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.
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The water is roaring across Summit County. Tenmile Creek, Straight Creek and the Snake River are all approaching flood levels as the great 2019 spring runoff rushes in with thunderstorms on the way this weekend…
Tenmile Creek is one of the best gauges of how powerful the runoff is. The stream is currently cresting at 3.88 feet, with overflows into low-lying areas in and west of Frisco beginning at 4.8 feet…
At 5 feet, Tenmile Creek is at flood stage. At that point, there will be minor flooding of roads and properties along Tenmile Creek. At 6.5 feet, or moderate flood stage, houses begin to flood. Major flood stage starts at 7.5 feet, with significant flooding in Frisco and on the westbound lane of Interstate 70.
Residents should take some comfort in knowing that Tenmile Creek never has gone above 5.14 feet, a mark set June 17, 1995. Frisco authorities have continued to warn residents about potential flooding, with town and county staff on standby in case banks get run over.
The Snake River is currently sitting at 2.7 feet, with flood mitigation action called for at 3.3 feet. The Snake’s record crest was set June 6, 1972, when it reached 3.88 feet. At 3.8 feet, Keystone begins to flood, but that level has been reached only twice since record keeping began there in the 1940s.
Straight Creek in Dillon is currently at 4.86 feet, with action stage at 5.3 feet and flood stage at 6 feet. That stage never has been reached in recorded history, with Straight Creek topping out at 5.78 feet June 17, 1995.
Water flows into and out of local reservoirs also are rapidly speeding up. On Friday, Green Mountain Reservoir started ramping up outflows into the Blue River. Starting at 800 cubic feet per second, the reservoir will increase flows by 50 cfs every two hours until it reaches 1,400 cfs at 4 a.m. Saturday. That flow will be maintained until further notice.
The increased flows are meant to support the Coordinated Reservoir Operations initiative which seeks to enhance spring water flows consistent with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The conservation program seeks to boost the number of humpack chub, razorback sucker, bonytail and Colorado pikeminnow populations in the Blue.
Further south, the Dillon Reservoir is rapidly filling up after space was made for runoff these past few weeks. Water is dumping into the reservoir at a rate of more than 2,100 cfs, with outflows into the Blue River under the dam reaching up to 700 cfs. The reservoir is currently 83% full and just 15 feet shy of reaching peak elevation.
Based on historical averages, the Colorado River typically peaks near Moab during the first week of June. This year the river is projected to peak later; a forecast from the National Weather Service showed the river could reach its maximum on June 15.
Regardless of whether the peak is already behind, the river is high this year. On Monday, June 10, the United States Geological survey measured nearly 40,000 cubic feet of water per second flowing through the Colorado near Cisco, roughly twice the average for this time of year. The National Weather Service has issued a flood advisory for the Colorado River near the Utah/Colorado state line in Mesa and Grand counties…
Farther upstream, the National Weather Service issued a flood advisory on June 11 between Grand Junction and the Utah state line as a result of the river nearing flood levels that morning.“ Minor low land flooding is expected with impacts along recreation trails already being experienced,” the Weather Service said in its flood advisory statement. “Water levels and flows along the Colorado River in Mesa and Grand counties will continue to increase due to the recent warm trend. River levels will stay high through the week…The water is swift, [it is] cold and contains debris and snags. Know your limits if recreating on or near the Colorado. A life jacket and proper equipment is a must. Smaller tributaries in the area are also running fast and cold.”
Down the river, the water has been higher than typical, but not a danger to areas in the floodplain. At its peak, the U.S. Geological Survey gauged the height of the river near Cisco to be over 14 feet this week…
Local Colorado River tributaries are also higher than typical for this time of year. Near the head of the Dolores River, the USGS measured the location’s highest instantaneous flow since 1987 at 4,360 cfs.
At Mill Creek, before the Sheley Diversion that flows into Ken’s Lake, a gauge measured an average flow rate of 88 cfs on June 8, three times the daily average for the same time of year.
As high as the waters may seem this week, they are far from a record for the area, which had much heavier flows historically due to a lack of damming upstream. In one day in 1884, more water flowed past Moab than the city has used since January 2000.
According to the USGS, the highest flow rate on record for the Colorado River at the gauging location near Cisco, just after the Dolores River junction, was measured on July 4, 1884. The flow rate that Independence Day was measured to be 125,000 cfs.
This year, instead of supplying helicopters with water to dump on fires, Denver Water is draining water from Dillon Reservoir in anticipation of runoff, which is expected to really begin coming down in the next few weeks.
“This year being a high snowpack year, we know there’s going to be a lot of water getting into the reservoir,” Denver Water supply manager Nathan Elder said. “We’re trying to have enough space to catch that runoff while providing for safe outflows to the Blue River below the reservoir.”
At the moment, the reservoir — which is the main drinking water supply for 1.4 million people in the Denver metro area — is 75% full with 192,554 acre-feet of water. When full, the reservoir holds 257,304 acre-feet. An acre-foot of water would cover an area the size of an acre 1-foot deep. Given the current estimate for runoff volume, there will be more than enough water to fill it.
“The forecasting for the rest of June and July project a volume of anywhere from 169,000 acre-feet to 211,000 acre-feet coming into the reservoir,” Elder said. “That’ll fill it, but we’re probably not going to fill it until the Fourth of July to make sure we’re past that peak-inflow time.”
Elder said peak inflow to the reservoir is expected to start about a week later this year than usual, which also means Summit’s two marinas in Dillon and Frisco will have to wait before the reservoir is full enough for boating. However, boaters should have a lot more time for play this year compared with last, when boat ramps were retracted weeks before they normally would be due to low water.
“Typically, every year we target June 18 to be at 9,012-foot elevation needed for both marinas to be completely operational, but it’s going to be a little delayed this year,” Elder said. “But while the boating season might be shortened by a week on the front end, on the tail end, it should last quite a bit longer.”
The delay also means local emergency officials will be watching streamflows longer into the month, looking to spring into action if Tenmile Creek, Straight Creek or the Blue River approach the verge of flooding.
Current two-week projections show all three waterways approaching “action stage,” the threshold at which the towns and county are called to start flood mitigation preparations, by June 15.
Summit County’s director of emergency management Brian Bovaird said he closely has been watching the forecasts for flooding. That is opposed to last June when Bovaird, who recently had gotten the job as emergency director, was given a literal trial by fire.
“It’s like picking your poison,” Bovaird said. “Last year, it was wildfire. This year, it’s flooding. We’re expecting heavy runoff moisture, which is good for wildfire but makes us uneasy about the flooding risk.”
Barker Dam’s scheduled spill is expected to begin over the next few days, officials said. Each spring as temperatures warm, runoff from melting mountain snow increases stream flows. Before peak stream flows occur at lower elevations, like in the City of Boulder, mountain reservoirs must first fill and start spilling, officials said.
“This is a normal and expected event that will increase flows in Boulder Creek throughout the city,” The City of Boulder said in a statement.
The Barker Dam spill normally occurs between mid May to late June, but is dependent on weather, snowpack and early spring reservoir levels. This spring, cool temperatures and continued snow accumulation have delayed snowmelt runoff, the city said.
The waters of the Gunnison River are currently at 10.7 feet. It has passed the bankfull stage. This means some water is beginning to spill out into the floodplain. The floodplain is the low-lying area next to the river. The Gunnison’s Flood stage is at 13 feet. It’s expected to rise near 10.8 feet by Saturday.
Orchard Mesa and Whitewater are under the current advisory.
Parts of the Colorado River are rising, but it’s not under an advisory. The Colorado River near Loma is nearing bankfull. According to data from a National Weather Service gauge near the state line, water levels are at about 10.5 feet and are expected to rise to 12.5 by Saturday afternoon.
The south arm of the Great Salt Lake is up by 2.5 feet since December and its north arm is 2 feet deeper thanks to the wet water year, and the Western Hemisphere’s largest saltwater lake will take on even more water in the weeks to come.
“It’s a pretty good jump so far, but we’re not done yet,” said Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
The highest elevation snowpack has yet to melt, and with most reservoirs brimming, that water will bypass those storage infrastructures and help quench the thirsty saltwater body…
Water managers along the Wasatch Front will be keeping their eye on stream flows and reservoir levels to keep enough storage going into the summer and time releases into rivers to hopefully avoid flooding.
While most reservoirs are already full, Echo above East Canyon sits at just 49 percent of capacity and Rockport sits at 78 percent, ready to take on snowmelt.
“We could have filled it (Echo) twice this year,” said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “The peak flows have not occurred yet coming out of the Uinta Mountains coming down the Weber River, so we are purposefully leaving Rockport down some and Echo down more to use them as shock absorbers to take those big flows.”
Much of that extra water will be sent on downstream to the Great Salt Lake…
The lake is critical to wildlife, multiple industries, recreation interests and more, contributing $1.3 billion into Utah’s economy and drawing tourists from all over the globe.
It serves as the Pacific “flyway” for thousands of migratory birds and supports a $57 million brine shrimp industry…
Mike Styler, who recently retired as executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said maintaining the viability of the Great Salt Lake will be one of the critical challenges the state faces going into the future.
He stressed that as agricultural water gets converted for urban use in Weber and Davis counties and reuse of waste water becomes more popular, that threatens to dry up marshes and wetlands that support the lake.
The Great Salt Lake has an average depth of 16 feet, covers 1,700 square miles during an average year and is two to seven times saltier than the ocean.
Following months of discussion the town of Frisco finally pulled the trigger on a new water rate structure, along with increased tap fees, in hopes of incentivizing water conservation while keeping a well-maintained fund balance for future capital improvements.
The ordinance passed in a split 6-1 vote, with Councilman Dan Fallon as the lone dissenter. The ordinance should see a second reading during the council’s next meeting in early June.
Prior to this year, the last time Frisco completed a water rates study was in 2006 and the scheduled rate increases were in effect until 2016, meaning the town hasn’t increased its water rates in more than two years. In November last year, the council asked staff to complete an in-house five-year study on the rates, resulting in the new ordinance.
The town landed on a base water rate of $45 a quarter, on top of an escalating fee structure wherein the more water a consumer uses, the more they’ll have to pay. The structure is organized so that on top of the base rate, customers will pay $1.12 per 1,000 gallons for those using up to 8,000 gallons; $2.24 per 1,000 gallons for those using between 8,000 and 16,000 gallons; $4 per 1,000 gallons for those using between 16,000 and 50,000 gallons; and $5 per 1,000 gallons for those using more than 50,000 gallons a quarter.
While the new rate structure was easily accepted within the council, other language within the ordinance was more heavily scrutinized, with council members going back and forth on proposed annual increases in service fees and usage rates…
Ultimately the council voted to move forward with an annual 5% rate increase over the next five years, which would allow the town to maintain an estimated $2.38 million fund balance through 2024, as opposed to a $2 million balance under a 3% annual increase. Town officials said they would look into potential programs to help subsidize capital costs for businesses looking to improve their water fixtures on Fallon’s suggestion.
