The Colorado River east of Grand Junction in DeBeque Canyon is forecast to hit its annual peak Saturday, in a quick climb to about 21,000 cubic feet of water per second, as measured at the Cameo gage, before dropping over the next week as cooler weather arrives.
The operators of five upstream reservoirs have been closely watching this season’s large, and late, spring-runoff pattern, and they are now starting a coordinated release of water designed to improve habitat for endangered fish in a 15-mile stretch of the river below Palisade.
The reservoir releases, which collectively will add about 1,300 cfs of water to the river, are being timed to reach Palisade on Monday or Tuesday, after this weekend’s peak flows have subsided.
The goal of this year’s coordinated release of water is to extend the high flows, not add to the peak flow, as it is in most years, said Don Anderson, a hydrologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who said care is being taken not to increase the risk of flooding this weekend.
The releases from Ruedi, Homestake, Wolford, Williams Fork and Green Mountain reservoirs are designed to benefit four ancient species of fish.
The well-timed higher water will send spawning cues to Colorado pikeminnows, large powerful fish that swim upstream to spawn in the gravel beds of what’s known as “the 15-mile reach.”
Higher water will give the recent offspring of razorback suckers a chance to find refuge in calm side channels.
Higher, faster water will scour fine silt from gravel beds, flush away dry-year vegetation growth and help the river absorb nutrients from wet floodplains.
And the high water will also benefit populations of humpback chubb downstream of Grand Junction — at Blackrocks, in Westwater canyon and near Moab — and may also help the struggling bonytail chubb.
As part of this year’s effort, the outflow from Ruedi Reservoir into the lower Fryingpan
Reservoir will rise Sunday by 100 cfs, and over three days, the releases will climb from 354 cfs to 630 cfs or above, before stepping back down Wednesday.
The flow from Rocky Fork Creek, which runs into the Fryingpan below Ruedi Dam, was adding 75 cfs to the river Friday, which means the ’Pan could be 700 cfs or above by Tuesday or Wednesday.
Tim Miller, a hydrologist at the Bureau of Reclamation, said a flow of about 700 cfs is consistent with most of the other 10 years since 1997 that Ruedi has participated in what is called the Coordinated Reservoir Operations, or CROS, program.
Miller’s operational goals with this year’s CROS program include keeping outflow from the reservoir below inflow, so he can fill the 102,000 acre-foot reservoir in early July, while keeping flows in the lower Fryingpan below 850 cfs.
Releases from Homestake Reservoir, which is on Homestake Creek in the Eagle River basin and is managed by Aurora and Colorado Springs, are going to climb in a similar timeframe as Ruedi’s, moving from 6 cfs to 100 cfs Monday and then stepping back down to 6 cfs by week’s end, according to a summary of the expected releases from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
Releases from Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River north of Silverthorne and managed by Reclamation, are slated to rise from 800 cfs to 1,400 cfs and then drop back down.
Releases from Williams Fork Reservoir, which is on a tributary of the Colorado east of
Kremmling and managed by Denver Water, will increase from 350 cfs to 650 cfs and then drop.
And Wolford Reservoir, on Muddy Creek north of Kremmling and managed by the Colorado River District, is currently spilling about 400 cfs of water due to high inflows. The River District regularly participates in the CROS program, but this year is spilling water in any event and not releasing water just for the CROS program as it often does.
During a series of conference calls over the past several weeks, reservoir managers have
described this year’s snowpack as “bashful” and “tentative” and “well-behaved” due to colder temperatures in May and June. And while the snow is still deep in the Colorado River’s headwaters, more cool weather is in the forecast.
And every water manager sounds glad there is at least water this year to run after last year’s deep drought, and most now expect their reservoirs to fill, which gives them flexibility this week to release water for the fish and for the river.
This year’s high flow — 21,000 cfs, forecast for Saturday — is the opposite of last year, when the Colorado peaked, as measured at the Cameo gage, on May 19 at about 6,800 cfs.
Water and wheat — foundations of life for millennia. In the American Southwest’s arid Sonoran Desert, water flows across Arizona from more than 300 miles away to quench the thirsts of more than four million people and sustain the food, economy, and livelihoods they rely on every day. Join us as we explore the thoughts of three visionaries in Tucson who are creating and growing a circular economy of water, forging a sustainable future for a city that could have gone in another direction. And nearly did.
