FromThe Ag Journal (Candace Krebs) via The La Junta Tribune-Democrat:
A central theme of every Colorado Ag Water Summit is collaboration, and the latest gathering was no exception. A series of panels discussed how to work collectively to foster more water storage, ensure future funding opportunities and support beneficial policies that will keep the water flowing in agriculture even as an ominous regional drought persists.
Welcome snow greeted participants at the in-person event in Winter Park the same day as Denver received its latest first snowfall on record. Winter snow accumulation has been alarmingly low across much of the West in recent years, with the state’s designated Colorado River compact negotiator, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy John McClow, sharing sobering graphs of plunging inflows into reservoirs Mead and Powell since 2000.
With challenges so immense, strategic partnerships — between urban and rural interests and even between regions and states — are no longer a luxury but an imperative, according to many of the speakers on the two-day program that was simultaneously broadcast online.
Indicative of this trend was a panel moderated by Terry Fankhauser, chief executive of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, which included colleagues from the environmental community, including Aaron Citron, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy; Ted Kowalski, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation; and Brian Jackson, senior manager of western water for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Fankhauser said the group had been meeting informally for four or five years to explore how to use collective resources and political clout to gain support for water improvement projects with multi-purpose benefits. Getting to know each other personally while hashing out various positions was essential to building trust, he said…
Along with collaboration, another theme was creativity.
New reservoirs to capture surplus water have long been on the wish list of many agriculturalists, but the water storage of the future will probably look different than the storage of the past, according to one panel.
Scott Lorenz, senior project manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said converting old gravel pits across the Lower Arkansas basin into water holding facilities had turned a former liability into a positive…
Combining the new pits with rehabilitation of existing structures could create a more dynamic, flexible system better suited to dealing with the droughts of the future, he said.
One benefit is the ability to move water from lower elevations in the winter to higher elevations in the summer to reduce evaporative losses, he said.
On-farm micro-storage is also becoming more popular in the Arkansas basin, he added, noting that many individual farmers are obtaining federal EQIP (environmental quality incentive) conservation funds to help make improvements.
Asked about underground storage, in which treated water is pumped into aquifers, the panelists said it was not a cheap or easy replacement for surface storage but could help augment it.
With limits on water, existing water users will need to find creative ways to share it. Municipal water managers emphasized their interest in working with irrigation districts to keep land in production.
Parker Water and Sanitation District Director Ron Redd said his district’s environmental mitigation efforts were focused on preserving rural culture rather than trout streams or whitewater rapids. Parker recently formed a partnership with the Lower Platte district, which will involve capturing excess spring runoff in Prewitt Reservoir in northeastern Colorado and then piping the water to Parker Reservoir. The goal is to reduce the fast-growing suburb’s reliance on non-renewable aquifer water while also supporting smaller municipalities along the way by helping them build new treatment plants…
That project centers on developing a new water right rather than just sharing some of the water back to where it originated, such as a Colorado Springs program that returns water to farmers along the Lower Arkansas five years out of ten.
McClow said ongoing river compact negotiations by the seven states that share the Colorado River would also require give-and-take.
One existing bone of contention is that the upper basin, which includes Colorado and Wyoming, is charged for evaporative losses, while the lower basin is not.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Several noteworthy undertakings in 2021 led to a number of achievements for Northern Water, the Municipal Subdistrict, project participants and water users. Milestones include the start of construction on a new reservoir, fire recovery efforts, campus development projects and more.
January kicked off with the connection of the Southern Water Supply Project pipeline into the new Eastern Pump Plant. The plant, located near Platteville, increases capacity of the SWSP pipeline to meet the growing demands of users benefitting from the supply.
In March, two projects earned awards from the Colorado Contractors Association. The Poudre River Drop Structure earned an award in the best Open Flow Concrete Structure category, and the Cottonwood Siphon earned an annual award as the Best Slipline Project under $6 million.
The Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project hosted a groundbreaking event on Aug. 6, 2021.
April 21 marked an exciting milestone for the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project, as the Municipal Subdistrict reached an agreement with environmental groups to settle ongoing litigation over the project. The $15 million settlement will ultimately fund aquatic habitat enhancements in Grand County. It also allowed construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir in Larimer County to begin.
