Here’s an analysis from Emily Benson writing for The High Country News. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
To avoid the risk of further erosion, however, both spillways [at Oroville] needed to be patched up before this winter. By early November, following months of ‘round-the-clock work, the California Department of Water Resources announced that Oroville was ready for the rainy season, though final repairs will take another year. And the consequences of the incident could last far longer: Its sheer scale means it has the potential to affect legislation and policy, as did earlier disasters at other dams. Safety officials in California and across the West are already reassessing spillways, updating disaster plans and refining evacuation maps, hoping to prevent a repeat of Oroville — or worse.
Structural failures were the immediate cause of the Oroville catastrophe. The main spillway has successfully handled larger flows than what it saw last February. While it’s not yet clear exactly why it broke apart, some researchers say part of the blame lies in poor design and shoddy maintenance — and that those problems could have been addressed. An independent group of dam experts is investigating what went wrong, with a final report expected by the end of 2017. An interim report released in September notes that there was preexisting damage and repairs at the area that first crumbled. Weaknesses there could have allowed water to get beneath the spillway, potentially blasting apart the concrete from below.
Administrative failures — problems with inspections or regulations — may share the blame for what happened at Oroville. A patchwork of agencies meant to prevent such problems regulates dam safety in the United States. Federal agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers oversee inspection and maintenance at their own dams. Dams that belong to the state, like Oroville, or a utility company or other non-federal entity, are typically under the jurisdiction of a state agency; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is also involved in dam inspections at non-federal dams with hydropower projects they license, including Oroville…
In Colorado, Oroville confirmed that dam safety officials were already on the right track, says Bill McCormick, the chief of dam safety at Colorado Division of Water Resources. There, the big test came in 2013, when widespread flooding in north-central Colorado driven by torrential rain led to the failure of about a dozen small dams. Nobody was hurt or killed as a result of the failures, “but they did get people’s attention,” McCormick says. (Several people died elsewhere during the flooding.) Another wet season in the spring of 2015 made clear the need to plan for different levels of flooding and dam releases. “Our main lesson from Oroville is that we still need to be vigilant,” he says, “but we’re doing the right things.”
The city of Aspen now has until Dec. 29 to provide a “substantive” response to central questions raised by state officials in water court regarding the city’s efforts to develop dams and reservoirs on upper Maroon and Castle creeks.
The questions raised by the state include whether the city can get a permit for the dams, if it can build the dams in reasonable time, if it has a specific plan to build them, and if it needs the water the reservoirs would hold.
After a status conference on Nov. 9 in water court in Glenwood Springs regarding two due diligence applications the city filed in December 2016 for the two potential dam-and-reservoir projects, a water court referee said, for the second time since August, that the city must provide a substantive response to key issues raised by the state.
Susan Ryan, the referee in Division 5 water court, said the city must do so whether or not it is able to reach settlement agreements with the 10 opposing parties in the two cases.
“It is going to require a written response to that summary of consultation regardless of whether or not settlement is reached with all the opposers in the case,” Ryan said during the status conference. “And so I just wanted to clarify that that is what I typically require in every water case and that is what I will require here.”
A summary of consultation in water court can be a routine review of a water rights application by two state officials, the division engineer, who administers water rights, and the water court referee, who functions as an administrative judge and seeks to resolve cases, if possible, before they are sent to a water court judge.
They said the city “must demonstrate that it will secure permits and land-use approvals that are necessary to apply the subject water rights to beneficial use” and the city must show it “will complete the appropriations within a reasonable time.”
They also said “a specific plan is in place to develop the subject water rights,” that the city “must demonstrate substantiated population growth in order to justify the continued need for these water rights” and that the city is “not speculating with the subject water rights.”
Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam and encroach on portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Castle Creek Reservoir, as currently decreed, would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam, and would also flood some land in the wilderness boundary.
In two diligence applications filed on Oct. 31, 2016, the city told the court it has “steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation” of the conditional water rights for both of the reservoirs over the past six years, and that it has done so “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner under all the facts and circumstances.”
In July, the city said it was seeking a way to transfer decreed storage rights to locations other than the decreed locations on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek.
