Possibility of City of Aspen dams on Castle and Maroon creeks eliminated — @AspenJournalism

The location of the prospective Maroon Creek Reservoir, just below the confluence East and West Maroon creeks. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

When Div. 5 Water Court Judge James Boyd issued a final water-rights decree at 7:23 a.m. Tuesday in the Maroon Creek Reservoir case, he removed the prospect of the city of Aspen ever building a 155-foot-tall dam on Maroon Creek or a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek below Ashcroft.

Although the city had reached agreement in October with 10 opposing parties in two water-court cases over the city’s conditional water rights, the agreements were not in effect until the court’s decree was issued in the Maroon Creek Reservoir case.

So now they are.

“It means the city will not build reservoirs at Maroon or Castle,” said Margaret Medellin, a utilities-portfolio manager for the city. “The decree was the last piece we needed to finalize all our negotiations. So until that was in place, Maroon Creek Reservoir was still a possibility.”

In issuing Aspen’s proposed decree for its conditional rights for the Maroon Creek Reservoir, the judge found that the city had been sufficiently diligent and could maintain its conditional water rights for another six years, but in doing so, he also enshrined the city’s commitment to move the rights out of the Maroon Creek valley. He did the same for the Castle Creek rights last month when he issued a decree for the conditional rights tied to the potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

“The judge’s final decree ensures that the Maroon and Castle dams are dead,” said Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin director for American Rivers, which opposed the city’s efforts to maintain its water rights in the Castle and Maroon creek valleys. “This is a big day for Colorado, the city of Aspen, and for all people that appreciate free-flowing rivers. This collaborative outcome demonstrates that Coloradan’s can protect rivers while planning for a water scarce future.”

The city first filed for the conditional water rights to the two potential reservoirs in 1965, and the decreed rights carry a priority date of 1971. (Please see timeline).

The Maroon Creek Reservoir would have held 4,567 acre-feet of water just below the confluence of West Maroon and East Maroon creeks, in a pristine location in view of the Maroon Bells. The reservoir would have flooded 85 acres of U.S. Forest Service land, including some in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The Castle Creek Reservoir would have held 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a dam on the creek two miles below Ashcroft. The reservoir would have flooded 120 acres on both private and USFS lands, including a small area in the wilderness.

Since first claiming the rights, the city periodically filed little-noticed diligence applications to maintain them. Outside of the diligence filings, however, the city did not take any active steps to develop the two dams, although they were mentioned in various city water-planning documents over the decades.

But the city’s last diligence filing, in October 2016, brought statements of opposition from 10 parties: the USFS, Pitkin County, American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited, Wilderness Workshop and four private-property owners — two who owned land in the Maroon Creek valley and two who own land in the Castle Creek valley.

During the resulting water-court process, the city reached a deal with the opposing parties, agreeing to try and move the conditional water-storage rights out of the two pristine valleys to five identified locations in the Roaring Fork River valley.

The locations are the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; the city’s Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit, which the city bought in 2018.

“We worked a long time, and all the parties involved really were thoughtful and creative in trying to come up with a solution that the city got the storage that they desperately need, and we protect our environment,” Medellin said. “So I think it’s a real success story.”

In a joint press release issued Tuesday, representatives from American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates, and Wilderness Workshop praised the deal.

“The judge’s final decree cements over two years of collaborative work to find a win-win solution that both protects Castle and Maroon Creeks in two of the regions most beloved Valleys, and ensures a sustainable future water supply for the City of Aspen,” said Will Roush, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop. “Water can be one of the most contentious issues in the west and I’m proud of our community for coming together to find a solution that benefits both people and place. Our wilderness and public lands deserve to be kept largely free of damaging developments like dams and I’m grateful to the City of Aspen for their work and commitment not only to providing water but also to protecting our environment and public lands.”

