New report: #ClimateChange to intensify #Colorado water shortages, even as residents hone their water-saving ways — @WaterEdCO @CWCB_DNR #ActOnClimate

Denver Botanic Gardens via Metropolitan State University at Denver

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado residents sobered by years of drought are learning to take shorter showers and use low-flow toilets, water-saving habits that have helped the state reduce its domestic water use 5 percent, according to a new report released last week by the state’s lead water agency.

The report, a technical update to the Colorado Water Plan, shows that household water use statewide has dropped from an average of 172 gallons per person per day in 2010 to 164 gallons per day in 2015, the latest year for which data was analyzed.

Those numbers could continue to drop under various planning scenarios developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, with one scenario indicating that the statewide average for individual water use could fall as low as 143 gallons per person per day by 2050 as the public continues to embrace conservation and as water-saving technologies improve.

The idea behind the new water study is to help better guide the state’s efforts via the state water plan to stave off water shortages over the next 30 years, and to understand the impact of climate change on various population growth scenarios.

Despite the decline in average daily use, the state still faces future water shortages that could surge to more than 750,000 acre-feet annually if the economy and climate heat up dramatically.

But under a hypothetical scenario where the economy slows significantly and climate change moderates somewhat, Colorado’s urban areas could face shortages of just 245,000 acre-feet each year.

“We looked at five different scenarios, taking into effect climate change,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which sets state water policy. “It’s a creative and innovative way to be looking at our [water supply] gaps,” she said.

So how much water do these shortage forecasts represent? A lot.

Right now, most urban households in Colorado use about ½ acre-foot a year, so a 245,000 acre-foot shortfall equals the amount 490,000 homes would use annually, while a 750,000 acre-foot shortfall equals the amount 1.5 million homes would use in that same time period.

Shortages are also projected for the state’s farms, with irrigated agriculture facing massive shortfalls ranging from 2.2 million acre-feet to 3.4 million acre-feet, depending on how population, economic growth and climate change play out.

But that’s not the case in the South Platte River Basin, where 85 percent of Colorado residents live. Though agricultural water use statewide is growing overall, in the South Platte that use is projected to shrink as cities expand onto neighboring farm lands. According to the new forecast, the South Platte’s farm economy uses about 774,000 acre-feet of water annually. But under all five planning scenarios, that number drops. Under the most extreme, “hot growth” scenario, for instance, agricultural water use in that river basin would decrease to 665,400 acre-feet annually.

In the Arkansas Basin, which is home to Colorado Springs and the state’s second-largest farm economy, agricultural water use is projected to drop under two scenarios, and increase under three. Under the “hot growth” scenario, for instance, demands for farm water are expected to surge to 819,500 acre-feet, up from 617,300 currently, a 33 percent jump, primarily because crops will consume more water as conditions become drier and growing seasons lengthen.

The report also examines how Colorado’s fish and rivers will cope as water shortages become more pronounced. Streams across the state are likely to see spring runoff from snowmelt come earlier, leaving the late summer months much drier than they are now.

And that’s bad news for fish, increasing the risk to both cold water and warm water species, the report said. But on streams where dams and reservoirs exist, some of the damage could be offset by intentional releases from reservoirs.

The state has been criticized in the past for failing to focus adequately on the water needs of the environment in its planning. A new tool the state has developed, which is designed to help analyze stream water needs by region and season, among other things, is a step in the right direction, but will need more refinement, according to Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited.

“I’m pleased that the tool and the review of the environmental and recreational [E&R] needs continues to be updated. But we still have a lot of catching up to do in understanding those needs,” Whiting said.

That understanding, she said, “will help us focus our efforts on cooperative projects that benefit not only E&R, but agricultural, and municipal and industrial needs as well.”

Still to come in the effort to quantify looming water shortages is work at the local level, where nine public river basin roundtables will now take the new data and tools and determine how best to reduce any forecasted regional shortages. Their work will eventually feed into an update of the Colorado Water Plan, first released at the end of 2015 and scheduled to be updated by 2022.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#Colorado Isn’t The Desert. A Sustainable Lawn Doesn’t Have To Be Rocks, Cacti And Ugly — Colorado Public Radio

Xeriscape landscape

From Colorado Public Radio (Ryan Warner):

Let’s clear up any confusion about what xeriscape is and isn’t.

Xeriscape was coined in Colorado by Denver Water. Xeric means dry, Peck said. It covers a wide array of alternatives and could be a landscape with a little less lawn, a yard entirely made up of a water-conserving grass or something in between.

