Upper Ark board meeting recap

Cottonwood Creek photo credit Zillow.com.

From The Mountain Mail (Joe Stone):

The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District board of directors addressed two Water Court cases during the May board meeting, an ongoing case to change the use of irrigation water rights in Coaldale and a new filing by the town of Buena Vista for a plan of augmentation for McPhelemy Pond.

The Coaldale case, 2016CW3055, involves Hayden Creek water rights associated with the CB Ranch, which was purchased by Security Water and Sanitation District.

The Upper Ark district has filed a statement of opposition in the case, and Security has filed its preliminary engineering report, proposed decree, proposed water accounting and a revegetation proposal.

In preparation for the district’s response to the filings, Chris Manera, district engineer, has begun a consumptive use analysis.

Manera reported that he is examining return flows from historic irrigation that provided water for approximately 150 acres of alfalfa crops.

An accurate determination of these return flows will be a key factor in this case since Security is required to replace return flows to avoid injury to other water rights.

District Manager Terry Scanga said the San Isabel Land Trust would like to work with Security so that some the historically irrigated land can continue to be used for agriculture, which would prevent the types of problems experienced by the dry-up of other ranches in the Upper Arkansas Basin.

He reported on a meeting with Security and the land trust to discuss the possibility of leasing some of the water for that purpose and said both parties are interested in continuing discussions.

Board members voted to allow district staff to facilitate those discussions.

Kendall Burgemeister, attorney for the district, reported that Security has lost the use of well-water sources due to contamination in the aquifer, making the Hayden Creek water rights more critical to the city’s water supply.

Scanga said another possibility would be for the land trust to acquire other sources of water to keep some of the land irrigated.

In Water Court filing 17CW3022, the town of Buena Vista’s proposed augmentation plan to replace water from evaporative water losses from McPhelemy Pond, would involve exchanges on Cottonwood Creek and use of Cottonwood Reservoir water for augmentation.

Since the Upper Ark district owns Cottonwood Creek water rights and operates Cottonwood Reservoir, board members voted to get into the case to ensure that its water rights and operations are not negatively affected.

According to Buena Vista’s Water Court filing, the amount of water to be augmented is 1.37 acre-feet annually.

In Case 96CW17, the town has a conditional decree for an appropriative right of exchange to allow the town’s purchased Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water to be stored in Cottonwood Reservoir.
As part of its recent filing, Buena Vista also seeks to include augmentation for McPhelemy Pond as an additional use of that water.

At the meeting district directors also:
• Welcomed new board member Dennis Giese, who was appointed to fill the Division 3 seat, corresponding to Chaffee County School District R-31, which was vacated when Frank McMurry resigned.
• Received a detailed presentation from Manera about the efficiency of the DeWeese Irrigation System and potential improvements to increase water storage potential and improve the exchange potential on Grape Creek below DeWeese Reservoir.
• Heard a report from Scanga about meetings of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable and the Colorado Inter-Basin Compact Committee, including the next phase of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which will examine how existing projects can meet future water demands.
• Approved an increase in the district education budget from $10,000 to $25,000 to fund a new website and an educational video.
• Heard a report from the Resume Review Committee, responsible for reviewing Division 2 Water Court filings.
• Learned that a “mutually beneficial” agreement with Poncha Springs was reached concerning the Friend Ranch water.
• Learned that Chaffee County officials entered into an intergovernmental agreement with the town of Buena Vista for source water protection.
• Received a legislative update from consultant Ken Baker, who reviewed legislation taken up in the 2017 legislative session.

Park County, et al., purchase augmentation water for Fairplay Beach reservoir

Fairplay photo credit Wikipedia.com.

From The Fairplay Flume (Lynda James):

The closing on 10.05 acre feet of augmentation water from Lone Rock H2O took place June 19.

Purchasing the water was a collaborative effort between the Park County, Fairplay, the Headwater Authority of South Platte and the two water conservancy districts in the county.

The districts had an option to purchase the 10 acre feet from Lone Rock.

HASP will own and manage the augmentation water for the Beach…

Of the 10.05 acre feet, 9.618 acre feet were purchased to augment evaporative losses from the Fairplay Beach reservoir and remaining 0.435 acre foot was purchased by the county for $6,600.

The Beach parcel is owned by the Town of Fairplay, but the water in the reservoir is jointly owned by Fairplay, Park County and the Upper South Platte Water Conservancy District.

Several decades ago, the three entities joined together to build the reservoir for recreational purposes, and at that time, augmentation water was not required. Today it is required.

