Here’s the release from the Center for Biological Diversity (Melissa Hornbein, Taylor McKinnon, Grant Stevens, Brett Henderson, Natasha Léger, Jeremy Nichols):
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit [May 10, 2021] challenging the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s 2020 approval of a plan that allows fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope. The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan allows 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.
Today’s lawsuit says federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to fully assess the potential for water pollution and harm to the climate, and by refusing to analyze alternatives that would minimize or eliminate harm to the environment. The plan would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.
“The Trump administration charted a course to destroy public lands and our shared climate,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This master development plan is a 30-year commitment to the disastrous ‘energy dominance’ agenda which ignored significant impacts on the communities and spectacular values of the North Fork. We are determined to hold our federal government accountable to a more sustainable future for Colorado’s public lands, wildlife, people and climate.”
“Fossil fuel development and sustainable public lands don’t mix, especially in the roadless headwaters of the Upper North Fork Valley,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “This project is incompatible with necessary climate change action, healthy wildlife habitat, and watershed health, and is at odds with the future of our communities.”
“We are in a megadrought in the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. The water used to frack in the watershed risks precious water resources and only exacerbates the climate and the water crisis,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This 35-well project is the beginning of much larger plans to extract a resource which should be left in the ground and for which the market is drying up.”
“This dangerous plan promises more runaway climate pollution in one of the fastest-warming regions in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re suing to force federal agencies to stop ignoring the climate emergency. Like the planet, the Colorado River Basin can’t survive a future of ever-expanding fossil fuel development.”
“It is past time for the federal government to meaningfully consider climate change in its oil and gas permitting decisions,” said Melissa Hornbein, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Gunnison and Delta Counties have already exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming; the project failed to meaningfully analyze impacts to climate, roadless areas, and the agriculture and ecotourism centered economies of the North Fork Valley. More drilling is projected to harm Delta County’s tax revenue, not help it. These communities need land management that serves the public interest.”
“This case is about confronting the Trump administration’s complete disregard of law, science and public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and we certainly can’t afford to keep letting the oil and gas industry run roughshod over Colorado’s irreplaceable and vital public lands.”
Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post recently featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have already risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
In January 574 conservation, Native American, religious and business groups sent the then president-elect a proposed executive order to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. In February the Biden administration issued an executive order pausing oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore pending a climate review of federal fossil fuel programs. In June the Interior Department will issue an interim report describing findings from a March online forum and public comments.
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Conservation groups are suing federal agencies to challenge their approval last year of a proposal by Gunnison Energy to drill 35 oil and gas wells across some 35,000 acres of the upper North Fork Valley.
The groups say the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service violated federal laws by failing to properly assess the climate impacts of the project or analyze alternatives that would have minimized environmental impacts.
The suit was brought by the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, WildEarth Guardians, Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia and High Country Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte.
The project’s location is in Gunnison and Delta counties west of McClure Pass. Some 25,800 acres of the affected acreage is U.S. Forest Service land, 8,648 acres are private and 468 involve BLM land.
The company plans to drill wells down and then out horizontally into the Mancos shale formation from five well pads, three of them new. It has estimated the project could produce up to 700 billion cubic feet of gas over 30 years. That equates to about 2.5% of the gas consumed in the United States last year.
The project also would require about 21 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture each well, the company has estimated. And conservation groups said in a news release that it would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, which they said is the same as what a dozen coal-fired power plants emit in a year…
The suit says that in evaluating the project, the BLM and Forest Service failed take a hard look at methane emissions related to the project. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The suit also says the agencies failed to use “tools or methods generally accepted in the scientific community to evaluate the impact” of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as the social cost of carbon and global carbon budgeting.
Binational Water Conservation Making the Colorado River More Sustainable for People and Birds
**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**
The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. This is a big deal for a river that has not flowed through its delta in most years since the 1960s, resulting in an ecosystem that is severely desiccated and devastated.
Thanks to commitments from the United States and Mexico in the Colorado River binational agreement—Minute 323 – 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) dedicated to create environmental benefits will be delivered to the river from May 1 to October 11. The expectation is that this will create and support habitat for birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Vermilion Flycatcher, and give life to the many plants and animals in this ribbon oasis of green in the midst of the Sonoran Desert.
The last time the two governments cooperated to put water for the environment into the Colorado River was in 2014, when they released a “pulse flow” of water from Morelos Dam (the furthest downstream dam on the Colorado River, located at the U.S. – Mexico border). For eight glorious weeks, the Colorado River was conjured back to life in its final 100 miles. Birds took notice (bird abundance increased 20% from the previous year, and species diversity increased 42%) and local communities celebrated with a spontaneous river fiesta that went on for weeks.
This time, the water will flow for more than five months. Thanks to lessons learned from scientists who studied the 2014 pulse flow, the water will be less likely to infiltrate into the ground, and more likely to fill the river channel providing environmental benefits all the way down to the Gulf of California. System operators are using Mexico’s canal system to bypass Morelos Dam and the driest parts of the channel, delivering the water into the river some 45 river-miles downstream. There it will fill the river where the channel is already wet, maximizing water use efficiency. The scientists’ design optimizes the location and timing of flow to support the hundreds of species of birds that use the delta, and the floodplain habitats they rely on.
Audubon and its partners in Raise the River—the non-governmental organization (NGO) coalition working to restore the Colorado River Delta—are excited to see this sophisticated approach to environmental water delivery. Scientists will study the flow again this year in order to add to our understanding of how to best use the limited supply of water available for the environment.
The agreement that made these flows possible—Minute 323—lasts through 2026. The agreement also commits more than $30 million for water conservation infrastructure in the Mexicali Valley. The water savings will improve local resilience to global warming, increase the water supply stored in Lake Mead, make additional water available to water users in the United States, and create additional water supply for the environment (the coalition of NGOs will also contribute from a local water trust). Minute 323 also ensures that the United States and Mexico conserve Colorado River water and share in shortages when supplies are low. In the context of a drought on the Colorado River that has persisted since 2000, and the expectation of climate change exacerbating drought conditions, these provisions create water supply reliability for both people and nature.
This spring, water for the Colorado River Delta creates a renewed sense of hope. Over the next few months we have the opportunity to see what a small volume of water can do to revive the remnant ecosystem, to nurture its birds, and gift local communities with the return of their river. We can be reassured that, at least in parts of the delta, the Colorado River lives again. In an extraordinarily dry year, deliberate management of water to sustain the environment is the kind of management we will need throughout the Colorado River Basin to ensure that persistent drought and long term impacts of climate change do not lead to the end of river ecosystems in the arid West.
FromThe High Country News [May 13, 2021] (Sharon Udasin):
Through partnerships and exchanges, the community is ensuring that its members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems.
A riverbed that has been parched since the end of the 19th century — a portion of the historic lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community — is now coursing again with water, luring things like cattails and birds back to its shores.
“You add water and stuff just immediately starts coming back naturally. Birds have returned and it’s just such a different experience,” says Jason Hauter, an attorney and a community member. “It’s amazing how much has returned.”
The revival of this small segment of the 649-mile (1045-kilometer) Gila River, which has served the tribes that make up the Gila River Indian Community — the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) — for roughly 2,000 years, was an added benefit of a grassroots infrastructure overhaul, known as “managed aquifer recharge,” or MAR, which aimed to restore the local groundwater basin. The MAR project has not only secured a water supply for local agriculture, but it has also generated a stable source of income and strengthened the community’s ties to tradition.
“The land started to heal itself, reinvigorate itself,” says Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, who recently began his third term as leader of the Gila River Indian Community.
Hauter credits Lewis and his colleagues for ensuring that community members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems in the region through innovative partnerships and exchanges with neighbors.
“They are very thoughtful about future generations, but they also recognize they live in this larger community and that you have to collaborate,” Hauter says. “Encouraging your neighbors to have good water practices, but also helping your neighbors, is good water policy.”
A particularly longstanding claim to water rights
The ins and outs of water management and usage in the West are complex. In a region where every drop is important, questions about water — such as who gets what, how it’s moved from one place to another, and who pays for it — are vital to communities’ capacity to survive and thrive. These decisions are often based on century-plus-old legal doctrines that don’t always fit neatly into a modern, warming world — or address longstanding disregard for Native American tribal nations’ rights.
Western U.S. states adhere to legal doctrines called “prior appropriation” — sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right” — linked to the mid-19th century Gold Rush and the Homestead Act, through which miners and farmers were able to claim and divert water sources for “beneficial use” — defined by activities such as irrigation, industry, power production and domestic use. A 1908 Supreme Court case ruled that the federal decision to establish Native American reservations inherently meant there would be sufficient water for those reservations. The priority date for water rights on these reservations therefore had to match the date of establishment, meaning that many tribal nations’ water rights took precedence over those of most existing users. During the past few decades, these nations have largely opted for settlements with the relevant federal, state and private bodies, rather than entering extensive and costly litigation to recover their water rights.
These settlements allow tribal nations to take part in the competitive markets that have long ruled water in the West. These markets involve things like selling water rights, getting money for helping mitigate drought and accruing “credit” from the Arizona Water Banking Authority by storing water in underground basins administered by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
One such pivotal settlement came in 2004: To resolve tribal water rights claims, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlement Act, which allocates a set amount of water each year to the Gila River Indian Community, drawing that water budget from a variety of sources in Arizona. The community had a particularly longstanding claim to water rights due to its two-millennia history of farming, curtailed when miners and white settlers began diverting water following the Civil War. The governor’s late father, Rodney Lewis, devoted his career as Gila River Tribal Attorney to fighting for a just water settlement.
“It was the theft of our water, so this was a generational historic struggle to regain our water,” Lewis says. “We were and we still are historically agriculturalists, farmers. Our lineage, our ancestors were the Huhugam. And the Huhugam civilization had pretty much cultivated the modern-day Phoenix area in central Arizona.”
“They were master builders,” he adds, referring to complex water systems and canals that he says rivaled those of the Nile Valley.
As more and more nations regain control of their water resources, they are securing a critical provision for the long-term financial prosperity of their people and protection of their lands.
Mutually beneficial partnerships
As often occurs in tribal water rights settlements, the 2004 agreement served to restore the Gila River Indian Community’s claims to the river and its tributaries without displacing the descendants “of those who committed the original sin,” says Hauter, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which currently serves as outside counsel for the Community.
Toward that end, Hauter says, “really, what’s provided is an alternative supply.”
That alternative supply comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), an infrastructural behemoth that conveys about 1.5 million acre-feet (1.85 billion cubic meters; one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons) of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year. Serving as the single largest renewable water supply for the state of Arizona, the 336-mile (540-kilometer) system was authorized by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, soon after which construction by the Bureau of Reclamation began. Three years later, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a multi-county water district — formed to repay the federal government for the project’s costs and oversee regional water supply.
Through the 2004 settlement, the Gila River Indian Community has the single largest CAP entitlement — bigger than that of the city of Phoenix — at 311,800 acre-feet (385 million cubic meters), Hauter explains. Finding mutual benefit in helping quench the thirst of the surrounding region, the community entered into various water exchanges and leases that delivered about 60,000 acre-feet (74 million cubic meters) to Phoenix and other municipalities annually and left about 250,000-acre-feet (308 million cubic meters) for its own purposes, according to Hauter.
But this sudden surplus from the CAP actually posed a problem.
Pumping water from the project, community members understood, would eventually become prohibitive due to water transport and associated electricity costs. The Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, covers the Fixed OM&R (operation, maintenance and replacement) for certain Arizona tribes with settlements, but funding is only projected to last until 2045, Hauter explains.
The community was using only about 50,000 acre-feet (62 million cubic meters) for irrigation purposes, leaving about 200,000-acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) unused, Hauter says. Because any unused CAP water can be remarketed by the state, Arizonans began counting on the community to not use its full share.
With the legal guidance of Hauter and his team, the community launched a strategic venture to store, share and sell much more of its CAP water in 2010.
The first such partnership occurred with former water supply rival the Salt River Project, the name of the utilities responsible for providing most of Phoenix’s water and power. Had the community decided to enter litigation to recover its water rights, rather than settling, the Salt River Project could have faced enormous supply losses.
But the former rivals instead became partners, after identifying that the Salt River Project’s underground storage facility (USF), the Granite Reef Underground Storage Project, was an ideal place to store a portion of the CAP allocation the Gila River Indian Community was not currently using. The partnership has enabled the Salt River Project to withdraw water from storage — while maintaining a “safe yield,” or making sure any water that is taken from aquifers is replenished. In return, the community has gained long-term storage credit, Hauter explains. Such storage credit enables the holder to bank CAP water and, when necessary, recover the water for future use.
The community also stores water in groundwater savings facilities (GSF), including one operated by the Salt River Project and another south of the Gila River operated by the Maricopa Stanfield Drainage District. While a USF physically stores water in the aquifer through direct recharge, a GSF is an “indirect” recharge facility that uses CAP water instead of pumping local groundwater.
In what Hauter described as an “in lieu” agreement, the community provides the operators of these GSF facilities with a renewable water supply — another portion of its CAP allocation — and so reduces the Salt River Project and Maricopa District’s need to extract groundwater. In return, the community gets storage credit for the water that can remain in the ground.
“Everything we needed was at the river”
While these external collaborations bolstered the resilience of the community, as well as that of the arid surrounding region, Gila River residents only really saw the revival of their long-lost local waterway when community leaders launched a homegrown storage initiative. Recognizing the value in keeping some unused CAP resources at home, they chose to establish a network of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) sites. This type of underground storage allows for the free flow of water from a naturally permeable area, such as a streambed, into an aquifer, as opposed to “constructed recharge” sites that involve injecting water into percolation basins by means of a constructed device.
