As the ski season approaches, everyone wants to know how much snow Summit County will get this year.
Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist of Open Snow, explained that at this point in the year, the only way to have some sort of idea about what the upcoming season will look like is to determine whether it will be an El Nino or a La Nina year and then to look at past weather patterns associated with those climate phenomena. El Nino and La Nina refer to warmer or cooler water temperatures, respectively, in the Pacific Ocean and impact weather worldwide.
“The reason people talk about it now is because El Nino and La Nina is the only factor that we can kind of reliably predict many months in advance,” Gratz said. “All the other things that control storm tracks aren’t able to be predicted more than really a week or two in advance, which is when we’re just tracking each individual storm.”
This year, there’s a 70% to 80% chance that La Nina will arrive this winter, and models are showing that La Nina will be weak to moderate.
So what does this mean for our ski season? Unfortunately, not much.
Gratz explained that the stronger the La Nina or El Nino, the better chance Colorado will get at least average snowfall — if not above average. But a weak La Nina means anything could happen…
Typically, Gratz said La Nina does well for the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains, meaning it’s likely to be wetter than normal in those areas. On the flip side, El Nino often favors the south in terms of precipitation. However, as Colorado is in the middle of North America, correlation between weather and El Nino and La Nina is weaker. Gratz said El Nino often means some bigger storms are seen on the Front Range, but Summit County is often unaffected.
“Many past seasons with a La Nina have done pretty well in the northern mountains where Summit is. Last season was a La Nina, and it was OK but generally below average,” Gratz said…
To complicate things more, Gratz noted that Colorado’s worst season and its best season in the past 30 years both occurred when there was neither a La Nina nor an El Nino. Overall, Gratz said El Nino and La Nina are general concepts that sometimes work at the local level…
The seven- to 10-days out marker is for when meteorologists have their eye on an incoming storm but don’t have many details, Gratz explained. After that, they’re filling in those details, such as snow accumulation ranges, until the storm hits.
While it’s essentially anyone’s guess what the ski season will look like in terms of powder days, the National Weather Service’s two week forecast isn’t promising. Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said that through the end of the month, above normal temperatures are expected. She added that there is a high chance that the remainder of September will be dry.
Moving into the month of September, rainfall in Summit County is starting to slow down and temperatures have remained high, meaning the Dillon Reservoir is starting to look a little dryer.
The reservoir is currently 91% full after reaching full capacity earlier this summer.
Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, said this is typical of the reservoir’s fill and drawdown cycle but added that the water level took a slightly sharper decline at the start of the month due to increased water needs, as well…
Compared to recent years, Elder said the reservoir has stayed full longer because of above-average precipitation in the Blue River watershed and less demand in the area the reservoir serves. He said the levels did not set any records, though…
Elder said the drawdown of the reservoir typically starts in early to mid-July, but this year’s July was very wet in the Blue River watershed. Dillon Reservoir started to slightly lose storage in mid-July, but in late July and early August, precipitation brought the reservoir back up, keeping it full longer than normal…
Elder also said the Roberts Tunnel, which moves water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, was turned off for a part of August when it would typically be running at 215 cubic feet per second. He said Denver water has not started releasing more water down the Blue River but has been consistently releasing 105 cubic feet per second for the past month…
[Treste] Huse said streamflows were generally above normal throughout the summer, but they have started to come back down again. She said at least half of the streams in Summit County are running normally, but six of them have now dipped below normal.
Looking at the whole summer, Huse said Dillon had more rainfall than it typically does. From May through August, Dillon received 9.08 inches of rainfall, which is 145% of the average amount of 6.25 inches.
FromThe Summit Daily via The Sky-Hi News (Lindsey Toomer):
The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document…
Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.
The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.
Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said…
Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river…
When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed…
The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.
While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.
Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.
Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level…
Looking to the future
Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said…
Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.
Rare earth elements are finding their way into Colorado water supplies, driven by changes in climate, finds a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Rare earth elements are necessary components of many computing and other high-tech devices, like cell phones and hard drives. But there is growing recognition that they can be hazardous in the environment even at low levels of concentration.
“This is of concern because their concentrations are not monitored and there are no water quality standards set for them,” says study author Diane McKnight, who is an INSTAAR Fellow and Engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study is the first to look at how rare earth elements move within a watershed that is rich in minerals. It is also the first to investigate how climate change, by altering stream flow and natural weathering processes, is releasing more rare earth elements into streams.
Diane McKnight has led her students in investigations of water quality in the Snake River watershed of Colorado since the 1990s. Their main focus has been measuring and observing acid rock drainage. In this process, rocks that include sulfide-based minerals, such as pyrite, oxidize when exposed to air and water. The resulting chemical reaction produces sulfuric acid and dissolved metals like iron, which drain into streams. More acidic water can further dissolve heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, and zinc, and as it turns out can carry rare earth elements as well.
“What really controls the mobility of rare earth elements is pH. Acid literally leaches it out of the rocks,” says first author Garrett Rue, who earned a masters degree studying limnology with McKnight and a subsequent PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Acid rock drainage happens naturally throughout the western United States, with its pyrite-rich geology. But historic mines that disturb large amounts of rocks and soil amp up the process dramatically and cause downstream water pollution.
Within the Snake River watershed, towns impacted by acid mine drainage have been forced to adapt to poor water quality. Some former mining boomtowns, like Silverton, import water from distant sources. Others rely on expensive water treatment plants. All fish in the Snake River are stocked, since the water is too high in zinc for any native fish species to survive. The problem is endemic to the western United States, says Rue: “Upwards of forty percent of the headwaters to major rivers in the West are contaminated by some form of acid mine or rock drainage.”
The Snake River has made a good natural laboratory for investigating both, since the Peru Creek part of the watershed was heavily mined, while the Upper Snake River was not. But Rue and McKnight found that both parts of the watershed are now contributing significant amounts of metals downstream, as climate change has brought longer summers and less snow in the winters. Longer, lower stream flows make it easier for metals to leach into the watershed, and concentrate the metals that would otherwise be diluted by snowmelt.
The same processes that mean more heavy metals are finding their way into streams are also acting on rare earth elements. The researchers found rare earth elements throughout the Snake River. “We documented a concentration range of one to hundreds of micrograms per liter—several orders of magnitude higher than typical for surface waters—with the highest concentrations nearest the headwaters and areas receiving drainage from abandoned mine workings,” says Rue.
They also documented that increases in rare earth elements in the Snake River corresponded to warming summer air temperatures, and that rare earth elements are accumulating in insects living in streams at concentrations comparable to other metals such as lead and cadmium shown to be toxic.
“We’re starting to understand that once rare earth elements get in the water, they tend to stay there,” says Rue. “They aren’t removed by traditional treatment processes either, which has implications for reuse and has led some European cities to designate REEs as an emerging contaminant to drinking water supplies. And considering that the Snake River flows directly into Dillion Reservoir, which is Denver’s largest source of stored water, this could be a concern for the future.”
The researchers suggest that investigating and investing in technologies to recover rare earth elements from natural waters could yield valuable commodities and help address the problems associated with acid rock and mine drainage, which are poised to worsen as the climate shifts.
“Rare earth elements are used to make a lot of products. But most of the supply comes from China. So our government has been looking for sources, but at the same time mining has left an indelible mark on the waters of the West,” says Rue. “If we can harvest some of these materials that are already coming into our environment, it might be worthwhile to treat that water and recover these materials at the same time.”
“This problem is getting worse and we need to deal with it,” adds McKnight. “If we can solve the problem holistically, we can have a valuable resource and also think about climate adaptation.”
The Colorado River at Kremmling in Grand County will enjoy a big bump in flows from August into October as Denver Water pays off a hefty water debt.
The rising flows — an addition of more than 300 cubic feet per second (more on that later) sent from Wolford Mountain and Williams Fork reservoirs — serve as a good example of how Colorado’s intricate system of water rights can drive river flows higher when they might typically be lower as autumn settles in.
In this case, it works like this: A dry year created conditions that now require Denver Water to “pay back” water to the West Slope.
Why? Let’s stick with the easy version.
An agreement that emerged over 50 years of Byzantine legal fights allows Denver to move water from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County to the Front Range when it needs the water for its customers.
But — and this is a big “But” — if another big reservoir called Green Mountain (that’s the very long reservoir you drive past as you cruise Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling) — doesn’t fill up in the spring and summer, Denver Water has to make up the difference later in the year.
Stay with us here. Take a look at the map that accompanies this story to help.
Years like this, when Denver Water has to refund water, are called “substitution” years. There have been big substitution years, when a lot of water is involved in the refund, in dry years such as 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2013.
This year is shaping up as a big one, too; one of the largest. In all, the utility expects to release about 37,600 acre-feet from Williams Fork and Wolford to make up what Green Mountain, a reservoir operated by federal Bureau of Reclamation, lacked this year.
That’s a lot of water — close to the capacity of Gross Reservoir, the big Denver Water reservoir in the foothills northwest of Denver. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to serve three or four households for a year.
But wait, you say. Water from Williams Fork and Wolford won’t find its way to Green Mountain, since the Green Mountain Reservoir is on the Blue River and those two reservoirs send their water into the Colorado River, not the Blue.
(Also, water can’t flow upstream from the Colorado River into Green Mountain Reservoir. Take another look at the map in this story.)
That’s OK, as the point is to make up for flows in the Colorado River that would otherwise be augmented by releases from Green Mountain. In short, the releases keep the flows moving on the West Slope.
Now, back to those flows. Releases are expected to add an additional 400 cubic feet per second to the Colorado River in August, 320 cfs in September, and then decrease somewhat to an extra 200 cfs in the first two weeks of October.
How much water is that?
Quite a bit. If you think in terms of gallons (think of the gallon of milk at the grocery story), a cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons. So 300 cubic feet per second means about 2,250 gallons of water per second added to the river flows. (Think about that many milk jugs floating by each second).
While it’s a lot of water to pay back — and it means Denver Water will need to draw down its supplies in Wolford and Williams Fork quite a bit — it could have been even more.
But a wet spring on the Front Range kept sprinklers off and demand low. Monsoons returned this year as well, boosting flows on both sides of the Continental Divide. All of that allowed Denver Water to reduce what it moved from Dillon Reservoir, through the Roberts Tunnel, to the Front Range.
Which, in turn, allowed a bit more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain and reduced the “substitution” amount to be repaid.
If you’ve stuck with us until now, we raise a toast to you, salute your interest in a puzzling topic, and hope that this boost in late season flows in the Colorado River brings a smile to all of us inspired by the beauty of a moving stream.
On July 1, the Blue River below Dillon was flowing at 221 cubic feet per second. On Aug. 5, it jumped up to 455 cfs. Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, explained that in the first week of August, the Blue River’s flow reached the 450 mark and has slowly declined since. On Tuesday, Aug. 10, it was 340 cfs, which he said is slightly above normal for this time of year.
Denver Water manages Dillon Reservoir, which the Blue River flows into and out of.
“We’re trying to match outflow with inflow and send that water downstream to Green Mountain Reservoir,” Elder said…
The increase in water to Green Mountain Reservoir is welcome, as the reservoir was over 50,000 acre-feet below normal in late July, and a downstream call for irrigation rights was placed on the reservoir. As of Aug. 11, the reservoir, which is full at about 154,000 acre-feet of water, was holding 100,243 acre-feet of water.
Summit County saw its wettest July in 10 years, which is what has contributed to the increase in outflow, Elder said. He noted that not only has the rain on the Western Slope helped, but rain on the Front Range has lowered water demands on that side of the Continental Divide. That has reduced the need to send water through Roberts Tunnel, which has kept more water in Dillon Reservoir and made way for the release of more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain Reservoir…
Dillon Reservoir started out the year lower than normal, and less water flowed in from the melting snowpack. In late June, Elder reported that the reservoir was full but only because much less water was released from the reservoir to the Blue River than in an average year. The lack of water flowing into the Blue River meant two things: Less water went to Green Mountain Reservoir, and commercial rafting couldn’t happen on the river this year…
As for the Goose Pasture Tarn, which is currently lowered due to the rehabilitation of the dam, Elder said the tarn’s water that is being stored in Dillon Reservoir has a “very small impact.” For context, the tarn is 771 acre-feet, whereas Dillon Reservoir is over 257,000. Once it’s time for the tarn to be refilled, it will be given priority for water rights.
