Gallup Mayor Louis Bonaguidi was serving on city council in 1988 when a geologist the city hired to evaluate its water supplies informed Gallup that it would run out of water within a matter of decades.
It didn’t take long for the city to discover that its neighbor, the Navajo Nation, was also looking for ways to increase access to water.
On Friday, the city and Nation got one step closer to achieving a reliable water supply that will serve more than 250,000 people on Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and in the Gallup area.
The Public Service Company of New Mexico handed over the virtual keys–as company president and Chief Operating Officer Don Tarry called it–to the reservoir that once provided water from the San Juan River for San Juan Generating Station operations to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for use in the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.
“There is a significant connection between energy and water,” Tarry said, explaining that the coal-fired power plant that ceased operations last fall required a large amount of water.
Bart Deming is the construction engineer and manager for the BOR’s Four Corners Construction Office. He said when the supply project began, the plan was that there would be a direct intake off of the San Juan River. But turbidity concerns led to the planned intake being relocated to an area near Hogback where there could be turbidity control.
Turbidity is the measurement of how cloudy the water is, or how much sediment it is carrying.
Preliminary designs had been completed when PNM approached the bureau in November 2018 with a proposal to repurpose the reservoir at the power plant.
Deming said a lot of studies followed over the next four years to ensure the reservoir could meet that need, including making sure it was not contaminated by nearby power plant operations.
Using the reservoir and associated infrastructure reduced project costs by about $70 million compared to the Hogback plans.
The reservoir also comes with other advantages, including increased storage that will allow for better water resilience in the face of drought and climate change. Deming said that the intake can also be shut off when there is a lot of turbidity in the water, such as during monsoon season, or if another incident like the Gold King Mine spill was to occur.
The bureau purchased the reservoir and associated infrastructure for $8 million using funding available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The use of the reservoir meant delaying completion of the project until 2028 or 2029.
The Navajo water rights settlement of 2005 that led to the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project required the project to be completed by the end of 2024.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced legislation on Friday that will amend the 2009 project authorization in light of increased costs and the delay. She said the bill will also expand the number of Navajo communities that will benefit from it.
“It is a beautiful day, not just because we get to see this beautiful water that reflects the wonderful blue sky above it, but (because of) what we are celebrating,” she said. “Today’s transfer is more than just a transaction…it is the symbol of water itself.”
She said it represents both life and a future for the communities.
The reservoir has been named Frank Chee Willeto Reservoir after a late code talker who was influential in getting the Navajo water rights settlement and also served as vice president of Navajo Nation.
His family was there for the ceremony and members of his family helped unveil the new sign that will be displayed there.
Arvin Trujillo, who was involved in the project during his time as director of the Navajo Nation Department of Natural Resources, spoke on behalf of President Buu Nygren.
He said over the years, those pushing for the project kept having people tell them, “you can’t do this. It’s not possible.”
But now sections of the pipeline are already supplying water to communities that have had to haul water in the past.
At the same time, Trujillo urged people not to lose sight of the end goal and to continue working together to complete the pipeline.
Once finished, the project will feature approximately 300 miles of pipeline, two pumping plants and two water treatment plants.
It will supply about 250,000 people with water over the next 40 years.
Today [June 12, 2023] marks the beginning of an unprecedented two-week climate trial in Montana. In the first youth-led climate case to go to trial in the United States, 16 young people are accusing the government of Montana of violating their right to a “clean and healthful environment,” which is enshrined in the state constitution, by promoting fossil fuel development…
“A strong decision could have ripple effects and inspire more climate litigation around the world,” Michael Gerrard, faculty director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said in an email.
The 16 young people — represented by Oregon-based nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust — filed their lawsuit in March 2020. At the time, their ages ranged from 2 to 18. The case, Held v. Montana, is named for Rikki Held, the only plaintiff who was 18 at the time. Held grew up on a 7,000-acre cattle ranch and saw how the effects of climate change — including raging wildfires and relentless droughts — threatened her family’s business. The lawsuit lists many other ways that climate change has harmed the young challengers. For example, it says dangerous air quality from wildfire smoke has made it difficult for another plaintiff to breathe.