In order to implement these plans, the Gila River Indian Community came to an agreement with Arizona to acquire state regulatory permits for the MAR projects, despite the fact that tribal nations have sovereign control over water management. As a result of this decision, the community has been able to market long-term storage credits in a sort of environmentally friendly banking system that allows more groundwater to stay in the ground.
“They realized they could get multiple benefits from deciding to have their project permitted per the Arizona regulations,” says Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
“They voluntarily chose to abide by the regulations for storage and recovery and therefore come under the whole credit accrual and accounting system,” she continues, stressing that not only can credits be used to recover water when needed in the future, but they can also be purchased by outside entities, which creates a revenue stream for the community. “That’s really exciting.”
Three MAR facilities are already operating on the reservation today: MAR-5, the Olberg Dam underground storage facility, permitted in 2018; MAR-1B, the Cholla Mountain underground storage facility, permitted in 2020; and MAR-6B, a western and downstream expansion of MAR-5, which came online a few months ago. Construction of MAR-8, located downstream from MAR-5, will be complete in a few years, according to Hauter.
Hauter adds that it was only while planning the initial MAR-5 site that community members envisioned the riparian restoration program that served “to recreate the river,” allowing cattails and other plants to blossom and enabling community members to create baskets and traditional medicines. Although the idea of restoring the river was secondary to the storage plans, Hauter says that its flow is intrinsic to the community’s culture.
“The tangible benefit for most members is really having the river back to some degree,” Hauter adds. “It wasn’t something the settlement intended to accomplish, but the settlement gave the community the tools to make it happen.”
Lewis and his father, who had already retired at the time, used those tools to see the first MAR site to fruition. The Lewises and their colleagues understood the benefit in adopting innovative methods for accumulating water at their future storage site.
“He truly saw the MAR-5 as a living testament to our historic tie to the Gila River,” the governor says, adding that his father considered the facility an opportunity to “return the flow of the river.”
With the revived river flow, the riparian habitat quickly began blossoming, including 50 documented species of birds within the first year of MAR-5’s operations, Lewis says. An interpretive trail now weaves through the once arid wetland, providing educational signposts and offering sacred cultural spaces for spiritual practice, Lewis explains. Elders are now taking advantage of the plants and silt available to engage in traditional basket weaving, medicine making and pottery, he adds.
“They still remember the river sometimes flowing and the smell of the water,” Lewis says.
In recent years, before the opening of the MAR-5 site, the channel filled with water only in particularly wet seasons involving floods or heavy snowpack upstream, according to Lewis.
“Everything we needed was at the river,” he adds. “That was our lifeblood.”
Continuing to plan for a drought-ridden future
In conjunction with the opening of the MAR facilities, the community cemented a pivotal agreement in 2019 with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), a groundwater replenishment entity operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Through this agreement, CAGRD leases 18,185 acre-feet (22 million cubic meters) of the community’s CAP water and stores the majority of that water in the MAR sites, while receiving long-term storage credits in return from the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Only if the MAR facilities are full is CAGRD allowed to store the leased water elsewhere, Hauter explains.
Alongside the MAR projects, the community has also been rehabilitating existing wells and building new ones in order to create a backup supply for agricultural use when Gila River flow is minimal. Well water is less expensive than CAP water, since wells can recharge naturally during storms — so much so that such events collectively add at least 100,000 acre-feet (123 million cubic meters) to the community’s annual water supply, according to Hauter.
The community took additional steps to reroute its CAP supplies after the federal government and the seven Colorado River Basin States implemented their drought contingency plans, meant to elevate water levels in Lake Mead, in 2020. As part of that regional effort, Hauter explains, the Community is providing a total of at least 200,000 acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) of water to be stored in Lake Mead from 2020 to 2026, when the drought contingency plans expire. For its contribution, the Community gets money through the Arizona Water Bank and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Only through the community’s creative collaborations and homegrown projects has so much of its CAP entitlement been able to help replenish Lake Mead, Hauter says. Today, the community has reduced its CAP water usage for irrigation to 15,000 acre-feet (19 million cubic meters) per year, while its CAP water storage capacity in the MAR projects is up to about 40,000 acre-feet (49 million cubic meters) per year. After construction of MAR-8 is complete, total CAP water use for storage and irrigation will reach about 75,000 acre-feet (93 million cubic meters), Hauter says.
As the community’s leaders continue to plan for a drought-ridden future, they are evaluating whether it will be necessary to use more of its CAP allocation for their own needs. At the moment, much of the reservation’s agriculture involves water-intensive crops like alfalfa, feed corn and cotton. An overhaul of the farming infrastructure, according to Hauter, would require “changing attitudes about how food is grown” and incorporating more efficient technologies, as well as encouraging farming among younger people.
Overall, Hauter says, “it’s an exciting future for the community, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 or so years.”
Lewis is confident that the community’s agricultural tradition will remain strong, particularly due to the younger generation’s concerns for social justice, equity and environmental issues.
“We want to provide opportunities for our community members to re-engage in any way in our agricultural heritage,” he says. “We’ve always been innovators, going back to the Huhugam with their amazing engineering.”
In addition to the commercial company Gila River Farms, which is owned by the tribe and employs community members, Lewis says that local family farms continue to thrive. Lewis also says that “there’s a big push” for young people to obtain degrees in agro-business, hydrology, water engineering and other relevant fields that will provide them with a livelihood while working for their community — a place that has become even more special to them during the pandemic year.
“It’s a public health emergency that we’ve been going through,” Lewis adds. “But at the same time, I think this is an opportunity where you see a lot [of] our younger generation that are wanting to learn who it is to be from the Gila River Indian Community.”
“A total win-win”
While the MAR projects and the larger water exchange deals serve to safeguard the community’s water supplies, Hauter says he’s uncertain as to whether neighboring tribal nations could replicate this model. Other tribes, he explains, might have different agricultural interests or economic concerns, as well as varying geological and hydrological conditions.
In Megdal’s opinion, at least one aspect of the community’s strategy could be replicable regardless of geography: the strategic accrual and marketing of long-term storage credits in permitted recharge facilities. The Gila River Indian Community has diversified its portfolio of storage credit and sales through “multiple vehicles,” she explains, including its MAR projects, the Salt River Project partnership, and its transfer of credits to CAGRD.
“They are able to meet their objectives including having riparian benefits and river benefits and sell the credits — because the credits are then recovered elsewhere … For them, it’s like a total win-win,” Megdal says, adding that she considers the community’s achievements to be “a bellwether project.”
Already, she says, the Tucson-region Tohono O’odham Nation has begun selling some credits to CAGRD. Acknowledging that the two cases involve varying geological and legislative circumstances, Megdal stresses that the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated the benefits of the storage and credit accrual system.
“These long-term storage credits are the most marketable part of the water system,” Megdal says. “It’s an emerging market, and the Gila River Indian Community has emerged as a key leader in that market.”
“I see this example of a tribal nation entering voluntarily into an intergovernmental agreement with the state so that all the parties can develop these mutually beneficial exchanges or marketing transactions in a voluntary way,” she adds. “It’s really a notable innovation.”
Sharon Udasin is a Boulder-based journalist, with specialties in environment, water and energy.
This article, produced jointly by California Health Report and High Country News, is part of a collaboration that also includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Circle of Blue, Columbia Insight, Ensia, New Mexico In Depth and SJV Water. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.
This story was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and the Institute for Nonprofit News’s Amplify News Project.
As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.
Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.
That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.
The Maybell Diversion
The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.
“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.
In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.
Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion
The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.
The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.
“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”
Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.
This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.
One Piece of a Larger Puzzle
The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.
As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.
From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:
The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.
The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.
Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.
Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.
Created by Imgur user Fejetlenfej , a geographer and GIS analyst with a ‘lifelong passion for beautiful maps,’ it highlights the massive expanse of river basins across the country – in particular, those which feed the Mississippi River, in pink.
The Arizona Legislature on Tuesday made a formal request asking Congress to fund a study to determine the feasibility of pipelining Mississippi River floodwater to the Colorado River.
House Concurrent Memorial 2004 passed the Arizona Senate by a 23-7 vote and the Arizona House by a 54-6 margin. A memorial is not a law, but a legislative measure containing a request or proposal, asking other parties outside the Arizona Legislature’s jurisdiction to take action. HCMs have no official standing or effect, but serve as a public record of the request presented for consideration.
The memorial was introduced by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, is among co-sponsors.
It asks that “the United States Congress fund a technological and feasibility study of developing a diversion dam and pipeline to harvest floodwater from the Mississippi River to replenish the Colorado River and prevent flood damage along the Mississippi River.”
It also states that “If shown to be feasible, the United States Congress implement the diversion dam and pipeline as a partial solution to the water supply shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the flood damage that occurs along the Mississippi River.”
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River. Both are at historically low levels and likely will trigger a Tier 1 water emergency in Arizona later this year or in 2022.
The memorial notes the low water levels of both reservoirs and the “historic flooding in 2011 and 2019 along the Mississippi River” that caused 11 deaths and more than $9.5 billion in damage.
It asks that the request be sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the governors of states on the Mississippi River — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin — as well as Arizona’s 11 members of Congress.
“Arizona has long been at the forefront among Western states in supporting the development and implementation of pioneering, well-reasoned water management policies,” Dunn said, a line straight out of the HCM he crafted. “Arizona and the other six Colorado Basin states are in the 20th year of severe drought and experiencing a severe water shortage. Water levels are at critical levels, jeopardizing the water delivery and power generation. A new water source could help augment Colorado River supplies.
“One promising possibility involves piping water that is harvested from Mississippi River floodwaters. Diverting this water, which is otherwise lost into the Gulf of Mexico, would also help prevent the loss of human life and billions in economic damages when such flooding occurs. This concept is already being proven in Denver, where floodwater is being successfully harvested from the Missouri River to help alleviate its water shortage.”
In response to a forecast for increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Wednesday, May 12th, starting at 0400 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. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
Join the Colorado River District and the Community Agriculture Alliance for the Yampa Valley State of the River to learn more about current issues in the Yampa River Basin, from the Flattops to Dinosaur.
Understand more about your river, your water, the potential for a call on the river this summer and what the proposed over appropriation designation on the Yampa means for your water use. In presentations and discussions at the meeting, speakers will also give information about funding for Yampa River Basin water projects and updates on our water supply as we enter another summer of drought. Attendees will also hear about plans to manage the watershed and keep water flowing in the Yampa in hot, dry years.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive a recording of the webinar in your email inbox to watch later.
Welcome – Colorado River District and Community Agriculture Alliance
Colorado River District’s Partnership Project Funding Program – Colorado River District Director of Strategic Partnerships Amy Moyer
Water Supply Updates and Drought in the Yampa River Basin – Colorado Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger
Area snowpack improved in April but is back on a melting trend. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites, the snowpack level at Copper Mountain peaked at the beginning of April at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack. The snow-water equivalent dropped to 10.6 inches in mid-April and increased to 12 inches by Friday, April 30.
The snowpack has declined in May and is currently sitting at 9.8 inches of snow-water equivalent on Copper Mountain, or 82% of the 30-year median. The upper Colorado River basin, which Summit County falls into, is at 65% of normal snow-water equivalent as of May 10.
“Things aren’t looking so good right now,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier said. “We’ve melted out about a third of the snowpack already.”
Meier said cool and snowy days like Monday, May 10, slow down the melting process and add a bit to the snowpack, but overall, he expects the snowpack to remain below normal. He said the snowpack usually melts out between June 10 and 20…
According to the National Weather Service’s almanac, only 9 inches of snow was recorded in April at the Dillon Weather Station — almost half the area’s normal April snowfall of 17.3 inches.
So far, May is closer to average with a total of 3 inches as of Monday morning and more on the way with through the remainder of the storm. Through May 10, normal snowfall for the Dillon station is 3.3 inches.
Though not much snow accumulated, drought conditions have improved in Summit County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The county is still in a drought, but the severity has lessened to a severe drought in the northern portion of the county and a moderate drought in the southern portion of the county, according to the Drought Monitor’s severity scale. As of April 27, the northern portion of the county was still in an extreme drought.
In response to a forecast lull in flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a temporary increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Tuesday, May 11th, starting at 0400 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. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
While peak flows can vary, the Yampa River generally peaks in late May to early June, while Butcherknife Creek, Burgess Creek, Spring Creek, Soda Creek and Walton Creek can peak significantly earlier in the year. This past week, the Yampa River increased to nearly 700 cfs.
The Streets Division will supply sand and sandbags for residential properties that need them on a case-by-case basis. Sandbags will need to be filled and placed by the homeowner. Contact the Streets Division at 970-879-1807 during normal office hours or dispatch at 970-879-1144 after hours to request this service. Commercial properties and residential neighborhoods with frequent needs must acquire their own sandbags. Those experiencing a flooding emergency should call 911.
Water pollution concerns have prompted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to issue separate notices to two developers in Grand County.
In Kremmling, Blue Valley Ranch received notice dated April 13 for allegedly failing to submit monitor data for its wastewater treatment plant since December 2019. For that violation, Blue Valley Ranch faces a $3,000 fine.
At the Grand Park development in Fraser, a state representative inspected the Elk Creek Condos, the Meadows and a storage facility in early April and found the facilities were discharging “sediment-laden stormwater” into Elk Creek and the Fraser River.
