AWRA CO-CGWA Virtual Symposium: Thinking Outside the Box- A Holistic Approach to Water Resources Planning, August 31 – September 2, 2020

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

Update LAST CALL! From email from Karlyn Armstrong:

I am emailing because AWRA Colorado and CGWA are hosting what I would like to think is a really awesome event, and its about to go LIVE! Tonight is a virtual happy hour with technical presentations starting tomorrow morning. Since its virtual, we can let registrants at any point! If you would be willing to share this “last call” with your networks it would be greatly appreciated!!

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register. Here’s the agenda:

This field near Carbondale is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state has wrapped up the first year of an investigation into a program that could pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Aspinall Unit Operations update: 500 CFS in Black Canyon August 31, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1600 cfs to 1500 cfs on Monday, August 31st. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 850 CFS, August 31, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #CORiver #aridification

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir above.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to a cooler weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin and increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 850 cfs on Monday, August 31st, starting at 12:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (sbehery@usbr.gov or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html.

Dillon Reservoir water levels hold on despite statewide #drought — @AspenJournlism

Low water levels Aug. 18 at Dillon Reservoir expose sand rings around the lake’s islands. The reservoir, which is the largest in the system supplying Denver Water’s customers, is about 94% full. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

Amid one of the hottest summers on record for Colorado, Dillon Reservoir is 94% full, nearly 5 feet below its capacity. The reason is a complex combination of past weather patterns, current water-use habits and recent changes to the lakebed.

For most of the summer, Dillon Reservoir has been down about 4 1/2 feet. This low elevation is noticeable from the shore, but the drop in water level is less pronounced than it has been in other dry years. Around this time in 2018, Dillon Reservoir’s elevation was dropping an inch daily and was down about 11 feet by Labor Day.

Dillon Reservoir is no normal mountain lake. The man-made reservoir is one of the largest sources of drinking water for Denver. Usually in late June, Denver Water holds back water that flows into Dillon Reservoir from the Blue River basin and stores the water until it’s needed along the Front Range. In late summer, Denver Water typically begins piping water out of Dillon Reservoir via the Roberts Tunnel, a 23-mile pipe that runs under the Continental Divide and into the North Fork of the South Platte River. From there, the water flows down toward Strontia Springs Reservoir, where it’s delivered to Denver Water’s customers.

In most normal water years, managers at Denver Water are able to fill the reservoir to its 257,000 acre-foot capacity in the spring, and recreation along the reservoir is usually best when it’s full. This year, unseasonably warm spring weather created dry soil that absorbed much of the moisture from melting snow before it reached rivers. Wind and low precipitation in May also contributed to a lackluster runoff season. Denver Water was able to fill Dillon Reservoir to 244,000 acre-feet of water, about 95% of its capacity. The reservoir levels have hovered around that number ever since late June.

“You know, 95% seems like it would be pretty full, but in the past, at this point, we would be moving docks and boat ramps would be unusable,” Frisco Bay Marina General Manager Tom Hogeman said. “But other than tightening cables on docks to adjust for different water levels, we haven’t had to move anything.”

Sailboats anchor offshore Aug. 18 at Dillon Reservoir. It has been a busy summer at the lake for recreation, and the Frisco Bay Marina already has brought in 18% more revenue than last year, with a month left to go before boating season is over. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

Big dig

The operational changes for the marina are due to an excavation of the lakebed in 2019. That spring, the lake was at historic low levels after the 2018 drought. The town of Frisco and Denver Water took advantage of the dry lakebed and rolled out heavy digging machines to excavate areas near the shore. The $4 million project moved more than 85,000 cubic yards of dirt, deepening the area around the marina and lengthening the beach.

The “Big Dig,” as the project was dubbed by the town of Frisco, was designed to improve navigation for boaters and lengthen the boating season by making the parts of Dillon Reservoir that are more desirable for recreation less prone to elevation fluctuations. The project is one of the main pillars of the Frisco Bay Marina Master Plan, a long-term blueprint for projects to expand recreation and tourism on Dillon Reservoir.

The reservoir, already a significant source of tourism for Summit County, has seen a bump in visitors this year. The increase is likely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased demand for outdoor recreation across the High Country. The marina this year has already brought in 18% more revenue than last year, and there is still a month left before boating season is over.

