FromThe Center Square (Derek Draplin) via The Kiowa County Press:
President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order halting new leases for oil and natural gas development on federal land, a move criticized by the industry and some state governors.
“We’re going to review and reset the oil and gas leasing program,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House.
Biden said his administration is going to “properly manage lands and waterways in ways that allow us to protect, preserve them and the full value that they provide for us for future generations,” adding that his administration won’t ban fracking.
The administration cites greenhouse gas emissions and “irresponsible leasing” that negatively affects communities as the reason for the order, which won’t affect existing oil and gas development on federal land and doesn’t apply to tribal land.
The lease moratorium, which also applies to offshore leases, expands a secretarial order signed last week suspending new land leases and drilling permits for 60 days unless approved by Department of Interior (DOI) leadership. It’s also part of broader executive actions Biden took on Wednesday.
The executive actions establish an Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the White House along with a National Climate Task Force. Biden is also directing DOI to establish a plan that will conserve 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030…
Other states, like Colorado, welcomed Biden’s climate actions and pledge to work with his administration.
“We will also work closely with the Biden administration as they begin a program-wide review of energy development policy on public lands to ensure that it works for Colorado,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. “And as long as the review is completed expeditiously we don’t expect an economic impact in the short-term with current market factors and the many existing unused leases and permits.”
Environmental advocacy groups praised the moratorium along with the administration’s broader efforts on fighting climate change.
“Hitting pause on oil and gas leasing is a crucial first step toward reforming a rigged and broken system that for too long has put oil and gas lobbyists ahead of the American people,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Denver, Colo.-based Center for Western Priorities.
The Sierra Club said the lease moratorium “will improve the health of our communities, our climate and our wild places.”
“We look forward to working with the Biden administration to secure lasting solutions that address the climate impacts of coal, oil and gas leasing and put in place long-overdue protections for communities, taxpayers, and the climate,” said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s director of Public Lands Protection.
Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office (Chris Arend):
The State of Colorado, through the Department of Natural Resources, filed a complaint today in Colorado federal court challenging the approval of the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Uncompahgre Field Office. The Uncompahgre RMP, finalized in April 2020, governs mineral extraction and other land use activities on federal lands spanning five counties in southwestern Colorado. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) protested the proposed RMP in July 2019, and Governor Polis also submitted inconsistencies between the RMP and state policies, but those concerns were dismissed by the BLM in the final plan.
The State’s complaint details how William Perry Pendley, a BLM deputy director, violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) when he improperly exercised the authority to resolve DNR’s protest while unlawfully occupying the role of the agency’s acting director. Resolving such protests is a responsibility reserved exclusively to the Secretary of Interior, a U.S. Senate-approved BLM Director, or a legitimate acting director nominated by the President.
Mr. Pendley’s appointment by Secretary David Bernhardt was never reviewed by the U.S. Senate and had extended beyond the legal 90-day limit for temporary officials at the time when the plan was finalized. Colorado’s lawsuit follows a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit in Montana that invalidated two RMPs and an RMP amendment that were approved based on a similar unlawful protest resolution by Mr. Pendley.
“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Governor Jared Polis. “It is now Colorado communities and the State of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”
“The Department of Natural Resources raised legitimate concerns in its protest that the final Uncompahgre RMP runs counter to Colorado’s goals to protect sensitive habitat for big game species and other wildlife, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The complaint provides facts demonstrating that these concerns were not addressed appropriately, and the approval of the plan by Pendley’s BLM was invalid. We are hopeful that the uncertainty caused by the questionable appointment can be clarified by the court so that Western Slope and Southwest Colorado communities can reliably plan for the future.”
Attorney General Phil Weiser said: “In Colorado, our public lands are critical to our quality of life and economy. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management has taken a series of illegal actions in developing the resource management plan that harms and conflicts with our state’s policies. We are bringing this lawsuit to address those harms and safeguard public lands and wildlife in Colorado.”
The state’s argument that Pendley, the BLM’s “acting director,” did not have the authority to approve anything mirrors a federal case in Montana that overturned three resource-management plans.
Gov. Jared Polis didn’t like the Bureau of Land Management’s long-range management plan for the Uncompahgre Plateau, saying the expansion of oil drilling in the region did not jibe with state laws and regulations protecting water, air, wildlife and recreation.
And because the agency did not resolve those issues in its Resource Management Plan, Polis on Friday sued the BLM, as well as agency bureaucrat William Perry Pendley and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking a federal judge to overturn the Resource Management Plan (or RMP) for nearly 680,000 acres of federal land in western Colorado.
The state is following the lead of Montana, arguing not just that the management plan conflicts with state laws, but that Pendley, who was never formally approved by the U.S. Senate as director of the BLM, did not have the authority to approve the RMP in April.
“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Polis in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It is now Colorado communities and the state of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”
The final plan approved by Pendley was the first resource management plan approved under the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda to bolster domestic oil, gas and coal industries. It did not limit drilling in the North Fork Valley and expanded energy development across 675,800 acres of land and 971,200 acres of mineral estate in Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel counties. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns about energy projects potentially injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality.
The preferred plan that was on track in the fall of 2019 — crafted after many years of BLM meetings and work with local communities — was replaced by a new Trump Administration alternative in the spring of 2020 that identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues alongside reducing regulatory burdens for extractive industries and economic development. The BLM said the plan would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity to the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next two decades.
Earlier this month the BLM approved two oil and gas drilling projects in the North Fork Valley that allow up to 226 wells.
Colorado’s lawsuit, being handled by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, says the plan’s conflicts with state laws were never resolved, so the approval should be overturned.
As Colorado is experiencing extreme drought conditions, and farmers and ranchers are facing significant challenges as a result, Gov. Polis is taking action by expanding Phase 2 activation of the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the state’s remaining 24 counties and is calling on the USDA to expedite disaster aid payments to support Colorado producers.
In June, Governor Polis activated Phase 2 of the Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for 40 of Colorado’s 64 counties. Due to increased drought conditions, he decided to expand this to the remaining 24, which includes Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Douglas, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Jefferson, Lake, Larimer, Logan, Moffat, Morgan, Park, Phillips, Rio Blanco, Routt, Sedgwick, Summit, Teller, and Weld.
“Exceptional (D4) drought conditions returned to Colorado and continue to hold in Kiowa county; 50% of Colorado is currently experiencing extreme (D3) drought conditions; and 39% of the state is under severe (D2) drought (according to the Sept. 17th US Drought Monitor). As of the September 4th record, USDA drought disaster designations are active for 59 of 64 Colorado counties. Record breaking temperatures statewide are projected to persist over the next three months, meaning imminent relief is unlikely,” the Phase 2 activation Phase 2 activation letter reads.
The Governor also sent a letter to Secretary Perdue, encouraging the USDA to provide emergency relief for Colorado producers as a result of persistent drought conditions. “Colorado producers, in all four corners, continue to experience dire ecosystem conditions with depleted soil health, pest pressures, rangeland damage, and a heavy reliance on declining groundwater reserves,” the letter reads.
Governor Jared Polis and members of his administration released a statement following the Trump administration’s increased efforts to rollback the bedrock National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
“This bedrock law helps protect the air we breathe and the water that is the lifeblood of our communities. We know NEPA needs to be more streamlined to ensure renewable energy and infrastructure projects can get moving. The voices of Coloradans should be heard on the projects that impact our communities,” said Governor Jared Polis. “Yet the Trump administration continues to put its thumb on the scale in order to favor special interests over hardworking Coloradans who value our environment and support a deliberative, citizen involved government. While I share the goal of cutting red tape, this latest Trump move is a misstep.”
Director Lew and members of the Polis administration testified at a field hearing in Denver in opposition to the Trump administration’s misguided NEPA roll-back
“Our nation’s roads connect our country and economy, but, historically, they divided many communities in their path,” said CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. “Construction of the interstate cut through the heart of many cities and rural areas in America, with right of way often acquired disproportionately from lower-income and minority communities. On the heels of this activity in the 1950s and 1960s, NEPA provided a structured way to ensure a conversation with citizens about how a road, bridge or railway would affect their neighborhood, and to ensure opportunity for them to articulate their views or concerns. We can and should always find ways to improve these processes, but it is critical that we do so in ways that improve our understanding of the cumulative, direct, and indirect impact of projects on both our environment and our neighbors. This action misses the mark.”
“The decision by the Trump Administration to significantly alter NEPA implementation is the wrong direction for our country and Colorado,” said DNR Executive Director Dan Gibbs. “Coloradans highly value clean air and water. They want to protect our wildlife and open spaces, and ensure their communities are safe and healthy. The Trump Administration’s changes reduce safeguards, minimize the need to consider the broader or long-term impacts of federal decisions, and put arbitrary limits on environmental studies. These are contrary to Coloradans’ values and will likely result in further harm to Colorado’s natural resources, our economy, and communities.”
“Colorado’s economy and quality of life depend on clean air, clean water, and a stable climate,” said CEO Executive Director Will Toor. “The Trump administration’s new guidelines appear to be surgically designed to avoid consideration of the climate impacts of projects, will eliminate consideration of the cumulative impacts of fossil fuel development, and will undermine efforts to protect air quality in Colorado and other states.”
“This is what disempowerment looks like,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “The federal government is telling agencies to tune out community voices and ignore the most important issues when making decisions. This includes disregarding or diminishing questions of environmental justice, climate change, ozone pollution, and cumulative impacts. Colorado will once again step into the breach to protect its communities’ health, as well as our air, water and lands.”
The Trump administration’s adoption of narrower protections for wetlands and waterways can take effect almost everywhere in the nation, except Colorado, while courts review whether the move was legal.
A federal Judge in California on Friday rejected a request for a nationwide injunction of the rule. Hours later, a federal Judge in Colorado agreed to freeze the federal rule within that state.
The California court’s decision is a major blow to environmentalists and states that had hoped to block the Navigable Waters Protection Rule across the country before it takes effect Monday. Colorado, meanwhile, is celebrating its success in blocking the rule in the Centennial State.
A coalition of liberal states and cities challenged the joint rule from the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, saying the agencies violated multiple federal laws. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California heard a marathon session of arguments June 18…
Colorado had filed its own legal challenge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
Judge William J. Martinez said some of the state’s arguments were “unusual and partly self-contradictory,” but concluded that the state met the bar for a preliminary injunction, which will put the regulation on hold in that state while the litigation plays out.
Other lawsuits attacking the regulation are pending in district courts across the country, where litigants are pursuing similar efforts to block the measure.
The Trump rule defines which types of wetlands and waterways are subject to federal regulations under the Clean Water Act. The interpretation replaces the Obama-era Clean Water Rule and a set of Reagan-era regulations.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
NARROW WOTUS ON HOLD IN CO
The adoption of narrower Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands is currently blocked in Colorado, as a result of a court ruling on the state’s challenge to the new federal rule. Details are in this Bloomberg Law report.
Result of Denver’s 2017 voter initiative now showing up in greener buildings
In 2017, Denver residents approved a voter-initiated proposal to require green roofs on buildings of more than 25,000 square feet.
Now comes the first report since the initiative was folded into a broader Green Buildings Ordinance in November 2018. City officials say that nearly all the approximately 65 projects subject to the law have been able to include a cool roof.
The U.S. Department of Energy identifies a cool roof as one designed to reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat than a standard roof. Cool roofs can be made of a highly reflective type of paint, a sheet covering, or highly reflective tiles or shingles. Nearly any type of building can benefit from a cool roof, but consider the climate and other factors before deciding to install one.
The voter initiative was amended to give developers and builders more options to meet the intent of the law, which was to more briskly take action to reduce energy use, in keeping with the city’s bold climate-change goals, and tamp down the heat-island effect.
The green-building ordinance also gives builders and developers other options for complying with the intent of the law. Those options include on-site solar power production, purchase of off-site solar power, payment to the city’s Green Building Fund, and other conservation methods, or some combination of them.
This story is from May 11, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. For a copy, send your e-mail to email@example.com
The initiative was passed over the opposition of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who said it went “too far,” echoing what development and real estate lobbies said.
Ean Tafoya, who was deputy director of the 2017 campaign, said his side won handily despite being outspent 10 to 1. Now, he’s been to see the results of that on a hotel roof in RiNo, and he’s proud of what he sees.
“We’re excited that it is actually being implemented,” he said. He also notes the benefit that the green rooftops will help with not only the long-term climate impact, but the short-term air quality.
The idea was first broached formally in Denver in 2008 by a task force. “But the overriding lesson is that citizens can use the initiative to effect change.” Following the success of the cool roof law in 2017, others have used the same process to effect other changes in Denver.
Denver planning officials credit the green building ordinance with sparking conversations among developers and builders.
“Developers, property owners, and project teams are participating in important conversations around the value of higher-performing buildings, both to the environment and for the people who live and work in as well as visit these places,” said Laura E. Aldrete, executive director, Denver Community Planning and Development.
“Continuing these conversations will be central to the development community’s ability to meet mandatory building codes designed to help Denver achieve its broader climate action goals,” she added.
“The Green Buildings Ordinance has accelerated the citywide conversation about the role of our built environment in combating climate change,” said Grace Rink, executive director, Denver Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. “New codes and programs, including the Denver Green Code adopted in December 2019, will build upon this foundation to work toward our community’s climate action goals.”
The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade announced a total of $7.3 million in Advanced Industries Accelerator grants Thursday to companies and educational institutions around the state, including in Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley…
Sandbox Solar, Fort Collins — $250,000 — Currently, agriculture and renewable energy compete over the remnants of land space in our urban centers across the U.S. Sandbox Solar is developing a method, service, and technology for the two industries to exist compatibly and enable optimal land use. More distributed solar energy will be able to be deployed in strategic locations that keep agriculture in production. This relationship will increase the overall economics to the farmer and to solar developers…
Why Cycles dba Revel Bikes, Carbondale — $250,000 — Revel Bikes designs and builds the best, and most fun, full-suspension mountain bikes you’ll ever ride, and they do it in the most sustainable way possible. Their bikes, as well as their wheels and other high quality bike products, are created with superior materials for strength and performance, unique engineering for comfort and speed, and cutting edge technology for advancing the industry and diminishing the environmental footprint throughout the process.
Colorado and other Western states will be hard pressed to shield their rivers and streams under a new federal Clean Water Act rule finalized last month, largely because hundreds of shallow Western rivers are no longer protected, and writing new state laws and finding the cash to fill the regulatory gap will likely take years to accomplish, officials said.
“We are pleased the final rule protects important agriculture exemptions and provides continued assurance that states retain authority and primary responsibility over land and water resources…However, the federal government’s decision to remove from federal oversight ephemeral waters, certain intermittent streams, and many wetlands is based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis,” Weiser said in a statement.
Whether Colorado will seek an injunction to stop the new rule from being enforced and whether it will join other Western states in a legal challenge isn’t clear. Weiser and Pfaltzgraff declined to discuss their legal strategy, other than vowing to take action.
The Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of water agencies and agricultural interests, had been largely supportive of the new rule before it was finalized. But Executive Director Doug Kemper said the group hasn’t finished its analysis of the final version.
Formally adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency April 21, the move to significantly revise the WOTUS rule began after President Trump took office and vowed to reverse policies established under the Obama Administration.
The new rule has already triggered a handful of lawsuits seeking to stop the EPA from enforcing them. One was filed by cattle growers in New Mexico alleging that the rule is still too onerous, and at least two others have been filed by environmental interests in South Carolina and Massachusetts, who say the rule leaves too many streams unprotected.
And more are expected.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) has been legally hamstrung for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
One rule never fits all
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, the CWA, now nearly 50 years old, is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been, at times, fiendishly difficult to administer, in part because of the nation’s widely different geographies.
Go to the East or Midwest, and massive rivers, such as the Ohio and Missouri, are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new rule, only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, will be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states would no longer be protected under the law.
A financial quandary
And that worries state water quality officials who are responsible for protecting Colorado’s streams.
They warn that writing state rules and finding millions of dollars in new cash to enforce water quality protections will be difficult, especially as the COVID-19 budget crisis unfolds. Officials of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which includes the Water Quality Control Division, say that until state rules are in place, new housing developments and other projects could be stopped because there is no mechanism yet to issue the permits that were once issued by the federal government.
“While the specific impacts of this rule still are being determined, there’s no question this rollback removes huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction—the most of any administration since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The state will need to put in significant resources to determine how to continue to protect these waters and to determine how this rule will be implemented as the rule is unclear as written,” the CDPHE said in an email.
“Specific construction projects and associated permitting processes that were originally covered…won’t be able to move forward without doing so illegally and harming the environment,” the CDPHE said.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said it would make sense to pursue an injunction to give the state time to set up its own regulations and find a way to fund them.
“If you read the economic analysis that accompanies the rule, there are assumptions that the states will step up and take this over. The potential is for it to be really dysfunctional. We’ve got to get something set up,” Kassen said.
EPA officials have said they don’t expect federal funding to enforce the Clean Water Act will be reduced, even though the new WOTUS rule is smaller in scope and governs fewer waterways.
Still the CDPHE and most opponents of the new rule believe millions of dollars will be needed to fill in any regulatory gap.
