Presenting to City Council Feb. 11, SGM Water Engineer Rick Huggins told councilors that the project has gone as expected locally, after the city’s recent water quality plans were set into motion when the Colorado Department of Public Health increased disinfectant residual requirements for water systems, which Craig couldn’t meet in 2016.
Previously, Craig was using free chlorine to keep its water clean, but due to the failure to meet state requirements, the City of Craig had to act.
According to Huggins, after months of studies and workshops, council members decided a few key upgrades along with treating the city’s water system with monochloramine was the most cost-effective solution to keep the water safe. The project was expected to cost $5.2 million, requiring the city to increase rates to help finance the entire project.
According to Huggins, SGM expects the project to cost $3.128 million in the end, which is below the $3.375 million the company estimated costs would be at the start of the project.
The city announced to residents in their latest water bill that the monochloramine changeover will be implemented sometime in March…
Huggins did add that the project has run into scheduling issues that has pushed the project back 4-6 weeks, but he said that SGM anticipates that they’ll have Craig’s water treatment system compliant with state regulations by April 1.
Colorado’s farm water use remains stubbornly high, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite millions of dollars spent on experimental water-saving programs and a statewide push to conserve water.
Farm water is critical to Colorado’s effort to balance a growing population with a water system stressed by drought and climate change. Farmers are the largest users of water in Colorado and other Western states. On the Front Range, for instance, growers use about 89 percent of available supplies, according to the Colorado Water Plan, while cites and industry consume less than 10 percent.
State water officials and environmentalists have long called for finding ways to use less water on farms as one way to make Colorado’s drought- and growth-pressured supplies go further.
Although some individual operations are finding success in improving water efficiency, the new report shows little progress has been made on a statewide level. While the national average has gone steadily down since 2003, Colorado’s ag water use has not changed, remaining almost exactly where it was 17 years ago, according to the USDA’s Irrigation and Water Management Survey, which is conducted every five years.
Colorado growers applied an average of 1.6 acre-feet of water per acre in 2018, according to the USDA, slightly above the 1.5 acre-foot-per-acre average nationwide.
Bill Meyer, Colorado director of the USDA program that produces the survey, said it wasn’t clear why the numbers aren’t showing a reduction. “You would assume that with better technologies and farming practices that it would have gone down.”
A complex beast
But Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg said the USDA report doesn’t capture the layered realities of Western water.
“These surveys and charts don’t tell the whole story,” Greenberg said. “It’s an incredibly complex beast, both from the legal and hydrologic perspective.”
The new report comes at the same time Colorado cities, such as Denver, have become remarkably savvy in cutting water use, saving more than 20 percent in the last decade. They’ve done this largely by shrinking lawns, offering incentives to use water-saving plants, and enacting price increases, strategies that are largely unavailable to farmers.
And Colorado isn’t the only state struggling.
Seven arid states comprise the Colorado River Basin—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California—and all exceed the national average for farm water use, with the exception of Wyoming, which uses 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre, in line with the national average.
While it comes as no surprise that arid states would use more water than rain-rich states like Nebraska and Missouri, it doesn’t make the problem any less urgent, water officials said.
The pressure is on
Water managers are well aware of the public call for conservation.
“There is no doubt that with climate change and urbanization, the pressure is on [to reduce the use of] ag water,” said Aaron Derwingson, a farm water expert with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Project. “A lot of people are saying, ‘If ag got more efficient we wouldn’t have [these looming shortages] this problem.”
Numerous programs are aimed at further improving farm water efficiency and conserving water that could eventually be freed up to share with cities or to benefit the environment while preserving farm economies.
Derek White Heckman farms 1,200 acres near Lamar in southeastern Colorado. In an effort to become more efficient with his water use, he is experimenting with cover crops, which when grown after a major crop such as corn is harvested help boost soil nutrients and, equally important, help keep moisture in the soil. Because rain is so scarce in this region, he’s willing to try almost anything to make sure he uses every drop of water that comes through his irrigation ditch.
And none of the work is easy, Greenberg said.
“Producers have been making progress in using new efficient technologies, but just because they are getting more efficient, doesn’t mean that they are going to divert less,” Greenberg said. “The legal liability for water right holders is that if they don’t use the full amount, they risk losing it.”
She is referring to Colorado’s prior appropriation system, in which the right to use water can be maintained only if it continues to be put to beneficial use. Water rights are subject to complex quantification analyses in the event of a transfer or sale. Although the only part of the water right that is transferable is the part that is technically “consumed” to grow the crop, much misconception remains around the notion of “use it or lose it.” Farmers who divert less, as they’re being encouraged to do, often don’t, because they fear losing their full water right, Greenberg said.