In the report, the inspector noted there were no control measures around multiple locations at the Elk Creek Condos and the Meadows that allowed stormwater discharges or increased the potential for them…
Altogether, regulators found three sites they believed were operating in violation of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, its regulations or a discharge permit.
In addition, based on inspections in September 2019 and August 2020, Elk Creek Condos and the Meadows were found to have incomplete stormwater management plans, multiple stormwater control measure concerns and incomplete inspection records. The storage facility on Old Victory Road is alleged to not have a discharge permit.
The notices alleged that “Grand Park Development failed to implement, select, design, install, and maintain control measures in accordance with good engineering, hydrologic, and pollution control practices to minimize the discharge of pollutants from all potential pollutant sources.”
The state also issued a notice of violation for the Mill Avenue apartments for starting construction without a discharge permit, but Lipscomb said state officials did so by mistake. The project had a permit under the Grand Park name before it was updated later with the Byers Peak Properties, according to permit documents provided by Grand Park.
Lipscomb said he expects that all of the notices will be addressed without consequence. Grand Park has 30 days from April 20, when the notices were issued, to respond to each alleged violation. A response has already been sent regarding the Mill Apartments.
If the state rejects the developer’s responses, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could impose up to $10,000 per day in penalties. The state could also require Grand Park to hire a consultant to ensure compliance.
The notices state that the CDPHE investigation is ongoing and may supplement the notice with additional violations and required further actions.
CDPHE also issued a notice of violation to Blue Valley Ranch for failing to submit monitoring data for its wastewater treatment plant since December 2019, and the ranch is required to begin submitting the monitoring data for the treatment plant.
The notice received by Blue Valley Ranch adds that the CDPHE investigation is ongoing and may supplement the notice with further violations and required actions.
Like Grand Park, Blue Valley Ranch has 30 days to respond. Blue Valley Ranch representatives did not return the newspapers’ requests for comment.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.
The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.
Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-248-0625.
A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.
The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…
Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.
Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.
Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.
The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.
For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.
However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.
Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.
The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.
During the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District board meeting on Tuesday, May 4, Town Public Works Director Martin Schmidt shared increasing concerns with the town’s wastewater pumping.
“About a year ago, I came to the board with a report from an engineer from the company that sold us the pumps, Sulzer, and they were very confident in a replacement pump to be put into the lift stations because it would solve our net-pressure suction head issue,” Schmidt said. “It exacerbated issues down the line and acceler- ated some pump failures. That’s a big issue.”
In his agenda brief, Schmidt states that after the board approved pur- chasing a different pump that was recommended by the supplier, the newer pump exacerbated issues with other parts of the pumping train and inadvertently increased the speed of the pump failures at the lift stations.
“What we need is a system that will pump sewage and not destroy pumps at the rate they’re destroying them,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt explained that pumps should be lasting between 15 and 20 years with minor maintenance. Currently, some of them are lasting not even six months.
“Staff has been working on a solution for this from the very moment we realized the problem has been occurring,” he said. “We worked with them throughout the fall and into the winter and around Christmastime, we realized Sulzer wasn’t coming forward with any reasonable solutions.”
During a phone call the follow- ing day, Phillips explained several options for the emergency backups she referred to during the meeting.
“We do have an overflow vault that is located under the ground next to Pump Station 1, and that is for taking any kind of overflow that the pumps would not be able to handle,” she said. “That would get us maybe about 12 hours of time and if we needed to do more than that, we’ve identified a supplier of a bypass pump that we would utilize.”
Phillips explained that there are two pump stations with four pumps each in service at any given time. Typically 150,000 to 250,000 gallons per day of wastewater are being pumped. Both pump stations are suffering from issues.
“We also could utilize the existing old sewer lagoons that are down there, one of which is par- tially lined,” she said. “We could get several days of overflow by utilizing those old lagoons, and in the meantime would be requesting emergency assistance from Sulzer and other suppliers to ship us on an emergency basis additional pumps.”
“We are waiting on [the engineer’s] report. I anticipated it this afternoon; it will probably be here tomorrow,” said Schmidt during the meeting.
Early this year, five of Gallup, New Mexico’s 16 water wells stopped producing water, including two of its biggest. After a few days of maintenance, two worked. The other three were out of commission for more than a month. Had it happened in summer, the city might have asked residents to dramatically reduce use…
The shortage isn’t wholly surprising — 20 years ago, the city decided it could limp along on aging groundwater wells with dropping water levels until a new water project began delivering San Juan River water in late 2024. The project is also connecting nearby Navajo communities, where many residents lack running water, an issue the Navajo Nation says is long past due and in need of a fix. But now a potential four-year delay could force a growing number of people to rely on these strained groundwater sources. A plan to keep taps from running dry will come with a price tag.
The situation highlights how precarious water has become for this city of almost 22,000 in western New Mexico and offers a peek inside the complicated mix of relationships, creativity and familiarity with multiple government agencies that’s required to manage water in the 21st century.
Gallup sits in the high desert along the red sandstone mesas of the Colorado Plateau. For much of its history, it has functioned as an industrial town and a bustling commercial center. Named in 1881 after railroad paymaster David L. Gallup, freight trains and Amtrak still rumble through, in addition to a steady flow of semi-truck traffic around the exits for Interstate-40. Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, on the first weekend of the month the town swells by 100,000 as people stream in for supplies. Those with no running water at home fill water containers. People do laundry, wash cars, go out to eat.
For decades, the Navajo Nation bordertown has relied on groundwater stored in sandstone layers deep underground. With no nearby rivers, wells tapping that water have been the city’s only option. But because annual rain and snowfall don’t replenish the water, levels have dropped over recent decades. In the 1990s, the city projected shortages by as early as 2010.
“Not only was Gallup running out of water, everybody was running out,” said Marc DePauli, owner of DePauli Engineering and Surveying, which the city has hired to work on the water systems. About 20 smaller surrounding water systems had “straws in the same bucket,” all leaning on dwindling reserves.
Help is coming in the form of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, the result of a historic agreement that settled Navajo Nation claims to water in this arid region of the Southwest after decades of discussions.
Consisting of two major pipelines that run through Navajo communities in western New Mexico, the project will bring water from the San Juan River to within reach of some of the one in three homes without it on the Navajo Nation. One of the pipelines, the Cutter Lateral that branches to northwest New Mexico, is complete. The other, the San Juan Lateral, will move 37,700 acre feet of water each year for 200 miles along the western edge of the state, up to 7,500 acre-feet of which will come as far south as Gallup. In the future, the city will rely largely on water from the San Juan…
The water was supposed to flow by 2024, but a new design proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation will now likely push that date back by three to four years, putting Gallup in a tight spot, monetarily and water-wise. The construction delay coupled with the city shouldering more demand will require new wells to supply everyone until water from the San Juan arrives.
Last week, Utah State University hosted a webinar for natural resource professionals to discuss a drought reporting network called “Condition Monitoring Observer Reports.” Through a mobile app, Utah citizens can document drought impacts and submit their observations to a database used by state and university drought researchers and scientists. The data can help give scientists a more qualitative, detailed understanding of on-the-ground conditions and impacts of drought. Are farmers’ crops, or ranchers’ grazing areas, being affected? Are recreation areas changing? Photographs showing a location in a wet year and later in a dry year can give helpful comparative references.
Details like these, giving a fuller picture of what it means to be in a condition of drought, are increasingly important to scientists, policy-makers, and citizens of the Southwest as we grapple with the ongoing dry conditions. On March 17, Utah Governor Spencer Cox declared Utah to be in a state of emergency due to drought; 90% of the state is considered to be in “extreme” drought, and the entire state is in at least “moderate” drought. All of Grand County is in the “extreme” category, and some of the county is in the even more severe “exceptional” drought category.
An extreme demonstration of the drought is the current level of Lake Powell, which is nearing historic lows. At the beginning of the 2021 water year, the lake was at 48% of capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. In an April 15 update, the bureau reported that the lake had dipped even further to just 36% of capacity at the end of March.
The lake’s current shoreline looks very different than in higher water years; one family of visitors even discovered a shipwrecked boat, now completely emerged from the receded water. Receding waters have stranded boat ramps and drained marinas, however, the low lake levels could have much graver consequences than altered recreation experiences.
The lake level at the end of March, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, was about 3,567 above sea level. If the level drops to 3,525 feet above sea level, normal hydropower production and water releases from the lake are at risk.
The 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, agreed upon by the states who rely on the Colorado River for water, dictates that if reservoir levels reach critical lows, Upper Basin states will need to initiate drastic conservation measures to increase those water levels.
Water conservation has been a concern locally, with the Moab City Council holding discussions in recent months about Moab Valley water resources. The Glen Canyon aquifer provides most of Moab’s drinking water, and scientific studies in recent years have raised concerns about “safe yield” levels, or how much water per year it is safe to draw from the aquifer while still allowing it to recharge. Marc Stilson, regional engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights, gave a presentation at the May 4 Grand County Commission meeting, updating elected officials on the division’s recent work. A six-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey, to which the state Division of Water Rights contributed, attempted to determine how much groundwater is in the valley.
Here’s the release from the Vail Recreation District via The Vail Daily:
The 2021 Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Vail Whitewater Race Series is almost here.
The Vail Recreation District offers five events on Gore Creek on Tuesdays from May 11 to June 8. This is a chance to test your paddling skills and compete against others. Register for individual races or the whole series.
For 2021, the Vail Recreation District is excited to introduce a new title sponsor for the series, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.
“The Vail Whitewater Race Series is a great example of how our community thrives on water. Whether it’s snow, our rivers, or the safe water we deliver to homes and businesses every day, clean water is vital to our quality of life,” said Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s Diane Johnson. “As stewards of our rivers, we encourage everyone to reduce their impact on local streams by reducing their outdoor water use.”
The Vail Recreation District also partners with the Town of Vail and Alpine Quest Sports to put on these exciting races, held at the Vail Whitewater Park on Tuesday evenings beginning at 5:30 p.m. The first four races start at the Covered Bridge in Vail Village and end at International Bridge.
The last race on June 8 will start at the Ampitheater Bridge in Ford Park. Overall series prizes will be awarded following the final race.
The races will be divided between three categories including kayak (under 9-feet-6), two-person raft (R2) and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) with different course challenges every week. Open to paddlers ages 16 and up with intermediate to expert abilities, the skills to run Class III whitewater in your chosen craft are required. The two-round format will consist of an individual time trial with results determining the seeding for the second round, a head-to-head race.
Please note that for 2021 the Vail Recreation District has limited rafts for use, so the R2 category will be limited to 15 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged.
An after-party will also be hosted in Vail Village each week with prizes awarded to the winners of all three categories. For the first race on Tuesday, the after-party will take place at the Altitude Bar & Grill. All race participants over 21 will receive free beer courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Company!
Registration is available at http://www.vailrec.com/register. Series registration for kayak and SUP participants is $60 and series registration for R2 participants is $80 per team.
Individual race registration for kayak and SUP participants is $15 preregistered or $20 day-of, and $20 preregistered or $30 day-of for R2 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged and ends at 5 p.m. the day before each race. If space is still available, on-site, day-of registration will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Vail Whitewater Park and all participants should be present at the safety talk at 5:15 p.m.
Every registered participant at each race will be entered to win a $1,000 gift certificate from Hala Gear that can be used towards a board and paddle package of their choice. The winner will be drawn after the final race so make sure you attend that last after-party!
The Vail Recreation District will be following all state and county COVID-19 guidelines for this upcoming race season.
For more information, visit vailrec.com, call the VRD Sports Department at 970-479-2280 or email email@example.com.
Be sure to check out this short, but great video overflight of 3 dam systems that are being proposed to be built within the Little Colorado River Gorge. These dams would significantly impact unique cultural landscapes that are important for several Indigenous tribes, as well as impact critical, natural habitat for the endangered Humpback Chub. […]
Click here to read the discussion from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Here’s an excerpt:
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) geographic forecast area includes the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lower Colorado River Basin, and Eastern Great Basin.
Water Supply Forecast Summary
Early May water supply volume forecasts are below to much below normal throughout the Colorado River Basin and Great Basin. Upper Colorado River Basin water supply forecasts range between 15-75% of the 1981-2010 historical April-July average. Great Basin water supply forecasts are 10-70% of average. Water supply guidance as a percent of average decreased by 10-20% across the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin and decreased by 5-15% across the majority of the Great Basin over the past month. Many April-July volume forecasts fall in the bottom (driest) five on record. Water supply forecast ranges (percent of normal) by basin are listed below.
April average temperatures were slightly below normal across the north and slightly above normal across the south. April precipitation was mostly below to well below normal across the Upper Colorado Basin and Great Basin. Several SNOTELs in the San Juan, Gunnison, and Yampa River Basins were below the 10th percentile for April precipitation. Below normal soil moisture and snowpack conditions in addition to below average April precipitation and relatively mild (near normal) April temperatures across the Upper Colorado River Basin and Great Basin lead to mostly below normal and in some cases record low observed April flows (unregulated streamflow volumes) across the region. A number of streamflow sites had record low April flows with many locations falling in the bottom five of their period of record.
Snow water equivalent (SWE) at the majority of SNOTEL stations across the region peaked between 70-85% of the normal peak SWE. Early May SWE conditions are below to much below normal (median) throughout the CBRFC forecast area. Upper Colorado River Basin SWE conditions generally range between 50-75% of the 1981-2010 historical median and Great Basin SWE generally ranges between 30-60% of normal.
April-July unregulated inflow forecasts for some of the major reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin include Fontenelle 380 KAF (52% of average), Flaming Gorge 450 KAF (46%), Green Mountain 150 KAF (55%), Blue Mesa 340 KAF (50%), McPhee 81 KAF (27%), and Navajo 325 KAF (44%). The Lake Powell inflow forecast is 2.0 MAF (28% of average), a 17% decrease from April.
