James Eklund, the governor’s point person on the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, is leaving his post as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board on March 31 to go work as an attorney helping to develop private-sector water projects.
Eklund, 41, has been at the top of the state’s water-supply planning agency since July 2013. He gave notice to the CWCB’s board of directors on March 13 and starts his new job at the Denver office of a large law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, on April 3.
“The private sector needs to make sure it is pulling its weight” when it comes to water infrastructure “and I’m going to see if I can help do that,” Eklund said.
Eklund was appointed director of the Water Conservation Board by Gov. John Hickenlooper after the governor signed an executive order in May 2013 calling for a new state water plan by December 2015.
At the time, Eklund was serving as senior deputy legal counsel in the governor’s office. By July 2013 he had replaced Jennifer Gimbel at the top of the CWCB, becoming the 10th director in the agency’s now 80-year history.
What followed was an intense two-and-a-year effort by Eklund and CWCB staff members to produce “Colorado’s Water Plan,” including a long series of meetings and presentations around the state.
When Eklund got up in front of an audience to tell them about the water plan, he often appeared to be a Denver attorney in a three-piece suit. But he almost always began his presentations by invoking his great-grandparents, Ole and Mary, immigrants from Norway who homesteaded his family’s ranch in Plateau Valley near Collbran.
Old talking points
By sharing his roots, Eklund was reaching out to Coloradoans on both sides of the Continental Divide, knowing that the Western Slope water interests often start conversations about more transmountain diversions with “Not one more drop,” while Front Range interests usually revert to “See you in water court.”
“The toughest thing has been really trying to change that,” said Eklund. “And it’s like turning a cruise ship. It takes awhile, but it’s rewarding when it happens, and as it is happening. I certainly wanted it to turn faster than it has turned, or is turning.
“People go back on their old talking points on this stuff,” Eklund added. “And in some instances, they go back to their grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s talking points. Getting a different level of conversation going, was, and probably will continue to be, the most difficult part of the whole thing.”
Eklund was also appointed by Hickenlooper to serve on the Upper Colorado River Commission, which works to administer aspects of the 1922 Colorado River Compact in conjunction with a lower basin commission.
He has not resigned from that seat, and said for now he is still serving at the pleasure of the governor on the commission.
He said the issues that divide the upper and lower Colorado River basins – think Colorado versus California – “is kind of like Colorado’s transmountain diversion conundrum on steroids.”
And he said the solutions to both conundrums lie in people, not in water.
“The art of this whole business is to get the two sides to see water as a linkage between them, as a common element that they all need, ” Eklund said. “Then they can get sit around a table and discuss things, instead of pulling pistols on each other and litigating.”
Eklund’s resignation after nearly four years at CWCB was a bit of a surprise to some professionals in the Colorado water sector, as the delivery of the water plan is often cited as a successful exercise that galvanized both the state’s water wonks and water users. The result was a glossy and readable policy document, but not an exact prescription for which projects to build or rivers to restore.
“In my tenure, he’s probably made more presentations about what the CWCB does than about the rest of [the agency’s directors] put together,” said Eric Kuhn, who has worked at the Colorado River District for 36 years. “That’s what I think the state is going to miss with James leaving — his energy and his reaching out. The water business is a pretty insular community, and James was unwilling to accept that, and was more willing to get out and talk to everybody about what it is we do.”
Eklund was also known within the CWCB for the mock headlines he presented during his director’s reports at CWCB meetings, doing so to make a point. Sometimes the headlines, attributed to various local newspapers, got a chuckle, sometimes a groan.
On Wednesday, at his final CWCB board meeting, the last of Eklund’s headlines read: “CWCB Spokesman tweets: ‘Smart ass director, his “fake news” headlines, & reign of terror finally over.’”
The reference to a “reign of terror” may have been Eklund’s way of acknowledging he pushed the CWCB staff hard during the development of the water plan.
“It was very intense,” Eklund said of the two-and-a-half-year water plan process, which had firm deadlines for both the draft and final versions. “Everybody had to be all in. The engine was running at a very high level. We kept dumping in new oil, but it runs hot when you have to do something that aggressive.”
