Reservoir — which gets its water from aptly named Muddy Creek — is filling up with mud. When constructed in 1962, the reservoir had 21,000 acre feet of capacity; today only 14,000 acre feet of capacity remain. So the amount of water available to irrigators is diminishing, even during wet years. But this year was one of the driest on record, which prompted downstream, senior water rights holders to put a “call” on the river in mid-June, at least a month earlier than usual, forcing junior, upstream holders to stop diverting water. By the time August rolled around, all but a few ditches in the North Fork had been shut down or had their flows drastically curtailed. Farmers Ditch, meanwhile, kept running right up to the brim.

The farmers of the North Fork Valley make up a fairly tight-knit community. They share seedlings and knowledge, hay balers and tillers, trade garlic for meat. So one would expect them to respond to a water crisis in much the same way, with the haves on Farmers Ditch sharing their bounty with the have-nots whose ditches ran dry. At the very least, you’d expect the haves to cut down on their own water use, even if just out of respect for their less fortunate neighbors.

But that’s not how it works in the arcane world of Western water. This summer most of the folks on Farmers Ditch carried on like they would any other year, using up their entire share of water and letting whatever they didn’t use run off across the mesa tops to evaporate and seep into the earth while their dry-ditch neighbors looked on helplessly. I watched one landowner wastefully dump a steady stream of irrigation water on his dusty horse pasture, turning it into a nasty mud bog where only a few thistles grew, while a mile away crops wilted. Wealth-inequality may be the scourge of our nation, but it’s water inequality that will increasingly plague the arid West.

The ostentatiously water wealthy are not entirely to blame. I’m confident that most of them would have been happy share their bounty if they could. But there’s no simple mechanism for this kind of cooperation. My parents can’t just turn a valve and send their water across the valley to their fellow farmer. The system wasn’t designed that way. It is the system that needs changing.

“The solution is, in a sense, straightforward,” writes John Fleck in his book Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West. “Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.”

Fleck’s referring to the macro of the Colorado River Basin here, but it also applies to the micro of irrigation districts everywhere. New rules, new systems, new ways of operating are needed that would incentivize efficiency and that would allow the Farmers Ditches of the world to share with the others in the community who aren’t so fortunate.

When it comes to water, though, we Westerners tend to get entrenched in the use-it-or-lose-it culture, which is anathema to cooperation and to efficiency. Still, this is not unsurmountable. When pushed up against the wall, Westerners have become more limber in their approach to water. Take Las Vegas, which has managed to cut per capita water use enough so that it’s been able to grow its population without robbing Great Basin farmers of their groundwater — at least so far.

And then there’s another, smaller instance of cooperation that bears mentioning. After the Sunnyside Mine upstream from Silverton, Colorado, shut down in 1991, the owners put a boxcar-sized plug, or bulkhead, into the mine’s main tunnel to keep the 1,600 gallons-per-minute of acid mine drainage from going into the Animas River watershed.

Not long afterward, the region suffered through what at the time seemed like a horrible drought, prompting a downstream ditch company to make a call on the Animas River.

That’s when Silverton discovered that the founding fathers had failed to file for water rights back in the early days of the town, leaving the town with some of the most junior rights on the entire river. They faced the very real prospect of having to shut down their municipal water intakes. Instead, the Sunnyside Mine stepped up and opened the valve on the giant plug, releasing enough water (and treating it) to satisfy the downstream call, and buying Silverton time during which it could seek out a long-term fix. (Then the mine shut the valve down again and water backed up in the mine to disastrous effect, but then, that’s another story.)

It’s this sort of out-of-the-box, pragmatic, cooperative thinking that the West is known for, and that has helped many a community transition successfully away from extraction-based economies. Now the warming, drying region is faced with a much bigger, tougher transition, with even higher stakes.

Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

Western Slope wants limits on water sent to #LakePowell in response to #drought — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A big beach during sunset in Cataract Canyon, above Lake Powell, on Oct. 1, 2018. Low flows in the Green and Colorado rivers have left Lake Powell less than half full and left big beaches along the rivers above the falling reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Western Slope water managers have doubled down on their position that they will oppose federal legislation creating a new regulated pool of water to boost the falling level of Lake Powell unless Colorado adopts a policy that the pool should be filled only on a voluntary basis.