We hear from third-generation farmer Brian Wong, who grows a variety of low-water and heat tolerant organic heritage wheat in the arid plains northwest of Tucson, and Don Guerra of Barrio Bread, who bakes 1,000 loaves of artisanal bread per day using local and indigenous wheat varieties. Brian and Don are bound together by water and the City of Tucson’s ability to provide it to them, and their community. Lastly, we hear from Tim Thomure, director of Tucson Water — a visionary working to build and sustain a thriving city in the Sonoran Desert.
American Rivers is deeply involved with a number of efforts across Arizona to help sustain the lives of millions of people across the state, ensure the viability of a thriving economy in the desert, as well as protect the vital lifeline for the entire region, the Colorado River.
Join us as we explore these ideas, and others, across the Southwest. For more information about this work, please see our Lower Colorado River page, and follow us to keep in touch with what is going on across this important region of the country.
Lake City, the only town in remote Hinsdale County, is one of many rural Colorado communities working to prepare for potential flooding as the winter’s epic snowpack begins to melt. Mountain towns across the state are preparing sandbags and warning visitors about high water…
Although numerous mountain towns have prepared for high water, Lake City’s predicament was particularly dire and threatened lives before the emergency crews arrived, state officials said.
More than 60 avalanches, some more than a half-mile wide, pushed mountainsides of trees, boulders and snow to the floors of the two river valleys surrounding the town, which sits at the confluence of Henson Creek and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River…
Authorities feared a wall of water could build if the logs jammed or blocked one of the two historic dams. If the debris jam or dam were to break, the surge of water sent downstream could send feet of water into some of the low-lying areas of town within 15 minutes.
At a town meeting Tuesday, officials estimated there was a 10 percent chance that the worst-case scenario could happen if weather conditions aligned perfectly and predicted that high water could begin as early as this weekend. Federal, state and local officials have worked in the city for a few weeks to mitigate the chance of such a surge, including partially deconstructing one of the dams…
Lake City residents knew the avalanches around their town of about 400 people this past winter were unprecedented. The avalanches in February and March caused voluntary evacuations and flattened the Hinsdale County sheriff’s house outside town.
But it wasn’t until crews in April started exploring the two mountain roads along the river valleys that the size of the avalanches became apparent. Piles of centuries-old trees, snow and boulders covered sections of roads up to a half-mile long…
Mitigation efforts have been broad. Personnel from the group of agencies built a berm along one of the rivers in town. They partially destroyed one of the historic dams so water could flow better. They also placed additional sensors along the rivers so the flows could be monitored in real time. They helped organize the filling and deployment of more than 18,000 sandbags around town to protect important buildings. Crews surrounded the most vulnerable homes near the confluence with 3,000-pound mega sandbags…
Engineers recommended that the town demolish the 129-year-old Hidden Treasure Dam because they worried that avalanche debris could block the dam and cause it to fail, sending a rush of water toward town. Contractors used a remote-controlled jackhammer suspended on a sling to chip away at the top of the dam and small explosives to blast away the bottom.
But engineers later determined the new gaps at the top and the bottom were big enough to avoid a jam…
Signs along the Rio Grande on Wednesday prohibited anybody — or any boat — from entering the raging water. Along Colorado 149, the river overtook tree trunks and washed out boat ramps, but left houses untouched. Campgrounds and some roads in the area remained closed.
Mineral and Rio Grande counties, as well as sections of Conejos and Saguache counties, remained on flood watch Thursday. Officials in Chaffee and Summit counties, as well as the towns of Silverthorne, Buena Vista, Avon and Ouray, have opened sandbag stations…
In Creede, about 50 miles southeast of Lake City, waters have taken over the floodplain but haven’t threatened any structures, said Kathleen Murphy, director of the town’s chamber of commerce. The city worked last week to widen a concrete flume that directs water through town. A road north of town washed out after avalanche debris built up, releasing a surge of water. Some lower-elevation hiking trails were flooded as well.
In Colorado, where snow still blankets the San Juan Mountains, the Durango Telegraph has proclaimed El Niño as the winner of this year’s Hardrock 100. The race was scheduled for mid-July.