Northern Water also began construction on multiple aspects of its campus development efforts in May on both the Berthoud campus and new West Slope facility. With growth to our operations and throughout the region, we are in need of additional facilities to meet our collection and delivery efforts, as well as the advancement of new water projects. Phase I construction commenced on May 13 at the Berthoud headquarters and includes new buildings to house the Operations Division, fleet storage, a parking lot expansion and other campus improvements. The West Slope’s Willow Creek Campus near Willow Creek Reservoir will include 41,000 square feet of offices, fleet maintenance space and a control room. The new facility will replace much of the existing office and shop facilities at Farr and Windy Gap pump plants. The project is making significant progress and we expect it to open its doors in August 2022.
In June, the first public electric vehicle charging station in Berthoud was installed at our headquarters. The station can provide a full charge to a standard EV in just three to four hours. Northern Water also opened a temporary office at the Grand Lake Center to better serve Grand County residents affected by the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. This location allowed us to work with landowners and assist with watershed recovery efforts.
The implementation of our fire recovery efforts took full effect in July. Debris booms were placed in Grand Lake and Willow Creek Reservoir to intercept floating debris from the East Troublesome Fire burn area. Aerial seed and mulch treatments also began at Willow Creek Reservoir. This 15-minute recap video offers a look at the projects completed this year while describing future recovery needs.
August found its way into our historical records when Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict celebrated the groundbreaking for Chimney Hollow Reservoir on Aug. 6. The ceremony culminated an extensive permitting process that began in 2003. The project includes the construction of a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir situated behind a 350-foot dam – the tallest to be built in the United States in 25 years – all to add resilience to the water supply for more than 500,000 Northeastern Colorado residents.
Northern Water was honored with two more awards during October and November, including the 2021 WaterSense Partner of the Year Award and the Colorado Waterwise Gardener Award. Promoting water-efficient products, homes and gardens and continually educating individuals and organizations on the importance of water conservation continues to be a growing part of our mission.
As population growth in Northern Colorado persists, we will continue to manage and pursue water projects to ensure an adequate supply of reliable water well into the future.
The federal government will allow a Clovis dairy to be reimbursed after its groundwater was contaminated by the Cannon Air Force base. The government announced it will finalize a rule change allowing compensation for cows that are not likely to be sold.
Art and Renee Schaap own Highland Dairy. They say a firefighting foam contaminated their water supply which reduced milk production in their cows.
The milk that was produced had to be thrown out for fear it was contaminated too. They filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2019 saying the military knew about the contamination but didn’t tell them.
The laboratories and other buildings that once housed a chemical manufacturer here in New Jersey’s most populous city have been demolished. More than 10,000 leaky drums and other containers once illegally stored here have long been removed. Its owner was convicted three decades ago.
Yet the groundwater beneath the 4.4-acre expanse once occupied by White Chemical Corp. in Newark remains contaminated, given a lack of federal funding…
But three decades after federal officials declared it one of America’s most toxic spots, it’s about to get a jolt. This plot in Newark is among more than four dozen toxic waste sites to get cleanup funding from the newly-enacted infrastructure law, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday, totaling $1 billion…
On that same day in November that Freeman looked out at the White Chemical site, President Biden signed legislation reviving a polluter’s tax that will inject a new stream of cash into the nation’s troubled Superfund program. The renewed excise fees, which disappeared more than 25 years ago, are expected to raise $14.5 billion in revenue over the next decade and could accelerate cleanups of many sites that are increasingly threatened by climate change.
The Superfund list includes more than 1,300 abandoned mines, radioactive landfills, shuttered military labs, closed factories and other contaminated areas across nearly all 50 states. They are the poisoned remnants of America’s emergence as a 20th-century industrial juggernaut.
The 49 sites receiving money from the infrastructure law include a neighborhood in Florida with soil contaminated from treating wooden telephone poles, a former copper mine in Maine laced with leftover metals, and an old steel manufacturer in southern New Jersey where parts of the Golden Gate Bridge were fabricated.
