Grizzly Reservoir, the high-mountain lake above Aspen formed by damming Lincoln and Grizzly creeks, will be drained next summer for repairs to the dam, tunnel and outlet works.
After spring runoff next year, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company will draw down the reservoir so workers can install a membrane over the steel face of the dam, which was constructed in 1932 and is corroded and thinning, according to a May report on the feasibility of the dam rehabilitation.
The report, by RJH Consultants, Inc. of Englewood, included an inspection and evaluation of the infrastructure, and presented different options for rehabilitation. Half the cost of the study — $50,000 — was funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The project will also replace the gates that control the flow of water into the Twin Lakes Tunnel and repair the outlet works that release water down Lincoln Creek. According to the report, the outlet works have issues with cracks, holes and seepage, and the more-than-80-year-old tunnel gates have problems with leakage, are difficult to operate and require significant maintenance every year.
“The purpose of the rehabilitation of the dam is to address dam safety concerns associated with the corroded and thinning upstream-slope steel facing, uncontrolled seepage, and operational problems with the outlet works,” the report reads.
Twin Lakes officials expect the project to be completed in October 2023. They will also draw down the reservoir this month to weld a small test portion of the dam membrane to see how it fairs through the harsh winter at 10,500 feet. That work is scheduled to begin Aug. 22 and the reservoir will be refilled in October.
“That infrastructure is aging and it’s time to do some rehab work on it,” said Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company Board President Kalsoum Abbasi.
Grizzly Dam is considered a high hazard dam by the Division of Water Resources. That does not mean it’s likely to fail, but it means loss of life would be expected if the dam did fail. The last state inspection in 2021 found the dam satisfactory — the highest rating — and said full storage capacity was safe.
The report estimated a nearly $7 million price tag for the rehabilitation work. Twin Lakes plans to get a CWCB loan for some of the cost and will pay the remainder with money raised from assessments on its water users.
Two decades of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have prompted dire warnings and alarming headlines about climate change and the Colorado River water crisis. Critically low water levels in lakes Mead and Powell now threaten the ability to generate electricity at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams and spurred Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to issue an ultimatum: On June 14, Touton announced that Colorado Basin states would have 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce water use by 2-4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.)
If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California can’t agree on a plan, the bureau will use its emergency authority to make the cuts, Touton said.
The Arkansas Basin receives about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado Basin – up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry. Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.
Water imports to the Arkansas Basin already face risks. Worsening drought conditions could impede Fry-Ark water imports as the project is required to meet minimum streamflows on the West Slope. A call for water on the Colorado River could also curtail water imports.
‘Living within our means’
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between Upper Basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – and Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California. The compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet, or maf, of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona 2.8, and Nevada 0.3. The compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that average flows from 2000 to 2021 have dropped to 12.3 maf per year.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf compact requirement. At a recent meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.
As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21. Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year. In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf.
Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet, total water use in the basin exceeded flows by 6.4 maf in 2021.
Colorado officials have indicated they have no plans to make additional cuts to meet the federal mandate. Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the CWCB, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that sending water downstream from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs represents a significant sacrifice in water security for the Upper Basin states. At a recent Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District meeting, Ostdiek observed that, while the Upper Basin states have always lived with the need to limit water use to whatever is available, the Lower Basin states have “drawn down reservoirs instead of limiting usage. … We are living within our means in the Upper Basin, but that’s not happening in the Lower Basin.”
Ostdiek acknowledged that Arizona and Nevada are taking cuts to their Colorado River water allocations “for the first time ever,” but what about California, the most prodigious user of Colorado River water? All seven basin states signed on to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, agreeing to reduce their use of Colorado River water, but the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California’s Imperial Valley refused to compromise, according to an Aug. 27, 2021, story by ProPublica. With 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water rights, the Imperial District accounts for 70% of California’s compact allotment and is by far the largest single water rights holder in the Colorado Basin.
Imperial District Board President James Hanks expressed the district’s refusal to compromise when state officials gathered in Phoenix to sign the 2019 plan.
“As champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is (sic) long,” Hanks said.
As the Bureau of Reclamation’s mandate now makes clear, the 2019 plan proved insufficient to avert the current crisis and the Imperial District is indeed the elephant in the room, refusing to recognize the current reality on the Colorado River.
Growing cotton in a desert
The Imperial Valley lies within the Sonoran Desert and receives less than 3 inches of rain per year. It was uninhabited until 1901, when the Imperial Canal brought Colorado River water into the valley from Mexico. Because of the desert climate and poor groundwater quality, virtually all water demand in the Imperial Valley is satisfied with Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District delivers that water, and 97% goes to agriculture.
Food production is a critical use of water, but not all agricultural water uses produce food. Growing cotton is one example, and the Imperial District supplies Colorado River water to 463,721 acres of cotton fields, according to the District’s most recent crop report. Arizona also uses Colorado River water to grow cotton in the desert. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that Arizona farmers grew 258,000 acres of cotton in 2021.
Water consumption data from the University of Arizona shows that growing cotton in the desert requires 41.2 inches of water per year. In other words, cotton grown in the Imperial District and Arizona requires about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year. But while one area of the federal government (Bureau of Reclamation) calls for reduced water use in the basin, another (Department of Agriculture) subsidizes those cotton fields, providing more than $4 billion between 1995 and 2015.
Not a sudden crisis
Mitchell and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser recently penned an editorial pointing out that Colorado is one of the few U.S. states that administers water rights based on “the availability of water supply in a particular location at a particular time.” Colorado’s water management system was key to the Upper Basin reducing water usage by 25% in 2020, “a huge reduction in water use of almost one million acre-feet.” When added to the “661,000 acre-feet of water provided from Upper Basin reservoirs in 2022, the Upper Basin is providing roughly 43% of its annual water use to help protect Lake Powell.”
In spite of the disparities between Upper and Lower Basin water use, officials in Lower Basin states – like Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – responded to the bureau’s mandate by urging collaboration. As the numbers show, the Upper Basin states, especially Colorado, have done much more to conserve water than the Lower Basin states, which have consistently taken more than their share of water under the 1922 compact.
Another example of Colorado’s leadership in responsible water use is groundwater management. Since 1969, Colorado has recognized the physical connection between surface waters and most groundwater aquifers. The Lower Basin states have not. For example, rivers deposit rocks and sand along their channels and floodplains. River water fills the spaces between the rocks and sand, forming alluvial aquifers. These aquifers are an integral part of streams and rivers; pumping water from them reduces surface-water flows.
In general, Arizona law does not recognize the physical connection between groundwater and surface water. From a legal standpoint, Arizona allows groundwater pumping that reduces streamflows to the detriment of senior water rights. California is just beginning to legally recognize the connection between surface water and groundwater, but groundwater extraction continues to deplete aquifers and cause subsidence, a gradual sinking of land. Ground currently is sinking more than a foot per year in some parts of California, according to ongoing research and multiple news reports.
Finally, anyone reading the alarming headlines would be tempted to believe that the Colorado River crisis is a sudden, unprecedented result of accelerating climate change, but a report published in the May 2007 issue of Geophysical Research Letters indicates otherwise. The authors used paleo-climate data to reconstruct Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry dating back to the year 762. They document multiple “multi-decadal (Upper Colorado River Basin) droughts” during the past 1,260 years, including one “in the mid-1100s” that persisted for “about six decades.”
This means that 15 years ago scientists demonstrated that, even without the effects of climate change, the current 20-year drought was not uncommon and the situation can get much worse, a reality that the Lower Basin states ignored.
“It should be obvious to anyone: Trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish,” wrote Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. “This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River system (lakes Powell and Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals by the Lower Basin states and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.”
Unfortunately, the situation on the Colorado River is not unique. Colorado’s mountains are the headwaters of four major river systems: the Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande. Each river provides critical water supplies for the present and future needs of our state; each is being impacted by the effects of climate change; and under Interstate water compacts signed decades ago, Colorado must share each with its neighboring downstream states. Climate change, or what scientists are now referring to as aridification, has caused all of Colorado to be hotter and drier. The combined effects of climate change, interstate water compact obligations and intense competition for the available water among different communities and water use sectors within our state means that future Coloradans will have to learn to do more with less water. This will take bold action, compromise and a new era of innovation and cooperation among competing water interests within Colorado and among Colorado and its neighboring states.
Already, the farmers in Colorado’s fertile Rio Grande Basin are struggling to maintain an aquifer by restricting pumping. They face an awful choice — reduce their collective uses of the aquifer to a sustainable level so that some farms can survive, or they all fail. At the same time, the surface water supply from the Rio Grande River, which must be shared with New Mexico and Texas, has diminished and most likely will continue to do so.
The Republican River Basin, a small but agriculturally important river system that originates on the plains and flows east to its confluence with the Missouri River, is also stressed by overuse of the river supply. Productive farm fields are being fallowed so that Colorado can comply with the Republican River Compact. Fortunately for the Rio Grande and Republican river basins, the General Assembly set aside $60 million to buy out farms in order to leave water in the aquifers and river systems. That amount is a drop in the bucket for what will be needed to recover and sustain those systems.
Photo shows Tennessee Creek near the confluence of the East Fork Arkansas River in winter with snow on the Continental Divide of the Americas. The report evaluates current and emerging snow measurement technologies for the Western United States. Photo: Reclamation
The South Platte River runs near a farm in Henderson, Colorado, northeast of Denver. Henderson is the site of one of the possible reservoirs for the regional water project proposed by SPROWG. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism
The Arkansas River and South Platte River systems also have significant challenges. These basins are home to 85% of Colorado’s population and to most of its commercial agriculture. The farm economy in the Arkansas has already suffered when the Colorado State Engineer had to cut back the use of alluvial wells, which were depleting flows to the Arkansas River and causing Colorado to be out of compliance with the Arkansas River Compact. The South Platte River system, which relies on return flows to sustain the river past the state line, is seeing much higher demands. The current return flow regime is threatened by Nebraska reinvigorating the proposed Perkin’s Ditch, a century-old feature provided for in the 1923 South Platte Compact. Both these basins are being hammered by the combined impacts of Front Range cities rushing to buy and dry existing farms to provide water for future growth while their water supplies imported from the Colorado River Basin have become less reliable due to climate change caused drought and compact obligations.
Colorado’s future economy will depend on implementing innovative methods to sustain, deliver and treat water supplies while leaving enough water in our streams to maintain healthy and thriving aquatic ecosystems. Water delivery entities need to think broader to collaborate with others on ways to manage and share their supplies and their systems.
It should be obvious to anyone; trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish. This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River System (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals to the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.
The Colorado River system and the Colorado Compact Administration were set up with a series of reservoirs recognizing the aridity of the region and the unpredictable amount of annual precipitation. With reservoirs, when water is more abundant the excess can be stored for later use when the inevitably drier periods arrive. In recent years, instead of reserving excess flows in the reservoirs, this excess was released to the lower basin states with the resultant excess draw-down of the vital storage system.
Most of the water supply for the Colorado River System is supplied by the Upper Basin States, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. As planned, these states have continuously supplied the required 75-million-acre feet in 10 years, or an average of 7.5 million per year.
The amount of water that each of these states uses each year is completely dependent upon precipitation and in Colorado is allocated strictly by the prior appropriation system without the benefit of a storage system to draw upon for leaner years except for water saved under the prior appropriation system. As such Colorado’s prior appropriation system automatically operates as a forced reduction in water use—a built-in “conservation brake”.
In contrast, the Lower Basin States, California, Arizona, and Nevada receive their Colorado River supply from reservoirs and have the luxury of taking any excess deliveries in wetter years or drawing previously saved water from storage in drier years.
The prudent regime would be to reserve the excess amounts in storage for use during drier periods. Instead of this exercise of prudence, the Lower Basin states have continuously gambled those wetter periods would arrive and replenish the reservoirs.
In the chart below, we clearly see how Colorado and the Upper Basin states have reduced their use during drought while the Lower Basin states have increased their use during the same period.
The primary purpose of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is for hydro-power production and secondarily for drinking and irrigation. The falling levels of these reservoirs spell disaster for power production and now the Bureau of Reclamation is sounding the alarm.
Unfortunately, unless drastic measures are taken that significantly reduce the annual draw by the Lower Basin States for the foreseeable future, all Colorado River reservoirs will be jeopardized. Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge have already been lowered to rescue the Lower Basin reservoirs. The present crisis is more about having allowed the Lower Basin to over appropriate water from the system than the impact of the drier period of the past 20 years.
In Colorado, the Arkansas Basin and the entire Eastern portion of Colorado depend on a significant portion of its water from Colorado River system imports. In the Arkansas, about 15 percent of all river flows are derived from this system.
In drier periods these flows have always been reduced since they are regulated by the prior appropriation system. However, further reductions could come if the Lower Basin is not forced to comply with the Compact. It is possible that political forces could reduce the amount of water exported to the Eastern portion of Colorado — and that includes the Arkansas Basin.
By: Ralph “Terry” Scanga, General Manager. Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District
Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources:
The Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) passed a resolution on July 1, 2022 establishing a 20,000-acre feet multi-purpose storage account in John Martin Reservoir. This new account is intended to benefit water users in Colorado and Kansas and promote commonly held interests not directly related to the Kansas-Colorado Arkansas River Compact such as water quality improvements.