Organizers canceled the 100-mile foot race among the peaks of the San Juans around Silverton owing to “unprecedented avalanche debris, unstable snow bridges and high water” that compromised 40 miles of the race course.
It was the third time in 27 years that the race had been canceled, the first being in 1995 because of too much snow and then in 2002 because of forest fires.
At the California Weather Blog, meteorologist Daniel Swain suggests a big view of weather extremes across North America: floods in Nebraska, tornadoes in Oklahoma, a massive forest fire in Canada and record heat in the Arctic. They’re all connected, he points out.
Emerging evidence suggests that such weather extremes may be occurring with greater frequency and intensity as the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the planet.
“Interestingly, though, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the impacts we experienced in 2019 will be exactly the same the next time this pattern repeats,” Swain wrote on his blog. Every iteration of the “wavy jet stream” produces new patterns of warmth vs. coolness and very wet vs. very dry.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly storage model runs, based on the latest Colorado River Basin runoff forecasts, show Lake Powell ending the water year (Sept. 30) at 13.8 million acre feet. That’s an increase of more than a million feet over the May estimate, and 2.8 million acre feet above the Sept. 30, 2018 number:
From email from Reclamation (James Bishop):
Releases from Green Mountain to the Blue River will increase according to the following schedule starting at midnight [June 15, 2019] (cusp between 15 and 16 June):
12:00 a.m. Adjust release from 1100 cfs to 1200 cfs
3:00 a,m. Adjust release from 1200 cfs to 1300 cfs
6:00 a.m. Adjust release from 1300 cfs to 1400 cfs
The water is roaring across Summit County. Tenmile Creek, Straight Creek and the Snake River are all approaching flood levels as the great 2019 spring runoff rushes in with thunderstorms on the way this weekend…
Tenmile Creek is one of the best gauges of how powerful the runoff is. The stream is currently cresting at 3.88 feet, with overflows into low-lying areas in and west of Frisco beginning at 4.8 feet…
At 5 feet, Tenmile Creek is at flood stage. At that point, there will be minor flooding of roads and properties along Tenmile Creek. At 6.5 feet, or moderate flood stage, houses begin to flood. Major flood stage starts at 7.5 feet, with significant flooding in Frisco and on the westbound lane of Interstate 70.
Residents should take some comfort in knowing that Tenmile Creek never has gone above 5.14 feet, a mark set June 17, 1995. Frisco authorities have continued to warn residents about potential flooding, with town and county staff on standby in case banks get run over.
The Snake River is currently sitting at 2.7 feet, with flood mitigation action called for at 3.3 feet. The Snake’s record crest was set June 6, 1972, when it reached 3.88 feet. At 3.8 feet, Keystone begins to flood, but that level has been reached only twice since record keeping began there in the 1940s.
Straight Creek in Dillon is currently at 4.86 feet, with action stage at 5.3 feet and flood stage at 6 feet. That stage never has been reached in recorded history, with Straight Creek topping out at 5.78 feet June 17, 1995.
Water flows into and out of local reservoirs also are rapidly speeding up. On Friday, Green Mountain Reservoir started ramping up outflows into the Blue River. Starting at 800 cubic feet per second, the reservoir will increase flows by 50 cfs every two hours until it reaches 1,400 cfs at 4 a.m. Saturday. That flow will be maintained until further notice.
The increased flows are meant to support the Coordinated Reservoir Operations initiative which seeks to enhance spring water flows consistent with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The conservation program seeks to boost the number of humpack chub, razorback sucker, bonytail and Colorado pikeminnow populations in the Blue.
Further south, the Dillon Reservoir is rapidly filling up after space was made for runoff these past few weeks. Water is dumping into the reservoir at a rate of more than 2,100 cfs, with outflows into the Blue River under the dam reaching up to 700 cfs. The reservoir is currently 83% full and just 15 feet shy of reaching peak elevation.
Based on historical averages, the Colorado River typically peaks near Moab during the first week of June. This year the river is projected to peak later; a forecast from the National Weather Service showed the river could reach its maximum on June 15.