Not long after the water plan was duly delivered to the governor at the end of 2015, at least six mid-level and senior employees left the CWCB.
Asked at the time about the turnover at the agency, Eklund said that in many cases it was his staff’s good work on the highly visible water plan that led to them getting better job offers and opportunities.
“Because it has been so successful,” Eklund said of the water plan, “it has raised the brand of each of the individuals who’ve worked on it.”
That may be true of Eklund as well.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Post Independent, Aspen Times, Vail Daily and Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin and the state. The Post, the Times and the Vail Daily published a version of this story on Thursday, March 23, 2017.
From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):
Flows on the upper Dolores River above McPhee Reservoir were at 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as of Sunday.
Below McPhee Dam, a 60-day whitewater release is planned, with initial ramp-up of 400 cfs per day starting on April 11. By April 16, rafting flows will reach 2,000 cfs, and stay there for 30 days.
In the third week of May, managers will release flushing flows of 4,000 cfs for several days to provide ecological benefits to the river. The high flows mimic a natural spring hydrograph, and benefit the river by scouring the channel, redistributing cobbles for fish spawning and improving pool habitat for native fish species. Flood-plain inundation also helps generate native vegetation growth by spreading seeds beyond the main channel.
After the spike in flows, the river will return to 2,000 cfs for the Memorial Day weekend, with ramp-down of 400 cfs per day expected in early June…
Natural flows at Slick Rock Canyon
Even without the dam release, low-elevation snowmelt has already boosted river flows on the Slick Rock to Bedrock section to 600 cfs and higher, enough for a canoe, kayak or small raft. The popular 50-mile section features Class II and III rapids in remote red-rock canyon country…
The main Lower Dolores River boating run stretches for 100 miles through winding, red-rock canyons interspersed with rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV, including the famed Snaggletooth Rapid at mile marker 27. The Lower Dolores River is considered one of the premiere multiday boat trips in the nation when it has enough water to run. No permit is required.
In the past, when there was a whitewater release, McPhee Reservoir managers targeted 800 cfs for as long as possible below McPhee Dam. But after hearing from boaters in the past few years, the release level was adjusted to the preferred 2,000 cfs flow whenever possible.
“The water managers have made a huge effort to listen to the boating community,” said Sam Carter, of the Dolores River Boating Advocates.
For updates on the whitewater release schedule, go to http://doloreswater.com/releases/ The next update will be April 5. Once the spill begins, regular updates will occur on Mondays and Thursdays.
Meanwhile, the higher flows are an opportunity for scientists to study river ecology. Here’s a report from Jim Mimiaga writing for The Cortez Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
Biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife will do fish counts on native and non-native populations, and conduct habitat improvement measures.
The Nature Conservancy, Fort Lewis College and American Whitewater will be studying geomorphology, benefits of flushing flows and recreational boating conditions…
“We have a lot of opportunity this year for fish sampling and monitoring,” said Jim White, a fish biologist for Parks and Wildlife, during a presentation Thursday at the Dolores Water Conservancy office.
His team will be studying population health of three native fish in the Lower Dolores: the roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker and bluehead sucker.
One of their objectives is to measure the non-native small-mouth bass population, then work toward reducing them. Small-mouth bass are a threat to native fish, preying on their young and competing for food sources.
“We want to find out how widespread small-mouth bass are, especially if they are established in Slick Rock Canyon,” White said.
The bass have developed a stronghold upstream from Slick Rock Canyon to Snaggletooth Rapid. But the high runoff year has opened up an opportunity to try and take out small-mouth bass, White said. In mid-July, Parks and Wildlife plans a flush of 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 3-4 days from its fish pool reserves within McPhee Reservoir to disrupt the small-mouth bass spawn…
Parks and Wildlife manages a 32,000 acre feet “fish pool” in McPhee Reservoir for minimum base flows releases below the dam.
During a whitewater release, the fish pool is not debited, White said, giving fish biologists more flexibility in how to use it. They will tap into 2,600 acre feet of the reserve for the bass-removal flush.
The Nature Conservancy is sending a team of researchers to the Lower Dolores for 10-15 days, said Colorado chapter representative Celine Hawkins.