And Jon Goldin-Dubois, the president of Western Resource Advocates, said “this final decree marks the beginning of a new era of collaboration to safeguard the Maroon Bells Wilderness and Maroon and Castle creeks. The city of Aspen should be commended for its efforts to pursue water supply alternatives that will ensure future demands are met without sacrificing our rivers and cherished natural landscapes. As growing cities across the West seek sustainable and affordable ways to provide water in the face of climate change, we encourage them to follow Aspen’s lead.”

The city now plans to hire consultants to help it prepare an “integrated water-resource plan,” which it has not done since 1990, and then to file two “change cases” in water court seeking to modify the rights, which remain in place, with significant restrictions, for another six years.

All of the parties who settled with the city have agreed not to oppose the city in its upcoming change cases, which must be filed by June 2025, but other parties may do so.

Whatever the outcome of the city’s future efforts in water court, the agreements in the Maroon Creek case say, “Aspen agrees that after final entry of the final decree, it will not seek to retain any portion of the Maroon Creek Reservoir storage right at its original location.” Agreements in the Castle Creek case have similar language.

Paul Noto, a water attorney with the Aspen-based law firm of Patrick, Miller, Noto, represented American Rivers and Trout Unlimited in the cases, as well as Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., a property owner in Maroon Creek.

Noto said he was pleased with the outcome of the water-court process.

“For American Rivers and Trout Unlimited, it’s a really good outcome because you had the specter of dams being constructed near the base of the Maroon Bells and that specter has been removed from the table,” Noto said. “We could argue about how likely that was going to be. It was very unlikely, perhaps impossible. But, regardless, that is completely off the table now. And I think that it was commendable that Aspen agreed to that.”

Medellin, however, said climate change means the reservoirs were becoming more likely, not less.

“Obviously, no one had a big appetite for it because we value our watersheds and the city was trying everything it could to avoid that eventuality,” Medellin said. “But when we look at what climate change is doing in our valley and in our world, there was going to be a future that we wouldn’t have been able to operate without that.”

She also said the city made a big concession in walking away from the two reservoirs, as they would have stored water above the city’s diversion structures on lower Castle and Maroon creeks.

“What we traded was the benefits of having a gravity-fed system with protecting those valleys,” Medellin said. “And that was a trade-off that we all felt was appropriate. But we know that by not having a gravity-fed system, it’s going take some creativity and potentially a pipeline.”

It’s an open question for some whether the really city needs as much as 8,500 acre-feet of stored water to meet its future needs.

A study done for the city by Headwaters Corp. concluded that the city would need 8,500 acre-feet in a much drier future, but that’s including all of the city’s current municipal indoor and outdoor needs, its current irrigation levels on the two golf courses that use city water, and enough water to keep Castle and Maroon creeks above a minimum flow level.

“I understand their desire to plan on the high side,” Noto said. “But I don’t think they proved it and I don’t think they needed to. It was just basically a number that came from horse trading.”

Noto also says it is possible the upcoming water-court process may end up reducing the city’s claim.

“It’s too soon to say if they will take a haircut,” Noto said. “We have to wait and see what the proposal is. I don’t think the city has identified their fill sources and points of diversion, and that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of the effect on nearby water rights.”

Medellin said she expects the city to now engage with the community in a transparent discussion about the city’s future water needs.

“People have probably lost interest in it to a certain extent, but I think now — as we move into the next phase of the project, where we talk about where are we going to store the water — I imagine that the community is going to get re-engaged,” she said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on June 12, 2019.