The town then turned the discussion to increases in tap fees, hoping to create fees more competitive with the surrounding communities, without undermining developers who already have projects in the works in town. Frisco currently charges a tap fee of $4,300, while Breckenridge, Silverthorne and Dillon all currently have tap fees in excess of $7,500.
“In fairness to people that have done their due diligence, I don’t want to see a big increase right away,” said Councilwoman Melissa Sherburne. “It’s on us that we kept it so low for so long. We need to be fair to the people who do business with us. I certainly support the increase, but we need something incremental over the years to get up to that goal of market standard.”
The council finally settled on an increase to $5,000 per tap starting on Jan. 1, 2020, followed by a 10% annual increase every October. If the council chooses to pass the ordinance on second reading, the new water rate structure will go into effect on Oct. 1.
Several towns and counties in Colorado are preparing for flooding after a snowy winter and several spring snowstorms have led to the state’s best snowpack in eight years, which is now on the verge of melting into runoff…
Take the above-average snowpack, add in historic avalanches that deposited debris in Tenmile Creek, and the town of Frisco wants to be ready for potential spring flooding. That’s why they’re taking extra steps this year to prepare.
“Are we sounding the alarm at this point? No, but we’re preparing,” said Frisco’s communications director Vanessa Agee.
Aerial shots of the avalanche areas show full trees, branches, large rocks, sediment, and snow still covering the recreation path that runs along I-70 and partially in the creek. That waterway eventually flows right through downtown Frisco.
The Frisco Public Works Department is inspecting the creek’s street crossings twice a day to look out for and remove any debris built up in the creek, and the town has staged a construction backhoe along Main Street near Tenmile Creek in case any backups happen. Sandbags are also being offered to residents, as they are every year…
Summit County says they are prepared to respond to flooding if it happens. A statement from a spokesperson read in part: “In the case of a significant flooding event anywhere in Summit County, we will establish a fire-rescue and law-enforcement incident command to respond to and manage the event.”
Frisco residents can pick up sandbags at the Public Works building (102 School Road) Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The first 100 bags per lot are free, and are 25 cents apiece beyond that.
But residents are asked to fill their own sandbags at three piles set up throughout the town: 6th Ave./Galena Street; Madison Ave./Sunset Dr. or the Public Works shop on School Road. Once residents are done using the bags, the town is asking people to return to the sand back to the piles…
Hinsdale County, in central Colorado, held community meetings earlier this week to discuss evacuation plans, with flooding expected to hit the county seat of Lake City in coming weeks.
Avalanches this winter and spring sent large amounts of trees, rocks and earth into Henson Creek and the Lake Fork River, which runs through town.
When [the log and ice jams] release it could cause extensive damage to the town and the local infrastructure,” the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office wrote on its Facebook page.
Combined with typical runoff that happens each year, the county says it expects flooding to occur as the waterways become backed up with water. Henson Creek Road and Lake Road are closed at certain points until further notice, the county said.
During recent testing mandated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment at 20 different sites earlier this year, the town discovered that seven had lead levels in excess of the state’s maximum allowable limit of 15 parts per billion. The finding comes just months after Frisco discovered a similar issue in their sampling pool.
Dillon officials stress that the town has good, clean surface water.
“We don’t have lead in our source water,” said Scott O’Brien, Dillon’s public works director. “We’ve monitored for that, and it’s not the issue. … The issue is the materials that were used prior to 1987 for constructing homes, copper pipe with leaded solder. In addition to that, a lot of fixtures like faucets were constructed with either brass or bronze — metal alloys that contain lead.”
O’Brien said that because the source water is so “aggressive,” it’s leeching the lead out of older pipes and fixtures at testing sites, resulting in the elevated rates. In determining aggressiveness, the town looks at four main factors: pH levels, alkalinity, temperature and hardness.
The pH level in the water measures how acidic or basic the water is on a scale of 0 to 14 — anything below 7 is considered acidic, and anything higher is considered basic. In general, high acidity means the water is more corrosive, and more likely to leech metal ions like lead and copper. Dillon’s source water is naturally about 7.3, or slightly leaning towards the basic side.
Alkalinity is a measure of the buffering ability of the water, essentially the ratio of hydrogen ions versus hydroxide ions that determines the water’s ability to neutralize acid. O’Brien noted that Dillon’s water has low alkalinity. Temperature is self-explanatory, literally describing how hot or cold the water is — wherein hotter water is more reactive and aggressive than cold water. Hardness measures the mineral concentration in the water, or what it’s naturally picking up as it flows along. Because Dillon uses its source water so quickly, it is relatively soft.
“We’re the first in line to pick it up, and it doesn’t have the chance to pick up these other minerals and other things that help reduce the aggressiveness of the water,” said O’Brien.
This is a problem that Dillon has dealt with in the past. The town’s testing also returned high lead levels in both 2012 and 2014, and officials have been working with the state since to address the issue. In 2014, the town attempted to adjust the pH levels up to about 8.5 on the scale, which appeared to have worked over the last five years. Though, due to recent changes in regulations from the state level — which essentially requires towns to zero in on high-risk testing sites to determine the worst-case scenarios for water quality issues — new issues are being discovered.
“To get a representative sample pool they don’t want us to go over the distribution system geographically, and sample it spread out,” said Mark Helman, chief water plant operator. “They want us to sample these particular sites built from 1983 to 1987 (before the Lead Contamination Control Act in 1988) they know are going to give us the worst results. … This is a process of us learning where the worst sites are that we have, testing those sites, seeing how our water is doing at those sites, and if we have a problem we want to address the worst case scenario.”
Both O’Brien and Helman noted that they already have a plan to try and address the issue of overly aggressive water. The plan is to add soda ash — sodium carbonate or baking soda — during the water treatment process to increase pH levels, alkalinity and hardness to the water to reduce aggressiveness. However, because it includes changes to the plant, the new process must first be signed off on by the state.
O’Brien said that once the state approves the town’s new water treatment methods they’ll be able to implement the new process quickly, though the review process could take between 30 and 60 days.
Fish kills in the North Fork of the South Platte River are occurring during low water flow periods that fail to dilute the toxicity of heavy metals such as iron, copper and aluminum. Contaminants in the form of heavy metals move downstream, originating primarily from Hall Valley and Geneva Creek mining operations.
When water flow is adequate, there is enough oxygen to negate the impact of the toxins. When water levels are inadequate, fish develop coatings on their gills as a natural self-defense mechanism to the toxins. That protective coating ultimately renders their gills inoperable.
When and why do water levels get too low?
Water flow in the river is dependent upon how much water is released from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts Tunnel, and those decisions are made almost exclusively by Denver Water.
When more water is needed within Denver Water service areas, the rate of the water passing through Roberts Tunnel is set to flow more freely. When water is not needed to serve the Denver Water service area, the flow from Roberts Tunnel is restricted, much to the detriment of the people, and the fish, in Park County.
Water flows can be naturally low in the river during certain seasons. This year, in mid-March, for example, snowmelt had not yet occurred and the river was in its customary state of low flow prior to the fast-approaching late-spring thaw.
An abundance of area-wide spring moisture, however, created a situation where Denver Water service areas enjoyed a surplus of water. Therefore, the flow from Roberts Tunnel and Dillon Reservoir was ceased on March 11 and remained so at least until this writing.
The predictable result was the most recent fish kill, which occurred March 11-15, because flows were simply not sufficient to combat ever-present toxic heavy metals related to mining. No information has been provided by Denver Water as to when the tunnel will be reopened.
Denver Water states its position
When The Flume recently requested a statement from Denver Water regarding flows in the river and operations of Roberts Tunnel, a response was received in timely fashion.
In direct response to whether or not Denver Water felt a moral obligation to residents in Park County related to ecological systems they have long controlled, and whether Denver Water should accept responsibility for maintaining minimal flow in the South Platte River for the environmental and economical benefit of the entire North Fork region, the following statement was submitted:
“We (Denver Water) understand the potential for impacts to the fishery when flows from the Roberts Tunnel are shut down, and certainly recognize and appreciate the effect on the angling community and local businesses and outfitters. Unfortunately, operation of the Roberts Tunnel is directed by legal obligations and decrees tied to Colorado water law and binding agreements with West Slope communities where the water from the tunnel originates.
“As you know, the flows from the Roberts Tunnel originate in water diverted from West Slope rivers and streams into Dillon Reservoir. Denver Water depends on this supply when snow pack within the Upper South Platte watershed is insufficient. However, since early March, portions of the Upper South Platte watershed have received more than four feet of snow and spring precipitation continues to be strong.
“Legally, water supplied through the Roberts Tunnel can only be accessed when water is needed in Denver Water’s service area. Further, any other uses for the water, including augmenting stream flows for aquatic life or recreation uses, are not allowed as a primary purpose for operating the tunnel.
“While we provide projections about how long Denver Water will deliver water through the tunnel, those are only estimates based on snow pack, reservoir storage and other system elements. Those projections can change as conditions change; as they did in late winter and early spring this year.”
The Blue River turned orange in Breckenridge on Saturday afternoon. The river’s water went from its natural blue-green hue to a bright, burnt orange within a few hours, with emergency officials believing the discoloration to be runoff from an area above Illinois Gulch known to cause similar discoloration in the past.
After investigating, fire officials determined that the runoff came from a mine located on private property at the corner of Boreas Pass Road and Bright Hope Circle. The water runoff at the source appeared as a thick, muddy orange stream with no obvious unique odor or taste. Fire officials said that the location has been the source of orange mine runoffs in the past…
Red, White and Blue Fire District issued a press release Saturday evening stating that first responders were alerted about discolored water in the Blue River at 3:15 p.m. Multiple fire companies and a specialty HAZMAT unit responded. The fire district determined that the source of the orange water was a known release point on Boreas Pass Road. Initial testing done by fire district personnel found the water to not be an immediate danger to human health. The fire district also said there is no immediate corrective action possible from first responders. Typically, this kind of orange mine runoff lasts about 24 hours.
“Given the rainfall that occurred last night, it is not surprising that we are seeing this type of activity today,” said RWB batallion chief and incident commander Drew Hoehn. “We realize the optics of the run-off are in stark contrast to what folks are normally used to seeing in the Blue River, but we are confident in the assessment and assurance of the public’s welfare in this particular situation.”
Summit County’s director of environmental health, Dan Hendershott, also sought to downplay concerns about the health impact of the orange water.
“Based on previous similar releases that have occurred, we don’t have reason to believe this event poses a risk to the public’s health,” Hendershott said. “However, out of an abundance of caution, we recommend that people and pets avoid contact with this water. Untreated surface water should never be consumed, and that would certainly be the case here, too.”