In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Saturday, May 8th, starting at 0400 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. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday…
Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.
“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.
If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.
“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”
This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.
Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.
“You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks…
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.
Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Reservoir expected to reach only about 90% of capacity this summer
The dry, warm month of April prevented the snowpack from building and sunk the chances to fill Ruedi Reservoir this summer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…
The snowpack in the upper Fryingpan Valley was only about 60% of median as of May 1, he said. Forecasts are for runoff into the reservoir to be only about 55% of average…
Ruedi Reservoir is at about 60% full right now. It holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. It would need about 42,000 acre-feet to fill.
Current projections are for it to reach about 90,000 acre-feet this summer, according to Miller…
The Roaring Fork River basin, like much of Colorado and the Western United States, has been battling a prolonged drought. AccuWeather Inc. reported Wednesday that 75% of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. About 21% of the areas are facing exceptional drought, which is the most extreme…
A lower water level in the reservoir also will mean lower releases into the lower Fryingpan River through the summer. Water levels won’t be as high as usual in late spring and early summer, so there won’t be a disruption to the Gold Medal trout stream.
However, low water levels and high summer temperatures are a regular cause for concern. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy has sounded the alarm in past summers about high water temperatures stressing trout.
Water releases could increase in June once downstream entities that possess senior water rights make a “call” for water for agricultural uses, Miller said.
April Long, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the reservoir is used to meeting numerous water needs in the Roaring Fork Valley and on the Colorado River system. It is hard to know the full impact of the reservoir not filling, she said.
In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, May 7th, starting at 0400 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. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture
Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
Potential risks and solutions
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.
Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”
Suspicion of outsiders
For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.
“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.
Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.
“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”
And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”
And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.
“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”
Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.
Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.
“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”
This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer, and Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer, provided a disheartening update to the Colorado River District Board of Directors on the continuing drought and dire water supply outlook in 2021. Unfortunately, conditions have only worsened since January.
For most of the last two years, monthly precipitation amounts have been below average within the Colorado River District. As of April 30, the snow water equivalent is well below average across the Western Slope with the Colorado basin at 72% of average, the Gunnison at 62% and the Yampa & White at 72%.
In addition to the below-average seasonal snowpack, the temperature and precipitation model forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center are predicting a hot and dry summer with above-average temperatures across most of the southwest. Forecasters also predict below-average precipitation, particularly in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Most of the Colorado River Basin is currently in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.
Adding insult to injury, low soil moisture will adversely impact runoff. Models from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center suggest the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin has such low soil moisture that it will require up to 12 inches of water to reach saturation. This means that most of the snowpack is absorbing into the soils and not turning into runoff. With the sizable reservoir drawdowns from last year, very few reservoirs are likely to fill in the upcoming water year. This soil moisture deficit presents a significant challenge to refilling the Colorado River storage system, especially the lower, larger facilities, like Lakes Powell and Mead.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-term modeling forecasts project this water year to be below average, with inflow into Lake Powell at about 5.13 million acre-feet, less than 47% of the long-term average. Furthermore, Reclamation projects that Lake Powell will end the water year near 3,557.03 feet elevation, holding about 8.10 million acre-feet in storage, which is 33% of its capacity.
With these projections for Lake Powell, combined with similarly low projections for Lake Mead, Drought Contingency Plan operations will continue to be in effect for the Lower Basin in 2021 with lowered deliveries to the Central Arizona Project, Southern Nevada and Mexico. Should these projections continue to play out, the Lower Basin will enter a higher tier of shortage in 2022, prompting mandatory cutbacks under the 2007 Interim Guidelines.
If the level of Lake Powell is projected to fall below 3,535 feet in elevation by October 2022 — which is currently within the worst-case scenario forecast — it would activate the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan. This would trigger coordinated releases into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and other upstream reservoirs to protect reservoir levels and maintain power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.
There is still time for conditions to improve, but the outlook is not good.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board of directors has approved a contract with an engineering firm to address problems with a dam that are turning out to be worse than previously thought.
At its second quarterly meeting, held in April, the River District board agreed to pay $323,840 to HDR Engineering to further study the movement and potential cracking at the district-owned Ritschard Dam. The dam forms the 66,000-acre-foot Wolford Mountain Reservoir across Muddy Creek, about 5 miles north of Kremmling in Grand County. Muddy Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River.
River District staff, aware since 2008 that the dam is settling and moving more than expected, have been monitoring the situation. However, a 2020 Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation prepared in December by HDR Engineering for the state’s Dam Safety section of the Division of Water Resources found that the risk of internal erosion of the dam due to cracking had increased from a 2016 evaluation. That year’s evaluation estimated the chances of a dam failure at 1 in a billion in any given year; the 2020 report found a 1.5-in-10,000 chance of a dam failure.
A crack causing internal erosion is the primary driver of the risk of dam failure.
“It is currently expected that the core will crack at some point, if it has not already done so,” the report reads. “Although a deep crack through the core would represent a severe defect and a serious dam safety incident that significantly compromises the dam’s ability to store water, formation of a crack does not necessarily mean the dam would breach.”
Ritschard Dam has an impermeable clay core that is covered on the upstream and downstream sides with rockfill. Because the rock-fill is poorly compacted, the dam’s outer shells are still moving, especially on the downstream side. The 122-foot-tall dam was built for the River District in 1995 by D.H. Blattner and Sons of Minnesota. The cost was $42 million.
According to the report, normal reservoir operations that involve cycles of drawdown and refill appear to have a detrimental effect on the deformations. Even if the dam does not breach, there could still be very serious incidents that necessitate emergency actions and downstream evacuations or a reservoir restriction.
“The probability of a serious dam safety incident will only increase over time as deformations continue, and therefore there is urgency in taking actions,” the report reads.
The report said risk of dam failure at Ritschard is about the same as the historical failure rate for dams built prior to modern dam safety. Generally, a dam designed and constructed in the 1990s should have a much lower risk of failure than the historical rate.
The River District has been monitoring the dam with instruments, but HDR Engineering will help identify areas that could benefit from additional inclinometers, which measure slope angle, and piezometers, which measure underground water pressure.
“First and foremost, the River District puts public health and safety as our number one priority always, and every action we take is with public safety in mind,” said River District chief of operations Audrey Turner, who is acting as spokesperson on Ritschard Dam matters. “The River District has and will continue to increase our monitoring and emergency preparedness at the dam as recommended by the report.”
The River District also will use a LiDAR survey program — which utilizes lasers for remote sensing — to track and visualize dam deformation, stockpile emergency materials onsite such as gravel and riprap and is planning an exercise for the fall that will improve the community’s emergency preparedness.
It’s still unclear whether or when the dam will need to be rehabilitated; that’s what adding more monitoring instruments may help the district figure out.
“There are still some other areas of exploration and additional information before any decision is made toward the rehabilitation of the dam,” Turner said.
Runoff season operations
The dam deformation won’t stop the reservoir from filling this runoff season. The plan is to still fill the reservoir, as long as the drought conditions allow. Turner said the River District also will still be able to fulfill all of its contract demands for water later in the summer.
Dam Safety has signed off on the district’s operation plan, which calls for letting Denver Water make releases from Wolford instead of from other Western Slope reservoirs in order to get the reservoir level down to 10 feet below the crest as soon as possible after it fills with runoff.
“The plan looks well thought out, and we appreciate the proactive steps taken to continue to monitor conditions and toward emergency preparedness,” Bill McCormick, chief of Colorado’s Dam Safety Branch, said in an email to the River District.
Denver Water leases 40% of the water in Wolford. After 2020, the Front Range water provider was supposed to have become the owner of that water. But the deal is off, at least temporarily, while the dam’s problems are studied.
“The River District and Denver Water have temporarily postponed that transfer of ownership to allow the parties to conduct further study related to the risk-assessment recommendations,” Turner said.
Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the two entities mutually decided to extend the lease temporarily while they determine the next steps.
“We were supportive of the 2020 risk assessment and shared some costs of that process along with the expertise and guidance of our engineering team,” Hartman said in an email. “We’ve continued to consult on the path ahead and will remain engaged in helping to develop and guide the upcoming engineering study.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 3 edition of The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Wolford Reserovir, and the Gore Range. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The downstream face of Ritschard Dam, which forms Wolford Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The outlook works at Ritschard Dam, which forms Wolford Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Wolford Mountain Reservoir. An aerial view of Wolford Reservoir, formed by Ritschard Dam. The Colorado Water Plan outlines many different types of projects, including reservoirs and dams, that need funding.
Muddy Creek outfall Wolford Mountain Reservoir
A graphic of the issues at Ritschard Dam from the Colorado River District
Ritschard Dam movement graphic Colorado River District
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Hannah Grover):
As much of New Mexico faces exceptional drought conditions, the Interstate Stream Commission authorized its chairman to ask the Department of Interior for financial support.
The commission approved delegating that authority to commission chairman during its meeting on Friday.
The chairman will work with State Engineer John D’Antonio to request funding for both long-term and short-term drought relief.
The short-term relief could be something like assistance for farmers, said ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Peterson…
Low water flow in rivers
The major water basins in the state are experiencing low flows in rivers.
The Upper Colorado River Basin had 89 percent of normal snowpack this year, but the back-to-back years of drought left the soil dry. This led to more of the runoff soaking into the ground rather than flowing downstream, according to the staff report at the start of the meeting. This has left flows in the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers at 50 percent of the historic average during March and April.
Meanwhile, the Gila and San Francisco rivers are flowing at 5 to 21 percent of the historic average for March and April.
The headwater tributaries of the Pecos River were flowing at 39 to 47 percent of average during the time period from October to March, according to information from the New Mexico Drought Taskforce. In the Canadian River Basin, the headwater tributaries were flowing at 18 to 67 percent of average.
During the October to March time period, the Rio Grande streamflow upstream of Albuquerque ranged from 35 to 67 percent of average, according to the drought taskforce report…
The Rio Grande Compact is preventing New Mexico from storing water in reservoirs built after 1929 because of the low levels and the state currently owes water from the Rio Grande to downstream users.
Meanwhile, water users in the Pecos River basin will be relying on augmentation wells this year.
Reservoirs below capacity
As streamflow in much of the state is well below average, the reservoirs have dropped.
Ute Reservoir near Logan is at 65 percent capacity, leaving community boat docks on dry land and needing to be shut down. Other reservoirs in the Canadian River Basin aren’t faring any better. Eagle Nest Reservoir is at 43 percent capacity and Conchas Reservoir is at 23 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, in the northwest portion of the state, Navajo Reservoir is 62 percent full. Because of the low amount of water in Navajo Reservoir, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is not having the spring peak release this year that is usually done to clear out the channel and improve habitat for endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow.
At Nucla and Naturita, two small communities in Western Colorado, the transition from a coal economy has begun. As for a just transition?
No, not yet says Sarah Backman, a local attorney who, like many others in these towns an hour west of Telluride, wears a lot of hats.
Backman and others hope that the proposed Just Transition appropriation bill being heard in the Colorado Legislature for the first time on May 6 will deliver money for their communities, to continue the work already underway.
“I don’t feel like we have a just transition, but hopefully if this bill passes, (the money) can be allocated quickly so that we can continue our efforts to transition our community,” she says.
Nucla Station was a 100-megawatt plant that was closed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission in September 2019 in response to anti-haze enforcement by the federal government. The plant faced more stringent regulation of emissions of nitrous oxide, a component in haze, also called smog, and upgrades to the aging plant would have been expensive.
The first unit at Craig Station will also be closed by the end of 2025 as a result of the same settlement.
Nucla Station had 76 employees and the accompanying mine 35 at one time. At closing in November 2019, they had 35 and 23, according to Tri-State. Ten remain at work on reclamation of the sites.
As for the roughly $2 million in property taxes paid annually by Tri-State, that is mostly gone, too. The plant and mine represented about 43% of property tax valuation in the west end of Montrose County, where the communities are located.
This is from the April 30, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Sign up at http://Big Pivots.com.
In small communities, a few people tend to wear a lot of hats. It’s often the same faces on the water districts, chamber, historical society – you name it.
Backman is one of those in addition to being a young mother. She says that the prevailing vision in the communities is of developing an economy more strongly reliant on tourism. Tourism has its weaknesses, she says, but it’s not boom or bust. And, if far off the beaten paths of Colorado, Nucla and Naturita have much to work with.
Telluride lies an hour to the east, and some in the community work there or have businesses catering to the Telluride economy. Moab lies 90 minutes to the west, and Grand Junction a little longer to the north.
There are slickrock canyons of the San Miguel River, the eye-pleasing forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. In the west end of Montrose County, a place with 2,500 residents in the 2010 census, there is a place called Bedrock, located in the Paradox Valley, so-named for its queer geology. It is bisected by the Dolores River.
There’s also a place called Uravan, from which the uranium used by Madame Curie in her experiments during the 1920s was mined.
The Manhattan Project of World War II spurred a boom in uranium mining. That boom petered out in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving widows who, as Peter Hessler documented in his 2010 piece in the New Yorker (and this writer learned in a 2006 visit), pined for the good old days and a return to uranium mining. It hasn’t happened yet. See: “The Uranium Widows”
With this focus on tourism, not uranium, the effort is on drawing visitors for events such as the dark skies festival, scheduled for June. In this, the community will be in the company of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Canada’s Banff resort communities in celebrating dark skies.
Another multi-hatted community doer is Aimee Tooker, the president of the West End Economic Development Corporation since its founding in 2014.