On Nov. 7, city of Aspen voters rejected a ballot question that would have given the city the go-ahead to issue $5.5 million in general obligation bonds to purchase a 60-acre parcel in Woody Creek to use for water storage, in conjunction with the gravel pit operated by Elam Construction.
But city officials, before the vote, had stated they intended to buy the Woody Creek parcel whether the ballot question was approved or not. A recent study for the city found that between 1,000 acre-feet and 8,000 acre-feet of water could be stored using varying combinations of the land the city intends to buy and the gravel pit.
Also in July, the city filed brief responses to the summaries of consultation. But in August the water court referee said the city’s effort fell short.
City not eager to file response
During the Nov. 9 status conference, the city’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell of Alperstein and Covell, told Ryan the city would still prefer not to lay out its case in a substantive response at this stage of the proceedings.
“Since the last status conference the city has been working to finalize the reports that it has needed to assist in the settlement process, including its supply-and- demand risk assessment study, and its evaluation of one or more alternative storage sites that are not located in federal wilderness areas or on Castle Creek or Maroon Creek,” Covell said.
Covell said the city has only this week received responses from all 10 of the opposing parties to a Sept. 20 settlement proposal from the city, and that the City Council was scheduled meet in executive session Monday to discuss the responses.
“So at this point, Aspen would like to devote its time and resources to seeing if we can reach a settlement by the end of the year, we hope in both cases,” Covell said.
Attorneys in the cases said in August the main sticking point in the settlement negotiations was that the city wanted to keep open its options regarding transferring rights tied to the potential Castle Creek reservoir, while opposing parties want the rights for the potential reservoirs fully removed from both valleys.
During the status conference, after determining it was still the city’s position that it would prefer not to provide substantive answers at this time, Ryan asked the opposing attorneys what they thought.
“I frankly don’t buy the argument that it’s a hiccup or roadblock in terms of settlement,” attorney Paul Noto said. “I actually feel that it may lay some cards on the table that may in fact help settlement.”
Noto is representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and the Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. in the Maroon Creek case, and the two environmental groups in the Castle Creek case.
Also opposing the city in the cases are Western Resource Advocates, Wilderness Workshop, Pitkin County, USFS, Larsen Family Limited Partnership in the Maroon Creek case, and Double R Creek Ltd. and Asp Properties LLC in the Castle Creek case.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story online on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.
The agricultural overpumping from thousands of wells continues despite decades of warnings from researchers that the aquifer — also known as the Ogallala, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water — is shrinking.
Even if farmers radically reduced pumping, the latest research finds, the aquifer wouldn’t refill for centuries. Farmers say they cannot handle this on their own.
But there is no agreement among the eight affected states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Dakota) to try to save the aquifer. And state rules allow total depletion.
In fact, Colorado officials faced with legal challenges from Kansas over dwindling surface water in the Republican River have found that their best option to comply with a 1942 compact is to take more water out of the aquifer. The state bought wells from farmers during the past decade and has been pumping out 11,500 acre-feet of water a year, enough to satisfy a small city, delivering it through a $60 million, 12-mile pipeline northeast of Wray to artificially resuscitate the river.
The overpumping reflects a pattern, seen worldwide, where people with knowledge that they’re exceeding nature’s limits nevertheless cling to destructive practices that hasten an environmental backlash.
The depletion of the High Plains Aquifer has been happening for decades, according to bulletins U.S. Geological Survey has put out since 1988. Colorado farmers this year pumped groundwater out of 4,000 wells, state records show, siphoning as much as 500 gallons a minute from each well to irrigate roughly 580,000 acres — mostly to grow corn, a water-intensive crop.
The depth where groundwater can be tapped has fallen by as much as 100 feet in eastern Colorado, USGS data show. That means pump motors must work harder to pull up the same amount of water, using more energy — raising costs for farmers. The amount of water siphoned from the aquifer since 1950 to irrigate farm fields across the eight states tops 273 million acre-feet (89 trillion gallons) — about 70 percent of the water in Lake Erie.
On one hand, the industrial center-pivot irrigation techniques perfected after World War II have brought consistency to farming by tapping the “sponge” of saturated sediment that links the aquifer to surface water in streams and rivers. America’s breadbasket produces $35 billion of crops a year. On the other hand, intense irrigation is breaking ecosystems apart.