After Water Commissioner Graver Brown determined that 9.618 acre feet of augmentation were needed, the USPWCD asked the Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District if it would agree to using the Lone Rock option to purchase augmentation water for the Beach.

The Center agreed and then the USPWCD applied for a Land and Water Trust Fund grant to purchase the Lone Rock water. That grant was approved by the county.

The purchase price was $13,000 an acre foot.

The entire process has taken more than two years and June 15, the commissioners signed warranty deeds and several other documents related to the purchase.

Waldo Canyon fire scar restoration update

Waldo Canyon Fire

From the Associated Press via the The Denver Post:

The Forest Service picked this valley as a place to send heavy equipment and fight against the flooding that caused havoc below in the months after the fire. Five years later, the images of cars floating away in Manitou Springs remain unforgettable. Here in this sparse forest, water runs controlled thanks to those excavators, which stacked logs to form dams and sculpted the channel, filled with flow-slowing objects such as rocks and charred branches.

And all along it, willows were planted with the design of further stabilizing the banks. Also, the willows could provide shade. Perhaps with cooler waters, plant and animal habitats will make a suitable home again…

The hydrologist based in Colorado Springs calls this “a pilot site” — the beginning stage for a recovery tactic that could work at riparian areas across the scar. Along with the 2,000 willows planted last month in Waldo Canyon itself, thousands more seedlings could be spread in the barren landscape beyond.

The site showcases other revegetation trends across the scar: the erosion-mitigating grasses that RMFI planted over wiped-out hillsides, accompanied by the Forest Service’s dump of mulch from a helicopter. And Shipstead expects other human action here: biocontrol by releasing bugs which crave the invasive weeds that took root after the fire.

The group steps over the plant henchmen remaining — the spiky thistle and fuzzy mullien. They continue their willow count silently, nervously, it seems…

Five years after the devastation, land managers maintain a hopeful narrative. The Forest Service calls the burn scar 70 percent revegetated — a figure that does not allude to the return of the previous conifer-covered state, but to a transformed one.

The area is taking on a look it likely had centuries ago, says Pikes Peak District Ranger Oscar Martinez. Mother Nature has “reset the clock,” he says, by pulling up the aspens that long lay dormant beneath the now-destroyed pines and firs that dominated for generations in forest time. Also covering the slopes now are tangles of scrub oak; they, like aspens, were eager to make their presence known soon after the conifers departed…

A fire of Waldo Canyon’s magnitude heats the ground to a point of hydrophobicity, where instead of water being absorbed, it is repelled. Further complicating the conifers’ return is the forest’s unique soil — “calling it a soil is kind of a generous term,” Martinez says. Conservationists call Pikes Peak granite “kitty litter,” for its pebbly, porous condition, which rain had no problem moving in the days after the burn, washing the sediment into the canyon and piling it up to heights of grown men.

That phenomenon made portions of the Waldo trail disappear along its 7-mile loop. The Forest Service continues to take questions as to when the trail will reopen, and land managers say people should refine their questions, considering the trail no longer really exists. Realignment seems more than likely…

Back at the recovery site, the willow count continues. Reflecting on the restoration here and at areas across the scar going forward, RMFI’s Peterson wonders about human’s role. “We can jump-start the process,” she says, “but nature is smarter and stronger. Nature will always find a way.”

The Eagle River Watershed Council scores $90,000 from @USBR

Eagle River Basin

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation:

Bureau of Reclamation Acting Commissioner Alan Mikkelsen announced that Reclamation has awarded $664,754 to seven entities to implement watershed management projects. The funding will be used for projects that enhance water conservation, improve water quality and ecological resilience, reduce water conflicts, and advance goals related to water quality and quantity.

“Cooperative watershed groups bring together diverse partners to address water management needs in their local communities,” Mikkelsen said. “The projects announced today will help restore watersheds and reduce water conflicts that were collaboratively developed within their communities.”

These are the first projects selected under Phase II of the Cooperative Watershed Management Program…

  • Eagle River Watershed Council, Inc., will receive $90,000 for a total project cost of $1,363,500 to improve instream flows in Abrams Creek, southwest of Eagle, Colorado. This project is being completed in conjunction with Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District.
  • Opinion: Conservation easements are an investment in soils

    Saguache Creek

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Tamera Minnick):

    Soils are vital to ecosystem health. In the U.S., we learned this the hard way in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Extreme drought was just one of the drivers of the Dust Bowl. The effects were magnified by economic, policy and land management decisions during the prior decade.

    At the end of World War I, European agriculture was in disarray and American agriculture benefited. During a few years, wheat prices were high and borrowing money was easy. The result was 5.2 million acres of marginal agricultural lands plowed to grow wheat. In retrospect, we now appreciate that these lands should have stayed as native grass.

