A rancher-led group is boosting the health of the #ColoradoRiver near its headwaters — @WaterEdFdn #COriver

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Spotlight: a Colorado partnership is engaged in a river restoration effort to aid farms and fish habitat that could serve as a model across the west

Strategic placement of rocks promotes a more natural streamflow that benefits ranchers and fish. (Source: Paul Bruchez)

“What used to be a very large river that inundated the land has really become a trickle,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado counsel for Trout Unlimited. “We estimate that 70 percent of the flow on an annual average goes across the Continental Divide and never comes back.”

Ranchers on the river who once relied on floodwater from the Colorado River to irrigate their hayfields now must pump from the river to irrigate. The river is shallow, sandy and warm in spots. Irrigation ditches have sloughed. The stretch of the river near Kremmling has not been working well for ranchers or the environment.

Now, a partnership of state, local and conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited, is engaged in a restoration effort that could serve as a template for similar regions across the West. Centered around the high plateau near Kremmling, a town of about 1,400 people in northern Colorado about 100 miles west of Denver, the partnership aims to make the river function better for people and the environment.

Rancher and fly fishing guide Paul Bruchez (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission)

Paul Bruchez, a fifth-generation rancher of 6,000 acres near Kremmling who also runs fly fishing expeditions for tourists, sees the river’s challenges from both perspectives.

“Some of us involved with fly fishing care deeply about the environmental conditions within the river corridor,” said Bruchez. “Other landowners are more focused on the agricultural sustainability. But the one thing we agreed about is that things were collapsing.”

Restoring a Healthier River

The partnership, known as the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), obtained grant funding in 2015 to start the process of assessing the river’s conditions and identifying possible pilot projects, such as stabilizing riverbanks and reviving irrigation channels across a meandering 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River. As projects are identified, ILVK members attempt to prioritize them and apply for grants with the project costs evenly divided between grantors and landowners, Bruchez said.

River improvements often have immediate benefits for irrigation infrastructure.

“Many of our irrigation laterals had washed into the river system and there was no large-scale look at the system as a whole and how it connects,” Bruchez said. “A lot of these simple bank stabilization projects not only create habitat but are literally safeguarding some of our irrigation laterals that we all rely on to deliver the water to our crops.”

The key, he said, is realizing that less can be more in re-establishing a proper flow regime. “You set the stage for the river then you let the river do the work itself instead of getting in there and manipulating everything,” he said.

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Trout Unlimited is a full partner in the project. It applied for all the funding and is the fiscal agent and manager of the grants. Whiting and Bruchez consult on project management, retention of consultants and scope of work.

“It’s a complete win for everybody. It’s just a question of money,” Whiting said. “It’s been so successful and such a good story and so far, we have been able to draw quite a bit of funding and turn that into impressive improvements for the river and the ranchers.”

The partnership has obtained $2.6 million in grants from funders such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($500,000), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service ($2 million) and the Gates Family Foundation ($120,000).

Four miles downstream from Bruchez, the Colorado River becomes a smaller river with warmer temperatures that have spurred algae growth. “The minimum stream level of the Colorado River at Kremmling is 150 cubic feet per second,” said rancher Bill Thompson. “That’s not much.”

Thompson, who ranches about 400 acres, moved to Kremmling in 1959. He said he’s spent about $200,000 to match grant funding for two grade-control projects that have raised the river channel 18 inches near his property. While helping him get the water he needs, the structures also help create fish habitat.

“I speed the water up, I’ve got them [fish] more oxygen and I’ve cooled [the water] down,” he said. “It’s a healthier river now because of it.”

River projects are undertaken to be cost-effective. “We are trying to do this in a capacity where it is more affordable,” Bruchez said. “These are not people that live on limitless budgets that are doing this for building Disneyland fish habitat. These are multigeneration ag producers that just want to be able to irrigate.”

Overcoming Skeptical Landowners

Moving water great distances helps meet Colorado’s water supply demand. The Continental Divide spans the length of the state, with watersheds on the west side flowing toward the Pacific Ocean and those on the east feeding the Atlantic Ocean. The more rural Western Slope of the Rockies gets most of Colorado’s precipitation, about 80 percent, and a vast network of storage and conveyance infrastructure moves water to major cities like Denver, Boulder and Aurora.

That diversion has come at the expense of the Colorado River in the area near Kremmling. “Where you had a very large river there is now a very small river,” Whiting with Trout Unlimited said. “It doesn’t have enough water; it is overly wide and shallow, and it gets really hot.”

Prior to the diversions, the Colorado River’s floodwaters washed over the land and helped prepare it for planting.

“You didn’t even need a water right,” said Thompson, the longtime rancher. “All you had to do was take your rake out there and scrape off the logs and the willows and start haying.”

