[Brad] Udall, a distinguished climate researcher, was on hand as the keynote speaker for the 24th annual Summit County State of the River meeting hosted by the Blue River Watershed Group and Colorado River District. The yearly gathering to discuss the season’s snowpack, local reservoir operations and health of the headwater region’s water bodies was highlighted by Udall’s research on how rising temperatures are a contributing factor to significant reductions in river flows.
The study, conducted with Jonathan Overpeck, a renowned hydrology expert and the director of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, points to climate change today producing below-average flows out of the Colorado River. From 2000 to 2014, it resulted in 19 percent less water than the 100-year average, despite relatively consistent precipitation levels, as also ultimately occurred during the most recent winter after some slow beginnings.
“As many of you know, we started out the year in a very poor way and all of a sudden it went like gangbusters in almost the whole Rocky Mountain region in December into January,” said the Colorado River District’s Jim Pokrandt. “Then the spigot turned off.”
Those massive snowfalls in December and January created hope of an especially strong water year, but an abrupt drop-off thereafter soon resulted in below-average totals approaching April. As of May 1, snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin was only just ahead of a typical year following disappointing precipitation in the months of March and April. The late-April snowstorms rescued what would have otherwise been a below-average snowpack.
Across the state, totals are now in line with average years, but it’s a matter of arguing over what could have been. Udall thinks his research definitively shows the culprit.
“It doesn’t take a lot to figure this out,” he said. “It’s due to higher temperatures. This does not bode well for the future.”
Colorado recorded its hottest March on record based on 123 years of data, at almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal. Whether you believe it comes down to the unseasonable heat — or what may be causing it — the fact is the snow rarely arrived to Summit County during that month.
The science is more complex than warmer temperatures simply preventing precipitation from transforming into snow, though conditions also need to be right for that to happen. The hydrologic cycle dictates that the atmosphere holds on to 20 percent more water for every 5 degree increase in temperature. Evaporation, where liquid is turned into vapor, is taking place as the thermometer rises as well. A similar process happens with plant life that prevents water molecules from ever touching the ground, and — also combined with a lengthening growing season due to climate change — eventually less water is forming in our major waterways.
That all said, these types of water levels on the Colorado River are not unprecedented, with the 15-year drought between 1953-67 as a similar period. Those lower flows were based on a lack of precipitation, though, not heightened temperatures as they are presently. Add in growing demands on the river in what several speakers last week called “a pretty good water year,” with precipitation historically flat as well as swelling populations, and suddenly we’re staring down the subsequent depletion of a stock used in Colorado for drinking, recreation, crop irrigation and export to several other western states rooted in federal law.
“We’re in a long-term situation where demand on the resource exceeds the supply,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District.
Udall remains optimistic we can still dig our way out of this hole, to put water levels on crucial western rivers like the Colorado back where they should and need to be. It will require a concerted effort, he said, to reduce greenhouse gases through a paradigm shift away from past methods that are outdated, and by way of current technologies. The longer we wait, he added, the bleaker our water future will be.
“It’s warming,” Udall said of the climate in his closing remarks. “We’re the cause. It’s serious. We’re sure, and we can fix it.”
Brown & Caldwell, a construction consulting firm, reviewed the estimate the town received from Moltz Construction in 2016. The estimated cost of $53 million for the new water plant was a surprise to the council during their October budget retreat, causing them to table a final decision. Staff from Brown & Caldwell stated at the January council meeting that the Moltz estimate was thorough and only had slight variances from their own.
“Without water, without sewer, without fire, police, etc., without infrastructure, this community stops. This is, I think, the fundamental purpose of government, is to provide this type of infrastructure,” said Tim Casey, a member of the town’s water task force.
In order to pay for the plant, Breckenridge is working with the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The organization is giving the town a 20-year loan with an estimated interest rate of less than 2 percent, said Brian Waldes, the director of finance for the town. Water rent for the town will continue to rise at the previously scheduled rate of 5 percent per year. Waldes said that the town is not anticipating any additional increases. The money from water rent funds will be used to pay the water plant loan.