This is a pilot project to determine how a multi-purpose storage account could operate, document benefits, and determine if there are any adverse impacts from such an account. The account will be operated in accordance with an operating plan agreed to by the states and will terminate on March 31, 2028, unless extended by ARCA. This account is in addition to other accounts that are present in John Martin Reservoir.
The need for a multi-purpose storage account was recognized by municipalities, well augmentation and surface irrigation improvement replacement groups, water conservancy districts, and other water users within the Arkansas River Basin in Colorado. The concept of a multi-purpose account was brought to ARCA in 2013. The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District with funding support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board helped further develop this account for the states to consider. Kansas and Colorado worked through issues and negotiated for much of the past decade to agree upon establishing this account in John Martin Reservoir as a pilot project through March 2028.
ARCA administers provisions of the Compact, including operations of the John Martin Reservoir. Colorado has three representatives who serve on ARCA: Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Lane Malone, Holly, Colorado; and Scott Brazil, Vineland, Colorado. Kansas has three representatives who serve on ARCA: Earl Lewis, chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources; Randy Hayzlett, Lakin, Kansas; and Troy Dumler, Garden City, Kansas. Jim Rizzuto, Swink, Colorado, serves as the federal chair.
The Waldo Canyon fire started in the mountains west of Colorado Springs ten years ago on June 23. Smoke was actually first reported on June 22, 2012 but it wasn’t located until the next day. Just days later it roared into the city, killing two people and destroying hundreds of homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. It also burned the Flying W Ranch.
Tony Cheng leads the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and the Southern Rockies Fire Science Exchange Network at Colorado State University-Fort Collins. He visited the area with KRCC’s Shanna Lewis and reflected on the significance of the Waldo Canyon fire for Colorado.
Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Shanna Lewis: How does the Waldo Canyon fire fit into the historical context of wildfires in Colorado?
Tony Cheng: Wildfires in Colorado have always been around. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we had an event like Waldo. What was unique about Waldo was how it got into the suburban communities of Colorado Springs and transformed from a wildland fire into an urban conflagration. We really had never seen that in Colorado, nothing that really was of the magnitude of destruction.
Now, we’ve seen similar kinds of transitions from wildland fire into urban fire in places like California, but when it happened here, I think it was a real wake up call, especially at that time.
The other thing (is) that Waldo Canyon came on the heels of other fires, such as the Hayman fire in 2002, that burned almost 138,000 acres. There was definitely some loss of homes and structures, but not of the magnitude of Waldo. Subsequent to that, we’ve seen more and more of these fires that transitioned from a wildland fire into an urban conflagration.
Colorado River Basin states will succeed in complying with an emergency federal order that came just last week to slash water use by millions of acre-feet, experts said, but it will take time plus major deals with farm interests and tribal communities, and will likely require that the basin, whose flows and operational structure were divided by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, be united and managed as one entity.
“The world has shifted under our feet this week,” said Doug Kenney, former director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We are all being asked to innovate at a pace and scale that I don’t think we were thinking of. Sometimes a big threat from the federal government is what you need.”
The states have 60 days to come up with a water reduction plan.
Kenney’s comments came June 17 at the Getches-Wilkinson Law Conference on Natural Resources at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Kenney was referring to a June 14 emergency request from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, telling the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin that they will need to find 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water use reductions in the next 18 months to stave off a potential collapse in the Colorado River system.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, in comparison, use roughly 3.5 million acre-feet (maf) annually.
Lake Powell, which can store roughly 26 maf of water when full, and its sister reservoir, Lake Mead, with 29.4 maf of storage, are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States.
A 20-year megadrought, considered to be the worst in 1,200 years, including two back-to-back intense drought periods during 2020 and 2021, has left each of the reservoirs well below their former levels, with Lake Mead just 24% full, and Lake Powell down to about 27% of capacity.
Touton’s order came just six weeks after the federal government and the states approved two other major agreements, one to hold 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell that would normally have been released to Lake Mead for Arizona, California and Nevada, and another releasing 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming state line to further boost levels in Lake Powell.
Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin is made up of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin comprises Arizona, California and Nevada and Mexico.
Each basin was given the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, with an additional 1.5 million acre-feet of water for Mexico. But the river has generated much less than that for decades, and since the megadrought began in the early 2000s, the river’s flows have declined and stored water supplies in Powell and Mead have shrunk as well.
How the new reduction orders will affect supplies in Colorado and other Upper Basin states, who have never used their full entitlements to the river’s flows, isn’t clear yet.
To find ways to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water will require intense negotiations, and maybe even legal action, according to Bill Hasencamp, who manages Colorado River supplies for the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere.
Under the terms of the 1922 compact and subsequent agreements, California was entitled to use 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River Water, but because supplies were abundant and the river generated millions of acre-feet of extra water every year, California routinely used more than its share. That changed in 2003, when the federal government ordered it to cut back.
With last week’s announcement, Hasencamp said, “It feels like I am going through 2003 again. The lessons are still applicable today. Having a federal threat is a pretty good motivator.”
Despite the enormity of the challenge, Hasencamp said he was optimistic that the states would reach a deal, just as they did 20 years ago.
“It’s going to be painful,” Hasencamp said. “Some people will lose their jobs. These are such tough decisions that there could be fallout…but we have some pretty smart people in the basin. Let them be creative.”
Twenty years ago, California was able to reduce its use by arranging intermittent land fallowing deals with major agricultural irrigators, such as the Imperial Irrigation District. It also made deals with Arizona and Utah to stabilize its water supplies.
Now, Hasencamp said, California is down to using just 4.2 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually, below its formal allocation.
Tribal concerns will have to be addressed to reach a deal, said Lorelei Cloud, a council member with the Southern Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado.
Even now, she said, “Tribes are not compensated for their water that is in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Everybody is depending on tribes not to use their water. But the federal government needs to fulfill its trust responsibilities to the tribes.”
James Eklund, a water attorney and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that the federal government and the states will have to relax or eliminate the divisions between the upper and lower basins, because they sharply limit flexibility in managing the drought-strapped river system.
“We are in a crisis and we have an opportunity to reexamine [the 1922 compact]. Even five years ago, I would have said that is too much. That’s going too far.
“But a whole-basin approach is much more appropriate than continuing this fiction of an artificially bifurcated basin,” Eklund said.
Colorado officials have said repeatedly that they have always had to live with cutbacks as a result of lower flows that naturally occur in the system when you’re up high in the headwaters and don’t have substantial water storage to fall back on.
They also point to the two emergency releases from Flaming Gorge in 2021 and 2022, and releases from Colorado’s federally owned Blue Mesa Reservoir, as evidence of their having already given plenty of water to help stabilize the system.
And though Lower Basin states have already begun implementing cutbacks involving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water, this new ask is much larger and must be answered quickly, experts said.
Because farm interests control roughly 80% of the river’s water supplies, farmers are going to be asked to fallow land and to put a price on how much that will cost other water users and federal government.
Peter Nichols is a Colorado water attorney who helped craft a large-scale farm fallowing program in the Lower Arkansas Valley that was modeled after work that California’s Metropolitan District did in the early 2000s. Rather than buying farm land and drying it up, what’s known as the Super Ditch project allows farmers to lease their water when it is convenient and in times of drought.
The Super Ditch took years in water court and three trips to the Colorado legislature to finally implement, but it serves as an example of what can be done through the seven-state basin to achieve the federally mandated cutbacks, Nichols said.
“Irrigators are going to be willing to do this,” Nichols said. “But they’re going to be interested in three things: price, price and price.”
“They are also interested in flexibility,” Nichols said. “They don’t want to be tied in forever. If the price of onions goes through the roof, they will want out. They will want to be able to grow onions.”
Still the framework is out there and is workable, he said.
“[California’s] Metropolitan proved you can do this. But you can’t do it quickly. Reclamation has drawn a couple of lines in the sand and it has changed what we have to do and the amount of time we have to do it in,” 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 IRS. Head lice. Bill Cosby. Nickleback. Congress.
Every member of this unlikely group has one thing in common: Each is more popular than the Renewable Water Resources plan to pump water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.
According to the Alamosa Citizen survey of voter attitudes in the San Luis Valley, the RWR plan is supported by less than 1 percent of local voters. It is opposed by 91 percent. Eight percent said they had no opinion of the water export project proposed by former Gov. Bill Owens and several other leaders of his administration.
Widespread opposition to RWR was one of the major findings on natural resource issues to come from the random survey, which was directed by the Alamosa Citizen and financed, in part, by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The survey also yielded many other strong local opinions on the health of the Rio Grande (pessimistic), climate change (it’s hurting the river), and the impact of drought on local farms and businesses (not good.) More on those issues below.
Still, it’s hard to find anything in modern American life liked less than RWR’s approval rating of 0.7 percent. Among the things with better approval ratings among voters than the RWR project: head lice, colonoscopies, used car salesmen, and dental root canal procedures, according to one national poll.
Anchovies on pizza, as well as turnips and brussel sprouts for dinner, get higher ratings than RWR. Disgraced comedian Bill Cosby is 20 times more popular in the U.S. than RWR is in the San Luis Valley. The Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Congress all get higher marks, according to another poll.
RWR backers said their own polling showed better numbers, but they declined to release the poll.
“From day one to today, our team has never wavered in visiting the San Luis Valley, meeting with individuals and educating them about what we aim to do,” said Renewable Water Resources spokeswoman Monica McCafferty in a statement. “We are naturally suspect of this survey (Alamosa Citizen) that is likely agenda-driven. We stand by our proposal, which took years to craft and presents numerous advantages for the San Luis Valley.”
The Alamosa Citizen conducted a 48-question survey which included questions on water and environmental issues. The survey was mailed to a random sampling of registered voters in each of the six counties of the San Luis Valley and was conducted by Nebraska-based rural survey specialist Craig Schroeder, who has surveyed attitudes of more than 60,000 people in 47 states over the past 20 years.
RWR proposes to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year from a deep aquifer in the San Luis Valley while buying and retiring 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
Local water officials have disputed RWR’s ability to export supplies from the Valley without harming existing farmers, wildlife, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The region faces increasing water restrictions after two decades of drought.
RWR had been wooing suburban Douglas County as a destination for the water, but the Alamosa Citizen reported last month that county commissioners there backed away from the proposal after their attorney highlighted several legal and engineering hurdles.
The company told Douglas County it is pursuing a “legislative strategy” for some of those issues.
“People here have been hearing about these water export proposals for 60 years now, and we’re just tired of it,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “When it happened in other places, the outcome of selling your water rights for export has not turned out well for the community.”
HE Alamosa Citizen survey showed citizen awareness of the water project is extremely high. Nearly 94 percent of respondents said they had heard of a project to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range of Colorado.
About two-thirds of respondents said they had heard specifically of Renewable Water Resources.
Of the residents who were familiar with RWR, 63 percent said they disapproved of the company. Eight percent approved. The remainder said they had no opinion about the company.
“Leave our water here,” one survey respondent wrote. “If Denver can’t handle their needs, then they need to control growth.”
“Exporting SLV water will devastate the valley – farming, wildlife, and habitat,” wrote another.
“Water export to Douglas County would be an economic death sentence for the San Luis Valley and the communities it sustains,” said another respondent.
The Alamosa Citizen survey showed the RWR plan comes at a tough time for water users in the San Luis Valley.
When asked whether the Rio Grande aquifer had enough water to share with growing areas of Colorado that need more water, Valley residents responded with a resounding no – 89 percent disagreed.
Eight of every 10 survey respondents agreed that the Rio Grande is “diminishing from severe drought.” By a 48 to 35 percent margin, Valley residents disagreed with this statement: “The Rio Grande is a healthy river.”
Two-thirds of Valley residents agreed that climate change is negatively affecting the Rio Grande. Only 14 percent agreed that the Rio Grande can “withstand climate change.”
In some ways, this means the San Luis Valley is more concerned about climate change than other regions, especially rural areas where voters have been more skeptical about the issue. The most recent national poll by Gallup on environmental issues found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the effects of climate change have already begun to happen.
The Valley’s belief in climate change is unusual especially when politics are considered. Nationally, only 11 percent of Republicans say they believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their own lifetimes. But in the San Luis Valley, most survey respondents say the threat is already here.
Only one in 10 local respondents agree that the Valley has enough water to meet local needs for the next 30 years. Nearly 85 percent of respondents say the Valley will face cutbacks in irrigation water in the next five years.
“Farmers are out of time to self-regulate,” wrote one respondent. “The state should start imposing harsh restrictions now instead of kicking the can down the road.”
“The San Luis Valley has become a desert because of climate change and the farmers / ranchers who have drained the aquifer by installing sprinkler systems,” wrote another respondent.
“Farmers don’t need bossy legislators telling them how to use their water,” wrote another. “Most farmers are already on the brink of fiscal disaster. They need help, not more laws curtailing their use of water.”
Almost every resident said there was a chance they would be personally impacted by drought.
About seven of 10 Valley residents agreed with this statement: “We need to act now to reduce water use to continue to grow the San Luis Valley’s economy in the future.”