The Snake River Water District will undergo a variety of rehabilitation and improvements throughout the next 10 years based on its 2021 master plan.
The district, which provides drinking water to the Keystone valley, underwent a study with an engineering firm to look at its infrastructure’s strengths and weaknesses. The idea to look into infrastructure upgrades started about two years ago when the district was notified it had a slight lead exceedance based on two water samples.
Scott Price, executive director and district administrator, said this occurs not because there is an issue with the actual water, but because pipes in some older homes in the area were built with lead and are still in use. If the water sits in the pipes for too long, it can lead to concentrations of lead in the water samples. Price said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has to use the water that first comes out when the faucet is turned on when it tests water samples, which will likely be affected by lead if the water sat unused in old pipes.
The district has three base plants, each with its own storage and water filtration system. The second base, which is also home to the district’s office, is likely to need an additional storage tank to serve the high-density area of Keystone Resort, as well as a pump station that can transport water uphill from the third to the second base.
An existing infrastructure issue to address is water pipe breakage, something Price said can cost around 10 times more to fix in the winter than it does in the summer. Engineers looked at which pipes were more likely to break, but also the severity of consequences that can occur from a breakage.
The study prioritized which pipes and fire hydrants in the district would need attention immediately, creating a map showing the different priorities based on each area. The district plans to chip away at these pipe and hydrant upgrades little by little during the 10-year plan.
Meanwhile, the third plant underwent $8.5 million in upgrades a couple years ago, including a new filtration system. Price said he expects this filtration system to be in compliance for decades to come as water quality regulations get tighter over time…
Price also said that should the base two plant need upgrades — which he is expecting to get a decision from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by the end of the year — the whole district will be able to temporarily operate on the new base three plant.
Lastly, the study showed that the district’s Pilot Lode storage tank by the Settlers Creek townhomes will need improvements to its interior lining, as it is around 25 years old and steel constructed.
The study estimates that over 10 years, the district will need about $38.5 million in work, estimated as follows:
Pump station from base three to base two: $1.5 million
Base two storage tank: $7.6 million
Base two groundwater under direct influence compliance: $11.8 million
Pilot Lode tank rehabilitation: $550,000
Pipeline replacements: $13.5 million
Fire hydrant replacements: $1.6 million
On top of these costs there are several smaller projects included in the master plan that account for the remaining $2 million of the budget. These estimates cover only the cost of construction, and the district will need to pay more in the coming months for architects and engineers to design the systems…
The plan calls for a 12% rate increase at the start of 2022, and the Snake River Water District’s board is currently planning to do 12% increases over the next three years. The base quarterly fee will go from $65 in 2022 to $91 in 2024.
The Snake River Water District hasn’t increased its water rates in about eight years, which was then only a 3% increase. Prior to that, it hadn’t raised its quarterly rates since the 1990s.
A new coalition aims to re-shape the way people think about Colorado’s Gold Medal fisheries while also rally support for preserving and expanding signature waters around the state.
The coalition is “still very much a work in progress,” said Scott Willoughby, the Colorado field organizer with Trout Unlimited. But the campaign called Colorado Gold has added muscle with dozens of major business partners that include Patagonia and Fishpond, along with angling groups and towns centered around the state’s streams and lakes with the sport’s greatest distinction.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages some 322 river miles and three lakes with Gold Medal designations, based on those locations producing “the highest quality cold-water habitats.” The designation is reserved for fisheries producing a variety of trout 14-plus inches.
“When we talk about these Gold Medal waters, people seem to associate them with trophy trout fishing,” Willoughby said. “I think it’s time we shift that thinking from trophy trout to trophy trout habitat.”
With the sport’s growing popularity, Trout Unlimited has identified over-fishing as one threat to those habitats. Colorado Gold has a bold mission to conserve enough habitat to merit a 30% increase in Gold Medal fishing waters by 2030.
Doing this “will help safeguard more Colorado fisheries while redistributing pressure on a currently limited resource,” reads a coalition statement. Colorado Gold’s website adds: “We can’t afford to simply sit back and watch (Parks and Wildlife) do all the heavy lifting.”
Bigger and hotter fires of recent years have been another threat to prized streams. In 2019, officials reported the 416 fire near Durango effectively killed 80% of the fish population along the Gold Medal Animas River…
“Obviously, (climate change) will take federal action, as well as local action,” Willoughby said. “That’s why it’s so important that we continue to broaden this coalition.”
The Snake River Water District will hold a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, at its office at 0050 Oro Grande Drive in Keystone.
A presentation will be given on the recently completed water system master plan and upcoming rate changes at the meeting.
Based on the master plan, the district will need to invest about $38.5 million over the next 10 years to address aging infrastructure, potential trouble areas of the system, capacity and distribution. Its next step is determining how to fund these upgrades through federal and state grants and loans.
Downstream call placed on the reservoir for irrigation water rights
Green Mountain Reservoir, one of the biggest reservoirs in Summit County, located in Summit County, is low this summer, but it’s not as low as in previous drought years.
The reservoir is currently storing about 101,000 acre-feet of water — 32.9 billion gallons — James Heath, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said in an email. He noted that the reservoir is typically nearly full around this time of year. A full Green Mountain Reservoir is about 154,000 acre-feet of water, or approximately 50 billion gallons.
However, Heath said in previous drought years like 2002 and 2012, there was less water stored in the reservoir than there is this year.
Heath explained that the runoff from the Blue River this year was not enough to fill both Dillon Reservoir, which is upstream, and Green Mountain Reservoir, which is downstream…
Releases from Green Mountain Reservoir make their way to the Colorado River to appease those downstream with senior water rights. Heath said these releases replace upstream depletions from West Slope diversions and the Colorado Big Thompson project, which delivers the approximate volume of Dillon Reservoir to the South Platte Basin.
Heath noted that there has been a call for irrigation water rights downstream in the Grand Valley, which means senior water users have requested to restrict the use of water among junior water users because there is not enough water in the system to allow all water diversions. This requires Green Mountain Reservoir to stop storing, pass inflows and make releases.
While calls on Green Mountain Reservoir can restrict use for junior water users, there is a group of western Colorado water users that have historically benefited from releases out of Green Mountain Reservoir, called historic user pool beneficiaries, that are allowed to continue to divert after a call is placed on the river.
Since July 10, the reservoir water level has dropped about 7,000 acre-feet, or 2.2 billion gallons, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources website. For most of July, Green Mountain Reservoir’s discharge to the Blue River was below the historic average.
Today is a big day! As of July 26th, 2021 our partners at Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment will be mobilizing crews and setting the stage for channel construction and Rock Island Road bridge installation. The pull off at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road will be used by crews to stage equipment and will be closed to overflow parking from the Tiger Trailhead through the end of the construction season. Rock Island Road will remain open to the public throughout the construction phase, including during bridge installation.
This seasons work will include final grading, channel construction, bank stabilization, bridge installation, and initial revegetation of the site. When completed, 4,800′ of new channel, 13 acres of riparian habitat, and 5 acres of upland habitat will be created on Reach B. The new channel will include 20 riffle-glide-pool sequences that mimic the natural morphology of reference streams in similar elevations and habitats. These sequences will provide natural aquatic habitat and will be paired with large woody debris and boulder installation to further diversify the available habitat along this stretch of stream. New bank stabilization techniques that utilize logs and root wads will also be installed on this stretch to serve as fish refuges. By taking into consideration lessons learned on Reach A, we have made these improvements to the Reach B design and will continue to utilize the most current restoration techniques.
Last week, Summit TV was on site to shoot some aerial photography prior to the beginning of construction (see the photos below). Colorado Parks and Wildlife also toured the Reach A site recently to see an example of successful stream restoration and the following establishment of brook trout and sculpin populations. We hope that this project can continue to serve as a model for stream restoration, both here in Colorado and around the country.
Keep following the blog to see progress photos throughout the construction season and the transformation of the site.
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
The Snake River Water District is planning ahead for increasing water needs in the Keystone area due to population growth over the past decade.
District Executive Director Scott Price said in a statement that the district recently created a water system master plan looking into emerging challenges in the next 10 years. The plan includes a prioritized list of short- and long-term projects.
According to the plan, the district needs to invest $38.5 million over the next decade to address trouble areas, update the old water treatment plant and add a new pump station and storage tank. The district is currently seeking grants and loans to help fund the improvements. It is also evaluating user rates that have remained unchanged for the past eight years.
The district will hold public meetings with key stakeholders to discuss the financial plans. There will be two public meetings July 22, including a 1 p.m. livestream on the district’s Facebook page and an in-person meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the district’s office in Keystone, 0050 Oro Grande Drive.
Denver Water cuts back on some of its West Slope supplies to help struggling streams.
The Colorado River is hurting.
The struggles of the river’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been well documented over the last decade as drought has ravished the West.
The story, however, starts more than 500 miles upstream in Grand County, Colorado.
The county is filled with streams that make up the beginning of the mighty Colorado’s journey in the mountains north of Grand Lake. Around 60% of the water in Grand County is diverted from these streams and used for agricultural and municipal water supply, mostly on the Front Range.
That includes the Denver metro area, which receives about 20% of its water from Grand County, where Denver Water has water rights dating back to the 1920s. Most of the water is captured in rivers and streams around Winter Park when mountain snow melts in the spring.
But, after a lackluster runoff season on the West Slope combined with dry soils from the past year, the hot, dry conditions in early June meant the high-country rivers and streams needed help.
Denver Water responded by voluntarily reducing diversions from several Grand County creeks and coordinating with the Colorado River District, Grand County, Northern Water and other Learning By Doing partners to adjust operations, where possible, to help boost water levels in some of the more troubled areas.
“While our primary responsibility is to make sure we’re supplying water to 1.5 million people in the metro area, we’re always looking for opportunities to help improve conditions on the rivers, to help the aquatic environment, recreation and communities they flow through,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.
By reducing diversions, Denver Water foregoes collecting a portion of water it is legally entitled to collect for its water supply in exchange for improving streams and tributaries along the Colorado River.
It started with a plea for help
On June 5, the Colorado River District asked Denver Water for help after reporting extremely low water levels and critically high water temperatures on the Colorado River. The river district reported conditions were creating unhealthy habitat for fish and aquatic insects.
“When the email came in Saturday morning, we were in a position to quickly respond and reduce the amount of water we were pulling from several Grand County creeks,” Elder said.
Denver Water has continued making operational adjustments since that email.
The utility estimates that by early July it will have voluntarily foregone collecting around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County to help keep more water in the Colorado and Fraser rivers. That’s roughly enough water to supply over 44,000 residences for one year.
“It has been helpful to hear directly from stakeholders in Grand County, including Trout Unlimited and ranchers along the river, on where we may be able to truly help the river, the community and the environment with our operational adjustments,” Elder said.
“With help from the West Slope, we’ve been able to target specific areas and send some beneficial water downstream.”
This includes adjusting water releases from Williams Fork Dam twice a day in a way that also benefits the Colorado River.
For example, when releasing water from the dam, Elder and his team try to time the flows, so the water reaches the river in Kremmling — an area prone to higher river temperatures — during hotter times of the day.
The higher water level helps to cool down the water, which is better for the aquatic environment.
Position to help
The wet spring conditions along the Front Range boosted water supplies in Denver Water’s South Platte River collection system, which drastically reduced customers’ demand for water across the metro area — where Denver Water serves a quarter of the state’s population.
In fact, from January to May, Denver Water’s customer water use hit a 50-year low across the metro area, despite nearly 600,000 more people in its service area since 1970. That includes years in which the metro area was on mandatory drought restrictions.
“Some of the low use may be due to COVID-19 impacts on business and obviously a wet, cool spring helped,” said Greg Fisher, demand manager for Denver Water.
“It’s a great sign that our customers really understand efficient water use and let Mother Nature do the watering for them when possible.”
This wet spring on the Front Range also helped provide additional flexibility on how Denver Water collected and distributed water across its collection system during the spring snow runoff.
“We were able to turn off the Roberts Tunnel in April, which helped bring water levels up in Dillon Reservoir for boating,” Elder said.
“The conditions also enabled us to send more water down the Blue River below Dillon Dam to help improve fish habitat around Silverthorne instead of sending the water to the Front Range.”
Denver Water uses the Roberts Tunnel to bring water from Dillon — the utility’s largest reservoir — under the Continental Divide to the Front Range.