Getting to a place where landowners agreed to commit themselves to projects took time. “It’s fair to say most landowners were pretty skeptical,” Bruchez said. “These are people that like private lives. They don’t like public dollars; they don’t like meetings and they don’t like talking about stuff. They like doing their thing.”

Eventually a cost-sharing structure emerged that focused on improving the condition of the river, with grant funding helping to cover the gap beyond out-of-pocket expenses for traditional repairs. River fixes run the gamut, from rebuilding lost banks to altering the channel with rock that makes the current meander, ebb and flow. This, in turn, stimulates the production of insects that fish feast on. Bruchez said anglers tell him the results are “off the charts.”

Calming Suspicions

A restored Colorado River means good things for the ranchers near Kremmling and the trout that thrive in its waters. How much further work happens and at what scale remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the merits have been demonstrated. For her part, Whiting said the next challenge and hard conversation will entail finding ways to leave more water in the river.

Beyond the physical improvements to the river, the interaction between stakeholders has also worked well, Bruchez said, especially with trans-mountain diverters such as Denver Water. “We all view it now as a one-river thing, and when we all work together and are able to talk about the issues, we can solve problems,” he said. “If we all go to our corners and put up our fists, it doesn’t work so well.”

The Upper Colorado River meanders through the high plateau around Kremmling, Colorado. (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission)

Whiting said partnerships between landowners and outside agencies work best when people like Bruchez are there to serve as a bridge.

“They can go in and say, ‘These guys are not coming to take your water, they are not here to take your land,’” she said. “All these suspicions can be calmed when you have a trusted source who walks stakeholders through it.”

As 2019 moves toward 2020, more bank and river channel work is scheduled. Centered at the swirl of activity, Bruchez said he wants to keep things in perspective.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we are trying to not get too big for our britches,” he said. “We also recognize there are river-system challenges all over the country, especially in the Southwest, and we are hoping as a collective group that this project is enough of a success that we can really try and demonstrate to others how people can come together and accomplish a successful project, especially by reasonably affordable techniques of installation.”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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Click here to read Coyote Gulch posts about Paul Bruchez’s influence.

Restoring forests means less fuel for wildfire and more storage for carbon — EurekaAlert! @ESA_org #ActOnClimate

In areas that experience low-severity burns, fire events can serve to eliminate vegetative competition, rejuvenate its growth and improve watershed conditions. But, in landscapes subjected to high or even moderate burn severity, the post-fire threats to public safety and natural resources can be extreme. Photo credit: Colorado State Forest Service

From the Ecological Society of America (Zoe Gentes):

When wildfires burn up forests, they don’t just damage the trees. They destroy a key part of the global carbon cycle. Restoring those trees as quickly as possible could tip the scale in favor of mitigating severe climate change.

Lisa A. McCauley, a spatial analyst at The Nature Conservancy, explains how quick action to thin out vegetation will actually increase carbon storage in forests by the end of this century. Her new paper is published in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecological Applications, and she will present the findings this August at ESA’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Louisville, KY.

“With predictions of widespread mortality of western U.S. forests under climate change,” McCauley states, “our study addresses how large-scale restoration of overly-dense, fire-adapted forests is one of the few tools available to managers that could minimize the adverse effects of climate change and maintain forest cover.”

Forests are a vital carbon sink – a natural sponge that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis. Because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from human activities are a major cause of climate change, forests do humanity a huge service by disposing of much of its gaseous waste.

Unfortunately, wildfires are more common than they used to be. Higher tree density, more dry wood for fuel, and a warmer, drier climate have caused an increase in the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires in western U.S. forests. Restoring forests in a timely manner is critical in making subsequent wildfires are less likely. The U.S. Forest Service states that rehabilitation and restoration takes many years, and includes planting trees, reestablishing native species, restoring habitats, and treating for invasive plants. There is an urgent need for such restoration in the southwest U.S. to balance out the carbon cycle.

Enter, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). The U.S. Forest Service began the 4FRI in 2010 to restore 2.4 million acres (3750 square miles) of national forests in Arizona. The goals of the 4FRI are to restore the structure, pattern, composition, and health of fire-adapted (dependent on occasional fires for their lifecycle) ponderosa pine ecosystems; reduce fuels and the risk of unnaturally severe wildfires; and provide for wildlife and plant diversity. Doing so involves a full suite of restoration projects that are carried out by US Forest Service personnel, partners and volunteers, and contractors. Managers of the four forests – the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto – are engaged in a huge, collaborative initiative to with a diverse group of stakeholders to explore the best methods for restoring the ponderosa pine forests in the region.