At a well-attended water meeting last week, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that without a new state policy putting limits on how water can be stored in the big reservoir, “You will find that our district, the Southwest District and hopefully others will be, frankly, opposing the federal legislation.”

Mueller said his district and the Southwestern Water Conservancy District “have to have those guidelines” in order to protect agriculture on the Western Slope, a stance first expressed by both districts in September.

In response to the Western Slope’s concerns, a policy on how to fill a new “demand management storage” pool in Lake Powell is being drafted by the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for review by the agency’s directors Nov. 15.

“I can’t say with certainty, but I believe that policy will be established and will allay the concerns that we’ve heard,” Steve Anderson, a CWCB board member representing the Gunnison River Basin, said Tuesday at the meeting.

But there may be still be a gap between the protections the Western Slope wants and the Front Range’s stance, which is that it may be necessary to fill the proposed pool of water in Lake Powell through mandatory cutbacks in water use if voluntary efforts are not enough.

Water managers from Southern California to Wyoming are watching the ongoing debate because if Colorado can’t reach a consensus, an ongoing effort to establish a “drought contingency planning” program could falter.

Draft “DCP” agreements are now under review in seven states. They would change the way water is stored in Lake Mead, which primarily affects the lower Colorado River Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

In the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the DCP agreements would set up a process to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, if necessary.

The agreements also would create a pool of water in Lake Powell that would be shielded from current regulations that balance water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Regional water officials are working hard to gain widespread consensus by Dec. 14 for the DCP agreements in both the upper and lower basins, and given how slow water policy usually moves, it’s a tight timeline.

The necessary federal legislation to implement the program may be introduced during the coming lame-duck session in Congress, and any significant opposition to the legislation, such as that from the Colorado River district, could derail the effort.

And the differing views between Western Slope and Front Range water managers now appear to be the largest obstacle to gaining consensus in the four upper-basin states.

“I’m not aware of any other issue that has risen to the top like this,” said Amy Haas, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which is coordinating the upper basin’s drought contingency efforts. “I know that some discussions have been difficult in other states, but not to this degree.”

Officials on both the Western Slope and the Front Range do agree on many aspects of demand management storage in Lake Powell, which is designed to keep Glen Canyon Dam both producing hydropower and releasing enough water to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

They agree that such a program should include equitable reductions in the use of water from both sides of the Continental Divide.

And they agree that the effort should start with a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” approach, with the goal of incentivizing irrigators to fallow fields and send the conserved water downriver to Lake Powell.

But where they differ is the potential use of mandatory reductions in water use if voluntary measures are not enough to keep Glen Canyon Dam operating as usual.

In a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River and the Southwestern districts said the state must declare that “Colorado’s contributions to the demand management program will be generated exclusively through voluntary, temporary and compensated contributions of water.”

The key word there is “exclusively.”

The two districts also said they were concerned “that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted.”

Meanwhile, the Front Range Water Council, which includes the biggest water providers from Pueblo to Fort Collins, told the CWCB in a Sept. 13 letter that if there is not enough water generated through a voluntary program, the state “may wish to pursue alternative measures to ensure continued compliance with the Colorado River Compact.”

To Western Slope officials, “alternative measures” sounds like mandatory “anticipatory curtailment,” where water rights are cut back by the state to avoid a compact call.

State officials continue to stress that the state is not developing a mandatory curtailment program and is only focusing on a voluntary program.

However, the Colorado River District’s Mueller has been telling Western Slope water managers that the Front Range, which uses large amounts of water from the Colorado River, is eager for mandatory curtailment.

“There are major water users, major interests in this state on the Front Range, who are talking about that,” Mueller said Tuesday at the water meeting, which was attended by about 200 Western Slope water managers and users. “Because they either don’t think we are going to get the money for a voluntary program or maybe they see advantages to be had in mandatory curtailment.”

But Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the president of the Front Range Water Council, on Friday rejected Mueller’s assertions that it was pushing for mandatory curtailment.

“That’s not our preference, that’s not our hope, that’s not what we want to see — it’s just reality,” Lochhead said. “It may happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But it’s not something we’re rolling out, and the first priority should be voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

But he also said, “At the end of the day, if we’re in trouble from a compact standpoint, the state is going to have to exercise its authority.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Oct. 29. The Summit Daily News published the story in its print edition on Oct. 30.