But flexibility like this is not always possible, especially with the myriad threats Denver’s water system is facing.
“Between the rising temperatures, changes to the timing of spring runoff, extreme fire behavior and half a million more people expected in the metro area by 2040, our ability for flexible operations is decreasing in a time when we need it the most,” said Elder.
“We must take an ‘all-in’ approach that includes conservation, water reuse and development of new water supplies so we can continue to maximize the benefits of a large system.”
According to Elder, hot, dry weather conditions highlight the benefits of having a large water collection system, as it provides the water planning team more flexibility in its operational playbook.
The vision for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, which is in its final steps of permitting, is an example of how additional water storage can really help streams in times of drought.
“As part of the Gross Reservoir Expansion, some of the voluntary things we’re doing this year — like leaving more water in the Grand County rivers — will become required annual operations for us,” said Elder.
That’s because Denver Water is one of 18 partners who signed the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, ushering in a new era of cooperation between the utility and West Slope stakeholders, all with the vested interest in protecting watersheds in the Colorado River Basin.
As part of that agreement, a process called “Learning by Doing” was created, which has helped the utility stay better connected on river conditions in Grand County. The partnership is a collection of East and West Slope water stakeholders who help identify and find solutions to water issues in Grand County.
“Denver Water has been part of Grand County for over 100 years, and we understand the impact our diversions have on the rivers and streams,” said Rachel Badger, environmental planning manager at Denver Water.
“Our goal is to manage our water resources as efficiently as possible and be good stewards of the water — and Learning By Doing helps us do that.”
Summit County received a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among other partners, to restore the area’s riparian floodplain, wetlands and upland habitat.
The foundation awarded $3.1 million to 10 habitat restoration projects across the state from its Restoration and Stewardship of Outdoor Resources and Environment — or RESTORE — Colorado program. Grant awards from this fund are meant for projects on public and private conservation lands that have the greatest benefit for wildlife habitat and local communities.
The grant will contribute to a project meant to improve habitat quality and connectivity for native cutthroat, brown and brook trout species in the Swan River Valley. The project will restore 0.8 miles of the main stem of Swan River as well as 30 acres of riparian and upland habitat.
The Goose Pasture Tarn Dam rehabilitation construction officially started in May and is on schedule to be completed in 2023 as planned.
Breckenridge Public Works Director James Phelps said most of the work taking place throughout 2021 is in preparation for larger aspects of the project, such as taking apart the spillways.
The project currently in the works is getting a 96-inch bypass pipe in place, which will help when it comes time to drain the tarn at the end of July, Phelps said. He added that this will be of use once they take apart the spillways next year to control runoff.
The town of Breckenridge created a website, TownOfBreckenridgeGPTD.com, dedicated to construction updates on the dam rehabilitation. Updates will be posted every two weeks with details on the construction schedule.
According to the website’s May 21 update, construction between May 24 and June 5 has included setting up staging areas to access the job site, finishing the temporary access road via Wagon Road and minor work in the stilling basin on top of the bypass pipe work.
Phelps said the town has also worked to identify properties where water supply could be affected by the project. He said they are working with a contractor that will be able to provide water for those who may need it…
He added that wells have been placed around the reservoir to monitor groundwater. Based on what’s already been observed in these monitoring wells, Phelps said it’s possible that neighboring wells won’t be affected by the project…
Based on current progress, Phelps said the project is on schedule and should continue as planned with little interruptions based on runoff predictions for the rest of the year.
Experts from different organizations presented updates specific to their work, all focusing on water rights, drought outlooks and river basin updates.
Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, went through the recent history of the ongoing drought in the state. He said throughout the past few months, eastern Colorado has seen decent drought improvement, but western Colorado has remained about the same.
Schumacher presented a chart showing average temperatures and precipitation from April through September, which showed that 2020 was somewhat of an outlier.
“It was the driest April through September on record and one of the few hottest on record, and that is a recipe for a drought that develops quickly,” Schumacher said…
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, provided an overview of the goals and accomplishments from phase one of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. The first objective of the plan, which Van Gytenbeek said the group has spent most of its time on, is to understand potential causes for declining fish populations between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how the decline can be mitigated…
The second objective is what Van Gytenbeek called a “literature search,” which aims to compile information regarding physical and biological aspects of the Blue River Basin’s water resources. This would then formulate objectives and goals for future phases of the plan.
Van Gytenbeek said the phase one report is currently being finalized, and they intend to submit it to an advisory committee in the middle of June. He said he expects the report to be made public in July or early August.
Once the report is completed the second phase of the project will continue, with hopes of having the final phase two report ready for the public by March 2022. Van Gytenbeek said he thinks integrated water management plan organizations like the Blue River Watershed Group should get some support to keep the dialogue going past the life of phase two of the project.
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District, talked about supply issues within the Colorado River Compact…
Nathan Elder and Jason Finehout of Denver Water said there is a low likelihood of filling the Dillon Reservoir this year, predicting an inflow of about 50-60% of normal. Finehout went on to explain that many of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules are the same as many jurisdictions’ stage one drought restrictions…
Brian Lorch, trails director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, provided an update on the Swan River Restoration Project, which aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley impacted by historical dredge mining.
Lorch said this summer, Reach B of the project will start to take shape, as contractors will create about another mile of stream channel.
Kevin Foley, president of Performance Tours Rafting, said Friday, May 14, that recent reports he has received from Denver Water indicate the organization is likely to prioritize filling the Dillon Reservoir.
“What we are being told is, right now, the reservoir is low and snowpack is below average, so their model this year going to be more fill and spill,” Foley said.
Each spring and summer, Denver Water determines how much water it will release into the Blue River north of the Dillon Dam based on how much water is needed in different locations throughout an intricate network of water systems and reservoirs that service water users.
Foley said current conditions and a low water level in Dillon Reservoir point to Denver Water filling the reservoir with any new snow or rain in the coming weeks, rather than diverting flows downstream into the Blue River.
Foley said he will find out more from Denver Water at a meeting next week, but as of now, he said it’s unlikely there will be an extended season on the Blue…
The Class 2 to 3 Blue River stretch, which usually takes just over an hour for commercial trips, runs 5 to 6 miles from a U.S. Forest Service put-in at Hammer Bridge through Boulder Canyon down to a take-out at Columbine Landing. Foley said Performance Tours and KODI Rafting’s cutoff for the stretch is usually 500 cfs, signaling when they can start and stop. He said the best rafting on the Blue is at 1,000 cfs.
The commercial rafting season on the Blue is notoriously fickle, sometimes very short at just a couple of weeks in dry years to up to two months of rafting in wet seasons…
Foley said drainages down on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista are looking much better than the Blue. He credited the voluntary flow management program on the Arkansas that enables commercial companies to raft on good, augmented flows deep into summer. Trips out of Buena Vista have been operating for some commercial companies since May 1.
Area snowpack improved in April but is back on a melting trend. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites, the snowpack level at Copper Mountain peaked at the beginning of April at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack. The snow-water equivalent dropped to 10.6 inches in mid-April and increased to 12 inches by Friday, April 30.
The snowpack has declined in May and is currently sitting at 9.8 inches of snow-water equivalent on Copper Mountain, or 82% of the 30-year median. The upper Colorado River basin, which Summit County falls into, is at 65% of normal snow-water equivalent as of May 10.
“Things aren’t looking so good right now,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier said. “We’ve melted out about a third of the snowpack already.”
Meier said cool and snowy days like Monday, May 10, slow down the melting process and add a bit to the snowpack, but overall, he expects the snowpack to remain below normal. He said the snowpack usually melts out between June 10 and 20…
According to the National Weather Service’s almanac, only 9 inches of snow was recorded in April at the Dillon Weather Station — almost half the area’s normal April snowfall of 17.3 inches.
So far, May is closer to average with a total of 3 inches as of Monday morning and more on the way with through the remainder of the storm. Through May 10, normal snowfall for the Dillon station is 3.3 inches.
Though not much snow accumulated, drought conditions have improved in Summit County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The county is still in a drought, but the severity has lessened to a severe drought in the northern portion of the county and a moderate drought in the southern portion of the county, according to the Drought Monitor’s severity scale. As of April 27, the northern portion of the county was still in an extreme drought.
The Colorado River District has approved funding for several projects across the Western Slope, including Phase 2 of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan in Summit County. The district allocated $25,000 to the project. The Blue River plan was created by the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited in 2019.
The goal of the plan is to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem. The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.
Phase 2 of the plan involves gathering data and analyzing certain areas of the Blue River basin identified as needing further analysis in Phase 1.
A CBS4 Investigates analysis of public testing data has found levels of perfluoroalkyl substances – commonly known as forever chemicals – in Frisco’s drinking water would be considered too high in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York. The levels would also trigger further testing requirements in Michigan.
Jessica Johnson, who lives and works in Frisco, said she was unaware of the elevated levels.
“I was pretty shocked, honestly, to learn that the forever chemicals were in our water,” Johnson said. “It’s concerning for me; thyroid issues run in my family, so I don’t really want to do anything that would exacerbate that, because I’m sure it’s probably looming on the horizon for me anyway.”
While there is no federal legal limit, the EPA recommends drinking water not have more than 70 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS combined, but some states say that’s not good enough, setting more stringent legal limits…
State health department testing conducted last summer found Frisco’s drinking water had a level of 58.5 for the chemicals regulated in Massachusetts and Vermont, more than twice the legal limits in those states. The testing also found Frisco had a level of 11 parts per trillion of PFOS, which would be above the safe limit set in New York. Frisco’s PFOA level was only 6.2 part per trillion, but would require quarterly testing in Michigan…
The Town of Frisco says right now, there’s no health concern, because the PFAS levels are below the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion…
Frisco spokesperson Vanessa Agee wrote in an email, “an interview with Frisco’s Water Division would do nothing to further your viewer’s understanding of PFAS or alert them to a health danger, which are in fact really admirable and helpful goals that we hope you have much success with, as it is vital that we have the facts and current understanding around this evolving research into PFAS and PFAS’ potential impacts on our health.”
Asked why residents were not notified about the PFAS testing results, Agee wrote, “if there were a health concern, then the EPA and CDPHE would require individual notification of residents, and the Town would of course provide that notification swiftly because we authentically care about the health of our neighbors and friends, which is what Frisco’s residents are in this very close-knit community and county. The public would be very well served by understanding that the science around PFAS is evolving, understanding where that science is right now, and having knowledge about what is being done across Colorado and the country to better understand PFAS and their impact on health.”
The state health department has also told CBS4 in a past interview that residents should not be concerned about the elevated levels, because they are below the health advisory, but that if residents are still concerned, they can look at purchasing a reverse osmosis filtration system for their home or bottled water…
Currently, the state of Colorado has taken its own steps to begin regulating PFAS, for example, new state legislation has created a PFAS registry, so state officials know where industrial PFAS sources are located.
But Josh Kuhn with Conservation Colorado says the centennial state should study the issue further and look at setting its own more stringent legal limits…
In the meantime, Agee says Frisco is in the process of conducting further testing in other areas of its water distribution system, including at the tap “to get a more comprehensive picture.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also says it’s in the process of developing a grant program to assist Frisco and other communities with additional testing.
“The CDPHE grant program has not been launched yet so the Town Water Division is doing what it does best, providing safe and delicious water, while always striving to have a full understanding of the facts,” Agee said in an email to CBS4.
The CDPHE says the testing will help officials determine what areas and private wells may be at risk for PFAS.
One question remains: what is the source of the PFAS pollution in Frisco? PFAS can be found in a variety of household products, and even your clothes. The Environmental Working Group also found PFAS in cosmetics.
The state health department is working to find an answer in Frisco, writing to CBS4, “we expect these (test) results to provide insight into where the chemicals may be coming from.”
Construction work to repair the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam is set to begin this month.
While the dam is located in Blue River, the rehabilitation project is being led by Breckenridge, which owns and operates the dam. Water from the Goose Pasture Tarn goes to the Gary Roberts Water Treatment Plant, which serves the residents of Breckenridge.
