Rapid melting this year showed that good #snowpack doesn’t necessarily translate into full reservoirs — The New York Times #drought #aridification

Grays and Torreys, Dillon Reservoir May 2017. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

From The New York Times (Henry Fountain):

Here at 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide, only vestiges of the winter snowpack remain, scattered white patches that have yet to melt and feed the upper Colorado River, 50 miles away.

That’s normal for mid-June in the Rockies. What’s unusual this year is the speed at which the snow went. And with it went hopes for a drought-free year in the Southwest.

“We had a really warm spring,” said Graham Sexstone, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey. “Everything this year has melted really fast.”

The Southwest has been mired in drought for most of the past two decades. The heat and dryness, made worse by climate change, have been so persistent that some researchers say the region is now caught up in a megadrought, like those that scientists who study past climate say occurred here occasionally over the past 1,200 years and lasted 40 years or longer…

Normally, Dr. Sexstone said, measurements of stream flow at gauges in the region would slowly climb to a peak and then drop off gradually as the season progressed.

“This year it seemed like it peaked and then plummeted,” he said.

Becky Bolinger, a drought specialist at Colorado State University and the assistant state climatologist, said the lack of new snow in late spring affected the rate of melting. As snow is exposed to the sun it warms and nears the melting point. If new snow falls, that lowers the temperature, stalling the process. But without any new snow, the melting continues unimpeded…

Early, rapid melting of snowpack has been common recently in the Rio Grande basin, said Shaleene B. Chavarria, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey in New Mexico. Being farther south, it is hotter and more arid than much of the Colorado basin…

It’s not just the basins west of the Continental Divide that have experienced severe drought made worse by warming. A study published in May about the country’s largest river basin, the Upper Missouri, where snowmelt on the eastern side of the divide at Loveland Pass eventually ends up, showed that warming has affected runoff over the last few decades and increased the severity of droughts, including one from 2000 to 2010…

US Drought Monitor July 7, 2020.

In [the U.S. Drought Monitor’s] latest analysis, the monitoring group reported that the southern half of Colorado, northern and eastern New Mexico, Northern Arizona and nearly all of Utah were in moderate to extreme drought, with varying degrees of water shortages and crop and pasture damage. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its most recent climate forecast, said the drought would likely persist through the summer.

Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was the lead researcher on a study published in April that found that conditions in the Southwest from 2000 to 2018 were comparable to several megadroughts since A.D. 800. It said global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases was a major contributor, turning what would have been a moderate drought into an “emerging megadrought.”

At the time the study was published, Dr. Williams said, there was a possibility that a wet May would “bail 2020 out” and perhaps be the beginning of the end for the drought.

Drought can be complex, a function not only of high temperatures and lack of precipitation but also of factors like humidity, wind and cloud cover. Soil moisture and evaporation of water from the ground surface and from the leaves of vegetation, a process called transpiration, are important.

Dust that settles on snow can have an impact, by absorbing sunlight and warming, which speeds melting. And sublimation, by which a solid (snow) directly becomes a gas (water vapor), bypassing the liquid phase (water), plays a role as well.

But scientists are still learning how these various factors interact, and the relative importance of each. In some cases there is little data to analyze, and much of the research relies on computer models.

There are relatively few direct measurements of soil moisture, for example, even though it can greatly affect runoff as it likely did this year in the Southwest.

Soils were already very dry last fall, Dr. Bolinger said, because the annual late-summer rains in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Colorado largely failed to materialize.

As winter set in, the soil froze, remaining dry while the snow built up on it. Then, once the snow began to melt, the soil had to be replenished first, Dr. Bolinger said.

Dr. Sexstone’s work to better understand snowpack is part of a broader effort within the geological survey to more accurately quantify and forecast runoff, given increasing uncertainty about water supplies in a warming and more drought-prone world.

A snow pit on Loveland Pass shows a narrow stripe of dust near the surface. When it’s exposed, the dust can speed up melt off by a couple weeks. Photo credit: Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies via KUNC

At Loveland Pass, with a light dusting of snow falling around him, he demonstrated a basic technique used to study snowpack. Pulling a shovel from his backpack, he dug a pit in a patch of snow down to solid ground. In this case the pit was only 3 feet deep, but in midwinter in the mountains they can reach up to 15.

Dr. Sexstone then inserted thermometers at various levels in the side of the pit, and, using a scoop and a scale, took samples of the snow at each level. By weighing each sample he could determine its density and how much water would result when it melted.

Last winter, Dr. Sexstone was digging snow pits as part of development work on a project, the Next Generation Water Observing System, to better measure snowpack and stream flows at sites around the Upper Colorado Basin and, through modeling, improve basin-wide assessments of runoff.

“We’re looking at more intensive monitoring within the basin,” said Suzanne Paschke, who manages the project at the geological survey’s Colorado Water Science Center. Installation of advanced sensors to measure snow and other characteristics like soil moisture is expected to begin next year.

Most current snow measurements come from a network called Snotel, first established in the 1960s. It now includes hundreds of sites around the West.

While the Snotel network provides invaluable data about snow depth and how much water it holds, Dr. Sexstone said, the sites are all below the tree line and the system was developed when much less was known about what affects snowpack.

“When they were developing this network, they wanted to find sites that weren’t influenced by all these other factors like wind,” Dr. Sexstone said. Scientists have since realized that snowpack and runoff are a lot more complicated.

“Now we’re starting to say, OK, how do we account for all this other stuff?” he said.

#ColoradoRiver Stakeholders To Face Tribal Rights, Environmental Protection and #ClimateChange — Inside #Climate News #COriver #aridification

Humpback chub are one of four federally endangered fish species that rely on habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. Humpback chub photo credit US Fish and Wildlife Service.

From Inside Climate News (Judy Fahys):

Charismatic is hardly the best word to describe the humpback chub, a fish with a frowny eel face jammed onto a sportfish body in a way that suggests evolution has a sense of humor. Nor did tastiness build a fan base for this “trash fish” across its natural habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin. But, in 1973, the humpback chub became famous by winning federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Researchers in the Grand Canyon now spend weeks at a time, several times a year, monitoring humpback chub, which has become central to an ecosystem science program with implications for millions of westerners who rely on Colorado River water…

…the humpback chub’s experience is surprisingly meaningful now, as its river habitat deep in the iconic, redrock canyon becomes the subject of new scrutiny. New negotiations about the Colorado’s future begin later this year in a world that has fundamentally changed since foundational water agreements were drawn up, back when the river was flush and the entire basin was treated like a giant network of irrigation ditches.

Now, nearly a century after the original Colorado River Compact was forged, river stakeholders also find themselves in alien terrain as they try to reconcile an old management scheme with new realities, such as tribal rights, environmental protection and, especially, climate change.

‘The Pie is Getting Smaller.’

About 40 million people in seven states and Mexico rely on the Colorado for irrigation, drinking and even hydropower. Most of the water is used in agriculture to irrigate more than 5.5 million acres.

Meanwhile, the Colorado is shrinking. Average river flows have dropped 19 percent over the last century. About half of the decline is blamed on global warming, and scientists project that unchecked climate change could nearly triple flow reductions by the century’s end. Meanwhile, basin tribes want to tap into allocations they haven’t been able to use because they lack means to store and pipe the water.

NPS and USFWS use a seine net to trap humpback chubs in the Little Colorado River. Photo credit Mike Pillow via the Arizona Daily Sun.

And thanks to research mandated by the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, the fate of the chub and the canyon ecology are factors that will also need to be considered in the yet-to-be-scheduled negotiations. Ultimately, everyone’s worried about losing their share of the Colorado River, of going home with partly empty buckets because there’s just not enough water to go around…

Water Rights: A Dramatic Struggle

The U.S. Interior Department must begin updating plans for managing the river, and convene all the states that rely on it, by the end of the year under the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, one of the agreements that determine how much water is allocated for each stakeholder to use or develop.

Like everything about Colorado River management, it’s legally complex and controlled by a deeply entrenched power structure involving the seven basin states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and established users in agriculture and municipalities that have assigned positions in the line to the spigot—spots known as “water rights.”

[…]

But even the guidelines, which were implemented in 2007, have fallen short in the new, drier West. Last year, Congress approved a pair of Drought Contingency Plans, requiring varying levels of conservation to be implemented, state-by-state, whenever water levels sank too low at Lake Powell or Lake Mead, the ginormous storage reservoirs for Colorado River water. Both lakes dropped to emergency levels within months.

The original compact guarantees certain water volumes to the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California. The upper basin states—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico—historically haven’t used all of their allocations but plan to develop theirs, too. For example, Utah is pressing forward with a multibillion-dollar project to pipe 86,000 acre feet halfway across the state to the fast-growing southwestern part of the state. A diversion of water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s populous Front Range—killed and resurrected so many times it’s called the “zombie pipeline”—would use 55,000 acre feet.

Still, Schmidt said: “I am actually very hopeful. I believe that climate change and the real need to renegotiate agreements have brought us together.”

The role of global warming as a motivator for revisiting the water allocations probably can’t be overstated. The average temperature in the Southwest has already risen twice as fast as the global average and future temperatures are projected to increase as much as 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

Climate change is just one reason Daryl Vigil, water director for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and interim director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, is determined to see tribes at the table in the next round of negotiations. He says the 29 basin tribes have priority rights to about 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water but were snubbed by current users from past Colorado River talks.

Native American lands where tribes have water rights or potential water rights to Colorado River water. Graphic via Ten Tribes Partnership via Colorado Water Users Association website.

“The system is going to protect itself, to perpetuate what it already does because it benefits those who already are doing okay,” he said. “Familiar story, right?”

The exclusion, which amounts to environmental racism, means tens of thousands of indigenous people have not been able to access their water and tap into the associated economic opportunities, such as selling their water rights and using the water for energy projects, he said. Instead, other stakeholders are using tribal water without paying for it.

Another reason the tribes should be part of the decision making, he said, is because of their experience—thousands of years of dealing with water scarcity in the region—and their cultural views about the environment belong in any critical conversations about the Colorado. Otherwise the future looks “pretty catastrophic to us,” Vigil told High Country News this spring.

“When we start talking about climate change,” he said, “absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into Nature, rather than Nature fitting into us.”

[…]

[John] Fleck said the people deciding the basin’s fate need information about the tradeoffs. And data from Grand Canyon research will help them understand not only how to preserve a “sacred space” in American culture but also how to continue relying on a resource essential to the West.

Hundreds of comments submitted over Holy Cross Wilderness water export proposal — @WaterEdCO

A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Forty years after the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was created, an early effort to explore tapping its water supplies has generated more than 500 comments to the U.S. Forest Service.

Aurora and Colorado Springs, which own and operate the only reservoir in the area, Homestake I, hope to demonstrate that they can divert more water and build another reservoir to serve Front Range and West Slope interests without damaging the delicate wetlands and streams in the mountain forests there.

But first, they are asking the Forest Service for a special use permit to survey the area and to bore several test holes to determine soil conditions and areas best suited to build the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The public comment period closed June 30, although the Forest Service said it will continue to accept comments.

If a reservoir were to be built, it would also require that the 122,000-acre-plus wilderness area shrink by 500 acres, an action that will require congressional approval.

Significant opposition to the permit request is already building, with the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund threatening legal action to stop the surveying and drilling of test holes into soils, according to comments submitted to the Forest Service.

Also opposing the process, among others, is Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who represents several West Slope counties. “Our wilderness areas are afforded the highest levels of protection and to begin action that disturbs them today begins a process of destroying them forever,” she said. [Editor’s note: Donovan is on the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News].

In addition, she wrote, “With drought conditions becoming the new normal…it is imperative we protect high altitude water resources and keep each drop in the basin it was born in.”

The Eagle River is a tributary to the drought-stressed Colorado River, whose flows have already begun a serious decline.

Eagle River Basin

Jerry Mallet is president of Colorado Headwaters, an environmental advocacy group. The fight to stop the proposal, he said, “will be as big as the Two Forks fight was several years ago,” referring to the successful effort to stop Two Forks Reservoir from being built on the South Platte River in 1990.

Aurora and Colorado Springs point to their legal obligations to develop a project that serves multiple interests, and which also protects the environment, while ensuring their citizens have access to water in the future.

“The studies…will provide the factual data necessary to identify and evaluate feasible reservoir alternatives to provide critical water supplies for human and environmental purposes,” said Colorado Springs spokesperson Natalie Eckhart. “We recognize the necessity to partner with other agencies throughout this process and are committed to working collaboratively with other communities and agencies to best manage our shared water resources.”

The proposal comes under a 1998 agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which allows the reservoir proponents to develop enough water to serve environmental, municipal and industrial interests. Aurora and Colorado Springs hope to develop 33,000 acre-feet of water, an amount roughly equal to that used annually by 66,000 homes.

Under the proposal, Aurora and Colorado Springs would receive 20,000 acre-feet, West Slope interests would receive 10,000 acre-feet, and 3,000 acre-feet would be set aside for the Climax Molybdenum Company.

Parties to the 1998 agreement include Aurora, Colorado Springs, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, as well as Vail Associates.

Diane Johnson, spokesperson for the two Eagle River districts, said the agencies haven’t yet taken a position on the proposal, citing the need for the analysis required for the special use permit as well as any actual construction of a reservoir to be completed.

Located west of Vail between Minturn and Leadville, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was the subject of a significant battle in the 1980s when Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to build a second major reservoir there known as Homestake II.

After opponents successfully took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Homestake II was defeated in 1994.

In exchange, however, the cities were granted permission to develop a smaller amount of water in the future in partnership with Western Slope interests, resulting in the project that is now being proposed to the Forest Service.

To submit your comments or to get more information about the survey and drilling proposal, visit this U.S. Forest Service’s web page.

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.

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

First public input session for the #LakePowellPipeline recap #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Explorer John Wesley Powell and Paiute Chief Tau-Gu looking over the Virgin River in 1873. Photo credit: NPS

From the St. George Spectrum (Sam Gross):

The public on Tuesday had its first opportunity to pepper officials with questions about the Lake Powell Pipeline’s recently-released draft environmental impact statement, a 313-page document from the Bureau of Reclamation examining how the controversial project could impact a myriad of resources in several scenarios.

That draft statement, which will be made final later this year after a period of public comment, looks at two proposed alignments of the approximately 140-mile pipeline that roughly straddles the Utah and Arizona borders.

It also weighs one option where no pipeline is built, and another where water in the Virgin River Basin — Washington County’s only source of water — is managed and stretched to support substantial population growth over the next several decades, possibly to the detriment of the river itself…

Among the questions posed by the approximately 130 participants who logged onto the meeting, held entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many centered on issues of climate change, the project’s impact on the already heavily-taxed Colorado River and how the pipeline would impact sensitive cultural and ecological sites along its 140-mile corridor…

One person asked Rick Baxter, Program Manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, if the agency considered “discouraging” the projected population growth driving the need for the pipeline.

Baxter, whose agency is impartial to whether the project gets approved or not, deferred that question to local and state policymakers.

Out of the two alignments of the pipeline being weighed, one, deemed the “Southern Alignment,” is favored by the bureau.

That alignment would begin near the Glen Canyon Dam on the west side of Lake Powell, cross in and out of Utah and Arizona, skirt around the southern edge of the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation and terminate at Sand Hollow Reservoir.

This $2+ billion project would pump 28 billion gallons of water 2,000 feet uphill across 140 miles of desert to provide just 160,000 residents in Southwest Utah with more water. Graphic credit: Utah Rivers Council

Its detour around the reservation means the Southern Alignment also has to pass through the Kanab Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a unique and fragile habitat for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

The Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan for Kanab Creek currently does not allow for the pipeline to pass through there, so officials would need to amend that plan.

The other alignment roughly follows the Southern Alignment, but passes through the Kaibab Paiute Reservation and avoids the Kanab Creek protected area.

Baxter said the pros and cons of the two alignments are comparable; one doesn’t clearly stand above the other. But the reason the Southern Alignment is favored is because the project’s proponents haven’t been able to reach an agreement with the tribe.

Baxter was also pressed on why a “conservation alternative,” which would implement an aggressive conservation plan and develop local water resources, wasn’t considered.

The biggest reason a plan like that was passed over is it didn’t tap into a second water source outside the Virgin River Basin, which is one of the primary goals of the pipeline project — an effort to protect the water supply in the event something were to happen to one of the sources, Baxter explained.

“You can conserve your way to a certain point,” he said. “And even if you were to try to conserve your way to a certain point, at some point, if anything ever happened to that one source water managers would look for multiple different ways to protect the folks they’re providing water for.”

