I’ll be at the Colorado Water Congress annual convention through Friday so posting may be intermittent.
From NOAA (Michon Scott):
On December 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire ripped through suburban neighborhoods on the west side of the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area. Spread by high winds and fueled by dry conditions, the wildfire left two people presumed dead, burned more than 6,000 acres, and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, according to news reports.
High winds, even with occasional hurricane-force gusts, are not unusual in this “foothills” region, where the eastern prairies meet the Rockies. The day of the windstorm, atmospheric pressure dropped sharply east of the Rockies, and strong downslope winds followed. At the base of the foothills west of Denver, wind gusts reached 100 miles per hour.
But winds alone didn’t account for the destruction. In the months leading up to this wildfire, climate conditions set the stage for a disaster. The spring of 2021 brought unusually wet conditions, encouraging vigorous plant growth. Starting in June, though, precipitation levels fell below average, and remained well below average for the rest of the year.
Although snow fell in the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Denver-Boulder area remained dry. Denver recorded its first measurable snow of the season—just 0.3 inches—on December 10, 2021. It was the latest first-snowfall date on record, and after that light snowstorm, dry conditions resumed.
As moisture remained elusive, temperatures remained unusually warm, soaring more than 20 degrees F above average early in December 2021 and hitting 10 or more degrees above average many days throughout the month.
Where the wildfire struck—in the southeastern corner of Boulder County, Colorado—unusually dry conditions took hold in September. By early October, dry conditions had worsened into drought. By late December, drought conditions were extreme.
As of January 4, 2022, the cause of the fire was still under investigation, but its origin had been pinpointed to an area west of Marshall Lake. Once ignited, the fire spread with ferocious speed, charging toward the north and east. The warm, dry conditions in the months before the Marshall Fire broke out supplied the fire with plentiful fuel. Winds carried embers across paved areas, dropping those embers on parched vegetation that was ready to burn, along with buildings and vehicles.
Unable to fight the flames amid hurricane-force gusts, first responders focused on evacuation. Residents, diners, and shoppers were caught off guard, some forced to flee at a moment’s notice. Besides seeing and smelling smoke and flames, area residents heard multiple booms—potentially resulting from the fire reaching propane tanks. Only when the winds slowed late in the evening of December 30 could firefighters begin extinguishing the flames.
Days after the fire, two people remained missing and were presumed deceased. The tally of homes damaged stood at 149. The tally of homes burned to the ground stood at 1,084. Dozens of businesses had also been damaged or destroyed.
In terms of acreage burned, the Marshall Fire was dwarfed by many other blazes, including the state’s three largest wildfires, which all struck within weeks of each other in 2020: Cameron Peak, East Troublesome, and Pine Gulch. But in terms of residences lost, the Marshall Fire was the most destructive in Colorado history. The Marshall Fire did not strike in a sparsely populated, mountainous region. The fire burned a densely populated suburban area where most residents had not previously considered wildfire a threat.
Starting on the afternoon of December 31—one day after the fire—significant snow finally fell in the Denver-Boulder metro area.
9NEWS. (2021, December 30). Costco evacuation due to Marshall Fire. Accessed January 4, 2021.
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Historical wildfire information. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Denver7 News. (2021, December 30). Better weather conditions are expected Friday. [December 31, 2021]. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Denver7 News. (2021, December 10). Denver celebrates 0.3 inches of snow — its first measurable snowfall of the season. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Fish, S., Paul, J. (2022, January 1). MAP: These are the 991 structures destroyed and 127 damaged in the Marshall fire. The Colorado Sun. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Flynn, C. (2022, January 6). Nearly 1,100 homes destroyed in Marshall Fire, valued at over $500 million. KDVR. Accessed January 6, 2022.
Heberton, B. (2022, January 1). Colorado’s most destructive fire a result of extreme winds, expanding wildland-urban interface, and a stressed climate. Weather5280. Accessed January 4, 2022.
National Interagency Fire Center. Map of the Marshall Fire burn area. Accessed January 4, 2022.
National Weather Service. High Winds and Marshall Fire on December 30, 2021. Accessed January 4, 2022.
U.S. Drought Monitor. Accessed January 4, 2022.
WXChasing. (2021, December 31). Louisville, Colo: First light shows destruction from Marshall Fire- Drone 4k. Accessed January 4, 2022.
La Niña, climate change, and bad luck: the climate context of Colorado’s Marshall Fire
From NOAA (Rebecca Lindsey):
As we wrote last week, the Marshall Fire in northern Colorado on December 30, 2021, was a devastating finale to a record-warm, record-dry fall in the state’s eastern plains and foothills. Several experts interviewed for this story, including Deputy Colorado State Climatologist Becky Bolinger, said that, because the risk of drought and warm extremes are increasing as a result of human-caused global warming, it’s reasonable to think that global warming contributed in some way to the devastation caused by the Marshall Fire.
But they also said that as a winter grass fire, the Marshall Fire is different from the warm-season forest fires in the West, which scientists have strongly linked to global warming. Namely, winter fires are much more wind-driven than summer fires, and there’s no evidence that the fierce winds that drove the fire that day were anything other than natural, if extreme, variability. Likewise, there’s no strong evidence to link the excessively wet spring (which built up the vegetation) to climate change.
The lack of snow is a final complicated piece. “December is one of the months that has warmed the most in this area,” said Bolinger, “but there has been no long-term decline in total December snowfall.” That makes it hard to know what to make of the record-low snowfall in the area through December, which intensified the drought.
“This was a complex event,” said Bolinger. “Some factors probably are connected to climate change and others probably aren’t.”
This is not a final answer
All extreme events have more than one cause. So Did global warming cause that event? isn’t a yes or no question. The best scientists can do is figure out whether human-caused global warming played a role, and if so, how big a role. Scientists have a name for the process of figuring that out: extreme event attribution.
Attribution research generally has two parts: analysis of historical data and climate model experiments. Experts check to see if there have been changes over time in the extreme events themselves or in the weather patterns that produce them. They also identify climate models that are capable of simulating that type of event, and use them to create two virtual worlds: one with and one without increased greenhouse gases. They compare the frequency and intensity of extreme events between the two simulated worlds to estimate the influence of global warming.
That kind of thing takes time, of course. The more unusual or complex the event, the more difficult an attribution analysis is to conduct. That’s likely to be the case with the Marshall Fire, which arose from a rare mash-up of extreme weather and climate factors that each were capable of raising the fire risk individually. Until a formal attribution study is completed, any explanations of the event should be thought of as these experts’ educated guesses, not a final answer.
What we know about fires in the West
According to the fourth National Climate Assessment, “Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires” in the U.S. Southwest, defined in the report as the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. A recent analysis funded by NOAA’s Climate Program Office concluded that human-caused global warming was the leading cause of the rapid increase in Western wildfires between the end of the 20th century (1984-2000) and the beginning of the 21st (2000-2018). A NOAA Drought Task Force report also concluded that global warming played a role in the severity of the ongoing 2020-21 Southwest drought.
Modeling experiments have found that warming due to increasing greenhouse gases is going to dramatically increase the risk of very large fires in parts of the West over the next 50 years. Fire seasons are getting longer, a trend that is likely to continue, turning fire-fighting into more of a year-round activity in places.
Colorado’s record-setting Cameron Peak Fire, which ignited in mid-August 2020, may be a preview of that. In early September 2020, 8-14 inches of snow fell on the ~100,000-acre fire without extinguishing it. The blaze went on to double in size—setting a new record for the state’s largest fire—by the end of October. Despite a second significant snow event in late October, the fire was not fully contained until early December.
What’s different about the Marshall Fire
The main reason experts gave for being somewhat cautious about using all that research to unequivocally link the Marshall Fire to global warming was that most of it has focused on warm-season forest fires. And while all fires have some ingredients in common, winter grass fires like the Marshall are different in ways that complicate the connection.
“A difference between warm and cold season for fire in places like California and Colorado is that the cold season generally is more windy, so fire behavior could be more complex,” wrote Yizhou Zhuang via email. Zhuang is a climate researcher at University of California – Los Angeles whose work connected global warming to the rapid increase in Western fires in recent decades. He and his colleagues found that the increase was due to increases in how “thirsty” the summer atmosphere is for soil and plant moisture —what experts call the vapor pressure deficit, or “VPD” for short. Rising temperatures are increasing those deficits.
But for the Marshall fire, Zhuang wrote, “preliminary data actually showed that the VPD condition on the day when the fire started (12/30/2021) was high, although not extreme (~75th percentile); the strong wind condition (~99th percentile) could be more important for the fire spread.”
Climate researcher Rong Fu, one of Zhuang’s collaborators, agreed that natural weather variability may play a bigger role in winter fires than it does in summer fires. Having said that, she wrote in an email, “I believe the vapor pressure deficits that would have occurred during the warm season and the 2020/21 drought contributed to the flammability and amount of dead and dry plants, which provided a perfect bio-fuel for the Marshall fire.”
In other words, the influence of human-caused global warming on the Marshall Fire could be less than it would be on a typical summer forest fire, but still play a role. That’s the perspective of Deputy State Climatologist for Colorado, Becky Bolinger.
“It’s true,” she said, “that the Marshall Fire is a bit different than the warm-season forest fires that are the basis for much of the research connecting Western fire activity and global warming. Still, big winter grassfires in the state have historically been connected to warmth and drought, just like mountain fires. We were having a record drought; global warming is increasing the frequency of droughts. We were having record warmth; global warming is increasing the frequency of heat extremes. It seems pretty safe to conclude that global warming trends played at least some role in setting this up.”
While agreeing that less is known about the connection between winter grassfires and global warming, western climate and hydrology expert John Abatzoglou, of University of California Merced, commented via email, “A warming climate may increase the likelihood of these events by keeping fuels dry later into the year.” Combined with a delayed onset of snowfall, as happened this year, the dry fuels “would prime the system to have fires that spread rapidly and resist control” during the winter downslope wind season.
Abatzoglou shared the results of modeling experiments his team has done that compare past, current, and future risk of very high fire danger days across the U.S. The map below is based on the impact of a high greenhouse gas emissions pathway on the moisture of 100-hour fuels—dead vegetation between 1 and 3 inches in diameter, which takes about 100 hours to respond to changes in weather conditions.
Between the 1971-2000 reference period and the present (2010-2039), the models projected a small increase—basically going from 2 days to 3 days—in the number of winter days with 100-hour fuel moisture in the bottom ten percent of the record. Aside from the human structures, most, though not all, of the places that burned in the Marshall fire were likely 1 and 10-hr fuels (grasses and other plants), which respond to weather changes more quickly, so the impacts could be a bit different. But a similar analysis of the impact of warming on 10-hour fuels around in the area around Boulder found a similar pattern. Models suggest human-caused climate change has increased the number of December days with high fire risk.
Abatzoglou concluded, “Drier fuels in the downslope wind season would up the odds of significant fire weather conditions.”
Bolinger made a similar point. “Historically, our warm, dry season and our windy season don’t overlap,” she said. “The fall warming trend may cause the two to seasons to overlap more often, which would make cold-season fires a more frequent threat.”
What about La Niña?
In terms of natural influences, Bolinger added that La Niña—the cool phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern in the tropical Pacific—may also have played a role. “The typical U.S. fall and winter climate signal for La Niña is wet in the Pacific Northwest and dry in the Southwest. Northern Colorado is right on the boundary between those two strong signals, which means a little shift either way can bring us opposite results. Overall, though, dry falls are slightly more common than wet,” Bolinger said, “which means the ongoing La Niña might also have played a role in the current drought.”
Strategies such as controlled or “prescribed” fire to reduce fire fuels, stringent building codes requiring fire-resistant materials, and vegetation-limited buffer-zones around homes and businesses can make communities more resilient to wildfire. Yet in many places, such fire-resilient adaptations are not adopted, even following a devastating fire. Meanwhile, the country is spending more than $2 billion a year to fight wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
To some experts, these trends are evidence that the West’s default fire strategy—a combination of fire suppression at the wildland-urban interface and fuels reduction in national forests and other public lands—is no match for the current and future fire risk. Instead, they say, we need “a new paradigm that hinges on the critical need to adapt to inevitably more fire in the West in the coming decades.”
Among their suggestions is greater use of prescribed (low-intensity) fire, targeting fuel reductions like tree thinning to areas near homes and communities, encouraging community-focused fire planning, and shifting more of the costs of fire-fighting from federal land agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to state, local, and private jurisdictions where the decisions about whether and how to build in fire-risk areas are being made.
When the snowflakes begin to fall, we’re guessing the last thing on your mind is moisture content.
Isn’t all snow created equal? Turns out, there is a big difference between the type of snowflake and how much moisture it will produce — which makes a difference in filling our mountain reservoirs.
Check out our infographic to see why juicy flakes are best.
Republican state lawmakers say they want to look at cleaner power generation, but not necessarily from wind and solar energy. They’re eyeing nuclear and hydroelectric power instead.
A proposed law spearheaded by Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, would require the state to study whether small modular nuclear reactors could be used as a carbon-free energy source in Colorado.
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Senate Bill 22-73 “puts Colorado at the forefront of renewable energy by investigating the possibility of bringing micro-nuclear technology to the state of Colorado,” Rep. Dan Woog, R-Erie, said during a Jan. 12 news conference where Republicans announced their policy priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
Such “micro-nuclear” technology uses compact nuclear reactors that are small enough to transport by truck, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Micro-reactor designs that are under development in the U.S. could be “ready to roll out within the next decade,” the department’s website says.
