Like much of the rest of the world, Denver is currently not on track to achieve the dramatic greenhouse-gas emissions cuts that climate scientists say are necessary over the next decade and beyond. A group of environmental activists wants voters to help change that by passing a new tax to better fund the city’s efforts to fight climate change.
“We’re in a climate emergency,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya, spokesman for Resilient Denver, the group behind the initiative. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continually tells us that we’re missing our goals. We know that we have good staff that are working [on climate change] in the city, but you have to put your money where your mouth is with the budget.”
If it makes the ballot and gets approved by voters, the Resilient Denver initiative would make Denver the first major city in the country to levy a carbon tax — sort of. The measure is technically an excise tax on electricity and natural gas consumption rather than a direct tax on emissions, and it’s much smaller in scale than many of the world’s most ambitious carbon-pricing schemes.
On the Rocky Mountains’ eastern flank, just southwest of Evans, Colo., and along the banks of the South Platte River, mud-caked pickup trucks share the back roads with battered, dusty hybrid cars.
In many places, farmers and environmentalists often clash over rivers, but not on this stretch of the South Platte.
That’s because people like Jim Park, president of a 149-year-old irrigation ditch company, convinced his fellow farmers to collaborate with a new-era river coalition, helping replace a major irrigation diversion system, restore a segment of the Middle South Platte River for fish and canoes, and make the region safer in the event of future floods.
It all started after 2013, when Evans saw homes, roads and riverside parks wiped away by flood waters of historic proportions. When the the city began planning for its recovery, it knew that the Lower Latham Ditch Company would be a key player in the work.
The Lower Latham is one of the largest diverters of farm water on the Middle South Platte, which stretches some 20 miles and includes the river as it travels through Milliken, La Salle and Evans. The Lower Latham is a crucial economic force in a region that is heavily agricultural. Its primary dam and diversion structure, damaged during the flood, for decades had spanned nearly the width of the river, trapping tons of sediment and back-waters that inundated the lands immediately upstream during times of high flows.
The City of Evans, along with Jeff Crane, a river restoration consultant, and the Middle South Platte River Alliance (MSPRA), convinced the ditch company to join them in their quest to restore the river by modernizing its historical diversion structure. With the aid of $3.3 million in federal funds, they installed a new kind of dam, one that doesn’t rely on a tall concrete barrier, but which uses a set of highly flexible gates that can be remotely lowered, when the rivers’ waters are running dangerously high, or raised, when its flows are lower, so that farmers can still capture the water they need to irrigate.
They installed another structure that captures sediment before it enters the massive irrigation ditch, keeping the sediment in the river, where fish and other aquatic life need it, rather than clogging the irrigation system’s ditches.
They also created a fish passage that skirts the irrigation structure, one which recreation consultants believe will help restore aquatic life while also making it possible for canoers and kayakers to navigate the river.
And perhaps most importantly, it gives Evans and area farmers the flexibility they will need to protect themselves when the next massive flood comes, as it inevitably will.
The ditch and river restoration project is the largest to date in the river basin and the most expensive, according to Crane, who served as a technical consultant for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), helping plan and oversee the restoration work. DOLA served as the conduit and administrator for the federal money that funded the project.
“We consider this project the showcase,” said Crane, because of its scope but also because of its diverse set of beneficiaries.
After the 2013 flood, several new watershed groups, including the MSPRA, formed in the South Platte River Basin, serving as planners for the massive restoration work that needed to be done. The historic flood slammed Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties causing $4 billion in damage, wiping out thousands of homes and destroying hundreds of miles of roads.
Planners knew, in order to be successful, that the restoration effort would have to take a wholistic approach, one that included farmers, cities, as well as environmental and recreational interests.
But it wasn’t easy. Jim Park knew his fellow farmers well. They have one of the oldest water rights on the river — dating to 1869 — and can divert so much water that at times they dry up that reach of the Middle South Platte.
Park said the farmers were interested in updating their structure, but they were deeply wary of allowing the federal government into their operations.
“The big thing about this was that the government was going to give us the money to do it. That throws up a lot of red flags,” he said, with members worried there would be years of interference and delays, even lawsuits, if things went wrong.
Still, Park persisted. “Last November, when we were getting ready to start construction, we had a meeting in Kersey and about 50 people showed up. It went on for three hours. A couple of guys were really against it. But I thought it was an awfully good opportunity for us.”
Members of the Middle South Platte River Alliance believe the project, which was completed this month, could become a template for the South Platte River. It is perhaps the hardest-working waterway in the state, serving millions of city dwellers even as it irrigates Colorado’s largest farm economy.