#ColoradoRiver: The precarious plan for the #LakePowellPipeline — @HighCountryNews #COriver #aridification

Proposed Lake Powell pipeline. Map via the City of St. George.

From The High Country News (Emma Penrod):

Nearly a decade ago, Gabriel Lozada, a man with a wiry frame and waves of steel-gray hair who looks exactly like the mathematician he is, set out to answer what he thought was a relatively simple question: Could Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline — a plan to ferry Colorado River water to southern Utah — live up to the state’s rosy forecasts of growth and prosperity? Or was it more likely to tank the economy of a small but lively retirement community in the southwestern Utah desert?

Lozada, a theoretical mathematician at the University of Utah and a pro bono consultant for the Utah Rivers Council, suspected that government officials were overstating the pipeline’s benefits and ignoring its potential costs. So he began building a mathematical model of its possible impacts on southern Utah residents. While proponents argued that the project was necessary to stave off water shortages, Lozada warned that it might trigger an economic crisis.

But how could he be sure? Even today, more than a decade after it was first proposed, no one seems to know what the pipeline — with 140 miles of buried pipe and five pumping stations between Lake Powell and the town of St. George — is going to cost, much less how it will impact local water rates. Communications from within Utah’s state water agencies, obtained during this investigation, suggest officials purposefully withheld those details from the very taxpayers who might ultimately be saddled with the bill. Federal officials also seem wary of the state’s scanty financial information. In September, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declined to take action that would have exempted the state from more rigorous financial scrutiny. Despite this, the state Division of Water Resources “remains fully committed to this project,” according to Division Director Eric Millis.

As pressure mounts over the project’s fate, Lozada has been consumed with trying to discern how the pipeline will impact the residents of Washington County, the intended recipients of its water. And in the process, he’s made enemies. His research has become mired in a back-and-forth with Jeremy Aguero, a rival economist in Las Vegas whom the Washington County Water Conservancy District hired to conduct its own cost analysis. His conclusions are very different from Lozada’s. Where Lozada predicted a 500 percent increase in water rates — amounting to about $370 more per person, per year — Aguero originally promised Washington County could fund the pipeline for just $25 per person per year, an increase of less than 27 percent.

Aguero pointed out errors in his rival’s math, which Lozada corrected; he now believes the water districts’ plan to triple its water rates — potentially increasing residents’ costs by more than $300 per year — may, just barely, pay for the pipeline. But he doesn’t believe residents will pay such prices without buying dramatically less water, negating the need for the pipeline.

And he has grown increasingly frustrated by the county’s unwillingness to reconcile the two models and publish a single accurate number. And though Lozada has released his work, Washington County has not released the details behind Aguero’s analysis. “Who knows what else is wrong with the model?” says Lozada. “They’re not transparent about it, so I can’t see what’s wrong.”

Aguero has also been reluctant to stand by his conclusions. In June 2016, when a state records committee forced him to release a PowerPoint presentation created for the water district regarding his $25-a-year model, he disowned it. The $25 figure, he said, was merely a placeholder in an interactive exercise intended to spur discussion about how the public would prefer to pay for the pipeline. The real model, he claimed, did not exist in a format that could be released. He later told local journalists the average residents’ water bill would increase by just $52. Aguero did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

It’s not just the cost that is obscure; it’s also unclear who will pay the bills. Historically, water projects of this scale were constructed with federal funds. But those dollars have largely dried up, and residents of northern Utah — who continue to outnumber their southern counterparts by a wide margin — oppose a state subsidy for the project. That would leave still-small Washington County to pay for a billion-dollar-plus pipeline essentially by itself.

County officials believe the expense will be worth the risks once they realize their vision for a more vibrant community with jobs and a quality of life that will keep their children nearby. But it’s those very descendants who could end up saddled with billions of dollars in debt should the increased cost of water cause local growth to stall.

Washington County is currently one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. In recent decades, it’s been discovered by Californians looking for a warm climate with a lower cost of living, and northern Utahns seeking affordable land with milder winters. The quiet desert town of St. George is now a bustling retirement community with a thriving tourism industry. That rapid growth has become Utah’s justification for building a pipeline to provide water, despite a nationwide drop in water use in the last decade, suggesting that a growing population won’t necessarily need more, and Lozada’s anticipation that local residents won’t pay.

