Future of the #ColoradoRiver – the “Changed River” edition — @AmericanRivers #COriver #aridification

Some Colorado River water users in 2020 will begin taking voluntary reductions to protect the water elevation level at Lake Mead. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):

The Colorado River system is highly managed, strained, stressed, and challenged, but is also one of the most loved, revered, enjoyed and sacred rivers in the world.

As we teased in a blog last week, we’re back to continue breaking down the compelling, and quite frankly, sea-changing recent study coming out of the Center for Colorado Rivers Studies at Utah State University. In it, we highlighted key findings from the study’s authors, Kevin Wheeler, Jack Schmidt, Eric Kuhn, Brad Udall and others. If you missed the initial release, you really should take a few minutes to at least read the Executive Summary, as it does a great job illustrating the challenges that the entire Colorado River ecosystem faces in the face of climate change. We also took the opportunity to pivot off of a blog post by John Fleck, author and Director of the Water Resources Department at University of New Mexico, about the same study.

At the end of our post, there was what amounts to a Top 10 List of key takeaways from the Center’s white paper, and a few of them seemed especially relevant to American Rivers body of work in the Colorado Basin, and to how we are thinking about the future of the Colorado River.

Laguna Dam, AZ | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

We can’t stop thinking about the line, “The Colorado River has been profoundly altered from its highest reaches to its delta,” which is something we all know, but describing it in that way is significant. There can be no argument that there has been major alteration to the river, from the highest headwaters trickling down from Poudre Pass (and the Grand Ditch, built between 1890 and 1936) all the way to the first dam built on the Colorado River, Laguna Dam near Yuma (1903) on to Morelos Dam on the Mexican border. Major impoundments and diversions like Flaming Gorge and Fontenelle on the Green, Granby Dam in the Colorado headwaters, tributary dams like Ruedi on the Frying Pan and the Aspinall Unit on the Gunnison, and yes, Lakes Powell and Mead, whose storage levels drive the vast majority of the policy rules, compacts, and guidelines that manage the river. We also should acknowledge two other aspects of this changed river – that ecosystems like the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Black Canyon, and the San Juan are changed due to these alterations, but also that nearly 40 million people, a 1.4-trillion-dollar economy, and millions of jobs depend on the sum of all of these parts.

Is the system altered? Absolutely. But does that mean it’s dead and that we should not keep doing whatever we can to preserve it? Absolutely not.

December 8, 2015
Credit: Sinjin Eberle
UT, Lake Powell

The Colorado River system is highly managed, strained, stressed, and challenged, but is also one of the most loved, revered, enjoyed and sacred rivers in the world. Tribal communities whose lands are currently located hundreds of miles from its banks still call the Colorado River sacred. Millions upon millions of visitors, from across the country and around the globe, from all walks of life, gaze onto it’s waters every year. Tens of thousands of people raft, fish, swim, kayak, and yes, drink, it’s flowing bounty. It preserves life in so many ways, but the most prominent way is in our hearts. The Colorado River is one of us, and we are it.

In part, that is why the statement from the white paper was so striking. Even if you are not a dedicated river conservationist, you know that the Colorado River has been providing so much, for so long. Now with the onset of a warming climate, even the baseline amount of water the river carries is declining – and will decline over the next 30 years. Our laws and policies around the river were built on a totally different climate, with a totally different set of pressures, and demands, than what we have today.

The science matters, and teasing out the detail, as well as the topline implications from this report will take time, and it will catalyze critical debate, and demand hard choices. American Rivers, our partners, and our team here in the Colorado Basin is ready, and enthusiastic, about confronting and helping to solve the challenges facing the Colorado River. But we can’t solve these challenges alone. Ultimately, we need everyone who relies upon, and who loves the Colorado River on board. Hopefully you are too!

Next week, we will be teasing out more from the report around how climate change is causing flow declines and that additional declines even more likely to occur looking forward. Stay tuned!

Sunrise illuminates clouds over the Black Mountains along the Virgin Basin on Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Arizona-Nevada border (Photo from Arizona looking into Nevada Lake Mead, AZ | by Colleen Miniuk via American Rivers)
Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

#Snowpack news (February 12, 2021): Improvements statewide due to recent storminess, more on the way

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Colorado’s snowpack this winter continues to lag behind normal — much less the above-normal amount needed for the state to escape from a continuing drought — but it has improved thanks to recent storms, and more moisture is on the way.