According to a press release from the town, rehabilitation of the dam includes the replacement of two existing spillways with a single, larger spillway that is intended to improve the safety of the dam. Officials expect the project to be completed in the fall of 2023. The dam repair project is expected to cost a total of $20 million, which is being paid for by Breckenridge, Colorado and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Moving forward with the project is a sigh of relief for Breckenridge residents because the dam, which was constructed in 1965, was classified as a “high hazard” in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2018 National Inventory of Dams. The press release noted that the dam wasn’t classified as a high hazard because of its condition. Instead, the designation was based on the estimated consequences if the dam were to fail. However, safety issues during high flows were identified in 2016, and as a result, reservoir-storage restrictions were put in place that reduced flows…
Phelps said the Goose Pasture Tarn’s water level will be lowered for about a month near the end of July. The water will be lowered for a longer period of time next summer. During the project, recreational use of the tarn is prohibited and the lowering of water levels may impact nearby residential wells. The release said that the town has installed monitoring wells to track fluctuations in groundwater levels near the reservoir and will “enact additional measures” to reduce impacts.
Phelps explained that construction work is planned to happen within three time frames: April 2021 through September 2021, April 2022 through September 2022, and May 2023 through the fall of 2023. Work could be done as early as the end of August 2023. Phelps noted that the heavy construction work will be completed in 2022, and a lot of the work that will be done in the final phase of the project will be to revegetate the area around the dam.
Following last weekend’s major snowstorm, Colorado’s snowpack has improved, but it still lags behind the 30-year median.
The percent of normal snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack — in all eight of the state’s major river basins has increased since early March, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, but five basins remain below normal levels for this time of year.
The Upper Colorado basin, which Summit County falls into, has increased its snow-water equivalent by 4 percentage points since March 5 and is currently at 89% of normal according to the Conservation Service. Breaking things down even further, the latest numbers show that the snow-water equivalent is 87% of the 30-year median at Copper Mountain and 94% at Hoosier Pass.
While the snowpack isn’t quite where it normally is this time of year, the snow has picked up recently. National Weather Service reports show that March snowfall is above average with 12.5 inches tallied so far at the Dillon weather station. Normal snowfall accumulation recorded at the station through March 18 is 9.5 inches. March’s above-average snowfall follows snowfall that was below normal levels in December, January and February…
“That Blue River above Dillon SnoTel group … as of yesterday is showing 88% of normal,” Huse said in reference to Summit County’s snowpack level. “It went up with this last storm, maybe by an inch of snow-water equivalent, just not as much as areas east of the divide. So it got a little boost from this storm, still below normal, but a little better than it was.”
Treste Huse explained that the snowpack in Summit County looks similar to 2018 levels, which had the lowest snowpack of the previous five years. Huse said that by mid-April, hydrologists will be able to better gauge what the snowpack level will mean for the rest of the year in terms of water supplies, drought and other environmental factors and added that Summit County’s 88% snowpack “isn’t bad” for now…
Huse added that the drought severity in Summit County has been improving over the past month and a half, but things didn’t change this week. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which uses a scale of drought intensity that ranges from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought, the southern half of Summit County is in a D2 severe drought and the northern half is in a D3 extreme drought.
Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.
Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.
At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
The two issues go hand-in-hand.
While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.
Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.
In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.
That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.
This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”
Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.
It’s an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.
All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.
The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons.
At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.
“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Bridget Kochel):
Colorado has mandatory boating inspection regulations in place to help monitor that mussels do not cross state lines.
After three consecutive years of negative testing, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has removed Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County from the positive waters list for quagga mussels, a prohibited aquatic nuisance species (ANS). As Green Mountain Reservoir was the only body of water in Colorado suspected of having a population of quagga mussels, this de-listing makes Colorado a completely negative state for both zebra and quagga mussels.
In August 2017, Green Mountain Reservoir, which is owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and whose developed public recreation sites are managed by the White River National Forest, tested positive for the presence of quagga mussel larvae (veligers). No adult mussels were ever found in Green Mountain Reservoir nor have they ever been found in a Colorado water body. Regional standards require three years of subsequent negative testing in order to re-classify the water from Suspect to Negative.
“After three years of negative testing, we are confident that Green Mountain Reservoir is free of invasive mussels and does not pose a risk to other aquatic resources,” said CPW’s Invasive Species Program Manager Robert Walters. “Colorado is the only state to de-list all mussel positive waters. This is a testament to the fact that our mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination procedures do work to protect Colorado’s waters from invasive species.”
While Colorado is once again completely free of invasive mussels, the threat of zebra or quagga mussels entering Colorado from another infested state is still quite real. Boaters using infested waters must take extra care not to transport mussels across state lines and to comply with Colorado’s mandatory inspection regulations.
“Our staff want to express our gratitude to the boaters who help keep Colorado’s waters safe from harmful invasive species. By participating in Cleaning, Draining, and Drying your watercraft and gear between each and every use, we can continue to prevent the spread of invasive species,” said Walters.
State of Colorado Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan Approved
The management plan was originally conceptualized in 2006 and has been collaboratively developed by CPW staff, the Colorado ANS Task Force and by ANS experts and stakeholders across the state.
“The approval of this plan is a significant milestone in ANS program history because it sets a clear path forward on how we can prevent and manage aquatic nuisance species in Colorado,” said Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources. “Invasive species have the potential to cause significant irreversible environmental impacts. The ANS management plan includes a coordinated prevention plan to keep Colorado’s waters free of ANS and a rapid response strategy that is designed to quickly contain new populations that may establish. This aims to minimize negative impacts on human safety, our wildlife populations and our native ecosystems.”
In an effort to balance outdoor recreation with mindful conservation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires boaters to purchase an ANS Stamp when registering a boat in Colorado to help protect state waters. The stamp provides approximately half of the funding needed to run the ANS Program operations annually, which includes watercraft inspection and decontamination services, monitoring of state waters and management of existing populations.
A private ranch is seeking Colorado environmental regulators’ permission to inject the Blue River with phosphorus — a chemical regulated as a pollutant — as part of an experiment that could help improve trout habitat at a popular high-country fishing destination.
Kremmling-based Blue Valley Ranch, owned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II, proposes beginning the project as soon as next summer on an 8-mile stretch of the river running through its 25,000-acre ranch, which is located on both sides of the river between Green Mountain Reservoir and Colorado River.
The ranch has not yet applied for a state discharge permit, which it will need before beginning the project. In September, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a 35-member group of water planners, voted to provide Blue Valley Ranch, which did not request a financial contribution, with a letter of support.
The ranch sits alongside the lower section of the river. Areas on this stretch that have public access are home to relatively large and abundant trout, earning a “gold medal” status from the state. The experiment may help explain why trout farther upstream above the Green Mountain Reservoir appear undernourished. The ranch expects that adding phosphorus to the river will grow more algae, a building block in the aquatic food-chain supporting fish.
If the project helps the fish, water managers could use a similar one to restore the gold-medal status of a section of the Blue River upstream from the ranch’s property that the state delisted in 2016. The designation is based on the size and abundance of fish in rivers with public access. The rare delisting on the river section, north of Silverthorne, was a blow to residents who saw the designation as a way to attract outdoor tourism to the region.
Scientists warn that adding too much phosphorus could create problems downstream. Excess phosphorus [enables algae blooms including cyanobacteria], an algae that can be toxic to humans. Last summer, such algae blooms prompted the state to issue warnings and closures to lakes across the state, from Steamboat Lake, north of Steamboat Springs, to Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir.
This is one reason why the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working on new rules to limit phosphorus pollution based on the chemical’s ecological impacts. The state may soon require owners of large facilities, such as wastewater-treatment plants, to make costly upgrades to comply with new limits.
That same agency will have to decide whether to grant the ranch a discharge permit, weighing the possibility of improving trout habitat with the environmental risks. MaryAnn Nason, a spokeswoman for the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said in a statement that the state would evaluate whether the additional phosphorus protects aquatic life, drinking water and recreation, and complies with the state’s regulations on phosphorus.
The theory behind the project is that the river has too little phosphorus, a circumstance that may be preventing the growth of periphyton, an algae eaten by aquatic insects that state biologists say are “sparse” in the river. One of the reasons the river lacks nutrients is that the 231-foot dam in Silverthorne is causing it to back up. The dam was built in 1963 to create the Dillon Reservoir, which Denver Water uses to ship drinking water under the Continental Divide to residents on the Front Range. The dam traps nutrients such as phosphorus and prevents downstream flooding, a natural process that can pull phosphorus back into the river. In the 1980s, the state imposed strict limits on phosphorus pollution from wastewater-treatment plant operators in the basin, which has kept phosphorus concentrations to about 10 parts per billion in the reservoir to prevent algae blooms. That means the cold water flowing out of the bottom of the dam also is relatively low in phosphorus.
“This is a success story,” said William Lewis, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of its Center for Limnology and who has studied the reservoir’s chemistry for decades.
Whether the successes of curbing pollution are hurting fish habitat downstream is hard to say for sure, Lewis said. But supporters of the Blue Valley Ranch proposal say the experiment could test this one factor among the many affecting the river.
“We have to better understand those factors. And measure them. And then rate them,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that advocates for fish habitat and supports the ranch’s proposed experiment.
According to a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable by Blue Valley Ranch, the company proposes placing jugs of liquid fertilizer at six sites along the river bordering its property, injecting it with as much as nearly 2,000 gallons per year. In an emailed statement from the company, it said it plans to increase the phosphorus concentrations in the river by 3 parts per billion. It would then sample the growth of periphyton, aquatic insects and the fish population. The company cites a project on Idaho’s Kootenai River in which researchers increased phosphorus levels of as much as about 12.5 parts per billion. Bob Steed, the surface water manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the Kootenai River project has increased the size and number of fish without causing toxic algae blooms or other problems with water quality.
But scientists still have reservations. Lisa Kunza, a professor of chemistry biology and health sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who has studied the ecological impacts of the Kootenai River project, said she wondered whether Blue Valley Ranch plans to spend enough time studying baseline conditions before the experiment. And she wondered what’s motivating the company to do the project.
According to the company’s website, the ranch seeks “to be a leader in conservation.” Its owner, Jones, is an investor whose philanthropy has earned him recognition as a “conservationist.” Jones spent $805,000 on Highway 9 wildlife crossings north of Silverthorne as well as other projects across the county, including setting up a foundation aimed at protecting the Florida Mangroves. The property is known for its intensive management, such as using a diesel-powered backhoe to make the river narrower and deeper, and locals call the stretch of river flowing through the ranch “Jurassic Park.”
Brien Rose, a biologist with Blue Valley Ranch who has worked as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, has been giving presentations on the project and speaking with the Department of Public Health and Environment. Rose did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Before the ranch stepped up with the idea, the concept of its experiment was already being discussed among the region’s water managers, some of whom are monitoring conditions upstream and perhaps laying the groundwork for a similar project. The Blue River Watershed Group, which helps manage the river, is backing the project. Supporters see it as a way to help restore the river to a more natural state before the dam trapped its nutrients.
“Studies of the lower Blue River have shown that it is deficient in some nutrients because of the two upstream impoundments on the river. A major goal of this research is to add to the base of knowledge that will ultimately benefit other impounded rivers in the Western United States,” said Brett Davidson, a manager with Blue Valley Ranch, in an emailed statement.
But what the river looked like before the dam is unclear, researchers say. Aside from the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, the Blue River has been impacted by hardrock mining and the growing mountain towns of Silverthorn, Frisco and Breckenridge. For decades, the state has been stocking the river with brown and rainbow trout, game fish that white settlers introduced to Colorado. One of the reasons the middle section of the Blue River lost its gold-medal status was because the state scaled back stocking.
Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, said she sees the value in Blue Valley Ranch’s experiment. She, too, wants to better understand the effects of phosphorus on a river’s ecology.
But Marshall said “further tinkering” with the river to restore it could have its risks. She added: “The proposed study sounds like a Band-Aid, rather than fixing the underlying causes of degraded stream habitat.”
This story ran in the Dec. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
esidential properties will be charged $10 per quarter and commercial properties will be charged $50 per quarter. The fee was passed by Silverthorne Town Council as part of the stormwater management plan to help maintain stormwater drainage facilities and the quality of local rivers, ponds and drinking water.
Town Manager Ryan Hyland noted in a news release from the town that the fee will allow Silverthorne to conduct projects outlined in the 2020 Drainage Master Plan, which include preventative measures against property damage from floodwaters and negative impacts to water.
