Wildscaping 101: Erie (Plant a better world for birds and people, Monday, March 09, 2020) — @AudubonRockies

Photo credit: Evan-Barrientos via Audubon Rockies

Click here for all the inside skinny from Audubon Rockies:

Jamie Weiss, Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero coordinator, will demonstrate the importance of restoring our communities, one garden patch at a time. From a bird’s-eye view, learn how to create wildlife-friendly gardens that help combat the loss of open spaces and create green corridors that link your garden to larger natural areas by providing habitat for wildlife.

Study Details Effectiveness of Kansas Program That Pays Farmers to Conserve Water — @UnivOfKansas

Plots of land in Finney County, Kansas, utilize irrigation water from the High Plains Aquifer. Credit: NASA via the University of Kansas

From the University of Kansas (Jon Niccum):

Crops need water. And in the central United States, the increasing scarcity of water resources is becoming a threat to the nation’s food production.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov, assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas, has analyzed a pilot program intended to conserve water in the agriculture-dependent region. His article “The Effectiveness of a Water Right Retirement Program at Conserving Water,” co-written with fellow KU economics professor Dietrich Earnhart, is published in the current issue of Land Economics.

“Residential water use is mostly problematic in California, and not so much here in Kansas. However, people don’t realize that residential use is tiny compared to agricultural use,” Tsvetanov said.

“I don’t want to discourage efforts to conserve water use among residential households. But if we want to really make a difference, it’s the agricultural sector that needs to change its practices.”

That’s the impetus behind the Kansas Water Right Transition Assistance Program (WTAP).

“If you’re a farmer, you need water to irrigate. If you don’t irrigate, you don’t get to sell your crops, and you lose money. So the state says if you reduce the amount of water you use, it’s actually going to pay you. So it’s essentially compensating you to irrigate less,” he said.

But this is not a day-to-day solution. The state recompenses farmers to permanently retire their water rights. The five-year pilot program that began in 2008 offers up to $2,000 for every acre-foot retired.

This benefits the High Plains Aquifer, the world’s largest freshwater aquifer system, which is located beneath much of the Great Plains. Around 21 million acre-feet of water is withdrawn from this system, primarily for agricultural purposes.

Tsvetanov and Earnhart’s work distinguishes the effectiveness between two target areas: creek sub-basins and high-priority areas. Their study (which is the first to directly estimate the effects of water right retirement) found WTAP resulted in no reduction of usage in the creek areas but substantial reduction in the high-priority areas.

“Our first thought was, ‘That’s not what we expected,’” Tsvetanov said.

“The creeks are the geographic majority of what’s being covered by the policy. The high-priority areas are called that for a reason — they’ve been struggling for many years. Our best guess is that farmers there were more primed to respond to the policy because there is awareness things are not looking good, and something needs to be done. So as soon as a policy became available which compensated them for the reduction of water use, they were quicker to take advantage of it.”

Of the eight states sitting atop the High Plains Aquifer, Texas is the worst in terms of water depletion volume. However, Kansas suffers from the fastest rate of depletion during the past half-century.

“Things are quite dire,” Tsvetanov said. “The western part of Kansas is more arid, so they don’t get as much precipitation as we do here in the east. Something needs to change in the long run, and this is just the first step.”

Tsvetanov initially was studying solar adoption while doing his postdoctoral work at Yale University in Connecticut. When visiting KU for a job interview, he assumed the sunny quality of the Wheat State would be a great fit for his research. He soon realized that few policies incentivized the adoption of solar.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I can’t really adapt solar research to the state of Kansas because there’s not much going on here.’ And then I started getting more interested in water scarcity because this truly is a big local issue,” he said.

A native of Bulgaria who was raised in India (as a member of a diplomat’s family), Tsvetanov is now in his fifth year at KU. He studies energy and environmental economics, specifically how individual household choices factor into energy efficiency and renewable resources.

The state of Kansas spent $2.9 million in the half decade that the WTAP pilot program ran. Roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water rights were permanently retired.

“Maybe it’s a start, but it’s not something you would expect to stabilize the depletion,” Tsvetanov said. “This is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially what we need is some alternative source of income for those people living out there, aside from irrigation-intensive agriculture.”

The Sacramento-San Joaquin deltas of 1772 and today — @HighCountryNews

Here’s some of the history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin deltas from Matt Weiser writing in The High Country News, [February 27, 20214]:

When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.

The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp, instead of solid ground. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.

But this estuary did the opposite. As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out, and his hopes thinned. On foot and horseback for three days in March, he and his companions searched fruitlessly for a way through the tangle of channels.

“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”

Crespi was the first European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it.

Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain – all mud, tules and marsh – finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only place comparable is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Within a century of Crespi’s expedition, European settlers were trying to engineer their own logic into the place, trenching new channels and building levees to create some of the world’s richest farmland. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.

But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.

The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve them by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. If approved this year, it would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands. The state believes the proposed tunnel intakes would be far enough upstream to protect the water supply from disaster, at least under present climate-change scenarios. The intakes would also include modern fish screens, potentially preventing the extinction of the native Delta smelt, spring-run chinook salmon and other species that are being killed by the current water export system.

But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish that state officials hope to restore. The Delta continues to confound.

Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. They left the Spanish presidio, or fort, at San Franciso, which was established three years after Crespi’s visit. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.

His party had a hard time from the start: They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. The storm blew Arguello onto the shore of the San Joaquin River, near its mouth. Durán and a second padre, in the other boat, took refuge for the night on a soggy mound of tules in the middle of the Sacramento.

When the storm finally quit and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose. It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress to show for it.

On top of that, the men experienced a condition that plagues Delta visitors to this day: They became disoriented.

Seeking to remain on the Sacramento River, the party soon encountered a variety of branching side-channels. They could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. A gap in the trees that looked like a river channel might turn out to be a flooded island where a boat would quickly run aground. “The thick leafiness makes the whole river like a tree-lined promenade,” Durán remarked.

The next day, May 16, they traveled only four leagues upriver. They also took a wrong turn and left the Sacramento on a side channel – a serious mistake, as any detour meant more labor for the rowers. Eventually, though, they got lucky and recovered their course.

Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled on rafts as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated, either because of the spring flood or because word had spread that the Indians might be conscripted as laborers in the Spanish missions.

Occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.”

Durán felt obliged to baptize both women, “because it seemed to us that they could die before Divine Providence could arrange another convenient time when we could baptize them in one or another of the missions.”

Durán, who was no naturalist, made no effort to identify important land features or tree species, and does not mention sighting any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. Giant tidal marshes, packed with tules and cattails, hosted millions of waterfowl. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48 states. Yet it may not survive. There are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.

Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.

The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where, by chance, they spotted some rafts in the tules and a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”

Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver, where they were promised fish.

But Durán and his cohorts, possibly disoriented, never found the second Indian village, and never got the promised fish. Exhausted and frustrated, they were ready to turn back. Amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.

The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, or approximately near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.

Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years.

The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen.

#NEPA turns 50 amid new challenges to public process — @AspenJournalism

A proposed trail connecting Redstone to McClure Pass is going through a federal environmental review. The existing trail switchbacks up McClure Pass. Photo credit: Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

From Aspen Journalism (Marci Krivonen):

The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, turned 50 years old on Jan. 1. A fundamental component of the law is public involvement. Projects such as a new ski lift, trail or natural-gas lease each receives a NEPA review, and most of the time the public weighs in. NEPA has evolved over the years, but the biggest change may come in a new proposal from President Donald Trump.

Katherine Hudson looks over a map that features the proposed trail between Redstone and McClure Pass. Hudson plans to voice her concerns about the project during the public comment period required by NEPA. Photo credit: Marci Krivonen/Aspen Journalism

A NEPA case study: The trail between Redstone and McClure Pass

Katherine Hudson lives near the Crystal River between Carbondale and Redstone. She said she loves living close to nature but thinks a proposed multi-use recreation trail will disturb the river.

Proposed Redstoen to McClure Pass trail. Map credit: USFS

“For me, it’s not just about the view,” she said. “I value this incredible waterway and how lucky we are to have it.”

Hudson, a member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board, believes bridges planned along the trail will constrict the river.

A five-mile section of the proposed trail sits on Forest Service land and will get, thanks to NEPA, a close review. Hudson was one of about 50 people looking over maps and visiting with Forest Service staff at an open house in Carbondale in late January.

Under NEPA, federal agencies must consider impacts to the environment when projects such as the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail are proposed on public land. The law applies to all major federal actions, including infrastructure permitting and road construction. One goal is to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Proposed changes from Washington

In January, the White House released a plan to streamline NEPA, marking the first major update in decades. The changes would impose strict deadlines on completing analyses; would more closely involve contractors in studies; and would eliminate requirements to consider climate change.

“It would make it really difficult to analyze the impacts on climate in any project,” said Will Rousch, executive director at Wilderness Workshop, a public-lands watchdog group based in Carbondale. “It would redefine what a major federal action is. That might eliminate some projects from going through the NEPA process.”

Also, he said, fewer projects undergoing a review means fewer opportunities for the public to weigh in.

But supporters say NEPA has become time consuming for federal agencies, project applicants and people seeking permits.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Colorado, points to a NEPA review of an Interstate 70 project near Denver that took 13 years to complete. He said lawsuits and reviews from multiple agencies kept it from moving forward more quickly.