Map of the Virgin-Muddy River watershed in UT, NV and AZ in the United States, part of the Colorado River Basin. By Shannon – Background and river course data from http://www2.demis.nl/mapserver/mapper.asp, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9917538

Arkansas Valley Conduit funding gets final approval — The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Ryan Severance):

Construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit is expected to begin in the near future following the state’s approval of a $100 million financing package for it.

The Colorado General Assembly has approved the annual Colorado Water Conservation project bill that contains the funding, and Gov. Jared Polis signed that bill into law earlier this week…

The Arkansas Valley Conduit is estimated to cost between $564 and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period, according to Chris Woodka of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

The $100 million in state funding would include $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants over the life of the project. When complete, the conduit will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities.

The conduit had received funding since 2010 to prepare for construction of the 130-mile pipeline which will deliver a safe drinking water supply to the Lower Arkansas Valley.

In February, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $28 million of fiscal year 2020 funding was being directed to the conduit in an effort to move from planning and design into construction. An additional $8 million has been requested for fiscal year 2021 and is under consideration by Congress, Woodka said.

Arkansas Valley Conduit “A Path Forward” November 22, 2019 via Southeastern.

A win for collaboration in the upper #ColoradoRiver — @AmericanRivers

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

From American Rivers (Ken Neubecker):

Signs of hope for the most over-tapped and heavily diverted river in Colorado

Historically, Colorado has had a love-hate relationship with the 1968 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. While we have unarguably some of the wildest and most scenic rivers in America, Colorado has only one such designated section – the Cache la Poudre River above the city of Ft. Collins. New Jersey, a much smaller state with many fewer river miles, has five designated Wild & Scenic Rivers.

So why? The reason lies in the both real and perceived limitations such designation would place on how water is “developed,” and its various uses, across the state, including potential limitations on longstanding diversions for municipal and agricultural water needs. Unlike New Jersey, Colorado is an arid state where water is precious, and rivers often have been regarded as natural conduits for delivering and storing water that can be diverted and used, rather than as natural systems that need freedom and nurturing to thrive.

The Colorado River is a prime example, as the most over-tapped and heavily diverted river in the state.

Historical Colorado River between Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs

Yet In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management and White River National Forest found the upper Colorado River, just downstream from its source in Rocky Mountain National Park as “eligible” for designation as a part of the Wild and Scenic River system. This finding alarmed the Front Range water providers, who siphon large amounts of water across the continental divide to the cities and farms of the East Slope. It is commonly said that “80% of Colorado’s water falls as snow on the West Slope, while 80% of the people live on the East Slope.” The last thing Front Range water providers have wanted was another layer of federal restrictions that could curtail their ability to move more water to thirsty cities in the metropolitan corridor.

There has long been strong support for Wild & Scenic River designation from conservation groups and others on both sides of the divide. These efforts would help protect what are called Outstandingly Remarkable Values, or ORVs, which qualify a river as eligible for protection. ORVs may be related to fish, wildlife, geological, or recreational values. Now, in this newly emerging recreation economy, these ORV’s are the backbone of some of the States’ most important and valuable draws to tourism, recreation, and rural lifestyle. More recently, Front Range diverters have recognized the importance of these ORV’s not just to the West Slope headwater communities, but to the State as a whole. The recreational opportunities and businesses depending on white water rafting and fishing are a huge economic asset. The fact that this all exists within a series of beautiful and remote canyons doesn’t hurt either.

Over the past 12 years, a group of people involved in the upper Colorado was established to try and develop a plan, and later an associated process, to protect the various values of the river, along with West Slope economic needs, while retaining flexibility for Front Range water users. What emerged from this effort was a multi-stakeholder plan to protect the river while addressing each of these needs, and establishing metrics for evaluating the condition of the ORV’s along with a process for resolving potential problems, should the river begin to show increasing signs of stress. While taking considerable effort by everyone involved, the process is working.

In 2015, the BLM and Forest Service recognized this process as an alternative to a “suitability finding” for Wild & Scenic designation. This sparked a five year “provisional period” where all the interested parties could come back to the table to hammer out a final management plan. There was light at the end of the tunnel to help give the river the protection it deserves, while providing certainty for existing and future water users. If the collaborative planning failed, the Upper Colorado River would retain its suitability for W&S status.

The provisional period wrapped up in June with the adoption of the final, agreed-upon plan to evaluate, mediate, and provide solutions to protect the various values of the upper Colorado River, from the town of Kremmling all the way to Glenwood Springs.

Gore Canyon rafting via Blogspot.com

This plan is a “living” document, and will be for some time. For instance, work is still being done to finalize a plan to collect, analyze, and monitor data over a longer period for fish, insects and sediment levels. An endowment fund is providing long-term financial support, to continue to discuss topics around governance, finance, scientific monitoring, and other cooperative measures to regularly check-in on progress to keep the Plan working, and stakeholders accountable.

The Wild & Scenic Stakeholders Group and resulting plan is not far from a traditional, Federally authorized Wild & Scenic designation. The newly Amended and Restated Plan provides a detailed process for cooperative monitoring and management of the ORV’s. All of the stakeholders are committed to making sure the Plan succeeds.

It has taken 12 long years to get here, and the work certainly continues. The stakeholders have gotten to know each other, and most importantly have built a rapport of trust and engagement with one another. Yet with the overarching goal of protecting the upper Colorado for a wide variety of uses, while providing certainty and good health for the river itself, the efforts put into this process will benefit everyone involved for decades to come.

@BradUdall has updated his 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 #coriver #coloradoriver #aridification

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck

Water Availability Stripes — Xander Huggins #RioGrande #ColoradoRiver

Click here to go to the website.

A science communication tool to bring awareness to recent trends in water availability around the world.

This project is based on and inspired by @ed_hawkins’s awesome #ShowYourStripes global warming awareness-building initiative. Although global water availability has been tracked for a much shorter period of time (only since 2002) compared to temperature, these water availability stripes can help to raise the profile of global water security challenges and complement the #WarmingStripes initiative by bringing attention to the linkages between water availability and climate change.

Rio Grande water availability stripes. Graphic credit: Xander Huggins
Colorado river water availability stripes. Graphic credit: Xander Huggins

A power switch in Colorado — The Mountain Town News

South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Delta-Montrose Electric splits the sheets with Tri-State G&T. Will others follow?

At the stroke of midnight [July 1, 2020], Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association officially became independent of Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

The electrical cooperative in west-central Colorado is at least $26 million poorer. That was the cost of getting out of its all-requirements for wholesale supplies from Tri-State 20 years early. But Delta-Montrose expects to be richer in coming years as local resources, particularly photovoltaic solar, get developed with the assistance of the new wholesale provider Guzman Energy.

The separation was amicable, the parting announced in a joint press release. But the relationship had grown acrimonious after Delta-Montrose asked Tri-State for an exit fee in early 2017.

Tri-State had asked for $322 million, according to Virginia Harmon, chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose. This figure had not been divulged previously.

The two sides reached a settlement in July 2019 and in April 2020 revealed the terms: Guzman will pay Tri-State $72 million for the right to take over the contract, and Delta-Montrose itself will pay $26 million to Tri-State for transmission assets. In addition, Delta-Montrose forewent $48 million in capital credits.

Under its contract with Guzman, Delta-Montrose has the ability to generate or buy 20% of its own electricity separate from Guzman. In addition, the contract specifies that Guzman will help Delta-Montrose develop 10 megawatts of generation. While much of that can be expected to be photovoltaic, Harmon says all forms of local generation remain on the table: additional small hydro, geothermal, and coal-mine methane. One active coal mine in the co-operative’s service territory near Paonia continues operation.

The North Fork Valley, part of the service territory of Delta-Montrose Electric, has been known for its organic fruits and vegetables — including corn. Photo/Allen Best

The dispute began in 2005 when Tri-State asked member cooperatives to extend their contracts from 2040 to 2050 in order for Tri-State to build a coal plant in Kansas. Delta-Montrose refused.

Friction continued as Delta-Montrose set out to develop hydropower on the South Canal, an idea that had been on the table since 1909, when President William Howard Taft arrived to help dedicate the project. Delta-Montrose succeeded but then bumped up against the 5% cap on self-generation that was part of the contract.

This is the second cooperative to leave Tri-State in recent years, but two more are banging on the door to get out. First out was Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative of Taos, N.M. It left in 2016 after Guzman paid the $37 million exit fee. There is general agreement that the Kit Carson exit and that of Delta-Montrose cannot be compared directly, Gala to Gala, or even Honeycrisp to Granny Smith.

Yet direct comparisons were part of the nearly week-long session before a Colorado Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge in May. Two Colorado cooperatives have asked Tri-State what it will cost to break their contracts, which continue until 2050. Brighton-based United Power, with 93,000 customers, is the largest single member of Tri-State and Durango-based La Plata the third largest. Together, the two dissident cooperatives are responsible for 20% of Tri-States total sales.

The co-operatives say they expect a recommendation from the administrative law judge who heard the case at the PUC. The PUC commissioners will then take up the recommendation.

In April, Tri-State members approved a new methodology for determining member exit fees. But United Power said the methodology would make it financially impossible to leave and, if applied to all remaining members, would produce a windfall of several billion dollars for Tri-State. In a lawsuit filed in Adams County District Court, United claims Tri-State crossed the legal line to “imprison” it in a contract to 250.

Tri-State also applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a bid to have that body in Washington D.C. determine exit fees. FERC recently accepted the contract termination payment filing—rejecting arguments that it did not have jurisdiction. Jessica Matlock, general manager of La Plata Electric, said the way FERC accepted the filing does not preclude the case in Colorado from going forward.

Fitch, a credit-rating company, cited the ongoing dispute with two of Tri-State’s largest members among many other factors in downgrading the debate to A-. It previously was A. Fitch also downgraded Tri-State’s $500 million commercial paper program, of which $140 million is currently outstanding, to F1 from F1+.

“The rating downgrades reflect challenging transitions in Tri-State’s operating profile and the related impact on its financial profile,” Fitch said in its report on Friday. It described Tri-State as “stable.”

For broader background see: The Delta-Montrose story is a microcosm of the upside down 21st century energy world

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

Community Agriculture Alliance: River planning

An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Friends of the Yampa (Eugene Buchanan) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:

The key to river planning is collaboration, and the Yampa River Basin is doing just that. There are water users everywhere — agriculture diverting water to grow food and raise animals, municipalities securing drinking water and treating wastewater, ski resorts making snow, power plants producing steam to create power, recreationists fishing and paddling, and wildlife using it as sustenance and a home. With all of these various purposes, how do we manage water use?

The key is planning and working together. There is an understanding among river users that, without this collaboration, there is a risk that one of these stakeholder groups might not receive the water they need.

To that end, there exist such entities as Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Round Table and Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan to help all these water use stakeholders.

According to its website, “The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is leading the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan (IWMP). The process will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions to protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty.”

“The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and the Integrated Water Management Plan are great examples of collaboration,” said Friends of the Yampa President and Basin Round Table Recreation at-large member Kent Vertrees. “A lot has been accomplished in a short time because of this. People look to our basin here in the Yampa Valley as a great example of how to work together to ensure water for our future.”

Another entity helping the cause is the newly formed Yampa River Fund, whose goal is “to establish a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to: enhance water security for communities, agriculture, the economy and the natural environment in the Yampa Valley; support a healthy, flowing river and enhance critical low flows through water leases from reservoirs; and maintain or improve river function through a holistic approach to restoration of riparian and/or in-channel habitat.”

The fund’s first funding cycle of grants was announced in May, awarding a total of $200,000 to various projects. The projects include riparian habitat restoration in Steamboat Springs and in the Lower Elkhead Creek; recreational access improvements in Moffat County; water releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir facilitated by Colorado Water Trust; and stream improvements in Oak Creek.

Of special importance this year is the fund’s funding mechanisms to absorb some of the basin’s variability as well as its environmental and recreational vitality. While 2019 was heralded as a banner water year, we currently stand at 30% of average discharge to the river, meaning the use of water leases could come in especially handy this year. And stakeholders working together will be more important than ever.

Eugene Buchanan is a board member of the Friends of the Yampa and local author. Lindsey Marlow is the program manager for Friends of the Yampa.

The Conservation Fund finalizes its acquisition of Sweetwater Lake #LWCF

Sweetwater Lake, Garfield County, Colorado. Photo credit: Todd Winslow Pierce with permission

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The Conservation Fund on Tuesday finalized its acquisition of Sweetwater Lake, getting a bargain price and marking a milestone in the effort to protect the 488-acre property long eyed for big development.

It’s been almost a year since the fund began negotiating with investors who owned the lake surrounded by White River National Forest and bordered by the Flat Tops Wilderness. The plan was to buy the property for $9.3 million and then transfer it over to the White River National Forest, which would tap the Land and Water Conservation Fund to pay back the national conservation organization.

“We knew we were taking a risk, but this is why The Conservation Fund exists; to bridge the gap between private landowners who can’t wait around all day and federal agencies who have their own processes,” The Conservation Fund’s project manager Justin Spring said. “We can’t thank the investors enough for taking a chance on conservation. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

[…]

As developers circled the property in 2019, The Conservation Fund and the Eagle Valley Land Trust built their plan to raise money that could bolster a bid for Land and Water Conservation Fund support. Things fell into place quickly. Eagle County pledged $500,000 to help protect the lake in Garfield County. Great Outdoors Colorado loaned The Conservation Fund money. The White River National Forest’s $8.5 million plan for Sweetwater Lake landed at No. 9 on the LWCF’s plans for the coming year. That marked the largest request on the Forest Service’s list of 36 projects. And, if approved, it will be among the largest allotments of LWCF money ever in Colorado…

The Forest Service is in a holding pattern as it awaits a final decision from Congress on LWCF project funding.

“But because of the ranking and the very strong support we feel very confident about that funding,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

There are many more steps before the Forest Service can open Sweetwater Lake to visitors. After title and appraisal work, the Forest Service will study how existing structures may fit into its overarching recreation plan. The agency is still in talks with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about a unique management partnership.

Boating survey aims for better river management for recreation — @AspenJournalism

Russell and Andrea Shaffran, of Aspen, ready their boat for a float down the lower Roaring Fork River. Pitkin County is funding an American Whitewater survey of recreational flows on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Pitkin County has approved funding for a study that aims to protect recreational flows in the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers, and how future water development projects and climate change might affect those flows.

At a meeting earlier this month, Pitkin County commissioners approved a recommendation from the county’s Healthy Rivers Board to fund the $19,355 proposal from American Whitewater. The project includes an extensive survey of river users — specifically boaters — about what flows are optimal for certain popular river segments.

Kayakers, commercial river outfitters, stand-up paddleboarders and anyone else who runs local rivers can weigh in with their flow preferences for popular reaches of the Roaring Fork like North Star, Slaughterhouse, Toothache and the river below Basalt. They will also ask about the Crystal River, which gets less recreational traffic than the Roaring Fork, but has some well-known stretches, like the Narrows and Meatgrinder, which are favored by experienced kayakers, and the more accessible reach from Avalanche Creek to the BRB campground.

The lower Roaring Fork is increasingly popular with anglers, but this survey will focus on boating, both commercial and private.

Once American Whitewater determines what flows boaters prefer, the organization will use its “boatable days” tool, which compares the flow preferences to the historic river hydrology to see if and when the flow preferences are met and how that might change in dry or wet years.

“It allows us to actually quantify river recreation opportunities so it can be used to inform water management decisions and understand future impacts,” said Kestrel Kunz, Southern Rockies stewardship assistant for American Whitewater. “We can see how climate change might affect the number of boatable days in the valley.”

According to a report by the Colorado River Outfitters Association, the economic impact of commercial boating on the Roaring Fork in 2019 was $4.8 million. The economic impact statewide was $188 million. But despite the size of its contribution to the economy, recreation is an area often overlooked by traditional water planning and management, according to Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board Chair Andre Wille.

“Recreation seems to really get the short end of the stick when it comes to streamflow management,” Wille said. “I think water managers in the Roaring Fork area and in a lot of other Western Slope rivers, the water managers are all about irrigation and recreation isn’t really taken into as much consideration as it should be, especially considering the economic impact of recreation and the importance to the citizens.”

About 40% of the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers is sent to Front Range fields and cities — including Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — through transmountain diversions. When the Twin Lakes tunnel underneath Independence Pass ratchets its intake up or down, it can affect boating conditions downstream on the Roaring Fork and diversions out of the Fryingpan can affect flows on the lower Roaring Fork.