Only 8 percent disagreed with this statement: “Rising temperatures will impact the San Luis Valley’s future water needs.”
“Climate change is bigger than we are,” wrote one respondent.
Wetter weather patterns have tempered drought conditions in the upper Arkansas Basin and boosted snowpack, but the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report shows Extreme to Exceptional drought (D3-D4) across Baca, Bent and Prowers counties with Extreme drought extending into four adjoining lower-basin counties.
As the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) map shows, Arkansas Basin snowpack was at 101% of median as of May 29. The Fremont Pass SNOTEL site is reporting 90% of median.
May 29 reservoir data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation showed 205,838 acre-feet of water stored in Pueblo Reservoir and 63.7% full. Twin Lakes Reservoir is 76.8% full at 108,219 acre-feet. Turquoise Lake is currently 58.1% full with 75,227 acre-feet in storage. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data show 30,014 acre-feet of water currently stored in John Martin Reservoir. In spite of low water levels, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website shows the east boat ramp at John Martin State Park is still open.
Arkansas River flows are 202 cfs near Leadville, 690 cfs at Granite, 1,380 cfs at Wellsville and 1,570 cfs at Cañon City. Below Pueblo Dam and near Avondale, flows are 1,090 cfs and 1,390 cfs, respectively. The Rocky Ford gauge is reporting 495 cfs. Below John Martin Reservoir flows are 610 cfs, and at Lamar, 58.8 cfs.
Voluntary Flow Management Program
Flow management targets to support recreational boating are slated to begin July 1 after spring runoff.
Currently, the Arkansas Basin has 14 calling water rights, including four on the mainstem – the Fort Lyon Canal (1887 priority), the Hyde Ditch (1887), the X-Y Irrigating Ditch (1889) and the Arkansas River Compact for flows at the Colorado-Kansas state line. The most senior calling right is the Model Ditch with an 1865 priority date on the Purgatoire River. The 1866 Gonzales Ditch right continues to call for Apishapa River water. Other tributary calls include the RB Willis Ditch on Wahatoya Creek, a Cucharas River tributary, the Reservoir and the Pedro Gomez ditches on the Huerfano River and the Tremayne Ditch No.1 on Fourmile Creek. The most junior calling water right on Ark River tributaries is the Waggoner Ditch on Stout Creek with an 1880 priority date.
THE Renewable Water Resources proposal runs counter to the Colorado Water Plan, would likely trigger a federal review under the Wirth Amendment for the harm it could do to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and doesn’t have a developed augmentation plan to meet the required one-for-one replacement within the same Response Area to get the plan through state water court.
Those are some of the findings Attorney Steve Leonhardt laid out in confidential memorandums released Tuesday by Douglas County. The problems Leonhardt sees with the proposal convinced Commissioner Abe Laydon to not support RWR’s request for investment by using federal American Rescue Plan Act money.
However, Laydon and Commissioner George Teal remained open to Renewable Water Resources coming back to them if they can solve the concerns spelled out by Leonhardt, who Douglas County hired on contract to review the RWR plan. Commissioner Lora Thomas, who’s been opposed to RWR, said she did not want Douglas County to spend any more of its time and tax dollars on the RWR plan.
“This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal,” state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a released statement.
The problems detailed by Leonhardt are many, particularly as the water exportation proposal relates to the required augmentation plan and the need for Renewable Water Resources to solve that problem by changing existing state rules that govern groundwater pumping in the Valley.
RWR told Douglas County it’s developing a “legislative strategy” to address the requirement.
“In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” Leonhardt said in a bulleted memorandum.
“This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”
The attorney said not only does the RWR proposal lack a developed augmentation plan but that it cannot meet the state rule that requires “one-for-one replacement within the same ResponseArea.”
“RWR cannot meet this requirement, even if it were to acquire and retire all wells within its Response Area. Therefore, RWR’s plan cannot succeed without an amendment to this rule. RWR is developing a legislative strategy to address this issue.”
Leonhardt’s memo concluded that “the two reasonable options would be to (1) reject the proposal; or (2) continue discussions with RWR (and perhaps other interested parties in Douglas County and/or the San Luis Valley) to see if agreement can be reached on an acceptable proposal.”
Laydon and Teal chose option 2. Thomas wanted Douglas County to walk away altogether.
“Douglas County welcomes ongoing discussions with RWR, should they be able to provide new information or otherwise overcome these hurdles,” said a statement released by Douglas County.
Simpson, during a recent taping of The Valley Pod, told Alamosa Citizen that changing the rules and regulations governing groundwater pumping in the Valley would be a difficult challenge.
“To change the rules and regs, they’d have to go to court as well,” Simpson said. “They would be seeking authorization to change the rules that we all live by. Those are confined aquifer new-use rules and rules and regulations for groundwater withdrawals that everybody else here lives with.
“I’ve highlighted this from the very beginning, that’s a pretty tough hill for them to climb. The money behind this though, I suspect if Douglas County wants to participate in this we’ll see them in court.”
The Douglas County commissioners have decided not to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars on a controversial water supply project but may consider it again in the future. Commissioner Abe Laydon, the decisive vote on the issue, announced his vote during a May 24 work session…
Laydon said his decision was because the county’s outside legal counsel concluded that the project was not eligible for ARPA funds and recommended the county not participate…
One issue outlined in the memo is that Renewable Water Resources has not formed an augmentation plan — as would be required by law — showing how they will avoid injury to other water rights through their project. Commissioner Lora Thomas has been against the proposal since it was brought before the county and said she is not in support of continuing any conversations with RWR or paying for outside legal counsel to continue assessing it.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):
Roy Vaughan, who retired as the Bureau of Reclamation manager of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project in 2021, was awarded the Bob Appel Friend of the Arkansas Award Thursday at the 26th annual Arkansas River Basin Water Forum.
“I had no idea I would be getting the award,” Vaughan said. “I really need to thank all of the people I worked with for this great honor.”
Vaughan was surprised by his wife, Stasi, and grown sons Chaz and Colton at the event as they walked onto the stage at the Salida Steam Plant, noting that the day was the 38th anniversary of their wedding.
Vaughan began working for Reclamation in 1992 as dam superintendent at Pueblo Dam, which led him to an interest in all of the water operations of the Arkansas Valley, and water operations such as the Fry-Ark Project that import water from the western slope. He became manager of the Fry-Ark Project in 2008.
Last year’s recipient, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Manager Terry Scanga, presented the Appel award and read excerpts from 14 people who worked with him during his career in all parts of the Arkansas River basin. He helped bring people together over such controversial issues as the Preferred Storage Options Plan, Southern Delivery System and Voluntary Flow Management Program. He was always eager to patiently explain water operations with a quick wit and great sense of humor.
“He felt the weight of occasionally failing to satisfy everyone’s wishes far more than he enjoyed the buoyancy of the many times he did indeed satisfy them,” wrote Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt. “Perhaps this is the price of being a conscientious public servant. Certainly, it is evidence of a deep regard for all of the envisioned benefits of the Fry-Ark Project.
The Appel Award is named for Bob Appel, who promoted the Arkansas River as coordinator of the Southeast Colorado Resource Conservation and Development Council until his death in 2003.
For more information, contact Jean van Pelt, Forum Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Board (Chris Woodka):
One newcomer is joining five returning members on the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Board of Directors. The appointments were made by a panel of District Judges in early April, and all six members were sworn into office Thursday, April 21, 2022.
Joining the Board is Matt Heimerich, 64, of Olney Springs, representing Crowley County. He will fill the four-year term of Carl McClure, who served for 17 years before retiring in 2022. The term will expire in 2025.
Heimerich is following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Orville Tomky, who served on the Southeastern Board from 1988-2005.
Heimerich praised both McClure and Tomky at his first Board meeting for their contributions to Crowley County in dealing with the aftermath of water transfers of water from Crowley County that threatened to devastate the small rural county.
“Trying to bring a transmountain water diversion to the Arkansas Valley started in the 1920s and 1930s, and the need is as strong or stronger today,” Heimerich said. “What else can the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project deliver to meet the challenges faced by the people who live here? On the municipal side of the Project, what a difference it will make when the Arkansas Valley Conduit is completed.”
A New York native, Heimerich married Tomky’s daughter Karen in 1985, and began working in the family’s farming operation in 1987. The family continued farming after water from many of their neighbors’ farms had been sold to municipalities. He is a member of the Colorado Canal and Lake Meredith boards. He plans to make agricultural a priority while on the Southeastern Board.
Heimerich served from 1999-2011 as a Crowley County Commissioner, was on the Arkansas River Compact Administration board from 2007-2013, worked for the Palmer Land Trust in the Arkansas Valley office from 2014-2021, and is a member of the Water Education Colorado advisory board.
Reappointed, and serving four-year terms that expire in 2026 are:
Bill Long, President, a businessman from Las Animas, representing Bent County, first appointed in 2002.
Curtis Mitchell, Vice President, retired Fountain Utilities Director, representing El Paso County, first appointed in 2014.
Ann Nichols, Treasurer, retired General Manager of Finance for Colorado Springs Utilities, representing El Paso County, first appointed in 2006.
Alan Hamel, retired Executive Director of Pueblo Water, representing Pueblo County, first appointed in 1988.
Tom Goodwin, retired from the Forest Service and USDA, representing Fremont County, first appointed in 2011.
The Southeastern District was formed in 1958 to administer the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which was approved by Congress in 1962. The District includes parts of nine counties in the Arkansas River basin and brings water into the basin from the Fryingpan River basin on the western slope. There are a total of 15 Directors on the Board.
RIO Grande County Commissioner John Noffsker made Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon a counter-offer to the Renewable Water Resources exportation proposal: Douglas County gives the San Luis Valley its annual sales tax collections from Park Meadows Mall in exchange for some water.
Noffsker’s point? That the Valley has no more right to sales tax dollars collected by Douglas County than Douglas County has to water in the San Luis Valley aquifers.
Pleasantries were exchanged Saturday [April 23, 2022] between Laydon and a few mostly elected officials during a two-hour exchange at Nino’s Restaurant in Monte Vista. The conversation didn’t reveal anything new or anything Laydon and Douglas County haven’t heard over the past four months as Douglas County weighs whether to invest in the Renewable Water Resources water exportation plan.
“You’re the tip of the spear on this one,” Noffsker said in making Laydon aware that people watching Douglas County’s deliberations know Laydon holds the deciding vote on the three-member commission, with Commissioner Lora Thomas dead set against RWR and Commissioner George Teal in support.
“Once you start putting a straw in this body of water, there’s no end game,” Noffsker said.
“You’re basically saying to us, much as what happened to the Native Americans, that you have something we want and we can do more with it than you can, and that is wrong,” said Noffsker. “It’s morally wrong. When we have to sit here and defend how we use our water, we shouldn’t have to do that. This water belongs to the Valley. It should not be taken out of here to benefit somebody else.”
The meeting at Nino’s with Noffsker and other local elected officials was Laydon’s second of the day. Earlier Laydon and Special Counsel Steve Leonhardt met privately with farmers who Laydon said expressed a variety of concerns, from lack of knowing what’s going on in the subdistrict formations of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to concerns about their small operations and whether small farms would survive the period of persistent drought and climate change.
With the local elected officials, which included Monte Vista Mayor Dale Becker and Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman and Commissioner Lori Laske, Laydon raised the idea of a community fund that Renewable Water Resources has touted as part of its proposal. The Douglas County commissioner was told the community fund was a slap in the face to residents of the San Luis Valley.
“It’s not about money, it’s about keeping the (water) resource here,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson. Carson works at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is coordinating the Protect San Luis Valley campaign fighting the RWR exportation proposal.
Karla Shriver, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Subdistrict 2 board, said additional financial relief for Valley farmers is on the way through legislation currently moving through the state legislature. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Cleave Simpson would create a new compact compliance fund and would have around $30 million of American Rescue Plan Act money awarded to Colorado in it to help farmers in the San Luis Valley meet groundwater compliance targets set by the state. Read more about the legislation HERE.
Renewable Water Resources has voiced opposition to the legislation. It sees the bill as a government bailout for San Luis Valley farmers at a time when RWR is asking for money from Douglas County and dangling those tax dollars in front of Valley farmers to buy them out.
Noffsker said the RWR proposal is only about making a return on investment, while the Valley fights for its economic livelihood.
“I don’t mean any urban/rural fights,” said Noffsker. “But what’s happening is an urban area that apparently wants to grow more, wants to take from us to do it. If we do something like this, we are being dictated to by the Front Range on what our lives are going to be. That is not correct.”
Laydon, as he’s said in other meetings, told the group that Douglas County only wants to partner with communities that welcome Douglas County and that want to partner with it. He didn’t find that broad support on his weekend trip to the San Luis Valley, and he hasn’t heard any outpouring of support in the months he and his colleagues have been studying the Renewable Water Resources exportation plan.
Unless, of course, Douglas County wants to give up its retail sales tax revenues. Sacrificing a golf course or two might help as well.