Authorities are still investigating the incident and all local water districts have been notified. The Blue River is one of the primary sources for the Dillon Reservoir, which provides drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people on the Front Range.
CU Boulder researchers harness 35 years of data to uncover responses of a high-elevation reservoir to a warming world
The surface waters of Lake Dillon, a mountain reservoir that supplies water to the the Denver area, have warmed by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius) in the last 35 years, which is twice the average warming rate for global lakes. Yet surprisingly, Dillon does not show adverse environmental changes, such as nuisance algal blooms, often associated with warming of lakes. Researchers at the CIRES Center for Limnology, who have just published a multi-decadal study of Lake Dillon, conclude that the lake’s rapid warming and its lack of ecological response to warming are explained by the high elevation of the lake.
“The warming of Lake Dillon is a result of climate change but, in contrast with warm lakes, which respond in undesirable ways to warming, Lake Dillon shows no environmental response to warming, said William Lewis, Director of the CIRES Center for Limnology and lead author of the new paper published today in AGU’s Water Resources Research. “The explanation for the lake’s ecological stability lies in its low temperature, which serves as a buffer against ecological effects of warming.”
Since 1981, Lewis and colleagues in the CIRES Center for Limnology have collected detailed information not only on Lake Dillon’s temperature, but also on its water quality and aquatic life. Full vertical profiles of water temperature document changes in vertical distribution of heat over time. The record shows that warming of tributary water contributes to warming of the lake’s deepest waters.
“The 35-year data set allows us to see the complete warming pattern of the lake,” said James McCutchan, associate director of the Center. Natural events, including droughts and floods, create interannual variation that obscures the effects of climate change over short intervals, whereas multidecadal data sets can show more clearly the effects of climatic warming.
Dillon is the highest lake yet studied for full water column warming, as Lewis and his colleagues note in their paper. The study also is the first to analyze warming in a reservoir, rather than a natural lake.
“Reservoirs can differ fundamentally from other lakes in their response to warming because they often release water from the bottom as well as the top of the water column,” said Lewis. “They can warm not only from the top, in response to solar radiation reaching the surface, but also from the bottom, as tributaries subject to climatic warming replace cold bottom water with progressively warmer tributary water.”
The Lake Dillon study program is sponsored by Denver Water, which uses the water for treatment and delivery to Denver residents, and by the Summit Water Quality Committee, which represents the interests of local residents in preservation of Lake Dillon’s water quality.
Colorado water managers are saying good riddance to water year 2018. It enters the history books alongside 2002 and 1977 as one of the driest on record for the Upper Colorado River Basin.
According to preliminary numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation, water year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, had the third-lowest unregulated inflow into Lake Powell at 4.62 million acre-feet. That’s just 43 percent of average.
Only 1977 and 2002 saw less water flow into Lake Powell from the upper basin, at 3.53 million acre-feet and 2.64 million acre-feet, respectively.
The average yearly inflow is 10.8 million acre-feet.
The months of August and September 2018 were the third- and fourth-worst months for unregulated inflows into Lake Powell behind only July and August of 2002.
The unregulated flow in August was just 2 percent of average. Lake Powell is currently 46 percent full.
“We know if we have another drought, the risk of draining Lake Powell is real,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and chairman of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. “If we have another year as bad as this one, you’re going to see lots of discussions about who’s going to take reductions. We really need three, four, several years of average or above-average snow years to get us out of this pickle.”
Roaring Fork conditions
Locally, the Roaring Fork watershed was extremely dry this water year. The region was plagued by record-low snowpack — the lowest snow-water equivalent ever recorded for some dates at the McClure Pass and Independence Pass SNOTEL sites — sparse runoff, record-low streamflows and a hot, dry summer.
Low flows were prevalent across Colorado during the last two weeks of the water year, which runs from October through September. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s drought information system, 30 percent of U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges in the intermountain West reported record-low seven-day-average stream flows for the last two weeks of September, including some in the Roaring Fork watershed.
On Sunday, the last day of the water year, the USGS river gauge on the Roaring Fork at Stillwater Road just east of Aspen showed the river flowing at 19 cubic feet per second, beating the previous minimum flow of 21 cfs in 1977.
Flows on the Crystal River were similarly low. Above Avalanche Creek and above a series of diversion structures, the river was running at nearly 46 cfs, lower than the previous record low of 48 cfs in 1977.
At the river gauge near the state fish hatchery and downstream from several diversion structures just outside of Carbondale, flows dribbled down at just under 7 cfs Sunday.
Colorado Department of Water Resources Engineer for Division 5 Alan Martellaro said the summer’s weak monsoons exacerbated conditions caused by little snowfall.
“We had a bad snowpack,” Martellaro said. “It was not the worst, but then we have had an incredibly dry summer, a total lack of rain. I think when we start analyzing it, we are going to find the flows in late summer are unprecedented. We have done some things we have never done before.”
Martellaro is referring to curtailment on the lower Crystal in late July. Amid rapidly dropping flows, the district 38 water commissioner turned down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch, which he determined was diverting too much water. The ditch diversion did not exceed its legally decreed amount; the problem was that it was violating new state guidelines regarding wasting water.
According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, many sites around western Colorado rank as the driest since recording began for water-year precipitation, including McClure Pass, Schofield Pass and Independence Pass.
Statewide, the water year precipitation average at all SNOTEL sites measured just 21.4 inches, which is 64 percent of average — the second-lowest on record behind only 2002.
“It was pretty consistently dry throughout the entire year,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey. “February may have been the only month where we had near-normal precipitation across the state.”
In some instances, reservoir releases have come to the rescue of downstream anglers, fish and ecosystems.
Releases from Ruedi Reservoir will continue through October to bolster flows for endangered fish in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, a notoriously dry section of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the confluence with the Gunnison River in Grand Junction.
[Reclamation has been releasing water from] Ruedi Reservoir.
Periodic releases from Green Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling also boosted summer flows in the Colorado River. But that water will need to be replaced this winter by snowfall, Martellaro said. Ruedi Reservoir is currently 63 percent full while Green Mountain Reservoir is nearly 46 percent full.
“Where we have large reservoirs that can supplement the flows, yeah, we’ve gotten by,” Martellaro said. “But even that is coming to an end. We are running out. It remains to be seen what the snowpack is like to refill these large holes we’ve put in these reservoirs.”
This evening, 17 September, 2018, we at Reclamation adjusted releases from Green Mountain Reservoir to the Blue River from 525 to 475 cubic feet per second (cfs). Releases will remain at 475 cfs until further notice.
Feel free to contact me with any questions at email@example.com or by phone at 970-962-4326.
Staff at Frisco Bay Marina are trying to keep up with water levels that are dropping about one inch per day.
“And so an inch a day going down means the water line is moving 10 feet out every day, so we have to keep chasing it and moving the docks, which is definitely a lot of work,” said Tom Hogeman, the marina’s general manager…
Hogeman said he hasn’t seen the water this low since 2012 and it will only continue to go down as we head into the fall. The marina is typically open for rentals through mid-October but this year the season could end early.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Colorado River District has agreed to boost water levels to help fish in the Roaring Fork River watershed while also conserving water for use by local irrigators later in the season and improving the chances for boosting flows this fall for endangered fish.
The action also could help protect water quality in the case of anticipated ash in waterways due to expected flooding and debris flows resulting from the Lake Christine Fire near Basalt.
The river district is releasing water from Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt to boost flows in the Fryingpan River and Roaring Fork River to help reduce water temperatures to benefit trout. Low flows and warm temperatures in western Colorado have led to Colorado Parks and Wildlife urging anglers to avoid fishing later in the day on numerous western Colorado waterways due to the stress trout currently are facing.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation approved the river district releases last week. They are expected to range between 50 and 100 cubic feet per second.
River district spokesman Zane Kessler said the water to be released is owned and managed by the river district’s enterprise…
The water technically is being delivered downstream for Grand Valley irrigation needs but is creating environmental benefits on its way there. The water otherwise would have been delivered from Green Mountain Reservoir south of Kremmling.
Kessler said the Ruedi releases will allow for conserving a part of what’s called the historic users pool at Green Mountain Reservoir for use later in the season, which would benefit Grand Valley irrigators. The releases also increase the chances that, despite it being a dry year, that pool can be declared to have a surplus. That surplus could then be delivered in September and October to what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach, a stretch of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley where the flows would benefit endangered fish.
“This has never been done before,” Kessler said of the flow agreement. “But we’ve rarely seen river levels like this before either.”
The potential for easing the impacts of ash flow also could be felt in the Grand Valley. There is concern that ash flows could force the Clifton Water District to suspend use of Colorado River water. Area water providers have an agreement to help each other in meeting short-term water needs should that kind of emergency situation arise, but doing so this year would further deplete drought-stressed supplies.
Kessler said retaining some Green Mountain Reservoir water for release later in the year also could benefit recreational uses of the Upper Colorado River.
Meanwhile, the river district is taking another step aimed at helping ensure that benefiting fish in the Roaring Fork Valley doesn’t harm fish on the Colorado River upstream of the Roaring Fork confluence. The district is currently delivering what Kessler called “fish water” from Wolford Reservoir north of Kremmling into the upper Colorado River because it is having to lower the reservoir’s water level in preparation for doing some work on the dam there.
In that book, working with John Fleck of Albuquerque, he’s trying to make the case that science should not be ignored in figuring out how to manage the Colorado River during the 21st century—as it was when Congress approved the 1922 compact governing allocations among the seven states, Indian tribes, and, somewhat more fuzzily, Mexico.
Kuhn was honored recently in Glenwood Springs by his staff and others from around Colorado for his 37 years of work.
Trained as an electrical engineer, Kuhn had been a naval office on a nuclear-powered submarine before pursuing a career in nuclear power plants. But even in 1981, he could see that nuclear power wasn’t going in the right direction. When he noticed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal for a position at the Glenwood Springs-based water district, he applied.
Obviously, he got the job, moving from energy to water, from California to Colorado.
It was sharp pivot in Kuhn’s life. And Colorado since 1981 has also pivoted hard in very fundamental ways in its conversations about water.
Tom Alvey, who grows fruit and operates a packing shed in Hotchkiss, credited Kuhn with providing transparency and “getting the facts right” during his time as general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, beginning in 1996.
Bill Trampe, who owns a ranch that sprawls between Crested Butte and Gunnison, lauded Kuhn for having “the foresight to see where we were headed and what we needed to do to be effective in protecting water for the Western Slope.”
Peter Fleming, the river district’s general counsel, testified to Kuhn’s “highly intellectual approach to negotiations.” As arguments and counterarguments were waged at one session, said Fleming, he observed Kuhn scribbling into a notepad. Peering over his boss’s shoulder, he said, he saw numbers. What did they represent? “He was calculating complex integers,” Fleming discovered. In that scribbling could be seen a larger lesson.