At least one Colorado community has already begun looking into the technology. With a likely early closure of Comanche 3, Pueblo County’s coal-fired power plant, county leaders want a power station that uses small modular reactors to replace the energy production and tax revenue from the coal plant. But some community organizers in Pueblo staunchly oppose that plan, citing health and safety concerns.
“This issue of renewable energy is not one that we reject,” Rankin said at Republicans’ Jan. 12 news conference. “We do not reject climate change. … We do take the position that our goals are perhaps not realistic, and our pace of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy has done damage to some communities and some individuals, and that may not have been necessary.”
SB-73, one of 44 bills that Republicans are pushing as part of their main policy agenda, would allocate $500,000 in the next fiscal year for the micro-nuclear feasibility study. The study would evaluate how current state laws would need to be changed to allow for the construction and operation of small modular nuclear reactors, as well as the economic feasibility of replacing carbon-based energy sources with micro-nuclear technology.
By July 1, 2024, the director of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade would need to provide a written report to state lawmakers based on the study’s findings.
SB-73 would also change the definition of “recycled energy” in state law to allow greater use of hydroelectric power.
“What we want to do is we want to emphasize that maybe it’s not all about wind and solar,” Rankin said. “Maybe there are other alternatives. If we’re going to be a part of this goal, and we are, to transition (to renewable energy), then we want to consider all resources.”
Since Democrats hold the majority in the state Senate and House of Representatives, SB-73 will need Democratic support to pass. The bill was introduced on Wednesday and assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. A hearing date had not been scheduled as of Friday.
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Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):
On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.
Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.
The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.
Evaluation of Well Permit Applications
For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.
To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.
For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.
From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.
Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.
The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…
Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.
The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS. (Data not inclusive of snowfall totals from the quick-moving storm on the 25th.)
Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled snowpack map from January 25, 2022. (Data not inclusive of snowfall totals from the quick-moving storm on the 25th.)
Click here to read the report. Here’s an excerpt (Click the screenshot for a larger view.):
From Yale Climate Connections:
Increasingly extreme wildfires are raging across the West – leaving behind barren, charred areas and threatening drinking water.
Jill Oropeza is director of sciences for water quality services for Fort Collins Utilities in Colorado.
She says in a healthy forest, trees and shrubs buffer the impact of rain on the ground. Pine needles and detritus on the forest floor help retain water.
“That is the sponge that soaks up and holds a lot of that moisture and allows the precipitation to percolate downwards,” she says.
If this vegetation burns up, melting snow and rain run across the land instead of seeping into the soil. And as the water flows, it picks up ash, sediment, and other debris.
“And those substances in the soil itself and the ash are dissolved and carried in the river and into reservoirs,” Oropeza says.
She says Fort Collins was forced to adjust its water treatment system to cope with influxes of contaminated water. And it’s using helicopters to spread mulch in burned areas to help plants start growing again.
Doing so is expensive but critical to providing people with clean water as the climate warms.
From the National Park Service via National Parks Traveller:
Continued declines in runoff into the Colorado River are forcing federal officials to alter releases from Glen Canyon Dam and leading to a year-long closure of the Dangling Rope Marina at Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
In a bid to keep the hydroelectric generating plant in the dam operational, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has adjusted the monthly releases from Lake Powell to hold back 350,000 acre-feet of water each month from January to April when inflows to the reservoir are low.
The same amount of water will be sent downstream to Lake Mead between June and September after spring runoff, the agency said.
“Under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, making these monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam is essential to protect Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevation levels in the weeks and months ahead,” said BuRec’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional director, Wayne Pullan. “Although the basin had substantial snowstorms in December, we don’t know what lies ahead and must do all we can now to protect Lake Powell’s elevation.”
The modified release pattern was put into action after BuRec staff met with basin partners including the basin states, tribes, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and water managers to discuss the purpose and need to shift the delivery schedule of water.
According to a BuRec release, the 2022 water year got off to a promising start in the Colorado River Basin with a wetter-than-normal October, but it was followed by the second-driest November on record that resulted in a loss of 1.5 million acre-feet of inflow for Lake Powell compared to the previous month’s projections. December projections showed the reservoir dropping below the target elevation of 3,525 feet as early as February 2022, the agency said. As defined in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the target elevation provides a sufficient buffer to allow for response actions to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, the lowest elevation that Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower.
Meanwhile, Glen Canyon NRA officials announced Monday that the Dangling Rope Marina in the southern end of Lake Powell will not open this year.
Due to dropping reservoir levels, park and concessioner staff are removing marina components from the Dangling Rope location to ensure they do not become beached and inaccessible.
The park, in partnership with concessioner Aramark, is continuing to look for a way to provide mid-lake fuel service during the 2022 season. Available options are complicated by lake levels that continue to decline, inherent challenges associated with the infrastructure needed to power and operate a fuel system, and operational considerations related to safety, staffing, and resources. We will continue to provide updates as they become available.
Restoring visitor services at the Dangling Rope Marina remains a high priority for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The importance of this visitor use area is identified in the park’s General Management Plan. The park will continue to seek long-term solutions that maintain a mid-lake marina presence at low and high lake levels…
Dangling Rope Marina has been the only place to obtain boat fuel between the Wahweap area in South Lake Powell and the Bullfrog area in North Lake Powell, a distance of approximately 100 miles. Boaters should plan ahead for their needs. For boaters averaging 20-25 mph, the trip to Bullfrog from Wahweap takes at least four to five hours. Fuel remains available at Wahweap, Antelope Point, and Bullfrog Marinas.
From CBS Denver (Chris Spears):
After a slow start to the snow accumulation season in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains the jet stream finally brought a favorable storm track to the state during the month of December. Many river basins were able to build up a higher-than-normal snowpack within just a matter of weeks.
Since the arrival of the new year it has been fairly quiet with just a couple of weak storm systems passing through, but despite that, the snowpack is still above normal in six of the eight major river basins. The Upper Rio Grande and Arkansas river basins are the only two lagging behind but its not by much.
A new storm expected on Tuesday will bring light accumulations to most of the state but we could see some modest amounts fall across the two basins in the most need.
From The Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
ON Instagram Karen Lundquist asks, “Other than locally voting, what else can be done to oppose this horrible proposal?”
“What a crock,” writes Don Richmond on Facebook.
You can say the Valley is gearing up for another fight over its water.
“This fight has now come to the forefront in what would seem to be a David vs. Goliath scenario,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson, who used last week’s meeting to rally his fellow city council members to the urgent matter of the day – beating back the latest effort to move water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley. (Read his full statement HERE.)
“The current proposal ‘threat’ to the water security challenges in the San Luis Valley presented by Renewable Water Resources is once again a demonstration of self-serving financial speculation at the expense of others,” said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the San Luis Valley and counties east of the Valley.
The conservation district has launched ProtectSanLuisValleyWater.com as its public-facing strategy to address the RWR plan. You can go back through the decades to find other water exportation efforts, including American Water Development Inc.’s (AWDI) application to the Colorado Division 3 Water Court in the 1990s to pump groundwater from the Valley.
This past week Renewable Water Resources engineer Bruce Lytle presented the RWR plan to Douglas County commissioners. They’re weighing whether to use $20 million of Douglas County’s federal COVID relief funding to invest in the RWR plan as a way to bring additional water to the growing Denver-metro county.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who holds what appears to be the deciding vote on the three-member county commission, emphasized Douglas County’s growth and the importance of positioning Douglas County for the future as a basis for any decision he makes on whether to support the RWR plan.
“I have not made any decision whatsoever, nor will I without the input of the community and water experts,” Laydon told AlamosaCitizen.com. “We still have a lot to learn but I hope everyone that is interested will join us in these public meetings and provide their input along the way.
“What I can assure you of is that I will not do anything that is not a clear win/win for both our citizens and the people of the San Luis Valley. That is my commitment, on the record, and I will not deviate from that.”
Laydon is in a position to decide whether the RWR plan moves forward to a formal state review after one his colleagues, Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, voiced opposition to taking water from the San Luis Valley and another, Commissioner George Teal, leaned to supporting it.
On Monday [January 24, 2022], the Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to meet with three attorneys who will talk to them about Colorado water law as it relates to the RWR plan. The attorneys are James Eklund of Eklund Hanlon LLC; John Lubitz, partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP; and Glen Porzak, managing partner with Porzak, Browning & Bushong LLP.
The backdrop for the RWR push to transfer 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is an over-appropriated, drought-stricken San Luis Valley that has fewer wetlands, lower stream flows, diminishing natural spring flows, and fewer irrigated acres as the result.
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council is raising concerns about damage to the Blanca Wildlife Habitat, among other environmental concerns. RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the northeastern end of the Valley, and RWR’s engineer Bruce Lytle emphasized in his presentation to Douglas County that the plan is “designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off the Sangre de Cristos.”
“It’s difficult to get your mind wrapped around the potential environmental impacts of the Renewable Water Resources proposal because effects are so numerous and far-reaching that to quantify on any practical level, we’d have to also keep in mind the exponential affects, because this RWR proposal is asking for perpetuity of ground water withdrawal, so the aquifers potentially won’t ever be able to recharge once the pumps are turned on,” said Chris Canaly, director of the SLV Ecosystem Council.
The San Luis Creek and Rio Alto Creek move through the preliminary wellfield of 22 to 25 groundwater wells that RWR showed to Douglas County.
“The environment in this area has already been changing over time,” said Canaly. “This area is now struggling, in terms of desertification, so RWR’s proposal is just adding fuel to an already burning fire.”
Just southwest of the RWR proposed wellfield is the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, where biologists for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been working to conserve two native Rio Grande fish, according to Canaly. The Baca refuge is also home to one of only two aboriginal populations of Rio Grande sucker and Rio Grande chub in the state. Important fish habitat also resides in Crestone Creek, which runs through the refuge, and work in 2017 replaced old culverts to restore fish passage and enhance connectivity in the stream.
“This is the type of restoration work that the RWR project would likely undermine and dismantle,” Canaly said. She said, “if you look at the ‘impact maps’ that RWR Engineer Bruce Lytle displayed, that entire area of the Sangre de Cristo foothills watershed/alluvial fan will be impacted.”
Whether or not RWR makes it to the phase of well drilling and exportation, what remains is the growth of Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north and concerns with the Denver Basin.
“Many conversations have and are taking place as to why Front Range cities and towns are going to need to depend less on the Denver Aquifer,” said Monica McCafferty with Renewable Water Resources. “And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources.”
In a world where water is becoming an even more scarce and sought-after natural resource, water exportation proposals like RWR’s only need to win one time in court to sink wells in the ground and pump water north. The San Luis Valley, on the other hand, has to win each and every time to protect one of the most unique ecosystems in North America.
From The Omaha World-Herald (Sara Gentzler):
It seems to be a striking proposal: That Nebraska could use eminent domain in Colorado and build a canal that diverts water from the South Platte River for irrigation in Nebraska.
But the idea — floated earlier this month by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other Nebraska officials — is laid out in a compact agreed to by the two states and approved by Congress almost 100 years ago.
Nebraska officials want to invoke the 1923 South Platte River Compact to build that canal and a reservoir system, and ensure Nebraska continues receiving water that they say is at risk as the population on Colorado’s Front Range booms.
But with a $500 million estimated price tag, a history of failed attempts, confusion from Colorado, the potential for lawsuits and a stream of unknown details, one fundamental question hangs over the proposal: Would it be worth it?
Canal idea predates compact
Even in communications between Delph Carpenter, who negotiated the compact for Colorado, and then-Nebraska Gov. Samuel McKelvie, the canal project was referred to as “old.”
“The old Perkins County canal was projected in the early (1890s) with the object of diverting water from the South Platte some miles above Julesburg, within the State of Colorado, for the irrigation of lands in Nebraska lying south of the river and particularly of that beautiful area of land in Perkins County between Ogallala (sic) and Grant,” a 1921 letter from Carpenter reads.
Construction efforts had started in 1891, according to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. But it was abandoned due to financial troubles.
Remnants of the abandoned ditch are still visible near Julesburg.
Another effort to pursue the canal, this time by the North Platte-based Twin Platte Natural Resources District, was derailed in the 1980s because it didn’t comply with requirements of the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
The compact, borne out of a desire to resolve litigation, is more than the canal…
Current director Tom Riley told The World-Herald that flows drop below 120 cfs nearly every year at times during that time period. When it happens, Nebraska calls Colorado and it addresses the issue by limiting its users who are subject to the compact.
Another part of the compact would allow Nebraska to also claim water outside that growing season — provided there’s a canal.
The canal could run from near Ovid, Colorado, east near the route of the abandoned “Perkins County Canal,” it says. And Nebraska could buy land or even use eminent domain to make it happen.
With such a canal, the state would be entitled to divert 500 cfs for irrigation between Oct. 15 and April 1.
However, data from the Julesburg gage suggests Nebraska has been getting about that much from Colorado for the last 10 years of record during the non-irrigation season, Riley said. The goal of the project would be to keep it that way.
Asked how the state would avoid what happened in the ‘80s, Riley pointed out that was 40 years ago. And, as he understands it, those proponents chose not to try to comply with endangered species requirements…
Colorado disputes Nebraska’s rationale
In revealing his desire to resurrect the plan, Ricketts earlier this month sounded alarm bells that without the project, agriculture, drinking water across the state, power generation and the environment could be affected…
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s Department of Natural Resources said they learned of the situation the same day Ricketts announced it publicly…
Since then, officials haven’t shared a vision of an exact route for the newly proposed Perkins County Canal, nor details of the reservoir system it would feed into.