One such exploration is a study in which researchers, including McCauley, use computer simulations to see how the carbon cycle and wildfire severity between the years 2010-2099 would be influenced by different rates of restoration of about 1500 square miles of forest.

A potential drawback to a very rapid restoration plan is that it includes the thinning out (harvesting) of dense, dry trees — possibly by controlled burns — to get rid of plants that could act as potential wildfire fuel. Reduction in overall vegetation could mean that the overall carbon uptake and storage of these forests would drop.

“The conventional wisdom has been that forest restoration in the western U.S. does not benefit carbon stocks,” McCauley says. “However, with wildfire size, frequency and severity increasing, we believe that additional research is needed across more forests so that we can better understand the fate of carbon and forest cover, particularly for fire-adapted forests where tree densities exceed historical norms and the risks of climate-induced forest loss are increasing.”

Interestingly, the simulations show that despite early decreases in the ecosystem’s stored carbon, a rapid restoration plan increases total carbon storage by 11-20%, which is about 8-14 million metric tons of carbon by the end of the century. This is equal to the removal of carbon emissions from 67,000-123,000 passenger vehicles per year until 2100.

“By minimizing high-severity fires,” McCauley explains, “accelerated forest thinning can stabilize forest carbon stocks and buy time – decades – to better adapt to the effects of climate change on forest cover.”

Restored forests provide other benefits than just increased carbon storage in the next century. A restored fire-adapted forest would be less dense, with fewer trees but more diversity, allowing more sunlight to penetrate the canopy, increasing cover of grass and encouraging a more diverse understory. The wildfires that do occur would burn at lower severity as ground fires that consume grasses rather than torching canopies that kills trees.

McCauley says this study is unique because it is a large, landscape-scale study that uses data from a real-world restoration project–the largest restoration being implemented in the U.S. The results are indeed promising, indicating that restoration is likely to stabilize carbon and the benefits are greater when the pace of restoration is faster.

Wildfire mitigation projects help reduce damage from the #LakeChristineFire burn scar

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

A large catch basin that Eagle County sculpted into the mountainside above Basalt in recent weeks prevented significantly more water, mud and debris from swamping part of the Hill District during [the August 4, 2019] flash flood, officials said Thursday.

Eagle County Road and Bridge Department used heavy equipment to dig out a settlement pond and then used the dirt removed to regrade the hillside above the Basberg Townhouses. Boulders were placed in two drainage channels that led the water to the settlement pond. While water topped the pond during Sunday’s downpour, a lot of it was captured. Thick, sludge-like water was still in the pond Thursday.

This summer, the town of Basalt also created berms, added curb and gutter and installed a swale to direct water, all just uphill from the Basbergs…

The work was part of a $1.35 million Emergency Watershed Protection Program project. The federal government supplied a $1.23 million grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The state of Colorado contributed $153,359. Basalt, Eagle County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are undertaking in-kind projects valued at $153,359, or 12.5%, to cover a local match.

The grant was administered by Basalt. Projects were identified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Engineering was provided by SGM, a consultant for Basalt town government.

Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said about 20% of the work has been completed. Additional projects have been identified above Basalt, on the hillside overlooking Ace Lane’s Tree Farm property in El Jebel and on Basalt Mountain where it drops steeply to Upper Cattle Creek where several historic cabins are located.

Mahoney said he felt work performed at and around a culvert at the intersection of Pinon and Cedar drives in the Hill District also softened the blow of the flash flood.

The town widened the area around the entrance to the culvert but it was still overwhelmed by the amount of water roaring down from a usually dry gulch on the mountain.

“We’ve got some river pigs — big concrete blocks — at the bottom of the drainage,” he said. “Those are to hold debris back.”

[…]

Governments teamed to install three rain gauges on Basalt Mountain so the risk of flash flooding can be better assessed in the future. Those rain gauges were calibrated this week to ensure accurate readings.

In addition, National Weather Service meteorologists visited Basalt Mountain with local emergency responders this week to get a better feel for the lay of the land. Thompson said Sunday’s storm demonstrated that different sections of Basalt Mountain can experience vastly different weather.

The projects funded through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program will continue through the summer and into fall. All told, work will be undertaken in nine drainages, Mahoney said.

@CWCB_DNR’s August Confluence Newsletter is hot off the presses

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Nominate A Local Water Hero

Vote for your local basin water hero! Do you know someone that deserves to be recognized for their water industry service, outstanding contributions, or innovative thinking? Anyone is eligible. Anyone can vote. Winners will be recognized at the C-9 Statewide Summit of Colorado’s 9 Basin Roundtable in September. Vote here today!