Ancient v. modern irrigation
Decades ago, the majority of Colorado farm fields were watered using flood irrigation, a simple, but labor-intensive method that fills field furrows with water to saturate adjacent rows. It is considered only 50 percent efficient. Today, less than half of those fields are watered using flood irrigation, with the majority now using a much more efficient technology that sprinkles fields, allowing water to be applied more precisely and reducing evaporation, according to the USDA report.
Still, the most modern, efficient systems for irrigating crops, subsurface or drip irrigation, are used on fewer than 1 percent of Colorado fields, according to the USDA, in part because they are much more expensive than traditional methods and because they don’t fit well with Colorado’s crop mix.
Nationwide roughly 10 percent of farm fields use these modern systems, according to the USDA survey.
Drip systems work best with high-dollar crops, such as vegetables, which comprise a small portion of Colorado’s farm economy.
The vast majority of Colorado farmers grow corn, wheat and hay, whose low commodity prices don’t justify pricey high-tech watering technologies, Greenberg said.
Installation of one sprinkler system, for instance, can cost $700 per acre, while a subsurface drip irrigation system can cost nearly twice that amount, at $1,331, according to research done at Kansas State University.
The lack of progress frustrates farm conservation experts. They say that changes to Colorado’s laws to remove conservation disincentives may be needed as well as more funding to modernize farm ditches and diversion structures.
“It’s a tough situation,” said Joel Schneekloth, regional water resource specialist with the Colorado State University Extension Service.
Finding just enough
Colorado’s scenic, historic irrigation ditches lose significant amounts of water to seepage and evaporation, some of which actually enhances wildlife habitat and streams and helps ensure farmers downstream have enough water (via return flows) to fulfill their own water rights.
“It takes a certain amount of water just to run a canal system,” Schneekloth said. “Often you can’t reduce that amount unless you line the canals, but then you run into reduced return flows farther downstream.”
“We would like to get to a point where we are putting on just enough water, but not excess water,” Schneekloth said.
Clint Evans is Colorado State Conservationist with the USDA. His agency spent $45 million in 2019 on some 600 farm water conservation projects, all with the hope of helping Colorado farmers use their water more efficiently. And the projects have shown some success.
One project in the Grand Valley has lined and piped miles of irrigation ditches, allowing some 30,000 acre-feet of previously diverted water to remain in the Colorado River.
Still, given the vast amounts of water used, these small programs have yet to move the needle significantly, according to the report.
Food or development?
Even as Colorado considers new ways to conserve farm water, some fear that across-the-board cuts in farm water use could cripple local farm economies, hurt streams and wetlands that have come to rely on the excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, and eventually limit Colorado’s ability to grow food.
“The most common way I’ve seen the narrative framed is, ‘If ag uses 80 percent of the water, and we could get that down to 70 percent, the Front Range could grow [urbanize] as much as it wants,” Greenberg said, “meaning that growth has a greater value than water used in farming.
“What we could choose to say, instead, is that we value our farmers and ranchers, and we value being able to produce our own food just as much as the rampant development that is gobbling up ag land and ag water,” Greenberg said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Coal-fired power plants are closing, or being given firm deadlines for closure, across the country. In the Western states that make up the overallocated and drought-plagued Colorado River, these facilities use a significant amount of the region’s scarce water supplies.
With closure dates looming, communities are starting the contentious debate about how this newly freed up water should be put to use.
That conversation is just beginning in the northwest Colorado city of Craig, home to nearly 9,000 residents and hundreds of coal industry workers. In January, TriState Generation and Transmission announced it will fully close Craig Station by 2030. The same goes for the nearby Colowyo coal mine.
The news comes on the heels of several high profile closures or closure announcements in Wyoming , New Mexico and Arizona . Each has a coal plant that taps into the Colorado River or its tributaries…
Craig’s economy is intimately tied to the coal plant. But as the conversation about the announcement continued, other nagging questions came up, [Jennifer Holloway] said. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents.
In the arid West, water, and access to it, is intertwined with local economies. Where water goes — to a coal plant, a residential tap, or down a river channel — says something about a community’s present and future economy, and its values…
Holloway wants to see Craig make a transition plenty of other Western communities have attempted over the last century, from an extractive economic base to a recreation-based one. She’s quick to name drop the region’s new slogan — “Colorado’s Great Northwest” — and list the various draws, like Dinosaur National Monument, the nearby Steamboat ski resort and the relatively free-flowing Yampa River.
“One idea that I fully support is switching Dinosaur National Monument into a national park,” she said. “And hopefully TriState would partner with that effort and maybe use some of that water as we legislated that park to guarantee that we had the water moving west.”
Without local input into what happens to Craig Station’s water rights, Holloway worries it could hurt the Yampa, which is the coal plant’s current water source. Colorado has a long history of transmountain diversion, where water from the wetter Western Slope is diverted eastward to the populous Front Range.