The release also stated that the fee will help pay for new curb, gutter and sidewalk infrastructure to improve pedestrian corridors.
Vail Resorts Inc., one of the largest financial contributors to Colorado’s cloud seeding program, has dropped out this year, leaving a major hole in the program’s budget.
Cloud seeding is a practice in which silver iodide pellets are sprayed into storm clouds in an effort to trigger more snowfall and ultimately, in the spring, more snowmelt to feed the state’s streams.
Vail has been participating in the program for more than 40 years, state officials said.
Hard-hit by the pandemic, the ski resort company had planned to contribute $300,000 to this year’s effort, roughly 20 percent of the nearly $1.5 million the state spends annually, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which oversees the program.
Vail officials did not respond to a request for comment, but their most recent financial statements indicate that the company’s revenues dropped nearly 70 percent for its latest fiscal year as the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to close its resorts early last spring.
According to its financials, revenues for its 2020 fiscal year ending July 31 came in at $503.3 million, down from $706.7 million for the prior year.
“We’re all hoping this is just a temporary suspension in funding from Vail,” said Andrew Rickert, who oversees the cloud seeding program for the CWCB. “Vail is the oldest partner we have in Colorado. They are very serious about the program, but no one is immune to these economic hardships.”
In addition to Vail, the cloud seeding program receives cash from several Lower Colorado River Basin states, who are interested in helping do anything they can to boost water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin, on whose flows they rely.
The state and several Front Range water utilities, including Denver Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado Springs Utilities, also help pay for the work.
This year the CWCB will oversee six permitted cloud seeding operations that span the state, from Durango to Winter Park and beyond. The operations are sited in areas most likely to produce snow and aid rivers.
Among the largest of these is a permit operated by the Colorado River District, which includes Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy district engineer for the Glenwood Springs-based water agency.
Vail’s cloud seeding program is nested within that area and its annual $300,000 contribution represents more than half the money typically spent in that four-county region, Kanzer said. If additional funding isn’t found, fewer cloud seeding generators will operate there this season.
“It’s a challenging time with respect to Covid-impacted budgets,” Kanzer said. “The overall program is alive and well, but it is a topic of concern.”
Kanzer and CWCB Director Becky Mitchell said the state is actively reaching out to other entities for additional funding for this year’s work, including states in the Lower Colorado River Basin and Front Range utilities.
As the current drought continues, forecasts for the winter indicate that the southern part of Colorado is likely to see light winter snows, while the northern part of the state is likely to see heavier accumulations. Overall, the state has a long way to go to make up for the dry summer and fall.
How much new snow and water seeding clouds actually produces has been difficult to detect, although scientists recently have produced studies indicating it can create new snow.
“Our scientists indicate we can increase water supplies by about 5 percent on an annual basis, with increased snowfall of 5 to 10 percent, although it’s highly variable,” Kanzer said.
Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states have long used cloud seeding as a way to boost water supplies, and with this year’s drought it’s more important than ever that additional water be generated if possible.
“It’s especially acute coming after a pretty dry 2020,” Kanzer said.
“But we’re cautiously optimistic. As the year plays out we will try to carefully manage the resources that we have. I’m not optimistic that we will be able to fill the entire gap. But if we came up with a third [of the money lost], that will be a success in my mind.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
As most of western Colorado is in an extreme drought, most of eastern Colorado is experiencing moderate to severe drought. While earlier in the summer southern Colorado was experiencing the driest conditions, the driest conditions now take up the western half of the state. The dryness extends into the Denver metro area and creeps to the east in the southernmost part of the state.
Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, explained that drought in Summit County started slowly this spring, then progressed to an extreme drought quickly. She explained that Summit County saw a dry fall and while winter saw a decent snowpack, the dry spring meant that the soil moisture was fairly dry going into the summer, which increased the wildfire danger. The U.S. Drought Monitor summary noted that topsoil moisture Sept. 13 was rated very short to short in Colorado.
Huse said that Summit County entered abnormally dry conditions by the end of May. The northern tip of the county went into a moderate drought toward the end of July. In mid-August, the area north of Dillon entered a severe drought. By Aug. 18, the whole county was in a severe drought with extreme drought in the north end of the county and the county was fully enveloped in extreme drought Aug. 25.
“It went fast, we just never got any rain,” Huse said. “That happens a lot of times with drought. You start to see a lot of impacts at once because they’re like, ‘I can go another month if we get some rain’ or ‘I can go two more weeks,’ but then finally there’s just no rain.”
In August, the Dillon weather station recorded 0.62 inches of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service almanac. The station records 1.93 inches in a normal year. So far in September there have been 0.41 inches of precipitation recorded at the station, while 1.02 inches is normal. However, September has seen 3 inches of snow so far, 2.5 inches above normal, which Huse said helped conditions.
Despite dry conditions, Huse noted that the reservoirs are still in good shape.
“What saved the reservoir storage was … the good snowpack of 2018-19,” Huse said.
Huse explained that the 2018-19 snowpack helped keep the reservoir full this year as this last winter, the snowpack barely reached average. Currently, Huse said that reservoir storage for the Colorado River Basin is 101% of average and at 86% capacity. As of Sept. 16, the Dillon reservoir is 95% full, according to Denver Water. Huse explained that parts of the Blue River are normal, such as the high reaches.
Last month was the hottest, driest August on record for western Colorado, according to Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center. He was one of three expert panelists who spoke at the third Yampa Basin Rendezvous discussion Thursday, which focused on changes in temperatures and precipitation amid what they described as a rapidly changing climate.
Routt County isn’t the only place topping charts. In its 2020 State of the Climate report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said the year is gearing up to be the planet’s second-warmest year in 141 years of temperature records. The warmest year thus far was 2016.
According to Schumacher, “These changes are going to affect the water cycle and everything that depends on it, which is pretty much everything.”
Among the most pressing threats climate change poses to Routt County are higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, increased risk of wildfires, more severe droughts and more extreme weather, according to a 2018 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory. These would cause residual impacts to the local economy that depends on the ecosystem for everything from tourism to farming and to public health and safety, the report adds…
Unprecedented drought conditions pose serious risks to the Yampa Valley, from natural ecosystems to the people who depend on the health of those ecosystems. Ranchers have had an especially hard time this summer as they struggle to water their crops. For the second time ever, water managers placed a call on the main stretch of the Yampa River in August, meaning certain water users had to stop or curb their usage.
Longtime Steamboat Springs rancher Adonna Allen said her senior water rights meant she was not as affected by the call as some of her neighbors, but the dry summer has caused problems for everyone in agriculture.
Those growing hay have seen anywhere from 25% to 45% reductions in yields, Allen said. To make up for the loss, Allen had to convert pastures her family normally uses for grazing their cattle into hay fields, pastures she has not touched in 10 years…
Among the most devastating effects of hot, arid conditions for Colorado has been the propensity for large wildfires. The Pine Gulch Fire, sparked by lightning July 31 near Grand Junction, is the state’s largest wildfire in Colorado history. As of Friday, it was more than 139,000 acres in size and 95% contained, following about six weeks of firefighting efforts.
The Middle Fork Fire, 10 miles north of Steamboat, had grown to 5,445 acres Friday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It continues to spread, fueled by gusting winds and dry weather.
Even after the flames are extinguished, such massive wildfires pose long-term hazards, such as flash flooding, mudslides and debris flow…
Snowpack across Colorado has been thinning since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with losses as much as 60% at some measurement sites. Scientists from Colorado State University and the University of New Hampshire project further reductions in snowpack by the end of the century, with losses as high as 30% in some areas.
That said, the northern mountains, including the area of Steamboat Resort, are less vulnerable to decreases in snowpack than southern parts of Colorado, Schumacher said. This is because the weather patterns that can deliver large snowfall are more dependable than farther south, where he described winters as either “boom or bust.”
Amid one of the hottest summers on record for Colorado, Dillon Reservoir is 94% full, nearly 5 feet below its capacity. The reason is a complex combination of past weather patterns, current water-use habits and recent changes to the lakebed.
For most of the summer, Dillon Reservoir has been down about 4 1/2 feet. This low elevation is noticeable from the shore, but the drop in water level is less pronounced than it has been in other dry years. Around this time in 2018, Dillon Reservoir’s elevation was dropping an inch daily and was down about 11 feet by Labor Day.
Dillon Reservoir is no normal mountain lake. The man-made reservoir is one of the largest sources of drinking water for Denver. Usually in late June, Denver Water holds back water that flows into Dillon Reservoir from the Blue River basin and stores the water until it’s needed along the Front Range. In late summer, Denver Water typically begins piping water out of Dillon Reservoir via the Roberts Tunnel, a 23-mile pipe that runs under the Continental Divide and into the North Fork of the South Platte River. From there, the water flows down toward Strontia Springs Reservoir, where it’s delivered to Denver Water’s customers.
In most normal water years, managers at Denver Water are able to fill the reservoir to its 257,000 acre-foot capacity in the spring, and recreation along the reservoir is usually best when it’s full. This year, unseasonably warm spring weather created dry soil that absorbed much of the moisture from melting snow before it reached rivers. Wind and low precipitation in May also contributed to a lackluster runoff season. Denver Water was able to fill Dillon Reservoir to 244,000 acre-feet of water, about 95% of its capacity. The reservoir levels have hovered around that number ever since late June.
“You know, 95% seems like it would be pretty full, but in the past, at this point, we would be moving docks and boat ramps would be unusable,” Frisco Bay Marina General Manager Tom Hogeman said. “But other than tightening cables on docks to adjust for different water levels, we haven’t had to move anything.”
The operational changes for the marina are due to an excavation of the lakebed in 2019. That spring, the lake was at historic low levels after the 2018 drought. The town of Frisco and Denver Water took advantage of the dry lakebed and rolled out heavy digging machines to excavate areas near the shore. The $4 million project moved more than 85,000 cubic yards of dirt, deepening the area around the marina and lengthening the beach.
The “Big Dig,” as the project was dubbed by the town of Frisco, was designed to improve navigation for boaters and lengthen the boating season by making the parts of Dillon Reservoir that are more desirable for recreation less prone to elevation fluctuations. The project is one of the main pillars of the Frisco Bay Marina Master Plan, a long-term blueprint for projects to expand recreation and tourism on Dillon Reservoir.
The reservoir, already a significant source of tourism for Summit County, has seen a bump in visitors this year. The increase is likely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased demand for outdoor recreation across the High Country. The marina this year has already brought in 18% more revenue than last year, and there is still a month left before boating season is over.
Last summer, the changes from the lakebed excavation were less noticeable because healthy snowpack from the previous winter filled the reservoir. With water levels down again, Hogeman said it’s clear that the project was a success.
“That has really paid off,” he said. “We are in a better position to deal with these smaller fluctuations. Before, our slip holders would have to adapt to their boats being in different places at different times of the year depending on water levels. Now we’ve just got an improved level of consistency.”
While the lake excavation helped to ward off problems from small water-elevation drops, a more severe drop would still threaten recreation at Dillon Reservoir. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state is currently at some level of drought for the first time in eight years. Both Summit County, where Dillon Reservoir is located, and Denver County, where the lake’s water is used, have a mix of moderate and severe drought within their borders.
This level of drought has been manageable this year for Denver Water partly because of the 2018-19 winter. Snowstorms that winter left snowpack levels at about 104% of normal all the way through April 2019, and the reservoir filled to capacity last summer.
According to Nathan Elder, the manager of water supply for Denver Water, that extra water was a big help when this spring-runoff season produced less water than normal.
“We had a really great water supply year last year, and we came into this year roughly 5% above normal (storage at Dillon),” he said. “We pretty much maintained that until late June.”
The storage boost was also helped along somewhat by water use — or lack thereof — in Denver. The city is experiencing one of its hottest years on record, with 65 days seeing temperatures hit at least 90 degrees, a number that is second only to 2012. Despite the heat, water use is only 11% above the five-year average, and Denver Water has not had to implement any restrictions beyond its normal summer watering guidelines.
According to Elder, residential water use has gone up, but with many businesses closed due to the pandemic, commercial water use has dropped significantly.
“Our customers, despite it being hot and dry, (have) been pretty good with usage this year,” Elder said. “We haven’t seen the use that we would expect for these types of temperatures.”
