State Engineer, Pat Tyrrell has advised Governor Matt Mead of his plan to retire in early January 2019. The State Engineer, serving as the chief water official in the state, is a position established in the Wyoming Constitution – a unique designation signaling historic importance of water to the State. Tyrrell has been the State Engineer since January, 2001.
“Pat Tyrrell has served in this role with distinction,” Governor Mead said. “He is recognized throughout the state, region and nation as an expert on all matter relating to water resources. Pat has a reputation for balance. He has held the title of State Engineer in the Administrations of four Wyoming Governors.”
Tyrrell is planning on serving Governor-elect Gordon through the upcoming 2019 General Legislative Session, and will leave office shortly thereafter.
The Wyoming State Engineer’s duties range from overseeing the permitting and adjudication of water rights, regulation of the use of water under the doctrine of prior appropriation, and representing the state on numerous interstate compact commissions. The State Engineer also represents Wyoming on the North Platte Decree Committee, the Western States Water Council, and the Colorado River Salinity Control Forum, among other groups. It is a cabinet-level position.
Since 1890, Wyoming has had only 16 State Engineers. Technical in nature, the position has a constitutional term of six years, intended to overlap Gubernatorial terms and minimize political influences in the performance of the job. By the time of his retirement, Tyrrell will have served under four Wyoming Governors.
According to Tyrrell, “I’ve been honored to serve as Wyoming State Engineer. This is my home state, and I’m an outdoors guy. What better way to give back to a state you love than holding such a noble position focused on such an important natural resource? I’ve been lucky to serve as long as I have, and it’s been enormously rewarding. I’m very appreciative that every governor I served was supportive of our mission and helped with resources and decisions so we could perform at our best. And I have been blessed all these years to serve alongside wonderful, dedicated public servants in the State Engineer’s Office”
During his tenure, Tyrrell has dealt with successful compliance with the 2001 Modified North Platte Decree, the Coalbed Natural Gas boom, numerous Colorado River agreements, and served through the entirety of the 11-year United States Supreme Court lawsuit with Montana involving the Yellowstone River Compact. He also was responsible for entering two groundwater orders, one near LaGrange Wyoming and one in central and eastern Laramie County, intended to replace longstanding local disputes with predictable groundwater management policies and long-term groundwater resource protection.
“Previous State Engineers had wrestled with these problems, but they didn’t go away,” Tyrrell said. “I didn’t see how we could let them go on festering. In the end I think we struck a balance and made the most equitable decisions we could, for all involved.”
Tyrrell grew up in Cheyenne, and graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and M.S. in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Wyoming. In 2016 he was selected as the Wyoming Eminent Engineer by the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society at UW, and in the fall of 2018 he and his wife Barbara endowed the Patrick and Barbara Tyrrell Engineering Scholarship, also at UW.
The sediment study will begin this month to collect historical and recent data on metal concentrations.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Geological Society, the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are all part of the collaborative effort.
According to the agencies, the monthlong project will extract cylindrical, long-core samples at multiple locations along the river deltas entering Lake Powell.
Scientists say the cores should reveal how flash floods, historic mining in the Upper Animas River, mine remediation activities, and spring runoff affects the timing, mass and concentration of metals deposited into the lake.
“This study will help us understand whether human activities such as mining in the San Juan River watershed have impacted or pose a risk to the important recreational, aquatic life, and cultural resources of the San Juan River and Lake Powell,” said Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. “This project is a great example of applying science to inform water resources management.”
The survey will assess the concentration and distribution of metals at Lake Powell, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead.
Concentrations could affect water quality, human health and aquatic life, especially as drought continues to drag down the level of the lake. The lake is a critical component of a system that provides drinking water to 40 million people in the Southwest.
“This is the first study to collect and characterize sediment through the full thickness of the San Juan and Colorado river deltas,” said Scott Hynek, a scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Drilling long cores of sediment will allow USGS scientists to analyze metal concentrations from before the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed through the present day.”
Risks of above-ground power lines & the cost of going underground
California’s Camp and Woolsey fires put the electrical infrastructure upon which all mountain communities depend into vivid focus. A central question has been what value should be assigned to the benefits of putting transmission and other electrical lines underground.
Investigators had still not determined by Monday what caused the two fires. However, The Guardian reported on Saturday that the California Public Utilities Commission said it received reports from two utilities showing equipment issues occurred in areas close to where the fires ignited in the moments before flames began to spread.
On Monday, the Sacramento Bee reported that Pacific Gas & Electric had informed the PUC of a high-voltage outage in an area just a few minutes prior to the first reports of flames that quickly became the Camp Fire. The Guardian on Saturday said a utility had also reported problems about the time the fire near Los Angeles erupted and in the same vicinity.
A spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, a California advocacy group, pointed to a record of problems. “We don’t know yet if PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) is responsible for the Camp Fire,” Mindy Spatt told The Guardian. “But we know there is a pattern there, and it is a pattern that is costing consumers potentially billions of dollars (in liability payouts) and costing lives as well.”
Several mountain towns in the Rockies have been talking about alternative delivery of electricity to improve resilience. Cost of putting lines underground has been part of the discussion.
In the Vail area, Holy Cross Energy proposes a new 115-kilovolt transmission line between a substation at Gilman, a now-abandoned mining town, and Avon, at the foot of Beaver Creek. The new transmission line would make the communities along Interstate 70 in what is commonly called the Vail Valley less vulnerable to risk of wildfire, equipment failure, or even sabotage.
Holy Cross has been working on creating that redundancy for two years, but the risk of wildfire was highlighted in July when a small fire temporarily threatened the main power lines along I-70. In response, the local water district ordered a ban on all outdoor watering. Without electricity, it has enough water to last for only a couple of days.
Just days before, a far bigger fire had threatened to put Aspen and Snowmass in the dark for the July Fourth weekend. The Lake Christine Fire that was started on July 3 by target shooters at a range near Basalt burned three of four power lines used by Holy Cross Energy to Aspen. The fire was about 20 miles down valley from Aspen. Had the fourth and final line gone down, Aspen would have been without power for several days. Repair crews cannot go into a fire area until it has been fully contained.
The two fires illustrate just how vulnerable mountain resort towns can be, due to their often tortured if wondrously scenic geography. Telluride illustrates the vulnerabilities even better.
Twice in this century Telluride has lost power during ski season when transmission lines were damaged. The primary transmission line comes from the south, over Ophir Pass. In 2004 a snow slide took out one of those transmission lines. Telluride and Mountain Village, including the ski area, had three days of reduced power and rolling blackouts during the height of ski season.
In response, a new 51-mile backup power line was completed in 2013. The $56 million line comes from the west, in the Nucla area. The negotiations were protracted, involved lengthy hearings before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, and a court case. The primary issue was the cost of undergrounding a 10-mile segment through calendar-worthy Wilson and Specie mesas. Some of the most expensive real estate in the Telluride area is located there.
The $19 million cost of undergrounding was paid in part by homeowners of the high-priced homes on the mesas but also the two towns, San Miguel County, and both the wholesale provider, Tri-State Generation & Transmission, and the distribution co-operative, San Miguel Power. Customers of the co-op are being charged via a surcharge over a 30-year period.
Art Goodtimes, then a San Miguel County commissioner, believes that undergrounding should be considered in the context of avoided cost. Underground lines pose less risk of causing wildfires. “If you’re really serious about (mitigating) wildfire risk, undergrounding makes sense if you consider the avoided costs, the dollars and cents, of containing wildfires,” he says.
Even so, Telluride, however, still did not have full redundancy. On Presidents’ Day Weekend in 2017 a refrigerator-sized boulder tumbled 800 feet and struck a power line pole. A comedy festival at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride had to be finished in candlelight and a local grocery unloaded frozen goods at a discount.
That last-mile redundancy has since been addressed by the local San Miguel Power Association.
Underground lines always cost more. A May story in The Atlantic cited a 2012 study by the Edison Electric Institute that found underground lines had fewer problems during storms and were better for public safety all around. But the cost, said the article, starts at $1 million a mile. In mountainous areas, it’s much higher yet. Even the lower figure is 5 to 10 times what it costs to hang a line overhead.
This added cost can make undergrounding prohibitively expensive. The magazine cited a plan in North Carolina to put lines underground that was dropped. It would have caused electrical rates to rise 125 percent.
In Minturn, Holy Cross has indicated willingness to bury 1.7 miles of the 8.65-mile line. That would put it out of sight in most of Minturn, but not all. Minturn wants more undergrounding.
“Certainly Minturn wants to support redundancy in the system. We get it. We just love the idea of undergrounding for a variety of reasons,” says Michelle Metteer, the town manager.
There’s also the question of equity. Holy Cross has buried distribution lines in Snowmass Village, as was pointed out by Minturn resident Lynn Feiger in an op/ed published in the Vail Daily during September. Why, she seemed to ask, would it treat the Minturn area any differently?
As for Aspen, Holy Cross has been talking about distributed generation coupled with battery storage as one option for making the community’s electricity supply less vulnerable to wildland fires.