Despite its colloquial name, the canal wouldn’t be located in Perkins County, according to the Governor’s Office. It could be on or close to the county’s northern border, though.
The general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, Kent Miller, has been promoting the project for over 25 years…
Ninety-eight of the [Colorado Water Plan] projects are in process or complete, according to Sara Leonard, spokesperson for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But not all are construction projects. Some are water conservation projects, she said, and environment and recreation enhancements.
Joe Frank, a roundtable member and general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Colorado, said he hadn’t sorted through how many of the projects would even impact the flow of the river, but said that many of them would not…
As for Nebraska’s assessment that flows could be restricted by 90%, he can’t understand how that figures.
A Nebraska Department of Resources fact sheet features that projection. That sheet shows the 90% was inferred from a 2017 Colorado report on water storage options along the South Platte to capture flows that would usually leave Colorado “in excess of the minimum legally required amounts.”
But Frank said that level of restriction could never actually happen…
More important than the straight cost estimate, though, may be another question: Would the water Nebraska actually gets out of this be worth the cost?
Anthony Schutz, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dave Aiken, longtime water and agricultural law specialist at UNL, both pointed out it’s uncertain how much water Nebraska could get out of such a canal…
Colorado would have dibs on some water before Nebraska, even if it were to build the canal. Colorado has the right to divert the first 35,000 acre-feet of water for its own off-season storage, Aiken said, even if it cuts into what Nebraska wants to divert…
Schutz pointed out that there are other water users in line ahead of Nebraska’s canal in the compact, too — anything on the “upper” part of the river, and uses in place before Dec 17, 1921…
Could canal lead to a court battle?
There’s some ambiguity in the compact, Aiken said, and people have built projects and invested in them in the years since it was signed. The states could resolve any differences by negotiation, or by litigation…
Riley, with DNR, said that Nebraska’s approach will be to work collaboratively with Colorado, and that he expects Colorado to comply without a need for court action. If disagreements aren’t resolved, though, he said interstate compacts and conflicts like that are addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court…
The question still remains, though: How much water would Nebraska actually get out of this? Riley didn’t give an estimate, but said actual yield would vary year to year.
From Big Pivots (Allen Best):
Beginning with about 30 hot-water heaters, La Plata Electric Association intends to begin exploring how to shave peak demand to reduce costs.
The Durango-based electrical cooperative plans to install 30 air-source heat pump water heaters in the Animas View Mobile Home Park. Also done at the same time will be installation of other energy and water-efficient measures, including LED lighting, low-flow faucets and window weather stripping.
The water heater project will allow La Plata to test the viability of grid-integration technology to manage the local power demand. In rare events, during time of peak demand, such as hot summer afternoons, La Plata will be able to remotely manage the water heaters.
Dan Harms, the vice president of grid solutions for La Plata, explains that La Plata will be able to interrupt electricity used by the air-source heat pumps to warm water. This will be temporary and resident will still have hot water in their tanks.
The air-source heat pumps will replace natural gas in warming water. That builds demand for electricity from renewable sources and reduces emissions from the manufactured housing units.
The principle is the same as when Xcel Energy offers discounts to those with air conditioning units in their houses for the ability to turn off the units for relatively brief periods during hot summer afternoons. It’s cheaper than buying power or building plants that will be used only a few hours a year.
La Plata has been busy on other fronts, too. In December, the electrical cooperative and the Durango School District launched Colorado’s first vehicle-to-grid-enabled school bus. The electric bus will travel about 75 miles per day but will have enough charge to travel 150 to 200 miles. When empty, the bus takes 3 to 4 hours to charge its 155-kWh battery.
La Plata will be able to draw on the battery of the bus when electricity prices are high. When fully charged, the bus stores enough electricity to power 30 average single-family homes, or 100 energy-efficient homes, for a few hours.
“V2G installations are the future because they enable our grid to operate with a higher degree of flexibility,” explains Jessica Matlock, the chief executive.
The bus was purchased with aid of a $328,803 grant through the ALT Fuels Colorado program augmented by $120,000 from La Plata for charging infrastructure.
The air-source hot water heater project was enabled by a $50,000 grant from Tri-State Generation and Transmission and the Beneficial League.
Another information source from Tri-State coop members
A group of rural electric cooperative members has relaunched website, Members4Reform.org, to provide information and tools to inform the discussion about Tri-State Generation & Transmission.
Originally created to bring together member-owners of coops in seven western Colorado counties, the creators of the website decided there was need to expand this to include all of Tri-State’s 18 member cooperatives in Colorado. Tri-State has 42 members, 18 in Colorado.
“We’ve felt for so long like we were operating in the dark and didn’t have a voice in decisions that affect a huge swath of Colorado, from the West Slope to the Eastern Plains,” said Mason Osgood, executive director of Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance and a member-owner of San Miguel Power Association.
“Tri-State is moving slowly in the right direction, but there are so many of us who want to see the transition to clean energy happen more quickly and to have the barriers Tri-State is putting up removed. This website is meant to give co-op members a new tool for creating change.”
While planning to close its coal-fired units in Colorado (as it already has in New Mexico), Tri-State plans to continue its operations at two other plants, one in Arizona and the other in Wyoming.
Many of the decisions that will dictate whether Tri-State can be pushed in a new direction are playing out now before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which oversees Tri-State’s electric resource planning, or ERP, process.
“Energy generation, transmission and distribution are complicated topics. It’s often difficult to follow along and participate in proceedings like the ERP,” said Becky Henderson, who lives in Pinewood Springs, a hamlet located in the foothills northwest of Longmont. It is served by Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association.
United Power collaborating with national group to deliver EV charging stations
United Power has joined the National Electric Highway Coalition in an effort to provide accessible electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Brighton-based United serves more than 10,000 members on the northern flanks of metro Denver, including areas with high adoption of EVs. Two interstate highways, I-25 and I-76, traverse the service territory.
Last year, United opened its second fast charger in Keenesburg, filling the gap for those driving EVS between Brighton and Fort Morgan.
From The Washington Post (Becky Bollinger):
The season’s latest snowpack numbers in the Western United States are a big improvement from where they were in early December. But there’s a lot of winter left, and long-term drought remains an ever-present hurdle. So where are we, and what’s to come?
Let’s start with the good news. Since early December, weather patterns have boosted snowpack across the West to above-normal levels for this time of the year.
On Dec. 1, snowpack across most of the basins in the West was less than 75 percent of historical norms; many were below 25 percent. Starting Dec. 10, a series of atmospheric rivers and snow events erased those deficits. By January, basin totals in California had increased to about 200 percent of normal. California ended the month much wetter than average, which was much needed, since seven of its last 10 winters have been drier than average.
In Colorado, all Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) stations showed that snowpack was below the 50th percentile in early December. In early January, nearly half of the stations reported in the 75th percentile. Wolf Creek Summit, one of Colorado’s highest-elevation observation sites, reported an impressive 18-inch increase in snowpack.
Current snow cover is holding steady across the mountain areas, with the highest elevations at around 50 inches or more of snow depth, and mid-elevations between 20 and 50 inches. In Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, the Paradise Ranger Station is reporting snow depth of 110 inches (after reporting 100 inches of snowfall over one month).
The shift from dry conditions to a wet pattern has been evident in the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most high-elevation areas have seen a one-category improvement in drought from Dec. 14 to Jan. 11. Isolated areas in California, western Nevada, northern Idaho, western Montana and northern Colorado have seen two-category improvements.
In Utah, “extreme” to “exceptional” drought conditions covered more than half the state from September 2020 until Dec. 28, 2021. As of Jan. 18, only 30 percent of the state was in extreme drought, with no areas under exceptional drought. Since early December, severe to exceptional drought conditions also eased in Idaho, decreasing by nearly half…
La Niña is expected to continue into the spring. For the Northwest, the wet pattern is likely to continue, which means snowpack will probably remain in good condition.
For the Southwest, it’s going to be tough. Precipitation is likely to be less than average for Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern portions of California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. If the outlook pans out, expect to see those spring water supply forecasts decrease and for drought to persist through the summer months.
From Big Pivots (Allen Best):
Todd Oppenheimer has had a 33-year career in Vail, where he serves as the landscape architect and capital projects manager. Even 20 years ago, he was designing parks with turf. Now, he’s tearing it out.
“Maybe I’m making up for past sins here,” he said in a telephone interview after the town council approved his plans for partially de-turfing—it’s not a word yet, but maybe it will be someday—the second park in the municipality. The master list calls for removing what Oppenheimer calls “non-functional bluegrass” in eight parks.
The council OK’d ripping out 53% of the turf in the more south-facing and difficult-to-irrigate part of a small park called Ellefson.
Oppenheimer claims to have coined the saying that if the only person who walks on the grass is the person pushing a lawnmower, the grass shouldn’t be there. With that adage in mind, the town three years ago replaced 25% of the grass at the Buffehr Creek Park with less water-intensive plants. Included was the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the streets.
None of this is necessarily new. Denver Water decades ago created the word “xeriscape” to push the idea of vegetation appropriate to a semi-arid environment.
Xeriscaping has yet to become a mainstream thought in landscape architecture, but it’s gaining ground, says Oppenheimer.
“People are almost forced to,” he says, “because of climate change.”
If nestled in a valley at the headwaters of a Colorado River tributary, Vail has begun to see the effects of a warming climate. Dry years have been occurring more often, the temperatures have been rising. Oppenheimer says he sees no need to choose plants for warmer climates—yet. He does see an obligation to reduce water use appropriate to a drying climate.
About 95% of water used in homes and other buildings returns to streams after wastewater treatment. But of irrigation water, he says, only 25% does.
Oppenheimer insists he can only do his part as the landscape architect for one town, but in citing new policies in Las Vegas in a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, he’s obviously aware of a much larger story in the Colorado River Basin.
Las Vegas has been ripping out turf for well more than a decade and has recently ratcheted up incentives even more. It has used both carrots and sticks. The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that unused grass in Las Vegas and its suburbs soaks up about 10% of Nevada’s entire allocation of water from the Colorado River—the main source of Southern Nevada’s drinking water.
A Nevada law prohibits Colorado River water from watering nonfunctional turf by 2027.
Tightening in Vegas continues in other ways. At the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in mid-December, Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager for resources at Southern Nevada, described new proposals to trim water use at existing golf courses and ban water for new courses. Swimming pools will be cropped in size. Attention is being focused on the water use of evaporative cooling.
From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):
The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors recently approved increases in the district’s monthly service and volume charges. The board voted unanimously to approve the increases at its regular meeting held last week on Thursday, Jan. 13.
The board initially discussed the increases at its regular meeting held on Dec. 9, 2021.
District Manager Justin Ramsey explained during that meeting that the increases approved were the result of a water rate study that was performed in 2018. That study suggested a 6 percent increase in rates annually through 2022…
According to documentation attached in the meeting’s agenda, the approved increases included an increase in the monthly service charge from $27.98 to $29.66. Also approved were increases in the volume charges for 2,001 to 8,000 gallons used from $5.02 to $5.32, 8,001 to 20,000 gallons used from $10.05 to $10.65, and over 20,001 gallons used from $12.61 to $13.37. Additionally, the water fill station charge per 1,000 gallons increased from $10.84 to $11.49. Also noted in the agenda documentation is that the wastewater service charge will increase at an annual rate of 2.5 percent beginning in 2024 and ending in 2027…
Treasurer Glenn Walsh men- tioned the board may consider ad- ditional changes in the water and wastewater fees for next year…
Accessory dwelling unit fee discussion
During the same meeting, the board held a discussion on the topic of accessory dwelling units (ADU) and if the district should be charging additional monthly service fees for properties with an ADU that uses the district’s infrastructure. Walsh indicated that the board has held previous discussion on the topic and the consensus was that it would not impose any additional fees.
From KUNC (Adam Reyes):
[The North Fork of the Republican River] is one of the only channels in the Republican River basin in Colorado with consistent flows these days.
[Tracy Travis] part-time farmer and school bus driver works here seasonally as a water engineer. His job is to get water flowing from former agriculture irrigation wells north of here “and into a tank which flows over into a 42-inch pipeline that runs about 12 miles down to the river.”
“It’s not a good thing for the people in this area because we’re giving our water up,” Travis said.
There are a lot of mixed feelings about this pipeline among the people who spoke with KUNC. Nebraskan officials see it as a net positive. Ultimately, all agree it must exist. Explaining why requires going back to 1935…
Today, the Republican River in Colorado is described as not even “deep enough to drown in.” But in 1935, it flooded and killed over 100 people in Nebraska and around a dozen in Colorado (if not more) — including four of Republican River Water Conservation District Manager Deb Daniel’s relatives…
Up to that point, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska had managed the river basin’s water within their borders independently.
“There was hardly any irrigation other than surface water irrigation from the rivers themselves and very little in Colorado,” said Yuma County Commissioner and farmer Robin Wiley. “The majority of it was downstream in Kansas and Nebraska.”
After the 1935 flood, the states needed dams and reservoirs to prevent future disasters. The federal government would help build them, but with one condition: the states needed to find a way to manage the river cooperatively.
After three years of negotiations, the Republican River Compact was approved in 1943.
During the three following decades, new technology made it easier to use groundwater. Development of irrigation wells exploded — from around 90,000 in 1949 to over 1 million in 1992 in Nebraska alone — increasing the viability of agriculture “especially in Yuma County, but throughout our entire basin,” Wiley said.