“He wasn’t disinterested in what was going on,” said Fleming. “He just knew that the timing wasn’t right for him to offer what would inevitably be a good solution.”
Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead was also at the gathering in Glenwood, just a few blocks from where he had for many years staffed the “Aspen office” of one of the state’s leading law firms. Lochhead drew attention to Kuhn’s influence beyond Colorado’s traditional Eastern Slope versus Western Slope schisms to the broader seven-state Colorado River Basin. There, Kuhn’s voice about preparing for a warming climate has become influential.
“He is collaborative. He is innovative. He thinks about different solutions. He listens. He tries to find the common ground,” said Lochhead, now chief executive of Denver Water, an agency that provides water to 25 percent of all Colorado residents.
A time of pivots
Nobody, however, spoke directly to the giant pivots in water politics, policies and problems in the 37 years since Kuhn arrived in Colorado.
One of the largest pivots had already begun in 1981. The federal government had spent most of the 20th century building the giant dams, canals and other hydraulic infrastructure in the West. In Colorado, the greatest ambition was evident in the gigantic transfer of water from the Colorado River headwaters near Grand Lake to the benefit of farmers in northeastern Colorado. It’s called the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
The transfer—some would call it a heist — was opposed on the Western Slope, of course. One result of the compromise was a 1937 state law that created the river district and charged it with “conservation, use and development of water in the Colorado River and its principal tributaries in Colorado.” It covers 15 counties, including Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle. Southwestern Colorado has a similar district.
Another outcome was federal construction of Green Mountain Reservoir, on the Blue River north of Silverthorne. The dam had immediate benefits to the Western Slope, helping regulate flows to the benefit of farmers around Grand Junction. Much later, the regulated flows were crucial to providing water for endangered fish species in the Colorado River.
A later enterprise, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, hewed to the same template: It diverts water from the Roaring Fork drainage to farmers in southeast Colorado. For this, the Western Slope got Ruedi Reservoir. It was completed 50 years ago.
More projects were proposed, but in 1977 President Jimmy Carter announced they wouldn’t get funded. Westerners bristled and ridiculed Carter as a peanut-farmer in rain-drenched Georgia who didn’t understand the West. Ronald Reagan, arriving at the White House in 1981, was heralded as a Westerner who would right things. He only went half-way: Locals would have to come up with half the money for their dams and diversions. For most projects, it wasn’t nearly enough.
Kuhn noted that during his time, two of the five projects on Carter’s hit list in Colorado were eventually built, if not to the sizes originally envisioned. One of them, Ridgway Reservoir (originally called Dallas Divide), provides hydroelectricity that is part of Aspen Electric’s 100 percent renewable portfolio.
Altogether, however, the river district during Kuhn’s time had a hand in building five smaller-size reservoirs. Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling, by far the largest, is two-thirds the size of Ruedi. It was built in co-operation with Denver Water.
The River District under Kuhn also worked with Denver Water on other projects. But when Kuhn started work in Glenwood Springs, the relations were rocky. Denver wanted to build a giant dam in the foothills southwest of the city. Two-thirds of the water behind the Two Forks Dam was to have come from the Western Slope, primarily Summit County. Water was to go to Denver’s fast-growing suburbs.
Kuhn had been assigned to represent the river district on a task force appointed by then-Gov. Dick Lamm, to help sort through the controversy. The Western Slope task force aligned with the environmental community and together they conceded need for a small Two Forks as well as expanded diversions from Winter Park area for an enlarged Gross Reservoir west of Boulder. In exchange, the task force said, Denver needed to commit to greater water conservation. Denver Water’s leaders, confident of their rightness to the point of cockiness, refused.
The drama was cut short in 1991 when the administration of President George H.W. Bush vetoed the project, which was to be on federal land, based on environmental impacts.
Kuhn points out that the levels of conservation the Western Slope and environmentalists asked of Denver were much less than what has actually occurred. Denver Water now uses the same water for roughly double the number of people it did in 1990. The default expectation of ever-more water supplies has been shattered.
“You have this decoupling of municipal growth and water use, and we really didn’t see that coming in the early 1980s,” Kuhn said in an interview last week.
Denver, Aspen and other communities have been part of a national trend of declining per-capita use of water that may be far from over. It’s a simple matter of economics. Wringing the sponge of water conservation is cheaper. More expensive is buying water from farms on the Great Plains, but it’s still cheaper than developing new supplies.
Still being debated is how much water Colorado has to develop out of its entitlement, under compacts governing the Colorado River. As with Two Forks, a notion that the solution to water shortages is to build more dams and divert more still lingers. It assumes water remains available. A state report issued several years ago concluded that Colorado had as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water in the Colorado River to develop.
Kuhn scoffed at that estimate. He said then that no more than 150,000 acre-feet remained—and, quite possibly, not even that. Even allocations for existing water uses are questionable because of the dangling uncertainty of the warming climate.
After rummaging around climate change science beginning in about 2000, Kuhn became increasingly vocal through published papers and other work about the need to recognize the profound implications of a warming climate on water supplies in the Colorado River and the demands.
“I was just reading some of the work that was coming out in the early 2000s, and it’s largely proven to be generally correct,” he said last week. “I am surprised how quickly it has come on, because there is so much noise in the system,” he added, referring to the inherent variability of weather, both temperature and precipitation. “Even from one year to the next there can be a lot of noise.”
A cloudy crystal ball
What this means exactly for Colorado is still hard to say. There’s still too much uncertainty about impacts to justify significant infrastructure investments at this time, according to even Denver Water. Kuhn agrees.
“It will take a long time to see how that pattern (of change) sets up,” he said.
Climate modeling suggests—but with low confidence—less snow and precipitation for southern Colorado and more for northern Colorado. The Elk Range between Aspen and Crested butte can be seen as a divide between that wetter and drier future.
“If I were in the southwest, in Durango, I would be a heck of a lot more concerned than if I were in Steamboat Springs, based on what we know now—but it’s still a guess,” he said.
For the broader Colorado River Basin, though, Kuhn expects less water in the Colorado River as it flows into the Grand Canyon past Lees Ferry. In this, last winter was a harbinger of the future. There are profound implications for how the seven states of the Colorado River Basin – plus Mexico—move forward.
And that is the big idea for the book now being written. In it, he and Fleck point to a report issued before the Colorado River Compact was formally adopted by Congress in 1928. The framers of the compact had assumed 16.4 million acre-feet average flows in allocating the waters among the seven basin states — with more yet due Mexico. In fact, flows during 20th century proved to be somewhat less, about 15 million acre-feet. The report provided accurate evidence of lesser flows beginning in 1875 and, more circumstantially, to 1850.
In other words, it was wishful thinking to assume so much water — and based on what is known about global warming, it’s fair to assume even less water in the 21st century. Through the first 14 years of the century, according to the research of Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, flows have declined 19 percent.
“It’s a story about ignoring inconvenient science,” Kuhn said of the book. “If you had accepted the science, it would have made the political job [of apportioning the waters] much more difficult.”
It’s a story from a century ago, he said — but one fully relevant going forward.
The Colorado River District is working with state and federal water managers to increase flows in the Fryingpan River by as much as 100 cubic feet per second (cfs), helping trout in the watershed survive warm temperatures while supplying water for downstream irrigation needs in the Grand Valley.
Anticipated releases are expected to range between 50 cfs and 100 cfs and will be coordinated between the River District, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase flows in the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers downstream from Ruedi Reservoir.
“This should significantly benefit flows below Ruedi Reservoir,” said John Currier, chief engineer for the district. “We expect that the supplement flows may also help to mitigate water-quality problems anticipated from fire-related ash and debris flows stemming from the Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain.”
Technically, the water will be delivered downstream for Grand Valley irrigation needs while creating environmental benefits as it flows downstream. Green Mountain Reservoir releases will be reduced by an equal amount in order to conserve storage for late-season releases, which in turn will be needed to help endangered fish near Grand Junction.
The coordinated approach was given final approval by the Bureau of Reclamation on Monday. In order to boost Fryingpan levels while the plan awaited approval, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a 50 cfs release from its dedicated endangered fish pool in Ruedi on Friday. Those flows were supplemented by 30 additional cfs Monday, bringing the flow in the Fryingpan to 200 cfs.
Both Ruedi and Green Mountain reservoirs contribute water to the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. In this case, the changed water release plan will benefit trout below Ruedi while endangered fish still receive water from upstream Colorado River reservoirs.
Increased flows of cold water out of Ruedi should also help to alleviate some stress on trout fisheries in the watershed brought on by higher-than-normal water temperatures. Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced voluntary fishing closures earlier this month on sections of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers.
Despite promises of a wet monsoon season, Colorado’s arid reality has spread into Summit, which is now part of the 60 percent of the state experiencing “severe drought.”
Nathan Elder, manager of raw water supply for Denver Water, said low water levels at the South Platte reservoir in Littleton created a need for a big draw from Dillon. Even though human consumption is Denver Water’s primary use, Elder said they do keep the marinas in mind.
“We are very concerned with how that affects the recreation industry and keeping marinas in the reservoir,” Elder said. “We plan to keep marinas operating from June to Labor Day, but this has been an exceptional year. The water levels won’t go back to normal this year, and what happens next year depends on the snowpack we get this winter.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor, which tracks drought across the country and assigns drought severity based on conditions, assigns dryness levels from D0 to D4. D0 is considered “abnormally dry” but not severe enough to be considered a drought, while D4 is considered an “exceptional drought” that means there is a serious water emergency that causes “exceptional and widespread” crop and pasture losses.
Summit County’s “severe drought” is at level D2. At that stage, crop and pasture losses are likely, water shortages are common and water restrictions are imposed.
Victor Lee is a hydrologist and civil engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Green Mountain Reservoir in Heeney. Lee said that the monsoon is kicking in late due to less-than-ideal weather patterns.
“One of the reasons the monsoon has been slow to start is the high pressure system that normally forms over the southwest needs to be closer to Texas than the four corners region,” Lee said. “The high pressure system we’ve been experiencing is more to the west, and that’s bringing in warmer air but not more of the moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.”
Combined with an early spring, that makes for a long period without significant precipitation. Lee said that there is no threat to water supplies for human consumption, yet. A few years of healthy precipitation has meant that reservoirs across the state have managed to keep healthy levels in reserve and have been steadily releasing water to keep rivers and streams flowing.
“Without the reservoirs in the system, the stream flows we would be seeing throughout the upper Colorado would be much more dire,” Lee said.
If this drought persists into yet another year, the reasons for worry will multiply and tough decisions will be made.
“These are critical times in Colorado and the southwest,” Lee said. “If the drought goes into another year, there won’t be the same amount of carry-over storage, and it will become a much more complicated issue.”