Their work plan includes studying sediment transport and flood-plain inundation, which is needed to widely distribute native seeds. They are especially interested in the impact 4,000 cfs peak flows will have on scouring the river channel…
The Nature Conservancy will be using drones to take aerial photos of the Lower Dolores before and after peak flows to track changes and compare them to past years.
They are focusing monitoring efforts at Disappointment Creek, Dove Creek Pumps, Big Gypsum Valley and Bedrock.
Students at Fort Lewis College will be conducting ecological monitoring on the river as well, including on the alluvial groundwater aquifer…
2016 study results on Lower Dolores
Colorado Parks and Wildlife shared results of a 2016 fish study on the Dolores River.
A cold-water fishery sampling below the dam showed two-thirds brown trout and 16 percent rainbow trout.
Algae due to infrequent flushing flows is abundant in the 12 miles of stream immediately below the dam. There is a concern it could have a negative impact on fish.
In June, the 20-mile Ponderosa Gorge section (Bradfield Bridge to Dove Creek pump house) was surveyed. Of the 180 fish caught, 73 percent were brown trout, and roundtail chub was the second-most abundant. No small-mouth bass were found in the gorge.
Sampling at the Dove Creek pump station showed roundtail chub were holding steady, in part because they are an adapted pool species. Bluehead and flannelmouth suckers were in relative low abundance, and depend more on a ripple environment. In 1992, fish sampling showed much higher numbers of native fish species, the study noted.
“The impact of flushing flows in (2016) was evident, and backwaters looked cleaner,” according to study results.
The past two years, Parks and Wildlife has been stocking bluehead suckers in the Lower Dolores. The fish historically relied on Plateau, Beaver and House creeks for spawning areas, but the dam and reservoir altered the river so suckers cannot reach those ephemeral streams. In 2016, 4316 bluehead fingerlings were released downstream of the Dove Creek Pump house. In 2013, a pit-tag array recorded one flannelmouth traveled 264 miles.
From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):
After a warm, sunny start to March, Western Colorado may start to return to a more seasonal weather pattern this week.
Jim Pringle, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said we could start to see those changes by Wednesday or Thursday of this week. That initial storm system could bring as much as an inch of precipitation to some parts of the Western Slope, Pringle said, adding that Vail’s moisture total won’t approach the peaks.
Most of the moisture from the mid-week storm is expected to fall in the higher elevations of the San Juan Mountains and the Grand Mesa.
Still, a quarter-inch of precipitation could bring a few inches of new snow, at least at higher elevations.
The big change is set to come Friday, when the forecast brings snow and rain to virtually the entire state.
Moisture will be especially welcome east of the Continental Divide. Wildfires have started to hit that part of the state, and the U.S. Drought Monitor website shows moderate drought conditions through essentially all of Eastern Colorado.
Pringle said that Friday storm could bring several inches of snow to the Vail area.
COOLER TEMPS WELCOME
That snow will be welcome, both for play and our summer’s water supply.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s graphs of snow water equivalent in the area show snowpack is still running significantly ahead of the 30-year median, thanks to plentiful snow from early December into February. But some of the snow measurement sites have shown erosion of the snowpack.
The biggest drop in the past week has been at the snow measurement site on Vail Mountain. That site has changed in the past couple of years. The measurement devices are in the same spot, but the trees that once sheltered the equipment are gone, leaving the site exposed to sun and wind.
The sun, along with daytime high temperatures well into the 40s, has eaten into the snow water equivalent at the Vail site. Snow at the site contained roughly 20.3 inches of water as of March 13. That number had fallen to 16.8 inches on Monday.
The story is better at Fremont Pass, near the Eagle River’s headwaters. There, the snow water equivalent at the measurement site remained constant at 15.7 inches between March 13 and Monday.
The snow fields on Vail Mountain, near Vail Pass and near Fremont Pass all serve as the area’s water storage. Lots of snow and a slow runoff season are critical to maintain domestic water supplies.
At the moment, there’s a solid supply of water in all that snow.
But in an email, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications Manager Diane Johnson wrote, “These warm temperatures need to go!”