#Drought news: No change in depiction for #Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

This U.S. Drought Monitor week saw highly beneficial rainfall activity across drought-stricken areas of the Southeast. Across this region, locally heavy rainfall accumulations (ranging from 2 to 8+ inches) and localized flash flooding were observed. These soaking rains helped to significantly improve soil moisture as well as boost streamflow levels in some of the areas hardest hit by the recent heatwave. In parts of the Midwest, continued rains, flooding, and very moist soils delayed the planting of crops—including corn and soybeans. According to the USDA June 11th Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin, “only 67% of the nation’s corn and 39% of the soybeans had been planted, breaking 1995 records of 77 and 40%, respectively.” In northern North Dakota, areas of drought expanded in relation to short-term precipitation deficits and reported impacts in the agricultural sector. Out West, drought intensified in the Idaho Panhandle where poor snowpack conditions during the 2018–19 season have led to below-normal snowmelt runoff conditions. Nationwide, May of 2019 was the 2nd wettest May on record for the contiguous U.S., according to NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI)…

High Plains

On this week’s map, areas of Abnormally Dry (D0) and Moderate Drought (D1) expanded in northwestern North Dakota in response to short-term precipitation deficits (30–90 days) and reported drought impacts in the agricultural sector. According to the latest drought impact report from the North Dakota State Climate Office, some producers are starting to cull herds in northwestern North Dakota because of the arrival of drought conditions. Elsewhere in the region, some isolated shower activity (generally <1.5 inch accumulations) was observed this week in the eastern plains of Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, while areas of central Kansas and Nebraska saw accumulations ranging from 1 to 3 inches. For the past 30 days, precipitation accumulations have been above normal across much of the region including Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Average temperature for the week were 2-to-8 degrees above normal in the eastern half of the region while western portions ranged from 1-to-6 degrees below normal…


Across most of the region, dry conditions prevailed with the exception of some isolated shower activity in western Washington, the northern Rockies, as well as eastern Colorado and New Mexico where accumulations were generally less than an inch. In the Desert Southwest, a re-assessment of long-term drought conditions on the map for the Four Corners region led to reductions in areas of Abnormally Dry (D0) and Moderate Drought (D1) where the vast majority of drought indicators (within the last 12-months) and absence of drought impacts supported improvements. Both satellite-based vegetation health indices and reports on the ground have indicated widespread green-up across much of the Four Corners region. Some pockets of dryness still exist, however, in northwestern and north-central New Mexico that missed some of the precipitation events throughout the cool season. In the Panhandle of Idaho, areas of Abnormally Dry (D0) and Moderate Drought (D1) expanded in response to poor snowpack runoff and related low streamflow levels. According to the NRCS SNOTEL network, Water Year-to-Date (Oct 1st 2018 to present) precipitation accumulations in the northern Panhandle currently rank below the 10th percentile. In northeastern Montana, areas of Abnormally Dry (D0) were expanded in response to below-normal precipitation during the past 30 days. During the past week, average temperatures were well above normal across the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and the northern Rockies while the southern half of the region experienced below-normal temperatures…


Widespread showers and thunderstorms impacted the region with the heaviest rainfall accumulations observed across portions of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas where 5-to-14 inches of rain fell. Elsewhere in the region, rainfall totals were generally less than 5 inches across Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. On the map, areas of Abnormally Dry (D0) were reduced in eastern and central Tennessee as well as along the Gulf Coast of Texas, while areas of dryness expanded in South Texas. For the last 60 days, precipitation has been above normal across much of the region with the exception of South Texas, southeastern Louisiana, and western Tennessee. According to the USDA (for the week ending June 9th), the percentage of topsoil moisture rated short to very short was as follows: Arkansas 7%, Louisiana 14%, Oklahoma 2%, Tennessee 12%, and Texas 10%. For the period of June 2018 to May 2019, Arkansas and Oklahoma experienced their wettest 12-month period on record (1895–2019)—while Tennessee and Texas had their 2nd wettest on record for the same 12-month period, according to NOAA NCEI…

Looking Ahead

The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy accumulations ranging from 2-to-4 inches across eastern portions of the Southern Plains, lower Midwest, and coastal areas extending from Georgia to North Carolina. Lesser accumulations (<2 inches) are forecasted for portions of the upper Midwest, Northeast, southern Florida, and the northern Rockies of Montana and Wyoming. Elsewhere in the West, dry conditions are expected. The CPC 6–10-day outlook calls for a high probability of above-normal temperatures across the Far West and Great Basin while areas of the Intermountain West, Great Plains, and much of the Midwest are expected to be below normal. Above-normal temperatures are forecasted for an area extending from Texas to the Southeast and northward along the Mid-Atlantic states. In Alaska, temperatures across the state are forecasted to be above normal. In terms of precipitation, there’s a high probability of above-normal precipitation across the Intermountain West and eastern half of the continental U.S., while the Pacific Northwest and eastern portions of the Desert Southwest are expected to be below normal.

