FromThe Douglas County News Press (Elliott Wenzler):
Sterling Ranch and Rocky Mountain PBS came together Feb. 27 to help educate the people of the Front Range on water issues throughout the state as part of Water Week 2020.
At the event, RMPBS screened a portion of their new episode of the “Colorado Experience” on the history of water in Colorado. Similar events took place across the state that night, including in Pueblo, Durango, Grand Junction and Gunnison.
The goal of the event is “to increase the level of civic dialogue happening around an issue that is really vital to all of our sustainability as a state,” CEO of RMPBS Amanda Mountain said.
Water Week was developed one year ago when RMPBS organized a statewide listening tour aimed at understanding which topics are most important to residents…
The event was held at Sterling Ranch, a development in northwest Douglas County that has incorporated water conservation into its master plan.
“Anybody who grew up in Colorado knows the importance of water,” said Harold Smethills, president of the community’s board, during the event. “It’s everything.”
Sterling Ranch prioritized conservation in creating the community. It now uses less than half the water of any other community in Colorado, Smethills said…
RMPBS screened a few minutes of the episode, titled “Western Water — and Power,” which is about an hour long. It begins with a history of water in Colorado, beginning in the days of settlement, when disputes began between the Western Slope and the Front Range over water use. The full episode is available at rmpbs.org/coloradoexperience.
“Conservation means you have something you never should have had in the first place,” Smethills said. “Please don’t use it.”
From cows and plows to horticulture and hemp, Colorado’s agriculture is so diverse it can be difficult to bring everybody together around the same table.
That said, many of Colorado’s agriculture leaders had a chance to interact earlier this week in Denver at the annual Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture, which was preceded by the equally diverse two-day annual conference of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Among those attending both events was Glenda Mostek, who has worked in various capacities in the ag industry and recently took on a new job as executive director of the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association.
Horticulture and nursery plants aren’t the first crop that comes to mind when most people envision agriculture. But in value terms, they actually represent the biggest segment of the specialty crops industry in the state, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The industry is also growing rapidly, mostly due to the fast pace of residential development, Mostek said.
At the inaugural Colorado Food Summit in early January, members of Colorado State University’s food systems team emphasized the importance of building linkages across diverse agriculture sectors. Becca Jablonski, a food systems economist who helped organize the food summit and also spoke about marketing opportunities during the CFVGA conference and at the governor’s forum, said the goal is to make sure all voices are represented during discussions about the future of food and agriculture in the state.
It’s also an effort to keep all parts of the industry alerted to emerging markets represented by new outreach efforts, such as the National Western Center and Denver’s Sustainable Food Policy Council, which is working on adopting a pledge that would require institutional buyers to look at more than just price when making food purchasing decisions.
Mostek went into her position with the horticulture and greenhouse association looking for a chance to build bridges between agriculture and the general public.
“Somebody pointed out to me that the most connection a lot of city people will ever have to agriculture is going to a greenhouse to buy plants,” she said. “I’m here to create partnerships. We are all in this together with the same goals and challenges.”
Dani Traweek runs the Colorado Ag Leadership Program, charged with organizing the Governor’s ag forum each year. This year’s theme, Brand It Agriculture, speaks to the idea that while the industry is broad, dynamic and constantly evolving, it is also united under one big umbrella, she said…
The class experience is enhanced by including professionals who didn’t come out of traditional farm backgrounds, such as chefs, bankers and project organizers, she said.
Three agronomists in the current class work to some degree with the hemp industry, another new dimension of the industry that is providing opportunities to diversify for some and creating competition for land, water and labor for others.
In conversations with the program’s educational sponsors, including CSU and Aims Community College, Traweek has learned there’s a growing need for electricians and technology experts, many of which will probably come from nonfarm backgrounds.
Language and cultural differences are also important, as the industry’s pool of employees and customers becomes increasingly diverse.
During a breakout session at the Colorado Food Summit, Mostek learned about research showing Spanish-speaking customers trust outreach messages more when they’re provided in Spanish as well as English…
“We need to tell our story, and not only tell it, but tell it effectively, and make sure it’s being heard,” she said of ag advocacy efforts. “I think we’re headed in the right direction with groups like Common Ground, where we have women messaging to women.”
On Feb. 20, the University of Utah Center for Colorado River Studies hosted a presentation and panel discussion in Moab on research being conducted on and policies being considered for Lake Powell. Scientists, activists, authors, and historians shared their perspectives on various aspects of the river, the dam, and the reservoir to a full house at Star Hall. The complicated history of river engineering and water allocation sets the stage for an uncertain future of the management of the West’s precious resource.
“We can’t talk about the future of this reservoir and how its managed unless we digest some basic facts,” said Dr. Jack Schmidt, professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University, at the presentation, before he and others gave an overview of the reservoir’s history and parameters.
The presentation was part of an effort by the Center for Colorado River Studies to help the public understand the complexity of the natural systems and political agreements surrounding the Colorado River…
Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead have reflected this decreased flow. In 2005, Lake Powell dropped to its lowest level since it first filled up in 1963, sinking to 3,555 feet above sea level, just barely high enough to keep from exposing the intakes for the hydroelectric generator at the dam and causing damage to the facility.
“Here’s an important number,” Schmidt told the audience at Star Hall. “If the reservoir elevation gets lower than 3,490 feet above sea level, then water cannot be taken into those penstocks, because then air is entrained, and if air is entrained, you get the phenomenon of cavitation in the turbines, which will destroy the turbines.”
He went on to explain that water managers don’t want to get too close to that absolute limit, and they set a bottom threshold of 3,525 feet above sea level for Lake Powell.