Unusually, Dillon Reservoir will have another chance to fill this year. Typically, Denver Water pulls water from the lake using the Roberts Tunnel through the end of the year, but the tunnel will be undergoing about two months of maintenance this fall. That project will cut off Denver from Dillon Reservoir and require Denver Water to rely heavily on Cheesman Reservoir, which draws water primarily from the South Platte River basin, on the Front Range.
This will give Dillon Reservoir an extra chunk of time to bolster its reserves, but only if it rains. According to Elder, forecasters are not predicting a very rainy September. Without a large amount of carryover storage going forward, next year’s levels at Dillon Reservoir will depend on snow from this winter. Although the lake avoided a drought disaster this year, a prolonged dry period could change that.
“The worst-case scenario is that the reservoir doesn’t fill again next year,” Elder said. “So hope for rain.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.
Join us on Saturday, August 29, 2020 for a county-wide river cleanup. We have partnered with Summit County’s Make a Difference Day to create an event that will have a profound positive impact on the health of the Blue River Watershed.
We will spend the morning cleaning our valley’s waterways. We had planned to
have a small celebration in the afternoon, but due to the coronavirus
we have decided not to hold that gathering.
Volunteer Team Leaders will pick up supplies for their team starting at 8 am the day of the cleanup. Cleanup of your river section will run from 9 am to noon. Remember to take photos of your strangest find for a chance to win a prize.
Summit County fared well in the way of snowpack this year yet is experiencing dryness as portions of the state fall into drought conditions.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Summit County’s drought level is classified as abnormally dry, while most of the counties in southern Colorado fall under extreme drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s July 16 high plains drought summary explained that southern states have seen a gradual deterioration over the summer and that Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas are experiencing drought conditions. The summary noted that despite some precipitation in northeastern Colorado, high temperatures expanded drought in much of the state.
Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, said that while the snowpack was fairly normal this year, Summit County didn’t see the abundance of snowfall that it enjoyed last season. Overall, Huse said this season’s snow added onto leftover storage from last year.
“We had that storage still from 2019, and it’s been holding pretty steady for the last half a year,” Huse said. “And then the snowpack was enough to bring us back up to where we’re around normal.”
Huse noted that it has been a dry spring and summer and that the snowpack melted out two to three weeks earlier than normal this year. Yet, water storage is strong as of the end of June. Huse said the upper Colorado River basin was at 109% of average water storage and at 97% capacity. Green Mountain Reservoir is currently sitting at 110% of average water and 99% of capacity. Huse said the area is faring much better than other parts of the state as the Arkansas basin is at 49% of average. She said six streams along the Blue River are showing normal streamflow while three streams that are mainly going into Dillon Reservoir are below normal.
Over the past 30 days, Huse said the county has seen a “flash drought” where dry conditions develop quickly, which can impact crops and fire weather — rated as high in Summit County. She said the percent of average precipitation throughout most of Summit County is running around 70% to 90% of normal. For July, only 0.49 inches of precipitation have been recorded at the weather site in Dillon while the normal precipitation level through July 20 is 1.13 inches.
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday afternoon that the Blue River had returned to safe conditions would be reopening for recreational activities immediately.
On June 1, the Sheriff’s Office and the town of Silverthorne were notified by Denver Water that flow levels were rapidly increasing to 1,000 cubic feet per second, presenting safety concerns for river recreationists.
Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor decided to temporarily close the river from the base of the Dillon Dam to the Sixth Street Bridge, where the water was high enough to injure someone floating past that point.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Office and town got the thumbs up from Denver Water that flow levels on the river had significantly decreased and were once again safe for recreation. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, the Blue River below Dillon Dam was flowing at 301 cfs.
While the river has opened back up, officials are reminding anyone heading out on the water to use caution. Members of the public are encouraged to review the Summit County Swift Water Safety and Flood Preparedness Guide available on the county’s website. The guide contains information on the history of high water events in the county, along with instructions for building sandbag levees, household checklists, flood insurance information, safety tips for recreating and more.
In 2019, the Blue River Watershed Group started working on an integrated water management plan in partnership with Trout Unlimited to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem.
The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.
Blue River Watershed Group Executive Director Erika Donaghy said the local water plan is a way to protect the Blue River watershed for its multiple uses, including being part of Summit County’s summer and winter recreation economy.
“In terms of planning for our future — and as the climate is changing and we know water is getting more and more scarce — … it’s a proactive plan to make sure that we are really using this scarce resource really wisely going forward and how do we protect its quality,” Donaghy said.
The conservation efforts in the plan also line up with Summit County Open Space and Trails efforts. Summit open space Senior Resource Specialist Jason Lederer explained that the county’s main goal is to have thoughtful management of natural water resources.
“The county has, in partnership with groups like the Blue River Watershed Group, worked hard to restore streams to a natural condition so that they provide better ecological function in terms of habitat and water quality components,” Lederer said.
The Blue River Watershed Group is in phase one of the plan, which includes assessing the conditions of the entire watershed by breaking up the watershed into three reaches. Donaghy explained that in this first phase of the plan, the group is putting together detailed descriptions of each of the reaches, including compiling information such as the average temperature of the water, the state of aquatic life, whether there are mining impacts and types of habitats.
These descriptions will come from data and studies that already have been done as well as new studies. The plan is meant to evaluate all uses of the watershed, including municipal as well as agricultural uses. Once the initial stage of the plan is complete, Donaghy said there will be some areas where there simply isn’t enough information to move forward, requiring more research and studies be conducted. In other areas, the group will have the information they need and can come up with solutions to improve issues that have been identified.
From email from Reclamation [May 6, 2020] (Elizabeth Jones):
Green Mountain Reservoir is decreasing release to the Blue River. Green Mountain Dam will adjust release from 1,450 cfs to approximately 150 cfs in multiple adjustments over the next three days. Green Mountain Reservoir is discontinuing release for support of the Coordinated Reservoir Operations Program. No main stem Colorado River water rights administration is in effect. Green Mountain Powerplant will use all release for power generation while exercising the 1935 Direct Flow Hydropower Water Right. Green Mountain Reservoir is storing water under the 1935 First Fill Storage Right.
If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Thank you.
Elizabeth E. Jones | Public Affairs | Bureau of Reclamation | Missouri Basin Region | 406.247.7607
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office and town of Silverthorne have temporarily closed the Blue River from the base of the Dillon Dam to the Sixth Street Bridge in Silverthorne, according to a press release. The closure is due to high water caused by snow runoff being released from the dam.
Denver Water notified the town and Sheriff’s Office that water in the Upper Blue north of the Dillon Dam had reached 1,000 cubic feet per second on Monday, June 1. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor agreed there was a risk of serious injury or even death presented by the high water.
The closure will remain in place until water levels are low enough that recreational boaters can safely pass under the Sixth Street Bridge.
Denver Water officials increased the release of water from Dillon Reservoir into the Blue River to about 400 cubic feet per second in the first week of May as inflow held steady at about 500 cfs through Monday, May 11. The latter number is expected to steadily rise as spring runoff picks up.
The current forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colorado River Basin Forecast Center estimates as of May 11 that there is 146,000 acre-feet of water — in the form of snowmelt — that will flow into Dillon Reservoir through July 31. There’s currently 17,500 acre-feet of space in the reservoir, according to Denver Water, so about 128,500 acre-feet will flow out of the reservoir either to the Blue River or Roberts Tunnel by July 31, with an estimated 13,000 acre-feet through the tunnel.
All of these complex calculations are the first steps in a delicate dance Denver Water performs each spring to balance public safety with Denver’s water needs, recreation, hydroelectric demands and obligations to downstream senior water-rights holders.
“Dillon is our biggest reservoir and one of our more complicated to operate,” said Nathan Elder, water resources manager for Denver Water. “Most of our other reservoirs only have one outlet, but Dillon’s got both the outlet to the Blue and the outlet to the Roberts Tunnel, which provides water to the East Slope and down the North Fork (of the South Platte River) to Strontia Springs Reservoir and then to our customers.”
The Roberts Tunnel, finished in 1962 about the same time the old town of Dillon was relocated to its current spot and the Dillon Dam was built, is a 23-mile concrete conduit that diverts water from the Blue River basin on the Western Slope to the South Platte Basin on the Front Range to supply more than 1.4 million Denver Water customers.
This system is what’s known as a transmountain diversion — one of many that bring water from the Colorado River basin on the west side of the Continental Divide to the state’s population center on the Front Range. What it’s not, Elder said, is a way to avoid dangerous spring-runoff flooding.
“We can’t use Roberts Tunnel as a flood-control option,” he said. “So we’re very careful about the amount of water we take from the West Slope over to the East Slope. And when we use the Roberts Tunnel, we can only take it over to the East Slope if it’s put towards the demand. We can’t just dump it over there to prevent flooding or high flows below Dillon.”
The 2014 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement places a 400,000 acre-foot limit on Blue River water stored in existing or future Denver Water storage facilities on the Front Range.
There are more than 1,000 properties in regulatory floodplains in Summit County, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and quite a few of them are along the Blue as it makes its way northwest through Silverthorne and toward its confluence with the Colorado River near Kremmling.
This time of year, as snowpack begins to melt into local tributaries — the Blue, Snake River and Tenmile Creek all feed Dillon Reservoir from the south — Elder and his team closely monitor snowmelt forecasts and weather reports to coordinate with local officials to prevent flooding.
“Denver Water has worked with the town over the years to release water from Dillon Reservoir at rates between 50 cfs and 1,800 cfs,” said Tom Daugherty, Silverthorne’s director of public works. “They have done a very good job of doing that. Denver Water attends our local meetings concerning snowmelt runoff and inform us of what they expect.”
FEMA designates 2,500 cfs as a 10-year flood level just below Dillon Dam, while 3,350 cfs there would be a 100-year flood level. The amount of runoff pouring into the reservoir varies widely, depending on weather conditions and snowpack, from a low inflow of 410 cfs in the drought year of 2012 to a high of 3,408 cfs in 1995.
The amount of snowpack on the Front Range and rate of melting due to high temperatures or rain events also impacts when Denver Water turns on the Roberts Tunnel and how much water it takes out of Dillon Reservoir. The Blue River Decree dictates that Denver Water needs to keep as much water on the Western Slope as possible and can take water only to meet demand.
“Last year was a good example of that,” Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said. “We had so much snowpack on the Front Range that we just didn’t need the Roberts Tunnel water and couldn’t take it because of that demand issue.”
That resulted in higher flows on the Blue below the dam last runoff season.
“It got up to around 1,900 cfs, and we didn’t actually turn on the Roberts Tunnel until the second week in August last year,” Elder said. “That’s after everything on the East Slope filled, and we started dipping into that storage and streamflow dropped off on the East Slope.”
This year, there’s a similarly healthy snowpack above the reservoir and also decent snowpack on the Front Range, but temperatures have been higher and the spring runoff season hasn’t been nearly as wet and cool as last year.
“We have a Snotel (snow telemetry) site on top of Hoosier Pass, which is extremely important for monitoring that basin and for forecasting, and it’s still at 121% of normal right now,” Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer said in early May. “It looks like it did actually have a net accumulation through April and is just really just starting to turn around and melt out now over the last few days with this warm weather.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service produces snowmelt forecasts used by Denver Water, which also taps into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast center.
Based on information from Snotel sites, snowpack above Dillon Reservoir peaked at 127% of normal. The forecast center’s inflow outlook for Dillon Reservoir is 104% of average, and the forecast from the Natural Resources Conservation Service was 107% of average.
The first priority for Denver Water is to fill the reservoir to meet customer needs, but it also tries to minimize high flows out of the reservoir via the Blue River and maintain water levels so that the Frisco and Dillon marinas can operate from June through Labor Day. Elder said the minimum operating level for both Dillon and Frisco marinas is 9,012 feet in elevation.
The goal, Elder said, is to get the reservoir to that level or higher by June 12. On May 11, the surface level of the water in the reservoir was at 9,010 feet. The reservoir is full when the elevation of the water, as measured on the dam, is 9,017 feet, which is 257,304 acre-feet of water. At 9,010 feet, the reservoir is holding about 236,232 acre-feet of water.
Release too much and too early — to avoid high flows and flooding downstream — and Denver Water runs the risk of missing the chance to fill Dillon for use by its customers later in the summer season as well as keep the reservoir full for a long boating season. And then there are the downstream hydroelectric factors and calls by senior water-rights holders.