“We have been working on economic development ever since then,” she says. In 2017, the group got a $836,000 economic development grant to pay for programming funding., but that grant will be exhausted within the next year. She hopes that Colorado funding will continue to put wind into the sails of this effort.
The coal plant’s closing was done two years earlier than expected. Tri-State was paying $2 million in property taxes to local jurisdictions. That’s not a huge sum in many places, but these are small places. The population of Nucla is 644, and that of Naturita is 486.
“This is 67% of the tax base of our emergency services district,” says Tooker.
Tri-State is providing a $500,000 grant to the communities over the course of five years to West End Pay It Forward Trust. It’s welcome but not enough, say those in the Nucla-Naturita community trying to build a bridge to a new, more diversified economy.
How will state funding help these two communities? “By keeping our boots on the ground,” replies Tooker. She cites a plan to beautify the main street in Nucla.
Paul Major has worked with the Nucla-Naturita community. Until recently, he operated the Telluride Foundation, a philanthropy. He remains on Colorado’s Just Transition advisory committee.
He credits Tooker, Backman, and others for their drive and ambition. Instead of whining about the closing of the plant, he says, they’re working hard to make their community a great place to live. “It’s a cliché, but they are really leaning into it,” he says.
In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Saturday, May 1st, starting at 0400 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.
The vast majority of those cuts will fall upon Pinal County farmers who have taken CAP instead of pumped groundwater for 35 years. CAP is the principal drinking water source for Tucson, but the first round of cuts will have no impacts on the city’s CAP supplies.
At a virtual briefing Thursday, the heads of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they’ve known for many years that shortages will be coming and that they’ve stepped up with detailed plans for it.
They stressed the large amount of negotiation and other work that went into the drought plan. They discussed in detail how a large number of water providers, tribes and other entities offered both water supplies and money to provide relief to farmers and others whose water supplies will be cut.
Central Arizona farmers, due to lose 320,000 feet of CAP water in 2022, will get about 105,000 of that back in water supplies from other sources. They’ll also get money from a wide variety of sources to drill wells for another 70,000 acre- feet.
A group of Phoenix-area cities and several tribes, including the Tohono O’Odham west of Tucson, stand to lose 60 percent of a separate CAP pool called Non-Indian Agricultural water, because it used to belong to farmers. They’ll get 75 percent of that back through mitigation approved under the drought plan.
In response to questions Thursday, Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said they see no reason to plan for additional cuts beyond what the drought plan envisions before that plan expires in 2026.
There’s no need to limit population growth to hold down demands for the state’s limited and shrinking water supplies, despite calls for that from some environmentalists, Cooke and Buschatzke also said Thursday…
The cuts are necessary because Lake Mead is forecast to fall to 1,067 feet by the end of 2021. Under the 2019 drought plan, CAP will takes that first major cut in deliveries if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts in August that Mead will fall below 1,075 feet in December.
At Thursday’s briefing, Dan Bunk, a Bureau of Reclamation official, laid out a series of grim statistics showing the decline in river flows and reservoir levels.
Today, Lake Mead is at 38 percent of its total capacity and Lake Powell is at 35 percent of capacity, said Bunk, of the bureau’s Lower Colorado River office in Boulder City, Nevada.
Lake Mead has dropped 15 to 16 feet since a year ago and Powell has dropped 35 feet in the same period, he said…
Snowpack levels peaked this year at 89 percent of median levels. Soil moisture is at near record low levels in the river’s Upper Basin, he said…
This year is on pace to be the river’s third or fourth driest runoff season in modern-day records, he said. The 22 years of drought the basin has had since 2000 represents the driest period on record even when looking at longer-term, tree ring and other paleo records dating back 1,000 years, he said.
Because of these forecasts, and because of continued bleak forecasts for the river in 2023, water researchers Kathryn Sorensen at Arizona State University and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico have said Arizona should start looking now at how to use less water or find alternative sources. Arizona and the other river basin states are gearing up for what’s looming as extremely complex, contentious negotiations for new guidelines for the river system starting in 2026.
Dry periods between rainstorms have become longer and annual rainfall has become more erratic across most of the western United States during the past 50 years, according to a study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Arizona.
Against the backdrop of steadily warming temperatures and decreasing total yearly rainfall, rain has been falling in fewer and sometimes larger storms, with longer dry intervals between. Total yearly rainfall has decreased by an average of 0.4 inches over the last half century, while the longest dry period in each year increased from 20 to 32 days across the West, explained co-senior author Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the ARS Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.
“The greatest changes in drought length have taken place in the desert Southwest. The average dry period between storms in the 1970s was about 30 days; now that has grown to 45 days,” Biederman said.
Extreme droughts are also occurring more often in the majority of the West according to historical weather data as there has been an increase in the year-to-year variation of both total rainfall amounts and the duration of dry periods.
The time between rainfalls has become longer and the rains occurred more erratically in the Southwest during the last 50 years.
Biederman emphasized the growing fluctuations in drought and rain patterns as the most significant change.
“Consistency of rainfall, or the lack of it, is often more important than the total amount of rain when it comes to forage continuing to grow for livestock and wildlife, for dryland farmers to produce crops, and for the mitigation of wildfire risks,” Biederman said.
The rate of increasing variability of rainfall within each year and between years also appears to be accelerating, with greater portions of the West showing longer drought intervals since 2000 compared to previous years.
Notable exceptions to these drought patterns were seen in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and the Northern Plains region of Montana, Wyoming, and the most western parts of North and South Dakota. In these regions, the researchers found some increases in total annual rainfall and decreases in drought intervals. Together, these changes support what models have predicted as a consequence of climate change: a northward shift in the mid-latitude jet stream, which brings moisture from the Pacific Ocean to the western United States, according to Biederman.
A critical aspect of this study is the use of actual rainfall data from 337 weather stations spread across the western United States. Biederman contrasted this with the more common use of “gridded” data, which relies on interpolations between reporting stations and tends to smooth out some of the variability revealed by this work.
“Fangyue Zhang, lead author of the manuscript and a post-doctoral researcher on our team, did the hard, painstaking work of compiling and analyzing data from more than 300 weather stations with complete daily records to reveal these changing drought and rainfall patterns,” Biederman said.
“We were surprised to find widespread changes in precipitation have already occurred across large regions of the West. For regions such as the desert Southwest, where changes clearly indicate a trend towards longer, more erratic droughts, research is urgently needed to help mitigate detrimental impacts on ecosystem carbon uptake, forage availability, wildfire activity, and water availability for people,” said co-senior author William K. Smith, assistant professor, University of Arizona.
The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.
A panel of judges yesterday revived a critical bid from the Navajo Nation to force the federal government to meet its treaty obligations and address the tribe’s well-documented water woes.
The decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could have far-reaching implications as the federal government, states and tribes begin renegotiating Colorado River water allocations while the waterway’s basin suffers through a relentless drought.
The Navajo Nation sued federal regulators in 2003, arguing that the government’s operations guidelines for the Colorado River didn’t consider the tribe’s water rights or the amount needed to meet the government’s treaty obligations to the reservation.
A federal district court dismissed the claim, but the 9th Circuit disagreed. The appeals court found that the Navajo Nation has major water problems, and Judge Ronald Gould raised questions about whether the government is fulfilling its treaty with the tribe.
“Water is essential to life on earth,” Gould wrote. He later added: “[I]n the specific case of the Navajo Nation, news report have indicated that the Nation’s shortage of water have in part caused exacerbation of the risks from COVID-19.”
Despite being filed nearly 20 years ago, the case is in many ways still in its early phases. At issue before the 9th Circuit was the lower court’s dismissal of the tribe’s “breach of trust” claim.
Gould and the 9th Circuit found that the tribe had sufficiently brought that charge, and it should be considered. The 9th Circuit sent the case back to the lower bench.
“[T]he district court,” Gould wrote, “only had to consider whether the Nation needs water to fulfill the promise of establishing a Navajo Reservation as a homeland for the Nation’s people.”
The case is likely to send shock waves through the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
Those states, the Interior Department and the 30 federally recognized tribes within the basin are about to begin negotiating new operations guidelines for the Colorado River that will determine each state’s allocations.
The negotiations are expected to be contentious because there is less water to go around, due to drought and climate change. Arizona, for example, said yesterday that it is prepared to lose about a fifth of the water it receives from the river in the coming year because a shortage is expected to be declared.
Click through to read the full interview with Peter Gleick that’s running in The Guardian (Maanvi Singh). Here’s an excerpt:
Peter Gleick argues there’s an urgent need to reshape our relationship to water: ‘There is enormous untapped potential for conservation’
California is once again in a drought, just four years after the last dry spell decimated ecosystems, fueled megafires and left many rural communities without well water.
Droughts are a natural part of the landscape in the American west, and the region has in many ways been shaped by its history of drought. But the climate scientist Peter Gleick argues that the droughts California is facing now are different than the ones that have historically cycled through the Golden State.
“These are not accidental, strange dry periods,” said Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global thinktank that has become a leading voice on water issues in California and around the world. “They’re increasingly the norm.”
Snowpack has already peaked, and remains below average
Snowmelt season is in full swing, but one may not know that by looking at the Animas River, which this week more closely resembles a slow trickle through Durango than a roaring, muddy torrent more common for this time of year.
The river’s flow Monday was about 328 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. By comparison, the average flow for April 26, based on 109 years of data, is 1,180 cfs. For reference, 1 cfs equals about 7.5 gallons flowing by a particular point in one second.
The Animas River’s peak runoff is still to come, but on average, the river’s flow is expected to be lower than usual through July, according to the National Weather Service. In fact, the river is expected to see about 45% of the volume it normally sees between April and July, said Aldis Strautins, National Weather Service hydrologist…
There are multiple reasons why the river is lower than average and projected to stay that way, Strautins said.
First, the region is in drought. Almost all of La Plata County was categorized as “extreme” or “exceptional” drought as of April 22, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Those are the most severe of five drought rankings.
Below-average precipitation and a poor monsoon season contributed to a dry summer and fall for Southwest Colorado, Strautins said.
Dry conditions led to low soil moistures. What precipitation the region did receive was immediately absorbed into the soil instead of running off.
As of Tuesday, the snowpack was at 57% of the basin’s average. It also peaked earlier than usual, March 28 instead of April 6, according to provisional Snotel data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The snowpack started melting after a warm spell in early April, then the melt slowed because of winter storms and some cloudy, cool days.
Farmers expected to receive just a fraction of normal supply
Runoff from below-average snowpack is forecast to result in the lowest project irrigation supply in McPhee Reservoir history.
According to most probable forecast, Dolores River Basin snowmelt is expected to deliver 95,000 acre-feet of water to McPhee Reservoir, just 32% of the average 295,000 acre-feet average, reports the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. The forecast could also continue to drop.
Full-service farmers of the Dolores Project are expected to receive just 1 inch per acre of irrigation water, or 4.5% of the 22 inches per acre provided when the reservoir fills, reports Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee.
The forecast of 1 inch per acre is “the wost ever” for the Dolores Project, he said. The reservoir first filled in the late 1980s.
The previous worst irrigation seasons for McPhee Reservoir were in 2013 and 2002, when farmers received 6 inches per acre.
The amount of water predicted for this year is not enough for even one normal crop of alfalfa. With a full supply farmers typically get three to four crops of alfalfa per year. Farmers will be forced to consolidate crops into smaller acreage to produce anything on the limited water.
This year’s forecast shows McPhee Reservoir will fill less than 40% of its 229,000 acre-feet active capacity, according to forecast models. The reservoir had no significant carryover supply from last year’s water season.
Water shortages are across the board, except for domestic supplies for municipalities.
Ute Farm and Ranch on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation is predicted to receive about 2,000 acre-feet, or 8.5% of the 23,300 acre-feet delivered when the reservoir has a full supply.
The water supply for downstream fish habitat dropped to less than 5,000 acre-feet of the 32,000 acre-feet provided when the reservoir fills.
Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, said snowpack in the Dolores Basin took hits from multiple angles.
With the exception of a few good snowstorms, the basin experienced an extended dry period since April 2020, she said.
No monsoonal precipitation last summer dried out soils, which will cause snowmelt to be absorbed into the ground before it hits the river and McPhee.
Below-normal snowpack further suffered from warm weather and high winds in April, plus dust on snow that sped up evaporation.
April precipitation at the Lizard Head Pass Snotel is below normal, showing 0.2 inches, or 15% of the average 1.4 inches for the month…
On March 29, the Dolores Basin snowpack showed 83% of average for snow-water equivalent. On April 19, snowpack water equivalent had dropped to 32%.
Despite his outward enthusiasm, Peter Van De Carr admits he is preparing for the worst as he looks over SNOTEL data collected by the National Resource Conservation Service that shows snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is about 80% of normal.
“You know if things turned around, and we started getting wetter than average kind of system coming in, it might turn around, “ Van De Carr said. ”We should be seeing rafts and kayaks, but it’s not worth going right now.”
Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, agrees the river flow is eye opening for this time of year.
“I’m surprised at how low the river is right now,” Romero-Heaney said. “I think it’s an indication that there is not a lot of snow remaining in the valley, because it melted off so quickly. I believe it got soaked up by the ground, because the soil was already so dry after last year.”
Van De Carr, who has owned Backdoor Sports for more than 30 years, said most years, the Yampa River peaks twice. First, when the snow in the lower valley melts fueling the Yampa’s spring flow and then again as the snow from the higher peaks melts and makes its way into the river below.
