Alternative plan to Wild and Scenic River designation for upper #ColoradoRiver OK’d — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

A view of the popular Pumphouse campground, boat put-in and the upper Colorado River. The BLM and Forest Service recently approved an alternative management plan that acts as a workaround to a federal Wild & Scenic designation. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Participants in a 12-year process to establish protections for a stretch of the upper Colorado River are calling the finished product — which amounts to a workaround of a Wild and Scenic River designation — a success.

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service formally approved the “Amended and Restated Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group Management Plan.” The plan lays out a blueprint for protecting the “outstandingly remarkable values,” or ORVs, of the Colorado River from Kremmling to Glenwood Springs, with an emphasis on recreational floatboating and fishing.

The ORVs must either be a unique, rare or exemplary feature located on the river or shoreline; contribute to the functioning of the river ecosystem; or owe their existence to the presence of the river. The plan seeks to balance these ORVs with water development and use by Front Range water providers and Western Slope water users.

To ensure protection of the ORVs, the plan includes voluntary cooperative measures that the participants could take, such as the strategic timing of reservoir releases, enhancing spring peak flows and agreements with water users to acquire water rights, which would be used to preserve the natural environment.

The plan includes a provision that addresses two big uncertainties that would lead to more transmountain diversions from the Colorado River: Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project. The “poison pill” provision would allow any stakeholder to withdraw support for the plan if those projects — which are still in the permitting phase and mired in litigation, and which would provide a combined 48,000 acre-feet of water for the Front Range — negatively impact streamflows, especially for boating.

Six interest groups — conservation/environment/fishing; local government; recreational floatboating; state interests; Front Range water users; and Western Slope water users — have been working on crafting the plan since 2008. The Eagle River Watershed Council has been involved as a stakeholder since 2013, said executive director Holly Loff.

“It’s really exciting, and what a huge collaborative effort this has been, and I can’t really think of other situations that have been larger in scope and larger in the number of collaborators and all with very diverse interests — and we found a way to make it work,” Loff said. “It’s an amazing feat, really.”

The scenic, and sometimes wild, Rodeo Rapid, one of the few rapids on the upper Colorado River between Pumphouse and Dotsero. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Opposition to W&S

The alternative management planning process came about after the BLM in 2007 found that 54 miles of the upper Colorado River from Gore Canyon to just east of No Name Creek in Glenwood Canyon possessed enough ORVs that they were eligible for a federal Wild & Scenic River designation. Created by an act of Congress in 1968, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition.

There are two ways that a river can be designated as Wild & Scenic: The secretary of the Interior can designate a river if a state governor requests it or Congress can designate a river, usually after a land-use agency conducts a study to see whether it’s eligible.

Designation as Wild & Scenic brings protection from development. For example, new dams cannot be constructed on the designated stretch and federal water-development projects that might negatively affect the river are not allowed.

But the possibility of federal government involvement and potential restrictions on water development on the upper Colorado doesn’t sit well with some groups. Municipal water providers such as Denver Water and Northern Water divert water from the Colorado’s headwaters to Front Range cities.

“A lot of members of the water community find the idea of a Wild & Scenic designation kind of frightening and prohibitive,” said Colorado Water Conservation Board Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief Linda Bassi. “It would prevent potentially new reservoirs along a Wild & Scenic river (and) certain types of structures, and that is why the water community has typically been a little leery of Wild & Scenic designation.”

In 2009, the Colorado General Assembly established the Wild and Scenic Rivers Fund. Despite what its name suggests, the fund is not dedicated to establishing Wild & Scenic designations of rivers, but to avoiding the federal designation through “work with stakeholders within the state of Colorado to develop protection of river-dependent resources as an alternative to wild and scenic river designation.”

The Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group has been the recipient of money from the state fund, which is allocated up to $400,000 a year and administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. According to a CWCB memo from May, when staff reviews requests for these funds, they evaluate whether projects will promote collaboration among traditional consumptive water interests, including irrigation, and non-consumptive interests, including recreation and the environment, and whether the project will still enable Colorado to fully use water it is allocated.

“If we tried to go through designation, we don’t know if it would have ever made it past the state of Colorado,” said Kay Hopkins, outdoor recreation planner for the White River National Forest. “The state would have had to be supportive of our determination.”

Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. That’s less than one-tenth of 1% of the state’s 107,403 river miles.

Instead of a federal designation, the CWCB considers its instream-flow program to be a primary tool in the effort to protect ORVs. Instream flows are in-channel water rights aimed at preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. As a part of the alternative management plan process, the CWCB secured three instream-flow rights that date to 2011 on the upper Colorado River — from the confluence of the Blue River to Piney River; from Piney River to Cabin Creek; and from Cabin Creek to the confluence with the Eagle River.

Bassi, who runs the state’s instream-flow program, has participated in the state interests group since planning began in 2008.

“Those flow rates are designed primarily to meet the needs of fish,” Bassi said. “But they will help to maintain flows that provide for some levels of boating experiences.”

