High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.
For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.
A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.
And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.
But these systems aren’t without critics.
“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”
His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…
The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.
At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.
Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.
On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.
“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…
Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…
Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.
Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.
But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.
“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.
As a way to settle a 2009 state water court case led by Pitkin County and the Colorado River District, the Front Range city of Aurora has agreed to let as much as 1,000 acre-feet of water run down the upper Roaring Fork River each year instead of diverting the water under Independence Pass.
The pending settlement could mean that about 10 to 30 cubic feet per second of additional water could flow down the river through Aspen in summer and fall.
It’s an amount of water that Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said would be “visibly noticeable” and would help bolster flows in the often water-short stretch of the Roaring Fork between Difficult and Maroon creeks.
“It’s exciting,” Ely said. “It’s not very often you get to put water into the upper Roaring Fork. These opportunities are pretty limited, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one.”
A June 13 memo from Ely on the agreement states that “the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board has long recognized this reach of the Roaring Fork as one of the most stressed reaches of the Roaring Fork” and that “the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s State of the Watershed report identifies the upper Roaring Fork just above Aspen and heading into town as being severely degraded.”
The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners is expected to approve the settlement in the form of an intergovernmental agreement with Aurora on Wednesday.
Aurora’s city council also is expected to approve the agreement, as is the Colorado River District board of directors at its July meeting. A Water Court judge has set a July 20 deadline for the parties to file the settlement.
Officials with Pitkin County and the Colorado River District see the deal with Aurora as a victory, especially as some estimates, according to Ely, place the value of water in Aurora at $50,000 an acre-foot, which makes the 1,000 acre-feet of water potentially worth $50 million.
The settlement is also of high value to officials at the Colorado River District, who led the efforts of the West Slope entities in the case.
“I think it’s a big deal,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on the Western Slope. “I think it’s going to be a good deal for Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork River, and the West Slope as a whole. And frankly, I think it’s a pretty good deal for Aurora, as well.”
But Tom Simpson, a water resource supervisor with Aurora, said it’s a “bittersweet” deal for the growing Front Range city.
“We’ve worked hard on this agreement over the last year,” Simpson said. “It is bittersweet, but we are happy that we are finally there.”
The deal lets Aurora retain its current use of 2,416 acre-feet of water it diverts on average each year from the top of the Fryingpan River Basin, but Aurora also is giving up 1,000 acre-feet of water it now diverts from the top of the Roaring Fork River Basin.
Aurora also is agreeing to abide by operating protocols and future potential use of the senior water rights on the Colorado River now tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. That agreement could limit the amount of additional water Aurora can divert in the future from the Colorado River Basin.
The provisions of the agreement relating to the Shoshone water right also include an acknowledgement that the senior water right might someday be changed to include an instream flow right rather than the water being diverted out of the river and sent to the hydropower plant.
“Aurora will not oppose an agreement between a West Slope entity or entities, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and any other entity entered for the purpose of adding instream flow as an additional use of the senior hydropower right,” the agreement states.
Simpson agreed the overall deal represented a “haircut” for Aurora’s water rights in the Colorado River Basin.
“Yes, we’re going to get the 2,416 acre-feet out of Busk, but we’re going to make these other deliveries on the Roaring Fork, and we might lose just a little bit of water on the Shoshone protocol,” he said. “It’s a haircut, absolutely.”
On the other hand, Simpson said “while this agreement is not perfect, we feel like it is a good agreement, and preserves some of our Busk-Ivanhoe water and lets us all move forward.”
Started in 2009
In December 2009, Aurora filed a water rights application in Division 2 Water Court in Pueblo to change the use of its water rights in the Busk-Ivanhoe transmountain diversion system in the Fryingpan River headwaters.
The system, built in the 1920s, gathers water from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle, and Hidden Lake creeks and diverts the water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville before it is sent to East Slope cities. The system was built to deliver water to irrigators in the lower Arkansas River basin.
The water rights to the system carry appropriation dates from 1921 to 1927, which makes them junior to the senior water rights on the Colorado River near Grand Junction known as the “Cameo call.”
The Pueblo Board of Water Works bought half of the Busk-Ivanhoe system in 1972, and Aurora gradually secured its half-ownership in the system between 1986 and 2001.
In its 2009 application, Aurora told the water court it wanted to change the use of its water in the Busk-Ivanhoe system from irrigation to municipal use.
However, it also conceded it had already been using the Busk-Ivanhoe water for municipal purposes in Aurora, even though its water-right decree limited the use of the water to irrigation in the lower Arkansas River valley. It also came to light that Aurora was first storing the water in Turquoise Reservoir without an explicit decreed right to do so.
That caught the attention of Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, a host of other Western Slope water interests, and the state engineer’s office, which administers water rights.
As Ely put it in a June 13 memo to the Pitkin County commissioners, “In 1987, Aurora began using Busk-Ivanhoe water for undecreed municipal and residential purposes in an undecreed area, the South Platte Valley, after storing the water in an undecreed manner in Aurora system reservoirs.”
Aurora’s stance was that since the water had been diverted under the Continental Divide, it didn’t matter how it used or stored the water, as it should make no difference to the West Slope. But an array of West Slope entities, including the Colorado River District, disagreed with Aurora’s position.
In July 2013 the Western Slope entities and the state took Aurora to a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo, arguing that Aurora should not get credit for its 22 years of undecreed water use and storage.
“It was always an issue of fact at trial as to how much water was in play because it depends on how you calculate the yield of the project,” Ely said.
In 2014, thought, the district court judge in Division 2 ruled in Aurora’s favor, and the West Slope interests then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The appeal process prompted a host of entities on both sides of the Continental Divide to come forward and argue aspects of the case before the court. It also prompted a scolding of Aurora by former Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs over the use of undecreed water rights.
In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruled in favor of the Western Slope, and remanded Aurora’s original change application back to the lower court.
“The Supreme Court wrote that notwithstanding the fact that the change application and original decree concerned developed transmountain water, water used for undecreed purposes cannot be included in a calculation for historic consumptive use and is therefore excluded from water available for change of use,” Ely wrote in his June 13 memo.
So, rather than going back to Water Court and continuing to fight over the potential size of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights, which the West Slope now saw as being between zero and well-less than 2,416 acre-feet, Aurora began negotiating in January 2017 with the Western Slope entities still in the case, which included Pitkin County, Eagle County, the Colorado River District, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Basalt Water Conservancy District, Eagle County, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Ute Water Conservancy District.
Today, each of those entities is also a party to the intergovernmental agreement expected to be submitted to the water court in July, along with a proposed decree for Aurora’s Busk-Ivanhoe rights.
Ely said Pitkin County didn’t start out in the case with an eye on securing 1,000 acre-feet for the Roaring Fork, but did have a local interest in the operation of the Busk-Ivanhoe project.
“We weren’t doing it to obtain an end result, we were doing it because the [Busk-Ivanhoe] project is in our backyard and we felt it was the right thing to do,” Ely said. “And all the other dialogue developed after the trial and the Supreme Court decision.”
At the time of the 2016 Colorado Supreme Court decision, Pitkin County had spent $353,000 in legal and other fees in the case, using money brought in by a tax to fund the county’s Healthy River and Streams program, which includes litigation in water court.
Since then, Ely said the county had spent an additional $27,300 for hydrology and engineering work, but had not spent more on additional outside legal help, as he and Assistant County Attorney Laura Makar handled the settlement negotiations for the county.
Pan, or Fork?
For Pitkin County and other Western Slope entities, it made more sense to negotiate with Aurora for some of the water it owns in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system rather than the Busk-Ivanhoe system, as any water bypassed by the Busk-Ivanhoe system would be scooped up by the Fry-Ark Project, which sits below the Busk-Ivanhoe system in the upper Fryingpan valley and also diverts water to the East Slope.
Aurora owns 5 percent of the shares in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. Its share of the water diverted each year from the top of the Roaring Fork equals about 2,100 acre-feet a year, so the 1,000 acre-feet of water equals about half of Aurora’s water in the Twin Lakes company.
In the 10 years from 2007 through 2016, Twin Lakes Co. diverted a total of 485,762 acre-feet of water from the upper Roaring Fork River Basin through its diversion system, putting the 10-year average for that period at 48,567 acre feet. 2011 was the biggest year of diversions since 2007, with 67,463 acre-feet diverted, and 2015 was the lowest year since 2007, with 18,374 acre-feet diverted.
Colorado Springs owns 55 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes Co., Pueblo 23 percent, Pueblo West 12 percent, and Aurora 5 percent. There are also other minority shareholders, holding 5 percent of the shares, still using the water from the system for agriculture.
Twin Lakes is not a party to the intergovernmental agreement between Aurora and the West Slope entities, but it is willing to work with all involved to make the water deliveries as beneficial as possible for the Roaring Fork River.
Ely said Pitkin Country was grateful for the willingness of the Twin Lakes Co. to work with the county and the Colorado River District to release the water in a way that benefits the river, even if it means more work for the operators of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.
According to Kevin Lusk, the president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a senior engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, the company is simply responding to the desires of a shareholder in the company, Aurora.
He also said it’s legal under a 1976 water-rights decree held by Twin Lakes to bypass water for use on the West Slope instead of diverting it under the Continental Divide.
“The decree allows for this type of operation and so really all we’re doing as a company is accommodating the request of one of our shareholders to do something that was contemplated and provided for in the decree,” Lusk said.
And as part of the agreement, representatives from Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, Aurora, and Twin Lakes will meet each year to agree on a delivery schedule for the water that describes the “desired rate, timing, amount, location and ultimate use of the water, as well as the operational needs and constraints” of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes diversion system.
In a letter attached to the agreement laying out how Aurora and the Twin Lakes Co. plan to manage the releases, Aurora said it “would prefer the water to be delivered at times of the year and at locations that will provide the most benefit to the Roaring Fork River stream flow. Typically this will be in the second half of the summer, beginning July 15, through the fall season.”
And Pitkin County feels the same way, according to Ely.
“We would like it delivered later in the year when the flows of the river start to go down,” he said.
However, Lusk at Twin Lakes said if the West Slope entities wait too long in the season to bypass the water, it may not be there to bypass.
“I know that there is a great interest in saving a lot of this water and bypassing it at the end of the season,” Lusk said. “But it’s going to be a bit of a balancing act. You’ve got to take the water when it’s there, because if you don’t take advantage of it there won’t be any to release later.”
Lusk also said that if the West Slope really wanted to take full advantage of the water, it might consider building a reservoir above Aspen to store the water at peak runoff and then release it later in the season.
Flows on the Fork
According to a draft resolution to be voted on by the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday, there were several factors that went into the county’s goal of acquiring 1,000 acre-feet per year of water for the upper Fork, including “the expected amount of yield for Aurora in the Busk-Ivanhoe system; existing in-basin and out-of-basin diversions from the Roaring Fork River between Independence Pass through the City of Aspen; potential future demand on the river; extent of existing conditional water rights; and the results of a stream analysis and channel measurement study.”
If the deal is approved, as soon as next year 700 acre-feet of Aurora’s water is expected to be captured briefly in the Independence Pass system, which includes dams on Lost Man Creek, the main stem of the Roaring Fork River, and on Grizzly Creek, and then released down either the Fork or Lincoln Creek toward Aspen.
Another 200 acre-feet of Aurora’s Twin Lakes water will be held in Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, which holds 570 acre-feet of water. That water will then be released late in the year, after most transmountain diversions have stopped, to bolster late-season flows in the river.
“So it’s actually reservoir release of previously stored water, while the [700 acre-feet] is a true bypass of water that would have gone through the tunnel that day to the other side,” Lusk said. “It’s new for us. We typically don’t operate the reservoir that way. Typically we would run that reservoir quite a bit lower, just for safety-of-dam reasons. But this change in operation is going to be holding the reservoir up much fuller for a lot longer, and we just need to watch the behavior of the dam.”
Another 100 acre-feet of water could also eventually be left in the Roaring Fork each year after a complicated exchange-of-water arrangement is worked out with Aurora and other parties on the Fryingpan River, which brings the potential total water left in the Fork to 1,000 acre-feet.
There is also a drought contingency provision which will allow Aurora to bypass 100 acre-feet less than they would have under the deal if the water level in their system of reservoirs falls below 60 percent on April 1 in a given year. So in a dry year, that could bring additional flows in the Roaring Fork back to 900 acre feet.
The pending Busk-Ivanhoe settlement also includes a provision that allows the Basalt Water Conservancy District to store 50 acre-feet of water in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which holds 1,200 acre-feet of water and serves more as a forebay for the Ivanhoe Tunnel diversions than a storage reservoir.
And, in a provision to Aurora’s benefit, the West Slope entities, including Pitkin County, have agreed not to fight, at least on a wholesale basis, the permitting of two potential reservoirs that Aurora is working on, Wild Horse Reservoir in South Park and Box Creek Reservoir, which could hold between 20,000 and 60,000 acre-feet on private land on the south flank of Mt. Elbert.
“Any participation in the permitting processes by the West Slope Parties will not seek to prevent the project in its entirety and comments or requests may be raised only for the purpose of addressing water related impacts caused directly by either of the two above specified projects on the West Slope,” the draft agreement between Aurora and the West Slope says.
The concession from the West Slope is significant as Box Creek Reservoir will be able to store water from the West Slope.
The West Slope entities also agree not to oppose changes in diversion points tied to the Homestake transmountain diversion system in the Eagle River Basin, not to oppose Aurora’s efforts to repair the Ivanhoe Tunnel, which is also called the Carlton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built as a railroad tunnel, and then used as a highway tunnel.
Finally, the parties to the deal have agreed, in what’s called a “diligence detente,” not to challenge in water court for 15 years a list of conditional water rights, held by both East Slope and West Slope entities, that are required to periodically file due-diligence applications with the state.
The list of conditional water rights includes rights held by Aurora tied to the Homestake project and rights by the Southeastern Water Conservancy District tied to the Fry-Ark Project. They also include rights held by the Colorado River District on a number of West Slope water projects, including the potential Iron Mountain Reservoir near Redcliff and the Wolcott Reservoir near Wolcott.
Notably, the agreement does not include provisions to legally shepherd the water from the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system all the way to the confluence of Maroon Creek, so it’s possible that diverters on the river near Aspen, such as the Salvation Ditch, could pick up the water left in the river.
However, Ely said the county will seek cooperation from diverters on the river near Aspen.
“We’ve had some conversations with water users on this side of the hill, and we’ve had conversations with the Division 5 engineer’s office, and we’re hopeful that when the water is being bypassed and put in the river and there is an increase of flow, folks won’t take advantage of that and we’ll be able to get it down through Aspen,” Ely said. “And eventually, you know things will change, and we hope to have that water associated with its own water right, so we can call it further down, but that won’t be the case right away.”
An additional benefit to the deal, according to Ely, is that the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool of water from Aurora may also lead to better management of a 3,000 acre-foot pool of water also available in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.
That pool was created to mitigate the impacts to the Roaring Fork River from diversions by the Fry-Ark Project on Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks, which drain into the Fork in central Aspen. And while Twin Lakes releases the water down the Roaring Fork, releases from the Fry-Ark Project replace the water in Twin Lakes Reservoir, where both transbasin diversion systems can send water.
For years, the water from the 3,000 acre-foot pool has been released at a rate of 3 cfs on a year-round basis and has not been timed to help bolster low-season flows. Now, given the greater cooperation over the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool from Aurora, how the 3,000 acre-foot pool from Fry-Ark is managed may also change, to the benefit of the river.
Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times. The Times ran a shorter version of this story on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Each year the Forum Board of Directors recruits a new host community within the Basin to help plan the Forum. This tradition ensures that the Forum broadens relationships throughout the Arkansas Basin, which is spatially the largest river basin in Colorado covering 27% of the State’s area (28,268 sq. mi.). Our goal has been to have the location of the Forum move annually within the Basin.
