Conservation Colorado gave a low letter grade to one river millions of people in the Denver metro benefit from: The South Platte River Basin received a letter grade of “C”.
“We have a number of different factors we look at for the river,” said Theresa Conley.
Conley serves as the advocacy director for the agency. She notes the South Platte River received a low grade for water quality, the flow of water from basin to basin and for the seven dams along the river. Those dams can have an impact.
“It changes how much water can flow down, the timing of those flows,” said Conley. “It can increase water temperature of the river, which we know, can be harmful to fish aquatic species and a number of habitat.”
The report says conserving water can help with some of the problem in the South Platte River Basin…
Conley said the report can, hopefully, shed light and inform people about the rivers problems.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources is the authority behind daily water administration across the state. Many are not aware that this agency has been highly instrumental in shaping how water in the San Luis Valley is distributed and utilized.
The Division of Water Resources operates under the authority of the office of the State Hydraulic Engineer, an office created by the state legislature in 1881. The office was directed by governor’s appointment and the initial duties included water rights administration, streamflow and diversion measurements, and reservoir capacity, cost and location. The office was added to the Department of Natural Resources in 1969.
The first and foremost responsibility for the Division of Water Resources is the oversight of all surface and groundwater across the state. It is the only state agency that is tasked with the direct and daily administration of water. The division is required to uphold Colorado water law which operates under what is known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. This means that those who were first to utilize the water are the first to have access to it during periods of shortage. In 1879, water commissioners were established in order to administer this doctrine. This made Colorado the first state that provides water administration by public officials. Currently, the major responsibilities of DWR include water administration, public safety, groundwater permitting, interstate compacts, a hydrographic program, and public information services.
The Division of Water Resources also has the authority to make recommendations in water court cases. This is an operation that occurs on a regular basis. Additionally, DWR can join the opposition in a case if there is potential for an injurious outcome and it is deemed necessary. Also, DWR can issue orders to those who refuse to comply with statutes and even take the matter to court.
There are seven divisions in DWR, divided by Colorado’s major drainage basins. Each division is under the direction of a division engineer who administers ground and surface water within the division. The San Luis Valley falls within Division 3. As of 2017, there are approximately 30 DWR employees for Division 3 including 11 water commissioners and eight districts. There are also well metering technicians and hydrographers at DWR. The Division 3 Engineer is Craig Cotten.
During his tenure, Cotten has observed that there are reasons why Division 3 is unique. The first reason is that it is arguably the most over-appropriated of all the divisions in Colorado. Secondly, it has one of the lowest storage capacities. This means that many of the other divisions have much larger reservoirs, hence much more ability to utilize and distribute water. However, Cotten attributed many challenges that occur within the division to over- appropriation. This has resulted in the need for closer monitoring of water usage in the San Luis Valley including well meters and 60 gauging stations along all of the rivers and streams of Division 3 to ensure that the correct amounts of water are delivered where they need to go.
An important aspect of Division 3 is well rules and regulations. Due to a limited amount of highly appropriated water, DWR found the need to consider long term considerations in the San Luis Valley. Also, maximum utilization was/is needed to assure that water rights are fulfilled but not inappropriately curtailed, and to maintain the economy. The replacement of injurious depletions and maintaining a sustainable aquifer system were/are also key considerations as to why the rules now exist. The conclusion became that less pumping is necessary, particularly for the aquifer system. Thus, the result was the drafting of the rules and their submission to the court by the State Engineer in 2015. The current rules require well owners to choose one of three options. The first option is to obtain a plan for augmentation. The second option is to participate in a groundwater management subdistrict. The third option is to cease pumping. The rules are now set to be finalized by the court in January of 2018. DWR is currently working towards resolutions with objectors.
One of the most important tasks that DWR oversees is the Rio Grande Compact. Quite simply, the Rio Grande Compact is law. Signed in 1938, it is an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Reasons for this agreement include a limited water supply and over- development of surface and groundwater resources. The compact is intended/designed to equitably apportion the waters of the Rio Grande above Ft. Quitman, Texas. This law is administered by three commissioners who are the state engineers of Colorado and New Mexico and a governor’s appointee from Texas. Colorado is required to deliver water to the New Mexico state line and New Mexico has been required to deliver to Elephant Butte Reservoir since 1949.
The other compact that Division 3 administers is the Costilla Creek Compact. This is an agreement between Colorado and New Mexico. In addition, Cotten pointed out that the Costilla Creek Compact is also the only compact where Colorado is classified as the downstream state. This agreement operates under a priority system much like the Prior Appropriation Doctrine.