The river faces major challenges due to the immense growth on the Northern Front Range. Since 2013, nearly 62,500 people have moved to the area, an 11 percent increase, according to the Colorado State Demography Office. But that pales in comparison to what is to come, with demographers estimating the region’s population will nearly double by 2050, surging past the 1.24 million mark, up from roughly 648,000 today.
Billy Mihelich is the engineer for the Greeley-based Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, a major player in the farm water world on the Eastern Plains. He too sees potential for these kinds of projects to gradually bring the river into a new era, where farmers increasingly will live side-by-side with urban residents who also consider the river an environmental and recreational asset.
“A lot of these structures were built 100 to 150 years ago,” Mihelich said. “They’ve been maintained, of course, but I think there will be pressure on these ditch companies to install environmentally friendly structures because so many people are moving into what have been historically agricultural areas.”
For Evans, the five and a half years since the flood have been transformative, according to Kalen Myers, a management analyst for the city who also serves as secretary of the MSPRA.
“The flood was devastating,” Myers said. “Riverside Park was completely decimated, two mobile home parks were completely wiped out, hundreds of homes were lost. Happily there was no loss of life [in Evans].”
But since then, Myers said, the city has been able to rebuild homes and the park and to begin envisioning a time when there will be trails along the river and when the park could serve as base camp for those who would like to take their canoes or kayaks to Fort Morgan.
Is it far-fetched to think of an old industrial, agricultural river becoming a haven for bird watchers and boaters?
River lovers don’t think so, although the work would be staggering, said Lauren Bond, founder of The River’s Path, a Longmont company that leads canoe trips on the St. Vrain River and who has studied the South Platte in hopes that eventually it will become passable. “There are hundreds of dams [that would have to be modernized], but we have to start somewhere,” she said.
Looking ahead, Jim Park believes such projects will become more common, because aging farm diversion structures will need to be replaced as time goes on, and the use of environmentally friendly structures will become more accepted.
“There was certainly some trepidation” Park said. “But it has worked out well for us.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
Colorado Drought Monitor May 21, 2019.
West Drought Monitor May 21, 2019.
US Drought Monitor May 21, 2019.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A series of Pacific upper-level weather systems, and their associated surface lows and fronts, moved across the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week. These systems dropped half an inch or more of precipitation across much of the West, Plains, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Northeast. Heavy rains of 2 to 4 inches, or more, fell across parts of California, especially the upslope regions. The systems triggered severe weather in the Plains, with training thunderstorms dropping flooding rains. Two inches or more of precipitation was measured from northern Texas to Illinois, parts of the northern Plains, eastern Texas to Louisiana, and Upper Mississippi Valley to western Great Lakes. Parts of Oklahoma to southeast Kansas saw more than 5 inches of rain. Precipitation was sparse in southern Arizona and New Mexico, and across most of the Southeast where high pressure dominated, with less than a tenth of an inch observed. Most of the precipitation fell on areas that were drought-free. Drought and abnormal dryness contracted in parts of the Southwest, but expanded in areas that received below-normal precipitation this week, had continued and prolonged precipitation deficits, or were experiencing drought impacts. These included parts of southern Texas, the Pacific Northwest, the northern Plains, the Southeast, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the southern parts of the Alaskan panhandle. With the elimination of D2 from New Mexico, this week is the first time in the history of the USDM that the CONUS has been free of Severe to Exceptional Drought. However, it also marks the first time that Extreme Drought (D3) has been analyzed for Alaska…
Half an inch to over 2 inches of precipitation fell across much of the High Plains region this week. But there were some strips which received 0.25 inch or less, including parts of eastern Nebraska, northern North Dakota, southwestern Wyoming, and southeastern Colorado. D0 expanded in the northern counties of North Dakota. Soil moisture in northwest North Dakota was dry and planting has been slow, with the dry soils expected to delay planting further and delay germination; fire danger has also been high recently. Grasses in western North Dakota were showing stress. In central North Dakota, grass was brown and not growing even though the wetlands were filled with water and dugouts were at normal levels. In Colorado, on the other hand, recent precipitation, low evaporative demand in recent weeks, improving long-term moisture conditions, and hydrologic rebound from snowmelt prompted reduction of D0 in the remaining areas of the state…