H2O Radio interviewed Glenn and Kim Schryver, the caretakers of Grizzly Reservoir, just east of Aspen, who access their home through a 4-mile water tunnel under the Continental Divide. Full story: http://h2oradio.org/TwinLakesTunnel.html
The first batch of semen and eggs have been harvested from 158 unique cutthroat trout that now thrive the Roaring Judy Hatchery in Gunnison.
They lived near Canon City a year ago.
In July of 2016, The Hayden Pass Fire started from a lightning strike. In days, with the help of strong winds and dry conditions, it evolved into a 26-square-mile event that forced the evacuation of 140 homes…
Workers from Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the United States Forest Service made what was called “a desperate dash” to Hayden Creek. They waded into the water, temporarily immobilized the fish with a small electric shock, and netted them.
Nearly 200 fish were caught.
They may be the last survivors of a specific species of cutthroat first discovered in the late 1800s.
Ichthyologist David Starr Jordan collected a pair of trout specimens in 1889 from Twin Lakes, near Leadville, according to the CPW. Today, those specimens reside at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
In 1996, CPW biologists discovered the Hayden Creek cutthroat contain unique genes matching those of the museum specimens.
Of the nearly 200 trout rescued from the creek, 36 were sent to Newlin Creek near Canon City in hopes they would reproduce naturally.
The other 158 were taken to the Roaring Judy Hatchery where, June 12th, spawning operators began.
Seth Firestone, hatchery manager, said roe was stripped from 10 female cutthroat and mixed with milt from 10 males the first day. Action continued June 19 and the staff is hopeful for more success the week of June 26…
Water management issues on the East Slope mean that the Roaring Fork River will continue to experience natural flows unaltered by diversions beneath the Continental Divide for another week to 10 days, a Pitkin County official said on Wednesday.
On June 14, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. ceased transbasin diversions from Grizzly Reservoir to the South Fork of Lake Creek, which in the weeks prior had been running at about 600 cubic feet per second. With that additional water going down the Roaring Fork toward Aspen, water levels spiked dramatically, from around 300 cfs above Difficult Creek on June 14 to 800 cfs by June 16. The river appears to have peaked at 1,200 cfs above Difficult Creek on Monday.
When the Fork is flowing near or above 1,000 cfs upstream of Aspen, water overtops the banks as the river meanders through the North Star Nature Preserve, creating what some are calling Lake North Star. Boaters this week have been able to float over what is normally acres of grassland between the highway and the foot of Aspen Mountain.
While Lake North Star has been drawing more boaters, higher flows throughout the basin have officials calling on the recreating public to take extreme caution whenever they are in or around rivers.
FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
Water levels on the Roaring Fork River are expected to rise next week as Twin Lakes Reservoir reaches capacity.
Officials at the Twin Lakes Canal Company expect the reservoir to fill between Tuesday and Thursday next week. That means that the 625 cubic feet per second of water that is typically diverted to the Front Range through a tunnel on Independence Pass will instead flow down the Roaring Fork River.
That, in addition to peaking snowmelt, means flows on the river could nearly triple next week. It is expected that the North Star Nature Preserve will flood. This is healthy for the wetlands.
Officials at the Bureau of Reclamation said releases from Ruedi Reservoir into the Fryingpan River will decrease over the weekend. This reduces the risk of flooding at the confluence of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork in Basalt. Ruedi Reservoir is about 80 percent full.
Medano Creek is now approaching what’s called “surge flow,” a phenomenon where creek water flows in waves across the sand.
The combination of a sufficiently steep channel, a sandy creek bottom and plenty of flowing water only exists in a few places on Earth, according to the spokesperson, “and Medano Creek is considered the best place in the world to experience surge flow!”
Because of the unusually cold and wet conditions in May, peak flow is occurring a little later than average this year, the spokesperson said.
You can follow detailed creek conditions and forecast flow on the National Park Service website.
The video below, courtesy of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, shows you exactly what happens during surge flow:
ASPEN – The unnatural order of things was restored Tuesday as the Twin Lakes Tunnel began diverting water to the east again from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, after having been closed for two weeks.
The tunnel was closed temporarily after constraints in water rights required that it stop diverting from the Fork, Lost Man and Lincoln creeks, and other tributaries in the headwaters.
The tunnel under the Continental Divide had been diverting about 620 cubic feet per second (cfs) before diversions were stepped down over a three-day period from June 14 to 16, when the tunnel closed.
The reintroduced native flows down the Fork and Lincoln Creek added noticeable intensity to the river as it made its way through the Grottos, Stillwater and Slaughterhouse reaches near Aspen.
One of the constraints on the legal rights of the tunnel is that when the Colorado Canal in Ordway can divert freely because there is plenty of water in the lower Arkansas River, it cannot demand water from the Roaring Fork.
But the spring runoff has slowed, pinching the supply of water available to the canal from the Arkansas. As such, it can now legally call for water from the Roaring Fork.
“The Colorado Canal is being called out, so we can start diverting the tunnel under the direct flow portion of the right,” wrote Kevin Lusk, the president of the board of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a principal engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, in an email Tuesday.
The other constraint was that the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. had filled its storage allotment of 54,452 acre-feet of water in Twin Lakes Reservoir.
With that “bucket” filled, and the Colorado Canal still in priority, the tunnel had to be closed.
Not all of the water diverted from the Fork’s headwaters goes to the Colorado Canal, however, as the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, of which the Twin Lakes Tunnel is the key component, now also helps meet water needs in several Front Range cities.
The diversion system is technically owned by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which is based in Ordway. But Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, and Pueblo own almost all of the shares in the company.
On Tuesday, the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which begins at Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, was opened back up and about 200 cubic feet per second began flowing east, primarily from Lincoln Creek and the creeks in Brooklyn, New York, and Tabor gulches.
In response, levels in the Roaring Fork River near Aspen fell sharply.
The river at Difficult Campground, for example, was flowing at 390 cfs at 6 a.m., Tuesday morning, but had fallen to 244 cfs by 8 p.m.
And the measuring gauge on Stillwater Drive, just below the North Star Nature Preserve, showed the river flowing there at 510 cfs at 6 a.m. and at 311 cfs by 8 p.m.
On Wednesday, Lusk said that new calls for water from various shareholders in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. mean that water from Lost Man Creek and the main stem of the Fork would soon be added to the flow of water being sent east through the tunnel.
Lusk said he expected the tunnel to continue diverting water through the summer.
This marked the second year in a row the Twin Lakes Tunnel was forced to cease diverting due to wet conditions on the east side of the pass.
During most of the time the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed, diversions continued to flow as usual through the Bousted Tunnel, which sends water east from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, as well as from Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks near Aspen.
Around 800 cfs has been flowing through the Bousted Tunnel for most of June.
And according to the Pueblo Chieftain, the total diversion from the Fry-Ark project so far this year is about 51,000 acre-feet of water.
Add that to the approximately 25,000 acre-feet diverted so far by Twin Lakes, and it means about 76,000 acre-feet has been diverted from the Roaring Fork River watershed so far this year, not counting what may have been sent through the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel, which also diverts from the upper Fryingpan.
Ruedi Reservoir, by comparison, can hold 102,373 acre-feet.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and waters. The Daily News published a version of this story on Thursday, July 30, 2016.
ASPEN – For the second time in two years the native flows to the upper Roaring Fork River have been restored as the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. has had to curtail its diversions and close the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which since June 6 had been moving 600-plus cubic feet per second of water under the Continental Divide.
After the tunnel was closed Thursday afternoon and the upper Roaring Fork River had regained the natural flow of its two biggest tributaries – Lost Man and Lincoln creeks – the river bounded down the slick granite in the Grottos area and erupted in a frenzy of churning whitewater.
The Grottos on June 13, and on June 16
Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. began diverting the headwaters of the Roaring Fork in earnest this year in late May. It ramped up diversions through the Twin Lakes Tunnel to above 600 cfs on June 6 and kept them in the 610 cfs to 620 cfs range until Tuesday, June 14, when the diversions in the tunnel were reduced by about half.
By Wednesday, flows in the tunnel were around 250 cfs and were turned down to a trickle of 4 cfs by Thursday afternoon.
Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. first reduced the flow of water to the tunnel on Tuesday by letting the natural flow of Lost Man Creek run into the Roaring Fork River again, instead of diverting it to the entrance to the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which begins at Grizzly Reservoir.
The flows of Lost Man Creek added about 250 cfs into the main stem of the upper Fork as it ran past Lost Man campground.
Then on Thursday afternoon, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. took the next step and closed the tunnel. That sent another 200 cfs or so down lower Lincoln Creek, which runs into the Fork just above the Grottos.
Just after 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Lincoln Creek quickly went from a clear and docile stream that could be easily walked across to a turbid river flowing strong enough to lift a man off his feet.
Lincoln Creek, before and after
The 4-mile long Twin Lakes Tunnel is now expected to remain closed for two to three weeks and the recent hot weather may keep the water rising in the Fork as the last of the high elevation snowpack comes off.
On Friday, a cold and swiftly moving Roaring Fork had risen above its banks in portions of the North Star Nature Preserve, flooding some areas but not to the extent of the high water in June 2015.
Last year on June 18 the Fork reached a peak flow of 1,680 cfs, as recorded by the gauge “Roaring Fork River Near Aspen, CO,” located at Stillwater Drive just east of Aspen proper.
Yesterday at 4:30 p.m., as the tunnel was closed, the Fork at Stillwater was flowing at 597 cfs.
But by midnight, with the strong flow from Lincoln Creek added, the Fork had climbed to 817 cfs.
It then hit a high of 927 cfs at 7:45 a.m. on Friday morning, before falling back to 857 cfs by 2:30 p.m. Friday.
By midday Friday, the swelling river was licking the porch of a small cabin on the banks of the Fork in the Stillwater section, but unlike last year, it had not yet flooded the inside of the cabin and a nearby art studio.
The river, however, had risen high enough to flood portions of the North Star Nature Preserve and other land along the river. So far, the high water had not produced flooding in scale with the dramatic size of last year’s “Lake North Star.”
Turn Tunnel Off
The Twin Lakes Tunnel is the key component of the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which was constructed in the 1930s and is owned and operated by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
Notably, the company does not own and operate Twin Lakes Reservoir, as it sold the reservoir on the east side of Independence Pass to the Bureau of Reclamation and the reservoir is now managed as part of the Fry-Ark project.
The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., did, however, retain the right to store 54,452 acre-feet in Twin Lakes Reservoir, which can hold a total of 147,500 acre-feet, or about a third again more than Ruedi Reservoir.
But under its water rights, after Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. reaches its storage allotment in Twin Lakes Reservoir as it did this week, it has to stop diverting if the Colorado Canal can still divert 756 cfs directly from the lower Arkansas River.
It’s rare that two of the constraints in the water rights held by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. overlap and it has to stop diverting West Slope water, but it happened last year and again this year.
And both times were a reflection of the high levels of water in the lower Arkansas River basin.
If flows in the lower Arkansas drop, then the Colorado Canal will likely be called out by a senior diverter and Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. can again divert water from the headwaters of the upper Roaring Fork and send it directly to the canal.
The Colorado Canal is near Ordway, CO, where Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is based. Most of the shares in the company are owned by Front Range cities, which receive the majority of the water normally diverted from the upper Roaring Fork.
ASPEN – On Tuesday, June 14 the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. turned out the flow of Lost Man Creek into the main stem of the Roaring Fork River, instead of sending it under the Continental Divide to Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Lost Man Creek is a major tributary of the upper Roaring Fork River and nearly its entire flow is typically diverted through the Twin Lakes Tunnel.
The creek flows out of sweeping high country valley and runs into Lost Man Reservoir. It’s then diverted into a canal and dumps into the main stem of the Roaring Fork River behind a dam.
That dam doesn’t form a reservoir, but instead diverts water from both Lost Man Creek and the Fork into a tunnel under Green Mountain and then, after another stretch of canal, into Grizzly Reservoir.
Once water from Lost Man Creek and the main stem of the Roaring Fork reaches Grizzly Reservoir it joins water from Lincoln, New York, Brooklyn and Tabor creeks and normally flows into the Twin Lakes Tunnel. The water in the tunnel daylights into Lake Creek and flows down to Twin Lakes Reservoir in Twin Lakes, Colorado.
From Twin Lakes Reservoir, all of the water collected and diverted by what’s officially known as the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System is sent to Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, Pueblo and fields in the lower Arkansas River basin.
But due to constraints in its water rights, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is being forced to curtail its diversions from the Indy Pass system, which means in all, 600 cfs of native flows will be turned out Wednesday and will flow either into the main stem of the Fork or upper Lincoln Creek, which flows into the Fork just above the Grottos.
On Tuesday, just flows from Lost Man Creek and the Fork were turned out from the diversion system, adding about 250 cfs to the Fork as it flowed past Lost Man Campground.
On Wednesday, the flows from the Lincoln Creek side of the system will be added to the released native flow of water heading downstream toward Aspen.
The Twin Lakes Tunnel, which has been diverting over 600 cfs since June 6, is set to be closed at noon Wednesday, according to Kevin Lusk, the president of the board of Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a senior engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns 55 percent of the water diverted from the upper Fork.
The Twin Lakes Tunnel is expected to be closed for two to three week and the return of native flows to the Fork – for the second year in a row – may flood the North Star Nature Preserve and create what some locals called “Lake North Star.”
Last year, when the Twin Lakes Tunnel closed, the Fork peaked at the “Roaring Fork Near Aspen” gauge at 1,680s cfs on June 18.
Tuesday evening, flows in the Fork at “Roaring Fork Near Aspen” gauge, at Stillwater Drive, were at 640 cfs, up from 400 cfs before the flow of Lost Man Creek was returned to the Fork.
With the addition of Wednesday of about 350 cfs coming down Lincoln Creek, the flows at Stillwater Dr. could reach the 1,000 cfs range. The Fork, at its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, was flowing at 4,150 cfs on Tuesday night.
Hot and sunny weather expected over the next week in the Aspen area will also likely drive up the flow in the river.
Park Rangers were enforcing and informing visitors of the tubing and swimming restriction along Clear Creek on Saturday.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office announced the restriction on Thursday, citing dangerous conditions because of high water.
These temporary restrictions apply to Clear Creek in unincorporated Jefferson County, as well as those portions of Clear Creek within the City of Golden, including Vanover Park.
Colorado’s Own Channel 2 spotted two people with tubes ready to hop in the water were stopped short by onlookers who informed them tubing was restricted.
Water activities prohibited by the order include all single-chambered air inflated devices such as belly boats, inner tubes, and single chambered rafts, as well as “body-surfers” and swimming.
Kayaks, paddle boards, whitewater canoes and multi-chambered professionally guided rafts and river boards are exempt, but are encouraged to observe extreme caution due to the safety concerns surrounding swift moving water and floating debris.
Authorities said the water of the Arkansas River where the rescue happened [ed. 3 young people rescued from the Arkansas River Tuesday, June 7] was flowing fairly fast. Earlier in the day, it was measured at 4,300 cubic feet per second — fast but not unusual during the annual spring runoff.
Rapids on the Roaring Fork River are expected to peak this weekend, said Aspen Fire Department Chief Rick Balentine, citing information from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Balentine said the currents are “dangerously high” now and cautioned those on the water to wear some form of safety flotation device.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88 percent of people who drown in boating accidents are not wearing a life vest, Balentine said.
He cited another Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stat noting alcohol is a factor in 70 percent of water-recreation accidents.
“These are pretty stark facts,” Balentine said. “If you see somebody about to do something stupid, say something…
On Thursday, the river flow hit around 1,640 cubic feet per second, Ingram said.
River officials often draw a parallel between one cubic feet per second and one basketball — meaning 1,640 cubic feet per second is the equivalent to about 1,640 basketballs rushing down a river at once.