Zephyr Minerals’ Dawson Gold Mine permitting process has been extended by at least a year after they’ve been told by the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety that they need to drill five groundwater monitoring wells and monitor them for five quarters, as well as one compliance well. This pushes out the potential approval of the mining permit to late 2023. Under current regulations, DRMS must respond, by approving or denying the mining permit application, within one year from the date on which DRMS considered the application to be complete, July 15, 2021.
“Clearly, it is impossible timewise to do five quarters of monitoring between now and the 15th of July 2022,” said Will Felderhof, who is the executive chairman for Zephyr Minerals. “That’s why we withdraw the application, do our monitoring and then resubmit the application to address these questions regarding the information they are requesting with the water wells.”
Additionally, the decision to ask for a two-month extension will allow for more time to get more exact locations for the additional water monitoring wells. Once those are approved, he said, Zephyr will withdraw the application in order to move forward with the five quarters of water monitoring.
Colorado will receive over $18 million this fiscal year from the federal government to treat thousands of acres susceptible to increasingly damaging wildfires, part of a strategy leaders hope will emphasize lowering fire risk before disaster strikes.
The Colorado Front Range is one of 10 landscapes selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service to benefit from an initial $131 million investment with funding from last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
In Colorado, money will head to nine identified projects in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and four projects in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. It will treat up to 10,000 acres this year.
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“At this point, there is no margin for error. We must and we will continue to stay coordinated, because the reality is that these days, as everyone has said, fire season is now fire years,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said during a visit to Heil Valley Ranch on Monday, with trees still blackened from the 2020 CalWood Fire on a hillside behind her.
“Climate change is making the fire seasons more intense, as our firefighters deal with hotter, drier conditions and more extreme fire behavior. The increased frequency in urban areas is impacting more homes, businesses and communities every year,” she said.
Colorado faced a record-year for wildfires in 2020 with the CalWood, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires. In December, the Marshall Fire burned over 6,000 acres and destroyed entire neighborhoods in Boulder County.
Colorado also faces harsh, ongoing drought.
“It is all the more reason and motivation for us to take wildfire mitigation and resiliency seriously,” Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District, said during the press conference with Haaland.
Climate change has increased the risk of dangerous wildfires in Colorado, and it has contributed to a drought in the Southwest that has lasted more than two decades. Rising concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere, largely due to human activity, have caused many parts of the state to warm by an average of more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.
Haaland said the financial investments enabled by last year’s bipartisan legislation will facilitate a “collaborative, multi-jurisdictional approach” to reducing wildfire risk. Wildfires, after all, do not discriminate between land managed by the county, private citizens, the Forest Service or the National Park Service, and experts say the best approach is informed by all land managers.
Those projects are about reducing the grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves and fallen pine needles that increase the chances of a catastrophic wildfire, forest supervisor for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests Monte Williams said.
“It’s about fuel,” he said. “And not just the fuel that’s standing up, but about the fuel that is actually laying on the ground. For a long time, we thought all we needed to do was go thin the forest, and that would create a place where the fire would hit, slow down and stop because there would be nothing left to burn. The truth is we recognize it’s a lot more than that.”
In addition to forest thinning, Williams said prescribed burns are crucial in wildfire mitigation. It’s a similar strategy that he said prevented the 2020 Cameron Peak fire from spreading on two of its largest days. In that case, it was coordinated treatments on local, state and federal lands that stopped the fire in its tracks.
“The actual results of this have already been shown,” he said of the type of projects the incoming money will fund.
The beginning of a long process
U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said it is necessary to combat the scale of recent wildfires with an appropriately large response. A 10-year strategy from the Forest Service calls for the treatment of tens of millions of acres across the country. This fiscal year’s investment will begin the implementation of that ambitious strategy.
“This is an opportunity for us to come from a place of want into a place of have,” Moore said. “For a long time, we’ve known what to do, but we have not had the ability to do it at a scale that made a difference on the landscape.”
Sen. Michael Bennet said there’s still a chance Congress could pass a reconciliation bill — what was known as the Build Back Better Act — that has $27 billion in additional investments for wildfire risk reduction. That would be the largest investment into forestry in United States history. Build Back Better was stalled after holdout from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
“That may or may not pass now,” Bennet said. “But what we’ve been able to do this year, with the 5.6 (billion dollars) we’ve been able to put in the bipartisan bill, is demonstrate that the country, for the first time, really recognizes the scale of the challenge that we have.”
It will take much more money to implement the full 10-year plan, but Bennet said the financial puzzle is well worth it, comparing an estimated $50,000 per acre cost to fight a wildfire versus a $1,500 per acre to do mitigation work.
“I am optimistic that we will figure out how to do it over the long haul,” he said.
Sen. John Hickenlooper also attended the event.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was slated to join the visit to Heil Valley Ranch with Haaland and members of the congressional delegation, but he is quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.
The other regions that will benefit from this initial investment are in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.
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Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: email@example.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.
We write to you today, on behalf of our organizations and tens of thousands of supporters across the American West, to express extreme concern over Renewable Water Resources’ proposal to develop a groundwater pumping project in the San Luis Valley that would then export water to the Colorado Front Range. This project represents a serious threat to the water security of the San Luis Valley and to the plant, wildlife, and human communities that depend on this water source. As downstream neighbors we have grave concerns over the cascading effects of this project throughout the entire Rio Grande Basin, and we urge the Commission to reject this proposal.
The Rio Grande Basin cannot afford for any water to be exported out of the Valley.
This project would be the first pipeline built in the San Luis Valley with the intent to export water. But the idea of taking water out of the San Luis Valley for use in other basins is not new. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal is the most recent in a string of such schemes that began in the 1980s. Similar proposals have been decidedly shut down by Colorado courts, which have noted the adverse effects these proposals would have on the aquifer and to surface water rights. In fact, surface waters in the Valley have been recognized as over appropriated since the early 20th century, meaning every drop that flows through the Valley and more is promised to someone. It is incredibly clear that the San Luis Valley has no water to spare.
Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will threaten hope for a sustainable aquifer.
In addition to surface waters, groundwater is also over appropriated in the Valley. We have serious concerns over the effects of the proposed pumping on overall groundwater levels and their impacts to surrounding wetlands and streams. Of particular concern are potential effects to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. Farmers in the Valley are already working together and making sacrifices to reduce water demand through the sub-district project, which was created following decades of drought conditions. This voluntary project facilitates farmers within the Valley combining efforts to ensure groundwater levels are maintained. Renewable Water Resources’ proposal undermines years of this difficult work. The demands for water and challenges associated with allocating it equitably will only increase as the impacts of climate change continue to intensify, this proposal will make an already challenging situation worse and undo years of community-driven efforts to find solutions.
Exporting water from the San Luis Valley will have consequences for the entire Rio Grande Basin.
The concerns over this project expand beyond the San Luis Valley. The project also has the potential to threaten the downstream communities and the environment in the Rio Grande Basin for thousands of miles. The Rio Grande Compact and the 1944 treaty with Mexico define how much water must flow from the Rio Grande’s headwaters in Colorado to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. As a headwaters state, Colorado has a significant responsibility to its neighbors and it is keenly felt downstream when those responsibilities are ignored. For example, during the twentieth century, Colorado consumed more water than it was allotted under the Compact and subsequently accrued a nearly one-million-acre-foot debt to downstream states. This overuse had consequences to downstream communities, agricultural production, and ecosystems. It resulted in lawsuits that ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court requiring Colorado to repay this debt over time. Luckily for Colorado, a wet period of hydrology that filled downstream reservoirs triggered a provision of the Compact that forgave the prior debt and wiped the slate clean for better management going forward. With projected precipitation regime shifts under climate change, we are unlikely to see such a wet period again.
The water challenges we are facing within the Rio Grande Basin make it painfully obvious that a repeat of this situation would be catastrophic for water users across all three states and Mexico. We must think more holistically about the river systems on which we all depend. The San Luis Valley is an integral part of the Rio Grande Basin, a river that runs nearly 1,900 miles and sustains municipal and irrigation uses for more than six million people and two million acres of land across three states and two countries. We urge the Commission to not further complicate this situation by taking vital water from the San Luis Valley and threatening it and others’ water futures.
The communities of the San Luis Valley are working to address their water scarcity challenges in collaborative and inclusive ways. Although there is still much work to do to create a sustainable aquifer and healthy Rio Grande for people and the environment, Renewable Water Resources’ proposal flies in the face of these efforts. Please do the right thing for the communities within the San Luis Valley and those that depend on the water, also vital downstream, by rejecting this ill-advised project.
2022 Ark Basin Water Forum returns to the Salida Steam Plant “Risk and Resilience in the Arkansas Basin” restores in-person event after 2-year pandemic pause”
The 26th episode of the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum, the basin’s premiere water event, will feature the state’s top water experts discussing critical issues facing all segments of water users – agriculture, municipal, recreation, environmental and industrial – and engage attendees in seeking solutions to the many challenges faced in planning for a secure water future for the largest of Colorado’s river basins.
Taking place Thursday and Friday, April 28-29, the 2022 Arkansas River Basin Water Forum will focus on “Risk and Resilience in the Arkansas Basin,” exploring topics that include the effect of Colorado River policies on the Arkansas River, ongoing drought and potential aridification in the southwestern United States, the impact of wildfires on water supplies, and much more (see attached draft program).
Keynote presentations will be provided by Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and Chris Sturm, Watershed Program Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The Forum format continues to evolve, influenced by attendee needs and the resources available to provide interactive experiences for attendees. In addition to expert presentations and panel discussions in the morning sessions, a variety of outdoor field trips will be offered on the afternoons of both days of the Forum. Full information on registering for the Forum, including afternoon field trips, is online at http://www.arbwf.org.
Registration costs for the Forum remain an excellent value:
Two-day full registration, including lunches – $200
One-day registration, either Thursday or Friday, including lunch – $100
Percolation and Runoff networking dinner – $20
Plan on joining us Thursday evening for what is, hands-down, one of the funnest parts of the Forum. Not to be missed, the Percolation and Runoff social networking event is designed to raise money for our college scholarship fund. The $20 cost includes a delicious dinner, drinks and sparkling conversation. You won’t find a better dinner and drinks deal in Salida. All proceeds from this event support the scholarship fund, helping us to help students and working professionals in their education and research in water resources, watershed studies, hydrology, natural resources management and other water-related fields.
For more information, contact Jean van Pelt, Forum Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org
New water tap sales in Pueblo West could be limited to 400 this year to try to slow explosive growth in the face of a dwindling water supply, Pueblo West Metro District officials said at a meeting Tuesday.
The district’s water team proposed that around 1,050 water taps should be sold over the next three years, a middle-ground figure between FCS Group consultant Jason Mumm’s estimate that Pueblo West will have enough water to serve about 2,771 new water taps and a more conservative estimate from Alan Leak at RESPEC who estimated the district has enough water for about 695 new taps. District water officials recommended the sale of 400 water taps this year, 400 next year and just 100 in 2024. The remaining 150 taps should be “held in reserve for sale at the board’s discretion,” they proposed.
Last year, Pueblo West sold 538 water taps, said Jeffrey DeHerrera, deputy director of utilities. The recommendation to scale back sales isn’t set in stone and can be reevaluated as the district obtains more water resources, he said. Director of Utilities Jim Blasing agreed, pointing out his team is aggressively seeking what water rights it can get on behalf of Pueblo West. The board will reach a recommendation when it meets Monday and water tap sales could resume the next day, after being suspended since Jan. 24…
Pueblo West Metro District Board President Doug Proal said staff are working on a plan to roll out taps fairly. The board’s recommendations, along with what new water taps will cost and by how much water and sewer rates will increase, are expected to be decided on at the board’s meeting on Monday at 5 p.m. at Fire Station 3, 729 E. Gold Drive.
Castle Rock’s building boom has barely slowed over the past 20 years and its appetite for growth and need for water hasn’t slowed much either.
The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for water conservation, will still need to at least double its water supplies in the next 40 years to cope with that growth. It uses roughly 9,800 acre-feet of water now and may need as much as 24,000 acre-feet when it reaches buildout.
With an eye on that growth and the ongoing need for more water, Douglas County commissioners are debating whether to spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help finance a controversial San Luis Valley farm water export proposal.
Thirteen Douglas County and South Metro regional water suppliers say they have no need or desire for that farm water, according to Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. [Editor’s note: Lisa Darling is president of the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News]
“It is not part of our plan and it is not something we are interested in,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our long-term plan and we are pursuing the projects that are in that plan. The San Luis Valley is not in the plan.”
Renewable Water Resources, a development firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, has spent years acquiring agricultural water rights in the San Luis Valley. It hopes to sell that water to users in the south metro area, delivering it via a new pipeline. In December, RWR asked the Douglas County commissioners for $10 million to help finance the $400 million plus project.
Tonner did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but he has said previously that the water demands in south metro Denver will be so intense in the coming decades, that the San Luis Valley export proposal makes sense.
Opposition to the export plan stems in part from concern in the drought-strapped San Luis Valley about losing even a small amount of its water to the Front Range. But RWR has said the impact to local water supplies could be mitigated, and that the proposed pipeline could help fund new economic development initiatives in the valley.