Regardless of whether the peak is already behind, the river is high this year. On Monday, June 10, the United States Geological survey measured nearly 40,000 cubic feet of water per second flowing through the Colorado near Cisco, roughly twice the average for this time of year. The National Weather Service has issued a flood advisory for the Colorado River near the Utah/Colorado state line in Mesa and Grand counties…
Farther upstream, the National Weather Service issued a flood advisory on June 11 between Grand Junction and the Utah state line as a result of the river nearing flood levels that morning.“ Minor low land flooding is expected with impacts along recreation trails already being experienced,” the Weather Service said in its flood advisory statement. “Water levels and flows along the Colorado River in Mesa and Grand counties will continue to increase due to the recent warm trend. River levels will stay high through the week…The water is swift, [it is] cold and contains debris and snags. Know your limits if recreating on or near the Colorado. A life jacket and proper equipment is a must. Smaller tributaries in the area are also running fast and cold.”
Down the river, the water has been higher than typical, but not a danger to areas in the floodplain. At its peak, the U.S. Geological Survey gauged the height of the river near Cisco to be over 14 feet this week…
Local Colorado River tributaries are also higher than typical for this time of year. Near the head of the Dolores River, the USGS measured the location’s highest instantaneous flow since 1987 at 4,360 cfs.
At Mill Creek, before the Sheley Diversion that flows into Ken’s Lake, a gauge measured an average flow rate of 88 cfs on June 8, three times the daily average for the same time of year.
As high as the waters may seem this week, they are far from a record for the area, which had much heavier flows historically due to a lack of damming upstream. In one day in 1884, more water flowed past Moab than the city has used since January 2000.
According to the USGS, the highest flow rate on record for the Colorado River at the gauging location near Cisco, just after the Dolores River junction, was measured on July 4, 1884. The flow rate that Independence Day was measured to be 125,000 cfs.
Here’s guest column penned by Steve Harris that’s running in The Albuquerque Journal:
Those of us who live and recreate in the arid Southwest have always faced serious water supply challenges; struggling to survive through endlessly recurring droughts, we understand how precious water is to our communities, livelihoods and economy.
Today, our survival anxieties are compounded by ominous climate trends: shorter winters, declining snowpack and diminishing streamflow. There’s little doubt that water conservation and management will assume even greater importance in New Mexico in the years ahead, which is why we need forward-thinking, bipartisan policy solutions.
In 2009, under the sponsorship of then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Congress passed the Secure Water Act, creating the West-wide WaterSMART program. Under WaterSMART, local water managers, municipal utilities and irrigation districts became eligible for funding to support an array of local water conservation projects, including water-use efficiency, water reuse and recycling, technological innovation – e.g., desalination and precision irrigation – sharing and marketing of water rights and watershed restoration.
All of these conservation strategies aim to achieve a measure of water security in an insecure world.
It’s gratifying to river conservationists like myself that WaterSMART also recognizes the need to protect healthy river flows and ecosystems. Here in New Mexico, WaterSmart is helping to fund the Rio Chama Flow Project, which in part restructures dam releases to serve the river’s multitude of wildlife and habitats, alongside the traditional imperative of securing water for communities and irrigators.
A Basin Studies program was launched under WaterSMART, and one of the studies funded, the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, has contributed many new ideas on how to stretch the dwindling water supplies of the Colorado River system, whose millions of users are clearly confronting a future crisis. Among other achievements, the Colorado Basin Study gathered visionary ideas from each water-using sector – both consumptive, like cities, and non-consumptive, like recreation – and a variety of constituents to boost water supplies in Lake Mead, where stored water is approaching all-time lows.
Under WaterSMART, a Rio Grande Basin Study also received funding. Thus, those of us who depend on New Mexico’s great river will have the opportunity to come together and harness our own unique abilities and resources to secure our water future.
While the results of this cooperative approach are still to be fully realized, surely the recognition of our mutual dependence on the river offers hope that collaborative conservation can help the region “tighten its belt” in the face of a manifestly drier future.
It’s important that Congress supports federal initiatives, such as WaterSMART, that bring people together on the local, state and regional levels to solve these looming challenges. It’s encouraging that Congress recently passed – and the president signed into law – the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act, which helps the seven states in the Colorado Basin, including New Mexico, implement plans for conserving water and shoring up supplies.