Overpumping has dried up 358 miles of surface rivers and streams across a 200-square-mile area covering eastern Colorado, western Kansas and Nebraska, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife-backed researchers from Colorado State University and Kansas State University who published a peer-reviewed report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also determined that, if farmers keep pumping water at the current pace, another 177 miles of rivers and streams will be lost before 2060…
Disappearing fish species — minnows, suckers, catfish that had evolved to endure periodic droughts — signal to biologists that ecological effects may be reaching a tipping point.
The amount of water held in the aquifer under eastern Colorado decreased by 19.6 million acre-feet — 6.4 trillion gallons — from 1950 until 2015, USGS records show. That’s an average loss of 300,000 acre-feet a year. Between 2011 and 2015, records show, the water available under Colorado in the aquifer decreased by 3.2 million acre-feet — an annual average shrinkage of 800,000 acre-feet. Climate change factors, including rainfall, play into the rate of the drawdown…
They say they’re trying. They’ve reduced the land irrigated in eastern Colorado by 30,000 acres since 2006. They plan to retire another 25,000 acres over the next decade, said Rod Lenz, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District, who for years has advocated use of technology to grow more crops with less water…
Farmer and cattleman Robert Boyd, a leader of the Arikaree Groundwater Management District, said the federal government should intervene to ensure survival of High Plains agriculture…
He pointed to proposals to divert water from the Missouri River Basin and move it westward through pipelines across the Great Plains…
But drawing down the aquifer does not violate any law in Colorado. The state engineer’s office monitors well levels and requires permits for wells, limiting the number of acres a farmer can irrigate. But there’s no hard limit on how much water can be pumped…
[Mike] Sullivan and state engineer Kevin Rein emphasized that thousands of acres no longer are irrigated. “And there need to be some more retirements of land to get us into a more balanced situation,” Sullivan said.
They defended Colorado’s practice of pumping more groundwater out of the aquifer, saying this is necessary to comply with the Republican River Compact. Disputes over river flows have risen as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and Colorado’s legal obligations to deliver water to Nebraska and Kansas are clear.
Here’s a report from Luke Runyon writing for KUNC. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
[In the drought year of 2002] streams that flow from the nearby San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains slowed to a trickle, some of them before the normal irrigation season had even begun. Rushing water created by snow from the previous winter failed to materialize. That left the ditches, creeks and rivers that recharge the valley’s aquifers dry. The precious groundwater had plenty of demands, and no supply.
“The aquifer was declining,” Messick says. “But nobody really started noticing until they started sucking air instead of water.”
Farmers began to cast blame as to who caused the problem. Fingers pointed at the state, water managers, Mother Nature, and among the farmers themselves, divided into camps depending on where they got their water. All the while, many farmers kept pumping whatever water they could find and the aquifer continued its unprecedented decline.
Instead of giving in to the divisions that could have so easily fractured the rural valley of about 47,000 residents, a group of farmers decided to embark on a risky experiment — the first of its kind in the United States. They agreed to pay more money for the water they pump out of the ground by imposing fees, a kind of tax, per acre-foot of water. To get to that point, family farmers had to put aside old grudges and recognize their shared fate in the aquifer under their feet.
Seeing hope in the farmers’ efforts, researchers are studying the risky gambit to see if it is working…
Community At A Crossroads
By the end of 2002, it was clear the valley’s farmers were fast approaching a crossroads. Colorado’s top water enforcer, the state engineer, made clear that if the farmers continued to pump from the underground aquifer he would be forced to shut them down.
They were running afoul of the state’s [prior appropriation doctrine] water laws, which prioritize water rights based on their effective date. Some farmers who held rights to divert water from streams dating back to the late 1800s were seeing their supplies drop, partially thanks to water wells dug decades later in the 1950s and ‘60s. In Colorado, when a younger water right is curtailing an older one, it is a serious problem.
In the years that followed the 2002 drought, scientists did enough research and monitoring to link the reduction of the aquifer to the limited availability of surface streams.
For the farmers that depend on the aquifer, the choice was simple: keep pumping until everyone’s supplies ran out and risk the ire of state water officials; or, find a way to curb their pumping.
