Wolf Creek reservoir project to have additional public engagement: BLM overseeing process — @AspenJournalism #WhiteRiver

A view looking down the Wolf Creek valley toward the White River. The proposed off-channel dam would stretch between the dirt hillside on the right, across the flat mouth of the valley, to the hillside on the left. CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have decided to increase the opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on a controversial reservoir project in northwest Colorado with an additional round of public engagement. 

Members of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council last week expressed support for early public engagement on the Wolf Creek reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely in Rio Blanco County. This will be an extra opportunity for interested people to get involved, in addition to the scoping, public comment and protest periods of the normal National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.

Some pointed out that the Wolf Creek project is sure to get lots of scrutiny and, perhaps, national attention, especially with the current spotlight on the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River system. RAC member Jeff Comstock, who represents the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, said he is very much in support of additional public sessions.

“Moffat, myself, most of your collaborators … have always been requesting public involvement prior to Notice of Intent,” Comstock told BLM staffers at the Thursday meeting in Glenwood Springs. “I am a big supporter of having those meetings.”

The project applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River. In January 2021, the district secured a water right for 66,720 acre-feet, which can be used for municipal purposes in the downstream town of Rangely, for mitigation of environmental impacts, for recreation, for fish and for wildlife habitat. 

The BLM is overseeing the NEPA process because the federal agency would need to amend its resource management plan and grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land. The formal NEPA process is on a tight timeline, and once the BLM issues the Notice of Intent, it has two years to enter a Record of Decision on whether to allow the right of way. The additional public engagement may delay the start of this timeline, but it is unclear by how long. 

This map shows the location of the proposed Wolf Creek reservoir in northwest Colorado. The BLM is moving forward with an additional early public engagement process, prior to the NEPA permitting process, on the Wolf Creek Reservoir project.

Grave concerns

[Two] people who oppose and have concerns about the reservoir project spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Matt Rice, Southwest regional director at environmental group American Rivers, encouraged BLM staff to focus on as much public participation as possible.

“We have grave concerns about this project,” Rice said. “As everybody is aware, the Colorado River is in crisis. … This project is going to be extremely controversial.” 

[…]

Deirdre Macnab, whose 4M Ranch is adjacent to the reservoir site, also spoke and gave her reasons for opposing the project. She said a new reservoir in the proposed location would lead to water loss through evaporation.

“Now is not the time to facilitate new reservoirs in hot, dry, desert areas,” she told RAC members. “Consider the ramifications of this proposal for future generations and just say no.”

Securing the water right for the project took longer than the conservancy district expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right was eventually granted after years of back and forth in water court, and the decree came after an 11th-hour negotiation right before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The water right gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but it does not allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted, including for irrigation or Colorado River Compact compliance.

The project has received $330,000 from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and $4 million from Rio Blanco County to fund the permitting phase. 

What the additional public engagement will look like remains unclear. BLM staff will now refer the project to their Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution Program to figure out the best strategy. 

“One thing we want to avoid is just doing what we typically do for scoping twice,” said Heather Sauls, BLM project manager and planning and environment coordinator. “Whether we would have public meetings or workshops to talk about focused topics, I don’t know the answers to that yet.”

Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink was unavailable for comment. 

The BLM plans to create a webpage about the project. Those who want to join the mailing list and get alerts about future public-engagement opportunities can email BLM_CO_Reservoir@blm.gov

This story ran in the Sept. 21 edition of The Aspen Times and the Summit Daily.

White River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69281367

#Maybell project addresses problems for irrigators, boaters, fish — @AspenJournalism

The Maybell Ditch headgate in the lower left pulls water from the Yampa River for irrigation. A major reconstruction project will fix the diversion structure to create better passage for fish and boats. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

The Maybell Ditch is the largest diversion on the Yampa River and irrigates about 2,500 acres of grass and alfalfa in northwest Colorado. But the remote and antiquated headgate, along with a hazardous diversion structure and 18 miles of nearly flat canal, create problems for irrigators, boaters and endangered fish alike.

Now the Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and modernize the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all the water users on this stretch of river. So far, TNC has secured about $3.5 million in funds for the project, which it hopes can begin next summer.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

The Yampa River flows from the Flat Tops Wilderness, through the city of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and eventually joins with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way it turns the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of green, irrigated meadows.

In recent years the Yampa has started experiencing issues that have long been a part of other river basins like over-appropriation, calls and water shortages.

“That reach has seen declines in water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that rose to the surface where we could hopefully work with the water users to have a greater impact in that basin … . That whole reach is really special, and it warrants more water if it’s available, especially during the low flow periods.”

This map shows the 18 miles of the Maybell Ditch, which irrigates land with water from the Yampa River. The Nature Conservancy is planning an overhaul and modernization of the headgate and diversion structure.

Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish

Maybell Irrigation District manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full amount of water unless the ditch, which was constructed in the 1890s, was running full blast.

“We had one field where if the ditch wasn’t full, they couldn’t get it wet because there wasn’t enough elevation to it,” he said. “It was too flat.”

That meant more water was being sent through the ditch as “push water” to make sure flows make it to dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the approximately 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much tailwater, that can mean a ditch is taking more out of the river than it is able to use, a no-no according to the state Division of Water Resources.

A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. Those measures only partially addressed the issues.

The project that is now being proposed is much more extensive and involves reconstructing the diversion and modernizing the headgate, which controls the flow of water from the river into the ditch. By fixing a grade control structure — essentially arranging boulders in mid-stream that push up the water in the river upstream of the headgate — it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move water into the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also smooth out a passage for both fish and boats.

The twin, circular headgates of the Maybell Ditch are rusted, antiquated and must be open and closed manually. A modernization project includes plans to make it possible to operate the headgate remotely.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Remote location

The twin, circular, century-old headgates are rusted and hard to operate.

“There’s no way those things are easy to adjust,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer at the state Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he or she could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.”

The remote location of the headgate — a three-mile round trip hike down the rugged Juniper Canyon off an already-remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headgates on the ditch are opening and closing according to the differing schedules and water needs of the irrigators, it can be hard to coordinate the manual operation of the main headgate. The new headgate will be automated and controlled remotely.

“That’s a four- or five-hour deal by the time you drive up there, walk up there, adjust it and drive home,” Camblin said. “The automation on that will be huge. As far as management, it will be our biggest tool.”

But construction won’t be easy. Heavy equipment can’t make it down to the river along the ditch and will have to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM considers the ditch a cultural resource and project proponents will have to be careful to avoid impacts to it.

Western Colorado Area Manager for JUB Engineers Luke Gingerich explained the complexities of the project on a site visit in July.

“They are going to have to create a couple miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It will be a large disturbance and we’ve got to come back and make sure we return this as close as we can to the condition it was in before.”

According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that first pushed the district to take a look at where it could manage its water better. That stretch of river is designated critical habitat for species of endangered fish. Water is released out of the upstream Elkhead Reservoir for the fish, and the new automated headgate will allow the Maybell Ditch to more easily let that water flow past it, to get to where it’s needed.

The Maybell Ditch diversion, located in Juniper Canyon in northwest Colorado, takes water from the Yampa River to irrigate hay fields. The Nature Conservancy is fundraising for a project that would overhaul and modernize the diversion structure and headgate.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Boon for boaters

The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. River advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Yampa said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell Diversion is the most significant barrier for safe, passable recreation along a 200-mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to get out to portage the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of boatable river.

At July’s site visit, recreation and education coordinator for Friends of the Yampa Kent Vertrees said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the agriculture, recreation and environmental water users.

“As a recreation person, I’ve said all along we get the dregs of all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there’s water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.”

But that partnership was a bit of a hard sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical about a project spearheaded by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes run high between irrigators, who take water out of rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and TNC to assure water users their water rights or how they manage their ranch wouldn’t be threatened.

“One of our goals we talked about when we started this was, we wanted to show people the agriculture community can work with groups they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We are hoping other ag communities say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff is possible. I might have to reach across the table to make it work but this will be a beneficial project to so many people.’”

The headgate and diversion reconstruction could come with a hefty price tag and TNC is still fundraising for what could end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain interruptions and inflation. The project has secured almost $3.5 million so far, nearly $2 million of which comes from a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will give $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the irrigation district is also contributing money and in-kind resources. However, the total final price tag remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what’s already been secured. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resources Conservation Service.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.

State Engineer: Upper #RioGrande Basin is ‘actually quite good’ — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley

San Luis Valley center pivot. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

‘Innovative thought and hard work’ have helped with sustainability

State Engineer Kevin Rein said his current description of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is “actually quite good” and acknowledged in a recent interview with the Alamosa Citizen the efforts of San Luis Valley farmers to restore sustainability to the river system.

Rein also recognized in an email QA the ongoing challenges in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and with the unconfined aquifer. The Valley has two aquifers, the confined and unconfined, and Rein had characterizations of both based on the state’s rules and regulations governing the Upper Rio Grande.

The State Engineer will curtail water wells as part of the Colorado Division of Water of Resources’ daily administration of surface water and groundwater in the Valley. His views then of the Upper Rio Grande Basin carry significant weight with water users up and down the Rio Grande.

“My description of the current state of the Upper Rio Grande Basin (that portion of the basin within Colorado) is actually quite good. The water users have responded to the implementation of the Groundwater Rules, which brings about balance to the use of the water sources in the Basin.” said Rein.

“I can’t downplay the frequency of the ‘bad water years’ and the fact that persistent drought has impacted both surface water users and groundwater users; that impact is felt across the Basin.” – Kevin Rein, director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

He said he expects the $30 million earmarked for the Valley through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa will help Subdistrict 1, in particular, with efforts to retire more irrigated acres.

San Luis Valley farmers will talk until the cows come home about the critical work they’ve done to help restore the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. Rein, director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, acknowledges as much.

“It has taken a lot of innovative thought and hard work from a lot of people in the Basin to achieve that,” he said. “These administration tools allow us to manage our water in good water years and bad water years. Add to that, we are in compliance with our interstate compact on the Rio Grande with Texas and New Mexico.”

To be clear, the Upper Rio Grande is far from being called a healthy river – particularly the unconfined aquifer, which runs west from the Alamosa and Saguache county lines in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, and provides water to the lush potato and alfalfa fields that largely drive the Valley’s agricultural economy.

In a Q&A exchange with Alamosa Citizen, Rein gave further context to how efforts from the Valley’s farming and ranching community are paying dividends, but with a lot more work and sacrifice to come.

SLV WATER: Find more coverage of Valley water issues HERE

Too many groundwater wells permitted by the state and two-plus decades of drought have taken a toll.

“I can’t downplay the frequency of the ‘bad water years’ and the fact that persistent drought has impacted both surface water users and groundwater users; that impact is felt across the Basin,” Rein said.

“It’s in the context of this climatic trend of reduced water supplies that the struggle to achieve sustainability in the unconfined aquifer is an acute issue,” he said. “Subdistrict No. 1 has a standard, as required by state statute and articulated in their current Plan of Water Management, that is very specific in terms of an aquifer storage level and the need to achieve that level within a specified time.

“While the Subdistrict has taken steps to meet that goal during the last decade, the current drought and the associated reduction in available surface water has impacted the Subdistrict’s ability to recover the aquifer. This is not new information for the members of the Subdistrict and I believe that meeting the current goal within the specified time would require measures more drastic than the Subdistrict anticipated 11 years ago.”

The unconfined aquifer is specific to Subdistrict 1, and it’s the farmers and ranchers in that area of the Valley who have asked Rein and the state Division and Water Resources for more time to meet the state’s sustainability requirements. Subdistrict 1 board of managers recently submitted an amended plan of water management that would see farm operators pumping only the amount of their natural surface water. For farms that have no natural surface water, they would be forced to purchase surface-water credits from a neighboring farm with excess surface water or potentially watch their fields dry up.

“The published data showing levels of aquifer storage in the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict #1 indicates that the aquifer is not at the level that must be met by 2031 according to Subdistrict No. 1’s current Plan of Water Management,” Rein said. “The Division of Water Resources is in discussion with Subdistrict No. 1 regarding their efforts to achieve sustainability and a revised POWM (Plan of Water Management). To allow for a fair and constructive discussion with the Subdistrict, I will limit my comments at this time to just say that we are developing feedback for their consideration.”

The only other unconfined subdistrict in the Rio Grande Basin is the Trinchera Subdistrict, and “it too is having difficulty with sustainability of the aquifer in its area,” Rein said. “Currently the Trinchera Subdistrict is significantly curtailing the production of wells in order to build the aquifer level back up to a point where full production will again be allowed.”

As for the confined aquifer, Rein said artesian pressures associated with the confined aquifer are currently at levels consistent with the state’s Groundwater Rules for all of the confined aquifer subdistricts except Subdistrict 4, the San Luis Creek subdistrict. Subdistrict 4, he said, is taking steps to reach sustainability by limiting pumping in that area.

“Therefore, at this time, almost all subdistricts are operating in a sustainable environment in regard to the confined aquifer,” he said.

Simpson, who is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, took that to mean “we’re not pumping any more today than we pumped in 1978 to 2000.” The state’s definition for sustainability of the confined aquifer is “allow the pressures in the confined aquifer to exist as they did 1978 to 2000.”