The youths are seeking a verdict that Montana — the country’s fifth-largest coal producer and 12th-largest oil producer — has unlawfully approved fossil fuel projects without considering their climate impact. Such a ruling could require state agencies to weigh these effects before permitting any more oil, gas and coal development. It could also give more teeth to the state constitution and others like it. Two other states — New York and Pennsylvania — have established constitutional rights to a healthy environment by adopting “green amendments.” More states could follow.
“To have a court say that these plaintiffs are having their constitutional rights violated would be a bellwether for the rest of the country,” said Mat dos Santos, general counsel and managing attorney with Our Children’s Trust.
On the last day of Colorado’s 2023 legislative session, Senate Bill 23-266 was signed by leaders of the state Senate and House. The bill limits the sale of a class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” which are known for killing bees and other pollinators. The governor signed the bill a little over one week later, making Colorado the ninth state in the country to take steps against neonics.
Specifically, SB-266 requires the Colorado commissioner of agriculture to designate neonics as a “limited use pesticide.” Only licensed dealers will be authorized to sell neonics, which excludes the average home and garden store, significantly reducing the use of neonics in residential areas.
Neonics are the most common class of pesticide in the world, even though several studies suggest neonics provide negligible economic benefits to corn and soy crops. Neonics are often applied via seed treatments, which distributes the chemical throughout the entire plant as it grows. As a result, neonics cannot be washed off the surface of plants prior to eating. This quality, combined with their ubiquity, is perhaps the reason that neonics are the most prevalent pesticide in infant and baby food. While there are documented cases of neonics’ toxicity to humans, there is no scientific consensus regarding the chemicals’ threat to human health.
However, neonics’ toxicity to bees, our food supply, and the country’s economy is very well understood.
Bees pollinate 75% of the fruits, nuts and vegetables in the United States, and contribute $24 billion to the U.S. economy. Bees are often exposed to neonics while gathering pollen or drinking nectar from crops in agricultural fields, clover on golf courses, and even ornamental flowers in residential neighborhoods. If the bees don’t consume a fatal dose, the poison interferes with key grooming and sleep behaviors, leading to a slow death or lack of reproduction.
The number of bees in Colorado has declined by more than 70% in the past 20 years. Bee populations have been decimated by pesticides, habitat fragmentation and competition with invasive species, such as the European honey bee.
Although it’s an important agricultural pollinator, the familiar European honey bee is not representative of our country’s incredible bee diversity. And the notoriety of honey bees obscures the real bee-pocalypse occurring in the U.S. and Colorado: native bees’ slow descent into extinction. Colorado alone has 950 native bee species, placing the state in the top five for most biodiverse bee habitats in the country. Because Colorado’s native bees, including bumblebees, sweat bees and leaf-cutting bees, do the yeoman’s share of pollinating native plants, their fate will affect all of Colorado’s ecosystems. That’s why Colorado’s induction into the club of states working to restrict neonics is vital.
Eight states besides Colorado restrict the use of neonics, either by legislative or administrative action. The restrictions vary in scope — some apply only to residential areas and others, such as in New Jersey, prohibit the use of neonics on lawns, golf courses, and more. There have been no successful bans on the use of neonics in agriculture.
If history is any indication, there’s little chance that the agriculture industry will ever be subjected to neonic restrictions. The powerful agriculture lobby has doggedly avoided environmental regulations for decades, paying for exemptions from the Clean Water Act, and securing reporting exemptions from the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. That nearly half of Colorado’s land is devoted to agriculture underscores the importance of SB-266 — if state leaders can’t make Colorado’s farms safe for bees, it’s imperative that they target low-hanging fruit by discouraging the use of neonics in residential areas.
SB-266 isn’t a complete reprieve for our state’s bees, but it is a start. What’s the next step? Hopefully, a ban on all uses of neonics, except for the stubborn agriculture industry.
Salida’s signature summertime event, the nationally-recognized FIBArk Whitewater Festival, takes place in and around Salida June 15 through 18, 2023 heralding fine whitewater event competition. There are other athletic and fun events like the Raft Rodeo and foolish Hooligan Race downtown as well as musical events throughout. This, the 75th Diamond Anniversary promises to be one for the record books.