“This was a good example of how we do need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing environmentally but also that we’re not creating roadblocks that stifle any kind of development at all,” Tipton said.

Katherine Hudson speaks with Roger Poirier of the White River National Forest at an open house in Carbondale in late January. The meeting was part of initial steps in the Forest Service analysis of the trail’s environmental impacts. Photo credit: Marci Krivonen/Aspen Journalism

Local efforts to make NEPA more efficient

President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law in 1970. Two catastrophic events prompted its creation: Millions of gallons of crude oil leaked into the Pacific, and a heavily polluted river in Ohio caught fire. Now, agencies such as the White River National Forest use the law all the time.

“It’s part of our work daily, for sure,” said WRNF supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We use NEPA on almost every single project. But there’s varying levels of it.”

For large, complex projects, a team of scientists may analyze a project’s impacts and create alternatives informed by public input. Small-scale projects, such as replacing a trailhead sign, don’t get in-depth reviews and public comments. The Forest Service determines how a project is analyzed based on its significance.

The White River National Forest, like the Trump administration, sees ways to make NEPA more efficient. The agency has developed tools that reduce the time it takes to do an environmental analysis. Their work began with a Forest Service-wide effort in 2017. The White River National Forest’s efficiencies have reduced NEPA document size and planning by more than 80% compared with the national average.

“We’re trying to be more efficient with the taxpayer’s money and really streamline where it’s appropriate,” Fitzwilliams said. “That doesn’t mean we cut corners; we still have a responsibility to disclose impacts, consider alternatives and involve the public, but we want to do it in a way that’s a little less bureaucratic.”

Since the streamlining began, Fitzwilliams estimates his agency has saved time and money by not conducting three environmental-impact statements — the most-in-depth analyses — that would have been done before. An EIS is still utilized, he said, if a project is significant enough.

“We’ve been doing less EIS’s and more EAs (environmental analyses),” said Fitzwilliams.

The approach began with ski areas. Hundreds of NEPA analyses have been done on ski hills in the White River National Forest, so a new project, such as a lift, may receive a lighter review because previous studies help inform it.

“We know the ground really well, and so we really focus on what the key issues are,” said Fitzwilliams. “Instead of doing a full specialist report on all the wildlife potential impacts, we may just focus on elk-calving areas.”

The agency isn’t cutting corners, he said, and still focuses on considering impacts, alternatives and public involvement, the latter of which remains a high priority.

“People expect that of their government,” Fitzwilliams said. “They don’t expect government to waste time and money just because.”

The White River National Forest’s efforts to innovate NEPA earned the agency national distinction in December at the Under Secretary’s Awards and Chief’s Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

What’s next locally and nationally?

The NEPA process for the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail is just getting started. It will take one year to complete, partly because it’s contentious. It’s getting an environmental assessment — a middle-ground approach under NEPA. It’s neither the law’s deepest analysis nor its lightest-touch approach, and the public will have two chances to give feedback.

The concerns raised at the open house — river health, maintaining biodiversity and preventing habitat fragmentation — will inform the final assessment.

“It’s an issue that a lot of people care about, and I think without the NEPA process, you’d end up with a much worse project regardless of how it turned out because people wouldn’t get a say,” said Rousch.

Hudson said she’s glad for the opportunity to comment on the trail project.

“I’m in it for the long haul because there are a lot of things that are at stake,” she said. “The Crystal River is a jewel of this watershed, and decisions could be made with this project that could permanently alter that treasure.”

She said she will submit concerns during both comment periods.

Meanwhile, the Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees NEPA, is also taking public input on Trump’s proposed changes to NEPA until March 10.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of environmental issues. A version of this story ran in The Aspen Times and aired on Aspen Public Radio on Feb. 13.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and BootJack Ranch water court case update

Bootjack Ranch. Photo credit: Mountain Workshop

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and BootJack Ranch are in water court regarding various opposition of diligence claims.

At the Jan. 16 regular meeting of the PAWSD Board of Directors, PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey explained that BootJack Ranch, in 2018, started opposing PAWSD’s diligence on its water rights…

Ramsey later explained that, in one instance, BootJack had requested that PAWSD no longer take water from Four Mile if the river levels dropped below a certain percentage during certain months.

“I said that’s an absolutely ridiculous request. We turn our water off three weeks out of every month. It’s idiotic,” he said.

On Aug. 2, 2018, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) placed a call on the San Juan River, which Ramsey explained correlated to BootJack’s earlier requests on PAWSD not taking water from Four Mile.