Through the signing of SB22-028, the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund sponsored by Simpson in the state Senate, another $30 million will be made available to help the Rio Grande Water Conservation District purchase and retire additional groundwater wells to reduce the number of irrigated acres even more. Rein expects Subdistrict 1 to benefit.

“Funding and authorization from SB22-028 is available to help the Subdistrict retire more irrigated acreage that currently relies on groundwater from the unconfined aquifer and the Subdistrict is also considering an amended Plan of Water Management to set a standard and put processes in place to achieve true sustainability. With these positive steps, I’m optimistic that the Subdistrict can successfully address their challenges.”

#Nebraska and #Colorado are sparring over #water rights. It could be the new norm as rivers dry up — @WaterEdCO #SouthPlatteRiver

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Click the link to read the article on the CNN website (Stephanie Elam and Jason Kravarik). Here’s an excerpt:

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts in April signed legislation that, within the terms of the compact, would allow Nebraska to build a canal in Colorado to siphon water off the South Platte River. In response, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis described the plan as a “costly and misguided political stunt.”

But it’s a conflict climatologists say could play out more often as drought expands in the West and Central US, draining water supplies and exacerbating strains between urban growth and agriculture.

“We go through droughts every 20 years or so, but nothing of this magnitude,” said Tom Cech, former co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “We are in for a wave of water rights battles through the West. This is the driest it has been in 1,200 years.”

[…]

“Without this compact and our ability to enforce our rights, we will see the dramatic impact upon our state,” Ricketts said in an April press conference, pointing to Colorado’s ever-growing population and its estimate of nearly $10 billion for 282 new projects along the South Platte. “Should all the long-term goals be affected, they would reduce the amount of water flows coming to the state of Nebraska by 90%.”

That rationale raised eyebrows in Colorado. “The fact is, many of those projects are not necessarily going to come to fruition,” Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, told CNN, noting that the state curtails usage based on water-rights seniority to ensure that Nebraska still gets the water it has the right to…

The South Platte River Compact allows Nebraska 500 cubic feet of water per second — with some conditions — in the fall and winter between October 15 and April 1. However, during the irrigation season in the spring and summer, from April 1 and October 15, Nebraska’s allotment drops to 120 cubic feet per second. Critically, though, the compact permits Nebraska to build a canal on Colorado land to divert water from the South Platte “for irrigation of lands in Nebraska” and “grants Nebraska and its citizens the right to acquire by purchase, prescription, or the exercise of eminent domain” any land necessary to build and maintain the canal.

West Slope #water managers ask: What authority do the feds have? — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Houseboats on Lake Powell on Dec. 13, 2021, near Wahweap Marina, where the quarter-mile-long boat ramp is unusable due to low water levels. The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner has said 2 to 4 million more acre-feet of conservation is needed to protect the system, leaving water managers wondering what authority the feds have over upper basin water projects. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Projects with Reclamation ties could be at risk

As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.

“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”

There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.

In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.

“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”

Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin.

But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties.

The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water. Some Western Slope water managers are asking what authority the Bureau of Reclamation has over water projects with Reclamation ties in the upper basin.
CREDIT: PHOTO: COURTESY OF BUREAU OF RECLAMATION

No answers from officials

At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck.

Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal.

“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”

Rein did not know the answer.

“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.

Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.

“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”

River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river.

The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones — from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries.

“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.”

Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin.

“At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said.

Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs.

Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.

If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said.

“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”

This story ran in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sky-Hi News.

Upper #ColoradoRiver leaders push back against federal ask for #conservation — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

State engineer Kevin Rein oversees the state’s water rights system. In a meeting with the Colorado River District board on Jul. 19, Rein assured members he would not be mandating conservation among their municipal, industrial and agricultural users. The district covers 15 counties in Western Colorado.

“There is nothing telling me to curtail water rights. There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said…

Colorado officials have argued the blame for the river’s supply-demand imbalance rests with California, Arizona and Nevada. Some doubt the federal government’s authority to demand the states use less water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, a document that inflated available water within the entire basin, apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the river’s Upper and Lower Basins, respectively. In recent decades Lower Basin uses have exceeded that amount, while Upper Basin uses have remained below the apportionment.

“We’re way under our allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet a year,” Rein said. “So what does that mean? ‘We need to conserve.’ To me, that means that we don’t change our administration at the state engineer’s office.”

Rein said he has mandated water use reductions in other Colorado watersheds under the compact administration legal process. But the Colorado River has avoided that fate so far, he said. Without a solid legal basis, Rein said his hands are tied.

“If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to water and the right is physically and legally available, then I would encourage people to use your water right. It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of your livelihood,” Rein said.

“Somebody might tell me I’m wrong someday, but right now, I don’t see a legal basis for asking people to curtail,” Rein said…

Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said he wanted to know how the federal government was planning to tighten how it accounts for water use in the Lower Basin, including evaporation from reservoirs, a longtime complaint of Upper Basin leaders.

“It is extremely frustrating to see system water utilized for the benefit of the three Lower Basin states and us taking a hit for it. And now we are for the first time, frankly, about to be injured by it,” Mueller said.

Upper Basin leaders have resisted calls for specific amounts of conservation on the Colorado River. In a plan released last week, the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — instead call for the reinstatement of a conservation program that paid farmers to forgo water supplies, first tested in 2014.

Public can inform future management of the #ColoradoRiver — #Arizona Public Radio #COriver #aridification

Water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to historic lows over the past year, triggering a shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Some of the frameworks that govern how the river is managed are set to expire in 2026. As states and stakeholders negotiate the next management framework, tribal nations want to make sure they have a seat at the table. Photo by Jeffrey Hayes / Flickr

Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Public Radio website (Melissa Sevigny). Here’s an excerpt:

Several key pieces of the rules that govern the Colorado River Basin are set to expire in 2026, including guidelines for dealing with drought and water shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked for the public’s input on what should come next. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the opportunity to shape the Southwest’s future with University of New Mexico water policy expert John Fleck.

Who is at the table for these negotiations?

That’s actually such a great question, because it’s not entirely clear. The states—the appointed representatives that each governor appoints on behalf of each of the seven Colorado River Basin states—and then representations of the federal government …. But, there is a strong desire, on the part of a lot of people, and I count myself among those groups, to recognize the fact that tribal communities are sovereign nations [within] the basin that have been traditionally excluded from these processes…and then as a practical matter, major water users within the states also participate either formally at the negotiating table, or if you can imagine a metaphorical meeting room, standing round the back whispering in the ears of the people sitting at the table.

What questions should we be asking about what comes next?

Someone, somewhere is going to be using less water than they are now, a lot less water…But the question is, how do we apportion those cutbacks? Do the states in the Lowe Basin which have been using by far the most water, and arguably overusing, like folks in Arizona, do they have to cutback more deeply?…Do the states in the Upper Basin agree, we need to share the pain and cut back as well?…So there’s really a lot of tension. And then the most interesting tension is broad and spans the entire basin, which is, to what extent are the cutbacks going to be felt in agricultural irrigation communities?…There’s no way around there’s going to be less irrigated agriculture going forward as a result of climate change and drought and the reality that we’ve pretty much drained the reservoirs as far as we can, but the question of how you apportion those cuts and who takes bigger cuts, and who gets compensated for giving up water, perhaps, those are the kinds of questions that are going to be on the table…

Comments can be submitted until September 1 by emailing CRB-info@usbr.gov. More information can be found in the Federal Register.

Multi-Purpose Storage Account Created in John Martin Reservoir — Colorado Division of Water Resources @DWR_CO

This view is from the top of John Martin Dam facing west over the body of the reservoir. The content of the reservoir in this picture was approximately 45,000 acre-feet (March 2014). By Jaywm – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37682336

Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources:

The Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) passed a resolution on July 1, 2022 establishing a 20,000-acre feet multi-purpose storage account in John Martin Reservoir. This new account is intended to benefit water users in Colorado and Kansas and promote commonly held interests not directly related to the Kansas-Colorado Arkansas River Compact such as water quality improvements.

This is a pilot project to determine how a multi-purpose storage account could operate, document benefits, and determine if there are any adverse impacts from such an account. The account will be operated in accordance with an operating plan agreed to by the states and will terminate on March 31, 2028, unless extended by ARCA. This account is in addition to other accounts that are present in John Martin Reservoir.

The need for a multi-purpose storage account was recognized by municipalities, well augmentation and surface irrigation improvement replacement groups, water conservancy districts, and other water users within the Arkansas River Basin in Colorado. The concept of a multi-purpose account was brought to ARCA in 2013. The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District with funding support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board helped further develop this account for the states to consider. Kansas and Colorado worked through issues and negotiated for much of the past decade to agree upon establishing this account in John Martin Reservoir as a pilot project through March 2028.

ARCA administers provisions of the Compact, including operations of the John Martin Reservoir. Colorado has three representatives who serve on ARCA: Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Lane Malone, Holly, Colorado; and Scott Brazil, Vineland, Colorado. Kansas has three representatives who serve on ARCA: Earl Lewis, chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources; Randy Hayzlett, Lakin, Kansas; and Troy Dumler, Garden City, Kansas. Jim Rizzuto, Swink, Colorado, serves as the federal chair.

Find more information about ARCA at http://www.co-ks-arkansasrivercompactadmin.org.

How the Hazard ranch sale saved the day in Saguache County — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

The Hazard Ranch in Saguache County. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

AS you come into Saguache, about a half-mile out and to the west, you’ll find the start of the Hazard ranch and owners of the number one water right on Saguache Creek.

The Hazards have been ranching in Saguache forever, back to the 1870s, as everyone in the town and the county will tell you, which is why it comes as somewhat of a shock to the ranching and farming community that the Hazard family has sold the ranch to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The transaction very likely could save the rest of what’s remaining of ranching and farming in Subdistrict 5 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Without the purchase of the Hazard ranch, neighboring farm and ranch operations were facing ongoing curtailment of wells from the state Division of Water Resources because the subdistrict was unable to offset the injury depletions to Saguache Creek.

Saguache Creek. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

n this particular instance,” said George Whitten, vice president of Subdistrict No. 5 Board of Managers, “had we not been able to secure that water and we weren’t able to actually establish an annual replacement that satisfies the state, then there would have been about 8,000 acres of meadow land that would have been lost.”

So now you understand the importance of the acquisition and how the Hazard family, a symbol of historical and cultural pioneering in Saguache, came to save the day.

“What Perry (Hazard) told me is that as a family they decided the thing to do was sell it to the subdistrict and that way a lot of people around here could benefit from that water rather than selling it to a developer or something like that,” Whitten said.

The sale was for $2.8 million. But really it’s the symbolism and meaning of the sale by one of the Valley’s oldest ranching families, a generational family that saw the end of the line and gave life to the other farms and ranches still trying to make it.

Nightmarish well curtailment

It’s been a rollercoaster 15 months for Subdistrict 5, with irrigators losing critical production time the last two irrigation seasons – 2021 and 2022 – after the state first shut down 230 or so wells in the subdistrict on April 1, 2021.

The subdistrict, like the others in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, is required to file an Annual Replacement Plan with the state Division of Water Resources that shows precisely how farm operators are returning water to the Upper Rio Grande Basin tied to the amount of well pumping that occurs.

The state rejected the 2021 Subdistrict 5 Annual Replacement Plan because it didn’t have a source of water to remedy its depletions on Saguache Creek. When that happened the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict had their worst fears come true.

The state initially had wells shut down from April 1 to June 22, 2021, before a challenge by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District was successful and wells were turned on again. By that time, though, operators like North Star Farm, a hay provider for large dairy operations in California that runs 28 circles in Subdistrict 5, lost critical time in their growing season.

he subdistrict also still did not have a remedy to its depletions on Saguache Creek when the 2021 appeal went through and had to figure that out in time to file its 2022 Annual Replacement Plan.

The state has a period of May 1 to April 30 of the following year as the annual replacement plan year for Valley irrigators.

The transaction on the Hazard ranch wasn’t finalized until May, and so at the start of May the state curtailed water wells in Subdistrict 5 for the second year in a row until it reviewed and approved the 2022 Annual Replacement Plan and the sale of the ranch.

“We get credit for the water that that property is not going to consume for the rest of the year, and we use that water and leave it in the stream to remedy the injury caused by the wells,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 5.

The subdistrict has been letting the ranch dry up the past 40 days or so since it’s owned the property, Ivers said.

“The location of this water right and this property, it helps us tremendously because that stretch of the stream historically has always been wet,” Ivers said. “So we can have this water in place for dry years, and then in wetter years the stream goes farther so we can have sources of remedy down lower on the stream that can come to play in those years.”

Saguache Creek

The expectation is that the sale of the Hazard ranch will go a long way toward keeping that stretch of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the confined aquifer sustainable, and help other cattle ranchers and hay farmers stay in business.

The sale also means there will be fewer cattle being raised in the Valley. It’s what the Hazard family did and had done for decades, but now it’s given up its farm and the water rights and others will carry on.

“It’s an incredibly fortunate thing for us to be able to require that water right. You couldn’t pick a better one,” Whitten said.

“We will need this water going into the future. It’s part of the long term plan,” said Ivers.