The plant, which will be located north of the town off of Highway 9, will have a restroom that is accessible from the recreation path located in the area. There will also be a station to fill water bottles.
James Phelps, the interim director of public works, said that the delay in final approval from the council set back the construction timeline for the new plant. Right now the town is working on getting the required permits, a process that could take six months. Phelps said that preparation for the water plant should start around June. The plant will likely be finished in 2020…
Planning for the new plant was largely about getting ahead of water demand for the town. Breckenridge’s current facility, the Gary Roberts Water Treatment Plant, was built in 1971. With only one source of water, the town is vulnerable to drought or other natural disasters. If the plant breaks down, the town would be without an alternative water source.
“We’re discreet. In other words, we’re not hooked into any other town’s … water system,” Waldes said. “If our water system goes down for whatever reason, be it a natural disaster or mechanical failure, there’s no other water plant that can help us.”
Phelps said that once the new water plant is complete, it will enable the town to shut down the Gary Roberts plant temporarily for repairs and general maintenance.
As the demand for water grows with the population, Kim Dykstra, the director of communications for Breckenridge, said that water conservation is still one of the town’s main goals. Phelps added that the new plant could allow the town to expand its service areas to homes that have been getting water from wells, potentially taking dependency away from a water source that may eventually run dry.
Casey also mentioned that because the plant takes water from a diversion of the Blue River, it leaves water in the river, which is another environmental benefit.
The plant comes from years of planning from both the task force as well as the from the feasibility study. But the town was able to build the plant due to past council members obtaining water rights as far back as 1883, Phelps said. It helped to keep the town steps ahead.
It may still be peak ski season, but the time for boating is right around the corner and local officials are at a loss for how to keep up an invasive species prevention program at Green Mountain Reservoir with funding reserves currently bone dry…
Green Mountain, located on the northern end of the county along the Blue River, is considered a relatively high-priority site because of its proximity to the Front Range, and, as a result, large volumes of boaters. It’s why Summit County administrators are ramping up efforts to find financial resources and maintain area boat inspections on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-owned reservoir and curb these critters’ arrival…
Green Mountain is much smaller scale, with annual inspection costs that run upwards of $80,000. From 2009-14, the U.S. Forest Service fully funded these watercraft review and decontamination measures based out of the Heeney Marina, but the federal agency was forced to eliminate the program in 2015 due to slashed budgets. Colorado Parks and Wildlife stepped up and paid for the aquatic nuisance species prevention efforts in 2015 and 2016, but recently ran into diminished allocations as well and had to pull out of Summit and focus reserves on only extremely high-risk CPW waters this upcoming summer…
For its part, the Bureau of Reclamation acknowledges awareness of this growing problem, but does not itself conduct or organize recreation or related facilities on the bodies of water it possesses. Instead, it merely authorizes approved activities as managed by partner agencies, such as Larimer County at both Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake in Northern Colorado, and therefore expects those entities to cover these associated costs.
CPW still intends to provide training to staff at Green Mountain’s Heeney Marina in 2017, and do its best to assist with monitoring at a reduced rate. The state agency is also presently in discussions with the Forest Service, as well as other organizations, to see what amount of collaboration might be possible to continue the nuisance species prevention programming in future years.
Meanwhile, at a governmental level, the idea of a bill this legislative cycle requiring a permit in the form of a vessel sticker, say, at a cost of $5 per kayak and $25 per larger boat, has been floated. But as of yet, no one in the General Assembly has stepped up to sponsor such a proposal, even as summer fast approaches.
Relocating Dillon to build a reservoir looks better now than in 1961, says town local turned Denver Water employee.
By Kristi Delynko
It’s said that everything you need to know you learn in kindergarten. But what if you had to skip kindergarten because your school was underwater?