Ingram expects the Slaughterhouse area, one of the faster, more thrilling sections of the river, to reach between 1,800 and 2,200 cfs this weekend.
The National Weather Service in Denver extended a flood advisory for the Poudre in Larimer County and Weld County. The river isn’t projected to reach flood stage through early next week, but residents can expect minor flooding of low-lying areas along the river, according to the advisory.
South Platte River Basin snowpack sat at 194 percent of its historical average on Friday morning and was even higher earlier this week thanks to remnants from spring snows. That’s significant for the Poudre, which is fed by mountain snowpack in addition to water from the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
As temperatures soar into the 90s this weekend, snowmelt will push the river to 6.7 feet at the canyon mouth by Sunday morning, the advisory said. Flood stage is 7.5 feet, and the river stood at 6.2 feet Friday morning.
At 6 feet, water covers the bike path and trail along the river in and near Fort Collins.
Colorado has twice as much snowpack than normal for this time of year, according to the latest snowpack report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cool, wet weather in May contributed to the exceptional water supply Colorado appears to have heading into the summer. According to the report, as of June 6, the state was at 201 percent of the average for snowpack, compared to last year’s 95 percent.
“This should be a good year waterwise for cities and for farmers; that’s the bottom line,” said Brian Werner of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
The fact that snow is still visible in the mountains at this time of year means the runoff should last longer than it usually does, which in turn means less water will be pulled from reservoir storage later in the year, he said.
And the snowpack is especially good in the northern Colorado area. The majority of remaining snowpack in Colorado exists in the northern mountains, especially in watersheds such as the South Platte and Upper Colorado, which are above 10,000 feet.
As of June 6, both river basins that feed into northern Colorado — the Upper Colorado River Basin and the South Platte River Basin — were above 200 percent of the median snowpack.
As for reservoir storage, the state is currently at 108 percent of average, according to the June 1 update from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is exactly where the state was last year, as well.
The Upper Colorado River Basin is at 110 percent of average for reservoir storage and the South Platte River Basin is at 112 percent of the average.
Werner said the Colorado-Big Thompson project is 20 percent above normal, which is promising at this point in the year. The Colorado-Big Thompson project is a series of reservoirs, pipelines, diversions and ditches that provides water to municipalities, farmers and other water users throughout northeastern Colorado.
Werner said going into summer, farmers and cities should be in good shape if nothing drastic occurs within the upcoming months.
“We shouldn’t have any major water worries this year,” he said.
ASPEN (Brent Gardner-Smith) – The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. has alerted Pitkin County officials that it soon intends to stop diverting about 600 cubic feet per second of water through the Twin Lakes Tunnel near Independence Pass.
The non-diversion of water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which could begin by midweek and last up to three weeks, could double forecasted flows in the Stillwater section of the Fork just east of Aspen, depending on weather and runoff levels. That may inundate the popular North Star Nature Preserve.
“We may see a couple of weeks or more where we are not taking anything through the tunnel, and hopefully that doesn’t cause too much flooding on that side,” said Kevin Lusk, a senior engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities and the president of the board of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
The Roaring Fork, as measured at Stillwater Drive east of Aspen on a federal gauge, was flowing in the 500-to-750 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) range on Friday.
Also on Friday, there was 618 cfs of water being diverted east through the Twin Lakes Tunnel and under the Continental Divide, bound for Front Range cities and fields near Ordway, in the lower Arkansas River basin.
Doubling the flow?
If Twin Lakes does turn off the diversion tunnel by midweek as expected, the Fork could be flowing in the 1,100-to-1,200 cfs range, instead of the 500-to-550 cfs range, as forecasted by the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
The current forecast, which assumes the Twin Lakes diversions are in place as usual, shows the Roaring Fork at Stillwater reaching a seasonal peak flow of 755 cfs today. Flows are then forecast to drop to the 500-to-550 cfs range by Wednesday. (The river actually beat the forecast and reached 773 cfs on Friday).
This would be the second straight year that Twin Lakes has stopped its diversions from the Roaring Fork headwaters due to plenty of water in the Arkansas basin.
Last year, Twin Lakes was diverting 528 cfs when it suddenly closed the tunnel on June 4.
A couple of days later, it diverted about 200 cfs for a brief time to try to reduce flooding of an old cabin along the river, and then, out of options, it left the tunnel closed until July 20.
Last year’s non-diversion of water by Twin Lakes helped push the Roaring Fork at Stillwater to a peak flow of 1,680 cfs on June 18.
The only minor damage caused in Pitkin County by last year’s high water was to the little cabin. And to the delight of paddlers on the Stillwater section of river, the high water also formed “Lake Northstar” on the North Star Nature Preserve.
It’s rare for Twin Lakes to stop diverting water, but it has constraints in its water-right decrees that can, in wet years, force it to stop moving water from the West Slope.
Twin Lakes operates what is formally known as the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. It gathers water from the Roaring Fork River and from Lost Man, Grizzly, Lincoln, New York, Brooklyn and Tabor creeks, and delivers the water to Grizzly Reservoir.
From Grizzly Reservoir, the water is sent through the 4-mile-long Twin Lakes Tunnel, under the Divide, into Lake Creek and down to Twin Lakes Reservoir, on the east side of Independence Pass.
The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is controlled by various municipal shareholders in the company, with Colorado Springs owning 55 percent of the shares, Pueblo 23 percent, Pueblo West 12 percent, and Aurora 5 percent. There are also other minority shareholders still using the water from the system for agriculture.
One constraint in Twin Lakes’ water rights, which date to 1936, is tied to the Colorado Canal, which diverts water from the lower Arkansas River under a relatively junior water right.
If the demands of the Colorado Canal can be met with “native” water from the Arkansas, then Twin Lakes cannot divert water from the West Slope to fill the canal.
This year, there is a lot of water running down the Arkansas, and so the canal does not need supplemental water from the West Slope, at least not yet.
The other water-right constraint relates to how much water Twin Lakes can legally store in Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Once Twin Lakes, the company, has stored 54,452 acre-feet of water in Twin Lakes, the reservoir, the company has to stop diverting water from the Roaring Fork basin for storage.
Normally by the time Twin Lakes has reached its storage limit, the flow in the lower Arkansas has dropped and the Colorado Canal gets called out by senior diverters, so Twin Lakes can send supplemental water to the canal, allowing the Twin Lakes Tunnel to divert all summer.
But due to this year’s weather and snowpack, the constraints on Twin Lakes’ water rights have again come together, forcing the tunnel to be turned off as soon as the storage limit is reached, especially as the weather forecast suggests runoff into the Arkansas will remain high.
If cool and wet weather were to materialize over the next few days, however, cit ould delay when Twin Lakes reaches its storage limit and has to stop diverting. It could be midweek, or it could be next week.
And how long the tunnel stays closed depends on a range of factors, Lusk said, including weather, flows into the Arkansas, and the operation of Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County emergency manager, said officials with Twin Lakes have done a much better job this year than last year in communicating about the likelihood of a non-diversion.
She also said local public safety officials are prepared to respond to high water and that concerned property owners can find information about flood readiness on the Pitkin County website.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch, are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Saturday, June 11, 2016.
The Independence Pass transmountain diversion system shut down for more than a month this year around the June peak runoff due to ample water supplies in the Arkansas River basin, only the fourth such time this has happened for these reasons since the 1930s.
Seeing rivers in this more-natural state has reinvigorated local interest in the health of the Roaring Fork watershed and how it is managed.
Recently, a group of more than two dozen interested locals and tourists met up at the Lost Man trailhead parking lot near Independence Pass to learn more about how water is diverted east from the watershed. The sold-out event was hosted by the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, and was led by both its employees and those of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which manages water flows through the transmountain diversion system…
Medved noted that there are 24 major diversion tunnels in Colorado, and two of the five largest are in the Roaring Fork watershed.
The fifth largest is the 3.85-mile-long Twin Lakes tunnel, which diverts water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River to the Arkansas River basin. It is a bit over nine feet wide and boring began in November of 1933, with the workers “holing out” in February 1935.
The Boustead Tunnel is the third-largest diversion tunnel and is located on the headwaters of the Fryingpan River. It stretches 5.5 miles, and empties into Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.
Scott Campbell, general manager of the nonprofit Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which is privately owned and based out of Ordway, has worked with water for about 40 years and explained that the Twin Lakes diversion was originally a supplemental water right in the 1930s. He added that when water from the Arkansas River was coming up short on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, Twin Lakes Reservoir water would help to fill the gap.
Each year, the transmountain diversion system collects water from the Roaring Fork River, as well as the Lost Man, Lincoln, Brooklyn, Tabor, New York and Grizzly creeks, and moves it through the Twin Lakes Tunnel into the Arkansas basin. From there much of it aids agricultural pursuits near Pueblo and Crowley counties…
The Twin Lakes Reservoir is owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. retains ownership of 54,452 acre-feet of space within to store water…
More storage on East Slope needed
When asked why Eastern Slope reservoirs aren’t being expanded to store more water, Campbell replied, “That’s a very good question.”
Alan Ward, water resources administrator for the Pueblo Board of Water Works, explained that many of the reservoirs on the Front Range are under federal purview, and changes would require an act of Congress.
“As it turns out, we’ve been trying to do that for almost 15 years,” he said. “It’s not easy to get Congress all together and actually passing legislation that would allow us to study the enlargement of that.”
Ward added that while some potential reservoir sites may be good from an engineering point of view, they don’t always make sense environmentally.
“It’s just a challenge to be able to find a spot that you can get permitted, that you can afford to build on, and that you can get permission to build on, if it requires an act of Congress,” he said. “But something I think is very much in the forefront of the minds of water planners on the East Slope, is where and how can we build more storage to be able to better manage the limited supply [of water] we have.”
Into the Styx
Following a bumpy Jeep ride up Lincoln Creek, care of Blazing Adventures, to see the opposite end of the tunnel through Green Mountain, Campbell concluded the tour by leading people on a subterranean descent into the Twin Lakes Tunnel.
The concrete “road” dropped down quickly into the darkness, and constant seepage water dripped from above, creating the feeling of being caught in an underground monsoon.
Campbell noted that the site’s caretakers, Kim and Glenn Schryver, use the underground route in the winter to reach the outside world while Independence Pass is buried under the snowpack.
He explained that the workers boring the tunnel converged on each other from either side and averaged just under 50 feet in progress a day. When they met up, the holes were six inches apart, Campbell said, adding that the route was determined with a line of mirrors shot over Independence Mountain.
In Otero County, the corn is knee-high, the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes are almost ready to pick and the onions, tomatoes, sugar beets and wheat are thriving in the fields.
But on the north side of the Arkansas River, over in nearby Crowley County, the landscape looks very different. The only bumper crops are “noxious and obnoxious weeds,” according to a county commissioner. This is what happens when a county sells its water rights.
As did many communities this year, the southeastern Colorado county had what locals are calling a “Miracle May.” Rainfall in that single month was just a couple inches shy of what the county gets, in total, most years. For the first time in recent years, Lake Meredith will have enough water for fish to survive and maybe even generate a little tourism from anglers.
Still, it wasn’t enough to resuscitate the once-thriving agricultural industry nor to save the county’s last remaining feedlot, which is scheduled to go up for bankruptcy auction later this month.
Water experts say Crowley is a parable for how bad things can get when cities and industry dry up farmland to buy rural water — a controversial practice known as “buy and dry” deals.
But the county’s dry landscape could change if, as proposed by a group of water users representing the Arkansas River basin, the state’s water plan includes a blueprint for bringing water back to the county.
How Crowley County dried up
Water, and the agriculture industry that followed, didn’t come naturally to Crowley County.
The county was formed in 1911 out of a portion of northern Otero County – named in honor of state Sen. John H. Crowley, who represented the area at that time. The county is bordered on the south by the Arkansas River.
But the river wasn’t enough to irrigate local farms. The first irrigation systems came in through the Colorado Canal in the 1890s. In the 1920s, the state built a tunnel through the mountains to deliver water from the Roaring Fork River on the Western Slope and into a new reservoir at Twin Lakes, near Leadville. Crowley County farmers paid for the reservoir.
The county had its agricultural heyday before the dustbowl of the 1930s, but even after that farmers prospered.
Attached to Sweetness, a history of the county’s tiny town Sugar City, published in the 1980s, states “water created a Garden of Eden.”
The county easily rivaled its neighbors on crop production. It was known for tomatoes, onions, corn and wheat. It had two major feedlots for native Colorado cattle, and a sugar factory for processing sugar beets. And it was famous for cantaloupe. The juicy melons, known as Sugar City nuggets, were a “pink beauty,” according to Attached to Sweetness.
In the 1970s, more than 50,000 acres were irrigated in Crowley County.
But Crowley’s shares in the Twin Lakes reservoir earned it attention from thirsty Front Range cities.
In the late 1960s, with crops and cattle prices in decline, farmers and ranchers in Crowley County started thinking about selling their water rights. Some wanted to get out of agriculture. Others were ready to retire, and farmland was their 401(k).
In 1972, the Foxley Cattle Company bought water rights from farmers and ranchers all over the county. For a couple of years, that land stayed in agriculture and continued to be irrigated.
Then came the Crowley County Land and Development Company, which bought more water rights — both from Foxley and directly from farmers and ranchers willing to sell at the right price. CLADCO sold those water rights to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West and Aurora to quench those communities’ sprawl.
According to the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, municipal and industrial users now own 90 percent of the water stored in Twin Lakes.
The terms of the water sales included a requirement that municipalities revegetate the fallowed farms and ranches to restore the county’s natural prairie grasslands. But several current and former residents say the contractors did a poor job of re-seeding the prairie grass, and it quickly died.
A county that once had more than 50,000 irrigated acres now has only about 5,000. In the drought of 2012, the number dropped to 2,500.
Even the few remaining farmers with water rights are not guaranteed water in a year when there is not enough to go around.
Asked if Crowley is still an agricultural county, County Commissioner Frank Grant paused, and then said, “Yes. We still have cattle.”
But according to one lifelong resident, it’s mostly dairy stock, not valuable cattle that can be sold for beef.
The prisons of Crowley County
With dwindling agriculture, the county had to find another industry for its economic base. It turned to prisons.
There are two in Crowley County: the state-run Arkansas Valley Correctional Center, just outside the town of Crowley; and a private prison operated by Corrections Corporations of America near Olney Springs.
The county’s most recent property tax revenues totalled about $1.6 million – more than half of which came from the private prison.
The most recent census in 2012 counted more than 5,823 “residents” in Crowley County, but 46 percent of them are prison inmates.
Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh said that outside of the prison numbers, the county’s population has declined at about the same rate as its neighboring counties – about 1 percent per year.
The prisons have brought jobs, but not necessarily to Crowley County. Most of the prisons’ workers live in nearby counties or in Pueblo or Colorado Springs.
Commissioners Grant and Allumbaugh attribute the lack of interest in living in the county to a housing shortage. Most of the homes are small, old and asbestos-laden. It’s too expensive to tear the houses down because they would need asbestos mitigation. No one is showing any interest in building homes in the county, either, they said.
While the CCA taxes contribute to the county coffers, prisons haven’t helped businesses survive in Ordway and other communities.
Ordway, the county seat, has a population of just over 1,000. There are a few businesses on the town’s Main Street – mostly county and town government offices – an insurance company, grocery store, pharmacy, the reservoir and canal company offices, a couple of medical facilities and Chubbuck Motor, the local Ford dealer. The nearest farm tractor dealer, John Deere, is in Otero County.
Mostly, buildings along Main Street are for sale or appear to be abandoned.
Darla Wyeno, clerk for the town of Crowley, was one of those who sold water rights to the big cities. She and her husband have 120 acres on which they used to grow onions, tomatoes and melons. Today, they graze cattle on their land. She says life might have been different if the cities that bought their water had done a better job of re-seeding their land with prairie grass.