    Once that soil was destabilized by plowing and left bare in the drought, it blew. And blew. People died of dust pneumonia — not caused by a bacteria or virus, but from the dust itself.

    In 1935, Dr. Hugh Bennett, a soil scientist, prescribed protecting and revegetating these marginal lands with grasses. When government agencies insisted that soil was a resource that could not be exhausted, Bennett replied, “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation could be put into a single brief sentence.” The main problem with Bennett’s ideas, like today, was that he had to persuade Congress to fund them.

    Congress was stubborn, but Bennett rescheduled a hearing for an afternoon in which he knew that a big duster had formed and was headed for Washington, DC.

    As the meeting began, success appeared unlikely. It suddenly grew dark. The dust storm blew in and turned day to night. Funding was approved. This was the inception of what would become the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Today, most farmers have easy access to an NRCS office.

    NRCS strives to decrease erosion by aiding farmers in adopting techniques such as low- or no-till plowing, contouring with the landscape, using buffer strips around water, and planting shelterbelts.

    Building on this success, President Ronald Reagan implemented the Conservation Reserve Program in 1985. The intent was to take marginal land, mostly land at risk for erosion, out of crop production and plant native grass. The federal government pays rent to farmers for providing this public service of stabilizing these marginal lands.

    The CRP has decreased erosion, improved wildlife habitat, and enhanced water and air quality, all while keeping the land in private ownership.

    One of the deficiencies of the CRP is the short-term nature of the contracts. For 15 or 20 years, erosion is controlled, soil organic matter gradually accumulates, wildlife populations rebound, and sites stabilize. But there can be sudden changes.

    For instance, in 2007, crop prices increased dramatically. Many marginal lands were put back into crop production. In one year, many of those public goods, paid for by taxpayers, were eliminated.

    In the late 1990s, a new conservation tool was developed — conservation easements. With conservation easements, the right to develop the land is relinquished and, in return, the owner usually is accorded significant tax credits.

    One similarity between the CRP and conservation easements is that entering into either one is voluntary. The landowner makes a personal and economic decision that the program is the right thing to do with his or her private land. Additionally, the private land remains private.

    There are some major differences between conservation easements and CRP. Under conservation easements, many land uses are allowed, including continued crop production; these are described in a contract. Also, the easement is often held by a non-profit (like our own Mesa Land Trust). The result of an easement is a substantial tax credit (which in Colorado can be transferred to others). Finally, the easement is permanent, not just a 10- or 15-year contract.

    That last point is important. At Colorado Mesa University, my colleagues, students, and I have reported that it may take our fragile western soils 50 years or more to recover to a healthy functioning status following damage (and much longer if topsoil is lost to erosion). Permanent conservation easements assure public investments will not be lost with short-term fluctuations in commodity prices.

    Another reason that conservation easements are in perpetuity? In order to gain the federal and Colorado tax credits, the easement must be permanent.

    Mesa Land Trust is phenomenally successful in our county. There is widespread support, and they have helped landowners protect, in perpetuity, over 66,000 acres. Much of this is important wildlife habitat outside of the valley, while some insures that agriculture thrives in the valley and that we have buffers between our towns to preserve the rural character of our area.

    Conservation easements are a modern tool based on our improved understanding of the science of how ecosystems function. Their perpetual nature guarantees the public’s return on this investment.

    Tamera Minnick, Ph.D., is a professor of environmental science and technology at Colorado Mesa University where she has taught soil science and sustainability. She recently renewed her membership with Mesa Land Trust. Much of the Dust bowl information came from Timothy Egan’s “Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Email tminnick.gjsentinel@yahoo.com.

    Blue River advocates hope for a return of Gold Medal status in the reach below Dillon Dam

    Blue River

    From The Summit Daily News (Kevin Fixler):

    It’s lower down the gushing waterway’s span, however, on a 19-mile stretch north of Silverthorne toward Green Mountain Reservoir, that state officials said the gold medal tag had to be pulled this past March. While perhaps no shock to those who best know the area’s waters — many already avoid that segment for lack of comparative success — the local emphasis has been on exploring if regaining that billing as one of the state’s top fishing destinations is even possible.

    “When we removed that gold medal designation, it got the attention of a lot of people, which was part of my intention,” said Jon Ewert, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Part of it is truth in advertising, and the other effect is that it would draw some attention to that stretch of the river.”

    To possess a gold medal, a waterbody needs to offer 60 pounds of trout per acre and a dozen fish at least 14 inches or longer in that same space. But through some mix of unnatural streamflows, insufficient bug populations for fish to eat and temperature variability, those 19 miles have produced no better than half those quantity requirements since as far back as 2001.