Before the population explosion, state leaders envisioned the Lake Powell Pipeline as a way to use Utah’s share of the Colorado River to spur economic development in Washington County. Abundant water, they hoped, would attract exciting new economic opportunities that would inspire local youth to build lifelong careers at home in the rural West. But by now, it’s clear that the pipeline is no longer needed to achieve that vision; Washington County began transforming in the 1980s and ’90s.

Amid the growth of the budding county, the Utah Legislature agreed in 2006 to build the Lake Powell Pipeline — with certain conditions. According to the terms of the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, the state will pay for the construction of the pipeline, but only if the recipients of the water, Kane and Washington counties’ water conservancy districts, enter into a contract to purchase it. According to the state statute, the water will be sold at a price that enables the state to reclaim the costs associated with designing and building the pipeline, with interest, over 50 years.

According to David Clark, the now-retired state legislator who originally introduced the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, the law was designed to emulate the way the Bureau of Reclamation financed large water projects in the past. But since federal dollars are harder to come by today, the act assumed that the state would play the role of the federal government. The act does not, however, Clark said, authorize a state subsidy for the project.
Outside analyses, though, have since raised doubts about Washington County’s ability — or plans — to pay for the pipeline in full.

Tied to promises that new residents will foot the bill, local leaders have hatched a complicated scheme to raise funds for it. But their plan relies heavily on the county’s continued growth, presenting a nebulous moving target as the pipeline’s costs become increasingly unclear.

Water districts have the authority to levy property taxes, and so tax increases to help pay for the pipeline are already planned in Washington County, according to Ron Thompson, a proud descendant of pioneer settlers and the general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District. The cost of fees associated with new development in the county will roughly double, and the price of purchasing water from the district — a water wholesaler that sells to the surrounding cities — is expected to triple.

Many of these changes have already begun to take effect. Water rates alone will increase enough to generate about $2 billion in revenues, Thompson said, and that by itself could cover the projected $1.1 billion-to-$1.8 billion cost of construction.

Critics like Lozada say that Thompson’s figures don’t take into account numerous complicating factors, such as the fact that the water district is also on the hook for the state’s development and permitting expenses, which have already cost Utah tens of millions of dollars and will likely cost even more, given a recent federal ruling that will subject the pipeline to additional government scrutiny. Nor does it take into account interest rates, or the possibility that local growth and demand for water could slow if costs soar.

If growth slows, the water district’s projected revenues will fall, potentially trapping the county in a negative feedback loop that could make it impossible for it to repay the debt. Then Utah’s taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

But local officials dismiss fears that growth will stall. The price of the average house in Washington County has increased 12 percent in the last year, Thompson said, and people are still moving in. If the average home price has gone up $25,000 in one year, he doesn’t see how adding $8,000 in development fees over the next decade is likely to slow growth.

Jon Pike, the mayor of St. George, is similarly unconcerned that the pipeline would cause growth to stagnate. He believes that, even if water rates increase, current residents will be willing to pay. “The measure I look to is, who are the people electing? And they are electing people who are pro-Lake Powell Pipeline,” Pike said. “Anti-pipeline people are not getting elected.”

Critics of the project fear the public is making decisions based on false promises. As steep as the current price increases may seem, even Lozada’s figures assume the state’s estimated construction cost of just under $1.4 billion is accurate. But email communications from within the Utah Division of Water Resources, obtained by High Country News through state records requests, indicate that it is not.

MWH Global, an international water and natural resources consulting firm that has since merged with Stantec, originally put the cost of the pipeline at around $1.3 billion in 2009. But in late 2015, the consulting firm drew up a new estimate that concluded construction costs had escalated by several hundred million dollars during the intervening years.

Though the original 2015 estimates have not been released, a revised version of the December 2015 report predicted that the project would cost about $1.5 billion, and possibly as much as $1.9 billion. That potential escalation has not been communicated to the public. Instead, public officials often insist that there are currently no cost estimates available for the project.

Email exchanges between the project leadership team at the Division of Water Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District show that local water managers repeatedly pressured the state and its contractors at Stantec to revise their projections of how much each element of the pipeline would cost. One extended argument, for example, involved the cost of bringing in soil to bury the 140 miles of pipe — Thompson, the leader of the Water Conservancy District, was certain he could find cheaper dirt than what Stantec anticipated paying.