#Runoff news: #RioGrandeRiver has been shut down indefinitely from near the headwaters around Creede through Del Norte, down to Alamosa and beyond

Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

Last winter brought above-average snowfall to much of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, so an abundance of snowmelt is rushing into the Colorado River, the Rio Grande and other waterways after a desperately dry 2018…

Colorado was blanketed by 134% of its normal snowfall last winter. Utah was even better, at 138%. Southwestern Wyoming received its average amount.

That will put so much water into the Colorado River that Lake Powell, a giant reservoir downstream in Utah and Arizona, is expected to rise 50 feet (15 meters) this year, said Marlon Duke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and dozens of other reservoirs.

The reservoir is rising so fast — 6 to 15 inches (15 to 38 centimeters) a day — that the National Park Service warned people to keep cars and boats at least 200 yards (183 meters) from the shoreline to keep them from being submerged overnight.

The influx into Powell will allow the Bureau of Reclamation to send enough water downstream into Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada to avoid a possible water shortage there. Arizona, California and Nevada rely heavily on the reservoir…

The Colorado River is expected to send more than 12 million acre-feet into Powell this year, 112% of average and a huge improvement over last year, when scant snow in the Rocky Mountains produced only 4.6 million acre-feet for the reservoir. An acre-foot, or 1,200 cubic meters, is enough to supply a typical U.S. family for a year.

The bureau expects to release 9 million acre-feet from Powell to Mead for the fifth consecutive year.

The news is also good for the Rio Grande, which flows from Colorado through New Mexico and then along the Texas-Mexico border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Elephant Butte, a massive reservoir on the Rio Grande in New Mexico, had dropped as low as 10% of capacity, but it could reach 30% this year, said Carolyn Donnelly, a water operations supervisor for the Bureau of Reclamation…

Enough snow is left that the Snowbird ski resort in Utah and Arapahoe Basin and Aspen in Colorado are still open, at least on weekends.

From KOAA.com (Andy Koen):

Downstream in Avondale, the river gauge data show the Arkansas crested a high point of 7.26 feet at around 8:00 p.m. Tuesday. Since then, the level has dropped below the 7 foot minor flood depth threshold and is expected to remain there for the next few days.

“It’s minor flooding, high water, but we’ve got more coming,” said Tony Anderson, a Service Hydrologist witht he National Weather Service in Pueblo. That’s the concern and we don’t know how much or when.”


There are active flood warnings in place until Friday for the Arkansas River in Cañon City, the Rio Grande River near Del Norte, the Saguache Creek in Saguach County, the Conejos and San Antonio Rivers in Conejos County and in the Rio Grande and San Juan drainage basins in Mineral and Rio Grande Counties.

From The Colorado Sun (John McEvoy):

Water is flowing so high and fast that recreational access to the Rio Grande River has been shut down indefinitely from near the headwaters around Creede through Del Norte, down to Alamosa and beyond.

The river hit flood stage in Del Norte Wednesday afternoon, a condition that is forecast to persist at least until Monday, according to the National Weather Service. The situation could worsen if there is a stretch of days with temperatures in the high 70s to 80s, and there could be big trouble if heavy rain falls.