How far Colorado will go to challenge the new rule isn’t clear. The CDPHE’s Pfaltzgraff said his agency is still analyzing its next steps.
“It is now up to the state to provide the necessary protection of both Colorado’s economy and the environment,” Pfaltzgraff said in a statement. “We are going to do everything we can, while also addressing the impacts from COVID-19, to ensure Coloradans live in the healthy state they deserve.”
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.
Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt has been appointed by Governor Jared Polis to serve on the Colorado Water Conservation Board; a three year term of office effective February 12, 2020 to February 12, 2023. According to Felt, the appointment represents a shift from what has traditionally been a Front Range focus.
“The Front range gets more attention than we do. But what has been happening is a recognition and an understanding that these upper basins of our major river systems of the state are where the big, forested watersheds are,” said Felt earlier this week. “A lot of those are like ours – not in the best of health and at risk for wildfire. We need to focus more attention on those challenges, as we’ve done through the Envision process here.”
Felt’s viewpoint; that our water infrastructure is dependent upon a healthy forest. “The forest is our greatest reservoir [of water] of all and if we don’t give it some attention, all the dams, and pipelines and ditches aren’t going to be nearly as effective. Watershed health is becoming a big part of the picture.”
While he sees progress ahead, Felt says there are challenges. “How do we achieve those greater goods, without compromising the property? There are trade-offs – what are we willing to do to protect what we value? It will take some creative thinking – getting folks involved who aren’t purely part of the institutions of water management.”
Felt, who still faces Colorado Senate confirmation, says that the role he is taking on is only possible because of the great mentorship he has received over the past several years. “I think I been fortunate to have some great mentors in this field. People like Terry Skanga, Ken Baker and Jim Broderick down at Southeastern [Colorado Water Conservancy] – Alan Hamel of Pueblo board of Waterworks – without their help and guidance I don’t think I’d be at the point where I’m ready to try this. It takes a long time to learn this stuff, and it’s important that we keep passing on the knowledge.”
Three appointments were made to the CWCB. Felt is unaffiliated. Also reappointed to the CWCB were Celene Nicole Hawkins of Durango, Colorado, a resident of the San Miguel-Dolores-San Juan drainage basin and a Democrat, and Heather Renae Dutton, a Republican of Del Norte, Colorado, representing the Rio Grande drainage basin.
Rebecca Mitchell was named to the Colorado Water Conservation Board on July 5, 2017. Photo credit the Colorado Independent.
Detailed Colorado River Basin map via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arendt):
Governor Jared Polis appointed Rebecca Mitchell as the Colorado Commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission today. The Upper Colorado River Commission is an interstate water agency consisting of the Upper Colorado River Basin States of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.
“The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American West and is critically important for Colorado’s economy, agriculture, outdoor recreation and our way of life,” said Governor Polis. “Rebecca Mitchell will bring experience, leadership and a thorough knowledge of Colorado River issues and will enhance the shared mission of the Upper basin states of comity and collaboration as the Colorado River Commissioner.”
The Upper Colorado River Commission’s function is to ensure compact compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The Commission was established so states work together and in partnership to meet their obligations to the lower basin states while safeguarding the Upper basin states’ Colorado River water rights and allocations. The Commission is comprised of one representative appointed by the Governor of each Upper basin state and one member appointed by the President to represent the United States.
“The Colorado River faces unique future challenges with increased population, persistent drought, and impacts of climate change,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “We appreciate the service of outgoing Commissioner James Eklund, and Becky is ready to take the reins. She has been an incredible leader at the Colorado Water Conservation Board and her experience is needed now more than ever as the Upper basin states’ enact their provisions of the Colorado River drought contingency plans signed earlier this year.”
“It’s an honor to serve as the Colorado Commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Commission,” said Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There is no more important river than the Colorado both here and across the American West. In Colorado we have built a strong culture of collaboration, innovation, and smart policy to drive future water planning and I plan on bringing the same cooperative spirit and leadership to the Upper Colorado River Commission.”
“I am so proud to have represented Colorado in achieving interstate and international solutions for the Colorado River,” said outgoing Commissioner James Eklund. “The innovative tools we created and put in place are ready for implementation to the benefit of the entire basin. Colorado is now well-positioned to continue its legacy of leadership under the Polis Administration collaboratively and inclusively.”
Rebecca Mitchell (Becky) serves as the Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). She is an accomplished water leader with over 17 years experience in the Colorado water sector and highly knowledgeable in the water laws of the State. Mitchell played a significant part in working with the State’s Basin Roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee, the public at large and CWCB staff in producing Colorado’s Water Plan. Becky has worked in the public and private sector as a consulting engineer; she received both her B.S. and M.S. from the Colorado School of Mines.
Governor Polis also appointed John McClow, General Counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and David Robbins, Hill & Robbins, P.C. to serve as alternate commissioners.
David Robbins photo via Hill and Robbins P.C.
Sean Cronin and John McClow at the 2014 CFWE President’s Award Reception
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday named Rebecca Mitchell as Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, replacing Mesa County native James Eklund.
Mitchell also is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The Upper Colorado River Commission works to ensure compact compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources said in a new release. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are represented on the commission, with the goal of partnering to meet obligations to Lower Basin states while safeguarding Colorado River water rights and allocations in Upper Basin states.
Eklund, who has deep family roots in the Plateau Valley, is a former CWCB director who in that position led the effort to create Colorado’s first water plan.
He stepped down as director in 2017 to take a job as an attorney at a law firm, but remained as Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, serving without compensation.
Both Eklund and Mitchell played roles in Colorado reaching agreements with other basin states for drought contingency planning…
Mitchell got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Colorado School of Mines, has worked as a consulting engineer, and has more than 17 years of experience in Colorado’s water sector. She also played a significant part in the development of Colorado’s water plan.
County to consider 1,000-foot standard for all new oil and gas wells
Adams County could become the first community in Colorado to require a larger separation between new wells and occupied buildings than the state mandates, as leaders at both the state and local level wrestle with how to implement a historic oil and gas reform law passed this year.
The Denver Post got an early look at a draft of the county’s oil and gas regulations, which the commissioners will likely vote on at the end of the month. They call for a 1,000-foot buffer between wells and homes, schools and day care centers — doubling the distance the state presently requires.
The issue of well setbacks became the topic de jour during the 2018 election, when voters were asked to increase the distance between new wells and homes and schools to 2,500 feet statewide. The ballot issue, Proposition 112, was soundly defeated.
But after the passage of Senate Bill 181 in April, which ended state preemption over energy extraction matters and tasked state regulators with putting health and safety ahead of industry expansion, local governments now have the opportunity to increase setbacks on their own.
Adams County in March put a six-month moratorium on any new drilling so that it could rewrite its rules for the industry. There are hundreds of pending permits for wells in the county…
It’s likely communities that have taken an even firmer stance against oil and gas activity in the past, such as Boulder and Larimer counties, may put in place even larger setbacks than what Adams County is proposing…
Just two years ago, when the state did have total authority over setbacks, Thornton was successfully sued by oil and gas industry groups when the city attempted to enlarge setbacks by 250 feet over the state’s minimum.
The judge, in casting aside Thornton’s rules, found that municipalities “cannot authorize what state law forbids or forbid what state law allows.” That has all changed in the wake of SB 181 becoming law.
The state is just embarking on what is expected to be a months-long process to write rules to implement the new oil and gas law. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission held two days of public hearings last week, which were marked with repeated disruptions from fracking opponents in the audience.
Meanwhile, communities continue crafting or revamping their own rules.
“A fundamental obligation of local governments is to mitigate incompatible land uses,” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said. “Large-scale oil and gas facilities are often intense industrial uses, which can be incompatible with residential neighborhoods.”
But O’Dorisio said the 1,000-foot buffer being considered is not a “hardline” threshold, as there is language in the proposed rules that would allow oil and gas operators to apply on a case-by-case basis for a waiver to drill closer.
Matt Samelson, an attorney with Western Environmental Law Partners, said Adams County’s proposed setback shouldn’t come as a shock to many of the energy companies that operate in the congested and mineral-rich north suburban corridor.
Many communities, like Commerce City, Brighton and Broomfield, have already gotten drillers to agree to setbacks greater than 500 feet as part of voluntary operator agreements that the municipalities have hammered out with the industry over the past few years.
he U.S. Congress Climate Crisis Committee came to Colorado this week seeking guidance for a new national push to reduce the heat-trapping air pollution that worsens global warming — boosting the state’s position as a center for innovative action.
Members of this select committee and staffers explored energy research labs for two days. They quizzed scientists at work on accelerating a shift off fossil fuels to lower-cost wind and solar electricity.
And on Thursday the lawmakers held their first formal field hearing in a jam-packed courtroom at the University of Colorado law school, repeatedly asking state and city leaders how best the federal government could weigh in…
Gov. Jared Polis testified first, telling the lawmakers climate change poses “the existential threat” that in Colorado is affecting water supply, food production and a recreation industry that needs healthy forests. State agencies are girding for “a hotter, drier, more erratic future,” Polis said, and summarized work “to accelerate the retirement of costly coal assets” that pump out heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Bold federal action “is more than just a moral imperative,” Polis said. “We also have an economic imperative to lead the global clean energy revolution.”
Colorado still relies on coal as the source for 52% of the electricity people use. However, gradual phasing out of coal-fired power plants, initiated by voters 15 years ago, has begun to reduce carbon dioxide…
Persuading the rest of Congress, under a Trump administration that frowns on utterances of the words “climate change,” looms as a political challenge.
Governor Jared Polis has declared August “Colorado Proud Month” in honor of the Colorado Department of Agriculture local-product program’s twentieth anniversary. Colorado Proud got its start in 1999, long before the local food movement caught fire (and some time after the Always Buy Colorado campaign disappeared into history). Initially, Colorado Proud’s membership consisted of 65 companies selling state-grown and -made products; today it has more than 2,700 members, including growers, food manufacturers, restaurants, ranchers and retailers.
Wendy White, marketing specialist for the ag department, has been with Colorado Proud from the beginning. “I don’t know where the time went,” she says. “We’ve seen such a shift. When Colorado Proud started, I was knocking on doors and encouraging them to participate…we were local before it was hip to be local.” Now, though, it’s not only hip, but consumers are increasingly interested in knowing more about the products they’re buying and the practices of the ranches and farms that produce them.
New businesses are jumping in all the time, too. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in microgreens,” says White. “Lavender we’re really starting to see blossom — pun intended. Hops and hemp, too. Even manufactured food products such as salsas and sauces.”
“Colorado Proud is a national leader in championing the diverse agricultural products grown, raised or processed in our state,” says new Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg, who lists three major goals for her department: supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers; scaling up investment in high-value agriculture and diversifying market opportunities; and promising and incentivizing soil, water and climate stewardship.
To mark its anniversary, Colorado Proud not only got that Polis proclamation, but replaced its purple-and-gold sunrise logo with one that more closely resembles the Colorado flag (not to mention Polis’s new state logo). It’s also adopted a new outreach theme, “The Next Generation of Ag,” and will be hosting an agricultural community tour around the state this month, including stops at the Union Station Farmers’ Market on Saturday, August 3; the South Pearl Street Farmers’ Market on Sunday, August 4; and the Broomfield Farmers’ Market on Tuesday, August 6.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Alex Zorn):
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser met with Mesa County officials at a Grand Junction Economic Partnership roundtable discussion last Tuesday regarding ways the state office can better serve the Western Slope.
Weiser touched on the AG’s role outside of Denver and protecting Colorado water was among the main points of focus.
“Most people don’t really know what the AG does,” he began…
The Colorado Attorney General leads an office of 500 people out of Denver but, despite this, Weiser said he’s committed to having a greater presence in Grand Junction and would be open to hiring representation in the community…
Protecting the water rights of every Coloradan is a central issue.
Weiser told the roundtable he doesn’t want to see a future in which Colorado doesn’t have Palisade peaches because of water access rights.
He referenced Crowley County, where water rights were sold off and it devastated the community, and Weiser doesn’t want to see a similar situation in this part of the state.
As far as water rights are concerned, Weiser said he doesn’t want to see Coloradoans fighting with each other, nor does he want Colorado fighting with other states for the precious resource.
“This is going to be among the most important things we do,” he said…
Weiser and state Rep. Matt Soper will be hosting a town hall at the Colorado Mesa University Center Monday beginning at 5:30 p.m. The event will be in CMU’s University Center, Room 213, and parking will be provided in the parking garage off of 12th Street.
Here’s a report from The Denver Post (Judith Kohler). Here’s an excerpt:
As state agriculture commissioner, Greenberg wants to travel to as many places as possible. She has also mapped out a set of four major priorities and relishes detailing them.
“Are you ready for the next one?” Greenberg asks as she dives into discussing her priorities. “Are you ready for No. 3? Are you ready for No. 4?”
The road Greenberg traveled to her new job as Colorado ag commissioner is different from most of her immediate predecessors, many of whom grew up farming and ranching. Greenberg did not.
Besides her background, Greenberg is different from her predecessors in an even more fundamental way. She is the first woman to hold the job in the state’s history.
Greenberg grew up in Minnesota, was around agriculture and had friends and neighbors who farmed and ranched. However, it wasn’t until she moved to eastern Washington state that she farmed and ranched herself. There and in western Washington, Greenberg raised vegetables and livestock on community-supported farms. While with the Sonoran Institute, Greenberg worked with communities on restoration projects and managed greenhouse operations.
Most recently, Greenberg was the Western Program Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, working on water issues and based in Durango. She graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., with a degree in environmental studies-humanities.
“I’ve always loved and worked on behalf of the outdoors, natural world,” Greenberg said. “The piece that really shifted when I came West was realizing the work people put in behind the scenes…
She wants to ensure that agriculture remains vital by supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
“We don’t have enough young people coming into agriculture, which means not only do we risk losing the legacy of the current generation, the assets, but also the land,” Greenberg said. “We are really at a fork in the road with the aging demographic overall of farmers, paired with the economics of farming right now.”
Agriculture contributes about $40 billion annually to the state’s economy, Greenberg said, making it the second-largest sector of the state’s economy.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the vision section:
Governor Polis ran on a bold platform of achieving 100% Renewable Energy by 2040. This goal is motivated by the moral imperative to fight climate change and curb pollution of our air and water, as well as the opportunity to drive innovation and harness the consumer savings and economic bene- fits of leading the transition to a clean energy economy. This is our roadmap to achieve this goal.
This transition is already underway and shows no signs of slowing down. The two fastest-growing professions in the United States are solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians. Fourteen Colorado towns and counties have already taken the initiative and adopted the goal of getting 100% of their electricity from clean renewable energy: Denver, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins, Summit County, Frisco, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Breckenridge, Longmont, Lafayette, Nederland to Golden. These diverse communities know that protecting Colorado’s way of life means doing our part to combat climate change, and that swiftly adopting renewable energy in our electricity sector and then extending the impact of that clean electricity across the economy will protect the health of our communities, create good paying jobs, strengthen our economy and keep rates low for customers.
The Polis Administration has taken a number of significant steps that make a down payment on our commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2040. By partnering with the Legislature, we’ve empowered the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to facilitate a rapid transition to renewable energy across the state that includes working with our largest utility to invest in renewable energy and meet a goal of reducing greenhouse gas pollution 80% by 2030. We’re building a regulatory framework that will enable the PUC to work with our second largest utility to transition from coal-fired power to cheaper, cleaner sources of renewable energy. We are also making it easier for individual Coloradans to participate by expanding access to energy efficiency and community solar gardens. Additionally, the Legislature passed House Bill 1261, which sets economy-wide targets for reducing greenhouse gas pollution, with goals of 26% reduction by 2025 below 2005 levels, 50% reduction by 2030 and 90% reduction by 2050, and delegates authority to the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt rules to make progress towards those goals.
One of the most important parts of our transition to cleaner energy is electrifying transportation in Colorado. In order to meet the Governor’s goal of 940,000 zero emission vehicles on the road by 2030, state agencies have taken a number of steps, including allocating approximately $14 million to transit agencies across the state to deploy cleaner buses. The agencies are also expeditiously estab- lishing public-private partnerships to build 33 fast charging stations along major highways in the state. Working with the Legislature, we’ve also made it easier for utilities, with oversight from the PUC, to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure.
While we’ve already taken important strides towards our renewable energy vision, there’s much work to do. The policies adopted this legislative session provide the foundation for much higher levels of renewable energy integration, but additional strategies will be needed to get to 100% by 2040. It’s going to take the perspective, expertise, and commitment from diverse voices across the state to forge a renewable energy future that works for all of Colorado. Together, we can do our part to fight climate change, improve air quality and the health of our communities, diversify and strengthen our economy across the state, and ensure the good-paying jobs of the quickly growing green energy economy are created here in Colorado.
Here’s an interview with Nathan Fey from Jason Blevins that’s running in The Colorado Sun. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Nathan Fey is the new director of the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.
Fey, who has served as acting director for the past month, is a sixth-generation Coloradan who spent 12 years as Colorado’s regional director for American Whitewater. He grew the national organization’s network of regional paddling groups to more than 20 from four and fostered the development of recreational water rights so communities could build whitewater parks.