From The Craig Daily Press (Tom Ross):
“It’s crazy how high the flows are for this time of year,” Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City Utah, said. “I think we’re getting snowmelt at low and middle elevation and not at the higher elevations. But this is not something we expect this time of year.”
The Elk is still well below flood stage, but the acceleration of snowmelt during a time when snowpack is typically increasing stands out from the norm.
Flows in the river, which has its headwaters in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area northeast of Clark, hit a 24-hour peak of 1,050 cubic feet per second at 1:45 a.m. March 20, nearly doubling the previous record for the date, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The previous record was 524 cfs, recorded in 2007. The median March 20 flow is 160 cfs.
At the same time, the Yampa River was flowing through downtown Steamboat Springs at a rate of 408 cfs, well above the median of 150 cfs (in the 90th percentile range for the date), but significantly lower than the 1916 record for the date of 690 cfs.
High flows in the Elk have been driven by snow melting under bright skies and daytime temperatures in the 60s, which have dominated the weather throughout the month. The National Weather Service reports the high temperature in Steamboat reached 70 degrees March 19, but a cooling trend is on the way.
The Elk had calmed down to 896 cfs as of 9:30 a.m. Monday as it went through its diurnal cycle of rising and falling flow volumes. However, the River Forecast Center foresees the river will continue to rise to more than 1,000 cfs through March 23, when a cooling trend calms things down March 25 through 31 and the river could remain above 600 cfs.
A pair of snowpack measurement sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service confirm the record flows in the Elk are attributable to snowmelt above 9,000 feet, Nielson agreed.
The Lost Dog site, at 9,320 feet of elevation on the edge of the Zirkel Wilderness, has lost 3 inches of snow water equivalent since March 16, leaving it at 113 percent of median for the date. The Elk River measuring site, at 8,700 feet, has also lost 3 inches of snow water equivalent in the same timeframe, and snowpack there stands at 93 percent of median.
Nielson pointed to the Tower measuring site on the summit of Buffalo Pass northeast of Steamboat Springs as evidence that snowmelt has not begun at the highest elevations in the Park Range. The water content of the snowpack there, at 10,500 feet, has not changed more than a fraction of an inch since March 7.
From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):
For many months, water agencies including Tucson Water have discussed a plan to save 1.2 million acre-feet of river water over three years to delay the threat of shortages to the Central Arizona Project, which brings drinking water to Tucson and Phoenix and irrigation water to Central Arizona farmers.
But the snowy winter appears to mean that the river and lake will be flush enough this year to significantly reduce the odds of short-term water cuts even without a conservation plan. The abrupt weather shift has intensified an already major split among water officials about what to do next.
CAP officials say the earlier proposal is “no longer viable” and that it’s time for a new approach.
“The improved hydrology has changed the landscape and given us a reprieve,” said Suzanne Ticknor, CAP’s water-policy director. “We have the opportunity to get it right, to sit back and find out what we want to do to find consensus in the state. We don’t need to do huge volumes of conservation right now.”
Other water users disagree with this position, including the Arizona Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Tucson and Phoenix water utilities and the Gila River Indian Community, which controls the largest share of CAP water.
“I do not believe one year of good hydrology is enough to stop us from seeking to conserve water in the lake,” Arizona DWR Director Tom Buschatzke said, referring to Lake Mead, a reservoir of Colorado River water.
He and other officials said recent weather doesn’t substitute for a long-term policy during a 17-year drought, the longest in the historical record dating to 1906.
WATER FEAST OR FAMINE
At stake is an Arizona version of the Drought Contingency Plan, an effort by this state, California and Nevada to negotiate a long-term, water-use reduction agreement. The goal is to reduce the risks of Lake Mead dropping below 1,025 feet, compared to the 1,070s to 1,080s it has been at recently.
At the lower lake level, water deliveries to Tucson and Phoenix would be jeopardized and Hoover Dam’s power output would be dramatically curtailed. The risk is due to what authorities say is a structural deficit, in which people in the Lower Colorado River Basin use more water each year than the over-allocated river provides, even when it’s not in a drought.
The Arizona plan, called DCP Plus, seeks to delay for three years or longer the first CAP shortage, which would happen if the lake drops below 1,075 feet at year’s end. Last December, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted that the chance of a shortage for 2018 through 2020 was around 50 percent and warned the river was “on the brink”.