America’s toxic spots
Many of these sites are also in poor and minority communities, such as Newark, where most residents are African American. Biden has said easing the pollution burden that Black, Latino and Native Americans bear is central to his environmental policy.
No state boasts more Superfund sites than New Jersey. Some of them, such as the White Chemical site, have lingered on the agency’s “priorities list” for decades…
The law that established the Superfund program in 1980 gives the EPA the power to compel polluters to clean up their noxious messes. But many of these companies have gone out of business, or in some cases, it is hard to find the culprits. Congress taxed the chemical and oil industry to create a trust fund for these orphaned sites, but the taxes expired in 1995.
By the early 2000s, the trust fund was drained. The agency has grappled with a mounting list of costly and complex hazardous waste sites ever since…
The new bipartisan infrastructure law reestablishes fees on the sale of more than 40 chemicals often found in fuels, plastics and other products, ranging from 44 cents to $9.74 per ton depending on the compound.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other groups lobbied unsuccessfully to defeat the proposal…
Biden administration officials, however, said the tax revenue will provide a critical boost for underfunded projects. Carlton Waterhouse, Biden’s nominee to head the EPA’s land office, said that even after paying for projects that got no financial support last year, there will still be money left over…
To fully clean up the ground where White Chemical once stood, crews will have to inject a cocktail of chemicals underground to break down lingering volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethene, which is linked to neurological problems and several kinds of cancer. Right now, no building can be constructed over the contaminated aquifer without the risk of hazardous fumes accumulating indoors…
Until Friday, the EPA had to shelve the plan for nearly a decade because it cost $16.6 million. But with the tax reinstated and with Congress providing an additional $3.5 billion for the Superfund program, work in Newark and on dozens of other orphaned sites will begin “as soon as possible,” according to the agency.
Global warming gives these projects even greater urgency. The Frelinghuysen Avenue lot is one of more than 900 toxic waste sites facing ever-increasing risks from rising seas, fiercer wildfires and other disasters driven by climate change, according to a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Climate impacts could unleash hazardous waste at 60 percent of Superfund sites, mainly due to flooding. More than a dozen Superfund sites flooded after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017. In Newark, even a Category 1 hurricane could damage the White Chemical site, the GAO said…
Reviving the chemical production fee is a step toward making the Superfund program operate as originally intended, with industry paying to clean up its messes even after companies go bankrupt. The tax will be up for renewal again in 2031.
Maybe it’s this holiday season or maybe it’s my need for inspiration to counter this ongoing pandemic and drought impacting our lives and families, but I find myself looking back at 2021 for the gems of hope in our Western Water work.
This year, dry conditions across the West were the worst they have been in recorded history—lowest levels at Lake Mead, Great Salt Lake, and diminishing flows across the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins. And the superlatives are not hyperbolic. Extreme. Exceptional. Unprecedented. Catastrophic. Record-breaking. There’s no doubt that the conditions have been terrible—and rivers, lakes, and wetlands and the birds and wildlife that depend on them are suffering as a result.
But even in the midst of these dire circumstances, Audubon and our partners were able to create hope for a brighter future. These impactful successes this year and their stories of courage and collaboration will stick with me—and our Audubon team—as we push for more change in the year ahead. Hopefully you’ll find inspiration from our water work too, as we need your support to help birds and the places upon which they depend across our arid western landscape. Here are our top three wins:
#1: Water flowed again in the Colorado River Delta—connecting the river to the sea again
From May to October 2021, the Colorado River flowed again in its final 55 miles thanks to binational commitments from the U.S. and Mexican governments. Water in the river provides an oasis in the midst of the Sonoran Desert for birds and the people that live there. The water creates and supports habitat for birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Vermilion Flycatcher.
I know I’m not alone in feeling tremendous hope seeing birds return, and smiling faces and playful splashes as people enjoyed the of water flowing down the Colorado River.
On top of that, Audubon and Raise the River partners are excited that the binational collaboration took a sophisticated approach to water delivery. Using results from prior monitoring, scientists designed the flows to optimize the location and timing to benefit the restored habitats that have documented increases in bird abundance and diversity. This year’s flows were also studied in order to add to our understanding of how to best use the limited supply of water available for the environment. This will inform management of the Colorado River for the future.