“It was really the first effort here in a recognition that if they didn’t do something that the consequences would be pretty grave,” says Cleave Simpson, director of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the valley’s main water management authority.
After years of litigation, court cases and a round of state legislation, the farmers formed a plan. A majority made a painful decision. They agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest to pay more money for water, hoping that the higher cost would cause them to think twice when turning on their pump…
Communities formed a network of subdistricts that could levy fees on water use, self-governed by the farmers themselves. Subdistrict one, the largest and most heavily irrigated in the valley, was the first.
“This is kind of a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation,” says Kelsey Cody, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is part of a research team that studies groundwater pumping in the valley. “As an individual, I have no incentive to leave any water in the ground because any water I leave in the ground I know my neighbor is going to take out. And he knows the same thing.”
Today, farmers in subdistrict one pay $75 for each acre-foot of water they pump and another $8 for every acre of crops where that water is used. An acre-foot is the standard unit of measurement when talking about vast amounts of water, and easy enough to visualize. It’s the amount of water spread out over an acre at a depth of one foot.
If those same farmers are recharging the aquifer by applying surface water to their crops, they’re given a credit for that added water. Some farmers who pump end up paying nothing at all if their water use finds a balance between the amounts pumped and recharged.
For some bigger farms without surface water rights, that is not the case. Their annual water use fees can total tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars. That money is then invested in a fallowing program that pays farmers not to plant or to purchase farmland outright. While the fees have been tough for some farmers to swallow, at least a majority have internalized the goal.
New research predicts that an increase in the frequency and magnitude of wildfires will double the rates of sedimentation in one-third of the West’s large watersheds, reducing reservoir storage and affecting water supplies.
In the Paonia Reservoir, completed in 1962 in Gunnison County, Colorado, for example, the dam’s outlet was built 60ft off the lake’s bottom. Now, Randle says, the bottom of the lake is above the outlet. The outlets in many other small reservoirs have become clogged with sediment, requiring expensive dredging or even the removal of the dams. Other times, boat ramps and marinas get buried and filled in. According to Randle, about 35 percent of the reservoirs managed by his agency have been surveyed for sediment fill. With most reservoirs, however, how much capacity has been lost is a matter of educated guesswork.
“Lake Powell probably has 1 million acre-feet less water than what we think,” Randle says.
And now the problem is predicted to get much worse.
According to new research from the U.S. Geological Survey, in many regions erosion rates are now accelerating thanks to wildfires and climate change. The western U.S., which relies on reservoirs for vital water storage and flood control, will be particularly impacted.
The problems of reservoir sedimentation have been at least somewhat understood for centuries, and most dams in the United States have been built with average rates of upslope erosion factored into the placement of the outflow pipes…
Authors of the USGS study, which was published September 7 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, wrote that projected increases in the frequency and magnitude of wildfires will double the rates of sedimentation in one-third of 471 large watersheds in the western U.S. within the next 33 years. In almost nine out of 10 of the watersheds assessed, sedimentation could increase by at least 10 percent, the researchers warned. In some watersheds, the researchers predict, erosion and sedimentation could increase by 1,000 percent. Climate change, they concluded, is the underlying culprit.
Randle says climate change – which may already be increasing the intensity of droughts and, in turn, wildfires – is driving a vicious cycle whereby sedimentation rates increase. This reduces reservoir storage space, “which leaves you less prepared for the next drought.”
water and forest managers well know the correlation between fires and post-burn erosion. For example, more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment entered Strontia Springs Reservoir, a major supply lake for Denver Water, following the Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres in Colorado in 2002…
Once sediment has settled to the bottom, the most effective means of removal is dredging, which can be costly.
“It’s much more expensive to dredge out your reservoirs after a fire than it is to take preventive action, like reducing fuel loads and restoring forests,” said Jason Kreitler, a research geographer with the USGS and a coauthor of the study.
Dredging a reservoir can cost as much as $60 per cubic yard of material, according to Randle. Some operations remove hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of cubic yards of material. Finer-grained silt and clay is cheaper to deal with.
“Sand and gravel is coarser and tends to do more damage to the dredging equipment,” he noted.