@DWR_CO Division 5 Job Announcement: Full time engineer — Water Court

From email from the Division of Water Resources Division 5 (James Heath):

Professional Engineer I (Glenwood Springs) – State of Colorado, Division of Water Resources is now accepting applications for our full time Professional Engineer I (Glenwood Springs). This position exists to provide management to the Division 5 operations group responsible for Water Court activities.

The Water Court related duties include to assist the public through the Water Court process; prepare expert witness reports; consult with the Water Court regarding Water Court applications; negotiate or provide expert engineering support / testimony to litigate any conditions necessary to protect existing water rights; and be the work lead for administrative staff.

This position will also assist the Augmentation Plan group by providing engineering expertise and analysis necessary for the adjudication and administration of plans for augmentation; support water rights administration by developing methodologies to collect and analyze water diversion and delivery data to verify augmentation plan operators are operating in compliance with all applicable court decrees, statutes, rules and regulations; and provide assistance to the public in understanding Colorado water law.

Applicant must possess a current, valid license as a Professional Engineer from the Colorado State Board of Licensure for Architects, Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. Must be willing and able to possess and maintain a State of Colorado Driver’s License.

Click here to apply online. State of Colorado is an Equal Opportunity Employer. Application deadline is 11:59 pm on 7/11/2022.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Lawsuit pits #Colorado’s Douglas County towns against state water regulators, #Aurora, #Greeley — @WaterEdCO

Castle Rock Water Conservation Specialist Rick Schultz, third from the right, inspects and tests a new landscape watering system in Castle Rock, one of many Douglas County communities reliant on the shrinking Denver Aquifer. In a Fresh Water News analysis of water conservation data, Castle Rock leads the state, having reduced its use 12% since 2013. Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Two of Colorado’s fastest-growing towns are suing the state over rules used to manage vast quantities of water that lie underground, saying that if the state moves forward with a new permitting requirement it could sharply limit their future water supplies.

Experts say the lawsuit, filed 14 months ago by Parker Water and Sanitation District and joined by Castle Rock, could dramatically change the way underground aquifers containing millions of acre-feet of water are managed and could also impact future water supplies for dozens of Front Range communities.

At issue is whether a 1985 state law regulates only the rate at which wells are pumped or whether the state can also limit the total volume of water pumped. Under what’s known as the 100-year rule, well owners in the Denver Basin aquifers, which underlie much of the Front Range and Eastern Plains, can pump 1% of the water estimated to be under their land annually for 100 years. The law applies to aquifers known as “non-tributary,” meaning they do not receive any natural recharge from snow and rain and are also not connected in any way to rivers.

Water stored in Colorado’s Denver Basin aquifers, which extend from Greeley to Colorado Springs, and from Golden to the Eastern Plains near Limon, does not naturally recharge from rain and snow and is therefore carefully regulated. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Last March, as part of what it describes as an administrative effort to ensure wells across the state are regulated in a uniform way, the Colorado Division of Water Resources also began including the total amount of water a Denver Basin aquifer well permit holder was entitled to pump during the lifetime of the well permit.

“Not only is there an annual maximum, but we also interpreted the law to mean that you are limited to the total amount of water under your property,” said Tracy Kosloff, deputy state engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Lifetime limits?

Parker Water and Sanitation District objected, saying that placing a lifetime limit on the total volume of water available to withdraw would improperly limit their water supplies, violating their property rights.

At the same time Greeley and Aurora have also joined the legal battle, saying they support the state’s effort to more closely manage underground supplies by including a specific volume on permits because it will better protect everyone over the long run.

Parker and other Douglas County entities declined to comment on the suit, but in its court filing Parker described the state’s efforts as “arbitrary and capricious.”

The Denver Basin aquifers once served as a plentiful, pure and inexpensive water source for fast-growing Douglas County communities and others. Instead of buying expensive water rights in nearby rivers and streams, and building dams and reservoirs to store that water, developers could simply obtain a permit and drill a well.

For years the aquifers had been accessed largely by individual homeowners and ranchers. But as growth took off in the 1970s, Parker, Castle Rock and others began drilling new high-powered wells, capable of pumping 1,000 gallons a minute, deep into the aquifers.

Water in aquifers is often under intense pressure and when wells are drilled, pressure is released, allowing the water to rise quickly to the surface. But eventually, the pressure subsides and the water no longer rises naturally, meaning electricity has to be used to draw the water to the surface. And as the water is pumped, because there is no natural recharge, the water table gets lower and lower, requiring that expensive new wells be drilled deeper to maintain water supplies.

Aquifer distress

By the 1980s it was clear the aquifers were in decline, and in 1985 the state imposed the 100-year rule and began monitoring aquifer levels and calculating how much was contained in the four geographic formations that comprise the Denver Basin. But back then there was little money to do the detailed, widespread mapping and hydrological studies needed to pinpoint how much water lay under each entity’s land holdings.

Since then more wells have been drilled, and the aquifers are being used heavily not just for water supply, but also for water storage. Cities such as Highlands Ranch, Parker and others have implemented sophisticated programs that put surface water back into the aquifer, using it like a savings account which can be accessed in drought years.

It is this banked water that the state, and Greeley and others, want to protect.

And that’s not an easy task, because these non-tributary aquifers have widely different geologic formations including sand, silt and bedrock, which allow water to freely move from one place to another, making it difficult to track.

“The water in the Denver Basin aquifers isn’t static, like an ice cube in a tray. It’s a leaky ice cube tray,” said Kosloff.

More science, please

Sean Chambers, director of the Greeley Water and Sewer Department, said his concern is that allowing Parker and Castle Rock to pump without an overall volume limit could mean that water he and other cities are injecting into the ground is unknowingly extracted, harming their own supplies. Greeley has begun an ambitious groundwater supply program with its purchase last year of the Terry Ranch. Chambers said it is critical that the aquifers are closely monitored and managed to ensure everyone’s water supplies are protected.

“You shouldn’t be allowed to pump water from someone else’s property,” Chambers said.

Ralf Topper is a groundwater expert who formerly oversaw the state’s groundwater programs at the Division of Water Resources. Though Parker, Castle Rock and other communities have done a good job of regulating their non-renewable aquifer supplies and slowing the aquifers’ declines, interference between wells in urban areas is becoming more of an issue, Topper said.

Topper and other experts say the issue will only be resolved when more sophisticated aquifer management tools are implemented, including thousands of new site-specific water studies, underground mapping, and public processes to ensure other water users aren’t injured by over-pumping.

Chambers agrees.

“Our fundamental concern is that we want science-based, data-driven analysis of all non-tributary aquifer determinations. Lastly, we want to be sure if an aquifer is deemed non-tributary it is deemed as such by a scientific analysis that is subject to a public hearing and appeals process,” he said.

Topper and others have questioned whether existing state law gives water regulators the authority to make this change and that is something the court is examining now.

Future shock

Parker, Castle Rock and other water districts in Douglas and Arapahoe counties have dramatically reduced their use of groundwater and they intend to continue weaning themselves off the aquifers. But they still want to protect their rights to the ground water because the aquifers are the best tool they have to protect against future droughts.

“The imposition of this condition … is a denial of a statutory right, is contrary to a constitutional right, and is a clearly unwarranted exercise [of the state engineer’s] discretion,” Parker said in its court filing.

How quickly the court will decide the case isn’t clear yet. Still, said Deputy Engineer Kosloff, “It’s good for us to understand sooner rather than later so we can all plan for that.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Job opportunity: Deputy Water Commissioner for Water Districts 6 & 7 – Engineering/Physical Sciences Tech I @DWR_CO

From email from DWR (Michael Hein):

The Division of Water Resources, Division 1 Office in Greeley, CO is hiring for the Deputy Water Commissioner for Water Districts 6 & 7 – Engineering/Physical Sciences Tech I position. The purpose of this position is to ascertain the available surface water supply and distribute, control and regulate the surface and groundwater tributary to the South Platte River in the Boulder Creek and Clear Creek basins on a daily basis pursuant to water decrees, substitute water supply plans and state statutes, and may assist in adjacent water districts with water administration. Anyone interested in learning more about the position or seeking to apply can access the following link to the job announcement on the State of Colorado Job Opportunities website:

https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/colorado/jobs/3594902/dwr-deputy-water-commissioner-water-districts-6-7-engineering-physical-sc?location%5B0%5D=boulder%20county&sort=PositionTitle%7CAscending&pagetype=jobOpportunitiesJobs

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

New emergency fishing closure on the #YampaRiver is spurred by low #snowpack, #drought and poor reservoir levels — #Colorado Public Radio #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Yampa River below North Side Ditch… 6-1-22 30 CFS & Dropping. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

The state has closed a heavily fished stretch of the Yampa River south of Steamboat Springs in an emergency move to protect the river’s health and fish from low streamflows. The mandatory closure, once rare, has become more common in recent years as decades of climate change-fueled drought continues to plague the West and the Colorado River Basin. The Yampa River feeds the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people across the West. The fishing closure covers about a half-mile section of the Yampa River downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir. In 2021, the same stretch of the river was closed from late May until November. Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Billy Atkinson said the section has cool, clear water released from the lake that attracts a lot of fishing.

Atkinson said water releases from Stagecoach would drop to 15 percent of what’s normal for this time of year because of how little water is flowing into the reservoir. He said Stagecoach was down about 12 feet going into the winter of 2021, which he said is about three times lower than normal. Not enough snow collected in the Yampa River Basin to greatly improve streamflows or water supplies this year. Snowpack numbers climbed to above-average in early January but dropped and stayed below average through May. Recent snowstorms improved snowpack conditions, but Atkinson said years of intense drought has dried out the soil. As the snow melts, the soil takes much of the water before it reaches streams and reservoirs.

Job Opportunity: Lead Water Commissioner – District 1 -Engineering/Physical Sciences Technician II (Date Extended) — @DWR_CO

A fisherman casts his line on the Upper South Platte River. April 4, 2021. Credit: Zach Johnson

Click the link to apply for the position on the Division of Water Resources website.

Photo gallery: Dust on snow event on Big Flat Tops — Scott Hummer

Scott writes in email, “Some locals say it’s the biggest dust on snow event they’ve seen…”

Flat top mountain May 19, 2022. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Dust on Snow – Big Flat Tops May 19. 2022. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Dust on Snow – Big Flat Tops May 19, 2022. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Dust on Snow – Flat Top Mountain May 19, 2022. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

In case your memory about conditions in the high country has been dulled by yesterday’s beautiful snowfall.

Update: Here’s a photo 24 hours after the dust on snow event in the photos above.

Flat Top Mountain May 20, 2022. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

#Colorado, #Nebraska Jostle Over #Water Rights Amid #Drought — The Associated Press #SouthPlatteRiver

Thornton near the South Platte River November 6, 2021. Photo credit: Zack Wilkerson

Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (James Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

[Don] Schneider and [Steve] Hanson find themselves on opposite sides of a looming, politically-fraught dispute over water resembling the kind that until now has been reserved for the parched U.S. states along the Colorado River Basin. As climate change-fueled megadrought edges eastward, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled Legislature this year voted to move forward with a plan that stunned Colorado state leaders. The Cornhusker State wants to divert water in Colorado by invoking an obscure, 99-year-old compact between the states that allows Nebraska to seize Colorado land along the South Platte River to build a canal. Nebraska’s plan underscores an increasing appetite throughout the West to preemptively secure water as winter snows and year-round rainfall diminish, forcing states to reallocate increasingly scarce flows in basins such as the South Platte and its better-known cousin, the Colorado River…

Governor Clarence J. Morley signing Colorado River compact and South Platte River compact bills, Delph Carpenter standing center. Unidentified photographer. Date 1925. Print from Denver Post. From the CSU Water Archives

Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, gave precious few details in calling for $500 million in cash reserves and one-time federal pandemic funds to be spent on the project, other than to say it will benefit agriculture, power generation and municipal drinking water. Ricketts decried proposals in Colorado to either siphon or store more South Platte water, especially in the rapidly-growing Denver metro area, saying they threaten Nebraska’s water rights hundreds of miles downstream. The announcement sent Colorado officials scrambling to dust off the 1923 compact, which both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on and still stands as the law of the land. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis vowed to “aggressively assert” Colorado’s water rights, and state lawmakers lambasted the proposal. GOP Rep. Richard Holtorf, an area cattleman, declared: “You give Nebraska what they’re due but you don’t give them much else.”

For now, Colorado is not going to legally challenge Nebraska’s right to a canal under the compact, said Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “The other side of that coin is that we’ll make every effort that their operation is in compliance with the compact” and protects Colorado’s rights, Rein said.

[San Luis] Valley farmers tie their fate to Mother Nature — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke clears paths for water to flow onto land the subdistrict owns. The property is one of the subdistrict’s investments in recharging the aquifer. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

MOTHER Nature will determine how much groundwater pumping occurs in ag-rich Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District under a new plan of water management making its way to the state for approval.

The subdistrict and its parent Rio Grande Water Conservation District have been under pressure to bring the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin to a sustainable level or face curtailment of wells. The San Luis Valley has two aquifers – one unconfined and one confined.

In the draft of its new plan, which is the fourth amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management, Subdistrict 1 members spell out the situation with the unconfined aquifer:

“Although the Subdistrict successfully remedied injurious depletions to senior surface water rights caused by groundwater withdrawals from Subdistrict Wells, it has not been successful in achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer. This Plan is intended to address the now-apparent deficiencies of the previous Amended Plans of Water Management and adopts new means needed to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer.