It was a cooler- and wetter-than-normal week across most of the West. Precipitation amounts ranged from less than a tenth of an inch from inland southern California to southern New Mexico, and less than half an inch in the lee areas of the coastal, Sierra, and Great Basin ranges, to over 2 inches in California and parts of the Pacific Northwest. The areas receiving less than a tenth of an inch of precipitation were drier than normal, as were northwest Washington and parts of northern Idaho and northwest Montana. The precipitation that has occurred during this past wet season contracted drought across the West over the past several months, with just a few areas remaining. D0-D1 contracted in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, and the D2 in northwest New Mexico was eliminated. D0 contracted in southeast Oregon. But D0 expanded in southwest New Mexico and D1 expanded in northwest Oregon and northwest Washington. May 19th USDA reports indicated 50% of New Mexico was still experiencing short to very short topsoil moisture conditions, and 50% of California was still short of topsoil moisture. In southern California, where D0 remained, 5 of the reservoirs in San Diego County were at or below 50% of capacity. In spite of the precipitation this week, much of western Washington and northwest Oregon were drier than normal for the last 14 to 90 days, and even out to the last 12 months. Streamflow levels were low, with the streamflow on the Wilson River near Tillamook, Oregon near record low levels for this time of year…
Much of Oklahoma and parts of Texas to the Lower Mississippi Valley were wetter than normal this week, but southern and eastern portions of the region were drier than normal. Parts of north central Tennessee and western and southern Texas have been drier than normal for the last 60 to 90 days, but otherwise wet conditions dominate the region. Spots of D0 were added to western Texas along the Rio Grande River, southern Texas, and Mississippi and Tennessee where they connect to Alabama…
Next week (May 23-28) will largely see a repeat of this week’s weather pattern. A couple upper-level Pacific weather systems will move across the West, then roar out of the Southwest, across the Plains, to the Great Lakes, dropping several inches of rain across parts of the southern to central Plains and Midwest. Half an inch to locally 2 inches of precipitation are expected across much of the West, except little to no precipitation is forecast for southern portions of the Southwest and parts of the Pacific Northwest. The weather systems will keep western temperatures cooler than normal, while the North Atlantic High will keep temperatures warmer than normal across the southeastern third of the CONUS. Little to no precipitation is predicted for much of the southern Plains to Southeast, although the western Carolinas might see up to an inch. Over an inch of precipitation is expected for northern portions of the Northeast, while southern portions should receive half an inch or less. For May 29-June 5, more of the same. Odds favor cooler-than-normal temperatures from the Southwest to Great Lakes and southern coastal Alaska, while warmer-than-normal temperatures are expected for the Southern Plains to Mid-Atlantic region, the West Coast to northern Rockies, and much of Alaska. Odds favor below-normal precipitation for the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast coastal states, Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, parts of New Mexico, the North Dakota and Minnesota D0 areas, and southern Alaska panhandle. Odds favor wetter-than-normal conditions for the rest of Alaska, the rest of the West, and most of the Great Plains to Northeast.
The drought outlook in Colorado is the best it has been in at least 19 years, with the smallest area of the state being listed under some kind of dry status since June 5, 2001.
That’s according to nearly two decades of U.S. Drought Monitor data, which has been recorded since 2000.
“This is the lowest amount (of dryness) we’ve ever had since the Drought Monitor was put in place,” said Taryn Finnessey, a senior climate change specialist with Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, who first pointed out the milestone. “I recognize there were certainly periods of time in the last 19 years where there have been areas of no drought. But in terms of the whole state, this is the least dry we have ever been.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor released a report Thursday showing that just roughly 8 square miles in Colorado are under abnormal dryness, or just 0.01% of the state. That little sliver could be just from a map-drawing error, according to Richard Heim, who drew the map and works for the National Centers for Environmental Information.
It’s all part of a dramatic turnaround since last summer when, at this same point, about 80% of the state was under some kind of dry status…
“This has been an incredible turnaround in, really, just six months,” Finnessey said, adding that she could not have expected such a swing during last year’s hot and dry summer…
With the state’s recent stretch of damp and wet weather, the drought outlook moving forward continues to appear bright.
“I think that we’re sitting pretty for a little while,” Finnessey said…
“I think we really have seen the best case scenario play out,” she added. “I will qualify that by saying we also need to dry out a little bit so producers can get things planted and we have a really well behaved runoff and don’t have flooding issue in burn scars.”
Several towns and counties in Colorado are preparing for flooding after a snowy winter and several spring snowstorms have led to the state’s best snowpack in eight years, which is now on the verge of melting into runoff…
Take the above-average snowpack, add in historic avalanches that deposited debris in Tenmile Creek, and the town of Frisco wants to be ready for potential spring flooding. That’s why they’re taking extra steps this year to prepare.
“Are we sounding the alarm at this point? No, but we’re preparing,” said Frisco’s communications director Vanessa Agee.
Aerial shots of the avalanche areas show full trees, branches, large rocks, sediment, and snow still covering the recreation path that runs along I-70 and partially in the creek. That waterway eventually flows right through downtown Frisco.