This map shows a stretch of the upper Colorado River, between Kremmling and Glenwood Springs, that is subject to a new framework designed to protect ecological and recreational values, in balance with the needs of water users on the Western Slope and Front Range. Graphic credit: Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group

Pragmatic Discussions

The Forest Service and BLM approval of the alternative management plan means that the stretch of the upper Colorado River has been deferred from Wild & Scenic eligibility. But if the plan fails or any of the stakeholders enact the “poison pill” provision, the river could revert to being considered for eligibility, meaning it would once again be up for federal scrutiny, something some stakeholders want to avoid.

“That is the hammer behind the long-term commitments,” said Rob Buirgy, coordinator for the stakeholder group.

Eagle County Commissioner and Colorado River Water Conservation District Board member Kathy Chandler-Henry believes the strength of the alternative management plan is the input of its many participants.

“My first thought was the alternative management plan must be a lesser system of protection, but in my mind, it has not turned out to be that way because there are so many players at the table,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a lesser process. It seems like a more publicly engaged process.”

Loff was more pragmatic.

“I don’t think (the alternative management plan) is better, but I don’t know that this group ever would have agreed to a standard Wild & Scenic designation. I don’t think that would have happened at all,” she said. “I think it’s better that we have this.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published online and printed in the Aspen Times on July 11, 2020.

Federal ruling on Weld County emissions could make life harder for oil and gas industry — The Greeley Tribune #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Wattenberg Oil and Gas Field via Free Range Longmont

From The Greeley Tribune (John Aguilar):

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an emissions-heavy section of northern Weld County that’s currently excluded from limits on air pollution imposed on the Denver metro area should be counted, potentially ratcheting up pressure on the oil and gas industry to operate more cleanly or cut output.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined that the Environmental Protection Agency incorrectly left a swath of Weld County abutting the Wyoming state line out of the nine-county “nonattainment” area that centers on Denver, meaning emissions from hundreds of oil and gas wells in that part of the county could soon be added to the metro area for air pollution measurement purposes.

Robert Ukeiley, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling effectively means that Weld County energy operations near the Wyoming border will have to “comply with the more protective standard” that the metro area is under in terms of their emissions output.

“Oil and gas, including in northern Weld County, is responsible for our smog problem, and the court told the EPA enough is enough,” Ukeiley said. “You have to get (the industry) to reduce their pollution.”

The ruling from the appeals court sends the matter back to the EPA for further consideration. The lawsuit against the EPA was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Boulder County Board of Commissioners.

Heat and sunlight bake pollutants, including some of the chemicals emitted by oil and gas operations, to form ozone, or smog. For more than 15 years, Colorado has flunked federal air quality health standards with ozone air pollution exceeding a decade-old federal limit of 75 parts per billion, which was tightened to 70 parts per billion under President Barack Obama.

The World Health Organization recommends no more than 50 parts per billion to protect human health.

The U.S. threshold has placed much of the metro area and areas immediately around it in “nonattainment” status when it comes to meeting the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The EPA in December reclassified Colorado as a “serious” violator of federal air quality laws, forcing stricter state efforts to reduce air pollution…

Friday’s ruling revolved around two primary issues: Weld County’s outsized role in oil and gas production in Colorado — the county has nearly half of the state’s more than 50,000 active wells — and a finding that EPA had erroneously cited a topographical feature, Cheyenne Ridge, as a reason for excluding the northern section of the county from the nonattainment area.

EPA, the court wrote, claimed that the ridge effectively acted as a blockade to emissions emanating from the northern reaches of Weld County. The problem is, Cheyenne Ridge is on the Colorado/Wyoming border, the court said, not further south, as EPA asserted.

“EPA literally moved mountains to try and cut oil and gas a break from having to reduce pollution,” Ukeiley said Friday.

The court also faulted EPA’s reasoning for excluding the northern portion of Weld County based on the federal agency’s conclusion that that section of the county only contributed a quarter of the nitrogen oxide and 18% of the volatile organic compounds that the county overall emits.

“Given that Weld County sources generate exceptionally high amounts of VOCs and NOx — mostly from oil and gas operations — the fact that northern Weld contributed only a quarter of those emissions does not support EPA’s decision not to consider them,” the court ruled.

The court determined that according to 2011 data, Weld County produced approximately six times as many VOCs as the next-highest county included in the Denver nonattainment area. And compared to the lowest-emitting county, Weld County produced about 60 times as many VOCs and 20 times more nitrogen oxide.

Troubled waters: Decision to close #Colorado streams, lakes causes controversy amid ongoing pandemic — TheDenverChannel.com #COVID19 #coronavirus

Clear Creek Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From TheDenverChannel.com (Russell Haythorn):

Avoiding a nightmare spike in COVID-19 cases is exactly what cities like Golden, Lakewood and Westminster are trying to prevent by cutting off or delaying access to creeks and swim beaches.