I wanted to let you know that a request has been made to the BOCC by staff and the permit applicant to continue the Mascot Placer hearing to a date certain of July 24, 2018, to allow staff time to further analyze the cumulative traffic impacts this applicant presents for the use of Tiger Road. This request would be granted at the discretion of the BOCC at the meeting on Tuesday the 10th. The opportunity for public comment on Tuesday would also be at the BOCC’s Discretion.
BRWG appreciates your support and we hope, instead of the meeting on the 10th, you can join us at the meeting on July 24th. It is at the same time and place, 1:30pm in the Commissioners’ Hearing Room in Breckenridge.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Blue River Watershed Group
From email from the Blue River Watershed Group (Jennifer Hopkins):
The Blue River Watershed Group (BRWG) is reaching out to supporters and stakeholders of the Swan River Restoration Project to notify you of an upcoming Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) hearing that will have a significant impact on the project. As you know, the Swan River Restoration is a collaborative, multi-year effort to restore sections of the Swan River affected by historical dredge mining. The first section of the river has been restored on Summit County/Town of Breckenridge property. In order for restoration work to continue on additional reaches of the river, dredge rock tailings must be processed and removed from the sites.
The Board of County Commissioners is holding a hearing on July 10th to decide on a Conditional Use Permit that would allow Peak Materials to add a rock crushing operation at the Mascot Placer, located along the Swan River on privately owned land (comprising the third phase of the four-phase restoration project). Peak Materials has been operating a rock screening and sales operation at the site since 2003. BRWG supports the approval of the Conditional Use Permit as it will confer a number of public benefits and allow the Swan River Restoration Project to continue.
BRWG is asking supporters to attend the BOCC meeting on July 10th in support of the Swan River Restoration and approval of the Conditional Use Permit. Peak Materials is offering in-kind donations of significant crushed rock materials and other work at the site needed for the restoration (valued at approximately $1.5 million). Milling these materials on-site will decrease the amount of material taken off-site and reduce the need to import material for the restoration. The 5-year permit will expedite the removal of the dredge rock and preparation of the site for restoration activities. In addition, the private landowner has agreed to grant a public access easement covering a future stream and riparian corridor to perpetually ensure that the corridor remains undeveloped and available for public use. Without the permit, the restoration project would not receive these benefits and would likely not continue to move forward on this section of the river. At best, the restoration effort would need to find an additional $1.5M and at worst the project could be stopped entirely if the owner refuses to grant the easement if the crushing permit is denied.
It is crucial that we show community support for this permit. I would love the opportunity to discuss this issue with you further and to answer any questions you might have. Please let me know if there is a time we can chat before July 10th and I will be happy to call you. And please join us at the BOCC meeting. Here are the details:
Date: July 10th, 2018
Location: Commissioners’ Hearing Room, 208 E. Lincoln Ave., 3rd Floor, Breckenridge, CO 80424
Thank you for your continued support of this important project.
Highlighting the event was newly hired state climatologist Russ Schumacher. He gave a presentation offering some explanations about the extremely dry season we experienced this past winter. Schumacher confirmed that Colorado experienced one of the driest winters on record, after experiencing the 30th wettest year in 2017. The state experienced a bump after a heavy snowstorm in early April pushed precipitation numbers a bit closer to average.
Schumacher also confirmed that snowpack was terrible this past season. While Summit and most of the northeast portions of the state did OK, the southern part of the state did not. In the southwest, for example, snowpack levels averaged out between 30 and 40 percent of normal.
“There’s a clear dividing line between north and south,” Schumacher said. “Summit County is kind of at the middle of that. North of Summit, snowpack and precipitation are pretty OK, even above average. But in the south, they really struggled.”
Schumacher said warmer temperatures was a big factor for why the southern part of the state has been suffering.
“Everywhere in the southwest was extraordinarily warm,” Schumacher said. “Pretty much everywhere west of the divide was record warm, everywhere else that wasn’t was close to that.”
Schumacher attributed the warmer temperatures, especially in the southern part of the state, to the La Niña weather pattern that pushes the jetstream north and creates dry, warm conditions in the south and western parts of the state.
The long-term problem for Colorado’s waterways is how long these patterns can continue before it becomes a crisis. That’s where Andy Mueller, the new general manager for the Colorado River District and the night’s other featured speaker, came in.
Mueller pointed out that the current U.S. drought monitor has over 80 percent of Colorado’s population experiencing some form of drought, with the southwest experiencing extreme drought. But the problem extends beyond Colorado’s boundaries. However, Mueller said the biggest concern going forward are water flows going west to Lake Powell, one of the most important water reservoirs in the country.
Mueller called Lake Powell the state’s “water savings account.” Under the Colorado River Compact signed in 1922, the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — are required to keep an annual flow of 7.5 million acre-feet per year flowing from Lake Powell to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California. At the moment, flow into Lake Powell is forecasted to be at around 3.1 million acre-feet, or around 43 percent of average, because of the lack of snow melt…
If Lake Mead — which is currently at 1,084 feet above mean sea level and has been less than half full for well over a decade — drops to 1,075 feet, [the 2007 Shortage Sharing Agreement] will activate and force cuts to water users downstream. That will have a domino effect that may lead to water cuts for Upper Basin states as well. There may be severe water rationing, shutdowns of hydroelectric dams and a whole other set of emergency measures that have never before been instituted by the Department of the Interior. That means economic uncertainty for a wide variety of industries including ranching, skiing and electricity.
“To avoid that, Lake Powell is expected to pump out and drop 20 feet this summer,” Mueller said. “It’s currently at 54 percent of capacity.”
Mueller added that while catastrophe will probably be avoided this summer, it might not be next year or the year after that. Because of this complex water dance, Mueller said it was important for agricultural water users with senior claims in the Western Slope to maintain those claims, because if they’re abandoned they are abandoned forever.
“It keeps the water in our streams for our recreational users and for our quality of life here on the Western Slope,” Mueller said. “It keeps that water flowing to the West. Because they have those senior rights, they are able to pull that water downstream and not let it get diverted away.”
Mueller attributed the dangerously low water levels to overusage from lower basin states, but also in large part to climate change…
That means the overdevelopment in Colorado — which includes water-hungry lawns and outdoor irrigation — is not sustainable. Mueller ended his presentation with a dire warning and plea for the land-use people to start listening to water-use people.
“From the Colorado River District’s perspective, this has to stop,” Mueller said, pointing to a slide of a cookie-cutter subdivision near Denver. “We need the folks across the state putting these massive subdivisions in to realize that this is not OK. This is putting all of us in danger of significant chaos and the possibility of a compact curtailment.”
From the Colorado River District via The Summit Daily:
Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s newly named state climatologist, will deliver the keynote address at the Summit State of the River meeting set for Wednesday, May 2, at the Silverthorne Pavilion.
Bureau of Reclamation and Denver Water officials will also discuss reservoir operations at Green Mountain and Dillon, and new Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller will address Western Slope water priorities.
Western Colorado had a difficult snow year this past winter, although Summit County did well with roughly 95 percent of the annual average snow level through April. Parts of southern Colorado, however, saw snowpack percentages as low as the 30s and 40s.
As a result, Colorado River Basin inflow into Lake Powell is projected to be 41 percent of average. Colorado’s new state climatologist, Russ Schumacher, will address these weather trends and more at the Wednesday, May 2, Summit State of the River free public meeting at the Silverthorne Pavilion. Light food will be available at 5:30 p.m. The program begins at 6 p.m.
The Colorado River District’s new general manager, Andy Mueller, will also be a featured speaker. The River District board hired Mueller this past December to take over for longtime water leader Eric Kuhn, who retired. Mueller will talk about how protecting irrigated agriculture in western Colorado is tied to recreational use of water, environmental values and Lake Powell.
Summit County water commissioner Troy Wineland will discuss local water supply and streamflow predictions. Also, officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and Denver Water will be on hand to detail operations this year at Green Mountain and Dillon reservoirs, two key water bodies in Summit County.
This is the 25th edition of the Summit State of the River water education meetings. Sponsors are the Blue River Watershed Group and the Colorado River District.
Should the non-native quaggas infest the [Green Mountain Reservoir], millions in taxpayer money will be spent to ensure they do not clog or damage water infrastructure, as well as to prevent destruction of the aquatic ecosystem and the associated recreational fishing industry.
The danger posed by this critter is so high that Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, Summit County and other agencies are combining efforts to make sure the quagga does not wind up ruining the reservoir as it has other water bodies in Colorado.
Legislatively, a bill called the “Mussel-Free Colorado Act” dedicated to eradicating quagga and zebra mussels is well on its way to becoming state law. The bill requires boat owners to purchase an aquatic invasive species sticker on top of their regular boat registration to fund mussel prevention measures.
County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier has been following developments at the reservoir intently since last August, when the Bureau of Reclamation discovered quagga veliger, or larvae, in the reservoir. At the time, Stiegelmeier said she was furious with the lack of federal funding to pay for boat inspections preventing mussel infestation in the first place.
“Other reservoirs like Dillon Dam and Wolford are taken care of by the responsible dam owners,” Stiegelmeier said. “They pay for regular boat inspections before they get in the water, as they should. But the federal government reservoirs always contract out recreation and claim it’s not their job to making sure boats aren’t contaminated before they launch.”
Federal authorities were put on high alert and finally turned their attention to Green Mountain once mussel larvae was detected. Stiegelmeier said that it will be a much more expensive endeavor to try to ward off infestation after it starts.
“Once a reservoir is infested, the feds wind up having to pay many times as much to deal with the infestation,” she said. “Once the adult mussels get in there you can’t get rid of them. We have a huge number of reservoirs, like Lake Powell, that are infested. It costs an enormous amount of money to get mussels off the dam infrastructure, and it absolutely destroys the aquatic ecosystem.”
While samples at Green Mountain have come back clean since the initial detection, Bill Jackson, head of the U.S. Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District, said that concern over quagga is far from over…
Jackson said that to prevent the infestation, the Forest Service and other agencies will monitor water at Green Mountain for at least three years — the maximum amount of time quagga need to fully develop. The agencies are also working to divert all incoming boat traffic to a single launch point at Heeney Marina, where they can be centrally inspected and decontaminated before reaching the water. Jackson said that one major risk factor for contamination was how many boats were previously launched from unauthorized areas along the shoreline.
“We had a lot of motorboat launches into the reservoir without proper inspection and decontamination,” Jackson said. “We’ve really been trying to make sure that we got on that right away to prevent folks from doing that.”
Jackson said that the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which gets some of the water from the reservoir, helped in providing rocks, boulders and other implements to block off the known boat entry points. He also said that signage will be put around the reservoir directing boat owners to proper launch points where they will be inspected and decontaminated before hitting the water.
In the months leading to boating season, Jackson said that a major collaborative project will be taking place to improve the inspection and decontamination process at Green Mountain.