But at a March 2 CAP board meeting, project officials were rejoicing over the heavy snowfalls that had fallen in the river’s Upper Basin, which supplies crucial spring runoff to Lake Powell, another Colorado River reservoir.
“The Green River has a tremendous snowpack situation. Flooding will occur in that watershed this spring. Not that we’re wishing it on our Wyoming friends, but quite frankly I’m for it,” said CAP Colorado River program manager Chuck Cullom.
There’s so much snow that a major Wyoming cloud-seeding program has been suspended to reduce the risk of flood damage, Cullom added.
As of March 1, Upper Basin snowpack was 154 percent of normal. Annual spring runoff into Powell was predicted to be 10.4 million acre-feet, or 145 percent of average, said Brenda Alcorn, a federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center hydrologist.
The reclamation agency now sees a greater chance of above-average water releases from Powell to Mead for three years than it does of shortages.
So instead of a fixed, three-year conservation plan, CAP official Ticknor said that while the agency remains committed to reducing the river’s structural deficit over the long term, the best solution now is to plan annually.
“It has to be more of an adaptive approach and look at things in real time and understand the hydrology, what the inflow to Powell is and what Mead’s elevation is each year,” she said.
Setting hard, three-year targets can create an “overconserving” risk, Ticknor said.
That’s possible due to the complex, seven-state guidelines covering management of Lake Mead at the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell at the Arizona-Utah border, she said. Worrying about “overconserving” is a shift in emphasis among CAP officials, who have a “Protect Lake Mead” message on their home page and produced videos and other material saying the same.
While remaining concerned about Mead’s long-term risks, CAP officials say that under certain circumstances, the guidelines mean that too much conservation can reduce how much water Powell releases to Mead. That deprives the three Lower Colorado River Basin states, including Arizona, of additional water.
Phoenix Water Director Kathryn Sorensen counters, “The ‘risk’ of overconserving is a Colorado River that is less vulnerable to shortages and more resilient over the long run, a river that is more protective of our economy and our quality of life.”
Under guidelines approved in 2007 by the seven basin states, Lake Mead gets an extra surge of water from Powell in a year in which forecasters predict that Powell will stay above 3,575 feet while Mead falls below 1,075 feet on a given date.
This year, conditions are good enough that the lake is expected to get at least 9 million acre-feet, nearly 700,000 acre-feet above average. But if conservation pushes Mead’s forecast above 1,075 at the end of 2017, that extra water goes away.
“You could have an unintended consequence,” Ticknor said. “You have a narrow band of operating space with the reservoirs. You have to be careful about what you do.”
“NOT A GAME OF POKER”
Phoenix’s Sorensen replied that playing the probabilities of shortage year-by-year is a short-sighted strategy that fosters uncertainty and keeps Arizona’s economy closer to the razor’s edge.
“This is not a game of poker. Arizona has weathered the last 17 years of drought precisely because generations ago, we planned methodically for the long run. We must continue this legacy,” Sorensen said.
State Water Resources Director Buschatzke said he prefers the risk of overconserving “because if you underconserve there isn’t much you can do about it” if a shortage occurs. Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure said authorities should err on the side of conservation and focus on the longer term.
“We have to be nimble enough to manage year by year, but decisions need to be made with the long-term in mind,” Thomure said.
Plus, Mother Nature can make unanticipated weather shifts, Buschatzke said. Just since March 1, hot, dry weather has caused federal river-basin forecasters to lower projections for runoff into Powell by half a million acre-feet. That’s enough to serve Tucson Water’s 700,000-plus customers for five years.
The April runoff forecast is still expected to be high enough for an above-average release from Powell. But if the region experiences the flip side of the “Miracle May” rains that pounded the Rockies in May 2015 — saving the river from an almost certain shortage — that wouldn’t leave authorities much time to forestall a 2018 shortage, Buschatzke said.
“These are hard issues — harsh decisions. I want to err on the side of more certainty,” he said.
The bottom line is that the water agency now can’t meet its goal of getting a water-saving plan to this year’s legislative session for approval, he said.