Colorado Communities Symposium, January 31 through February 2, 2018

Join Governor John Hickenlooper, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and dozens of elected officials and community and business leaders from throughout Colorado to participate in visioning workshops and educational programs related to climate preparedness and clean energy development in Colorado.

The Colorado Communities Symposium will feature a series of plenary sessions, breakout tracks with interactive scenario planning sessions, training events and roundtable discussions, tabletop exhibition, post-conference workshops and meetings, networking events and an awards dinner.

“Experts Warn About Dry Conditions in Colorado” — January 19, 2018 @H2ORadio

Click here to listen to the show. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

The Governor’s Water Availability Task Force met on Thursday, January 18th to discuss snowpack, precipitation, reservoir levels, and weather forecasts. While reservoir levels are currently doing well, the news delivered by a panel of experts overall was not very good.

Dr. Becky Bolinger, a climatologist at Colorado State University set the tone when she started off the meeting by saying, “I am going to apologize ahead of time for my doom and gloom report. It’s not my fault, I’m just the messenger.” She pointed out that November 2017 was the hottest November ever on average in Colorado in 123 years of record-keeping, and December continued that pattern.

In fact, the average temperature from October to December last year was almost 4 degrees higher than previous years. And you may have noticed that the trend seems to be continuing into January this year with Friday’s temperature approaching 70 some places along the Front Range.

As far as precipitation, it was very dry in December—almost 2 inches below average statewide, with the driest areas in the southwest and the southeast. According to recent data from the Colorado Snow Survey Program, the state snowpack is one of the lowest since 1980, with the Gunnison, San Juan, and Rio Grande basins receiving well below average precipitation.

But the most serious warnings about our current situation came from Klaus Wolter, a research scientist with the University of Colorado and NOAA. Dr. Wolter told H2O Radio that it is the first time in five years that we are looking at emerging drought conditions in Colorado. He added that all conditions are for a dry spring, and there may still be near normal precipitation and snow in the mountains for the next month, and maybe, if lucky two months. But, then going forward into the spring he is very concerned about a really dry spring.

He said it was time for a wakeup call that we could not only be looking at low precipitation in the spring, but an increased possibility of wildfires because of higher temperatures combined with the dry conditions. But even more worrisome, he said there are some signs indicating that a drought could be longer than one year, but added that it’s still too early to predict.

The Governor’s Task Force will meet next in February.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 20, 2018 via the NRCS.

Aspen officials say city needs to store 8,500 acre-feet of water as backup — @AspenJournalism

Site of proposed maroon creek reservoir via Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith)

The city of Aspen told the state [in late December, 2017] it will need 8,500 acre-feet of water storage in order to meet water demands in a hotter and drier world.

The disclosure of how much water storage the city thinks it will need to store in 2065 came as part of a response the city provided Friday to state officials in water court, who were seeking a “substantive” written response by Dec. 29 from the city to issues raised about the potential Maroon Creek and Castle Creek reservoirs.

As part of its response, the city included a Dec. 7 letter from its engineering consultants, Deere and Ault of Longmont, who concluded “the required storage capacity for the city of Aspen is approximately 8,500 acre-feet.”

To help put that into context, Lost Man Reservoir holds 100 acre-feet of water; Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek holds 590 acre-feet; Wildcat Reservoir, visible from the Snowmass Ski Area, holds 1,100 acre-feet; Harvey Gap Reservoir, north of New Castle, holds 5,060 acre-feet; Paonia Reservoir, west of McClure Pass, holds 20,950 acre-feet; and Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River holds 102,369 acre-feet.

Engineers at Deere and Ault based their storage estimate on a Nov. 30 study done for the city by Headwaters Corp., titled “Aspen’s Water Future: Estimating the Number and Severity of Possible Future Water Shortages.”

The report, which also was submitted to the court, assumed that a warming climate means less water will be flowing down Castle and Maroon creeks, the city’s two main sources of water, and that the runoff will come earlier.

And, working toward a worst-case scenario, they assumed that the city will not increase water conservation efforts, that large irrigation diversions from Maroon and Castle creeks will not be decreased, and that the city will still try to maintain environmental flow levels on both creeks, which it is not legally obligated to do.

The Headwaters report found that water shortages of over 1,000 acre-feet a year could occur in five out of 100 years, with “shortage” defined to include current irrigation diversions and environmental flows on top of domestic uses.