The loss of water hasn’t been all bad, she said. Their son went to college on the earnings they made from the water deal. He’s now a successful banker in Colorado Springs. Her husband has an off-farm job, and both their careers mean two steady paychecks every month instead of one uncertain one at the end of the year when they cashed in their crops.
Still, Wyeno adds, “When we sold our water, we sold our future.”
Local residents now fight the rampant dust every day, never realizing that would be the impact of losing their water. Bees won’t come to Crowley; it’s too far a flight. The hay fields today have to be pollinated with bees rented from outside the county.
State water plan may hold promise for the county
The state water plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper two years ago, incorporates suggestions made by roundtable groups in each of Colorado’s nine river basins. The roundtables include representatives from agriculture, municipal water providers, industrial users, environmental and recreational interests and those who own water rights.
Under Colorado’s complex web of water laws, once water has been removed from the land through the purchase of a water right, it cannot be returned. It’s gone for good.
But that isn’t stopping the Arkansas Basin roundtable from trying to find ways to get water flowing back into Crowley County.
The roundtable suggests that the county should acquire water rights to maintain permanent water levels in its two major lakes: Lake Meredith and Lake Henry. Inconsistent levels have resulted in loss of fish, blowing dust and bad odors in both lakes, according to the basin’s recommendations.
Allumbaugh says replenishing the lakes could help the county become a tourist destination, although getting the water to a stable level is just one part of the solution.
Two more recommendations seek water rights for municipal, industrial and agricultural needs.
The roundtable’s recommendations don’t specify where that water will come from.
Engineer Rick Kidd represents Crowley County on the Arkansas basin roundtable. He says the group firmly supports any efforts to get and keep water rights in the Arkansas River valley.
Grant says what has gone down in Crowley County – which he has called home for the last 36 years – is pretty typical of rural communities all across the state.
“It just happened here sooner,” he says. “The water sales got us.”
“We have more water in our system than we’ve ever had since we’ve been recording,” Aurora Water Resources Management Advisor Joe Stibrich told congressional aides, city council members, city staff and Aurora residents on a tour of the city’s vast water distribution system last week. “We hit 99 percent of our storage capacity about a week ago.”
In total, Aurora Water has more than 156,000 acre-feet of water storage, which could supply the city with years of emergency supply in case of a drought.
The city gets water from three river basins. Half of the city’s water comes from the South Platte River Basin, a quarter comes from the snow melt flows from Colorado River Basin, and a quarter from the Arkansas River Basin.
But Aurora was not always a municipal water powerhouse.
In 2003, Aurora’s water supply level was at 26 percent capacity, the lowest in the city’s history. The idea for the at-the-time innovative Prairie Waters Project came about in the wake of that severe drought.
The $653-million Prairie Waters Project increased Aurora’s water supply by 20 percent when it was completed, and today provides the city with an additional 3.3 billion gallons of water per year.
The entire system pumps water from wells near Brighton, where it’s then piped into a man-made basin and filtered through sand and gravel. From there, the water is then piped 34 miles through three pumping stations to the Binney Water Purification Facility near Aurora Reservoir, where it’s softened and exposed to high-intensity ultraviolet light. The water is then filtered through coal to remove remaining impurities.
“It’s the crown jewel of our system,” said Stibrich during the tour. “Prairie Waters almost creates a fourth basin for us.”
But even before Prairie Waters, the first “crown jewel” project that allowed Aurora to grow and become the state’s third-largest city, was the one that allowed Aurora to cut most of its water ties with Denver.
Throughout the 1900s and into the 1960s, Aurora relied on the Denver Water Board for its supply. But the partnership between the neighboring cities grew contentious when, in the 1950s, Denver Water imposed lawn watering restrictions on a booming metropolitan area. Part of those restrictions included a “blue line” that prevented some Aurora suburbs from getting permits for new tap water fees.
In 1958, Aurora partnered with Colorado Springs to construct the Homestake Project, located in southern Eagle County in the Colorado River basin. The project was designed to use water rights purchased on the Western Slope that could supply the two cities.
For nearly a decade after the project was conceived, it was mired in legal battles with Denver and Western Slope entities. The first phase of the dam wasn’t even completed until 1967. In the 1980s, Aurora and Colorado Springs unsuccessfully attempted to expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness area as part of a phase two plan.
The issue to this day is divisive, said Diane Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District during the city’s tour of the reservoir.
“For people to think we might be having some other dam up here and impacting their access to wilderness is an emotional issue,” she said.
It was a memorandum of understanding created in 1998 between Eagle County and the two Front Range cities that identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River basin to be divided into thirds between the three entities that helped alleviate tensions and put the project back on track.
Today Homestake Reservoir provides Aurora with 25 percent of its water, and Aurora Water officials are looking at various ways to expand their storage to satisfy the Eagle River MOU.
One idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Aurora Water officials said the issue with that plan is having to relocate the winding Homestake Road to a portion of the Holy Cross wilderness to accommodate it. Another alternative, which Aurora Water officials said they prefer, is to create a holding facility called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from a former World War II military site known as Camp Hale. From the holding facility, water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir.
Aurora Water officials are still working through the various politics of the alternatives, and repeatedly emphasized during the tour that there is no “silver bullet’ when it comes to water storage.
From Homestake, water travels east through the Continental Divide and tunnel where it’s sent to Turquoise Lake, then to Twin Lakes Reservoir near Leadville.
Aurora only owns the rights to a limited amount of storage in Twin Lakes, and that water has to be continuously lifted 750 feet via the Otero Pump Station to enter a 66-inch pipeline that leads to the Front Range.
The Otero Pump station — located on the Arkansas River about eight miles northwest of Buena Vista — is another impressive facet of Aurora’s vast water system, and the last stop on Aurora’s water journey before it is delivered to the Spinney Mountain Reservoir in South Park. With the ability to pump 118 million gallons per day, Otero provides half of Aurora’s and 70 percent of Colorado Springs’ drinking water, delivered from both the Colorado and Arkansas basins to the South Platte River Basin.
Tom Vidmar, who has served as the caretaker at Homestake for nearly 30 years and lives right next to the pump station, said the biggest issue facing Aurora’s water system is storage.
“We actually spilled water out of Homestake this year and didn’t collect (the) full amount we were eligible to take, simply because the reservoirs are at capacity,” Vidmar said during a tour of the massive pump facility. He said the electricity costs alone for Aurora to pump the water add up to around $450,000 a month.
A project Aurora Water officials hope to see come to fruition in 15 years is turning land the city purchased at Box Creek north of Twin Lakes in Lake County into additional storage space so water can be pumped more efficiently through Otero.
“Box Creek is an important project. It gives us more breathing room,” said Rich Vidmar, who is Tom Vidmar’s son and an engineer with Aurora Water, during the tour. “As we look at storage and where to develop storage, right now we’re looking at spots where we have chokepoints in our system where we’re not able to operate perfectly to get as much water as possible.”
Just as the state anticipates that its population of 5 million will double by 2050, so does Aurora — and storage will be key to providing water for a city that could potentially grow to more than 600,000 residents in the coming decades.
But the mountains aren’t the only place where Aurora hopes to expand its reservoirs. The city also is looking to expand Aurora Reservoir even further east.
At a July study session, Aurora Water Officials described a feasibility study being conducted to determine just how much water Aurora could store at a future reservoir, which would sit on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range.
As my raft floated under the railroad bridge at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers last week, I was wondering just how much water would flow out of the Fork and into the Colorado this year.
Certainly less than average, given that the snowpack peaked in March and began melting off, I mused, taking a stroke to catch the big eddy that forms just shy of the mighty Colorado, where the Fork comes in across from Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs after draining 1,543 square miles of land.
Perhaps the wet and cold weather of late April and much of May will continue to forestall a sudden flash of melting snow, so what snow we still have in the high country will come off in a nice steady fashion.
But spinning around the eddy, I knew how easy it was, as a boater, to be wrong about water and weather. It is also, as it turns out, a tricky time of year for professional hydrologists to predict run-off, as data from low-elevation snow-measuring sites tapers off and daily weather conditions can play a big role in shaping how much water flows, and when it does.
In mid-March, which felt like summer already, a trip on the Green River starting April 12 seemed like a good bet this year to enjoy some warm weather. But a big storm swept in that week and blasted the river with freezing rain.
The same storm laid down 11 inches of snow on Aspen Mountain by Friday, April 17, making for a memorable closing weekend for some.
After warming up from that trip, I ventured optimistically out again during the first full week of May, this time on the Colorado River west of Loma. And I was soon engulfed in the downpours of May 5 and 6 that lead to river levels across the region jumping up.
Between May 5 and May 7, for example, the flow in the lower Fork doubled from a 1,000 cubic feet per second to over 2,000 cfs.
So when I went out on May 13 for my first trip of the season down the Roaring Fork from Carbondale to Glenwood, I wasn’t surprised that it started raining. It’s just been that kind of season so far — in fact, through May 19, total precipitation in the Roaring Fork River watershed was 204 percent, or double the normal amount of precipitation. according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
But the Fork was flowing that day at 1,110 cubic feet per second, which was enough water to have a perfectly nice float, especially as I did see some sun (and some red-wing blackbirds).
But will the river get much bigger this year, I wondered as I rowed toward Glenwood.
Below average flows
The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City forecast on May 19 that the Roaring Fork will most likely peak this year in mid- to late June at 4,300 cfs, as measured at Veltus Park, just above the Fork’s confluence with the Colorado.
That’s 73 percent of the Fork’s average annual peak of 5,920 cfs, which typically occurs between May 29 and June 23.
While this year’s likely peak flow of 4,300 cfs is certainly better than the lowest peak flow on record — 1,870 cfs on June 3, 2012 — it’s also way below the historic peak of 11,800 cfs on July 13 in 1995.
The forecast peak flow has increased given the cool and wet weather in May. So, if April showers bring May flowers, May showers are likely to bring better boating on the Fork in June.
“I would say it is very likely (the Roaring Fork) will see a below average peak flow this year,” said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist with the Forecast Center.
However, she added that what snowpack we do have “is in better shape than it was in 2002 and 2012, so I do not expect a record low peak.”
But just how much water comes, and when, is now weather dependent.
“Spring temperatures and precipitation play a significant role in the pattern of snowmelt runoff and consequently the magnitude of peak flows,” Alcorn said. “An extended period of much above normal temperatures or heavy rainfall during the melt period can cause higher than expected peaks, while cool weather can cause lower than expected peaks.”
On Friday, May 15, Julie Malingowsky, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the period to at least May 25 looked cooler and wetter than normal, and longer-range forecasts indicate that the next several months could be wetter than normal.
But probably not wet enough make up for the skinny snowpack.
“Even though it has been a wet month, we are still drier than normal,” Malingowsky said.
Below average supply
Another view of this year’s water picture is available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s “Colorado Water Supply Outlook Report,” which was published on May 1.
The report shows that the “most likely” amount of water to reach the bottom of the Roaring Fork between April and the end of July is 450,000 acre-feet, according to Brian Domonkos, a data collection officer with NRCS.
That’s below the 30-year average of 690,000 acre-feet flowing down the Fork for the period from April to August. (The Roaring Fork delivers, on average, 871,100 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River over a full year, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources).
The water-supply report said that current conditions point to “a below normal streamflow forecast picture for much of the state heading into spring and summer of 2015.”
However, Gus Goodbody, a forecast hydrologist with NRCS, said the amount of water expected to flow out of the Roaring Fork is likely to increase from the May 1 forecast by five to 10 percent, given May’s weather so far.
“It’s going to go up,” he said.
Another indicator of potential run-off is the measure of the “snow water equivalent” at SNOTEL measuring sites in the Roaring Fork basin.
That number — 108 percent — has been climbing steadily since May 1, but it’s not an indicator that the snowpack has been growing. What it does show is that the cool and wet weather has slowed the run-off and moved the data closer to the historic average — which, again, bodes well for June boating. But in addition to the snowpack and the weather, there are other factors that dictate the flows in the Fork at Glenwood Springs.
Off the top
An average of 40,600 acre-feet of water a year is collected from the upper Roaring Fork River basin and sent through a tunnel under Independence Pass and into Twin Lakes Reservoir, destined for Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West.
The Twin Lakes diversion takes 40 percent of the water out of the upper Roaring Fork basin above Aspen, according to the 2012 Roaring Fork Watershed Plan.
Another 61,500 acre-feet is collected on average each year from tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River and sent east through the Bousted and Busk tunnels. That accounts for 37 percent of the water in the upper Fryingpan headwaters.
As such, there are many days when there are rivers heading both east and west out of the Roaring Fork River watershed, and the ones heading east can often be bigger.
For example, on May 13, while I was floating on 1,110 cfs at the bottom of the Fork, there was 136 cfs of water running under the Continental Divide in the Twin Lakes — Independence Pass Tunnel, which can, and does, divert up to 625 cfs later in the runoff season.
And the Bousted Tunnel, which transports the water collected from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, as well as Hunter and Midway creeks in the Roaring Fork basin, was diverting 101 cfs on May 13.
Meanwhile, the gauge on Stillwater Drive on May 14 showed the main stem of the Fork was flowing, just east of Aspen, at 111 cfs.
Then there is the water diverted out of the rivers in the basin and into one of the many irrigation ditches along the Fork, the Crystal and other streams in the basin.
Ken Ransford, a member of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, estimates that the 12 biggest irrigation ditches on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers divert about 115,000 acre-feet of water a year.
Most of that water eventually finds its way back to the rivers, but the diversions also leave many stream reaches lower than they otherwise would be, and few tributaries are left untouched.
According to the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan, “flow-altered stream reaches include the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan, and Crystal rivers, as well as Hunter, Lincoln, Maroon, Castle, West Willow, Woody, Snowmass, Capitol, Collins, Sopris, Nettie, Thompson, Cattle, Fourmile, and Threemile creeks.”
Another factor shaping the flows in the lower Fork are decisions made by regional water managers, including irrigators near Grand Junction and municipal water providers in Denver, that can shape releases from reservoirs such as Green Mountain and Ruedi.
Who needs water, and when, can also dictate the size of that eddy at the bottom of the Fork. So for now, I’m just glad it’s big enough to float a boat.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Aspen Times Weekly, and The Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, May 21, 2015.
A decision earlier this year that sets limits on how much water Aurora can divert through the Busk-Ivanhoe system is being appealed by Western Slope groups.
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District last week agreed to enter the case as well because it could affect its diversions through the Larkspur Ditch.
Division 2 water judge Larry Schwartz approved a decree that would allow Aurora to divert an average 2,416 acre-feet annually.
Pitkin County, the Colorado River District and Grand Valley Water Users appealed the decision based on the calculation of historic use of the four high-mountain creeks which are part of the Busk-Ivanhoe system.
Aurora shares Busk-Ivanhoe with the Pueblo Board of Water Works on the system that formerly was operated by the High Line Canal through the Carleton Tunnel, which once was a train and automobile route across the Continental Divide. It delivers water into Turquoise Lake near Leadville. The tunnel has collapsed in several spots, but water can still make its way through.
Pueblo Water has a 1993 decree changing its water rights from its 1971 purchase of its half of Busk-Ivanhoe. Aurora purchased the other half in 1986.
Lower Ark water attorney Peter Nichols said the change case on the Larkspur Ditch is stayed in water court because of issues similar to Busk-Ivanhoe case.
“The district has filed an amicus brief in the Busk-Ivanhoe case because the decision contains an issue similar to the change on Larkspur,” Nichols told the board.
The Lower Ark purchased most of the Larkspur Diversion from the Gunnison River from the Catlin Canal Co.
Water court cases are appealed directly to the Colorado Supreme Court.