Joel Zdechlik in 1961, the year he was supposed to start kindergarten in the Town of Dillon.
While it may sound like one of those unlikely “dog ate my homework” scenarios, Joel Zdechlik spent exactly three days in kindergarten before his school in the Town of Dillon was closed and torn down to make way for Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.
Building the reservoir was not a popular decision among the residents of Dillon, including his parents, Zdechlik recalled.
Fast forward 50-plus years. Relations between Denver Water and the Dillon community have turned around. And Zdechlik? He’s been a water distribution manager for the…
Here’s the release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Drew Peternell, Matt Rice, Paul Bruchez):
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today announced $7.75 million in funding for an ambitious slate of projects to address the impacts on the Colorado River of trans-mountain diversions of water from the West Slope to the Front Range. Fisheries conservation group Trout Unlimited is the lead partner on the grant application.
The Colorado River Headwaters Project received $7,758,830 from the NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to improve irrigation systems and reverse the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Led by an array of partners representing conservation interests, agriculture, local government, water providers, state agencies, and landowners, the Headwaters Project will create a bypass channel to reconnect the Colorado River at Windy Gap Reservoir, make channel and habitat improvements downstream of the bypass near Kremmling, Colorado, and improve irrigation systems as well as soil and water quality.
When fully implemented, the Headwaters Project will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands that provide sage grouse habitat and make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions.
“This is a huge win for the Colorado River,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project. “We’re seeing an exciting and ambitious conservation vision for the upper Colorado become reality. With this funding, we’ll be able to put the ecosystem pieces of the upper Colorado River back together and restore the river and its trout fishery to health.”
“The Colorado River Headwaters Project is a great example of how municipal water providers, ranchers, conservation organizations and others can work together to restore an important reach the Colorado River for both the environment and agricultural operations with benefits downstream,” said Matt Rice, director of American River’s Colorado River Basin Program. “A collaboration like this would have been unheard of 10 years ago. It’s a win for everyone in Colorado.”
At present, transmountain diversions divert over 60 percent of the upper Colorado River’s native flows across the Continental Divide for use in the Front Range and northern Colorado. The resulting low flows in the river have seriously undermined the operations of irrigation systems and the health of the Colorado River in the project area. Low flows make it difficult for irrigators to divert water, especially during drought, and also raise water temperatures and hamper the river’s ability to transport sediment, leading to sediment buildup on the riverbed that degrades aquatic habitat.
Local ranchers wanted to address these irrigation problems as well as river health, said Paul Bruchez, a Kremmling-area rancher who organized his neighboring landowners into the Irrigators of Land in Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) group, a key project partner. The project will install several innovative instream structures designed to provide adequate water levels for irrigation while also improving critical fish habitat. This will be the first project in the country to demonstrate these stream engineering practices on a significant scale.
“This news is life-changing for the headwaters of the Colorado River and those who rely on it,” said Bruchez. “Years ago, water stakeholders in this region were at battle. Now, it is a collaboration that will create resiliency and sustainability for the health of the river and its agricultural producers. Healthy ranches need healthy rivers, and the RCPP funding will help sustain both.”
The Windy Gap Reservoir bypass and the Kremmling area river improvements address several pieces of the puzzle in a long-term, regional effort to restore the upper Colorado River. Other pieces include agreements that TU helped negotiate with Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water District that contained significant river protections as well as an innovative, long-term monitoring and adaptive management process (called “Learning by Doing”) that requires stakeholders to work together to ensure the future health of the river.
That progress and collaboration is all the more remarkable coming after years of conflict between West Slope interests and conservation groups concerned about the health of the river, and Front Range water providers seeking to divert more water across the Divide.
“What’s happening on the upper Colorado shows that water users can work together to ensure river health while meeting diverse uses,” said TU’s Peternell. “This project is a model of what cooperation and collaboration can achieve in meeting our water challenges in Colorado and the Colorado River Basin.”