Wiley’s family has farmed here since the 1950s. He says it’s likely that his grandfather and father knew little about the compact, until the now-drained Bonny Reservoir was built right in their “backyard.”
“I think they realized that there was a compact, signed at the time, but no inclination on really how it was going to impact us,” he said.
Even if they had carefully gone through every page of the compact, his predecessors would have missed the part that impacts water users most today — because it wasn’t written in the original document.
“There was no inclination that the groundwater was tied to the surface water,” Wiley said.
If water wasn’t coming directly from the river or the ground immediately around it, Colorado assumed it didn’t affect the amount of water flowing across the border (a primary measurement for compact compliance). That assumption was challenged in 1998, when Kansas sued Nebraska over its groundwater use.
“And then Colorado got dragged into it,” he said. “That brought all this to the head.”
The state engineer manages multiple (but not all) interstate river compacts in Colorado. Dick Wolfe was in that position for about 10 years, until retiring in 2017.
As water levels dropped, the interstate agreements forced officials and local water users to make many sacrifices, like draining Bonny Reservoir on the river’s South Fork in 2011.
“Folks banded together, (and did), I think, a great job looking at everything they could to try to make the best of a bad situation,” Wolfe said. “But I think all in all, when I reflect back on it, I don’t know if there’s too much more we could have done differently.”
Colorado’s efforts to reduce groundwater use, including an agreement to shut down 25,000 irrigated acres in the basin by the end of this decade, didn’t guarantee the state couldn’t fall out of compliance in the meantime. And around 2007 to 2010, it very nearly did.
To heavily simplify the way this compact’s complex math works: water naturally evaporating from Bonny Reservoir made Colorado get less credit for the water it actually sent across the border on the South Fork…
But, out of all the hard decisions made in 24 years of working with water in a state facing river crises in every corner, emptying that reservoir “was the toughest one,” Wolfe said.
The other reason Colorado almost fell out of compliance: quickly dropping North Fork flows.
“We were in the early stages, 2007, 2008 looking at what options are out there to get us back into compliance,” he said. Suggestions included importing water from the Missouri River. “Some of them just didn’t prove feasible.”
Ultimately, the decision was made to buy out irrigation wells from a producer and connect them to a pipeline. It drops the water right before a measurement gauge at the Nebraska-Colorado border.
From The Land Desk (Jonathan Thompson):
We have just received word that the federal government and the owner of the Sunnyside Mine have agreed to pay a total of $90 million to settle claims relating to the 2015 Gold King Mine blowout. The proposed consent decree will be posted in the Federal Register and opened to public comment for 30 days prior to being finalized.
That consent decree will “resolve all claims, cross-claims, and counterclaims between the United States and Sunnyside Gold Corporation and Kinross Gold Corporation (the “Mining Defendants”) in this multidistrict litigation,” according to the U.S. District Court of New Mexico filing.
The Land Desk will have more details—along with a wonkfest explaining why Sunnyside is even involved with an incident that occurred at a mine it doesn’t own—next week.
The settlement by the numbers:
Amount Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Canada-based Kinross Gold, will pay to the federal government under the settlement, all of which will be used to finance cleanup relating to the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Amount Sunnyside Gold will pay to the Colorado Dept. of Health and Environment.
Amount the U.S. government, on behalf of federal settling agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service—will pay to “appropriate federal accounts” under the settlement.
From The Durango Herald (Aedan Hannon):
The Environmental Protection Agency, Justice Department, Department of the Interior, Department Agriculture and state of Colorado announced Friday they have reached a settlement with Sunnyside Gold Corp. and its parent company Kinross Gold Corp. to fund remediation in the Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton.
In the case of an old-fashioned standoff, the federal government will drop its claims against Sunnyside Gold Corp. and Canadian mining company Kinross Gold Corp. and the two companies will drop their claims against the federal government after the settlement.
Sunnyside Gold Corp. will pay $40.95 million to the federal government and the EPA and another $4.05 million to Colorado, while the United States will contribute $45 million to the cleanup of mining contamination in the area…
The agreement marks the end of Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s remediation work in the Bonita Peak Mining District. The EPA previously ordered the company to undertake a costly investigation of groundwater in the area in March 2018.
The state of Colorado has also released Sunnyside from its reclamation permit obligations, which require the company to clean up its past mining operations and meet the conditions of a reclamation plan approved by the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, a branch of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
In addition, the settlement limits the future liability of both Sunnyside Gold Corp. and its parent company…
The settlement was made as a matter of practicality with no admission of wrongdoing or liability, Myers said in an email to The Durango Herald.
Myers noted the federal government’s matching $45 million was a result of the federal government’s own liability for the Gold King Mine spill and damage to the surrounding area…
The Colorado and the federal governments have argued that Sunnyside Gold Corp. is partly at fault and responsible for funding remediation in the Bonita Peak Mining District after placing bulkheads in the 1990s to prevent the drainage of contaminated water.
In legal filings, the state has said the bulkheads backed up waste in surrounding mines, including the Gold King Mine, which was released when EPA contractors accidentally caused a blowout…
The EPA has already spent more than $75 million to remediate the site.
The Bonita Peak Mining District Community Advisory Group is working to define water-quality targets and other environmental standards that will need to be met for the area to be considered decontaminated. Those targets will help guide the work of the EPA…
[Ty Churchwell] said a full cleanup of the site will likely take at least another decade. He pointed to similar Superfund sites near Leadville and Idaho Springs that each took about two decades.
The settlement is a step in that direction.
From The Associated Press (James Anderson) via The Colorado Sun:
The agreement must be approved by the U.S. District Court in the District of New Mexico after a 30-day public comment period…
An EPA-led contractor crew was doing excavation work at the entrance to the Gold King Mine, another site in the district not owned by Sunnyside, in August 2015 when it inadvertently breached a debris pile that was holding back wastewater inside the mine.
An estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater poured out, carrying nearly 540 U.S. tons of metals, mostly iron and aluminum. Rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah were polluted…
Monies will be used for water and soil sampling and to build more waste repositories. The EPA said in a statement Friday it has spent more than $75 million on cleanup work “and expects to continue significant work at the site in the coming years.”
The proposed consent decree follows Sunnyside settlements with New Mexico and the Navajo Nation earlier this year. Sunnyside admits no fault in the agreement.
From The New York Times (Alex Marshall, Ben Sisario and Derrick Bryson Taylor):
Meat Loaf, the larger-than-life rocker whose 1977 debut, “Bat Out of Hell” — a campy amalgam of hard rock and Broadway-style bombast — became one of the best-selling albums of all time, died on Thursday. He was 74…
Meat Loaf, who was born Marvin Lee Aday and took his stage name from a childhood nickname, had a career that few could match. He was a trained Broadway belter and a multiplatinum-selling megastar whose biggest hits, like “Bat Out of Hell” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” were radio staples — and barroom singalongs — for decades.
Despite his success, he earned little respect from rock critics. “Nutrition-free audio lunch meat” was how Rolling Stone dismissed “Bat Out of Hell” — which would go on to sell at least 14 million copies in the United States — in the 1993 edition of its album guidebook.
Still, some critics gave grudging admiration…
Meat Loaf also appeared in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Fight Club” and other films…
Later, Mr. Steinman was trying to write a post-apocalyptic musical based on “Peter Pan,” but, unable to secure the rights for the tale, he turned the work into “Bat Out of Hell,” bringing in Meat Loaf to give the songs the style and energy that made them hits.
The album, elaborately produced by Todd Rundgren, mingled hard-rock power chords, 1950s-style bubble gum and flashes of disco beats in songs that unfolded in multipart suites; the title track stretches nearly 10 minutes. In some ways the album resembled rock-style Broadway musicals like “Hair,” in which Meat Loaf had performed early in his career.
Its roster of backup musicians was stellar, including players from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band like the drummer Max Weinberg and the keyboardist Roy Bittan. Members of the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra contributed; the eight-and-a-half-minute “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” even includes the Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto giving a baseball play-by-play that doubled as the description of a seduction.
After “Bat Out of Hell,” Meat Loaf struggled to repeat his success…
His comeback came that year when he worked with Mr. Steinman on a sequel to their original hit, “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell.” It included the song “I’d Do Anything for Love (but I Won’t Do That),” a No. 1 hit that in 1994 won the Grammy Award for best solo rock vocal performance…
His first major film role came in 1975 in the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in which he played Eddie, a delivery boy murdered for his brain by the cross-dressing Dr. Frank-N-Furter…
Marvin Lee Aday was born and grew up in Dallas, the son of Orvis Wesley Aday, a former policeman, and Wilma Artie Hukel, an English teacher.
From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt). Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Horsetooth Reservoir stands as one of Fort Collins’ treasured trinity that includes the Poudre River and Horsetooth Rock.
A million visitors flock annually to its water cradled in the arms of four dams and its 25 miles of shoreline while hikers, mountain bikers and climbers recreate in the scenic foothills surrounding the 6.5-mile-long jewel.
But Horsetooth Reservoir was never meant to be a recreational paradise…
Though it’s become the state’s third-most visited reservoir, Horsetooth Reservoir’s main mission from the beginning was to provide water for agricultural fields on the Eastern Plains and increasingly thirsty Front Range cities such as Fort Collins.
That mission started 71 years ago on Jan. 10, 1951, when water diverted from the Western Slope began flowing into Horsetooth Reservoir as part of the massive Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project.
Much has changed at the reservoir as well as in surrounding area since then.
In 1951, Fort Collins’ population was about 15,000 and an acre-foot of Horsetooth water sold for $4.50…
Today, Fort Collins’s population is about 174,000 and an acre-foot of Horsetooth water goes for $100,000.
In the beginning, 99% of the water went to agricultural fields and 1% to cities.
Today, that split is closer to 50-50, which is about the split Fort Collins takes from its two water sources — Horsetooth Reservoir and the Poudre River.
Here is a short history lesson of Horsetooth Reservoir’s humble beginnings, gathered from historical books, newspapers and water manager Northern Water.
Horsetooth history starts out dry
The area under what now is Horsetooth Reservoir was once where part of a town by the name of Stout was located.
Back in the day, Stout was the center of a large sandstone quarry from which deliveries still grace buildings from Fort Collins to Denver to Omaha, Nebraska, to St. Louis. They were even used in Chicago’s World’s Fair buildings.
Remnants of the once flourishing town (now the Horsetooth Heights subdivision) are visible at the south end of Horsetooth Reservoir.
Decades after the sandstone market dried up, the thirst for a consistent source of water for agricultural fields and growing cities emerged and the Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project was born.
It entails a series of pump plants, tunnels, pipelines and canals that move more than 200,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Upper Colorado River basin to Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir in Grand County before pumping it to the Front Range.
The project consists of 12 reservoirs, 35 miles of tunnels and 95 miles of canals, with the 13.1-mile long Alva B. Adams Tunnel beneath the Continental Divide serving as the key to the entire project.
As part of that project, four dams and a dike were used to wall off canyons just west of Fort Collins for Horsetooth Reservoir, which is the project’s largest Front Range reservoir.
Horsetooth Reservoir timeline
Here is a timeline on the history of how Horsetooth Reservoir came to be, gathered from historical books, newspapers and Northern Water:
1870: Irrigation history begins in Northern Colorado with the Greeley colony serving as the epicenter.
1881-82: Greeley, Salt Lake and Pacific Railroad Co. (Union Pacific) builds a rail line connecting the quarries at Stout to Fort Collins, Greeley and Denver. A trestle that bridged Spring Canyon and where a dam is now located was the largest of the 32 bridges at 262 feet long and 45 feet high.
1883: Stout boasts a population of more than 900.
1884: State engineer E.S. Nettleton conducts the first preliminary survey of a possible diversion project to import Western Slope water to the Front Range.
1893: The heyday of the stone quarry has passed, but some quarrying lingers.
1900: Stout is a ghost town.
1908: Stout post office closes.
1933: Discussion of what will become the Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project begins amid the Dust Bowl.
1936: Congress officially renames the Grand Lake Project the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
1937: Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District forms to build and manage the C-BT project. It is now called Northern Water.
1937: Congress approves $900,000 to build the C-BT project.
1938: C-BT construction starts. Cost of the project is about $160 million.
1940: Construction begins on the Continental Divide Tunnel (later named the Alva B. Adams Tunnel) with one crew beginning from Grand Lake on the Western Slope and a second team tunneling from a location near Estes Park. When complete, the tunnel is the longest ever built from two separate headings.
1942: CB-T construction halts due to World War II.
1943: CB-T construction resumes.
1944: The two tunnel crews meet after tunneling through the Continental Divide. NBC radio broadcasts the event live to the nation. A check of the center line and grade reveals the two sides are off by the width of a penny.
1946: Gravel road (Larimer County Road 38E) is built around the south end of Horsetooth Reservoir to Masonville to aid in construction of the reservoir.
1946-49: Construction of Horsetooth Reservoir takes place at a cost of $20 million for the reservoir and canals.
1947: First CB-T water is delivered to the Front Range.
1951 (Jan. 10): First water starts spilling into Horsetooth Reservoir.
1951 (July 21): First water releases from Horsetooth Reservoir were made to the Poudre River. An estimated 500 people line the railings for the release ceremony at the Horsetooth outlet canal at the north end of the reservoir.
1954: Larimer County assumes management of recreation at Horsetooth, Carter Lake and Pinewood Reservoir. Recreational fees that year generate $1,200.