We must build upon this success and ensure our elected leaders support policy that will sustain this basin for generations to come. Federal funds can be deployed for the benefit of all taxpayers and water users, including by creating ecological resiliency in the face of drought with the kind of stream restoration being done on the Rio Chama.
We all depend on our rivers and water, and the chain of life they support – these are things that we cannot bear to lose.
Working together is our best hope for securing those precious resources for the future.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board on Monday released the names of the 74 people it has asked to volunteer on eight workgroups being formed to investigate how a demand-management program might work in the state.
The list of people asked to serve reads like something of a who’s who of Colorado water mavens, and they will be helping the CWCB investigate what’s billed as a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” demand-management — or water-use reduction — program in the state.
The workgroup meetings, which the CWCB considers similar to staff meetings, are to be closed to the public and the media. However, the CWCB staff members holding the meetings then plan to share the insights they’ve gleaned from the workgroup meetings in open settings, including meetings of the CWCB’s board of directors.
“From our point of view, the workgroups are assisting the CWCB’s project-management team in framing demand management issues for public review, comment, and contributions,” said Brent Newman, the chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information section. “We want to come to our usual public forums with a more informed initial ‘first stab’ at demand management.”
The workgroups, as currently configured, include Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District; Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water; Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited on Colorado river issues; Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County commissioner; Doug Kemper, the executive director of the Colorado Water Congress; Mark Harris, the general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association; and many other notable water managers and experts.
(Please see full list of workgroup participants below).
The workgroups are divided by the following topics: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts.
A ninth workgroup, on tribal interests, was to be formed, according to a CWCB staff presentation at the agency’s meeting in May, but a tribal workgroup was not included on the workgroup roster released Monday.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and represents Western Slope water interests, has five of its employees on five different workgroups.
They are Mueller, who also is an attorney, on the law and policy workgroup; John Currier, the district’s chief engineer, on the monitoring and verification workgroup; Chris Treese, the district’s external affairs manager, on the economic considerations and local government workgroup; Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs, on the education and outreach workgroup; and Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer, on the agricultural impacts workgroup.
Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are each developing demand-management programs after a series of drought contingency-planning, or DCP, agreements were signed last month by representatives of those four states and the three lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
The DCP agreements give the four upper-basin states an opportunity to store as many as 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, and three other federal reservoirs in the upper basin, to use as insurance against violating the Colorado River Compact of 1922.
The water in the new demand-management pool must be water that otherwise would have been consumed by fields, pastures, lawns and other uses, but instead has been sent down the river system to be stored.
Before any of the demand-management programs can be launched in the four upper-basin states, they each need to be approved by the Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives from the four states and the federal government.
The commission will hold a demand-management stakeholder workshop in Salt Lake City on June 21. The workshop will be open to the public.
The CWCB plans to hold a series of public demand-management workshops — as opposed to the closed workgroups — throughout the state this year.
Despite the closed-door workgroup meetings, the CWCB plans to hold an orientation webinar in July for the workgroup members that also will be open to the public.
The roster of the invited workgroup participants from the CWCB was slated to be released by June 1, but the effort was delayed after a six-page draft confidentiality agreement that was circulated by the state raised concerns among some of the potential workgroup members.
“We heard from multiple people that it was more than was necessary to achieve the goal of being able to have open conversation, and so we really took those words to heart,” CWCB director Becky Mitchell said of the first confidentiality agreement. “After some reflection, we realized that was just not the direction we wanted to go. So we’re taking a good hard look at that.”
An update sent out last week by CWCB staff said the agency was now “considering an approach that will entail a simpler and less restrictive agreement between the parties.”
Mitchell said the next version of the agreement will be closer to one page, not six pages.
The confidentiality agreements are seen by the CWCB as necessary to create “an environment for frank, candid and open discussions,” according to a recent memo to the workgroup participants.
But the confidentiality agreements are also meant to try to keep confidential some of the information provided by the state to the members of the workgroups.
