On Aug. 25, Montezuma County went from a severe drought to extreme drought, which covers nearly the entire Western Slope, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Extreme drought Level D3 – is the fourth-highest of five drought categories.
Then there is the record-breaking heat wave.
Cortez broke eight daily high temperature records in August and tied one, said Jim Andrus, a Cortez weather observer for the National Weather Service…
Farmers experienced 10% to 15% water shortages this year from McPhee Reservoir, said General Manager Ken Curtis of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. Allocations for full-service irrigators were at 19 inches per acre, down from the full supply of 22 inches.
The 380,000-acre-foot reservoir will be drawn down to its 151,000-acre-feet inactive pool…
Project irrigators, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch and the downstream fish pool all shared in the water shortages.
Back-to-back years of limited monsoonal rains have left soils dry going into fall. Much of the winter snowpack melt was absorbed into the soil before making it to the river and reservoir.
This year’s saving grace was carryover supply in McPhee left over from the above-normal snowpack of last winter, Curtis said.
Unfortunately, there is no carryover storage for McPhee heading into this winter, and the soil has again dried out.
Yields were somewhat down for alfalfa, officials said, because the limited water supply was spread too thin or was concentrated on fewer fields, Curtis said.
Alfalfa for Montezuma and Dolores counties is harvested three times per summer and is marketed to dairy farms. Farther south, Ute Mountain Ute farms harvest alfalfa four times per year.
Soil moisture was below 50% of average for dryland farmers, said Gus Westerman, Dolores County Extension agent.
Yields for winter wheat, which is planted in fall and harvested in early summer, especially suffered from the soil moisture deficit.
Pinto beans and the third alfalfa crop have not yet been harvested, and farmers are preparing to plant winter wheat…
The dry weather the past two years was attributed to persistent high pressure over the Four Corners, said meteorologist Tom Renwick of the National Weather Service in Grand Junction…
Why the persistent high pressure zone in the Four Corners area of the Southwest is a bit of a mystery to meteorologists, who have nicknamed it Triple R for “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” Renwick said. “It is happening more and more frequently.”
The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon has many people praying for rain. But the very thing that could douse the blaze, which has burned 32,000 acres as of Tuesday, has some experts concerned it also could create problems for downstream endangered fish.
A heavy rain could wash dirt — no longer held in place by charred vegetation — and ash from the steep canyons and gullies of the burn area into the Colorado River. Scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of the flood. And the heavy sediment load in the runoff could suffocate fish. A similar scenario played out in 2018 when thousands of fish were killed by ash and dirt that washed into the Animas River from the 416 Fire burn area.
Downstream from the Grizzly Creek Fire, beginning in DeBeque Canyon, is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and razorback sucker.
“Yes, we are very concerned about a fire in that kind of terrain that close to critical habitat. There’s just no question,” said Tom Chart, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “There’s a probability we could have an effect all the way down into the 15-mile reach.”
The Colorado River’s so-called 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction, is home to those four species of fish. This stretch often has less water than is recommended for these fish by Fish & Wildlife mainly because of two large irrigation diversions that pull water from the river to irrigate Grand Valley farms: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, which takes water from the river at a structure known as the Roller Dam, and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, which takes water from the river near Palisade.
Between these diversions and the confluence of the Gunnison River is a problem spot where water managers constantly work to bolster water levels through upstream reservoir releases. According to Chart, there is currently a total of about 250 cubic feet per second being released from Ruedi, Wolford and Granby reservoirs for the benefit of fish in the 15-mile reach.
With hot, dry weather, a weak monsoon season and the ongoing diversions for irrigation season, which continue into the fall, current river conditions are already stressful for the fish, Chart said. Water managers say they have seen fish using fish ladders to swim upstream and downstream of the 15-mile reach in search of deeper, cooler water.
“As far as concern about the ecological health of the 15-mile reach right now, we are very concerned about conditions there right now,” Chart said. “Native fish do move out of those dewatered stretches in search of better conditions.”
A debris flow on top of these already-challenging conditions could be devastating for fish populations.
“The potential with the Grizzly Creek Fire could be as bad as it gets if we get a rainstorm on top of a low baseflow,” Chart said. “You pray for rain, but at the same time this would be a tough time to get a flow of ash and retardant off the burned area.”
Burned area assessment begins
The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has done a preliminary assessment of the severity of the soil burns to determine where debris flows would most likely occur, according to Lisa Stoeffler, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.
Areas of concern include Dead Horse Creek, Cinnamon Creek and No Name Creek, among others. More than an inch of rain in an hour — or a quarter-inch in 15 minutes, as occurs in a fast-moving thunderstorm — could trigger a debris flow, the BAER team found.
But this initial assessment, Stoeffler said, is mostly focused on potential impacts to Interstate 70, and water and power infrastructure, not on impacts to the aquatic environment.
“We may look at environment later on, once we have a final footprint of the fire,” she said. “The BAER process is really looking at things that we would need to address because it would cause an emergency-type situation.”