    A regional stakeholder group has been meeting quarterly to trade data and hypothesize what may have ultimately turned the tide on the classification. So far it’s still uncertain.

    “It’s a great mystery,” said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who is a member of the quarterly Blue River meetings. “There are a lot of possibilities and one is that it’s a water quality issue, but no one has identified that, and there’s been some effort to see if there’s something in the water that we’re not aware of that’s bad.”

    What is clear is that the number of rainbow and brown trout that used to populate the segment are no longer there, and those that remain are underweight.

    “Fish, they just don’t thrive there,” added Stiegelmeier. “And they get pretty beat up, because they’re caught and released, caught and released.”

    Water quantity, meaning outflows from Denver Water-managed Dillon Reservoir, are almost certainly a factor in all of this, but how to overhaul that is even trickier. Based on annual snowpack and peak periods of melt, the agency pushes water out into the Blue River to avoid overflow, but is also unable to lend more than present totals so it can still meet the demands of Front Range water needs.

    In a related quality issue, what is funneled out is often colder than ideal temperatures for fish because it originates from lower in the reservoir, rather than at various depths as with more modern dam designs. Trout thrive at between 54 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and what comes out of Dillon Reservoir is typically closer to about 46.

    Discussions persist about possibly retrofitting Dillon Dam, which opened at the end of 1963, with an updated, staged-release structure like that of Grand County’s Wolford Reservoir. That project, completed in 1995, includes a tiered system that can combine water from three different depths to better manage temperature downstream.

    The primary obstacle, though, is that such a renovation could cost up to $10 million, and no one knows yet from what source the funding might arise.

    That’s if it would even help address the challenges in the Blue River at all.

    “It’s definitely an idea that has merit, but the problem is it’s millions of dollars in an infrastructure project that nobody’s stepping up and volunteering to pay for,” Ewert explained. “And number two, it’s essentially an experiment because we don’t know for sure if that would be the fix. We’re certain that it wouldn’t hurt it, but … it’s a pretty expensive experiment.”

    Eventually restoring the gold medal fishing label for the entirety of the Blue River is the group’s goal. Doing so by artificially stocking the deficient stretch is another alternative, but officials note that does nothing more than simply reinstating a name — and at unsustainable costs — rather than straightening out what’s really going on.

    “We could do it by just dumping a bunch of fish in there, but that’s really not economically responsible,” said Ewert. “What we want it to do is be a more productive fishery and improve the potential of it, and in the course of accomplishing that it should meet gold medal standards. We have to pool all of our information and figure out what information we’ve got, and is it pointing us in any certain directions before we can figure out what we can do to help this stretch of river … and it’s going to take time.”

    Remembering when all of Colorado seemed to be on fire — The Mountain Town News

    Smoke from a fire on the western flanks of the Flat Tops, around Trappers Lake, created an eerie late-afternoon scene along Interstate 70 near Dotsero, east of Glenwood Canyon. Photo take in July or perhaps early August 2002. Photo/Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    Three giant forest fires raged in Colorado 15 years ago…What did we learn from them?

    Fifteen years ago…I went sightseeing, as did Colorado’s governor. We both returned home deeply impressed, maybe even spooked.

    From Denver, I had driven to Camp Hale, between Vail and Leadville, then hiked up Resolution Mountain. It stands 11,905 feet, modest by Colorado standards but high enough to get a commanding view of the landscape south and west. My companion, Cathy, remembers being unsettled by the type of clouds we could see from the summit.

    Then-Gov. Bill Owens had a higher, broader purview from his seat in an airplane. Two major forest fires had started the afternoon before, and while we were on the mountain and the governor was presumably in the air, yet a third major fire started.

    Returning to Denver, Owens told reporters: “It looks like all of Colorado is burning today.” He took crap for that observation. Colorado was not all on fire! It will keep tourists at home! But if not literally true, all of Colorado figuratively was on fire.

    It had been a dry winter, and April bellowed hot winds. The three fires that the governor saw that day had started almost simultaneously. On June 8, a Saturday, a fire from an underground coal seam underlying the western part of Glenwood Springs caused dried vegetation on the ground to catch fire. It was a hot and windy day, and the flames roared and then leaped across railroad tracks, the Colorado River, and Interstate 70. It eventually burned 12,200 acres but, more importantly, raced through a city.