Stakes for new water in Douglas County and the south metro area are high. In addition to demand fueled by growth, the region’s reliance on shrinking, non-renewable aquifers is putting additional pressure on the drive to develop new water sources.
Marlowe and other water utility directors in the region have been working for 20 years to wean themselves from the deep aquifers that once provided clean water, cheaply, to any developer who could drill a well. But once growth took off, and Douglas County communities super-charged their pumping, the aquifers began declining. Because these underground reservoirs are so deep, and because of the rock formations that lie over them, they don’t recharge from rain and snowfall, as some aquifers do.
At one point in the early 2000s the aquifers were declining at roughly 30 feet a year. Cities responded by drilling more, deeper wells and using costly electricity to pull water up from the deep rock formations.
Since then, thanks to a comprehensive effort to build recycled water plants and develop renewable supplies in nearby creeks and rivers, they’ve been able to take pressure off the aquifers, which are now declining at roughly 5 feet per year, according to the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
The goal among Douglas County communities is to wean themselves from the aquifers, using them only in times of severe drought.
Ron Redd is director of Parker Water and Sanitation District, which serves Parker and several other communities as well as some unincorporated parts of Douglas County.
Like Castle Rock, Parker needs to nearly double its water supplies in the coming decades. It now uses about 10,000 acre-feet annually and will likely need 20,000 acre-feet at buildout to keep up with growth.
Parker is developing a large-scale pipeline project that will bring renewable South Platte River water from the northeastern corner of the state and pipe it down to the south metro area. Castle Rock is also a partner in that project along with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.
Redd said the San Luis Valley export plan isn’t needed because of water projects, such as the South Platte Water Partnership, that are already in the works.
“For me to walk away from a project in which we already have water, and hope a third party can deliver the water, just doesn’t make sense,” Redd said.
The costs of building two major pipelines would also likely be prohibitive for Douglas County residents, Redd said.
“We would have to choose one. We could not do both.”
Steve Koster is Douglas County’s assistant planning director and oversees new developments, which must demonstrate an adequate supply of water to enter the county’s planning approval process.
Koster said small communities in unincorporated parts of the county reach out to his department routinely, looking for help in establishing sustainable water supplies.
He said the county provides grants for engineering and cost studies to small developments hoping to partner with an established water provider.
“All of them are working to diversify and strengthen their water systems so they are sustainable. Having a system that encourages those partnerships is what we’re looking at,” Koster said.
Whether an RWR pipeline will play a role in the water future of Douglas County and the south metro area isn’t clear yet.
Douglas County spokeswoman Wendy Holmes said commissioners are evaluating more than a dozen proposals from water districts, including RWR, and that the commission has not set a deadline for when it will decide who to fund.
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.
El Paso County is accepting applications for its American Rescue Plan Act Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Grant funding opportunity. According to a news release, “[t]he county has allocated $20 million in ARPA funding for necessary investments in water and wastewater infrastructure, to include improvements to drinking water infrastructure, upgrading facilities, managing sewage and other eligible uses.”
“The community has expressed great interest in this particular grant, and it truly is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many communities and projects,” Commissioner Holly Williams said in the release. “This grant will have a monumental impact for decades to come, as it increases peoples’ access to clean drinking water, and replaces many aging infrastructures.”
According to the release, “[a]ll levels of infrastructure have seen increased demands during the pandemic, and our water and wastewater infrastructures are no exception. This $20 million allocation will help El Paso County preserve and be better stewards of our most precious and scarce resource, and is an investment directly allowed under ARPA guidance.”
The application opens Monday, March 28, 2022, and will remain open through 5 p.m. Friday, April 22.
All projects must meet federal eligibility requirements, which include 17 project categories under guidelines published through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
Projects must be located in El Paso County.
The entire allocation for this funding is $20 million and the county expects to fund several projects, the release said, adding a portion of the funding will be reserved specifically for smaller communities and projects.
El Paso County will be hosting a pre-application webinar at 11:30 a.m. on April 4 to answer specific application related questions. To participate in the webinar, join using this link. Participants are encouraged to send questions ahead of time to ARPArequests@elpasoco.com. If you require accommodations or need a translator, send an email to JyotsnaKhattri@elpasoco.com by March 30.
Thousands of people in the Lower Arkansas Valley who’ve struggled to deal with contaminated water for more than 20 years will have access to clean water by 2024 under a new agreement signed by the federal government and two Colorado water agencies last week.
The Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), as the clean water delivery project is known, will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir through the city of Pueblo and out to communities on the Eastern Plains, such as Avondale and Boone, by 2024, and other communities, such as La Junta, as soon as 2027.
Water officials said the entire pipeline should be completed by 2035 if not sooner. The project will ultimately serve 50,000 people, officials said.
Under the agreements, signed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Pueblo Water Board, and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District March 18, some $40 million in federal and local funding will be available to launch construction, with subsequent funding for the $600 million project anticipated to come from Congress and local water agencies.
In addition, the agreement allows Reclamation and Southeastern to pipe the water through the city of Pueblo’s water system, rather than building a separate system to move the water out to the Eastern Plains. Officials said this new agreement will shave costs and several years off the project.
“This contract signing marks one of the most significant milestones to date towards making the AVC a reality and bringing clean water to communities that desperately need it. It advances the project over 14 miles east from Pueblo Reservoir which puts us much closer to our first participants in Avondale and Boone,” said Brent Esplin, regional director of the Missouri Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf regions for Reclamation, in a statement.
Naturally occurring selenium and lead, as well as radionuclides, have dogged the region’s water systems since the 1960s. Many of the communities face enforcement actions from the state health department because they don’t have the financial resources to treat the water for drinking and then to treat it again for discharge into the wastewater systems that discharge to the Lower Arkansas River and its tributaries, according to Chris Woodka, senior policy manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Southeastern operates the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas Project’s Pueblo Reservoir.
“This project will relieve some of the pressures that they face. They will get better quality drinking water and they will see improvements to their discharged water,” Woodka said.
The idea is to deliver clean water from Pueblo Reservoir directly to the communities via the 34-mile pipeline, reducing and sometimes eliminating the contaminants that the water now picks up when it travels through streams and irrigation ditches.
The conduit has been on planning boards for more than 50 years but it wasn’t until a new federal law was approved in 2009 stipulating that the federal government would pick up 65% of the costs that the plan began to advance, Woodka said.
Since then the region has wrestled with getting federal cash to start work and convincing local water agencies and the communities who need the water to cooperate on design issues and costs, Woodka said.
“People are convinced it will get built,” Woodka said. “Now the questions are about affordability.”
And for small towns, those are big questions.
Tom Seaba is La Junta’s director of utilities. His city has comparatively clean water, with no radionuclides and a selenium issue that it is treating via reverse osmosis.
“It could be the silver bullet that everyone would like to take care of the contaminants that are in the water. The flip side is the cost,” Seaba said.
La Junta charges customer $2.50 per thousand gallons for water now, which includes treatment costs. The new water will cost $2.19 per thousand gallons, untreated, and La Junta will still have to find a way to recoup the cost to disinfect and treat the water.
“Now that we’re getting down to brass tacks, we need to see if the underlying reality will do for us what everyone hopes it will. If we can connect and that takes care of the problems we have, sign us up. But if it doesn’t, we will have to do something else,” Seaba said.
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.
THIS was supposed to be the week that the three Douglas County Commissioners, Lora Thomas, Abe Laydon and George Teal, visited the San Luis Valley to host a community meeting on Douglas County’s consideration of the Renewable Water Resources proposal to export water out of the Valley north.
There’s still an expectation that Laydon and Teal will find their way down, on their own, away from the public spotlight in their own pursuit of reasons to support or not the Renewable Water Resources plan.
For her part, Thomas has been opposed from the outset and prefers that Douglas County focus on a water project in its own backyard – the Platte Valley Water Project with Parker Water & Sanitation and Castle Rock Water.
She’s also been troubled by what she sees as conflicts of interest among her fellow commissioners for their public positioning of RWR and their perceived coziness with Republican moneyman Bill Owens, a former governor of Colorado, and his entourage at Renewable Water Resources.
It would have been those dynamics, a split and at times feuding Douglas County commission, that would have arrived at the Ski Hi Regional Events Complex in Monte Vista to hear from Valley residents. But after Teal made comments that there was nothing to gain from such a meeting since Valley residents didn’t seem interested in finding a deal with Douglas County and supporters of RWR felt threatened and silenced, the commissioners punted.
That doesn’t mean Douglas County – and Laydon and Teal, specifically – has lost interest in RWR. Quite the contrary. What’s puzzling is nobody outside RWR understands why, particularly since Douglas County is not a provider of water services and would find itself entangled in years of litigation at a minimum.
“I have zero ulterior motives, other than wanting to secure proactive win/win water solutions for both communities,” Laydon said to Alamosa Citizen. “I’m persuaded by facts, not noise or propaganda. We have engaged in a deep-dive water series and study with a hydrologist and water attorney who have yet to compile their findings into final recommendations.”
The three commissioners huddled in executive session for two hours Monday to hear from Stephen H. Leonhardt with the law firm Burns Figa & Will, and Tom Hatton from Applegate Group, Inc. Leonhardt and Burns Figa & Will have been retained as special counsel to help Douglas County understand the legal issues surrounding the Renewable Water Resources proposal, while Applegate Group, Inc., has been retained to consult on engineering and hydraulic aspects of the RWR plan, according to public files.
Both the special legal counsel and Applegate consultants had their contracts recently amended to include more money and more time on the RWR plan. Douglas County also this month issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) for additional water consultant services. The RFQ has an April 8 deadline.
Following Monday’s lengthy executive session, the commissioners will receive a confidential memo summarizing what they heard. Where they are with a decision on RWR is harder to determine. Since Thomas is opposed and Teal is in support of RWR, the past weeks have become the Abe Laydon show to see where he lands.
“I don’t know where we’re headed,” said State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who is also general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is a farmer and rancher in the San Luis Valley.
Like others who have made presentations to help Douglas County commissioners understand the ever-declining water conditions of the San Luis Valley aquifers – the unconfined and confined – and threats to the Valley’s ecosystem from 20 years of drought and loss of wetlands, Simpson is frustrated at the spectacle Douglas County has created.
“To make this thing work they have to change the rules and regulations that we all have lived under and crafted over the last 20 years,” he said of the Renewable Water Resources proposal.
It’s not simply Laydon casting the deciding vote to move the RWR proposal forward. If he were to take that gamble for Douglas County, RWR then would have to ask State Engineer Kevin Rein to change the rules governing water to meet the intent of their proposal, said Simpson.
“If I was Douglas County I’d say ‘I’m not going to give you a dime until you get the rules changed’ and the likelihood of them changing the rules here is nearly zero percent from my perspective,” Simpson said.
Coming out of Monday’s executive session with their special counsel and hydrologist consultant, Laydon said he was happy to hear the expertise and “objective facts” that were discussed. He and Teal have made it a point to say Valley representatives and residents they’ve heard from are not objective and instead overfilled with emotion.
“I very intentionally have taken the emotion out of my presentations and conversations with them,” said Simpson. “And honestly, even the folks at RWR from the very beginning, I said ‘I appreciate this is a business proposition from your perspective, I’m happy to sit down with you and let’s debate the pros and cons, but you can’t put out false information.’
“They claim we’re putting out false information and I can say with absolute certainty none of the stuff that I’ve presented or the meetings I’ve been in with them is false information. It’s all 100 percent accurate and quite the contrary from the other perspective. I can demonstrate without doubt that the information they’re getting is false.”
Simpson has sat with Laydon and extended invitations to bring in others like Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and one of Colorado’s foremost experts in water law, to help Laydon better grasp the drought conditions and over pumping situation in the Valley. Former Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen is another person Laydon has been invited to hear from.
For Laydon, he’s focused on the consultants that Douglas County has hired to help him make a decision. Presumably he heard some of what he’s looking for in Monday’s closed meeting. Following it he, Thomas and Teal sat through their first presentation on the Platte Valley Water Project.
Here’s the release from Southeastern Water (Chris Woodka), USBR (Elizabeth Smith), and Pueblo Water (Joe Cervi):
A three-party contract allowing for the Arkansas Valley Conduit to deliver clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 39 communities east of Pueblo was signed by the Bureau of Reclamation on March 18, 2022, following approval by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Board and the Pueblo Board of Water Works (Pueblo Water). The contract was drafted after negotiations that began in November 2021.
“This contract signing marks one of the most significant milestones to date towards making the AVC a reality and bringing clean water to communities that desperately need it. It advances the project over 14 miles east from Pueblo Reservoir which puts us much closer to our first participants in Avondale and Boone,” said Brent Esplin, Regional Director of the Missouri-Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf regions for Reclamation. “It is also the culmination of years of collaboration between Reclamation, Southeastern, and Pueblo Water to deliver a more cost-effective project to people of the lower Arkansas Valley.”
The contract will allow the Southeastern District to use capacity in Pueblo Water’s system to treat and deliver AVC water to a pipeline being constructed by Reclamation. The connection point for AVC is at the east end of Pueblo Water’s system, at 36th Lane and U.S. Highway 50.