The information collected in the survey could help water managers better plan when and how much water to divert.

“It’s just a chance to get some data from recreation users and it would be nice if water managers would take that into consideration,” Wille said. “There might be other stream management strategies that are beneficial to the Roaring Fork. There might be a better way to manage filling (Twin Lakes) reservoir.”

The survey, which will be available on the American Whitewater and Pitkin County Healthy Rivers websites and local paddling forums, will ask boaters about their skill level, frequency of participation and craft type. The survey will allow boaters to assign use-acceptability ratings to various streamflows and ask them for their perspectives on water management planning. American Whitewater aims to collect at least 150 surveys each from boaters on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers.

James Foerster, owner of Aspen-based rafting company Elk Mountain Adventures, said he’s excited to see the county focusing on recreational boating. The company is one of three, along with Blazing Adventures and Aspen Whitewater that run trips on the Roaring Fork.

Foerster’s company runs what they call “adventurous” rafting trips from Cemetery Lane to Jaffee Park in Woody Creek on the Slaughterhouse section of the Fork, as well as “family-friendly trips” from Jaffee Park to Wingo Junction above Basalt on the Toothache section and from Hooks Spur Bridge, near the Fed Ex outlet by Willits, down the river to the Catherine Store Road bridge above Carbondale.

He says guides will change the put-in and take-out locations to adapt to changing flows as the season goes on.

“I think every commercial outfitter would tell you more water is better,” Foerster said. “I think what it really comes down to is the flows we get coming through Aspen in late July and August, they are unsustainable. And the lower Crystal as well, mainly because of diversions and ditches.”

Carbondale-based Lotic Hydrological will develop the survey. The findings will be synthesized and presented as technical reports by December 2020.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the June 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Governor Signs Bill to Fund Arkansas Valley Conduit — Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District applauded state approval of a $100 million financing package for the Arkansas Valley Conduit that will allow construction to begin in the near future.

The Colorado General Assembly passed the annual Colorado Water Conservation project bill which contains the funding earlier this month, and Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Monday.

“The Arkansas Valley Conduit will be a lifeline for the Lower Arkansas Valley for generations to come,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern District. “Governor Polis, the General Assembly and the CWCB have all shown vision and foresight with this support of the AVC. This goes beyond just financing a pipeline, because really it’s an investment to assure clean drinking water for the future.”

Long also noted the strong bipartisan support the AVC enjoys from the entire Colorado congressional delegation, and noted in particular the leadership of Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, and Congressmen Scott Tipton and Ken Buck.

“I want to thank the CWCB board and staff for including this funding in their annual bill, and express our sincere gratitude to the legislators from the Arkansas Basin for their leadership and support,” said Kevin Karney, chairman of the District’s AVC committee. “The recognition by the State of Colorado of the benefit of partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation on this project is an enormous boost.”

The AVC is estimated to cost between $564 million and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period. The $100 million in state funding would include $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants over the life of the project. When complete, the AVC will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities.

The AVC had received funding since 2010 to prepare for construction of the 130-mile pipeline which will deliver a safe drinking water supply to the Lower Arkansas Valley. In February of this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $28 million of FY ’20 funding was being directed to the conduit, in an effort to move from planning and design into construction. An additional $8 million has been requested for FY ’21 and is under consideration by Congress.

“The unanimous approval of this funding package by the CWCB board last November was the absolute catalyst for an improved federal funding picture,” said Southeastern District Executive Director Jim Broderick. “Colorado, like other Western states, recognizes developing a strong partnership with Reclamation allows us to overcome water quality and water supply challenges in rural areas.”

Arkansas Valley Conduit “A Path Forward” November 22, 2019 via Southeastern.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 750 CFS in Black Canyon #runoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 1650 cfs on Tuesday, June 30th. Releases are being adjusted to maintain flows near the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The June 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 59% of average for April-July inflows.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for June through August.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 750 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 650 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

Navajo Dam operations update

Update: From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, and a dry weather forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Wednesday, July 1st starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, and a dry weather forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Tuesday, June 30th starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Palisade sewer study completed — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dan West):

Palisade needs to decommission its aging wastewater lagoons and a new study shows piping the town’s waste to the Clifton Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment plant is the most cost effective.

The Palisade Sewer Study looked at several options for treating Palisade’s wastewater, Town Administrator Janet Hawkinson said. The two main options were to build a new treatment plant in Palisade or send the waste to Clifton.

“What the city found is that (piping to Clifton) is financially better for the town,” Hawkinson said. “It’s about half the price to take a line to Clifton versus us building our own treatment plant and then decommissioning our lagoons.”

A brand new plant would cost around $15 million, Hawkinson said, while utilizing Clifton’s existing facility would cost around $7 million. Decommissioning the lagoons will cost around $3 million, she said and will have to be done under either plan, as they will not be able to meet water treatment guidelines…

Town staff are beginning to research grant opportunities to pay for design and engineering work on the project, which Hawkinson said would cost around $500,000. She said the Department of Agriculture has some grants available and that the town was looking into other funding sources as well.

Palisade is just east of Grand Junction and lies in a fertile valley between the Colorado River and Mt. Garfield which is the formation in the picture. They’ve grown wonderful peaches here for many years and have recently added grape vineyards such as the one in the picture. By inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/15301560980/, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Growing thirst from Front Range cities threatens Holy Cross Wilderness — The Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Vail Daily (John LaConte):

The public’s chance to comment ends Tuesday in the U.S. Forest Service’s consideration of a permit that would allow the first action in a process which could create a new reservoir in the Homestake Valley near Red Cliff.

The special use permit would allow the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to build roads and drill holes in an area of the White River National Forest which is near the Holy Cross Wilderness, 6 miles southwest of Red Cliff.

Ultimately, if constructed, a 20,000-acre-foot reservoir would flood a corner of the wilderness area and would also relocate Homestake Road, requiring the removal of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness area.

But at this time, the Forest Service is only seeking comments on the impacts of the drilling, not the dam. The drilling would give crews information about the feasibility of dam sites, but the drilling in itself would have impacts to the forest as 8-foot-by-22-foot drill rigs could cross wetlands and cut down trees in the path to their drilling destination, where holes of 150 feet would be dug…

In soliciting comments in June, “we are focusing solely on the potential impacts from this preliminary geophysical work,” said Marcia Gilles, acting Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger. “Any further proposals that might be submitted after this information is collected would be evaluated separately.”

[…]

“They’re calling this the Whitney Project; I’m calling it Homestake III,” said Mike Browning, a former water attorney in Colorado who is now the chair of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance.

The “Homestake III” handle is in reference to the project known as Homestake II, in the early 1980s, which bears a strong resemblance to the Whitney Creek effort. The Homestake II project also sought to build another reservoir beneath the existing Homestake Reservoir, which was constructed in 1964. The Homestake II idea was eliminated in large part to Hern’s efforts.

“(Hern) was really the spokesperson and really the leader of that movement in the 1980s,” Browning said. “The Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund was marshaling the local comments and local opposition.”

In his Sunday letter to the Forest Service, Hern said the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, which he co-founded In 1982, has not changed its stance on the project.

“The people of Colorado love this wilderness and have supported our efforts for over forty years to establish it and preserve it,” Hern wrote. “You should not underestimate the intensity of these feelings and the attitudes of the public in this matter.”

[…]

ERO Resources Corporation and RJH Consultants, Inc., which prepared the technical report for the special use permit application, referenced the memorandum of understanding in its report.

“The objective of this study is to evaluate opportunities to construct reservoir storage to develop a portion of the yield contemplated in the (memorandum of understanding),” according to the report, which was published in November. “Specifically, the subsurface explorations described below would provide valuable information regarding the suitability of the area for reservoir development. The cities are currently considering and evaluating multiple reservoir sizes with potential storage capacities between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet.”

Who was George I. Haight and why is he now relevant to the #ColoradoRiver basin? — @AmericanRivers #COriver #aridification

At capacity, Lake Powell holds more than 26 million acre-feet of water that originates as snowpack from the Upper Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation)

From the American Rivers blog (Eric Kuhn):

As the Colorado basin grapples with climate change, shortages and declining reservoir levels, we revisit one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of “the Law of the River.”

As Utah pushes forward with its proposed Lake Powell Pipeline – an attempt move over 80,000 acre feet per year of its Upper Colorado River Basin allocation to communities in the Lower Basin – it is worth revisiting one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of what we have come to call “the Law of the River.”

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via The Water Education Foundation)

The division of the great river’s watershed into an “Upper Basin” and “Lower Basin”, with separate water allocations to each, was the masterstroke that allowed the successful completion of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. But the details of how that separation plays out in water management today were not solidified until a little-discussed U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1955, in the early years of the decade-long legal struggle known as “Arizona v. California.”

Most, if not all, of the small army of lawyers, engineers, water managers, board members, academics, tribal officials, NGO representatives, and journalists now actively engaged in Colorado River issues are familiar with the 1963 Arizona v. California Supreme Court decision. It was Arizona’s great legal victory over California that cleared the road for the Congressional authorization and construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Many in the ranks are also quite familiar with Simon H. Rifkind, the court-appointed Special Master who conducted lengthy hearings and worked his way through a mountain of case briefs and exhibits before writing his 1960 master’s report that set the stage for the court’s decision. Few of us, however, are familiar with George I. Haight. Haight was the first special master in the case, appointed on June 1st, 1954. He died unexpectedly in late July 1955. Two weeks before his death he made a critical decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court and set the basic direction of the case. Today, as the basin grapples with climate change, shortages, declining reservoir levels, and most recently, Utah’s quest to build the Lake Powell Pipeline exporting a portion of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin to meet future needs in the St. George area, Haight’s forgotten opinion looms large.

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation, a new study finds. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]

In late 1952 when Arizona filed the case, it was about disputed issues over the interpretation of both the Colorado River Compact and the Boulder Canyon Project Act. Among its claims for relief, Arizona asked the court to find that it was entitled to 3.8 million acre-feet under Articles III(a) & (b) of the compact (less a small amount for Lower Basin uses by New Mexico in the Gila River and Utah in the Virgin River drainages), that under the Boulder Canyon Project Act California was strictly limited to 4.4 million acre-feet per year, that its “stream depletion” theory of measuring compact apportionments be approved, and that evaporation off Lake Mead be assigned to each Lower Division state in proportion to their benefits from Lake Mead. California, of course, vigorously opposed Arizona’s claims. One of California’s first moves was to file a motion with Haight to bring into the case as “indispensable” parties the Upper Division states; Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. California’s logic was that the compact issues raised by Arizona impacted both basins and every basin state (history has shown California was right on).

The Upper Division states were desperately opposed to participating in the case. Backing the clock up to the early 1950s, these states, including Arizona, had successfully negotiated, ratified, and obtained Congressional approval for the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. They were now actively seeking Congressional legislation for the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSPA), the federal law that would authorize Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) and numerous other Upper Basin projects. Upper Basin officials feared that if they became actively involved in Arizona v. California, California’s powerful Congressional delegation would use it as an excuse to delay approval of CRSPA (as it had successfully done with the CAP). Thus, these states and their close ally, Arizona, opposed California’s motion.

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

The basis of their opposition was relatively simple; Under the compact, except for the Upper Basin’s obligations at Lee Ferry, the basins were separate hydrologic entities, the issues raised by Arizona were solely Lower Basin matters, and that Arizona was asking for nothing from the Upper Division states. Their strategy worked. In a July 11, 1955 opinion, Haight recommended California’s motion be denied. By a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld his recommendation and, except for Utah and New Mexico as to their Lower Basin interests only, the Upper Division states were out of the case. The Upper Division states cheered the decision. Arizona’s crafty Mark Wilmer devised a new litigation strategy built on Haight’s logic and ultimately his successor, Simon Rifkind, ruled that there was no need to decide any issue related to the compact. For more details, see Science Be Dammed, Chapter 15.

In convincing Special Master Haight to deny California’s motion, Arizona and the Upper Division states turned him into an ardent fan of the Colorado River Compact. Haight opined “The compact followed years of controversy between the states involved. It was an act seemingly based on thorough knowledge by the negotiators. It must have been difficult of accomplishment. It was the product of real statesmanship.” In justifying his decision, he found “The Colorado River Compact evidences far seeing practical statesmanship. The division of the Colorado River System waters into Upper and Lower Basins was, and is, one of its most important features. It left to each Basin the solution to that Basin’s problems and did not tie to either Basin the intra-basin problems of the other.” A few pages later, he says “The Compact, by its terms, provides two separate groups in the Colorado River Basin. Each of these is independent in its sphere. The members of each group make the determinations respecting that group’s problems,” and finally “because by Article III of the Colorado River Compact there was apportioned to each basin a given amount of water, and it is impossible for the Upper Basin States to have any interest in water allocated to the Lower Basin States.”

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

Fifty five years later, how would Special Master Haight view the problems the Colorado River Basin is facing where climate change is impacting the water available to both basins, through the coordinated operation of Lakes Mead and Powell the basin’s drought contingency plans are interconnected, critical environmental resources in the Grand Canyon, located in the Lower Basin, are impacted by the Upper Basin’s Glen Canyon Dam, and most recently two states, New Mexico and Utah, have found it desirable to use a portion of each’s Upper Basin water in the Lower Basin? With one major exception, I think he would be pleased. Haight understood that through Article VI, the compact parties had a path to resolve their disputes and implement creative solutions. The first part of Article VI sets forth a formal approach where each state governor appoints a commissioner, the commissioners meet and negotiate a solution to the issue at hand and then take the solution back to their states for legislative ratification. This formal process has never been used, but luckily, Article VI also provides an alternative. The last sentence states “nothing herein contained shall prevent the adjustment of any such claim or controversy by any present method or by direct future legislative action of the interested states.” After Arizona refused to ratify the compact in the 1920s Colorado’s Delph Carpenter successfully used federal legislation to implement a six-state ratification strategy (the Boulder Canyon Project Act).

The exception that would concern Haight is Utah’s unilateral decision to transfer about 80,000 acre-feet of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin via the Lake Powell Pipeline. The LPP violates the basic rationale that Haight used to keep the Upper Basin out of Arizona v. California and for which Utah and its sister Upper Division states fought so hard. The project uses water apportioned for exclusive use in the Upper Basin, terms carefully defined by the compact negotiators, to solve a water supply problem in the Lower Basin.

Caption: Imperial Valley, Salton Sea, CA / ModelRelease: N/A / PropertyRelease: N/A (Newscom TagID: ndxphotos113984) [Photo via Newscom]

Defenders of Utah’s may believe a precedent has already been set– the Navajo-Gallup Pipeline, which delivers 7,500 acre-feet of New Mexico’s Upper Basin water to the community of Gallup and areas of the eastern Navajo Nation. But if that is to be cited as a precedent, it comes with an important caveat. New Mexico addressed the compact issues through federal legislation with the participation and consent of the other basin states and stakeholders. Utah, by comparison, apparently believes federal legislation, and by implication the consent of others in the basin, is not needed.

In the face of climate change induced declining river flows and increased competition for the river’s water, there is no question that the basic compact ground rules devised by the negotiators a century ago will face increasing pressure. There will likely be more future projects and decisions that, like the LPP, will challenge the strict language of the compact. The question now facing the basin is how will this revisiting be accomplished? Will it be done in an open and transparent manner that engages not just the states, but a broad range of stakeholders and implemented through legislation (not easy in today’s world, as a practical matter it requires no opposition from any major party to get through the Senate) or by a series of unilateral decisions designed to benefit or advantage individual states or specific entities, but with no input or buy-in from the basin as a whole?

A long-simmering water battle comes to a boil in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

From The Los Angeles Times (Sammy Roth):

If, like me, you live in Los Angeles — or Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City — you drink water from the Colorado River. You probably eat vegetables grown with Colorado River water, and maybe you eat beef fed on alfalfa grown with Colorado River water. When you switch on a light or charge your phone, some of the electricity may be generated by Colorado River water.

The Colorado, in other words, makes life possible in the American West.

Nowhere is that more true than the Imperial Valley, a sun-baked desert in California’s southeastern corner where around 500 landowning families use Colorado River water to grow much of the country’s winter vegetables. I’ve spent lots of time there as a reporter. It’s a tragic and beautiful place. Beautiful in the way the sunlight glints across a lattice of irrigation canals that crisscross endless green farm fields, and tragic in the widespread poverty and pollution that undergird a lucrative agricultural economy.