Senior water rights
While the Blue River Decree does not have a volumetric limit on how much water Denver Water can take out of Dillon Reservoir through the Roberts Tunnel to meet its customer needs, the Roberts Tunnel right is from 1946 and is junior to Green Mountain Reservoir and Shoshone Power Plant rights, which limit the ability of Denver Water to divert. The Roberts Tunnel right is for 788 cfs, which is not a storage right but instead a direct-flow right.
So if Green Mountain gets toward the end of its fill season and hasn’t filled and Dillon has diverted, then Denver Water owes water to Green Mountain. Green Mountain Reservoir, located on the Blue River in northern Summit County, was created specifically to compensate the Western Slope for diversions to the Front Range as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Then on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, well downstream from where the Blue feeds the Colorado at Kremmling, there’s Xcel Energy’s Shoshone Generating Station hydroelectric plant — which has one of the most senior water rights on the main stem of the Colorado River. A 1902 right draws 1,250 cfs of water downstream to meet the plant’s needs. During dry times of the year, such as late summer, the power plant often places a “call” on the river, meaning junior diverters upstream — including Denver Water — must stop diverting so that Shoshone can get its full allocation of water.
Elder said Denver Water wants to fill Dillon Reservoir quickly enough each spring before any potential Shoshone call. If a call came before Dillon was full, Denver Water would have to release water from Williams Fork Reservoir in order to keep water in Dillon Reservoir. However, Williams Fork can hold only 96,000 acre-feet of water.
“We want (both reservoirs) to fill quick enough that we fill both before that Shoshone power plant call comes on and before the senior call comes on the river, but not too quick that we fill before peak runoff where we get in those high-flow situations,” Elder said. “So it’s a real balancing act there. You’re balancing elevations for marinas, downstream water rights, filling the reservoir safely and then also any potential releases you may need to make from Roberts Tunnel.”
Aspen Journalism, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders, covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 17 edition of the Summit Daily.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Learn about current conditions and issues in the Blue and Colorado river watersheds at the Summit State of the River. Presentations will include forecasts of how much water will be in area rivers and reservoirs later this summer, how Summit County fits into forecasted shortages facing the larger Colorado River Basin, an update on Summit County reservoirs, transmountain diversions and information about how you can participate in Blue River planning efforts to assess and sustain this valuable resource and its associated ecosystem.
• Protecting West Slope water as we face an uncertain water future – Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District (20 minutes)
• An outlook on our water supply and updates from the Division of Water Resources – Troy Wineland, Summit County water commissioner at the Division of Water Resources (15 minutes)
• Green Mountain Reservoir and Colorado-Big Thompson Project operations – Victor Lee, hydrological engineer at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (15 minutes)
• Dillon Reservoir and Denver Water operations – Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply (10 minutes)
• Blue Lakes and Hoosier Pass system operations – Kalsoum Abbasi, Colorado Springs Utilities water planning supervisor (5 minutes)
• The Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan – Peggy Bailey, V.P., and Erika Donaghy, executive director of Blue River Watershed Group (15 minutes)
May 14, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
Despite a drier spring than Summit County saw last year, the Blue River basin’s snowpack total is well above the seasonal average. Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, said the Blue River basin sits with 120% of the average for snow-water equivalent, or how much water is held in the snowpack.
Huse said the water in the Blue River basin snowpack is well above average for this time of year. The snowpack in the basin holds about 19.3 inches of water, compared with the average 15.7 inches of water that the basin’s snowpack typically holds this time of year…
Huse said that the majority of storms this year have come from the northwest and have favored the north central mountains, missing the southern mountains. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s national drought summary, which was last recorded April 21, reports that severe drought has expanded over most of southern Colorado. The Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University’s April 21 update lists the eastern plains of Colorado as an area of concern and reported that snowmelt in the Four Corners region has “kicked into high gear” and is melting faster and earlier than normal…
Going over the year in precipitation amounts, Huse said Summit County had a good October, November was fairly dry and then precipitation accumulation amounts shot up in December. She reported that February into March was great for precipitation as February saw record snowfall amounts at some of the ski areas.
Precipitation has leveled off in April with small storms bringing little accumulation aside from one recent storm system that brought 1.4 inches of snow-water equivalent. Huse said the snowpack levels were above average going into April, but the recent storm helped bring the numbers even higher.
The Blue River basin nears the end of the precipitation cycle toward the end of April. Huse said the weather service looks at yearly precipitation from July 1 through the end of June. She said that on April 17, Dillon’s total snowfall was around 102.1 inches while normal seasonal snowfall is 107 inches, putting Dillon just a few inches shy of the average snowfall total but ahead of average for mid-April. Huse said that at this time of year, the average snowfall amount in Dillon is 94.5 inches.
As she reported in early March, Huse said snowfall totals are above average but not abnormal. She said this is the 77th highest amount of snowfall for a year in Dillon out of 112 years. The highest annual snowfall Dillon has recorded was in 1935 when the town saw 227 inches of snow.
While water in the snowpack is above average this year, Huse said the late-season precipitation is not nearly as high as 2019, which was an anomaly. She reported that while the snow-water equivalent is around 19.3 inches this year, in 2019 the Blue River basin had around 21.2 inches.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Though it’s looking like it won’t be needed, officials have been standing by with 6,500 acre-feet of water set aside in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. They’re ready to release it if needed in order to avoid what’s referred to as an “April hole” in rivers flows in the Colorado River between Palisade and the river’s confluence with the Gunnison River.
That stretch is known as the 15-Mile Reach, a focal point for protecting flows for the sake of endangered fish in the Colorado River. If flows fall too low between where irrigation water is diverted and the Gunnison flows boost water volume, endangered fish can be left more vulnerable to predators, reduced habitat and potentially less food availability.
Four endangered fish — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — are the focus of recovery efforts in the Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
A court case and operating policy at Green Mountain, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, have resulted in establishment of a 66,000-acre-foot historic users pool there that is available to irrigators, municipal and other water users to replace water that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them due to calls by holders of senior water rights.
Victor Lee, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, said that as part of another court case, it was decided that when the pool isn’t needed for those other uses, it could be used to augment flow in the 15-Mile Reach, for the sake of the fish. The pool is the largest single source of water for boosting flows in that reach, with 40,000 or 50,000 acre feet sometimes available for that purpose, he said.
Typically that water has helped boost flows in late summer and early fall, but over the last few years its use has been expanded to include the startup of the irrigation season when needed.
Lee said usually that startup can occur without excessively drawing down flows in the 15-Mile Reach. But the “April hole” can develop in circumstances such as when there’s little rain and a cold snap halts the beginning of spring runoff flows.
In recent years user pool managers including the Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators and state started considering how they might use, in April, water they didn’t deliver the prior fall. Last year they went a step further, decided to intentionally hold over some of the water that normally would have been released in the fall and keep it available for use this spring if need be…
The goal is to keep flows in the 15 miles at 810 cubic feet per second or more. On Monday the stretch had flows of about 1,440 cfs, but the Grand Valley Irrigation Co. was expected to begin diverting the same day, and the Grand Valley Water Users Association had begun increasing diversion. Lee has been consulting regularly with irrigation entities, weather and runoff forecasters and reservoir managers. While he thinks the flows in the crucial stretch will fall to 850 cfs, it looks like they will increase from there as temperatures warm and more moist weather arrives, likely making it unnecessary to augment flows to bridge the gap before spring runoff season begins in earnest.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a $10 million grant to the state of Colorado last week to help fund modifications to the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam.
The funds come as part of FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which is meant to help minimize the risks of possible dam failures…
The dam — south of Breckenridge proper and north of Blue River — is classified as “high hazard” by the state, a categorization that has little to do with its condition but rather the potential loss of human life and property in the event of any type of failure. According to FEMA, a failure likely would impact more than 2,000 residences and businesses in the Breckenridge area below the dam, along with major damage to roadways and the community’s existing water supply.
The dam does need some work to help put the minds of Breckenridge residents at ease. The need for upgrades began to emerge in 2015, during a high moisture year when town-run monitoring stations started to see significant rising water levels, according to Steve Boand, a state hazard mitigation officer with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. As a result, stakeholders decided to implement reservoir storage restrictions in 2016.
Breckenridge also moved forward in seeking federal funding to address concerns. The $10 million from FEMA will cover more than half the costs of the project. The rest already has been budgeted as capital improvements by Breckenridge, Boand said. The work on the dam is scheduled to begin later this year and will lower the spillway by 4 feet to help protect the dam and everyone in its path…
Construction on the project will begin later this year and is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2022, though Boand said it could take until 2023. Breckenridge will lower water levels in the reservoir during construction seasons to facilitate the work.
Since 2007, Parks and Wildlife has conducted a biennial fishery survey of the reach with assistance from Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. After evaluating the latest survey, Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jon Ewert found “an obvious and significant decline occurring in this fishery.”
That conclusion is based on the steady drop in total biomass of surveyed fish collected during each survey since 2011. The 2011 estimated trout biomass was 228 pounds per surface acre. Since then, the figure has dropped by more than 50%.
“The 2019 survey yielded the lowest estimate to date, which is less than half of the peak values observed in 2009 and 2011,” the report said. “The consistency and repeated observations of this downward trend over a period of several years makes it a virtual certainty that this is not an artifact of sampling error.”
The survey was conducted on a 581-foot stretch of the Blue River, named the Fourmile Bridge reach, that is 2.7 miles upstream of the Dillon Reservoir…
While the report does not make any conclusion as to what might be causing the decline, it does urge action and study to discover the root causes for the fishery depletion and address them to improve the health of aquatic wildlife in the Blue River…
Ewert said the report is meant to jumpstart that investigation.
“The purpose of the report is to highlight the fact that there’s this situation developing where we can observe a steady decline in fish,” Ewert said Wednesday. “It means to say, ‘Let’s come together and figure out how to improve the situation.’”
Though no cause has been established, the report does speculate as to the possibility that the stretch’s habitat has changed so that it no longer supports a high density of fish. That could include contamination from abandoned mine runoff, obstructions in the water placed by humans or other disruption caused by human activity.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for freshwater habitat conservation nonprofit Trout Unlimited, said that areas worth exploring include the health of the aquatic food chain, which starts with algae.
“Aquatic invertebrates need algae to graze on, they are really dependent on that food source,” Van Gytenbeek said. “You need more phosphorus and nitrogen in the water to get the algae. Without that, you don’t have the bugs fish feed on, which puts that population under stress, as well.”
The other area Van Gytenbeek believes is worth exploring is the characteristics of the current fish population.
“If you have a bad spawn year, and not many fish go upstream to spawn, you’re going to have very low numbers in that year’s class,” Van Gytenbeek said. “Two, three, four years down the road, when that year’s class of fish get sexually active, there’s not as many spawning.”
Van Gytenbeek also suggested that high elevation environments might have a part to play, with lower water temperatures than at sea level.
Ewert pointed out in the report that despite the decline, the surveyed stretch of river is still a healthy fishery.
Until quite recently, I partly believed in the modern western myth that a snake can survive by eating its own tail. Sure, I watchdogged wetlands, development and ski resort expansions, and tried to hold governments and agencies accountable to environmental laws as an environmental reporter in Summit County, starting in 1996.
Even in the early days, I already understood that global societies were on an unsustainable path. But I was partly in denial, so I failed to convey crucial information to readers, letting them, and myself, believe that it would all be OK.
Water, of course, was discussed at nearly all of the hundreds of meetings I covered, and I unquestioningly adopted the frame of reference and the parlance of the officials who seemed to have everything under control.
By adopting the terminology wholesale, I enabled them to shape the narrative around natural resources and create a version of reality that leaves out many important things, including the complete displacement of Indigenous People from the very lands and rivers that are still being exploited to this day.
How can that possibly be fair, I started asking myself. I slowly realized that I was becoming part of the problem rather than the solution, which made me frustrated and sad. I wrote angry op-eds that made me feel slightly better, but probably didn’t change things a bit.
And I realized that, deep down, the institution I was working for was still part of the same colonial tradition, still mostly denouncing “obstacles to the advancement” of business, as described in the “Utes Must Go! chapter” of Peter Cozzens’ 2017 book, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West.
Back in the late 1800s, the governor of Colorado vowed to expel the Utes in a decade, and Denver newspapers wanted the job done immediately, similar to the way today’s government, business and media institutions push for more water development, fracking or ski area expansions with an oversized sense of entitlement and absent humility, with any opposition being seen as an impediment to progress.