Other Headwaters Project partners who will provide assistance include the ILVK, Northern Water Conservation District, Denver Water, Colorado River Conservation District, Middle Park Soil Conservation District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Grand County, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Colorado’s economy depends on water: where it is, where the people who need it live and work, who has rights to it. Fights over those needs are a core part of the state’s history, and they tend to follow a pattern. So in some ways, the fight over the Fraser River in Colorado’s Grand County is familiar.
Denver Water holds unused water rights on the river, which starts in the shadow of Berthoud Pass and courses down the western side of the Continental Divide past Winter Park, Fraser and Tabernash to join the Colorado River outside of Granby.
The agency, looking at the booming population and economy in Denver, now wants to exercise those rights. That means taking more water from the river, piping it under the Indian Peaks and sending it into Gross Reservoir near Boulder.
Some conservationists and environmental groups are crying foul, saying that the river has already been overtaxed (about 60 percent of its existing flow is already diverted to slake Denver’s growing thirst) and it’s time to let the river alone.
But the fight’s pattern is taking some unfamiliar twists and turns. Influential groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, who’ve historically fought diversion projects, support this one. In exchange, Denver Water says it will will help protect and enhance what’s left of the Fraser River.
That compromise has fractured traditional lines in Colorado’s conservation and environmental advocacy community, and fostered new alliances. While these organizations more or less agree on their ultimate goal — to protect and restore the environment — the strategies they use are very different. The big question that divides them: When to compromise?
Denver Water Extends An Olive Branch
Decades ago, environmentalists were not at the top of list of Denver Water’s concerns when it would try to build dams and add capacity. In the 1980s, environmental groups pushed back on a huge proposed dam called Two Forks.
“[Denver Water] told us in so many words: ‘We’re the experts. You’re little environmentalists. Get out of the way,’ ” Dan Luecke, then head of Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, told High Country News in 2000.
Then, in 1990, an EPA veto torpedoed the project at the last minute.
“That was really a turning point for our organization,” said Kevin Urie, a scientist who’s worked for Denver Water for nearly 30 years. “I think we realized with the veto of Two Forks that we needed to think about things differently.”
He believes that while Denver Water has long taken environmental impacts into consideration with its plans, it didn’t engage with local stakeholders — like conservation and environmental groups and Western Slope governments — until after the Two Forks project died.
There’s a demographic change underway as well: Many of the Denver metro area’s new residents also want to play in Western Slope rivers on the weekends. That has pushed Denver Water leadership to put a larger emphasis on environmental stewardship, Urie said.
But all those new residents still need water. Denver Water delivers water to about 1.4 million people across the metro, about double what it did some 60 years ago. Conservation efforts have kept overall demand relatively low in recent years. But with more people moving to Denver every day, Denver Water expects its demand to rise 37 percent by 2032 from 2002 levels.
The Fraser River is key to Denver Water’s plan to head off a shortfall in the relatively near future. The agency wants to divert half of the remaining flows from the Fraser and its tributaries through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir near Boulder. (The proposed expansion of Gross has started its own fight, which CPR News’ Grace Hood chronicled last month.) It would be treated at the agency’s plant in Lakewood, and eventually delivered to customers across the metro.
The agency expects to have all of its necessary permits by 2018 and construction could begin in 2019 or 2020. But to get those permits, Denver Water has agreed to be part of a group that includes Grand County officials and environmentalists called “Learning by Doing.” These different players are often at odds when it comes to water issues.
Urie said Denver Water’s participation shows its desire to do right by the environment and local stakeholders. They’ve helped fund an ambitious project that will engineer the Fraser River’s flow on a nearly mile-long stretch between Fraser and Tabernash, squeezing it to make it narrower, deeper and colder — and thus healthier.
But is that what’s best for the river?