Last summer, the changes from the lakebed excavation were less noticeable because healthy snowpack from the previous winter filled the reservoir. With water levels down again, Hogeman said it’s clear that the project was a success.

“That has really paid off,” he said. “We are in a better position to deal with these smaller fluctuations. Before, our slip holders would have to adapt to their boats being in different places at different times of the year depending on water levels. Now we’ve just got an improved level of consistency.”

While the lake excavation helped to ward off problems from small water-elevation drops, a more severe drop would still threaten recreation at Dillon Reservoir. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state is currently at some level of drought for the first time in eight years. Both Summit County, where Dillon Reservoir is located, and Denver County, where the lake’s water is used, have a mix of moderate and severe drought within their borders.

This level of drought has been manageable this year for Denver Water partly because of the 2018-19 winter. Snowstorms that winter left snowpack levels at about 104% of normal all the way through April 2019, and the reservoir filled to capacity last summer.

According to Nathan Elder, the manager of water supply for Denver Water, that extra water was a big help when this spring-runoff season produced less water than normal.

“We had a really great water supply year last year, and we came into this year roughly 5% above normal (storage at Dillon),” he said. “We pretty much maintained that until late June.”

The storage boost was also helped along somewhat by water use — or lack thereof — in Denver. The city is experiencing one of its hottest years on record, with 65 days seeing temperatures hit at least 90 degrees, a number that is second only to 2012. Despite the heat, water use is only 11% above the five-year average, and Denver Water has not had to implement any restrictions beyond its normal summer watering guidelines.

According to Elder, residential water use has gone up, but with many businesses closed due to the pandemic, commercial water use has dropped significantly.

“Our customers, despite it being hot and dry, (have) been pretty good with usage this year,” Elder said. “We haven’t seen the use that we would expect for these types of temperatures.”

Inflows Aug. 18 into Dillon Reservoir have slowed as drought expands through Colorado. However, storage in the reservoir was above average following the 2018-19 winter. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

Tunnel maintenance

Unusually, Dillon Reservoir will have another chance to fill this year. Typically, Denver Water pulls water from the lake using the Roberts Tunnel through the end of the year, but the tunnel will be undergoing about two months of maintenance this fall. That project will cut off Denver from Dillon Reservoir and require Denver Water to rely heavily on Cheesman Reservoir, which draws water primarily from the South Platte River basin, on the Front Range.

This will give Dillon Reservoir an extra chunk of time to bolster its reserves, but only if it rains. According to Elder, forecasters are not predicting a very rainy September. Without a large amount of carryover storage going forward, next year’s levels at Dillon Reservoir will depend on snow from this winter. Although the lake avoided a drought disaster this year, a prolonged dry period could change that.

“The worst-case scenario is that the reservoir doesn’t fill again next year,” Elder said. “So hope for rain.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.

Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

As San Luis Valley’s water squeeze intensifies, Gov. Jared Polis mulls climate warming adaptation — The Brush News-Tribune #drought

Aerial view of the San Luis Valley’s irrigated agriculture. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Brush News-Tribune:

How to survive in hotter, drier world a focus as 93% of state bakes in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought

The sun beat down, baking Colorado’s bone-dry, cracking San Luis Valley, where farmers for eight years have been trying to save their depleted underground water but are falling behind.

They’re fighting to survive at an epicenter of the West’s worsening water squeeze amid a 20-year shift to aridity. Federal data this past week placed 93% of Colorado in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought .

And Gov. Jared Polis was listening now, as a group of farmers sat around a patio shaking their heads, frowning, frustration etched on their faces — down by 150,000 acre-feet of water below their aquifer-pumping target as the driest months begin.

A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

“We’re about as lean as we possibly can be. We’ve re-nozzled our sprinklers. Our pumping is as efficient as it possibly can be. We’re trying different crops,” said Tyler Mitchell, who had cut his water use by 30% after installing soil moisture sensors and shifting from barley to quinoa. “But, at the end of the day, we have too many businesses that are trying to stay in business. I don’t know how we can reduce pumping more than we already have.”

How to adapt to a hotter, drier world is emerging as a do-or-die mission for people living around the arid West. Polis was in the San Luis Valley on Tuesday, embarking on a potentially groundbreaking statewide effort to explore solutions amid increasingly harsh impacts of climate warming, including wildfires burning more than 300 square miles of western Colorado.