“The Subdistrict realizes that if more restrictive steps are not taken to achieve a Sustainable Unconfined Aquifer, the State Engineer will, at some point, be unable to approve a future Annual Replacement Plan, resulting in the curtailment of Subdistrict Wells. State Engineer denial of an Annual Replacement Plan could result in the curtailment of all Subdistrict Wells, causing severe negative impact on the agricultural economy of the Subdistrict and the San Luis Valley as a whole.”

The board of managers for Subdistrict 1 gave final approval to the plan on Tuesday. It now goes to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board for consideration. If approved there, it would be submitted to the Colorado Department of Water Resources and State Engineer Kevin Rein for review and approval.

“A lot of hard work has gone into this from everyone involved,” said Subdistrict 1 Board President Brian Brownell. “It’s been a struggle. Overall this is the best plan we could come up with.”

The amended plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits.

The subdistrict is asking the state for 20 years to make the plan successful in recovering the aquifer, with a goal to restore 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year over that 20-year period to bring the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level.

TO get there the plan calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds.

“Our pumping will be adjusted to whatever climate brings us,” said ex-officio board member Mike Kruse.

If the Valley experiences wet periods, groundwater pumping in Subdistrict 1 can match it. If the Valley continues with the persistent drought it has experienced over the past 20 years, groundwater pumping in the subdistrict will reflect the dryness.

“This plan takes into account the climate. That’s the beauty of it,” Kruse said

The predicament of the depleted unconfined aquifer is the result of the state granting too many well permits for groundwater pumping decades ago, now coupled with decades of drought going back to 2002.

“The state has to bear some responsibility,” said Subdistrict 1 board member James Cooley. “It isn’t all our fault.”

Subdistrict 1 Program Manager Marisa Fricke said the subdistrict had been making progress toward meeting the state’s goals with the unconfined aquifer up until 2018, when a particularly dry year hit the Valley. A wet 2019 brought some relief to the aquifer, but the subdistrict lost the progress it made after back-to-back dry years in 2020 and 2021, and now so far 2022.

The change in climate, said Brownell, has been the biggest factor in working to restore the unconfined aquifer. “It’s nothing anybody could have foreseen and that is why we’re addressing it.”

“This concept we have is probably the only way we can address climate,” said Subdistrict 1 Board Member Jake Burris. “With this plan we’re living within our means.”

Based on modeling conducted by Willem Schreuder, president of Principia Mathematica in Denver, there is a high level of confidence among farm operators that the new plan will succeed in meeting the state’s requirement of a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The earliest the amended plan would take effect is for the 2023 irrigation season.

Some farm operators in Subdistrict 1 are filing their own augmentation plans with the state Division 3 Water Court in lieu of joining a new amended plan by the conservation district.

Renewable Water Resources, in its discussions with Douglas County, has tried to use the unconfined aquifer condition in Subdistrict 1 to further its case by approaching farmers with buyouts for their water rights. The RWR water exportation proposal is not in Subdistrict 1, but that hasn’t stopped RWR from trying to leverage the situation to their advantage, telling Douglas County that farmers in the Valley are facing imminent widespread water well curtailments, which isn’t the case.

Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon made it a point in his recent visit to the San Luis Valley to bring up well shut downs as a reason why Douglas County could help the Valley by investing in Renewable Water Resources and buying out farmers and establishing a Valley-wide community fund.

A state Senate bill offered by Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also works as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, would help address the strategy of retiring groundwater pumping wells in all the Valley’s subdistricts. If adopted – the proposed legislation has cleared major committee hurdles – the Compact Compliance Fund would make available at least $30 million to the Rio Grande Basin to help with groundwater sustainability measurements and would offer the Rio Grande Water Conservation District another pot of money to execute its strategies.

#Colorado snowmelt is on – and that’s too soon, say #water watchers — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #snowpack #runoff #cwcbwatf

Click the link to read the article on The Colorado Springs Gazette website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado’s drought situation is a little better than it was a year ago, but warm temperatures, windy conditions in April and almost no precipitation in parts of the state means the snowpack is melting a couple of weeks sooner than most water watchers would prefer. The state’s Water Availability Task Force met on April 19 to look at the most recent numbers from the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture…

From October to March — the first six months of a water year that started Oct. 1 — it’s been much drier than average in southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley and Rio Grande River basin, and on the Eastern Plains, but wetter than normal in northwestern Colorado, Peter Goble said. April ends the wet season for the mountains and begins the wet season for the Eastern Plains. But the moisture has stayed away from the Eastern Plains, Goble said…

Colorado Drought Monitor map April 26, 2022.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which reports drought conditions weekly, while the entire state is in some level of drought, compared to a year ago Colorado is not seeing the worst levels, known as exceptional drought. That’s particularly true for the Western Slope, with snowpack in better shape now than a year ago, Goble said. The next six weeks will be critical for the Eastern Plains, he added…

NRCS hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer offered slightly better news when it comes to the state’s water supply, including for reservoir storage. While not a drought buster, water storage is substantially better than it’s been the last couple of years, he said. The expectation is that snowmelt is ramping up and unfortunately sooner than hoped for, he said…

The state’s trouble spots are in the Upper Rio Grande and in the lower Arkansas, according to Wetlaufer’s data. The Rio Grande is already seeing substantially earlier snowmelt, he said. It’s unlikely there will be enough precipitation to gain even average streamflows in the river, he said. That’s going to be a problem for the streamflow in areas like the southern Sangre de Cristos, and that in turn will affect compacts tied to the lower Rio Grande, which flows into New Mexico.

#LakePowell dangerously close to dropping too low, Grand County may suffer as a result — The Sky-Hi News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter and Western Rivers Regional Program Manager with Audubon Rockies Abby Burk walk along an irrigation ditch in Grand County. An avian monitoring program aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Meg Soyars). Here’s an excerpt:

If the lake does drop lower than 3,490 feet, it is uncertain how much water, if any, will be delivered to the communities that rely on it. Lake Powell doesn’t only supply water to millions of Americans, it also provides power through turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam. Below 3,490 feet, the dam will not be able to provide hydropower. All Colorado Basin states receive power from the dam. Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, explained that the emergency at Lake Powell may seem far removed from Grand County, but it’s closely connected. Forty million people, from Wyoming to Mexico, rely on water from the Colorado River, including every Grand County resident. When someone turns on the tap here, they are getting the same water that will eventually get sent down to Lake Powell for a California (or other regional) resident…

Klancke feels the Lower Basin is demanding too much water from Lake Powell, and this may decrease the water supply of Upper Basin states like Colorado.

“My concern for Grand County is that our water rights will be cut into to make up the difference,” he said. “I worry they might go after our agricultural rights first … and (agriculture) makes up a huge part of our economy.”

2022 #COleg: Bill would set $60 million fund for #groundwater sustainability — The Alamosa Citizen

The Rio Grande Canal is the largest water right in Colorado.

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

Rio Grande and Republican River would use funds to meet state groundwater sustainability, interstate compact compliance targets

COLORADO is moving toward putting $60 million into a new groundwater compact compliance fund for the Rio Grande and Republican River basins created and funded through a state senate bill drafted and championed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa.

The bill, Senate Bill 22-028, creates the Compact Compliance Fund that would be administered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and would receive an appropriation of $60 million from Colorado’s share of federal COVID relief money from American Rescue Plan funding.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, originally only established the fund, and then an amendment unanimously adopted Thursday by the Colorado House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee added $60 million into it. The bill next will be heard by the House Appropriations Committee.

“Given the unanimous votes every step of the way, so far, I am hopeful the bill with the appropriation will become law in the next week or two,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen. “The timing of the availability of federal dollars and the growing sense of urgency in both basins created a unique opportunity that will serve both of these communities well. Still some work to do, but things look very promising for both of these Colorado communities.

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

If the Compact Compliance Fund is adopted by the Colorado Legislature it would pay for efforts to meet groundwater sustainability targets in the Rio Grande Basin and interstate compact requirements for the Republican River Basin. Each basin would get an earmark of $30 million to pay for efforts like retiring groundwater wells and other conservation and water sustainability measures. The goal would be to spend all $60 million within the time constraints put on federal COVID dollars, whether it’s a 50-50 split or not.

The Republican River basin. The North Fork, South Fork and Arikaree all flow through Yuma County before crossing state lines. Credit: USBR/DOI

The threat to livelihood for farmers and ranchers and economic disaster for the regions tied to irrigated agriculture in the Rio Grande and Republican River basins was made loud and clear in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee.

“These farmers and ranchers have done everything they possibly can,” said Marisa Fricke, one of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s program managers. “They grow produce for us and hay for our cattle.”

Farmers and ranchers in both basins have levied property taxes on themselves through the water conservation districts to pay for their efforts to help the Rio Grande and Republican River meet groundwater sustainability and interstate compact compliance goals set by the state. It has meant fallowing of crop fields, permanently retiring irrigated acreage, taking groundwater wells off line either temporarily or permanently, and compensating farmers and ranchers for their efforts to help offset loss from less irrigated acres.

State Reps. Marc Catlin and Dylan Roberts made impassioned pleas for including $60 million of the ARPA money into the compact compliance fund during their presentation of the bill in the House Ag committee. Both are House sponsors of the bill.

“This is an opportunity with these funds to say, ‘We’re with you,’” said Catlin of the risk farmers and ranchers take their sacrifices to address compact and sustainability issues on the Republican River.

“This is a great bill for the San Luis Valley and Republican River Basin,” said Heather Dutton, district manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado through COVID relief bills provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in our communities. The imbalance between water use and supply is a critical issue facing Colorado and especially the basins highlighted in this legislation.”

Farmers in the San Luis Valley are looking to take even more drastic steps in their efforts to meet state targets on groundwater pumping and recharging of the Upper Rio Grande Basin’s unconfined aquifer. In Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, farmers are facing a new proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management that would tie the level of groundwater pumping allowed to the natural surface water of the property. Some farms in the subdistrict do not have natural surface water, in which case they would have to purchase water credits from a neighboring farm or pay an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot.

This concept keeps the system in balance by replenishing what has been withdrawn from the aquifer with surface water and allows the community within Subdistrict No.1 to work together through the exchange and sale of credits. In the event that more groundwater is withdrawn from the aquifer and not replenished an overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot would be assessed, according to the proposed amendment to the subdistrict’s water management plan. Money collected by the conservation district from an over pumping charge would come back to the Subdistrict 1 community in the form of payments towards enrolling in water conservation programs, according to Fricke.

“For over a decade farmers and ranchers have worked to meet sustainability levels and have taxed themselves assessments for waters taken out of the aquifer,” Fricke told House ag committee members.

Eventually the water conservation districts would establish guidelines and the state Division of Water Resources would administer drawdowns of the fund. In the unlikely chance Rio Grande and Republican River water managers didn’t spend all $60 million, the money would revert to the division of water resources.

Future state appropriations to Compact Compliance Fund would hinge on executive and legislative budget priorities.

Reading the Rio: The #RioGrande gaging station near #DelNorte has told the story of the river’s flow since 1889 — #Alamosa Citizen

The Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte has told the story of the river’s flow since 1889. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

It’s a commonly known spot off County Road 17 between Del Norte and South Fork. Driving in you might see a blue heron standing off in the marsh and river rafters looking to get onto the Rio Grande at the very spot Colorado has been measuring the river since the summer of 1889 – June 1, 1889, to be precise.

This time of year, with any ice on the river gone and the weather warming, Jessie Jaminet comes every two weeks to the stream gaging station operated by Colorado Division of Water Resources to make sure everything is functioning for measurements that are closely watched by water managers up and down the Rio Grande. He was there this past week to get an early spring reading and when prompted for a prediction on this year’s flows said, “I think we’re probably going to be slightly below average from what I’ve seen.”

1934 and 1960. Credit: Alamosa Citizen

Average over the past decade has been 491,000 acre-feet of water; historically going back to 1889 the Rio Grande has an average measurement of 639,000 acre-feet, according to figures maintained by the state.

Jaminet, lead hydrographer for state water resources division 3, cautions that the river “changes daily right now.”

“Any storm that hits right now is a huge benefit for the whole system. People watch the snowpack numbers, but it really depends on what happens this time of year. Wet spring storms really benefit the system,” he said.

The Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte is the highest profile gage station in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. That’s because it’s the gaging station the state uses to help determine how much water from the Rio Grande is available and will be delivered downstream into New Mexico and Texas as part of the three-state Rio Grande Compact.

Besides measuring lower-average acre-feet the past decade, another phenomenon has been occurring: an earlier peak to the river flow and then a quick dropoff, which means less water and shorter irrigation seasons downstream for New Mexico and Texas.

The stream gaging station operated by Colorado Division of Water Resources highway 17 between Del Norte and South Fork. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

“Historically the river would peak and we would maintain those flows for a while before we would fall into base flow conditions,” Jaminet said. Peak flow used to hit mid- to late-June and the Rio Grande would maintain itself through the summer. Now the state is seeing peak Rio Grande flows as early as late May and then drastic drop offs to the height of the river. It’s attributable to the aridification of the Valley floor from persistent drought and climate change.

Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact is another aspect to the management of the upper basin of the river that water managers, irrigators, and outdoor recreationalists have to factor in when planning their own water usage.

