Momentum is building in Colorado to create new reservoirs to draw more water from the South Platte River, reducing the flow into Nebraska. Nebraska officials should monitor this situation closely, now and in coming years, to make sure the water volume continues to meet the requirements under a 1923 South Platte River agreement between the two states.
Maintaining a proper flow in the Platte River — formed by the confluence of the South Platte and North Platte Rivers in western Nebraska — is crucial to our state’s agriculture, hydropower and long-term metropolitan water sources for Omaha and Lincoln.
Colorado apparently has considerable room at present to make further diversions and still remain in compliance. “In many years, more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to” under the agreement, Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein says.
The proposed reservoirs, to serve Front Range urban residents, would keep about 150,000 acre-feet of water in Colorado, the Denver Post reports. That’s about half of the estimated amount that Colorado lawmakers claim their state can legally divert on average each year under the 1923 agreement. For comparison: When full, Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy has a capacity of 1.74 million acre-feet.
A 1993 study of Nebraska water history by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln stated, “Some Nebraskans may still bemoan that the state gave away too much water to Colorado in the South Platte Compact of 1923, but it was a voluntary agreement.”
The tremendous metro growth in Colorado’s Front Range is spurring the call for new reservoirs. Urban groundwater levels are declining in the face of dramatically increased demand. Meanwhile, agricultural producers in Colorado’s South Platte River basin support reservoir creation as a way to safeguard their own groundwater from urban diversion. Officials in western Colorado are in favor, saying the South Platte water could reduce the current allocation of western Colorado water to the Front Range via tunnels. Supportive, too, are Colorado water-policy officials, who included the South Platte reservoir concept in their 2015 State Water Plan.
In short, a wide-ranging set of powerful urban and rural interests in Colorado have come together to press for more South Platte water. “We owe it to our state, to our water users and our farmers to capture as much water as we can” out of the South Platte, said Joe Frank, manager of Colorado’s Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.
Nebraskans can take heart that strong legal protections are in place to safeguard the significant water volume the state receives via the North Platte River, a vital irrigation source. The river supplies Lake McConaughy, for example, with its wide-ranging irrigation and groundwater recharge role for more than half a million acres in the Platte River valley, plus hydropower generation and recreation.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree in 1945 setting out a legal framework for interstate water allocation along the North Platte. In 2001, Nebraska and Wyoming reached a settlement on sharing North Platte water after 15 years of legal wrangling. The agreement essentially froze Wyoming’s water use at the 2001 level and stipulated that groundwater hydrologically connected to the North Platte be included. The settlement created a committee — of federal, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado officials — to work out future disagreements.
“In contrast to the meager and seasonal administrative execution of provisions contained in the South Platte Compact,” a 2006 UNL analysis stated, “administrative actions in the North Platte River watershed are extensive and occur year-round.”
Nebraska may have future legal leverage regarding the South Platte if any Colorado diversions raise environmental concerns, such as negative effects on protected animal species. Two examples: sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, which congregate in great numbers annually in central Nebraska.
The proposed South Platte reservoirs are “one of those rare solutions that really is good for both rural Colorado and folks who live in the Denver metro area,” a Colorado state senator stated. Evidently so, but on this side of the border, Nebraskans need to remain watchful and assertive to ensure our state’s rights are recognized and safeguarded to the full extent of applicable law.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Ben Wade, Tracy Kosloff):
July has seen above average temperatures across the state and below average precipitation. In contrast, the month of June was cool and wet. The North American monsoon season has been slow to start in Colorado, but is anticipated to bring moisture to Colorado in the next one to three weeks. July historically has been a wet month for the eastern half of the state. Reservoir storage across the state has grown considerably through June with well above average streamflows. The U.S. Drought Monitor Map of Colorado shows that a majority of the state is still free of D0-D4, despite below average precipitation and warmer than average temperatures through July 21 but D0, abnormally dry, has been introduced in the southwest corner of the state.
According to the US Drought Monitor, released July 25, Colorado’s 8 week streak of being free of D0-D4 drought ends as D0 has been added in the southwest part of the state.