And more recently, tragic because Imperial County has California’s highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases.

In terms of water, the valley is especially important because the Imperial Irrigation District holds a right to an astounding 3.1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s annual flow. That’s roughly 20% of all the river’s water allocated across seven western states. It’s about two-thirds of California’s stake in the Colorado, and as much as Arizona and Nevada receive combined.

Climate change, meanwhile, is diminishing the river’s flow, which is especially worrying because longstanding legal agreements already promise western states more water from the Colorado than is typically available, as John Fleck and Eric Kuhn detailed in a recent book. There’s a reckoning coming, unless cities and farm districts across the West band together to limit consumption.

The coming dealmaking will almost certainly need to involve the river’s largest water user, the Imperial Irrigation District.

But at the moment, it’s unclear to what extent the district actually controls the Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water.

That was the issue debated in a San Diego courtroom last week, or at least a video conference standing in for a courtroom. A three-judge appellate court panel heard arguments from lawyers for the irrigation district and landowning farmer Mike Abatti, who sued the agency to overturn a water apportionment plan that he says would unjustly limit his use of water for irrigation.

Who is Mike Abatti? As a reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, I spent many months investigating his enormous influence in the Imperial Valley. I discovered a pattern of government officials with ties to Abatti making decisions that advanced his financial interests — including a public agency that awarded a $35-million energy contract to a company led by Abatti, and a district attorney who publicly cleared Abatti of wrongdoing on the energy contract after describing him as a “good friend.”

I also found that the trial court judge who presided over Abatti’s water lawsuit against the Imperial Irrigation District — and ruled in his favor — had a long history of business and social ties to the Abatti family.

In a sweeping decision, Judge L. Brooks Anderholt found that Imperial Valley farmers hold a “constitutionally protected property right” to the region’s Colorado River water, and that the irrigation district’s elected board members have a limited ability to reduce deliveries to agricultural users. Anderholt’s ruling seemed to tilt the balance of power from the district to landowning farmers…

Lawyers for both sides focused their arguments on the central question of who controls the water.

Abatti’s attorney, Cheryl Orr, said farmers have a right to however much water they “reasonably need” to cultivate their crops, based on past use. (Farmers currently use 97% of the Imperial Valley’s water.) Orr told the judges that under established law, farmers “have a priority of water that is different and higher than just an ordinary use,” such as household drinking water.

The irrigation district board “just unilaterally determined that they were going to reorder the priorities and put agriculture at the bottom of the list,” Orr said. “They’re treating farmers as customers of the water district. And they’re not customers.”

Irrigation district attorney Jennifer Meeker countered that the agency’s elected board members have wide latitude in how they apportion water, so long as they don’t cut off deliveries to farmers. A constitutionally protected property right, she said, would give farmers “a first grab at the water to fulfill all of their past use, and then whatever’s left can go to anybody else.”

“If you get to a point where there is such a shortage that there just simply is not enough water, everybody is going to end up being curtailed,” Meeker told the judges. The irrigation district’s elected board, she said, “has the right and the discretion” to develop a plan for spreading water cutbacks fairly among farmers, cities and industrial users such as geothermal power plants.

Whichever side wins, the outcome is liable to radiate outward across the West, like a stone creating ripples in a reservoir.

More control for the landowning farmers could make future Colorado River negotiations more difficult — or make it harder for growing cities to acquire water supplies that rightfully belong to the Imperial Valley, depending on how you look at it.

It’s not just Abatti’s lawsuit that could affect Imperial’s role in high-stakes Colorado River negotiations. Local politics are an important factor, too. In April, I wrote about a contentious election for a seat on the irrigation district board. The campaign has fueled rampant speculation over which candidates might secretly be backed by which local power brokers — including Abatti.

#Drought task force activates, Colorado Springs Utilities looks to reservoirs — The #ColoradoSprings Independent #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

US Drought Monitor June 23, 2020.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

As drought conditions deepen, Colorado Governor Jared Polis on June 23 sought activation of the state’s Drought Task Force and Phase 2 of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.

The governor’s office said in a release the drought spans 81 percent of the state, with severe and extreme conditions affecting a third of the state, including El Paso County.

Colorado’s Drought Task Force includes officials with the departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs and Public Safety, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The second phase of the plan means the task force will assess initial damages and impacts of drought in areas experiencing severe or extreme drought and recommend mitigation measures. In addition, the Agricultural Impact Task Force is activated to make an assessment on physical and economic impacts.

Meantime, there doesn’t appear to be any plan to further restrict water use in Colorado Springs where customers have been under restrictions since May to water their lawns no more than three times a week…

Colorado Springs currently has more than two years’ worth of water in storage, which is good news for gardeners, because more severe water restrictions wouldn’t be triggered until the amount in storage falls to a 1.5-year supply, [Pat] Wells says.

View from the Pitkin County end of Homestake Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Utilities recently completed land acquisition for the 30,000-acre-foot Gary Bostrom Reservoir, the second phase of SDS, which is planned for construction near Bradley Road southeast of the city in the next decade. Another project, called the Eagle River project in the mountains, will create another reservoir, hopefully by 2040 to 2050, Wells says…

Some years, snowpack fills reservoirs to the brim and rainfall reduces demand, but not every year.

“What we’re seeing is a lot more variability in the swings,” Wells says, noting that water managers study tree rings, climate change models and other data to try to predict what lies ahead.

“While our demand has flattened and we’re serving more customers with the same amount of water,” he says, “our supplies are becoming more variable.”

As Wells quips, quoting baseball legend Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Take the Colorado River, which provides water to multiple states and Mexico. It’s been in drought conditions for 20 years and provides 60 to 70 percent of Colorado Springs Utilities’ supply.

Climate change is causing the Southwest aridify. (Left) Since the 1930s, increasing temperatures have caused the percentage of precipitation going to evapotranspiration (ET) to increase at the expense of precipitation going to Colorado River flow, resulting in an unprecedented and still ongoing megadrought (shading) starting in 1999 (8). (Right) Higher temperatures have already reduced Colorado River flow by 13%, and projected additional warming, assuming continued high emissions of greenhouse gases, will increase ET while reducing river flow even more through the 21st century. Data on Left are 20-y running means from ref. 5, and data on Right are calculated from Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) 8.5 multimodel Coupled Model Intercomparison Project–Phase 5 (CMIP5) ensemble temperature increases projected for the Upper Colorado River Basin combined with temperature sensitivity of −9.3%/°C estimated by ref. 5, assuming no change in precipitation. Graphic credit: Jonathan Overpeck/Brad Udall

“We are going to reach a point, as demand continues to grow in the West and supplies become uncertain, we’re going to have to use water more efficiently and cut back some of our demand on the Colorado River,” he says.

At present, Utilities is capable of delivering 95,000 acre feet of water on demand, but that demand is forecast to rise to 136,000 acre feet in the decades to come.

That’s why Utilities is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to expanding its water supply.

“With a growing population, we have to bring in more supplies,” Wells says. “Our storage needs grow as our cities grow.”

Besides storage, Utilities wants to work more deals with agricultural users like it did in the Arkansas Valley in 2018. Another strategy might be to expand the number of non-potable systems used for irrigation. But ultimately, Utilities, like other water providers in the West, likely will be confronted with re-treating and recycling water back into its domestic delivery system.

“In the next 30 to 50 years it may become more technically feasible to do direct potable reuse,” he says, noting that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has approved a grant for a Utilities reuse demonstration project in partnership with Aurora, Denver and Colorado School of Mines.

From The Associated Press via The Aurora Sentinel:

Polis’ order follows dwindling mountain snowpack, a warmer-than-average spring and far less precipitation than normal, Colorado Politics reported Wednesday. It also comes as the U.S. Drought Monitor reported this week that extreme drought expanded in northern New Mexico and eastern Colorado.

The order also activates an state agricultural task force to determine the drought’s potential crop and cattle damage impact and the possible economic fallout for the state’s $8 billion farming industry.

Abnormally dry conditions affect mountain and plains regions and roughly 80% of the state’s landmass is in some form of drought.

Winter snowfall was low in most of Colorado and May precipitation was less than half of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Reservoir levels are dwindling in southern and southwestern Colorado, including the agricultural San Luis Valley and the Gunnison River Basin, the service said.

Becky Bolinger, a climatologist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, said high winds, low humidity, high temperatures and lack of precipitation have produced a “flash drought” situation with higher than normal water evaporation in much of the state that particularly affects agriculture.

The summer promises higher temperatures and low rainfall and the summer monsoons that deliver rain from the southwest won’t make up for current conditions, Bolinger said.

Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture (Sara Leonard):

Governor Jared Polis requested activation of Colorado’s Drought Task Force and Phase 2 of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan this week as drought conditions deepen, reaching more than 81% of the state, with severe and extreme drought conditions in 33% of the state (40 counties).

Colorado’s Drought Task Force – which includes leadership from the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs, Public Safety, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board – determined the need to activate Phase 2 of the Drought Plan on June 18 after a third of the state reached extreme drought conditions. “Phase 2” indicates officially directing the Drought Task Force to assess initial damages and impacts of drought in areas experiencing severe or extreme drought and to recommend mitigation measures. This Phase also activates the Agricultural Impact Task Force, which will conduct an initial assessment on physical and economic impacts and recommend opportunities for incident mitigation.

Counties impacted by abnormally dry (D0) and moderate (D1) drought will continue to be closely monitored. The 40 counties currently experiencing severe (D2) and extreme (D3) drought include: Alamosa, Archuleta, Baca, Bent, Chaffee, Cheyenne, Conejos, Costilla, Crowley, Custer, Delta, Dolores, Eagle, El Paso, Elbert, Fremont, Garfield, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Huerfano, Kiowa, Kit Carson, La Plata, Las Animas, Lincoln, Mesa, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, Otero, Ouray, Pitkin, Prowers, Pueblo, Rio Grande, Saguache, San Miguel, San Juan, Washington, and Yuma.

To stay informed on Colorado drought issues, sign up for the State’s Drought Updates or visit the Colorado Water Conservation Board website.

From The Sterling Journal Advocate (Jeff Rice):

The extreme northern tier of counties, including Logan County, has so far been spared from the ongoing drought. South Platte Basin reservoir levels are at 89 percent of capacity basin-wide, down a percentage point from the same time last year. In the lower reaches, irrigation reservoirs are between 76 percent of capacity at Empire and 97 percent capacity at North Sterling, again each a few percentage points down from a year ago.

West Drought Monitor June 23, 2020.

#Arizona starts talks on addressing dwindling #ColoradoRiver — The Rock Springs Rocket-Miner #COriver #aridification

From The Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via The Rock Springs Rocket-Miner:

Arizona is getting a jump start on what will be a yearslong process to address a dwindling but key water source in the U.S. West…

Arizona water officials are gathering Thursday to start talking about what comes next, while other states have had more informal discussions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is reviewing the effectiveness of the 2007 guidelines. The report is expected later this year.

Climate change is causing the Southwest aridify. (Left) Since the 1930s, increasing temperatures have caused the percentage of precipitation going to evapotranspiration (ET) to increase at the expense of precipitation going to Colorado River flow, resulting in an unprecedented and still ongoing megadrought (shading) starting in 1999 (8). (Right) Higher temperatures have already reduced Colorado River flow by 13%, and projected additional warming, assuming continued high emissions of greenhouse gases, will increase ET while reducing river flow even more through the 21st century. Data on Left are 20-y running means from ref. 5, and data on Right are calculated from Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) 8.5 multimodel Coupled Model Intercomparison Project–Phase 5 (CMIP5) ensemble temperature increases projected for the Upper Colorado River Basin combined with temperature sensitivity of −9.3%/°C estimated by ref. 5, assuming no change in precipitation. Graphic credit: Jonathan Overpeck/Brad Udall

Navajo Nation files lawsuit against the U.S. @EPA over the Clean Water Act #DirtyWaterRule

From The Navajo Nation Facebook page:

The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit on Monday against the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, arguing that the recent 2020 Waters of the United States rule significantly diminishes the number and extent of Navajo waters protected by the Clean Water Act in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The new rule could also adversely impact the amount of federal funding that the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency receives for its water programs.

“At this point in time, with climate change occurring around the world, it’s more prudent than ever to protect our land, water and air. We, as Diné People, have a duty to preserve and conserve our natural resources to ensure that our future generations have access to clean water, air and land. The previous 2015 Waters of the United States rule provided clarity in protecting our Nation’s waters. Therefore, we strongly oppose and disagree with the revised WOTUS,” said President Nez.

The Nez-Lizer Administration is proposing to use $300 million from the CARES Act funding that the Navajo Nation received for water infrastructure and agriculture projects, which will require clean water resources to development and construct.

“Our Navajo people always say that water is life, and that’s very true. When we plan for any type of water projects, we are planning for future generations, not just for today or tomorrow. Clean water is a necessity for life,” said Vice President Myron Lizer.

“Clean water should be protected not only by the Clean Water Act, but also by the Navajo Nation’s treaty rights. It is a necessity of life that is vital to preservation of Navajo culture and tradition,” added Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul.

Department Manager for Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs Ronnie Ben said, “Since the inception of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs, our main purpose and goal has always been to protect our Nation’s water sources. However, our job becomes difficult when the federal government rolls back environmental regulations in favor of polluters. We currently have organizations on the Navajo Nation who are not in compliance with Navajo Nation and Federal environmental laws and laxing Waters of the United States doesn’t help bring these companies into compliance.”

President Nez and Vice President Lizer thank Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul, Navajo Nation Department of Justice Attorney Michael Daughtry, Contract Attorney Jill Grant, and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency water program personnel for their efforts in bringing this suit on behalf of the Navajo people.

Remarkable Drop in #ColoradoRiver Water Use a Sign of #Climate Adaptation — Circle of Blue #COriver #aridification

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

Use of Colorado River water in the three states of the river’s lower basin fell to a 33-year low in 2019, amid growing awareness of the precarity of the region’s water supply in a drying and warming climate.

Arizona, California, and Nevada combined to consume just over 6.5 million acre-feet last year, according to an annual audit from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the lower basin. That is about 1 million acre-feet less than the three states are entitled to use under a legal compact that divides the Colorado River’s waters.

The last time water consumption from the river was that low was in 1986, the year after an enormous canal in Arizona opened that allowed the state to lay claim to its full Colorado River entitlement.

States have grappled in the last two decades with declining water levels in the basin’s main reservoirs — Mead and Powell — while reckoning with clear scientific evidence that climate change is already constricting the iconic river and will do further damage as temperatures rise.

For water managers, the steady drop in water consumption in recent years is a signal that conservation efforts are working and that they are not helpless in the face of daunting environmental changes.

“It’s quite a turnaround from where we were a decade ago and really, I think, optimistic for dealing with chronic shortages on the river in the future, knowing that we can turn the dial back and reduce demand significantly, all three states combined,” said Bill Hasencamp, the manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional wholesaler and one of the river’s largest users.

Observers of the basin’s intricate politics are also impressed with the trend lines for a watershed that irrigates about 5 million acres of farmland and provides 40 million people in two countries and 29 tribal nations with a portion of their water.

“It is an incredibly important demonstration of the fact that we can use less water in this incredibly important water-use region,” John Fleck told Circle of Blue. Fleck is the director of the University of New Mexico water resources program.

Projections for 2020 indicate that conservation will continue, though not quite at last year’s pace. Halfway through the year, the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts water consumption to be roughly 6.8 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water that will flood an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or 325,851 gallons.

“I have to give them credit,” Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University, told Circle of Blue about the lower basin states. “They’re working hard to get these numbers.”

Raising Lake Mead

Just five years ago, in 2015, the three states were making use of their entire 7.5-million-acre-foot allotment. By statute and tradition, the basin is divided into a lower basin, where use is higher, and an upper basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The basins have different water allocation systems and rules governing its use.

In the lower basin, Arizona’s annual allocation is 2.8 million acre-feet, but last year it used just 2.5 million. Nevada used 233,000 of its 300,000 acre-feet. The big savings were in California, which used only 3.8 million of its 4.4 million acre-feet. California hasn’t used that little water from the Colorado since the 1950s, Fleck said.

The drop in California last year is due in large part to Metropolitan Water District, which consumed only 537,000 acre-feet. Five years ago, the district’s tally was around 1 million acre-feet per year. Urban conservation and development of local water sources have played a large role in the decline, but the district’s Colorado River water use is also influenced by snow levels in the Sierra Nevada mountains. When more water is available to be imported from the northern part of the state, as it was last year, the district leans less heavily on the Colorado River.