When the Grizzly Creek Fire first broke out, the city of Glenwood Springs switched its municipal water source from Grizzly and No Name creeks, which are near the burned area, to the Roaring Fork River.
“We are concerned about the ash and debris entering the water system and the costs we are going to incur because of this,” said Hannah Klausman, public information officer for Glenwood Springs.
Solution is dilution
Since preventing the dirty runoff from reaching the river would be difficult, if not impossible, in the steep, rocky terrain, the best bet, Chart said, would be tapping into upstream reservoir water to flush sediment and ash.
In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.
The Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, also would help dilute the ash and sediment before it got to the 15-mile reach. Some of it would probably settle out before it got there anyway. But that would do little to help native fish populations closer to the burn area. Although not listed as endangered, other species such as flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub also could be impacted.
“We get concerned about the endangered fish the most, but it’s really the entire native fish community we need to be paying attention to,” Chart said.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District has some water in Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs that could potentially be used for a flushing flow. But it would take careful coordination between reservoir operators. And it could be a complicated juggling act to figure out how to accommodate all the different demands for that limited water supply, said River District chief engineer John Currier.
“I think we stand ready to try and figure out how to do something,” Currier said. “It will be a topic of discussion sooner rather than later.”
Managing the impacts of the burned landscape on the fish will be ongoing long after the fire is extinguished.
“I think this is going to be an issue for years to come,” Chart said. “That landscape is going to take a long time to heal.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
Historically, water has never been a political issue, but a geographical one, and that axiom was borne out Thursday between Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush and Republican Lauren Boebert in comments at the Colorado Water Congress’ 2020 Summer Conference.
The two candidates agreed on several matters asked during a virtual panel discussion about how each would approach water issues while serving in Congress. Both had advanced knowledge of the questions asked, giving each time to research their answers.
Mitsch Bush said people back East don’t understand how water law works in the West. There, she said, they go by a system known as riparian water rights, which allocates water among those who possess land along its path…
“It’s really, really critical for us, as Coloradans, that we have a representative that understands Colorado water law, that understands the issues of drought and scarcity, and understands what we need in terms of federal funding to deal with them,” she said.
Unlike Mitsch Bush, Boebert has no background in working on water issues. Still, the Silt resident said she’s brought in experts to teach her, and ended up agreeing with much of what Mitsch Bush said.
Both, for example, said it is unlikely the state will be able to get the funding and permits needed to build new water storage projects, such as dams and reservoirs. Instead, it should concentrate on expanding existing reservoirs to increase their storage capacity…
Both also agreed that, should there be a squeeze on Colorado’s water allotment either by the federal government or downstream states, that Colorado should decide for itself where its water allotment goes.
The two also agreed how the state allots any funding for water projects should be dictated by the Colorado Water Plan, and said they would work with anyone in any state regardless of political affiliation who wants to help boost and protect Colorado’s and the West’s existing water supply.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A state agency has informed the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley that it may have violated the law by failing to get a stormwater permit when it built a road and well pads in a national forest roadless area this year.
The action by the state Water Quality Control Division comes as the underground coal mine remains under a cessation order by the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety prohibiting further surface-disturbing activities in the roadless area. That agency says the mine has failed to maintain a legal right to enter the roadless area.
The mine has been seeking to expand its operations beneath about 1,700 acres in the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest. To do so it needs to build roads and drill wells to vent methane produced during mining.
A Colorado-specific Forest Service roadless rule includes an exemption allowing for the possibility of building of temporary roads by coal mines on some 20,000 acres in the North Fork Valley. In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service improperly failed to consider keeping another roadless area out of the exception area, and ordered a district court to vacate the entire exception area. But before a district court judge did that in June, the mine’s owner, Arch Resources, built about a mile of road in the Sunset Roadless Area.
Even with the district judge’s action, the company is continuing to argue to the state and in court that the appeals court upheld its coal lease rights beneath the roadless area and it can keep building roads and pads there. It has warned of a temporary mining shutdown and layoffs if it can’t proceed with that work this year…
This month, an official with the Water Quality Control Division wrote to the mine in a compliance advisory letter that an inspection showed about 3,960 feet of road and two methane vent borehole pads in the roadless area. According to the letter, a stormwater discharge permit is required for those surface disturbances. It said the state had no record of a discharge permit being applied for or obtained, and an existing permit held by the mine doesn’t authorize discharges at those locations. The letter says it “provides notification of potential violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act.”
The letter gave the mine until Aug. 20 to apply for a permit or permit modification.
Allison Melton, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, said she spoke to the Water Quality Control Division this week and was told the mine submitted that paperwork after receiving the letter. She said she understands the discharge application will be subject to a 30-day public comment period…
The advisory letter the mine received said the letter isn’t a notice of violation, and the Water Quality Control Division will determine if formal enforcement action is deemed necessary.