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District is purchasing Colorado Canal water rights from the Ordway Feedyard.
“We’re purchasing the shares within the next 30 days to make sure the water stays in the Arkansas Valley,” said Jay Winner, Lower Ark general manager. “It’s about a $4 million package.”
The Colorado Canal once irrigated 50,000 acres in Crowley County, but has largely fallen into the hands of Colorado Springs and Aurora through purchases made in the 1980s.
Earlier, in the 1970s, canal shareholders began selling off shares of Twin Lakes to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Later Aurora and Pueblo West also bought big blocks of Twin Lakes shares.
The Lower Ark purchase from Ordway Feedyard includes 276 shares paired with Lake Henry storage, and 282 shares paired with Lake Meredith storage.
The feedlot has other sources of water to meet its own needs, most significantly a 15-year lease signed in 2012 with the Pueblo Board of Water Works to supply 700 acre-feet of augmentation water annually for a pipeline completed last year.
In another matter, the Lower Ark board last week accepted two conservation easements on the High Line Canal for Jason and Jennifer Stites. The easements are for a total of 224 acres with 18 shares of High Line water, for a cost of about $360,000. The easements were split for estate planning purposes, according to Lower Ark Conservation Manager Bill Hancock.
More Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District coverage here.
The city of Aspen and Front Range water interests have reached a compromise 20 years in the making that allows more water to be sent east when the spring runoff is plentiful, in exchange for bolstering flows when the Roaring Fork River is running low in the fall. The deal is between the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which operates transbasin diversion tunnels underneath Independence Pass, and the city of Aspen and the Colorado River District, which works to protect water rights on the Western Slope.
The deal, which has its roots in a 1994 water court application from Twin Lakes that sought to increase diversions during the runoff in high-snowpack years. It will leave 40 acre-feet of water in Grizzly Reservoir when Twin Lakes exercises its rights under the 1994 proposal. That water will be stored in the 500-acre-foot reservoir and released into the Roaring Fork for about three weeks in late summer, when seasonal flows are at their lowest. The water must be called for and released in the same year it was stored.
Grizzly Reservoir, located about 8 miles up Lincoln Creek Road near the Continental Divide, is a component of the transbasin-diversion system. A tunnel underneath the reservoir channels water underneath the mountain to the south fork of Lake Creek in the Arkansas River basin, on the other side of the pass.
Additionally, under the deal, the River District will have the right to store 200 acre-feet of water in Grizzly Reservoir and can call for up to 150 acre feet of that water in a year. Importantly, that 200 acre-feet can be stored long-term in the reservoir until it is called for by the River District, which manages water rights across the Western Slope.
Another 600 acre-feet will be provided to the River District for seasonal storage in Twin Lakes Reservoir, also on the east side of Independence Pass. The district will then trade and exchange that water with various entities, which could lead to more water staying on the Western Slope that would otherwise be diverted through other transbasin tunnels.
Twin Lakes diverts an average of 46,000 acre-feet a year from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and sends it to Colorado Springs and other Front Range cities. The city of Colorado Springs owns 55 percent of the shares in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., entities in Pueblo own 23 percent, entities in Pueblo West own 12 percent, and Aurora owns 5 percent.
Aspen and the River District intend to cooperatively use the stored water in Grizzly Reservoir to boost late-summer flows in the Roaring Fork as it winds through Aspen proper.
Water already flowing
The stretch of the Roaring Fork River below the Salvation Ditch on Stillwater Drive typically runs below environmentally sound flows each year for about eight weeks, according to city officials. And given that this spring saw a high run-off, the three parties to the agreement managed some water this year as if the deal was already signed.
“At the close of the current water year (which ended the last day of September), Twin Lakes started making releases of some of the water stored for the River District, followed by release of the 40 acre-feet, as directed by Aspen and the River District,” Phil Overeynder, a special projects engineer for the city, wrote in an Oct. 3 memo to city council. “These releases had the effect of increasing flows in the Roaring Fork through the Aspen reach by approximately 20 percent and will last for approximately a three-week period at the end of the lowest flow conditions of the year.”
Overeynder added that “both Aspen and the River District believe that this agreement, while not perfect, is of real and meaningful benefit to the Roaring Fork.”
Aspen City Council approved the agreement on its consent calendar during a regular council meeting on Monday. The agreement is on the River District’s Tuesday meeting agenda, and Twin Lakes approved it last month.
The deal still needs to be accepted by Pitkin County and the Salvation Ditch Co. in order to satisfy all of the details of the water court’s 2001 approval of the 1994 water rights application.
Junior and senior rights
In addition to its junior 1994 water right, Twin Lakes also holds a senior 1936 water right that allows it to divert up to 68,000 acre-feet in a single year and up to 570,000 acre-feet in a 10-year period.
Originally, the water diverted by Twin Lakes was used to grow sugar beets to make sugar, but it is now primarily used to meet the needs of people living on the Front Range.
The 1936 water right still has some lingering restrictions in high-water years, according to Kevin Lusk, an engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities who serves as the president of the board of the private Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. Under its 1936 right, when there is plenty of water in the Arkansas River and the Twin Lakes Reservoir is full, Twin Lakes is not allowed to divert water, even though it is physically there to divert, Lusk explained. So in 1994 it filed in water court for a new water right without the same restrictions so it could divert more water to the east. It was dubbed the “Twin Junior,” water right.
The city of Aspen and the River District objected in court to the “Twin Junior” and the agreement approved Monday is a long-delayed outcome of the case.
Aspen claimed that if Twin Lakes diverted more water in big-water years, the Roaring Fork wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of the high water, including flooding the Stillwater section and replenishing groundwater supplies. That process, the city argued, helps the river in dry times.
“We don’t necessarily agree with the theory behind it,” Lusk said of the city’s claim, but added that Twin Lakes agreed to the deal as part of settlement negotiations.
And since 2014 turned out to be a high-water year, Twin Lakes exercised its right to divert water under its 1994 Twin Junior right, and worked cooperatively with Aspen and the River District to release 40-acre feet of “mitigation water” as described in the pending deal.
The new agreement between the city, Twin Lakes and the River District is in addition to another working arrangement between Twin Lakes and Aspen related to the Fryingpan-Arkansas diversion project, which diverts water from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River.
That agreement provides 3,000 acre-feet of water each year to be released by Twin Lakes into the main stem of the Roaring Fork beneath a dam near Lost Man Campground, normally at a rate of 3 to 4 cubic feet per second.
The town council is considering legislation that would cap outdoor use at three days a week. It’s part of an effort to put a new emphasis on water conservation and efficiency, says Tim Gagen, the town manager.
“We have to walk the talk,” says Gagen. “We can’t just sit up here and say we have all the water, now we’ll use it.”
Breckenridge is not alone. Other mountains towns in Colorado are devoting more attention to water conservation and efficiency. A coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley is assembling plans for public outreach to elevate water efficiency. The Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District began crimping water use in 2003. Aspen’s water-efficiency measures go back even further, to the 1990s…
Colorado’s Front Range cities, where 85 percent of state residents live, have become more efficient with existing supplies. But they have also expanded supplies in recent decades by buying farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys for their water rights, and allowing the farms to then dry up. They have also purchased mountain ranches in such buy-and-dry transactions.
Front Range water providers also want to retain the option of going to the Colorado River and its tributaries for one final, big diversion. Western Slope water leaders urge caution. But to have credibility, leaders in the mountain valleys realize they first must put their own houses in order.
“The Western Slope needs to be goosed,” says Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Frankly, the Front Range has led most of the water-conservation efforts in Colorado to date.”[…]
Gagen says that Breckenridge has been nibbling at water conservation efforts for several years. Leaking segments of existing pipes, which can cause loss of 8 to 15 percent of all the municipal water supply, are being replaced. Sprinklers in parks are being changed out in favor of more efficient devices. And the town is now looking at narrowing irrigation at its golf course to avoid watering of the roughs.
Breckenridge, in its municipal operation, has also adopted more xeriscaping, using plants that don’t require irrigation, reducing irrigation of remaining turf, and, in some cases, installing artificial turf.
Still on the agenda is elevating rates for high-consumption users. The average water bill in Breckenridge is just $35 every two months, not much more than dinner at one of the town’s higher-end restaurants. As such, most people probably pay little, if any attention, to the idea of conserving water in order to reduce their costs. They just write the check, says Gagen.
While Breckenridge has broad goals of improved sustainability, Gagen says the plan to reduce outdoor lawn irrigation to three days a week was pushed by two council members who have been persuaded by books they’ve read: “Blue Revolution,” by Cynthia Barnett (2011), “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner (1986), and “Getting Green Done,” by Auden Schendler (2011)…
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has achieved a 20 percent per capita reduction in use, according to Diane Johnson, communications director. That’s in line with the reduction in water use since 2000 by Denver Water’s 1.3 million direct and indirect customers.
However, Eagle River has not pushed indoor water savings. Because 95 percent of indoor water is treated and released into the Eagle River, explains Johnson, the impact is small on the valley’s creeks and rivers. This compares with just 15 to 40 percent of water returned to streams after outdoor irrigation. Given limited resources for messaging, the better return is to hammer home the message of reduced outdoor use.
“What we really try to work with local people to understand is that their outdoor use affects how much water is in the rivers,” says Johnson. “If you are using water indoors, save yourself some money and be efficient, but most of that water comes back to the treatment plant and returns to the river.”[…]
In adopting its regulations on outdoor lawn watering, Eagle River Water was motivated by the searing drought of 2002. But laws also provide incentives. When seeking permits for new or expanded reservoirs, county regulations ask about “efficient use” of existing resources. State and federal regulations approach it with different wording, but essentially the same intent. “Efficient use of resource is going to be a consideration in any of those permitting processes,” says Johnson.
Eagle River Water has also adopted tiered rates, charging higher rates per 1,000 gallons as consumers step up consumption. But what do you do about those pockets of consumers for whom money is no deterrent?
That’s an issue in the Vail Valley that water officials are starting to wrestle with. Aspen recognized years ago that price was no object to some homeowners—and charges nosebleed rates.
Aspen’s municipal utility, which delivers both electricity and water, uses the income from high-use water customers to pay for front-end renewable energy programs and demand-side energy efficiency, says Phil Overeynder, the former utilities director and now the utilities engineer for special projects.
Aspen in the early 1990s approached the forked paths of water use. But instead of continuing to build capacity for existing water demands, the city instead reined in use. Last year, Aspen used the same amount of water as it did in 1966, despite having three times as many residents. (See more detailed story).
Now, an effort has been launched to frame a broad water efficiency strategy for the Roaring Fork Valley. The seed was planted in 2010 by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, a non-profit founded in the mid-1990s. The effort has several motives—including energy.
Formation of the group was at least partly influenced by the writings of Amory Lovins, a resident of the area, who for decades talked about “negawatts”—the idea that efficiency in energy was as good as new supply. The group he co-founded, Rocky Mountain Institute, further applied this idea of a soft path to water efficiency.
CORE’s Jason Haber explains that saving water also saves energy in several ways. Developing water resources requires energy, but it also takes energy to pump water. Energy is also embedded in treatment of sewage, he points out. Typically, water and sewage are the largest components of any municipality’s energy budget…
Whether Colorado truly has any water to develop on the Western Slope is debatable—and has been debated frequently in state-wide water forums. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has suggested that major new diversions would be risky, simply because of the lack of certainty of legally entitled water in future years. Colorado’s use of the river that bears its name is tightly capped by two inter-state water compacts and one international treaty.
For more than two decades, Gary and Georgia Walker have been transforming a “rundown ranch” into a productive cattle ranch that provides wildlife habitat and environmental buffer against Fort Carson for Pueblo West. On Tuesday, they were honored with the Colorado Leopold Conservation Award, recognizing their continued stewardship for the 65,000-acre ranch. The award is named for Aldo Leopold, who called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own in his 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac.”
“The Walkers’ passion for caring for the habitat and rare plant species on their land, near a growing urban community, sets a remarkable example of conservation leadership,” said Sand County Foundation President Brent Haglund.
The Walkers most recently made headlines for becoming the first ranchers in the United States to allow a release of an endangered species, the black-footed ferret, on their land under the federal Safe Harbor Act. But the conservation ethic goes back much further.
“Georgia and I started buying small ranches in the late 1970s,” said Walker, 68. “In those early days my only income was the check she brought home for teaching at District 60 in Pueblo. I also had an on and off income for helping dad. But our main plan was to seek out inexpensive ranches that needed a lot of cleaning up, buy and resell them. I was lucky as the banks in those days put a lot of value in the word and knowledge of a man and would make loans based on that and not only on his assets.”
In 1992, they bought the Turkey Creek Ranch from Walker’s father, the late Bob Walker. At the same time, they purchased 20,000 acres of adjacent state land in a tax-free exchange and gave up on fixing up ranches in order to concentrate on expanding their own property. Over the years, they have added more land through 75 purchases that doubled the size of the ranch.
“In my lifetime we have run everything that grew hair,” Walker said.
At one time his father ran 15,000 yearlings on four ranches in two states, but in recent years, the drought has decimated the herd. Since the drought began in 2000, they’ve sold and rebuilt their Black Angus herd three times. It reached its peak in 2012 at 1,100 cows, but dropped to 350 during the drought. After the rains last fall, they expanded to about 500 head.
The Walkers also own Twin Lakes water shares, among the most valuable and reliable water sources in the Arkansas River basin, in order to maintain water levels on ponds used by wildlife on their property.
“The Walkers balance a love of the land and a dedication to preserving wildlife with cattle ranching,” said Gene Manuello, president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “The 14 years of sustained drought have put unfathomable pressure on producers in Southeastern Colorado; the Walkers’ forethought and planning included the installation of pipelines, water storage tanks and stock ponds which have played an integral part in the long-term viability of the Turkey Creek Ranch as a home to livestock and wildlife.”
The Leopold Award is jointly sponsored by the Sand County Foundation, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Peabody Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, American AgCredit, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Farm Credit, DuPont Pioneer, The Mosaic Company and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Walkers will receive the award and a $10,000 check at the Protein Producer Summit June 16 in Colorado Springs.
Here’s the release from the Sand Country Foundation via The Cherry Creek News:
The Turkey Creek Ranch owned and operated by Gary and Georgia Walker has been selected as the recipient of the 2014 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award. The Pueblo-based ranch consists of approximately 65,000 deeded acres and is managed for both wildlife and livestock.
The acts of cattle ranching and wildlife management go hand in hand, and the life’s work of the Walkers proves it. Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they re-introduced Black Footed Ferrets, which were once thought to be extinct, in eastern Colorado.
“The Walkers’ passion for caring for the habitat and rare plant species on their land, near a growing urban community, sets a remarkable example of conservation leadership,” said Sand County Foundation President Brent Haglund.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the Leopold Conservation Award recognizes private landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. The Walkers will receive a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold, and $10,000 at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association’s Protein Producer Summit on June 16 in Colorado Springs.
The award recognizes private landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. It is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Peabody Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and American AgCredit.
“The Walkers balance a love of the land and a dedication to preserving wildlife with cattle ranching,” said Gene Manuello, President of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “The fourteen years of sustained drought have put unfathomable pressure on producers in southeastern Colorado; the Walkers’ forethought and planning included the installation of pipelines, water storage tanks and stock ponds which have played an integral part in the long-term viability of the Turkey Creek Ranch as a home to livestock and wildlife.”
The Leopold Conservation Award recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. It inspires landowners through these examples and provides a visible forum where farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are recognized as conservation leaders. In his influential 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”
Award applicants are judged based on their demonstration of improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple use benefits.
