As of March 14, the state sits at about 67 percent of the average snowpack, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Things are looking slightly better in northern Colorado, with the two basins that impact Weld County — the Upper Colorado and the South Platte — at 77 percent and 81 percent of the average year, respectively…
Eric Brown, spokesperson for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the dry weather is on Northern Water’s radar, just like it’s on farmers’, but there may be one saving grace — a healthy amount of water in reservoir storage.
Northern Water’s reservoirs are at one of their highest ever levels, with storage at 121 percent of average. Across Colorado, reservoir storage is at about 117 percent of the historic average. While Brown said the water district is optimistic that, in true Colorado fashion, there’s a big spring storm a’comin’, its prepared to use some of its reserves to combat an abnormally dry year.
“In general, farmers who have access to some sort of water in storage should be okay for 2018, as Northern Water’s C-BT Project and reservoirs across the South Platte Basin are sitting at solid levels for the most part,” Brown said. “But for the farmers who don’t have access to water that’s in storage, they really need snow and/or spring rains in the near future.”
But for everyone, use of the water in storage this year creates uncertainties down the road, as some of the current surplus will be used up. Plus, a good, wet snow would bring some much-needed moisture to the plains and help with soil quality, which plays an important role in crop health.
The Northern Water Board will set its quota for C-BT deliveries for the remainder of the 2018 water delivery season at its April 12 board meeting. Both snowpack and C-BT and local non-C-BT reservoir levels will factor into this decision. The board sets a quota each year to balance how much water can be used and how much water needs to stay in storage, and the historic average for the quota is 70 percent.
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Crews from Northern Water work to maintain hydroelectric plant equipment
Workers from Northern Water have taken apart some of the equipment at the Robert V. Trout Hydroelectric Plant at the outlet of Carter Lake as part of the organization’s annual maintenance program for the facility.
On Feb. 8, members of the Northern Water board of directors were told that 2017 was a strong year for electricity production at the plant. Energy is captured from the outlet at Carter Lake as water is delivered into the St. Vrain Supply Canal. That electricity is marketed through the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association to customers throughout the utility’s service area on the Front Range.
The power plant, one of two hydroelectric generation plants owned by Northern Water, has been in operation since 2012 and is authorized through a Lease of Power Privilege agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In addition to Northern’s two hydroelectric plants, Reclamation operates six additional Colorado-Big Thompson generation stations that supply renewable energy throughout the American West.
Fort Morgan triggers building water pump station: Participants in the Southern Water Supply Project pipeline long knew that an eastern pump station may be needed to ensure enough water can be delivered to its farthest-out participants: Fort Morgan and Morgan County Quality Water District, the Times reported May 13.
Fort Morgan and Quality Water both reached their capacity of Colorado-Big Thompson water multiple times in recent summers. Gravity is currently what brings the water to Fort Morgan, since Carter Lake, where it is stored, is hundreds of feet higher than Fort Morgan. But growth in use of water by the pipeline’s participants meant less and less water can reach Fort Morgan just through gravity. All of the participants in the pipeline had the right to call for a pump station to be built, as per the original agreements. The council did approve directing staff to proceed with that request to Northern Water. But getting a pump station built will be expensive for all the participants in the pipeline, since the overall project is expected to cost about $6 million. It would take about three years from its start before the pump station would be online…
New water meter system for Log Lane: The new town water meter system will cost Log Lane Village approximately $154,520, the Times reported June 16.
The town’s board of trustees had previously approved contracting with Aclara/HD Systems for providing a new water meter system, but the costs and details had not yet been finalized. That’s happened June 14, with the board approving the expenditure and choosing the more expensive but longer-lasting scalable option of two proposals offered by contractor.
The drought of the 1930s was the impetus for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Work started in 1938 and would span nearly two decades to complete.
The first project was the Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River. The water stored ran north into the Colorado River and is used to compensate for water that would be diverted to the Eastern Slope.