A weak El Niño remains in effect and is tilted in favor of wetter than normal conditions. The long term ENSO forecasts are trending toward a return to neutral conditions later this year.
Statewide precipitation for July 1 to 21 at mountain SNOTEL sites has been 39% of average. For the Water Year, statewide precipitation is 119% of average. The Climate Prediction Center’s one month outlook is predicting above average precipitation for most of the state for August.
Reservoir storage across the state (as of the end of June) is 105% of average and 76% of capacity. At this time last year,
statewide reservoir storage was at 92% of average.
The western and Southwest basins have seen significant recovery after storage was depleted last year. The Rio Grande basin reservoir storage levels are as high as they have been since 2000.
The corn crop is approximately three weeks behind due to cooler temperatures into late spring. Producers are hoping for
normal temperatures and a late frost to ensure a viable crop.
Water providers in attendance report their systems are in good shape and water demand is down compared to this time last year.
Flooding due to monsoonal moisture in the next 2-3 weeks in post wildfire burn scars remains a concern and is being monitored closely. The daily flood threat bulletin can be accessed May 1 through September 30 HERE.
The U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday announced in its monthly update that southwestern Colorado is back in low-level drought, or D0.
The folks who keep an eye on drought conditions at the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) didn’t have anything good to say about it.
“Hi D0. You have not been missed,” the CWCB said in a tweet Thursday.
The news means the state is 97% drought-free rather than 100%, which is where Colorado has been for the past month…
Still, according to a Tuesday presentation for the CWCB’s Water Availability Task Force, Colorado’s snowpack has done the state well this year by every measure, and spring precipitation means many of the state’s reservoirs are full or close to capacity.
The seven reservoirs in southwestern Colorado, tracked by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), are at 100% full or nearly so. That’s water from the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan rivers.
Reservoirs, however, in southern and southeastern Colorado are still well below capacity, according to the NRCS data. Of the 13 reservoirs served by the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, seven are at 50% of capacity or below. For the reservoirs served by the Rio Grande, including those in the San Luis Valley, average capacity of its eight reservoirs is around 50%. Rainfall in the Rio Grande basin was 83% of average in June and doesn’t show much improvement for July, according to NRCS data.
The NRCS data also showed precipitation has remained strong for most of the state. The most moisture has hit northwestern Colorado, home to the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins, with precipitation at 214% of average…
The Colorado, the state’s largest river and supplier to 40 million people in seven states and Mexico, also had precipitation well above average in June, at 151%. The 10 reservoirs served by the Colorado are nearly full, averaging well above 80% of capacity in June.
June ended with above average precipitation statewide, but July has been very dry across the state, the NRCS reported this week.
The Colorado Climate Center reported Tuesday that June’s average temperature was the 42nd coldest for that month on record. The 2018-19 water year, which runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, is now the 8th wettest in state history.
Among the standouts: Grand Junction, which is experiencing its wettest year in history, according to the Colorado Climate Center. The state is still in an El Niño weather pattern, meaning above average precipitation for the the next three months for all but the southwestern portion of the state. And summer heat, which held off during June, is now in full force, Climate Center data shows.
From email from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Tracy Kosloff):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources is proposing a set of regional factors for Rainwater Harvesting Pilot Projects under House Bill 2015-1016 [colorado.gov]. Pilot projects may capture and use a specific amount of rainwater, referred to as historic natural depletion, out of priority without augmentation. The proposed regional factors estimate the historical natural depletion amount. The documentation and proposed accounting spreadsheet are posted for public comment during July 2019 on the Rainwater Collection [water.state.co.us] page of DWR’s website.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Sterling Journal Advocate:
Colorado officials are planning to build multiple large reservoirs on the prairie northeast of Denver to capture more of the South Platte River’s Nebraska-bound water, then pump it back westward to booming metro suburbs struggling to wean themselves off dwindling underground aquifers.
They’re trying to prevent urban “buy-and-dry” of irrigated farmland and preserve rural communities across the South Platte Basin, which covers Colorado’s northeastern quadrant and ranks among the nation’s productive agricultural regions.