Deere and Ault then used the Headwaters risk-analysis study to come up with a necessary water storage amount of 8,500 acre-feet to offset the potential water shortages, although its two-page Dec. 7 letter does not describe in detail how it reached its conclusion based on the Headwaters report.

The conclusion from Deere and Ault is different than one made for the city by Wilson Water Group in 2016, which concluded in a report — adopted by the city — that the city would not need new water storage if it took other steps, such as increasing conservation, installing ground wells and using “reuse” water to irrigate its golf course.

In 1965, an engineer working for the city of Aspen selected this location, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, as the location for a potential 155-foot-tall dam. The city is still on record with the state as intending to build the dam here, if necessary, to meet its future water needs.

Storage rights

The city has been maintaining conditional water storage rights since 1965 for the two potential reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.

The Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam across upper Maroon Creek, within view of the Maroon Bells, and the Castle Creek Reservoir would hold, as currently decreed, 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-foot-tall dam across Castle Creek, 2 miles below Ashcroft.

The conditional storage rights, which hold a 1971 decree, are distinct from the city’s absolute diversion rights on Castle and Maroon, which are senior rights and adequately supply the city’s water system today.

In July, the city announced its intention to try to transfer the conditional storage rights out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys, and it has put a parcel of land next to the gravel pit in Woody Creek under contract and directed staff to begin developing a reservoir there.

A study done by Deere and Ault in September concluded the city could store up to 8,000 acre-feet of water on the Woody Creek site. The city has said it is also looking at other places to potentially store water, including the city’s golf course and the Cozy Point open space at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82.

The city has also put forth a settlement proposal to the 10 parties opposing its efforts to maintain its water rights, and the proposal is predicated upon the city transferring its storage rights out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys.

But no settlement has yet been reached and the city is still officially on the record with the state of Colorado, through its two applications in water court, saying it fully intends to build both the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs, someday, when necessary.

A map provided by the city of Aspen showing the two parcels in Woody Creek it has under contract. The city is investigating the possibility of building a reservoir on the site, as well as looking at the possibility of a reservoir in the neighboring Elam gravel pit.

Outstanding questions

After reviewing the two due diligence applications filed by the city in October 2016 seeking to maintain the conditional storage rights, the division engineer and water court referee in Divison 5 in Glenwood Springs raised a set of threshold issues they wanted the city to address.

The officials asked on Jan. 23 for the city to demonstrate it could secure permits and land-use approvals to build the dams and reservoirs, that it could do so in a reasonable time, that it has a specific plan to build them, and that there was sufficient population growth in Aspen’s water service area to justify storing the water.

The city’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell of Alperstein and Covell in Denver, has been reluctant to respond in detail to the court’s request, which came in the form of a summary of consultation.

In her Dec. 29 letter to the court, Covell suggested it was outside of the court’s purview to ask the city to do so at this point in the proceedings.

“Aspen maintains that much of this concern is based on the division engineer’s view of applicable law, and is beyond the proper scope of a consultation report, but nevertheless, responds as follows …” Covell said in her letter.

Covell then reiterated several points that city officials have been making over the past year, including that the city today does not have any “meaningful storage facilities” and that climate change projections “demonstrate the need for storage.”

And while she did not make a detailed case to the court that the city of Aspen could build the Castle Creek Reservoir or the Maroon Creek Reservoir, she did say Aspen could get the necessary permits and arrange financing for reservoirs.

“As a financially stable municipality, Aspen has available to it a number of financing options and therefore will be able to construct a reservoir sufficient to store 8,500 acre-feet,” Covell told the court in her letter in the Castle Creek case. “The decreed location of the Castle Creek Reservoir is primarily on private land. Aspen is able to acquire private land by purchase, lease or eminent domain. Legal procedures and mechanisms exist to obtain land-use approvals and permits on federal land, if necessary, including special-use permit, Congressional authorization and presidential authorization.”

On the other hand, Covell included language that alludes to the city’s stated intent to try to transfer the Castle and Maroon rights out of Castle Creek to another location, such as Woody Creek, and then fill that new reservoir with water from both Castle and Maroon creeks.