A significant year for the project was 1944 when work ended on the Alva B. Adams Tunnel, just over 13 miles long. It carried water under the Continental Divide.
Lake Granby, the largest reservoir in the system, stores Colorado River water during the spring runoff. A second project was the nearby Shadow Mountain Reservoir connected to Grand Lake by a short canal. The two bodies of water are nearly 90 feet higher than Lake Granby.
The Alva B. Adams Tunnel’s west portal is on the east side of Grand Lake which, incidentally, is the largest natural water body in Colorado.
After the spring runoff and to keep Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Grand Lake filled, a pumping station brings Lake Granby water up to their level.
Added in 1951-52 and on the west side of the Continental Divide is the Willow Creek Reservoir. A pumping station elevates the water 175 feet to a canal flowing into Lake Granby.
The 9 ½ -foot in diameter Alva B. Adams Tunnel drops 109 feet in its 13 miles, ending at the East Portal.
From a small lake at the East Portal, the water is carried via a siphon under Aspen Brook to the Rams Horn Tunnel and via a penstock, down to the Marys Lake power plant. This is a drop of 205 feet.
Running directly under the summit of Prospect Mountain, yet another tunnel and penstock delivers water to the Lake Estes power plant, a drop of 482 feet.
From Lake Estes, water flows east first through the Olympus Tunnel to the 5 ½ -mile long Pole Hill Tunnel.
Water is delivered to the top of a canal then to a penstock. It drops 815 feet to the Pole Hill power plant. From there, the water enters the 1 ¾ -mile-long Rattlesnake Tunnel, ending on the west side of Pinewood Lake. An intake on the east end of Pinewood Reservoir takes water through the Bald Mountain Tunnel to the penstock visible from Loveland.
Water is delivered to the Flatiron power plant at Flatiron Reservoir over 1,000 feet below.
This is where things get complicated.
During times of excess water, it is pumped up to Carter Lake, 277 feet higher.
Water also flows through a short tunnel north to the Hansen Feeder Canal to Horsetooth Reservoir.
From the south end of Carter Lake, water is delivered into the South St. Vrain Supply Canal. This long canal takes water under part of Rabbit Mountain all the way the Boulder Reservoir.
In all, West Slope water drops nearly 3,000 feet during its journey to the East Slope.
The Colorado-Big Thompson Project has created a dozen reservoirs, uses 35 miles of tunnels and also generates a substantial amount of electric power. These are the power plants:
Starting in January, Fort Morgan residents can expect to pay at least $2 more per month for water, depending on their water usage.
The Fort Morgan City Council recently approved adjusting water rates for 2018 to include the 3 percent increase recommended by the latest rates study.
Water Resources/Utilities Director Brent Nation said that a residential household that currently pays $71.90 for a monthly water bill likely would have a bill next year of $73.90.
The increase was recommended to the council so as to keep the city’s water fund revenue on track for the possibility of going out to bond for construction on the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), as well as likely upcoming large capital projects at Fort Morgan Water Treatment Plant and ongoing maintenance of the city’s water delivery system, Nation and City Manager Jeff Wells explained…
He said the price of constructing NISP has not changed, but some of the projections for how it is expected to be financed for Northern Water by the 15 participants – including Fort Morgan and Morgan County Quality Water District – are changing. That meant the city needed to figure out how to “balance out” those financing expense projections with the water fund projections for revenue.
Nation said the latest water rates study included “a conservative approach” so that the city could “make sure that the fund is safely being funded for these projects” but also keep rates from having to skyrocket in the future.
For now, Nation said the 3 percent water rates increase for 2018 would “keep us moving forward towards where we’re projecting that we’re going to need over the next 10 to 15 years, depending on how NISP plays out.”
The current rate study did indicate that Fort Morgan’s water rates are on the higher end in northeast Colorado, but that had been the case since the Colorado-Big Thompson project began, Nation said.
“We pay for high quality water, and that’s what we’re getting,” he said.