“Xeriscape is not rock and cactus,” she said. “It’s an idea we’ve been fighting since day one. Rock and cactus don’t even belong here. This is a grassland. Not a desert.”

There’s not enough education around lawn care, especially when it comes to sustainability, she said. And xeriscape is not the only alternative to a lawn. Here are a few suggestions to match the perfect you with the best sustainable lawn for you.

If you’re a new homeowner with a new landscape from scratch…

Homeowners should determine what their goal is first. Are you trying to conserve water or energy? Do you want to grow food in your yard? Do you want to attract wildlife? What does sustainability mean to you?

For many people, the goal is to have some combination of an outdoor living area, like a patio or deck, a garden with flowers or food and a lawn with enough room for playing.

“Sustainable landscapes can range from a low-water landscape providing wildlife habitat, to a high-water landscape that sequesters large amounts of carbon and provides an abundance of food,” she said. “The goal is to balance the resources used — water, energy and time, with the benefits created — food, habitat, carbon sequestered and happy and healthy people.”

Carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of carbon in the ocean, soil and other vegetation.

“There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the soil,” she said. “Encourage plants to have a big deep root system. Water them so you water deeply, which encourage roots to grow deeply. Water less frequently but water longer.”

Peck said most people rarely use their front yard so she recommends homeowners choose a landscape that compliments their house but isn’t a high water-use lawn.

For a garden, kitchen herbs, greens and vegetables balanced with perennial flowers are a good option. Peck said the area outside of the lawn can have a mix of shrubs, trees and low water grasses that will be interesting year-round and provide fruit for people or wildlife.

Bluegrass is installed in many new homes is because it’s relatively cheap upfront, everyone knows how to care for it and it looks nice.

“In the long run, there are lots of alternatives to lawns that will be less expensive when you keep in mind the cost of watering, mowing, fertilizing, all the maintenance that’s required,” she said. “Any other type of landscape is culturally a challenge.”

If you have kids or a dog, but want to save water…

If your number one priority is conservation, “think about how you’re watering” your lawn, Peck said.

She recommends an irrigation audit to see if your sprinkler system is efficient and getting a smart controller that will automatically modify your irrigation system. Some cities and water providers offer audits for free or at low cost. She also said it’s hard to efficiently water grass in small areas so just avoid it if you can.

Let’s say you want a yard for your kids and dog to play on. It doesn’t have to be your entire lot and it doesn’t need to be in both the front and back yard.

“For a lawn that will be frequently used year-round, bluegrass is usually the best choice,” she said. “I’ve tried everything I could find and there is no replacement for bluegrass in a yard that is getting a lot of wear and tear.”

Bluegrass is very resilient. Kids can run holes in it, dogs can pee and dig in it and it will grow right back, she said. But it’s a high water use plant so carefully consider how big of an area you want.

If your lawn won’t get a lot of wear and tear, you have other options.

“We have used a lot of turf-type tall fescue,” Peck said. “It has a much deeper root system which makes it much more water-conserving.”

Buffalo grass is another alternative. Peck said it’s a native grass and so long as it rains and snows, it won’t need supplemental water. But she warns it’s a warm-season grass and likes being in a hot and dry climate, like southeast Colorado. Because of that, it can be invaded by weeds. It’s also only green when the soil warms up in the spring and goes dormant when the soil cools down.

Blue grama grass is another native prairie grass but it can’t withstand wear and tear, Peck said.

If you’re ready to ditch your grass and go xeric…

“Since most of us have largely bluegrass lawns, the first place to look at is those places of your yard where it’s hard to keep up your bluegrass lawn,” she said.

In the areas where the lawn turns brown, your irrigation system doesn’t work so well and it’s just generally hard to keep up, think about what you would like to have instead, Peck said.

Also factor in your budget, timeline and goals.

“Perennial flower gardens grow in quickly, usually within a year, but are much more expensive and higher maintenance than shrub beds, which might take three to five years to fill in,” Peck said. “Successfully renovating a small area will lead to future successes, while a frustrating large project may end your sustainable landscaping ambitions.”

If you’re killing your lawn by solarizing it or “cooking” it by covering it in clear plastic, then consider doing it in sections, Peck said.

Her other advice: “Don’t plant a colorful perennial flower bed” that can easily be invaded by weeds if you want a low water and low maintenance yard. If you leave bare ground, like mulch, gravel or rock beds, something will grow there and it will probably be a weed.