#2: Even in this dry year, rivers (and Great Salt Lake) are getting more dedicated flows
From the amazing partnership that implemented water deliveries down the Jordan River to Great Salt Lake in Utah to the groundbreaking state policy changes in Colorado and Arizona to allow more water for rivers, our efforts this year resulted in good news for people and birds in seeing water return to important bird habitats.
An innovative collaboration led by Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program, with businesses, government agencies, and the Nature Conservancy, achieved a first in Utah water rights history in securing water for the drying Great Salt Lake. With dedicated water rights on the Jordan River donated to the cause, we are now delivering water to the Farmington Bay in Great Salt Lake-and will do so for up to ten years.
With two wins for rivers in a dry year, we highlighted how our multi-year efforts succeeded in expanding the State of Colorado’s existing “instream flow” program for water rights holders to loan water to the environment, allowing for more water to stay in a river. This policy change was immediately put to use to benefit 43 stream miles in western Colorado. And with the unprecedented engagement of our supporters, we were able to retain water quality protections for all of Colorado’s rivers.
In Arizona, we took a pivotal step forward to benefit rivers and the bird habitats they provide. With our support, a new state law was passed to allow surface water users like farmers an incentive to conserve water on their property—by switching to less thirsty crops for example—and be confident that any water saved will not be subject to the loss of water rights.
#3: Birds will benefit from new and restored habitats
Of course, our work in water policy and management benefits birds and other wildlife, but our team accomplished some key wins focused on bird habitat this year that bring new hope for migratory birds and communities.
In Nevada, a long-awaited transfer of more than 23,000 acres of wildlife habitat gives birds a boost. Along with lands from Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Wetlands, Carson Lake and Pasture is part of the Lahontan Valley Wetlands complex, now as a state wildlife management area, within a designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site of hemispheric importance. The 220,000-acre site, east of Reno, has freshwater marshes and shallow flooded mudflats providing excellent habitat for breeding and migrating shorebirds like American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Wilson’s Phalaropes, as well as Canvasbacks, White-faced Ibis and Pied-billed Grebes. And we have more work ahead for shorebird management planning in the Lahontan Valley.
Audubon’s team at the Salton Sea is leading the way in adaptive habitat management with opportunities at emerging wetlands such as those near Bombay Beach. With partners in 2021, we focused on the existing 400-acre Bombay Beach wetlands to stabilize and preserve existing high-quality wildlife habitat; increase the amount and quality of habitat available for target species; provide dust control benefits to the adjacent playa areas and decrease dust emissions for local communities improving public health; and provide local and regional public access and research opportunities. This project is in the first phase of habitat and dust control project design, with scientific monitoring and data collection underway, and community engagement in planning design.
Even as 2021 will go down as one of the driest years ever recorded in the West, with record-setting heat, catastrophic fires, and continued declines in river flows and lake levels, birds tell us when we are doing some things right. Birds remain beacons of hope for me—and so many of you, I know. Birds and the places upon which they depend across this arid western landscape need our support—and capturing gems of hope and inspiration keep us going. It’s also a call to do more in the coming years.
Please help us to accomplish much more in 2022 and join us in speaking up and taking action for the birds, rivers, lakes, and habitats they so desperately need.
For years, scientists have warned that climate change would have significant ramifications for the Colorado River. But it took two back-to-back dry years and dramatic declines in Lake Mead to drive home the point: The Southwest needs to plan for a world where water scarcity is the reality.
What that planning process looks like — and exactly how it takes shape — was a primary topic of conversation at an annual Colorado River conference in Las Vegas over the past week. At Caesars Palace, water managers listened to speeches, milled about the hallways and convened closed-door side meetings. Their focus: how to move forward, what kind of future the region should prepare for, and how to overcome serious political challenges.
“The really bad conditions that we are seeing right now, the dramatic drops in the reservoirs, are forcing conversations that are extremely uncomfortable, but really important and useful,” said John Fleck, a University of New Mexico researcher and author of two books on the river.