Policymakers must constantly consider how supply and demand are affected by climate and natural systems, new infrastructure and aging infrastructure, population growth and changes in land use, and scientists’ and researchers’ evolving understanding and modeling of how these factors will play out in the future…
To prepare for a renegotiation of interstate agreements, scientists and researchers have been studying the Colorado River basin and all the systems that comprise it. The presentation at Star Hall illustrated just how complex the issue is. Glen Canyon Dam itself has been controversial nation-wide since its inception. Environmentalists, river runners, and archaeologists to this day lament the loss of the natural canyon flooded by the dam, which was filled with Native American artifacts and wild riparian ecosystems. That dam and other infrastructure have changed many properties of the river, from flow rate, to temperature, to fish populations, to evaporation patterns, to the shape of the riverbed. As scientists study the new patterns of the river, they try to create models that can accurately predict future behaviors and conditions of the river. For example, by studying how the river moves and deposits sediment, scientists have variously predicted an operable life span for Lake Powell of 100 to 150 years. These models and data sets can help steer management agreements.
“The current interim guidelines aren’t going to work forever,” said Erich Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit devoted to the restoration of Glen Canyon and the Colorado River.
The organization is advocating for a policy they call “Fill Mead First,” which Balken briefly discussed at the Star Hall event. The policy would allow the downstream Lake Mead to be filled to capacity before starting to store water in Lake Powell. The group recommends not decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam, a step that has been taken at other dam sites around the country, but drilling diversion tunnels around it to allow the river to return to its natural flow.
The hydroelectric power plant driven by Lake Powell would be temporarily shut down, and intakes to power the facility would be installed in the diversion tunnels. Glen Canyon would be returned to its natural state until the necessity arose to store more water than Lake Mead could hold.
The idea is politically difficult because Lake Powell serves as a kind of “bank account” of water that helps upper basin states ensure that they meet their water obligations to the lower basin states. Beyond Lake Powell, the water essentially belongs to the lower basin. The dividing line maintains a tension between the regions…
At the same time that Colorado River users are beginning the renegotiation process, the state of Utah continues to pursue water projects that affect the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Local leaders in Washington County are exploring a “Lake Powell Pipeline,” a 140-mile pipe that would pump water from Lake Powell to the St. George area.
Lawmakers in Salt Lake City are considering the possibility of diverting water from the Green River and the Bear River, the former of which is a tributary to the Colorado and eventually feeds Lake Powell, to water users on the Wasatch Front. More water rights have been allocated from the Colorado River than there is actual water to distribute, and historically, the first users of the existing water, and the owners of water infrastructure, retain the rights to continue using the water.
On March 5, the snow water equivalent in Northwest Colorado was at 114% of average, according to data from the Natural Resource Conservation Service Snotel.
[Joel] Gratz said his numbers are closer to 120%.
In the southwestern corner of Routt County, the snow water equivalent is between 88% and 95% of average.
February was a big month for snow, with a snowpack growth of 44% above average, Gratz said…
Ellen Bonnifield, a local weather observer in Yampa for the National Weather Service, said she’d recorded 38.8 inches of snow in February, and 122 inches for the season. The average for the whole season in Yampa is about 118.9 inches, she said.
In the more than 25 years she’s been an observer, Bonnifield said this February was second only to 1996, when she recorded 40.5 inches for the month.
A Snotel telemetry site maintained by the Conservation Service on Rabbit Ears Pass, at an elevation of 9,400 feet, recorded a snow depth of 71 inches as of March 5, and a snow water equivalent of 22.7 inches. Snow depth at the Tower telemetry site, which has a 10,500 feet elevation on Buffalo Pass, was at 110 inches, with 39.4 inches of snow water equivalent…
At the Lynx Pass telemetry site, with an elevation of 8,880 feet, the snow depth was 42 inches with 12.1 inches of snow water equivalent as of March 5. The Bear River site, at 9,080 feet in elevation located south of Yampa in the Flat Tops area, had a recorded snow depth of 41 inches, with 10.6 inches of snow water equivalent.
Peak snowpack is considered at the first or second weekend in April, Pokrandt said.
As the beginning of the runoff season nears in April, Pokrandt said, the forecast for runoff in the Yampa River at Maybell is estimated to be 108% of average.
It is still about a month away from numbers that will tell a more meaningful story about snowpack and runoff, he said. The amount of moisture already in the soil before the first snow falls has an impact on the runoff amounts. First, the snow melts into the ground, then it runs off into the streams and rivers.
In general across the west, Pokrandt said, the soil is on the drier side this year, due to a monsoon season — July and August — that was a “nonsoon” season.
Following record-breaking October and February snowfall, the Blue River basin snowpack is above average. Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, said the snow-water equivalent — or how much water is held in the snowpack — is 129% of average while the Colorado River basin’s snow-water equivalent is 116% of average.
The seasonal peak for snowpack is in April, according to Huse, who reported that the Blue River basin is at 95% of the seasonal median, or what you would normally see by the April peak. She cautioned that the data doesn’t necessarily mean the above-average snowpack trend will continue…
When looking at five-year increments of snowpack data, Huse said one or two years are usually above average. Going forward, Huse explained that there are no La Niña or El Niño phenomenons affecting precipitation. She said this “neutral cycle” is predicted to continue through spring and summer…
“The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is anticipating low cumulative runoff numbers for this spring and summer from the San Juan Basin southward,” the center reported March 3. “This is due not only to low snowpack but also very low soil moisture prior to the start of the cold season.”