Fey, an accomplished kayaker, replaces Luis Benitez, the climber who founded the state’s outdoor recreation office — the second in the nation — four years ago and helped build a growing coalition of state outdoor recreation offices across the country.
On the opportunities for growing the outdoor recreation economy in Colorado …
“Here along the Front Range, in Larimer, Summit, Boulder, Gilpin, I see an opportunity to learn from how impacted those landscapes have been, particularly on the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests. We are in discussions with a big range of stakeholders to figure out how we can disperse that use, manage it better so that we are not having such a huge footprint on the land. So the opportunity is, one, correcting the mistake, and two, learning from that and being able to implement new strategies, and perhaps new tools, in other parts of the state that don’t have those issues yet, but are interested in growing their rec economy and will potentially have to address overuse or mismanagement in the future. So now we can stay in front of that one.
“On the development side, I look at communities like Nucla, Naturita and places like Craig; their identity and their economy has been one thing and they are on the cusp of transitioning into something new. They’ve got this incredible wealth of public lands and the Yampa River and the San Miguel River, BLM and Forest Service right out their backdoor. There’s an opportunity there to improve public access and safety and use of those places and create an amenity that draws visitors and more money and more investment.
“It’s about recognizing the diversity of landscapes and attributes we have in the state. Everybody thinks of Colorado as being mountains and ski resorts and what’s accessible from the Front Range. We have incredible opportunities in the San Luis Valley with the Great Sand Dunes, but beyond that, it’s climbing in Penitente Canyon and the trail system surrounding Del Norte and the investment that valley is making into improving river recreation. That just hasn’t been on people’s radar. It’s an example of what we are seeing around the state, where we’ve got really high-quality outdoor opportunities but I guess we just haven’t been marketing them or managing them appropriately.”
Colorado is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to significantly alter new Clean Water Act rules proposed by the Trump Administration, saying the new rules will leave thousands of miles of streams with fewer protections than they have had in nearly 50 years.
In comments submitted to the EPA last week, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser called for a halt to any rollback of protections for streams and wetlands, and said the new rules threaten Colorado’s ability to manage safely the waters that originate here in mountain headwaters and which eventually flow to 19 other U.S. states and Mexico.
“We don’t hate everything that is in the new rule,” Weiser said, such as the affirmation that states need to control their own waters and ongoing protection for farmers. “But these comments reflect critical concerns that need to be addressed.”
Weiser’s actions represent another major shift in Colorado’s relationship with the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA).
In 2015, shortly after the Obama Administration approved a controversial expansion of the CWA, Colorado’s then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, sued to stop the rules, along with 11 other states, winning an injunction that remains in place.
Now, under Democrat Weiser, the state has reversed course, pulling out of that 2015 lawsuit and seeking to stop the Trump Administration from dismantling key parts of the CWA and removing what they believe are important protections.
Dozens of environmental and policy groups in Colorado, fearful that the new rules will wipe out more wetlands and negatively impact thousands of small streams and aquatic areas which are crucial to the state’s watersheds, support Weiser’s actions. Among them are Trout Unlimited, Conservation Colorado, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP).
Melinda Kassen is a longtime Colorado water attorney who now serves as general counsel to the TRCP. “Our constituents, hunters and anglers specifically, are about the most pro clean water of any constituency you could have. They want those habitats to be protected and clean and still there,” Kassen said.
Some water utilities and agriculture groups, however, are backing the 2019 proposed rules, though they believe more clarity will help make the act easier to administer.
“It’s huge for us,” said Taylor Szilagyi, spokeswoman for the Colorado Farm Bureau. “It’s not perfect, but generally we’re very supportive of it.” Szilagyi said the newly proposed rules remove much of the uncertainty that farmers have been forced to deal with over the years, including whether their irrigation ditches and canals are subject to the act.
The Colorado Water Congress, which represents some 400 water utilities and farmers and ranchers, also backs the proposed rules, anticipating they will make the water project permitting process faster, more predictable and less costly for members.
“The CWC is concerned with the predictability and certainty of whether a water body is subject to the Clean Water Act and in reducing costs and delays in obtaining CWA permits. The changes reflected in the proposed rules are generally welcome, but additional clarification is required…to achieve fully the predictability and certainty our members seek,” the Colorado Water Congress wrote in a letter submitted to the EPA on April 15.
The CWA has been legally hamstrung for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge and fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and western irrigation ditches, and what industries and wastewater treatment plants can discharge to streams.
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, the CWA is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been, at times, fiendishly difficult to administer, in part because the U.S. is home to widely different geographies.
Go to the East or Midwest, and massive rivers, such as the Ohio and Missouri, are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The United States Geological Survey estimates that 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new rules, only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, would be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states would no longer be protected under the law.
Arriving at definitions that apply consistently across the country has been a tortured, and some believe, unsuccessful process. Still, by 2008 the EPA had arrived at a set of policy definitions, known as the 2008 guidance, that established better standards for defining when a stream was perennial, when it was intermittent, and when it was ephemeral. The same was true for better guidelines for wetlands. But significant inconsistencies within that guidance, due to conflicting legal opinions, remained, opening the door for the Obama Administration to simplify the act, and in doing so, include more waters and wetlands under the act’s protection.
Within months, industry groups successfully sued to stop the 2015 rules from being implemented.
The big question now is where to go from here. The Colorado Water Congress would like to see the newly proposed 2019 rules remain in place, with additional work done to clarify key aspects and obtain more consensus among the competing interests, according to Executive Director Doug Kemper.
Colorado is hopeful the EPA and Corps will, at the urging of many states, go back to using the 2008 guidance, rather than adopting the much looser guidance now being proposed. But few believe that will happen under the Trump Administration.
As a result, environmental groups expect they will be forced to sue to stop the new rules from taking effect, just as industry groups sued to stop the 2015 Obama Administration rules from being implemented.
“We will be part of the fight to try to stop any rules that leaves the duck factory and the prairie potholes of the central Midwest and headwater streams across the West and elsewhere unprotected,” Kassen said.
“But what we really need is change that can withstand political swings. The 2015 rules did not assuage critics, and it did not build lasting change,” she said.
Weiser isn’t ready to say whether Colorado would join a new lawsuit challenging the 2019 proposed rules.
“This regulatory system requires a difficult balancing act that addresses a range of interests and is mindful of the role of federal and state authorities,” he said. “It is really important that the Corps of Engineers and EPA take their time and think about the relevant issues and develop an approach that can last.
“If we end up moving back to the 2008 rules, which we would urge, I would hope it would be lasting because the extent of litigation and uncertainty around these rules isn’t healthy for anybody,” he said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The Colorado Senate Transportation and Energy Committee convened the first hearing for Senate Bill 19-181, dubbed Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations.
The bill would make a variety of changes to oil and gas law in Colorado, including the following:
It would change the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from one of fostering oil and gas development to one of regulating the industry. It also changes the makeup of the COGCC board.
It would provide explicit local control on oil and gas development, opening the door for local government-instituted bans or moratoriums, which have previously been tied up in court battles because the industry has been considered one of state interest.
It would change the way forced or statutory pooling works, requiring a higher threshold of obtained mineral rights before companies can force pool other mineral rights owners in an area.
Testimony during the committee hearing ran the gamut, including state officials, industry officials, business interests and residents, and it was expected to go well into the night…
Talking about the rallies beforehand — both pro-181 and anti-181 groups — as well as the overflow rooms necessary for all of the attendees, [Carl] Erickson said the scene was wild…
Dan Gibbs, executive director of department of natural resources; and Jeff Robbins, acting director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; both came out in support of the legislation.
So, too, did Erin Martinez, who survived a home explosion in Firestone that killed her brother and her husband.
“With proper regulations and inspections and pressure testing, this entire tragedy could have been avoided,” Martinez said in closing.
The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee opened the hearing with testimony from Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, the measure’s co-sponsor, according to reporting from The Denver Post.
As he told The Tribune on Sunday, he said during the hearing that the Tuesday hearing was the first of several — with six total to come.
“At the forefront, objective of this bill is to ensure that we are protecting the health and safety and welfare of Coloradans, the environment, wildlife, when it comes to extraction of oil and gas across the state,” said Fenberg, D-Boulder, according to The Post.
From email from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources:
Governor Polis has announced three new board appointments to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
· Gail Schwartz of Basalt, Colorado, representing the Colorado River basin
· Jackie Brown of Oak Creek, Colorado, representing the Yampa-White River basin
· Jessica Brody of Denver, Colorado, representing the City and County of Denver
In addition, the Governor appointed Russ George as the Director of the Inter-Basin Compact Committee in addition to five gubernatorial appointees.
“I’m excited to work with these appointments,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Department of Natural Resources. “Their collective experience is unmatched.”
Gail Schwartz has spent over two decades serving Colorado in both appointed and elected office. Jackie Brown brings a diverse background in natural resources and is a leader in the water community as the current Chair of the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable. Finally, as General Counsel for Denver Water and formerly with the Denver City Attorney’s Office, Jessica Brody brings both municipal and environmental law experience.
“I’m looking forward to working with the newly appointed board and IBCC members to continue implementing Colorado’s Water Plan. They bring valued expertise and leadership to the water community,” said Rebecca Mitchell, Director of the CWCB. “We sincerely thank the outgoing Board members and IBCC appointments for their service. Their dedication has been instrumental on numerous policy and planning efforts, including bringing a diversity of perspectives to Colorado’s Water Plan.”
Russ George is a fourth generation native of the Rifle, Colorado area and brings a depth of state government and public service. Russ was instrumental in creating the IBCC and basin roundtables.
“As the first champion of the IBCC and roundtable process, there’s no one better equipped to lead the IBCC. We’re embarking on a future of great opportunity in water, and Russ is the perfect choice to navigate the times ahead,” said Gibbs.
The senate confirmed Gibbs unanimously in a 34-0 vote, with one abstention. Gibbs had already been preparing for the role in the weeks since he resigned as Summit County commissioner, meeting staff and attending meetings to get up to speed on the department’s work.
The state agencies Gibbs will oversee include the Division of Forestry; Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety; the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the Colorado Avalanche Information Center; the State Land Board; the Water Conservation Board and the state’s Division of Water Resources.
Gibbs said he was thrilled to be confirmed, and was already engaged in high-level work, including the seven-state Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency plans that is seeking to create an updated water distribution compact in the West.
“It’s really amazing being a part of that, and being part of those important conversations happening right now,” Gibbs said. “What we do will have legacy impact on how we manage the Colorado River moving forward. It involves everything from human services to road and bridge to environmental health, I’m learning about a lot of different positions.”
Along with conserving water, other precious natural resources Gibbs oversees includes Parks and Wildlife, which will be the largest department under Gibbs’ purview with 900 employees. One of his priorities with CPW is to find a more sustainable funding model for the agency aside from hunting and fishing license fees…
Gibbs, who had served as a Congressional staffer, state house representative and state senator before his eight years as commissioner, said that his experience working at the federal, state and local levels made him realize the unnecessary barriers that spring up between various levels of government. He plans to use his experience to negotiate among the different players and break down those barriers.
“I want to work to try to demolish those silos isolating them from each other,” Gibbs said. “I want to look at how we manage our land, water and minerals and do what’s best for Colorado as a whole, not just piecemeal management based on federal, state and local ownership. I want a more holistic approach on how we manage and steward on natural resources.”
Ultimately, Gibbs’ most important responsibility as steward of the state’s natural resources is to preserve them for later generations, so they can experience and enjoy the grandeur and freedom this wild country has to offer.
“I have two young kids, and every day I wake up thinking about how we can shape natural resources policy not just now, but for future generations,” Gibbs said. “With 80,000 people moving to the state every year, a lot of it depends on how we manage growth, and how to avoid loving our natural resources to death.”
Honig: You’ve worked with young people as a leader with the National Young Farmers Coalition. Can you talk about ways we could lower barriers that right now make farming for young people pretty difficult?
Greenberg: This is sort of the nexus of a lot of these challenges. For a lot of young people, whether you’re coming at it from a multi-generational angle, or you’re starting fresh, there are tons of challenges.
There are enough challenges with just the weather, with the hail storm that can wipe out your entire crop and water. But then you get the challenges of access and affordability, especially around land. The rising cost of land is prohibiting lots of young people from either entering the business or scaling up their businesses. Same is true with access to credit and capital. Financing a farm business is tough, especially when you’re starting out on your own.
So in my mind we’ve got a ton of things to face but the way I see the world is that they are also opportunities. Agriculture has risen to those opportunities at every obstacle in the past and I’m excited to see how we do so again.
Gov. Jared Polis, a first-term Democrat who was elected in November, listed a range of water issues that the state faces: declining irrigation supplies for farms and ranches, less snowpack for the ski industry, and pollution from the energy industry.
A ballot initiative that would have restricted the location of oil and gas infrastructure failed last November. Polis opposed Proposition 112, which would have established a 2,500-foot setback distance from homes, schools, drinking water sources, and other vulnerable areas. Current law is 500 feet.
“It’s time for us to take meaningful action to address the conflicts between oil-and-gas drilling operations and the neighborhoods they impact, and to make sure that all of our communities have clean air and water,” Polis said, without going into more detail.
Polis reiterated his goal of powering the state with 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040, and advocated for a nascent industrial hemp industry. Proponents argue that hemp, which Congress legalized in the 2018 farm bill, could be a water-saving crop for dry states.
Polis also endorsed the state water plan, negotiated by his predecessor, John Hickenlooper.
“Now we’re going to do our part in implementing it,” he said, asking the Legislature for funding.
“The first thing is listening,” Greenberg said Friday, as Week 1 of her new role drew to a close.
“I’m planning to get out into the field as much as possible to understand what people are up against and to build out our game plan. I see this work as being highly collaborative. It’s my role to bring as many people together as possible to come up with what we need to do down the road.”
Greenberg, appointed by Gov. Jared Polis, oversees the state ag department’s daily operations and its divisions: animal health, brand inspection, Colorado State Fair, conservation services, inspection and consumer services, laboratory services, markets and plant industry.
She is no stranger to the Western Slope and its agri-issues, having served as the western program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition in Durango. Her duties there entailed working with basin roundtables, working on the state’s water plan and Colorado River basin water policy…
“I am excited about Western Slope agriculture. I see so much creativity and perseverance from folks doing it for generations and people coming in now and starting their own businesses…
“With Western Colorado being so rural, and a vast majority of people being on the Front Range and the vast majority of water on the Western Slope, we are going to depend on that creativity to keep agriculture thriving out there and rural agriculture alive.”
Water is the lifeblood for the entire state and that creates challenges for all producers.
“I think producers know that better than anyone, in terms of how precious water is and how important it is that we find solutions that allow agriculture to continue to thrive in Colorado,” Greenberg said.
Montrose’s upcoming Western Food and Farm Forum helps grow agriculture by connecting producers, indicated Greenberg, who is set to address the conference on Jan. 26. She previously helped organize the annual forum and worked with steering committees.
Greenberg, in her first media interview as commissioner, said she grew up split between Minneapolis and in Minnesota’s farm country near Mankato, before moving to Washington where she began farming, working on small-scale, mixed vegetable operations that direct marketed to consumers. Her day job during that time, she said, involved visiting operations of all sizes and types across the West. She said her work has woven between agriculture and conservation, two worlds she said that are one in the same.
Greenberg has spent the past six years based in Durango, Colo., with the National Young Farmers Coalition, building the organization’s staff and the membership. She traveled throughout the intermountain West, including Colorado, working with farmers and ranchers to help young producers return to the land.
“I worked finding ways, through policy, through business services, and through network building to get more young people out in ag,” she said.
To this end, she said she worked with farmers of all ages on the issue of succession, their options to keep operations in business, and working with the next generation. Her other concentration has been getting elected officials onto farms and ranches to give policymakers a better understanding of the challenges agriculture producers face. She said this is meant to ensure policymakers are making decisions based on practice rather than theory after seeing the boots on the ground. Working to give farmers a seat at the table, she said, is vital for agriculture in Colorado.
“Since coming to Colorado to Durango, I have been serving in the role of advocate for farmers and ranchers, connecting producers with their policymakers and ensuring that we have folks standing up for family ag in Colorado,” she said.
Voters in the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District passed a bond issue worth $48.7 million 57.99 percent to 42.01 percent, according to preliminary election results.
Central’s boundaries stretch through parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties and serve about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells. But thousands of people live and vote in the district.
The Yes for Water campaign helped sway those voters, and in a statement sent Tuesday night to The Tribune, officials said they were pleased with the passage of Ballot Question 7E.
“Issue 7E’s passage demonstrates our region’s commitment to supporting family farms and our agricultural economy, providing water storage and resources now and in the future, and protecting and maintaining our rural way of life,” according to the statement.
The bond issue represents a property tax increase of about $22.80 per year for a home valued at $500,000.
Those taxes will go toward paying off debt for a variety of projects, including more lined reservoir storage near Fort Lupton, Greeley and Kersey to increase the district’s holdings by 25 percent, allow the district to buy more water rights and help construct a massive artificial recharge project in Wiggins near the Weld and Morgan county line.