The water will be either Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water or from participants’ water portfolios, not from Pueblo Water’s resources. The route of the AVC follows the Arkansas River corridor from Pueblo to Lamar, with spurs to Eads and Crowley County. Reclamation is building the trunk line, while the Southeastern District will build the spur and delivery lines. Estimated total cost is about $600 million.
The Southeastern and Pueblo Water boards both unanimously approved the contract on March 15 and 17, 2022, respectively.
“This project is vitally important to the people of the Lower Arkansas Valley,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern District board. “It would not be viable, and certainly not affordable without the partnership with Pueblo Water, and I would like to express my appreciation to the board.”
“This is a truly monumental achievement and marks the culmination of decades of hard work, dedication, and collaboration by those who have devoted their lives to the business of water,” said Seth Clayton, executive director of Pueblo Water. “Pueblo Water is proud to be an integral participant in this important time in history.”
Many of the Lower Arkansas Valley water systems face water-quality enforcement actions for radionuclides or surface contaminants in groundwater sources. They face ever increasing costs to cope with these problems. The AVC will eliminate or reduce the effects of those contaminants by delivering filtered water from Pueblo Reservoir.
To deliver the full volume of water through the system, Pueblo Water must make some upgrades, and will receive a $20 million construction recovery fee. In addition, Pueblo Water will receive a $2 million investment payment. As the needs of AVC grow, Pueblo will receive funding for necessary improvements.
This is seen as a win-win opportunity by both Pueblo Water and the Southeastern District because it reduces the cost of an earlier plan to build a new pipeline south of Pueblo.
“Not only does the agreement save the AVC project hundreds of millions of dollars and years of construction time, but it also benefits Pueblo Water customers by providing an opportunity to use the excess capacity we have in our system and deliver water to our neighbors in the Lower Arkansas Valley,” Clayton said.
Pueblo Water will charge an initial rate of $2.19 per 1,000 gallons delivered, which reflects the operation and maintenance costs of those parts of the system needed by AVC. The rate will increase annually at the same rate as Pueblo Water’s other customers.
Pueblo Water will also renew its contract to store excess capacity water in Pueblo Reservoir for a 50- year period under the contract.
Finally, the contract spells out environmental commitments and operating conditions related to AVC.
“The significance of this action is that everybody will have the opportunity to have a clean source of drinking water after more than 20 years of work,” said Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southeastern District.
Alan Hamel, a Southeastern Board member, and former Pueblo Water executive director, said the idea for the AVC actually goes back 60 years, to the 1962 signing of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project into law.
In 1968, there was a plan to jointly build a federal treatment plant for Pueblo Water and the water line for AVC.
The AVC was put on hold because of the inability of communities to pay for it. The AVC concept was revived in 2000, and a 2009 federal law provided for 65 percent federal funding, to be matched by 35 percent in other funding.
Reclamation issued a Record of Decision in 2014 which endorsed construction of the AVC to proceed via the “Comanche North” alignment. The alignment was modified in 2019 through a collaborative effort between Reclamation, Southeastern, and Pueblo Water which replaced the pipeline around Pueblo with this contract.
Federal funding so far has totaled $40 million, while $100 million in loans or grants is available to AVC through the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The District has contributed $4.8 million through its Enterprise, while participants have paid $1.5 million since 2011.
Pueblo County recently contributed $1.2 million to build delivery lines to Boone and Avondale through local American Rescue Plan Act funds, and other counties or cities in the Arkansas Valley are expected to contribute as well.
Rural Pueblo County residents are expected to see improvements to their drinking water in the next few years, thanks to $12.7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act Funds being disbursed by Pueblo County Commissioners…Projects receiving funding include the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which is working to deliver drinking water to Avondale and Boone as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit project, said Chris Woodka, issues management coordinator for the district. It will receive $1.2 million to build delivery lines out of the bureau’s trunk line in eastern Pueblo County. That will bring water to about 1,600 Avondale residents and 230 Boone residents. Avondale Water District also will receive $3.2 million and the town of Boone’s water project will get $1.5 million…
The communities’ water will come out of the Pueblo Reservoir. Once the water arrives in the eastern Pueblo communities, water managers will only have to re-chlorinate it before getting it to their customers, Woodka said…
Of the remainder of the $12 million water infrastructure funds, Beulah Water Works and Colorado City Metro will get more than $3 million. Last July, the Colorado City Metropolitan District dealt with a low water pressure crisis caused by an internet outage at the district’s water treatment plants.
Colorado river basins remain near normal in precipitation for the water year to date despite below-normal precipitation in January and February, according to the National Resources Conservation Service. Southern Colorado basins fared better than other parts of Colorado. The Arkansas River Basin received 112 percent of median precipitation in February…
Snowpack for the Arkansas River Basin stood at 90 percent of median as of March 1. Current statewide streamflow projections are 88 percent of normal…
The current projection for the Arkansas Basin is 81 percent of median streamflow.
Statewide reservoir storage has remained below average this water year. The Arkansas Basin stands at 89 percent of median storage as of March 1. The NRSC states more precipitation is needed through the remainder of winter to increase reservoir storage in addition to improving drought conditions in the state…
As of Thursday, the National Drought Mitigation Center at University of Nebraska Lincoln, reports Chaffee County remains in moderate drought conditions in the western part of the county with severe drought conditions in the eastern half.
SOUND UP for today's moment of Zen. Hear the trumpet of Sandhill cranes arriving by the 1000s for stopover @COParksWildlife's @JohnMartinSP near Lamar. DYK CO gets mostly Greater sandhill cranes EXCEPT on SE plains where subspecies Lesser SCs migrate & breed? 📸= Sami Covlin pic.twitter.com/3YaF5nycHP
The Metro District Board is set to meet at 5 p.m. Monday, March 14, to vote on a possible extension of the temporary pause on permit sales until April 12. The board initially voted to pause the sales in January and had hoped to resume them this month…
According to a report from Alan Leak at RESPEC Engineering, Pueblo West could support the sale of 14,000 total water taps “without a significant reduction in water stored in Pueblo West’s accounts in Pueblo Reservoir and Twin Lakes over the next 5 years.”
Pueblo West currently has about 33,000 residents, so total growth could be about 47,000 people. The district’s 1972 service plan called for growth to 39,000 residents…The halt on water tap sales came after a standing- room-only crowd of residents urged the board to stop explosive growth at the Nov. 8 meeting, making it clear they don’t want to see skyrocketing water and sewer rates….
The decision to cancel the event came during a March 9 work session in which county staff told the commissioners they were expecting 300 to 400 people to attend and that it appeared a protest was planned to take place…
Commissioner George Teal, who has voiced his support for the project, said was in favor of canceling the meeting, adding that he had initially hoped to have “actual conversations” with residents and “get past the visceral, emotional aspects of this project.”
He said he’s heard from people in the valley who support the RWR project but feel they are being intimidated to remain quiet….Commissioner Abe Laydon, who has said he hasn’t yet decided if he supports the project, said he still wants to go to the valley but said the event had been “hijacked by a group of folks” and said he didn’t want to be part of it…Commissioner Lora Thomas, who has vocally opposed the plan, said she’s not interested in going to the valley…
When asked where the county learned of reports of intimidation, a county spokesperson referenced comments from a speaker during one of the commissioners work sessions on the topic — Jerry Berry, who is a farmer in the San Luis Valley and a representative for RWR…
In a Feb. 28 meeting, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority Lisa Darling told the commissioners that none of the major water districts in Douglas County are interested in the water from RWR.
Colorado’s February precipitation failed to maintain Arkansas River Basin snowpack compared to the past 20 years. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows severe drought persisting in most areas in the basin with extreme drought in the southern edge of the lower Ark Basin in Colorado as well as the two western corners of Colorado (i.e., 9% of the state). The NOAA three-month temperature outlook projects higher than normal temperatures across all of Colorado through May. The three-month outlook also predicts lower than normal precipitation for the entire state.
The latest National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Snowpack Telemetry (SNOTEL) report shows basin-wide snowpack at 76% of median for snow-water equivalent (SWE) and precipitation at 83% of median. The highest snowpack readings continue to be recorded at Porphyry Creek (119%) and Saint Elmo (115%). Snowpack at Fremont Pass has dropped from 102% of median a month ago to a current reading of 90%. The Apishapa SNOTEL station reports 75% while the Hayden Pass station improved from 40% a month ago to 69% at present.
Statewide reservoir storage was reported at 78% of average and 43% of total capacity during the February Governor’s Water Availability Task Force meeting. This link accesses the latest NRCS reservoir report, which is unfortunately producing suspect and incomplete data for February. The issue should be resolved soon.
As of March 5, Arkansas River flows were 252 cfs at Granite, 393 cfs at the Wellsville gauge near Salida and 361 cfs at Cañon City. Below Pueblo Dam, flows were 64.9 cfs, increasing to 276 cfs near Avondale before dropping to 155 cfs near Rocky Ford. The flow was 1.64 cfs below John Martin Reservoir and 10.6 cfs at Lamar. Boustead Tunnel discharge rates were not available as of this writing.
The Arkansas River Basin had eight active calls as of March 5. The Fort Lyon Storage Canal remains the calling water right on the Arkansas mainstem with a March 1, 1910, priority date. The Holitas Reservoir has a call on the Cucharas River with a March 20, 1901, priority date. The Upper Huerfano No. 2 is the calling structure on the Huerfano River with a priority date of March 15, 1869. The Model Ditch (March 20, 1862) continues its call on the Purgatoire River, as does the Tenassee Ditch (April 30, 1880) on the South Arkansas River. Additional calls are in place on Fourmile Creek and Greenhorn Creek. The Winter Water Storage Program ends March 14, which will likely impact calling water rights.
The Chaffee County Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (Risk MAP) Study is underway across the county through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The Chaffee Risk MAP Study will collect data on field conditions in areas of the county believed to be at risk for impacts from future flooding, erosion, debris flow, or related hazard events. This information will be used to update flood risk information and floodplain mapping in certain watersheds and create tools that provide a data-driven framework for land use and other decision-making in affected areas. The study is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The Local Risk
Based on assessments performed for the 2021 Chaffee County Hazard Mitigation Plan, overall flood risk is an important consideration due to precipitation and snowmelt runoff, and is categorized as medium to high risk in most populated areas of Chaffee County. Countywide, an estimated $34.5 million in property losses is at risk to a one-percent annual chance flood hazard. The unincorporated areas of the county together make up the majority of this exposure, with an estimated $26.7 million in losses at risk. Of the municipalities in Chaffee County, Buena Vista is at the highest risk with $6.1 million in estimated losses in a one-percent annual chance flood, followed by Poncha Springs and Salida with approximately $1.1 million and $460,000 in estimated losses respectively.
Floodplain survey activities are currently planned between March and June
The survey work will be focusing on several flooding sources in all of the incorporated communities and the unincorporated county areas. According to the CWCB, the survey crews will be collecting elevation and other basic information on the land around the waterways being studied, and will not dig around nor disturb the areas…Wood and Merrick & Company are the floodplain mapping and field surveying contractors working with CWCB for Chaffee County’s study. Wood is also familiar with Chaffee County through their work with the 2021 update of Chaffee County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Click the link to read the article on the KRDO website (Jasmine Arenas). Here’s an excerpt:
The El Paso County Board of Commissioners wants to be transparent about the allocation of the American Rescue Plan Act Funds, saying $25 million will go to surface and stormwater infrastructure.
El Paso County ranks second in receiving the most funds in the state, with nearly $140 million in funds. County Commissioner for District 4 Longinos Gonzalez says they are planning to use the leftover funds on water, storm, and road infrastructure…
This comes after the U.S. Treasury Department released the final rule for the state and local recovery funds in January allowing counties to use those dollars for the provision of government services…
As for stormwater infrastructure, the El Paso County Department of Public Works has identified seven projects which amount to $10 million, an additional $5 million will be allocated for future projects…
The county is also asking the community to submit proposals for an additional $20 million in water infrastructure grants.
Fort Lyon Canal Company has seen a storm of litigation, brushes with debt, and general upheaval in its 125 years of existence. It is a credit to its survival the company has issued a commemorative medal to the farmers and landowners owing their very existence to the water sources and reservoirs developed over 125 years. Judy Hensley received one of these medals, as her land, farmed by Nate Cranson, is one of the beneficiaries of that precious water.
The headwaters and the main gate of the Fort Lyon Canal, the longest and most complicated canal in Colorado, is located just north of North La Junta. “The Fort Lyon Canal’s first 100 years” by O. Ray Dodson is a document based on the 1910 report on “Property of The Fort Lyon Canal Company” by James D. Schuyler, and is the source of historical information gathered by Chris Woodka, former water reporter for the Pueblo Chieftain and now with the South East Water Conservancy District.
The canal, at the time of Dodson’s writing, had a total length of about 113 miles from its head gate to the extreme end at Big Sandy Creek east of Lamar. The principal supplier of water is the Arkansas River, but some of the sources are upslope at Horse Creak Reservoir and other reservoirs developed over the years.