“That’s the biggest fear, is they’re going to go into the headwaters of the Yampa, make a pipeline going over to the eastern slope,” Holloway said.
So far TriState hasn’t tipped its hand on what it plans to do with the water. Duane Highley, TriState’s CEO, said at a news conference shortly after Craig Station’s closure announcement that his company is already fielding calls from interested buyers, but didn’t elaborate as to who has inquired.
“When you look at a typical coal facility it uses an enormous amount of water,” Highley said, “and the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse will be significant.”
Craig Station uses on average 16,000 acre-feet of water each year… A 2019 Bureau of Reclamation report showed thermal electric power generation in the Upper Colorado River basin accounted for 144,000 acre-feet, or about 3% of all water consumed in the watershed in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and parts of northern Arizona…
“As a legal matter, the owners of the water rights, at least in Colorado, could do something else with them. As a practical matter, there’s not much else they can do with them,” said Eric Kuhn, former head of the Colorado River District and author of Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.
TriState has limited options with the water rights, Kuhn said. The energy provider could sell them to a local municipality, though communities along the Yampa River, like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, likely wouldn’t be able to use that much water all at once. TriState could offer them to local farmers, though most of the easily irrigable land has already been irrigated for a long time. They could turn them into in-stream flows. Or they could sell them to a user outside the Yampa basin, like a Front Range city. Any project proposed to pump the plant’s freed up water more 200 miles eastward would face significant political pushback and a multi-billion dollar price tag, Kuhn said.
According to Kuhn, these coal closures also have implications for broader Colorado River management. The recently signed Drought Contingency Plans task water leaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to begin exploring a conceptual program called demand management, where in a shortage, water users would be paid to use less. Coal plants using less water would alleviate the situation.
“What it’s going to do is take the pressure off of these states to come up with demand management scenarios, because where does that water go? It’ll flow to Lake Powell,” Kuhn said.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
In this election year, the 10th annual poll also found that four-fifths of those polled consider an elected official’s stance on issues involving water, air, wildlife and public lands to be important in deciding whether to support them, according to poll results issued Thursday. Forty-four percent call those factors a primary factor in their decision, up from 31 percent for states covered in the poll in 2016.
The poll found that two-thirds of respondents want their member of Congress to place more emphasis on protecting federal lands than on maximizing responsible oil and gas drilling and mining to produce more domestic energy…
The survey is a product of the college’s State of the Rockies Project. Four hundred registered voters were surveyed by phone in January in each of eight western states, including Colorado, for a total 3,200-person sample. The poll was conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel and Democratic pollster Dave Metz and has a margin of error of 2.65 percent overall and 4.9 percent in each state.
Thirty-seven percent of respondents were Republicans and 31 percent Democrats. Sixty-nine percent said they are conservationists. Sixty-two percent identified themselves as residents of cities or suburbs, and the rest as living in small towns or rural areas.
Respondents identified climate change as the first- or second-most-important environmental problem in each state surveyed (when adding up both climate change and global warming as concerns identified by those polled)…
Climate change/global warming as a top concern among respondents has increased dramatically over the poll’s 10 years, from 5 percent in 2011 to 32 percent today when comparing the five states polled in both years, and 35 percent today when accounting for all eight states surveyed. Thirty-six percent of respondents to this year’s poll identified pollution as a top concern. Water (29 percent) and energy/oil/gas (15 percent) ranked third and fourth among top environmental problems identified by those surveyed.
About two-thirds of surveyed voters in the eight states view climate change as a serious problem, up from 55 percent of those surveyed in 2011. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say they want their congressional representatives and state governors to have a plan to cut carbon pollution contributing to climate change, with majorities of Democrat, Republican and independent voters all voicing that view.
Sixty percent say action on climate change is needed. A majority of voters in every state polled except Wyoming backs gradually increasing the use of renewable energy sources to 100 percent, the poll found.
Metz said the degree to which climate change is becoming a more bipartisan concern is striking. He said some partisan polarization over the issue remains, with Democrats more likely to volunteer climate change as a major concern than independents or Republicans. But voters who were polled all ranked climate change among their top-three environmental concerns regardless of party, which Metz said suggests a growing consensus around the urgency of the issue.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., believes the U.S. is nearing “the tipping from where there is no return” when it comes to dealing with climate change and protecting the environment.
And a recent poll conducted in eight Western states indicates many share that opinion. Udall believes the results of the Conservation in the West Poll released Thursday should be a call to action among members of Congress. Almost 75% of the 3,200 people who participated in the poll in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming believe Congress should develop comprehensive plans to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
“Policymakers in Washington have our marching orders,” Udall said during a press call about the poll, sponsored by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project. “Public support for conservation and climate action is stronger than ever.”