Four Colorado counties next week will ask voters to approve new or to extend existing taxes to preserve land, and to protect and improve waterways.
Denver, Park and Chaffee county initiatives involve sales taxes, while Eagle County voters will be asked to extend an existing property tax.
If all measures are approved, it would mean more than $50 million annually in new funds for these land and water efforts.
“It just demonstrates the importance that rivers and open space and parks have in Colorado,” said Fay Augustyn, American Rivers’ conservation director for the Colorado River Basin. “Counties continue to recognize the importance of protecting this.”
Denver’s Ballot Question 2A asks voters to raise the city and county sales tax .25 percent, or 25 cents on a $100 purchase, with funds dedicated to acquiring and improving park lands and restoration of waterways. If approved it would raise an estimated $45 million annually.
Eagle’s County’s Ballot Question 1A asks voters to extend a 1.5 mill property tax to protect working farms, wildlife habitat, wetlands, floodplains and public access points to rivers and streams. The existing tax generates $4 million to $4.5 million annually, according to Matt Scherr, a backer of the campaign.
Chaffee County Ballot Question 1A is seeking a new sales tax of .25 percent or 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase. If approved the new tax would generate $1.2 million annually, a portion of which would help to protect watersheds in the region.
And in Park County Ballot Question 1A seeks to extend an existing 1 percent sales tax through 2028 and 1B seeks authorization to use those tax dollars to preserve, acquire, lease, improve and maintain water rights, along with water systems and infrastructure, among other items. The existing tax raises $850,000 annually.
“They all take a slightly different angle,” said Gini Pingenot, legislative director at Colorado Counties Inc. Given that nearly one-third of Colorado’s 64 counties are seeking some kind of tax hike, she said it was surprising to see land and water issues landing a spot on the ballot.
“Knowing the amount of stress [counties] are under, I found it intriguing that they would be seeking voter approval for natural resource protection. It probably plays into their recognition that it is part of the lifeblood of their community. Clearly their residents are valuing it,” she said.
Anti-tax forces, however, believe the call for new taxes may be premature. Opponents, of the Denver measure, point out that the city is facing its longest ballot in history with four requests for new taxes, including 2A.
Mike Krause, public affairs director for the Independence Institute in Denver, said the local tax measures are in keeping with Colorado’s TABOR Amendment, which requires local approval of any new taxes. “That’s working the way it should,” he said. But he cautioned that Denver’s 2A, would add unneeded revenues to Denver’s healthy tax coffers.
“The Denver city budget is already growing faster than inflation and population growth. We see 2A as a way to avoid having to use existing revenue to expand the parks, even though they could do it if they really want to,” Krause said.
Denver City Council President Jolon Clark said he hopes voters give the city the go ahead, in part because Denver is one of the only counties in the state that doesn’t have its own open space tax. And, he said, preserving water is key to protecting other green spaces in the city.
“Forty years ago, the South Platte was largely dead ecologically, but today we have trout that are thriving. If you look at the reach between Overland and Grant Frontier [parks, south of downtown Denver], we were able to re-channelize that whole stretch of the river to create high flow and low flow channels because the water had become so slow moving and wide that it would heat up and kill everything in that stretch. Those are the kinds of projects that 2A will help fund,“ Clark said.
The tax questions come as Colorado water officials are researching how best to raise money to help implement the state’s water plan, an effort with a price tag of roughly $20 billion. The money would help create water conservation programs, environmental programs and some water storage projects to stave off future shortages.
Whether these initiatives will serve as an indicator of voters’ willingness to fund bigger projects isn’t clear. Pingenot said counties, traditionally, are much better at convincing residents to tax themselves to reach community goals. Statewide taxing questions are a tougher sell.
“We will know more after November,” Pingenot said. “But I think it is probably instructive for the legislature to observe the sentiment and the desire by communities to protect their resources.”
The idea of asking local residents to pay up to protect regional watersheds isn’t new. In 2003, the state approved the Colorado Healthy Rivers Fund income-tax check-off. After falling into dormancy, it came back in 2016 and was broadened to accept non-income tax related donations. To date the fund has raised nearly $1.5 million, according to Casey Davenhill, executive director of the Colorado Watershed Assembly, which administers the fund.
But it is Pitkin County that has created the most far-reaching watershed tax. In 2008, voters approved the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Fund, which has generated $8 million for water projects. To date, it has helped build a recreational in-channel diversion on the Roaring Fork River, among dozens of other projects.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the initiative’s backers hoped other counties would follow suit.
“We always thought other counties would join in but it has been slow,” he said. “It’s nice to see other people joining us now.”
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.
Click here to read the latest “Fresh Water News” from Water Education Colorado.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the executive summary:
This study, conducted by Southwick Associates for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, estimates the economic contributions of outdoor recreational activity in Colorado during 2017. The results are provided at the state-level as well as for 7 regions within the state.1 Focusing on the state-level results below, the total economic output associated with outdoor recreation amounts to $62.5 billion dollars, contributing $35.0 billion dollars to the Gross Domestic Product of the state. This economic activity supports over 511,000 jobs in the state, which represents 18.7% of the entire labor force in Colorado and produces $21.4 billion dollars in salaries and wages. In addition, this output contributes $9.4 billion dollars in local, state and federal tax revenue. Similar interpretations can be applied to the regional results. Outdoor recreation constitutes a substantial part of the Colorado economy.
Note: Part of the analysis for this study was based on work performed or supported by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA, 2017). This study uses a broader definition of outdoor recreation, and for this reason the results of these two studies should not be directly compared. Rather, these two studies should be used together to gain a better understanding of the economic contributions of outdoor recreation to the Colorado economy.
Gov. John Hickelooper joined staffers from several different state and federal agencies, outdoor businesses and conservation groups along the South Platte River in Lower Downtown to unveil the latest survey of the state’s outdoor recreation economy. Hickenlooper noted the big increase in the overall economic contribution — to $62.5 billion from $34 billion in 2013.
“This puts it as one of the top economic drivers of our economy,” Hickenlooper said. “That’s a $35 billion contribution to our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s more than 10 percent.
“And this is the one that is really staggering. This is up about 60 percent from the last number I saw — 511,000 jobs. That is a monster of commitment to our economy,” Hickenlooper said.
Those jobs, up from roughly 313,000 about five years ago, include those directly supported by the industry and jobs indirectly associated with and benefiting from outdoor recreation.
The results are in a report conducted by Southwick Associates for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It estimates the contributions of outdoor recreational activity in Colorado in 2017. The last report by Southwick looked at activities during 2012 and 2013.
The economic figures in the new study differ from those in the Outdoor Industry Association’s numbers for Colorado. The trade association places Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy at $28 billion and the number of direct jobs at 229,000. The difference, said state officials, comes from the state report’s inclusion of more activities, like using urban hiking and biking trails and parks, and builds on previous surveys as part of Colorado’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.
The governor signed an executive order Friday creating the Interagency Trails and Recreation Council. It directs state agencies to continue collaborating to promote conservation and outdoor recreation and advance the Colorado the Beautiful initiative, whose goal is ensuring that every Coloradan lives within 10 minutes of a park, trail or green space.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water plan has been big on collaboration, but short on action. He’ll leave the toughest decisions to his successor.
Colorado had plenty of reasons to worry about water by the time it elected John Hickenlooper in 2010.
The state was in its 11th year of drought. The health of its rivers was waning. And early projections of a statewide shortfall had cities and suburbs starting to stress out.
More urgent concerns have surfaced over Hickenlooper’s two terms as governor.
The drought has now lasted 19 years. Low precipitation and hotter temperatures have cut river flows by nearly 20 percent, with no end in sight. And the Colorado River, the state’s main source of water, is over-tapped to the point of possible federal intervention.
Colorado’s population, in the meantime, has skyrocketed with help from Hickenlooper’s pro-growth agenda, while its main source of water funding has proven unreliable. Ranchers are auctioning their cattle early because vegetation is so dry. Trout this past summer were too hot and sluggish to put up a fair fight. And nearly all Coloradans could smell the smoky urgency as wildfires burned our parched forests.
The “dry heat” that used to seem like a plus in Colorado has started, increasingly, to seem like a minus.
Hickenlooper has touted his administration’s 567-page water manifesto as the answer to a looming shortfall in which the state’s water demands are expected to exceed its supply. “Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms and incomparable environment,” he said when releasing it in 2015.
“We are not at a crisis,” he told The Colorado Independent earlier this month. “I don’t think (Coloradans) should be hysterical, but I think it’s a necessary concern for everyone.”
Factors both in and out of Hickenlooper’s control, however, have cast doubts about Colorado’s ability to avert a water shortage. Though the governor with the glass-half-full outlook has raised awareness about the state’s water supply problems, he’ll leave office in January without a strategy on how, specifically, to solve them. A growing chorus of experts says his failure to put forth lasting solutions has left Colorado in hot water.
“We’re not goring oxes any more.”
Colorado’s governors typically have acted as referees rather than visionaries on water policy, if they’ve acted at all. Hickenlooper set out to make a difference in 2013 when he ordered the first statewide water plan to stave off what at that point was projected to be a shortfall in 2050.
By most accounts, he didn’t engage in the specifics. But he saw to it that planners invited input from farmers and ranchers, anglers, rafters and kayakers, environmentalists, and industrial users and municipal users, meaning those of us who hope to keep washing our dishes and showering. All told, his administration likes to note, some 30,000 Coloradans commented on the plan as it was being drafted.
It fell to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a division of the state Natural Resources Department, to write a plan that reflected the state’s diverse water interests and put them in the broader context of 19th century water laws and 20th century legal obligations to keep the Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Colorado rivers flowing to neighboring states.
Released in November 2015, the plan calls for gleaning 500,000 acre-feet of additional water a year – or enough to supply nearly a million people – to avoid the projected shortfall. It seeks to achieve 80 percent of that through conservation, 10 percent through storing more water in aquifers or reservoirs created by new dams, and 10 percent through temporary water transfers from agriculture.
Environmentalists, though unhappy with the prospect of more dams, applauded the plan for acknowledging the effects climate change is having on water supplies. (Utah’s water plan avoids that subject altogether.) They, along with members of Colorado’s $28-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry, saw it as a victory that the plan seeks to keep as much water as possible flowing in rivers.
Farmers and ranchers, though fearful that those environmental goals might threaten their water rights, embraced the plan’s commitment to preserving agriculture at a time when massive swaths of farmland and the water rights tied to them are being sold off to cities. That practice, known as “buy and dry,” has, along with urban sprawl, caused Colorado to lose about 1 percent of its agricultural acreage a year since the turn of the century.
For the officials who run municipal water districts, the plan didn’t much affect their efforts to keep water flowing from the faucets, toilets and sprinkler systems of the 90 percent of Coloradans who live in cities and suburbs. Though most of those districts were already managing their limited supplies, they embraced the spirit of statewide collaboration with agriculture and environmentalists that Hickenlooper says is needed to work out solutions.
That spirit, that ethos that “we’re joined at the hip,” as the governor puts it, has earned his water plan props in a state that is said to have coined the term “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” Those who’ve worked around water policy long enough to remember the bitter, two decade-long fight over the proposed Two Forks Dam see the kinder, gentler approach as the only path forward.
“Colorado’s water world badly needed a new construct,” said Melinda Kassen, a Colorado-based water policy expert with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “What the water plan does is make a shift in who needs to be at the table, and insist that there be a table instead of just litigation in the first place.
“We’re not about goring oxes any more.”
“Because this administration opened lines of communication about water,” added CWCB Director Becky Mitchell, “we’re in a better place than before Gov. Hickenlooper took office.”
Where the plan falls short
For all its big ideas about collaboration, the state water plan lacks specifics.
Its broad-brush, aspirational goals have left water users in all sectors wondering about details. Some are asking how, for example, the state will be able to preserve its farming and ranching heritage while also quenching the needs of population growth, which long has been slurping up agricultural water supplies. Others wonder how, especially in a prolonged drought, the state will manage to store more water in aquifers and reservoirs while simultaneously keeping more water flowing in rivers.
“There are a lot of ideas in that plan that seem, to me at least, mutually exclusive,” said Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. “If you ask me, it’s all feel-good words with nothing concrete coming out of it. I mean, they’re not even working with current numbers.”
By numbers, Schmidt means data projecting water demands and supplies. CWCB’s last comprehensive set of projections, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), was released in 2011 but was based on 2008 data that didn’t factor in climate change. Those were the numbers upon which the projected 2050 water shortfall was based.
James Eklund, who ran the Colorado Water Conservation Board while the plan was being written, told The Colorado Independent in 2015 that a new SWSI would be ready in 2016. Months later, he pushed that date to early 2017. That deadline came and went as Eklund quit for a job as a private water lawyer. Mitchell, the state water planner who replaced him at CWCB’s helm, said the agency had been having problems coming up with roughly $2 million to pay for the study, which is now expected for completion in July 2019, three years behind schedule.
“We were overly optimistic about when we could get it out,” said Greg Johnson, the state’s chief of water supply planning.
Some experts question the wisdom of having released a water plan based on such outdated numbers. Tying the plan to more accurate supply and demand projections, they say, would have offered a clearer picture of Colorado’s water realities and conveyed to policy makers a more pressing sense of urgency.
That urgency stems not just from the fact that 19 years of drought have dropped significantly less snow in Colorado’s high country, but also from research showing hotter temperatures are causing what water there is to evaporate or be absorbed by plants at alarming rates. A study by Colorado State University shows that from 2000 to 2014, flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below those recorded the previous 93 years. Similar shifts could be seen this past summer when the state had to set unprecedented use restrictions on the Yampa and Crystal rivers to keep them from running dry.
Hydrologists note that so much has changed in their projections that they are no longer referring to the 19-year dry spell as a drought because that term implies a return to 20th century snowpack levels, which they say is not going to happen. If temperature and precipitation trends continue, as they are expected to, CSU’s data shows Colorado’s water supplies would diminish another 15 percent more by 2050 in addition to the 19 percent decrease that already has taken place.
“That 34 percent turns this drought from a serious challenge to a disaster,” said CSU hydrologist Brad Udall, co-author of the CSU study (and former member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors). “Policy makers need to be paying attention, close attention, to this data.”
Aside from updated data, the water plan also lacks specifics on strategy. The planners assigned to write it struggled for more than a year with the last section, Chapter 10, which promised to lay out “measurable objectives, goals, and critical actions,” and was meant to be the plan part of the plan.
But a close read of that chapter shows very few measurable goals for which the administration can be held to account. The plan underscores the importance of “instream flows” – keeping more water in rivers to protect their ecological balance – for example, but avoids setting levels for what those flows should be. Without those kind of specifics, critics say it’s toothless.
“I found that incredibly frustrating,” said Amy Beatie, former executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that buys and leases water so it can be returned to rivers. “We need more than conceptual agreement. We need specific expectations and goals before we’ll see any real progress.”
The administration’s reluctance to commit to specific strategies is perhaps most apparent in the way it has structured decision-making. Under the plan, nine “roundtable” groups – representing Colorado’s eight river basins plus metro Denver water users – are free to choose which water projects should receive state funding.
“You’d think that if they’re spending the state’s money, there would be a clear articulation by the state of the objectives for that spending,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, Colorado’s biggest municipal water district. “Instead, what you get with that type of bottoms-up approach is a grab bag, a something-for-everyone dynamic that’s not particularly effective in advancing a statewide vision.”
Lochhead is a former state Department of Natural Resources director who served as Colorado’s lead water negotiator under three governors. Although he has described Hickenlooper’s willingness to create a water plan as an “act of political courage,” he has been saying for three years that the end product is not a plan at all, but rather a “compendium of ideas and platitudes.”
He is especially critical that Hickenlooper has not done more to address the impact urban sprawl is having on water supplies. He says the administration should have made more progress helping to establish water markets to allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights without losing them long term. And he cites what he calls the state’s “failure” to not eliminate regulatory impediments to water reuse and recycling projects and to not speed up permitting processes that, for example, have delayed Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir for almost 20 years.
“A commitment to collaboration is all well and good, but it’s not going to get us there,” Lochhead said. “Somebody needs be more aggressive in making some real decisions on where we’re going to come up with enormous amounts of water. But that’s not going to happen, at least under this administration.”
More than a dozen municipal and state water officials interviewed over the past year have echoed Lochhead’s frustrations, but would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs or jeopardizing their agencies’ working relationships. Almost all said the water plan lacks clear strategic goals. And several felt that the public engagement aspect took on absurd proportions. Though they laud efforts to seek public comments while the plan was being drafted, they say the administration’s insistence that the number of comments reach into the tens of thousands had less to do with an authentic interest in those comments than it did an interest in inoculating the plan from criticism.
One Front Range water manager who asked not to be named likened state water planners, during the public comment phase, to “those kids in high school who rushed around asking everybody to sign their yearbook.” The manager added: “The thinking seemed to be that the more people they got to comment, the more validating or popular … the plan would seem. It’s kind of hard to take a plan like that seriously.”