Snowpack in the state as of Wednesday was at 85% of median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Services. That’s up from 74% just under a month ago, and reflects a wetter recent weather pattern that has dropped multiple feet of powder on some Colorado ski areas.

Snowpack levels have shown similar increases in the Upper Colorado River and Gunnison River drainages, which now sit at 82% and 79% of median, respectively. The Gunnison drainage currently is the driest major basin in the state, with the Upper Rio Grande Basin having the highest amount of snowpack at 103% of median.

Tom Renwick, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, noted that a series of weather systems are due to move through the state starting [February 11, 2021]. The second one, now expected to arrive Saturday evening, “really looks like it’s got a lot of precipitation with it,” he said.

A third storm expected to show up Monday night doesn’t look as promising, Renwick said. “Still, anything we can get will help,” he said.

He thinks that if the three systems deliver as now expected, they could push the state close to normal snowpack for this time of year.

In a monthly webinar put on this week by Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, Peter Goble, a climatologist with the center, also indicated the forecasted storms could improve the snowpack situation in the state…

But he reiterated what water-watchers have been saying all winter — that even if the snowpack in the state reaches normal levels before seasonal accumulations peak in a few months, that likely would result in below-normal runoff levels due to dry soils and low base flows in streams as a result of continuing drought…

West Drought Monitor February 9, 2021.

All of Colorado remains in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Eastern and southwestern Mesa County are in exceptional drought, the worst category, with the northwestern part of the county in extreme drought. Much of western Colorado and much of the state’s eastern plains are in exceptional or extreme drought…

Low soil moisture levels and their streamflow impacts are of concern to the Ute Water Conservancy District, the Grand Valley’s largest provider of domestic water.

“The ground is going to take what it can before it gives us any,” said district spokeswoman Andrea Lopez.

The district tries to rely on the Jerry Creek reservoirs in the Plateau Valley as its primary water supply because of the high quality of the water that fills them. Lopez said those reservoirs are currently doing pretty well, considering the drought that kicked in last year, and are now 95.5% full. But she said that percentage will go down.

Snowpack levels at NRCS measurement sites on Grand Mesa, which feeds those reservoirs, range from 62% to 72% of normal.

Ute Water probably will eventually have to pull water from watersheds that aren’t its first choice, turning to the Colorado River, and mixing that water with water from the Jerry Creek reservoirs.

That affects its water quality and is more expensive due to the pumping and extra treatment that is required.

The Ute Water board could end up deciding to impose drought rates if needed…

According to the NRCS, reservoir storage at the end of January in the state was at 80% of average for this time of year. The Bureau of Reclamation currently expects runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir to be at 70% of average between April and July, and for the water level at Blue Mesa to top out this year at 576,000 acre feet, out of a reservoir capacity of 830,000 acre feet…

Renwick said that in La Niña winters, if the Western Slope is going to get precipitation it typically happens as the state starts heading into spring, “which is exactly what is happening.”

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 12, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Ark Valley Voice (Tara Flanagan):

Lake Powell, the current poster child for things gone awry in the Colorado River Basin, is shrinking from the top and sides, its old water lines scarring the southern Utah desert.

The numbers from Lake Powell Water Database don’t make it any prettier; the central storage bin for the Colorado River and a legendary playground for houseboaters, Lake Powell is down 29.67 feet from a year ago. The rivers feeding it are running at 70 percent of average and the 28 tracked reservoirs above it are at 70 percent capacity. The water level is at 39.1 percent of what they call full pool. At capacity, Lake Powell holds roughly 26 million acre feet of water.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and manages dams, power plants and canals, and which hails itself as the largest wholesaler of water in the country, recently fired a warning shot. In a January forecast the agency warned that lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the U.S., are heading toward record-low levels, which could result in the loss of hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. Front-Range cities are girding for water cutbacks as the larger seven-state region stands ready to put drought contingency plans into place.