Graphic credit: Circle of Blue via Tableau.com

Reclamation’s annual audit measures the amount of water consumed by humans, plants, and animals in the lower basin. Consumptive use equals total withdrawals minus any water that is returned to the river system, from irrigation runoff or wastewater treatment plants.

As meticulous as it is, the audit neglects a significant piece of the basin’s water budget: evaporation from reservoirs and system losses, which is water consumed by riverside vegetation and absorbed by the ground. Together, these add up to about 1 million acre-feet per year, Jeremy Dodds, water accounting and verification group manager for Reclamation, told Circle of Blue.

This factor is part of the lower basin’s “structural deficit,” which means that total demand in the lower basin — use by Arizona, California, and Nevada, plus evaporation and required deliveries to Mexico — exceeds the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the lower basin’s supply source.

Gimbel, who was the principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of Interior from 2014 to 2016, said that despite the conservation efforts reflected in the audit, the lower basin still has much work to do. “They’re closing the deficit, but they’re not there yet,” she said.

The goal of the lower basin’s conservation is to keep Lake Mead from a precipitous decline into “dead pool” territory, where the reservoir is too low to send water downstream. The dead-pool threshold is at elevation 895 feet. Not using 1 million acre-feet last year most certainly helped the reservoir. Dodds said that at the current elevation of 1,089 feet, each block of 85,000 acre-feet equals 1 foot of elevation. So last year’s conservation added 12 feet to Mead, compared to a scenario in which the three states use their full entitlement.

The conservation tool box that the states have employed has a range of instruments. Cities have provided incentives to remove grass lawns and replace inefficient toilets, showerheads, and washing machines. In Imperial Irrigation District, farmers have lined earthen canals with concrete to prevent seepage and they have agreed to fallow land to save water. Those measures, in both town and country, have helped to reduce demand. Supplies, on the other hand, have been bolstered by more investment in recycling and reuse, groundwater treatment, and desalination. As a whole, the seven states in the watershed came together in 2019 to modify rules for mandatory water-use restrictions that kick in as Lake Mead drops.

The decline in Colorado River water consumption mirrors regional and national trends. In Metropolitan Water District’s service area in Southern California, water use per person fell from about 181 gallons per person per day in the mid-1990s to 131 gallons in 2018, a drop of 27 percent. Colorado River consumption on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, in Arizona, is down about 20 percent since 2016.

According to Tom Ley, a water consultant to the tribes, the decline is due to changes in farming practices and participation in a land fallowing program that will see 10,000 acres taken out of production in the next three years. The tribes’ decrease in consumptive water use “may look even more dramatic once the 2020 report comes out,” Ley told Circle of Blue.

All of these actions amount to a shift in the perception of what’s possible, Fleck said.

“It shows that the expectation that a growing population and a robust agricultural economy require more water is wrong,” explained Fleck, who is optimistic about the basin’s capacity to wield the tools of conservation effectively. Environmental doom is not the inevitable outcome, he says. “We’re seeing success in the transition away from the tragedy narrative,” he added.

Still, there are minefields to navigate. There are dozens of proposals in the upper basin states to withdraw more water from the river, which, if they were built, would further stress supplies. Some of the water conserved in Lake Mead is stored as a credit that participating agencies can theoretically draw upon in the future. How agencies handle those withdrawals, especially if large requests are made as lake levels plummet, is an uncertainty. On top of that, a warming climate will suck more moisture from the basin, even before rain and snow reach the river.

A hot, dry spring this year in the upper basin is evidence of what aridity can do. Snowpack in the basin’s headwaters was roughly average on April 1 and runoff into Lake Powell, a key water supply indicator, was expected to be 78 percent of normal. But then dry conditions arrived in April and May. Combined with dehydrated soils, which took their share of water, the runoff forecast by June 1 had diminished to just 57 percent of normal.

Those climate signals are the counterbalance to the conservation success so far. Water managers, now wary, know the risk.

“Just hopefully we don’t get a string of dry years coming back,” Hasencamp said.

#LakePowell Reached Capacity 40 Years Ago. But What Do The Coming Decades Hold In Store? — KQER #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell. Photo credit: The National Park Service

From KUER (Lexi Perry):

The water has made development possible and is used for farms, homes and businesses. Meanwhile, recreation has risen to over 4 million annual visitors in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, with tourists bringing in over $420 million to local communities.

But climate scientists studying the Colorado River find the lake’s water source is quickly declining…

According to Brad Udall, a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University, the lake is crucial for honoring the commitments laid out in that Colorado River Compact.

“Lake Powell is what the upper basin considers its bank account for meeting required deliveries to the three lower basin states. So, it’s essential to the management of the river,” Udall said.

When Lake Powell reached capacity on June 22, 1980, it was a wetter period of time for the region. Today, the lake is just above half full, and a large part of that is because of climate change.

“Since the year 2000, the flow of the river is roughly down 20% and about half of that decline is due to higher temperatures,” Udall said.

And as states continue to use the water, lower flows mean there is less to store in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Even though extreme dry and wet years have fluctuated, the West is generally getting drier, said John Fleck, the director of water resources at the University of New Mexico.

“We really need to call [what we’re experiencing] aridification — the drying out of the Colorado River Basin because of climate change, we can’t just call it ‘drought’ anymore,” Fleck said. “It appears to be this permanent phenomenon that’s lowering the lake levels. You should not expect it to return to high lake levels over long periods of time. That’s just not something we can expect to happen.”

While the river flow has declined, the demand for water has increased with regional growth. Upper and lower basin states are making drought contingency plans to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels.

Udall said states will also have to rethink those original water allocations from the 1920s.

“It’s hard to balance the equities of trying to respect these agreements that people have planned on versus changing circumstances that make these agreements totally inappropriate for right now. And I don’t know what the answer is but something’s gotta give.”

[…]

Lexi Peery is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER’s Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow Lexi on Twitter @LexiFP

Major victory for the #GilaRiver, America’s most endangered river of 2019 — @AmericanRivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gila River. Photo credit: Dennis O’Keefe via American Rivers

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):

In a major victory for one of the Southwest’s last major free flowing rivers, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted 7-2 on Friday to end work on the Environmental Impact Statement for the Gila River diversion. The threat of the diversion spurred American Rivers to name the Gila America’s Most Endangered River® of 2019.

“This is a resounding victory for last year’s Most Endangered River and one of New Mexico’s greatest natural treasures. We applaud our partners for their years of work and the Interstate Stream Commission for recognizing the value of the free-flowing Gila River,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers.

The Gila River Diversion has long been a contentious, wasteful proposal, that would have devastated New Mexico’s last major wild river. Partners including the Gila River Indian Community, Gila Conservation Coalition, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance and Center for Biological Diversity have been vital to the effort to stop the diversion.

Flowing out of the nation’s first Wilderness Area, the Gila River supports outstanding examples of southwestern riparian forest, cold-water fisheries and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The Gila River is important to Indigenous peoples who have lived in southwestern New Mexico for thousands of years. Many cultural sites are found along the Gila River and throughout the watershed.

Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis advocates early engagement of tribes in the decision-making process. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

“Our people have lived on the banks of the Gila River in Arizona for thousands of years, and we have watched our River dwindle through overuse in the Upper Valley,” said Governor Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, located in Arizona on the banks of the Gila River. “We have known for decades that our River is in danger, so we were pleased to partner with American Rivers in the fight to protect the River. The action by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to end funding for the proposed Gila River diversion is a significant victory in our common fight to protect the Keli Akimel, as we call the River in our language. Hopefully, with this decision, we can put this wasteful proposal behind us for good. Our fight to protect the Gila will never be over, but this is a resounding victory and I want to thank our partner, American Rivers, for all their hard work in helping to bring this about.”

The diversion could have dried up the Gila River, impacting fish and wildlife and the local outdoor recreation and tourism economy. The diversions and infrastructure would have harmed critical habitat for seven threatened or endangered species. Declining groundwater levels caused by the diversion and new groundwater pumping would have threatened the cottonwood-sycamore-willow bosque, some of the last remaining intact riparian forest in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

Now that the diversion proposal is dead, the commission will have the opportunity to re-allocate nearly $70 million to more river-friendly, shovel-ready, local water supply projects benefitting tens of thousands of residents across Southwestern New Mexico, including infrastructure improvements in Deming, Lordsburg, Silver City, and greater Grant County.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

#Colorado’s oldest [pre-Boulder Canyon Project] #water rights get extra protection from state engineer — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Twenty-seven water rights on Coal Creek near Redstone, which were associated with the now-defunct Mid-Continent mine, were placed on the 2011 revised abandonment list. By a directive from the state engineer, the state’s oldest water rights are protected from ending up on the 2020 abandonment list, which comes out next month. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

For the second time, the state’s top water cop has directed the Western Slope’s oldest and most valuable water rights to be left off the once-a-decade abandonment list. That means hundreds of these mostly irrigation water rights have been granted immunity — even though they are no longer being used — from the threat of “use it or lose it,” further enshrining them in the state’s system of water administration and dealing a blow to the validity of the well-known adage.

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 it hasn’t, it could end up on the decennial abandonment list, which is scheduled to come out in July.

But a November 2018 email from state engineer Kevin Rein to all four Western Slope division engineers instructs them to not include pre-compact rights on the abandonment list. That includes all the water rights in the Yampa/White/Green, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan/Dolores river basins.

“Since the nature of the pre-compact water rights is unique in Colorado when it comes to administration of the Colorado River Compact, and in recognition of the fact that the value of the rights could benefit all water users in Colorado, as opposed to only the owner of the water right, I will ask that you direct your staff to do no further investigation of pre-compact water rights and to not include them in the Division Engineers Proposed Abandonment list for 2020,” the email reads.

A primary job of the state and division engineers is to administer Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.

Rein said he talked with major water providers and managers along the Front Range and on the Western Slope before making the decision, but he would not say which ones or anything about the nature of those conversations.

Former state engineer Dick Wolfe issued a similar directive regarding the 2010 abandonment list, meaning Colorado’s water rights that date to before June 25, 1929 — when Congress ratified the Colorado River Compact — have enjoyed an extra level of protection from state-led abandonment for two decades.

“We need to allow for the fact that if those water rights are abandoned and taken off the tabulation, then that amount of water is no longer available to Colorado,” Rein said.

But what exactly the value of unused, pre-compact water rights could have to all Colorado water users remains unclear. Post-compact water rights, meaning those after June 25, 1929, are still eligible for the abandonment list.

According to Rein, the decision to include water rights on an abandonment list is administrative one and he has statutory authority to revise the list.

Kevin Rein. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

Colorado River Compact

A major fear of Colorado water managers is what’s known as a “compact call.” If the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — don’t deliver the required 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years as specified in the Colorado River Compact to the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — it could lead to a compact call. This scenario, which looms larger each year with the increasing effects of drought and climate change on an over-allocated river, could trigger involuntary cutbacks for Colorado water users.

But water rights that had been perfected before the compact was ratified are exempt from these cutbacks. And now the state is adding unused, pre-compact water rights to this exempt category. In Colorado, many of these oldest water rights belong to Western Slope agriculture.

Like moving a pawn early in a chess match, it is unclear exactly how this directive from Rein could help Colorado in the future. Nobody really knows whether or how a compact call (or negotiations among states to avoid one) might play out. Therefore, no one can say exactly what value these pre-compact water rights have to Colorado.

Water experts and managers throughout the upper and lower basin were reluctant to talk about the issue and gave diplomatic responses to questions about the sensitive political issue of interstate compact compliance.

“I don’t know the answer,” Rein said. “I think there’s general agreement that these water rights may have value in a compact-call scenario. I don’t know because of the complexities of it.”

Some water experts say preserving these pre-compact water rights, even though they aren’t being used, could give Colorado stronger footing in potential negotiations with lower basin states by propping up Colorado’s consumptive-use tally on paper.

“I would say it’s a conservative approach and it might help in your negotiations with other states,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress. “You would be making the argument that we have this portfolio of water rights, these are still on the books. But again, you’re trying to forecast how a negotiation might proceed, and I think to meaningfully comment on that would be almost impossible right now.”

Preserving these irrigation water rights also means they would be available to transfer to other users in the future, such as Front Range water providers — whose water rights are mostly post-1929 and therefore vulnerable to cutbacks under a compact call — as the state continues to urbanize.

In a prepared statement, Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the water provider, which supplies water to 1.4 million people, “is supportive of the state’s efforts to protect Colorado’s pre-compact rights. This approach will benefit and help provide additional security for Colorado River water users on the West Slope and Front Range.”

Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University, agreed that hanging onto those pre-compact water rights could be in the state’s best interest.

“The idea of holding as many of those pre-compact rights in place makes sense from a purely Colorado-centric point of view,” said Waskom. “We still don’t know what a compact call or curtailment would look like, so we are going to stay as conservative and protective as we can.”

The Colorado River Water Conservation District is in favor of Rein’s directive, according to general counsel Peter Fleming. The Glenwood Springs-based River District works to protect water rights on the Western Slope, which often means advocating for agriculture interests.

But Fleming brings up an interesting point: The value of water rights in Colorado is based on them being used. If these water rights still exist on paper but haven’t been used in a decade — in some cases, two decades — what is their value?

“There’s this notion that pre-compact water rights are sacrosanct and very important, and that’s true if they have continued to be used and historically consumed,” Fleming said. “But you don’t just make water available by saying these rights that haven’t been used for X number of years still exist. So, I guess I would say it’s a risk-avoidance strategy, but it’s an unproven strategy.”

Coal Creek, where 27 water rights associated with the now-defunct Mid-Continent mine were placed on the 2011 revised abandonment list, flows into the Crystal River at Redstone. The state engineer has directed that all Western Slope, pre-Colorado River Compact rights are safe from state-led abandonment in 2020. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Abandonment

Rein’s directive also helps debunk the adage “use it or lose it.” While the pre-compact rights are not being used, they also are no longer in danger of being lost. The threat of the state taking away a water right has now disappeared for Western Slope pre-compact irrigation rights.

The often-misunderstood tenet “use it or lose it” is embodied by the abandonment process.

Some water users believe that if they don’t divert the full amount they are entitled to — even if they don’t always need that much — the state will take it away and it will be available to another water user. But the concept is much more nuanced than that.

Colorado water law says abandonment is “the termination of a water right in whole or in part as a result of the intent of the owner thereof to discontinue permanently the use of all or a part of the water available.”

Just not using the water will not lead to abandonment; there must be an intent to abandon the right.

For a water user to keep their water right, they must put the water to “beneficial use,” which in the case of irrigation water means growing crops. If the water has not been used for 10 years — meaning there are no diversion records and the local water commissioner does not see evidence of water use on their site visits — division engineers could presume that the water right has been abandoned. They put it on the state’s initial abandonment list, which is updated every 10 years and published in local newspapers.

Water-right holders then have one year to file an objection to their listing in writing with the division engineer.

“We don’t like close calls, so if they diverted the water 11 years ago, we are going think, ‘Eh, I don’t know,’ because we are talking about somebody’s property right,” said Alan Martellaro, Division Engineer for Water Division 5.

After working through the objections with water-right holders, the division engineer publishes the revised abandonment list. If a water-right holder still protests their placement on the list, they can go to water court to argue that they did not intend to abandon the water right.

For the 2010 Division 5 abandonment list, Martellaro said the pre-compact rights comprised easily half the list before Wolfe instructed division engineers to take them off. The 2011 revised Division 5 abandonment list included about 75 water rights, one-third of which were related to the now-defunct Mid-Continent mine on Coal Creek near Redstone where a 1981 explosion killed 15 miners.

The 2020 abandonment list is expected to come out in July.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story appeared in the June 22 edition of The Aspen Times.

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Use it or lose it.

That saying is at the heart of how access to water is managed in the western U.S. Laws that govern water in more arid states, like Colorado, incentivize users to always take their full share from rivers and streams, or risk the state rescinding it. The threat comes in the form of a once-a-decade document that lists those users on the brink of losing their access to one of the region’s most precious resources.

It’s called the Decennial Abandonment List — and being included on it strikes fear and paranoia into rural pockets of the state, where farmers and ranchers depend on water for their livelihoods. Farmers trade tales of neighbors who’ve been mistakenly listed, with a notice sent to a wrong address, and who eventually see their water rights effectively canceled. Abandonment horror stories are akin to urban — or in this case, rural — legend.

Western Colorado water lawyer Rob Pierce says there’s one thing his clients, mostly farmers and ranchers, are always asking him about.