“Aspen will develop both the Castle Creek Reservoir storage right (to the extent of 8,500 acre-feet) [and] the companion Maroon Creek Reservoir storage right … in order to provide two sources to meet this storage need,” Covell wrote, without specifically mentioning a reservoir outside of the Castle or Maroon creek valleys. “The total amount of storage will be 8,500 acre-feet from both sources, with no more than 8,500 acre-feet to be diverted annually from Castle Creek. Aspen will relinquish the remaining 562 acre-feet decreed to the Castle Creek Reservoir.”

It’s not clear why the city is willing to relinquish 562 acre-feet from the potential Castle Creek Reservoir right, which is now decreed at 9,062 acre-feet, but it may be a reflection of two earlier agreements with adjoining land owners to reduce the size of the reservoir so as not to flood their properties.

In a separate letter to the court regarding Maroon Creek, Covell took a similar stance, saying the city “will be able to construct a reservoir sufficient to store the 4,567 acre-feet per year to be diverted from Maroon Creek,” but didn’t say where that reservoir might be located.

A status conference in the two water court cases is set for Jan. 4. The parties could agree to keep the case on a quasi-administrative track in front of a water court referee, or the case could be set on a trial track in front of a water court judge.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The Aspen Times published this story in its print edition on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2017 and the Post Independent published it on Jan. 3.

@AspenJournalism: Study provides insight into how dams affect ecology of southwestern #Colorado rivers

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado on Memorial Day in 2009. Photo/Allen Best

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The San Miguel and Dolores rivers are both southwestern Colorado waterways that begin high in the San Juan Mountains.

Both carve through narrow, red sandstone canyons. Eventually, the two rivers become one when the San Miguel merges into the Dolores and the Dolores with the Colorado River in eastern Utah.

But there is one major difference: The Dolores is dammed at McPhee Reservoir near the town of Dolores, while the San Miguel is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.

A study of plant traits on these two rivers may provide clues about how riparian habitats will respond to climate change, not just in southwestern Colorado, but across the state and the West.

Measuring traits

Researchers from Colorado State University recently completed a two-year study on the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, the results of which were presented at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum in Grand Junction in November.

The study compared two sites on the Dolores (Rico and Bedrock) with two sites on the San Miguel (Placerville and Uravan) by documenting different plant traits at each of the four sites. A “trait” is simply a measureable feature of a plant, such as leaf area, root depth, and height. The more diverse these traits are, the higher something called “functional diversity.”

For both of the upstream sites, Placerville and Rico, functional diversity was higher than it was at the downstream sites, which scientists expected because the downstream sites receive less rainfall. But the Bedrock site, downstream from McPhee Reservoir, had a much lower functional diversity than its sister site of Uravan. This is likely due to the changes in the river’s flow as a result of the dam. With lower functional diversity comes a decreased resistance to invasive species or climate change.

“Dams really do have a huge impact on the downstream ecosystem, and it’s not always talked about,” said Erin Cubley, one of the researchers on the project and a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at Colorado State University. “Dams hold sediments and seeds, they change the flow; they change the processes that are essential in maintaining these ecosystems.”

The dam across the Dolores River that forms McPhee Reservoir is downstream from the small town of Dolores. It forms the fifth biggest reservoir in the state and holds back about 381,000 acre-feet of water. McPhee Reservoir supplies the agricultural irrigation needs of farmers and ranchers south of the Dolores River Basin. The resulting decreased flow below the dam has big impacts on the downstream ecology, Cubley said. A smaller river channel cuts deeper, not wider, and this lowers the groundwater that riparian plants depend upon for survival.

“Riparian species have a big taproot and can access water a few feet down, but if they can’t access groundwater, they die,” Cubley said. “That is what we are seeing at Bedrock.”

Spring runoff

By measuring traits and functional diversity instead of specific plant species (which may vary depending on the river and location in the watershed), the study has implications for many of the state’s rivers.

“By using traits, we can look at how similar their traits are and put them into groups and say, ‘OK, we can transfer our findings across rivers that have different species compositions,’” Cubley said.

Another way dams alter the natural flow of the river has to do with spring runoff. Many dams are managed solely with maximum storage capacity in mind, said David M. Merritt, a riparian ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service National Stream and Aquatic Ecology Center. There are easy tweaks water managers can make that will not compromise the power or storage needs of the dam that can also improve the ecological functioning downstream.