“We usually have this valley runoff surge, and the river will come up to 1,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). Then it’ll start going down, and everybody thinks its peaked,” Van De Carr said. “It does not peak until there’s almost no snow left on Mount Werner.”
But this year, that valley surge wasn’t as strong, and like Romero-Heaney, Van De Carr believes most of that moisture soaked into the dry ground before reaching the river…
Unfortunately, for Backdoor Sports and many other businesses that rely on the river to generate cash flow the outlook for this summer is challenging…
Hall said not having the river will hurt traffic on Yampa Street and his retail business, which rents paddleboards and gear…
Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said while the snowpack is important, the most vital thing for his business is getting moisture in the spring and summer…
Hall is also hoping the Yampa River Fund, which has been used in the past to purchase stored water, will be used to bring water into the Yampa later in the season if the valley doesn’t see wet, cool spring weather.
I heard about this at yesterday’s AWRA Colorado Section Annual Symposium. Click through for the resources.
The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people in two countries, seven states, and 29 Indian tribes. The demand for water currently exceeds available supply in any given year and is complicated by chronic drought and the uncertainty of impacts from climate change.
The 29 federally recognized tribes in the basin depend on the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including cultural and religious activities, domestic, irrigation, commercial, municipal and industrial, power generation, recreation, instream flows, wildlife, and habitat restoration.
These tribes hold legal rights to a significant amount of water, many of which are the most senior in the basin. Combined, the tribes hold rights to roughly 20 percent (or 2.9 million-acre feet) of the water in the Colorado River basin. With the oldest water rights in the basin, the tribes are in a position to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region.
Since 2017, the Center has been working with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, Walton Family Foundation, Ten Tribes Partnership, and many other individuals and groups to enhance tribal capacity and advance sustainable water management in the basin through collaborative decision-making.
The Initiative is guided by a broad-based Leadership Team (see a list of members and their bios below). It is not a decision-making body; does not speak on behalf of tribes, tribal associations, or any other organization or group; and is not an advocate for any particular interest or outcome. It seeks to enhance the capacity of tribes and to advance sustainable water management through collaborative decision-making.
Bidtah Becker, Navajo Nation
Leland Begay, Ute Mountain Ute
Lorelei Cloud, Southern Ute Tribe
Maria Dadgar, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (Jay Tomkus, alternate)
Jason John, Navajo Nation
Nora McDowell, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe
Margaret Vick, Colorado River Indian Tribes
Jay Weiner, Quechan Tribe
Anne Castle, Getches-Wilkinson Center, University of Colorado
Peter Culp, Culp & Kelly (Mary Kelly, alternate)
Becky Mitchell, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Jason Robison, University of Wyoming, College of Law
Tanya Trujillo, Colorado River Sustainability Initiative
Garrit Voggesser, National Wildlife Federation
John Weisheit, Living Rivers
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):
Coalition stays the course in fight to halt construction of tallest dam in Colorado history
A coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of appeal today in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to halt Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Dam in Boulder County and to protect sustainable flows in the Colorado River. The appeal challenges the dismissal by the lower court and asks the appeals court to order review of the merits of the case to ensure the health of the Colorado River, its native and imperiled species, and communities across Colorado that will be negatively impacted by the project…
The conservation coalition, including Save The Colorado, The Environmental Group, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, originally filed suit on December 19, 2018, in the federal district court of Colorado. The groups’ litigation sought to halt Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and prevent an additional diversion of water from the Colorado River through its Moffat Collection System due to violations of federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The project would triple the storage capacity of Gross Reservoir and the dam would become the tallest dam in the history of Colorado.
On March 31, 2021, the district court dismissed the coalition’s case finding that it was not before the proper court because the Federal Power Act provides the federal court of appeals with sole authority over hydropower licensing by the Federal Regulatory Commission.
“Given the climate, water and biodiversity crises upon us, we need to be restoring river ecosystems, not destroying them,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This battle against the powerful water institution is not over and we will continue to fight for water and climate justice by working to reform this broken system of laws and policies.”
“The Sierra Club opposes the Gross Reservoir expansion because of the massive environmental damage it would cause,” said Rebecca Dickson, Chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group. “If this project proceeds, hundreds of thousands of trees will be chopped down, countless habitats destroyed, and yet another waterway will be diverted from its natural course to the Front Range. On top of this, immeasurable amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere during the construction and transportation process.”
“Denver Water’s plan to build the tallest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in seven states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The basin is slowly dying a proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as its communities and ecosystems face a water crisis driven by unsustainable demand, prolonged drought, and runaway climate change. We stand with our fellow conservation groups in continuing to oppose this misguided and reckless water grab.”
“The expansion of Gross Dam is a shortsighted response to a long-term problem,” said Beverly Kurtz the President of The Environmental Group. “Denver Water should lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to the challenge of water scarcity, rather than destroying pristine areas of western Boulder County and further threatening the Colorado River with an antiquated dam proposal. Recent data confirm that predicted shortages of water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change are happening even sooner than expected. Building a bigger dam does not increase the amount of water available. The District Court needs to hear the merits of our case rather than establishing a dangerous precedent by deferring authority to FERC and the federal court of appeals.”
“The year of decision, to not divert more water from the Colorado River, came and went about twenty years ago,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “We know this is true because the development of contingency planning agreements to avoid water shortages began in 2014 and the urgency to resolve this threat still remains. Yet the contradictions and absurdities to also develop a suite of diversion projects in the Colorado River Basin also remains. If the basin’s water managers will not even adapt to the hydrology they accept, how could they possibly adapt to the hydrology of the future? Our lawsuit is an appeal to accept the truth that the Colorado River has nothing left to give.”
The Colorado River District has approved funding for several projects across the Western Slope, including Phase 2 of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan in Summit County. The district allocated $25,000 to the project. The Blue River plan was created by the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited in 2019.
The goal of the plan is 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.
Phase 2 of the plan involves gathering data and analyzing certain areas of the Blue River basin identified as needing further analysis in Phase 1.
Some Colorado River tribulations today remind me of a folk story: A young man went to visit his fiancée and found the family trembling and weeping. They pointed to the ceiling where an axe was embedded in a rafter.
“That could fall,” the father quavered. “It could kill someone!”
Puzzled, the young man climbed onto a chair, and pulled the axe out of the rafter. Everyone fell all over themselves thanking him. But he quickly broke off the engagement, concerned that such inanity might be inheritable.
This resembles ongoing ditherings over the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a 99-year-old agreement among the seven states through which the Colorado River meanders, on how the consumptive use of the river’s water should be divided to give each state a fair share. The agreement was necessary to get federal participation (money) to build dams to control the erratic river.
The best they were able to do, given the sketchy information they had about each state’s future development and also about the flow of the river, was to divide the river into two “basins” around the natural divide of the Colorado River canyons: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in the Upper Basin; and California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Each basin would get to consume 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.
This placed a responsibility on the Upper Basin states to “not cause the flow of the river at Lees Ferry (the measuring point in the canyons) to be depleted” below the Lower Basin’s share.
A generous reading of that lawyerly clause in the Compact would say the upper states should just be careful that their water development doesn’t dip into the lower states’ allocation.
A less generous reading would say that if for any reason the flow at Lees Ferry fell below the average of 7.5 million acre feet – whether it were due to over-appropriation by the upper states, or to a natural cause like a 20-year headwaters drought – the lower states would place a call on the upper states, which would have to cut back their own uses and send their water downriver, whether they “caused” the shortage or not.
To maintain that flow in a drought, the upper states would bear the full pain of the drought for the whole river.
Guess which interpretation the upper states chose for their own 1948 compact? Never mind that a Compact call from California (for its share of water) is nowhere mentioned in the 1922 Compact. The axe was planted in the rafter.
They might better have asked how the 1922 Compact creators themselves envisioned the unknown future. The transcripts of the 27 Compact meetings show that the seven state commissioners and their federal chairman Herbert Hoover were concerned, as late as their twenty-first meeting, that they did not really know enough then about the river’s flows to make a permanent equitable division of the waters.
Hoover summarized their concern, and their intent: “We make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division,” leaving the further apportionment of the river’s use “to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.” They even included in the Compact (Article VI) instructions for reconvening to consider “claims or controversy… over the meaning or performance of any of the terms of this compact.”
By the drought years of the 1930s, it was already obvious that the 7.5 million acre-feet Compact allocations were unrealistic. That would have been a logical time for the upper states to pull the axe out of the rafter, before the river was so fully developed.
But they didn’t, and as the Compact began to take on the aura of something carved in stone on a holy mountain, the fear of the “Compact call” gradually descended into expensive paranoia.
The vastly expensive 24 million acre-feet of storage in Powell Reservoir just upstream from Lees Ferry was created to fulfill the upper Basin’s self-assumed “delivery obligation,” come hell or low water.
But now, hellish low water has come to Powell, and Upper states are developing expensive “demand management” programs whereby someone yet unspecified would pay ranchers to fallow fields so their water can be “banked” in Powell against the dreaded “Compact call.”
The seven states are now – finally – initiating negotiations on a more reality-based governance of the Colorado River. Let’s hope they have the good sense to pull that axe out of the rafters before negotiating fair water use under it.
George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. He has written extensively about the Colorado River.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Beverly Richards):
Drought Conditions Stay Strong on the Western Slope
As spring runoff begins, water managers on the Western Slope turn to drought predictions for the season and well into the summer. Drought conditions continue to persist in most of western Colorado and throughout the southwestern United States. Many areas have continued in or have moved into the exceptional (D4) category and these conditions will likely carry us through the summer and into the fall.
What does this mean for the water resources in the Upper Gunnison River Basin and downstream? Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 77 percent of average and the snow water equivalent (SWE) is at 12.9” for this time of year. The peak for SWE usually occurs between April 5 to April 17 and is typically at 14.7” at the peak.
This means that going into spring runoff, we are below average in both snowpack and SWE. Add this to the fact that Taylor Park and Blue Mesa Reservoir are currently at 59 and 49 percent of full respectively, conditions this runoff season could continue to deteriorate, though demands will likely stay the same. The Bureau of Reclamation is forecasting that Blue Mesa Reservoir will only fill to 67 percent full and NRCS forecasts that streamflow will only be 57 percent of average for the season.
Lack of soil moisture will also add to the problems for water managers this coming water season. Soil moisture in the entire state is classified as either the second lowest or record lowest in the 10-year average. This will have implications on streamflow if the soil profile must be filled first.
The predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are that these drier conditions that are currently being experienced throughout the entire southwestern United States will continue and could result in the most significant drought since 2013. From April through June, warmer than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation is forecasted to continue, adding to the drier than normal conditions.
The Upper Gunnison District realizes that diminished supplies means special attention MUST be paid to how we manage our water. We will continue planning for every contingency. Our mission this year is to get the word out about ways we can all adjust to drought and how we can all be mindful of our water use. It will take cooperation from everyone within the District to meet all our needs. Be an Upper Gunnison Basin Water Hero!
A CBS4 Investigates analysis of public testing data has found levels of perfluoroalkyl substances – commonly known as forever chemicals – in Frisco’s drinking water would be considered too high in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York. The levels would also trigger further testing requirements in Michigan.
Jessica Johnson, who lives and works in Frisco, said she was unaware of the elevated levels.
“I was pretty shocked, honestly, to learn that the forever chemicals were in our water,” Johnson said. “It’s concerning for me; thyroid issues run in my family, so I don’t really want to do anything that would exacerbate that, because I’m sure it’s probably looming on the horizon for me anyway.”
While there is no federal legal limit, the EPA recommends drinking water not have more than 70 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS combined, but some states say that’s not good enough, setting more stringent legal limits…
State health department testing conducted last summer found Frisco’s drinking water had a level of 58.5 for the chemicals regulated in Massachusetts and Vermont, more than twice the legal limits in those states. The testing also found Frisco had a level of 11 parts per trillion of PFOS, which would be above the safe limit set in New York. Frisco’s PFOA level was only 6.2 part per trillion, but would require quarterly testing in Michigan…
The Town of Frisco says right now, there’s no health concern, because the PFAS levels are below the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion…
Frisco spokesperson Vanessa Agee wrote in an email, “an interview with Frisco’s Water Division would do nothing to further your viewer’s understanding of PFAS or alert them to a health danger, which are in fact really admirable and helpful goals that we hope you have much success with, as it is vital that we have the facts and current understanding around this evolving research into PFAS and PFAS’ potential impacts on our health.”
Asked why residents were not notified about the PFAS testing results, Agee wrote, “if there were a health concern, then the EPA and CDPHE would require individual notification of residents, and the Town would of course provide that notification swiftly because we authentically care about the health of our neighbors and friends, which is what Frisco’s residents are in this very close-knit community and county. The public would be very well served by understanding that the science around PFAS is evolving, understanding where that science is right now, and having knowledge about what is being done across Colorado and the country to better understand PFAS and their impact on health.”
The state health department has also told CBS4 in a past interview that residents should not be concerned about the elevated levels, because they are below the health advisory, but that if residents are still concerned, they can look at purchasing a reverse osmosis filtration system for their home or bottled water…
Currently, the state of Colorado has taken its own steps to begin regulating PFAS, for example, new state legislation has created a PFAS registry, so state officials know where industrial PFAS sources are located.
But Josh Kuhn with Conservation Colorado says the centennial state should study the issue further and look at setting its own more stringent legal limits…
In the meantime, Agee says Frisco is in the process of conducting further testing in other areas of its water distribution system, including at the tap “to get a more comprehensive picture.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also says it’s in the process of developing a grant program to assist Frisco and other communities with additional testing.