A seven-hour drive from here, Lake Powell is sufficiently out of sight to not be a constant reminder about the water situation in Colorado. Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt calls the reservoir “the big train station for water.” For now he says he’s not panicking about a possible major derailment and reminds us that history can be an optimist. Some dry winters have staged spectacular comebacks, he says.

But Felt also reminds us that we’re in a dry year that was preceded by another dry year. With recent precipitation propping up the snowpack, we’ve seen encouragement in February. But lest we forget, there was 2020.

The moisture-sucking year that gave us a global pandemic also wreaked havoc on America’s West. The record-setting wildfires were a reminder that our lands were brittle and dry to begin with.

In layman’s terms, the soil in Colorado is wrung out. Which means, among other things, that much of the runoff heading for our waterways stands a good chance of getting sucked into the ground…

Right now the state drought map remains awash in tones of red and dark brown, and 70 percent of the state is seeing extreme conditions, according to drought.gov. Chaffee County, which has a mix of severe and extreme conditions, is seeing its 13th driest in 127 years, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About a quarter of Colorado is categorized as an exceptional drought – the most extreme of the five categories.

Colorado’s snowpack holds much of the story for the spring and summer and currently, the statewide figure is 81 percent of average, according to SNOTEL, a snow-reporting function of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. On the optimistic side, the Upper Rio Grande Basin is running at 108 percent of normal, which plays into the 243 inches recorded so far at Wolf Creek Ski Area. But the Upper Rio Grande also skews Colorado’s average upward.

Snowpack for the North Platte Basin is at 73 percent, the Colorado River Basin at 79, Gunnison at 78, and the Arkansas Basin at 94 percent…

Felt noted that February, March, and April tend to be the best snow months hereabouts, so there is always hope for a better finish to snow season. But at this point, he says, “it needs to be extraordinary.”

That said, Felt says municipal water supplies in Chaffee County are good. The major questions remain for agricultural production, wildfire danger, and recreation. “It’s worrisome when you combine that with our forest health issues,” he says…

He acknowledges that several long blasts of snow and a significant boost to the snowpack would do wonders to calm some of the emerging warnings.

2021 #COleg: The Lower #SouthPlatte Water Conservancy District board keeping an eye on proposed legislation — The #Sterling Journal-Advocate

Jim Yahn: Photo by Havey Productions via TheDenverChannel.com

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

Two proposed water management bills filed for the 2021 Colorado General Assembly session could prove to be problematic to water interests. Both bills were discussed Tuesday during the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy Districts board of directors meeting in Sterling.

One bill, originated by State Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron and co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, calls for an evaluation of ways to implement underground water storage, as called for in the five-year-old Colorado’s Water Plan. Another seeks to clarify the rights of various members of a mutual ditch company, especially when some shares of the company are owned by non-irrigators.

LSPWCD manager Joe Frank told his board he has “some concerns that we’re mixing apples and oranges” with the underground storage bill. Frank said that, although it’s a statewide bill, it still comes down to taking unappropriated water out of the South Platte River Basin and storing it outside the basin.

“You’d have to move the (water) out of the South Platte basin into a designated basin,” Frank said. “Almost any underground storage inside the (South Platte) basin is going to be alluvial to the river.”

Colorado designated groundwater basins. Map credit: Robert Longenbaugh September 14, 2014

That means attempts to store the water underground inside the basin would only result in water being pulled out of the river in times of excess flow and pumped right back into the river’s aquifer, resulting in no actual benefit. Instead, the water would have to be pumped and piped to a designated basin outside the South Platte basin, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, to be pumped out again at a later time.

The other problem, Frank said, is getting the water into the storage basin in the first place. He said designated basins are best recharged by pumping water into a surface reservoir and letting it seep into the aquifer below. Otherwise, high-powered pumps are required for deep injection well storage.

According to Holtorf’s bill, the Colorado Water Conservation Board would contract with “a Colorado institution of higher education” to do the study, but no specific college or university was mentioned in the draft bill.

The second draft that Frank discussed concerns water rights for members of mutual ditch companies. Sometimes called irrigation companies or just ditch companies, these companies are owned by member shareholders who receive water during the irrigation season according to the size of their shareholdings. As the name implies, the shareholders mutually agree on who gets their water when. Irrigators don’t receive their water continuously during the irrigation season, but in large quantities over short periods of time. Over the course of an irrigation season, all shareholders get their share of the water, just not all at the same time.