In many ways, the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference is a microcosm of the global challenges and negotiations to reconcile science and policy in grappling with a changing climate, which has already left a major imprint on how water cycles through the environment.
Each year, the conference brings together water users from across the Colorado River Basin, which includes about 40 million people from seven Western states, more than two dozen tribes and the country of Mexico. The river, the region’s environmental lifeblood, is diverted for cities, farmers and industry, all sectors that send representatives to negotiate at the conference.
The watershed’s size and scope, even in years where there is far more water in the reservoirs, means the stakes for negotiations are always high. Those stakes are especially high now, with the river’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — at 32 percent of capacity.
Everyone at the conference has different interests and the representatives who attend must grapple with politics at home, leaving them with less negotiating power than it might appear. Moreover, the river’s governance is diffuse and decentralized, with different nodes at different parts of the basin. This fact has, in the past, shut certain water users out of the discussions.
In 2007, the last time the states negotiated guidelines for managing the basin’s reservoirs, tribal nations were not included, despite having rights to about one-fifth of the river. As states start to renegotiate those guidelines and work through the process of planning for a drier future, tribal leaders have stressed the importance of inclusion.
“You’ve heard it so many times,” said Maria Dadger, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona. “Historically, tribes have not been a part of the negotiations around the management of the Colorado River. And let’s just say that’s past history, because that is no longer the case.”
But even as many water managers see the need to plan for less, some are seeking to develop more. Today, nearly a century after states signed the Colorado River Compact, one of the river’s primary governing documents, there are proposals to divert more water from the river, including a pipeline that would move water from Lake Powell to the fast-growing area of southwest Utah.
For years, Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, has been a leading voice in communicating the ways in which a warming, aridifying landscape in the Southwest has altered the average flows of the river. On Wednesday, Udall laid out the scientific literature on the Colorado River and suggested reframing the conversation: The system is not stationary.
“When I hear ‘new normal,’ I actually get a little frustrated,” Udall said during a presentation. “If you are going to call it anything, call it the ‘new abnormal.’”
People took note. What Udall said was not necessarily new, but his comments were echoed by water managers throughout the week, a recognition that climate change is already affecting the river.
Many water managers have seen it in real-time. Last year, snowpack was observed at around 85 percent of average, yet the amount of water that made it to the river was a near record-low — about 30 percent of average. In remarks on Wednesday, federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called the disparity a “staggering difference.”
Even so, planning for a “new abnormal,” acknowledging it in policies, is far more challenging than talking about it. In the past, water users have planned for a Colorado River that averages about 15 million acre-feet (an acre-foot is the amount of water that can fill one acre to a depth of one foot). As the climate changes, the question is what baseline water managers should use.
Last week, Las Vegas became one of the first regions to lay down a revised baseline of what kind of river to be planning for. Colby Pellegrino, a deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the agency is preparing for an 11 million acre-foot river. To achieve that, Pellegrino announced a slate of aggressive conservation and efficiency policies.
On Monday, the water authority board will consider two resolutions that, if local politicians sign off, would prohibit grass and evaporative cooling in new development. The goal is to bring down per capita daily water use significantly to not only meet future growth, but to also recognize that warmer temperatures are likely to increase water use on outdoor lawns and in cooling systems…
There is not yet a consensus, however, on what baseline to use in climate change planning. For other states, the politics are more challenging. In many cases, planning for years when the Colorado River only has 11 million acre-feet of inflows would mean expensive and painful reductions in water use.
In planning for climate change, Nevada has a number of advantages over other states that make an aggressive benchmark more palatable. The state’s Colorado River apportionment is used almost entirely by Las Vegas. In other states, many sectors (agriculture, industrial, etc.) with varying interests and multiple layers of governance share a Colorado River apportionment.
Some water managers believe a number closer to 14 million acre-feet is a more realistic tool for planning. Others believe multiple scenarios should be used. Either way, establishing a baseline will be important as the states look to update the 2007 operating guidelines that currently govern the river’s management. Those guidelines expire in 2026.
Next year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the river’s reservoirs, plans to outline the process for renegotiating the guidelines. The bureau plans to initiate a formal environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act, better known as NEPA.