The battle for the water that flows in the Fort Lyon Canal continues to the present time. High Plains A&M, a group of investors led by entrepreneur Terry White, began quietly buying shares in Fort Lyon Canal about five years ago. “It owns or controls 28,566 of the canal’s 98,989 shares, about 30 percent,” wrote Chris Woodka recently. “Its plan, rejected Monday by the Colorado Supreme Court, was to market the water in 28 counties within and outside the Arkansas Valley. Most of the uses listed were domestic or municipal. High Plains owns 115 farms on the canal, directly controlling more than 20,000 shares. It secured options on the remaining shares.”
Woodka further wrote: “The Independent Shareholders Group is aligned with High Plains, which is paying its legal expenses. The ISG owns another 8,287.5 shares of the ditch, about 9 percent, and includes 45 landowners.
• High Plains filed for its change of use decree in late 2002. In November 2003, Fort Lyon shareholders – after five days of hearings – approved diverting water from the canal, as long as it was taken “in priority” along the canal.
• Pueblo Chief District Judge Dennis Maes dismissed change-of-use applications by High Plains and ISG on July 2, 2004. High Plains appealed that decision on Aug. 17, 2004. Oral arguments were held in June. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld Maes’ decision Monday.”
The decision rendered by Pueblo Chief District Judge Dennis Maes was argued for the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District by the late Bart Mendenhall of Rocky Ford and Peter Nichols, still the main attorney for LAVWCD.
A megadrought is defined as a drought lasting two decades or longer. According to Climate Scientist Jason Smerdon, co-author of a drought study by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, not only do they give us a 94 percent certainty that this mega-drought will continue, they say we could face years of continued drought.
In fact, University of California Los Angeles geographer Park Williams, the study’s lead author, said with dry conditions likely to persist, it would take multiple wet years to remediate the effects. “It’s extremely unlikely that this drought can be ended in one wet year,” he said.
As we in Chaffee County and surrounding counties know from the past couple of years, as spring arrives, the snowpack is just soaking into the parched earth, rather than running off into streams and rivers. This doesn’t bode well for the four major rivers that originate in the Colorado Rockies; the Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas, and the Rio Grande, and the reservoir systems and hydroelectric plants they serve…
By analyzing tree rings, the scientists observed that periods of severe drought are marked by high degrees of soil moisture deficit; this is the moisture variance from normal saturation.
The Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative (ARWC), which also includes groups like Trout Unlimited, submitted an initial application last fall under the project title “Upper Arkansas Comprehensive Watershed Restoration Project.” The application requested $5 million from damages associated with the California Gulch Superfund Site for various initiatives, including culvert replacement and fuels mitigation…
Commissioner Sarah Mudge, who helped submit the application in December, said the group will submit a new request in February for consideration under a new round of funding. Mudge said ARWC has altered the scope of work slightly for the new application, but that culvert work and fuels mitigation will remain a priority.
Last September, the trustees, including Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, visited Lake County for a landmark tour of California Gulch, a Superfund site that was heavily impacted by mining operations. After the tour, the trustees heard proposals from groups like ARWC, which presented the “Upper Arkansas Comprehensive Watershed Restoration Project.”
Fuels mitigation will entail thinning efforts and the implementation of a county-wide slash management program. Mine impact mitigation refers to ongoing efforts to prevent soil and water pollution from old mine operations. And river restoration will include post-wildfire flood defense along waterways and culvert repair in four or five areas throughout Lake County.
Colorado Open Lands is excited to once again partner with the Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) to add additional protections on the shortgrass prairie of southeast Colorado! SPLT’s mission is to preserve these lands for the native species – both plant and animal – that thrive on them. The Fresh Tracks easement combines several parcels owned by SPLT into one 2,559-acre addition to their wildlife preserve holdings. It also represents COL’s first easement in Baca County, bringing our total counties served to 50 out of 64!
Fresh Tracks is home to species great and small, including mountain lion, mule deer, pronghorn, Colorado Species of Special Concern ferruginous hawk and swift fox, and Colorado Threatened Species burrowing owl, as well as the rare Colorado green gentian plant.
The city plans to spend upward of $500 million over 20 years to put the brakes on the volume of water pouring into Fountain Creek and points south from storm drainage…
But while the city currently complies with the federal consent decree imposed in 2020 and the 2016 agreement with Pueblo County, city officials are walking a tightrope to avoid stiff penalties and more onerous oversight.
Rich Mulledy, as head of the city’s water resources engineering division, manages that tightrope walk, which is reshaping existing drainage systems. That’s no easy trick, considering some waterways have carved 40-foot-tall cliffs along creek beds, and others sped storm runoff into tributaries via concrete channels adding to the consequent flooding downstream.
Come April, the city will mark six years under the $460 million, 20-year intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Pueblo County to fix the city’s drainage problems. The IGA emerged as a condition of Pueblo County’s approval of activation of Colorado Springs Utilities’ $825 million Southern Delivery System pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs.
Last fall, the city passed the one-year mark in the $95 million settlement of the lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators alleging Clean Water Act violations stemming from its neglected stormwater system.
Mulledy and a regiment of inspectors and planners are working under those two edicts, engineered by Mayor John Suthers, who inherited the problem when elected in 2015. Besides negotiating the two agreements, Suthers persuaded voters to pony up millions of dollars to fund the city’s catch-up game.
Sharing water with farmers in our native Arkansas River Basin is one of the ways we are meeting our water needs for the future. This innovative program provides water for Colorado Springs customers while protecting rural communities and the agricultural economy in our region.
Agricultural water sharing is an Alternative Transfer Mechansim, or ATM, and it’s one way we are diversifying our water supply portfolio. Our sustainable water plan – the Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP) – outlines our future needs over a 50-years planning horizon, including the need to add 15,000-25,000 acre-feet of water supply through agricultural water sharing and other ATMs.
In the past, water transfers between agriculture and municipalities primarily involved purchasing farms and transferring the associated water rights to the city. Today, balancing municipal needs with farmers’ needs involves a partnership to share the water. These partnerships range from storage cooperation to the development of perpetual 3-in-10-year lease/fallowing programs. Sometimes water becomes available when the farmer transitions to more efficient irrigation methods and needs less water to produce the same amount of crops. The farmer’s productivity per acre is preserved, while the city receives the unused water.
In essence, water sharing agreements help us and farmers manage water supplies while keeping water in agriculture and sustaining economic growth in the Arkansas Basin region.
We continue to build on the successes of our first water sharing agreements, started in 2015. In 2018. we established the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association (LAWMA) project, which provides water for Colorado Springs municipal use in five of every 10 years, while farmers in the Las Animas and Lamar areas take additional water during the other five years. We also supported LAWMA’s development of storage to help them manage the program and their supplies.
Why does water sharing work?
It emphasizes collaboration rather than competition for water. Both partners benefit.
It provides multiple ways to create stability for municipal supplies and agriculture.
It reduces large scale transfers and permanent removal of water from agriculture.
When working with an augmentation entity, water sharing supports the use of more efficient irrgation technology resulting in more efficient use of water.
Two Bent County farmers will shift away from flood irrigation to more efficient agricultural sprinklers that circle around a center pivot. Colorado Springs will acquire the rights to use the water saved by this change…
The total cost for this acquisition is about $2 million. Additionally, the farmers will rotationally fallow their fields three years out of every ten and Colorado Springs Utilities will lease that water.
In all, it’s a small amount of water, but Benyamin said it’s the first of a series of similar deals the utility is working on as it diversifies its water supply portfolio.
Growing Front Range municipalities have, in the past, purchased water rights using what’s known as “buy and dry,” meaning that land in rural areas was often left barren and unfarmable.
Councilmember Wayne Williams, who chairs the utilities board, said that “buy and dry” has far-reaching negative effects on rural communities that results in a declining population in Colorado’s Eastern Plains…
Colorado Springs City Council approved the agreement [February 1, 2022]. Next, the city will complete the purchase and submit the permanent water transfer request to the state.
That process can take years to go through water court, but Colorado Springs Utilities staff said there’s an administrative approval process to allow the water to be immediately available for municipal use.
Colorado’s Court of Appeals has cleared the way for 80-year-old fisherman Roger Hill to fight for his right to fish in peace on his favorite stretch of the Arkansas River as it flows down from snow-packed mountains.
This court ruling also means any other Colorado resident who has been forced off a river, from the Animas to the Yampa, can go to court to protect public access. A three-judge panel unanimously rejected the position of Colorado’s government, which sided with landowners against Hill. Colorado allows private ownership of riverbeds while all other states treat rivers deemed “navigable” as public…
“We’re going to get a chance to establish this as the law of Colorado – the freedom to wade in rivers, whether you fish or not, the freedom to have your feet on the bottom of a river,” he said. “It could open access to waters I am dying to fish if I live long enough.”
Back in August 2012, Mark Warsewa and Linda Joseph, owners of land adjacent to the Arkansas, ordered Hill off the river as he was catch-and-release fishing about five miles downstream from Cotopaxi where Texas Creek flows in and brown trout abound along with occasional rainbows, court records show. Hill’s initial complaint alleges Joseph threw baseball-sized rocks down on him to drive him away.
The appeals judges’ Jan. 27 ruling says state courts must decide river access cases depending on how rivers were used in 1876 when Colorado became a state. That’s the “navigability at statehood” test, based on whether rivers could be used commercially in their ordinary condition, that the U.S. Supreme Court set for states in determining whether a riverbed can be private property.
In Hill’s case, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser contends only state authorities, not residents, can fight in court for public access to rivers. Weiser wrote in a July 21, 2021, letter to a concerned southwestern Colorado resident that allowing residents to press claims in court “would destabilize property rights throughout the state” and jeopardize “partnerships” state officials have negotiated with landowners that allow limited public access for fishing…
No state laws or regulations define navigability.
Hill in 2018 filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Warsewa and Joseph after they forced him off Arkansas River. Colorado’s attorney general at the time, Republican Cynthia Coffman, joined the case backing the landowners.
Since then, Hill and his attorneys — University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace and Dillon-based attorney Alexander Hood — have fought in federal court and back to state court on procedural grounds, insisting that Hill should be able to be heard in a court.
Colorado appeals judges in their decision wrote that “if, as Hill alleges, the relevant segment of the river was navigable at statehood, then the Warsewa defendants do not own the riverbed and would have no right to exclude him from it by threats of physical violence or prosecution for trespass.”
Hill’s case is based on historical evidence that the Arkansas below Leadville was used for commerce around the time Colorado became a state, specifically the transport of beaver pelts, logs, and railroad ties down the river…
Hill’s case will turn on an intense factual battle over “navigability” in 1876, and “floating logs and beaver pelts” shouldn’t be enough to satisfy the federal test, [Steve] Leonhardt said…
As Colorado’s population and outdoor recreation industry expand, future legal fights over access to rivers have emerged as a possibility. Gov. Jared Polis could set up a process for efficiently determining which stretches of rivers were “navigable” at statehood, Squillace said.
“Here is a land where life is written in water.” — Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Colorado Poet Laureate
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr. was a respected authority on Colorado water law, and his recent death represents a great loss to Colorado, the state’s water community in particular. Justice Hobbs was also an excellent writer, a poet, actually, and Coloradans are fortunate to have his writings about the state’s unique system of water allocation. In the “Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law,” Justice Hobbs describes the history of the framework for using and managing Colorado water.
As Hobbs notes in the “Citizen’s Guide,” Colorado’s system of water allocation and management began to take shape 170 years ago when the first settlers arrived from New Mexico, bringing their Spanish tradition of community irrigation ditches, or acequias. The oldest continuous water right in Colorado, the 1852 People’s Ditch of San Luis, dates to this period.
In 1858, gold-seekers swarmed into the region, and mining operations were some of the first to claim water, loosely following an appropriation system established during the California gold rush. Most mining operations were short-lived, but the miners helped establish Colorado’s system of water rights.
Early settlers found good farmland in the Lower Arkansas Valley and diverted water from the Arkansas River into the Rocky Ford High Line Canal to irrigate their crops. The canal has an 1861 water right.
After Congress created the Colorado Territory in 1861, federal court rulings established a water law framework different from the Riparian Doctrine of Eastern states, which provides a water right to anyone who owns land adjacent to a body of water.
The 1862 Homestead Act and 1866 Mining Act allowed Colorado settlers to build ditches and reservoirs to divert water from public land to locations where it was needed for mining and agriculture. Otherwise, Congress allowed Western territories and states to create water law through legislation and court rulings.
In “Chaffee County: Our Water Story,” Kay Marnon Danielson describes early settlers in the Upper Arkansas Valley as predominantly farmers and ranchers. With a growing season of about five months a year, farming in the valley was limited, but large tracts of government land provided opportunities for grazing cattle.
Cattle require winter feed, so alfalfa became, and still is, a major crop. Cattle and food crops were raised to feed growing Front Range cities in addition to the boomtowns in mountain mining districts. These Upper Ark Basin agricultural activities required water, which required irrigation ditches like the Trout Creek Ditch, the oldest ditch in Chaffee County with an 1864 appropriation date.
Adopted in 1876, the Colorado Constitution formalized the Prior Appropriation System as the basis for state water law. Under Prior Appropriation, water users with earlier water right decrees hold a “senior” right and can take water to meet their needs before holders of more recent or “junior” rights.