“The whole concept of abandonment,” Pierce said. “It gets mentioned all the time.”

Pierce practices for the Grand Junction-based firm Dufford Waldeck, and he said interest in abandonment reaches its apex right before the state releases the list. Colorado’s initial abandonment list is scheduled for July 1, the first time it’s been updated since 2010. Preparations for this year’s list began in 2018.

Municipal water rights are subject to inclusion on the abandonment list, but show up in far fewer numbers than agricultural water rights.

By law, state regulators are required to compile the list every 10 years. It details all the water rights no longer being used to irrigate crops, flow through city plumbing systems or cool turbines in factories and power plants. If they’re determined to no longer be in use, they’re scrubbed from the record, and can’t be used again. Because the stakes are so high, Pierce said scuttlebutt about who’s on it and who’s not starts early…

The idea behind the abandonment list is rooted in Western water law. Ever since the 1800s, when the concept of prior appropriation became the dominant methodology to divvy up water in the region, Westerners have been able to petition for rights based on their ability to put it to “beneficial use.” Not using it? Then you can lose it.

But like many old adages in the West’s water lore, Pierce said, it’s more complicated than it sounds…

“It’s not as easy as ‘use it or lose it’ makes it sound I think,” [Kara] Godbehere said. “That terminology is maybe a little inflammatory or misleading because it’s not as though without you realizing it, your water right would just slip out of your hands.”

It’s actually pretty difficult to lose it, Godbehere said. First, a user has to stop diverting the water for a long time. She points out abandonment lists come out once in a decade, and it sometimes takes an even longer period of 15 to 20 years to establish non-use. Users aren’t likely to put their right in jeopardy unless there’s a strong pattern of non-use, she said. And, even more importantly, she said, you have to intend to abandon it. It’s not an accident.

“It’s not as though it just sort of disappears one day and somebody is left wondering, where did my water go?” Godbehere said…

Rights can either be fully or partially abandoned as well. If a farmer switches to a more water-efficient crop, like replacing a field of alfalfa hay with hemp for example, the water consumed over time could be less. And the water right used to irrigate that field could end up being partially, not completely, abandoned.

More than 2,700 individual water rights were initially listed as abandoned on the 2010 list. After going through a court process, where people who think they’ve been erroneously included have time to appeal, the list was whittled down to roughly 2,200 water rights that were officially declared abandoned, according to records from the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The vast majority of those rights were from farms and ranches, used to irrigate crops or pastureland. Agriculture uses about 80% of all available water in Colorado…

The abandonment list allows his department to clean up the books every now and then, and remove old rights from the record. Without abandonment, Rein said, a situation could arise where someone with old water rights, who hadn’t used them in a long time, all of a sudden starts using them again. That new use could upend how a whole water system functions, leaving some users short…

The Colorado River. Photo credit: Abby Burk

This year’s list also reflects some ongoing uncertainty in the realm of Western water politics. Earlier this year Rein sent a message to his division engineers, the state officials who compile the abandonment lists in their regions, telling them not to abandon rights that pre-date the 1929 Boulder Canyon Project Act, the piece of legislation that authorized the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

Colorado is still uncertain what role abandonment might play in the hypothetical legal battle that could result from a violation of the Colorado River compact, which spells out a certain amount of water the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are expected to send downriver to Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.

Those pre-1929 rights are called “present-perfected rights,” and likely aren’t subject to any sort of curtailment that would result from a compact call on the river. They’re some of the oldest, and most valuable, water rights in the entire Colorado River watershed.

But how those rights play into it is still unknown. Rein said after consulting with lawyers at the Colorado attorney general’s office, he instructed his division engineers not to include them. The same thing happened in 2010, so for more than 20 years, those pre-1929 rights haven’t been included on the list.

How do those present-perfected rights benefit Colorado’s standing in a protracted legal battle over the management of the Colorado River?

“That’s where I need to just honestly tell you, I don’t know,” Rein said. “And I’m not embarrassed to say I don’t know.”

An irrigation system known as a center pivot sprinkler sits in a field near Longmont, Colo. The systems have helped Colorado use its farm water more efficiently, but state use still exceeds the national average. Credit: Jerd Smith via The Fresh Water News (Water Education Colorado)

“The most valuable thing that people have on a farm or ranch, is the water right,” said Jeni Arndt, a Democratic state representative from Fort Collins.

In general, the more water you have rights to, the more money it’s worth. The actual value can vary depending on drought conditions, and whether nearby residential development or other new demands for water are coming online. So if the volume is tied to a dollar amount, and a user can be paid big sums of money to transfer their right to a new use, why would anyone ever want to conserve it?

The latest outlooks are hot off the presses from the Climate Prediction Center. What do they have against the upper #ColoradoRiver Basin? #COriver #aridification

State takes action against West Elk Mine expansion into protected #Colorado Roadless Area — The Crested Butte News

West Elk Mine. Photo credit Colorado Division of Mining, Minerals and Geology.

From The Crested Butte News:

The Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety (DRMS) issued a cessation order to Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Missouri-based Arch Coal and operator of the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley near Paonia, to prevent further road construction or tree removal within the protected Sunset Colorado Roadless Area (CRA). The 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule, one of two state rules adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in lieu of the 2001 federal roadless rule, limits road-building and other activities within undeveloped roadless areas.

The cessation order was issued following the construction of a new road in the Sunset CRA by Mountain Coal Company earlier this month. Mining activities have been allowed in the Sunset CRA in the past as a result of the “North Fork Exception” to the Colorado Roadless Rule.

However, in March, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had not followed procedures required by the National Environmental Protection Act when it reinstated the exception in a 2016 land use plan, and ordered the exception be vacated by the District Court of Colorado. On Monday, the District Court issued an order formally vacating the North Fork Exception.

With the North Fork exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule vacated this week, the company must comply with the provisions of the Colorado Roadless Rule which precludes road building, other construction, and most surface disturbance. As a result, DRMS issued an order for the company to cease road building and other associated activities in the Sunset CRA. DRMS’ order does not prohibit the company from continuing its current operations below the surface at the mine.

#Runoff news: #SanJuanRiver calls going senior

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

As of June 10, water from Four Mile Creek has been turned off due to a call on the creek, leading to a drop in collective diversion flows, according to Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District Manager Justin Ramsey.

Last year, water from Four Mile was turned off on July 24, according to Ramsey in an interview on Monday.

“The average day that it’s turned off is June 13, the mean is June 15, so we’re not that far off,” he said. “It’s the mean. I’m not overly worried. I would prefer to keep it on. From here on out Hatcher is going to start dropping.”

According to a press release from Ramsey, total diversion flows are now at 4.3 cubic feet per second (cfs) due to the loss of the water from the Four Mile diversion.

Last week, total diversion flows were listed at 5.8 cfs.

This week, the West Fork diver- sion is still contributing 3 cfs and the San Juan diversion is adding another 1.3 cfs.

As of June 15, three local lakes are full, according to Ramsey’s press release. Stevens Lake, Lake Pagosa and Village Lake all remain full, as they were last week…

As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 221 cfs, well below the average for June 17 of 1,260 cfs.

The highest reported flow total for the San Juan on June 17 came in 1995, when the river had a flow of 4,080 cfs.

The lowest reported flow total came in 2002, when the San Juan River had a flow of 41.4 cfs.

River restoration project underway — The Telluride Daily Planet

Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Suzanne Cheavens):

Valley Floor tailings to be capped

A river rechanneling and tailings recap project on the west end of the Valley Floor has been put in motion this week after a year’s delay.

Originally green-lighted by Telluride Town Council last year, the project was put on hold when abundant winter snowpack made for what town project manager Lance McDonald called “abnormally high flows in June and July.” But this year, conditions are ideal and the project’s first phase — the creation of an access road off the Spur west of Eider Creek — kicked off Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes capping the tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and rerouting the river where it runs near those tailings.

The tailings pile (the Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1) spans 23 acres and sits south of the abandoned railroad grade on either side of the river. It is subject to a cleanup agreement between Idarado Mining Company and the State of Colorado that calls for capping and revegetating the contaminated area in place. The Remedial Action Plan allows the landowner — the town — to offer an alternative plan, which the town has done….

“It’s very large, on a landscape scale,” [Lance] McDonald said. “It’s not like building a building. It’s working across an entire landscape.”

Remediating the tailings area has long been in the town’s sights, McDonald said.

“It’s been in the works for 25 years,” he said. “It’s great to see it happening now.”

Story map: The Hardest Working River in the West — Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

“This is an amazingly comprehensive and interactive explanation of what’s happening on the Colorado River and the history of how we got here from the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy” — Heather Sackett

The #NewMexico Interstate Stream Commission votes to stop work on #GilaRiver diversion — The Silver City Daily Press

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

From The Silver City Press (Geoffrey Plant):

In a 7-2 vote Thursday morning, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission declined to further fund the National Environmental Policy Act process for the controversial proposed Gila River diversion project in southwestern New Mexico.

The decision to stop work on the federally required environmental impact statement effectively prevents the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project, otherwise known as the N.M. CAP Entity, from pursuing its proposed development of 14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water under the terms of the 2004 federal Arizona Water Settlements Act. Any project that seeks to develop the AWSA water or use money from the New Mexico Unit Fund — the monetary component of the settlement — is required to complete an environmental impact statement as part of the process.

The move also portends a major policy shift regarding how the remaining $70 million in settlement funds will likely be spent, with the focus moving to so-called “non-Unit projects,” such as municipal and regional water supply projects.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 1040 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1650 cfs on Friday, June 19th. Releases are being increased to maintain flows in the lower Gunnison River. The June 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 59% of average for April-July inflows.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to return to levels above the baseflow target once the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for June through August.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 430 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 630 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

Effective Renegotiation of the Guidelines for Management of the #ColoradoRiver Water Supply Necessitates a Wide Range of Scenarios of Future #Water Use — Colorado River Studies #COriver #aridification

From Colorado River Studies at Utah State University (Jack Schmidt, David Rosenberg, Jian Wang, Kevin Wheeler, and Eric Kuhn):

An essential question that drives discussion about the future of the Colorado River is, “How much water do we need?” The human body must have water to survive, and water is needed to grow crops, but the amount of water used by different societies varies greatly. In the Colorado River basin, our sense of the amount of water that we “need” is not just driven by basic survival, but is also affected by our preferences in urban and suburban landscaping, the crops that we grow, the technology and practices associated with irrigation, and the industry that exists. Thus, the question of “need” unavoidably becomes mixed with the question of “want,” and our sense of “want” is strongly affected by our aspirations for the future.

Obviously, any consideration about future water use depends on projections of population growth and anticipated agricultural and industrial uses of water. Depending on one’s vision of the future, including preferences about landscaping, agriculture, and in-stream flows to benefit aquatic and riparian ecosystems and river recreation, one might expect different future water projections in different parts of the Colorado River basin. In planning for future consumptive water use, it is important to distinguish between the amount of water we “need” to maintain the present urban areas and the existing agriculture and industry and the amount of water we “want.”

In the book Science Be Dammed, Kuhn and Fleck (2019) described how the original negotiators of the Colorado River Compact overestimated their projected future needs of water supply from the Colorado River. If one adds together the estimates of future water use made by each state in the 1920s, the total anticipated use in the Upper Basin was 8.1 million acre feet, more than twice the actual amount the Upper Basin is currently using a century later (Kuhn and Fleck, 2019, table 1). We are left to speculate as to whether these were well-intentioned over-estimates or political gamesmanship. Making such overestimates today, regardless of motive, complicates negotiations of the future of the Colorado River, because negotiators must sort need from want. Watershed runoff is decreasing as the regional climate warms (Udall and Overpeck, 2017; Milly and Dune 2020), and the pie that must be divided among the states is getting smaller.

Since the 1980s, Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) have made many estimates of future water use. Sometimes, negotiators treat those projections as if they are precise and accurate predictions. In fact, every estimate is its own scenario—a possible trajectory of future consumptive water use. Each scenario is based on assumptions about population, cities, agriculture, and industry. Despite our best efforts, the scenarios do not necessarily enumerate all possible future conditions.

We see a disparity when comparing past projections to the actual consumptive use in the Upper Colorado River basin (Figure 1, dashed colored lines; UCRC 2007 and 2016; Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) 1981, 1984, 2012). Each recently-proposed scenario of future water depletion was higher than the actual consumptive use reported by Reclamation in its semi-decadal Colorado River Consumptive Use and Loss Reports (Figure, solid black line). In fact, since at least 2000, the actual Upper Basin uses and losses have been stable or slightly decreasing, not increasing. The retirement of thermal power plants and reduced irrigated areas may further decrease future Upper Basin depletions (see the analysis by Kuhn 2020).

Overestimation of future water needs is not unique to the Colorado River basin—many other water systems also have consistently overestimated their demands. Motives for overestimation are many (Heberger and Cooley, 2016; Kindler and Russell, 1984). Water managers may define scenarios of high future use so they can prepare for future unknown demand increases by securing enough water, while simultaneously communicating their political intentions to competing users. Overstated future depletions have the potential to focus attention on new infrastructure needs. However, managers must also avoid building expensive water supply infrastructure that goes unused should future water use be less than was anticipated. If there is a rush to build water-diverting or water-consuming infrastructure that subsequently becomes obsolete due to a changing climate, emerging technologies, or over-anticipated demands, those investments can easily become stranded assets (Kalin et al, 2019).

Scenarios help us plan for a diverse set of uncertain future conditions, even though most or all of the scenarios may never come to pass. Thus, we can consider scenarios that focus on aspirational growth as well as scenarios of continuing stable use or aggressive conservation.

As we move forward in negotiating the allocation of water supply that comes from the Colorado River, Figure 1 suggests that basin stakeholders should also consider scenarios of stable use that reflect continuing historical trends of no growth in total Upper Basin consumptive water use. Basin stakeholders should also consider scenarios where future use of water decreases due to changes in landscaping and irrigation practices.

The question then is: How should Colorado River stakeholders manage the future Colorado River in the face of these water demand uncertainties? For insight, read our white paper “Managing the Colorado River for an Uncertain Future.”

All data used in this blog can be found at Wang (2020). Future of the Colorado River Project. Link: https://github.com/JianWangUSU/Future_of_the_Colorado_River_Project/tree/master/UpperBasinConsumptiveUses

Bureau of Reclamation. (1981). Projected Water Supply and Depletions Upper Colorado River Basin. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Bureau of Reclamation. (1984). Projected Water Supply and Depletions Upper Colorado River Basin. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Bureau of Reclamation. (2012). Colorado River Simulation System Model, Demand Management Input Tool Current Trends and Other Scenarios. v4. Link: http://bor.colorado.edu/Public_web/CRSTMWG/CRSS/

Heberger, M. and Cooley, H. (2016). 21st Century Water Demand Forecasting. Pacific Institute. Link: https://pacinst.org/rethinking-future-water-demand-blog/

Kindler, J. and Russell, C. (1984). Modeling Water Demands. London: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-407380-8 Link: http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/id/eprint/2392/

Kuhn, E., and Fleck, J. (2019). Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. University of Arizona Press.

Milly, P. C., and Dunne, K. A. (2020). Colorado River flow dwindles as warming-driven loss of reflective snow energizes evaporation. Science, 367(6483), 1252-1255.

Udall, B., and Overpeck, J. (2017). The twenty‐first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future. Water Resources Research, 53(3), 2404-2418.

Upper Colorado River Commission. (2016). Upper Colorado River Division States, Current and Future Depletion Demand Schedule. Salt Lake City, Utah. Link: http://www.ucrcommission.com/RepDoc/DepSchedules/CurFutDemandSchedule.pdf

Upper Colorado River Commission. (2007). Upper Colorado River Division States, Current and Future Depletion Demand Schedule. Salt Lake City, Utah. Link: http://www.ucrcommission.com/RepDoc/DepSchedules/Dep_Schedules_2007.pdf

#Runoff news: #BlueRiver reopened

Map of the Blue River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69327693

From The Summit Daily (Sawyer D’Argonne):

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday afternoon that the Blue River had returned to safe conditions would be reopening for recreational activities immediately.

On June 1, the Sheriff’s Office and the town of Silverthorne were notified by Denver Water that flow levels were rapidly increasing to 1,000 cubic feet per second, presenting safety concerns for river recreationists.

Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor decided to temporarily close the river from the base of the Dillon Dam to the Sixth Street Bridge, where the water was high enough to injure someone floating past that point.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Office and town got the thumbs up from Denver Water that flow levels on the river had significantly decreased and were once again safe for recreation. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, the Blue River below Dillon Dam was flowing at 301 cfs.