At a press conference Thursday, David Palumbo, a deputy commissioner for the bureau, said the NEPA process, which allows for public comment, will help the agency collect input on what climate change planning should look like…
For the past two years, as hydrology on the river worsened, water managers have engaged in short-term negotiations to stave off extreme conditions at Lake Mead and Lake Powell…
Modeling has continued to show Lake Mead dropping to severe elevations, the point at which there are increased risks for the water supply and operating the reservoir. As a result, officials from California, Arizona, Nevada and the federal government signed a memo on Wednesday, outlining the contours of a $200 million two-year plan to keep more water in the lake.
At the ceremony, the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community also signed agreements with the United States to contribute water as part of the two-year plan, a recognition of the increasingly important role that tribal nations are playing in Colorado River management.
Even the signing was a change from 2019. Both tribal nations played a key role in the DCP, yet they were not official signatories. On Wednesday, the leaders of the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community signed the agreements in front of a row of ceremonial flags, including the flags of tribal nations belonging to the Ten Tribes Partnership (the partnership consists of a coalition of Indigenous communities from across the basin).
Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis described the tribes as “a vital part” of the planning process. He added that “by bringing the parties together, fostering productive cooperative dialogue and providing much-needed critical resources, tribes, shouldering this sacred responsibility, this leadership, can and will help shape the future of the Colorado River.”
The plan to keep water in Lake Mead, while significant, is a temporary solution to a long-term problem unfolding on the Colorado River: A fundamental imbalance between supply and demand that has grown larger with climate change. The longer-term negotiations are beginning to unfold as the federal government considers how to structure the process for updating the river’s existing operating guidelines.
Tribal leaders said they want to ensure they have a seat at the table as the longer-term water negotiations unfold. Many Colorado River tribes, whose claims to water predate those of the states, are still working to quantify and use the water rights that belong to their communities.
But there remain concerns about whether a structure exists to ensure future management decisions are made in an equitable manner, given that many ideas are discussed informally and outside of public spaces.
At the Thursday press conference, Tanya Trujillo, an assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of Interior, said the agency was working to ensure that tribes had input in the process for updating the operating guidelines. The Bureau of Reclamation is part of the Interior Department.
Trujillo said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently wrote a letter to tribal leaders in the Colorado River Basin. The letter, Trujillo said, announced a listening session early next year and emphasized the need for government-to-government consultation…
Last weekend, Haaland attended a meeting at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas with Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV). The water authority’s general manager, John Entsminger, was also at the meeting, which focused on drought and implementing the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package, which includes about $8.3 billion for water investments.
At a press conference, Haaland, the first Indigenous Interior Secretary and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, emphasized the federal government’s relationship with tribal nations…
As water managers consider long-term commitments, conservationists are urging policymakers to also include the environmental community at the negotiating table.
Bart Miller, a director at Western Resource Advocates, said the upcoming round of negotiations should be holistic. He said, “this will have to be a different discussion and negotiation than it was 15 years ago.” Miller emphasized the need for transparency so that all water users can see what is being discussed.
When asked whether a structure to do that exists, he said “it remains to be seen.”
“There is a need for providing pathways for these other voices,” he said.
The tension is not only around how to reduce use and adapt to climate change. It is also in how to approach new efforts to develop Colorado River water that states claim a legal entitlement to use. This is a major source of controversy, mainly for the states upstream of Lake Powell. Some officials are eying expensive infrastructure projects to divert more water away from the river.
Miller said any project that would increase demand should be viewed skeptically.
ANGLING is a time-honored tradition that spans family generations and fills a spiritual or even religious void in many people’s lives. Above it all, though, it is an almost daily connection with nature. These days, changes in the environment around us are becoming more apparent and even alarming.
This story started out as a pursuit to gain an understanding of climate change through the gaze of the Valley angler. Most of the questions were broad and allowed the angler to speak freely, but as more interviews were conducted, there became a series of throughlines, common subjects, and themes that became present: water levels, the Hoot Owl, an increase in recreational angling, and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
“The water is never gonna be what it used to be,” said Larry Zaragoza. He is an avid angler and fisher, who’s observed a stark decline in water levels and fish health over the past two years.