After several months of discussion, the contractors begrudgingly agreed to reduce the estimate to a range of $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion — despite the fact that all parties also quietly added some $140 million in extra features to the project during the same timeframe, according to a memo circulated in early 2016.

Officials with the Washington County Water Conservancy District were particularly persistent in their requests that the state and its contractors reduce the amount they planned to hold in reserve in case of unforeseen costs, which initially accounted for nearly 4 percent of the overall estimate. Despite the lead contractors’ repeated warnings that the large contingency fund would be necessary “based on our experience performing other large water resource programs throughout the U.S.,” state officials ultimately sided with the water district and reduced the contingency fund by 75 percent.

Slashing that fund decreased the reported price of the pipeline by tens of millions of dollars and reduced the overall amount Washington County has to prove it can raise. But it also increases the chance that the actual cost will exceed what the county is able to pay — potentially leaving taxpayers statewide on the hook should some aspect of the pipeline prove more expensive than planned.

Emails exchanged between state engineers and Stantec staff also show the parties used “significant input and feedback” from the water district to create a carefully crafted picture of Washington County’s costs should the pipeline not be built. Initial drafts suggested constructing the pipeline could cost more than the conservation and “mitigation” efforts that would be required in its absence. Subsequent analyses greatly increased the cost of “mitigation” in the event the pipeline was not built.

But as internal emails show, even state employees questioned the accuracy of some components of the new revisions, such as the anticipated cost of using special soil-coating compounds as ground cover if the county didn’t have enough water to support growing thirsty lawns.
The capriciousness of the pipeline project has begun to alienate some of its most important allies. Thompson, who sent numerous emails to the state and its contractors demanding revisions to the cost estimates, said he felt the state was biased toward overstating the cost of the project. But he still believes that, with careful management, the Washington County Water Conservancy District can complete the pipeline under budget. Mayor Pike, on the other hand, said he has long suspected that it will cost more than state and county officials have let on. Even if the state’s figures are in the ballpark, Pike said, inflation and other delay-related costs continue to pile up.

Washington County officials originally hoped to break ground in 2020, but that timeline was removed from the water district’s website after an abrupt series of decisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission introduced months of unanticipated delays — and increased the rigor of the analysis the project will undergo at the federal level. Construction costs have also dramatically increased in the state of Utah in recent years — the cost of hiring laborers alone jumped 6 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to state data.

Washington County may be able to raise $2 billion dollars by tripling its water rates. But officials’ ongoing game of cost-estimate hot-potato suggests that even $2 billion may not be enough.

Because of so many lingering questions about Washington County’s ability — or intent — to repay the state for the pipeline’s ultimate cost, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert created an Executive Water Finance Board in 2017 to vet the project. The board’s work has only just begun, and its members are reluctant to weigh in on the pipeline’s feasibility. But their current projections suggest that the state’s entire tax base may be insufficient to fund it — risking an $80 million annual shortfall that could spur significant tax increases throughout Utah.

Despite the funding quagmire, proponents of the Lake Powell Pipeline continue to believe that it’s worth the risk. For all their expressed desire to secure economic prosperity for their children, there is reason to believe it’s not just the fate of Washington County that is at stake. Unlike the states in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Upper Basin states like Utah aren’t entitled to a finite amount of water under the Colorado River Compact. Rather, Utah is entitled to a proportion of the water that is left over after the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — take their share. But given the ongoing aridification of the Colorado River region, it’s not actually clear how much entitlement Utah has left.

“The amount of water available in the state of Utah is not known,” said Jack Schmidt, who holds the Janet Quinney Lawson endowed chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “And when reference is made to unused allocated water, one cannot assume that water is actually available to be developed.”

The possibility that water deliveries from the Lake Powell Pipeline could be cut off or curtailed by shortages on the Colorado presents yet another issue inside the financing conundrum: Washington County is expected to repay the state of Utah by purchasing pipeline water. If there is no water available for sale, Utah does not get paid.

But that reality hasn’t tempered the desire of Washington County officials to see their little community grow. Development benefits everyone, said Pike, the mayor of St. George. Pike hopes his community will attract a tech boom of its own with the promise of plentiful water. “Some people say they want the good old days,” Thompson agreed, “but that’s not what I want.”

