First steps taken in developing Cow Creek pipeline and reservoir — the Watch

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

From the Watch (Tanya Ishikawa):

Ouray County is hoping to develop new and existing water rights on a major tributary of the Uncompahgre River, so water can be stored in a proposed reservoir and transported through a ditch or pipeline for temporary storage in Ridgway Reservoir. The county partnered with the Ouray County Water Users Association, a group representing ranchers with water rights, and Tri-County Water Conservancy District, the operator of Ridgway Reservoir and Dam, to apply for new and augmented water rights Dec. 30, 2019.

The three partners are jointly seeking the right to divert surface water from Cow Creek up to 20 cubic feet per second and store 25,349.15 acre feet, which is equal to 8.26 billion gallons, in a yet-to-be-built reservoir. The water rights application also requested the right to exchange up to 30 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek for water from other locations within Tri-County’s water rights holdings around Ouray County.

The water rights application was made after the completion of a water supply study commissioned by the Ouray County Stream Management & Planning Steering Committee, a group including the three partners and other local stakeholders that was organized as an effort to understand local water supply conditions after the droughts of 2012 and 2018.

“Our challenge is that during dry years the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association with its members’ senior rights puts a call on water from the Uncompahgre River (UVWUA), which means a lot of our users in Ouray County don’t have the water they need. This water rights application is essentially an augmentation plan, to alleviate the results of a call from UVWUA. It would help us add some water supplies where we don’t have them by retiming flows and releases, moving water and storing it in years when we have lots of water, and using it in years without water,” said Marti Whitmore, attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association, who was formerly the attorney for the county and has long been involved in water rights law.

The plan is to take water from Cow Creek without impacting the water that belongs to current water rights holders. Beyond that basic premise, much about the proposed projects is yet to be determined. The exact location of the pipeline or ditch, as well as the design and management of the reservoir, still need to be researched and negotiated with various stakeholders, including private and public property owners.

The main use for the water rights would be to supplement irrigation of 100,300 acres of mostly hay pastures, but the water rights application also lists other prior uses as domestic, municipal, industrial and flood control, and new uses as storage, flow stabilization, augmentation, exchange, aquifer recharge, reuse, commercial, piscatorial, streamflow enhancement, aquatic life, and hydropower generation and augmentation.

The water storage is a right owned by Tri-County, which was approved sometime in the 1950s as Ram’s Horn Reservoir, and decreed to be located in the vicinity of Ramshorn Gulch and Ramshorn Ridge northwest of Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarron Range. The Ridgway Reservoir was selected as the preferred alternative, and the smaller reservoir was never developed.

The proposed reservoir is on Uncompahgre National Forest land, but not within the wilderness area. Though on public land, the reservoir would not be publicly accessible for any uses such as recreation due to a stipulation made during a previous water rights case about the project. The pipeline or ditch would be located somewhere north of the reservoir, connecting flow from a point on Cow Creek to the Ridgway Reservoir to the west.

The cost and funding for the projects had not been determined yet, Whitmore said.

While no timeline has been set for the projects, the partners hope to have the water rights application successfully completed in 2020, after which other steps in the process from design to funding and federal permitting will begin, she added…

Ken Lipton has been a member of the Ouray County Stream Management and Planning Steering Committee, as well as a local rancher and former board member of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit with a purpose of protecting the watershed in the county.

“The projects are necessary to prevent total loss of irrigation and stock water during extreme drought,” he said. “The bottom line is a reduced chance that there will be calls on our ditches during extreme droughts. However, I don’t think this will totally guarantee that no calls will occur.”

The #UncompahgreRiver Watershed in Ouray County The Basics & A Little Bit More — Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

The Uncompahgre River Watershed in Ouray County is a first-of-its-kind publication that provides answers about water quality, supply and other features of the Uncompahgre River, its tributaries and the water sources in Ouray County. Just published by the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of protecting and improving watershed resources, the booklet is available for free online ( and soon at public facilities and businesses around Ridgway and Ouray.

To determine the most valuable content to include in the compact booklet, UWP gathered input from around the county through various stakeholder outreach activities for many months in 2019. In February, UWP representatives will be presenting the watershed booklet at meetings of the Ouray City Council, Ouray County Board of Commissioners and Ridgway Town Council, and delivering copies to businesses, schools, libraries and other locations with an interest in sharing the useful information with their patrons.

“I know it was a lengthy production process and carefully written project after many months of research. Both my husband and I read it and found the information useful and interesting,” said Sue Hillhouse, a committee member for the Ouray County Community Fund, which provided the primary funding for the booklet. “We are proud to have been a part in making this possible. We look forward to its distribution and use.”