Urie thought about that question for a minute, and then chose his words carefully:
“Clearly the system would be better if we weren’t using the water resources for other uses. But that’s not the scenario we are dealing with,” Urie said.
Trout Unlimited Sees Opportunity
The Fraser River project’s biggest booster is Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. For him personally, it’s a way to help a river that he’s lived near and played in for 45 years.
“I can’t talk about it without getting all emotional. My life’s been spent on this river,” he said.
He sees it as a chance to restore a part of the river popular with anglers called the Fraser Flats. Here, the brush-lined river levels out after tumbling through the pine forests of Berthoud Pass.
His playground is popular with others, too. Grand County is a short one- to two-hour drive from Denver. From fly fishing to alpine and nordic skiing to snowmobiling, it’s a tourist-based economy. And in Klancke’s eyes, all of that rests on the health of its water.
He’s watched the river dwindle and get warmer as more water has been pulled out of it. And that’s changed how his family has used it. When his children were young, they could stay in the river for only a minute or two.
“They’d come out and their lips would be purple and they’d be squealing,” Klancke said. “Now I throw my grandchildren in the river and they’re not in a hurry to get out. We spend up to an hour in a pool in the river.”
He’s watched this river that means so much to him get sicker and sicker; warm, shallow channels aren’t suitable for native fish and bugs. For years, he blamed the deteriorating environment on the Front Range and its water managers.
“I was a little radical because I urinated in diversion ditches. It’s about all I knew to do. I’ve matured quite a bit since then,” he said.
His turning point came when he got involved with Trout Unlimited.
“I loved their approach,” he said. “They were able to look at it in someone else’s shoes, which is what all mature people do. And then, move forward with opening up conversation.”
Such conversations are what led to the Fraser Flats project, Klancke said. When flows are low, like they were this fall, the river is shallow as it stretches across its native bed. The new channel will allow the river to recede and stay deeper — and cooler.
Essentially, that stretch of river will be turned into a creek. On its face, downsizing a river doesn’t sound like a big victory for environmentalists. But that’s not how Klancke looks at it. During peak flows in the spring, Klancke points out, the river will be nearly just as wild as it is now.
And moreover, Denver Water has to stay involved in the Learning by Doing group. So if environmental issues arise down the road, Klancke said the agency will be there to help solve them.
Is it a compromise? Yes, Klancke admits. But water managers own water rights in the upper Colorado Basin that they’ll use — with or without his blessing. The right to divert water for “beneficial uses” is enshrined in the Colorado Constitution.
“We have to face reality here,” Klancke said. “There is no more mighty Upper Colorado. There’s only keeping what’s left healthy.” [ed. emphasis mine]
WildEarth Guardians Stakes Out Moral High Ground
Like Klancke, Jen Pelz, wild river program director for WildEarth Guardians, has had her own evolution in thought toward environmental causes. Earlier in her career, she was a water lawyer in Denver who represented clients like the city of Pueblo that were taking water from Western Slope rivers.
But eventually she felt a pull toward environmental advocacy. Pelz credits that with childhood days spent on the banks of a tributary to the Rio Grande in New Mexico.
“It was kind of the place that I could go just be myself,” she said. “I developed a really strong connection to the river there.”
She was drawn to the confrontational, no-holds-barred approach used by WildEarth Guardians. The group is known for its headline-grabbing lawsuits. Most recently they sued the federal government over haze in Western Colorado and leases to coal mines.
The approach seems to be working, at least by WildEarth Guardian’s measure. The haze lawsuit ended in an agreement where a coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Nucla, south of Grand Junction, will shut down in the next six years. A power plant in Craig, Colorado will shut down one of its units too.
“We’re willing to not be liked by the general public, or by particular industries,” Pelz said. “And I think it takes that kind of moral integrity and just knowing where you stand on the issues, to really push the envelope.” [ed. emphasis mine]
Pelz is not interested in compromise on the Fraser River. She faults Trout Unlimited for starting negotiations at the wrong place. In her view, the baseline shouldn’t be where the river is now with about 60 percent of it being diverted. The conversation needs to start with the river at its natural flows, she said.