As an example, the Rocky Ford High Line Canal’s 1861 appropriation date gives it priority over the Trout Creek Ditch’s 1864 water right. So, in a dry year water diversions for the Trout Creek Ditch can be curtailed to ensure that the High Line Canal receives its water (because the High Line has the older water right, i.e., the earlier appropriation date).
In 1882, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that, under the Prior Appropriation System, water can be appropriated in one watershed and imported to a different watershed to be put to beneficial use (Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.).
The Arkansas River Basin is no exception. It has the largest land mass of Colorado’s river basins, but it yields one of the smallest quantities of native water, contributing to its status as the most over-appropriated basin in the state.
Limited quantities of native water have also prompted “trans-basin diversions,” which bring an average of 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River Basin into the Arkansas River Basin – nearly 15% of the Ark Basin’s water supply, as calculated by the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
The Prior Appropriation System provides a process by which water users can obtain a court decree for their water rights. That process, called adjudication, sets:
The date of the water right.
The source of the water.
The point from which that water is diverted.
The type of beneficial use.
The place where the water is used.
To legally appropriate water in Colorado, the water user must put the water to a “beneficial use,” which requires a plan to divert and/or store the water for a legally recognized beneficial use. Colorado water law defines beneficial use as a lawful “appropriation” of water employing efficient practices to use the water without waste.
According to Justice Hobbs, the goal is to avoid waste so that as much water as possible is available to as many right holders as possible.
Water uses recognized as “beneficial” have expanded through the years and include, among others: agricultural irrigation, municipal uses, commercial uses, domestic uses, industrial uses, recreational uses and snowmaking. In-stream flows were legally recognized as a beneficial use in 1979. Since then, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has claimed in-stream flow water rights for thousands of miles of Colorado waterways, but those rights remain junior to most other water rights.
For more than 125 years now, the Colorado Division of Water Resources has fulfilled the responsibility of administering the Prior Appropriation System. Directed by the State Engineer, this work is carried out through the Division Offices – one for each of the Colorado’s seven major river basins – each led by a Division Engineer. The Arkansas River Basin is administered by Division 2.
New Colorado Springs homes could be surrounded by far more native grasses and flowers like penstemons and coneflowers, rather than endless seas of Kentucky bluegrass, to help preserve water.
The proposed Colorado Springs zoning code could limit the amount of grass irrigated with sprinklers around new homes to 25% of the yard, excluding areas where plants can’t grow, such as a driveway, patio or deck. The code would also encourage drought resistant and native plants. The limits on lawns would not apply to existing homes.
Putting in native plants rather than lawns would not only help conserve water but also help support native insects and birds, said Judith Rice-Jones, co-manager of the Mid Shooks Run Community Garden and a local conservation advocate…
As the U.S. urbanizes and new neighborhoods spring up with nonnative grass planted around every home it cuts into habitat and many species have to look elsewhere for food, she said. Lawns are the No. 1 irrigated crop in the country, according to NASA. In 2005, three times as many acres were dedicated to lawns compared to corn.
Instead of trying to replicate what grows easily in the Midwest, the new standards could better fit what grows naturally in town, Rice-Jones said…
Moving away from water-hungry grass is also key for the community as hundreds of thousands of new people move to the area and Colorado Springs Utilities seeks to bring in additional water from other basins to serve them. The city is already heavily dependent on outside watersheds, with up to 70% of the city’s water coming from the Colorado River basin. The river has been hit hard by drought in recent years with Lake Powell, a major reservoir for the western U.S., hitting a record low.
About 40% of total water use in Colorado Springs is used for outdoor irrigation, depending on weather. In the summer months, irrigation can make up about 60% of consumption, said Scott Winter, project manager for Utilities Water Resources and Demand Management.
The proposed landscaping rules that encourage native, drought tolerant plants are expected to be a “significant component” of future water conservation efforts, in part because the city has so much land yet to be developed, he said. For example, the 21,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch on the city’s eastern edge that accounts for one-third of the community is largely undeveloped.
CALLING it a “carefully crafted plan,” former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens defended efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the San Luis Valley in a pointed opinion published Sunday.
Owens is leading the RWR plan and called out “status-quo politicians who are stoking fear doubling down on one valid reality: the San Luis Valley is one of the most economically challenged areas of our state.”
“When the attorney general and state Sen. Cleave Simpson claim they will do all they can to stop the voluntary selling of water rights, they are saying to Coloradans that they know better than you do what to do with your private property,” Owens penned in the op/ed published in ColoradoPolitics.com.
Simpson responded during Monday’s Douglas County commissioners work session on the RWR plan. Douglas County is vetting the proposal for a $20 million investment, using its federal COVID relief money to potentially buy into the RWR plan and pump groundwater in perpetuity to Douglas County from the Valley.
“Myself and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District very intentionally have not tried to implement any type of rule or legislation that would interfere with private property rights,” Simpson said. “If folks are interested in selling water rights to Renewable Water Resources we’ve not stood in the way. We certainly would challenge that a change in the water right and the proposal as crafted isn’t good for the community, and likely our position would be ‘I’m not sure you can do it without injuring other water rights.’”
Simpson was joined by other Valley water managers who briefed Douglas County commissioners on the most current groundwater withdrawals and condition of the unconfined and confined aquifers in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. The RWR groundwater pumping and exportation plan draws from the confined aquifer in Saguache County and is in a part of the Rio Grande Basin considered not sustainable due to current withdrawals.
Owens, making a point in his opinion piece that there is water in the San Luis Valley available for exportation, said “the San Luis Valley pumps over 600,000 acre-feet of water from the aquifers every year.” Actual water flow meter readings show Valley farmers pumped 458,000 acre-feet in 2020, according to data presented to Douglas County commissioners.
The commissioners also saw figures that show the Rio Grande with an average flow of 550,000 acre-feet over the past 20 years, down 15 percent from the Rio Grande’s historical average going back to 1890 when water flows on the Rio Grande started to be measured.
“We’re not guessing at the numbers that we pump. We’re not guessing at the amount of water we’re withdrawing, and we’re not guessing at what it takes to farm in the San Luis Valley,” said Conejos County farmer Nathan Coombs. He is on the board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 3.
“We don’t have different points of view on the same subject, we have different interests on the same subject,” Coombs said. “The San Luis Valley, we’re needing just to survive in our agriculture economy and with our neighbors. The Renewable Water proposal is just about money. It’s about an exportation of a cash commodity.
“We are struggling to keep our ship correct and to try to recover our aquifer, and then here comes this seemingly predatory-natured entity to exacerbate our problem when we’re in the middle of a hardship.”
Coombs showed Douglas County commissioners where he farms in Conejos County and how it’s 53 miles away from Renewable Water Resources’ proposed wellfield. He said it’s incomprehensible to think the RWR groundwater pumping and exportation of water to Douglas County wouldn’t impact his operations and farming operations in the Valley as a whole.
“Those of us who have voluntarily worked our tails off to become sustainable, it’s a slap in the face. Who am I? I’m expendable? Denver Basin aquifer should be sustained, San Luis Valley should not? We should import water so unsustained growth on the Front Range continues to expand, where I have to limit the size of my operation because I have to live within my means?
“Why are we trading one aquifer for the other? I think we all matter don’t we? Why can’t agriculture interests in the San Luis Valley matter as much as the Denver aquifer?”
For Owens, the former governor of Colorado, it’s a “false assertion that there is ‘no water’ available in the SLV.”
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The project by Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, proposes to tap 25 new groundwater wells in a “confined” aquifer in the valley. That would bring 22,000 acre feet of water to the South Platte River and eventually to a yet-to-be unidentified water provider in Douglas County.
The Renewable Water Resources proposal, which has been underway since 2017, claims a billion acre-feet of water exists in the larger of two San Luis Valley aquifers, a figure disputed by San Luis Valley water experts…
Renewable Water Resources’ project wants to tap the confined aquifer, which is larger both by geographic footprint and by water volume. The company argued the project is needed to ensure water reliability for Douglas County, and maintained that the plan is sustainable — both for residents of the county and the valley.
Under the proposal, the wells would be situated on land either owned or controlled by RWR, which currently owns approximately 9,800 acres and has options to acquire approximately 8,000 additional acres.
The 22,000 acre-feet of water represents 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge, defined as water pumped back into the aquifer through precipitation, and a volume that RWR claims would not affect diminish the base.
The proposal noted that Colorado’s water law mandates that, in order to develop water, it must be “retired at the same rate,” a doctrine informally known as the “one-for-one” law in the water community. That means every drop of water removed must be replaced by the same amount.
As it turns out, Division 3 Water Court in in Alamosa, where RWR plans to submit its proposal, is the only water court that uses that law…
Under the plan, Douglas County would kick in $20 million from American Rescue Plan federal money, which is already raising questions about whether that’s a legitimate use of the federal relief funds, and whether years of legal battles would run out the clock for using those dollars, which, under federal guidelines, must be spent by December 2024…
Bruce Lytle of Lytle Water Resources, who is working with RWR, told commissioners the aquifer has the water needed for the project. That’s in stark contrast to what they heard from State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan, who told the commissioners the aquifer’s water is over-appropriated, meaning there’s nothing left for Douglas County…
Colorado Politics asked most of the 47 water districts, including the dozen largest ones, whether they intend to participate in the project, either as the end user, or, in the case of Denver, allow the reservoirs the county manages to hold that water.
The answer was “no” from all but one potential end-user. Denver Water, which manages the reservoirs, also shot down the idea…
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora water, answered similarly: RWR has not engaged in discussions with Aurora Water regarding storage or conveyance and does not plan to participate in the RWR acquisition…
That Dominion and Sterling Ranch could be the end users — both entities vigorously deny any interest in San Luis Valley water and maintain their supply is sufficient to meet needs — is bolstered by RWR’s proposal, which says the project “will maximize use of existing infrastructures, ultimately supporting the county’s goals of enhancing solutions along the I-85 corridor.”
Teal said it could be Sterling Ranch, Castle Rock or Parker Water. Regarding Castle Rock, Teal explained that the town provides water to customers outside of its boundaries, part of an I-85 partnership between Castle Rock and Dominion.
The Smethills, in a Jan. 24 letter to Colorado Politics, disputed the story, saying any depiction of Sterling Ranch as a recipient of water from the RWR project or that it is short on water is factually inaccurate…
Castle Rock Water spokeswoman Mary Jo Woodrick said in an email that “at this time, we do not intend to acquire water from RWR’s San Luis Valley project.”
The state engineer
Among RWR’s claims in its proposal is that State Engineer Kevin Rein “recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer.”
That comes as news to Rein. He told Colorado Politics there have been no new rulings that apply to what RWR describes.
“We are a regulatory agency but we have made no ruling relevant to what the report describes,” Rein said in an email.
The advice to limit the use of the Denver aquifer, he pointed out, came out in 1996, although a memo in 2020 provided guidance to the staff of the engineer’s office that is “a recitation” of the 1996 memo…
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
In addition, Weiser and Simpson wrote, the proposal will not comply with rules from the State Engineer or the state Supreme Court. The RWR proposal seeks to change the rules, which would undermine Colorado’s compliance with the Rio Grande compact, they said.
As the population grows along the Front Range, many water utilities in El Paso County are seeing declines in the productivity of wells that draw from the Denver Basin, a geological formation that stretches north into Weld County and across much of the Front Range.
Some water managers are looking at a potential $134 million project that could help them, now and in the future…
The Cherokee Metropolitan District is among the handful of water utilities looking at ways to work together to circulate water between the farthest northern and southern reaches of the county.
The idea is to use new and existing infrastructure — like the big blue pipeline — to create a giant loop system that could take water flowing south in Monument and Fountain creeks and pump it north again through ditches and pipelines.
Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District is another primary collaborator in the project. The utility supplies water to residents in the northern part of the county, but has water assets in the southern part, including a quiet 80-acre lake called the Callahan Reservoir. It could become part of the Loop system too…
Manager Jessie Shaffer says because of declines in their Denver Basin wells, the utility purchased surface water rights from Fountain Creek.
“But the problem is those renewable water rights are located just south of the city of Fountain,” Shaffer said. “We need a way to transport those water supplies.”
The proposed Loop would allow Woodmoor and other districts to get to water they own the rights to but haven’t been able to access. It would also allow them to more easily recycle indoor wastewater that comes from Denver Basin wells and now drains into the sewer…
“Water is absolute. It is game, set, match,” she said. “If you don’t have water, your highways don’t matter. Your human services don’t matter. All of those issues don’t matter if there’s not water. So we have to get the water equation finished, we have to find the long-term answer.”
On Monday night, the Pueblo West Metro District Board of Directors voted to freeze applications for any new building or water tap permits, until a meeting on March 14. Board President Doug Proal says the pause will give the Water Team time to assess drought conditions and a potential new water source in Chaffee County…
At a public hearing in November, Pueblo West residents packed the room with concerns over a potential rise in costs in order to provide more water to the Metro District…
However, some developers and builders tell News 5 the several-week pause will cause major setbacks for them, especially while they continue dealing with the effect of the pandemic. Pueblo West will reevaluate how many permits are available after March 14.