Denver Water has spent $27 million removing debris and sediment from Strontia Springs Reservoir, according to a June report. The Los Angeles County Public Works plans to spend $190 million dredging four reservoirs impacted by sediment from the 2009 Station fire, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Fecko says his agency has removed 44,000 cubic yards of material from Ralston Afterbay, a small hydroelectric reservoir on the Middle Fork of the American River, at a cost of $2.2 million. Still, the reservoir has lost about 50 percent of its storage capacity thanks to long-term sedimentation, he says.
Besides lost reservoir storage, there are other impacts from sedimentation. Downstream from dams, rivers become depleted of gravel – essential for spawning salmon…
Randle, at the Bureau of Reclamation, thinks all water agencies and local governments would be wise to take a proactive stance against sediment entering reservoirs.
Here’s the update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Taryn Finnessey/Tracy Kosloff):
Following cooler than average temperatures in August across much of the state, September has been hot and dry. Consequently, both abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions have expanded across western Colorado. Reservoir storage is well above average, and municipal water providers have no immediate concerns with levels of supply and demand in their systems.
After receiving only 69 percent of statewide average precipitation in August at SNOTEL stations, September precipitation to date remains low at 30 percent of average as of September 14. The South Platte was the only basin to receive normal precipitation levels in August (100 percent); while the Arkansas is the only basin to receive above normal precipitation (122 percent) September to date. All other basins are experiencing well below average precipitation for the month, ranging from zero (Yampa/ White) to 44 percent (Upper Colorado).
Reservoir storage statewide is at 120 percent of normal, with all basins above average. The Rio Grande basin is reporting above average storage (133 percent) for the first time since 2009. The Colorado and Yampa/ White basins have the lowest storage levels in the state at 110 percent of normal.
31 percent of Colorado is classified as abnormally dry (D0), while 4 percent is classified as experiencing moderate drought, predominantly concentrated in Rio Blanco and Garfield Counties.
Warmer than normal temperatures have affected Colorado over the last few weeks, with western slope temperatures averaging as much as eight degrees above normal.
Temperature departure from average Colorado month to date through September 12, 2017 via the Colorado Climate Center.
Colorado Drought Monitor September 12, 2017.
ENSO-neutral conditions remain, but a La Nina watch has been issued by NOAA with more than 50 percent likelihood of a La Nina developing. Short term forecasts show that temperatures should cool off, with parts of the west receiving significant precipitation. This is a welcome change for those areas currently battling forest fires.
Long term forecast shows no major indication towards wet or dry in the upcoming months. If La Niña conditions set in, mountain snows are often enhanced during the winter season, but fall and spring tend to be dry.
Following record rainfall in July, water levels in area rivers have declined significantly, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten.
He said the annual streamflows on both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems will wind up above normal, however, and the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley) should have no trouble meeting its Compact obligations to downstream states.
“We have had a good season so far,” he said on Tuesday.
The basin experienced a good runoff, followed by a drop-off of flows and then above-average precipitation that bolstered streamflows, in some areas significantly, Cotten explained.
“We always anticipate precipitation in the monsoon periods, July and August time period, but the extent of that was a little bit unanticipated,” he added.
Streamflows in the San Luis Valley have dropped significantly in the last couple of weeks, Cotten said, on both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems. The Rio Grande is currently below average for this time of year but should total about 700,000 acre feet streamflow for the year, which is above the average of 650,000 acre feet.
The Conejos River system should wind up with about 425,000 acre feet, which is well above the average of just over 300,000 acre feet…
Currently, irrigators are being curtailed 13 percent on the Rio Grande and 37 percent on the Conejos system, according to Cotten who said only three ditches with the highest priority are taking water on the Conejos River system right now.
Cotten said his goal is to meet the Compact obligation with some to spare but not over-deliver too much downstream…
With irrigation still ongoing, the Rio Grande Compact reservoir storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs in New Mexico has dropped below 400,000 acre feet to about 350,000 acre feet, Cotten explained. When that happens, reservoirs like Platoro Reservoir in the Valley that were built after the Compact went into effect cannot store water until the Compact reservoir storage in New Mexico exceeds 400,000 acre feet again. The storage prohibition will probably last until January, Cotten said.
Irrigation use is tapering off somewhat in the Valley for most crops except alfalfa, which is gearing up for a third cutting.