In Idaho, a similar discussion is under way. There, the path for a second transmission line to the Ketchum-Sun Valley area has been identified but not the details. Undergrounding is among the options, but at an additional cost that Idaho Power estimates at $34.5 million. The Idaho Mountain Express reports several financing options, none of them inviting or easy.
Every year, an average of 142 billion gallons (436,000 acre-feet) of water slips down the South Platte River out of Colorado and into Nebraska. Right now, that water feeds into habitats of endangered fish and birds, but most of it could legally be diverted and used in Colorado instead.
For decades, these escaping river flows — sometimes millions of acre feet of water more than Colorado is required to deliver to Nebraska — have been seen as a loss by Front Range water managers, but the hefty price tag of infrastructure to divert, store and move water has kept new projects from getting off the ground. Now, with communities struggling to bolster their supplies to feed the Denver metro area’s exploding population, a group in the South Platte basin thinks it can develop a regional plan to tap the river’s potential.
The infrastructure concept could provide a large chunk of the Front Range’s projected future water needs, and the concept’s designers say, if executed properly, the project would keep agricultural communities intact and create environmental benefits. Skeptics say it’s a costly plan that would further drain an already beleaguered river system.
Constructing it would require billions of dollars and an unprecedented amount of cooperation among water users, but in today’s era of scarcity, Some water managers say it may be the simplest path forward.
Birth of the South Platte Regional Water Development Concept
Despite the amount of Colorado water headed into Nebraska, water from the South Platte is still used on a huge scale. Diversion ditches from the river feed cities, agriculture and industry along the Front Range, including farms in Weld County east of Greeley, but not all the water applied to the land is consumed — about 50 percent of the water from flood irrigation seeps back into the river.
Legally, these return flows can be reused downstream, but they aren’t always released back to the river in areas where they can be captured. And because much of the water is wastewater, its quality is often too low to be used as drinking water.
These complications have made South Platte water an undesirable option for many municipalities, and growing cities have, instead, turned to water from the other side of the Continental Divide. This water is cleaner, less expensive due to existing infrastructure and can legally be used for any type of use without going through water court. But the use of Western Slope water on the Front Range has long drawn criticism from water officials on the other side of the mountains: They see such use as overuse of their resources.
The under appreciation for South Platte water started to change in 2010, after the state released the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, a data analysis of Colorado’s water supplies and projected future demand. The study estimated that by 2050 Colorado would need between 310,000 and 560,000 more acre-feet of water than it can currently supply. About 50 to 60 percent of this water would be needed within the South Platte Basin, the fastest-growing part of the state. This anticipated supply gap forced Front Range water providers to consider new options.
“We knew there was a looming problem out there. The South Platte has a big issue coming for it with this huge-growing population,” said Joe Frank, the general manager for the Sterling-based Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. “The two biggest sources being looked at were the dry-up of South Platte irrigated agriculture or to use more (Western) Slope water — and we knew that both of those had issues.”
Around that time, Frank and six other water experts started holding informal meetings to discuss South Platte water supplies. The group became known as the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group. About the same time that group was meeting, the Colorado legislature also grew interested in the river.
In 2016, the General Assembly ordered a study to determine how much Colorado water was entering Nebraska and to analyze possible water-storage projects to capture that flow. This South Platte Storage Study found that over a 20-year period, Colorado delivered nearly 8 million acre-feet of excess water to Nebraska. But while there was plenty of water available in the river, accessing it would be costly or environmentally damaging.
The group took that information and — using funds from water providers such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Aurora Water — commissioned its own consultants. The group’s findings became known as the South Platte Regional Water Development Concept, and outlined a possible plan for a water system on the river. The current proposal includes three new storage facilities — near Henderson, Kersey and Balzac — and a pipeline from the Balzac facility to the metro Denver area. The concept’s designers say it could consistently provide 50,000 acre-feet of water every year.
With a concept in hand, the group expanded into a task force, drawing about 40 volunteer members with varying interests in water. The task force is now using $390,000 in grant funding from the Colorado Conservation Board and the South Platte and Metro basin roundtables to hire consultants to analyze the project idea.
Water for cities with no ‘buy and dry’
Although much of the water that could fill the concept plan would be unappropriated return flows, some of it would probably need to come from agriculture. In the past, this was done by cities that purchased farms with senior water rights and fallowed the lands. If done on a large scale, the practice, known as “buy and dry,” can eliminate agricultural communities.
Rather than promote buy-and-dry, the creators of the concept plan want to use alternative transfer methods to buy temporary water leases from farmers on an annual or seasonal basis. These agreements allow farmers to get money for their water without permanently drying up their farm. While alternative transfer methods are considered better for farmers, executing the agreements on a large scale requires infrastructure to move the water around.