For all the time and the nearly $4 million the administration put into creating the water plan, Beatie, the Colorado Water Trust’s former executive director, says she expected it would reflect what she calls “the strategic heart of Colorado’s water community” – an honest recognition that “there’s not enough water right now, right here, for progress, real progress not to hurt.”
“But what they came up with is basically just a multi-page tome that’s more narrative than a plan. It’s just a giant thing that just sits on everybody’s desk.”
Hickenlooper dismisses criticism that his plan lacks depth, saying, “One of the most important things we laid out are sets of priorities.”
“Any time you try to do something for the first time and you are … a pioneer, you’re going to get some challenges,” he added. “We knew it was going to be hard and that’s why we tried to engage so many people in the process.”
Who should conserve
The governor raised the hopes of environmentalists and water policy reformers in his 2014 State of the State address by saying that “any conversation about water needs to start with conservation.” The “C” word long had been left out of statewide water discussions.
It still is.
That’s because Hickenlooper’s plan puts the entire conservation burden on municipal districts, whose users consume about 8 percent of the state’s water. The plan expects virtually no conservation from agriculture, which consumes about 87 percent.
The governor defends the approach, saying, “Denver Water and all the utilities along the Front Range” have “a moral obligation” to “conserve as much as humanly possible,” and also an obligation to help “sustain food supplies.”
Colorado’s biggest municipal water districts say their conservation programs are meeting those obligations.
Denver Water has reduced per-capita water consumption by 25 percent and says it’s using about the same amount of water district-wide since 2000 despite the addition of about 250,000 more customers. The agency serves about a quarter of Colorado’s population with 2 percent of the state’s water.
“We and the other Front Range water utilities are all basically moving as fast as we can through water efficiency. It’s not something we need to be told to do or incentivized to do by the state. It’s something that we’ve been doing and paying for by ourselves for a long time,” Lochhead said.
Aurora Water has more junior water rights than Denver’s water rights and has started quenching many of its customers’ needs with a $653-million reuse project that turns Platte River water captured downstream of Denver’s wastewater treatment plant into drinkable water. Fast-growing communities such as Castle Rock and Parker have similar projects in the works.
Though most of Colorado’s large municipal water districts are willingly embracing further conservation efforts, their managers say the additional water they’ll collectively be able to save won’t be nearly enough to meet Hickenlooper’s 400,000 acre-foot statewide conservation goal.
“The numbers aren’t realistic because the margins don’t make sense. It’s not feasible to expect all the conservation to come from municipalities when they don’t use even close to most of the water in the state,” said Alexandra Davis, Aurora Water’s deputy director and head of its water resources division.
“What the plan doesn’t say – what nobody will say out loud – is that some of the conservation burden is going to have to fall on agriculture because there’s nowhere else for it to come from. It just is. We need to face that idea rather than pretending that agriculture doesn’t need to be part of this equation.”
That equation, Davis and other municipal water bosses say, needs to address what they describe as enormous amounts of water being wasted by flood irrigation techniques and by seepage from the unlined, dirt ditches through which water is still delivered to many farms and ranches. If cityfolk and suburbanites have to use water more efficiently, they argue that countryfolk should, too.
John Harold, a sweet corn grower in Olathe, is one of the few growers who’ll agree, at least publicly.
“What you see out here are farmers buying all kinds of fancy new tractors but using irrigation methods and open ditches that are more than 100 years old,” he said.
“We’ve got to wake up and become more efficient. But, unfortunately, you have to hit most farmers with a sledgehammer to get them to realize that.”
Others say it’s a myth that farms waste massive amounts of water, and a misconception that more efficient farming and ranching practices could save enough to make a significant difference in the statewide conservation goal.
“That portrayal of us as big water wasters, it’s offensive,” said Paul Kehmeier, a farmer in Eckert who says his 93-year-old father Norman raised him, like Norman’s father and grandfather before him, to use only what’s needed.
As Kehmeier tells it, water delivered through the kind of unlined dirt ditches his forebearers built “isn’t being wasted” through seepage, “it’s just being rerouted to natural drainage.” He says any amount that could be saved through lining those canals would be “marginal.” Likewise, he adds, it would make no significant difference if he watered his alfalfa “using flood irrigation or using an eyedropper” – “those alfalfa are going to consume the same amount of water to grow, no matter what.”
That viewpoint is shared by some outside the agricultural community. Anne Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science in the Obama administration’s Interior Department, agrees that “agricultural efficiency doesn’t necessarily save water.”
“So it’s a hard question about what additional contribution agriculture should make,” said Castle, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado. She said expects that economics, not efficiency efforts, will ultimately drive agriculture’s role in helping to avert a statewide water shortfall.
A leap of faith
Colorado’s water law system is predicated on the notion of “beneficial use” – meaning that water must be “used,” even if that means wasted, in order for users to keep their rights to it. That system long has created a built-in disincentive for farmers and ranchers to conserve.
It also has led to suspicions about “alternative transfer mechanisms,” the kind of economic incentive on which Hickenlooper’s water plan is banking. ATMs are deals in which farmers or ranchers are paid to temporarily fallow their land and transfer their water rights for municipal use or conservation purposes. Water planners tout them as a flexible way to save more water as prolonged drought and population growth are putting firmer demands on state supplies.
“The key word here is ‘flexible,’ meaning that by changing cropping patterns temporarily – which is something agriculture has a long history of doing – these are short-term solutions when there’s a squeeze,” said Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as chief of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
But few growers have been willing to agree to such deals, fearing that the process will strip them of their water rights.
“Farmers, from my perspective, don’t like change. They also don’t like risk,” said CSU’s Udall. “For these things to work, farmers need to believe they won’t lose their water.”
In the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District – which spans from Brighton north to Greeley, and east to Fort Morgan – not even one grower has been willing to make that leap of faith. The concern, says Executive Director Randy Ray, is that even temporary water transfers like ATMs require applicants to go to water court and quantify their “yield” – the amount of water their farms or ranches use. Once a yield is quantified, it’s open to public examination, which can trigger long and expensive battles in which more junior water rights holders pose challenges, sometimes trying to degrade or devalue the applicant’s senior water rights. Ray likens that process to getting an involuntary haircut.
“Once you go to water court to quantify your yield, you make yourself vulnerable to getting scalped. Nobody wants to take that risk, at least around here.”
Some 340 miles to the west in Eckert, Paul Kehmeier rolled the dice on the land his great-grandparents homesteaded in 1894. In the hierarchy of water rights, his are senior – and valuable.
When the drought hit in 2001, he and his father Norman figured it would pass the way other dry spells had on the West Slope. Farmers, Kehmeier notes, are “eternal optimists.”
But in 2016, after a decade and a half of drought conditions, father and son decided that waiting for more rain and snowmelt would be less an act of optimism than of foolishness. And so they agreed to participate in a pilot project with CSU and the Nature Conservancy whereby, for a price, they stopped irrigating about 60 acres of land from late June through mid-September of that year and let the water flow “down the creek” into the Gunnison River, then to the Colorado River. The deal was part of a larger project funded by the Walton (as in Walmart) Family Foundation to test the efficacy of water markets in Colorado.
“The only way to meaningfully conserve water in agriculture is to not grow crops, plain and simple. And the only way to make that happen is to make it worth a farmer’s while financially,” said Kehmeier, who was pleased with the outcome and would agree to similar water transfers in the future.
Although he said he and family appreciate what he calls “all the nostalgia and warm feelings about agriculture” put forth in Hickenlooper’s water plan, they realize that “when push comes to shove, (municipal) users with the political power and money are going to get what they want, and everybody knows that.
“I don’t think we can turn back the tide.”
The funding question
Paying farmers to send water “down the creek” on a scale large enough to achieve meaningful savings will require money. Lots of it. And the most frequent criticism of Hickenlooper’s water strategy is that nobody knows where that money will come from.
Even the water plan’s price tag has been questionable.
Eklund said in 2015 that implementing the plan would cost $20 billion. He wouldn’t specify which water priorities and projects that amount would fund. Rather, he said that his estimate was a rough, “back-of-the-napkin” analysis that considered “numerous funding areas.”
Weeks after her appointment as Eklund’s successor in 2017, Mitchell put the water plan’s price tag at what she called “a more realistic $40 billion.” That higher price included water quality projects and funding to restore flows and ecosystems in Colorado’s rivers.
Hickenlooper’s pro-business-, pro-development-, and PR-sensitive office cringed at that disclosure. Over the past year, Mitchell has reined the figure back to $20 billion. “It’s what we can do, reasonably, as a state,” she now says.
Of the $20 billion, about $16 billion is expected to come from municipal water districts via consumer water rates, and another $1 billion from federal grants and revenues from the state severance tax. That tax, levied on oil and gas companies for drilling, long has been Colorado’s biggest source of water funding. Revenues were at $68 million annually in fiscal year 2014-2015, but took a nosedive in fiscal year 2015-2016 just as the water plan was being released. State officials have decided that severance tax revenues fluctuate too dramatically to reliably carry out the water plan.
That leaves a funding gap of more than $3 billion for parts of the plan that don’t already have revenue streams. Those include subsidizing conservation by municipal water districts in economically depressed parts of the state, paying to rehabilitate streams and rivers after decades of over-depletion, and paying farmers like the Kehmeiers to temporarily fallow their land.
Hickenlooper will leave office in January without having identified a way to fill that funding gap. “Some of the funding is still not locked down,” he acknowledges. His departure comes just as a new development on the Colorado River has created additional pressure – one far more urgent than a looming shortfall in 2050 – to conserve.
The federal government has given Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah until the end of the year to agree on a plan to send more water to Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in which the four Upper Basin states store Colorado River water, to ensure they can meet their contractual obligations to deliver a certain amount annually to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Lake Powell is less than half full after years of drought and overuse. If Colorado fails to conserve enough water to help replenish it or otherwise meet the terms of the “drought contingency plan” the Upper Basin states are currently negotiating, the feds could step in and curtail our access to river water.
“If the same hydrology (patterns) that started in 2001 continue, Lake Powell will be dry within three years. It is a very serious situation, an existential threat that we need to be acting on sooner rather than later,” Lochhead said, noting that the state’s water strategy needs to be more proactive than simply hoping we have a few big snow years “To me, that’s not preparing. We’re staring a crisis in the face.”
“We have to get after it,” added CU’s Castle. “Every year we wait, it gets worse.”
Tom Gougeon is president of the Denver-based Gates (as in Gates Rubber Company) Family Foundation, which funds ways of balancing Colorado’s disparate water needs. Given that “there’s a lot of stress on the system right now,” he says it’s important to harness “that sense of impatience and urgency.”
Gates has an ally in the even deeper-pocketed Walton Family Foundation, the biggest private funder of sustainable water projects on the planet. Walton has taken a special interest in funding conservation projects and water banks along the Colorado River.
Recognizing that Colorado can’t wait for Hickenlooper’s successor to come up with a funding source, the two philanthropies have formed a 25-member working group to make a recommendation.
“This plan is only as valuable if it has secure, sustainable funding to support it,” said Ted Kowalski, the head of Walton’s Colorado River Initiative.
Made up of experts representing a wide variety of water interests throughout the state, the working group is considering a bottle tax, a tourism tax, and a tax on sports betting as possible funding options. Whichever of those or other methods it picks, the goal is to raise $100 million in revenues annually, totalling $3.2 billion by 2050, the year in which the shortfall is currently projected.
The group aims to come up with a suggested funding plan in the next few weeks, then urge lawmakers to start crafting bills for the 2019 session, which starts when Hickenlooper leaves office in January.
In the meantime, a state-organized group called the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) is attempting a parallel effort to come up with a water funding recommendation, but sources close to those talks say they’re languishing.
By most accounts, it’s easier for philanthropies to prod movement because they don’t face the political pressures that politicians do. Hickenlooper is eyeing a bid for president.
“We don’t operate on two- or four- or six-year terms. We’re uniquely situated in asking people to participate in the conversation because we can have a longer view,” said Kowalski.
Added Gougeon: “The fact that we’re not the decision makers, I think, gives us the freedom to explore these possibilities.”
Whichever funding option is recommended, it will likely require voter approval. The working group is eyeing the 2020 ballot, allowing almost two years to educate Coloradans about statewide water needs.
But state Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, wants to push for a ballot issue in 2019: “The truth is that Colorado doesn’t have the luxury of waiting,” he said.
Regardless of which year, there will be obstacles. A long list of other statewide needs – such as education, health care, rural broadband, and possibly transportation – will be competing for state funding. And Coloradans have a less than stellar record of approving water taxes. Voters in 2003 soundly rejected a statewide water funding ballot measure in a defeat blamed largely on the fact that the initiative gave no specifics about which water projects it would fund. Politicos say a future measure, if it’s to succeed, would need to be more specific than the 2003 effort and than Hickenlooper’s 2015 water plan.
It will be in the ironing out of those specifics and deciding which water projects would and wouldn’t be funded that one of Colorado’s most outspoken water watchdogs expects the spirit of collaboration at the core of Hickenlooper’s water plan could break…
As Castle, the former Interior Department undersecretary, tells it, “It will require dedicated leadership at the highest levels in order to make progress” convincing voters to approve a statewide water tax and leading Coloradans to conserve enough water to start replenishing Lake Powell.
“I don’t know the extent to which either of the two candidates (for governor) will prioritize achieving some of these goals,” she said.
Neither Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis nor Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has much experience with water policy. Neither tends to raise the issue on the campaign trail. And neither particularly impressed their audiences when speaking to state and local water officials at the Colorado Water Congress in August. In prepared remarks that Stapleton recited like a term paper and Polis delivered with a notable lack of energy, both said they’d carry out the water plan and find a way to raise the $100 million a year to do so.
Stapleton seemed to favor sports gambling as a funding option. He hedged when asked about climate change’s effects on water resources. And he said the state will need to build new ways to store water because “conservation won’t get us where we need to go.” Some water wonks bristled when he mispronounced the word aquifer.
Polis emphasized a heavy investment in conservation and water efficiency. He said “growth needs to pay its own way” when it comes to water infrastructure. And he said he would oppose any transmountain diversions (projects carrying water from the West Slope to the Front Range) “that are not universally agreed upon.”
Both campaigns since have refused to answer The Independent’s questions about the specifics of their candidates’ water stances.
“I would like to hear more specifics from them about some of the fundamental policy issues. I think a lot of people would,” Lochhead said. “My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough. Things need to move more quickly, a lot more quickly, than they are today.”
Whichever candidate wins in November will have to persuade state lawmakers and voters from urban areas – who already will be shouldering 80 percent of the cost of implementing the plan through their water rates – to agree to an additional water tax.
He also will have fences to mend with folks who’ve complained that Hickenlooper’s administration has iced them out about where state water policy is headed.
In September, a group of West Slope water users slammed Eklund (the former CWCB director whom Hickenlooper kept as Colorado’s lead negotiator on the Colorado River), accusing him of a lack of transparency about his talks with other Upper Basin states on how to manage water in severe drought and replenish Lake Powell. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, had especially harsh words about what he saw as Eklund’s refusal to keep his group apprised on the agreement to bank water in Lake Powell. Growers on the West Slope fear that water banking efforts could strip them of their water rights.
“We haven’t seen those documents that are about to be executed. We’ve been told that we don’t need to see them. We’re not OK with that. We don’t think it’s acceptable. We think those documents need to be shared with us and frankly the impact of those documents needs to be shared with the water users of the Western Slope and the state of Colorado,” Mueller was quoted last month by The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.
His remarks called into question how “joined at the hip” statewide water interests really are, despite Hickenlooper’s push for collaboration and trust.
Eklund since has shared the details Mueller sought, but continues to be distrusted not just on the West Slope, but also among some of his former state colleagues and other water officials who have questioned whether his work practicing water and infrastructure law at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs conflicts with his representation of the state on Colorado River issues. In response, he says he won’t make his client list public. “My firm wouldn’t allow that.”
Though he has advised Polis on water, infrastructure and regulatory issues, Eklund says he’s not vying for another political appointment. “I’m not interested in a position with a Polis administration, or a Stapleton administration, for that matter,” he told The Independent Sunday.
He says he has told Polis what he tells anyone who asks about the water challenges Colorado is facing: “That at this point, we’ve not been doing the kind of conservation that we need to bend the curve at Lake Powell, and that Colorado’s governor will need to oversee and encourage scaling up by the entire water community for it to do any good. That’ll take leadership right now, when it’s hard for me to overstate the urgency that we face on this river.”
Eklund lauds Hickenlooper for setting a tone of collaboration not just in Colorado, but with the six other Colorado River states with whom he negotiates. That approach, that ethos of “we can work together to control our destiny,” he said, “has become our brand as a state.”
“Governor Hickenlooper believes that our brand can be exported.”
Leadership on water and other environmental issues requires a certain art in messaging, the ability to strike a balance of conveying urgency without creating panic. Udall underscores this point by quoting Colorado physicist and environmental activist Amory Lovins: “You can’t depress people into action.”
“In politics, being a doomsdayer doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Udall, the son of a congressman and presidential candidate, nephew of an interior secretary, and brother of a U.S. senator. “This state has more positive things going on than anywhere else in the West. We have a lot of really good people here trying to come up with solutions. Are they trying hard? For the most part, yes. Are they doing enough? No.”