“The CDPHE grant program has not been launched yet so the Town Water Division is doing what it does best, providing safe and delicious water, while always striving to have a full understanding of the facts,” Agee said in an email to CBS4.
The CDPHE says the testing will help officials determine what areas and private wells may be at risk for PFAS.
One question remains: what is the source of the PFAS pollution in Frisco? PFAS can be found in a variety of household products, and even your clothes. The Environmental Working Group also found PFAS in cosmetics.
The state health department is working to find an answer in Frisco, writing to CBS4, “we expect these (test) results to provide insight into where the chemicals may be coming from.”
The water level of Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, has dropped more than 130 feet since the beginning of 2000, when the lake’s surface lapped at the spillway gates on Hoover Dam.
Twenty-one years later, with the Colorado River consistently yielding less water as the climate has grown warmer and drier, the reservoir near Las Vegas sits at just 39% of capacity. And it’s approaching the threshold of a shortage for the first time since it was filled in the 1930s.
The latest projections from the federal government show the reservoir will soon fall 7 more feet to cross the trigger point for a shortage in 2022, forcing the largest mandatory water cutbacks yet in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
The river’s reservoirs are shrinking as the Southwest endures an especially severe bout of dryness within a two-decade drought intensified by climate change, one of the driest periods in centuries that shows no sign of letting up.
With a meager snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and the watershed extremely parched, this month’s estimates from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Lake Mead could continue to decline through next year and into 2023, putting the Southwest on the brink of more severe shortages and larger water cuts.
“What really is starting to emerge is this really long pattern, that we’re in a megadrought in a lot of the western U.S.,” said Laura Condon, an assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “It’s kind of like a cumulative impact, that we’ve just been getting hotter and drier and hotter and drier.”
Many scientists describe the past two decades in the Colorado River Basin as a megadrought that’s being worsened by higher temperatures with climate change. While the Southwest has always cycled through wet and dry periods, some scientists suggest the word “drought” is no longer entirely adequate and that the Colorado River watershed is undergoing “aridification” driven by human-caused warming — a long-term trend of more intense dry spells that’s here for good and will complicate water management for generations to come.
Both Lake Mead and the upstream reservoir Lake Powell are dropping. Taken together, the country’s two largest reservoirs now hold the smallest quantity of water since 1965, when Powell was still filling behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam.
The Colorado River has long been overallocated to supply farmlands and growing cities from Denver to Phoenix to Los Angeles. And the growing strains on the river suggest that Lake Mead, its sides coated with a whitish “bathtub ring” of minerals along its retreating shorelines, will continue to present challenges as the Southwest adapts to a shrinking source of water.
“There will still be ups and downs and we will have wetter and drier years going forward but overall warmer temperatures mean we should expect a drier basin with less water,” Condon said. “Warmer temperatures increase the amount of water plants use and decrease snowpack. Even if we get exactly the same quantity of precipitation, a warmer basin will produce less streamflow from that precipitation.”
Representatives of the seven states that depend on the river met at Hoover Dam in 2019 and signed a set of agreements, called the Drought Contingency Plan, laying out steps to reduce the risks of a damaging crash. Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up Lake Mead, while California agreed to participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to drop.
The states’ water officials described the deal as a “bridge” agreement to temporarily lessen the risks and buy some time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages must be negotiated and adopted.
Under the deal, Arizona and Nevada have left some water in Lake Mead in 2020 and 2021. Those reductions are set to increase next year under the “Tier 1” shortage, which the federal government is expected to declare in August.
Arizona is in line for the largest cuts, which will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third and shrink the amount flowing through the CAP Canal to farmlands in Pinal County. Nevada is also taking less water, and Mexico is contributing under a separate deal by leaving some of its supplies in Lake Mead.
“We have a plan to deal with these shortages,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We’ve known this was possible for a long time and have planned for it.”
He and other officials say the Drought Contingency Plan never guaranteed the region would escape a shortage, but that it has reduced the odds of Mead falling to critical lows and has pushed back the possibility of more severe shortages and larger cuts. Buschatzke said voluntary conservation measures by the states and Mexico since 2014, plus the initial mandatory cuts over the past two years, have left about 40 feet of conserved water in Lake Mead.
“We would already be in a Tier 2 shortage had that water not stayed in the lake,” Buschatzke said during a panel discussion hosted by the Arizona Capitol Times. “It’s what we can do to slow the reduction in Lake Mead and minimize the depth and length of the shortages.”
A warmer watershed, a shrinking river
Scientists have found that the Colorado River is sensitive to rising temperatures as the planet heats up with the burning of fossil fuels. In one study, scientists determined that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the river’s Upper Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming.
In other research, scientists estimated the river could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise. They projected that for each additional 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of warming, the river’s average flow is likely to drop by about 9%.
The past year has been especially harsh. Ultradry conditions intensified across much of the West, with extreme heat adding to the dryness throughout the Colorado River watershed. According to the National Weather Service, the past 12 months were the driest on record in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and the fourth-driest in Colorado, where much of the river’s flow originates.
Lake Powell now stands just 36% full.
The reservoir typically gets a boost in the spring and summer as the river swells with runoff from melting snow. But this winter, the snowpack peaked at 88% of the long-term median and has since dropped to 71% of the median. The dry soils in the watershed are soaking up some of the melting snow like a sponge, leaving less water running into the Colorado and its tributaries.
The amount of water that will flow into Powell from April through July is now estimated at just 38% of average.
Water researchers Eric Kuhn and John Fleck said their analysis of the latest federal numbers points to some alarming possibilities. The two — who coauthored the book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River” — wrote in separate blog posts that a careful reading of the data in the 24-month study, which only goes out to March 2023, shows the projections point to bigger troubles at Mead and Powell later that year.
Fleck wrote that the “most likely” scenario would put the level of Mead at an elevation around 1,035 feet at the end of September 2023, which would trigger larger cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, as well as California’s participation in reductions.
“I’m talking about the midpoint in a range of possible outcomes,” Fleck wrote. “A run of wet weather could make things substantially better. But a run of dry weather could make them worse.”
Kuhn wrote that the assumptions in the government study “do not fully capture the climate-change driven aridification of the Colorado River Basin.” He said the projections suggest Lake Powell could drop in 2023 to “a level that is troublingly close to the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.”
Across the West, snow has traditionally stored a vital portion of the water, gradually melting and releasing runoff in the spring and summer. But that’s changing with higher temperatures. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, found in a study last year that the western U.S. has experienced longer and more intense “snow droughts” in the second half of the period from 1980 to 2018.
“The main issue is the snow drought everywhere in the entire West, including Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado,” said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science. “When the snow is below average, it means low-flow situations in summer, drier soil moisture. And drier soil moisture increases the chance of heat waves.”
The upshot, he said, is that “we have to prepare for a different hydrologic cycle, basically.”
Warm and dry in the headwaters
With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites…
With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites.
Other researchers have discovered that the dry periods between rainstorms have grown longer on average across the western United States during the past 45 years. Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Arizona found this trend throughout the West in their study, but they saw the most extreme changes in the desert Southwest, where rainstorms have been happening much less frequently.
The average dry period between storms in the desert Southwest has gone from 31 days to 48 days, an increase of about 50 percent since the 1970s, the scientists found. Annual precipitation declined by about 3.2 inches in the region over that period, a much larger decline that the West as a whole.
“In the desert Southwest, we were averaging around 10 inches and now we’re averaging around 7 inches,” said Joel Biederman, a hydrologist at USDA’s Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson. “That’s much more impactful when you consider that the amount in our region is smaller to begin with.”
Biederman and his colleagues focused on changes that have been measured and didn’t attempt to parse the influences of natural variations and climate change.
A separate analysis of climate data over the past 30 years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the nation’s “normals,” or averages, have shifted dramatically in a decade, growing wetter in the central and eastern U.S. and drier in the Southwest while climate change has pushed temperatures higher.
Another group of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently looked at how interconnected extremes influenced by climate change — from floods to droughts and heatwaves — are expected to intensify in the future in the Colorado River Basin. They found these sorts of concurrent extreme climatic events “are projected to increase in the future and intensify” in key regions of the watershed.
Phenomenon drives earlier, more-intense spring runoff
The first automated dust-on-snow monitoring technology in the mountains of Northwest Colorado is expected to be installed this fall to study the impact of dust from arid landscapes on downwind mountain ecosystems in the state and in Utah.
McKenzie Skiles, who is a hydrologist and a University of Utah assistant professor, will use close to $10,000 from a National Science Foundation grant to purchase four pyranometers, which measure solar radiation landing on, and reflected by, snow.
These instruments will be placed on a data tower at Storm Peak Lab, a research station above Steamboat Springs that studies the properties of clouds, as well as natural and pollution-sourced particles in the atmosphere. The lab sits at 10,500 feet near the peak of Mount Werner at the top of Steamboat Resort in the Yampa River basin. Starting next winter, live information will be transmitted to MesoWest, a data platform at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
This station will be the latest added to a growing network of dust-on-snow monitoring towers across the state and Utah. Such stations offer key insights to researchers studying how dust impacts the timing and intensity of snowpack melt, Skiles said.
“My goal is to have a network of dust-on-snow observation sites that spans a latitudinal gradient in the Rockies and headwaters of the Colorado River,” Skiles said.
Five towers spread around Colorado and Utah currently take in data on the solar energy absorbed and reflected by the snow. Dust particles darken the snow’s surface then absorb more energy than clean snow does. Such a process changes light frequencies recorded by the pyranometers. Researchers take this frequency data and run it through models to quantify how much surface dust heats snow and speeds snowmelt.
Of the currently operating stations, one is near Crested Butte; one sits on Grand Mesa above Grand Junction; two are near Silverton; and one is in the Wasatch Mountains near Alta, Utah. The sites are run, respectively, by Irwin Mountain Guides; by the U.S. Geological Survey and a collaborative user group; by the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies; and by University of Utah researchers.
Stations were first established in the Senator Beck Basin, near Silverton in the San Juan Mountains, which is the Colorado range most immediately downwind from the deserts of the Colorado Plateau and receives the first dust — and the most dust. In analyzing data from the two radiation towers there, Skiles and colleagues revealed that dust on snow shortened the cover by 21 to 51 days and caused a faster, more-intense peak-snowmelt outflow. In a 2017 study that also analyzed data from Senator Beck Basin, Skiles showed that it was dust, not temperature, that influenced how fast snowpack melted and flowed into rivers downstream.
The Steamboat station will fill a gap in the locations of radiation towers, Skiles said.
“We know that a lot of dust comes from the southern Colorado Plateau and impacts the southern Colorado Rockies, but we don’t understand dust impacts as well in the northern Colorado Rockies,” she said.
Since there isn’t a data station in the northwest portion of the state, “The only way to know if there’s dust there is to go and dig a snow pit,” said Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
CSAS runs the Colorado Dust on Snow program, or CODOS, which includes the two radiation towers in Senator Beck Basin.
Three times a year, usually in mid-March, April and May, CSAS staffers tour Colorado, digging snow pits at mountain locations to assess dust conditions statewide. Since dust events continue into May, this year’s conditions are currently hard to quantify, Derry said.
So far, this spring has been dustier than 2020; five dust events have hit the Senator Beck Basin as of April 14, compared with the three total dust events last year. As in years past, Senator Beck Basin has experienced more dust events than have the sites to the northeast, according to Derry in the latest CODOS update. Yet, a recent April storm distributed dust on all sites in the state.
Unlike the past few years, Rabbit Ears Pass — the CODOS sampling site closest to Steamboat Springs and located northwest of Bear Mountain along U.S. Highway 40 — has received at least as much dust as the Senator Beck Basin has, according to the CODOS update. As of the April 12 to 14 CODOS tour, two dust layers of moderate severity are present on the pass. That amount probably came from storms in the Uintah basin, in the Four Corners region and in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, Derry said.
These dust layers will warm the snow and have an impact on snowmelt timing this runoff season, Derry said. In order to quantify that effect, radiation data from dust-on-snow study plots, like the one planned for Storm Peak, is needed.
Dust in arid landscapes — often disturbed by human activity — travels in wind currents during storms and is deposited on downwind mountains, Skiles said. The number of dust events and mass of dust carried in storms vary from year to year depending on wind speed, the intensity of drought and the frequency of human activities that disturb surface soils, said Janice Brahney, an assistant professor at Utah State University who studies nationwide dust composition and deposition patterns.
For instance, Senator Beck Basin experienced a peak in dust events from 2009 through 2014 and a decline in recent years. This decline is probably due to storms and winds that are not strong enough to carry and deposit dust into Colorado mountains, Brahney said.
“My sense is that a lot of the storms that are occurring in the southern United States are still occurring — they’re just not always reaching Colorado,” she said.
Dust data will provide future insights for Steamboat water policy and management.
Skiles’ lab isn’t the only entity interested in the Storm Peak Lab dust-on-snow data. Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, anticipates using the data in the city’s next water-supply master plan.
“We update our water supply master plan at least every 10 years,” Romero-Heaney said. “So, even if it’s another eight years of data that’s needed before we can see measurable trends, by the time we update our models, we’ll be able to integrate that data.”
The most current plan, released in 2019, includes forecasts for Steamboat Springs’ water supply 50 years into the future. The plan — factoring in historic streamflow data and stressors to water supply such as climate change, wildfire and population growth — concluded that the city will meet its demands through 2070.
“One thing we’re fortunate in is that we have a relatively small community for a relatively large snowy water basin,” Romero-Heaney said.
Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District supplies the city with its water, derived primarily from Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs, said District General Manager Frank Alfone. In the summer months, the district also treats water from the Yampa River to meet irrigation demands, he said.