Among the findings in the poll: 70% of New Mexico residents believe significant effects of climate change will occur within the next decade. A majority of participants in the poll considered pollution, climate change and water issues among their biggest concerns, although a person’s political views reflected the order. Among Democrats, 54% considered climate change the most important issue, followed by pollution at 37% and water at 30%. Pollution was the top issue among Republicans, at 33%, water at 27% and climate change at 16%. Independents equally listed pollution and climate change as their top issue, at 39%, followed by water.
The poll said 73% of voters favor a national goal to protect 30% of America’s land and ocean areas by 2030, with majority support across party lines for the conservation goal. Udall and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., support legislation that would work towards that goal.
“A movement is growing from the ground up, with Westerners of all political stripes clamoring for action to save our way of life, starting with a national conservation goal of protecting 30% of our natural land by 2030 to stave off a looming extinction crisis,” Udall said.
In response to a question from the Journal, the senator said plans to achieve that goal should be “state-, tribal- and community-specific.”
He indicated public land should be set aside from oil and gas drilling and mineral development, rather than allowing drilling up into the 30% point.
The poll said 67% of voters consider habitat conservation a priority for their elected officials over oil and gas drilling and mining. Over half of all voters – 52% – said that microplastics in rivers, streams and drinking water supplies are serious problems affecting public lands and public health.
Udall was critical of the Trump administration, saying “it has taken a hatchet to our nation’s proud conservation legacy.”
And the poll indicated voters were concerned about recent decisions to roll back Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act protections.
The poll, which surveyed 400 Arizona voters in January, found that 77 percent of respondents oppose “allowing new uranium mining claims on existing public lands next to the Grand Canyon National Park,” while 19 percent support allowing new uranium mining.
Climate change, pollution, and water issues were the top concerns for Arizonans, the poll found.
According to the poll, 72 percent of Arizona respondents consider themselves conservationists, and 80 percent said “issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife and public lands are important in deciding whether or not to support an elected official.”
Sixty-six percent of Arizona respondents said “Inadequate water supplies” is a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem while 25 percent said it was a “somewhat serious” problem.
On the issue of “low level of water in rivers,” 62 percent said it was a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem and 21 percent said it was “somewhat serious.” Pollution of waterways was also of concern to Arizona respondents, with 50 percent saying “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem.
Despite their opinions of water issues, 38 percent view oil and gas drilling as “not a problem” for the environment while 34 percent believed it’s a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem. On climate change, 51 percent said it’s a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem.
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey found that the loss of snowpack due to higher temperatures plays a major role in driving the trend of the river’s dwindling flow. They estimated that warmer temperatures were behind about half of the 16% decline in the river’s flow during the stretch of drought years from 2000-2017, a drop that has forced Western states to adopt plans to boost the Colorado’s water-starved reservoirs.
Without changes in precipitation, the researchers said, for each additional 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of warming, the Colorado River’s average flow is likely to drop by about 9%.
The USGS scientists considered two scenarios of climate change. In one, warmer temperatures by 2050 would reduce the amount of water flowing in the river by 14-26%. In the other scenario, warming would take away 19-31% of the river’s flow.
“Either of the scenarios leads to a substantial decrease in flow,” said Chris Milly, a senior research scientist with USGS. “And the scenario with higher greenhouse-gas concentrations decreases the flow more than the scenario with lower greenhouse gas concentrations.”
The findings, which were published Thursday in the journal Science, refine previous estimates and indicate the impacts of warming will likely be on the high end of what other scientists calculated in previous research…
Looking at trends over the past century, the researchers examined recorded measurements from 1913-2017 and found the average temperature across the Upper Colorado River Basin increased by 1.4 C (2.5 F) and the river’s flow decreased by about 20%.
They estimated that more than half of this lost flow was attributable to higher temperatures. That equates to a loss of roughly 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year…
Milly and fellow USGS scientist Krista Dunne zeroed in on their estimate by pinpointing the reflectivity of snow, known as albedo, as a key element in the river’s sensitivity to warming.
They used measurements of albedo across the Upper Colorado River Basin recorded over decades by instruments called MODIS (short for Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer), which orbit the Earth aboard two NASA satellites.
Milly and Dunne focused on the role of snow cover as a “protective shield” for water in the river basin.
Milly likened the flowing river to the leftovers of the “meal” of snow and rain that falls across the basin, after evaporation has “eaten” its share.
“The more that’s consumed by evaporation, the less that’s left for the river and the people downstream,” Milly said.
And the amount consumed by evaporation is driven by how much energy the basin absorbs in the form of sunlight. The snow cover in the Rocky Mountains reflects back to the sky and space a significant fraction of the sunlight.
As the world gets hotter with the burning of fossil fuels, more of the precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. And the snow melts away earlier in the year. As the snow cover in the mountains is progressively lost, the river basin absorbs more energy.