UWP used information garnered from its first six years of work on researching, monitoring, analyzing, and reporting on watershed conditions to produce the guide. The nonprofit produced a watershed plan in 2013, with 143 pages of geography, history, geology, data, maps, and other detailed information. Since then, UWP volunteers have taken water samples around the watershed for various projects, including the Colorado River Watch, a citizen scientist program collecting monthly samples at several sites coordinated through Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

UWP also pulled information from its various public meetings and collaborative projects, such as three mine remediation projects completed in 2017. The partnership is preparing to participate in two additional mine remediation projects in 2020 and 2021, the Governor Basin Restoration Project and a restoration project at the historic Atlas Mill that adds to work done previously. Both projects are identified on the centerfold map in the new watershed booklet.

“I’m thrilled with what our little nonprofit and our partners have accomplished. I’m most excited about the progress made towards cleaning up Governor Basin. In 2017, all we knew was that Governor Basin had very poor water quality and large mine waste piles. To make the project a reality, we’ve dug through heaps of information to better understand everything from land ownership to sediment chemistry, and together with our partners, secured more than $220,000 in commitments to restore that sensitive, high alpine area,” said UWP Technical Coordinator Ashley Bembenek in her message in the nonprofit’s annual report (available at

To help the public better understand the legacy of abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains and their impact on the watershed, UWP is organizing its annual Winter Tour of the Red Mountain Mining District, a snowshoe or Nordic ski trip to historic sites including the Yankee Girl Mine. The tour will be guided by Ouray County Historical Society Curator and author Don Paulson. The popular tour is already fully reserved with a waiting list started. However, a second snowshoe and skiing tour has been scheduled for March 7 that still has openings. On that date, wildlife biologist Steve Boyle will guide a group from Ironton Park on Red Mountain Pass to discover animal tracks and winter wildlife.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

2019 #COleg SB19-181: New well integrity rules make #Colorado a leader in [oil and gas] well safety for workers and neighbors — Environmental Defense Fund #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From the Environmental Defense Fund (Adam Peltz):

The state of Colorado is poised to adopt some of the nation’s most sophisticated and protective regulations designed to prevent its 60,000 oil and gas wells from leaking or exploding.

Colorado has a history of leading on oil and gas regulatory issues to reduce risks to families, workers and the environment, including the nation’s first regulations to address climate-damaging methane emissions from the industry in 2014. In the wake of the 2017 Firestone tragedy and the passage of a major oil and gas reform bill (SB 181) in 2019, the state has undertaken a whole slate of rule modernizations. Well integrity, for which rules have not been updated since 2008, is up next.

Ensuring that wells do not leak or explode is a top priority for any oil and gas agency. For the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission updating well integrity rules will not only reduce risks for oil and gas workers in the state, but will also help protect the 500,000 Coloradans who live within a mile of an oil or gas well in the state. Since 2016, COGCC records show around 40 well integrity incidents, including significant blowouts in Hudson and Berthoud in 2017. And that figure is likely an underreporting given how difficult it can be to determine whether a leak is occurring deep underground.

Leaks from oil and gas wells can contaminate aquifers or release methane into the atmosphere. In the most serious cases, methane can migrate into homes and pose explosion risks. Oil and gas well blowouts are dramatic fluid releases that can endanger workers, residents and the environment. They occur most often during drilling, but are possible during any phase of a well’s multidecade lifespan. Major blowouts in recent years have rocked Ohio, Oklahoma, the Gulf of Mexico and California’s Aliso Canyon.

Importantly, history shows us that smarter and better rules really work. A year after Texas adopted new well integrity regulations, including many similar policy recommendations from EDF, blowouts in Texas fell by 40% and injuries from blowouts fell 50%.

Over the last year, a stakeholder coalition that included EDF and operators representing more than 90% of the production in Colorado has been working to develop a joint set of proposed rule revisions, based on a peer review by the State Oil and Gas Regulatory Exchange, that protect workers, the environment and residents, and take into account the needs of the state’s energy businesses.

The COGCC’s proposed rule, which will be voted on in late February, reflects all of the coalition’s recommendations, and EDF strongly supports its passage (Colorado environmental groups are also broadly supportive of the rulemaking, and EDF supports the tweaks they seek to the definition of protected water). It addresses essentially all of the potential regulatory gaps flagged by the peer review, reduces specific risks related to Colorado’s oil and gas wells identified in the technical literature, and adheres closely to EDF’s Model Regulatory Framework on well integrity. In other words, it would bring Colorado to the head of the class on well integrity regulation nationwide.