The Bureau of Reclamation and other partners will help Heeney Marina to improve its boat launch facilities and parking to accommodate the large amount of boat traffic being funneled there. The Forest Service will do its part by allowing modifications to the marina’s permit for construction there, as it operates on Forest Service land.
The project will also require Summit County to help by closing down and improving the county roads leading into and out of the reservoir, as well as introducing more signage. Details of the project have yet to be released in full to the public, but Jackson said a press release is forthcoming.
Jackson added that they needed the public’s help in preventing contamination.
“If folks are not getting their boats inspected, that doesn’t help anyone, and we wind up dealing with the aftermath of cleanup efforts. Prevention is where we want to be.”
Jackson said that boat owners can help by following a three part procedure: Clean, drain and dry.
Click here to view the list of the West’s worst invasive species according to the Western Governors’ Association.
Officials from CDPHE and the Environmental Protection Agency decided to move a hearing on the proposal from December 12 to November 2019, citing the need for further study of the proposed limit increase on humans and the environment.
Summit County officials, while welcoming the public health’s delay in making a decision, are standing together against the proposal to allow more molybdenum in Summit’s waterways.
A group of local stakeholders issued a joint statement opposing the increase before Wednesday’s hearing. Representatives from the Town of Frisco, Copper Mountain Consolidated Metropolitan District, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, and several other local government bodies stated that Climax’s proposal carried “unacceptable levels of uncertainty and risk” to human and animal health.
Lane Wyatt, co-director of the NCCG’s Water Quality/Quantity Committee, has been advising local leaders on the molybdenum issue. Wyatt believes the state is prudent in delaying its decision and welcomes Climax’s attempts to be transparent.
However, Wyatt says the initial research done by independent experts have already shown that high concentrations of molybdenum pose increased risks to human health, and that is enough to consider the molybdenum increase a non-starter.
Additionally, he sees Climax’s effort to get the state’s approval on increased molybdenum levels as a small foothold for its bigger ambitions to export molybdenum to other places, such as the European Union with its stricter environmental standards.
“Climax has been a good neighbor to Summit County,” Wyatt says, “but the community does not want to be a guinea pig for fooling around with how much molybdenum is in the water before it becomes a problem.”
Before the November 2019 hearing, the department of public heath’s water quality commission will hold other limited-scope hearings. One such hearing will take place on January 8 on whether to extend a site-specific temporary modification. The NCCG says it welcomes comments regarding molybdenum, and the public may do so by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The commission is requesting all public input by Wednesday, Dec. 27.
Chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout
Colorado health officials on Wednesday ignored state scientists and delayed for two years a decision on a mining giant’s push to weaken statewide limits on molybdenum pollution of streams, including a creek flowing into Dillon Reservoir, Denver’s drinking water supply.
Denver Water contends that Climax Molybdenum’s campaign to jack up molybdenum pollution limits 43 times higher than at present could cost ratepayers up to $600 million for expansion of a water treatment plant. Trace amounts of molybdenum — below a health advisory level — already flow out of Denver taps.
But Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials on Wednesday rescheduled a Dec. 12 molybdenum rule hearing for November 2019.
A CDPHE hearing officer said the delay will allow time for industry-financed studies to move through a peer-review process and for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to make decisions on molybdenum toxicity. A “temporary modification” that currently allows elevated molybdenum pollution from the Climax Mine was extended this year through 2018, and CDPHE officials at Wednesday’s meeting opened the possibility it could be extended again.
CDPHE scientists opposed the delay. The scientists, Denver Water and a coalition of mountain towns have opposed the push by Climax to allow more molybdenum pollution of Tenmile Creek, which flows down from the Climax Mine above Leadville into Dillon Reservoir, where water flows out through a tunnel to Denver and the upper Colorado River Basin. CDPHE water-quality scientists have determined that molybdenum pollution at the proposed new limits would kill fish and could hurt people…
Denver Water treatment plants cannot remove molybdenum, and expanding one plant to do that would cost from $480 million to $600 million, utility officials said in documents filed to the CDPHE.
Those costs ultimately would hit ratepayers, the 1.4 million people who rely on Denver Water for their domestic water supply. The molybdenum pollution from Tenmile Creek that reaches Denver facilities today is “below the human health advisory levels,” Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said.
“We’d likely exceed the human health advisory standard if that (new limit) were to become the statewide water quality standard. … Currently, the concentrations in Tenmile Creek have not been at a high enough concentration that would result in an exceedance of the human health advisory level, so an extension of the ‘temporary modification’ for molybdenum is acceptable,” Chesney said.
A subsidiary of the $46 billion mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, Climax Molybdenum runs the Climax Mine, which was closed for 25 years and reopened in 2012. This led to elevated molybdenum pollution at levels up to 2,500 ppb, 10 times higher than the current statewide limit. The “temporary modification” granted by CDPHE water commissioners, and extended this year, allows this elevated pollution through December 2018…
EPA officials recently said a molybdenum pollution limit as high as 10,000 ppb could be sufficient. But EPA scientists previously have advised lower limits.
“Denver Water’s current position is that the molybdenum limit should be based on scientific evidence. While Climax Molybdenum Company has presented scientific studies in support of its proposed standard, the studies fail to account for the effect high molybdenum concentrations will have on individuals with a copper deficiency,” Chesney said. “Because we do not know how high molybdenum concentrations will affect people with copper deficiencies, and EPA has not modified the Human Health Advisory for molybdenum to correspond with Climax’s proposed standard, the (state water quality control) commission should decline to increase the molybdenum standard to the level proposed by Climax.”
A coalition of mountain towns also is fighting the proposed higher limits for molybdenum pollution of waterways.
“Because of scientific uncertainty regarding the effects of varying molybdenum concentrations on human health, the commission should decline to make the changes that Climax Molybdenum Company has proposed in the statewide molybdenum standards,” Frisco attorney Jennifer DiLalla said. “The town’s primary goal is ensuring that any action the commission may take with respect to molydenum standards is protective of the health of those who live and work and play in Frisco.”
The Swan hasn’t flowed freely since the dredges chewed up its banks, kept the gold and spat the rocks back out. All of the sand and silt that kept the water out of the ground washed downstream, so the river has quietly gurgled under the rocks for the century since.
“One way to think of it is like a bathtub full of marbles, and the water is just sort of flowing through those,” Lederer said. “Sometimes you see it on the surface and sometimes you don’t.”
The Open Space and Trail Department has teamed up with Breckenridge and at least a half-dozen other partners to breathe life back into the Swan. Clearing out all of the marbles is the first step.
For the past two years, workers have been collecting and milling hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of the gravel and rocks that have been suffocating the river.
On Wednesday, Nov. 22, crews are set to wrap up another season of work, pulling out more than 43,000 tons of material since July. Over that time, roughly $122,000 in royalties from the sale of that processed material have gone to help offset the cost of the project.
A big load of the rock from last season was used for the Iron Springs bypass project, an ambitious re-routing of Highway 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco that was finished just weeks ago…
Last summer, the project liberated one of four sections of the Swan, digging out a channel that now meanders across a wide floodplain.
“We look at the geometry of the valley as a whole: how wide it is, how steep it is, how big the floodplain is,” Lederer explained. “And looking at these different parameters, we can make an inference into what the channel should look like.”
This summer, workers planted thousands of willows along the new banks of the Swan to help anchor the river while it stretches it legs for the first time in years. But it’s not stuck in place just yet.
“We’ve given the stream a lot of flexibility to move across the floodplain,” Lederer said. “It’s able to move a little bit over time, and that’s OK — that’s kind of what we want up there.”
After a dry start to the season, the area greened up nicely before the first snowfall, a stark contrast to the moonlike surface from just two years ago.
The stretch that’s flowing, dubbed Reach A, is one of four sections identified for de-dredging. That phase cost around $2.3 million total, provided by a combination of state and local government grants.
Gravel milling work this summer has taken place upriver on Reach B, and that’s set to continue next summer. Workers need to clear at least 195,000 cubic yards of material before restoration can begin.
The final two sections, however, are being actively quarried on private land and could take some time to free up for restoration.
“Everyone in the valley is sort of supportive of this work, but I don’t have a good idea of the timing on anything on private property,” Lederer said. “But ideally, we’ll continue to move upstream as the opportunity allows.”
Today’s excavator work represents the latest step in a landmark project undertaken by local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as a group of private organizations that share a commitment to undoing the environmental damage inflicted by Summit County’s pioneers.
“It’s just basically a big mess. There is no real stream, to be honest. There’s no life,” Jason Lederer, an open space and trails resource specialist for Summit County, says while observing the scene last summer. “Our goal is to reintroduce the natural channel to the valley and restore the ecological and environmental value.”
Lederer watches as the earth mover pulls another few hundred pounds of melted chocolate from its expanding hole. When the restoration effort began, no one had a clue where the river was supposed to go—or where it ran before the dredges turned it upside down in the early 1900s. “We don’t have any pictures, but we can imagine,” Lederer says. Which seems a tad crazy, no? How could you not know where the river flowed as recently as a century ago?
Such is the legacy of dredge mining—not just in the Swan, but also French Gulch, one drainage south, and anywhere else a dredge ever operated.
Soon, though, this valley will be transformed, once again through a human touch. As part of a decades-long plan to restore three miles of the Swan, last summer’s work was a major step toward realizing the river’s potential once more. The envisioned final product evokes a page torn from a Colorado scenic calendar: a meandering stream with aspen and juniper on its banks, 10-inch brook trout snapping at your fly, native cutthroat trout flourishing just upstream (for the time being), and more than 130,000 cubic yards of dredge rock crushed and removed from the valley forever.
As Lederer says, “If we do our job right, nobody will ever know we—or the miners—were here.”
The first two dredges began churning up the river bottom in 1898, and two more followed in 1899. The four boats dug as deep as 70 feet, depositing their debris in giant piles next to the disappearing river channel. Before long, the Swan’s three forks—North, Middle, and South—no longer shared a visible confluence, having been driven underground by the mining. All that mattered was the gold. And if no one was making the mining companies clean up their mess, they weren’t about to do it of their own accord.
Just up the hill and south from where the boats were “flipping the river upside down,” as dredge mining’s impacts are described, the Cashier Mine pumped out ore in Browns Gulch (it remains one of the largest abandoned mines in the county). Workers loaded its waste into carts and scattered it about the valley, alongside the tens of thousands of smooth, round river rocks discarded by the dredge boats. This, of course, only made a bad problem worse.
What had once been a verdant river became a wasteland. People who have worked on the Swan restoration refer to the river they inherited as a “bathtub of marbles”—essentially a waterway that had been so churned up it no longer had a bottom … or any structure at all. Think of trying to contain water with a screen. That’s what the Swan had become: an underground trickle, dispersed to the brink of dissolution.