In his 53 years of fishing the Valley’s waters, Zaragoza said that he cannot compare these last two years to any other. He said the average 14-16 inch trout he catches are not as healthy looking, “not as meaty,” and slender-looking. As a catch-and-release fisherman, he said that there’s hardly even anything to catch and release.
What do he and his fellow anglers discuss when they meet or get together? “Water level is the first thing we talk about.”
Deacon Aspinwall, the City of Alamosa’s planning and development specialist, is an avid angler himself.
Aspinwall has a science background and prefaced his answers by stating that in the 10 years he’s fished in the Valley’s waters it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions. However, he did say that within the last 10 years we have seen climate shifts, with runoff occurring much earlier than it did 20 years ago. He’s observed, through the angler’s perspective, a two-phase runoff, with the initial snow melt surge dubbed the “meltoff,” which is occurring earlier in the season from drier and warmer days.
His climate concerns as an angler are the lower snowpacks and earlier runoffs. In 10 years of fishing here he has noticed some changes in the fisheries – such as more “snot moss” turning up, and in higher elevations. And some fisheries that 10 years ago were fishable have now dried up.
He said that trout populations in Cat Creek and East Pass Creek that existed 20 years ago no longer exist today. “What will the next 20 years look like?” he pondered, especially, at what high mountain lakes and streams will look like in two decades.
Aspinwall said that it’s often difficult to discuss climate in a meaningful way that resonates with people. He added that a changing climate is natural, but the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere isn’t.
On top of this, Aspinwall said that a real concern of his is the increase in angling pressure on fisheries. In the last year alone, he noticed that the Valley’s waters have seen an increase in angling and fishing.
“Some fisheries can’t handle more than one angler a day,” he said, pointing out that we all have a responsibility to fish and angle sustainably, for the next generation, and that all anglers and fishers should ask themselves, “Are we doing this sustainably, are we doing this responsibly?”
Conversations with the Hoot Owl
He said anglers need to be mindful of the “Hoot Owl.” This is the time to stop fishing. Catch-and-release fishing in warming waters after 2 p.m. can cause harm to the fish.
Trout Unlimited has worked closely with CPW to suggest that fishers and anglers voluntarily stop fishing between noon and 2 p.m.
Aspinwall and Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited’s Rio Grande Basin program director, both brought up the point that it is a common misconception that the coolest part of the day to fish during is as the sun goes down. For catch-and-release fishing on warmer days in warmer waters, this presents a problem, as the warmest water temperatures, in fact, often don’t break until 9 or 10 at night.
So, the solution to this is to fish earlier in the day.
Terry said that if the water temperatures are high, and cause for concern, then fishing in the evening and at night is a problem, but if the temperatures are fine, then fishing in the afternoon is also fine. He said that it is the anglers’ responsibility to take a temperature reading of the stream to be certain it’s okay to fish there.
This goes against traditional thinking, but anglers have to evolve. This becomes more difficult for traveling anglers who spend time and money and travel to fish in the Valley’s waters. Though it is voluntary to adhere to the Hoot Owl, most catch-and-release anglers respect it.
Terry works for the National Trout Unlimited, and is a board member of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter.
It’s worth noting that during the interview, Terry stressed that anglers and farmers are having similar water issues. There is a larger picture of the San Luis Valley’s water and how it affects everyone who lives here – and it brings attention to recent attempts to export water to the Front Range and the chronic unease that is felt around the Valley’s water.
Terry talked more on the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and its dwindling historic range. Native RGCT now only live in about 10 percent of that range, with about 10 “aboriginal” populations that have “never been messed with.” Those populations have never been reintroduced, moved, or hybridized.
A consistent population of RGCT requires isolation, with “fish barriers” such as waterfalls, culverts, or man-made structures. These allow the fish to maintain genetic isolation and avoid other risks. However, isolated streams can become vulnerable. Wildfires can send ash and soot down a high mountain stream and wipe out populations, or low-flow streams (less than 1 CFS) during one drought season can be “blinked out.”