While the river has opened back up, officials are reminding anyone heading out on the water to use caution. Members of the public are encouraged to review the Summit County Swift Water Safety and Flood Preparedness Guide available on the county’s website. The guide contains information on the history of high water events in the county, along with instructions for building sandbag levees, household checklists, flood insurance information, safety tips for recreating and more.

Webinar: “Gunnison State of the River” — The Colorado River District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Gunnison State of the River

Description
Learn about current Gunnison Basin water conditions, drought, and water planning at the virtual Gunnison State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District.

Agenda

•Bob Hurford, Division 4 (Gunnison Basin) engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, will talk about the weak winter snowpack, the dry spring and how these factors are affecting streamflows, reservoir storage and water rights administration.

•Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, will address the “Protection of West Slope water as we face an uncertain future.”

• Molly Mugglestone, director of communications and Colorado policy for Business for Water Stewardship, will present on a study that found Colorado’s rivers are major economic drivers producing nearly $19 billion in output annually from people recreating on or near rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs and waterways.

• Tom Alvey, head of the projects committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District, will discuss hot water topics in the basin including drought, fruit freezes, an update of the roundtable’s water plan for the region, how the new crops of hemp and hops are working and the River District’s Lower Gunnison Project.

Time
Jun 24, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

#Drought/#Runoff news #SanJuanRiver

West Drought Monitor June 9, 2020.

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

As of June 4, Archuleta County is in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The next classification from ex- treme drought is “exceptional drought,” which is the highest standard of drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The southwest portion of the state features counties such as Archuleta, Conejos and Alamosa being fully in extreme drought, while others — such as La Plata, Mineral and Hinsdale — feature a mixture of extreme and severe drought, ac- cording to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 374 cfs, lower than the average for June 10 of 1,480 cfs.

The highest reported flow total for June 10 came in 1952 when the San Juan River had a reported flow of 4,120 cfs. The lowest total came in 2002 when the river had a flow of just 67.1 cfs.

Community help sought in revising #drought plan — The Pagosa Springs Sun

Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

The drought management plan for Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) will be going through some changes soon, and the PAWSD board is seeking input from a variety of community members on the plan’s trigger points.

In an email, PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey explained that the drought management plan will have triggers that are based on river, lake and/or hydrologic data to encourage or require water use reductions.

Within the 2018 drought management plan, there are voluntary drought management water reductions that go all the way up to level four, or severe, drought management measures.

“It was based on the cumulative amount of water we had in the district, so how much water was in the river, how much water was in the lakes, including Hatcher,” Ramsey said in an interview on Wednesday.

Ramsey added that if totals were below a certain threshold, drought restrictions would occur per the 2018 drought management plan.

However, the basis for the 2018 drought management plan was determined to be “flawed,” Ramsey described.

“As you remember in 2018, we had somewhat of a drought. The river still flowed pretty good, but Hatcher really dropped,” he said. “I can have all the water in the world in the river; if I don’t have water in Hatcher, then we’re still screwed.”

In 2018, drought restrictions were not triggered until late October, Ramsey explained.

“But the lake got very low, and we don’t want that to happen again,” he said. “If we would have based it solely on the lake level, then we would have triggered it much earlier than October.”

The revised drought management plan will be “broken up” with various triggers, Ramsey explained, citing examples such as how much water is in Hatcher Lake, the water in the San Juan River and snow water equivalency, among other things.

“Any of those things could cause a trigger to occur. It’s not going to be a cumulative effect anymore. That’s what the major change is going to be,” he said, “instead of it being cumulative, we’re going to break out each of those little components and say if one of these happens, any of these components, we’re going into it.”

PAWSD is looking for input from people on both the environmental side and business side of the com- munity, Ramsey explained.

Anyone interested in serving on a committee to help with the revising of the plan can contact Ramsey at 731-7641 or justin@PAWSD.org.

Dry April And May Hurt Western #Colorado #Runoff Forecasts — The Colorado River District #drought #aridification #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From The Colorado River Conservation District:

After a winter of near-average snowfall, Mother Nature put the brakes on Western Colorado’s snowpack beginning in mid-March. As a result, the snowpack withered prematurely and West Slope runoff has suffered, a fact compounded by the lack of subsequent spring moisture. The Gunnison River peaked in mid-May and the Colorado River peak is expected this week.

According to the Colorado River District, Western Colorado’s hot and dry summer and fall of 2019 set a poor stage for whatever snow was to come, especially in the Gunnison and San Juan basins. Dry soils absorb snowmelt before streams benefit. Lack of precipitation and high winds at the end of this past winter further decimated the conversion of snow to water supply.

“We are now in year 20 of an extended dry period that we should start accepting as the new normal,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Warmer temperatures, dry soils and disappointing spring and summer moisture are defining how we look at future policies to determine how best to protect Western Colorado water security.”

This precipitation map created by NOAA depicts precipitation as a percent of normal across the
west. Looking at Colorado, it clearly shows how dry southwestern Colorado has been since Oct. 1,
2019 to May 31, 2020. In contrast, nortwestern Colorado has been a bright spot.

The bright spots for West Slope water supply continue to be in Grand and Summit counties, where the best snowpack peaked above average in mid-April and continues to be above-average for this time of the year, feeding the Upper Colorado River reservoirs such as Dillon, Green Mountain, Wolford Mountain and Granby.

The situation is much different to the west and the south with below normal snowpack and seasonal runoff forecasts that approached half of what is normally expected in the Grand Mesa zone above the Grand Valley and lower Delta County. The same holds for the greater Gunnison, Uncompahgre and San Juan river basins.

The Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, reported that a “very dry” April in Utah and southern Colorado spurred snowmelt, while northern Colorado benefited from near- average precipitation and near- to below-average temperatures. Summer temperatures are expected to be well above average with near-average precipitation, although important seasonal monsoonal rain activity is difficult to predict.

Western Colorado contributes about 70% of inflows into Lake Powell, where the total April to July runoff forecast has now fallen to 56% of normal at 4 million acre-feet. Contributions from the Green River through Utah and Wyoming are not anticipated to be enough to offset Western Colorado’s dryness. San Juan Basin runoff is expected to be less than 50% of normal.

The accumulation of snowfall and associated runoff records over time inform water planners about drought or wet trends. Unfortunately, with fifty-six percent of normal runoff into Powell, the drought that started in 2000 continues through 2020. Lake Powell was last full in 1999. It’s just about half full currently.

Here are some reservoir outlooks throughout the Colorado River District:
− On the Colorado mainstem, Granby and Green Mountain reservoirs are expected to fill. Wolford Mountain, owned and operated by the Colorado River District, is already full.
− Ruedi Reservoir is projected to fill.
− Elkhead Reservoir and Stagecoach Reservoir in the Yampa Basin will fill.
− Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Gunnison Basin will hit 75% full due to inflows that are 54% of normal.
− Ridgway Reservoir and Taylor Park reservoirs will reach 90% capacity, with forecasted seasonal inflows of 54% and 70%, respectively.

River peaks are another data point of interest to many:
− The Gunnison River peaked on May 19 at about 5,000 cubic feet a second at the Whitewater gauge near Grand Junction.
− The Colorado River will peak this week at Cameo at about 12,900 cubic feet a second, with flows aided by upstream reservoir releases to support endangered fish habitat.
− The Yampa River near Deer lodge Park may already have seen its peak at about 13,400 cubic feet a second in early May.

Aspinall Unit Operations Update

Aspinall Unit April – July, 2020 Forecasted Inflow

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir
Current Forecast (June 1) = 395,000 AF (59% of average)

Blue Mesa Reservoir current conditions
Content = 595,000 AF (72% full)
Elevation = 7491.7 ft
Inflow = 2200 cfs

Crystal Release = 1450 cfs
Gunnison Tunnel diversion = 1050 cfs
Gunnison River flow = 430 cfs

Spring Operations Summary

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

Hydrologic Category = Moderately Dry
Peak Flow = 4510 cfs
Duration at Peak Flow = 1 day

Baseflow Target: June/July/Aug = 1050 cfs

(Point of measurement is the Gunnison River near Grand Junction streamgage, commonly called the Gunnison River at Whitewater)

Black Canyon Water Right

Peak Flow = 2840 cfs (24 hour duration)
Shoulder Flow Target = 300 cfs (May 1 – July 25)

(Point of measurement is the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park)

Projected Operations

Gunnison River flows (Black Canyon/Gunnison Gorge)
Currently around 400 cfs, possibly increasing to 600-700 cfs during July-August
Projected Blue Mesa Reservoir maximum fill = 620,000 AF at 7495 ft elevation
Projected Blue Mesa Reservoir conditions on Dec 31 = 473,000 AF at 7475 ft elevation

Click here to read the current Aspinall Unit Forecast.

Aspinall Unit dams

“Man, you guys did a nice job of coordinating as well as you possibly could with the water you had available” — Don Anderson #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Humpback chub are one of four federally endangered fish species that rely on habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. Humpback chub photo credit US Fish and Wildlife Service.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Recent abundant flows of Colorado River water between Palisade and the Gunnison River confluence during another spring runoff season weren’t entirely the work of Mother Nature.

They also were the product of a coordinated, voluntary effort by operators of upstream reservoirs to coordinate releases of water into the river to bolster peak flows in that stretch of river and aid in the recovery of endangered fish.

This was the 12th coordinated release since the first one occurred in 1997, and the fifth one in the last six years. The coordinated releases occur as conditions warrant and allow each year, to flush out fine sediment in gravel beds that serve as spawning habitat for rare fish. They also improve habitat for insects and other macroinvertebrates that fish feed on…

The upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are home to four endangered fish. Don Anderson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who serves as the instream flow coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a public-private partnership, said that what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the Gunnison River confluence is primarily used by two of the endangered fish, the razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. But a third endangered species, the bonytail, sometimes makes use of the stretch. And a fourth, the humpback chub, which favors deep, rocky, fast-flowing stretches in places such as Westwater Canyon downstream, also indirectly benefits from water releases primarily aimed at bolstering flows in the 15-Mile Reach.

The 15-Mile Reach experiences less of a spring runoff peak than some other parts of the Colorado River because of Grand Valley irrigation diversions just upstream. The goal of this year’s coordinated releases was to achieve daily flows averaging at least 12,900 cubic feet per second upstream at Cameo, an amount that was nearly achieved on some days last week. At times during a couple of days flows exceeded 13,000 cfs, Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told entities involved in the coordinated release program in a conference call Wednesday. She said the effort was a success, and Anderson agreed. He told participants that without getting hung up on exact numbers, flows at that level, which meant peak flows of about 12,000 cfs in the 15-Mile Reach, do good work for the endangered fish and their habitat.

The effort involved in part coordinated releases by the Bureau of Reclamation from Green Mountain Reservoir, Denver Water from Williams Fork Reservoir, and the Colorado River District from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District also was a participant.

“Man, you guys did a nice job of coordinating as well as you possibly could with the water you had available,” Anderson told reservoir operators…

The coordinated releases can have benefits far beyond the 15-Mile Reach. Anderson said this year’s coordinated releases helped downstream in the Moab area by topping off flows into a wetland that is a potentially valuable razorback sucker nursery. Also, Utah state wildlife officials have reported concerns about seeing smallmouth bass, which prey on endangered fish, possibly spawning for the first time below Westwater Canyon. The coordinated releases may have helped combat that due to the higher and faster flows, cooler water temperatures and increased water turbidity.

Coordinated runoff flows are just one water-delivery effort targeting the 15-Mile Reach. Each year releases of dedicated endangered fish water are made to boost low flows in the reach later in the summer. Also, releases sometimes are made around early April to supplement flows in the reach after irrigation diversions have begun but before the river levels gain from spring runoff. This year was the first year such releases occurred after stored water was specifically held over from last year with the primary goal of possibly serving that purpose.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says various recovery efforts appear to be working, with scientific analysis showing the razorback sucker and humpback chub could be reclassified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map credit: CWCB

Lake Powell Pipeline hits ‘an important milestone’ with roll out of environmental study — The St. George News

Click here for all the inside skinny and to read the EIS:

The public comment period for the Lake Powell Pipeline Project will close at 11:59 p.m. MDT on September 8, 2020

The Bureau of Reclamation, on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has issued a Notice of Availability of the draft Environmental Impact Statement/draft Resource Management Plan Amendment for the Lake Powell Pipeline Project, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The Department is seeking public comment on the draft EIS/draft RMPA during a 90-day public comment period that will close at 11:59 pm MDT on September 8, 2020.

From The St. George News (Mori Kessler):

State and local water officials are pleased with the results of the draft environmental impact statement, more commonly referred to as an EIS, while opponents of the project carry a different view.

“(This) is an important milestone because we can get a permit,” said Brock Belnap, an associate general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District overseeing the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “The law requires the federal government to study all the various impacts on the environment the project might affect.”

Based on those environmental impacts, the federal government must establish whether a proposed project is warranted…

“We’re very pleased that the environmental impact statement recognizes that Washington County has a need for the project,” Belnap said.

The EIS also finds Washington County is able to pay for the pipeline project as long as the projected growth continues, Belnap said…

There are two courses recommended for the Lake Powell Pipeline to take. One is the Southern Alternative and the other is the Highway Alternative. While both routes start at Lake Powell and end at Sand Hollow Reservoir, they also either pass through or close to lands held sacred by Native Americans in Arizona.

The Southern Alternative, which is the preferred alternative, travels south of the Kaibab Paiute Reservation along a preexisting utility corridor. The Highway Alternative would take the pipeline along Arizona 389, which cuts across the reservation…

The Kaibab Band stated in the supplement that the Lake Powell Pipeline will create an imbalance by “moving the Colorado River from where the creator placed it across a hundred miles of landscape and depositing it where it does not belong. … This action will make the river angry and confused, the results of which are unknown but clearly a source of imbalance in the world.”

[…]

There is currently a water rights change application before Utah’s state engineers that would allow just over 86,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River above the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to flow down to Lake Powell.

Utah already has rights to that water, Belnap said. If the application is approved, the point of diversion – the location where the state would be allowed to draw water from – would shift from the Green River to Lake Powell…

The Utah Rivers Council, along with over environmental advocacy groups, have sent petitions to Teresa Wilhelmsen, the state engineer, asking her to deny the application.

“Climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado River because it’s reducing the snowpack of the entire Colorado River Basin,” Frankel said. “As the flows of the river drop, it means that there is less water available to divert. This draft EIS totally shirks the responsibility to determine whether there’s water available in the Colorado River to put in a pipeline.”

There are many peer-reviewed studies available that state there won’t be enough water in the Colorado River to support the pipeline due to climate change, Frankel said. Climate change data used in the draft EIS concerning the subject either ignores these studies or takes from a study that is at least a decade out of date, he said.

As for the pipeline’s pending diversion, it would take less than 6% of the state’s 1.4 million acre-foot Colorado River allocation.

This $2+ billion project would pump 28 billion gallons of water 2,000 feet uphill across 140 miles of desert to provide just 160,000 residents in Southwest Utah with more water. Graphic credit: Utah Rivers Council

#Drought news:

From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Charlie Wertheim):

Precipitation well below normal coupled with above-average temperatures have led to early snowmelt, according to a news release from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Streamflow forecasts predict between 72% and 79% of normal for the Colorado Basin, the release says. The forecast covers the period from June 1 through July 31, said Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow survey supervisor…

As compared to last year, the Colorado Basin has just 15% of the snowpack it had on June 1, 2019…

“Soil moisture can’t be understated as a condition that will affect snowpack. We went into this year’s snowpack with pretty dry soils,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District.

Reservoir storage numbers are much better. The Colorado Basin was at 115% of normal on June 1, with no basins having higher percentages. That’s better than last year, when storage was at 90% on June 1, 2019. The state average for reservoir storage this June 1 was 100%.

“When it comes to water users, the information that talks about reservoir storage, that’s where we have an advantage. We’ll have good reservoir storage for agricultural and other water users to get through this year,” Pokrandt said…

“Not every irrigator has reservoir storage to call upon. Irrigators in Garfield County that depend on run of the river, they’re the ones that will feel the greater effect of the tapering off of snowpack and the acceleration of drought,” Pokrandt said.

A map in the release shows statewide precipitation at just 50% of normal, with the Colorado basin slightly better at 53% of average. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins collectively are at the state’s lowest at 24% of average.