But there also are other things the city’s water treatment and water delivery departments will look at doing so as to save money for rate payers, Nation told the council, not getting into specifics right now.
Wells pointed out that the city has been collecting a monthly NISP fee from rate-payers so as to start building up cash toward future bonding for that project, if or when it gets approved.
Collaboration is a lofty goal touted by political and business leaders as a potential way forward on anything from climate change to healthcare to obesity. Drop your weapons, turn your enemies into partners and achieve great things — or so the thinking goes. But collaboration is a concept that sounds great in the abstract and quickly turns messy in practice, with plenty of pitfalls along the way toward a common goal.
Avoiding drawn out fights has always been tough when dealing with water issues in the West. Collaboration wasn’t always the go-to strategy for environmentalists, political figures and water managers who held competing interests on overtaxed, overdrawn rivers.
But with the Windy Gap Firming Project in northern Colorado’s mountains, old grudges are being put aside in favor of new, collaborative tactics. While some of the West’s oldest enemies are working together, those who feel left behind by all the newfound teamwork aren’t ready to sing “Kumbaya.”
Windy Gap Reservoir — at the heart of the dispute — is a shallow, human-made lake just west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado River water sits in a wide, shallow pool, kept in place by a dam…
It’s just one piece of a much larger diversion project that moves water from the headwaters of the Colorado through the mountains for use along the Front Range. Water managers have proposed, and received the federal permits needed, to use this small reservoir to move more water eastward, exercising water rights they say they’re unable to use now because the system is full to the brim at inopportune times.
That type of proposal — to send more Colorado River water eastward to supplement urban and suburban growth — stirs up all kinds of West Slope anxiety about Front Range growth.
“We know the flows are going to be diverted,” [Kirk] Klancke says. “We know the state’s not going to stop growing, that’s reality.”
“The pragmatic approach would be then to figure out how to keep your aquatic habitat healthy with those diminished flows, and that’s what we’re doing,” he says.
Rather than fight powerful water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water in the duke-it-out, courtroom-style battle some environmental groups have perfected over the years, Trout Unlimited and some of its allies took an unprecedented step: working together. Since the Windy Gap project’s revival more than a decade ago, they’ve had a seat at the negotiating table. If cities want to siphon away West Slope water, Klancke says, they need to give something in return.
“These are some of the most powerful people in the state because they control one of the state’s most important resources,” he says.
Which is exactly why other environmentalists, like Ken Fucik, don’t trust the water diverters and, by association, environmental groups like Trout Unlimited for working with them.
“When you look at the process over here, there are some of us over here who are unhappy,” Fucik says.
Fucik, a retired environmental consultant from Grand Lake, is opposed to a 2012 deal brokered by Trout Unlimited, county officials and others. In exchange for a permit to allow more water be sent to the Front Range as part of Windy Gap, the negotiators got $10 million in required mitigation to upgrade water quality in the headwaters and an additional $12 million in mitigation work for fish and wildlife, projects not required by law. That includes partial funding for a bypass channel that would skirt around Windy Gap dam and reservoir, reconnecting the upper reaches of the Colorado River, allowing fish to move more freely.
Grand County was also able to negotiate additional flows out of Windy Gap Dam to flush out sediment, an agreement that Northern Water be in charge of operation of the new bypass and more flows to support endangered fish in a stretch of the Colorado near Grand Junction…
Environmental consultant Geoff Elliott agrees. He lives in Grand County and says when you’re not part of collaborative agreements and weren’t invited to the negotiations, you end up feeling left out and unheard.
“It comes down to trust and we’re asked to trust in a process where we’ve been eliminated, pushed out and punished,” he says. “It’s hard for us to trust in that process.”
Fucik and Elliott are now supporting a recently filed lawsuit from a handful of environmental groups who take a different tactic with water projects, like Save The Colorado and WildEarth Guardians. Their goal is to prevent more water pulled from the Colorado River watershed from traveling to the Front Range…
For an environmentalist concerned about the health of the river, this conundrum has become the fork in the road: When do you collaborate with someone who’s supposed to be your enemy? And when do you roll the dice in court?