As Udall tells it, Colorado needs more than branding to avert a water crisis.
“Climate change is coming at us faster than anyone expected just a few years ago. The wheels are coming off and nobody seems to be responding quickly enough,” he said. “We need leaders willing to take swifter action.”
The district, which has boundaries that stretch through parts of Weld, Adam and Morgan counties, serves about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells. As part of the ballot question, proposed through Central’s Groundwater Management Subdistrict, the district is planning for long-term projects officials said would give farmers and ranchers a reliable source of water, even during drought conditions.
According to the district, taxpayers living in a $500,000 home would pay $1.90 per month or $22.80 per year.
If approved, the money would go three places:
Construction of 5,000 acre-feet of additional reservoir storage near Fort Lupton, Greeley and Kersey.
Purchasing additional senior water rights, including those currently leased by the district.
Construction of the Robert W. Walker Recharge project in Wiggins, near the Weld and Morgan county line.
In September, executive director Randy Ray said the recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim $15 million of the funding to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said the storage would increase drought resiliency for the district’s water users.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The fund was created in 1964. It has provided protections over the years in Colorado to national parks, monuments and forests, and helped create local recreation amenities like the Blue Heron Trail along the Colorado River in Grand Junction.
A bipartisan congressional majority that in Colorado includes Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Reps. Scott Tipton, Jared Polis, Mike Coffman, Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette has supported a bill to permanently reauthorize the fund. But it hasn’t been brought up for a vote by congressional leadership.
Amy Roberts, executive director of Outdoor Industry Association, said in a news release, “We are extremely disappointed that Congress is letting one of the most popular and bipartisan programs which supports our nation’s public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities expire before the November elections. Our public lands are one of our nation’s underlying unifiers, not to mention that they help to fuel the growing $887 billion outdoor recreation economy.”
Gardner spokesman Casey Contres said the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee likely will be voting on conservation fund legislation this week.
From the Roaring Fork Conservancy via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Rick Lofaro):
Roaring Fork Conservancy is pleased to present yet another edition of the Voters’ Guide to Water Issues in the Roaring Fork Watershed. The importance of water in Colorado continues to grow as we plan for the future of our water resources. Roaring Fork Conservancy remains focused on water quality, water quantity and riparian health, addressing these issues via river science, water policy and educating citizens on current issues.
Knowledgeable elected officials help us protect vital water resources. With the upcoming election, we wanted to give citizens an opportunity to hear from candidates on local water issues and their proposed solutions.
Roaring Fork Conservancy asked candidates in local, state and federal races for their responses to two water-related questions. This pamphlet presents a non-biased forum for candidates to express their qualifications and platforms on water issues affecting the Roaring Fork Watershed and the state of Colorado. This Voters’ Guide can be found on our website at http://www.roaringfork.org/news and physical copies will be available in public places throughout the Roaring Fork Watershed.
Roaring Fork Conservancy does not endorse any candidates. Their unedited responses are presented as submitted.
We encourage you to vote, whether by mail or at a polling place on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Your voice is an important part of helping us bring people together to protect our rivers.
During election years in Colorado, it’s routine for candidates for statewide office to address the summer convention of the politically powerful Colorado Water Congress.
After all, “it’s rare that a bill opposed by our membership is ever signed by a Colorado governor,” the group’s website claims.
And so the ritual was repeated last week as about 350 self-proclaimed “water buffaloes” gathered at the Hotel Talisa in Vail and heard from the Republican and Democratic candidates for the 3rd Congressional District, governor and attorney general.
And what the crowd — water managers and providers, engineers and water attorneys — wants to hear about most from candidates is their position on “storage,” “infrastructure” and “projects,” which are industry euphemism for dams and reservoirs.
Storage box checked
“When it comes to water storage, we need to build more. And during my administration, we will build more,” Walker Stapleton, the Republican candidate for governor, told the Water Congress members on Wednesday, Aug. 22, in one of the more straightforward declarations heard last week on the subject.
“Some of this will be larger projects and larger reservoirs, but it will also be dynamic and medium-sized projects that help us store water in innovative ways and balance environmental protection with our needs to build out storage,” Stapleton said. (Read more on Stapleton’s water policies).
Scott Tipton, a Republican who has represented the 3rd Congressional District since 2010, is a familiar figure at Water Congress. Speaking at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, Aug. 23, Tipton began by paraphrasing Wayne Aspinall, the late Congressman from Palisade who is nationally recognized for his work on water issues.
Aspinall’s quote, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything,” is carved into stone in a park near the Colorado River in Palisade, but Tipton expressed it as “When you touch water in the West, it is really the lifeblood of what we are and who we are in our state.”
Tipton went on to say that Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050.
“We need to be looking out the windshield in terms of water storage,” Tipton said, adding, “We’re going to have to be able to store more water.” (Read more on Tipton’s water policies).
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor, briefly mentioned storage in his prepared remarks, but in the context of expanding existing reservoirs and using technology to conserve more water.
Venturing out on a political limb, Polis shared his views of the prospect of additional transmountain diversions under the Continental Divide.
“To many Coloradans in the high country on the Western Slope — some communities that I represented for a decade in Congress — future transmountain diversions pose an existential threat to the health of our rivers and our agricultural economy,” Polis said.
“So I’ll be very clear: As a matter of principle, I will oppose transmountain diversions that are not developed through the collaborative principles that the interbasin compact committees have agreed on.”
He then doubled-down on his position, saying during a Q&A period that he “would oppose any transmountain diversions that have not been agreed upon by respective areas.”
On Friday, Aug. 24, Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, spoke to the water buffaloes.
As a state legislator from Steamboat, she served for four years as a house member on the legislature’s “interim water committee” and chaired the house agricultural committee, where any bill having to do with water is scrutinized.
During a Q&A period, Mitsch Bush was asked flat out, “Will you be an advocate for new storage projects?”
“Small, efficient storage projects are certainly something that we will most likely need,” she replied. “Not on the scale that we’ve seen in the 20th century, (but) I think small and efficient off-channel projects may be very helpful in storing and delivering water.”
She also addressed the potential need for additional transmountain diversions.
“We really need to think of ways to not have new transmountain diversions, for many reasons,” she said. “The key one being that when, not if, when, there is a compact call on the Colorado, some of those transmountain diversions will be among the first called.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering water and rivers in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times. The Vail Daily published this story on Aug. 26, 2018.
As rivers run dry and reservoirs run low, west-central Colorado district studies storage and leasing options
At the head of the Crystal Valley, automated sprinklers trundle across fields that hug Highway 133, scattering precious water over green sprouts. But on Brook Levan’s farm, one of those sprinklers sits idle. Due to low flows in the Crystal River, the irrigation system stopped operating. Levan had to purchase organic hay from out of state to feed his dairy cows.
“Some of that’s Montana water,” said Levan, pointing to a shed filled with bales of yellow hay.
Levan, director of Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming, said he remembers when there was snow year-round on Mount Sopris. This year, the mountain’s dry and gray. In the valley below, the Crystal River flows at a trickle, meandering through a rocky, dry riverbed as warm winds whip across the fields at either side.
For Coloradans in state Senate District 5, an area larger than New Hampshire stretching from the Vail mountains to the western plains, water is a constant worry. It helps grow fruit for markets and hay for livestock. It sustains recreational economies that rely on visitors who ski, raft and fish.
Some call water the state’s lifeblood, and that’s doubly true in water-dependent Crystal Valley. And as the rivers run dry and reservoirs run out, two candidates vying to represent this district in the Colorado Statehouse are proposing different paths forward for how to manage the state’s water supplies — and the public lands that encompass them more generally.
The incumbent wants farmers to be allowed to lease their water rights without fear of penalty, while her opponent believes building reservoirs to store water is the best answer.
Republican Olen Lund, a 59-year-old alfalfa farmer from Paonia, is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan, a 39-year-old rancher from Vail. The winner will likely play a role in the contentious debate over water policy, especially as Colorado braces for increasing demands from other states on Colorado River water.
Rancher and former state Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, a Lund supporter, has long championed Western Slope water rights. “We need a really strong voice” in Denver, she said. “We do not want our water cut back so that Denver and the surrounding area can build another subdivision.”
For Dea Jacobson, a former regional campaign coordinator for the Democratic Party from Cedaredge, the environmental impact of oil and gas drilling is an even larger concern. “The region needs nursing and care,” she said, especially when it comes to proposed drilling in the North Fork Valley. “Putting the oil and gas industry in the same backyard as the water supply needed for organic farming” is dangerous, she said.
Water is paramount in this district. But this race is also about the balance of power under the Gold Dome. Democrats have a seven-seat hold on the House, and, this November, they want to flip three seats blue in the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority. The GOP views the District 5 seat as a pickup opportunity to bolster its majority, in part because Republicans outnumber Democrats here. In 2014, Donovan won by a relatively narrow 2.3 percent margin.
But midterm elections are considered a referendum on the president’s party — and Donald Trump isn’t that popular in this district; Hillary Clinton bested him in 2016 by 5.5 percentage points.
“It is an important race for us,” said Curry.
Lund, a former Delta County commissioner and president of the Delta County Farm Bureau, is running on the motto that he will be a voice for rural Colorado. “We need a senator that knows our lands aren’t playgrounds for the Denver-Boulder types,” he told Republicans packed in a Denver hotel conference room at the state GOP nominating assembly last April. “This is our home. We will fight for our farms, our families and our values.”
Lund is a founding member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, which represents water users in the region. He also served on the Interbasin Compact Committee, a state advisory panel that discusses water compacts with states that share the Colorado River. He is cavalier about the drought in Colorado. He rattled off past dry years: 1935, 1977, 2002. “It’s been dry before,” Lund said during an interview at the Red Rock Diner in Carbondale last week.
Still, he said there is a looming collision between a growing population on the Front Range and demand from the thirsty Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — to send at least 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin.
Farmers and ranchers must be efficient with their water, Lund said. One tool, alternative transfer mechanisms, or ATMs, allow farmers to lease their water rights for purposes other than irrigation. Still, he cautioned, there are inherent problems with ATMs and they must be applied on a case-by-case basis.
The “most important tool,” Lund said, is storage. This often requires damming rivers and flooding reservoirs — projects that have historically run into opposition from environmentalists. Lund said the legislature may be able to help “grease the skids.”
As for new taxes to pay for conservation and efficiency projects, he scoffed.
“Increase taxes and increase taxes,” Lund said. “It’s getting more and more difficult for people to exist.”
As he drinks a cup of ice water and eats a hamburger, he recalls growing up helping his neighbors grow vegetables and inheriting his father’s pear orchard before turning it into alfalfa pasture.
“I’m a farmer serving as a politician. It’s not like this is something on my bucket list,” Lund said. “A lot of people asked me to do it.”
Across the Continental Divide, the Arkansas River spills into the Chaffee Valley. Intermittent rafting outfits mark the sides of State Highway 24. In Salida, a recreational tourism town which sits on the river, about 50 people gathered inside the A Church recently for a progressive candidate forum.
Sen. Donovan drove down from Vail, where she runs her family ranch raising Highland cattle, chickens, horses and mules. She also grows vegetables. One of the people at the forum asked her what she plans to do about water shortages.
Donovan said some farmers and ranchers fear they have to “use it or lose it,” referencing a Colorado water law clause that says if a farm uses less water than it’s entitled to, the owner’s allocation can be cut. She also said some farmers sell their water rights outright to municipalities, a process known as “buy and dry.” Farmers, she said, need more flexibility. She said she wants to look at new ideas for how farmers and ranchers can lease water rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to keep stream flows high for ecological purposes, like fish habitat, and recreational uses.
“How do we give the agricultural community more options with their water rights while not likely losing them? I know the realities on the ground and I know the pressures the West Slope is going to feel,” she said in an interview with The Colorado Independent.
Donovan opposes any new transmountain diversions. And damming more rivers requires more water, which there isn’t much of to begin with, she said. Besides, she said, it may be better to add capacity to existing reservoirs. She added there’s little the state legislature can do around this subject given that most dams require federal permits.
When it comes to passing new taxes to pay for water conservation and efficiency projects, she’s open to ideas.
In addition to water, audience members at the forum brought up the area’s lack of affordable housing. “My favorite barista told me he and his family are leaving because they can’t afford to live here,” said Anne Marie Holen, a resident of Salida.
The lawmaker says she wants to give tax credits to local businesses that invest in housing.
Spotty Internet service was another complaint. Donovan said a new law she co-sponsored will pump tens of millions of dollars into Internet infrastructure in rural Colorado.
People applauded when Donovan said, “It’s not acceptable that a health care bill is more than a mortgage bill,” adding that she wants legislation to increase transparency around drug companies’ supply chains, an effort that was shot down in the Republican-controlled Senate this session.
The Independent asked Lund for his thoughts on affordable housing, broadband and health care policy, but he was unable to respond in time for publication.
Donovan raised more than $163,000 so far this election cycle. Coloradans for Fairness, an independent expenditure committee supporting Democrats in the state Senate, spent more than $30,800 on digital ads supporting her. There are virtually no limits on how much money IECs can accept and spend on candidates.
Lund, by comparison, has raised only $14,000. But he has more generous support from several outside groups buying ads on his behalf, such as the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, a 501(c)4 that does not have to disclose its donors or how much it’s spending on Lund’s campaign, and Americans for Prosperity, another dark money group backed by the Koch brothers.
Furthermore, the Senate Majority Fund, an IEC that aims to elect Republicans to the state Senate, spent more than $69,000 this year on mailers attacking Donovan on behalf of Lund’s candidacy.
Much of the Senate Majority Fund’s money comes from oil and gas companies. And Lund does not equivocate in his support for the industry.
He supports drilling in his backyard, the North Fork Valley, where the Bureau of Land Management, under the Trump Administration, is proposing to lease land to drillers. Gov. John Hickenlooper opposes the plan, saying it could impact greater sage grouse habitat and affect big game winter range and migration corridors.
Lund, who said he was planning to attend an oil and gas tour in Mesa County this week (a county not included in SD5), brushed off these concerns. He said ranchers provide good habitat for the sage grouse. And as for elk, he said, “They love the drilling sites. It is more of a plus than a minus for the elk.”
Lund said recreation probably has a greater impact on the environment than drilling, citing a recent trip to Eagle where he said there were mountain bike trails were all over the mountainside. “That has got to be an interruption of something,” he said.
Donovan not only sees things differently, she helped make the third Saturday in May “Public Lands Day.” Wilderness, wildlife and water are the reason people live in Colorado, she said.
“They’re the pictures we put up on Instagram. And they fuel the economies of many communities,” Donovan told those attending the candidate forum.
Donovan opposes drilling in the North Fork Valley. She said she sent letters to the BLM opposing the plan.
“Your role as a public servant is to be a voice for the local community. And the local community that will be most impacted by that drilling does not want it,” she said.
That community is Paonia, Lund’s hometown.
For farm residents in rural Senate District 5, there is a concern that lawmakers in distant Denver are not listening.
“We just don’t want them to forget about us,” said Paul Stockwell, executive director of the Delta Area Chamber of Commerce.
But right now, these voters mean everything to the candidates as they tour the state, knocking doors and asking for support. The district’s roughly 35,600 unaffiliated voters, the largest bloc, matter most. Overall, the district’s population has grown since 2010, totaling about 143,000 people as of 2016, according to the U.S. Census.
Donovan said her campaign has contacted over 17,000 people, either by phone or by knocking doors.
Lund said he’s been out campaigning, too.
“It’s a big district,” he said. “We’re on the second set of tires.”
Central’s Board places GMS bond measure on November 2018 ballot
The Board of Directors of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District placed a bond question for the Groundwater Management Subdistrict on to the 2018 ballot. Central’s board and management stated this measure is important to start planning the next steps to secure water rights and build storage for the region. The projects in the bond include:
Construction of 5,000 acre-feet of additional reservoir storage—which will increase Central’s holdings by 25 percent—in the Fort Lupton and Greeley/Kersey areas.
Construction of the Robert W. Walker Recharge Project, a large project at the Weld and Morgan county lines that will divert water from the South Platte River and send those flows to groundwater recharge basins as far as 5 miles from the river. This will increase drought resiliency for water users in the District. Central was awarded $1.5 million in state and federal grants for the estimated $15 million project.
Purchase of several senior water rights that are becoming available for the District’s portfolio, including the purchase of water currently being leased by Central, which will ensure this water stays in the community to be used by local farms and businesses.
To review the ballot language, click here. Please contact Central’s office if you have any questions.
Randy Ray said every local water manager remembers years like 2002 and 2012.
“That’s one thing water managers don’t forget: the dry years. We always forget about the wet ones, except for the catastrophic floods,” said Ray, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District. “How did their water supplies react to the dry years?”
Water officials try to answer when they look toward the future of their systems. That’s why the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District will place a $48.7 million bond question on the ballot this November in an effort to address priorities that, officials said, would help the district plan for droughts such as the ones that ravaged this part of the state in 2002 and 2012. Another drought currently bakes portions of the state this year, as well.