“These compacts are the only ones to be administered directly from our office,” said Cotten. Yet another aspect that is unique to Division 3.
This is also a time of transition at DWR due to the retirement of State Engineer Dick Wolfe. His successor is Kevin Rein. Despite the change, Cotten expressed confidence in the laws and system that are in place and that the high standard that was set by Wolfe will continue to be upheld.
There are many tasks that the Division of Water Resources is charged with and there is a great deal that happens daily to ensure that they are all accomplished. The Division 3 office can be reached by calling 719-589-6683 or on the web at http://www.dwr.state.co.us.
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month at 623 East Fourth Street in Alamosa. For more information visit us at http://www.rgbrt.org
Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable. Read part 1 here.
Here’s a guest column from running in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent
This month, my organization, Conservation Colorado, released its first-ever “rivers report card.” We analyzed eight major rivers across Colorado based on four main factors: flow, water diverted out of basin, water quality and major dams. Unfortunately, only one of the eight rivers assessed got an “A” grade, while four received grades of “C” or worse.
Our own Colorado River received a “D.” There are several reasons why we graded the river so low.
First, the Colorado River is one of the nation’s hardest-working rivers, providing drinking water to 35 million people and supplying more water for Coloradans than any other river in the state. The enormous demand for the Colorado River’s water has severely altered the flow of the river. As just one example, Colorado River tributaries such as the Blue, Frying Pan and Fraser rivers have up to 60 percent of their water diverted out of them to be consumed and used for other purposes.
Several other issues plague the Colorado River. Its water quality is low due to high levels of salt and agricultural runoff. Dams are abundant on the river, and contribute to an unsustainable increase in demand for water. And, a huge amount of the Colorado River’s water is diverted from the Western Slope to the Front Range. These pipelines, dams and reservoirs are causing significant damage to both the Colorado River’s ecology and Western Slope communities.
Finally, climate change is another imminent threat to the Colorado River. Higher temperatures lead to more evaporation, while diminishing snowpack leads to lower flows. This increases the gap between supply and demand for this already overused river. Water temperatures rising also poses a threat to water quality for fisheries.
The Colorado River flows 1,500 miles (2,400km) – through rises and rapids, valleys and deserts, all the way to Mexico.
But this river of critical importance to our country is facing incredible challenges.
The Colorado River provides water to almost 40 million Americans, but it is still reeling from the impacts of a 17-year drought that has drained most of Lake Mead and left Arizona and Nevada on the brink of imposed shortages.
The struggle we face to protect the Colorado River basin is one of necessity, not choice.
Every drop of the river is already accounted for, and due to a variety of factors – including a growing population and rising temperatures – the river’s flows are projected to decline 20 percent by 2050. Five of the top 10 fastest-growing states in the country are within the Colorado River Basin, and they depend on a reliable and healthy Colorado River.
If we are to avert a crisis and ensure a healthy and secure water supply for the years to come, we need to have a serious discussion about how best to manage the finite water we have available.
Through the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River basin initiative, my colleagues and I seek creative solutions to ensure the Colorado River basin has the water supply it needs. We know that smart, innovative conservation solutions benefit both the environment and the economy – and what is good for the Colorado River is good for its people, too. Because when the river benefits, so do the communities and economies that rely on it.
This means that we must enter a new phase of collaboration, innovation and flexibility when it comes to how we use and manage our water – one that must include robust support for smart water infrastructure projects.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the critical need to fund infrastructure projects in the United States. But amid all of the talk – from the Trump administration and Democratic leaders alike – politicians have put too little focus on the importance of smart water infrastructure to the people and economy of the West, and the Colorado River basin in particular.
To elevate water infrastructure in these ongoing discussions, we developed a white paper on the Colorado River’s Critical Infrastructure Needs.
Each of the projects highlighted in the paper offers benefits for both people and the environment. They can create jobs and enhance local communities, prevent hazardous situations from developing because of aging infrastructure, and underscore the importance of using water efficiently. These projects, if funded and implemented effectively, can improve the resilience of water supplies both within the basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as across the entire West.
The infrastructure projects span sectors and communities and include support for ongoing projects – especially those connected with tribal water rights settlements. A great example is the Gila River Indian Community Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, a water delivery system designed to allow full use of water belonging to the Gila River Indian Community for irrigation of lands within the reservation in south-central Arizona.