The initial ruthlessness and the artificial veneer of structural legitimacy we’ve created since then enables decision-makers and societies to disconnect from the moral and ethical implications of our choices. We’ve created strictures with no room for emotions, which makes them dehumanizing. That’s why we numbly accept that, still today, streets, and for that matter, entire counties, are still named after a man who advocated for the expulsion of Indigenous People.
That structure also makes it easy to justify small things like a half acre wetlands encroachment, or another 5 cfs diversion from a river, but all these unsustainable small things add up to the global climate and biodiversity crisis we’re facing right now. It can’t go on if we want to survive. Scientists are telling us we’re literally killing the things that keep us alive, including our rivers.
So what to do after nearly 20 years of failure? And it’s hard to describe it any other way, because things have not really improved during the time I spent reporting in Colorado. In significant ways, like the escalating climate crisis, they’re getting worse.
I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. So I decided to start learning about the Indigenous history of the Colorado River. I figured that awareness and knowledge might be the first step to making amends some day. And I decided to start with a simple thing, like learning the indigenous name for the river valley in Summit County where I lived for nearly 20 years without ever giving it much thought.
But every now and then during that span, there were flashes of awareness, like on a hot summer day in the main plaza of Keystone Resort, when my then seven-year-old son and I listened to Leon Littlebird tell Native American stories and make music beside a wood fire pit that’s long since been replaced by a gas fireplace.
“What happened to those people?” Dylan asked me after the fireside session. Explaining the expulsion of Native Americans in second-grade terms wasn’t all that hard — I told him that the playground bully came along and shoved the smaller kids off the swings.
Littlebird, well-loved in Summit County, gives guest lectures these days at Colorado Mountain College to share music and Indigenous lore, and his local concerts are always packed. I called him to see if he could help answer some of the questions I had about Indigenous names for the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Thanks to some support from The Water Desk, we were able to spend a half day with him near one of the Colorado River’s major headwater streams near an area we now call Hoosier Pass.
Some of the answers were more complicated than I expected.
As one heads north on Colorado 91 over Fremont Pass, just past Climax Mine, a flat and barren expanse is seen to the west of the highway. Once an active tailings-storage facility, signs of life are now emerging above the reclaimed field’s hardened dirt.
Climax is in the process of transforming the westernmost corner of the Robinson Tailings Storage Facility, also known as Lake Irwin, into a wetland. The site will offset wetland habitat lost in Climax’s McNulty Gulch expansion project, an enlargement of the mine’s overburden stockpile facility visible just across the highway to the east.
McNulty Gulch is home to several wetland habitats, including seeps, springs and plant families like sedges, willows and rushes that will all be disturbed in the coming years as the mine expands.
Climax will soon need additional storage space for unmineralized overburden material, and was required to apply for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permit before enlarging the stockpile’s footprint. The permit, which was conditionally approved, requires Climax to replicate McNulty Gulch’s wetlands at a two-to-one replacement ratio.
Since 2017, Climax has worked to bring nine acres of wetland to life at Lake Irwin. This is the first phase of the 36-acre project.
Before planting could occur, the site needed grading and an engineered water-delivery system.
The acreage was excavated to remove historic tailings, which were transported north to the Mayflower Tailings Storage Facility. The area was then graded for drainage and covered with topsoil where needed. A network of culverts was also engineered to catch and direct the snowmelt that flows down Sheep Mountain each spring, runoff that has flooded the site in past years.
In 2018 and 2019, Climax focused on planting.
Cuttings were collected from willows already accustomed to extreme temperatures and strong winds at McNulty Gulch and the headwaters of the Arkansas River, and planted at Lake Irwin. After growing from seed at AlpineEco Nursery in Buena Vista, herbaceous plants like beaked sedge, tufted hairgrass and mountain rush were also transplanted on the site.
To date, over 40,000 herbaceous plants and willows have been planted at Lake Irwin. Thousands more plants will be added to the wetland in the coming years as phase two (18 acres) and phase three (nine acres) of the project unfold. The project’s phases will be monitored by the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2014, Climax completed a similar mitigation project after disrupting a wetland during the construction of the mine’s new water treatment plant. The constructed wetland is now a healthy riparian habitat, a small fenced-in plot brimming with tall green grasses between the water plant and Tenmile Creek.
Climax currently holds a silver tier certification from the Wildlife Habitat Council for site-wide biodiversity and conservation initiatives.
“Ideally, we’d like Lake Irwin to look like this in five years,” Climax’s Chief Environmental Scientist Diana Kelts said of the wetland near the water plant. “But on a larger scale.”
From the Summit County Open Spack & Trails Department (Jason Lederer):
And all of a sudden it’s mid-summer! If you spent much time in Summit County this spring, you are well aware of the wet, cool spring we had with accumulating snow until the end of June. All of this weather resulted in a slow start to many constructions projects around the County and, hence, a delay in gravel removal activities from the Reach B site. However, with the winter of 2019 behind us, things are back in full swing. There is even some new signage at the site explaining the work that is happening.
Summit County’s gravel removal contractor, Schofield Excavation, has removed gravel nearly to the Reach B eastern property boundary. Once they reach the property limit, they will begin working their way out of the site, establishing final rough grades along the way.
With the Reach B gravel removal “light at the end of the tunnel” coming into focus, we are gearing up to complete the final restoration work as soon as possible once the removal work is complete. This summer, in coordination with the County’s ecological engineering consultant, Ecological Resource Consultants (ERC), we are working to optimize the conceptual restoration design by taking into account new groundwater information, post-gravel removal surface grades, opportunities for onsite wetlands creation, and other factors.
This year’s historic snow pack and runoff cycle really tested the integrity of the constructed channel and floodplain in Reach A. Two and half years following the completion of major construction, we are happy to report that the new stream fared quite well with riffles, pools, banks, and other features functioning as intended. In fact, we are even starting to see new habitat features, such as sandy point bars, form naturally.
The Reach A site did experience some erosion at the temporary overflow channel where seasonal runoff passes beneath Rock Island Road. However, in coordination with Schofield Excavation, we were able to quickly stabilize the location utilizing large boulders and gravels from the Reach B site. This temporary overflow channel was designed solely to convey spring runoff and will be abandoned when the future upstream Reach B channel is permanently connected with Reach A.
This year’s moisture has also helped riparian and upland vegetation flourish, with natural recruitment of several native plant species including rushes, grasses, sage, and others species native to the valley.
Stay tuned for more exciting announcements about the Swan River Restoration Project site later this year.
Additional information about Swan River Restoration Project is available at http://RestoreTheSwanRiver.com as well as on the Open Space and Trails Special Projects web page. If you have additional questions about the restoration project, you can contact Summit County Open Space and Trails Director Brian Lorch, or Open Space and Trails Resource Specialist Jason Lederer, or call 970.668.4060.
Here’s a report from The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
The lecture, titled “Dillon, Denver and the Dam,” took place in the old Historic Park Chapel behind the museum, where every pew was filled and the audience spilled out of the door. Mather, a former president of the Summit Historical Society who has written 20 books about Summit County’s rich history and has a doctorate in physical geography, spoke to the capacity crowd on why the reservoir was built and the numerous challenges it faced being built…
The reservoir’s need was first realized in 1907, when the city of Denver realized it would require a lot more water as it grew. In 1913, Denver Water started buying water rights around Summit County, seeing the area’s natural geography as ideal for a reservoir.
“This was a huge catchment area,” Mather said. “You had a confluence of three streams, the narrowing of the valley north of Dillon, you would have gravity flow through the tunnel across the Continental Divide, and all were very important.”
Unfortunately, many benefits that were found in geography were lost to the local geology. There were numerous challenges in trying to find a place to put the dam, and once it was found a whole lot of earth-moving had to be done to artificially strengthen the foundation and ensure water would not start leaking under the dam.
Before constructing the dam itself, a core trench was dug 90 feet deep under the entire length of where the dam now stands, down to the bedrock. Another trench was dug into the bedrock itself, and then giant holes were dug into that trench 300 feet deep and filled with concrete. Suffice to say, the dam built on top of that foundation is well reinforced.
When the dam was finally completed in 1963, it stood 231 feet tall, 5,888 feet long and over 580 feet wide. Twelve million tons of fill was used to build the dam, with most coming from borrow pits in the reservoir area.
Aside from the dam, constructing the reservoir itself was a herculean endeavor itself. Given that the entire purpose of the reservoir is to impound water for use elsewhere, the reservoir needed to be lined and segregated from the ground [water].
That’s why a steel liner was installed to ensure the water stayed in the reservoir and didn’t get contaminated. The liner – a quarter-inch thick, highly polished steel – was pieced together at the bottom of what is now the reservoir in 30-foot long pieces.
There’s also the matter of managing overflow. That job goes to a morning glory spillway, which is basically a giant cement funnel at the dam’s maximum capacity height of 9,017 feet. All overflows fall into this spillway, which features fins at the top to prevent a whirlpool at the top, which would create air bubbles that can deteriorate the spillway’s cement.
Overflow water runs straight down the gullet of the spillway, which is 15 feet wide at its narrowest part, before turning 90 degrees and running into the Blue River through a 15-foot wide fixed-wing gate, which can be opened and closed to regulate water flow into the Lower Blue River.
When fall comes and the reservoir is lowered, the spillway is no longer in use. Mather explained that since cold water sinks, the spillway can get iced up inside, damaging the concrete. To prevent this, Denver Water uses a crane to lift a giant “plug” — a 6-ton steel disc — and lower it into the spillway, preventing ice and debris build-up.
Mather described another key component of the entire reservoir system, the Roberts Tunnel. The 23-mile long tunnel, which when built was the second largest in the world, takes water from the reservoir in the West through a 10-foot wide pipe across the Continental Divide and down 174 feet of elevation to the eastern portal in Grant.
Mather said the construction of the tunnel began one month to the day before she was born, on September 17, 1942. Construction of the tunnel officially ended two months to the day after Mather graduated from college, when the eastern portal opened 22 years later, on July 17, 1964.
Nathan Elder, water supply manager for reservoir owner Denver Water, reported Friday that the reservoir was just under a foot from being full, with 2,600 acre-feet of storage space remaining. Elder predicted the reservoir would fill in about two days.
The latest inflow data showed 2,219 cubic feet per second flowing into the reservoir, while 1,840 cfs is flowing out. Elder said that, while the dam wasn’t meant for flood control, the flows in the Lower Blue would be much stronger if the dam wasn’t there at all.
“We constantly try to balance inflows with outflows,” Elder said. “If the dam wasn’t there, flows below the reservoir would be close or at 3,000 cfs.”
Elder said the Roberts Tunnel, which channels water from the reservoir to the Front Range, was currently off and not bringing water to the Eastern Slope. Denver Water will continue adjusting flows for the reservoir to keep it at full capacity until Nov. 1, when the reservoir is lowered 3 feet to leave room for snow precipitation.
Elder said Denver Water has been conducting twice-daily briefings with county emergency officials, updating the forecast on flows into the Lower Blue. Summit County emergency director Brian Bovaird said that all tributaries in the county were at or just below “action stage,” or when county flooding preparations take effect.
Bovaird said there is a possibility Denver Water will increase flows below the dam to up to 1,900 CFS by this weekend, close to the highest flow recorded below the dam. However, he said there was good news from the National Weather Service, which predicted no heavy rain this weekend to push the rivers over the edge.
Bovaird said that emergency officials will start to get concerned if the outflows rise to 2,100 CFS. But for now, Bovaird said he didn’t expect any major flooding to occur when the peak flows finally peter out next week. Bovaird reported some “nuisance” flooding in Silverthorne’s South Forty neighborhood, but it did not cause any structural damage or threaten homes.
Bovaird added things were looking good at the Goose Pasture Tarn dam, which was built in Breckenridge in the ’60’s and has been a source of concern due to the potential for flooding or even collapse. Tenmile Creek, which approached flood stage a few weeks ago, peaked last week without any significant flooding or damage.
Join the Blue River Watershed Group for an evening of lakeside views and local-crafted brews. Learn how we are working to protect the mountain water that helps make our local beers and spirits so delicious.
Ticket includes unlimited tastings, commemorative glass, dinner, silent auction, and live music from Ms Amy & The Jet Set!