The Leopold Conservation Award is possible thanks to generous contributions from many organizations, including Peabody Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Assoc., American AgCredit, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Farm Credit, DuPont Pioneer, The Mosaic Company, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Imports of water from the Colorado River basin are providing a substantial amount of water to the Arkansas River basin during the drought. Almost 98,000 acre-feet of water have been imported through the three largest transmountain tunnels — Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, Twin Lakes and Homestake — and more than 7,000 acre-feet through smaller tunnels and ditches. In all, the diversions added 105,500 acre-feet to the Arkansas River system this year. That amounts to about 144 cubic feet per second of river flows all day long, every day of the year in the Arkansas River. That’s a lot, considering that the flow near Salida is only around 600 cfs in the middle of summer. It’s been around 100 cfs through Pueblo most of the year, and was languishing at 270 cfs at Avondale last week.
To put it in other terms, it’s nearly four times as much water as Pueblo runs through its treated water system in a year, and about the average amount used by the Catlin Canal. According to preliminary figures from the Colorado Division of Water Resources:
The Fry-Ark Project brought over more than 46,300 acre-feet this year. It provides supplemental water to cities and farms in the Arkansas River basin.
Twin Lakes, mostly owned by Colorado Springs, Pueblo Board of Water Works, Aurora and Pueblo West, brought in 34,000 acre-feet this year.
Homestake, which delivers water to Colorado Springs and Aurora, brought in more than 17,600 acre-feet.
Busk-Ivanhoe, a tunnel owned by Pueblo and Aurora, added 3,792 acre-feet.
Columbine Ditch, near Fremont Pass and owned by Aurora and Climax, added 1,459 acre-feet.
Pueblo’s Wurtz and Ewing Ditches contributed another 2,273 acre-feet.
A program that keeps flows for fish and recreation in the Upper Arkansas River is being recognized by the Palmer Land Trust with an innovation in conservation award. The award will be presented Oct. 9 in Colorado Springs. It recognizes unique partnerships that protect natural heritage.
The voluntary flow program allows transfer of water in the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project in a way that benefits fish on the Arkansas River. Water brought from the Colorado River basin is stored in Turquoise and Twin Lakes and moved to Lake Pueblo under the Fry-Ark Project. In 1990, a program was established to move the water at opportune times in order to control temperature and spawning conditions for fish, as well as to boost flows for rafting during the summer months. During the drought, the water has been crucial to meeting flow targets on the river. “This year we’ll move 14,000 acre-feet,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fry-Ark Project for the Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s water that we would have to move anyway.”
The program is coordinated by Reclamation, which controls river releases; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District; and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, along with other water users and groups in the Arkansas River basin.
Here’s an in-depth look at Ruedi Reservoir administration from Hannah Holm writing for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
Take, for example, a few water molecules that begin their terrestrial journey as snow in the mountains just East of Aspen. In the spring, they melt and flow into the Frying Pan River, a tributary to the Roaring Fork.
Some of these molecules are captured early and flow east into a tunnel bound for the Arkansas River Valley. Once across the Divide, they may help float a raft or two on their way to a cantaloupe field in Rocky Ford. Other molecules keep flowing west, until they are captured a little ways downstream in Ruedi Reservoir.
Even though these two sets of water molecules are separated soon after birth, their fates remain closely tied.
The molecules in Ruedi Reservoir will stay there, helping provide a pleasant boating and fishing environment, until they are released to flow down to the Roaring Fork and then the Colorado River en route to a Palisade peach orchard that has been relying on water out of the Colorado River since long before any of those tunnels to the Arkansas were drilled.
The ability to store and release water from Ruedi is what permits those other molecules to keep flowing across the Divide, even when water is needed downstream by users with more senior, and therefore higher priority, water rights.
More Fryingpan-Arkansas Project coverage here and here.
Still hoping for snow this weekend. In the meantime, we started moving water from Turquoise Reservoir down to Twin Lakes today, February 8. We’re moving it through the Mt. Elbert Conduit. We are sitting below average in storage for this time of year at both reservoirs. Water moving through the Conduit also moves through the Mt. Elbert Forebay and generates hydro-electric power at the Mt. Elbert Power Plant before entering Twin Lakes.
Change of water rights cases often drag on until all parties come to agreement and stipulate out. In many cases objectors raise issues with the proposed change that can only be settled at trial in water court. It looks like a change case by Pitkin County — to leave agricultural water in the stream for riparian purposes — is heading to court because Colorado Springs wants to make sure that the change won’t leave them water short at Twin Lakes if there is a rebound call from downstream seniors or a Colorado River Compact call. Here’s an in-depth look at the issue from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism. Click through and read the whole article for the great detail and analysis along with graphics that help illustrate the issues at hand. Here’s an excerpt:
Pitkin County and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) are finding it’s not easy to leave water in a river for environmental purposes.
The two entities have been working since mid-2010 to reach agreements with various opponents to a plan that would leave 4.3 cubic feet per second (cfs) of county water in lower Maroon Creek and the Roaring Fork River, instead of diverting it for irrigation purposes to the Stapleton Brothers Ditch near the base of Tiehack.
They’ve reached agreements with 10 opponents so far, but the 11th, an entity controlled by the city of Colorado Springs called the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., is proving to be challenging.
On Thursday, attorneys for Pitkin County asked a judge in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs to set a trial date as the parties have not yet resolved their differences. Judge James Boyd set the five-day trial for Feb. 3, 2014. The case number is 10CW-184.
The trial results from an agreement between Pitkin County and the Colorado Water Conservation Board that was announced in 2009.
Mr. Gardner-Smith has published a shorter version of the story in conjunction with the Aspen Daily News. Here’s an excerpt:
“We have been in active settlement discussions with the applicants and have every intention of reaching agreement prior to trial,” said Kevin Lusk, a principal with Colorado Springs Utilities, the city’s water utility that controls Twin Lakes. “We believe that we have made significant progress and do not feel that the remaining issues are in any way insurmountable.”
Lusk also serves as president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which diverts significant amounts of water off the top of the Roaring Fork River basin each year, sending it in tunnels underneath the Continental Divide to Twin Lakes and eventually the Front Range.
“Twin Lakes has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to protect its interests,” Lusk said. “Because of this, Twin Lakes routinely objects to water rights cases on the Roaring Fork when they are of significant size or if there is significant precedent involved.”
Lusk said Twin Lakes is concerned that a change to the county’s water right from irrigation to an instream-flow right may indirectly lead to a situation where Twin Lakes is allowed to divert less water off the top of the Roaring Fork River basin.
But the county and state say there will be no injury to Colorado Springs’ water rights if the 4.3 cfs is left in the river instead of being used for irrigation, especially as monthly flow limits have been placed on the water right consistent with its historic use.
“The maximum and average uses proposed … will prevent any expansion of use of the Stapleton Brothers Ditch water right,” stated engineers from Bishop-Brogden Associates, Inc., the firm working with the county and the CWCB, in a report submitted to the court.
The county owns a total of 8 cfs of water in the Stapleton Brothers Ditch, which diverts that amount and more from Maroon Creek near the base of Tiehack and takes it some 3 miles across the base of Buttermilk Mountain to Owl Creek.
The county’s water right in the Stapleton Brothers Ditch of 4.3 cfs has a 1904 priority date and was used by the Stapleton family to irrigate 163 acres of hay and alfalfa fields on land along Owl Creek.
Most of that land is now occupied by the lower half of the runway at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. And since the county no longer uses all of the water for irrigation, it wants to leave about half of it — or 4.3 cfs — in the river for the benefit of the riparian ecosystem.
If successful, Pitkin County would become the first entity in the state to legally leave its water in a river for environmental purposes via a long-term trust agreement with the CWCB, as allowed by a state law enacted in 200 via House Bill 08-1280.
“It is significant because it is the first long-term agreement since HB 1280,” said [Linda] Bassi of the CWCB.
Forest fires can have devastating consequences to watersheds cities depend on, so the U.S. Forest Service is reaching out to municipal water providers to take measures to thin forests.
The Pueblo Board of Water Works Tuesday voted to pay the Forest Service $50,000 to thin about 81 acres near Twin Lakes. The Forest Service provides the expertise and manpower to do the work. The water board will join other water providers throughout the West to reduce the impact of fires.
Last summer, large fires near Fort Collins and Colorado Springs burned thousands of acres, raising the specter that those cities will face the same challenges Denver and Aurora have had from the 2002 Hayman Fire.
“A movement is under way for the Forest Service to go into watersheds that are vital to municipal water supply to thin the forests and reduce the impact of fires,” said Alan Ward, water resources manager for the water board.
Colorado Springs and Aurora already have paid the Forest Service to clear other large areas near the Mount Elbert Forebay, located just north of Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes is a vital transfer point for the Homestake Project which the two cities jointly operate. Pueblo also stores water in Twin Lakes, as well as Clear Creek Reservoir and Turquoise Lake in the same general area.
“There are lots of areas in our watershed that are at extreme risk,” Ward said.
The water board and Forest Service are studying the possibility for future agreements in the watersheds of transmountain ditches in the Tennessee Creek area, he added.
Meanwhile climate change is expected to exacerbate the wildfire problem. Here’s a report from Bobby Magill writing for the Fort Collins Coloradodoan. Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado’s future under the influence of climate change will be significantly warmer and drier than recent years, and the impacts will affect the regions’ water, forests, wildfires, ecosystems and ability to grow crops. That’s the conclusion of the draft of the federal government’s National Climate Assessment, which was released for public comment on Monday by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
The water content of Colorado’s snowpack and the timing of the spring runoff are changing, which could pose major challenges for the state’s water supplies and farmers, said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University and co-author of the portion of the assessment addressing Colorado and the Southwest. The Southwest, including Colorado, will see significantly declining snowpack, increasing numbers of wildfires directly affecting communities, and threats to public health caused by spiking summer temperatures and disruptions in electricity and water supply, according to the assessment’s regional outlook.
Mounting evidence suggests that temperature increases caused by people are responsible for killing trees throughout the region, increasing the number of wildfires and sparking bark beetle outbreaks.
“Increased warming will increase wildfires and wildfire impacts,” Waskom said. “The models project more fire and greater risk.”[..]
The only good news to be found in the climate assessment is that Colorado’s growing season may get longer as the temperatures warm, Waskom said.
As water use shifted from farms to cities, so did its use. As Colorado River water entered the Arkansas River basin, Twin Lakes was the key transfer point.
Farmers from Crowley County recognized the value of the lakes — formed by glacial advances and retreats — in the late 1800s, and built a dam to store water high in the mountains until it was needed in the fields. Initially, the lake was filled by exchange, diverting water into one reservoir, while releasing flows from another.
But by the 1930s, it was clear more water was needed to satisfy needs on the Colorado Canal, a ditch with relatively junior water rights in Crowley County. A tunnel was completed during the Great Depression to bring more water from the Colorado River near Independence Pass.
The tunnel is named for Charles H. Boustead, the first general manager of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, who died in 1966, shortly after work on the tunnel began. The tunnel is 10.5 feet high and 5.4 miles long, and is capable of bringing over 945 cubic feet (about 166 bathtubs full) per second of water through the mountains. Water from the north and south side collection systems flows into the tunnel on the west side of the mountains and travels by gravity into Turquoise Reservoir. There is rarely enough water to fill the tunnel’s capacity. Water comes in a rush as snowpack melts, usually from late May until July. The amount varies widely. There were record imports in 2011, followed by one of the lowest years ever in 2012.
“It was great for people other than in Lake County. We’re left with an economy devoid of any of the benefits promised by President Kennedy,” [Former Lake County Commissioner Ken Olsen] said. The Fry-Ark Project projected large increases in visitor days to Turquoise and Twin Lakes as a result of enlargement. But Forest Service policies have restricted visitor use and eroded the local tax base, Olsen said. The Bureau of Reclamation’s operation fills and lowers reservoirs in a way that’s out-of-sync for tourism benefits, he said.
The Mount Elbert Power Plant generates peak power through two giant turbines that act as pumps, drawing down and refilling the Mount Elbert Forebay. During peak hours, summer days when air conditioners are running, the water flows by gravity from the forebay through the turbines. At night, when the lights go out, water is pumped back uphill through those same turbines…
The turbines can generate up to 200 megawatts of power, and since it began operating in 1981 has generated more than 350 million kilowatt hours of electricity — enough to power 44,000 homes, according to Reclamation.
More Fryingpan-Arkansas Project coverage here and here.
The project got its start with a visit to Pueblo from President Kennedy back in 1962. Here’s the first installment from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. Click through and read the whole article, Woodka is a terrific writer. Here’s an excerpt:
But on that day [August 17, 1962], work began to address the problem. Kennedy came to Pueblo to celebrate the signing of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Act the previous day. Local water leaders will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fry-Ark Project Saturday at Lake Pueblo…
The Twin Lakes Tunnel was constructed by the Colorado Canal Co. during the Great Depression, while the old Carlton railroad tunnel was used by the High Line Canal Co. to bring in water. In addition, Colorado Springs and Aurora were already building the Homestake Project, which would be intertwined with the Fry-Ark Project as both were built.
But the government project, a scaled-down version of an earlier, larger plan to bring water from the Gunnison River basin, represented a larger cooperative effort between farmers and municipal leaders in nine counties.
Since the first water was brought over in 1972, about 2.1 million acre-feet of water has been brought into the Arkansas River basin for irrigation and municipal use. The project also generates electric power at the Mount Elbert Power Plant.
Woodka details some of the early water history along the Arkansas River mainstem in this report running in today’s Chieftain. Here’s an excerpt:
The Water Development Association of Southeastern Colorado was incorporated in 1946. Pueblo business leaders worked with valley water interests to investigate a Gunnison-Arkansas Project. By 1953, the project was scaled back to the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, and the first hearings began in Congress.
During the congressional hearings in subsequent years, the project evolved from one primarily serving agriculture to one that included municipal, hydroelectric power, flood control and recreation as well.
The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District formed in 1958.
The U.S. House passed the Fry-Ark Act on June 13, 1962; the U.S. Senate, Aug. 6, 1962. President John F. Kennedy signed it into law on Aug. 16, 1962.
Here’s a short look at Jay Winner, current general manager of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, from Chris Woodka Writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:
Back in the 1960s, his father Ralph Winner was the construction superintendent for Ruedi Reservoir, the first part of the Fry-Ark Project to be constructed and his family lived on the job site. His father came back in the late 1970s to supervise construction of one of the last parts of the collection system to be built, the Carter-Norman siphon. The siphon draws water across a steep canyon.
For three summers, Winner, then a college student, worked on the latter project. “It was the most fun I ever had,” he laughed. “I got to play with dynamite.”
A retired outfitter, [Reed Dils] is now a Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board member and a former representative from the Arkansas River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “Initially, the flows got worse,” Dils said. “They (the Southeastern district and the Bureau of Reclamation) had chosen to run water in the winter…
“It became apparent to everyone there was another way to run the river,” Dils said. “Why the Fry-Ark act was passed, recreation mainly meant flatwater recreation. Over time, they learned there are other types of recreation.”
Reclamation and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District invite the public to celebrate the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project’s 50th Anniversary at Lake Pueblo State Park on Sat., Aug. 18. The event is located at Lake Pueblo State Park Visitor’s Center from 9 a.m.to 2 p.m.
Reclamation, the District and Colorado State Parks and Wildlife are offering free pontoon boat tours around Pueblo Reservoir and free tours of the fish hatchery located below Pueblo Dam. There will also be historical displays and several guest speakers.
Signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is a multipurpose trans-basin water diversion and delivery project serving southeastern Colorado.
The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project provides:
– Water for more than 720,000 people
– Irrigation for 265,000 acres
– The largest hydro-electric power plant in the state
– World renowned recreation opportunities from the Fryingpan River to the Arkansas River.
For more information the 50th Anniversary Celebration – and to see a teaser of the upcoming film! – visit our website at www.usbr.gov/gp/ecao.
More Fryingpan-Arkansas Project coverage here and here.