For fishery biologists, Terry said that the conservation of RGCT is an “extremely high priority.”
He noted that these fish are not at historic sampling sizes, and that 2-3 populations have “blinked out” in the past 8 years.
The solution is to reintroduce these fish to more streams and bigger streams to make them less localized, isolated, and less at-risk. It is slow work.
Mark Seaton, president of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter, said that the organization is anything but a fishing club. It’s a conservation organization that works closely with local groups to focus on habitat.
Seaton has noticed that shoulder seasons (spring and fall) have become longer and that winter temperatures are not as cold.
He stressed that rising temperatures are not good for trout.
The fly fishing community is aware of climate change he said, and that the last couple of years have been tough to fish.
The “number of boats on the river (Rio Grande) have increased dramatically,” he said.
For Seaton, the most concerning issues are low snowpack and the lack of water in streams and creeks. He said climate change is “a pretty big deal” in Trout Unlimited.
Trout Unlimited is a conservation-based organization with 400 unique chapters. There are 300,000 members from Maine to Alaska. Within TU’s ranks, there are state councils that organize the chapters. Through these state councils, state-wide efforts can be identified and tackled. Trout Unlimited can also provide state agencies with support through its members, providing much needed eyes, ears, and flies on the ground to provide empirical data.
Disease, algal blooms and the Rio Grande cuttthroat trout
Though the Valley has many species of fish, including kokanee salmon, largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, northern pike, and bluegill, the trout is the most abundant and diverse species found in our waters. The Valley is home to rainbow, brown, brook and native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago.
Being the only native fish species to our land, it has been near extinction more than once. According to the book The Geology, Ecology, and Human History of the San Luis Valley, “mining, logging, over-harvesting, and extensive stocking of non-native fish drastically reduced their populations.” The biggest threats are “non-native fish, over-grazing, and the myriad issues associated with a warming climate: low snowpack and early melting, rising summer stream temperatures, high-severity wildfires, and low stream flows.”
The biggest issue facing fish populations is rising water temperatures. Trout are a cold water fish, requiring water temperatures between 37-66 degrees Fahrenheit for their life cycle from spawning, incubation, and growth. Water temperatures that exceed 70 degrees contain less dissolved oxygen. Trout, at these temperatures, have a difficult time getting oxygen and are more prone to disease such as Whirling disease.
Whirling disease is a parasitic infection that occurs in salmonid fish species – in Colorado, rainbow and cutthroat trout are the most at risk. Estevan Vigil, CPW’s Valley aquatic biologist, says it is the biggest disease to combat in the Valley.
Rising water temperatures can also lead to algal blooms. Algal blooms are a rapid growth of algae that bloom to the surface. Most blooms occur through a high nitrate content in the water which can occur through nutrient pollution from surrounding farms, industrial buildings, or cities. However, with high mountain lakes, blooms occur with warmer water or rural nutrient runoff, which allows more harmful bacteria to thrive in the algae causing it then to take in more light and grow.
Most blooms create foul odors and mucky surfaces, but some are toxic. Humans and animals exposed to toxic algae can show symptoms ranging from lung irritation to neurological damage.
Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.
Angling in a fish-less world
The act of angling is a method in mindfulness and a grounding meditation that has proven to de-stress. In England there are some therapists that have prescribed fly fishing to their patients. Project Healing Waters helps veterans with disabilities recover through time spent on the water. Casting for Recovery is an organization that helps women with breast cancer enhance their lives through fly fishing.
The lessons learned about angling in an unsteady climate are clear. The future remains the only unclear, murky aspect of angling. Some data from hundreds of years ago can be fun to look at, but averages can’t fully paint the picture of what’s happening now and a year from now, let alone 20 years from now.
Angling and fishing will continue for a long time in the Valley. There will still be safe havens on our streams and in our reservoirs for anglers and fish alike, but there needs to be constant attention to sustainability and responsibility. Meat fishing must be done within state regulations and angling must be done with temperature and conservation in mind.
Snowpacks will become more unpredictable. With meltoffs occuring in off seasons, the downstream effects are yet to be determined.
Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.