The crowd-favorite event, the Hooligan Race, runs from just north of the Whitewater Park, finishing at the park. Crowds line the riverbanks cheering and jeering as they witness competitors literally try to keep it all together in the homemade craft. Anything that floats (and is not a boat) qualifies.
Cleverly-designed (if not well-constructed) “craft” careen downriver, often leading to self-destruction as the occupants try to snag cash envelopes hung from lines across the river. While always a spectacle, safety is key and emergency crews are on hand to snag the unfortunate before they end up down in Cañon City.
This winter dropped a lot of snow on the mountains above Boulder. Our reservoirs are in good shape for now as Boulder Creek babbles. But that’s not our only water source.
Boulder and many other cities along the Front Range rely, at least in part, on water from the strained Colorado River. Younger cities with fewer senior rights for local water sources — like Superior and Erie — rely on it almost entirely.
Because every city is responsible for its own water portfolio, as the Colorado River becomes a potentially unreliable source, wholly dependent cities could be far worse off than others. This isn’t a far-fetched idea. A Colorado State University study shows that for every degree Fahrenheit of global warming, flows of the Colorado River decrease by 4%. And already, the Windy Gap Project — responsible for supplying a portion of Colorado River water to Front Range cities — sometimes doesn’t provide any water at all.
Yet for now, many municipalities in the Boulder County area seem reluctant to even discuss sharing water.
“Right now, we’re all trying to do the best job for our [own] residents and our customers,” said Melanie Asquith, the water resources manager for the City of Lafayette. “Everybody’s situation is different. Everybody’s storage is different. Everybody’s rights are different.”
Interviews with water managers across the county revealed potential stage-setting for a “Mad Max” situation. Each municipality is concerned only with securing water rights for its own residents. This means that unless the mindset in Colorado changes to one of greater collaboration, it’s safe to assume future droughts will hit some communities harder than others. And those hard-hit communities may be on their own.
“The citizens and businesses of Louisville are paying their water bills to ensure their supplies are covered — not necessarily Lafayette’s or Broomfield’s or anybody else in the region,” said Cory Peterson, the City of Louisville’s deputy director of utilities. “There’s not a regional or state presence that would do those types of activities. That’s just the way the system is set up.”
Where do Boulder County communities get their water from?
Peterson of Louisville said a foreshadowing of droughts’ impacts in Boulder County happened in 2001.
“You had some communities that were doing very aggressive water restrictions, had very low water supplies, and were really struggling to make it through,” Peterson said. “And you had other communities that had very light restrictions and had, I don’t want to say an easy time, but they were able to manage through those impacts.” (We saw a lesser instance of this last summer when Lafayette imposed year-round water restrictions while Boulder didn’t.)
This has led to water resource managers up and down the Front Range to chase water diversity to ensure they’re not the worst off. If one water source fails, it’s good to have another to lean on.
“Our biggest gift is our diversity, that we are not wholly dependent on the [Colorado River], that if we had to rely only on eastern water, we could do it,” Asquith of Lafayette said.
Age matters for water rights
Because of the way Colorado water rights work, it pays to be old. The “prior appropriation doctrine” — summed up as “first in time, first in right” — heavily favors cities that started getting water for their residents earlier. Being first has landed them “senior” water rights from local sources like Boulder Creek or St. Vrain Creek.
“Longmont is fortunate that a majority of the water rights in our water rights portfolio are very senior water rights,” said Wes Lowrie, a water resources analyst for the City of Longmont. “We feel very strong in our ability to meet our future demands for Longmont.”
Boulder, Louisville and Longmont have senior rights to local creeks, requiring them to get only a third of their water from the Colorado River. That insulates them from future uncertainty on the Colorado River and provides some resilience against climate change through diversification. Lafayette gets less than a quarter of its water from the Colorado River.
Pretty much all of Erie’s water, on the other hand, comes from the Colorado River. All of Superior’s does as well.
California, Nevada and Arizona recently reached an agreement to temper their use of water from the Colorado River. With federal assistance, the worst repercussions of overuse from the river will hopefully be avoided, for now. But Colorado wasn’t a part of the recent Colorado River agreement, because Colorado is part of the Upper Basin states: those using water above parched Lake Powell. Unlike the Lower Basin, Upper Basin states have thus far used less water than is available to them. But that could change as the river reduces more.