For example, one of the most important components of river health is peak flows and flooding with spring runoff. Some species, such as the cottonwood tree, time the release of their seeds to coincide with peak flows. The fluffy white fibers use the river to carry them downstream to hopefully take root in the riverbank. But when dams control the river and don’t allow for this peak flow to happen, it can have a negative effect on cottonwoods, as well as the whole downstream ecosystem.

“If you are a dam operator, it might be easy for you to time a spike that coincides with that historic timing,” Merritt said. “The timing of peak flow is reliant on temperatures with a little variability annually. A dam operator would have tremendous flexibility on when that would occur.”

A view of the Dolores River below Slickrock.

Effects of climate change

Assuming that the future of the American West will be warmer and drier than it currently is, the research team can model what a future ecosystem might look like: At what point will more drought-resistant plants move in? If you change the flows of a river, then how will the vegetation respond? What would happen if water managers changed dam operations?

“What if climate change is twice as bad or what if it’s not as bad?” Merritt said. “We are scientists who predict change. … We will be able to show predictions of what the vegetation will look like. It’s a model and a technique that can be used on any river anywhere.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, The Aspen Times, and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Jan. 2, 2017. The Summit Daily published it on Jan. 3.

Dolores River watershed

Aspen’s proposal to move rights out of Castle and Maroon creeks well-received — @AspenJournalism

Castle Creek

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The city of Aspen has put forward a proposal that would move its conditional water-storage rights, and with it two potential dams and reservoirs, out of the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys and spread a proposed 8,500 acre-feet of water storage among as much as six locations between Aspen and Woody Creek.

That deal was well-received Thursday by opposing parties in two water-court cases tied to the potential Castle and Maroon reservoirs during a brief water court status conference. The city circulated a settlement proposal Dec. 8 to the 10 parties opposing the city’s efforts to maintain a conditional right to store 4,567 acre-feet of water in a potential Maroon Creek Reservoir and 9,062 acre-feet in a potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

In its proposal, according to sources close to the negotiations, the city said it will seek to transfer its conditional storage rights from the two reservoirs to other potential reservoirs on a range of other sites that could hold as much as a combined 8,500 acre-feet of water from Maroon and Castle creeks.

The reservoirs, either surface or underground “in-situ,” would be built on a range of potential locations including the city’s golf course, the Moore, Burlingame, and Cozy Point open space parcels, the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction, and a parcel of vacant land next to the gravel pit the city now has under contract.

Under the deal, the city would make a firm commitment to move its potential reservoirs out of the Maroon Creek and Castle Creek valleys, and the opposing parties would refrain from fighting the city’s future efforts in water court to transfer its conditional storage rights, and its 1971 decree dates, to the new locations.

“Based on what I’ve heard today it sounds like … there is some consensus that the cases are moving toward settlement,” Division 5 water court referee Susan Ryan said Thursday after each of the attorneys in the two cases stated their view of the ongoing settlement negotiations.

Ryan set another status conference in the two cases for Feb. 15.

The city filed two periodic applications with the court Oct. 31, 2016, to show it’s been diligent in developing its conditional storage rights for the Maroon and Castle creek reservoirs, which it first filed in 1965. The recent applications drew opposition from the U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin County, American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates, Wilderness Workshop, and four private landowners, two in each valley.

James DuBois, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department in Denver, told the referee during Thursday’s status conference that “as far as the United States’ objections, I think it’s likely we’ll be able to reach settlement.”

Craig Corona, a water attorney representing the Larsen family, which owns property in Maroon Creek, also was bullish on the city’s proposal to move the water rights out of the valleys.

“Larsen Family LP feels like we’re making substantial progress in negotiating toward a settlement,” Corona told the water court referee. “And we’re happy to stay on the referee’s docket at least for another 45 days to try to finalize the settlement agreement.”

Any party in a water court case has the option at any time to re-refer a case away from a settlement track under the purview of a water court referee and put the case on a trial track in front of a water court judge.

Paul Noto, a water attorney representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and another Maroon Creek landowner, told the court, “My broad view of the status is that we are making some headway toward settlement and I’d prefer, for one, to avoid trial-track deadlines and focus on settlement issues.”

Rob Harris, a staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, who also is representing Wilderness Workshop, said, “I agree that we’ve made significant progress toward settlement and I think we’d benefit from at least another couple months or so to pursue settlement.”

Attorneys for Pitkin County and the two property owners in Castle Creek said they did not object to the case staying in front of the referee.