Even as work began last summer, questions remained: Was the river still there? If so, could it be channeled once more? What would it take to bring the ecosystem back to life?
There weren’t many precedents akin to the Swan, but one local project provided inspiration, and hope. From 2004 to 2006, Summit County government led an effort to restore the Blue River just north of Tiger Road along Highway 9. The 23-acre Four Mile Bridge Open Space, as it became known, turned out beautifully and served as a vital blueprint for the Swan, in that the remediated site was zoned strictly as open space with no concessions for development.
It took 10 years from when the county and town of Breckenridge began preliminary work on the Swan until the heavy equipment arrived last summer, but by the time operations ceased in mid-November, the progress was striking. They’d rebuilt nearly a mile of stream, including relocating a half mile of channel that had become a muddy ditch along Tiger Road. The reconstructed section of river—“Reach A” as it’s known in the broader plan—includes 22 riffles (minor rapids), glides (calm water stretches), and pools 3 to 6 feet deep, which combine to form optimal fish habitat. The river channel is 25 feet wide to accommodate high flows during spring runoff, anchoring a 65-foot-wide riparian corridor that will be populated this summer with native flora.
Best of all, the county did not have to line the riverbed to prevent water from seeping into the ground and disappearing. That’s because the Swan River, they discovered, is a “gaining stream” instead of a “losing stream”—that is, groundwater actually rises from the bed and into the river, increasing its flow. You could see this happening just upstream from the excavator last July; clear water spurted out of the gravel like a spring, then gradually coalesced as it moved downhill.
An uncommon range of backers has funded the restoration, with the largest financial contribution—$975,000—coming from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Summit County added $500,000, the town of Breck gave $300,000, Colorado Parks and Wildlife anted in $184,000, and the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service combined to donate $250,000. Also part of the mix: the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited’s Gore Range Anglers Chapter, which works to protect, preserve, and restore coldwater fisheries. “This project hits every aspect of our mission,” says chapter president Greg Hardy.
Several tributaries of the Colorado River get their start in the crags of the Central Colorado mountains. Storied rivers: Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork and the powerhouse Gunnison. They’ve all faced the footstep of humankind. The mines dotting the slopes, hay fields, ranching, orchards and cornfields bear witness and are now part of the allure of the high country. Folks cast a line, shoot rapids and enjoy the scenery of those waterways.
On September 27, 2017, the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico inked Minute 323, the amendment to the 1944 United States-Mexico Treaty for Utilization of Water covering operations on the Colorado, Rio Grande and Tijuana rivers. (The Rio Grande is another of Central Colorado’s contributions to the Western U.S. economy.)
An important part of Minute 323 are environmental flows for the Colorado River Delta. Most everyone knows the river doesn’t reach the sea any longer. Environmental streamflow was initiated under Minute 319 signed by then Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.
In March 2016 a diverse group of conservationists, biologists, irrigators and government officials effected a release of 100,000 acre-feet of water from Morelos Dam into the dry Colorado River Delta. There was a line of vehicles racing point to point along the river to witness the river’s front. At San Luis Rio Colorado, most of the residents went down to the river to celebrate the return of the river although many had no memory of running water in the sandy channel.
There was a great deal of success from channeling some of the streamflow to restoration sites in the Delta. Within weeks, new growth sprouted – cottonwoods and willows. Much of the diverted water served to replenish groundwater supplies. Wildlife immediately started using the habitat.
There probably won’t be a repeat of the Colorado River once again reaching the sea. The environmental flows in Minute 323 are planned to be set to work in the restoration of the Delta. It was great to see the river reach the sea but the conservationists want to concentrate flows like irrigators do for maximum yield.
Another feature of the deal allows Mexico to store water in Lake Mead to better manage their diversions for agriculture. The U.S. is also helping to rebuild and upgrade Mexican infrastructure. Under Minute 319, Mexico was allowed to continue storing water, and that water was used for the pulse flow. The idea is that greater efficiency in Mexico will lead to more storage in Lake Mead.
Currently, Arizona, California and Nevada are working on a drought contingency plan to stave off a shortage declaration in Lake Mead. Arizona’s Colorado River allocation takes a big hit under a declaration. Mexico’s water in Lake Mead will help. Negotiations about the drought contingency plan will now move forward with greater certainty with the signing of Minute 323.
The final signatures for the Minute came from Roberto Salmón (Mexico) and Edward Drusina (U.S.). There were several officials from President Obama’s administration in attendance, including Jennifer Gimbel and Mike O’Connor. The negotiations started before last year’s election but did not conclude before the inauguration.
Minute 323 is an important piece of the puzzle for administering the Colorado River.
Central Colorado is joined at the economic hip with the Colorado River. A lot of transbasin water flows down the Arkansas River from the Twin Lakes and Fryingpan-Arkansas projects. Some is pumped over to South Park by Colorado Springs and Aurora but most of it goes down to Lake Pueblo and the Fry-Ark partners. Colorado Springs, Fountain and Security pump some back north in the Fountain Valley. Cities along the river divert and treat the water for their populations. The water also is used to grow the famous crops in the Arkansas Valley: Rocky Ford melons, Pueblo chile, corn and others. Timing the releases from Twin Lakes and Turquoise Reservoir also contributes to the rafting economy. 100 miles of the Arkansas River are designated as gold medal fisheries. Transbasin flows help the riparian habitat.
• Comments about managing the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area are due by November 10, 2017. Check out the AHRA Plan Revision page on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website.
• Congratulations to Wet Mountain Valley ranchers Randy and Claricy Rusk for winning the Dodge Award for a lifetime of conservation from the Palmer Land Trust.
• Congratulations to the Colorado Parks & Wildlife folks at the Roaring Judy Hatchery for successfully spawning the line of Cutthroat trout rescued from Hayden Creek during the Hayden Pass Fire.
• James Eklund has moved on from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Becky Mitchell is the new director.
• Coloradans cam now legally collect rain off their roofs. Governor John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1005 in May.
• R.I.P. Gary Bostrom. He was one of the driving forces behind Colorado Springs’ $825 million Southern Delivery System.
John Orr works for a Front Range water utility where he keeps one eye on the sky to monitor Colorado snowpack. He covers Colorado water issues at Coyote Gulch (www.coyotegulch.blog) and on Twitter @CoyoteGulch.
CDPHE scientists warn Climax Mine molybdenum may pose health risk, oppose company push to raise statewide pollution limit
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water-quality scientists said, in a recommendation to state commissioners, that Climax Molybdenum’s proposed hike “would be acutely lethal to aquatic life” and probably not protective of people.
A Climax report on molybdenum exposures in Colorado “demonstrates that current levels of molybdenum in drinking water may pose a public health risk to communities downstream” of the mine, CDPHE scientists said in filings reviewed by The Denver Post.
State data show molybdenum discharges from the Climax Mine above Leadville in recent years increased to levels 10 times higher than the current statewide limit of 210 parts per billion. CDPHE water-quality control commissioners granted Climax a “temporary modification.” When it expired, the commissioners extended the modification to provide more time to complete a study of molybdenum.
CDPHE officials Tuesday declined to discuss this issue.
Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials, who oversee Colorado’s compliance with the Clean Water Act, informed state commissioners last week that the EPA would allow a limit higher than what Climax Molybdenum is proposing, according to a document filed Friday.
A regional EPA spokesman issued a prepared statement saying the EPA’s filing is “preliminary,” confirming that “our initial review indicates that the proposed standard would protect water supply uses,” but declined to further discuss this issue
State commissioners often follow EPA guidance in setting pollution limits sufficient to protect people while accounting for variability and uncertainty…
Climax officials cited three rat studies the company helped fund in asking CDPHE to relax the statewide water quality limit for molybdenum in streams used for domestic water to 9,000 ppb billion from 210 ppb. Climax also wants limits for waterways used for agricultural irrigation raised to 1,000 ppb from 160 ppb.
EPA recommendations submitted to the CDPHE said a molybdenum limit for streams tapped for drinking water of 10,000 ppb “would be protective … and consistent with Clean Water Act requirements.” However, EPA regional officials said in the document filed Friday that they would not object if Colorado’s commission “chooses to be more conservative and adopts a more stringent table value standard of 9,000 ug/L (ppb) as proposed by Climax Molybdenum Company.”
The EPA “must review and act upon any revised standards once they are adopted by the commission for them to be in effect under the Clean Water Act,” the agency’s statement said. “If the commission chooses to retain current standards, EPA will not have an approval or disapproval role.”
The CDPHE scientists submitted their recommendation Friday to state commissioners, who are scheduled to deal with the matter in December.
Denver Water is opposing the push for a looser statewide limit, along with downstream communities including Frisco, the Copper Mountain resort and people to the west along the Eagle River…
Denver Water treatment plants lack the capacity to remove molybdenum, which in trace amounts can be healthy. While data on human toxicity is limited, chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout, and can also affect the lungs, kidneys and liver.
Climax officials have told state water quality commissioners their proposal “is not based on any intent or need to increase molybdenum in Climax discharges, and, in particular, Climax does not intend to change its mining or water treatment process in a manner that would cause an increase in the historical discharge of molybdenum into Tenmile Creek.”
Bags were packed, but then the wind shifted. Emergency over—for this time
Breckenridge was full of people the day last summer that fire erupted in the nearby Tenmile Range. “It was scary. It was so close,” says Peter Grosshuesch, the town’s director of planning.
July 5 was a warm day, even at 9,600 feet in elevation. The three feet of wet, spring snow that had doused Summit County six weeks before had vanished. More important than daytime heat was uncommon overnight warmth: temperatures dropped only to about 60, instead of the normal 40s.
Grosshuesch watched the smoke billow into the sky from his office in Breckenridge, about four miles away. “Everybody got real serious, real fast,” he remembers.
Flames pushed 150 feet above the top of the trees as the fire roared through stands of lodgepole pine, both live and dead, then invaded the band of spruce-fir.
High wind can easily send firebrands aloft for a mile and onto roofs and into front yards. Residents in the most vulnerable neighborhood near Breckenridge, a rural subdivision called Peak 7, were evacuated. But some had begun wondering if this fast-moving fire would reach Breckenridge itself.
Then the winds shifted again, turning the blaze back on itself. The fire was contained and then extinguished. The emergency was over—this time.
“We were very lucky,” says Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, on whose lands the fire occurred. The winds, had they not changed, might well have pushed the fire through the rural subdivision and to the Breckenridge ski resort. Beyond was Breckenridge, the town. “It looked like there was nothing to stop it.”
The question posed by the Breckenridge fire is whether enough has been done to abate the risk. It’s a question worth pondering far beyond Colorado’s Summit County as fire season lengthens and intensifies even as construction of homes continues into what is called the wildland-urban interface.