Here’s an in-depth look at how a circular economy for water would look from GreenBiz (Nick Jeffries & Tansy Fall). Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Water is a vital resource that has fueled human progress. It transports solids, dissolves minerals, chemicals and nutrients and stores thermal energy. This “carrier characteristic” allows for countless industrial, agricultural and transport processes that enable our society to thrive.
But water is also key to life. The water in our oceans is home to phytoplankton that produce 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe. The lakes and rivers, and the groundwater beneath our feet, are our sources of drinking water without which we would soon perish. The food we eat relies on fresh water to grow.
In nature, water purifies and renews itself endlessly as it flows through the planet’s hydrological cycle. But nature’s capacity to renew on her own is being disrupted. In the last century, intensive industrial activities and urbanization have significantly affected our water supplies.
To make just one pair of jeans, for example, requires around 1,981 gallons of water and produces difficult-to-clean wastewater. With the number of clothes produced annually doubling from 50 billion to 100 billion units in the last 15 years, industrial water use in the clothing industry alone also has increased dramatically.
Extrapolating this growth across the economy, and factoring in an expanding population, it is easy to understand why the United Nations estimates that water demand will exceed easily accessible supply by 40 percent in 2040.
To make things more complex, the evolving climate emergency is leading to more unpredictable rainfall and greater frequency of extreme and unusual weather events. This has manifested as floods in South East Asia, droughts in California and Australia and wildfires in Greenland. The recent U.N. Water Policy Brief on Climate Change and Water is unambiguous on such effects: “The global climate change crisis is inextricably linked to water.”
Water is never waste
With more unpredictable weather events and increased demand for fresh water, the ways in which we use and reuse water resources have never been more important. Reimagining wastewater not as a costly problem but as a valuable resource is a good illustration of this.
One example is the El Torno wastewater treatment plant in Cadiz, southern Spain. Like thousands of similar treatment facilities across the world, El Torno receives wastewater flows from surrounding businesses and homes, which it purifies so the water can be safely discharged into the nearby river. However, an aerial view of the El Torno site shows this plant to be different from the rest.
Extending from the North West corner of the facility is a pair of very straight emerald green channels, each about 328 feet long. In these “raceways,” algae are cultivated that produce oxygen to fuel the biological treatment of the wastewater, thus almost eliminating the need for an energy supply to the facility.
To avoid suffocating the water flow, dead algae constantly are harvested and pumped to an anaerobic digester where they are converted into biogas. The gas is then scrubbed of impurities, leaving pure biomethane, which is pressurized and used to fuel a fleet of cars. Results from the full-scale pilot facility indicate that just one hectare of algae can treat the effluent of 5,000 people and produce enough biofuel to power 20 cars driving 18,600 miles a year. Although the burning of biomethane produces carbon dioxide, it releases only the same amount of CO2 that the algae absorbed while it grew. Carbon also remains in the byproducts of this process, which can be returned to the soil of local farms, meaning that the process has the possibility of being net carbon positive.
When we connect systems such as this and think of them as a whole, it is possible to transform a costly carbon emitting process into both an economic opportunity and a means of addressing a number of global challenges. The implications are significant. Wastewater treatment consumes about 3 to 4 percent of U.S. energy demand. In India, inadequate wastewater treatment, due to unreliable or expensive power, costs the Indian economy more than $50 billion a year. Imagine the positive impact that could be made if all future new wastewater treatment facilities in Africa, for example, were designed as power plants…
Regenerating the environment by redesigning systems is a critical element of the circular economy. It advocates that economic activities should go beyond doing less harm, and strive for a regenerative or net-positive impact on nature. Natural systems provide us with food, oxygen and clean water, regulate our climate, absorb floods, provide recreation and much more. The WWF Living Planet Index estimates these “ecosystem services” provide humans with more than $120 trillion of benefits each year. Our current extractive and polluting economic model drastically diminishes the ability of ecosystems to provide these services.
No sector of the economy illustrates the potential for circular economy to regenerate natural systems more than agriculture. And, as farming consumes 70 percent of the planet’s freshwater, no part of the circular economy offers more to the conservation of water resources than regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture describes a broad set of food production methods with two complementary outcomes: the production of high quality food and the improvement of the natural environment. It recognizes that farms are part of a larger ecosystem, which farming activities must not just extract from, but also support. Farming in this way shifts from monoculture practices heavily reliant on chemical inputs, towards a more holistic way of thinking that cherishes diversity, encourages virtuous cycles of renewal and focuses on the health of the system as a whole.
The specifics vary, or as soil expert David Montgomery puts it: “What works for temperate grasslands may not work so well in tropical forests.” However, there are common regenerative practices that can be applied across all soil farming. These include the use of cover crops, wider crop diversity, minimizing soil disturbance and, most important, the building up of soil organic matter. For every 1 percent increase in organic matter in the top 7.9 inches of topsoil, 90 metric tons of carbon can be sequestered and an additional 38,000 gallons of water stored. This shows that regenerative agriculture is a powerful tool for climate mitigation and adaptation, while at the same time meeting demand for food.