Booming growth along Colorado’s semi-arid Front Range has led to cities buying farms to take control of rights to withdraw scarce water from the river, a relatively feeble source given the magnitude of urban, industrial and agricultural development.
This new push to trap an additional 150,000 acre-feet of water, above what is held in an existing chain of reservoirs built by farmers, surfaced in Denver Post interviews with lawmakers and other officials this month. The effort would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and affect natural habitat for wildlife, including endangered sandhill cranes. It reflects a growing willingness in a nature-oriented state to re-shape river landscapes for meeting human needs.
“If nothing is done, up to 50 percent of the irrigated agriculture in the South Platte River Basin is projected to be dried up by 2050 because there’s no other place for cities to get bigger water supplies other than from irrigated agriculture,” said Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, who is helping to coordinate planning…
The latest state data from well monitoring reveal south metro Denver groundwater tables are falling. While the groundwater depletion since 2008 varies across the suburbs, the data show, decreases around Castle Rock exceeded 16 feet. State officials don’t intervene as long as municipalities determine that the sponge-like aquifers they tap wouldn’t be totally exhausted for 100 years…
Costs of piping water back from new reservoirs are “significant” and would be paid by “participants,” including those suburbs, where the current 350,000 households will increase to 500,000 “at buildout” in 2065, Darling said. Daily water use per person has decreased from utilities’ pre-2002 planning estimate of 165 gallons to 120 gallons, she noted.
Colorado’s new reservoirs would capture water that otherwise flows in the South Platte to Nebraska. A 1923 South Platte River Compact requires Colorado to leave a mean flow of 120 cubic feet per second from April through October.
State lawmakers pointed to gauging-station records showing annual surplus flows from 10,000 acre-feet to 1.9 million acre-feet — an average of 300,000 acre-feet of water each year that Colorado could claim.
State engineer Kevin Rein confirmed that “in many years more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to… Conceptually I agree with what they are saying.”
Nebraska officials contemplated what this could mean. Nebraska monitors “the potential effects of new water-related activities on the states’ apportionment” and “will look at the proposed projects and communicate directly with Colorado on issues of concern relating to the compact” along with efforts to recover endangered birds, Jeff Fassett, the state’s director of natural resources, said in an emailed response to queries from The Denver Post.
South Platte flows nourish a diversity of species, including the imperiled sandhill cranes in Nebraska. Colorado and other states legally must prevent extinction. The birds need flows that form sandy beach habitat.
Reservoir proponents said impacts would be mitigated. They contend off-channel reservoirs could help cranes because reservoir operators, by trapping high flows during wet years, would be able to release water strategically, simulating nature, just when birds and habitat need more.
But less water and distortion of natural surges would be devastating, and reservoirs themselves would destroy habitat, Audubon Society vice president Brian Rutledge said…
The reservoirs would be built at three or more sites northeast of Denver, near the river but not directly blocking the main stem, and hold up to 70,000 acre-feet of water each, according to a consultant’s report. (An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, enough to sustain two families for a year.) That’s about the size of Parker’s Rueter Hess Reservoir, built for $170 million in 2012, one of the largest new reservoirs in the West.
It’s not year clear how many separate reservoirs would be built under this plan.
Sites and pipeline routes haven’t been set. Planners identified more than 20 potential locations for reservoirs but are focusing on areas north and south of Fort Morgan and near Sedgewick. Two or more pipelines, which cost more than $1 million a mile to install, would move captured river water back west to the Front Range, ending near Brighton, Aurora and possibly elsewhere…
Colorado lawmakers strongly supported building new reservoirs and pipelines.
“We should do our best to manage our water, and still meet our compact obligations. If that means less above the compact is going to cross out of our state, we should do that,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who represents 11 counties across northeastern Colorado and serves on the legislature’s water resources review committee. He and eight other lawmakers, including key committee members, recently toured the South Platte Basin with Water Education Colorado…
Lawmakers from across the Continental Divide in western Colorado, where rivers are depleted by diversions through tunnels to the Front Range, embraced the push for bigger storage as preferable to siphoning more water out of the Colorado River Basin and to boost resilience amid global warming.