Proposed roster of CWCB demand management workgroups
Law and Policy
Karen Kwon, first assistant attorney general, Colorado
Brent Newman, chief, Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section, CWCB;
Amy Ostdiek, assistant attorney general, Colorado
Andy Mueller, general manager, Colorado River District
Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager, Denver Water
Bennett Raley, attorney at Trout Raley, representing Northern Water
John McClow, general counsel, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District
Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program director, The Nature Conservancy
Anne Castle, senior fellow, Getches-Wilkinson Center, University of Colorado
Beth Van Vurst, attorney, represents Southwestern Water Conservation District
Lee Miller, general counsel, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District
Monitoring and Verification
Michelle Garrison, water resources specialist, CWCB
Brian Macpherson, decision support systems specialist, CWCB
Kelley Thompson, lead modeler, Colorado Division of Water Resources
John Currier, chief engineer, Colorado River District
Kevin Lusk, principal engineer, Colorado Springs Utilities
Tom Simpson, manager, Colorado and Arkansas Basins, Aurora Water
Luke Gingrich, Western Colorado area manager, J-U-B Engineers Inc.
Laura Belanger, water resources and env. engineer, Western Resource Advocates
Perry Cabot, research scientist and extension specialist, Colorado State University
Cary Denison, Gunnison Basin Project coordinator, Trout Unlimited
Gerry Knapp, consultant, Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District
Robert Sakata, owner, Sakata Farms
Carrie Padgett, engineer, Harris Water Engineering
Water-Rights Administration and Accounting
Lain Leoniak, assistant attorney general, Colorado
Mike Sullivan, deputy director, Colorado Division of Water Resources
Kevin Rein, state engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources
Ryan Gilliom, water resource scientist, Colorado School of Mines
Frank Kugel, general manager, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District
Rick Marsicek, planning manager, Denver Water
Drew Peternell, Colorado director, Trout Unlimited
Kyle Whitaker, Colorado River programs manager, Northern Water
Dick Wolfe, retired Colorado state engineer
Steve Witte, retired Division 2 engineer
Cleave Simpson, general manager, Rio Grande Water Conservation District
Lauren Ris, deputy director, CWCB;
Linda Bassi, chief, Stream and Lake Protection Section, CWCB
Kathy Kitzman, water resources principal, Aurora Water
Maria Pastore, senior water resources project manager, Colorado Springs Utilities
Melinda Kassen, senior counsel, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Abby Burk, western rivers regional program manager, Audubon Rockies
Matt Rice, director, Colorado basin program, American Rivers
David Graf, water resource specialist, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Al Pfister, wildlife biologist, Western Wildscapes, LLC
Torie Jarvis, director, NWCOG Water Quality/Quantity Committee
Mely Whiting, Colorado Water Project legal counsel, Trout Unlimited
Karen Wogsland, director of programs, Colorado Water Trust
Economic Considerations and Local Government
Amy Ostdiek, assistant attorney general, Colorado
Chris Treese, external affairs manager, Colorado River District
Alexandra Davis, deputy director of water resources, Aurora Water
Seth Clayton, executive director, Pueblo Water
Sean Cronin, executive director, St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District
Kathy Chandler‐Henry, Eagle County commissioner
Barbara Biggs, general manager, Roxborough Water and Sanitation District
Steven Ruddell, forester and environmental economist, CarbonVerde, LLC
Patti Wells, former general counsel, Denver Water, former CWCB board member
Liesel Hans, water conservation manager, City of Fort Collins
Karn Stiegelmeier, Summit County commissioner
Kelly Romero‐Heaney, water resources manager, City of Steamboat Springs
Anna Mauss, chief operating officer, CWCB
Russ Sands, senior program manager, Water Supply Planning, CWCB
Ted Kowalski, Colorado River Initiative lead, Walton Family Foundation
Dave Bennett, director, Water Resource Strategy, Denver Water
Pat Wells, GM, water resources and demand management, Colorado Springs Utilities
Aaron Citron, policy adviser, The Nature Conservancy
Dick Brown, economist
Keith McLaughlin, finance director, CO Water Resources and Power Dev. Auth.
Alan Matlosz, executive VP, Colorado Public Finance Group, George K. Baum & Co.