1954: Proposal made for a road along the east side of Horsetooth Reservoir from Horsetooth Dam on the north to Soldier Canyon Dam on the south. It would later become Centennial Drive.
1956: Horsetooth Reservoir reaches full capacity.
1967: Colorado Game Fish and Parks (today’s Colorado Parks and Wildlife) purchases the 2,300-acre Howard Ranch, which became Lory State Park in 1975, on the west side of the reservoir.
1972: Annual fees at Horsetooth Reservoir include $12 for boating, $5 for vehicles and $2 for a three-day pass. Fees expected to generate $70,000.
1973: First major improvements at reservoir include 75 parking spaces, 125 campsites and four boat-in campsites and new toilets completed mostly in what now is the South Bay area.
1976: A July flash flood on the Big Thompson River kills 145 people and causes more than $35 million in property damage. Flood water and debris destroy the 240-foot-long Big Thompson Siphon (visible at the mouth of the Big Thompson Canyon), halting C-BT Project water deliveries to Horsetooth Reservoir.
1977: Drought hits northeastern Colorado, resulting in Horsetooth Reservoir reaching its lowest level since it was first filled at 15,240 acre-feet. The current capacity is 156,735 acre-feet.
1980: An estimated 200,000 visitors come to Horsetooth Reservoir.
1981: Larimer County purchases the 2,100-acre Soderberg Ranch for $3 million. The site would become Horsetooth Mountain Park just west of the reservoir.
1983: BLM predicts that if one of Horsetooth Reservoir’s dams failed, a 30-foot wall of water would rush toward Fort Collins, reaching CSU, the Poudre River and Interstate 25 in less than hour, Timnath in two hours, Windsor in three hours and Greeley in five hours.
1986: Horsetooth Rock Trail to the top of Horsetooth Rock is completed.
1987: About half of the two roads along the south and east sides of the reservoir are paved.
1988: Proposal to turn Horsetooth, Carter and Pinewood reservoirs and Horsetooth Mountain over to the state to become state parks dies.
1988-89: Horsetooth Reservoir’s Horsetooth, Soldier Canyon, Dixon and Spring Canyon dams raised 3 to 8 feet, increasing the reservoir’s ability to store water from major flood events and address safety concerns. It had been discovered in 1984 that the original dam faces had settled 3 feet. Cost of the project is $1.8 million.
1992: In February, a 9News helicopter crashes into the reservoir in heavy fog, killing two people and leaving pilot Peter Peelgrane, 46, fighting for his life.
1992: Horsetooth Falls Trail is built.
1996: First flush toilets installed at reservoir.
2001-03: Northern Water Conservancy District (now Northern Water) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation work to modernize Horsetooth Reservoir’s four 50-year-old dams to make the structures more earthquake resistant and reduce seepage. Cost of the project is $77 million. The work required the water level to be reduced by 70 feet to to “dead pool” storage — about 7,000 acre feet, or roughly 5% capacity.
2021: Construction of the 90,000-acre-foot Chimney Hollow Reservoir begins west of Loveland with completion of the project expected in 2025. It’s Northern Colorado’s first new reservoir in about 70 years and is expected to relieve some of the recreational pressure from Horsetooth Reservoir.
From The Durango Herald (Nicholas A. Johnson):
Durango City Council on Tuesday approved a 3% rate increase for all customers who use the city’s sewer infrastructure.
The ordinance passed with a vote of 4 to 1…
[Jarrod] Biggs said that although there is a surplus in the sewer fund, it won’t last with rising costs outpacing sewer revenues…
According to Biggs, inflation in the past year has driven up sewer operations considerably. He said the cost of chemicals used to operate the city’s water treatment facility went up 35% in 2021…
City Manager José Madrigal said the 3% increase will, on average, translate to a $2.22 increase for sewer ratepayers.
Sewer increases are tied to the base rate charges for residential and commercial customers. Those who go over the base rate of usage will not be charged anything more than they normally would for going over.
Base rates are determined by the size of a person’s water meter. Most residential homes have a water meter size of five-eights of an inch; the new base rate for homes with that meter size inside Durango city limits will be $23.71 per month…
Revenue from sewer rates in Durango is about $7.9 million per year, while the operating budget of the city’s sewage infrastructure is $3.6 million. Another $3.4 million is diverted from sewer rate revenue to pay off debt from large projects, such as construction on the Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility.
Over the past three years, sewage revenues left over to pay for capital expenses have been around $900,000 annually. However, the annual cost of capital expenses for the sewer system has been around $2 million. Capital expenses include projects such as sewer line rehabilitation and manhole replacements, Biggs said.
“If we don’t have adjustments to bring in more revenue, we will have to watch and limit capital improvement projects, and defer maintenance,” he said.
From The Taos News:
The first major snowstorm of the 2021-22 winter season came late this year, but when it finally rolled into Northern New Mexico on New Year’s Eve, dropping several inches to a couple of feet, depending on elevation, it dramatically changed the picture of what snowpack levels could look like this year.
According to data recorded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, precipitation levels in Taos County more than doubled from mid-December through Tuesday (Jan. 18), rising from approximately 5.1 inches on Dec. 19 to 11.6 inches as of Jan. 18.
Data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that the Sangre de Cristos currently have between 65-82 percent of expected snowpack for a typical winter season. That varies depending on location, of course, with the lower spine of the mountain range near Santa Fe seeing about 69 percent, the area near Cimarron at 65 percent and Taos with the highest at 82 percent.
On Jan. 18, Taos Ski Valley reported 38 inches of snow at its base and 54 inches of “packed powder.” Nearly all of its lifts are open, except for two and 76 of its 110 runs are open.
Despite the sudden shift from unusually dry to snowy, historical studies of snowpack levels don’t bode well for the future of snow in the Western United States or for the ski resorts that rely on it to keep their businesses thriving.
A November 2021 study, “A low-to-no snow future and its impacts on water resources in the western United States,” estimated that snow water equivalents are expected to decline by 25 percent by 2050, largely due to persistent greenhouse gas emissions. The study drew its conclusions from what is already known: since the 1950s, snowpack in the Western U.S. has fallen by 20 percent.
The implications of this decline, and the continued reduction in snowpack for the future, predict more serious consequences than resorts suffering or recreationalists missing out on their favorite winter activities.
“Diminished and more ephemeral snowpacks that melt earlier will alter groundwater and streamflow dynamics,” the study reads. “The direction of these changes are difficult to constrain given competing factors such as higher evapotranspiration, altered vegetation composition and changes in wildfire behavior in a warmer world.”
New Mexico has been under varying levels of drought for roughly 20 years, which was part of the motivation behind a cloud seeding operation that was introduced last year by the Roosevelt Soil and Water Conservation District in Southeast New Mexico. Despite evidence that shows cloud seeding can enhance precipitation levels significantly, the application, submitted by Western Weather Consultants of Durango, Colorado, was retracted in November following strong public pushback from opponents who believe cloud seeding can be harmful to the environment and public health.
From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):
The Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 structures in Boulder County Dec. 30 has increased the urgency of completing wildfire mitigation projects in the Aspen area and Pitkin County.
The U.S. Forest Service is working with the governments of Aspen and Pitkin County as well as fire districts and homeowners associations to identify places that are the highest priorities for fuels reduction. The private lands on Red Mountain and public lands surrounding the high-end neighborhood are one of the highest priorities…
Richards said the Marshall Fire that swept through parts of Louisville and Superior show the importance of fire mitigation on private lands as well as national forests…
A working group loosely referred to as the Roaring Fork Fuels Collaborative is looking at numerous wildland fire mitigation projects, including one called Sunnyside, which would treat lands adjacent to Red Mountain subdivision. Between 1,000 and 1,500 acres would be targeted, according to Kevin Warner, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger. It would require mechanical treatment of tree and vegetation removal and prescribed burns in areas away from homes. The earliest that project could advance is probably spring 2024, Warner said.
Cooperation from the homeowners would be essential so that land within the subdivision would be treated as well. Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said his department is working on demonstration projects to show homeowners that easing wildfire risk doesn’t mean ruining their property…
The Forest Service led a project in 2016 to treat lands near Red Mountain in the Hunter Creek Valley. Additional work on up to 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek could be undertaken as soon as this spring, according to Gary Tennenbaum, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. He credited the Forest Service for leading the successful 2016 project and not causing alarm in Aspen. He also credited the agency for its willingness to propose working close to Red Mountain…
Warner said five wildland fire mitigation projects throughout the region are being planned. The Forest Service and its partners probably don’t have the resources to pursue them all this year, but priorities will be dictated by factors such as moisture levels this spring and the ability to get a permit from the state over air quality.
The contending projects include 2,000 acres in Collins Creek east of the settlement of Woody Creek, 2,000 acres in Braderich Creek west of Redstone, the 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek in Aspen’s backyard, a project in Cattle Creek north of Basalt Mountain in Eagle County and a project in the Seven Castles area in Fryingpan Valley…
Pitkin County has budgeted $300,000 over three years to assist the Forest Service. The highest priority for the county is “where the forest meets homes,” said county emergency manager Valerie MacDonald. The county has collaborated in recent years on several small projects that reduced fuels on federal lands in the Crystal River Valley that are adjacent to private properties, such as Swiss Village, she said.
A project north of Redstone treated 100 acres. “It gives the historic town of Redstone a fighting chance to evacuate safety,” MacDonald said.
Like other speakers at the meeting, she said getting cooperation from private landowners is the key to building resiliency. Pitkin County is 83% public lands, but much of its private property is in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface…
The local planning comes as the U.S. Forest Service released a major new initiative called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis.” It will target “firesheds” in the Western U.S. — areas 250,000 acres and larger with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities and infrastructure to wildfire.
The initiative will target 20 million acres on national forestlands as well as up to 30 million acres on other federal, state and private lands over the next 10 years. It will also come up with a maintenance plan beyond the next decade.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill earmarked $3 billion for the effort beyond regular funding for wildfire mitigation. The strategy is drawing criticism from some environmental groups.
From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):
All but $5,000 suspended, as mine reclamation staff says owners of Cross and Caribou mines are making “good faith” efforts to get cleanup online.
The state Mined Land Reclamation Board imposed a $17,000 fine on owners of the Cross and Caribou mines for water quality violations, but suspended all but $5,000 of the penalty as long as Grand Island Resources continues “good faith” efforts to install containment and cleanup equipment.
The state agency’s staff largely endorsed the mining company’s presentation detailing completion of a filtration system for any water emitted from the historic mine above Nederland, and said they would continue on-site review of the improvements and water sampling…
The state board was reviewing a cease and desist order issued late in 2021 that said mine owners failed to make some required pollutant reports in March and April. When the state looked deeper, it found pollutant violations in those months, but also more alleged violations before and after, from December 2020 to last August. Violations included excessive traces of heavy metals, including copper and lead, that can be dangerous to aquatic and human health.
The state’s order charged the mine with violating the Colorado Water Quality Control Act. Water quality officials ordered the owners to build a new containment and cleanup system, and said it would determine the levels of fines in January.
Ed Byrne, an attorney for Grand Island Resources, said the company is satisfied with the outcome of the hearing…
The company will keep working with state and local officials to fully comply with permits, Byrne added.
An attorney for Save the Colorado, a nonprofit environmental group that is monitoring the mine, said the testimony before the board shows the mine appears to have remedied some pollution problems…
Cross and Caribou is not currently producing gold ore, but the company has a permit to build an ore processing facility and says it has been spending millions of dollars rebuilding tunnels and cleaning up past mine operations.
Grand Island said it will also continue to work with Boulder County, City of Boulder and Nederland.
Here’s the release from The Nature Conservancy (Lindsay Schlageter):
Will help address water security in the face of climate change
The Jicarilla Apache Nation, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (NMISC), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) announced today a new agreement to lease water from the Nation to the NMISC. As the western US is facing critical drought and water shortages are occurring throughout the Colorado River Basin, the Nation has worked with the NMISC and TNC to develop and implement this project.
This innovative agreement between a sovereign Tribal Nation, a Colorado River Basin state government, and a conservation organization will allow the NMISC to lease up to 20,000 acre-feet of water per year. This amount will benefit threatened, endangered, and sensitive fish and will increase water security for New Mexico.
“This first-of-its-kind project demonstrates how meaningful sovereign-to-sovereign cooperation, with support from environmental organizations, can lead to creative solutions,” said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation. “This project should serve as a model for effective tribal collaboration and arms-length negotiations among sovereigns throughout the Colorado River Basin.”
The Jicarilla Apache Nation’s water rights provide access to water for the Nation to conduct cultural practices, provide drinking water to its community, and support economic development. The Nation subcontracts some of its water to users outside the Reservation. Subcontracts can be a source of income to help build the Nation’s economic self-sufficiency while providing water to others that need it.
For the last several decades, the Nation leased water to coal-fired power plants that are now facing closure. This transition presented a new opportunity for the Nation, the NMISC and TNC to work together.
“The Colorado River Basin’s tribal nations are among the most important leaders and partners in efforts to find lasting solutions to the pressing water scarcity and ecological challenges that face the millions of people who rely on this incredible river,” said Celene Hawkins, Colorado and Colorado River tribal engagement program director for The Nature Conservancy.
As many across the Colorado River Basin work to develop projects and solutions to address climate change and drought, the Nation, the NMISC, and TNC hope this innovative water sharing project can serve as a model for water sustainability within the basin. This project demonstrates that the Colorado River Basin’s tribal nations are important leaders and partners in crafting transformative water solutions across the West.