‘Warning flag’: IPCC finds rapid land warming threatens food security — Sydney Morning Herald #ActOnClimate #aridification

From The Sydney Morning Herald (Peter Hannam):

Temperatures over the world’s land areas are warming at about twice the global rate, expanding deserts in Australia, Africa and Asia, and hitting food security hard, a new UN report finds.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that surface air temperatures between 2006 and 2015 were 1.53 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average of 1850-1900. By contrast, the combined warming of land and oceans was 0.87 degrees, the IPCC’s special report on land said.

Compared with current conditions, though, land areas have warmed by about 1.8 degrees, and global mean temperatures by 1.1 degrees, said Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“Climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions,” the report’s Summary for Policymakers said.

The report, compiled by 107 authors from 52 nations and released in Geneva on Thursday, noted humans typically relied on land for their homes and the great bulk of their food, fibre and feed for animals.

Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University and an IPCC vice-chair, said the report was “a warning flag” about the threats and “how hard we need to go” to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Land’s effect on climate

About a quarter of the earth’s ice-free land was already subject to human-caused degradation, with soil losses as much as 100 times higher than soil formation, the report said.

Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of east and central Asia were singled out as regions where rising evapotranspiration (caused by hotter temperatures and reduced rainfall) were causing deserts to expand.

Climate change would “ramp up” existing degradation, such as through erosion caused by more intense rainfall events, Professor Howden said.

But land would also affect the climate because land-clearing, methane from livestock, fertiliser, and other emissions related to farming and forestry are major sources of greenhouse gases.

“Just under a third of our emissions come from our food systems, globally,” he said.

On the flip side, reducing land clearing and increasing soil carbon sequestration would help reduce the damaging trends, as would consumers switching to more plant-based diets rather than meat-based ones, the report said.

Here’s the link to the IPCC report Climate Change and Land: Summary for Policy Makers:

This Special Report on Climate Change and Land responds to the Panel decision in 2016 to prepare three Special Reports during the Sixth Assessment cycle, taking account of proposals from governments and observer organizations. This report addresses greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes in land-based ecosystems , land use and sustainable land management in relation to climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation6 and food security. This report follows the publication of other recent reports, including the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15), the thematic assessment of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on Land Degradation and Restoration, the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the Global Land Outlook of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). This report provides an updated assessment of the current state of knowledge8 while striving for coherence and complementarity with other recent reports.

Farmington, #NewMexico: San Juan Water Commission meeting recap

From Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

The lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California have created a drought contingency plan while the upper basin states including New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming have a different drought contingency plan.

These two plans fall under a companion agreement between the upper and lower basin states as well as federal legislation signed into law earlier this year.

The key component of these agreements is to keep water levels in Lake Powell from dropping below 3,525 feet in elevation and to keep water levels in Lake Mead above 1,090 feet in elevation.

The upper basin states will be responsible for maintaining the levels in Lake Powell.

The San Juan Water Commission learned about the drought contingency plan during a meeting on Aug. 7 in Farmington.

Here are three things New Mexico residents should know about the Drought Contingency Plan:

The outflow at the bottom of Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

1. Navajo Lake is a key component

…New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Lawyer Dominique Work said the first step will be to look at operations at Lake Powell to determine if less water could be released. If that does not work, the response plan will look at different storage reservoirs — Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo Lake.

All three reservoirs can release water into rivers that eventually flow into Lake Powell.

One of those three storage reservoirs could be chosen to release water to keep the levels at Lake Powell above 3,525 feet…

How much electricity the turbines in the bowels of Glen Canyon Dam can generate depends upon how much water is delivered from the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the high mountains of Colorado into Lake Powell. Photo/Bureau of Reclamation.

2. The 3,525 feet water level was chosen for hydropower generation

Lake Powell produces hydropower that provides electricity to utilities in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the hydropower plant at Glen Canyon Dam produces about five billion kilowatt hours of power each year.

Electric utilities in Farmington and Aztec both receive power from Lake Powell.

If the lake levels drop below 3,490 feet, the hydropower plant cannot work…

Hay fields under Meeker Ditch 2. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

3. Plan also allows upper basin states to place water in storage

Another key aspect of the plan is it allows the upper basin states to develop a plan to store up to 500,000 acre-feet of additional water in Navajo Lake, Flaming Gorge and Aspinall. This water would be released if needed to fulfill Colorado River Compact requirements…

However, the 500,000 acre-feet of water must come from water rights that would otherwise have been used if it had not been put into storage. For example, a farmer could choose to put an acre-foot of water into storage and let their field go fallow.

The upper basin states must develop a demand management program before they can begin putting water in storage in the reservoirs.

@USBR: The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be held on Thursday, August 15th, at the Elk Creek Visitor Center at Blue Mesa Reservoir. Start time is 1:00 PM