Problems arise when non-irrigators, such as municipalities or industries, own shares of mutual ditch companies. That ownership occurs through a change-of-use case adjudicated in Colorado Water Court. Those “change cases” can cause confusion in the running of a ditch company because the new users generally want their water continuously during the irrigating season.

There also is contention over what happens to water that a shareholder doesn’t use; at issue is whether the unused water can be used by other shareholders or must be turned back to the river or reservoir from which it came.

At the heart of the matter is a 1975 water case, Jacobucci v. District Court, which should have settled the matter. A key passage in that decision states, “the benefit derived from the ownership of such stock is the right to the exclusive use of the water it represents …” Exclusivity, as understood by most in the legal profession, means “if it’s mine and I don’t use it, you can’t use it either.”

Most ditch companies, however, don’t actually operate that way, but allow the use of unused water as long as it’s put to beneficial use. It is, according to LSPWCD Vice President Gene Manuello, a matter of common sense.

“It’s just common sense that we all work together,” Manuello said during the meeting Tuesday. “That’s why it’s called a mutual ditch company, we work to our mutual benefit. Let’s not change how we run a mutual ditch company.”

The draft legislation seeks to clarify the rights of mutual ditch company shareholders but, according to the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, it does anything but that.

Frank told the board the bill has “a lot of moving parts,” and seems to have been inspired by recent change cases. He said attempts to figure out exactly what the bill means haven’t been very helpful. Manuello, who sits on a number of water boards and committees, said he was on a conference call about the bill recently and gained no new insight from the meeting…

The draft legislation was submitted by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, who is the ranking Republican on that committee.

@POTUS administration cancels last-minute Trump executive order on Land and Water Conservation Fund — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #LWCF

Mystic Island Lake, Holy Cross Wilderness Area, south of Eagle, Colorado. By CoMtMan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12260170

From Colorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The Biden administration Thursday canceled a Trump administration executive order, issued on the day before the former president’s last day in office, that stripped a program designed to improve access to federal recreation for underserved communities, among other provisions.

On Jan. 19, then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced grants totaling $452 million. Colorado’s share was $5,172,872.

Priority for grants totaling $302 million, according to an Interior news release, would be given “to projects that improve physical connectivity between federal and state-managed lands for recreational opportunities such as hunting, hiking, fishing, boating, camping and wildlife observation.”

Another $150 million would be allocated in grants in a competitive bid process, allowed under the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma.

But the total is about half of what Congress appropriated for the LWCF and left off projects approved for funding in the 2020 budget year.

In addition, $125 million in funding for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Program was rerouted to other Interior priorities. The program supports parks and greenspace projects in cities, urban areas and historically underserved communities.

The LWCF was approved by Congress for permanent authorization in 2019. Through the Great American Outdoors Act, the LWCF was finally approved for full funding of $900 million per year.

The program dates back to the 1950s and the Eisenhower administration. In 1965, the LWCF was fully funded for the first time; since then, Colorado has seen more than 1,000 projects covered by LWCF funding, according to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Its funding comes from federal oil and gas drilling lease revenues from offshore sites. However, over its history, much of its funding has been siphoned off for other purposes, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, a nongovernmental nonprofit that advocates for the LWCF.

Specifically, the coalition said, the order “misuses LWCF funds, patently violates LWCF’s underlying statutes as well as the FY 2021 appropriations law, and undermines conservation and recreation projects across the country. Particularly objectionable is the blatant attempt to simply erase the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership program and siphon away funding that Congress specifically directed to provide equitable and just park access to underserved communities who need it most.”

On Wednesday, the coalition, backed by 100 members of Congress, called on the Biden administration to rescind the order. Among the signatories: U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Denver; Jason Crow, D-Aurora, and Joe Neguse, D-Boulder.

The letter to the acting secretary of the Interior noted that the Trump administration undermined the LWCF for months after the Great American Outdoors Act was signed…

In the Thursday announcement to rescind the order, the Interior Department news release said that Secretarial Order 3396 “instructs the National Park Service to revise the Land and Water Conservation Fund Assistance Manual to remove the restrictive policies implemented in the previous order, and to reinstate preexisting implementation of the LWCF state assistance program and Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program.”