“This is what we base pretty much all of our numbers on, this upper index here. Anything that passes this gage here we have to deliver a percentage of it downstream. This is why this is an important gage here,” said Jaminet.

He’s been working the measurements the past 15 years as part of his job with Colorado Division of Water Resources to operate and maintain the gaging stations along the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s not what he planned on doing for a career when he graduated from Mountain Valley High School in Saguache in 2001 and then the University of Wyoming, where he majored in rangeland geology and watershed management. But he’s learned and come to understand the importance of taking the river’s measurement, and the fact he grew up in the San Luis Valley makes him appreciate the work he does even more.

“This is a continuous record that we produce here,” he said of the Del Norte gaging station, pointing to the readings from 1890 through 2021. One of the most eye-popping historical figures is Oct. 5, 1911, when the Rio Grande was flowing at 18,000 cubic feet per second. The day Jaminet was at the gage station the river was moving at 519 cfs.

Most of the big diversions to the Rio Grande happen a bit farther downstream in Rio Grande and Alamosa counties, making the gaging station near Del Norte a natural location to determine the depth and velocity of the river.

A float sitting in a stilling well reads the height of the river. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

In the 1890s and early decades of the 1900s the state division of water resources would take a measurement of the Rio Grande twice a day and then daily as it kept improving the system. It eventually installed a continuous reader in 1983, and then in the summer of 1984 a satellite monitoring system was installed.

Now the gaging station takes a reading every 15 minutes and logs and transmits the data every hour to the Colorado Division of Water Resources website, where it’s tracked and followed by the three states party of the Rio Grande Compact. Fishermen and rafters will also monitor the web site to help them determine the best times to fish and float the river.

One of Jaminet’s responsibilities is to make sure the gaging station is calibrated and reading accurately. A float sitting in a stilling well reads the height of the river and then a rating table unique to the gaging station is applied to give an accurate measurement. In the winter months, with ice on the river, the measurements are more estimates.

Coming off a dry 2021, in January the Rio Grande was at its lowest point to start a year since Colorado began taking measurements 132 years ago. A cooler March and April have helped, but without significant summer rain, the Rio Grande will run dry again early in the summer irrigation season.

“If you go into the fall really dry, even if you get these big spring storms it seems like it just goes into the ground,” Jaminet said. “A lot of it is not making it to the river anymore.”

The measurements at the Rio Grande gaging station near Del Norte tell the story.

Jaminet makes regular checks on calibration. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

State of #YampaRiver: Current low #snowpack is similar to other dry years; rain will be key: Amount of water in the Yampa Valley’s snowpack may have already peaked — The #Craig Press #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado snowpack sub-basin filled map March 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read the article on the Craig Press website (Dylan Anderson):

The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017…Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.

This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said…Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by…

The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year. Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week. Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

#Colorado #CloudSeeding program aims to make good snow storms better: The decades-old practice is one way, experts say, to bring #water to the drying West — The #Denver Post #aridification

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:

In short, the kind of clouds that create snowstorms contain massive amounts of super-chilled water vapor, Rickert said. Left alone, those clouds can release some snow and retain the rest of their water vapor. Cloud seeders look to agitate those super-chilled water particles, causing them to freeze inside the cloud. From there they form snowflakes and fall to the ground, Rickert said. Seeders can agitate those particles by plane or from machines on the ground, both processes typically use a silver iodide compound. Airplanes will “pretty much fly right through the cloud,” spraying the compound across a flame, and spreading it throughout the air, sparking the chemical reaction, Rickert said. Ground generators do the same except they use wind drafts to carry the compound into the clouds, he said. he end result? Up to a 12% increase in snowfall for a particular storm, [Andrew] Rickert said…

Seeding efforts in central Colorado are working well too, according to Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Colorado River District, which helps manage the program in Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties. Water from the extra snowfall eventually melts, flowing down Colorado’s rivers and streams and eventually out of state, Rickert noted, so downstream states like Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico all chip in to the state’s $1.5 million budget. But there’s a catch, Kanzer added. Cloud seeding can’t create snow storms out of nowhere. They can only enhance existing storms…

“It’s the only option for physically augmenting snowpack,” Rickert said. “And the only way to actually create and add water to the system.”

San Luis Valley farmers form Sustainable Water Augmentation Group — The #Center Post Dispatch #RioGrande

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Click the link to read the article on the Center Post Dispatch website (Mechel Meek). Here’s an excerpt:

A group of Valley farmers announced in a press release that they have come together to create the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), an alternative to Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1.

“It is no secret that we are at a critical moment for the future of the San Luis Valley, as drought deepens, climate change intensifies, and the unconfined aquifer’s water level continues to drop at a dangerous rate. Decisive action is required now before the aquifer runs dry and the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force is threatened,” the release stated.

The San Luis Valley has a mostly unconfined aquifer and is subject to many variables including drought. A confined aquifer is surrounded by rock and clay pieces which confine it to an area and make it less at risk for loss, but an unconfined aquifer is exposed and can be impacted more severely by outside factors. A confined aquifer is found deep beneath the ground, while an unconfined aquifer is just below the ground level…

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Subdistrict 1 covers much of the San Luis Valley area. According to the Subdistrict 1 Plan of Water Management, “The goals of the Subdistrict are to cause groundwater levels in the Unconfined Aquifer of the Closed Basin to recover, and then to maintain a sustainable irrigation water supply in the Unconfined Aquifer with due regard for the daily, seasonal and longer-term demands on the aquifer and to protect senior surface water rights and avoid interference with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. To achieve these goals, reducing and managing overall groundwater consumption is essential.” The group of farmers behind SWAG disputes the effectiveness of the plans in place and proposed by Subdistrict 1.

“Despite making little progress towards sustainability with the fee-based model, Subdistrict No. 1’s Board of Managers is now poised to vote on raising the over-pumping fee from $150 to $500 per acre-foot. That’s a 233% increase on top of a 386% increase over the past decade. While this plan may work for some producers, it is not a viable option for the members of SWAG who have paid these ever-increasing fees only to see reduced yields and declining water levels in the aquifer. It is clear the status quo is unsustainable for the farmers of the Valley, nor the aquifer that we rely on for our water. We simply do not have the time to double down on a one-size-fits-all fee-based approach,” SWAG stated in the release.

The SWAG press release included an answer to the ongoing water crisis in the Valley.

“SWAG has entered into an agreement to purchase and retire approximately 4,500 acres, irrigated by wells, that have historically consumed an average of 5,678 acre-feet per year from the unconfined aquifer at a cost of over $35 million. If real progress towards sustainability is not made, the sad truth is that SWAG members’ wells are subject to the very real threat of forced curtailment; whether by the State of Colorado if the subdistrict cannot prove its plan for sustainability will work; or by the Subdistrict itself through ever-increasing fees for pumping which would punish those water users who rely on their decreed water rights for their wells, or the absence of water at their wellheads due to the overuse of the unconfined aquifer. The only way to solve this threat and ensure the future vitality of the Valley is to work together to find solutions which work for everyone. We need more options to promote conservation, not less. SWAG’s augmentation plan is one of those options, and we hope that other members of the community make your voices heard before it is too late,” SWAG concluded.

Hydrogeologist: Please reject Renewable #Water Resources’ proposal — The #Alamosa Citizen

San Luis Valley irrigation crop circles. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

ERIC Harmon is the type of person Douglas County says it wants to listen to.

He’s a hydrogeologist with expertise on the San Luis Valley aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. In fact, his team completed the groundwater component of the Rio Grande Decision Support System, which is generally described in state water court documents as “an interactive computer-based system that utilizes data and computer models to help decision makers solve unstructured problems.” The RGDSS is what the state relies on to determine the impact of groundwater pumping.

Harmon is also retired and hasn’t been part of any of the presentations that the three Douglas County commissioners have heard on Renewable Water Resources and its pitch to Douglas County to partner on exporting from the San Luis Valley.

What does Harmon’s experience and expertise say about the RWR proposal? He wrote a letter to the Douglas County commissioners outlining his concerns and recommendation that Douglas County reject the RWR proposal. He has yet to hear back from the commissioners. Alamosa Citizen also asked Douglas County for a response to Harmon’s letter.

Hydrogeologist Eric J. Harmon

“The Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposal to Douglas County to use ARPA funds should be rejected in favor of less risky projects,” Harmon told the commissioners. “RWR’s project would place undue risks on San Luis Valley (SLV) water users and ratepayers (water customers) in Douglas County. Why? For that, we need to get down into the weeds on the SLV aquifers.”

You can read the letter HERE.

Harmon said he has given expert testimony in the Division 3 Water Court (San Luis Valley) in the AWDI case (1991), the Confined Aquifer New Use Rules case (2006), the Great Sand Dunes In-Place Groundwater Right case (2008) and the Groundwater Rules case (2018).

“Confined aquifer tests in the SLV by my testing team were done as part of Colorado’s Rio Grande Decision Support System (RGDSS) in the early 2000s,” he said to the commissioners. “Our tests showed repeatedly that pumping impacts move outward from a confined aquifer well very rapidly, often causing drawdown (water level decline) up to ½ mile away within one day of pump startup. At several locations, pumping a deep well caused measurable drawdown in layers much shallower than the pumping zone. This is how confined aquifers work: drawdown spreads out very far, very fast. The SLV confined aquifer is ‘leaky.’”

After he sent along his letter to AlamosaCitizen.com for publishing, we asked him a few additional questions. The exchange is below:

AC: What concerns or thoughts, if any, can you share on the drought the San Luis Valley has been experiencing going back to 2002?

EH: Conditions are never static in hydrology. The dynamic nature of water, weather patterns, and the hydrologic cycle means that conditions are always changing. But where there is a long-term drought, the job of scientists and engineers becomes harder. It means that any predictions we are asked to make may be less reliable than we would like, because we don’t always have similar historic conditions we can look back on to compare to.

AC: The streamflow measurements documented by Davis Engineering for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District demonstrate troubling patterns. Have you recently looked at those streamflow measurements? In your view what type of impact is drought, climate change having on the basin and should that be a concern with the RWR proposal?

EH: I have tried to keep up with the general hydrologic trends in the Valley, including snowpack and streamflow. I have also kept up with the trends of Unconfined Aquifer storage change that Davis Engineering has done for RGWCD for many years. It is clear that even after a number of years of self-imposed pumping reductions in the Subdistricts, there is still too little water available to meet the irrigation demand, and to replenish the groundwater storage deficit in the Unconfined Aquifer in the Closed Basin. If drought or climate change persist in the future, as appears likely, then these impacts should be of concern in any new appropriation of water, whether by RWR or anyone else.

AC: Would the change in conditions, drought persistence, declining snow melt, particularly along the Sangre de Cristo range factor into a water court proceeding?

EH: Declining snowpack, earlier and faster runoff, and drought persistence certainly are of concern in the Sangre de Cristos, as they are in the San Juans. Valley-wide, the water supply from the Sangres is considerably less than it is from the San Juans. Smaller drainage areas, the “rain shadow” effect of the San Juans before the snowstorms get to the Sangres, and differences in topography and geology between the two ranges all are factors. If asked, I would advise the water court to look very hard at all of these factors. If groundwater recharge is less in the future than is predicted, it would almost certainly have an impact on the question of injury.

AC: Commissioner Teal said at the last meeting (March 8) that Douglas County has heard repeatedly that there is a “million acre feet” of water in the SLV aquifer. How does one address that notion?

EH: I can’t find any reference to a “million acre feet” in RWR’s proposal or in the presentations to Douglas County. RWR has stated that 22,000 acre-feet per year, the amount they intend to pump, is 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge. So RWR’s number for annual recharge is 880,000 acre-feet. I do not know if this is what Commissioner Teal is referring to. The important thing, however, is not the annual groundwater recharge or the volume of groundwater in storage in the aquifer. The important thing is that the Valley’s water resources are over-appropriated. As Colorado Division of Water Resources officials have pointed out, this means there is no water available for appropriation and full (“1 for 1”) replacement is required under the Rules.

Rancher grapples with abandonment listing: 10-year state process asks: What is the value of water that is not being used — @AspenJournalism

The Fetcher Ranch in northwest Colorado was started by John Fetcher in 1949. His son, Jay, says his dad was passionate about water issues. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Northern Colorado rancher Jay Fetcher looked out over the snowy fields of his family’s sprawling ranch 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

Cows grazed on hay on a bright, frigid February morning in the tiny settlement of Clark. Fetcher has been ranching the 1,400 acres of hay meadows and pastures in view of the Mountain Zirkel Wilderness for most of his life.

Fetcher’s late father, John, was a legend in the Steamboat area, who moved there to ranch in 1949. A founder of the Steamboat Ski Resort, he was also on the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“He was crazy passionate about water,” Fetcher said.

One of his legacies was putting the family ranch under a conservation easement, meaning the land would never be developed.

“If we chose to develop it, we could put 70 homesites, but now, it will stay open space forever,” Fetcher said. “It feels good knowing there won’t be golf courses out here.”

The land also has ample water rights. The ranch is flood-irrigated by a system of ditches that pull water from Sand Creek, McPhee Creek, Cottonwood Creek and the Elk River. But Fetcher is facing a complicated situation regarding one of the smaller, more junior rights in the portfolio that state officials believe has been “abandoned.”