“This agreement is unique for New Mexico as it creates a framework for sovereign-to-sovereign contractual agreements that support and benefit both sovereigns,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. “It may serve as an example for other Colorado River Basin states and tribal nations that have settled water rights to find collaborative solutions that benefit multiple interests and users of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.”
From The Durango Telegraph (Jonathan Romeo):
At a time when water in the Southwest is becoming increasingly scarce, more than 20 streams in the region are being proposed for protective safeguards in an attempt to preserve the waterways for years to come.
For the past two decades, a prolonged drought driven by climate change has snowpack levels in the Southwest on a continual downward trend. Obviously, that’s not good – less snow means less runoff for rivers and streams, and less water available for use.
As a result, a few years ago, a coalition of environmental groups started a process to locate and identify streams in the high country of Southwest Colorado that would qualify as Outstanding Waters (OW). The designation protects defined reaches of rivers, streams and lakes that have exceptional water quality.
The thinking, environmental groups say, is saving these pristine high-alpine streams in the face of climate change and worsening drought will ensure the long-term protection of tributaries that are vital for the region’s most important rivers, such as the Animas, Dolores, Gunnison, San Juan and San Miguel – which all feed into the Colorado River…
Really special rivers
The Outstanding Waters designation was established as part of the Clean Water Act of 1972. For streams to qualify, they must meet a set of criteria based on water quality and national resource values. And, the streams also must serve as critical habitat for aquatic life and have a component of recreational value, such as fishing or river running. Once designated, the water quality in those streams must be maintained and protected from any future development or use.
The Clean Water Act, however, left it up to states to create a process and specific criteria for streams to qualify as OW. In Colorado, that job falls to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We protect every stream in Colorado, but this is the highest level of protection,” Blake Beyea, a water standards unit manager with CDPHE, said. “And it needs to be supported by water quality data, as well as evidence it’s an outstanding resource that requires protections.”
While the designation is somewhat seldom used, as of February 2020, Colorado had an estimated 78 stream segments and bodies of water, covering 5,869 river miles, classified as OWs, mostly located within wilderness areas and national parks. The environmental groups’ proposal – which includes SJCA, Trout Unlimited, American Waters and Pew Charitable Trust, among others – would be unique in terms of the amount of streams proposed and the fact the waterways are located outside wilderness areas, mostly on Forest Service lands…
Setting a standard
Back in 2019, the environmental groups started conversations on what streams might qualify as OWs. They looked at maps for high-altitude waterways that showed the potential for pristine water quality and impeccable habitat for aquatic life, while also escaping historical impacts from uses like mining and development over the years.
In all, nearly 30 streams emerged as potential OW candidates. Then, the next step was to prove it with on-the-ground water testing, an effort led by the Durango-based Mountain Studies Institute. That process lasted two years, with samples taken four times a year from each stream. In the end, the environmental groups ultimately proposed 26 stream segments (five in the Animas; nine in Dolores; seven in Gunnison; three in San Juan; and two in San Miguel).
An OW designation does not affect water rights and would not prohibit future development in these watersheds, Gaztambide said. It would, however, establish a baseline of water quality that cannot be impacted or degraded in the face of that development. And in some circumstances, it’s not just development; the waterways are also protected from things like an increase in recreation, which can result in elevated levels of E. coli.
Essentially, uses and development can change on the landscape; the existing, high-level water quality standards cannot…
Gaztambide and the environmental groups are optimistic all the streams they’ve proposed will attain the OW designation. And indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much pushback from other water users in the region, such as agriculture and water districts.
Steve Wolff, manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which represents nine counties in Southwest Colorado, said it’s unlikely the district’s board will take a stance either way for the OW designation. To date, the board has just monitored and asked questions about any possible unintended consequences the listing may have.
One potential concern, Wolff said, is what outside impacts and degradation, like rising water temperatures driven by climate change, would have on the designation and the requirement to maintain those standards. “If that happens, what does that mean from a regulatory aspect?” Wolff said. “We really don’t know yet.”
Since most of the streams are located on Forest Service lands, another question has been raised on the impacts to grazing and logging. A Forest Service representative said Tuesday “we don’t have information to share about the designation at this time” and did not provide comment for this story. Gaztambide, however, said an OW designation does not impact uses like grazing.
A critical time
Peter Butler, who serves as a consultant for SWCD and has worked on water quality issues in the region for years, said he wasn’t aware of too many issues with the OW designation in Colorado over the years. In 2009, Hermosa Creek, for instance, was designated as the first OW outside of a wilderness area or national park, and the situation hasn’t run into any problems or controversy…
To nominate nearly 30 streams in one proposal is a big project, Butler said. But OW, though rarely used, is a way to protect precious water resources at a critical time, in a way that’s more regulatory and doesn’t have to go through a political process. In June, CDPHE’s nine-person Water Quality Control Commission is expected to vote on the proposal…
Gaztambide said the designation will also protect these vital tributaries, which provide a boost of clean water to major rivers should a large event, like the Gold King Mine spill or mudslides from the 416 Fire, seriously impact water quality and threaten drinking water for downstream towns.
From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):
Local lore holds that March is our snowiest, wettest month. That isn’t so.
Recent data from the National Centers for Environmental Information that covers the period between 1991 and 2020 show that, at least in the town of Vail, February is actually the snowiest month, with average snowfall of more than 35 inches. April is actually the wettest month, with an average of just more than 2.4 inches of precipitation.
That actually isn’t much of a change from the previous measured period, from 1981 through 2010.
State Climatologist Russ Schumacher wrote in an email that the change in the numbers is mostly seen in the western part of Eagle County. The wettest months had been in the fall in those lower-elevation areas. That shift is consistent with data across much of northwestern Colorado.
While April is the wettest month in terms of precipitation, that doesn’t necessarily equate to snowfall.
Schumacher noted that spring snow tends to be heavier, because there’s more water in that snow. The snow in mid-winter tends to be lighter, which is better for skiing but not great for accumulating water in the snowpack.
At the moment, the snowfall measurement station on Vail mountain is right at halfway toward its average peak “snow water equivalent.” That number usually peaks in late April at right around 20 inches. The Jan. 17 measurement was 10.1 inches at that site, 111% of the 30-year average. The other main measurement sites, Copper Mountain, near the headwaters of Gore Creek, and Fremont Pass, near the headwaters of the Eagle River, are in that range.
Aside from the moisture content of snow, does it really matter when it comes?
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said there’s a lot to consider when pondering when snowfall comes.
Johnson wrote in an email that snowfall’s impact on streamflow — the source of most of the valley’s domestic water — depends on what form precipitation comes. Snow and rain have different impacts. If the snow stays high and temperatures stay low, the spring snowmelt slows, providing more consistent supplies.
“We’ve been seeing earlier melts,” Johnson wrote. That affects streamflows not only in the spring and early summer but through the rest of the season.
From The Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
Douglas County Commissioners hold work session as they decide on $20 million investment
DOUGLAS County Commissioners were told [January 18, 2022] that there is ample water in the San Luis Valley that can be exported to the Front Range and were shown a preliminary wellfield design for the northern end of the Valley.
Bruce Lytle, engineer for Renewable Water Resources’s proposal to move 20,000-acre feet of water a year to Douglas County, walked the three Douglas County commissioners through the Valley’s complex two-aquifer system and left them with the idea that there is water available for exportation.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s any controversy about the water being there. The water is there,” said Commissioner George Teal.
“I would agree with that,” said Lytle.
While Teal demonstrated interest in Douglas County partnering with Renewable Water Resources, Commissioner Lora Thomas voiced opposition to exporting water from the San Luis Valley. (You can read her letter to The Citizen explaining her position HERE.) That would leave Commissioner Abe Laydon as the deciding vote on whether Douglas County spends $20 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act money, or COVID relief funds, to push the project forward into state water court.
Laydon said he’s planning to visit the San Luis Valley, including possibly having a community forum in mid-March at Adams State, to hear from Valley residents. RWR is dangling a $50 million community fund as part of its plan, and said it would also make a “$68 million investment to pay local San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above the market rate,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty.
Colorado State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan offered the Douglas County Commissioners a starkly different picture of the Valley’s water situation.
“There’s no extra water,” Sullivan said, explaining that the groundwater supply is over-appropriated and actual Upper Rio Grande Basin streamflows in decline.
State Engineer Kevin Rein told AlamosaCitizen.com in an earlier story that RWR has misrepresented Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer that RWR said would drastically affect Douglas County’s reliance on the Denver Basin.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” said Rein.
While Douglas County Commissioners were going through the RWR proposal in Castle Rock, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors was also in session. Board members heard little encouraging news about the Valley’s aquifers heading into the 2022 irrigation season:
The unconfined aquifer is at its lowest point since January 2013, with concerns that it hasn’t recharged as it typically does when there is little irrigation happening in the Valley. Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down. The Great Sand Dunes National Park experienced its fourth hottest year on record and the SNOTEL station that measures the runoff expected from Medano Creek is at 50 percent of normal for the season.
RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes on the northeastern end of the Valley. Lytle, the engineer for RWR, said they expect to have 22 to 25 groundwater wells pumping, with the well depth at 2,000 feet and wells spaced a mile apart.
The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. “The orientation of the project is designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off Sangre de Cristos,” said Lytle.
Convinced that there is water available for Douglas County, commissioners Teal and Lytle played out the scenario.
“And so it would be the water court process that determines ‘Is that water available for us?’” said Teal.
“You have to follow the rules. To me, if we follow the rules, then you can get a decree augmentation plan,” said Lytle. “Now, there’s always issues. I’ve been in water court enough to know that nothing is a slam dunk in water court.
“But obviously your best chance of success is if there’s a set of rules, and you follow those rules, then it makes it more difficult for issues to be raised relative to injury.”
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A winter storm impacted areas from the northern Plains, to the Midwest, into the Southeast and then up the east coast during the period. For many areas, this was the first time that heavy snow occurred in these regions as many have brought up “snow drought” in areas of the country where snow has been minimal. From the Missouri River west, there was very little precipitation for the week. Temperatures were warmest over the northern Rocky Mountains and Plains where departures were 10-15 degrees above normal. Cooler temperatures dominated the East as departures were 5-10 degrees below normal…
Warmer than normal conditions dominated the region with areas of the Dakotas recording temperatures that were 10-15 degrees above normal for the week. The same winter storm that impacted portions of the Midwest also brought snow to much of North Dakota, eastern South Dakota and eastern Nebraska. Much of the rest of the area recorded below-normal precipitation for the week. With an ongoing “snow drought” in portions of the western Dakotas, degradation was shown this week in the Black Hills of South Dakota where moderate drought was expanded and in western North Dakota where severe drought was expanded. Some improvements were made to areas of extreme drought this week in southeast Wyoming, western Nebraska, and central Colorado. Many of the improvements were based on a reassessment of the region after the last few weeks brought several precipitation events to these areas…
Temperatures were near normal for most of the region this week with areas of Wyoming and Montana having departures of 10-15 degrees above normal. With most of the region recording little to no precipitation for the week, most of the changes in the area were based on an assessment over the last several weeks. Improvements were made to the extreme and exceptional drought in western Montana and eastern Idaho as well as in northwest Wyoming…
Most of the region was dry for the week with only portions of northern Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi recording widespread precipitation, with some areas at 150% of normal or more. Temperatures were near normal to slightly above with departures of 2-4 degrees above normal over the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma as well as eastern Arkansas. Coastal areas of Texas into the Delta were 2-4 degrees below normal. Degradation continued as most areas have been dry since the fall and temperatures have remained well above normal during this period. In Oklahoma, a new area of exceptional drought was added in the panhandle with extreme drought areas expanded to the east. Severe drought expanded in southern Arkansas and into Louisiana and Mississippi. For Texas, severe and extreme drought expanded in the central and northern portions of the state while moderate and severe drought expanded in south Texas. There was an improvement to moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions in east Texas…
Over the next 5-7 days, it is anticipated that cooler than normal conditions will dominate the eastern half of the United States, with the greatest departures along the Canadian border in the Great Lakes region where departures of 12-15 degrees below normal are anticipated. Warmer than normal conditions over the West and northern Rocky Mountains with departures of 6-9 degrees above normal could be observed. Some precipitation is expected over the Pacific Northwest and into the Rocky Mountains. The wettest locations are expected to be in the South and Southeast and into the Mid-Atlantic where up to an inch or more of precipitation could be expected.
The 6-10 day outlooks show the high probability of colder than normal temperatures over the eastern half of the country, especially from the Great Lakes to the Mid-Atlantic into New England. It is anticipated that below normal precipitation will impact much of the country centered on the Great Basin and the Midwest. There are above normal chances for above normal precipitation in much of Alaska, central Rocky Mountains and along the Gulf Coast.
Here’s the release from the USDA:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is announcing several new and expanded opportunities for climate smart agriculture in 2022. Updates include nationwide availability of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Conservation Incentive Contracts option, a new and streamlined EQIP Cover Crop Initiative, and added flexibilities for producers to easily re-enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). These improvements to NRCS’ working lands conservation programs, combined with continued program opportunities in all states, are part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s broader effort to support climate-smart agriculture.
“Climate change is happening, and America’s agricultural communities are on the frontlines,” NRCS Chief Terry Cosby said. “We have to continue to support and expand the adoption of conservation approaches to support producers in their work to address the climate crisis and build more resilient operations. We are continuously working to improve our programs to ensure we’re giving farmers and ranchers the best tools to conserve natural resources.”