“The harm has already been done,” Pelz said.
If the Fraser River is going to be saved, she says, it’ll happen by letting more water back into the river — not by taking more out. As the climate warms, she says the river will need all the help it can get.
“Let’s start dealing with it now. Let’s have that hard conversation now, not 50 years from now when there’s no water left to have a conversation about,” she says.
Pelz says her organization, and another group called Save the Colorado, are considering litigation once final permits are approved. That could happen in 2018.
Such tactics doesn’t make Pelz a lot of friends. She said she’s been ostracized from her former clique of water lawyers. It’s hard for her to get meetings with government regulators.
WildEarth Guardians’ relationship with the greater environmental community is similarly strained. She said Denver Water is more willing to meet with environmentalists now because they’ve softened. And she’s upset with what Trout Unlimited has become in the eyes of regulators.
“Trout Unlimited has been deemed by Denver Water and the state of Colorado as being the environmental voice,” Pelz said. “They get invited to the table because they have this role in communities, which I don’t think is a bad thing, but they don’t necessarily represent all of the different interests in the environmental community.”
As a result, she said, groups like hers are being left out of the conversation.
“They don’t talk to us. They don’t ask us what we think. And I’ve called them. And I’ve had meetings with them. I’ve asked them what they think. And they’ve told me they don’t like our approach. And I understand that. But I think that it works both ways.”
Pelz said it can be hard to be out “towing the left line.” Everybody likes to be liked, she said. But she’s decided that over the long run, her methods are what will make a difference. To do anything else would be surrender.
“I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that I gave up the fight for this river that is the namesake of our state, the state they were born in, because I was willing to compromise,” she said. “We may not win, but damn we are going to try.”
American Rivers Finds Room To Maneuver
When Matt Rice, Colorado River basin director for American Rivers took the job a few years ago, he made the decision to put aside his dreams for what he really wanted. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks he can actually pull off.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to see all the wild rivers in this country and in this state flowing freely and filled with fish, doing what rivers should do,” Rice said. “It’s not realistic.”
But he acknowledges that groups like WildEarth Guardians can make his job easier at times. When Guardians files a lawsuit and makes a bunch of people mad, a group like his can step in and talk with state regulators and businesses. Guardians essentially provides cover for groups closer to the political center, he said.
“Their advocacy pushes everybody, not just conservation organizations, kind of further to the left. And I think that’s good,” Rice said.
But there’s a downside. Lawsuits and sharply worded press releases can sting, and are not easily forgotten. And Rice worries that aggressive tactics from far-left groups lead to skeptical parties like ranchers or Front Range water managers lumping all environmentalists together.
“That has the potential to undermine the progress we’re making,” he said.
Looking To The Future
With the publication of last year’s Colorado Water Plan, a first for the state, officials are trying to turn the page on Colorado’s long fight over water. The plan, which officials describe as a roadmap to sustainability, stresses collaboration between competing interests and conservation of the increasingly precious resource.
“Now is the time to rethink how we can be more efficient,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the water plan’s introduction in November 2015.
Diverting more water should be the last-possible solution, Hickenlooper said. That’s welcome news to environmentalists like Matt Rice of American Rivers.
Rice said they are supportive of the Fraser River diversion plan for the same reasons Trout Unlimited is, though they aren’t part of the Learning by Doing group. But he hopes the Fraser diversion, and another major project in the works called Windy Gap, are the last trans-mountain diversion projects.
There just isn’t enough water on the Western Slope, he said. And if another one comes up, Rice said they’ll fight it with everything they have.
“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin,” he said.
Collaboration and compromise will certainly be part of environmentalism’s future in Colorado. But as groups like WildEarth Guardians continue to find success in the courts, the advocacy ecosystem has room for other strategies too.