Abandonment is the official term for one of Colorado’s best-known water adages and concepts: “use it or lose it.” Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If they don’t see evidence of use, they could place the water right on the abandonment list and a water court could make it official.

Abandonment means the right to use the water is essentially canceled and ceases to exist. The water right goes back to the stream where another user can file an application to claim it and put it to beneficial use.

Fetcher’s water right that is in jeopardy is 2.5 cubic feet per second from the Hoover Jacques Ditch that dates to 1972. This ditch pulls water from the Elk River and flood-irrigates a pasture. In a letter to Fetcher, officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say that aerial imagery and their data suggest that the land has not been irrigated in quite some time.

Fetcher admits that it has been challenging to get water from the diversion point to the pasture five miles away through an unlined ditch, and the 40-acre pasture that it irrigates doesn’t produce much hay anyway. Fetcher often couldn’t take his full amount because the water just wasn’t available, but he hesitated to place a call because it didn’t seem worth it, he said.

Water users who aren’t receiving their total share can place what’s known as a call, which forces upstream junior users to cut back so the senior water right can get its full amount. Older water rights get first use of the river.

“It was really hard to get water through all our neighbors to actually use it,” he said. “By the time water gets there, it’s a trickle. And we just didn’t have time to run up there and irrigate a little bit of pasture.”

The Fetcher property has eight different ditches, and a huge amount of work is necessary to maintain them, he said.

“We want to make sure we don’t fall on the abandonment list with these other ditches,” he said. “We try to limit the labor on the ranch to make it profitable, so how does someone taking care of 800 cows have time to run around and make all of them work?”

The Yampa River winds through hay meadows in the Yampa Valley in 1987, prior to construction of the dam that formed Stagecoach Reservoir. Photo credit: Bill Fetcher via Aspen Journalism

2022 #COleg: SB22-028 #Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund: Concerning the creation of the groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund #RioGrande

Third hay cutting 2021 in Subdistrict 1 area of San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Chris Lopez

Click the link to read the bill on the Colorado Legislature website.

Click the link to read an article on The Alamosa News (Priscilla Waggoner). Here’s an excerpt:

Senator Cleave Simpson’s bill “Groundwater Compliance Compact Fund” passed the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee by unanimous vote on [January 25, 2022].

If the bi-partisan, bi-cameral bill ultimately passes both the Senate and the House, SB22-028 will create a groundwater compliance and sustainability fund eligible to receive allocated funding to help both the San Luis Valley and the Republican River Basin in crucial efforts to achieve sustainability in valley aquifers and compact compliance, respectively…

Long before any other basins were addressing sustainability in managing groundwater, growers in the San Luis Valley were looking ahead and taking steps to reduce groundwater usage. In Subdistrict No. 1 alone, more than $70 million has been collected from growers and redistributed to growers in a myriad of ways including, but not limited to, the purchase of water rights and well permits. But the challenge remains.

The language in Simpson’s bill describes the current situation best. “Despite the conservation districts’ and the state’s diligent efforts to implement strategies to reduce groundwater use, including the creation of six groundwater management subdistricts in the Rio Grande River Basin and the use of various federal, state and local funding sources to incentivize the purchase and retirement of irrigated acreage, extensive groundwater use in the Rio Grande and Republican River Basins continues to threaten aquifer sustainability, senior water rights and compact compliance.”

[…]

The Treasury Department has ruled that projects related to water conservation qualify for expenditure of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. In collaboration with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the State Engineer, Senator Simpson developed a plan that would request allocation of $50 to $80 million for the purpose of supporting both the Republican River Basin and the Rio Grande River Basin in purchasing acreage to put out of production – all toward the end of reducing groundwater usage through, among other things, retiring irrigation wells and irrigated aces and ultimate compliance of requirements established either through compacts or state statutes that carry heavy consequences should groundwater usage not be reduced.

However, SB-028 is just the first step in this process. In order for $80 million to be allocated to the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, the fund itself must first be created by the legislature. And that is what Senator Simpson’s bill would accomplish.

Assuming SB22-038 passes and the fund is created, the next step will be to write the bill requesting the $80 million dollar allocation to the fund.

Feds, 4 #ColoradoRiver states unveil draft #drought operations plan as 2022 forecast shifts — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam August 2021. The white on the sandstone reflects where the water level once was. Dropping levels at Lake Powell are forcing a reduction in outflows from the Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

As the crisis on the Colorado River continues, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the four Upper Basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—have drawn up a proposed framework called the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Plan. The framework would be used by water managers to create plans each year, as necessary, to maintain Lake Powell water levels.

The effort to keep Lake Powell healthy is critical to ensuring hydropower production from its turbines is maintained and to protect the Upper Basin states from violating their legal obligation to send Colorado River water to Arizona, California and Nevada, the Lower Basin states.

Whether the new plan will be activated this year is uncertain. During a webinar about the working draft on Jan. 28, Rod Smith, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Interior, described this year’s early winter weather as a yo-yo. “December was excellent,” he said, “but January was kind of blah.”

Public comments on the proposed plan are being accepted through Thursday, Feb. 17.

Lake Powell’s water levels were successfully stabilized last year after a series of major emergency water releases from reservoirs in Utah and Colorado. Lower Basin states also cut water use.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin

Modeling last year had found a nearly 90% probability that Powell levels in 2022 would fall below the elevation of 3,525, triggering more emergency releases. But as of Feb. 3, water levels in Powell were almost 6 feet above that elevation.

Much can change between now and April, when Reclamation and the states hope to complete the framework.

Last year’s disastrous runoff — the snowpack was roughly 85% of average but the runoff was 32% of average — surprised everyone, and ultimately forced the emergency releases from Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge, two of three federal dams operated by the agency upstream of Powell. Reclamation also operates Navajo, the reservoir located primarily in New Mexico, whose waters can also be used to boost levels in Powell, subject to other limitations.

The proposed framework identifies how much water from the three reservoirs is available for release to prop up levels in Powell, but only after operations at Powell itself have been managed to best maintain levels of 3,525 feet or above. To slow the decline, Reclamation is holding back 350,000 acre-feet of water in Powell that it would normally release during January-April.

The agency plans this year to release 7.48 million acre-feet from Powell to flow down the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead.

Smith emphasized that the releases from Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs will be subordinate to the many preexisting governance mechanisms on the Colorado River, including treaties, compacts, statutes, reserve rights, contracts, records of decision and so forth. “All that stays,” said Smith.

Taylor Park Reservoir

This can get complicated. For example, some water from Taylor Park Reservoir, near Crested Butte, can be stored in Blue Mesa but is really meant for farmers and other users in the Montrose-Olathe area. That water is off-limits in this planning.

Navajo Reservoir, New Mexico, back in the day.. View looking north toward marina. The Navajo Dam can be seen on the left of the image. By Timthefinn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4040102

Navajo Reservoir releases can get even more complicated. Water was initially identified last summer for release from the reservoir to help replenish Powell, but then delayed. Reasons were identified, including temperatures of the San Juan River downstream in Utah. But feathers were ruffled, as was revealed during the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting, held in Las Vegas in December. Tribes were consulted only belatedly.

Now, the draft framework language specifies the need for consultation with tribes. Water in Navajo Reservoir is owned by both the Jicarilla Apache and Navajo. To be considered are diversions to farmers but also to Gallup. “Getting this right, particularly in the operational phase, will be critical,” said Smith.

How might this affect ditch systems in Colorado? “There will be timing issues of when the extra water comes down, but in terms of whether there are any direct impacts to a ditch authority operating under its own decree, there should not be,” said Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, during the webinar. “We don’t expect any disruption to other water users because of this.”

[…]

“You can help make the best of a bad situation by having any drought operation releases benefit other things on the river, including benefits to threatened and endangered fish species while potentially producing more hydropower revenue [used in part to support endangered fish recovery programs],” said Bart Miller, water program manager for Western Resource Advocates.

But Miller and others also note that Reclamation’s draft framework represents a short-term solution to a festering long-term problem.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

The word drought is found everywhere in the planning documents. Colorado State University climate scientist Brad Udall insists that another word, aridification, better describes the hydrology that has left the Colorado River with nearly 20% less water in the 21st century as compared to the 20th century. Trying to reconcile 21st century hydrology with 20th century infrastructure and governance is like walking on a rail that gets ever more narrow.

“I think it’s totally appropriate to use this tool but not as a substitute for dealing with the overall imbalance between supply and demand,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School.

Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at allen@bigpivots.com and allen.best@comcast.net.

Adams State University’s Salazar Center to host 2022 #RioGrande State of the Basin Symposium: In Scarcity, Opportunity for Community

Water sustains the San Luis Valley’s working farms and ranches and is vital to the environment, economy and livelihoods, but we face many critical issues and uncertainties for our future water supply. (Photo by Rio de la Vista.)

Here’s release from Adams State University (Linda Relyea, Rio de la Vista):

“In Scarcity, Opportunity for Community” is the theme for the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center hosted Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium this year. These words, from the pen of the late Justice Greg Hobbs, are as timely as ever, as the San Luis Valley faces water scarcity from several directions. In the past, whenever we’ve faced risks, this community comes together to protect our water future. This is the opportunity ahead, if we are able to rise to it.

What is the status of our water supply, current threats and opportunities? We’ll provide updates, information and future forecasts for 2022 at the fourth annual “Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium.” It will be held virtually, Saturday, February 26th, from 9 am to 1 pm. Co-hosted by the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center at Adams State University and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the event is free and open to the public. The Symposium is also a featured program of the Adams100 series, celebrating the first 100 years of Adams State University. Register on-line here to receive a Zoom link to the event.

Keynote Speaker for the 2022 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium:
Dr. Maria E. Montoya. Photo credit: Adams State University

Dr. Maria E. Montoya to be Keynote Speaker
“We’re looking forward to hearing a new voice and a global perspective on water scarcity and communities from our keynote speaker this year, historian Dr. Maria E. Montoya in her presentation, ‘A Look at Water Scarcity Globally: From the American West to China’,” said Salazar Center Director Rio de la Vista. With family roots in the San Luis Valley and the southwest, Maria E. Montoya is a Global Network Associate Professor of History at New York University and the Dean of Arts and Sciences at NYU Shanghai. She earned her BA, MA and PhD degrees at Yale University. Her research explores how workers and families in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have used natural resources to make a living and make their homes in particular places in the American West, with numerous books and articles published on these topics. Dr. Montoya is currently working on another book project about the scarcity of water in the American Southwest and the Rio Grande.

Symposium Agenda Overview
“We’re very pleased to have long time Adams State business professor and newly appointed State Director for the USDA’s Colorado Office of Rural Affairs, Armando Valdez as our Master of Ceremonies,” said de la Vista, “As a multigenerational farmer/rancher from the Capulin area, a water leader, educator and now statewide leader, he brings his valuable perspective to the whole event.”

The morning will begin with a report on the current “State of the Basin,” including the latest data on snowpack measurements and flow forecasts by Division Engineer, Craig Cotten with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. He will also provide information about the state of our groundwater and related challenges. Given the various aspects of community and water scarcity facing our community now and in the time ahead, the Symposium agenda will address three key causes of water scarcity and the community’s response to them: the state of the Valley’s aquifers and subdistricts, the current threat of water exportation, and the changes being experienced due to climate change.

The session on “What’s up with the aquifers?” will include a panel addressing the status of the aquifers and the work of the Groundwater Management Subdistricts to achieve ground water sustainability. Amber Pacheco from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, George Whitten, rancher and water leader in Saguache County, and Charlie Goodson of Colorado Open Lands will answer questions on these issues.

For the session on “What’s up with the water exportation threat?”, Heather Dutton, Manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District will give an update on the latest developments with the proposal to move SLV water to Douglas County. Michael Carson of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will let participants know how they can learn and engage in the collective effort to prevent exportation and the collaborative protectsanluisvalley.com information source.

“What’s happening with climate change?” will be addressed by well known journalist and author Laura Paskus, drawing from here recent book, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” which was published in September 2020 by the University of New Mexico Press. Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Paskus is the environment reporter for New Mexico PBS, and produces the monthly series, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future.”

The program will also include information about the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable’s newly completed Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan from Emma Reesor of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project. Becky Mitchell, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board will update on the new version overall Colorado Water Plan. State Senator Cleave Simpson will share the latest on water bills at the Colorado State Legislature. The program will also provide information about the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center’s upcoming water education programs for Adams State and the community.

Hosts and Sponsors
The Salazar Center and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District are co-hosts of the annual Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium, with generous support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Symposium sponsorships from the SLV Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the SLV Irrigation District, the SLV Water Conservancy District, Colorado Open Lands, Headwaters Alliance and generous individual donors all help make this event possible and free to the community.

To register and for more information about the 2022 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium, click here. Interested citizens can also follow the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center on Facebook for regular updates on water issues and get information about Water Education program at Adams State University at http://www.adams.edu/about/salazar-center/ or contact them directly at salazarriograndecenter@adams.edu.

To learn even more about water issues in the Rio Grande, videos of previous year’s presentations from the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposiums and other past water talks are all available online at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLM1XIDdQr4T5uncIUerKvQUhESIzAcfoO. The 2022 Symposium recordings will be posted there as well, as part of the Salazar Center’s on-going work to develop a Rio Grande Library of water information and resources.

