#Snowpack news (March 24, 2021): #RioGrandeRiver Basin still in the lead at 107% of normal (median)

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

Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for March 24, 2021 via the NRCS.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 24, 2021 via the NRCS.

Forest Service approves test drilling for Whitney Reservoir site — @AspenJournalism #EagleRiver

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

OK is first step toward dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek

The U.S. Forest Service on Monday approved an application from the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs for geotechnical drilling in the Homestake Valley, one of the first steps toward building a new dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek.

The approval allows the cities, operating together as Homestake Partners, to drill 10 bore samples up to 150 feet deep and for crews on the ground to collect geophysical data. The goal of the work, which is expected to begin in late summer and last 50 to 60 days, is a “fatal flaw” feasibility study to determine whether the soil and bedrock could support a dam and reservoir.

The project, known as Whitney Reservoir, would be located near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles south of Red Cliff. Various configurations of the project show it holding between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of water. The area is home to a rare kind of groundwater-fed wetland with peat soils known as a fen.

Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the project despite receiving a total of 775 comments on the drilling proposal during the scoping period. According to the public scoping comment summary, the most common topics commenters had concerns about included the potential loss of wilderness, the destruction of fens and wetlands, impacts to water quality and disturbance to wildlife.

But just 80 letters — about 10% — were individual comments that the Forest Service considered substantive and specific to the geotechnical investigation. Most comments were form-letter templates from organizations such as Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop or pertained to concerns about the Whitney Reservoir project as a whole, not the geotechnical drilling.

“A lot of the public comments were pertaining to a reservoir, and the proposal is not for a reservoir; it’s for just those 10 geotechnical bore holes,” Veldhuis said.

Many commenters also said the level of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act wasn’t appropriate and questioned why the proposal was granted a categorical exclusion, rather than undergoing the more rigorous Environmental Analysis typical of big projects on Forest Service land. Veldhuis said the geotechnical investigation, a common occurrence on public lands, didn’t rise to the level of an EA; that could come later with any reservoir proposal.

“If the future holds any additional sort of proposal, then that would trigger a brand-new analysis with additional rounds of public comments,” she said. “Any future proposals for anything more would undergo an even bigger environmental analysis than this underwent.”

Homestake Creek flows from Homestake Reservoir near Red Cliff. Starting Wednesday, Homestake Partners will be releasing water out of the reservoir to make sure that water can get to the state line as another option to fulfill the state’s upstream duties of delivering water to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Whitney Reservoir

The proposed Whitney Reservoir would pump water from lower Homestake Creek back to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. The idea of expanding the intrastate plumbing system to take more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River over to thirsty and growing Front Range cities doesn’t sit well with many people and organizations.

Wilderness Workshop issued a news release saying it would oppose the reservoir project every step of the way. The organization also launched an online petition Monday to rally opposers, which had already garnered more than 200 signatures as of Monday evening.

“We would like to see the Forest Service change course,” said Juli Slivka, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director. The decision was discouraging, she said, but Wilderness Workshop will continue pressuring the federal agency. “The idea of moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range is not very appreciated out here.”

A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.

Eagle River MOU

But Front Range municipalities are not the only ones set to benefit from a new water-storage project. The Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding lays out a plan for both Front Range and Western Slope entities to develop water in the upper Eagle River basin. The agreement, signed in 1998, provides 20,000 acre-feet of water a year to Homestake Partners and 10,000 acre-feet a year to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts, known collectively in the MOU as the “Reservoir Company.”

The Reservoir Company is not an applicant in the drilling proposal and none of the Western Slope entities that are parties to the MOU submitted comments on the drilling proposal.

Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, said the water provider supports Homestake Partners’ right to pursue an application for their water.

“We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total,” Johnson said in an email.

The Forest Service also determined that impacts to wetlands from the drilling are negligible. Homestake Partners plans to place temporary mats across wetland areas to protect vegetation and soils from the people and machinery crossing Homestake Creek. In a June letter, a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the work did not require a permit from that agency.

The Forest Service also conducted a biological assessment and found that the drilling would not impact endangered Canada lynx.

This story ran in the March 23 edition of The Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.

@DWR_CO Seeks Public Input on Designating #YampaRiver as “Over-appropriated”

The second-ever call on the Yampa River ended September 6, 2020. Here it flows near the diversion from the Hayden Generating Station on Aug. 3. Photo credit: Allen Best/Aspen Journalism

Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Chris Arend):

The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced the commencement of a public comment process today on a proposed plan to designate the main stem of the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado as “over-appropriated.” An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system.

Colorado water law is driven by a system of “prior-appropriation” or a first in time, first in right water right system. The system is designed for Colorado’s semi-arid climate to fairly and efficiently distribute the state’s limited water supply for the beneficial use of Coloradans. If a river system, such as the Yampa River, at times has insufficient supply to provide water to all decreed uses, then additional measures to protect those decree uses are necessary.

“The Yampa River is an incredibly important resource for Northwest Coloradans. It sustains our communities, farms, ranches, wildlife, outdoor recreation and power supplies,” said Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, Colorado Division of Water Resources. “However, the combination of continued diversions by senior water rights and recent appropriations, along with recent climatic conditions, such as sustained drought, indicates a strong potential that the mainstem of the Yampa River meets the criteria of being “over-appropriated” and requires more careful administration to ensure senior water right holders are able to properly use their legal water rights. We want to make sure our water users and community are knowledgeable on this change in the river and are educated on the potential changes that may occur as water is developed in the Yampa River valley.”

The effect of this designation is the requirement that new well permits in the affected area will require an evaluation of their potential to cause injury to surface water rights and in many cases will need to secure a replacement supply of water to mitigate the impacts of their pumping through an “augmentation plan” before being issued a well permit by the Division of Water Resources.

“We understand this new well permitting process will be a change for water users and those looking to develop water in Yampa Valley,” Light added. “I want to assure community members that my office and our Division is here to assist you in these new measures as we all work towards equitably managing our scarce but critical water resources.”

Following the formal notice of this recommendation, which involves notifying members of the Division 6 Substitute Water Supply Plans (SWSP) Notification List and additional community input, the State Engineer and Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, will work with Erin Light to determine next steps, which may include additional public outreach. Rein will not make a final determination on the proposed “over-appropriated” designation until he is satisfied that the water users fully understand the effect of the designation.

Having a river system designated as “over-appropriated” is not a new concept in Colorado. In fact, only a small minority of river systems in Colorado are not considered to be over-appropriated. The South Platte, Rio Grande, and Arkansas River systems with their heavy agricultural and municipal and industrial water users have long been considered “over-appropriated.”

To submit comments on or any questions about the proposed plan please contact Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, at erin.light@state.co.us or 970-879-0272 Ext. 3.

A copy of the proposed plan can be found here on the Division of Water Resources website.