Meanwhile, Alan Hamel is retiring from the Pueblo Board of Water Works this month:
“Little did I know how important the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project would be as I was watching the president’s car traveling down Abriendo Avenue that day,” Hamel said. “Look at all that it has done for our basin and what it will do in the future.”
Hamel became executive director of the water board in 1982, and was president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the local agency that oversees the Fry-Ark Project, from 2002-04. He is currently serving on the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Diversions from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. have ceased for the time being in order to fulfill a call for water on the lower Colorado River. The so-called “Cameo Call” near Grand Junction is the second-most senior water right on the Colorado, sending water to irrigate farms and other land in western Colorado. Water is being left in the Roaring Fork, which joins the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, to meet that call, boosting flows in the river through town. In addition, the Salvation Ditch Co. has agreed to suspend its diversion from the river Saturday, and the city of Aspen, which has a small ditch diversion, will do the same. The Salvation Ditch pulls water from the river just east of town.
“All those things combined are allowing us to run the race in the river,” said an enthused Chris Berry, Aspen Rotary Club member and “head duck,” on Wednesday. “We’re excited.”
The Rotary Club, sponsor of the event, had planned a series of relay races Saturday, anticipating a dearth of water in the river. The alternate plan called for racing youngsters to carry ducks. Winners would deposit their ducks into a swimming pool, which was to be emptied into a chute to produce a winner. Instead, a truckload of rubber ducks will be dumped into the river at No Problem Bridge, and the bobbing yellow competitors will float to the finish line, adjacent to Rio Grande Park, as usual.
“We have to protect the water we have, as well as provide water for endangered species,” said Alan Hamel, executive director of the Pueblo Board of Water Works and a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “Oil shale development would involve intensive use of water, particularly for use in power generation.” Last month, the Pueblo water board and other members of the Front Range Water Council weighed in on the Bureau of Reclamation’s environmental impact statement for oil shale and tar sands…
The Front Range Water Council includes the major organizations that import water from the Colorado River: Denver Water, the Northern and Southeastern Colorado water conservancy districts, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and the Pueblo water board. Collectively, they provide water to 4 million people, 82 percent of the population in Colorado.
More Front Range Water Council coverage here and here.
Those conclusions are the result of a $42,000 study of the Upper Arkansas River by Paul Flack, a former hydrologist for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation area, who was contracted last year under a grant sponsored by the Southeastern Colorado and Upper Arkansas water conservancy districts. Flack shared some conclusions of his study Wednesday with the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, saying there is a need for all of the users who are concerned about flows in the upper basin to get together to reach solutions. In addition, about 20,000 acre-feet of new reservoir storage is needed to meet all the needs.
The Upper Arkansas has, for years, become a complicated operation as water users have tried to balance releases from Turquoise and Twin Lakes and levels in Lake Pueblo with flows for recreation and fish.
Flows also have to be kept in check below Turquoise in the Lake Fork watershed to avoid disturbing old mine tailings that could leach heavy metals into the Arkansas River…
Chaffee County recreational in-channel diversion rights, which support boat courses in Buena Vista and Salida, are problematic because they depend on other river operations…
Flows in the river to meet the needs of fish, a component of a 20-year-old voluntary flow agreement among several agencies, could be a potential source of conflict. “The fishing flow can be in opposition to the needs of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project,” Flack said.
At Lake Pueblo, Flack looked at the possibility of changing the timing of spring releases for if-and-when or winter water storage accounts. “There could be significant water savings, up to thousands of acre-feet,” he said. “But, there would be a ripple effect upstream.”[…]
Adding 20,000 acre-feet of storage is needed to smoothly operate the increasingly complex river system. Planning should involve those affected, and not just with phone calls to Reclamation in an emergency, Flack said.
A total of 98,800 acre feet of water was diverted east via the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project from spring to late August, according to Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the reclamation bureau. “It’s the second largest diversion in the operating history of the project,” Lamb said…
The record diversion was 110,000 acre feet in 1984, Lamb said. The average diversion over the last decade has been 54,000 acre feet per year. This year’s volume was 83 percent above the average. To put the 98,800 acre feet into perspective — that’s just slightly below the amount of water that Ruedi Reservoir holds when it is full.
The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project uses 17 dams and diversion structures to capture water from streams. The system also taps Hunter Creek in the Roaring Fork River basin. Nine tunnels with a combined length of 27 miles funnel it into the collection system. The water is forced through the Charles H. Boustead Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Lake near Leadville. A plumbing system on the east side of the Divide ultimately takes the water to Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and farms in the Arkansas River Valley…
In the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River basin, the volume of water diverted this year was about 63,000 acre feet, according to the river district. Water has been diverted since 1935 in what’s now known as the Independence Pass Transmountain Division System. That would make it one of the larger, but not the largest, diversion years, according to a previous interview with an official in the company that manages the system. The Independence Pass diversion system usually diverts about 39,000 acre feet annually.
We are starting to see run-off pick up. As a result, we’re adjusting our releases from Turquoise and Twin Lakes to the Arkansas River.
Earlier today, we bumped releases from Twin Lakes to Lake Creek to about 1080 cfs. This evening, we will bump up about another 100 cfs. That will put just under 1200 cfs into Lake Creek to the Arkansas River.
The water released from Twin Lakes Dam is native inflow. East slope snow melt run-off that flows into Turquoise and Twin Lakes reservoirs, and a little bit of what comes down Half Moon Creek, is diverted via the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Those diversions are then released to Lake Creek.
However, additional native run-off is now flowing into Turquoise Reservoir. As a result, we will increase releases from Sugarloaf Dam to Lake Fork Creek by 50 cfs early this evening. We will increase our release another 50 cfs from Sugarloaf tomorrow. By tomorrow evening, about 100 cfs should be flowing from Sugarloaf to Lake Fork Creek.
The study was commissioned by the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which represents local governments on watershed issues. The study was conducted by G. Moss Driscoll, a Colorado attorney with experience in water law, environmental law and natural resource management. Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the study was designed to educate Roaring Fork Valley government officials and residents about how water issues could affect them in the future. It wasn’t intended to drive a wedge deeper in the relationship between the valley and Front Range water rights owners. To the contrary, he said, the study, “opened lines of communication.” “There are people in Colorado Springs who know what’s on our minds. That wasn’t the case a year ago,” Fuller said.
The study provides a thorough inventory of who owns what when it comes to the Roaring Fork watershed’s liquid gold and it describes the infrastructure associated with each of the three major diversion projects. For example, the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion system diverts water from numerous creeks east of Aspen into Grizzly Reservoir, then sends the water east via two tunnels. The major shareholders and recipients of the water in that system are Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Pueblo West and Aurora. The system yields an annual average of 40,589 acre feet, the study said. Fuller said he learned from the study that the Front Range cities that own the system have conditional water rights that could be converted into regular rights, meaning more water gets diverted. One example would be getting court approval to extend their diversion season. “They basically don’t have to ask our permission” to exercise those conditional rights, Fuller said.
In other cases, greater diversions would be difficult, in practical terms, Fuller said. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is approved for additional diversion structures, but constructing them would require local government approvals. The Front Range cities understand the political and public relations challenges they face from adding diversions or developing new water resources, Fuller said. He is of the opinion that water supply and demand issues will be negotiated on a broad scale in an amicable way but he acknowledged that other observers believe the historically contentious issue of West Slope water supply and Front Range use will lead to a sort of “World War III” before settled.
He hopes that the Front Range Water Supply Planning Update will be used by officials in governments and entities in the Roaring Fork Valley to inform themselves on the big issues coming in the future. The more officials know, the better they can represent the valley and protect water resources, he said.
From the executive summary:
Three major transmountain diversions currently operate in the Roaring Fork Watershed – the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (“Fry-Ark Project” or “Fry-Ark”), the Busk-Ivanhoe System, and the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System (“Twin Lakes System”) (see inset). At present, these three systems collectively divert over forty percent of the flow in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers for use in the Arkansas and South Platte basins. Although these diversions have been in operation for decades, each of the projects are still incomplete, with undeveloped conditional water rights, excess diversion capacity, and even major structural components that could yet be built.
According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s most recent estimates, the Arkansas and South Platte basins are facing a combined shortfall in water supply of at least 130,000 acre- feet of water (and potentially as great as 470,000 acre-feet) by 2050, due to the influx of another 3.2 to 4.5 million new residents by that time.3 To meet this projected gap, Front Range water providers are scrambling to secure additional sources of water. For many of them, the options for new water supplies are limited: most of the rivers on the East Slope are already over-appropriated; groundwater supplies are declining in some areas due to excessive well pumping; and in recent decades, the costs and uncertainty surrounding new transmountain diversions have prevented many such projects from being built.
For many Front Range water providers, firming up existing transmountain water rights and maximizing the diversion capacity of existing infrastructure is likely to represent one of the most cost-effective, publicly acceptable means of developing additional water supplies. Local interests in the Roaring Fork Watershed should therefore expect Front Range water providers to eventually attempt to firm up undeveloped water rights and excess diversion capacity associated with the Fry-Ark Project, Busk-Ivanhoe System, and Twin Lakes System. In fact, such efforts may already be underway on the East Slope.
More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here and here.
Lawyers for both sides have reached agreement on language in the settlement, which will allow Pueblo West to receive more credit for return flows of treated wastewater down Wild Horse Dry Creek under the flow program. Pueblo County commissioners will consider the agreement this morning, while the Pueblo West metro district board will take it up at its meeting tonight. The details of the agreement have been hammered out for months and discussed in executive session by both boards. Other parties in the agreement are the Pueblo Board of Water Works, which will consider the agreement at its December meeting, and Colorado Springs Utilities.
The agreement would end a lawsuit filed by Pueblo West in 2009 over conditions imposed by Pueblo County commissioners in approving a 1041 permit for the Southern Delivery System…
Pueblo West would be allowed to exchange water into Lake Pueblo under certain conditions even though its flows enter the Arkansas River about four miles downstream of Pueblo Dam, according to a draft of the agreement. Those flows are upstream of the Pueblo Whitewater Park, so may be counted toward meeting the city of Pueblo’s recreational in-channel diversion decree measurements, the document states. Colorado Springs Utilities agreed to provide up to 900 acre-feet annually in Lake Pueblo to Pueblo West through a contract exchange, or paper trade, of Pueblo West Water in Twin Lakes. Colorado Springs may deliver water directly from Twin Lakes through its Homestake Pipeline. If Pueblo West’s water is delivered to Lake Pueblo via the Arkansas River, it is subject to a 10 percent transit loss. In return, Pueblo West would withdraw a state application to exchange return flows through a pumpback into the golf course wash that flows directly into Lake Pueblo. The plan was discussed in the past two years and met opposition from the Pueblo Area Council of Governments, with the sole exception of Pueblo West. Pueblo West intends to construct a pipeline down Wild Horse Dry Creek that would increase the amount of water it exchanges, and the other parties would support the plan in any PACOG, state health department and water court applications.
Discussions started in June after the two groups met in Salida to look at common interests that also would meet a statewide goal to provide 200,000 acre-feet of water from the Aspinall Unit — Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs — for use in Colorado. “We agreed conceptually that the state should have a pool of 200,000 acre-feet to reserve against a call by the Lower Basin states that would benefit both the East Slope and the West Slope,” said Jeris Danielson, a water consultant and former state engineer.
Details of the agreement are still being worked out. If successful, it would be a rare instance of roundtables working together to achieve an “interbasin compact,” which is the chief purpose of the 2005 legislation that created the roundtables.
“At some point this summer, we are going to ask to exceed the releases of 10,000 acre-feet,” Tony Keenan of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday.
The releases are made under a 1990 voluntary flow management program among several local, state and federal agencies. It allows Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water and other supplies from Turquoise and Twin lakes to be released into the Arkansas River at strategic times to maintain flows for recreation through mid-August and for fish and wildlife during the winter months.
This year, flows surged in late May and early June and temperatures rose and began to melt snow in the mountains. Already, the flows are dropping. “We have about half of what we had in the river 10 days ago,” said Steve Witte, Water Division 2 engineer. The Upper Arkansas River was flowing at about 2,300 cubic feet per second this week, down from more than 5,000 cfs earlier. The flow program calls for a target level of 700 cfs through Aug. 15.
While the program is capped at 10,000 acre-feet of releases, more has been released in the past, if the timing can benefit the Fry-Ark Project, or the needs of big water users like Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora. “I think the water is going to be plentiful, it’s space that concerns us,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fry-Ark Project for the Bureau of Reclamation. For the past two years, space in Lake Pueblo has been tight in the spring, meaning water stored by some users could spill. About one-third of the water in Lake Pueblo now is either excess-capacity or winter water. The lake level is about 131 percent of average. “We could be looking at the same problem next year,” Vaughan said, citing graphs that show Lake Pueblo inflows are running ahead of last year’s supplies.
At the same time, Reclamation is trying to make enough space in Turquoise and Twin lakes to contain water being brought in through the Fry-Ark Project. Projections for water this year are at about 56,000 acre-feet, slightly above average. So far, about 41,000 acre-feet have come over. “We’ve already lost some yield because of the hard runoff,” Vaughan said. When the Boustead Tunnel was carrying its maximum of 945 cfs of water, about 800 cfs was flowing into the Roaring Fork River at the tunnel’s diversion point on the other side of the mountains.
[White River National Forest] engineers said the agency may not know for several weeks just how much damage occurred as a result of recent accelerated snowmelt that resulted from high temperatures. Meanwhile, the public is being urged to be careful when approaching bridges, especially those having significant accumulation of debris on piers and footings. Such accumulation has been spotted on several bridges and may have caused structural damage requiring significant repairs. People also are asked to report any damage to the Forest Service as soon as possible. The forest’s supervisor, Scott Fitzwilliams, said in a news release, “Flood-damaged infrastructure will be costly to repair but we are committed to doing so as funding becomes available.” Officials got their first idea of the possible damages sustained on the forest when a hiker reported last week that the Lower Cross Creek Bridge in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area near Vail had been washed out.
After almost seven years the Bureau of Reclamation announced today the trail across Twin Lakes Dam is re-opening.
“Hikers and cyclists will no longer have to walk around the dam, but are now able to cross it directly, staying on the trail,” said Mike Collins, Area Manager for Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado office which oversees Twin Lakes. “Re-opening would not happen without the support and continued participation of the public.” In order for the trail to remain open, the public needs to be vigilant about activity at the dam. “We ask that the public use the trail only to cross the dam,” said Howard Bailey, safety and security manager for Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado Area Office. “We need your help keeping this facility safe.” Loitering and fishing are not allowed from the dam or within a 100-foot perimeter. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the dam. “Safety and security remain our top priorities,” said Collins. “It takes all of us working together, protecting our public facilities, to make something like this possible.”
For questions about the trail re-opening, Twin Lakes Dam, and the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, please contact Kara Lamb, public information, at (970) 962-4326.
More coverage from The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:
A trail over Twin Lakes Dam that was closed for security reasons following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks has been reopened.
Bottled water and newfound caution approaching all things water is the subject of this article from Moises Velasquez-Manoff writing for the Christian Science Monitor. He ties his story to Nestlé Waters Chaffee County Project. From the article:
Citing myriad concerns, a group of [Chaffee County] residents has objected vigorously. They worry about impacts to the watershed and to nearby wetlands. They say that climate change, predicted to further dry Colorado and the Southwest, warrants a precautionary approach to all things water-related. And, pointing to fights other communities have had with the company, they say they simply don’t want Nestlé as a neighbor. Nestlé counters that these concerns are overblown. The company says: The amount of water it plans to withdraw is negligible; the project will bring many benefits – economic and otherwise – to the community; and the company, the largest water bottler in North America, is an upstanding corporate citizen…
But many say the greater story – about a growing world population of more than 6.5 billion faced with a limited supply of fresh water – is, in fact, just beginning. Experts not directly involved in the Chaffee County situation point to it as evidence of rising sensitivity to water issues everywhere. They cite a growing number of disagreements between communities and bottled-water firms around the US – in Maine, California, Florida, and Michigan, among other places – as evidence. “There is a growing interest in water as a whole [and] growing scarcity in the Western United States,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit that does research and policy analysis in the areas of environment and sustainable development. “And when people pay more attention, it sort of makes it harder to do the things [bottled water companies] used to do without any opposition.”