“Weeds can be minimized by outcompeting them using plants that are at least 18 inches tall and dense enough to cover the ground, placed so they will entirely cover the ground once they reach their mature size,” she said. “To outcompete weeds, your best options are healthy turf or a mix of shrubs.”

Peck said depending on the plant, it’s safe to plant between late March to October, but use caution during summer heat.

Here are some of Peck’s shrub recommendations:

Lydia Broom, Autumn Amber Sumac, Gumball Spirea, Broadmoor and Blue Chip Junipers, Dwarf Blue Rabbitbrush and Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry.

If you love wildlife…

Native plants are your best friend if you want to create a habitat for wildlife. Native plants are homes for native insects and native insects are the crucial base for the food pyramid, Peck said.

“Ninety percent of all birds depend on insects to raise their young,” she said. “This means that the insects in your yard are a resource, not a problem.”

Peck said plants in the sunflower family provide seeds for birds.

  • Native Blanket Flower (Gaillardia)
  • Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia)
  • Asters — bonus, they’re also excellent for pollinators, like bees
  • These are some easy-to-grow fruit that birds love.

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier)
  • Clove Currant (Ribes odoratum or aureum)
  • Nanking Cherries (Prunus tomentosa)
  • You might also consider a birdbath or another water feature that can hydrate birds but also provides shallow water, wet stone or mud for insects, Peck said.

    Sunflowers, mint and umbel in the parsley or carrot family give butterflies and bees nectar and pollen.

    “A healthy population of birds and insects will dramatically reduce any insect pest problems,” she said. “Ladybugs and paper wasps eat aphids in the spring, while a variety of wasps eat cabbage worms and potato and bean beetles later in the summer. Our native Rabbitbrush are covered with Painted Lady butterflies in the fall.”

    If you don’t want grass (or rocks)…

    We said it before and we’ll say it louder for the people in the back.

    “Xeriscape is not ‘Zero-scape,’” Peck said. “Rocks are not xeriscaping. There are many beautiful alternatives.”

    Peck said you can have a native prairie grass with wildflowers or xeric perennial flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees. Your landscape can be designed to fit you, what you like to do outside, your budget and your schedule.

    “We have created water-conserving Victorian gardens, native landscapes that require no water once established, and modern landscapes that combine very low water and maintenance areas with abundant oases that provide food for people and wildlife,” she said.

    Beavers work hard for river ecosystems — @AspenJournalism

    A beaver slap on the upper Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

    https://soundcloud.com/aspenjournalism/es-beavers-biodiversity-web

    Development and climate change are top threats to wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and in the arid west, water supply is a consistent concern for all kinds of life. But ecologists see a simple, natural way for ecosystems to be more resilient: beavers.

    When local ecologist Delia Malone walks along the Crystal River in Carbondale, she sees something missing. The footpath she takes runs through an area that used to flood during spring runoff, but with the combination of development and climate change, it doesn’t anymore. Malone said it’s also, in part, because there are no beavers on this stretch of river.

    “When we lose beaver, we also lose the wetlands they create, we lose the water storage,” Malone said. “Beaver dams store tremendous amounts of carbon. When beaver dams dry out because the beaver have left, that carbon goes up and is contributing to global warming.”

    People have aggressively pushed beavers out of some areas, especially when they damage irrigation systems, flood fields and roads, and cut down trees on people’s property.

    The rodents also create natural water storage — even in dry years — and restore wetlands. So Malone wants to bring more of them to high-elevation public lands in the Roaring Fork Valley. She’s working with researchers at the Colorado Natural Heritage Program on a computer model that will indicate suitable habitat for beavers.

    “Beaver can be a simple but a really important strategy to remediate the impacts that we’ve caused by changing our climate,” Malone said.

    A 2018 survey by Colorado Wildlife Science found that when beavers return to suitable places, the health of the river ecosystem improves. The willows grow faster, there’s more food for other wildlife and there are more songbirds.

    Ecologist Delia Malone walks along the Crystal River. Malone says areas like this would benefit from beaver activity. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

    A haven at Hallam Lake
    Hallam Lake, a 25-acre nature preserve tucked into a hillside behind the Aspen post office, is a haven for diverse forms of life. Water is pooling and dropping gently through several ponds, which are fed year-round by natural springs. Hallam Lake is home to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, or ACES, and this beauty is possible because of a family who has been living here for decades.

    Beavers are maintaining this lake,” said Jim Kravitz, the naturalist programs director for ACES.