Their decision is understandable. It’s also frustrating for people who planned on hitting the water to beat the heat and get away from crowds…

…Clear Creek through Golden is now shut down due to overcrowding and coronavirus health concerns, and so are several metro-area reservoirs including Bear Creek Reservoir, Cherry Creek Reservoir, Big Soda Lake and Standley Lake…

…last Friday, the City of Westminster announced it would be delaying the opening of Standley Lake.

Chatfield Reservoir can hold more than 350,000 acre-feet of flood water in emergency situations, but its current capacity is only 27,000 acre-feet of water, the equivalent of 8.8 billion gallons.

From Out There Colorado (Breanna Sneeringer):

All water-based recreation activities such as paddle boarding, swimming, and kayaking will be off-limits at Bear Creek Lake Park until further notice. The temporary closure applies to two popular swim beaches located within the Jefferson County park including Big Soda Lake and Bear Creek Reservoir…

Other swim beaches in the metro area including Chatfield State Park and Aurora Reservoir have reopened with restrictions and limited capacities.

Meanwhile, Cherry Creek State Park has recently closed their swim area due to harmful levels of blue-green algae. Prospect Lake in Colorado Springs was also closed for the same reason.

Aspen-area fire officials bank on rain to ease conditions nearly as dry as 2018 — The Aspen Times

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

The return of afternoon monsoons to the Roaring Fork Valley cannot come quick enough for outdoor enthusiasts hitting dusty trails, gardeners coaxing plants along or especially fire chiefs fearing wildfires.

The monsoons typically appear in late June and continue into September, bringing frequent afternoon showers. They have been slow to appear this summer, but that might be about to change.

The National Weather Service expects a 20% to 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms starting later this week and continuing each day for at least the next week in the Colorado mountains, according to Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS office in Grand Junction. He cautioned against expecting copious amounts of moisture…

Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties as well as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the region are currently in stage one restrictions. That prohibits campfires outside of developed recreation areas. All fireworks are banned…

West Drought Monitor July 7, 2020.

Colton said the rain that is forecast isn’t likely to break the grip of a drought affecting all of Colorado. The U.S. Drought Monitor issued by federal weather agencies July 9 shows all of Pitkin County in moderate drought and the extreme western side of the county in severe drought.

The Drought Monitor stressed that the classification is based on broad-scale conditions and that local conditions may vary.

Aspen has managed to stay close to the annual average for precipitation through June, according to records kept at the Aspen Water Department’s plant in Maroon Creek Valley. May was below average but June was slightly above average, thanks in large part to nearly 5 inches of snow June 9 (see related fact box)…

Meteorologist Colton said the snowpack last winter was close to normal, but a lack of snowfall in late winter and an extended period of dry winds starting in May quickly ate up the snowpack. The same low pressure in the Pacific Northwest that has prevented monsoonal moisture to form for Colorado also is responsible for the drying winds, he said.

The dry winds, quickly disappearing snowpack and spotty rainfall have sapped the moisture from the ground. Richmond Ridge Road, which typically harbors massive mud puddles at this time of year, was bone dry Saturday. Trails throughout the valley have been pulverized to dust.

Aspen Global Change Institute has installed 10 field stations around the Roaring Fork Valley that measure ground moisture at various depths as well as precipitation and air temperature.

Sky Mountain Park in the hills above the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 is showing soil moisture at the 8-inch depth at about 17% compared to about 14% at this time in 2018.

However, farther downvalley, the soil moisture is drier in some spots than in 2018. The soil moisture at Spring Valley near the Colorado Mountain College campus is at about 12% compared to 17% in 2018.

At Glenwood Springs, the average daily soil moisture at eight-inch depth is about 14 percent, the same as in 2018.

#Drought to Persist — #Colorado Ag Today

Colorado Drought Monitor July 7, 2020.

From Colorado Ag Today (Maura Bennett):

There are few areas of Colorado where drought conditions do not exist and fewer that are at average or above precipitation.

Drought experts say ranchers and farmers in Southern Colorado will not likely see relief this year.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger used graphs from data during a recent webinar to explain the conditions for southern and southeast Colorado

Bolinger:“Currently we are at an almost 7 inch deficit or 36% of average there.”

And taking historic data from the months July, August, and September as a possibility for this year:

Bolinger:“And what it really shows is that there’s no situation where we could take historical precipitation and get back to our long term average. If we get average precipitation for the rest of the water year we would end at 60% of average.”

And for southwest Colorado :

Bolinger: “We’re at about a 6.5% deficit. 51% of average. Long term average; they end at about 18.5 inches. They’re not going to get even close to that. Most likely they’re going to end between that 10 and 12 inch range and possibly worse if there’s no showing of the monsoon.”

There is some good news for the Boulder area. Precipitation has been tracking above average for almost all of the water year. Bolinger says even of that changes, Boulder is very likely to remain at or above the yearly average.

July 2020 drought outlook from the Climate Prediction Center