Lurline Underbrink Curran says the path of most resistance has been tried before, with pretty erratic results. She’s the former Grand County manager and sat at the negotiating table with Northern Water.
“I don’t understand collaboration becoming a dirty word,” she says. “Because I can tell you, I can throw out some dirty words that will curl your hair, and that is not one of them.”
Because Grand County officials, like Curran, held the key to a permit that would allow the project to move forward, she joined forces with environmental groups like Trout Unlimited and ranchers concerned about the river’s flow downstream of Windy Gap. The negotiations took years and Curran says her team was a formidable opponent to the Front Range water suppliers, despite what detractors might think.
Curran admits some of the negotiations were done behind closed doors, as she says, to build trust among old enemies. But adds that the solutions they came up with will benefit the river in the long-term.
“Will the Colorado be as wide and deep as it used to be? Hell no. But that’s gone. Like it or not that’s been gone for decades,” she says. “But you can make it so it’s functional.”
The idea of bringing parties with old grudges to the negotiating table was meant to avoid lawsuits in the first place. Now that one’s been filed it threatens to bring down the whole deal. Northern Water has already started planning the $400 million Chimney Hollow Reservoir. Trout Unlimited is still fundraising to secure enough money to build the Windy Gap bypass channel, the crown jewel of the agreement.
Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner says the agency is moving ahead with its plans.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any concerns, we’d rather not have a lawsuit filed,” Werner says.
Werner doesn’t have any regrets on how the compromise went down. For decades, water managers have been seen as bullies who strong arm their opponents to get what they want. He says the Windy Gap Bypass project seemed like a turning point.
“What’s best for the river?” he asks. “We need water for growth in Colorado, there’s no question about that. How are we going to do it, folks?”
Either by working with your enemies. Or against them.
Representatives of two of the utilities that hope to store water in Chimney Hollow say that if a lawsuit filed to halt the reservoir is successful it may not stop the water from being diverted from the Colorado River, and a leading conservation group says the lawsuit will hurt the river not help it.
“It could mean that instead of one big project that holds the 90,000 acre feet, participants use a bunch of smaller options (for water storage),” said Michael Cook, district manager of the Little Thompson Water District, one of 13 participants in the reservoir project led by Northern Water.
The participants already own the supply of water, called Windy Gap, that would be diverted into the reservoir. However, they do not have a place to store it during years when water is plentiful for use in dry years when it is needed.
This reservoir would provide that storage to firm up the supply, which is why it also is called the Windy Gap Firming project.
The Little Thompson Water District accounts for about 6 percent of the overall project and has been using some of its Windy Gap water each year.
The city of Loveland, which owns 10.5 percent of the water, has used it infrequently but is relying on the water, which it purchased with money from a bond, for future water needs as the city grows.
The city needs a place to store this water to firm up the supply and would be forced to look at other storage options for its Windy Gap water if the lawsuit were to prevail, said Larry Howard, the city’s water resources manager…
However, he, like Werner, expressed confidence that the 14-year permitting process was sound and that the reservoir project will go forward despite the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday.
An attorney for Trout Unlimited, too, expressed doubt that the lawsuit will stop the project, stating that, despite the lawsuit, water will continue to be diverted from the Colorado River as populations grow and other solutions are needed to turn the tide.
“This lawsuit likely won’t stop Windy Gap, but it could succeed in delaying real solutions to the problems,” Mely Whiting, attorney for Trout Unlimited, said in a written statement. Trout Unlimited was a leading participant in negotiations for mitigation and conservation efforts included in the project.
“Habitat restoration projects and other solutions are already being implemented and showing great success in improving the health of the Colorado River. That’s why many conservation groups who’ve been working the longest on this problem support our collaborative approach.
“These solutions offer the best hope for keeping the valuable resources of the Upper Colorado alive. This short-sighted lawsuit would only delay progress.”