Education and Outreach
Brent Newman, chief, Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section, CWCB
Megan Holcomb, program manager, Water Supply Planning Section, CWCB
Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs, Colorado River District
Todd Hartman, media-relations coordinator, Denver Water
Chris Woodka, issues-management coordinator, Southeastern Water
Andy Schultheiss, executive director, Colorado Water Trust
Hannah Holm, coordinator, Water Center, Colorado Mesa University
Doug Kemper, executive director, Colorado Water Congress
Laura Spann, program coordinator, Southwestern Water Conservation District
Lisa Darling, executive director, South Metro Water Supply Authority
Alex Funk, agricultural water resources specialist, CWCB
Andrew Rickert, program associate, CWCB
Erik Skeie, special project coordinator, CWCB
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer, Colorado River District
Alan Ward, water resources division manager, Pueblo Water
Eric Wilkinson, former general manager, Northern Water
John Stulp, former water policy adviser to Colorado’s governor
Cindy Lair, program manager, State Conservation Board, CO Dept. of Agriculture
Mark Harris, general manager, Grand Valley Water Users Association
Aaron Derwingson, agricultural coordinator, The Nature Conservancy
Paul Bruchez, rancher, fly-fishing guide, member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable
Travis Smith, senior water consultant, DiNatale Water Consultants
Allen Distel, president, Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District, Montrose
Ken Curtis, chief of engineering and construction, Dolores Water Conservancy District
Tom Gray, former Moffat County commissioner, Colorado River District Board
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published a version of this story on June 10, 2019.
When Div. 5 Water Court Judge James Boyd issued a final water-rights decree at 7:23 a.m. Tuesday in the Maroon Creek Reservoir case, he removed the prospect of the city of Aspen ever building a 155-foot-tall dam on Maroon Creek or a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek below Ashcroft.
Although the city had reached agreement in October with 10 opposing parties in two water-court cases over the city’s conditional water rights, the agreements were not in effect until the court’s decree was issued in the Maroon Creek Reservoir case.
So now they are.
“It means the city will not build reservoirs at Maroon or Castle,” said Margaret Medellin, a utilities-portfolio manager for the city. “The decree was the last piece we needed to finalize all our negotiations. So until that was in place, Maroon Creek Reservoir was still a possibility.”
In issuing Aspen’s proposed decree for its conditional rights for the Maroon Creek Reservoir, the judge found that the city had been sufficiently diligent and could maintain its conditional water rights for another six years, but in doing so, he also enshrined the city’s commitment to move the rights out of the Maroon Creek valley. He did the same for the Castle Creek rights last month when he issued a decree for the conditional rights tied to the potential Castle Creek Reservoir.
“The judge’s final decree ensures that the Maroon and Castle dams are dead,” said Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin director for American Rivers, which opposed the city’s efforts to maintain its water rights in the Castle and Maroon creek valleys. “This is a big day for Colorado, the city of Aspen, and for all people that appreciate free-flowing rivers. This collaborative outcome demonstrates that Coloradan’s can protect rivers while planning for a water scarce future.”
The city first filed for the conditional water rights to the two potential reservoirs in 1965, and the decreed rights carry a priority date of 1971. (Please see timeline).
The Maroon Creek Reservoir would have held 4,567 acre-feet of water just below the confluence of West Maroon and East Maroon creeks, in a pristine location in view of the Maroon Bells. The reservoir would have flooded 85 acres of U.S. Forest Service land, including some in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
The Castle Creek Reservoir would have held 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a dam on the creek two miles below Ashcroft. The reservoir would have flooded 120 acres on both private and USFS lands, including a small area in the wilderness.
Since first claiming the rights, the city periodically filed little-noticed diligence applications to maintain them. Outside of the diligence filings, however, the city did not take any active steps to develop the two dams, although they were mentioned in various city water-planning documents over the decades.
But the city’s last diligence filing, in October 2016, brought statements of opposition from 10 parties: the USFS, Pitkin County, American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited, Wilderness Workshop and four private-property owners — two who owned land in the Maroon Creek valley and two who own land in the Castle Creek valley.
During the resulting water-court process, the city reached a deal with the opposing parties, agreeing to try and move the conditional water-storage rights out of the two pristine valleys to five identified locations in the Roaring Fork River valley.
The locations are the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; the city’s Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit, which the city bought in 2018.
“We worked a long time, and all the parties involved really were thoughtful and creative in trying to come up with a solution that the city got the storage that they desperately need, and we protect our environment,” Medellin said. “So I think it’s a real success story.”