In order to predict Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoir levels, Alfone relies on data from the Buffalo Pass snowpack station, which is run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and on monthly water-supply forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Alfone says dust on snow and the city’s water supply have “an impact now and more so in the future,” Alfone said.
Indeed, dust levels are expected to rise throughout the West. A 2013 study revealed that since 1994, dust deposition has increased in the region, with the majority of dust lifting from deserts in the Southwest and West, along with regions in the Great Plains and Columbia River Basin. This increase, according to the study, is probably due to heightened human disturbance of dry soils, which includes off-road-vehicle use, gas drilling, grazing and agriculture.
Increasing dust accelerates snowpack entrance into rivers, Skiles said. This earlier runoff lengthens the period when water can evaporate from rivers and lower streamflow, impacting water supply in the warmer months, according to her study,
“What we’re finding is that runoff is happening earlier and earlier each year, and that has real implications for us come August and September, particularly if we get very little rain throughout the summer season,” Romero-Heaney said.
Data from the widening dust-on-snow-monitoring network will aid water-resource managers and researchers in predicting how dust will shape future snowpack across Colorado.
“Dust does play a really significant role in hydrology. And that’s really important in the Western states, where we rely on the mountain snowpack not just for our own drinking water, but for our own functioning ecosystem,” said Brahney, lead author of the 2013 dust study.
“We anticipate some challenges for the whole basin, although we will still be able to reliably supply our customers with drinking water,” Romero-Heaney said.
This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on April 23.
In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Saturday, April 24th, starting at 0400 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.
Near the tiny town of Red Cliff, three big cities conducted an experiment last fall. The Homestake Reservoir released a burst of water at the behest of the water utilities of Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora. Their goal was simple: track a 1,600 acre-feet blob of water from the reservoir as it flowed to the Colorado state line.
The experiment’s results were unsettling. The subsequent report, released this month, is a reminder on this Earth Day that our Western Slope rivers — some of the most intensely managed and measured in the world — do not amount to plumbing. They are wild, complex and continue to baffle our models and controls.
Homestake Reservoir is one of the state’s many trans-mountain diversions. The man-made lake collects water from the Eagle River watershed. Pipes and tunnels send that water under the Continental Divide and into the Arkansas River near Leadville. Once in the Arkansas River, further diversions bring that water to the Front Range.
But water managers used Homestake to send the burst of water in the other direction, into the Colorado River via the Eagle River. They then carefully monitored gages to see if the water reached Utah, a tracking exercise that in the jargon of the field is called “water shepherding.”
But by the time the Homestake water reached the stateline, state engineers could not determine how much of the water completed the journey.
This conclusion should open our eyes to the uncertainty that climate change poses for the Gunnison Valley and for the rest of the Western Slope. If we can’t use our reservoirs to send water downstream with any kind of precision, our prospects of slaking the thirsts of downstream states look bleak.
he basis of much of our water management, and the reason for conducting the Homestake experiment, is the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The agreement among southwestern states requires that Colorado send a minimum amount of water downstream to Nevada, California and Arizona. If we fail to meet that target, federal reservoirs like Blue Mesa would be used to release more water. But we assumed in the 1950s and 60s, (when, to build Blue Mesa Reservoir, we destroyed thousands of acres of farmland, one of the world’s greatest trout fisheries, drowned the towns of Iola and Sapinero and wiped out half of the Gunnison sage-grouse’s best habitat) that we could get the water from point A to point B.
The Homestake experiment shows that we don’t have the ability to deliver a given amount of water downstream. We don’t know how we would guarantee a certain amount of water flowing downstream to Nevada, California and Arizona.
If, for instance, the Upper Gunnison River Basin was called upon to increase Colorado River flows downstream, it would be “extremely difficult to track or quantify” the delivery, said Frank Kugel, former General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
It would be a “mammoth task,” Kugel told me. The resulting higher river levels would lead to more water pouring through headgates and onto hay fields. Dry soils along the Gunnison and Taylor rivers would soak up some of the water. And then the three reservoirs and dams (Blue Mesa, Crystal, Morrow Point) in the Aspinall Unit would muddle the picture further. And that’s all before the Gunnison Tunnel would shunt hundreds of cubic feet per second into the Uncompahgre River Valley.
To just detect the delivery of water, much less to measure it, would require a very large release from the Upper Gunnison River Basin, Kugel told me.
Both Kugel, as well as Sonja Chavez, the current general manager at the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, told me that the difficulties of water shepherding contribute to their skepticism of “demand management” — a massive effort by Colorado water managers to determine how to best cut water use.
“The whole issue of shepherding is huge,” Chavez said. Demand management might sound good on paper, but the legal implications and the water shepherding implications throw doubt on the implementation of a statewide demand management program.
“The ability to track water that is conserved consumptive use all the way to the state line is really critical for the success of that program,” Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller told Aspen Journalism on the subject of the Homestake experiment. “And if you can’t track a slug of 1,600 acre-feet of water to the state line, how are you going to track the voluntary reduction in use of a small ditch on the West Slope that maybe they are saving 15 acre-feet?”
Water shepherding experiments will continue because the state has to figure out how to deliver more water downstream. Colorado has set its sights on storing 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell to protect against the increasingly likely scenario that too little water will flow to Nevada, California and Arizona. But, as shown in the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District’s supply report for this week, that 500,000 acre-feet buffer may not be enough. Lake Powell will release about 8 million acre-feet this year. Only about 5 million acre-feet are expected to flow in.
“Throwing 500,000 acre feet down there will not do much if it stays hot and dry and if the flows do not materialize,” Chavez said.
Next time you drive by Blue Mesa Reservoir, this news may put its waters in a different light. We don’t know how to deliver water through rivers, but we do know how to dam them. And as Lake Powell is expected to fill to just 33% of capacity this year, our limited knowledge may not be enough.
With the snowpack and precipitation levels in Pitkin County below last year at this time, local officials are bracing for an active wildfire season this summer.
“We’re the only county in the northwest region (of the state) that did not deal with a significant wildfire last summer,” Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager, said Thursday. “We have no reason to believe our luck is going to hold. All the predictive services we use indicate that we’re going to have another bad wildfire season in Colorado.”
Currently, the snowpack in Pitkin County and most of the area west of the Continental Divide is at between 70% and 80% of the normal average, said Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Last year, the snowpack at the end of February stood at 118% of normal.
In addition, precipitation this winter measured at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport is 3.27 inches of liquid compared with 3.45 inches last year at this time, he said. The average for this time of year is 4.69 inches.
Despite the larger than normal snowpack last year, it melted quickly and the monsoons never materialized, he said. Along with higher than normal temperatures, that led to about 2,300 wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region and more than 1 million acres burned, though those statistics are not yet available, Colton said…
This year, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting that drought conditions will persist through June, traditionally the driest month of the year, he said. Also, the weather service is predicting a 65% chance that temperatures through June in Pitkin County will be above normal…
On the Western Slope, the snowpack isn’t melting as quickly this year as last, he said, while the monsoon season prediction this year is not as bad as last year…
MacDonald suggested going to http://www.pitkinwildfire.com — which features tips on how to protect property and people from wildfire in English and Spanish — for information on how to create defensible space and use fire resistant materials. Residents also should sign up for the Pitkin Alert system, which will keep residents informed of emergency situations, she said.
The 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin depend on the Colorado and its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including cultural and religious activities, domestic, irrigation, commercial, municipal and industrial, power generation, recreation, instream flows, wildlife, and habitat restoration. Twenty-two of these tribes have recognized rights to use 3.2 million-acre feet of Colorado River system water annually, or approximately 25 percent of the Basin’s average annual water supply. In addition, 12 of the tribes have unresolved water rights claims, which will likely increase the overall volume of tribal water rights in the Basin. With the oldest water rights in the basin, tribes are poised to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region. Join leaders of the Water & Tribes Initiative in a conversation about the role of tribes and other sovereigns and stakeholders in advancing a sustainable vision for the Colorado River.
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Noon – 1:30 PM (Mountain Time)
(Link provided upon registration confirmation and to the email provided)
Thank you for all who attended the April 20th, 2021 Navajo Unit Coordination Meeting. Please see the links below for the meeting summary and slides. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments. The next meeting is scheduled for August 24th, 2021 at 1:00 PM.
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict has voted to approve a settlement of a federal lawsuit over Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
In a meeting Wednesday, the Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 to authorize its participation in the settlement.
The settlement means construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin this summer and the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in Grand County next year. In return, the Municipal Subdistrict will contribute $15 million to a foundation to pay for projects that enhance the Colorado River and its many watersheds in Grand County.
“This settlement shows there is an alternative to costly litigation that can provide benefits both to the environment in Grand County and the Colorado River, as well as acknowledging the need for water storage,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.
The compromise will bring to a close a lawsuit in federal court filed by Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club in October 2017. The suit challenged the permit issued by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir. On Dec. 19, 2020, the federal court ruled against the environmental organizations. The ruling was then appealed in February, and as part of the appeals process, both sides were required to engage in court-ordered mediation, which resulted in this settlement.
Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the key component to the Windy Gap Firming Project, will bring a reliable water supply to the 12 municipalities, water providers and utilities paying for its construction as well as provide a much-needed recreation area to be managed by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will be located in a dry valley just west of Carter Lake in southwest Larimer County and will store 90,000 acre-feet of water from the Windy Gap Project for use by 12 participants, including Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and the Central Weld County Water District. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will make the Windy Gap water supply serving those participants more reliable and meet a portion of their long-term water supply needs. Each participant will also enact a water conservation plan to comply with state law and permit requirements.
The compromise will also move forward other environmental measures related to the Project, including the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a newly proposed channel around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir to reconnect the Colorado River above and below the reservoir. The channel will restore the ability for fish, macroinvertebrates, nutrients and sediment in the river to bypass the reservoir. Many other environmental protections are included, such as improving streamflow and aquatic habitat in the Colorado River, addressing water quality issues, providing West Slope water supplies and more.
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict negotiated with Colorado River stakeholders to develop this package of environmental protections and received a permit from Grand County and approvals from others, including Trout Unlimited and the State of Colorado, to move forward with the Project.
Water storage such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir was specifically identified in the Colorado Water Plan as a necessary component for Colorado’s long-term water future. It joins conservation, land use planning and other solutions to meet future water needs in the state. To learn more about the project, go to http://www.chimneyhollow.org.
Northern Water will begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer.
complex Front Range dam-building project that includes transferring water from the Colorado River will move forward this summer after Northern Water agreed to a settlement putting $15 million in trust for waterway improvements in Grand County.
Environmental opponents begrudgingly accepted the mediated settlement of their lawsuit against Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which involves a menu of waterworks construction including Chimney Hollow dam near Loveland and rerouting the Colorado River around Windy Gap Dam near Granby.
The settlement resolves litigation in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Northern Water said it now can begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer. The dam will plug the northern end of a dry valley northwest of Carter Lake. It will eventually be filled using Colorado River rights purchased by municipalities that are members of Northern Water. The Northern Water rights can be tapped only when Grand County is wet enough to supply other, higher priorities first…
An alliance of environmental groups opposing the project wants to stop any more transfers of Western Slope water, which would ordinarily flow west in the Colorado River, to Front Range reservoirs that supply growing Colorado cities and suburbs.
In the case of Chimney Hollow and Windy Gap, the environmentalists say damage has already been done to the Colorado River in Grand County, and the settlement can help them reverse some of the hurt…
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 Wednesday to participate in the settlement. A federal district court had rejected the environmental groups’ challenge of permits for the Windy Gap and Chimney Hollow projects issued by Army Corps of Engineers, and mediation was required as part of the appeal.
Chimney Hollow water will be used by 12 of Northern Water’s members: Central Weld County Water District, Little Thompson Water District and the Platte River Power Authority, and the cities of Broomfield, Erie, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland and Superior. The members say they need more water storage to accommodate future growth in homes, industry and agriculture.
Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, Save the Colorado, Save The Poudre, Sierra Club, Living Rivers, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Oct. 2017 challenging the project’s federal permits. A federal judge in Dec. 2020 ruled against the environmental groups.
In a settlement reached with Northern Water — the agency pursuing Windy Gap on behalf of a municipal subdistrict of Front Range water providers — the environmental coalition agreed to withdraw their lawsuit, while securing $15 million for projects aimed at improving water quality, river health and fish habitat. The Grand Foundation in Grand County, Colo. will be the recipient of those funds. An advisory panel will be made up of representatives appointed by Northern Water and the environmental groups, and will decide how the money is spent. The funds will be issued in installments as the project is built…
The additional environmental mitigation joins other projects already negotiated between Grand County, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water, among other partners…
That previously agreed to package of environmental mitigation includes the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which is to be constructed around the existing Windy Gap dam and reservoir, and is designed to reconnect a portion of the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River. The channel is meant to allow for more natural conditions to return, like allowing sediment to move downstream and providing more habitat for fish and aquatic insects. Monitoring programs and riparian restoration were also a part of the deal negotiated among those parties.
The connectivity channel was a recent recipient of a $1 million grant from the Colorado River District, becoming the first project to receive funds generated from ballot question 7A which appeared on the Nov. 2020 ballot in the district’s boundaries…
Despite the additional funding, representatives from the environmental coalition that sued to halt construction remained alarmed about the project’s legal success, and said the $15 million is a drop in the bucket…
Northern Water plans to begin construction on the Chimney Hollow dam this summer and on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in 2022.
From email from the Bureau of Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):
In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, 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 Wednesday, April 21st, starting at 12:00 PM. 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.