San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

2022 #COleg: River District addresses controversial #water speculation bill: Amendment says getting paid to not use water could result in abandonment — @AspenJournalism #cwcac2022

The Government Highline Canal flows past Highline State Park in the Grand Valley. Water Asset Management, a New York City-based hedge fund, has been buying up parcels of land that are irrigated with water from the canal.
CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

An organization that works to keep water on the Western Slope is taking a stab at rewriting an unpopular piece of proposed legislation aimed at preventing speculators from profiting off of water.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors voted at its quarterly January meeting to present to legislators an amendment to Senate Bill 29, which addresses investment water speculation. The River District is attempting to use the abandonment principle of water law to address investment water speculation. Invoking the well-known adage of “use it or lose it,” the amendment says that if someone is getting paid to not use their water, they could be punished by losing their water right.

Every 10 years, engineers from Colorado’s Division of Water Resources review every water right to see if it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If it hasn’t, the water right could end up on the abandonment list and the owner has to oppose the listing in water court to try to keep the water right. In Colorado, a user must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning using the water for what it was decreed for, such as growing crops.

The River District is proposing that someone’s water right could be considered abandoned in much less time than 10 years — perhaps only a matter of days — if they are being paid to not use their water. The concept would not apply to approved water conservation programs, such as those set up by state officials.

“The amendment that we are talking about basically creates a penalty for someone who is not using water if they are being paid to do so and it is outside of a state-sanctioned program,” said River District general manager Andy Mueller. “We have to make sure people are using or not using their water rights for purposes they are not decreed for, and that’s really where we see the speculation potential threat coming in.”

As an example, Mueller said municipal providers in the water-short lower basin states such as Arizona, could pay farmers in western Colorado to let their water run downstream for the benefit of Arizona water users. He said he has not yet seen any lower basin entities paying to reduce water use in Colorado, but that it could happen in the future.

“Our concern is focused on how do you prevent that or have a penalty that’s meaningful, and the abandonment statute seems like a really great way to do that,” he said.

The “strike-through” amendment, if legislators accept it, would essentially replace the current version of the bill.

Mark Harris, General Manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, checks on the entrance to Tunnel 3, where water in the Government Highline Canal goes through the mountain to Palisade, continuing to Grand County. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Opposition from agriculture

The River District’s amendment is an attempt to revise the current proposed legislation, which has not found support from agricultural water users. Even the bill’s Western Slope sponsors — Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Eagle County, and Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose — acknowledge it is imperfect.

The bill as currently proposed aims to prevent a buyer of agricultural water rights from profiting on the increased value of the water in a future sale by giving the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate speculation claims and levy fines. Lawmakers are trying to prevent out-of-state investors from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.

The bill has been introduced in the Senate and will be considered by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

But it has been met with opposition from agricultural producers, one of the very groups that it is trying to protect and who say they don’t want the state peering into their private property transactions.

Although some agricultural water rights owners recognize there could be negative impacts to their communities if water is sold to investors, they don’t want the state making the process of selling their ranch harder or placing restrictions on whom they can sell to or their ability to make a profit. This leaves some posing the question: Whom is the bill for?

“Why are people running a bill if the constituency is not interested and they don’t feel the bill is properly vetted?” asked Joe Bernal, a Loma farmer and president of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, an organization that provides irrigation water to farmers in the Fruita area.

The Colorado Farm Bureau, too, has concerns about the bill and, in a letter sent in October to the Water Resources Review Committee, says the bill could unintentionally negatively impact farmers and ranchers. Farm Bureau State Affairs Director Austin Vincent said the organization is aware of the River District’s proposal but has not taken a position on it.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District represents 15 counties on the Western Slope and often advocates for agricultural water interests. The organization has historically taken an active lobbying role. Some board members thought it better to oppose the bill or ignore it altogether — with the assumption that it, as currently written, will die on its own — rather than try to rewrite the legislation.

The board was split 8-5 in favor of presenting the amendment to lawmakers. Pitkin County Attorney and River District representative John Ely voted against advancing the amendment.

“I thought it was just cleaner to oppose something you feel is poorly written than try to amend it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to rewrite a bill.”

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, second from left and State Sen. Kerrys Donovan, second from right, both who represent Western Slope districts, participate on a panel at Colorado Water Congress in January. Donovan is a sponsor of a bill that aims to tackle investment water speculation. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Speculation concerns

Last year, lawmakers tasked a work group composed of water managers and policy experts from across water sectors with exploring ways to strengthen the state’s current anti-speculation laws. The group, which included Bernal and River District general counsel Peter Fleming, came up with a list of eight concepts on how to prevent water investment speculation. But the group did not give clear recommendations to legislators because they could not come to a consensus about which concepts to implement.

That inability to find consensus and make recommendations, to Bernal, meant that lawmakers should drop their attempts to put forward a bill.

“It seems to me that this legislation has taken on a life of its own. For what reason, I don’t know,” he said at last month’s Colorado Water Congress conference in Aurora. “I would like to know why legislators are not listening to the team of experts.”

But Donovan said it is now the job of legislators to delve into the report and figure out how to navigate from there. She said lawmakers will get input from stakeholders about next steps.

“A lot of us acknowledge that it’s going to be hard to advance this session an anti-investment speculation bill, but enough of us have heard from our constituents that it’s an important enough issue that we at least need to try,” she said. “My goal this year is to just keep the conversation going.”

The anti-speculation bill is, in part, an attempt by lawmakers to address concerns in the Grand Valley, where a New York City-based private-equity firm has been acquiring irrigated farmland. Water Asset Management is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association. But under Colorado water law, as long as WAM keeps putting the water to beneficial use by keeping the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.

Even though Bernal doesn’t support the proposed anti-speculation bill, he is still wary of WAM.

“I am concerned about outside interests buying up property in the valley and large blocks of it,” Bernal said. “We as a community are keeping our eyes wide open.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Daily. This story ran in the Feb. 4 edition of the Vail Daily.

Written in Water: A Brief History of #Colorado Water Law and the Upper #ArkansasRiver Valley — Heart of the Rockies Radio

San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

From Heart of the Rockies Radio (Joe Stone):

“Here is a land where life is written in water.” — Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Colorado Poet Laureate

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr. was a respected authority on Colorado water law, and his recent death represents a great loss to Colorado, the state’s water community in particular. Justice Hobbs was also an excellent writer, a poet, actually, and Coloradans are fortunate to have his writings about the state’s unique system of water allocation. In the “Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law,” Justice Hobbs describes the history of the framework for using and managing Colorado water.

As Hobbs notes in the “Citizen’s Guide,” Colorado’s system of water allocation and management began to take shape 170 years ago when the first settlers arrived from New Mexico, bringing their Spanish tradition of community irrigation ditches, or acequias. The oldest continuous water right in Colorado, the 1852 People’s Ditch of San Luis, dates to this period.

In 1858, gold-seekers swarmed into the region, and mining operations were some of the first to claim water, loosely following an appropriation system established during the California gold rush. Most mining operations were short-lived, but the miners helped establish Colorado’s system of water rights.

Rocky Ford Melon Day 1893 via the Colorado Historical Society

Early settlers found good farmland in the Lower Arkansas Valley and diverted water from the Arkansas River into the Rocky Ford High Line Canal to irrigate their crops. The canal has an 1861 water right.

After Congress created the Colorado Territory in 1861, federal court rulings established a water law framework different from the Riparian Doctrine of Eastern states, which provides a water right to anyone who owns land adjacent to a body of water.

The 1862 Homestead Act and 1866 Mining Act allowed Colorado settlers to build ditches and reservoirs to divert water from public land to locations where it was needed for mining and agriculture. Otherwise, Congress allowed Western territories and states to create water law through legislation and court rulings.

In “Chaffee County: Our Water Story,” Kay Marnon Danielson describes early settlers in the Upper Arkansas Valley as predominantly farmers and ranchers. With a growing season of about five months a year, farming in the valley was limited, but large tracts of government land provided opportunities for grazing cattle.

Trout Creek Pass.

Cattle require winter feed, so alfalfa became, and still is, a major crop. Cattle and food crops were raised to feed growing Front Range cities in addition to the boomtowns in mountain mining districts. These Upper Ark Basin agricultural activities required water, which required irrigation ditches like the Trout Creek Ditch, the oldest ditch in Chaffee County with an 1864 appropriation date.

Adopted in 1876, the Colorado Constitution formalized the Prior Appropriation System as the basis for state water law. Under Prior Appropriation, water users with earlier water right decrees hold a “senior” right and can take water to meet their needs before holders of more recent or “junior” rights.

As an example, the Rocky Ford High Line Canal’s 1861 appropriation date gives it priority over the Trout Creek Ditch’s 1864 water right. So, in a dry year water diversions for the Trout Creek Ditch can be curtailed to ensure that the High Line Canal receives its water (because the High Line has the older water right, i.e., the earlier appropriation date).

Coffin vs. Left Hand Ditch location map via the Left Hand Watershed Center

In 1882, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that, under the Prior Appropriation System, water can be appropriated in one watershed and imported to a different watershed to be put to beneficial use (Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.).

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Since 80% of Colorado’s water occurs west of the Continental Divide and 90% of the state’s population resides east of the Divide, planners and water managers have historically looked to the West Slope watersheds to support Front Range agriculture and population centers. As a result, “24 tunnels and ditches move 500,000 acre-feet of water from west to east each year.”

The Arkansas River Basin is no exception. It has the largest land mass of Colorado’s river basins, but it yields one of the smallest quantities of native water, contributing to its status as the most over-appropriated basin in the state.

Limited quantities of native water have also prompted “trans-basin diversions,” which bring an average of 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River Basin into the Arkansas River Basin – nearly 15% of the Ark Basin’s water supply, as calculated by the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

As this diagram (Snake Diagram) shows, native flows in the Arkansas River Basin are dwarfed by the amount of water in West Slope basins (created by the Colorado Water Conservation Board).

The Prior Appropriation System provides a process by which water users can obtain a court decree for their water rights. That process, called adjudication, sets:

  • The date of the water right.
  • The source of the water.
  • The point from which that water is diverted.
  • The type of beneficial use.
  • The place where the water is used.
  • To legally appropriate water in Colorado, the water user must put the water to a “beneficial use,” which requires a plan to divert and/or store the water for a legally recognized beneficial use. Colorado water law defines beneficial use as a lawful “appropriation” of water employing efficient practices to use the water without waste.

    According to Justice Hobbs, the goal is to avoid waste so that as much water as possible is available to as many right holders as possible.

    Water uses recognized as “beneficial” have expanded through the years and include, among others: agricultural irrigation, municipal uses, commercial uses, domestic uses, industrial uses, recreational uses and snowmaking. In-stream flows were legally recognized as a beneficial use in 1979. Since then, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has claimed in-stream flow water rights for thousands of miles of Colorado waterways, but those rights remain junior to most other water rights.

    For more than 125 years now, the Colorado Division of Water Resources has fulfilled the responsibility of administering the Prior Appropriation System. Directed by the State Engineer, this work is carried out through the Division Offices – one for each of the Colorado’s seven major river basins – each led by a Division Engineer. The Arkansas River Basin is administered by Division 2.

    Joe Stone bio via Heart of the Rockies Radio.

    The January 2021 #Drought Update is hot off the presses from @CWCB_DNR and @DWR_CO

    Drought monitor Colorado Drought Monitor map January 25, 2022.

    Here’s the release from CWCB and DNR:

    Current statewide drought conditions for Colorado have improved since October 2021. The first quarter of water year 2022 was above normal in terms of temperature. As of mid-January a rough divide appeared in Colorado with regard to precipitation, with western slope generally experiencing wetter conditions, while the eastern slope generally continues in drought conditions. La Niña is currently in effect and projections show somewhat equal chances for above or below average precipitation moving into the spring. La Niña years in Colorado tend to result in smaller, drier storms overall.

    Colorado Snowpack basin-filled map February 1, 2022 via the NRCS.

    Statewide snowpack as of January 16 is 119% of median, setting the state up well going into the spring. A significant and much-needed increase in snowpack occurred from Dec 1 – Jan 6, which translated to a 7.1 inch increase in water. Precipitation in December was 193% of average. Statewide, year-to-date (Jan 16) precipitation is currently at 112% of average. Overall, conditions are some of the best we have seen at this point in the year, especially when compared to the last few years. All major river basins show above normal snow water equivalent, with the exception of the Arkansas (89% of normal) and the Upper Rio Grande (90% of normal).

    State drought response remains in Phase 3 activation though both agricultural and municipal water provider task forces have reduced their meeting frequency to monitor conditions through the winter season. Learn more about these coordination groups, outlined in the Colorado Drought Plan at cwcb.colorado.gov/drought.

    The January 18 U.S. Drought Monitor recorded extreme (D3) drought conditions across 19.7% of the state, primarily on the eastern slope and Rio Grande Basin. Severe (D2) drought covers about 46% of the state, while moderate (D1) drought holds in 22% of the state. About 11% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry (D0) conditions.

    The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) values from Oct 23 to Jan 20 highlight dry conditions in the southeastern and eastern parts of the state.

    The NOAA Climate Prediction Center three month outlook maps indicate increased chances for above average temperatures into February, March, and April with below average precipitation probabilities.