Less concerning is data for the water year, which Domonkos said starts Oct. 1. Precipitation statewide for those eight months is 82% of average, with the Colorado basin at 88%.

Precipitation for the first 10 days of June is 100% of normal, which Domonkos said “is still pretty good.”

[…]

Colorado Drought Monitor June 9, 2020.

Nevertheless, the state is suffering from drought.

“The water availability task force is activating the ag[riculture] portion of the state drought plan. It’s an indication that there is drought, and if you look at the U.S. drought monitor as of the 2nd of June a little bit less than 77% of the state is in some kind of drought,” Domonkos said…

“Predictions are we’re going to have warmer temperatures and below-average precipitation through the summer, but you never really know until we get into the monsoonal season and see what happens,” Pokrandt said.

North American Monsoon graphic via Hunter College.

From The Conejos County Citizen (Sylvia Lobato):

Critical fire weather conditions continue over the San Luis Valley. Avoid any activities that may spark a fire. The current Fire Danger rating is High. RGNF is under Stage 2 fire restrictions…

In addition to well below normal precipitation, the National Resource and Conservation Service reports the Colorado mountains have also had warmer than normal temperatures. This combination has led to snowmelt rates that are much faster than normally observed.

In Southern Colorado, where the past winter snowpack reached near normal peak values, this led to snow melting out of SNOTEL snowpack metering sites several weeks earlier than normal. The current snowpack level for the Rio Grande Basin is at 0.00 percent of normal. In northern basins where snowpack was above normal, snowmelt still occurred early but closer to a normal time than in Southern Colorado. This early snowmelt in combination with lower than normal precipitation both have contributed to declines in streamflow forecasts over the last two months.

The lowest streamflow forecasts in the state are in the Rio Grande basin where they average a meager 41 percent of normal. The Arkansas basin spans the gap of north to south with much higher forecasts in the headwaters compared to the much drier southern tributaries.

While the average of current streamflow forecasts in all major basins of Colorado are far well below normal volumes, there are still stark differences between the northern and southern basins. The highest forecast values in the state exist in the North Platte, South Platte and Colorado basins. The average of forecast values in these basins range from 72 to 79 percent of normal volumes. The Gunnison and combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins both have average forecast values of 55 percent of normal.

West Drought Monitor June 9, 2020.

From Aspen Public Radio (Alex Hager):

Some portions of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield Counties are experiencing moderate drought because of hotter temperatures and below average precipitation in April and May.

The U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded Aspen and some parts of Pitkin County from “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought,” the second of five levels of drought severity.

In addition to abnormal temperature and precipitation conditions, the Aspen area entered the spring with below-average soil moisture. Drier soils reduce the amount of snowmelt that reaches streams.

“I don’t think it’s anything to be alarmed at,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the City of Aspen. “But it’s something we’re watching very closely, due to the fact that we had some of the hottest and driest April and May on record in the south, and we’re not far from that where we sit here in Aspen.”

Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation also took a toll on the area’s snowpack. While the past winter left an average snowpack in the Roaring Fork Watershed, the heat and dryness have caused it to melt away quicker than usual, which could lead to limited water resources over the summer…

The northern part of the state is experiencing normal water conditions, but much of southern Colorado is undergoing either “severe” or “extreme” levels of drought. Gunnison County, directly to the south of Pitkin, is mostly in “severe” condition.

POLITICO’S America’s Environmental Future: The Water Solution Monday, June 15 Virtual Event Begins at 8:20 AM MT/10:20 AM ET #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #politicoenvironment

Here’s the release from Politico/Live:

RSVP HERE

Even in these tumultuous times with significant challenges arising each day – there are some issues that continue to require our attention and effort. One of those issues is water security. Water is becoming increasingly scarce around the United States, particularly in the West. Access to safe and affordable water has become even more critical because of its role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. In the Colorado River basin — which has a population of roughly 40 million and accounts for 15 percent of the country’s agricultural production — demand already outstrips supply. Climate change could also worsen the situation. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Trump administration is rolling back a number of Obama-era environmental rules that have implications for water quality and water quantity. As Congress tries to respond to the pandemic and rescue the U.S. economy through trillions of dollars in federal aid, there is a push to include water infrastructure improvements as part of the solution.

Join POLITICO on Monday, June 15, at 8:20 AM MT/10:20 AM ET for this virtual deep-dive panel discussion on the policies and legislation needed at the state, regional and federal levels to meet the water needs of Western states and secure long-term solutions at a time when the attention and resources of local and state leaders are consumed by the pandemic crisis.

Agenda:
8:20 AM MT — Opening Remarks
8:30 AM MT — A Conversation with Governor Jared Polis, Colorado
8:45 AM MT — POLITICO Editorial Panel Conversation

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Roberto Salmón, Mexican Commissioner, Steps Down From Mexican Section Of The International Boundary Waters Commision #ColoradoRiver #COriver #RioGrande #aridification

Roberto Salmon and Edward Drusina at the Minute 323 signing ceremony September 27, 2017. Photo credit .U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

From the Arizona Department of Water Resources:

After 11 years of service on the Mexico-United States International Boundary and Water Commission, Roberto Salmón Castelo has stepped down from his position as Mexican Commissioner.

A graduate of the University of Arizona with a master of science degree in agricultural economics, Salmón was appointed to the position of Mexico IBWC Commissioner on April 15, 2009.

In his time with the Commission, which has the responsibility for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico, the two nations have taken huge steps forward in assuring that commitments to the primary binational water agreement in the Southwest – the 1944 Mexico-U.S. Water Treaty – were faithfully upheld.

“It was pleasure working with Commissioner Salmon,” said Jayne Harkins, Commissioner, United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission.

“He was visionary and worked to find benefits to both countries on international projects. I wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Thanks to a minute to the Treaty backed by Salmón in 2010, Arizona and the other Basin States were able to participate in binational discussions on Colorado River matters. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke observed that the personal relationships that developed from those discussions helped pave the way for future binational agreement.

“Commissioner Salmón recognized the value of personal relationships and worked to develop trust among colleagues on both sides of the border,” recalled Buschatzke.

“That work was a key component in successfully negotiating the minutes and managing the Colorado River.”

Commisioner Salmon with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, at a November 2012 in San Diego (Tami A. Heilemann — Office of Communication, U.S. Department of Interior)

In November 2012, Salmón joined in San Diego with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other representatives of both countries at an official signing ceremony of Minute 319 to the 1944 Treaty. The ceremony capped three years of work to reach an agreement on a set of cooperative measures for management of the Colorado River system lasting through 2017.

Commissioner Salmón observed at the time that the agreement paved the way for cooperation that can “guarantee sustainability” in the border region, particularly on future water supply for Mexican border communities.

Salmón again was on hand at the U.S. “entry into force” event in September 2017 in Santa Fe, which constituted the final flourish of the intense binational negotiations over Minute 323, the successor update to Minute 319.

Minute 323 established a program of joint cooperative actions to improve Colorado River water management through 2026.

Like Minute 319, the new Minute 323 provides for the U.S. and Mexico to share proportionately in Lower Basin shortage and surplus, and allows Mexico to create water savings in the Colorado River system in the U.S.

The updated agreement also opened up opportunities for U.S. water users to fund conservation programs in Mexico, which in turn create “Intentionally Created Surplus,” or ICS, in Lake Mead. ICS is playing an important role in helping to keep the reservoir from descending to dangerously unstable surface levels.

Salmón’s work on the Commission extended to developments that directly impacted Arizona’s capacity to express its interests in Colorado River matters.

In 2010, he participated in treaty negotiations that produced Minute 317, known as the “Conceptual Framework for U.S. Mexico Discussions on Colorado River Cooperative Actions.” It established a binational process for coordination on Colorado River matters and expressly called for Basin State participation.

Also in 2010, Salmón negotiated with his U.S. counterparts on the enactment of Minute 318, which called for the creation of deferred water deliveries to Mexico after infrastructure damage caused by the 2010 Mexicali earthquake.

Minute 318 allowed Mexico to implement a form of its own ICS, then called “deferred deliveries.” Because Mexico could not beneficially use water as a result of extensive earthquake damage, the water was saved in Lake Mead for Mexico to use in future years.

In an interview with the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center published shortly after his appointment to the Commission in 2009, Salmón hailed the level of cooperation on water issues between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly through the IBWC.

“Although there have been rough times in the relationship, the IBWC has been able to succeed, to the benefit of both countries,” he said.

“(T)here is an accumulated knowledge and methodologies developed for dealing with delicate issues that have worked in the past, and still work in the present.”

Salmón replaced Arturo Herrera who died in a plane crash in late 2008 along with his U.S. counterpart, Carlos Marin, while flying over flooded areas near Ojinaga, Mexico.

Salmón’s experience in water and agriculture is extensive.

Prior to assuming his position with the Commission, he served as Northwest Regional Manager of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua), known as CONAGUA, and covering the state of Sonora and part of the state of Chihuahua where the Yaqui and Mayo river basins originate.

His duties with CONAGUA were sweeping. The federal institution deals with all aspects of water in Mexico. Among its many missions, CONAGUA administers water rights, and constructs, manages, operates and maintains reservoirs throughout the country. CONAGUA also manages irrigation districts and units.

The organization also is involved in the extensive negotiations occurring among the many stakeholders and interest groups in Mexico concerned with water issues – tasks that, in later years, would provide great preparation for Salmón’s duties with the Commission.

Video Conference: Colorado River Basin #Climate and #Hydrology: State of the Science — Western Water Assessment #COriver #aridification

Click here to register:

Topic
Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science

Description
Western Water Assessment’s Jeff Lukas and Liz Payton will be providing an overview of the recently released report, “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science” and answering audience questions.

Time:
Jun 18, 2020 11:00 AM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

Click here to read the Coyote Gulch post about the paper.

#Colorado-Big Thompson operations update

Olympus Dam photo via the US Bureau of Reclamation.

From email from Reclamation (Elizabeth Jones):

Olympus Dam near Estes Park, Colorado impounds Lake Estes. The lake is the afterbay for Estes Powerplant, a hydroelectric powerplant that can produce up to 45 MW each hour. Colorado-Big Thompson Project water from the west slope fuels the Estes Powerplant. Project water discharged from Estes Powerplant is diverted from Lake Estes, routed to additional hydroelectric powerplants on the Front Range and is then stored in Carter Lake or Horsetooth Reservoir. Project water is rarely released from Olympus Dam into the Big Thompson River.

This is the season for snow-melt runoff into Lake Estes. In the past 10 days, natural inflow into Lake Estes has increased from a low of about 250 cubic feet per second (cfs) to a peak flow of about 1,020 cfs. Currently, natural inflow is decreasing (around 700 cfs); however, warmer or wetter days could result in natural inflow increasing again and the recent peak inflow could be surpassed.

Olympus Dam is not an authorized flood control structure. As such, the natural snow-melt or precipitation runoff that flows into Lake Estes is released from Olymus Dam into the Big Thompson River. Under normal operations, Olympus Dam does provide the benefit of shaving off the peak inflow. One way it does so can be explained using recent operations. During two days this week when peak inflow into Lake Estes was about 1,000 cfs, maximum release from the dam was 880 cfs. This is because outflows are generally the day’s average. Outflow does not follow the within-day variation, which ranged from 714 cfs to 1,020 cfs within a 24-hour period. Releases from Olympus Dam in the near term will be driven by whatever Nature provides from the headwaters of the Big Thompson watershed.

As the snow-melt runoff season progresses, Reclamation will provide information to the public regarding expected flows released from Olympus Dam.

A little #whitewater near #CrestedButte

#Drought Fears Take Hold in a #FourCorners Region Already Beset by the #Coronavirus Pandemic — Inside Climate News #COVID19 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From Inside Climate News (Judy Fahys):

Drought is once again front-of-mind for rural leaders like Mineral County Commissioner Ramona Weber, who’s been talking with colleagues about the threat of water shortages and heightened wildfire risk…

In the wake of new research on megadrought in the West, and after an exceptionally dry spring, the Four Corners region is headed into the summer of 2020 with deep uncertainty. On top of the disruption from the coronavirus pandemic, summer forecasts suggest yet more heat waves, wildfire and water supply shortages.

A recent study in the journal Science concluded that global warming is responsible for about half the severity of the emerging megadrought, leaving the soil and vegetation parched and streams running low. Megadroughts are defined as dry periods lasting 20 years or more.

“My gut is that we are really at the beginning, that it’s going to get worse,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant State Climatologist for Colorado. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Ponderosa pine forests, redrock canyons and rolling desert vary the terrain in the region where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. But heading into the summer, the water situation is grimly similar throughout the Four Corners.

Streams are projected to run about half full, and ranchers, farmers and communities dotting the area will be forced to rely on groundwater and will likely face restrictions. And the praying’s already started for generous monsoon rains to bring relief soon.

West Drought Monitor June 2, 2020.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows a growing area of abnormally dry to severe drought conditions in the Four Corners as vast areas of “extreme drought” grow along Colorado’s borders with New Mexico and Nebraska. Moderate to extreme drought now covers more than two thirds of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico.

Nearly 4.7 million people live in these drought-stricken areas, including the entire Navajo Nation Reservation, where the battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus has been underway for months.

The combination of scant water and unusually high temperatures has left vegetation parched. “Crispy” is the word Bolinger recently used in a tweet to describe her state. For much of Utah, Nevada and northern New Mexico, vegetation is similarly dry.

Forecasters say 2020 could bring another busy wildfire season, which officially began last Monday. The potential for significant wildfires is above normal through August, they say.

In early May, like many county officials in the Four Corners, leaders of the Southern Ute Tribe issued a fire ban throughout the reservation along the southern Colorado border: Burning waste, agricultural burning, fireworks and all campfires except for sweat ceremonies are prohibited. The Navajo Nation also implemented a fire ban last month.

In nearby Mineral County, Colorado, people are on alert, said Commissioner Ramona Weber, who also owns the Wild Beaver Mountain Man Emporium in Creede. With the make-or-break tourist season underway and coronavirus restrictions already threatening to scare visitors away, local businesses are worried about the drought…

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a good chance of a hotter-than-normal summer (60-70 percent likelihood) and drier than normal (40-50 percent likelihood).

Brent Bernard, hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, said the data suggests to him that this summer could rival epic drought years—among the top 10 in a 125 years of historical record-keeping. He pointed to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent 24-month study of the Colorado River Basin, which found that flow into Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border was above average in only 4 of the past 19 years.

And the water supply forecast for the Colorado River at Glen Canyon Dam estimates that just 57 percent of normal flow will be available to recharge the reservoir this year.

#BlueRiver Watershed Group moves forward with long-term plan to assess water issues — The Summit Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map of the Blue River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69327693

From The Summit Daily (Taylor Sienkiewicz):

In 2019, the Blue River Watershed Group started working on an integrated water management plan in partnership with Trout Unlimited to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem.

The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.

The local water management plan is part of the larger Colorado Water Plan
, which aims by 2030 “to cover 80% of the locally prioritized lists of rivers with stream management plans and 80% of critical watersheds with watershed protection plans.”

Blue River Watershed Group Executive Director Erika Donaghy said the local water plan is a way to protect the Blue River watershed for its multiple uses, including being part of Summit County’s summer and winter recreation economy.

“In terms of planning for our future — and as the climate is changing and we know water is getting more and more scarce — … it’s a proactive plan to make sure that we are really using this scarce resource really wisely going forward and how do we protect its quality,” Donaghy said.

The conservation efforts in the plan also line up with Summit County Open Space and Trails efforts. Summit open space Senior Resource Specialist Jason Lederer explained that the county’s main goal is to have thoughtful management of natural water resources.

“The county has, in partnership with groups like the Blue River Watershed Group, worked hard to restore streams to a natural condition so that they provide better ecological function in terms of habitat and water quality components,” Lederer said.

The Blue River Watershed Group is in phase one of the plan, which includes assessing the conditions of the entire watershed by breaking up the watershed into three reaches. Donaghy explained that in this first phase of the plan, the group is putting together detailed descriptions of each of the reaches, including compiling information such as the average temperature of the water, the state of aquatic life, whether there are mining impacts and types of habitats.

These descriptions will come from data and studies that already have been done as well as new studies. The plan is meant to evaluate all uses of the watershed, including municipal as well as agricultural uses. Once the initial stage of the plan is complete, Donaghy said there will be some areas where there simply isn’t enough information to move forward, requiring more research and studies be conducted. In other areas, the group will have the information they need and can come up with solutions to improve issues that have been identified.