    The lake is full of life. A recent study found 20 mammal species, dozens of insects and more than 150 plant species, including a carnivorous plant called the Lesser Bladderwort and 15 species of lichen.

    “This is sort of this unique ecosystem here, because of the spring water, because of the beavers,” Kravitz said.

    Beavers have lived under the roots of spruce trees along the banks at Hallam Lake for decades, and they work hard for the local ecosystem.

    “They slow down the water, they filter out pollutants, they slow down floods, they keep the water on the land,” Kravitz said. “They have so many benefits, especially in dry places and where water is going to be a concern in the future.”

    With climate change driving persistent drought, that means beavers could help out the entire western United States.

    Twenty-four water systems across the Arkansas Valley are in violation of the Clean Water Act — The La Junta Tribune-Democrat

    Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

    From The La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Christian Burney):

    Twenty-four water systems across the Arkansas Valley are in violation of the Clean Water Act due to the levels of radioactive contaminants – some of them naturally occurring – in the water, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

    The systems deemed to be in open health-based violation are located in or near La Junta, Cheraw, Rocky Ford, Manzanola, Swink and Wiley, and the water produced by those facilities is high in radioactive elements, radium and uranium and, in fewer instances, gross alpha radiation.

    Colorado Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Dist.35) told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat that other municipalities – such as Fowler, Ordway, Sugar City, Las Animas, Eads and Hasty – could also be affected.

    While those towns were not identified by the CDPHE to be in open violation of clean water standards, various contaminants such as selenium were measured by some of their water systems, he said.

    The fact that radioactive contaminants exist in some water systems is not itself a new development. As Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservation District Manager Jay Winner put it, communities in the region have been dealing with them for years…

    But the CDPHE’s findings reveal that radium levels in some Arkansas Valley water systems is up to 63 times higher than levels at the Pueblo Reservoir, and the amount of uranium is up to 12 times higher, Crowder said.

    What does that mean if you’re born and raised here and have been drinking the contaminated water your entire life?

    Maybe nothing, but the potential does exist for health problems if the impurities in drinking water regularly exceed the maximum contaminant level (MCL) recommended by the EPA and if there is long-term exposure.

    For instance, the EPA says prolonged exposure to levels of nitrate (measured as nitrogen) – which is in fertilizer and which makes its way into groundwater and aquifers via runoff – exceeding the MCL could result in serious illness and, potentially, death in infants below 6 months of age.

    Long-term exposure to selenium that exceeds the MCL could result in hair or fingernail loss, numbness in fingers or toes and other circulatory problems.

    Several water systems tested positive for radium 226 and 228 (combined), which the EPA says could result in an increased risk of cancer, if the exposure is prolonged and above the recommended MCL. Radium appears in groundwater through the erosion of natural deposits…

    Crowder requested the water quality tests in preparation for another push to get federal funding for the long overdue Arkansas Valley Conduit, which would deliver water from the Pueblo Reservoir up to about 130 miles downstream, bypassing the sources of contamination and providing cleaner water to communities in the Arkansas Valley.

    Soldier Canyon Water Treatment Authority embarks on $38.9 million expansion

    The Soldier Canyon Dam is located on the east shore of Horsetooth Reservoir, 3.5 miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado. The zoned earthfill dam has an outlet works consisting of a concrete conduit through the base of the dam, controlled by two 72-inch hollow-jet valves. The foundation is limey shales and sandstones overlain with silty, sandy clay. Photo credit Reclamation.

    From The North Forty News (Annika Deming):

    Soldier Canyon Water Treatment Authority recently broke ground on a $38.9 million expansion to the water treatment plant in Fort Collins, Colorado. Fort Collins-Loveland Water District (FCLWD) receives the majority of the water it provides to 45,000 people in parts of Fort Collins, Loveland, Timnath, Windsor and Larimer County from the Soldier Canyon Filter Plant. Slated for a 2021 completion, the project will allow Soldier Canyon to meet peak summer capacity demands without relying on any other plants. It will also improve water quality with the construction of additional taste and odor facilities.

    FCLWD currently receives raw water from the North Poudre Irrigation Company, Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) project, Josh Ames, Divide Canal and Reservoir Company, and Windsor Reservoir Company. Raw Water sources must be treated before being delivered to customers. Most of the water delivered to customers for household usage comes from the Soldier Canyon Filter Plant, which pulls from the Poudre River and Horsetooth Reservoir. The plant has some of the highest quality water in the area, which is measured and reported on quarterly for the plant, and years for FCLWD. The remainder of the water comes from the City of Fort Collins Water Treatment Facility and the City of Loveland Water Treatment Plant.