When a water source is diminishing, you want a senior right on that source to make sure you get your water before it runs out. Yet some of the water coming from the shrinking Colorado River to the Front Range isn’t even close to a senior right. The Windy Gap project, a water right that provides some cities with a considerable chunk of their water, only dates back to 1968 — very young by Colorado River standards.
“The Windy Gap water right is a very junior water right on the Colorado River,” said Jeff Stahla, a public information officer at Northern Water, which manages Windy Gap. “The Windy Gap Project in some years yields zero water.”
The project — which includes a diversion dam and reservoir on the Colorado River — is just one of the water rights allotting Colorado River water to eastern cities. Originally funded by Boulder, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont and Loveland to cope with booming populations, the project started delivering water across the Continental Divide in the 1980s.
Today, some Front Range municipalities are investing further in Windy Gap water. By building a new reservoir in southern Larimer County, the cities hope to store Windy Gap water from wet years to get them through the dry ones when Windy Gap may provide no water.
Called the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the project broke ground in 2021 and is on track to cost upwards of $700 million. A dozen different water districts are funding the reservoir to add an additional fail-safe to their water supply. Involved cities include Louisville, Lafayette, Longmont, Erie and Superior. Broomfield is leaning especially heavily on the new reservoir, voting in 2021 to foot $176.4 million of the bill. (Boulder is not involved in the Chimney Hollow project.)
According to City of Broomfield staff, this investment will increase Broomfield’s reliance on Colorado River water from 60% of their source water to 70%. Broomfield’s water not delivered by Northern Water comes from Denver Water, which also gets a portion of its water from a tributary of the Colorado River. Piped through the Moffat Tunnel, water previously destined for the Colorado River is stored in Gross Reservoir that recently began a controversial expansion project.
Yet Windy Gap water isn’t the only water coming from the Colorado River. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, has been pumping water east since 1947. With its right dating to the 1930s, that water “is much more guaranteed,” according to Stahla.
Almost all cities who get Windy Gap water also get a portion of C-BT water.
Pete Johnson, a water attorney for the town of Erie, said the town’s water comes from a mix of C-BT water and Windy Gap water with an investment in the Chimney Hollow project — all Colorado River water.
“The long term goal is to diversify the town’s portfolio,” Johnson said.
But C-BT water isn’t infallible either. “The CB-T water right, I don’t want to say it’s junior, junior,” Stahla said. “But certainly a 1930s water right is not senior in the state of Colorado.”
Setting up a Mad Max future
Robert Crifasi, a former City of Denver hydrologist and Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks water resources administrator, and author of a new book “Western Water A to Z: the History, Nature and Culture of a Vanishing Resource,” said one of the most important steps to avoiding a Mad Max future is ensuring water availability before building new developments. Because of overzealous development companies, Crifasi said, some Denver suburbs are now reliant on nonrenewable Denver Basin groundwater. What will those communities do when the aquifer runs dry? Rely on the Colorado River?
“There is no magic bullet in any of this,” Crifasi said. “But I do think the most important action is to legislatively require vigorously integrated water and land-use planning.”
Kim Hutton, the City of Boulder’s water resources manager, said in addition to conservation and planning, there’s a need for collaboration and coordination among municipalities around water. As it currently stands, it’s every city for itself.
“Right now, with the water rights system, individual water users really are responsible for developing a supply to meet their needs,” she said.
Lowrie of Longmont, for instance, said that Longmont has always required that developers prove a reliable water source before moving forward into construction. “And that planning has served us well,” he said.
When asked if Longmont had talked about possibly sharing with other municipalities that might, in the future, not have enough water for their residents, he suggested that long-term aid would be viewed very differently than short-term aid.
“The decision to share water on an ongoing basis might be a different conversation than if there was an emergency situation, like if somebody’s water treatment plant went out,” he said. “That’s a different scenario than saying, ‘Hey, we didn’t plan as well as Longmont, and now we don’t have enough supply.’”
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