The Frisco Public Works Department is inspecting the creek’s street crossings twice a day to look out for and remove any debris built up in the creek, and the town has staged a construction backhoe along Main Street near Tenmile Creek in case any backups happen. Sandbags are also being offered to residents, as they are every year…
Summit County says they are prepared to respond to flooding if it happens. A statement from a spokesperson read in part: “In the case of a significant flooding event anywhere in Summit County, we will establish a fire-rescue and law-enforcement incident command to respond to and manage the event.”
Frisco residents can pick up sandbags at the Public Works building (102 School Road) Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The first 100 bags per lot are free, and are 25 cents apiece beyond that.
But residents are asked to fill their own sandbags at three piles set up throughout the town: 6th Ave./Galena Street; Madison Ave./Sunset Dr. or the Public Works shop on School Road. Once residents are done using the bags, the town is asking people to return to the sand back to the piles…
Hinsdale County, in central Colorado, held community meetings earlier this week to discuss evacuation plans, with flooding expected to hit the county seat of Lake City in coming weeks.
Avalanches this winter and spring sent large amounts of trees, rocks and earth into Henson Creek and the Lake Fork River, which runs through town.
When [the log and ice jams] release it could cause extensive damage to the town and the local infrastructure,” the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office wrote on its Facebook page.
Combined with typical runoff that happens each year, the county says it expects flooding to occur as the waterways become backed up with water. Henson Creek Road and Lake Road are closed at certain points until further notice, the county said.
FromThe Durango Herald (Mary Shinn) via The Pine River Times:
While the region was blessed with a wet winter and spring, the town of Bayfield is investing in a plan to guide the town in dry times.
“Even though we’re getting dumped on right now, it’s not going to happen every single year,” Mayor Matt Salka said.
The Bayfield Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to spend $30,000 Tuesday on a plan that Wright Water Engineers will develop, Town Manager Chris La May said. Funding for the plan is coming from a Colorado Water Conservation Board grant.
The plan will assess the town’s vulnerability to drought and the best ways to respond in a worst-case scenario, he said.
“(The town) needs to have a plan that has a longer life than the election cycle or the term of the city manager,” he said.
The exceptional drought conditions last year especially demonstrated the need for a drought plan, which is expected to be completed in the next 8 to 10 months, La May said.
Bayfield relies on water from the Los Pinos Ditch, and by mid-summer there were questions about whether there would be enough water in the ditch to fulfill the town’s water rights because the rights are subject to the state’s priority water system.
When water is scarce, more senior water users have a right to the water before the town receives it.
The town owns water rights in Vallecito that can be called on when there is not enough water available for the town to draw from the Los Pinos Ditch.
Last year, the town’s leadership was constantly debating whether it was time to purchase more expensive water rights in Vallecito Reservoir, Salka said.
The plan would help determine the criteria for investing in more expensive water rights in the future, he said.
According to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Medano Creek is already flowing at 160% of the average. Medano Creek’s flow is now forecast to be over 160% of average in depth and duration for 2019. Due to very high snowpack and cold temperatures, this year’s peak flow is also not expected until early June rather than late May.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the Medano Creek while it’s still flowing, there are numerous outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy including surfing, wading, skimboarding, floating, sand castle building, and sand-sculpting.
Here’s a report from Tom Dart that’s running in The Guardian. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
In Colorado Springs, businesses are suing the military for perfluorinated compounds, which some are calling ‘Agent Orange 2.0’
Over the last 80 years, much of the land surrounding Venetucci Farm was sold to the US army to establish the base now known as Fort Carson, and today it is hemmed in by highways. Still, with its 200 acres of fields, farmhouse and big red barn, it is a beloved institution in Colorado Springs. As the only community urban farm left in the sprawling city, it is a valuable resource, educating thousands of children about agriculture, sustainability and healthy eating and known above all for its annual pumpkin giveaways.
The autumn pumpkin event has taken place for decades, and a local brewer still makes Venetucci Pumpkin Ale, but now the pumpkins are bought elsewhere. The produce is no longer available for public consumption because farming activities have stopped. In 2016, irrigation water was found to be contaminated with elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).
The foundation that runs the farm has joined forces with a local water district to sue the US air force, alleging that toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam at a nearby base have tainted the water, perhaps for decades, prompting health worries and causing economic losses.
Similar concerns have been raised about dozens of other bases across the country. But the problem is not limited to areas close to military installations.
PFCs and related human-made chemicals, more generally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been virtually unregulated since at least the 1950s. As well as at industrial sites, airports and bases, PFAS have long been used in household products thanks to their grease- and stain-resistant properties. They are everywhere: from fast-food packaging to carpets and furniture, water-repellent clothing and non-stick cookware such as Teflon.
The extraordinary resilience that led to them being dubbed “forever chemicals” no longer seems such a boon. As more becomes known about their widespread presence in the environment and the potential health risks, activists are urging state and federal regulators take action to increase oversight and even ban PFAS outright.