“With ATMs, you are going to need to move that water from the farm to the city,” said Todd Doherty, the founder of Western Water Partnerships, a group that facilitates alternative transfers. “The geography is such on the South Platte that the farms are downstream from the city, so infrastructure is almost absolutely necessary to move ATM water back upstream.”
With three storage facilities near farmlands and a pipeline running to the Denver area, the South Platte concept could be used to facilitate alternative transfer methods.
“I think farmers should have options and municipalities should have options,” said Jim Yahn, the manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District and an original member of SPROWG. “This project has infrastructure to get seasonal water from agriculture and turn it into a year-round supply for a municipality.”
Because the concept plan is still in its early phases of development, most environmental groups have yet to release an opinion on the project. Still, there are concerns about depleting the flows of the South Platte or further degrading its waters.
In hopes of reducing impacts, some environmental representatives have joined the concept plan task force to provide feedback. Frank said the promise of mitigation and environmental enhancements – improvements on the river made by water providers – have gotten several environmental groups “on board” with the project’s idea.
Still, other groups say the projected supply-demand gap is overblown and any new infrastructure is an unnecessary drain on the state’s rivers…
Hefty price tag
As projected in the South Platte Storage Study, the costs to build the project would be huge. Although the project doesn’t yet carry a final price tag, initial estimates put the infrastructure costs at nearly $2.5 billion.
This cost is undeniably high, but with water becoming a more expensive commodity, water providers say it’s an increasingly reasonable one to consider. The cost estimates show that water from the concept plan would cost about the same as building any other water project or buying into an existing one.
For these reasons, many water providers in the Front Range are already exploring how they fit into the regional project.
“Scarcity is essential in driving the municipal world towards more expensive solutions,” said Sean Chambers, the director of water and sewers for the city of Greeley. “We haven’t coalesced around an idea about how exactly we fit into the long-range vision, but we know we belong at the table.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Greeley Tribune and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Tribune published this story on Saturday, Nov. 26,2018.
In 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers released the Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study, which detailed for the first time (in any official capacity) the cost and opportunity related to the construction of a 360-mile concrete aqueduct beginning at the Missouri River in the Northeastern part of Kansas and ending in Utica – traveling nearly three-quarters of the way across the state. This aqueduct would deliver approximately 3.4 million acre-ft (AF) of water annually (1 acre-ft = 325,851 gallons) to parched farmers and communities. In turn, the canal would require 15 pumping stations in order to rise nearly 1,750 ft in altitude to reach its ultimate, Utica reservoir.
The cost? $18 billion up-front with an estimated $1 billion in annual ongoing expenses ($400 million in operational costs and $600 million in interest).
The costs are exorbitant – resulting in a $470/AF price of new water for farmers who, according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Agriculture, currently pay approximately $47/AF for off-farm purchased water. Can an agricultural industry with shrinking margins due to increased competition and international trade tariffs handle a 10x increase in water prices?
And yet, there remains something romantic about the Great Kansas Aqueduct. Arizona has its 336-mile Central Arizona Project; California has its 701-mile State Water Project; why shouldn’t Kansas have its Great Kansas Aqueduct? After all, as the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition has stated, “With sedimentation reducing water storage in the East, and the Ogallala being rapidly depleted in the West, Kansas stands to lose more than 37 percent of its water in 50 counties across the state by 2062, or an annual shortfall of 1.86 million acre-feet.”
Thirty-six years after this project was first conceived in full, though, shovels and backhoes remain in their sheds as the Ogallala aquifer drops nearly two feet per year in some counties due to groundwater over pumping. If groundwater withdrawals continue at current rates, most of southwest Kansas will exhaust its water reserves within 25 to 50 years. One tends to think that in times of yesteryear, individuals would have begun construction on this project in February of 1982, begging for forgiveness later. But the time of unbridled infrastructure construction has passed and Kansas continues to stress its water resources.
As one sits and considers the need for the Great Kansas Aqueduct, three questions come to mind: 1) does the Great Kansas Aqueduct solve a problem? Yes – it would increase water supplies for Western Kansas. 2) would it solve the problem for generations? Yes – it would likely be operational for decades. And 3) would it be cost-effective? Unfortunately, not. While the volume of water delivered to Western Kansas may increase, very few people would actually be able to afford it. In fact, the $18 billion estimated to build the Great Kansas Aqueduct does not even include the legal, economic, and ethical costs inherent to initiating eminent domain and forcibly removing people in the way of the canal off of their land.