Central’s boundaries stretch through parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties and serve about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells…
The recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim an estimated $15 million of the funding in an effort to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said that would create storage to increase drought resiliency for the district’s water users.
For Ray, the recharge project is a solution to problems years in the making.
“It’s complicated, but then again, it’s simple,” he said. “If you want to pump groundwater, you’ve got to replace it. We’re just simply putting water in the aquifer to offset pumping and generate additional supplies that we can count on.”
Recharge projects, which have been in use for decades, exploded in the late 1990s, as strict regulations for well pumping required water users to replace the groundwater they pumped. They work by diverting water to a pond and allowing it to seep into the ground, and eventually, back to the river.
At the Walker Recharge Project, which is named after a former district president, officials plan to divert the water from the South Platte River when it’s flowing at a high level to ponds along a plateau as far as 5 miles away.
The district purchased the land for the project in 2015 after it became clear to Central officials that the district can’t rely on leasing reusable water from Thornton, Aurora, Longmont and Westminster sewer discharge plants the way it has in the past.
Because the population in those cities is growing, Ray said, city officials are more reluctant to give their extra water supplies away. Water managers in those cities remember dry years such as 2002 too.
Plus, Ray said, the district views the projects as better financial investments.
“It’s like renting a house,” Ray said. “The landowner is getting the equity, and you’re just basically paying their mortgage.”
Ray said the other main projects outlined in the ballot question — the reservoir storage and additional senior water rights — also will play a role in helping the district rely less on water leases from cities. The gravel pit reservoir storage, he said, would help the district divert water from the river quickly when water levels are high for additional storage.
But Ray said the biggest selling point for the bond issue is agriculture.
“That’s our big campaign, our big message to our constituents, preserving irrigated agriculture in the county,” Ray said.
By purchasing additional senior water rights, he said, the district could help slow a trend called “buy-and-dry,” in which cities buy water rights from farms.
“So, when one of those cities purchases those water rights, they retire the land, and it’s got to go back to a dry land setting, which has a lot of negative associations with that,” Ray said. “The economy dries up and the tax bases go away.”
If Central takes over that water right, Ray argued, farmers would still have access to groundwater to irrigate a portion of the farmland.
“If you’re 80 years old, 70 years old, that farm and its water rights are your 401(k),” Ray said. “We want to be an alternative to these beautiful senior water rights in Weld County being transferred to Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas counties and reside here under the management of the water conservancy district.”
If voters approve the proposed 0.25 percent countywide sales tax at the November general election, a portion of funds would be used to treat forest lands.
The U.S. Forest Service currently treats about 1,200 acres per year. With additional funding, that number would grow to 4,000 acres annually, nearly triple the number of acres that could see mitigation.
The sales tax would generate about $1 million per year and would be used to:
• Strengthen forest health;
• Conserve and support working ranches, farms and rural landscapes; and
• Manage impacts of growth in outdoor recreation.
Cindy Williams, co-lead with County Commissioner Greg Felt of Envision Chaffee County, the entity that is the impetus behind the proposal, said the goal would be to treat 2 percent of forested public lands, about 4,000 acres, in the county each year.
Responsibility for maintaining public lands in the county rests with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Managment and state of Colorado. But, Felt said, the agencies do not have the budget or the staff to properly maintain lands under their jurisdiction.
An example of how funding would be used is the current project on Monarch Pass. In concert with the U.S. Forest Service, a number of entities have joined forces in an effort to remove beetle-killed dead standing trees to improve forest health, reduce the danger of wildfires and protect water supplies.
Williams said various entities, including the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, Monarch Mountain, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Pueblo and Colorado Springs water utilities, are supporting the project.
Monarch Pass is the headwaters of the South Arkansas River, which is a source of water for the city of Salida and dozens of irrigators.
Mitigation work, she said, would protect towns, water supplies, water infrastructure, the recreation economy, wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Felt said Chaffee County has contributed $48,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund to the program.
The idea behind this element of the sales tax, he said, “is to leverage interests of other water-related organizations” who have an interest in water quality and the resource.
If the county puts $500,000 from the proposed conservation tax toward forest mitigation work, Felt said the goal would be to generate an additional $5 million from other sources.
“The goal,” Felt said, “is not to spend a million dollars a year on conservation, but to leverage that into $5 million” to benefit the county.
He said if there is local interest, the county will be able to do more by drawing money from other organizations and agencies…
Williams said the net result of the tax would be to bring additional dollars through grants and participating partners into the county to be used to benefit county resources.
Williams said representatives of agencies and foundations she has talked to about the county conservation project have said they typically do not see communities coming together like this, including governments, businesses and citizens.
The Gates Family Foundation, she said, is monitoring the county as a possible development model with new tools for other Western states.
Felt said Envision has “blown out of the water” representatives of foundations and government agencies who have become aware of the project and now want to play a part in the program as it evolves.</blockquote.
Note: I will not be at the conference Tweeting away this year. I’m depending on all you other Tweeters to keep me informed.
The three-day conference, which starts Wednesday at the Hotel Talisa in Vail, is expected to draw more than 300 water policy experts as well as local, county and state officials who handle water issues…
Drought issues will be a key discussion topic this week, said Doug Kemper, the group’s executive director. Drought has hit the southern half of the state pretty hard, Kemper said.
“You’re looking at record low flows in some areas,” especially around Gunnison, he said. “We came into this year universally above average in every river basin, but will exit this water year in a different condition.”
Negotiations with the six other states that draw water from the Colorado River are at a critical point, Kemper said, even as a new governor and attorney general are coming to Colorado.
The conference will hear from the major candidates for both offices, marking the first time that many in the water community will meet them. They’ll likely be asked how they view the state water plan, whether the next governor will have a special water adviser, as Gov. John Hickenlooper has, and how they view the work of the basin roundtables, which carry much of the workload for the water plan.
Funding for the plan also is in question. Kemper said it’s still unclear whether funding will come from grants or loans and whether it will be spent on infrastructure, wastewater treatment or environmental protection.
The congress will meet Wednesday with Republican attorney general candidate George Brauchler, followed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton.
Thursday, Democratic attorney general candidate Phil Weiser will speak to the congress.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is to address the group Friday.
Congressional candidates also will visit: Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton will be at the congress Thursday, and Democratic opponent Diane Mitsch Bush will address the congress Friday.
Thursday, the Legislature’s interim water resources review committee will hold its August session at the congress. The committee is to review funding for the state water plan, the Colorado River compact and drought contingency plans for the Colorado River.
Thursday’s keynote address, “A New Culture of Certainty at EPA,” will be delivered by Doug Benevento, the EPA Region VIII administrator, and comes on the heels of a federal court order Thursday that the Trump administration reinstate the Obama administration’s “Waters of the USA” rule.
I’ve already cast my ballot for Amy Beatie, won’t you join me? The Colorado General Assembly will be well-served with a water attorney who knows how to work within the legal system and find environmental benefits. If you live on the Northside please cast your primary vote for Amy. If you know folks that live up here please let them know how important it is to vote for her.
I’m excited to endorse Amy, she has been a tireless champion for Colorado in her role at the Water Trust. Here’s the press release from Amy’s campaign:
Amy Beatie, Executive Director of the Colorado Water Trust since 2007, announces her endorsement by statewide and local leaders in the Democratic primary for State Representative in Denver’s House District 4. The endorsements come from Ruth Wright, second woman ever in Colorado to become the House Minority Leader, a role that she held from 1986-1992; Gail Schwartz, former State Senator from Crested Butte; and Jeni JAMES Arndt, current State Representative from Fort Collins.
Although she had been considering running for public office for some time, Beatie’s campaign began to truly take shape after her graduation from the Emerge triaining program of 2016, a program that trains progressive women to run for office. “Seasoned leadership matters now more than ever. I have dedicated my career to public service and working tirelessly for Colorado’s environment, but for years I had been feeling such a strong push to do more. I want to be part of helping create a cohesive, progressive, and strategic Democratic party in this state. This incredible northside community also wants someone who will improve our education system, our healthcare system, and our environment. Having been in leadership for most of my career, I’ll be ready to hit the ground running on day one.”
Sen. Schwartz endorsed Beatie saying that, “Amy has dedicated her career to the preservation of Colorado’s natural resources and public service to the people of Colorado. She has distinguished herself as the leader of one of Colorado’s most effective conservation organizations for over a decade. As a former State Senator, I know that Amy’s proven ability to work with diverse interests and communities, along with a deep background on statewide issues, will make her an excellent representative.”
Beatie successfully guided the Colorado Water Trust over the last decade to return over 7 billion gallons of water to over 375 miles of rivers and streams in the State of Colorado and Jeni Arndt, State Representative from Fort Collins, was impressed with Beatie’s knowledge of the state’s water issues. “Effectively managing our state’s water is critical to our shared future. Amy has been a leader on water conservation in Colorado for a decade and having her knowledge and experience in the legislature would be an invaluable contribution to our state’s efforts to plan for one of the most valuable resources in our state.”
Ruth Wright, second woman ever to become the House Minority Leader, a role that she held from 1986-1992, and former board member at the Colorado Water Trust spoke glowingly of Beatie’s ability to lead. “Amy has taken the Trust from an organization on the brink of closing and turned it into one of the most successful environmental organizations in the state. Amy infused the Trust with her vision and passion and I can see that same vision and passion in her run for the state house.”
Cary Kennedy: Will “guarantee” all Colorado homes and businesses can choose 100 percent renewable energy and double the state renewable energy standard, which currently requires cooperative utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewables.
Jared Polis: Pledges to protect public lands from “Donald Trump and polluters.” Will create path to 100 percent renewable energy as way to protect the environment and create “good-paying green jobs that can’t be outsourced.” Says 100 percent renewable energy is achievable “by 2040 or sooner” (Colorado Independent).
Donna Lynne: Advocates for a “‘no slogans’ balanced approach to energy production” that includes local control on where and how energy production happens, property rights, and people who work in extraction industries. Says “health and safety of all Coloradans is our top priority when we are dealing with energy and the environment.”
Mike Johnston: Launched his campaign with the 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 pledge. Wants to increase setbacks for oil and gas wells, cap orphan wells and “avoid drilling in ecologically sensitive areas.”
Walker Stapleton: Calls for a “stable business environment to ensure a low-cost energy supply that will attract and retain businesses in Colorado.” Says he won’t pursue “agenda-driven, burdensome, job-killing regulations.” Wants better state-federal communication on how federal lands are managed. Says he is running because he fears a Democratic governor would “end the energy industry” in Colorado (Colorado Independent).
Greg Lopez: Argues that the state coal industry “has been unfairly treated by bureaucrats” from out of state and reminds people that coal-fired plants are likely what’s charging their electric cars. Does not think 100 percent renewable energy is feasibly by 2040 and says diversification “remains the most prudent approach” to energy. (Colorado Independent)
Doug Robinson: Says the oil and gas industry “plays a vital role” in the state and can balance environmental protections “by supporting common sense regulations.” Supports all-of-the-above energy strategy and says “it is not the role of government to pick winners and losers,” in reference to a push for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 (Colorado Independent).
Victor Mitchell: Says climate change “is likely real” and that the federal government should launch “moonshot” initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Says government also should not choose “winners and losers,” either with subsidies or “excessive” taxes and regulations. Notes fossil fuels are currently most reliable and least expensive energy, but it could be different tomorrow. Calls preserving the environment, air quality and water supply “paramount to our future and quality of life.”
CIRES-led team uncovers series of wildfire triggers that culminated in the big burn of 2017
Western wildfire seasons are worse when it’s dry and fuel-rich, and the chances of ignition are high—and all three factors were pushed to their limits last year, triggering one of the largest and costliest U.S. wildfire seasons in recent decades, according to a new paper. Climate change likely helped exacerbate fuels and dryness, the paper found, and people’s behavior contributed the sparks.
“Last year we saw a pile on of extreme events across large portions of the western U.S., the wettest winter, the hottest summer, and the driest fall—all helping to promote wildfires,” said Jennifer Balch, director of CIRES/CU Boulder’s Earth Lab and lead author on the study published today in Fire with INSTAAR, Columbia University, and University of Idaho coauthors.
The 2017 wildfire season cost the United States more than $18 billion in damages. That year, 71,000 wildfires scorched 10 million acres of land—destroying 12,000 homes, evacuating 200,000 people and claiming 66 lives. For comparison, 2016 saw only 5.4 million acres burned.
The research team sought to pinpoint the precursors that led to these fires, to support decision makers considering policies that might prevent or minimize future fire disasters. The study found that the three major “switches” affecting fire—fuel, aridity, and ignition—were either flipped on or kept on longer than expected last year.
It started with a wet winter. Increased precipitation early in 2017 fed the growth of fine grasses across the western United States—grasses that would later serve as fuel for fire. Summer and fall then swept in a wave of dry, arid conditions, baking the dense fields of grasses into dehydrated kindling.
With the fuel growth and aridity switches flipped on, the scene was set for the third switch: ignition. Nearly 90 percent of total wildfires last year were caused by people; previous work by Balch and her team has illuminated just how extensively humans exacerbate wildfire. Human activity triples the length of the average fire season.
Computer climate models project an increased risk of extreme wet winters in California, the paper notes, and a decrease in summer precipitation across the entire West Coast. Those models also tend to project a delay in the onset of fall rain and snow.
“We expect to see more fire seasons like we saw last year, and thus it is becoming increasingly critical that we strengthen our wildfire prediction and warning systems, support suppression and recovery efforts, and develop sustained policies that help us coexist with fire,” said Megan Cattau, Earth Lab researcher and a coauthor on the study.
Although naturally occurring climate variability influences environmental conditions that affect the wildfire season, that variation is superimposed on an anthropogenically warmer world, so climate change is magnifying the effects of heat and precipitation extremes, Balch says.
The authors conclude by noting many ways that policy makers have already taken action to build better and burn better in the face of increasingly flammable landscapes; and they urge continued attention to policies that address the challenge of wildfire.
“The 2018 wildfire season is already underway and here at home in the southern Rockies fuels are very dry,” said Balch. “It is forecasted that June will be a busy month in terms of wildfires due to severe drought and low snowpack.”
Mail-in ballots are in the mail for Colorado’s primary election.
Fact: To combat climate change humankind must end the burning of fossil fuels.
Fact: The means to replace fossil fuels are at hand, economic and effective.
Please consider voting for candidates that put the environment at the top or near the top of their list of issues. You can find their positions on the environment and in particular climate change on their websites.
The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was a landmark moment in human history. It crystallized decades of negotiations into a framework embraced by every country in the world to confront the existential threat of climate change and work together to solve the challenge.
President Trump’s announcement exactly one year ago that he intended to withdraw from the Paris Agreement raised global concerns that the agreement could weaken or unravel. Instead, Trump’s retreat has catalyzed leaders in America and around the world to stand shoulder to shoulder and press forward with climate solutions.
June 1 is not the anniversary of an end to one of the world’s greatest acts of consensus; it is a celebration of what Americans have done to fill the federal void. On the same day Trump abdicated climate leadership last year, we formed the U.S. Climate Alliance to uphold the Paris Agreement commitment in our states. In just one year, the alliance has grown into a bipartisan coalition of 17 governors representing 40% of the U.S. population and a $9 trillion economy — larger than that of every country in the world but the U.S. and China.
President Trump’s announcement last year centered on his allegation that the Paris Agreement hurts the U.S. economy. The fact that our collective economies are stronger than non-alliance states proves just the opposite. Alliance states are not only reducing emissions more rapidly than the rest of the country, but we are also expanding our per capita economic output twice as fast. Alliance states are attracting billions of dollars in climate and clean energy investments that have created 1.3 million clean energy jobs. The Alliance states are not alone: meeting the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement is projected to save the world $30 trillion in avoided economic damages.
While the Paris Agreement is one of the greatest tests in global collaboration, this interstate effort stands as one of the biggest and most important experiments in American policymaking. From modernizing power grids to scaling up renewable energy and reducing pollution, we are saving money and cleaning our air.
We will do everything in our power to defend and continue our climate actions. This includes continuing to oppose any federal proposal to cancel the Clean Power Plan, weaken clean car and appliance standards or expand offshore drilling. One year after President Trump’s abdication, the rapid economic growth of states within the U.S. Climate Alliance remain a beacon to all Americans and to every other nation that Americans are still in the Paris Agreement and will not retreat.
Despite President Trump’s Paris Agreement decision, the world continues to move forward and not backward on climate. One year after the president’s announcement, every other nation on earth has signed onto the Paris Agreement. China canceled plans for more than 100 coal-fired power plants in 2017, offshore wind energy is competing without subsidy in northern Europe, and several countries are making plans to shift cars from gas and diesel to electric, including China, France, India, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.
We will work in lockstep with the nations of the world and continue our work to uphold the Paris Agreement. However, it is clear that we cannot meet the climate challenge alone. We need commitment from every U.S. state and we need the federal government to get back in the game. We invite others to join us and mark June 1 not as an anniversary of retreat, but as the moment when a bold, new movement of climate action took root in America.
Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown of California, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jay Inslee of Washington are co-chairs of the U.S. Climate Alliance. Follow them on Twitter: @JerryBrownGov, @NYGovCuomo and @GovInslee.
The problems faced by the wastewater system have become more urgent, as the city is now non-compliant with its existing discharge permit. Failure to move forward with upgrades could result in stiff penalties from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to the tune of $10,000 a day assessed from the first date of the violation last November.
The Sterling City Council has long known about deficiencies in the system; two years ago, Rob Demis of engineering firm Mott MacDonald gave a preliminary overview of some of the problems presented by the aging infrastructure. In short, the system suffers from flooding and leakage issues, and also is incapable of meeting new environmental standards…
According to Demis, the system lacks the capacity to handle heavy rainfall events or river flooding, and also suffers from leaks at multiple points that allow groundwater to seep into the wastewater stream. That excess water damages equipment, overloads the system and can lead to costly permit violations, as well as disrupting the biological process that breaks down the organic material in the water.
The system also is incapable of meeting its existing compliance schedules or new regulations that are slated to be implemented by 2022. It suffers from a lack of redundancy, leaving the city vulnerable to failures that would be “catastrophic,” Demis said, and also uses obsolete and dangerous equipment and processes.
Demis explained that much of the system has reached, or exceeded, its useful life and the problems the city is facing will only get worse over time. As an example, he said the four clarifiers that are in place had been banned by the time they were installed in 1995, begging the question of how Sterling ended up with them in the first place, and one of the tanks has failed and can’t be used.
As part of the presentation, Demis went over the estimated costs, 80 percent of which was for construction and the other 20 percent for legal, administrative, engineering, permitting and other costs associated with such a project. The cost of installing a new force main and improvements to the treatment system itself make up about half of the $31 million price tag.
Demis also spoke about possible funding sources. Grants are not reliable, he said; they looked at six possible grant sources and one they identified as a possibility has not received the expected funding because of low oil prices. A review of potential loan sources showed that the State Revolving Fund would provide a lower total cost in the long run versus private loans, because of the reduced interest rate. Either way, the city charter requires voter approval for taking on debt.
The city’s existing sewer rates have not kept up with the rate of inflation, Demis said. Using simple math, he estimated that residential sewer users’ rates would increase by $23, but noted that the city would have to complete a rate study to look at the more complex issues involved in determining the revenue necessary to make the recommended improvements, operate the system and invest in other needed infrastructure. The council is awaiting a report on such a rate study that was funded in the city budget last year.
During his October 2016 presentation, Demis gave credit to the operators at the wastewater treatment plant, saying they were “willing to make their job a little bit harder to try to find the value for the city” by reusing existing equipment and infrastructure where possible. He estimated that the cost to completely start over with a new wastewater system would be between $45 and 50 million. “We think there’s very good value for the city of Sterling there.”
Sterling residents for the past two years have seen increases on both water and wastewater services in an attempt to build up the enterprise funds and address infrastructure needs. According to City Manager Don Saling, the rate hikes were intended to narrow the gap between where rates were and where they’ll need to be, pending the outcome of the rate study. One big change he expects to see from the study is a recommendation to base sewer rates on usage; the rate would be calculated from water usage in cooler months, when users are not watering outdoors. A variable rate would be more equitable — a family of four would presumably pay more than a single retiree on a fixed income — and could also encourage water conservation to lower both water and sewer bills.
Newly released documents show that locals had little voice in monument decisions.
In April 2017, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said of former President Barack Obama and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument: “In making this unilateral decision, our former president either failed to heed the concerns of San Juan County residents, or ignored them completely.”
If Hatch were an honest man, he would say exactly the same about President Donald Trump’s drastic shrinkage of the monument late last year. Documents recently released by the Department of Interior show that when drawing the new boundaries, Trump and his Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, ignored not only the pleas of five Native American tribal nations, but also proposals from local county commissioners and the state of Utah.
That’s just one of the takeaways from a trove of documents regarding the Trump administration’s multi-monument review that the Interior Department coughed up to the New York Times. Here are the top 8 nuggets HCN has gleaned so far from the tens of thousands of documents:
1. The shrinkage of Bears Ears hurt Utah schools more than it helped.
Hatch has argued that the monument took needed cash from Utah school children because it “captured” over 100,000 acres of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA), which are leased out or sold to help fund schools. But SITLA itself has never outright opposed the monument designation. Why? Because with designation came the promise of a lucrative land exchange with the feds.
When the monument was designated, SITLA officials said they were “disappointed” in the way it was done, but went on to ask Obama “to promptly address the issue by making Utah’s school children whole through an exchange of comparable lands.” In fact, some six months before Obama designated the monument, SITLA already had the details of a swap in mind. The state would give up the land within the proposed monument, most of which had only marginal potential for development, and it would receive oil- and gas-rich federal land, much of it in other counties, in exchange.
A decade earlier, after the designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a similar swap proved quite profitable, according to an email in the document dump from SITLA Associate Director John Andrews. Andrews wrote that the exchange netted SITLA $135.2 million in mineral leases alone, plus $50 million in cash from the federal government as part of the deal. Adding in investment earnings and other lease revenues, Andrews concluded that a total haul of $500 million from the exchange would be a “conservative guesstimate.”
So, when Trump set out to shrink the monument, SITLA asked only that a sliver of the monument’s southeast corner be removed so as to keep a block of land near Bluff, Utah, in SITLA hands. A representative from Hatch’s office sent a map showing this change and a message to Interior: “The new boundary depicted on the map would resolve all known mineral conflicts for SITLA within the Bears Ears.”
In the end, Zinke granted this part of SITLA’s wish. Unfortunately for the state’s school children, he did a lot more than that, cutting most of the state lands out of the monument, thus shutting down any hopes for a large-scale land exchange. That leaves the state holding on to more than 80,000 acres of isolated parcels that are unlikely to generate much revenue.
2. Zinke ignored local county commissioners.
Trump ordered the monument review amid claims that local voices had been steamrolled by Obama’s unilateral designation. So when, in March 2017, the San Juan County Commission sent maps to Interior showing their proposed boundaries, they might have expected that it would influence Zinke’s recommended boundaries. It did not.
The commission’s proposed boundaries would have covered 422,600 acres across Cedar Mesa. Cut by spectacular canyons and with a high density of archaeological resources, Cedar Mesa was at the heart of Obama’s Bears Ears designation. Under the commissioners’ plans, the eastern boundary would have been Comb Wash, leaving out the sandstone wave known as Comb Ridge, as well as motorized route up Arch Canyon. Zinke’s boundaries contain only half as much land. They leave Cedar Mesa out entirely, unlike the county commissioners’ plans, but they include as part of the monument Comb Ridge and Arch Canyon. It’s almost as if the new boundaries were drawn in defiance of the county commission’s proposal. So much for local voices.
3. The voice of Energy Fuels, the most active uranium company in the Bears Ears region, appears to have been heard.
Representatives of the Canadian company met with Obama administration officials during the lead-up to designation, and the administration ultimately excluded Energy Fuels’ Daneros uranium mine from the monument. However, the company lamented the fact that seven miles of the mine’s one access road still fell within the boundaries, and that its White Mesa mill property abutted the eastern monument boundary.
Energy Fuels lobbyists, including former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., met with Trump administration officials in July 2017, and the company’s official comment on the monument review stated: “There are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the newly created (Bears Ears National Monument) that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future. … EFR respectfully requests that DOI reduce the size of the (Bears Ears National Monument) to only those specific resource areas or sites, if any, deemed to need additional protection beyond what is already available to Federal land management agencies.”
Trump’s shrinkage removed the entire White Canyon uranium district and other known deposits from the monument.
4. The new boundaries correlate closely with known oil, gas, uranium and potash deposits.
During his review last year, Zinke specifically asked for information on mineral extraction potential within the monuments. Uranium mining has long been dormant in the Bears Ears monument due to low prices, and only three of the 250 oil and gas wells drilled within the monument have yielded significant quantities of oil or gas. Nevertheless, industry has nominated some 63,657 acres within the national monument for oil and gas leases since 2014. With the new boundaries drawn to exclude even areas with only marginal potential for oil, gas or uranium, those leases could now go forward.
5. At Grand Staircase-Escalante, the new boundaries are mostly about coal.
When the monument was designated, Andalex, a Swiss company, was looking to mine a 23,800-acre swath of the Kaiparowits Plateau, which contains one of the biggest coal deposits in the United States. Clinton’s monument designation didn’t kill those plans, though it did make access and transportation to the deposits more difficult, so the feds used $19 million from the Land and Water Conservation Funds to buy out Andalex’s leases. Now, some 11 billion or more tons of coal are once again accessible. Also freed up with Trump’s monument shrinkage: Up to 10.5 trillion cubic feet of coalbed methane and 550 million barrels of oil from tar sands.
6. Visitation at Bears Ears area ratcheted up alongside the debate over designation.
Since there are no monument headquarters, the best indicator is the number of visitors at Kane Gulch Ranger Station on Cedar Mesa, which nearly doubled between 2013, when Bears Ears was little in the news, and 2017, when it became a signature issue for Trump as he attempted to dismantle many of Obama’s legacies.
Visits per year:
The jump in visitation in 2017 will be used by both anti- and pro-monument advocates. The former will argue that extra visitors mean extra impacts, the latter that more visitors add up to greater economic benefits for neighboring communities.
7. The designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante didn’t significantly impact grazing.
There were 77,400 active AUMs, or Animal Unit Months, the bureaucrat’s way of counting livestock on public lands, when the monument was designated in 1996. As of 2017, the number had only slightly dropped to 76,957 active AUMs. “Although grazing use levels have varied considerably from year to year due to factors like drought,” an Interior staff report says, “no reductions in permitted livestock grazing use have been made as a result of the Monument designation.” Claims to the contrary have long been used to argue for the monument’s reduction.
8. Obama’s staffers were in constant contact with Utah congressional staffers and other officials for months prior to monument designation.
And they often went out of their way to accommodate them. In fact, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s deputy chief of staff, Nicole Buffa, became quite chummy with Fred Ferguson, the chief of staff for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and Cody Stewart, policy director for Gov. Gary Herbert.
After Jewell’s visit to southeastern Utah, Buffa wrote to Ferguson, Stewart and others: “I’m looking forward to many more conversations about Utah with each of you, but in far less pretty places.”
As the debate on the ground heated up, Ferguson wrote to Buffa: “I grow more and more frustrated by the day regarding the situation in San Juan County. You and I … have been thrust into this umpire-type-role where we are supposed to determine which group is most sincere, most legit, and most deserving of ‘winning’. We’re witnessing a race to the bottom by all involved as the monument threat heats up and groups are positioning themselves for success. My ultimate thoughts are to do nothing and force all of these players to work together and resolve these issues amongst themselves in the new year when there isn’t an arbitrary deadline driving action.”
Buffa responded: “We can’t get bogged down by the side-shows, and that is what some of this is.”
…Public Works Director George Good and two wastewater employees met with officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regarding the wastewater treatment plant project and non-compliance issues with Sterling’s existing discharge permit. According to Saling, the city will be required to put a bond issue or a question approving city debt before voters for the treatment plant improvements; failure to do so would result in a $10,000 per day fine imposed dating back to last November…
The high-end estimate for the project is $36 million, but Saling said they are constantly looking at ways to save on costs. Wednesday, Saling said he expects that a presentation on the rate study for water and sewer rates will be given to the council in the next month.
Saling said the council will be asked in a coming meeting for permission to retain the services of a law firm to craft the ballot question language. He wants to put it on the November ballot to avoid the cost of having a special election. He is working on a voter education campaign, starting with inserts in city water bills to explain why the project is needed and what the plans are…
Council member Bob McCarty suggested the campaign should stress the age of the current system; the existing wastewater treatment plant began operations in 1978, Good told the council. Saling noted that the city has 82 miles of sewer lines, the oldest of which was placed in 1898. According to Saling, the life expectancy for the physical structures of a wastewater treatment facility is about 20 to 25 years.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Floyd Ciruli):
Although Colorado has identified its water needs and has a state plan, 2018 will be a year of political transition. Will a new governor and legislature keep water at the top of the agenda or allow it to drop until the next water crisis? Many local agencies need financial help that can’t be met through local ratepayers alone. The state water plan identified $3 billion in unmet needs. And, as California has demonstrated, conservation must be a well-articulated state goal with significant resources dedicated to public education. California cut statewide use by 25 percent during the last drought through massive education coordinated with local agencies. But, leadership, both local and from the state, is needed.
Gov. John Hickenlooper accelerated the work of former governors Bill Owens and Bill Ritter to help address the state’s projected water shortage, but he only has one year left in office. Fortunately, besides Hickenlooper’s advancement of the scientific base behind the need for new projects, his use of a state planning process that involved all eight water basins in cooperation and decision-making and his issuing of a completed state water plan in December 2015, he has also seen real progress during his term on projects. He helped facilitate approval of Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir and Northern Water’s Windy Gap projects. Still, much remains to be done.
■ How will pressing water issues fare through the upcoming political transition?
■ Will the research, river basin collaboration and planning continue?
■ Will permitting of the water projects now underway continue to make progress?
■ Will the next wave of projects — many in rural and small towns — get permitted, funded and built?
■ Will the state initiate and fund a statewide conservation public education program?
■ Will the state continue its planning processes in order to lead a ballot issue funding effort? (The previous proposal, controversial in design and promotion, failed in 2003, but lessons were learned.)
The planning and development capabilities of Colorado’s water community have grown significantly, but the needs are growing faster still. Through the 2018 political transition, we must ensure that water remains a top priority and not become another state plan ignored in a government file.
“We want to make sure our great outdoor recreation opportunities are even better for Coloradans,” Polis said. “I think by focusing on it we can do that and create good jobs as well as in the outdoor recreation industry.”
One of the aspects of the plan includes the establishment of the Colorado conservation and recreation districts. By creating such regions, lesser-known locations in the state can be discovered by tourists, he noted.
“We can help get more people to some of our great sights in Colorado,” Polis said. “That way it can ease congestion in some of the most traveled to areas and it can highlight some of the other areas in our state that have great potential through conservation and recreation districts.
“I think a lot of local communities in western Colorado will take advantage of becoming conservation and recreation districts to really help put themselves on the map to create good jobs.”
It’s not just the sights that are crucial to visitors of the state, but also the recreational activities available in Colorado, he said. Polis noted his quality-of-life goal for residents is for people to continue with outdoor interests like biking, hiking, hunting and fishing.
“Those are all the reasons why we are so proud and excited to be Coloradans,” Polis said. “We really rely on having access to great wild areas in open spaces.”
Those considerable landscapes are also key features for people interested in discovering outdoor activities in Colorado, he added.
“It’s an important part of filling our restaurants, hotels and retail stores,” Polis said. “So, it’s an important job creator in our state as we can attract people from other areas of the country for skiing, hunting, fishing or hiking.”
He added to keep such pursuits viable means to improve funding for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. With 80 percent of CPW revenue coming from users fees, Polis said he does not desire to have outdoor enthusiasts pay for most of it.
“We want to make sure the full burden of maintaining trails and our public lands doesn’t fall on anglers and hunters,” Polis said.
A way to potentially work on that is by creating a commission filled with people from the recreation side, hunters and environmental experts, he noted.
Additionally, the representative said he means to make sure the CPW and the Conservation and Great Outdoors Colorado trust funds are financed. Polis said it’s vital for GOCO to remain intact as it’s been invaluable for creating work.
“It’s really important to secure funding for Great Outdoors Colorado,” Polis said, adding such grants support over 11,000 jobs and provide millions of dollars in economic activity for the state.
It also has helped with financing locally.
The Montrose Recreation District has received numerous grants from GOCO. One of the more recent ones came in September 2017 when the City of Montrose and MRD’s $2 million grant application for trail connections was approved by the organization.
Jason Ullmann, MRD Board vice president and current acting president, said if it wasn’t for one of those grants in the past the Community Recreation Center wouldn’t have its amenities outside of the facility.
“With many of those outdoor facilities, we wouldn’t have built Phase 2, which includes the trials and pickleball courts. We wouldn’t have those without GOCO,” Ullmann said. “So the rec center was made much better with those grant dollars.”
Part of Polis’ plan is to make sure the ecosystem is still intact. He explained many organisms are on the Endangered Species list, which can lead to a snowball effect if they become wiped out.
“With certain species that become extinct it’s not just them that are affected,” Polis said. “It can lead to overpopulation of other species, it can throw entire ecosystems out of whack, it can ruin the outdoor experience for hunters or anglers, so it’s very important to help maintain healthy ecosystems.”
He added going forward he wants to preserve the outdoor way of life for future generations of Coloradans.
“We need to make sure we are protecting our environment and that we leave a legacy for our kids and grandkids in the same great state we live in,” Polis said.
What about water?
Polis said he supports Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Colorado Water Plan, and if elected, he will implement it.
“We want to make sure we have a collaborative approach to transmountain diversion. That we can make sure that our Western Colorado communities aren’t forced to pay the price for Front Range growth,” Polis said. “We want to make sure people across our whole state have access to high-quality water for the quantities we need for agricultural, as well as residents.”