These companies have now become the focus of campaigns against bottled water in general. Organizations like Corporate Accountability International and the Environmental Working Group rail against bottled water for a number of reasons, the environmental impact of plastics among them. (Lauerman points to Nestlé’s new ecoshape bottles, which, he says, use 30 percent less plastic than most.) The groups also argue that consumption of bottled water – paying for something that’s already cheaply available – leads to neglect of municipal water infrastructure, to everyone’s detriment. The US Conference of Mayors has urged cities to stop buying water and has called for an investigation into how much the industry costs taxpayers. (By one estimate, 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipal sources, not springs.)…
But the assumption underlying these laws – that water is in limited supply – is the correct one, says Robert Glennon, author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.” Other states often allow “a limitless number of straws in the glass,” he says. But in Colorado, if you can’t replace it, you can’t take it. “That’s exactly what I think we should do,” he says.
More Nestlé Waters Chaffee County Project coverage here and here.
The Bureau of Reclamation already is clearing space in mountain reservoirs – Turquoise and Twin lakes – by flowing water to Lake Pueblo, said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Reclamation is expecting to clear out 65,000 acre-feet of space in anticipation of making room for 2010 imports from the Fryingpan River through the Boustead Tunnel. If snowpack and runoff were average this year, and no other adjustments made, about 14,000 acre-feet of water in some accounts would spill next spring, Vaughan said. The first 10,000 acre-feet is in a controversial account in Lake Pueblo under a long-term contract to Aurora. Other accounts holding non-project water within the basin also could be at risk as well.
However, as in the past two years, water planners are figuring out ways to use the water rather than lose it, Vaughan said. “The entities that know this is coming are finding a way out of it,” Vaughan said, noting that he is on the phone weekly to most of them as projections and water levels change. Water can be moved downstream to other reservoirs, which are far from full, either as part of water management plans or under low-rate sales to the Division of Wildlife. “Leasing water gets cheap when things get full,” Vaughan said.
Here’s the next part of Lee Hart’s recap of the July 1 meeting of the Chaffee County Commissioners working meeting for Nestlé’s Chaffee County Project. She writes:
Commissioner Tim Glenn tried to explain the gravity of Scanga’s testimony to fellow commissioners who either didn’t seem to understand the intricacies of water law and prior appropriation or simply did not share Glenn’s concerns. Glenn noted it was Scanga’s role to go “to bat for every water right and ag producer” in the valley and that he found Scanga’s testimony “fairly compelling.”[…]
“If you have a senior water right (as Aurora does), you can take it unless something in writing says you can’t take it,” Glenn explained to his fellow commissioners. Glenn said he’d feel better if Nestle’s augmentation came from a local entity that would probably care more about protecting local water resources than Aurora. Alternatively, Glenn suggested getting an agreement in writing that Aurora won’t draw down depletions and invoke its ability to exchange in a drought year and will only use water sources outside the Arkansas River Valley to supplement any municipal shortfalls created by the Nestle lease. But Glenn, always the pragmatist, said, “I seriously doubt that could happen.”
It’s really pretty simple. Aurora is leasing Twin Lakes water to Nestlé. The Twin Lakes decrees are pretty senior in priority. In times of low water — say, a drought — the river is governed by calls in any given stretch. Calls are made when someone with a decreed water right asks for their water. If current demand in that stretch exceeds the volume of water called for, water is doled out in order of priority, oldest first. So, again in a given stretch, a decreed party might just fall out of priority. This is determined by the decree and ditch company or project rules. Ditch companies generally allocate water equally — so much water per share.
The water that Aurora is leasing to Nestlé is for augmentation. The water will be released from storage at Twin Lakes to the Arkansas mainstem to pay the river for the water that Nestlé plans to pump at Hagen Spring. They’ll always pay this water to the river unless they fall out of priority which has been rare. Remember, Twin Lakes water comes from the rainy side of Colorado. The folks that will be effected in a drought are those junior to Aurora’s Twin Lakes rights.
Nestlé plans to truck 200 acre-feet or so of spring water per year to Denver for bottling.
Here’s a recap of the Colorado River District’s “State of the River” conference Tuesday dealing with the Roaring Fork Watershed, from Chris Woodka writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:
“Water is our greatest liquid asset,” said Dave Kanzer, an engineer with the Colorado River District, which is hosting meetings of watersheds along the Colorado River. “Our future is not controlled by the oil and gas as we feared last year. . . . Our economic assets are nothing without a reliable supply of water.” Through the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and Twin Lakes Co., the Arkansas River basin brings over nearly 100,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Roaring Fork. While water managers on the eastern side of the Continental Divide fret about the ability of the Boustead Tunnel – which takes water from the Fryingpan River drainage into Turquoise Lake – to bring over trainloads of water every year, the Roaring Fork bemoans the loss of every drop. “The water that goes through the Boustead Tunnel is 100 percent consumptive,” Kanzer said. “That’s one drop we’ll never see again. . . . There is less water for use in the (Roaring Fork) basin.”[…]
The Roaring Fork is feeling pressure from other directions as well, Kanzer said in describing a new report that combines more than 50 studies of water quantity, quality and use in the basin. There are the diversions from the Roaring Fork mainly for use in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Aurora and agriculture. But the Roaring Fork also supplies a large chunk of water for meeting Colorado’s obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, water for endangered fish on a stretch of river closer to Grand Junction and for its own growing needs. Kanzer acknowledged there have been benefits from the Fry-Ark Project as well. The major storage in the Roaring Fork basin, [Ruedi] Reservoir, was a part of the project, and in flood years the water taken off the river reduces flooding for towns like Basalt. But the Western Slope gets concerned when Arkansas River water managers start talking about enlarging Lake Pueblo, the largest reservoir in the Fry-Ark Project, he added.
The residents of Pitkin County were so alarmed, in fact, that they passed a 0.1 percent sales tax last year to protect water, said County Manager John Ely. He said the new fund was popular with voters because of the past success of county land-preservation and trail initiatives that have grown to be one of the largest parts of the county budget. Commissioner Rachel Richards said the county is in the process of appointing a seven-member panel to figure out how to best spend the $700,000-$1 million the tax is expected to raise each year…
“We have to change the mindset we have in Colorado that water left in the river is a waste,” said Ken Neubecker, president of Colorado Trout Unlimited.
The county says Ordway is bound by a 1980 agreement to provide water to a county water system that provides a wholesale raw water supply to several districts in the county that serve more than 5,000 people, including two prisons. “For nearly three decades, the county water system has supplied an abundant, safe and affordable water supply for the residents of Crowley and Ordway and the rural customers of the 96 Pipeline Co. and Crowley County Water Association,” Commissioner Matt Heimerich said at a news conference last month. “The cement that has held this system together has been the 1980 water system.” The county filed the lawsuit on behalf of the other partners in the lawsuit following a letter from Ordway Mayor Randal Haynes on March 30 that indicated Ordway wants to pursue long-term leases with some of its water and apply for Fryingpan-Arkansas water on its own, rather than jointly with the other partners, as outlined in the 1980 agreement…
Heimerich countered that Ordway’s interests are intertwined with the county’s, and in fact the county system is the only way it’s Fry-Ark water can be delivered. The 1980 agreement is a legal, binding contract hammered out between communities at a time when most of the county’s agricultural water was being sold off to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo West. What’s left has to provide for the people who remain in the county, he said. “The county wants to make sure the system can produce water,” Heimerich said.
Here’s a recap of today’s proceedings with the Chaffee County Commissioners, from Lee Hart writing for the Salida Citizen. From the post:
For the first time in four months of public hearings, Nestle was obviously on the warpath as first Nestle project manager Bruce Lauerman, then Nestle lawyer Holly Strablizky took aim at Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Manager Terry Scanga…
Lauerman called Scanga’s testimony “fuzzy math.”
Buena Vista resident John Cogswell also cross-examined Scanga challenging the veteran water manager’s assertion that the Aurora-Nestle lease would have a significant adverse net affect. “(UAWCD’s) water argument doesn’t hold water,” Cogswell told the Salida Citizen.
Cogswell tried to get Scanga to agree that Nestle’s lease with Aurora would be no more impactful to water in the basin than irrigating 100 acres of agricultural land. Scanga agreed that while the depletion is the same, the beneficial use of the water is not. A local rancher’s use of the water creates beneficial use within the county while Nestle’s bottled water project creates beneficial use outside the county, Scanga said.
During questioning from Commissioner Tim Glenn, Scanga said the Nestle-Aurora lease compounds the impact to the Upper basin in ways that would not occur if Nestle secured its leased water from another in-basin entity such as Pueblo Board of Water Works or the joint Salida-UAWCD proposal.
On that last point, longtime resident and local Realtor Karin Adams brought more math to light. The Aurora lease will cost Nestle approximately $200,000 for 200 acre feet of water for each of ten years, with an option to renew for another 10-year term. Aurora’s lease to Nestle could be interrupted in the event of a severe drought. Nestle rejected a joint offer from Salida and the UAWCD that would have cost $500,000 but would have provided an in-basin, uninterruptable supply of water that would have protected Nestle and other water rights users in the event of a drought. Scanga said if Nestle had agreed to the Salida-UAWCD proposal, the UAWCD would have re-invested the money to enhance the county’s water portfolio.
On another point, despite Scanga’s assertion to the contrary, Lauerman told the commissioners unequivocably that UAWCD has expressed interest in participating with Aurora in Aurora’s lease to Nestle.
Even if the Chaffee County commissioners approve Nestle’s Special Land Use Permit, Nestle still has to get water court approval for its augmentation plan. The stage has been set for a battle of the titans in water court. Based on Scanga’s predications, there will likely be at least two if not more objectors to the Nestle-Aurroa lease when it goes before the water court in a process that typically takes at least two years.
The Chaffee County commissioners will take up Nestlé Waters’ 1041 application on April 21. Here’s a report from Paul Goetz writing for The Mountain Mail. From the article:
Comments were based on staff recommendations, rhetoric and evidence provided by consultants from Nestlé and Chaffee County, as well as other review agencies. Nestlé has provided a “substantial” list of 22 different documents since the March 10 planning commissioners 1041 application special meeting, Don Reimer, county planning director said. A complete application review will be placed on the county Web site, http://www.chaffeecounty.org, within the next few days, Reimer said…
The 1041 application was found to need further investigation with experts in wetlands hydrology and economic impacts. The county retained consultants for this purpose on April 7. Information from both consultants are expected April 17. Included in the draft application review, planners said Nestlé’s need to show the proposed project can be substantiated is not applicable. The application does not meet economic diversity and economic development standards, planners said…
Bruce Lauerman, Nestlé natural resources manager, announced a $500,000 endowment would be established and used for grants to local non-profits who facilitate the values of the Nestlé project. An ad will be placed in The Mountain Mail within the next week which will search for local truck drivers to work with Nestlé’s contracted trucking company, Lauerman said. The company plans to research whether or not it can draw 50 percent of its drivers from Chaffee County…
Planners said they agreed with county staff and found several items in the comprehensive plan need to be addressed including: protecting the scenic and visual quality of the valley and providing access to public lands and river and stream corridors. Efficient use of water including the recycling and reuse of water is satisfactory, planners said.
Nestlé is currently considering Chaffee County water counsel comments and proposed a condition of approval to address concerns. County staff and planners agreed Nestlé comply with water counsel, which will be addressed by a separate report. Planners said further information from the wetlands consultant is needed to determine whether the proposed project and diversion of water shall not decrease the quality and total maximum daily load of peripheral or downstream surface water resources. In reference to not significantly degrading groundwater quality, Sig Jaastad, planning commissioner, said he had concerns if the project would adversely affect upstream users. Planners agreed the standard would be satisfied if a ground water monitoring plan is established.
In addition, planning commissioners gave the following comments on recommended conditions:
•Develop land management plan with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, National Resource Conservation Service, Colorado State University extension and county staff.
•Obtain approval for land management plan from county.
•Plan should include a time line for implementation of practices and annual reports.
The Salida Citizen (Lee Hart) has the lowdown on Nestlé’s lease for Twin Lakes water from Aurora for augmentation. From the article:
Minutes from the council hearing show interest in the deal as a way to keep water rates low to Aurora citizens outweighed concerns that the price was too low, or sent the wrong message about Aurora’s water resource availability to third parties, or that in so doing, Aurora would become part of the controversy between Nestle and Chaffee County citizens opposed to the project. Aurora Water Director Mark Pifner noted there was little public input during the negotiations with Nestle.
Here’s a look at Chaffee County’s fact finding around the economic impacts and site restoration from Lee Hart writing for the Salida Citizen. Read the whole thing, there is a lot of details. Here’s an excerpt:
Denver-based Coley-Forrest Inc. has been hired at an estimated cost of $4,500 to $8,000 to further study the economic impacts of the Nestle project within Chaffee County. Hydrologic Systems Analysis LLC of Golden has been charged with a closer examination of the interaction of groundwater and the aquifer on wetlands as a result of Nestle pumping hundreds of gallons per day from springs in Nathrop for transport to Denver where it will be bottled and distributed under Nestle’s Arrowhead brand. That report is expected to cost no more than $8,000. Nestle is required to reimburse the county for all the expenses, including consultants, necessary to process its applications.
[Ruedi] Now that spring has arrived, we are getting ready for spring run-off in the Fryingpan River Basin. We are looking at a slightly above average snow pack this year. As a result, beginning [April 10], we will start moving some water out of Ruedi Reservoir to make room for melting snow. At 6:00 p.m. this evening, we will increase our releases from Ruedi Reservoir to the Fryingpan River by 40 cfs. Rocky Fork Creek is currently running at about 5 cfs. Our release, plus the Rocky Fork, will put about 153 cfs total in the ‘Pan.
[Green Mountain] Just a quick head’s up about spring and Green Mountain Reservoir. As most of you have probably already noticed, we are only at an elevation of 7894 in the reservoir [April 10]. We are also releasing about 100 cfs from Green Mountain to the Lower Blue. We are anticipating run-off and getting ready for the on-coming season.
[Twin Lakes/Lake Pueblo] Today [April 10], we are releasing about 27 cfs from Twin Lakes Reservoir to Lake Creek (which flows into the Arkansas). The Wellsville gage on the Arkansas River is showing 273 cfs. We have 380 cfs flowing into Pueblo Reservoir. And the reservoir is currently sitting at an elevation of 4879.
[Colorado-Big Thompson] Today [April 10] on the C-BT, we are releasing about 63 cfs from Olympus Dam in Estes Park to the Big Thompson River. Pinewood Reservoir is looking pretty full at an elevation of 6575. And, we are still pumping to Carter Lake. Carter is also getting close to full with an elevation of 5753.
There is some regular maintenance work being conducted on the portion of the Charles Hansen Feeder Canal which runs water to Horsetooth. For this reason, water into Horsetooth has dropped off over the past couple of weeks. It has been sitting fairly consistently at an elevation of 5404–about ten feet below our average spring high of 5414. Once the work on the canal is complete, we will stop pumping to Carter and begin running water to Horsetooth, again.
If you’ve been following the snowpack information, you no doubt will have heard by now that Colorado is just slightly below average in most of its river basins. The South Platte basin is one that is sitting just below average. It has been somewhat dry this winter on Colorado’s eastern plains. The spring snow storms helped a little, but that early heat wave we had in March did melt some of the snowpack away.