    After the Soldier Canyon plant expansion is complete staff will be able to treat 60 million gallons of water per day. They will also have more treatment tools available for taste and odor removal, additional flocculation and sedimentation facilities, and additional contact time for chlorine to inactivate viruses and other pathogens. The expansion will be constructed offline, meaning minimal impact to FCLWD customers. At the end of the project, it will be connected to the existing facility.

    “Our mission has always been to provide high quality, secure, reliable and affordable water to our customers,” says Chris Matkins, FCLWD general manager. “As the district continues to expand, we need to ensure we can continue to provide the highest quality water in the area water to customers. We are always planning for the future and this expansion is part of a multi-prong plan to meet demand and maintain infrastructure.”

    Soldier Canyon Filter Plant, located at the base of Horsetooth Reservoir, treats and distributes water for three local entities: Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, North Weld County Water District and East Larimer County Water District.

    FCLWD has provided water services to businesses and citizens since 1961. The District serves approximately 45,000 people in an area that encompasses approximately 60 square miles in parts of Fort Collins, Loveland, Timnath, Windsor and Larimer County. Governed by separately elected Boards of Directors, the Districts provide the full spectrum of high-quality and dependable water treatment and delivery as well as water reclamation services. For additional information about Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, its services and project visit http://www.fclwd.com or follow us on Facebook.

    For additional information and updated on the expansion as well as tips for water conservation and efficiency visit FCLWD’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/fclwd.

    I’m a scientist. Under Trump I lost my job for refusing to hide #climatecrisis facts — Maria Caffrey #ActOnClimate

    Aspen trees in autumn. Photo: Bob West via the Colorado State Forest Service.

    From The Guardian (Maria Caffrey):

    I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration – and it cost me my job

    The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate science is not new. Interior climate staffer Joel Clement’s reassignment and the blocking of intelligence aide Rod Schoonover’s climate testimony, which forced both federal employees to resign in protest, are just two of the innumerable examples. These attempts to suppress climate science can manifest themselves in many ways. It starts with burying important climate reports and becomes something more insidious like stopping climate scientists from doing their jobs. In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration. And yet my story is no longer unique.

    This is why on 22 July I filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration. But this is not the only part to my story; I will also speak to Congress on 25 July about my treatment and the need for stronger scientific integrity protections.

    I have worked at the National Park Service (NPS) for a total of eight years. I started out as an intern during the Bush administration, where I experienced nothing like this. I returned in 2012 after earning my PhD, when the NPS funded a project I designed to provide future sea level and storm surge estimates for 118 coastal parks under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. This kind of information is crucial in order for the NPS to adequately protect coastal parks against the future effects of the climate crisis.

    I handed in the first draft of my scientific report in the summer of 2016 and, after the standard rigorous scientific peer review process, it was ready for release in early 2017. But once the new administration came into power, publication was repeatedly delayed, with increasingly vague explanations from my supervisors. So for months, I waited. And waited. I was still waiting when I went on maternity leave almost a year later in December 2017.

    It was while I was on leave that I received an email from another climate scientist at the NPS who warned me that the senior leadership was ordering changes to my report without my knowledge. They had scrubbed of any mention of the human causes of the climate crisis. This was not normal editorial adjustment. This was climate science denial.

    A months-long battle ensued. Senior NPS officials tried repeatedly, often aggressively, to coerce me into deleting references to the human causes of the climate crisis from the report. They threatened to make the deletions without my approval if I would not agree, to release the report without naming me as the primary author, or not release it all. Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity. I stood firm.

    And I prevailed. Media inquiries and open records requests about my report eventually led to letters from members of Congress, and the NPS was essentially forced to publish my report as I had written it.

    The NPS continued to retaliate against me. I was forced to accept pay cuts and demotions while I continued to lead several other projects. By February of this year, the NPS declined to renew my funding, despite common knowledge that my branch at the time had ample surplus funding.

    When I received this news, my immediate supervisors, who wished for me to stay, asked me to apply to be a volunteer so that I could continue my work. My volunteer application was denied without explanation. If there was any question about whether my termination had to do with legitimate budget constraints or with punishing me for not altering my report to suit the Trump administration’s agenda, that answered it.