The coalition cheered the decision Thursday. In a statement, coalition spokesman Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy, said the administration’s decision is “a swift and decisive step toward reversing the damaging policies of the previous Administration and unleashing the full potential of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in its first year of full funding.”

How much water is under #Moab? Scientists say it’s less than once thought — KSL.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

From KSL.com (Graham Dudley):

Moab City and Grand County are reckoning with recent studies that suggest their underground water supply might not be as abundant as originally thought.

Now the city is working to solidify an estimate and determine what restrictions or changes might be necessary to keep the growing area and thriving tourist destination hydrated.

In the early 1970s, a study from U.S. Geological Survey estimated there was 22,000 acre-feet of water entering and leaving the Spanish Valley aquifer system each year…

But a 2019 study from the Geological Survey and a 2020 article in the Journal of Hydrology suggest that there’s actually more like 13,000 to 15,000 acre-feet of water recharging the aquifers.

There are two main aquifers supplying water to the area: the valley-fill aquifer and the Glen Canyon Group aquifers. The city’s culinary water comes entirely from the Glen Canyon Group aquifer, particularly its deeper sections. Douglas Kip Solomon, a University of Utah geologist who helped author both recent reports, told KSL.com that “essentially all” the water recharging the aquifer each year is already being withdrawn for use, about 3,600 acre-feet per year between all entities.

In other words, withdrawing more water would require “mining” the aquifer, or taking out more than is going back in. “There just isn’t any unaccounted-for water,” Solomon said, “that was somewhat, I think, previously assumed.”

Why not just use another source, like the valley-fill? Solomon said the water rights from the valley-fill aquifer and the shallow Glen Canyon waters are already claimed and are used primarily for irrigation and agriculture. They are treatable, he said, but not as high-quality as the Glen Canyon Group waters.

“Water from the Glen Canyon Group aquifer, especially the deep aquifer that the city of Moab uses, is outstanding quality water,” Solomon said. “Just the right amount of salt to be really tasty. It’s thousands of years old, it’s free of contamination — it’s just an excellent source of water supply.”

Solomon said the City of Moab will “have to really think about other sources of water” other than drilling wells into the Glen Canyon Group aquifer. “They may have to think about using water from the Colorado River,” he said, but that’s an “expensive proposition.”


[Mike] Duncan wants the city to start carefully measuring how much water it’s using, tracking its future commitments and, if necessary, considering a quota system for future allocations. “The city has plenty of water rights,” he said, “but that’s not the issue anymore. How much real water do we have to use?”

Other potential sources include Mill Creek, surface water supplied from the Glen Canyon Group aquifers, which is currently used agriculturally by the Moab Irrigation Company. There’s also the valley-fill aquifer, but its waters would be expensive to treat, and drawing it down could have environmental impacts. Using Colorado River waters would also be expensive.

Every option has its tradeoffs, Duncan and Solomon agree, but it’s important to start this conversation now.

Graphic credit: The Journal of Hydrology

Xcel Energy on path to 35.3% #wind generation in #Colorado by end of 2021 — The Mountain Town News #renewables #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Wind turbines on the Cheyenne Ridge. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Xcel Energy reached 10,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity in its eight-state service territory by the end of 2020. The company expects to achieve 31% of its nameplate energy capacity from wind by the end of 2021.

In Colorado, Xcel expects to have 4,135 megawatts of wind-generating capacity by the end of 2021. That will represent 35.3% of the utility’s electrical sales in Colorado.

Four wind farms were completed in 2020. The largest was the 500-megawatt Cheyenne Ridge, located east of Denver near the Kansas border. Xcel owns the farm.

This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com

Others were 300-megawatt Bronco Plains, the 162-megawatt Colorado Green, and the 171-megawatt Mountain Breeze. Two of the above are power-purchase agreements, and Colorado Green was a repowering of an existing project.

Rush Creek, a 600-megawatt project east of Denver, near Limon, was completed in 2018 and is owned directly by Xcel.

The company will file a proposal with Colorado regulators by the end of March that enumerates its plans. Xcel, in a statement, said the plan is “expected to include continued expansion of wind.