New Partnership Announced
NRCS is announcing a new partnership with Farmers For Soil Health, an initiative of the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association and National Pork Board. Farmers For Soil Health works to advance use of soil health practices – especially cover crops – on corn and soybean farms. The initiative has a goal of doubling the number of corn and soybean acres using cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030.
“We are pleased to see NRCS announce this new incentive program for cover crops,” said John Johnson, coordinator of Farmers for Soil Health. “Cover crops have great potential to improve soil health, improve water quality, sequester carbon, and make our farms more resilient to severe climate events. We look forward to our partnership with NRCS, working to expand adoption of cover crop practices to help our farmers meet our sustainability goals.”
Other partners include the National Association of Conservation Districts, Soil Health Institute, and The Sustainability Consortium.
EQIP Cover Crop Initiative
To complement the new partnership, NRCS is investing $38 million through the new targeted Cover Crop Initiative in 11 states to help agricultural producers mitigate climate change through the widespread adoption of cover crops. States include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota. States were selected for this initial pilot based on their demonstrated demand for additional support for the cover crop practice.
Sign-up dates will be determined at the state-level, and applications will be selected for funding by Feb. 11, 2022.
The initiative is aimed at improving soil health through a targeted, rapid, and streamlined application and contract approval process. NRCS will continue to build on this framework and streamlined application process to support farmers and ranchers across the country.
Cover crops offer agricultural producers a natural and inexpensive climate solution through their ability to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide into soils. Cover crops can provide an accelerated, positive impact on natural resource concerns. In fiscal 2021, NRCS provided technical and financial assistance to help producers plant 2.3 million acres of cover crops through EQIP.
EQIP Conservation Incentive Contracts
Conservation Incentive Contracts address priority resource concerns, including sequestering carbon and improving soil health in high-priority areas. Through these contracts, works with producers to strengthen the quality and condition of natural resources on their operations using management practices, such as irrigation water management, drainage water management, feed management and residue and tillage management that target resource concerns, including degraded soil and water quality, available water and soil erosion.
Conservation Incentive Contracts offer producers annual incentive payments to implement management practices as well as conservation evaluation and monitoring activities to help manage, maintain and improve priority natural resource concerns within state high-priority areas and build on existing conservation efforts. Download our “Conservation Incentive Contracts” fact sheet for a list of practices (PDF, 1 MB).
Conservation Incentive Contracts last five years. The 2018 Farm Bill created the new Conservation Incentive Contract option, and it was piloted in 2021 in four states.
CSP Re-Enrollment Option
NRCS updated CSP to allow an agricultural producer to immediately re-enroll in the program following an unfunded application to renew an existing contract. Previously, if a CSP participant did not re-enroll the year their contract expired, they were ineligible for the program for two years.
This ineligibility was imposed on CSP participants even if their failure to sign a renewal contract was due to the unavailability of funds, which is beyond their control. USDA is now waiving this two-year ineligibility restriction for all CSP applications.
This year, producers renewed 2,600 CSP contracts covering 3.4 million acres. Applicants with unfunded fiscal 2022 CSP renewals will receive letters this month, notifying them they are automatically eligible to apply for future CSP funding opportunities, rather than needing to wait two years to reapply.
How to Apply
NRCS accepts applications for conservation programs – including EQIP and CSP – year-round, however producers and landowners should apply by state-specific, signup dates to be considered for each year’s funding. To apply, producers should contact their local USDA Service Center.
Through conservation programs, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help producers and landowners make conservation improvements on their land that benefit natural resources, build resiliency, and contribute to the nation’s broader effort to combat the impacts of climate change. More broadly, these efforts build on others across USDA to encourage use of conservation practices. For example, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) recently provided $59.5 million in premium support for producers who planted cover crops on 12.2 million acres through the new Pandemic Cover Crop Program. Last week, RMA announced a new option for insurance coverage, the Post Application Coverage Endorsement, for producers who “split apply” fertilizer on corn.
Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect our nation’s lands, biodiversity and natural resources including our soil, air, and water. Through conservation practices and partnerships, USDA aims to enhance economic growth and create new streams of income for farmers, ranchers, and private foresters. Successfully meeting these challenges will require USDA and our agencies to pursue a coordinated approach alongside USDA stakeholders, including state, local and Tribal governments.
USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. In the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit http://www.usda.gov.
From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):
Enjoy that snow you see now, because the spring is likely to be warm and dry.
Colorado’s statewide snowpack stands at 119% of average, a welcome break in the state’s prolonged dry spell.
“This is well above what we were seeing last year at this time. It’s awesome,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the Lakewood-based Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Last year, January snowpacks were reading at roughly 70% of average.
Domonkos’ comments came Tuesday at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, a group charged with monitoring water supplies and forecasts.
In Colorado, and other Western states, mountain snow levels are closely watched because when they melt in late spring, they supply the majority of water for cities and farms.
Staggered by a 20-year drought cycle, the latest forecasts, despite the recent snow, offer little hope of a break in this historic dry spell, considered by many to be the worst in 1,200 years.
The latest predictions indicate that Colorado is still at the mercy of a weather pattern known as La Niña, which this year, for the second year in a row, is expected to bring dry conditions through March to much of the state, according to Peter Goble, a climate specialist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
“Right now the tilt is toward a drier spring,” Goble said.
Holiday snowstorms delivered welcome relief to mountains with six of the state’s eight major river basins now seeing above-average snowpack. The Rio Grande Basin, in south-central Colorado, and the Arkansas Basin, in the southeastern corner of the state, continue to see below-average snowpacks, registering at 80% and 90% respectively.
But that didn’t dampen the relief among water officials, who’ve been coping with severe, back-to-back drought for much of the past three years.
“It’s great to have some good news for a change,” said Tracy Kosloff, deputy state engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Now forecasters and water managers are turning their attention to a relatively new phenomenon, the impact of ultra-dry soils on water runoff forecasts.
Last year, though the statewide spring snowpack measured at 90% of average by late spring, streamflows were dramatically lower, registering below 30% in many of the state’s stream systems, according to the NRCS.
Prior to this 20-year drought cycle, streamflow forecasts closely followed the snowpack, but that link has been severed.
Now dry soils are absorbing melting water at high rates, throwing critical water supply forecasts off.
This year the situation should improve, Domonkos said.
“Our Jan. 1 forecasts are really showing some great potential runoff scenarios. But we’re not going to take this for granted. Things can change if it dries out significantly.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Coyotes can be found throughout Colorado. Here are the basics of living in coyote country.
For more information about coyotes please visit: https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/LivingwithWildlifeCoyote.aspx
Living with Coyotes in Colorado
Perhaps no other wild animal has endured the wrath of humans while evoking such genuine heartfelt admiration quite like the coyote. Some people curse their existence; Native Americans consider them to be the smartest animal on earth, calling them “God’s dog”, and many urbanites revel in opportunities to see and hear these vocal predators.
The coyote’s success is attributed to the coyote’s own ability to adapt. Coyotes have adjusted very well to human-disturbed environments, and now thrive in close proximity to people.
Coyotes are opportunistic hunters. They prey on small mammals, domestic pets, livestock, and domestic fowl but will also readily eat carrion and plants. A coyote will adjust its diet depending on the food that is available. In Colorado, coyotes are classified as a game species and may be taken year-round with either a small game or a furbearer license. Landowners may kill coyotes, without a license, on their land if the coyotes threaten their property or livestock.
From The Colorado Sun (Trish Zornio):
As the new legislative session kicked off, Coloradans got a glimpse at what state legislators are prepared to prioritize. There’s a lot of good stuff: education, public safety and the economy.
Unfortunately, of the 102 bills and resolutions already submitted in the House and Senate, few appear ready to seriously tackle the root causes of climate change — fossil fuels.
To suggest this oversight is irksome would be a gross understatement. In the past few years, Colorado has seen firsthand the impact of a rapidly changing climate. Most recently, the Marshall fire became the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, destroying nearly 1,100 structures worth over half a billion dollars.
Before that, Colorado has been experiencing growth of extreme wildfires, including a truly historic 2020 fire season. This included the Pine Gulch Fire, the Cameron Peak fire and the East Troublesome fire, all of which easily passed 100,000 acres burned — and one over 200,000 acres — breaking records multiple times within the same season.
Then there were the Glenwood Canyon mudslides in 2021 that went well beyond anything engineers had prepared for due to the intensity of the fires.
The slides closed I-70 on and off for weeks at a time, severing the primary connection across the state and prompting officials to seek over $116 million of taxpayer dollars for repair costs. The intensity of the mudslide was a direct impact of climate change.
Setting extreme wildfires and mudslides aside, there’s been a myriad of record-breaking events in Colorado as of late: record-breaking heat, record-breaking winds, record-breaking drought, record-breaking hail, record-breaking tornadoes, record-breaking cold and even record-breaking bombogenesis. Of note, my iPhone desperately wants to autocorrect that last one to “bimbo jeans,” a testament to the relative newness of word use.
Particularly concerning is that it’s no longer unique enough to simply break existing records. Now we shatter previous records, even breaking the record-breaking heat, winds, drought and hail with new record-breaking heat, winds, drought and hail all in the same darn season.
For all intents and purposes, the solution is deceptively simple: more policies that reduce the burning, release and accumulation of carbon into the atmosphere.
Yet for years the urgency to act has been lacking, as if climate change is still yet to come. We set goals for 2030 or 2050, implying we have time when we don’t. Climate change is not an on/off switch; it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long, roiling boil, and for years the molecules have already been moving faster and faster.
For this reason, the climate crisis must be a constant legislative priority this year, next year, and every year to come for the foreseeable future. We must also be exceptionally clear in our messaging: Actions taken now are not to prevent climate change from occurring — this is impossible, it’s already under way. Instead, today’s actions are to mitigate the severity of impact from our past actions. What we are experiencing now is merely a warning sign.
Critically, prioritizing the climate crisis does not mean we somehow abandon other priorities. On the contrary — almost any area of policy addressing climate change is part of the solution.
Consider the economy. If the goal is to save Coloradans money, one of the best solutions is to address climate change. At a personal level, we won’t gain nearly as much from a few dozen tax dollars back per year as we do by avoiding a loss of thousands of dollars in insurance deductibles, lost wages and displacement costs when a wildfire fueled by climate change burns down much of our town.
Similarly, we can’t achieve social equity without mitigating climate change — the burdens will fall disproportionately on disadvantaged communities. We can’t achieve sustainable agriculture or outdoor tourism on the West Slope without mitigating the lack of precipitation. We can’t even achieve a sufficient education with sweltering classrooms, reduce health concerns or maintain a federal budget with increasing billion-dollar disasters.
It should be noted that there are several bipartisan wildfire mitigation bills this session, and that’s something to be proud of. Still, this is adaptation, not a mitigation strategy for climate change. Without doing more to target the underlying source of the problem — by and large the burning of fossil fuels — there’s only so much that can be done.
After listening to the State of the State last Thursday, it became incredibly clear that climate change is simply not the focus this session — and unless the messaging changes drastically, it won’t be. As one journalist keenly pointed out on Twitter, the governor used the word “climate” three times, just once more than he mentioned Taylor Swift.
This got me thinking.
Perhaps Coloradans would do well to make our pleas directly to Ms. Swift instead. After all, a catchy song on climate change appears to be the only way it will ever make center stage.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
Here’s the release from the USDA:
The Forest Service has launched a robust, 10-year strategy to squarely address this wildfire crisis in the places where it poses the most immediate threats to communities. The strategy, called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” combines a historic investment of congressional funding with years of scientific research and planning into a national effort that will dramatically increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade.
Though the Forest Service has been working to manage the health of millions of acres of national forests across the American West for decades, the scale and methods of work on the ground have not matched the need. With the support of our partners, states, Tribes and local communities, the Forest Service is collaboratively implementing this new strategy across jurisdictions and landownerships to protect communities, critical infrastructure, watersheds, habitats, and recreational areas.
Overgrown forests, a warming climate, and a growing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface, following more than a century of rigorous fire suppression, have all contributed to what is now a full-blown wildfire and forest health crisis.
The Forest Service will work with partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at the scale of the problem, using the best available science as a guide. The plan calls for the agency to treat up to an additional 20 million acres on National Forest System lands, and up to an additional 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands.
View the full strategy for more information
From Colorado Newsline (Jacob Fischler):
Forest Service in ‘paradigm shift’ to use logging, controlled burns to prevent wildfires
The Biden administration will use $3 billion from last year’s infrastructure law to revamp the federal approach to wildfire management, introducing a 10-year plan to deal with the large swaths of the West scientists consider most at risk of destructive blazes.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, announced the new strategy in Phoenix, alongside Forest Service Chief Randy Moore and Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly.
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The Forest Service will focus on using managed fires to reduce natural fuels — flammable material that can feed fires, including trees, grasses, dead leaves and fallen branches, according to a report the U.S. Forest Service released ahead of the announcement.
In prepared remarks, Vilsack highlighted the infrastructure law’s funding to address wildfires.
“It’s fair to say the Forest Service has recognized for some time, the need to dramatically — and I emphasize the word dramatically — increase our ability to treat at a pace and scale that will actually make a difference,” he said.
The law will add $650 million to a roughly $280 million budget to treat forests for fire prevention, a 350% increase.
The Agriculture Department and Forest Service had worked “for many, many years in the traditional budgeting process” to get the scope of funding that experts believed was necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, but did not have the resources until the infrastructure law, Vilsack said.