Much of the community’s traditional agricultural economy has suffered from loss of both surface and ground water supplies over many decades. The construction and completion of the irrigation project will provide more reliable supplies for existing agricultural land, address natural resource concerns including water conservation and soil and water degradation, allow for re-irrigation of lands historically farmed by community members that have fallen fallow as a result of water scarcity, and replace inefficient, leaky existing facilities. Critically, the project includes habitat restoration components and can help restore the Gila River, the community’s namesake.
Other projects highlight partnerships among multiple stakeholders, like the Salton Sea Management Program. The Sea (a misnomer – the body of water is California’s largest manmade lake) is a looming human health and environmental crisis. As water recedes due to rising temperatures and reduced water flowing from the Colorado River, the dry lake bed is exposed. Years of accumulated fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals that leeched into the sea from nearby farms are being released into the air as dust. The toxic pollution is plaguing nearby communities and has caused an asthma crisis among residents.
The proposed Salton Sea Management Program provides a road map for the state of California, local agencies, national conservation organizations and the federal government to ensure that essential dust suppression and habitat restoration projects will be completed within the next 10 years. That timeline is necessary in order to protect the public’s heath, maintain the region’s natural resources and safeguard the region’s farming economy.
The Gila River Indian Community Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project and Salton Sea Management Program show how conservation can help preserve economic security and quality of life. Conservation solutions that make economic sense are often the most practical and impactful. In the Colorado River basin, we know that implementing these solutions is possible. We’re committed to helping to support their success.
A UA-led study is among the first to look at long-term changes in monsoon precipitation, and the region of Arizona with more extreme storms includes metro Phoenix.
Monsoon season now brings more extreme wind and rain to central and southwestern Arizona than in the past, according to new research led by the University of Arizona.
Although there are now fewer storms, the largest monsoon thunderstorms bring heavier rain and stronger winds than did the monsoon storms of 60 years ago, the scientists report.
“The monsoon is the main severe weather threat in Arizona. Dust storms, wind, flash flooding, microbursts — those are the things that are immediate dangers to life and property,” said co-author Christopher Castro, a UA associate professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences.
The researchers compared precipitation records from 1950-1970 to those from 1991-2010 for Arizona. They also used those records to verify that their climate model generated realistic results.
“This is one of the first studies to look at long-term changes in monsoon precipitation,” Castro said. “We documented that the increases in extreme precipitation are geographically focused south and west of the Mogollon Rim — and that includes Phoenix.”
The region of Arizona with more extreme storms includes Bullhead City, Kingman, the Phoenix metropolitan area, the Colorado River valley and Arizona’s low deserts, including the towns of Casa Grande, Gila Bend, Ajo, Lukeville and Yuma.
The Tohono O’odham Reservation, Luke Air Force Base, the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range and the Yuma Proving Ground also are in the region with more extreme monsoon weather.
Tucson is just outside of the zone with more extreme storms.
Having less frequent but more intense storms is consistent with what is expected throughout the world due to climate change, Castro said.
“Our work shows that it certainly holds true for the monsoon in Arizona,” he said.
When the researchers compared the results from climate and weather models to the actual observations, the model with a resolution of less than 1.5 miles accurately reproduced the precipitation data. The models with resolutions of 10 miles or more did not.
“You just can’t trust coarser simulations to represent changes in severe weather. You have to use the high-resolution model,” Castro said.
First author Thang M. Luong conducted the research as part of his doctoral work at the UA. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.
The paper, “The More Extreme Nature of North American Monsoon Precipitation in the Southwestern U.S. as Revealed by a Historical Climatology of Simulated Severe Weather Events,” by Luong, Castro, Hsin-I Chang and Timothy Lahmers of the UA Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences and David K. Adams and Carlos A. Ochoa-Moya of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México D.F., was published July 3 in the early online edition of the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology.
The U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México PAPIIT funded the research.
The researchers wanted to identify risks from warm-season extreme weather, especially those to Department of Defense installations in the American Southwest.
Existing global and regional climate change models don’t represent the North American monsoon well in either seasonal forecasts or climate projections, the research team wrote.
Looking at the average precipitation over the entire monsoon season doesn’t show whether monsoon storms are becoming more severe now compared with 60 years ago, Castro said.
Aspen city officials said Wednesday they plan to seek water court approval to transfer the city’s two conditional water rights to store a combined 13,629 acre-feet of water in upper Castle and Maroon creeks to other potential storage locations in the Roaring Fork River valley.
Those locations include 63 acres of land it has under contract to purchase for $2.65 million on Raceway Drive in Woody Creek, a neighboring gravel pit operated by Elam Construction Inc., the city’s golf course, portions of the Maroon Creek Club golf course owned by the city, and Cozy Point Ranch.
Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said at a news conference the city is not walking away from its conditional water rights tied to the potential dams and reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks, but instead is holding on to those rights while seeking to transfer them, and their 1971 decree date, to new locations.
“We’re going to attempt to transfer the water rights down to these sites,” Barwick said. “There would not be any abandoning of water rights. It would be moving the water rights from one site to another.”
To do so, the city would have to file a new water rights application in water court and it would be up to a water court judge to determine how much of the current water rights could be transferred, and if the city can keep the 1971 decree date.
In October, the city filed two due-diligence applications for its conditional rights on Castle and Maroon creeks and is now being opposed by 10 parties.
The potential Castle Creek Reservoir would store 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam and the Maroon Creek Reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet behind a 155-foot-tall dam within view of the Maroon Bells.
The city expects to put forward a settlement offer to the opposing parties next week, with the potential Woody Creek storage sites at the heart of the offer, Barwick said. A settlement meeting is slated for Aug. 2.
Paul Noto, a water attorney representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and the Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. in the two water court cases, said Wednesday a “main issue” for his clients is whether the city will commit to “never damming” Castle and Maroon creeks.
A news release issued Wednesday by the city quoted Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron as saying the pending Woody Creek land purchase “is a way to both protect the community and preserve Castle and Maroon valley wild lands.”
Both of the dams, which the city has told the state since 1965 it intends to build someday, if necessary, would inundate portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
“While the Castle and Maroon Creek reservoirs may have seemed like a good idea (in the 1960s), we congratulate the city for this win-win alternative that protects our iconic landscape and provides for the city’s water needs,” said Sloan Shoemaker, the executive director of Wilderness Workshop, in a press release.
Woody Creek options
The two Woody Creek parcels now under contract by the city include a 61-acre parcel and a 1.8-acre parcel. Both are owned by Woody Creek Development Co. of Fort Collins.
The undeveloped 61-acre parcel is valued at $2.3 million by the county assessor and the 1.8-acre parcel, also undeveloped, is valued at $100,000.
The city does not have an option to purchase the Elam gravel pit, which is visible from Highway 82, but is in discussions with the company about opportunities.
“We are interested in working with the city on its water storage project,” Russell Larsen, the chief operating officer of Elam, was quoted as saying in the news release. “There are benefits for both entities. The city can assist us with reclamation of the property into the future and we are eager to explore ways we can support Aspen’s water storage needs.”
The city also said it is researching “the environmental, hydrologic and geologic nature” of the two Woody Creek parcels, and Barwick said he expects the City Council to make a decision to purchase the land within 90 days.
The city will be studying the 63 acres for the potential to develop both above-ground storage and in-situ, or underground, storage. And Barwick said the gravel pit may present the best potential to build an above-ground reservoir, “since there is already a pit there.”
If reservoirs were developed in any of the potential locations, the stored water – if used to meet municipal water demands – would have to be pumped back up to the city’s water treatment plant, which sits on a hill behind Aspen Valley Hospital.
“Worst-case scenario, you pump water into them and then pump water back up,” Barwick said. “We would prefer someday to create a gravity-fed storage system.”
He also said the Aspen City Council must figure out how much water the city may need to store in the future. A second work session on the topic has been set for Monday evening.
Praise from opponents
Officials from Western Resource Advocates also praised the city’s announcement.
“We’re pretty encouraged,” said Rob Harris, a senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates. “We’re not at the destination yet, but if you want to reach a different destination, the first concept is to change course, and it seems like the city has done that today.”
But in a news release Western Resource Advocates also included a cautionary note.
“The city’s announcement does not, in itself, end the pending water court cases considering the city’s conditional water rights,” the release said. “The city’s press release makes clear that its willingness to entirely drop the Maroon and Castle creeks dams from its water rights portfolio has preconditions.”
Noto, the water attorney for three clients in the cases, said the city’s announcement was “potentially a step in the right direction. I appreciate the fact that they are looking hard at alternatives.”
When asked about the city’s intention to try to transfer the 1971 decree date of the Castle and Maroon rights, Noto pointed out if they were successful, those rights would then be senior to the instream flow rights held on the Roaring Fork River by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the recreational in-channel diversion rights held by Pitkin County in its new kayak park in Basalt.
“They would be jumping ahead, essentially, of two large water rights, and I’m sure that will be cause for concern,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story online on July 19 and published it in its printed edition on July 20, 2017.