“Those numbers, they did corresponded with that. I think BootJack figures we quit turning the water on, and the water would get to the San Juan, CWCB wouldn’t do their call and they wouldn’t lose their water,” Ramsey explained. “So they wanted us to augment their water rights is what that was for.”

According to Ramsey, BootJack Ranch is going after PAWSD’s diligence claims…

What PAWSD has decided to do is oppose all of BootJack’s water rights issues, Ramsey noted…

Ramsey noted that there will be a meeting with BootJack to see if the two entities can just “leave each other alone.”

[…]

Ramsey explained that PAWSD went to the water court previously and explained that it needs 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Four Mile, which the court agreed to.

“Now it’s called a non-perfected right. We don’t use that 20 cfs at this point. Our plan is to use it in the future,” he explained.

According to Ramsey, the rea- son BootJack has filed this claim opposition relates to water from Four Mile that goes into the San Juan River.

“The CWCB has an instream water right. The CWCB is the only entity in the state that’s allowed to have an in-stream water right. That goes from I think the 1st Street bridge in Pagosa down to McCabe Creek,” Ramsey explained. “If the water level drops, then they can do a call. That’s what they did last year.”

That call affected BootJack, Ramsey noted…

There has never been a time since PAWSD has had the Four Mile water right that it has been able to pull water in the summer, he explained, adding that PAWSD loses that ability in the first part or middle of May.

#SanJuanRiver Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

Dry Gulch Reservoir site. Credit The Pagosa Daily Post

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

At a regular meeting of the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) Board of Directors on Feb. 3, the board nominated a few direc- tors to sit in on a subcommittee related to the Running Iron Ranch and San Juan River Headwaters Proj- ect (formerly known as Dry Gulch Reservoir).

Chair Al Pfister and board mem- bers John Porco and Doug Secrist were nominated to be on the six- person subcommittee that will also consist of three members of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) board.

SJWCD board member Bill Hudson will serve as an alternate for SJWCD’s portion of the subcommittee.

This subcommittee was formed as a result of a joint work session between the SJWCD and PAWSD boards on Jan. 23.

At that work session, it was suggested that a subcommittee should be created to craft an intergovernmental agreement between the two organizations regarding the property and determine what should be done when the Weber leases on the property end in 2023 and for a potential reservoir project…

Also at the Feb. 3 meeting, the SJWCD board briefly discussed who to nominate to be appointed to the Pagosa Springs Urban Renewal Au- thority (URA) Commission.

The 11-member URA commission is set up to consist of the seven town council members, an elected member of the school board, one person appointed by the county commissioners, one mayoral appointee and one person appointed by the taxing districts that levy taxes within the URA boundaries.

A URA’s primary goal is to help redevelopment within the town, and tax-increment funding ( TIF) is a common source of funding for specific URA projects…

Also at the Feb. 3 meeting, following an executive session, the board advised its legal counsel, Jeffrey Kane, to settle various cases the district, along with PAWSD, has with BootJack Ranch.

In a follow-up interview on Feb. 4, Kane explained that there are five cases the SWJCD is a part of.

Two of those cases involve both PAWSD and SJWCD as applicants, while the other three, BootJack Ranch is the applicant, Kane explained.

“The motion that was carried gave me authority to prepare stipulations with certain terms and negoti- ate with the parties to try and settle the cases,” he said.

Also at the Feb. 3 meeting, the SJWCD board elected its officers for the year.

Al Pfister was voted to be chair of the board. He previously served as secretary. Susan Nossaman retained her seat as vice chair.
Porco was elected as secretary after having previously served as chair.

Candice Kelly retained her seat as treasurer.

Senior Judge John L. Kane grants another delay in the #FountainCreek lawsuit (May 22, 2020)

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Boczkiewicz):

A new court document states that progress continues toward resolving an environmental lawsuit against Colorado Springs for degrading Fountain Creek.

The document was filed last week in Denver at the U.S. District Court for Colorado, where the lawsuit is pending.

“The parties have continued to make significant progress toward a settlement that encompasses an agreement for relief for all violations alleged,” the court filing states…

After a trial last year, a judge decided Colorado Springs had violated its permit that regulates discharges of the city’s storm water sewer system into the creek. Remaining to be decided is what the city would do to remedy the violations.

The new document states that since October, the five parties have been exchanging drafts of a proposed agreement on how to settle the dispute.

“The parties have met monthly (since November and) continued to have monthly scheduled settlement meetings so that they can continue their progress toward (a settlement),” the document states.

Last week, Senior Judge John L. Kane granted the parties’ request to keep the case on hold until May 22, so they can continue their work. Kane is presiding over the case.

He emphasized, however, he would not keep the case on hold beyond May 22 based on the same grounds that the parties have been stating.