State officials draft bill on stream restoration: Projects must stay within historical footprint — @AspenJournalism #COleg

This beaver dam analogue, with posts across the creek and soft, woody material woven across, was built by environmental restoration group EcoMetrics, keeps water on the landscape by mimicking beaver activity. The state Department of Natural Resources has penned draft legislation clarifying that this type of restoration project does not need a water right. CREDIT: JACKIE CORDAY

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Colorado officials have drafted a bill aimed at addressing a tension between stream restoration projects and water rights holders.

The draft clarifies that restoration projects do not fall under the definitions of a diversion, storage or a dam and do not need to go through the lengthy and expensive water court process to secure a water right.

But before a project begins, proponents would have to file an information form with the state Division of Water Resources showing the project will stay within the historical footprint of the floodplain before it was degraded and doesn’t create new wetlands, the draft bill proposes. These forms would be publicly available, and anyone could then challenge whether the project meets the requirements by filing a complaint, which would be taken up by DWR staff.

If stream restoration projects were required to secure a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions it causes, it could discourage these types of projects, something the state Department of Natural Resources wants to avoid.

“We are trying to make it clear that stream restoration projects do not fall under the definition of diversion,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the state’s assistant director for water policy. “However, we put limits on what a restoration project is or isn’t and the restoration project has to fall within the historical footprint of the stream system.”

This stream restoration project on Trail Creek, in the headwaters of the Gunnison River, mimics beaver activity. Some worry that projects like this have the potential to negatively impact downstream water rights. CREDIT: JACKIE CORDAY

Slowing the flow

Restoration projects on small headwaters tributaries often mimic beaver activity, with what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.

The goal of process-based restoration projects like these is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.

In these now-simplified stream systems, water, sediment and debris all move downstream more quickly, said Ellen Wohl, a fluvial geomorphologist at Colorado State University.

“Natural rivers have all these sources of variability,” Wohl said. “They have pools and riffles, meanderings, obstructions like wood and beaver dams. All those things can help slow the flow, which leads to less bed and bank erosion. It allows sediment to be deposited gradually along the channel, and you increase biological processing and recharge of ground water and soil moisture.”

Although these projects benefit the environment, improve water quality and create resiliency against wildfires and climate change, keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially have impacts to downstream water users. Under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — which nearly always belong to agriculture — have first use of the water.

Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, meaning irrigators may not get their full amount of water.

John McClow is an attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and is chair of a Colorado Water Congress sub-committee studying the bill, which will make suggestions to the bill’s sponsors. He said there have been wet meadow restoration projects in the headwaters of the Gunnison River that have harmed water rights holders.

“We had some examples of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects,” he said. “In each case we worked with water rights holders and removed the obstruction so their water rights were not impaired.”

McClow said he would like to see the bill set a standard to avoid problems at the outset of projects.

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, who represents District 8 and is chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said part of the bill’s urgency is so that Colorado can take advantage of unprecedented federal funding for stream restoration from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“If we can demonstrate to the federal government that we have a streamlined process for stream restoration projects, then we will make Colorado significantly more eligible for those federal funds,” Roberts said. “We are trying our best to position our state to receive the resources that we deserve.”

Roberts, a Democrat whose Western Slope district includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties, expects the bill to be introduced later this month.

Romero-Heaney said the state’s system of water law works well because it is adaptable to the evolving needs of Coloradans. The stream restoration legislation aims to reduce barriers to projects while still protecting water rights.

“We are at that moment where we need to make a decision: Do we want to have a future with healthy streams that are providing all those environmental services, or do we want to make that future pretty difficult to achieve?” she said. “It’s a soul-searching conversation for the water community.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

#ColoradoRiver states fail to strike agreement; feds may step in — @WyoFile “…no one is calling on the Congress to fix this” — Kyle Roerink #GreenRiver #YampaRiver #LittleSnakeRiver #COriver #aridification

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

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Hopes to forge a plan to reduce Colorado River Basin water use by 15% to 25% this year disintegrated this week with dueling proposals that pit California against Arizona and other basin states, including Wyoming.

That leaves the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation, which issued the water-savings challenge in June 2022, to potentially impose their own plan to cut releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to maintain hydropower generation.

“Given the magnitude of water-use reductions that are being considered, talks between the Basin States have been very difficult at times,” Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said in an email to WyoFile.

Dueling proposals

Responding to a Jan. 31 deadline, Wyoming joined fellow Upper Colorado River Basin states — as well as Nevada and Arizona in the Lower Basin — in supporting a proposed “consensus-based” model for better accounting of actual water supplies, including water losses due to evaporation and seepage at Lake Mead. That framework, if implemented, should result in a water savings of 1.5 million acre-feet to 3.3 million acre-feet of water, according to a letter signed by water officials representing the six states.

A pump pulls water from the Green River at a Sweetwater County-managed recreation area Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But those proposed water savings may not be fully realized this year. Plus, the six-state proposal leaves open the prospect for major water cuts this year to the Lower Basin states, particularly California — the largest consumer of Colorado River water in the system. California countered this week with its own proposal for short-term water savings that would maintain the state’s bargaining power rooted in its senior water rights. That plan would shift the burden of water cuts to Arizona, which has water rights that are junior to California’s.

“I think that’s why Arizona was quick to jump on the letter with the other six states,” Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink said.

Arizona prefers the consensus-building approach to sharing the pain of water-use reductions, Roerink said, over a strict adherence to the legal framework to restrict water use among those with the most junior water rights.

“In both letters, you have some serious shots across the bow as it relates to litigation and political posturing,” Roerink said. “And no one is calling on the Congress to fix this.”

Although the six-state proposal that Wyoming signed on to doesn’t commit specific, voluntary water-use reductions, it’s a necessary “next step toward a consensus solution,” Gebhart said.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez stands next to a stake that indicates the extent of lowering water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“As we continue the process, we try to understand and respect the very difficult realities being faced by California and the other Basin States,” he said. “We remain committed to working with the other Basin States and impacted water users to find consensus solutions.”

Despite varying legal positions and dire circumstances faced by each Colorado River stakeholder, some observers say Wyoming and the other Upper Basin states have offered up too little to help address the immediate problem that threatens some 40 million people who rely on the river.

“The Upper Basin is getting off scot-free,” Roerink said. “Plus, there’s no prohibitions put forth on potentially new development of Upper Basin water, like the West Fork of Battle Creek, for example.”

Wyoming’s role

Regardless of what new actions the federal government may take in coming months, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to rely on releasing extra volumes of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border to help balance levels at downstream reservoirs, according to those close to the issue.

The bureau enacted extra releases totaling 625,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir since 2021, and is expected to announce additional releases in April or May. Flaming Gorge was at 69% capacity in January, according to the bureau. If that continues into the summer, many boat ramps will be left high and dry threatening the local recreation economy.

Meantime, Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River Commission are encouraging voluntary water conservation, soliciting interest in a program that pays irrigators, municipalities and industrial facilities to leave water in streams that flow to the Colorado River.

This week, the UCRC extended the application deadline for the System Conservation Pilot Program to March 1. Wyoming officials expect to receive 15 to 20 proposals from individual water users in coming weeks, according to the state engineer’s office.

For more information about the SCPP, visit the UCRC’s website.

Green River Lakes and the Bridger Wilderness. Forest Service, USDA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons