Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:
For decades, Dillon Reservoir has been a place where anglers could hook the fish of a lifetime — a 10-pound, 30-inch wild brown trout. But the brown trout population in one of Colorado’s most visible and accessible mountain reservoirs has declined in recent years, prompting state wildlife officials to consider stricter fishing regulations on the reservoir and seasonal closures on nearby waters. It’s unclear exactly what is causing the decline, said Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. But increased fishing during the pandemic, and after, may be a factor…
Other potential causes include a change in water quality, development along the rivers and streams where the trout spawn, and stress from higher water temperatures caused by drought, Ewert said…
The number of brown trout measuring more than 14 inches long has declined for four consecutive testing years, according to population surveys conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The agency conducts surveys every two years. In 2014, trout larger than that size made up 62% of all brown trout caught in the survey nets. By 2022, they made up only 33%…The brown trout in the Blue River upstream from the reservoir also have experienced an “obvious and significant decline,” according to a 2019 CPW report…
The proposed rules would require anglers to immediately release brown trout that are longer than 14 inches, with the rule applying to the reservoir, to sections of the Blue River south of the reservoir and to Tenmile Creek. Fishing would be banned entirely from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1 in two places where the trout spawn in the fall: the Blue River between the reservoir and three miles north of Breckenridge, and West Tenmile Creek from Copper Mountain to the reservoir.
The 23-mile-long pipe that siphons water from Dillon Reservoir to the Front Range has run dry thanks to decreased water demand from the metropolitan areas near Denver.
This has allowed Summit County to keep more than 6,000 acre-feet of water in Dillon Reservoir, and officials with Denver Water, which controls the flows out of the reservoir, say it will help support more recreation on the Lower Blue River.
The outflow to the Blue River currently hovers around 1,050 cubic feet per second. That rate is around 175% of the historic outflow for the last week of June. Last year, outflow was at 56 cubic feet per second, which sits at the historic minimum.
For comparison purposes, a basketball is about one cubic foot. So to put the current flows into perspective, people can imagine 1,050 basketballs flowing past them every second.
Over the next week, the spillway should release flows between 900-1,200 cubic feet per second, and Denver Water forecasts don’t call for the flows dropping below 500 cubic feet per second until mid-July.
LOVELAND, Colorado – The Bureau of Reclamation expects to fill Green Mountain Reservoir in late June, leading to increased flows on the Blue River below Green Mountain Dam and in the Colorado River below the Blue River confluence near Kremmling.
Reclamation will increase Blue River flow below Green Mountain Dam by mid-June. Green Mountain Dam release will increase to approximately 750 cubic feet per second. In addition, Reclamation will discontinue Elliot Creek diversion to reduce spillway releases. Overall, Reclamation anticipates flows in the Blue River below Green Mountain Dam could range from 500 to 1,500 cubic feet per second from mid-June through mid-July.
“Thanks to an abundance of precipitation on the Front Range this spring, cities and irrigators are using less water from transbasin diversions and water managers have prioritized filling east slope reservoirs with water available from rivers on the Front Range,” said Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado Area Manager, Jeffery Rieker. “As a result, many east slope reservoirs have filled, and additional water will remain in the Colorado River.”
Green Mountain Reservoir, a feature of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, provides stored water for beneficial use within the Colorado River basin upstream of the Gunnison River confluence in Grand Junction, Colorado. Green Mountain Reservoir stores more than 100,000 acre-feet for use by West Slope project beneficiaries. This allocation is commonly referred to as the “Power Pool” and includes the 66,000 acre-foot Historic Users Pool.
Media inquiries or general questions about Reclamation should be directed to Anna Perea, Public Affairs Specialist, at 970-290-1185 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability, please dial 7-1-1 to access telecommunications relay services.
An ongoing water case in Colorado’s Division Five water court in Glenwood Springs could impact a vital source of water for users across the Western Slope. The case developed from a dispute between the Snake River Water District in Summit County and the state’s Division 5 Engineers regarding administration of Green Mountain Reservoir’s Historic User Pool. The case could affect thousands of water users in Colorado’s portion of the Colorado River Basin, including many in the Roaring Fork Valley, who rely on releases from Green Mountain Reservoir. Snake River and the Division 5 Engineers of the Colorado Division of Water Resources disagree on whether Snake River can benefit from water in Green Mountain’s Historic User Pool. Snake River relies on water from the HUP to replace the water it removes from the Snake River system with several wells…
The HUP was created to compensate Western Slope users for water transferred out of the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range. While the HUP itself was only created in 1983, Western Slope water users have been relying on water from Green Mountain since the 1950s. The HUP, along with other allotments of water in the reservoir, were legally designated in order to ensure that Green Mountain would continue as a critical resource for the Western Slope. Snake River is one of thousands of Western Slope water users who rely on the HUP to replace water diverted from the Colorado River and its tributaries.
The Division 5 Engineers challenge Snake River’s ability to benefit from the HUP because Snake River also receives replacement water through an augmentation plan. Augmentation plans are court-approved plans that also replace water diverted by users, but they are not necessarily linked to Green Mountain, and using them is not free. Because Snake River can already replace its diversions during a call with augmentation water, the engineers say it cannot benefit from HUP coverage…Snake River sued the engineers in Colorado’s Division 5 water court in hopes of retaining its HUP benefits. If it loses its HUP coverage, Snake River claims it could cost $800,000 to rely exclusively on its augmentation plan. Snake River argues that coverage from an augmentation plan does not legally disqualify a water user from also being covered by the HUP.
When it comes to supplying water to 1.5 million people, the spring runoff is the most important time of the year for Denver Water.
That’s why having good information about the snowpack is critical. Mountain snow is Denver Water’s primary source of water for its customers.
When the snow that piles up in the mountains over the winter starts to melt, the water flows into rivers and streams that fill storage reservoirs. The spring runoff typically starts at the end of April and wraps up in late June or early July.
But the work to count the snowflakes starts long before that.
“We keep track of the snowpack through measurements on the ground, from the sky and from automated sensors,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager at Denver Water. “We monitor the snow all winter because it constitutes the majority of our water supply and has major impacts on how we operate.”
In 2022, the snowpack peaked below average in the areas where Denver Water catches the snowmelt. A below-average snowpack affects the amount of water available to capture and store in the spring.
“We would like to completely fill our reservoir system every runoff season,” said Elder. “In the years when we don’t hit that mark, it makes following the utility’s annual summer watering rules even more critical for the Denver metro area.”
Watering two days a week should be enough for most landscapes for most of the summer. (Only water a third day, if needed, during periods of extreme heat or dryness.)
Following the summer watering rules will help keep reservoir levels higher, in case next winter’s snowpack is below average.
The snowpack data, reservoir forecasts and customer water use are some of the key factors used to determine if Denver Water might need to impose additional watering restrictions beyond the regular summer watering rules, which run from May 1 through Oct. 1.
Here’s a closer look at the primary ways Denver Water’s planning team keeps track of Colorado’s snowpack.
Four times a year from January through April, Denver Water crews strap on boots and snowshoes and sometimes ride snowcats to trek into the forest to measure the snow in Grand, Park and Summit counties, the primary areas where the utility collects its water supply for customers in metro Denver.
Each journey follows a specific, predetermined route called a snow course.
Each snow course has 10 designated stops where workers jab a hollow tube into the snow to capture and weigh a sample of the snowpack.
At each stop, the crew conducts a four-step process:
Collect a sample by dropping the pole into the snow until it hits the ground.
Measure the depth of snow in the tube.
Get the weight of the snow by weighing the snow-filled tube and subtracting the weight of the empty tube.
Calculate the density of the snow using the depth and weight measurements.
Using these measurements, crews calculate the snow water equivalent, or SWE, to determine the water content.
For example, if 10 inches of snow has a density of 10%, the snow water equivalent — the amount of water left behind if those 10 inches of snow melted — is 1 inch of water.
Denver Water shares the data collected on each snow course with the National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. Denver Water is one of 15 agencies that sends people out to collect snow data at 95 locations across Colorado in partnership with the NRCS.
The information helps the agency develop water supply forecasts and monitor snowpack trends over time.
The NRCS’s forecasts are used by water provides, dam operators, farmers, ranchers, recreationists and communities to make important decisions about their water supply.
Along with data collected by hand, Denver Water uses information from snow telemetry sites, or SNOTEL, sites during the winter.
SNOTELs, basically automated backcountry weather stations, were first installed in the 1970s and are operated by the NRCS. The federal agency currently has more than 900 SNOTEL sites collecting data in remote, high-elevation mountain watersheds across the western U.S.
At each site, a bladder about the size of a queen-sized waterbed and filled with antifreeze monitors and reports the weight of the snow falling on it, providing information about the water content frozen in the snow. SNOTEL sites send data multiple times per day, although some sensors report hourly.
Denver Water uses information from 13 SNOTELs located in its 4,000 square miles of watershed.
From the air
Starting in 2019, Denver Water began getting data about the snowpack from the air, using Airborne Snow Observatory planes stuffed with high-tech equipment flying over the snow-covered mountains.
The plane uses beams of light to measure the depth of the snow fields below and capture reflections from the frozen surface. The equipment pings the snow’s surface at up to 10 locations every square meter, and powerful computers crunch reams of data.
The flights provide an assessment of the amount of water frozen in place in the snow across hundreds of square miles that is more accurate than anything Denver Water has ever had before.
“The data we get from the Airborne Snow Observatory flights quantifies all of the snowpack in river basin below, rather than trying to build a picture of the snowpack in basin using just a few selected point measurements we get from the SNOTELs and the snow courses,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “Imagine trying to watch a high-definition TV that only has 10 of its thousands of pixels working; you just don’t get the whole picture.”
And in the face of increasingly variable weather patterns related to climate change, having better information and more accurate forecasts of the seasonal runoff will be more important in the future, he said.
Putting it all together
Elder’s planning team uses data from the snow-measuring methods and combines it with other data such as soil conditions and weather forecasts to determine how much water the winter snowpack will send into Denver Water’s reservoirs.
“Having people hike into the forests to measure the snow by hand is very important for water planners because they give us the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ information we use to verify the data we get from the machines in the SNOTELs and the Airborne Snow Observatory flights,” Elder said.
The forecasts — in turn — help determine how Denver Water will manage the water stored in its reservoirs to meet customer demands in the city and determine if additional water restrictions are needed.
The water supply forecasts are also used to provide information to communities, businesses and other water managers about flooding concerns, water levels for boating on reservoirs, maximizing water rights and how to manage water supplies to benefit the environment.
“Managing water is a very complex business,” Elder said. “The more information and data we can get, the better decisions we can make.”
Water Year 2022 started slow, lit up at wintertime, dried up in early spring, leaped back into action in late summer, then got lazy in early fall before one last hurrah.
The erratic spurts over the just-completed “water year,” the 12-month span between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30 that hydrologists use to track water trends, added up to a not-terrible-but-not-great-either result for Denver Water.
The most noticeable events included a very slow start to mountain snowfall through the first three months (bad), a second straight year of healthy summer monsoons in the mountains (good) and a sizable split between the water fortunes of Denver Water’s collection area (the high country and foothills) versus its service area (Denver and parts of five surrounding counties).
In short, it translated into a reasonably good water year in higher elevations and a far drier one for the 1.5 million people the utility serves in Denver and nearby suburbs.
One memorable result? Denver’s first snowfall came Dec. 10 — the latest first snow on record for Denver.
“Every water year is different, and Mother Nature throws new challenges at us almost every time,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “But timely rains and good customer practices helped us keep reservoir levels in solid shape and we soldiered through an up-and-down year.”
The very best news appears to be the way a second consecutive year of strong monsoon rains and higher humidity replenished dry soils in the mountains.
Should Colorado enjoy a deeper winter snowpack this year, it would mean more melting snow in the spring could find its way to streams and reservoirs in 2023, rather than vanishing into parched soils as has been the case in recent cycles.
Dice up the numbers in a different way and zoom out from Denver Water and the picture looked better from a statewide perspective, with summer precipitation levels the best since 2015.
Additionally, soil moisture is at its highest levels in three years, according to climate trackers at Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service via recent reporting from Marianne Goodland in the Denver Gazette.
While those are positive developments, experts across various agencies agree that Colorado and its water utilities need a string of strong winters, and preferably some wetter/cooler years overall if we’re ever to see longer-term improvements in hydrology.
But in an era of steady climate change that appears to be unlikely. Colorado’s summer of 2022 was the sixth warmest in the 128-year record maintained by state climatologists.
Denver Water’s supply managers faced some tough conditions in the 2022 water year.
Ongoing work to expand capacity at Gross Reservoir has limited storage in the facility west of Boulder. At the same time, unusually dry conditions on the South Platte River downstream of Denver left farmers calling on water rights dating all the way back to 1871 (just a decade shy of the oldest water rights on the river).
These rights are senior to all of Denver Water’s South Platte River reservoirs and made it difficult to fill those reservoirs. Cheesman Reservoir’s 1889 right is the most senior storage right in Denver Water’s portfolio.
All of that meant more water bypassed Denver Water’s reservoirs to meet those agricultural calls and there was less ability to make up that water by pulling from Gross Reservoir on the north side of the utility’s system. It also meant higher-than-average flows through the Roberts Tunnel to help supplement South Platte supplies.
But, in a hat tip to customers and Mother Nature, smart irrigation techniques (like turning off systems in rainy periods) and solid summer precipitation in the higher country (and, at times, in metro Denver) helped keep Denver Water’s reservoirs at just below average levels.
In fact, all that combined to close a storage gap. Reservoirs were 5% below average in July. But by the end of September that deficit fell to just 1% below average.
And there was more good news. Another good summer of monsoons kept wildfires at bay, which was a big relief after the devastating water year of 2020, when record-setting late-season fires extended the burn season into October.
The last month of summer keeps getting warmer. This one set a new record for 90-degree days (10), which — along with other factors — make it the fastest-warming month in the Denver area when compared to the previous 30-year block of records that spans 1981 to 2010.
Conditions improved in late September, when late-season moisture boosted streamflows and dampened soils, especially in the high country, bringing a happy ending to the water year.
Some broader context also is in order.
The 2022 Water Year for the wider Colorado River Basin was another poor one. One simple metric captures the status of the basin: The amount of water in the two major reservoirs on the river dropped dramatically, with Lake Mead falling 1.8 million acre-feet from a year ago and Lake Powell falling 1.5 million acre-feet in the same time frame.
Trends in the Colorado River Basin matter a great deal to Denver Water, as the utility gets about 50% of its supplies from the headwaters of the basin.
The new 2023 Water Year that began Oct. 1 is off to a good start for Denver Water.
After the nip-and-tuck of the summer months, the utility’s reservoir levels have hit their average mark heading into late fall and winter, just where water managers want to be at the beginning of the snow-accumulation season.
“We hope Mother Nature makes a New Water Year Resolution to provide ample snow and rain fall in the water year of 2023,” said Elder.
It’s he and his team who must now begin planning for the various scenarios winter and spring might bring.
You, too, can make a resolution for the New Water Year: to reduce your water use. Check out Denver Water’s website for rebates and ways to use water efficiently.
Thanks to recent snow storms in the mountains, the Blue River watershed remains above the 30-year median, and the Colorado River headwaters have had the best start to the water year since the fall of 2019. According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Blue River currently has about 1.9 inches of snow-water equivalent — about half an inch above the median. Snow began to fall in Summit County on Thursday and continued into the weekend, bringing more inches of snow to ski areas and communities in the county.
Over the weekend, OpenSnow reported that about 6 inches fell at Loveland Ski Area, and 5 inches was recorded for Copper Mountain Resort. About 4 inches fell at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, and another 4 inches fell at Breckenridge Ski Resort. Just over 2 inches fell at Keystone Resort.
Across the headwaters, Natural Resources Conservation Service data shows that the Colorado River is at 129% of the 30-year median. Currently, that is better than the past two water years. Last year, snow water equivalent was at about 1.7 inches, and in 2020, the headwaters had a very slow start, totaling below 1 inch by the beginning of November.
As the first installment of the Summit County government’s new County 101 series, community members gathered to hear from local water leaders about the state of the Colorado River drought and how it affects local headwaters. Representatives from the Colorado District, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Blue River Watershed Group and High Country Conservation Center gave presentations about local waters and how community members can understand recent reporting about drought across the river basin…
On Oct. 12, the Biden administration designated at least $500 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to go toward the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes Colorado, for “investments in conservation and long-term system efficiency,” according to a release from the White House.
“(Drought and climate change are) something here in the headwaters we live with — our hydrology. We see it happening. We see less snow. We see the dry soils that are absorbing what runoff we do have,” said Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District. “For every 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature, stream flow is reduced between 3% to 9%, with most studies actually leaning toward that 9%.”
Like other parts of the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Blue River has faced changes in the past decade as a result of climate. This includes less snowpack for spring runoff, drier soils and warmer summer temperatures.
“It’s my belief that these bigger-picture issues that are brought up and that we’re all facing, they’re coming down the pike,” Troy Wineland, water commissioner for Summit County, said. “And believe me, they’re coming. We’ve got two of the largest reservoirs in the country sitting about 24% capacity. If that’s not the kind of writing on the walls, I don’t know what it is. So outreach and education to me is critical.”
Summit County announced the kickoff of its public series, County 101, with a panel discussion titled “Understanding Colorado’s Water Challenges,” taking place on October 11th at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco.
“Our goal with County 101 is to keep us connected to our community and help bring more understanding to issues that are important to our residents but often fly under the radar,” said Summit County Commissioner Joshua Blanchard.
The County 101 series will be combination of in-person discussions and online events open to the public.
The first event’s panel discussion includes several experts in water resource management, including the Colorado River Water District, Blue River Watershed Group, and High Country Conservation Center.
“Water is a complex subject involving several agencies and organizations, yet it’s our lifeblood,” said Blanchard. “I’m really looking forward to this panel of experts to help our community understand how our Summit County contributes to and is impacted by the challenge of maintaining this critical resource.”
The community is invited to bring questions for the panel, and refreshments will be provided.
The southern half of Summit County has been lifted from drought status as of the morning of Sept. 6., according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The line begins just south of Ute Peak, stretches along Interstate 70 and ends around Chalk Mountain, a Lake County landmark slightly south of the Summit County border. A quick glance at the map shows the boundary between the southern area of the county that is out of drought and the northern half of the county is only “abnormally dry” a slightly curved, vertical line that encapsulates every town south of Silverthorne…
Summit County was last relieved from a drought in the spring of 2019, ending in the spring of 2020. The last time a drought was lifted in the fall was in 2013…This summer’s monsoonal rains are what changed the tide. Precipitation levels at Hoosier Pass, south of Breckenridge received the “second wettest June through August” on record, [Peter] Goble reported. The difference was the prolonged and spread out nature of this summer’s monsoonal rains, said Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center wildland fire meteorologist Valerie Meyers. The consistency of the rains gave the county a chance to catch up on moisture from last summer, she added.
The plan focuses on four “interconnected action areas,” including resiliency planning, thriving watersheds, robust agriculture and community. It describes 50 “partner actions,” or project ideas that could be supported by Water Plan grants, as well as 50 “agency actions,” to support local projects, conservation and wise-water development. Overall, however, basin roundtables and stakeholders identified more than 1,800 potential future projects statewide, and 321 are in the Colorado Basin with 36 being in Summit County. In total, over $20 billion would be spent on the projects by 2050. Russ Sands, senior program manager of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that projects in the database are designated as near-term, midterm or long-term when it comes to getting them done. They’re also not all infrastructure projects. Some may work toward water conservation and others may be educational projects or environmental…
According to the plan, the Colorado Basin — which includes Summit County and the Blue River — faces issues such as competing resources for agriculture, tourism, protection of endangered species and potential for Colorado River Compact administration. The basin encompasses about 6% of the state’s population, and between 2015 and 2050, population is expected to increase 48-88%. Flows are also projected to be variable over the next several decades. Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for wetland plants and fish habitats. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if summer flows decrease due to climate change. Each year, water providers in the South Platte and Arkansas Basins export approximately 480,000 acre-feet each year from the Colorado Basin for eastern slope agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. Across the basin, as much as 70% of the river’s water flows out of Colorado…
“(June 30) opens up the 90-day public comment period,” Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said. “This updated new and improved Water Plan is designed to meet today’s water challenges and builds on the legacy that we have in Colorado of collaborative statewide water planning.
If yes, then you’re familiar with Denver Water’s decadelong campaign, launched a few years after the 2002 drought, that urged customers to reduce the amount of water they used in their everyday lives.
The occasionally cheeky campaign showcased images like a park bench with only room for one person, water from a broken sprinkler head cascading onto a giant billboard and suggestions for using less water — like showering with a friend.
And it worked. By the time the campaign — created by Denver’s Sukle Advertising & Design — ended in 2015, water use by Denver Water’s customers had dropped 22% compared to usage before the drought.
The “Use Only What You Need” campaign has been recognized repeatedly over the years for its effectiveness and memorability, and on May 17 the Out of Home Advertising Association of America inducted it into the OBIE Hall of Fame, a group dominated by advertising campaigns backed by national and international brand names.
“Denver Water’s signature orange box asking customers to ‘Use Only What You Need’ became advertising legend in the Denver metro area,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO/Manager.
“In a light-hearted and at times outrageous way, the campaign led the charge for our conservation programing where we had a critical call to action: Reduce water use by 22%. Eight years after achieving that goal, Use Only What You Need has remained a one-of-a-kind catchphrase that has continued to help Coloradans embrace a culture of conservation, which is so vital in the arid West where water is such a precious resource.”
Out-of-home advertising is visual advertising outside of the home, such as billboards, indoor and outdoor signs, ads on bus shelters or benches, in airports or train stations, and in a stadium or movie theater.
Previous OBIE Hall of Fame winners include the insurance company Geico (2021), entertainment giants The Walt Disney Co. (2007) and Universal Studios (2019), brewer MillerCoors (2018) and technology company Apple Inc. (2005).
Competition for the 2022 Hall of Fame award put Denver Water up against international heavyweights — and household names — Google, Netflix, Procter & Gamble Co., Pepsi and Samsung.
In the 30-year history of the OBIE Hall of Fame awards, Denver Water’s award is only the second time a regional brand has won the judges’ nod. The first was the San Diego Zoo in 1995.
“This is one of the highest creative honors in our industry, and we are immensely proud to be recognized by OAAA and our peers,” said Mike Sukle, owner of Sukle Advertising & Design.
“Creating and managing the campaign for a decade shaped how we approach every campaign we create. It cemented our philosophy that work must be both smart and creative to generate exceptional results. And while mass media including out of home was critical, the campaign spread almost as much through word-of-mouth. Our audience became our media. That’s an important lesson for all brands. And if you can make people like you, they may also listen to you,” he said.
Anna Bager, president and CEO of the association, called Denver Water’s campaign “truly brilliant and entertaining.”
“Denver Water has achieved legendary out-of-home status with a sustained level of creative excellence over many years. Their commitment to the ‘Use Only What You Need’ headline came to life in a seemingly endless number of creative solutions,” she said.
And while Denver Water’s message that water is precious and should be used wisely hasn’t changed, the utility’s campaign around water has evolved into a simple main message: Water is everything.
Using the tagline “Life Is Better With Water,” the utility’s current campaign with Denver advertising agency Pure Brand celebrates the importance of water as a precious resource in our everyday lives and one that plays a vital role in Colorado’s unique lifestyle.
“It’s about elevating the value of water in our daily lives. Together, we all can help create a ripple effect that ensures our Colorado lifestyle continues for generations to come,” said Kathie Dudas, manager of brand and marketing at Denver Water.
Data from the National Resources Conservation Service shows that snowpack sensor sites measured zero inches starting on June 17. The 30-year median was just above that level on that date, 0.4 inches, and the median shows a completion of snow melt by June 22.
In recent weeks, this year’s snow-water equivalent levels stayed on par with the median after a late-May snow boosted levels back up from being several inches below. Before that, snow-water equivalent had fallen behind the median.
On May 20, just before the spring snowstorm, the Blue River basin had just 5.5 inches left, almost half of what was charted for the median, 10.2 inches. By May 28, snowmelt had begun to match that of the median again.
With the 2021-22 snow season winding down, Denver Water is getting a clearer look at water supplies approaching the irrigation, gardening and summer recreation season.
In fact, as 9News meteorologist Cory Reppenhagen has pointed out, much of Colorado likely hit its peak snowpack in late March, meaning we’ve started the process of spring runoff, when the snowpack begins to melt and flow into streams, rivers and reservoirs.
(Caption: Watch Denver Water crews weigh the snow to find out how much water it contains.)
In Denver Water’s collection system, which includes parts of the South Platte River and Colorado River basins, it’s not fully certain we’ve hit our peak — the point when snowpack reaches its highest point before melting off.
But we’re surely close, as snowpack in Denver Water’s collection system typically peaks around April 20.
What’s it all mean for our water supply? It’s a mixed picture.
Snowpack is a bit below average, but soil moisture has improved compared to last year, meaning more melting snow will find its way to reservoirs and less will disappear into thirsty ground.
Denver Water’s reservoirs are 79% full, on average, which is normal for this period. And runoff is likely to push that number north of 90% when storage peaks midsummer.
“Overall, we’d like the numbers to be higher, but with better soil moisture we expect better runoff than in recent years with similar snowpack,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water.
“We have good carry-over storage going into the runoff season because of low winter water use,” he added. “That’s a reflection of good work from our customers in continuing to improve indoor efficiency and water use habits.”
It’s important those good habits extend into the watering season; customers with spring fever should try not to get ahead of things with outdoor irrigation.
Warning! April is too early to turn on hoses, sprinklers and irrigation systems.
A string of snowstorms this year has improved soil moisture in the Denver region. And more storms could still head our way in late April and early May. This time of year, the weather can be unpredictable, and you might think spring has sprung — only to have winter sweep back in for a last goodbye.
And planting ahead of Mother’s Day (May 8 this year) is always a gamble, as the potential overnight freezes still lurk into the early days of the month. Cold temperatures can put an early end to spring seedlings and damage irrigation systems if water inside the piping freezes.
As it stands in mid-April, snowpack is at 88% of average in Denver Water’s Colorado River collection system, and at 74% of average in its South Platte system, though that South Platte figure is affected by a single tracking location with poor snow that has pulled down the broader average; in the wider South Platte River basin, snowpack is currently 90% of normal.
And a big wet storm or two, still possible this time of year, would improve the outlook.
Additionally, planned Airborne Snow Observatories (ASO) flights, which measure high elevation snowpack with great precision, will bring additional insight into the snowpack, as well as adjustment to the runoff outlook.
In 2019, flights in the Blue River Basin above Dillon Reservoir revealed more snow than expected at elevations above traditional snow telemetry sites that provide most snowpack data.
“The ASO data gives us the most detailed and accurate insight into snowpack,” said Taylor Winchell, a climate change specialist at Denver Water. “We look forward to seeing what new information that tells us this spring and how it narrows the uncertainty of water supply forecasts.”
According to the latest data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the snow water equivalent of the Blue River was at 92% of the median, dipping slightly since Summit County had heavy snowfall in early March. This means that, so far, there are 13.7 inches of snowpack in the area. The 30-year median level for the same date is 14.7 inches, but this week’s expected snowfall is likely to push those levels closer to the median…
The Blue River Basin is still several weeks out from the median peak, which usually hits its crest on or around April 25. By that time, the basin usually has between 16.5 and 17 inches. This time last year — a particularly dry year across the Western Slope — the basin was already at its peak by the end of March. The most snow that had accumulated in 2021 was 13.5 inches, causing a dramatic drop throughout April and May.
Click the link to read a snowpack article on the Summit Daily website (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:
Last week’s snowfall has finally pushed local river basins to over the average median, a level that water experts have been following for months into this water year, which runs from October through September.
According to data from the National Resource Conservation Service, the Blue River Basin was steadily on par with its median over the last 10 days. Last week, the basin had been almost exactly along the median before dipping very slightly by Sunday, March 20.
Sunday’s most recent data shows that current levels have a snow-water equivalent of 13.7 inches, whereas the 30-year median is 13.9 inches. This puts the Blue River Basin at 99% of the median at this point in the year and 83% of the median’s peak. The median’s peak is set to crest on April 27, so it is possible that future snowfalls in coming weeks could keep the basin’s trajectory on track.
Click the link to read “Colorado snowpack 100% of median Friday ahead of next week’s storm” on TheDenverChannel.com website (Blair Miller). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado’s snowpack sat at 100% of median Friday after this week’s snowstorm and ahead of another storm that will bring snow to the state on Monday, though forecast models are still showing wide variations in how much snow will fall. The snowpack has increased fairly steadily over the past two weeks after a dry period at the end of January and beginning of March. The foothills west of Denver and Boulder saw the most snow in this week’s storm, but other areas of the state saw a few inches as well…
All eight of the state’s river basins were above 90% median snowpack levels as of Friday. The Gunnison basin (112% of median) had the most robust snowpack, followed by the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan (104% of median), the Upper Colorado Headwaters (104% of median), Upper Rio Grande (101% of median), and South Platte (101% of median) basins. The Laramie and North Platte (99% of median), Arkansas (96% of median), and Yampa and White (91% of median) basins were all slightly below median levels…
While the snowpack is at 100%, Colorado’s drought remains relatively unchanged again this week. Ninety-two percent of Colorado is experiencing moderate or worse drought. Fifty-seven percent of the state, mostly along the eastern plains, is experiencing severe drought or worse. And about 8% of the state – mostly along the southern border with New Mexico – is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Click the link to read the article from Denver Water (Todd Hartman):
After nearly two decades of planning and permitting, Denver Water’s work to expand Gross Reservoir northwest of Denver is set to kick off.
Over the coming weeks, residents living near the reservoir may notice early signs of construction activity, including limited tree removal, more heavy equipment on roadways and shifts in recreation access to the reservoir.
“We want residents and visitors to the area to be aware and informed; we are taking the initial steps on the project, including mobilization of equipment, in the weeks to come,” said Jeff Martin, the program manager for the expansion project.
“We want to be transparent about the work underway and we want to share information proactively while continuing to address questions and respond to concerns our neighbors have shared. Most importantly, we want to ensure everyone’s safety on the roadways.”
A consistent place to get up-to-date information on the expansion project will be through the project website http://grossreservoir.org as well as via a Google My Map.
The public also can contact Denver Water through email, a phone hotline and virtual office hours, as well as by signing up for email updates and following the utility’s social media channels. Those contact details also are available on the project website and at http://denverwater.org.
Denver Water also held public outreach sessions in February for residents living in the vicinity of the project. About 80 neighbors attended to learn more about what to expect as construction ramps up.
Here are some key things to expect in the coming weeks and months. In many cases, specific start dates for work are still being developed. Those will be shared at http://grossreservoir.org as details are finalized.
Improvements to Gross Dam Road. To protect the safety of all drivers, Denver Water is widening the road in various sections to address tight curves as well as improving the intersection at State Highway 72 and Gross Dam Road. Signage and traffic control will be in place to help drivers safely navigate the affected areas.
Limited tree removal. Some trees will be removed in areas planned for site development on the south side of the dam, at the future quarry location, in areas along Gross Dam Road and other areas where various construction activities are planned.
Equipment mobilization. Trucks and other heavy equipment will be spotted more frequently on Highway 72 and nearby roads as contractors position materials for upcoming work on roads and near the base of the dam.
Recreation changes. Access to recreation areas on the south side of the dam, including Windy Point, Osprey Point and Miramonte Picnic Area, will be closed in mid-March. Public boat launch access will be relocated from Osprey Point to the North Shore peninsula. This Google My Map is a good place to check for up-to-date information on recreation and access.
Access to the North Shore of the reservoir will also be limited temporarily this spring for construction of a temporary parking lot to help accommodate recreation shifts during the expansion project.
Construction activities will increase as the weather warms.
By this summer, truck trips in the canyon are expected to increase to nearly 20 trips per day and the workforce will grow to roughly 300 people, though a ridesharing program will help reduce traffic impacts. That intensity will drop off again as the weather cools.
“We recognize this project will have disruptions to the community near the project and within Coal Creek Canyon,” Martin said. “We are committed to clear, two-way communication with the public and keeping people fully informed as we move forward on this critical project.”
Since its formation more than 100 years ago, Denver Water has always planned ahead when investing in the system that today supplies clean, safe drinking water every day to a quarter of Colorado’s population.
And with a variety of changes — from regulations to weather patterns — expected in the future, the utility and its 1,000 employees are continuing the work needed to maintain, repair, protect and upgrade its 4,000 square miles of watershed and 3,000 miles of pipe, plus its dams, pump stations and underground storage tanks and more.
While the global COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity, Denver Water has worked to keep rate increases for customers as small as possible.
On Oct. 27, the Denver Board of Water Commissioners adopted new water rates that will effective Jan. 1, 2022, to help pay for critical upgrades and projects to keep this system operating efficiently. How that rate increase will affect individual customer bills will vary depending on where the customer lives in Denver Water’s service area and how much water they use.
For typical single-family residential customers who receive a bill from Denver Water, if they use 104,000 gallons of water in 2022 as they did in 2021, the new rates will increase their monthly bill by a range of about 47 cents to $1.34 depending on where they live.
“Denver Water’s mission is to ensure that we deliver safe, clean water to the people who rely on us every day,” said CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead. “Over the next 10 years, we are forecasting an estimated investment of $2.6 billion into our system to increase its resiliency, reliability and sustainability in the face of changes we are anticipating. From more frequent droughts and wildfires to additional regulations we expect we will be asked to meet — we will be prepared.”
A customer’s monthly bill is comprised of a fixed charge, which helps ensure Denver Water has a more stable revenue stream to continue the necessary water system upgrades to ensure reliable water service, and a volume rate for the amount of water used.
The fixed monthly charge — which is tied to the size of the meter — is increasing by 74 cents in 2022 for most single-family residential customers to ensure Denver Water is recovering 20% of its needed revenue from fixed charges.
After the fixed monthly charge, Denver Water’s rate structure has three tiers based on the amount of water used.
“Even with such large efforts in our future, it’s our goal to have slow and steady rate increases with even, annual adjustments that allow our customers to plan ahead and avoid rate shocks,” said Fletcher Davis, rates manager for Denver Water.
To keep water affordable, the first tier, which covers essential indoor water use for bathing, cooking and flushing toilets, is charged at the lowest rate.
The amount of water in this first tier is determined for each customer by averaging their monthly water use as listed on bills dated January through March each year. This is called their average winter consumption.
Water use above the average winter consumption — typically used for outdoor watering — is charged at a higher price. Efficient outdoor water use is charged in the second tier (middle rate), followed by additional outdoor water use in the third tier (highest rate).
Meet customers who used Garden In A Box, a Resource Central program supported by Denver Water, to beautify their landscapes with water-wise plants.
The difference in volume rates for customers who live inside Denver compared to those who live in the suburbs is due to the Denver City Charter, which was changed in 1959 to allow permanent leases of water to suburban water districts based on two conditions: 1) there always would be an adequate supply for the citizens of Denver, and 2) suburban customers pay the full cost of service, plus an additional amount.
Denver Water encourages customers to be efficient with their water use.
Using less water means more water can be kept in the mountain reservoirs, rivers and streams that fish live in, and Coloradans enjoy. And using less water also can lower your monthly water bills, saving money.
“We are continuing our work maintaining and replacing water mains in the street, building a new state-of-the-art treatment plant and water quality laboratory, preparing for the needed expansion of Gross Reservoir and replacing old, customer-owned lead service lines to protect our customers from the risk of lead in drinking water,” Lochhead said.
“At the same time, we use the tools available to us to help pay for the necessary investment in our system and keep our rates as low as possible.”
In addition to rates paid by customers, Denver Water relies on bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and the fees paid when new homes and buildings are connected to the system.
The utility does not make a profit or receive tax dollars. It reinvests money from customer water bills to maintain and upgrade the water system.
Managing water collected from the mountain snow’s spring runoff has plenty of challenges — and will become more complex in the future due to climate change.
“As water planners, we prefer to see predictable weather patterns,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager at Denver Water. “Unfortunately, every year is different and with climate change we’re seeing more variability and that makes it tougher to manage our water supply.”
That challenge may be most acute during runoff season, that critical — and brief — window of time when snow melts, flows into streams and fills reservoirs. Climate change may lead to changes in runoff timing that, in turn, require more nimble reservoir operations.
Since the 1960s, average temperatures in Colorado have increased 2.5 degrees, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That change is manifesting in significant ways.
“We’re seeing more swings between wet and dry years, more variation in year-to-year stream runoff and earlier runoff,” said Laurna Kaatz, climate program manager at Denver Water. “We’re also expecting to see more extreme weather events like extreme heat and enhanced drought, but we could also see more intense rainstorms and flooding especially if heavy rain falls on top of a lot of snow.”
Timing is everything
The timing of the snow runoff in Summit County, which is home to Dillon Reservoir, provides an example of how climate change impacts not only water collection but also recreation and flooding.
Rapid snowmelts caused by rain falling on snow could lead to a greater risk of flooding below Dillon Dam.
During a gradual runoff, Denver Water can take steps to minimize the risk of flooding below the dam, however, if there are more instances of warm weather combined with rain falling on snow, large amounts of water can fill Dillon quickly and send water through the dam’s overflow spillway. This scenario can lead to high water levels on the Blue River through Silverthorne.
“We do our best to minimize high flows out of our reservoirs, but if there is a fast runoff, we can only do so much and there’s a greater chance for flooding downstream if there’s a major rain-on-snow event,” Elder said.
Changes in runoff and precipitation also impact when Dillon Reservoir fills — or doesn’t fill — which plays a role in boating season and water levels for the Dillon and Frisco marinas.
The timing of the runoff also impacts Denver Water’s ability to make the most of its water rights.
“Later runoff allows us to use our water rights to match higher customer demand during the summer watering season,” Elder said. “Early runoff means we have to let some water go downstream before we can put it to use on the Front Range. This also impacts how much water we can store for times of drought.”
Extreme weather events
Colorado has seen several big swings in weather over the last 20 years, suggesting the kind of uncertainty that may be more pronounced as climate change intensifies and the resulting complexity in managing the snow runoff.
Most recently, the winter of 2017-2018 was exceptionally dry across the state but was followed by above average snow in 2018-2019.
The years 2012 through mid-2013 were another period of drought, followed by record flooding in September 2013. Two wet years followed in 2014 and 2015.
The dramatic weather turnaround in 2002 and 2003 is another example of how extreme weather impacts Denver Water’s water supply and planning.
Those years marked a major period of drought. In 2003, Denver Water was preparing to have water restrictions and Dillon Reservoir was more than half empty and critically low. But in March 2003, the Front Range and central mountains got hit with a major snowstorm that filled Denver Water’s reservoirs.
“A drought could last one year or several and then be followed by big snow years,” Elder said.
“We could get most of our water for the year from one or two big storms, so we have to be prepared for these situations.”
Swings in weather patterns and extreme events could have Denver Water planning for drought conditions with watering restrictions for customers and end up with a surplus of water after a big storm.
Planning for climate uncertainty
Denver Water has relied primarily on historical weather patterns and data to plan for how much water it will collect from mountain streams. Now the utility is incorporating climate change into its long-range preparation through scenario planning.
“One component of scenario planning involves creating a variety of potential climate scenarios instead of simply assuming patterns will stay the same over the next 50 to 100 years,” said Jeff Bandy, a water resource manager at Denver Water. “This approach helps us plan for potential changes in climate and evaluate our system’s reliability.”
Denver Water takes data from global climate models and uses the information to create various outcomes on streamflow and precipitation in its water collection system.
The planning team develops scenarios that include variables such as warmer temperatures, more precipitation and shifts in timing of precipitation, all of which result in changes to volume and timing of runoff in Denver Water’s watersheds.
“We evaluate the scenarios and determine if future infrastructure projects or operational changes are needed,” Bandy said.
Enhancing data collection
Denver Water collects water from 4,000 square miles in Colorado’s central mountains and foothills. With such a large area, getting accurate and timely information about weather and streamflow conditions is critical to water supply management.
“We use a lot of different data sources to manage and forecast water supply and a lot of these data sources are based off historical climate data,” Elder said. “With a changing climate, the current data sources are no longer as reliable as they used to be. This makes it more difficult to manage our reservoirs.”
In preparation for more weather extremes and variability, Denver Water has begun investing in new technology to get a more accurate picture of the snowpack above Dillon.
“In April 2019 we used NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses a plane, to measure snowpack over the mountains in our watershed,” Elder said. “The more we know about the snow, water content and runoff, the better decisions we can make when it comes to managing our water supply for our customers and the communities where our reservoirs are located.”
What can customers do?
The best way communities can be prepared for the impacts of climate change is to use water wisely.
“Our water supply is vulnerable to climate and our customers play a major role in how we manage our system,” Elder said. “That’s why we always ask our customers to be efficient with their water all year long and even in wet years.”
Water is a limited resource in Colorado so climate change will impact communities on both sides of the Continental Divide.
“Climate change means water change and that’s important to us all,” Kaatz said. “So, it’s our goal at Denver Water to make sure we’re thinking about it and actively preparing for the changes we’re going to experience.”
When environmental projects garner support from the Colorado Basin Roundtable, it’s a sign to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that they fall in line with the Colorado Water Plan, thus making it easier to obtain grants and other funding. There’s a caveat though: The roundtable only updates its list every five years. If projects want to be added to the list, they must appeal to their representative…
The roundtable’s focus is on the Colorado River Basin, one of nine watersheds in the state and one of the largest, according to the roundtable’s website. The eight counties in the basin that have representatives sitting on the roundtable include Summit, Grand, Routt, Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa.
The roundtable completed its own implementation plan in 2015 that outlines specific goals of the Colorado River Basin. Projects must fall in line with both this and the state plan, in addition to one of the roundtable’s six focus areas:
Encourage a high level of basin-wide conservation
Protect and restore healthy streams, rivers, lakes and riparian areas
Assure dependable basin administration
Develop local water-conscious and land-conscious strategies
Secure safe drinking water
“If your project is listed on the basin’s implementation plan, then you have a better probability of obtaining the funding,” [Peggy] Bailey said “…Through their vetting process, (the roundtable) looks at what it does for the basin and if it’s in alignment with the interests of the basin’s implementation plan. Then they will put it on this list and they will also write a letter of endorsement for the project. Then that makes it easier for the project proponents to obtain funding.”
Projects are divided into different tiers. Projects in the first tier are ready to launch, supported by an entity and determined to be of importance to the roundtable. Projects in the second tier are nearly ready to move forward, but still need to be pursued. The third-tier projects have less data, don’t have a clear entity supporting them and need to be fleshed out. Projects in the fourth tier are supported, but need to be tweaked before moving forward.
Projects in the first tier include the Swan River restoration project and the Blue Valley Ranch fishery restoration on the lower Blue River. These projects are already well underway and have organizations securing funding that are responsible for moving them along.
Another project in the pipeline is the second phase of the Blue River integrated water management plan. Backed by the Blue River Watershed Group, this was one that Bailey said she helped push forward when the roundtable was updating its list. Formerly in the second tier, this project moved to the first as the group began collecting data over the summer…
Other projects in the second tier include the Silverthorne Kayak Park, backed by the town of Silverthorne, and cleanup measures in the French Gulch mine drainage, which is backed by the town of Breckenridge and Summit County government.
Bailey pointed out that all of these projects are meant to protect the natural beauty and splendor of not just of Summit County but the entire basin, and that much of the county’s way of living is highly dependent on this single resource.
As the ski season approaches, everyone wants to know how much snow Summit County will get this year.
Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist of Open Snow, explained that at this point in the year, the only way to have some sort of idea about what the upcoming season will look like is to determine whether it will be an El Nino or a La Nina year and then to look at past weather patterns associated with those climate phenomena. El Nino and La Nina refer to warmer or cooler water temperatures, respectively, in the Pacific Ocean and impact weather worldwide.
“The reason people talk about it now is because El Nino and La Nina is the only factor that we can kind of reliably predict many months in advance,” Gratz said. “All the other things that control storm tracks aren’t able to be predicted more than really a week or two in advance, which is when we’re just tracking each individual storm.”
This year, there’s a 70% to 80% chance that La Nina will arrive this winter, and models are showing that La Nina will be weak to moderate.
So what does this mean for our ski season? Unfortunately, not much.
Gratz explained that the stronger the La Nina or El Nino, the better chance Colorado will get at least average snowfall — if not above average. But a weak La Nina means anything could happen…
Typically, Gratz said La Nina does well for the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains, meaning it’s likely to be wetter than normal in those areas. On the flip side, El Nino often favors the south in terms of precipitation. However, as Colorado is in the middle of North America, correlation between weather and El Nino and La Nina is weaker. Gratz said El Nino often means some bigger storms are seen on the Front Range, but Summit County is often unaffected.
“Many past seasons with a La Nina have done pretty well in the northern mountains where Summit is. Last season was a La Nina, and it was OK but generally below average,” Gratz said…
To complicate things more, Gratz noted that Colorado’s worst season and its best season in the past 30 years both occurred when there was neither a La Nina nor an El Nino. Overall, Gratz said El Nino and La Nina are general concepts that sometimes work at the local level…
The seven- to 10-days out marker is for when meteorologists have their eye on an incoming storm but don’t have many details, Gratz explained. After that, they’re filling in those details, such as snow accumulation ranges, until the storm hits.
While it’s essentially anyone’s guess what the ski season will look like in terms of powder days, the National Weather Service’s two week forecast isn’t promising. Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said that through the end of the month, above normal temperatures are expected. She added that there is a high chance that the remainder of September will be dry.
Moving into the month of September, rainfall in Summit County is starting to slow down and temperatures have remained high, meaning the Dillon Reservoir is starting to look a little dryer.
The reservoir is currently 91% full after reaching full capacity earlier this summer.
Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, said this is typical of the reservoir’s fill and drawdown cycle but added that the water level took a slightly sharper decline at the start of the month due to increased water needs, as well…
Compared to recent years, Elder said the reservoir has stayed full longer because of above-average precipitation in the Blue River watershed and less demand in the area the reservoir serves. He said the levels did not set any records, though…
Elder said the drawdown of the reservoir typically starts in early to mid-July, but this year’s July was very wet in the Blue River watershed. Dillon Reservoir started to slightly lose storage in mid-July, but in late July and early August, precipitation brought the reservoir back up, keeping it full longer than normal…
Elder also said the Roberts Tunnel, which moves water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, was turned off for a part of August when it would typically be running at 215 cubic feet per second. He said Denver water has not started releasing more water down the Blue River but has been consistently releasing 105 cubic feet per second for the past month…
[Treste] Huse said streamflows were generally above normal throughout the summer, but they have started to come back down again. She said at least half of the streams in Summit County are running normally, but six of them have now dipped below normal.
Looking at the whole summer, Huse said Dillon had more rainfall than it typically does. From May through August, Dillon received 9.08 inches of rainfall, which is 145% of the average amount of 6.25 inches.
FromThe Summit Daily via The Sky-Hi News (Lindsey Toomer):
The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document…
Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.
The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.
Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said…
Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river…
When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed…
The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.
While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.
Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.
Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level…
Looking to the future
Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said…
Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.
Rare earth elements are finding their way into Colorado water supplies, driven by changes in climate, finds a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Rare earth elements are necessary components of many computing and other high-tech devices, like cell phones and hard drives. But there is growing recognition that they can be hazardous in the environment even at low levels of concentration.
“This is of concern because their concentrations are not monitored and there are no water quality standards set for them,” says study author Diane McKnight, who is an INSTAAR Fellow and Engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study is the first to look at how rare earth elements move within a watershed that is rich in minerals. It is also the first to investigate how climate change, by altering stream flow and natural weathering processes, is releasing more rare earth elements into streams.
Diane McKnight has led her students in investigations of water quality in the Snake River watershed of Colorado since the 1990s. Their main focus has been measuring and observing acid rock drainage. In this process, rocks that include sulfide-based minerals, such as pyrite, oxidize when exposed to air and water. The resulting chemical reaction produces sulfuric acid and dissolved metals like iron, which drain into streams. More acidic water can further dissolve heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, and zinc, and as it turns out can carry rare earth elements as well.
“What really controls the mobility of rare earth elements is pH. Acid literally leaches it out of the rocks,” says first author Garrett Rue, who earned a masters degree studying limnology with McKnight and a subsequent PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Acid rock drainage happens naturally throughout the western United States, with its pyrite-rich geology. But historic mines that disturb large amounts of rocks and soil amp up the process dramatically and cause downstream water pollution.
Within the Snake River watershed, towns impacted by acid mine drainage have been forced to adapt to poor water quality. Some former mining boomtowns, like Silverton, import water from distant sources. Others rely on expensive water treatment plants. All fish in the Snake River are stocked, since the water is too high in zinc for any native fish species to survive. The problem is endemic to the western United States, says Rue: “Upwards of forty percent of the headwaters to major rivers in the West are contaminated by some form of acid mine or rock drainage.”
The Snake River has made a good natural laboratory for investigating both, since the Peru Creek part of the watershed was heavily mined, while the Upper Snake River was not. But Rue and McKnight found that both parts of the watershed are now contributing significant amounts of metals downstream, as climate change has brought longer summers and less snow in the winters. Longer, lower stream flows make it easier for metals to leach into the watershed, and concentrate the metals that would otherwise be diluted by snowmelt.
The same processes that mean more heavy metals are finding their way into streams are also acting on rare earth elements. The researchers found rare earth elements throughout the Snake River. “We documented a concentration range of one to hundreds of micrograms per liter—several orders of magnitude higher than typical for surface waters—with the highest concentrations nearest the headwaters and areas receiving drainage from abandoned mine workings,” says Rue.
They also documented that increases in rare earth elements in the Snake River corresponded to warming summer air temperatures, and that rare earth elements are accumulating in insects living in streams at concentrations comparable to other metals such as lead and cadmium shown to be toxic.
“We’re starting to understand that once rare earth elements get in the water, they tend to stay there,” says Rue. “They aren’t removed by traditional treatment processes either, which has implications for reuse and has led some European cities to designate REEs as an emerging contaminant to drinking water supplies. And considering that the Snake River flows directly into Dillion Reservoir, which is Denver’s largest source of stored water, this could be a concern for the future.”
The researchers suggest that investigating and investing in technologies to recover rare earth elements from natural waters could yield valuable commodities and help address the problems associated with acid rock and mine drainage, which are poised to worsen as the climate shifts.
“Rare earth elements are used to make a lot of products. But most of the supply comes from China. So our government has been looking for sources, but at the same time mining has left an indelible mark on the waters of the West,” says Rue. “If we can harvest some of these materials that are already coming into our environment, it might be worthwhile to treat that water and recover these materials at the same time.”
“This problem is getting worse and we need to deal with it,” adds McKnight. “If we can solve the problem holistically, we can have a valuable resource and also think about climate adaptation.”
The Colorado River at Kremmling in Grand County will enjoy a big bump in flows from August into October as Denver Water pays off a hefty water debt.
The rising flows — an addition of more than 300 cubic feet per second (more on that later) sent from Wolford Mountain and Williams Fork reservoirs — serve as a good example of how Colorado’s intricate system of water rights can drive river flows higher when they might typically be lower as autumn settles in.
In this case, it works like this: A dry year created conditions that now require Denver Water to “pay back” water to the West Slope.
Why? Let’s stick with the easy version.
An agreement that emerged over 50 years of Byzantine legal fights allows Denver to move water from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County to the Front Range when it needs the water for its customers.
But — and this is a big “But” — if another big reservoir called Green Mountain (that’s the very long reservoir you drive past as you cruise Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling) — doesn’t fill up in the spring and summer, Denver Water has to make up the difference later in the year.
Stay with us here. Take a look at the map that accompanies this story to help.
Years like this, when Denver Water has to refund water, are called “substitution” years. There have been big substitution years, when a lot of water is involved in the refund, in dry years such as 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2013.
This year is shaping up as a big one, too; one of the largest. In all, the utility expects to release about 37,600 acre-feet from Williams Fork and Wolford to make up what Green Mountain, a reservoir operated by federal Bureau of Reclamation, lacked this year.
That’s a lot of water — close to the capacity of Gross Reservoir, the big Denver Water reservoir in the foothills northwest of Denver. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to serve three or four households for a year.
But wait, you say. Water from Williams Fork and Wolford won’t find its way to Green Mountain, since the Green Mountain Reservoir is on the Blue River and those two reservoirs send their water into the Colorado River, not the Blue.
(Also, water can’t flow upstream from the Colorado River into Green Mountain Reservoir. Take another look at the map in this story.)
That’s OK, as the point is to make up for flows in the Colorado River that would otherwise be augmented by releases from Green Mountain. In short, the releases keep the flows moving on the West Slope.
Now, back to those flows. Releases are expected to add an additional 400 cubic feet per second to the Colorado River in August, 320 cfs in September, and then decrease somewhat to an extra 200 cfs in the first two weeks of October.
How much water is that?
Quite a bit. If you think in terms of gallons (think of the gallon of milk at the grocery story), a cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons. So 300 cubic feet per second means about 2,250 gallons of water per second added to the river flows. (Think about that many milk jugs floating by each second).
While it’s a lot of water to pay back — and it means Denver Water will need to draw down its supplies in Wolford and Williams Fork quite a bit — it could have been even more.
But a wet spring on the Front Range kept sprinklers off and demand low. Monsoons returned this year as well, boosting flows on both sides of the Continental Divide. All of that allowed Denver Water to reduce what it moved from Dillon Reservoir, through the Roberts Tunnel, to the Front Range.
Which, in turn, allowed a bit more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain and reduced the “substitution” amount to be repaid.
If you’ve stuck with us until now, we raise a toast to you, salute your interest in a puzzling topic, and hope that this boost in late season flows in the Colorado River brings a smile to all of us inspired by the beauty of a moving stream.
On July 1, the Blue River below Dillon was flowing at 221 cubic feet per second. On Aug. 5, it jumped up to 455 cfs. Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, explained that in the first week of August, the Blue River’s flow reached the 450 mark and has slowly declined since. On Tuesday, Aug. 10, it was 340 cfs, which he said is slightly above normal for this time of year.
Denver Water manages Dillon Reservoir, which the Blue River flows into and out of.
“We’re trying to match outflow with inflow and send that water downstream to Green Mountain Reservoir,” Elder said…
The increase in water to Green Mountain Reservoir is welcome, as the reservoir was over 50,000 acre-feet below normal in late July, and a downstream call for irrigation rights was placed on the reservoir. As of Aug. 11, the reservoir, which is full at about 154,000 acre-feet of water, was holding 100,243 acre-feet of water.
Summit County saw its wettest July in 10 years, which is what has contributed to the increase in outflow, Elder said. He noted that not only has the rain on the Western Slope helped, but rain on the Front Range has lowered water demands on that side of the Continental Divide. That has reduced the need to send water through Roberts Tunnel, which has kept more water in Dillon Reservoir and made way for the release of more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain Reservoir…
Dillon Reservoir started out the year lower than normal, and less water flowed in from the melting snowpack. In late June, Elder reported that the reservoir was full but only because much less water was released from the reservoir to the Blue River than in an average year. The lack of water flowing into the Blue River meant two things: Less water went to Green Mountain Reservoir, and commercial rafting couldn’t happen on the river this year…
As for the Goose Pasture Tarn, which is currently lowered due to the rehabilitation of the dam, Elder said the tarn’s water that is being stored in Dillon Reservoir has a “very small impact.” For context, the tarn is 771 acre-feet, whereas Dillon Reservoir is over 257,000. Once it’s time for the tarn to be refilled, it will be given priority for water rights.
The Snake River Water District will undergo a variety of rehabilitation and improvements throughout the next 10 years based on its 2021 master plan.
The district, which provides drinking water to the Keystone valley, underwent a study with an engineering firm to look at its infrastructure’s strengths and weaknesses. The idea to look into infrastructure upgrades started about two years ago when the district was notified it had a slight lead exceedance based on two water samples.
Scott Price, executive director and district administrator, said this occurs not because there is an issue with the actual water, but because pipes in some older homes in the area were built with lead and are still in use. If the water sits in the pipes for too long, it can lead to concentrations of lead in the water samples. Price said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has to use the water that first comes out when the faucet is turned on when it tests water samples, which will likely be affected by lead if the water sat unused in old pipes.
The district has three base plants, each with its own storage and water filtration system. The second base, which is also home to the district’s office, is likely to need an additional storage tank to serve the high-density area of Keystone Resort, as well as a pump station that can transport water uphill from the third to the second base.
An existing infrastructure issue to address is water pipe breakage, something Price said can cost around 10 times more to fix in the winter than it does in the summer. Engineers looked at which pipes were more likely to break, but also the severity of consequences that can occur from a breakage.
The study prioritized which pipes and fire hydrants in the district would need attention immediately, creating a map showing the different priorities based on each area. The district plans to chip away at these pipe and hydrant upgrades little by little during the 10-year plan.
Meanwhile, the third plant underwent $8.5 million in upgrades a couple years ago, including a new filtration system. Price said he expects this filtration system to be in compliance for decades to come as water quality regulations get tighter over time…
Price also said that should the base two plant need upgrades — which he is expecting to get a decision from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by the end of the year — the whole district will be able to temporarily operate on the new base three plant.
Lastly, the study showed that the district’s Pilot Lode storage tank by the Settlers Creek townhomes will need improvements to its interior lining, as it is around 25 years old and steel constructed.
The study estimates that over 10 years, the district will need about $38.5 million in work, estimated as follows:
Pump station from base three to base two: $1.5 million
Base two storage tank: $7.6 million
Base two groundwater under direct influence compliance: $11.8 million
Pilot Lode tank rehabilitation: $550,000
Pipeline replacements: $13.5 million
Fire hydrant replacements: $1.6 million
On top of these costs there are several smaller projects included in the master plan that account for the remaining $2 million of the budget. These estimates cover only the cost of construction, and the district will need to pay more in the coming months for architects and engineers to design the systems…
The plan calls for a 12% rate increase at the start of 2022, and the Snake River Water District’s board is currently planning to do 12% increases over the next three years. The base quarterly fee will go from $65 in 2022 to $91 in 2024.
The Snake River Water District hasn’t increased its water rates in about eight years, which was then only a 3% increase. Prior to that, it hadn’t raised its quarterly rates since the 1990s.
A new coalition aims to re-shape the way people think about Colorado’s Gold Medal fisheries while also rally support for preserving and expanding signature waters around the state.
The coalition is “still very much a work in progress,” said Scott Willoughby, the Colorado field organizer with Trout Unlimited. But the campaign called Colorado Gold has added muscle with dozens of major business partners that include Patagonia and Fishpond, along with angling groups and towns centered around the state’s streams and lakes with the sport’s greatest distinction.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages some 322 river miles and three lakes with Gold Medal designations, based on those locations producing “the highest quality cold-water habitats.” The designation is reserved for fisheries producing a variety of trout 14-plus inches.
“When we talk about these Gold Medal waters, people seem to associate them with trophy trout fishing,” Willoughby said. “I think it’s time we shift that thinking from trophy trout to trophy trout habitat.”
With the sport’s growing popularity, Trout Unlimited has identified over-fishing as one threat to those habitats. Colorado Gold has a bold mission to conserve enough habitat to merit a 30% increase in Gold Medal fishing waters by 2030.
Doing this “will help safeguard more Colorado fisheries while redistributing pressure on a currently limited resource,” reads a coalition statement. Colorado Gold’s website adds: “We can’t afford to simply sit back and watch (Parks and Wildlife) do all the heavy lifting.”
Bigger and hotter fires of recent years have been another threat to prized streams. In 2019, officials reported the 416 fire near Durango effectively killed 80% of the fish population along the Gold Medal Animas River…
“Obviously, (climate change) will take federal action, as well as local action,” Willoughby said. “That’s why it’s so important that we continue to broaden this coalition.”
The Snake River Water District will hold a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, at its office at 0050 Oro Grande Drive in Keystone.
A presentation will be given on the recently completed water system master plan and upcoming rate changes at the meeting.
Based on the master plan, the district will need to invest about $38.5 million over the next 10 years to address aging infrastructure, potential trouble areas of the system, capacity and distribution. Its next step is determining how to fund these upgrades through federal and state grants and loans.
Downstream call placed on the reservoir for irrigation water rights
Green Mountain Reservoir, one of the biggest reservoirs in Summit County, located in Summit County, is low this summer, but it’s not as low as in previous drought years.
The reservoir is currently storing about 101,000 acre-feet of water — 32.9 billion gallons — James Heath, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said in an email. He noted that the reservoir is typically nearly full around this time of year. A full Green Mountain Reservoir is about 154,000 acre-feet of water, or approximately 50 billion gallons.
However, Heath said in previous drought years like 2002 and 2012, there was less water stored in the reservoir than there is this year.
Heath explained that the runoff from the Blue River this year was not enough to fill both Dillon Reservoir, which is upstream, and Green Mountain Reservoir, which is downstream…
Releases from Green Mountain Reservoir make their way to the Colorado River to appease those downstream with senior water rights. Heath said these releases replace upstream depletions from West Slope diversions and the Colorado Big Thompson project, which delivers the approximate volume of Dillon Reservoir to the South Platte Basin.
Heath noted that there has been a call for irrigation water rights downstream in the Grand Valley, which means senior water users have requested to restrict the use of water among junior water users because there is not enough water in the system to allow all water diversions. This requires Green Mountain Reservoir to stop storing, pass inflows and make releases.
While calls on Green Mountain Reservoir can restrict use for junior water users, there is a group of western Colorado water users that have historically benefited from releases out of Green Mountain Reservoir, called historic user pool beneficiaries, that are allowed to continue to divert after a call is placed on the river.
Since July 10, the reservoir water level has dropped about 7,000 acre-feet, or 2.2 billion gallons, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources website. For most of July, Green Mountain Reservoir’s discharge to the Blue River was below the historic average.
Today is a big day! As of July 26th, 2021 our partners at Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment will be mobilizing crews and setting the stage for channel construction and Rock Island Road bridge installation. The pull off at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road will be used by crews to stage equipment and will be closed to overflow parking from the Tiger Trailhead through the end of the construction season. Rock Island Road will remain open to the public throughout the construction phase, including during bridge installation.
This seasons work will include final grading, channel construction, bank stabilization, bridge installation, and initial revegetation of the site. When completed, 4,800′ of new channel, 13 acres of riparian habitat, and 5 acres of upland habitat will be created on Reach B. The new channel will include 20 riffle-glide-pool sequences that mimic the natural morphology of reference streams in similar elevations and habitats. These sequences will provide natural aquatic habitat and will be paired with large woody debris and boulder installation to further diversify the available habitat along this stretch of stream. New bank stabilization techniques that utilize logs and root wads will also be installed on this stretch to serve as fish refuges. By taking into consideration lessons learned on Reach A, we have made these improvements to the Reach B design and will continue to utilize the most current restoration techniques.
Last week, Summit TV was on site to shoot some aerial photography prior to the beginning of construction (see the photos below). Colorado Parks and Wildlife also toured the Reach A site recently to see an example of successful stream restoration and the following establishment of brook trout and sculpin populations. We hope that this project can continue to serve as a model for stream restoration, both here in Colorado and around the country.
Keep following the blog to see progress photos throughout the construction season and the transformation of the site.
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
The Snake River Water District is planning ahead for increasing water needs in the Keystone area due to population growth over the past decade.
District Executive Director Scott Price said in a statement that the district recently created a water system master plan looking into emerging challenges in the next 10 years. The plan includes a prioritized list of short- and long-term projects.
According to the plan, the district needs to invest $38.5 million over the next decade to address trouble areas, update the old water treatment plant and add a new pump station and storage tank. The district is currently seeking grants and loans to help fund the improvements. It is also evaluating user rates that have remained unchanged for the past eight years.
The district will hold public meetings with key stakeholders to discuss the financial plans. There will be two public meetings July 22, including a 1 p.m. livestream on the district’s Facebook page and an in-person meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the district’s office in Keystone, 0050 Oro Grande Drive.
Denver Water cuts back on some of its West Slope supplies to help struggling streams.
The Colorado River is hurting.
The struggles of the river’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been well documented over the last decade as drought has ravished the West.
The story, however, starts more than 500 miles upstream in Grand County, Colorado.
The county is filled with streams that make up the beginning of the mighty Colorado’s journey in the mountains north of Grand Lake. Around 60% of the water in Grand County is diverted from these streams and used for agricultural and municipal water supply, mostly on the Front Range.
That includes the Denver metro area, which receives about 20% of its water from Grand County, where Denver Water has water rights dating back to the 1920s. Most of the water is captured in rivers and streams around Winter Park when mountain snow melts in the spring.
But, after a lackluster runoff season on the West Slope combined with dry soils from the past year, the hot, dry conditions in early June meant the high-country rivers and streams needed help.
Denver Water responded by voluntarily reducing diversions from several Grand County creeks and coordinating with the Colorado River District, Grand County, Northern Water and other Learning By Doing partners to adjust operations, where possible, to help boost water levels in some of the more troubled areas.
“While our primary responsibility is to make sure we’re supplying water to 1.5 million people in the metro area, we’re always looking for opportunities to help improve conditions on the rivers, to help the aquatic environment, recreation and communities they flow through,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.
By reducing diversions, Denver Water foregoes collecting a portion of water it is legally entitled to collect for its water supply in exchange for improving streams and tributaries along the Colorado River.
It started with a plea for help
On June 5, the Colorado River District asked Denver Water for help after reporting extremely low water levels and critically high water temperatures on the Colorado River. The river district reported conditions were creating unhealthy habitat for fish and aquatic insects.
“When the email came in Saturday morning, we were in a position to quickly respond and reduce the amount of water we were pulling from several Grand County creeks,” Elder said.
Denver Water has continued making operational adjustments since that email.
The utility estimates that by early July it will have voluntarily foregone collecting around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County to help keep more water in the Colorado and Fraser rivers. That’s roughly enough water to supply over 44,000 residences for one year.
“It has been helpful to hear directly from stakeholders in Grand County, including Trout Unlimited and ranchers along the river, on where we may be able to truly help the river, the community and the environment with our operational adjustments,” Elder said.
“With help from the West Slope, we’ve been able to target specific areas and send some beneficial water downstream.”
This includes adjusting water releases from Williams Fork Dam twice a day in a way that also benefits the Colorado River.
For example, when releasing water from the dam, Elder and his team try to time the flows, so the water reaches the river in Kremmling — an area prone to higher river temperatures — during hotter times of the day.
The higher water level helps to cool down the water, which is better for the aquatic environment.
Position to help
The wet spring conditions along the Front Range boosted water supplies in Denver Water’s South Platte River collection system, which drastically reduced customers’ demand for water across the metro area — where Denver Water serves a quarter of the state’s population.
In fact, from January to May, Denver Water’s customer water use hit a 50-year low across the metro area, despite nearly 600,000 more people in its service area since 1970. That includes years in which the metro area was on mandatory drought restrictions.
“Some of the low use may be due to COVID-19 impacts on business and obviously a wet, cool spring helped,” said Greg Fisher, demand manager for Denver Water.
“It’s a great sign that our customers really understand efficient water use and let Mother Nature do the watering for them when possible.”
This wet spring on the Front Range also helped provide additional flexibility on how Denver Water collected and distributed water across its collection system during the spring snow runoff.
“We were able to turn off the Roberts Tunnel in April, which helped bring water levels up in Dillon Reservoir for boating,” Elder said.
“The conditions also enabled us to send more water down the Blue River below Dillon Dam to help improve fish habitat around Silverthorne instead of sending the water to the Front Range.”
Denver Water uses the Roberts Tunnel to bring water from Dillon — the utility’s largest reservoir — under the Continental Divide to the Front Range.
But flexibility like this is not always possible, especially with the myriad threats Denver’s water system is facing.
“Between the rising temperatures, changes to the timing of spring runoff, extreme fire behavior and half a million more people expected in the metro area by 2040, our ability for flexible operations is decreasing in a time when we need it the most,” said Elder.
“We must take an ‘all-in’ approach that includes conservation, water reuse and development of new water supplies so we can continue to maximize the benefits of a large system.”
According to Elder, hot, dry weather conditions highlight the benefits of having a large water collection system, as it provides the water planning team more flexibility in its operational playbook.
The vision for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, which is in its final steps of permitting, is an example of how additional water storage can really help streams in times of drought.
“As part of the Gross Reservoir Expansion, some of the voluntary things we’re doing this year — like leaving more water in the Grand County rivers — will become required annual operations for us,” said Elder.
That’s because Denver Water is one of 18 partners who signed the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, ushering in a new era of cooperation between the utility and West Slope stakeholders, all with the vested interest in protecting watersheds in the Colorado River Basin.
As part of that agreement, a process called “Learning by Doing” was created, which has helped the utility stay better connected on river conditions in Grand County. The partnership is a collection of East and West Slope water stakeholders who help identify and find solutions to water issues in Grand County.
“Denver Water has been part of Grand County for over 100 years, and we understand the impact our diversions have on the rivers and streams,” said Rachel Badger, environmental planning manager at Denver Water.
“Our goal is to manage our water resources as efficiently as possible and be good stewards of the water — and Learning By Doing helps us do that.”
Summit County received a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among other partners, to restore the area’s riparian floodplain, wetlands and upland habitat.
The foundation awarded $3.1 million to 10 habitat restoration projects across the state from its Restoration and Stewardship of Outdoor Resources and Environment — or RESTORE — Colorado program. Grant awards from this fund are meant for projects on public and private conservation lands that have the greatest benefit for wildlife habitat and local communities.
The grant will contribute to a project meant to improve habitat quality and connectivity for native cutthroat, brown and brook trout species in the Swan River Valley. The project will restore 0.8 miles of the main stem of Swan River as well as 30 acres of riparian and upland habitat.
The Goose Pasture Tarn Dam rehabilitation construction officially started in May and is on schedule to be completed in 2023 as planned.
Breckenridge Public Works Director James Phelps said most of the work taking place throughout 2021 is in preparation for larger aspects of the project, such as taking apart the spillways.
The project currently in the works is getting a 96-inch bypass pipe in place, which will help when it comes time to drain the tarn at the end of July, Phelps said. He added that this will be of use once they take apart the spillways next year to control runoff.
The town of Breckenridge created a website, TownOfBreckenridgeGPTD.com, dedicated to construction updates on the dam rehabilitation. Updates will be posted every two weeks with details on the construction schedule.
According to the website’s May 21 update, construction between May 24 and June 5 has included setting up staging areas to access the job site, finishing the temporary access road via Wagon Road and minor work in the stilling basin on top of the bypass pipe work.
Phelps said the town has also worked to identify properties where water supply could be affected by the project. He said they are working with a contractor that will be able to provide water for those who may need it…
He added that wells have been placed around the reservoir to monitor groundwater. Based on what’s already been observed in these monitoring wells, Phelps said it’s possible that neighboring wells won’t be affected by the project…
Based on current progress, Phelps said the project is on schedule and should continue as planned with little interruptions based on runoff predictions for the rest of the year.
Experts from different organizations presented updates specific to their work, all focusing on water rights, drought outlooks and river basin updates.
Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, went through the recent history of the ongoing drought in the state. He said throughout the past few months, eastern Colorado has seen decent drought improvement, but western Colorado has remained about the same.
Schumacher presented a chart showing average temperatures and precipitation from April through September, which showed that 2020 was somewhat of an outlier.
“It was the driest April through September on record and one of the few hottest on record, and that is a recipe for a drought that develops quickly,” Schumacher said…
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, provided an overview of the goals and accomplishments from phase one of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. The first objective of the plan, which Van Gytenbeek said the group has spent most of its time on, is to understand potential causes for declining fish populations between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how the decline can be mitigated…
The second objective is what Van Gytenbeek called a “literature search,” which aims to compile information regarding physical and biological aspects of the Blue River Basin’s water resources. This would then formulate objectives and goals for future phases of the plan.
Van Gytenbeek said the phase one report is currently being finalized, and they intend to submit it to an advisory committee in the middle of June. He said he expects the report to be made public in July or early August.
Once the report is completed the second phase of the project will continue, with hopes of having the final phase two report ready for the public by March 2022. Van Gytenbeek said he thinks integrated water management plan organizations like the Blue River Watershed Group should get some support to keep the dialogue going past the life of phase two of the project.
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District, talked about supply issues within the Colorado River Compact…
Nathan Elder and Jason Finehout of Denver Water said there is a low likelihood of filling the Dillon Reservoir this year, predicting an inflow of about 50-60% of normal. Finehout went on to explain that many of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules are the same as many jurisdictions’ stage one drought restrictions…
Brian Lorch, trails director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, provided an update on the Swan River Restoration Project, which aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley impacted by historical dredge mining.
Lorch said this summer, Reach B of the project will start to take shape, as contractors will create about another mile of stream channel.
Kevin Foley, president of Performance Tours Rafting, said Friday, May 14, that recent reports he has received from Denver Water indicate the organization is likely to prioritize filling the Dillon Reservoir.
“What we are being told is, right now, the reservoir is low and snowpack is below average, so their model this year going to be more fill and spill,” Foley said.
Each spring and summer, Denver Water determines how much water it will release into the Blue River north of the Dillon Dam based on how much water is needed in different locations throughout an intricate network of water systems and reservoirs that service water users.
Foley said current conditions and a low water level in Dillon Reservoir point to Denver Water filling the reservoir with any new snow or rain in the coming weeks, rather than diverting flows downstream into the Blue River.
Foley said he will find out more from Denver Water at a meeting next week, but as of now, he said it’s unlikely there will be an extended season on the Blue…
The Class 2 to 3 Blue River stretch, which usually takes just over an hour for commercial trips, runs 5 to 6 miles from a U.S. Forest Service put-in at Hammer Bridge through Boulder Canyon down to a take-out at Columbine Landing. Foley said Performance Tours and KODI Rafting’s cutoff for the stretch is usually 500 cfs, signaling when they can start and stop. He said the best rafting on the Blue is at 1,000 cfs.
The commercial rafting season on the Blue is notoriously fickle, sometimes very short at just a couple of weeks in dry years to up to two months of rafting in wet seasons…
Foley said drainages down on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista are looking much better than the Blue. He credited the voluntary flow management program on the Arkansas that enables commercial companies to raft on good, augmented flows deep into summer. Trips out of Buena Vista have been operating for some commercial companies since May 1.
Area snowpack improved in April but is back on a melting trend. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites, the snowpack level at Copper Mountain peaked at the beginning of April at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack. The snow-water equivalent dropped to 10.6 inches in mid-April and increased to 12 inches by Friday, April 30.
The snowpack has declined in May and is currently sitting at 9.8 inches of snow-water equivalent on Copper Mountain, or 82% of the 30-year median. The upper Colorado River basin, which Summit County falls into, is at 65% of normal snow-water equivalent as of May 10.
“Things aren’t looking so good right now,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier said. “We’ve melted out about a third of the snowpack already.”
Meier said cool and snowy days like Monday, May 10, slow down the melting process and add a bit to the snowpack, but overall, he expects the snowpack to remain below normal. He said the snowpack usually melts out between June 10 and 20…
According to the National Weather Service’s almanac, only 9 inches of snow was recorded in April at the Dillon Weather Station — almost half the area’s normal April snowfall of 17.3 inches.
So far, May is closer to average with a total of 3 inches as of Monday morning and more on the way with through the remainder of the storm. Through May 10, normal snowfall for the Dillon station is 3.3 inches.
Though not much snow accumulated, drought conditions have improved in Summit County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The county is still in a drought, but the severity has lessened to a severe drought in the northern portion of the county and a moderate drought in the southern portion of the county, according to the Drought Monitor’s severity scale. As of April 27, the northern portion of the county was still in an extreme drought.
The Colorado River District has approved funding for several projects across the Western Slope, including Phase 2 of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan in Summit County. The district allocated $25,000 to the project. The Blue River plan was created by the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited in 2019.
The goal of the plan is to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem. The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.
Phase 2 of the plan involves gathering data and analyzing certain areas of the Blue River basin identified as needing further analysis in Phase 1.
A CBS4 Investigates analysis of public testing data has found levels of perfluoroalkyl substances – commonly known as forever chemicals – in Frisco’s drinking water would be considered too high in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York. The levels would also trigger further testing requirements in Michigan.
Jessica Johnson, who lives and works in Frisco, said she was unaware of the elevated levels.
“I was pretty shocked, honestly, to learn that the forever chemicals were in our water,” Johnson said. “It’s concerning for me; thyroid issues run in my family, so I don’t really want to do anything that would exacerbate that, because I’m sure it’s probably looming on the horizon for me anyway.”
While there is no federal legal limit, the EPA recommends drinking water not have more than 70 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS combined, but some states say that’s not good enough, setting more stringent legal limits…
State health department testing conducted last summer found Frisco’s drinking water had a level of 58.5 for the chemicals regulated in Massachusetts and Vermont, more than twice the legal limits in those states. The testing also found Frisco had a level of 11 parts per trillion of PFOS, which would be above the safe limit set in New York. Frisco’s PFOA level was only 6.2 part per trillion, but would require quarterly testing in Michigan…
The Town of Frisco says right now, there’s no health concern, because the PFAS levels are below the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion…
Frisco spokesperson Vanessa Agee wrote in an email, “an interview with Frisco’s Water Division would do nothing to further your viewer’s understanding of PFAS or alert them to a health danger, which are in fact really admirable and helpful goals that we hope you have much success with, as it is vital that we have the facts and current understanding around this evolving research into PFAS and PFAS’ potential impacts on our health.”
Asked why residents were not notified about the PFAS testing results, Agee wrote, “if there were a health concern, then the EPA and CDPHE would require individual notification of residents, and the Town would of course provide that notification swiftly because we authentically care about the health of our neighbors and friends, which is what Frisco’s residents are in this very close-knit community and county. The public would be very well served by understanding that the science around PFAS is evolving, understanding where that science is right now, and having knowledge about what is being done across Colorado and the country to better understand PFAS and their impact on health.”
The state health department has also told CBS4 in a past interview that residents should not be concerned about the elevated levels, because they are below the health advisory, but that if residents are still concerned, they can look at purchasing a reverse osmosis filtration system for their home or bottled water…
Currently, the state of Colorado has taken its own steps to begin regulating PFAS, for example, new state legislation has created a PFAS registry, so state officials know where industrial PFAS sources are located.
But Josh Kuhn with Conservation Colorado says the centennial state should study the issue further and look at setting its own more stringent legal limits…
In the meantime, Agee says Frisco is in the process of conducting further testing in other areas of its water distribution system, including at the tap “to get a more comprehensive picture.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also says it’s in the process of developing a grant program to assist Frisco and other communities with additional testing.
“The CDPHE grant program has not been launched yet so the Town Water Division is doing what it does best, providing safe and delicious water, while always striving to have a full understanding of the facts,” Agee said in an email to CBS4.
The CDPHE says the testing will help officials determine what areas and private wells may be at risk for PFAS.
One question remains: what is the source of the PFAS pollution in Frisco? PFAS can be found in a variety of household products, and even your clothes. The Environmental Working Group also found PFAS in cosmetics.
The state health department is working to find an answer in Frisco, writing to CBS4, “we expect these (test) results to provide insight into where the chemicals may be coming from.”
Construction work to repair the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam is set to begin this month.
While the dam is located in Blue River, the rehabilitation project is being led by Breckenridge, which owns and operates the dam. Water from the Goose Pasture Tarn goes to the Gary Roberts Water Treatment Plant, which serves the residents of Breckenridge.
According to a press release from the town, rehabilitation of the dam includes the replacement of two existing spillways with a single, larger spillway that is intended to improve the safety of the dam. Officials expect the project to be completed in the fall of 2023. The dam repair project is expected to cost a total of $20 million, which is being paid for by Breckenridge, Colorado and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Moving forward with the project is a sigh of relief for Breckenridge residents because the dam, which was constructed in 1965, was classified as a “high hazard” in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2018 National Inventory of Dams. The press release noted that the dam wasn’t classified as a high hazard because of its condition. Instead, the designation was based on the estimated consequences if the dam were to fail. However, safety issues during high flows were identified in 2016, and as a result, reservoir-storage restrictions were put in place that reduced flows…
Phelps said the Goose Pasture Tarn’s water level will be lowered for about a month near the end of July. The water will be lowered for a longer period of time next summer. During the project, recreational use of the tarn is prohibited and the lowering of water levels may impact nearby residential wells. The release said that the town has installed monitoring wells to track fluctuations in groundwater levels near the reservoir and will “enact additional measures” to reduce impacts.
Phelps explained that construction work is planned to happen within three time frames: April 2021 through September 2021, April 2022 through September 2022, and May 2023 through the fall of 2023. Work could be done as early as the end of August 2023. Phelps noted that the heavy construction work will be completed in 2022, and a lot of the work that will be done in the final phase of the project will be to revegetate the area around the dam.
Following last weekend’s major snowstorm, Colorado’s snowpack has improved, but it still lags behind the 30-year median.
The percent of normal snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack — in all eight of the state’s major river basins has increased since early March, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, but five basins remain below normal levels for this time of year.
The Upper Colorado basin, which Summit County falls into, has increased its snow-water equivalent by 4 percentage points since March 5 and is currently at 89% of normal according to the Conservation Service. Breaking things down even further, the latest numbers show that the snow-water equivalent is 87% of the 30-year median at Copper Mountain and 94% at Hoosier Pass.
While the snowpack isn’t quite where it normally is this time of year, the snow has picked up recently. National Weather Service reports show that March snowfall is above average with 12.5 inches tallied so far at the Dillon weather station. Normal snowfall accumulation recorded at the station through March 18 is 9.5 inches. March’s above-average snowfall follows snowfall that was below normal levels in December, January and February…
“That Blue River above Dillon SnoTel group … as of yesterday is showing 88% of normal,” Huse said in reference to Summit County’s snowpack level. “It went up with this last storm, maybe by an inch of snow-water equivalent, just not as much as areas east of the divide. So it got a little boost from this storm, still below normal, but a little better than it was.”
Treste Huse explained that the snowpack in Summit County looks similar to 2018 levels, which had the lowest snowpack of the previous five years. Huse said that by mid-April, hydrologists will be able to better gauge what the snowpack level will mean for the rest of the year in terms of water supplies, drought and other environmental factors and added that Summit County’s 88% snowpack “isn’t bad” for now…
Huse added that the drought severity in Summit County has been improving over the past month and a half, but things didn’t change this week. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which uses a scale of drought intensity that ranges from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought, the southern half of Summit County is in a D2 severe drought and the northern half is in a D3 extreme drought.
Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.
Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.
At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
The two issues go hand-in-hand.
While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.
Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.
In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.
That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.
This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”
Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.
It’s an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.
All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.
The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons.
At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.
“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Bridget Kochel):
Colorado has mandatory boating inspection regulations in place to help monitor that mussels do not cross state lines.
After three consecutive years of negative testing, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has removed Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County from the positive waters list for quagga mussels, a prohibited aquatic nuisance species (ANS). As Green Mountain Reservoir was the only body of water in Colorado suspected of having a population of quagga mussels, this de-listing makes Colorado a completely negative state for both zebra and quagga mussels.
In August 2017, Green Mountain Reservoir, which is owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and whose developed public recreation sites are managed by the White River National Forest, tested positive for the presence of quagga mussel larvae (veligers). No adult mussels were ever found in Green Mountain Reservoir nor have they ever been found in a Colorado water body. Regional standards require three years of subsequent negative testing in order to re-classify the water from Suspect to Negative.
“After three years of negative testing, we are confident that Green Mountain Reservoir is free of invasive mussels and does not pose a risk to other aquatic resources,” said CPW’s Invasive Species Program Manager Robert Walters. “Colorado is the only state to de-list all mussel positive waters. This is a testament to the fact that our mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination procedures do work to protect Colorado’s waters from invasive species.”
While Colorado is once again completely free of invasive mussels, the threat of zebra or quagga mussels entering Colorado from another infested state is still quite real. Boaters using infested waters must take extra care not to transport mussels across state lines and to comply with Colorado’s mandatory inspection regulations.
“Our staff want to express our gratitude to the boaters who help keep Colorado’s waters safe from harmful invasive species. By participating in Cleaning, Draining, and Drying your watercraft and gear between each and every use, we can continue to prevent the spread of invasive species,” said Walters.
State of Colorado Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan Approved
The management plan was originally conceptualized in 2006 and has been collaboratively developed by CPW staff, the Colorado ANS Task Force and by ANS experts and stakeholders across the state.
“The approval of this plan is a significant milestone in ANS program history because it sets a clear path forward on how we can prevent and manage aquatic nuisance species in Colorado,” said Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources. “Invasive species have the potential to cause significant irreversible environmental impacts. The ANS management plan includes a coordinated prevention plan to keep Colorado’s waters free of ANS and a rapid response strategy that is designed to quickly contain new populations that may establish. This aims to minimize negative impacts on human safety, our wildlife populations and our native ecosystems.”
In an effort to balance outdoor recreation with mindful conservation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires boaters to purchase an ANS Stamp when registering a boat in Colorado to help protect state waters. The stamp provides approximately half of the funding needed to run the ANS Program operations annually, which includes watercraft inspection and decontamination services, monitoring of state waters and management of existing populations.
A private ranch is seeking Colorado environmental regulators’ permission to inject the Blue River with phosphorus — a chemical regulated as a pollutant — as part of an experiment that could help improve trout habitat at a popular high-country fishing destination.
Kremmling-based Blue Valley Ranch, owned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II, proposes beginning the project as soon as next summer on an 8-mile stretch of the river running through its 25,000-acre ranch, which is located on both sides of the river between Green Mountain Reservoir and Colorado River.
The ranch has not yet applied for a state discharge permit, which it will need before beginning the project. In September, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a 35-member group of water planners, voted to provide Blue Valley Ranch, which did not request a financial contribution, with a letter of support.
The ranch sits alongside the lower section of the river. Areas on this stretch that have public access are home to relatively large and abundant trout, earning a “gold medal” status from the state. The experiment may help explain why trout farther upstream above the Green Mountain Reservoir appear undernourished. The ranch expects that adding phosphorus to the river will grow more algae, a building block in the aquatic food-chain supporting fish.
If the project helps the fish, water managers could use a similar one to restore the gold-medal status of a section of the Blue River upstream from the ranch’s property that the state delisted in 2016. The designation is based on the size and abundance of fish in rivers with public access. The rare delisting on the river section, north of Silverthorne, was a blow to residents who saw the designation as a way to attract outdoor tourism to the region.
Scientists warn that adding too much phosphorus could create problems downstream. Excess phosphorus [enables algae blooms including cyanobacteria], an algae that can be toxic to humans. Last summer, such algae blooms prompted the state to issue warnings and closures to lakes across the state, from Steamboat Lake, north of Steamboat Springs, to Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir.
This is one reason why the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working on new rules to limit phosphorus pollution based on the chemical’s ecological impacts. The state may soon require owners of large facilities, such as wastewater-treatment plants, to make costly upgrades to comply with new limits.
That same agency will have to decide whether to grant the ranch a discharge permit, weighing the possibility of improving trout habitat with the environmental risks. MaryAnn Nason, a spokeswoman for the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said in a statement that the state would evaluate whether the additional phosphorus protects aquatic life, drinking water and recreation, and complies with the state’s regulations on phosphorus.
The theory behind the project is that the river has too little phosphorus, a circumstance that may be preventing the growth of periphyton, an algae eaten by aquatic insects that state biologists say are “sparse” in the river. One of the reasons the river lacks nutrients is that the 231-foot dam in Silverthorne is causing it to back up. The dam was built in 1963 to create the Dillon Reservoir, which Denver Water uses to ship drinking water under the Continental Divide to residents on the Front Range. The dam traps nutrients such as phosphorus and prevents downstream flooding, a natural process that can pull phosphorus back into the river. In the 1980s, the state imposed strict limits on phosphorus pollution from wastewater-treatment plant operators in the basin, which has kept phosphorus concentrations to about 10 parts per billion in the reservoir to prevent algae blooms. That means the cold water flowing out of the bottom of the dam also is relatively low in phosphorus.
“This is a success story,” said William Lewis, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of its Center for Limnology and who has studied the reservoir’s chemistry for decades.
Whether the successes of curbing pollution are hurting fish habitat downstream is hard to say for sure, Lewis said. But supporters of the Blue Valley Ranch proposal say the experiment could test this one factor among the many affecting the river.
“We have to better understand those factors. And measure them. And then rate them,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that advocates for fish habitat and supports the ranch’s proposed experiment.
According to a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable by Blue Valley Ranch, the company proposes placing jugs of liquid fertilizer at six sites along the river bordering its property, injecting it with as much as nearly 2,000 gallons per year. In an emailed statement from the company, it said it plans to increase the phosphorus concentrations in the river by 3 parts per billion. It would then sample the growth of periphyton, aquatic insects and the fish population. The company cites a project on Idaho’s Kootenai River in which researchers increased phosphorus levels of as much as about 12.5 parts per billion. Bob Steed, the surface water manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the Kootenai River project has increased the size and number of fish without causing toxic algae blooms or other problems with water quality.
But scientists still have reservations. Lisa Kunza, a professor of chemistry biology and health sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who has studied the ecological impacts of the Kootenai River project, said she wondered whether Blue Valley Ranch plans to spend enough time studying baseline conditions before the experiment. And she wondered what’s motivating the company to do the project.
According to the company’s website, the ranch seeks “to be a leader in conservation.” Its owner, Jones, is an investor whose philanthropy has earned him recognition as a “conservationist.” Jones spent $805,000 on Highway 9 wildlife crossings north of Silverthorne as well as other projects across the county, including setting up a foundation aimed at protecting the Florida Mangroves. The property is known for its intensive management, such as using a diesel-powered backhoe to make the river narrower and deeper, and locals call the stretch of river flowing through the ranch “Jurassic Park.”
Brien Rose, a biologist with Blue Valley Ranch who has worked as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, has been giving presentations on the project and speaking with the Department of Public Health and Environment. Rose did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Before the ranch stepped up with the idea, the concept of its experiment was already being discussed among the region’s water managers, some of whom are monitoring conditions upstream and perhaps laying the groundwork for a similar project. The Blue River Watershed Group, which helps manage the river, is backing the project. Supporters see it as a way to help restore the river to a more natural state before the dam trapped its nutrients.
“Studies of the lower Blue River have shown that it is deficient in some nutrients because of the two upstream impoundments on the river. A major goal of this research is to add to the base of knowledge that will ultimately benefit other impounded rivers in the Western United States,” said Brett Davidson, a manager with Blue Valley Ranch, in an emailed statement.
But what the river looked like before the dam is unclear, researchers say. Aside from the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, the Blue River has been impacted by hardrock mining and the growing mountain towns of Silverthorn, Frisco and Breckenridge. For decades, the state has been stocking the river with brown and rainbow trout, game fish that white settlers introduced to Colorado. One of the reasons the middle section of the Blue River lost its gold-medal status was because the state scaled back stocking.
Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, said she sees the value in Blue Valley Ranch’s experiment. She, too, wants to better understand the effects of phosphorus on a river’s ecology.
But Marshall said “further tinkering” with the river to restore it could have its risks. She added: “The proposed study sounds like a Band-Aid, rather than fixing the underlying causes of degraded stream habitat.”
This story ran in the Dec. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
esidential properties will be charged $10 per quarter and commercial properties will be charged $50 per quarter. The fee was passed by Silverthorne Town Council as part of the stormwater management plan to help maintain stormwater drainage facilities and the quality of local rivers, ponds and drinking water.
Town Manager Ryan Hyland noted in a news release from the town that the fee will allow Silverthorne to conduct projects outlined in the 2020 Drainage Master Plan, which include preventative measures against property damage from floodwaters and negative impacts to water.
The release also stated that the fee will help pay for new curb, gutter and sidewalk infrastructure to improve pedestrian corridors.
Vail Resorts Inc., one of the largest financial contributors to Colorado’s cloud seeding program, has dropped out this year, leaving a major hole in the program’s budget.
Cloud seeding is a practice in which silver iodide pellets are sprayed into storm clouds in an effort to trigger more snowfall and ultimately, in the spring, more snowmelt to feed the state’s streams.
Vail has been participating in the program for more than 40 years, state officials said.
Hard-hit by the pandemic, the ski resort company had planned to contribute $300,000 to this year’s effort, roughly 20 percent of the nearly $1.5 million the state spends annually, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which oversees the program.
Vail officials did not respond to a request for comment, but their most recent financial statements indicate that the company’s revenues dropped nearly 70 percent for its latest fiscal year as the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to close its resorts early last spring.
According to its financials, revenues for its 2020 fiscal year ending July 31 came in at $503.3 million, down from $706.7 million for the prior year.
“We’re all hoping this is just a temporary suspension in funding from Vail,” said Andrew Rickert, who oversees the cloud seeding program for the CWCB. “Vail is the oldest partner we have in Colorado. They are very serious about the program, but no one is immune to these economic hardships.”
In addition to Vail, the cloud seeding program receives cash from several Lower Colorado River Basin states, who are interested in helping do anything they can to boost water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin, on whose flows they rely.
The state and several Front Range water utilities, including Denver Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado Springs Utilities, also help pay for the work.
This year the CWCB will oversee six permitted cloud seeding operations that span the state, from Durango to Winter Park and beyond. The operations are sited in areas most likely to produce snow and aid rivers.
Among the largest of these is a permit operated by the Colorado River District, which includes Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy district engineer for the Glenwood Springs-based water agency.
Vail’s cloud seeding program is nested within that area and its annual $300,000 contribution represents more than half the money typically spent in that four-county region, Kanzer said. If additional funding isn’t found, fewer cloud seeding generators will operate there this season.
“It’s a challenging time with respect to Covid-impacted budgets,” Kanzer said. “The overall program is alive and well, but it is a topic of concern.”
Kanzer and CWCB Director Becky Mitchell said the state is actively reaching out to other entities for additional funding for this year’s work, including states in the Lower Colorado River Basin and Front Range utilities.
As the current drought continues, forecasts for the winter indicate that the southern part of Colorado is likely to see light winter snows, while the northern part of the state is likely to see heavier accumulations. Overall, the state has a long way to go to make up for the dry summer and fall.
How much new snow and water seeding clouds actually produces has been difficult to detect, although scientists recently have produced studies indicating it can create new snow.
“Our scientists indicate we can increase water supplies by about 5 percent on an annual basis, with increased snowfall of 5 to 10 percent, although it’s highly variable,” Kanzer said.
Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states have long used cloud seeding as a way to boost water supplies, and with this year’s drought it’s more important than ever that additional water be generated if possible.
“It’s especially acute coming after a pretty dry 2020,” Kanzer said.
“But we’re cautiously optimistic. As the year plays out we will try to carefully manage the resources that we have. I’m not optimistic that we will be able to fill the entire gap. But if we came up with a third [of the money lost], that will be a success in my mind.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com 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.”