    Hayman burn area via The Denver Post

    That same day, in central Colorado, a Forest Service employee—perhaps ironically a fire prevention technician—burned letters in a campground of what she said was a romance gone sour. She left and the flames spread, becoming the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire. One woman died of an asthma attack provoked by the smoke, and five firefighters died in a car wreck en route to Colorado to help fight the flames. As The Denver Post’s John Ingold noted in 2012, Barton’s story was widely disbelieved. She served five years in prison.

    Missionary Ridge Wildfire Complex Map via GSC Map Gallery.

    In southwest Colorado yet a third fire, called Missionary Ridge, north of Durango, began on June 9, the day I climbed the mountain. That fire eventually burned 70,500 acres. No cause of ignition was ever determined.

    Denver that month was often smoky. I remember the sinister light that left streets looking scenes from a sci-fi movie about some future, dystopian civilization. Sunshine filtered through smoke has a disturbing orange tint, kind of like our current president’s dyed hair. It leaves you vaguely out of sorts, kind of like that first blush of sickness, say the onslaught of flu, when you don’t feel quite right but just can’t explain it. That’s what June 2002 felt like as the Hayman and other fires raged.

    Drought was the major story. Dendrochronologist, or tree-ring, experts, concluded that it had been the driest runoff in 150 to 300 years, depending upon location. The Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon had a peak that was almost inconspicuous. Downstream farther, Lake Powell plummeted, leaving a giant bathtub ring. Flows into the reservoir were 25 percent of the long-term average and the lowest since the dam had been completed in 1963.

    But the fires also renewed the conversations about our rights and our responsibilities when living in a fire-prone landscape. Arguably, Glenwood Springs could have done very little or nothing to have insulated itself from the fire. But Missionary Ridge and Hayman both resulted in loss of homes built in what is called the wildland-urban interface. You know: the cabin sitting out in the forest, away from the aggravations of town or city life. But ponderosa pine forests burn every few decades.

    The late Ed Quillen, writing in The Denver Post, captured at least a portion of the discussion by calling this the stupid zone.

    Did we learn from 2002? Yes, and perhaps no. In the decade that followed, there were other major fires, particularly along the Front Range. Most significant were two giant fires in another hot, dry year decade later, in the hot, dry year of 2012, we had giant forest fires at Colorado Springs and west of Fort Collins. Hundreds and hundreds more homes burned.

    The larger story is more nuanced. As humans we are very, very forgetful. Six years after a big fire, maybe sooner, the memory of the devastation recedes. People decide it’s OK to build houses in places where fire occurred because — well, hey, it’s pretty and it’s away from the city. (If I had the money, I might be tempted to live in such places myself).

    But in Summit County, Vail and Steamboat Springs, there was additional reminder. The drought further weakened aging forest of lodgepole pine, making them more vulnerable to an epidemic of bark beetles that spread a fungus that kills the trees. These places always were vulnerable to forest fires, if infrequent. But whole hillsides of rust-colored needles made the risk that much more susceptible.

    Vail modified building codes to slowly phase out the shake-wood shingles that made houses more vulnerable. The town also began thinning forests along its periphery, creating something of a moat. Breckenridge shifted its regulations. Instead of penalizing people who removed trees from their property, aggressive efforts were launched to reward creation of defensible space, to lower the risk of fire spreading to homes.

    A scene in Summit County, between Farmers’ Corner and Summit Cover, overlooking Dillon Reservoir, both pre-treatment and afterward.

    Other work has been done by water agencies in cooperation with federal and state land agencies. Denver Water, for example, pledged $16.5 million, a figure matched by the U.S. Forest Service, for thinning of forests in its collection areas. The city’s Cheesman Reservoir was heavily clogged by sediment resulting from the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and then again the Hayman Fire. In February 2017, the city renewed its $16.5 million commitment to the program, called From Forests to Faucets. Work—now including the Colorado Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service—will include projects in both Summit and Grand counties. Roughly 50 percent of Denver Water’s 1.4 million customers get supplied by water diverted from these two counties. Other water agencies, such as Aurora, have similar programs in forested areas from which they draw water.

    In May, Breckenridge and the Forest Service announced a memorandum of understanding regarding “treatment” of forested lands in the area along the Blue River where the town draws its water.

    Unlike the frequent fires of lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests, fire only rarely visited high-elevation spruce-fir forests rarely in centuries past. The last giant fire in the Fraser Valley, for example, occurred about the time that British emigrants were trying to establish a colony at Jamestown, in the early 1600s.

    How might warming temperatures change the fire regimes? It’s clear enough that 2002 and 2012 should be viewed as harbingers of what is likely to come. But that’s another story, and I welcome you to see what experts had to say on the subject at a workshop held during March in Aurora.