Aspen’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell, told the court that the city has only just recently received a number of written comments to its proposal from the opposing parties, and that the city would like about a month to review them and further discuss its proposal with the parties.

The property next to the Elam gravel pit and the Woody Creek raceway that the City of Aspen has put under contract. The city is investigating the site as a place for potential water storage, either underground or above ground.

Storage options

Aspen officials have been reviewing alternative water storage sites for about a year with the help of Deere and Ault, an engineering firm in Longmont.

A study done in September by Deere and Ault identified a range of in-situ and surface reservoirs that could be built, in differing combinations, on the Woody Creek gravel pit site and the neighboring parcel of land the city intends to buy.

The options include a 320 acre-foot in-situ, or underground, reservoir and five options for surface reservoirs in various configurations that would hold between 700 acre-feet and 8,000 acre-feet of water. The Woody Creek reservoirs range in cost from $48 million to $81 million and would require about 6.5 miles of pipeline to reach the city’s water treatment plant.

Deere and Ault has also found, in a screening study of various sites, that the city could store water in a number of potential in-situ reservoirs on other sites upvalley from Woody Creek.

In-situ reservoirs require deep trenches dug 50 to 100 feet down to bedrock, depending on the site. The trenches form the walls of the storage vessel, or bucket, while the bedrock, and sometimes a geosynthetic liner, forms the bottom of the bucket.

The rocks and dirt on the site are not excavated, but left in place between water-tight slurry walls poured into the surrounding trenches. Water is then poured into the bucket and pumped out for later use.

Deere and Ault found that an in-situ reservoir could be built on the city-owned Moore open space, across Maroon Creek Road from the Aspen Chapel, to hold 550 acre-feet of water, at a cost of $26.9 million. The water could then be pumped nearly a mile via a pipeline to the city’s water treatment plant, which is on a hill behind Aspen Valley Hospital.

The city’s golf course could hold two in-situ reservoirs, one holding 650 acre-feet and another holding 760 acre-feet, for a total of 1400 acre-feet, at a combined cost of $71.3 million.

The Burlingame, or Zoline, open space, which is 1.9 miles from the water treatment plant and owned by the city, could accommodate a 650-acre-foot in-situ reservoir, at an estimated project cost of $34 million.

The Cozy Point open space, also owned by the city, could hold two 100-acre-foot reservoirs for a combined 200 acre-feet of storage. The site is 5.6 miles from the water treatment plant and the estimated project cost for the reservoirs and pipeline system is $15.5 million.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

Agencies clarify status of famed ‘Toilet Bowl’ trout fishing area, anglers will continue having access

The ‘Toilet Bowl” remains open to anglers fishing from shore, but remains closed to water activities, including paddle boarding, free diving, swimming and wading

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, city of Aspen, Bureau of Reclamation, Eagle County Sheriff’s office and the U.S. Forest Service are confirming anglers will continue having fishing access to the ‘Toilet Bowl from the shore; however, paddle boarding, free diving, swimming, and wading will remain prohibited.

Officials stress the water, located at the base of the Ruedi Dam on the Fryingpan River, is turbulent and subject to sudden changes in depth and flows. In addition, they caution the area has underwater hazards people are unable to see.

The five government agencies met last week to address social media rumors claiming the Toilet Bowl would no longer be accessible to anglers.

“Much of the confusion stems from varied interpretations of the existing signs which were placed to prevent unsafe activities and protect dam infrastructure” said District Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita of Basalt. “It was made clear during the meeting that the intent is to prohibit in-water recreation in the deep portion of the Toilet Bowl section, for safety and security reasons. Anglers standing on the shore are not the concern.”

Yamashita says the city of Aspen and Bureau of Reclamation will update signs in the area to clarify restrictions.

“Ultimately, for anglers, not much has changed,” he said. “They can continue to fish there, as they always have. Going forward, we ask everyone to follow the rules and regulations as signed, and be sure to respect all current and future signage.”

Officials recently repaired the fence around the hydroelectric plant, replacing a section damaged by a vehicle. Workers also placed posts for a gate they will install this spring. The gate will help keep vehicles away from hydroelectric plant structures.

“The fence and the gate only restrict vehicle access, not foot traffic,” added Yamashita.

The famed fishing hole is popular with anglers, many who travel from around the world to catch the large trout that thrive in the pool.