Average temperatures will keep rising for decades, federal climate scientists say, based on the thickening global atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, now around 412 parts per million, the highest in human history. Heat is depleting water across the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, where more than 50 million people live.

Nowhere have climate warming impacts exacerbated local difficulties more than here in the Massachusetts-sized, predominantly Hispanic, low-income San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains of southern Colorado…

This year, the winter mountain snowpack that determines surface water flow in the Rio Grande River measured 33% of normal in spring. Rainfall so far, 2.7 inches, lags at around 38% of average.

And the Rio Grande barely trickles, at 7 cubic feet per second, leaving Colorado toward New Mexico and Texas. Those similarly drought-stricken states count on shares of surface water in the river under a 1938 interstate legal agreement.

Colorado farmers’ fallback habit of pumping more from the aquifers connected to the river — water use that is restricted under a locally-run, state-ordered conservation plan — has obliterated water savings painstakingly gained since 2012.

The 150,000 acre-feet draw-down this year hurled farmers practically back to their starting point. And a state-enforced deadline of 2030 for restoring the aquifer to a healthy level looms. If not met, state authorities could take control over wells.

Cleave Simpson, bottom right, converses with other water users following a Subdistrict 1 budget meeting. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager Cleave Simpson said recovery now requires a snow-dependent gain of 680,000 acre-feet — 4.5 times this year’s draw-down…

“A drier and hotter world”

Polis looked out the windows of a black utility vehicle and saw devastation spreading as climate warming impacts hit home. Hot wind churned dust around farms now abandoned and rented to newcomers struggling to get by. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food.

He saw farm crews toiling, coaxing the most from their heavy machinery, after flows from some wells had diminished and even reportedly pulled up just air.

He said he sees different dimensions of problems around climate warming.

On one hand, human emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases “are going up,” Polis said. “But, then, here in this world, it is about adapting to what is happening. I mean, the global effort needs to succeed. Climate change needs to slow down. Colorado is just a teeny piece of that — a fundamental issue affecting the entire world. America never should have pulled out of the Paris accords. I hope we return, and have a concerted international effort.

“But it is also a reality for how these farmers put food on their plate, for how their communities thrive in a drier and hotter world. … The same crops we have been growing, with one water and warm temperature profile, don’t work with the way things are now.”

Colorado agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said state leaders also will hear from producers enduring dry times on the Eastern Plains, where wheat harvests are expected to suffer. Agriculture statewide “is hurting” and the San Luis Valley stands out as “ground zero” in a water squeeze due to low snow, shrinking aquifers, drought and competing demands from inside and outside the valley. Legal obligations to leave water for New Mexico and Texas compel cuts that complicate solutions, Greenberg said…

Few of the farmers on the patio meeting with the governor saw much that state governments can do in the face of a possible environmental collapse.

Many have concluded that, as Jim Erlich said, “we’re going to be farming less here.” Some anticipated an agricultural landscape looking more like western Kansas…

Polis called climate warming “the new normal.” He asked the farmers: “Where does it lead? Do you see a way forward?” State projections show conditions for at lest 15 years will be “likely hotter and drier… What does that mean in terms of crop mix? What does it mean in terms of sustainability? What does it mean in communities?”

The farmers, about a dozen, said they’ll push ahead in the “sub-districts” they’ve formed to encourage saving groundwater — as an alternative to state engineer authorities controlling wells. They now pay fees for pumping and pooled funds can be used to pay farmers for leaving fields fallow…

An entrepreneurial businessman, Polis pushed toward what might be done to create better markets for crops, such as “Colorado quinoa” that use less water, giving a global perspective. “I mean, agriculture does occur in dry parts of the world. It has to work from a water perspective…

The side of a farm building north of Center, Colorado. The farms in the San Luis Valley are known for their fresh potatoes. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

At another farm, Brendon and Sheldon Rockey showed Polis around. They’ve reduced their use of water from wells by 50% and prospered, growing 25 types of potatoes, shifting off water-intensive crops such as barley and planting more “Colorado Quinoa” along with a half dozen other growers.

Fallow fields fertilized with cows and planted with restorative “cover crops” help boost productivity by improving soil, Brendon Rockey told the governor. “I don’t have a mono-culture anywhere on this farm.”