    Statewide reservoir storage is currently at 74% of normal. Streamflow forecasts are generally near to or slightly above normal come spring and summer. East of the divide, streamflow forecasts are projecting about 100% of average and the forecasts improve to the west.

    Plan to send San Luis Valley water to Douglas County hits opposition — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #RioGrande

    Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

    From Colorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

    The project by Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, proposes to tap 25 new groundwater wells in a “confined” aquifer in the valley. That would bring 22,000 acre feet of water to the South Platte River and eventually to a yet-to-be unidentified water provider in Douglas County.

    The Renewable Water Resources proposal, which has been underway since 2017, claims a billion acre-feet of water exists in the larger of two San Luis Valley aquifers, a figure disputed by San Luis Valley water experts…

    San Luis Valley Groundwater

    Renewable Water Resources’ project wants to tap the confined aquifer, which is larger both by geographic footprint and by water volume. The company argued the project is needed to ensure water reliability for Douglas County, and maintained that the plan is sustainable — both for residents of the county and the valley.

    Under the proposal, the wells would be situated on land either owned or controlled by RWR, which currently owns approximately 9,800 acres and has options to acquire approximately 8,000 additional acres.

    The 22,000 acre-feet of water represents 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge, defined as water pumped back into the aquifer through precipitation, and a volume that RWR claims would not affect diminish the base.

    The proposal noted that Colorado’s water law mandates that, in order to develop water, it must be “retired at the same rate,” a doctrine informally known as the “one-for-one” law in the water community. That means every drop of water removed must be replaced by the same amount.

    As it turns out, Division 3 Water Court in in Alamosa, where RWR plans to submit its proposal, is the only water court that uses that law…

    Under the plan, Douglas County would kick in $20 million from American Rescue Plan federal money, which is already raising questions about whether that’s a legitimate use of the federal relief funds, and whether years of legal battles would run out the clock for using those dollars, which, under federal guidelines, must be spent by December 2024…

    Bruce Lytle of Lytle Water Resources, who is working with RWR, told commissioners the aquifer has the water needed for the project. That’s in stark contrast to what they heard from State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan, who told the commissioners the aquifer’s water is over-appropriated, meaning there’s nothing left for Douglas County…

    Colorado Politics asked most of the 47 water districts, including the dozen largest ones, whether they intend to participate in the project, either as the end user, or, in the case of Denver, allow the reservoirs the county manages to hold that water.

    The answer was “no” from all but one potential end-user. Denver Water, which manages the reservoirs, also shot down the idea…

    Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora water, answered similarly: RWR has not engaged in discussions with Aurora Water regarding storage or conveyance and does not plan to participate in the RWR acquisition…

    That Dominion and Sterling Ranch could be the end users — both entities vigorously deny any interest in San Luis Valley water and maintain their supply is sufficient to meet needs — is bolstered by RWR’s proposal, which says the project “will maximize use of existing infrastructures, ultimately supporting the county’s goals of enhancing solutions along the I-85 corridor.”

    […]

    Teal said it could be Sterling Ranch, Castle Rock or Parker Water. Regarding Castle Rock, Teal explained that the town provides water to customers outside of its boundaries, part of an I-85 partnership between Castle Rock and Dominion.

    The Smethills, in a Jan. 24 letter to Colorado Politics, disputed the story, saying any depiction of Sterling Ranch as a recipient of water from the RWR project or that it is short on water is factually inaccurate…

    Castle Rock Water spokeswoman Mary Jo Woodrick said in an email that “at this time, we do not intend to acquire water from RWR’s San Luis Valley project.”

    […]

    The state engineer

    Among RWR’s claims in its proposal is that State Engineer Kevin Rein “recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer.”

    That comes as news to Rein. He told Colorado Politics there have been no new rulings that apply to what RWR describes.

    “We are a regulatory agency but we have made no ruling relevant to what the report describes,” Rein said in an email.

    The advice to limit the use of the Denver aquifer, he pointed out, came out in 1996, although a memo in 2020 provided guidance to the staff of the engineer’s office that is “a recitation” of the 1996 memo…

    RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”

    […]

    RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”

    […]

    In addition, Weiser and Simpson wrote, the proposal will not comply with rules from the State Engineer or the state Supreme Court. The RWR proposal seeks to change the rules, which would undermine Colorado’s compliance with the Rio Grande compact, they said.

    Trees, silt clog the #RepublicanRiver’s South Fork. #Colorado officials hope money can fix that — KUNC

    The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

    From KUNC (Adam Reyes):

    Read the first, second and third parts of this series.

    Little to no water flows from the Republican River’s South Fork in southeast Yuma and northern Kit Carson counties into Kansas and Nebraska, where it merges with the main river. Officials have a plan that could cost about $40 million to save the fork.

    Between the 1950s and 1970s, the South Fork sent 10 and 5-year averages of over 30,000 acre-feet of water across the border with Kansas and then to Nebraska. In the last 20 years, it’s only hit 5,000 acre-feet or more a few times.

    There’s more to the issue than just numbers. At one point, the South Fork and the attached, now practically empty Bonny Reservoir made a very popular recreational state park. People in the surrounding communities still mourn losing that…

    Silt and trees, like the invasive, water-sucking Russian olive, worsened an already bad situation for this channel. They cover the river bed in southeast Yuma County, stopping what little water flow remains after years of overuse, drought and little rainfall…

    A mostly local coalition, including the Kit Carson and Yuma County governments, Three Rivers Alliance, Nature Conservancy, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Republican River Water Conservation District, aim to turn things around for this part of the river.

    They want to boost flows by digging up all of the silt, Russian olives and other trees and plants that have grown into this riverbed.

    Officials hope doing this will restore the river and help the flora and fauna that rely on it.

    The #YampaRiver is ‘over-appropriated’: There isn’t enough water for everyone who wants it — #Colorado Public Radio #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

    Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
    Integrated Water Management Plan website

    Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):

    Background

    On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Designation

    Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.

    The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.

    Evaluation of Well Permit Applications

    For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.

    Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.

    For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.

    To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.

    For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.

    Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, points out how snowmelt flows from high elevation down to the valley where the water is used for irrigation. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.

    Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.

    A map of the new and existing areas along the Yampa River considered as over-appropriated. Courtesy of the Colorado Division of Water Resources

    The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…

    Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.

    The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.

    A canal, a century-old compact between #Nebraska and #Colorado, and a sea of unknowns — The Omaha World-Herald

    eople work on the Perkins County Canal in the 1890s. The project eventually was abandoned due to financial troubles. But remnants are still visible near Julesburg.
    Perkins County Historical Society

    From The Omaha World-Herald (Sara Gentzler):

    It seems to be a striking proposal: That Nebraska could use eminent domain in Colorado and build a canal that diverts water from the South Platte River for irrigation in Nebraska.

    But the idea — floated earlier this month by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other Nebraska officials — is laid out in a compact agreed to by the two states and approved by Congress almost 100 years ago.

    Nebraska officials want to invoke the 1923 South Platte River Compact to build that canal and a reservoir system, and ensure Nebraska continues receiving water that they say is at risk as the population on Colorado’s Front Range booms.

    But with a $500 million estimated price tag, a history of failed attempts, confusion from Colorado, the potential for lawsuits and a stream of unknown details, one fundamental question hangs over the proposal: Would it be worth it?

    Canal idea predates compact

    Even in communications between Delph Carpenter, who negotiated the compact for Colorado, and then-Nebraska Gov. Samuel McKelvie, the canal project was referred to as “old.”

    “The old Perkins County canal was projected in the early (1890s) with the object of diverting water from the South Platte some miles above Julesburg, within the State of Colorado, for the irrigation of lands in Nebraska lying south of the river and particularly of that beautiful area of land in Perkins County between Ogallala (sic) and Grant,” a 1921 letter from Carpenter reads.

    Construction efforts had started in 1891, according to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. But it was abandoned due to financial troubles.

    Remnants of the abandoned ditch are still visible near Julesburg.

    Another effort to pursue the canal, this time by the North Platte-based Twin Platte Natural Resources District, was derailed in the 1980s because it didn’t comply with requirements of the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.

    The compact, borne out of a desire to resolve litigation, is more than the canal…

    Current director Tom Riley told The World-Herald that flows drop below 120 cfs nearly every year at times during that time period. When it happens, Nebraska calls Colorado and it addresses the issue by limiting its users who are subject to the compact.

    Another part of the compact would allow Nebraska to also claim water outside that growing season — provided there’s a canal.

    Ovid, entering from the east on U.S. Route 138. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56445787

    The canal could run from near Ovid, Colorado, east near the route of the abandoned “Perkins County Canal,” it says. And Nebraska could buy land or even use eminent domain to make it happen.

    With such a canal, the state would be entitled to divert 500 cfs for irrigation between Oct. 15 and April 1.

    However, data from the Julesburg gage suggests Nebraska has been getting about that much from Colorado for the last 10 years of record during the non-irrigation season, Riley said. The goal of the project would be to keep it that way.

    Asked how the state would avoid what happened in the ‘80s, Riley pointed out that was 40 years ago. And, as he understands it, those proponents chose not to try to comply with endangered species requirements…

    Colorado disputes Nebraska’s rationale

    In revealing his desire to resurrect the plan, Ricketts earlier this month sounded alarm bells that without the project, agriculture, drinking water across the state, power generation and the environment could be affected…

    Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s Department of Natural Resources said they learned of the situation the same day Ricketts announced it publicly…

    Since then, officials haven’t shared a vision of an exact route for the newly proposed Perkins County Canal, nor details of the reservoir system it would feed into.

    Despite its colloquial name, the canal wouldn’t be located in Perkins County, according to the Governor’s Office. It could be on or close to the county’s northern border, though.

    The general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, Kent Miller, has been promoting the project for over 25 years…

    Ninety-eight of the [Colorado Water Plan] projects are in process or complete, according to Sara Leonard, spokesperson for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But not all are construction projects. Some are water conservation projects, she said, and environment and recreation enhancements.

    Joe Frank, a roundtable member and general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Colorado, said he hadn’t sorted through how many of the projects would even impact the flow of the river, but said that many of them would not…

    As for Nebraska’s assessment that flows could be restricted by 90%, he can’t understand how that figures.

    A Nebraska Department of Resources fact sheet features that projection. That sheet shows the 90% was inferred from a 2017 Colorado report on water storage options along the South Platte to capture flows that would usually leave Colorado “in excess of the minimum legally required amounts.”

    But Frank said that level of restriction could never actually happen…

    More important than the straight cost estimate, though, may be another question: Would the water Nebraska actually gets out of this be worth the cost?

    Anthony Schutz, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dave Aiken, longtime water and agricultural law specialist at UNL, both pointed out it’s uncertain how much water Nebraska could get out of such a canal…

    Colorado would have dibs on some water before Nebraska, even if it were to build the canal. Colorado has the right to divert the first 35,000 acre-feet of water for its own off-season storage, Aiken said, even if it cuts into what Nebraska wants to divert…

    Schutz pointed out that there are other water users in line ahead of Nebraska’s canal in the compact, too — anything on the “upper” part of the river, and uses in place before Dec 17, 1921…

    Could canal lead to a court battle?

    There’s some ambiguity in the compact, Aiken said, and people have built projects and invested in them in the years since it was signed. The states could resolve any differences by negotiation, or by litigation…

    Riley, with DNR, said that Nebraska’s approach will be to work collaboratively with Colorado, and that he expects Colorado to comply without a need for court action. If disagreements aren’t resolved, though, he said interstate compacts and conflicts like that are addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court…

    The question still remains, though: How much water would Nebraska actually get out of this? Riley didn’t give an estimate, but said actual yield would vary year to year.

    The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

    History forces ‘hard decisions’ in Eastern #Colorado’s declining #RepublicanRiver basin — KUNC

    Kansas River Basin including the Republican River watershed. Map credit: By Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4390886

    From KUNC (Adam Reyes):

    [The North Fork of the Republican River] is one of the only channels in the Republican River basin in Colorado with consistent flows these days.

    [Tracy Travis] part-time farmer and school bus driver works here seasonally as a water engineer. His job is to get water flowing from former agriculture irrigation wells north of here “and into a tank which flows over into a 42-inch pipeline that runs about 12 miles down to the river.”

    “It’s not a good thing for the people in this area because we’re giving our water up,” Travis said.

    There are a lot of mixed feelings about this pipeline among the people who spoke with KUNC. Nebraskan officials see it as a net positive. Ultimately, all agree it must exist. Explaining why requires going back to 1935…

    Republican River Flood of May 30, 1935. Photo credit: NWS

    Today, the Republican River in Colorado is described as not even “deep enough to drown in.” But in 1935, it flooded and killed over 100 people in Nebraska and around a dozen in Colorado (if not more) — including four of Republican River Water Conservation District Manager Deb Daniel’s relatives…

    Up to that point, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska had managed the river basin’s water within their borders independently.

    “There was hardly any irrigation other than surface water irrigation from the rivers themselves and very little in Colorado,” said Yuma County Commissioner and farmer Robin Wiley. “The majority of it was downstream in Kansas and Nebraska.”

    After the 1935 flood, the states needed dams and reservoirs to prevent future disasters. The federal government would help build them, but with one condition: the states needed to find a way to manage the river cooperatively.

    After three years of negotiations, the Republican River Compact was approved in 1943.