Mountain towns this summer had many reasons to be reminded of their own risks. Smoke in Whistler from fires in the interior of British Columbia was “ungodly,” in the words Grosshuesch, who was there for a visit. Fires also raged in Montana and Idaho while the beetles killing spruce trees in southern Colorado continued northward toward Crested Butte.
This autumn, wildfire has killed 42 people in the wine country north of San Francisco and destroyed 5,700 homes and other structures. The Napa Valley has a different climate, drier and more Mediterranean, than ski towns.
But there’s also this: high mountain towns are warming, perhaps more rapidly than lower elevations. It’s possible the fire risk is also escalating more rapidly. That’s one of the possible take-aways that came within a strong wind during July of incinerating Breckenridge.
Large-scale wildfires have always occurred in high mountain valleys, if perhaps not very often. For example, paleoecological research has shown evidence of a large-scale fire in the early 1600s that burned much of the forest in the Fraser Valley, home to Winter Park.
Fires, however, were virtually unknown as resort communities were built around ski areas during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a cooler, wetter time, and many forests had been logged heavily in the century before. The trees were still relatively young, and those fires that did occur were quickly suppressed.
Breckenridge and Summit County—and many other mountain communities—continued to believe they were different, their forests more like asbestos, yet still lovely. Who among the oldest residents—and to be clear, there weren’t that many older residents in the young ski towns—could remember anything else?
That same sense of exceptionalism continued even as fires raged most of the summer of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park and then, in the 1990s, in the foothills along Colorado’s Front Range southwest of Denver.
Then came 2002, hot winds in April eviscerating the thin snowpack and producing a peak runoff six weeks early that was almost too feeble to be noticed. In the first weekend of June, major forest fires erupted near Durango, in Glenwood Springs, and west of Colorado Springs, the latter going on to burn 138,000 acres.
Summit County heeded those visual cues. In 2006, the county adopted a community wildfire protection plan. A wildlife council continues to meet regularly. In 2008, voters approved property tax assessments that yield $500,000 a year for grants to assist neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations. The money can also be used to create water cisterns, to assist firefighters. A portable wood-chipper was purchased with the money, and it is taken to every street in the county at least twice a year.
Insurance companies have also pushed for efforts to provide what is called defensible space, by removing vegetation around homes. In some instances insurance companies are asking homeowners to have their properties inspected by the local fire districts.
“We used to require people to preserve trees and use them to screen development as much as possible,” says Jim Curnutte, the county planning director. “We would not let you cut down a tree. Now, we might require you to cut down a tree, because of the defensible space ordinance of the building code. If you come in for a new permit or a substantial remodel, you have to meet your defensible space requirements.”
Vegetation must be at least 30 feet from a structure and in some cases 100 feet. But under Colorado law, statutory-rule town and county governments cannot impose defensive space requirements retroactively; only home-rule governments such as Breckenridge and Pitkin County can.
Social license to cut trees
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who is also a wildland firefighter, says that all planning now assumes fires will occur. “It’s not a matter of if but rather of when we have more fires in our community,” he says.
As a firefighter, he has worked in California and elsewhere. “I have seen homes with defensible space that were saved, and I have seen homes where vegetation is connected to houses, and those homes have been destroyed,” he says. It’s not an absolute, he adds, but he also knows that firefighters will spend more time trying to save a home with defensible space for a simple reason: they have improved chances of success.
Educating homeowners about wildfire risk is important, but Gibbs say there’s often a difference in attitudes between locals and those who are second-home owners. The non-residents more generally resist efforts to impose defensible space around buildings.
In Summit County, the beetle epidemic gave the Forest Service social license to cut trees from 12,000 to 15,000 acres.
“What chance do you think there was of doing that before the bark beetle?” Fitzwilliams asks.
The Forest Service has spent $18 million in the last 10 to 12 years in forest thinning, clearing roads and trails and other work related to removing vegetation in Summit County. Some has been sold to sawmills, but there’s little revenue from that. “We have low value trees,” explains Fitzwilliams of lodgepole pine.
Denver Water has been a major partner in this new work. It collects water for diversion to the Denver metropolitan area from a tunnel at Dillon Reservoir; the agency provides water for 1.4 million people, a quarter of all Colorado residents. The water agency has found forest fires expensive. Two hot-burning fires, in 1996 and then in 2002, caused heavy erosion into Denver’s reservoirs in the foothills southwest of the city. The soils there are highly erosive and granitic by nature. The reservoirs had to be dredged, with incomplete success.
Better and less expensive than remediation, the agency decided, would be prevention.
In a program called Forest to Faucets, Denver in 2010 partnered with state and federal forestry agencies to thin forests in Summit County and the Winter Park area. The city draws water from both areas.
Fires sop up Forest Service budget
Denver Water in February announced a five-year renewal of the partnership, putting in $16.5 million to match like amounts from the state and federal agencies for continuing thinning of forests. The first phase also saw 750,000 trees being planted.
In announcing the commitment, Denver Water’s CEO Jim Lochhead said Congress should take heed of what Denver and other water providers, including Aurora and Colorado Springs are doing.Instead of allocating massive amounts of money
for putting out fires, he said, Congress should provide more money to the Forest Service for forest management in critical areas.
That same point was made by Fitzwilliams, the White River supervisor, in an August meeting with officials from Colorado ski towns. He said fire suppression used to account for 15 percent of the Forest Service budget nationally, but has grown to 55 percent. This year it will probably push 60 percent. “So much of our money is in managing these large, expensive wildfires,“ he says.
Ironically, fire suppression in the past is partly to blame for the growing threat. In recent decades, foresters have taken a more measured approach about when to let fires burn and when to put them out.
But if cutting trees is one obvious solution to the threat of fires, ecologists warn it cannot be the only answer: There are simply too many trees.
“Treatments in and of themselves are not going to save the day in terms of changing patterns of fire,” says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont. Treatments do make sense in targeted areas, such as what Denver Water is doing, he adds. But like Fitzwilliams, he stresses that fire altogether cannot be contained. It’s part of the ecosystem. Instead, communities need to adapt themselves to living within a fire ecosystem, he says. His consultancy, working with two others, helped Summit County create its community plan.
Speaking with members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns in August, Fitzwilliams emphasized the words “conversations” and “responsibilities” among communities, land managers, and local governments. He thinks many tools— including prescribed fire and thinning—must be employed. He hopes to see greater age diversity in trees stands and some deliberate manipulation of forests in the wildland-urban interface to promote species such as aspen, which are somewhat less fire prone.
And warming temperatures
All this will be needed, if a trend noticed by Brad Piehl at the Peak 2 fire becomes more prevalent. He’s a watershed planner whose company, JW Associates, works with Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities that draw water from high mountain valleys. Piehl himself lives near Breckenridge and watched the Peak 2 fire from his home with this important characteristic: It started in lodgepole pine and, after continuing to warm up on the downed logs, then invaded spruce-fir. This is a changed dynamic, previously observed last year in Colorado’s North Park. It also puts high-mountain resorts at greater risk.
Piehl, in speaking with Colorado Association of Ski Town members in August, also showed a slide (above) that represents the changing species that may result from warmer temperatures predicted as a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions.
Fire season is lengthening, some say by 75 days. That seems too much for Summit County, says Piehl. But even if it’s just 30 days more each year, “we’re still in trouble,” he adds. “That’s still a significant change.”
About Allen Best
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
Freeport-McMoRan subsidiary Climax Molybdenum has asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to relax the water quality limit for molybdenum in streams used for domestic water statewide to 9,000 parts per million from 210 ppm. It also wants the limits for waterways tapped for agricultural irrigation raised to 1,000 ppm from 160 ppm.
The change could cut water-treatment costs at the company’s open-pit Climax Mine above Leadville, where the company produced about 16 million pounds of molybdenum in 2016, down from 23 million pounds in 2015…
“The standard proposed by Climax based on studies it completed on laboratory animals do not appear to adequately extrapolate to human health impacts,” said Tom Roode, the utility’s chief of operations and maintenance. “While the increased discharge may save costs at the mine, it has the potential to increase treatment costs at Denver Water’s treatment plants.”
Denver’s water treatment plants lack the capacity to remove molybdenum, which in trace amounts can be healthy. While data on human toxicity is limited, chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout, and can also affect the lungs, kidneys and liver.
“Our position is that the molybdenum standard should be based on sound science quantifying human health impacts,” Roode said.
At the mine atop Fremont Pass, Climax discharges molybdenum into Tenmile Creek, which flows into Dillon Reservoir.
County Water Quality Specialist Katherine Morris and Assistant County Manager Ed Moyer delved into a proposal the county received from Climax Molybdenum, a subsidiary of Freeport-McMoRan and operators of the Henderson Mill and Mine complex, to change state regulations regarding allowable molybdenum concentrations in water. The decision to change the standard is under the purview of the state’s Water Quality Control Commission, not Grand County.
According to information provided by Morris and Moyer, the state commission is set to decide on the issue at a hearing on Dec. 12.
The standards for allowable molybdenum are set by the state and changes to those standards can impact both drinking water and agricultural water uses. Climax is proposing increasing the allowable standard for molybdenum concentrations in domestic drinking water from 210 micrograms per liter to 9,000 micrograms per liter. They are also seeking an increase in allowable molybdenum levels in agriculture water, from 160 micrograms to 1,000 micrograms.
County Commissioner Rich Cimino indicated he was not supportive of Climax’s proposed increases.
“The standard is the standard, and safety is safety, why would we relax it?” Cimino asked rhetorically.
County Commissioner Merrit Linke echoed Cimino’s comments.
“These are factors of what, 20, to change the standard?” Linke asked. “I don’t think we are going there. If it was a little bit, if it was going from say 210 to 300 maybe that is justifiable, but factors of 40, I don’t think so. No, would be the answer for me.”
No reason for the proposed increase was discussed during the meeting.
WINDY GAP RESERVIOR BYPASS PROJECT COST SET AT OVER $15 MILLION
A review of the Windy Gap Reservoir modification and connectivity channel was also on the agenda Tuesday.
Moyer highlighted that the application for an amended decree and bypass water rights has been submitted to the appropriate water court by Northern Water and the Colorado River District.
Value engineering has been performed on the project, which helped lower the anticipated infrastructure costs of the bypass by roughly $1 million. After adding in approximately $1.4 million for NEPA permitting, monitoring and administration, the total cost of the bypass project is set at $15.6 million.
Moyer informed commissioners that funding for the project is still about $5 million short.
“We have ongoing efforts for fundraising,” Moyer said, highlighting several tours conducted in the last month with prospective foundations, such as the Walton Family Foundation, which toured the project site in late September. Moyer will attend a funding meeting for the project at Denver Water facilities this week and has more follow-up meetings next week.
Moyer also provided a brief update on the ongoing Learning By Doing adaptive management process of which Grand County is a party.