    Politics has no place in science. I am an example of the less discussed methods the administration is using to destroy scientific research. I wasn’t fired and immediately told to leave; instead they sought retribution by discretely using governmental bureaucracy to apply pressure and gradually cut funding. I have been cut off from projects that I created and was working on, including one that would have provided the public with a valuable interactive way to see for themselves how sea level rise will impact our parks. This is why we need to support stronger protections for scientists.

    Ultimately it will be the taxpayers who will pay the true price for our apathy towards these violations. It will become progressively costlier to alter our infrastructure to accommodate the incoming tides. And we will watch as our historic structures are swallowed by the sea. As these things are happening, remember that there were probably multiple scientists like me who warned of these dangers but were silenced. The current administration may only last a matter of years, but its actions may potentially impact our planet for centuries.

    Dr Maria Caffrey is a climate scientist who formerly worked in the National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado.

    Editorial: #Nebraska should be vigilant to protect its #SouthPlatteRiver water allocation — Omaha World-Herald

    The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.

    From The Omaha World-Herald editorial board:

    Momentum is building in Colorado to create new reservoirs to draw more water from the South Platte River, reducing the flow into Nebraska. Nebraska officials should monitor this situation closely, now and in coming years, to make sure the water volume continues to meet the requirements under a 1923 South Platte River agreement between the two states.

    Maintaining a proper flow in the Platte River — formed by the confluence of the South Platte and North Platte Rivers in western Nebraska — is crucial to our state’s agriculture, hydropower and long-term metropolitan water sources for Omaha and Lincoln.

    Colorado apparently has considerable room at present to make further diversions and still remain in compliance. “In many years, more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to” under the agreement, Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein says.

    A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

    The proposed reservoirs, to serve Front Range urban residents, would keep about 150,000 acre-feet of water in Colorado, the Denver Post reports. That’s about half of the estimated amount that Colorado lawmakers claim their state can legally divert on average each year under the 1923 agreement. For comparison: When full, Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy has a capacity of 1.74 million acre-feet.

    A 1993 study of Nebraska water history by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln stated, “Some Nebraskans may still bemoan that the state gave away too much water to Colorado in the South Platte Compact of 1923, but it was a voluntary agreement.”

    The tremendous metro growth in Colorado’s Front Range is spurring the call for new reservoirs. Urban groundwater levels are declining in the face of dramatically increased demand. Meanwhile, agricultural producers in Colorado’s South Platte River basin support reservoir creation as a way to safeguard their own groundwater from urban diversion. Officials in western Colorado are in favor, saying the South Platte water could reduce the current allocation of western Colorado water to the Front Range via tunnels. Supportive, too, are Colorado water-policy officials, who included the South Platte reservoir concept in their 2015 State Water Plan.

    In short, a wide-ranging set of powerful urban and rural interests in Colorado have come together to press for more South Platte water. “We owe it to our state, to our water users and our farmers to capture as much water as we can” out of the South Platte, said Joe Frank, manager of Colorado’s Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.

    Nebraskans can take heart that strong legal protections are in place to safeguard the significant water volume the state receives via the North Platte River, a vital irrigation source. The river supplies Lake McConaughy, for example, with its wide-ranging irrigation and groundwater recharge role for more than half a million acres in the Platte River valley, plus hydropower generation and recreation.

    The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree in 1945 setting out a legal framework for interstate water allocation along the North Platte. In 2001, Nebraska and Wyoming reached a settlement on sharing North Platte water after 15 years of legal wrangling. The agreement essentially froze Wyoming’s water use at the 2001 level and stipulated that groundwater hydrologically connected to the North Platte be included. The settlement created a committee — of federal, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado officials — to work out future disagreements.

    “In contrast to the meager and seasonal administrative execution of provisions contained in the South Platte Compact,” a 2006 UNL analysis stated, “administrative actions in the North Platte River watershed are extensive and occur year-round.”

    Whooping crane standing in shallow water. Credit: Randolph Femmer, USGS (public domain)

    Nebraska may have future legal leverage regarding the South Platte if any Colorado diversions raise environmental concerns, such as negative effects on protected animal species. Two examples: sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, which congregate in great numbers annually in central Nebraska.

    The proposed South Platte reservoirs are “one of those rare solutions that really is good for both rural Colorado and folks who live in the Denver metro area,” a Colorado state senator stated. Evidently so, but on this side of the border, Nebraskans need to remain watchful and assertive to ensure our state’s rights are recognized and safeguarded to the full extent of applicable law.

    Platte River photo credit US Bureau of Reclamation.