Public safety managers in Mineral and Rio Grande counties worry about the risk to rafters and kayakers who this time of year would typically be plying gentle waters as they wind through the San Luis Valley. They’re also concerned for the emergency personnel who might be called upon to attempt any water rescues…

The situation in Del Norte is emblematic of what’s happening across Colorado as rivers reach their peak after one of the snowiest winters in recent memory. From Vail to Pagosa Springs and Cañon City to Steamboat Springs, authorities are urging people to be aware…

The worst flood conditions on the Rio Grande in Del Norte were recorded in 1911, when the river hit a peak flow of 18,000 cubic feet per second and a crest of 6.8 feet. On Wednesday, the river was flowing at about 7,980 cfs and hit 5.69 feet, according to National Weather Service records.

Del Norte rancher Cory Off — same family, different spread — said the current flooding is a “good way for the river to cleanse itself. It clears channels that have become plugged up because of many years of low water levels and clears out the willows that have grown where they are not supposed to.”

From The Denver Post (Carina Julig):

The National Weather Service in Pueblo has issued a flood warning for southwestern Rio Grande County and Mineral County due to high levels of snowmelt.

The warning will be in effect through 10:30 a.m. Friday…

Cities that are expected to experience flooding include Del Norte, South Fork, Creede and Wagon Wheel Gap.

A chock full Milton-Seaman Reservoir spilling June 8, 2019. Photo credit: Chuck Seest

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Kevin Duggan):

While parts of Colorado are under flood watches, the risk of flooding along the Poudre and Big Thompson rivers is low at this time, officials say.

The Poudre has been rising in recent days, topping 2,000 cubic feet per second, or cfs, on Sunday as measured by a gauge near the mouth of Poudre Canyon. The rise is expected to continue as temperatures warm up this week.

The river was well below flood stage as of Wednesday. Local officials had received no reports of localized flooding, said Lori Hodges, director of emergency management for Larimer County.

But emergency managers are keeping an eye on the situation in anticipation of the Poudre peaking, possibly as soon as Father’s Day, Hodges said. Officials also are monitoring the Big Thompson River…

The Poudre typically sees its highest flows between late May and mid-June. But given the amount of snow in the high country, this year’s peak could be two to three weeks late, said Brian Werner, spokesman for Northern Water.

The river’s average peak flow at the canyon mouth is about 3,000 cfs. Last year, the peak was 2,210 cfs on May 27.

However, there was little snowpack left in the mountains last year.

On Wednesday, an automated weather station at Joe Wright Reservoir near the top of Poudre Canyon measured 29 inches of snow, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service…

Tunnels carrying water from the Western Slope to the Front Range as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project are running full, Werner said. Water levels at reservoirs fed by the pipes will likely stay high into mid-summer, depending on the demand for water.

Carter Lake west of Loveland was 97.4% full as of Tuesday morning, according to a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website. Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins was at 92.7% of capacity.

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

A trio of northern Utah reservoirs fed by the Weber and Ogden rivers are spilling, and most reservoirs in the state will fill over the next few days as more snow comes off the mountains.

“East Canyon and Echo are spilling as is Lost Creek. Causey Reservoir is a question mark,” said Gary Henrie, a civil engineer and hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Provo-area office.

Pineview lacks a spillway but instead uses gates to release water. Henrie said they will likely crack the gate at Pineview to release water as it sits at 100 percent of capacity…

This year’s generous water year will even fill Scofield Reservoir, which had dwindled to 35 percent of capacity by October of last year.

Lake Powell, too, is slowly coming up and will fill some more, added Cory Angeroth, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Utah Science Center.

The lake sits at an elevation of 3,591.7 feet compared to 3,612 feet this time last year…

The lake has come up 23 feet from its lowest elevation this year, he said. The National Park Service Tuesday cautioned that with the water rising 6 to 15 inches a day, boaters must make sure vehicles or other gear are far enough away from the shore to avoid rising waters while they are on the lake.

Both the bureau and the geological survey recently partnered together for the first ever 3D mapping and 3D LiDar scanning at Lake Powell to chart its bottom and understand its sedimentation deposits.

When the data is released later this year, it will be the first time the water world has a full understanding of the reservoir’s true capacity, which covers 162,000 surface acres and is fed by the Colorado River.