In a joint press release issued Tuesday, representatives from American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates, and Wilderness Workshop praised the deal.
“The judge’s final decree cements over two years of collaborative work to find a win-win solution that both protects Castle and Maroon Creeks in two of the regions most beloved Valleys, and ensures a sustainable future water supply for the City of Aspen,” said Will Roush, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop. “Water can be one of the most contentious issues in the west and I’m proud of our community for coming together to find a solution that benefits both people and place. Our wilderness and public lands deserve to be kept largely free of damaging developments like dams and I’m grateful to the City of Aspen for their work and commitment not only to providing water but also to protecting our environment and public lands.”
And Jon Goldin-Dubois, the president of Western Resource Advocates, said “this final decree marks the beginning of a new era of collaboration to safeguard the Maroon Bells Wilderness and Maroon and Castle creeks. The city of Aspen should be commended for its efforts to pursue water supply alternatives that will ensure future demands are met without sacrificing our rivers and cherished natural landscapes. As growing cities across the West seek sustainable and affordable ways to provide water in the face of climate change, we encourage them to follow Aspen’s lead.”
The city now plans to hire consultants to help it prepare an “integrated water-resource plan,” which it has not done since 1990, and then to file two “change cases” in water court seeking to modify the rights, which remain in place, with significant restrictions, for another six years.
All of the parties who settled with the city have agreed not to oppose the city in its upcoming change cases, which must be filed by June 2025, but other parties may do so.
Whatever the outcome of the city’s future efforts in water court, the agreements in the Maroon Creek case say, “Aspen agrees that after final entry of the final decree, it will not seek to retain any portion of the Maroon Creek Reservoir storage right at its original location.” Agreements in the Castle Creek case have similar language.
Paul Noto, a water attorney with the Aspen-based law firm of Patrick, Miller, Noto, represented American Rivers and Trout Unlimited in the cases, as well as Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., a property owner in Maroon Creek.
Noto said he was pleased with the outcome of the water-court process.
“For American Rivers and Trout Unlimited, it’s a really good outcome because you had the specter of dams being constructed near the base of the Maroon Bells and that specter has been removed from the table,” Noto said. “We could argue about how likely that was going to be. It was very unlikely, perhaps impossible. But, regardless, that is completely off the table now. And I think that it was commendable that Aspen agreed to that.”
Medellin, however, said climate change means the reservoirs were becoming more likely, not less.
“Obviously, no one had a big appetite for it because we value our watersheds and the city was trying everything it could to avoid that eventuality,” Medellin said. “But when we look at what climate change is doing in our valley and in our world, there was going to be a future that we wouldn’t have been able to operate without that.”
She also said the city made a big concession in walking away from the two reservoirs, as they would have stored water above the city’s diversion structures on lower Castle and Maroon creeks.
“What we traded was the benefits of having a gravity-fed system with protecting those valleys,” Medellin said. “And that was a trade-off that we all felt was appropriate. But we know that by not having a gravity-fed system, it’s going take some creativity and potentially a pipeline.”
It’s an open question for some whether the really city needs as much as 8,500 acre-feet of stored water to meet its future needs.
A study done for the city by Headwaters Corp. concluded that the city would need 8,500 acre-feet in a much drier future, but that’s including all of the city’s current municipal indoor and outdoor needs, its current irrigation levels on the two golf courses that use city water, and enough water to keep Castle and Maroon creeks above a minimum flow level.
“I understand their desire to plan on the high side,” Noto said. “But I don’t think they proved it and I don’t think they needed to. It was just basically a number that came from horse trading.”
Noto also says it is possible the upcoming water-court process may end up reducing the city’s claim.
“It’s too soon to say if they will take a haircut,” Noto said. “We have to wait and see what the proposal is. I don’t think the city has identified their fill sources and points of diversion, and that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of the effect on nearby water rights.”
Medellin said she expects the city to now engage with the community in a transparent discussion about the city’s future water needs.
“People have probably lost interest in it to a certain extent, but I think now — as we move into the next phase of the project, where we talk about where are we going to store the water — I imagine that the community is going to get re-engaged,” she said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on June 12, 2019.