But as state and local officials wrangle over the specifics of who might eventually foot the bill, there’s still a chance that Washington County residents could avoid paying it. Under Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, it’s the state — not the county — that will end up doing so, should Washington County’s efforts to pay fall short.

Is that unfair? Washington County Water District Manager Thompson doesn’t think so. Growth in Salt Lake City was once made possible by large, expensive water projects funded by a nationwide tax base. If Utah writ large has to raise taxes to pay off multimillion-dollar budget deficits, then so be it, he says. In his mind, it’s Washington County’s turn.

Emma Penrod (@EmaPen) is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health, with an emphasis on water. Email HCN at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

First efforts to revive populations of #Colorado’s state fish seemed fruitless. Then the #greenback cutthroat trout surprised everyone — again — @ColoradoSun

Greenback cutthroat trout photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

From The Colorado Sun (Jesse Paul):

The species — previously considered extinct — is thriving in Herman Gulch, off Interstate 70, after initial stocking attempts now appear to be successful

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists first tried to reproduce and reintroduce the greenback cutthroat trout into a stream, not far from Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, in the summer of 2016.

When they returned the next summer, the results were grim. Researchers examining the ribbon of stream that winds down Herman Gulch found that none of the thousands of inch-long swimmers that were hauled up a steep trail by volunteers and placed in the waterway had survived.

But as history has shown, there’s never really an end to the story of the ancient, threatened greenback cutthroat trout.

A few months later, in September 2017, there was a good sign.

“Lo and behold, we found some of the fish that we stocked as young-of-year in September 2016,” said Boyd Wright, a native aquatic species biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northeast region. “We thought that it was a failed plant. We are seeing those fish, albeit in a very low percentage of what we stocked out.”

The news for greenbacks got better from there.

The creek has been stocked five times since 2016. Last year, CPW put in older fish, some of which were about 5 inches long.

“The real success story, I think, right now is with those fish we stocked last year as 1-year-olds,” Wright said. “We’ve seen on average about 35 percent survival on those. We’re really happy with that level of success. A year later, they’ve lived through a winter, they’ve lived through a runoff cycle. That’s significant.”

State wildlife officials chose the Herman Gulch stream, near a popular hiking trail, because a barrier where it spills into Clear Creek near I-70 prevents other types of trout — browns, brooks and rainbows — from sullying the genetics of the pure greenback population.

Before stocking the greenbacks, biologists remove other trout species from the creek.

CPW says the retention rate of the greenbacks in Herman Gulch is an encouraging sign for projects that the agency is working on to reintroduce the fish in other watersheds…

Greenbacks are being stocked in Dry Gulch, near Herman Gulch, and there are two more streams where CPW is building barriers — at a cost of about $250,000 — to stock the trout and keep other species out.

“Everything we know about this system tells us that it should support a population of native trout,” Wright said of Herman Gulch. “For us, we expect to have reproductively mature fish by 2019 and will best be able to detect if those fish reproduce successfully by 2020. If we see 1-year-old fish in the system in 2020, we know we had good, successful reproduction in 2019. I think 2020 is going to be a big year for this project.”

The hope is then to replicate that success elsewhere…

That passion for the greenbacks and for fishing was on display on a recent weekday morning. Several dozen volunteers from Trout Unlimited gathered with CPW officials waiting for a truck filled with thousands of tiny greenback cutthroats to arrive from Mount Shavano Fish Hatchery near Salida.

They huddled together in the chilly wind since the truck was more than an hour late. But they didn’t care about the delay.

“It’s pretty amazing to see not only the fish take hold, but the people it brings out in support of this,” Omasta said of the different people involved in hauling the trout up to Herman Gulch. “Just this past summer we had families, we had kids from middle school and a high school, walking alongside old fishermen.”

The volunteers fashioned an informal line as they waited for sloshing, 2-foot-tall, clear-plastic bags, each filled with 500 tiny greenbacks. They stuffed the bags into backpacks and headed uphill to free them into Herman Gulch.

As volunteer Brett Piché strolled up to the stream, several 5- or 6-inch greenbacks darted back and forth in the water. Piché placed his bag of fish in the water and, after a few minutes, carefully released its contents into the crystal-clear stream.

Immediately, a larger greenback swam up and gobbled a few of its smaller brethren and darted away.

Herman Gulch via TheDenverChannel.com