“I would prefer that they find their own water,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, vice chair of the lawmakers’ water resources review committee.
Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said Coloradans on the Western Slope sense “that a lot of the water we’re sending over isn’t being utilized fully. … We want to keep as much of it as we can.”
And lawmakers representing south Denver suburbs saw increased storage as essential to enable continued Front Range population and economic growth, which they accept as inevitable, without destroying agriculture.
The push for new reservoirs has gained momentum after Colorado’s 2015 State Water Plan enshrined the notion of boosting storage along the South Platte, though the plan doesn’t specify projects.
Colorado Water Conservation Board director Rebecca Mitchell, an architect of that plan, this week indicated a favorable state posture toward what she called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group project.
“The South Platte River Basin is the most populous basin in the state, and in planning for Colorado’s water future… we need to bridge Colorado’s future water supply-demand gap,” Mitchell said in a statement emailed to The Post. “Combined with conservation and a focus on environmental health, project concepts like SPROWG create an opportunity…”
Click here to read the update (Taryn Finnessey/Tracy Kosloff):
For the first time in nineteen years, the U.S. Drought Monitor Map of Colorado has officially been free of D0-D4 for four weeks. The month of May brought cool temperatures across the state and midwest. Not far behind, June has delivered lower than average temperatures and increased precipitation in the form of rain and snow. The last week of June is anticipated to be fairly dry and warm following below average temperatures and above average precipitation. Streamflows are forecast to continue to increase from precipitation and remaining snowpack melt. Current reservoir storage is slightly below normal.
June has been completely free of D0-D4. The smallest amount recorded of D0 last occurred in May 2001, when only 0.13% of our state showed D0.
A weak El Niño is in effect and forecast to remain through the fall. There is an increased chance of cool and wet extremes from July to September.
The Yampa and White River Basins have accumulated 227 percent of average precipitation from the beginning of June to date while the Gunnison Basin has only received 78 percent of average precipitation this month. This is historically a drier time of year in both these basins.
As of June 24th, the precipitation in June is 150 percent of average. The upcoming months of July, August, and September are projected to have an increased chance of above average precipitation as well. July and August are considered critical months of the year, as they are the wettest for the eastern plains.
Current SNOTEL Water Year to-date precipitation is 124 percent of average, with all basins above average. June has been a wet month across the far eastern plains. According to SNOTEL, 12 percent of this year’s remaining snowpack continues to melt. The 2019 peak snowpack ranked 6th at 130 percent median among the last 34 years.
Reservoir storage across the state (as of the end of May) is 90 percent of average. This is slightly lower than last year’s statewide reservoir storage at the same time which was 106 percent of average.
Flooding in post wildfire burn scars remains a concern and is being monitored closely. The daily flood threat bulletin can be accessed May 1 through September 30 HERE.
Learn the history of ground water administration and get up to date on the new rules and regulations for ground water, at a timely presentation by Colorado’s top water official, State Engineer Kevin Rein. “The State’s Role in the Rio Grande Basin: Our Shared Water Future” will be held on Monday, July 15 at 7 pm, in Adams State University’s McDaniel Hall, Room 101. The event is free and open to the public.
Given the ever-increasing pressures on the water supply in the San Luis Valley and across Colorado, the State Engineer will provide background on the role of the State Engineer and the Division of Water Resources in administering the waters of the State. He’ll present an overview of history of ground water administration in Colorado and a hydrogeologic explanation of how wells deplete streams.
The Adams State University Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center is hosting the presentation as part of its new Water Education Initiative. They aim to bring relevant and useful information to ASU’s students and faculty and the local community about critical issues related to water in the San Luis Valley, its past and current management, and community-based approaches to sustainable water use for the future.
Parking for this free event is available in the parking lot off 1st St. just to the east of McDaniel Hall, open to the public after 5 p.m. For more information, contact Rio de la Vista, Director of the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center, at 719-850-2255 or email@example.com.