As president of the potato producers’ council and leader of a water-saving sub-district, Sheldon Rockey is encouraging other farmers — optimistically despite increased stress around the depletion of aquifers. “We can still make it back,” he said, “if we have snow.”

Polis also suggested a relaxed state approach to the 2030 deadline for replenishing the shrinking aquifer. “It is about the long-term trends. … whether goals are being met. There’s nothing that would ever be done based on one bad year.”

The farmers were hanging on that.

“He is genuinely interested in providing what support the state can to help with our water balance challenges,” Simpson concluded following this first meeting.

But “farmers are frustrated,” he said, emphasizing that aquifer recovery can happen only “if mother nature brings snow.”

And Polis left with a more detailed sense of the stakes.

“What we want here is sustainability. That’s why I oppose trans-basin water diversions,” he said. “But we have to make sure that farmers here today don’t live at the expense of farmers here tomorrow and the next decade. This valley is about agriculture. If the water is sold off, or the water is used up, it will become a dust bowl.”

2020 #COleg: Legislative Round-Up: Bills That Passed Colorado’s 2020 Legislative Session — Lexology

From Lexology (Allison P. Altaras):

Water

HB 20-1095 Concerning the authority of local government master plans to include water conservation policies. This bill requires a local government master plan containing a water supply element to also include water conservation polices, which will be determined by the local government. These policies can include goals specified in the Colorado Water Plan; policies can also condition development approvals for subdivisions, planned unit developments, special use permits, and zoning changes on the implementation of water conservation goals and other Colorado Water Plan goals. Additionally, the Department of Local Affairs is authorized to hire a full-time employee to provide educational resources and assistance to local governments that include water conservation policies in their master plans.

SB 20-155 Concerning keeping the presumption of noninjury for a well on divided land. This bill maintains the rebuttable presumption that domestic use of a well exempt from the state engineer’s administration will not cause material injury to others’ vested water rights or to any other existing wells in the event the land on which the well is located is later divided into multiple parcels, provided that well use meets certain requirements.

SB 20-048 Concerning a study to consider the strengthening of the prohibition on speculative appropriations of water. Current law prohibits speculative water appropriation. Speculation may be evidenced where an applicant does not have (i) a legally vested interest or a reasonable expectation of procuring a legally vested interest in the lands or facilities to be served by the appropriation, unless the appropriator is a governmental agency or an agent for those proposed to benefit from the appropriation; or (ii) a specific plan and intent to divert, store, or otherwise capture, possess, and control a specific quantity of water for specific beneficial uses. This bill requires the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources to convene a work group to explore methods for strengthening current anti-speculation law. This group will report any recommended changes to the Water Resources Review Committee in August 2021.

Himes Creek. Photo credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Horsetooth Reservoir’s water level dropping rapidly but boating will continue — The Fort Collins Coloradoan

Horsetooth Reservoir looking west from Soldier Dam. Photo credit: Norther Water.

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):

Horsetooth Reservoir’s water level dropping around 4 feet per week in July and August certainly hasn’t go unnoticed by concerned boaters.

The water level of the popular reservoir dropped from 97% full at the beginning of the season to around 60% last week. Despite the drop, all boat ramps will be usable through Labor Day weekend, but not so much come mid-September.

Jeff Stahla, Northern Water spokesman, said an unusually dry and hot summer created an increase water demand by agriculture and municipalities, resulting in the sharp drop in water level. He said the rate of that drop is expected to lessen the rest of summer and early fall as water demand lessens…

Mark Caughlan, Horsetooth Reservoir district manager, said he expects the South Bay boat ramp to remain usable throughout the fall but that by mid-September the Satanka and Inlet Bay ramps will be closed due to the low water level.

Stahla said by late this week the reservoir’s water level will be at the lowest level since 2012, which was a historically dry year.

He said lowering the water level will also help divers to safely replace a valve at Soldier Canyon Dam, which he said is routine maintenance and does not involve major construction. He said other work to the reservoir will be done at the same time by other entities…

Stahla said Horsetooth Reservoir, which is the largest reservoir in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project East Slope distribution system, is expected to fill back up next year. He said CBT’s water storage in mountain reservoirs above Horsetooth Reservoir is in good shape with storage at more than 90% in some reservoirs.