Kelly said wildfires had reached “a crisis point” that would only worsen with continued climate change.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing under worse conditions and expecting better results,” he said. “We need to be more proactive.”
In more than a century of management focused on fire suppression, forests have grown denser and fuels have built up, putting forests at greater risk of intense fires.
Carbon buildup in the atmosphere has also made matters worse by acting as natural heat traps. Climate change has reduced snow and rainfall in the West and produced hotter, drier weather, which has increased forest flammability, the report says.
The report calls for a “paradigm shift” in preventing fires, shifting away from fire suppression and toward a combination of logging to reduce forest density and prescribed, controlled burns.
“We need to thin western forests and return low-intensity fire to western landscapes in the form of both prescribed and natural fire, working to ensure that forest lands and communities are resilient in the face of the wildland fire that fire-adapted landscapes need,” the report said.
Under the plan, the Forest Service could treat an additional 20 million acres of national forest area, plus 30 million acres of other federal, state and tribal lands over the next 10 years, according to the report.
The first two years of the plan will focus on key “firesheds,” areas of 250,000 acres at risk of large-scale fires.
The scope of the effort — and the funding behind it — position it for success, said Susan Jane Brown, the Wildlands Program director at the environmental nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center.
Thinning forests, reducing fuels and using prescribed burns are established techniques, but the funding for forest management and the landscape-scale approach could make a larger impact, said Brown.
“The sort of scattershot approach, what we call random acts of restoration, simply aren’t working,” Brown said.
“We’ve known for a long time that part of the reason why the agency or service can’t get ahead of the problem is because they didn’t have the funding or the personnel to do the work,” she said. “And now they have the funding and Congress has told them to go hire the personnel.”
Planned projects to address risks in several Western firesheds — including in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon — are ready for work to begin and need only funding, according to the report.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:49 p.m., Jan. 18, 2022, to include details from the announcement of the new fire strategy.
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From The Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
RENEWABLE Water Resources has made an “inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts” in its pitch to Douglas County to partner in exporting water from the San Luis Valley, State Engineer Kevin Rein said.
Rein, in an email response to a series of questions from AlamosaCitizen.com, said RWR misrepresents Douglas County’s reliance on the “Denver Aquifer” and how a “proposed rule change” from the state engineer would drastically affect Douglas County’s relationship with the aquifer.
“The cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts,” Rein said.
Rein said his office has not taken a position on the RWR proposal because the project, led by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, has not been formally submitted for regulatory review to the State Engineer’s Office. RWR is courting Douglas County as an investor in its efforts to export water from the San Luis Valley to Colorado’s Front Range. To move the project to formal review both by Rein’s office and state Division 3 Water Court, RWR needs to identify an end user for its effort to export water from the Valley.
The project has created an uproar, with city officials from Monte Vista the latest to blast it as a “scheme to transport our valuable water resources out of the San Luis Valley.”
“The idea that there is an abundance of water for Douglas County suburbia to continue to sprawl at the San Luis Valley’s expense is shameless,” Monte Vista officials said in a letter to AlamosaCitizen.com. The full letter is here.
In its pitch, Renewable Water Resources said Douglas County is overly dependent on the Denver Aquifer as its main water supply, and remaining dependent on it threatens the Denver suburb’s property values, economic growth and quality of life.
“Additionally, a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer,” RWR states in its pitch to Douglas County for money. “Colorado’s State Water Engineer recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer. This new guidance will limit the use of the Denver Aquifer and essentially maintain the Aquifer as a ‘preserve.’”
Rein, when asked about the accuracy of RWR’s statements, said, “First, as a matter of hydrogeology, there is one hydrogeologic feature known by scientists and water users as the ‘Denver Basin.’ It stretches from approximately Greeley to Colorado Springs and from the foothills to Limon. Within the Denver Basin is a layering of discrete aquifers that for administration purposes are treated as separate sources. Those aquifers, from the top layer to the bottom layer are: the Dawson Aquifer, the Upper Dawson Aquifer, the Lower Dawson Aquifer, the Denver Aquifer, the Arapahoe Aquifer, the Upper Arapahoe Aquifer, the Lower Arapahoe Aquifer, and the Laramie-Fox Hills Aquifer.
“This information is relevant because the (RWR) report states that ‘Douglas County is currently overly dependent on the Denver Aquifer as its principal water supply…’ However, I know that Douglas County municipal water suppliers and private well owners rely on nearly all of the aquifers I’ve listed, from the Dawson to the Laramie-Fox Hills. Their reliance is not on only the Denver Aquifer.
“Second, the (RWR) Report states, ‘Additionally, a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer.’
“The Report does not cite the claimed ‘rule change.’ For your information, the Division of Water Resources recently proposed amended Statewide Nontributary Ground Water Rules, which rules we regard as consistent with the General Assembly’s statutorily-described allocation of nontributary ground water (see SB73-213; section 37-90-137(4), C.R.S.). To my knowledge, neither RWR nor those Douglas County entities have shown evidence that the State Engineer has ever shown a different application of the General Assembly’s intended allocation. Therefore, I find no support for RWR’s claim that ‘a proposed rule change could drastically impact Douglas County’s relationship with the Denver Aquifer.’ As the State Engineer I believe that RWR should account for this claim since it appears to have no basis.
“In summary, there has been no rule change. If RWR believes the State Engineer’s long-standing application of state statute ‘drastically impacts’ Douglas County, they should also be aware that the State Engineer has not changed its application of the statute in the last 48 years. I am not aware of any evidence to the contrary.”
Renewable Water Resources said it relied on information from a January 2021 environmental law and policy alert on a call for public comment around the proposed amended statewide nontributary groundwater rules.
“Many conversations have and are taking place as to why Front Range cities and towns are going to need to depend less on the Denver Aquifer. And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources,” said spokesperson Monica McCafferty. “This is a known fact in the Front Range and likely to be discussed more in the Douglas County public hearings.”
Rein had a third rebuttal to RWR when the group said in the proposal to Douglas County that Rein had recently urged Denver Metro water providers “to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer,” and called it “new guidance” from the State Engineer.
“I see no basis for this claim,” Rein told Alamosa Citizen. “Since 1996, the State Engineer’s Office has included notes on our correspondence to Douglas County regarding subdivision water supplies that remind the county of the non-renewable nature of the Denver Basin as a water supply. We include the same information on Denver Basin well permits that we issue. We provide this information as a courtesy since we are an agency that knows the science and administrative aspects of the Denver Basin.
“The next statement in the report states that ‘(f)or Douglas County, this ruling is an imminent and practical challenge and catalyst for necessary change.’ The basis of this statement is confusing since there has been no ‘ruling.’ The non-renewable nature of the Denver Basin is the result of hydrogeologic events that occurred millions of years ago. Allocation directives that were put in statute in 1973 reflect that nature of the Denver Basin. Nothing that the State Engineer has done has made the challenge any more ‘imminent.’
“Each of these items may seem small,” Rein said, “but the cumulative effect of RWR’s statements is an inaccurate portrayal of the State Engineer’s actions and the facts.
“I have only commented on the aspects of the letter that portray the State Engineer and our actions in a way that I believe is inaccurate. I will not comment on RWR’s opinions or judgments of Douglas County’s ongoing efforts.”
RWR also misrepresents a Dec. 2018 letter from Rein to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Rein said. At that time, Rein had sent correspondence to General Manager Cleave Simpson on the amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, and the legal authority he has to curtail groundwater diversions from Subdistrict 1 wells if the conservation district isn’t making progress toward restoring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level as ordered by the state water court.
RWR said in its proposal to Douglas County that Rein would shut down wells in the subdistrict for a minimum of three years, boosting its project since its efforts do not rely on the unconfined aquifer.
“Regarding RWR’s reference to my December 2018 letter, if the State Engineer is put in a position of curtailing wells, it would not be ‘…so the objective of the Subdistrict 1 groundwater management plan can be achieved…’ as I read in the proposal. Rather, it would be the result of a regulatory decision that would be necessary due to the fact that the Subdistrict’s Annual Replacement Plan does not meet the objectives of the Rules and the Groundwater Management Plan. This is stated in the December 2018 letter. My letter did not address the amount of time the wells would be curtailed and I don’t know the basis of RWR’s claim that the wells would be curtailed for a minimum of three years.
“As I noted earlier, for RWR’s concept to operate, among other things, they would need to demonstrate through a detailed court approved plan that they would have no impact on the basin as a whole. That is yet to be seen.”
From the City of Loveland via The Loveland Reporter-Herald:
The city of Loveland will begin the first phase of the Garfield Harrison Storm Drainage Improvements Project the week of Jan. 17.
The city has selected Connell Resources as the project contractor and ICON Engineering for project design.
According to a news release, the four-year project is designed to:
Replace and upgrade existing stormwater infrastructure to address existing drainage issues and meet current stormwater standards. Install 18- to 60-inch diameter storm sewer pipes.
Replace existing waterlines and valves to address aging infrastructure.
Replace pavement where project components are installed.
Rehabilitate and replace concrete as well as add necessary ADA improvements.
Provide stormwater quality treatment measures within the stormwater system.
“Local street flooding will decrease and we can also better clean the stormwater going into our waterways like the Big Thompson Canyon. The quality of the water distribution system will be improved greatly and lead to fewer leaks,” Eric Lessard, city of Loveland civil engineer, said in the release.
The project will have four separate phases; it’s anticipated one phase will be completed per year.
Phase 1 will include sidewalk and road closures for a portion of West First Street from North Taft Avenue to Cleveland Avenue. River’s Edge Natural Area and Centennial Park will remain open to local traffic.
Detours will be in place through the duration of Phase 1, but travelers should be prepared for delays, the release said.
Eastbound detours will direct traffic south on South Taft Avenue to Colo. 402 (14th Street Southwest) and north on Lincoln Avenue to First Street. Westbound detours from West First Street will direct traffic to North Lincoln Avenue to Eisenhower Boulevard and back down North Taft Avenue to First Street.
Typical working hours will be Monday through Friday from approximately 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Night and weekend work will be occasional and announced in advance.
The total project budget is approximately $18 million, to be funded by the city’s stormwater, water and power enterprise funds.
For project details including detour maps, visit http://letstalkloveland.org/garfieldharrisonproject.
Residents can sign up for weekly project updates or contact the project team by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the project hotline at 970-716-5155.
From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jerry Sonnenberg):
Governor Ricketts is an elected official who I have always thought does a good job – especially for agriculture – and someone that I tend to support. With that said, he blew it earlier this month when he made some bold and inaccurate statements regarding Colorado’s water.
The fact is, Colorado is in compliance with our South Platte Interstate Compact.
Our compact says that we must deliver 120 cubic feet per second to Nebraska between April 1 and October 15. We do that and we do our best to not send them more than is required because of our needs as a state with both populous urban areas and a vital agriculture industry based in rural Colorado.
The compact also says that Colorado has full and uninterrupted use and benefit of the water in the river the rest of the time… except…
The exception is that 99 years ago there was a potential ditch near Ovid that Nebraska wanted to try to use for additional irrigation but abandoned and they referenced that ditch and future construction in the compact. They can complete that ditch anytime but in order to do so, Nebraska would have to buy land in Colorado, or try to use eminent domain and just take it. Rest assured, that won’t go any better for the Big Red Bureaucrats riding in to Colorado than it would in western Nebraska with any of their own land owners.
Governor Ricketts claims that our plans in Colorado could reduce water flows into his state by as much as 90%. Give me a break. I don’t know where his advisors learned their math but perhaps their schools teach that your answer is never wrong if you feel good about it.
On average over the last couple of decades, Colorado has allowed around 350,000 acre feet annually to leave our state over and above the requirements of the compact. Water that could be used in Colorado by Coloradans.
The consequences of this is that after all the court battles and millions spent on attorneys, if – and it is a big if – Nebraska would win, augmentation would be called out of priority. In other words, much of the farm ground along our South Platte River in Logan and Sedgwick counties would dry up. It would also destroy what Colorado accomplishes to meet our requirements for Endangered Species Protections.
So what is the answer?
We finally have an issue in which all of Colorado can unite behind. Governor Polis in his State of the State address this year vowed to fight Nebraska over their claims. The way we do this is water storage.
The compact says that before Nebraska can take a drop of additional water, all of the water rights have to be satisfied upstream of basically the Prewitt Reservoir which means that if we build a reservoir in Morgan County, we could fill it before downstream uses and then utilize agreements and exchanges to allow our current augmentation to continue.
That same compact also gives Colorado the first 35,000 acre feet of water that passes the gauging station near the Prewitt Reservoir so let’s build a 35,000 acre feet reservoir near the state line.
It is interesting that if Nebraska builds this ditch and diverts water in the winter months, where will they go with it and what will they use it for. They attached a $100 million price tag for the entire project which doesn’t get them much in a consistent source of water.
I have a better idea. We in Colorado will work with Nebraska and partner in the cost of storage along the South Platte so both of us can benefit from a consistent source of water. The average 350,000 acre feet that we lose to Nebraska each year could be stored in Colorado and we can use a large portion of that to relieve the pressures from our urban cousins to dry up farm ground so they can water their lawns.
No matter what the outcome of their bizarre claim, we would be well advised to unite as Colorado residents and build that water storage with or without Nebraska’s help so that Denver, our wildlife that depends on the river and the farmers and ranchers that feed the world, have access to all the water we are entitled to use.
Jerry Sonnenberg represents Senate District 1 in the Colorado Senate.