Some highlights include:

  • Regular monitoring of every well in the state for leakage risks.
  • Improved criteria for cement placement, quality and testing.
  • New safety controls during hydraulic fracturing.
  • More comprehensive efforts to prevent frac hits.
  • Better plugging protocols.
  • New emergency response planning requirements.
  • Overall, there are dozens of new improvements, and many of them clearly demonstrate national leadership. EDF is excited that Colorado is getting ready to adopt such a strong rule developed in a collaborative, science and risk-based manner. Other states may find much to replicate in both process and substance, and this rulemaking establishes strong momentum in Colorado’s stead for the next rounds of rule upgrades required under SB 181.

    As forests burn in #Colorado and around the world, drinking #water is at risk — The Colorado Sun #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Strontia Springs Dam spilling June 2014 via Denver Water

    From The Associated Press (Tammy Webber) via The Colorado Sun:

    In Australia’s national capital of Canberra, authorities are keeping a wary eye on burning forests and bushland, hoping a new water treatment plant and other measures will prevent a repeat of water quality problems and disruption that followed deadly wildfires 17 years ago.

    There have not yet been major impacts on drinking water systems in southeast Australia from the intense fires that have burned more than 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers) since September. But authorities know from experience that the biggest risks will come with repeated rains over many months or years while the damaged watersheds, or catchment areas, recover.

    And because of the size and intensity of the fires, the potential impacts are not clear yet.

    “The forest area burned in Australia within a single fire season is just staggering,” said Stefan Doerr, a professor at Swansea University in England who studies the effects of forest files on sediment and ash runoff. “We haven’t seen anything like it in recorded history.”

    The situation in Australia illustrates a growing global concern: Forests, grasslands and other areas that supply drinking water to hundreds of millions of people are increasingly vulnerable to fire due in large part to hotter, drier weather that has extended fire seasons, and more people moving into those areas, where they can accidentally set fires.

    More than 60% of the water supply for the world’s 100 largest cities originates in fire-prone watersheds — and countless smaller communities also rely on surface water in vulnerable areas, researchers say.

    When rain does fall, it can be intense, dumping a lot of water in a short period of time, which can quickly erode denuded slopes and wash huge volumes of ash, sediment and debris into crucial waterways and reservoirs. Besides reducing the amount of water available, the runoff also can introduce pollutants, as well as nutrients that create algae blooms.

    What’s more, the area that burns each year in many forest ecosystems has increased in recent decades, and that expansion likely will continue through the century because of a warmer climate, experts say.

    Most of the 25,000 square miles (64,000 square kilometers) that have burned in Victoria and New South Wales have been forest, including rainforests, according to scientists in New South Wales and the Victorian government. Some believe that high temperatures, drought and more frequent fires may make it impossible for some areas to be fully restored…

    Very hot fires burn organic matter and topsoil needed for trees and other vegetation to regenerate, leaving nothing to absorb water. The heat also can seal and harden the ground, causing water to run off quickly, carrying everything in its path.

    That in turn can clog streams, killing fish, plants and other aquatic life necessary for high-quality water before it reaches reservoirs. Already, thunderstorms in southeast Australia in recent weeks have caused debris flows and fish kills in some rivers, though fires continue to burn…

    …climate change has affected areas such as northern Canada and Alaska, where average annual temperatures have risen by almost 4 degrees (2.2 degrees Celsius) since the 1960s, compared to about 1 degree (0.55 degrees Celsius) farther south. As a result, the forested area burned annually has more than doubled over the past 20 to 30 years, said Doerr, from Swansea University.

    Although there might be fewer cities and towns in the path of runoff in those areas, problems do occur. In Canada’s Fort McMurray, Alberta, the cost of treating ash-tainted water in its drinking-water system increased dramatically after a 2016 wildfire.

    In the Western U.S., 65% of all surface water supplies originate in forested watersheds where the risk of wildfires is growing — including in the historically wet Pacific Northwest. By mid-century almost 90% of them will experience an increase — doubling in some — in post-fire sedimentation that could affect drinking water supplies, according to a federally funded 2017 study…

    Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million customers, discovered “the high cost of being reactive” after ash and sediment runoff from two large, high-intensity fires, in 1996 and 2002, clogged a reservoir that handles 80% of the water for its 1.4 million customers, said Christina Burri, a watershed scientist for the utility.

    It spent about $28 million to recover, mostly to dredge 1 million cubic yards (765,555 cubic meters) of sediment from the reservoir.

    Since then, the utility has spent tens of millions more to protect the forests, partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and others. to protect the watershed and proactively battle future fires, including by clearing some trees and controlling vegetation in populated areas.

    Utilities also can treat slopes with wood chips and other cover and install barriers to slow ash runoff. They purposely burn vegetation when fire danger is low to get rid of undergrowth…

    Eventually, some communities might need to switch their water sources because of fires and drought. Perth, on the western coast, has turned to groundwater and systems that treat saltwater because rainfall has decreased significantly since the early 1970s, said Sheridan of University of Melbourne.